New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.Posted: May 15, 2017
This is not enough law to rely on, but it is a start to build upon to argue that a parent can sign a release for a minor for skiing activities, and the minor cannot sue.
State: New York, United States District Court for the Western District of New York
Plaintiff: Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD,
Defendant: Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc.,
Plaintiff Claims: allege negligent instruction and supervision
Defendant Defenses: Child assumed the risk and release
Holding: Decision was mixed concerning the evidentiary issues
This is a motion in limine decision. That means it was the judge’s response to motions by both sides to include or exclude evidence. Meaning one party files a motion in limine to prevent the other party from introducing a document, testimony or in some cases witnesses at trial.
This answer covered numerous motions for both parties. The analysis here will only cover issues relevant to the outdoor industry in general and not cover the purely legal arguments.
The case is about a five-year-old girl who suffered injuries when she fell out of the chairlift while taking a ski lesson from the defendant. The suit was filed in Federal District Court in New York because the plaintiffs are from Canada.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first issue that the court reviewed was whether a five-year-old could assume the risk of her injury. Each state has different age groups that have been determined over the years for when a child can assume the risks of their injuries. In New York, a child cannot assume the risk of their injury under the age of 5. Children 5 and above, the issue has not been determined to set a real standard a court could rely upon. If there was a set age, a jury would still have to determine if the child assumed the risk.
The plaintiffs were arguing the plaintiff was too young to assume the risk.
Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety.
The plaintiff argued that assumption of the risk should not be a defense in the case because the injured child was 5. Since the child had been skiing in the past, the defense wanted to bring the defense of assumption of the risk. The child has skied, been injured skiing previously and had written chairlifts before, although always with an adult. The court found it was a subject the jury had the right to determine.
One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift. Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.
The next argument the plaintiff made was the release was void as against public policy in New York. This was confusing because no release was presented or explained. However, it appears that the New York Safety in Skiing code allows for releases in the statute. By the end of the discussion, it seems the uncle of the injured child signed a release on her behalf.
The plaintiff argued that the New York law that voided releases in general applied and should void this release, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. However, the court agreed with the defendant that the New York Safety in Skiing code authorized the release and over ruling New York General Obligations Law § 5-326.
The plaintiff’s also argued that since the injured plaintiff has never read or signed the release, she could not be held to it.
The court broke down its analysis of the issue first by looking at whether the injured five-year-old disaffirmed the release. In this case, disaffirmance means the child can argue a release signed on their behalf is invalid. In New York that is normally the case. However, the legislature has created exceptions to that rule.
“The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant,….
While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts. “Where a statute expressly permits a certain class of agreements to be made by infants that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable….
The court then looked at the New York Safety in Skiing code and found the statute specifically created that exception.
The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier.
The court held that a minor could be held to a release signed by a parent or in this case, a temporary guarding uncle.
The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release is denied.
However, this was not a blanket decision saying the release eliminated all claims of the plaintiff. The court found the uncle had to have read the release to the injured plaintiff. Whether she understood its contents, and the risks outlined there was a question to be determined at trial.
This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).
The court then reviewed the defense’s motions in limine which were mostly legal in their scope and not of value here.
This case as of March 2017 is proceeding to trial.
So Now What?
First, this decision was made by a Federal District Court magistrate applying New York State law. The New York courts can ignore the law and until the New York Supreme court rules on the issues, this is not binding to any major degree on other courts. However, it is a start and quite interesting in the analysis of the issues.
The first is assumption of the risk is a valid defense in New York possibly applies to children as young as five. You can develop ways for five year olds to understand the risk; you can use that defense against claims. Probably the easiest way is a video, or maybe two videos. The first video is shown to the children which shows them the risk of the activity they are about to undertake. The second video is of the children watching the video.
This should always be backed up with as many other options as you can create. Have your release state the parent has explained the risks to the child and that the parent, and the child accept them. Put those risks in the release and have the parent state they reviewed the release with the child. Place the risks on your website in different ways and have the parent state they have reviewed the risks on the website with the child and agree to that in the release.
Any way you can show that the child knew of the risks, can create a defense for you for a claim by an injured minor.
The second issue is actually more interesting. 1.) that an adult can sign away a minor’s right to sue in New York and 2.) that adult does not have to be a parent as long as the adult reviews the release with the minor.
Again, this was a preliminary motion hearing in a Federal district court; however, the ruling was explained and supported by case law. As such, it may have some validity and lead to further decisions like this.
If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
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DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695
Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Plaintiffs, v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695
March 20, 2017, Decided
March 20, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24784 (W.D.N.Y., Feb. 22, 2017)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Bryan DiFrancesco, as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Bryan DiFrancesco, Individually, Plaintiffs: Philip L. Rimmler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Russell T. Quinlan, Paul William Beltz, P.C., Buffalo, NY.
For Win-Sum Ski Corp, Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants: Maryjo C. Zweig, Steven M. Zweig, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Cheroutes Zweig, PC, Hamburg, NY.
JUDGES: Hon. Hugh B. Scott, United States Magistrate Judge.
OPINION BY: Hugh B. Scott
The parties then consented to proceed before the undersigned as Magistrate Judge, including presiding over a jury trial (Docket No. 37). Presently before the Court are the parties’ first round of motions in limine in preparation for a jury trial. Defendants first submitted their motion in limine (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ then filed their motion in limine (Docket No. 56). Defendants then supplemented their motion in limine (Docket No. 58). As scheduled in the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), these initial motions in limine were due by January 3, 2017 (id.), later extended at the parties’ request to January 6, 2017 (Docket No. 42); responses initially were due by January 17, 2017, and they were to be argued with the Final Pretrial Conference on January 18, [*2] 2017, and then be deemed submitted (Docket No. 40). Responses to these motions were postponed then and were due by February 3, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 65) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 66); and reply by February 10, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 67) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 68); and argument was held on February 16, 2017 (Docket Nos. 63, 69 (minutes)). These motions were deemed submitted at the conclusion of oral argument. During that argument, scheduling for the Pretrial Conference and jury selection and trial were discussed with the trial reset for July 17, 2017 (Docket No. 69; see Docket Nos. 70, 71). The jury selection and trial of this case was scheduled for February 1, 2017 (Docket No. 40, Final Pretrial Order), but was later adjourned (Docket Nos. 63, 64).
Separately, this Court addressed plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash two subpoenas (Docket Nos. 43 (motion), 70, Order of February 22, 2017), familiarity with which is presumed.
This is a diversity personal injury action. Plaintiffs are a Canadian father and daughter, while defendants are New York corporations [*3] which operate Holiday Valley. Plaintiff LD (hereinafter “LD,” cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2) was a five-year-old in 2010 who skied at Holiday Valley. Plaintiffs allege that LD was injured falling when from a chairlift at Holiday Valley (Docket No. 1, Compl.; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. B).
According to plaintiffs’ earlier motion, LD was participating in a ski lesson at Holiday Valley on February 15, 2010, under the supervision of defendants’ employee, a ski instructor, when she fell from the chairlift sustaining injuries to her left leg and left hip. Plaintiffs allege negligent instruction and supervision during the course of that lesson resulting in LD’s fall. (Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 9, Ex. E; see id., Pls. Memo. at 1-2.)
The Scheduling Order (after extensions, see Docket Nos. 14-15, 20, 23, 25, 27) in this case had discovery conclude on April 30, 2015 (Docket No. 27; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. D). No motions to compel were filed and the parties reported on October 5, 2015, readiness for trial (Docket No. 30). Plaintiffs’ motion to quash subpoenas and for a protective Order led to the parties exchanging supplemental discovery, which was to be completed by April 5, [*4] 2017 (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 21, 22). Defendants’ First Motion in Limine (Docket No. 53)
Pursuant to the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), defendants filed their motion in limine, seeking preclusion of portions of the opinions of plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman; evidence of defendants’ subsequent remediation; and evidence of prior and subsequent incidents similar to the accident at issue (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ response and defendants’ reply will be addressed below at each particular item. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine (Docket No. 56)
Plaintiffs also filed their timely motion in limine (Docket No. 56), seeking to preclude evidence that infant LD assumed the risk of riding the chairlift, evidence from LD’s injury at Holimont in 2015, and evidence of a disclaimer that plaintiffs argue is against public policy (id.).
Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion in limine is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment and that issues of fact exist, hence there is no basis to preclude evidence as to plaintiffs’ assumption of the risk or comparative negligence (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). They contend that the registration form with the release signed by [*5] LD’s uncle is admissible because the release tracks the “Warning to Skiers” required by New York General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) and regulations under 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.5(l)(1) (id. at 7). They fault plaintiffs for not addressing Vanderwall v. Troser Management, Inc., 244 A.D.2d 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d 492 (4th Dep’t 1997), leave to appeal denied, 91 N.Y.2d 811, 694 N.E.2d 883, 671 N.Y.S.2d 714 (1998) (id.). That case charged the jury there with express assumption of the risk for exposure to drainage ditches even though those risks were not enumerated in “Warning to Skiers,” Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493 (id.). Defendants’ Supplemental Motion in Limine (Docket No. 58)
Defendants later supplemented their motion in limine seeking preclusion of undisclosed expert testimony and to limit as expert testimony from LD’s parents as to her treatment (both past and future) and LD’s physical therapist testifying as to causation and diagnosis (Docket No. 58).
Plaintiffs’ respond that they did provide disclosure of future medical expenses; alternatively, they contend that defendants waived any objection to an omitted response by not moving to compel or for preclusion (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18).
During oral argument of plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash the two subpoenas (Docket No. 69), the parties submitted on their respective papers for these motions in limine (id.). They also discussed the need to supplement [*6] their disclosure, especially LD’s future medical treatment and needs (id.).
I. Applicable Standards
In a diversity jurisdiction action, this Court initially must apply the substantive law of our forum state, New York, see Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1983); Ocean Ships, Inc. v. Stiles, 315 F.3d 111, 116 n.4 (2d Cir. 2002), including its choice of law regime, Klaxon v. Stentor, 313 U.S. 487, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941). This Court has to apply New York law as construed by the highest court of the state, the New York State Court of Appeals, not the local intermediate appellate court. When the New York State Court of Appeals has not ruled on the particular question, this Court then has to predict the direction the Court of Appeals would go if given that issue, see Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 66 F.3d 427, 430 (2d Cir. 1995).
In personal injury actions, New York generally applies the law of the jurisdiction in which the injury occurred. See Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919 (1993); Neumeier v. Kuehner, 31 N.Y.2d 121, 286 N.E.2d 454, 335 N.Y.S.2d 64 (1972). “New York’s current choice-of-law rules require the court to consider the following three elements: the domicile of the plaintiff, the domicile of the defendant, and the place where the injury occurred.” Lucas v. Lalime, 998 F. Supp. 263, 267 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (Heckman, Mag. J., R&R, adopted by Arcara, J.). Where more than one element is in the same state, that state’s law should apply. Id.; Datskow v. Teledyne Continental Motors, 807 F. Supp. 941, 943 (W.D.N.Y. 1992) (Larimer, J.). Under these choice of law rules “the first step in any case presenting a potential choice of law is to [*7] determine whether there is an actual conflict between the laws of the jurisdiction involved.” Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. (Stolarz), 81 N.Y.2d 219, 223, 613 N.E.2d 936, 597 N.Y.S.2d 904, 905 (1993).
Here, the accident and defendants are in New York, plaintiffs are from Ontario. As a second1 Neumeier situation, New York law would apply, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70; Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 72, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919, 922 (1993) (conduct-regulating laws, the law of the jurisdiction where the tort occurs applies while loss allocation laws have additional factors to determine which jurisdiction applies, citations omitted). In addition, the parties in effect have stipulated to apply forum (New York) law to this case. Both sides cite New York law and made no reference to any other jurisdiction’s law having application. Neither side has presented any law that conflict with New York law. New York courts enforce stipulations to choice of law, see Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, 47 F. Supp.2d 330, 343 (E.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing, among other cases, Tehran-Berkeley Civil & Envtl. Eng’rs v. Tippetts-Abett-McCarthy-Stratton, 888 F.2d 239, 242 (2d Cir. 1989) (parties briefed New York law, court applies New York law based upon implied consent of parties)); Roginsky v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 378 F.2d 832, 834 n.2 (2d Cir. 1967) (Friendly, J.); Klein v. Jostens, Inc., No. 83 Civ. 5351, 1985 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18115, at *6 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 1985). As a result New York law applies and the legal issues surrounding these evidentiary disputes will be resolved under New York law.
1 The second Neumeier situation is the defendant is from state A, plaintiff from state B, state A is where tort occurs; state A allows recovery, defendant cannot invoke state B’s law, similarly if state A does not allow recovery, defendant is not liable, thus state A’s law applies; or, as stated in New York Jurisprudence Conflict of Laws § 57, 19A N.Y. Jur., where local law favors respective domiciliary, the law of the place of injury generally applies, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70.
A. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine, Docket No. 56
1. Preclude Evidence of LD’s Assumption of Risk
The heart of [*8] this case is whether this five-year-old child can assume the risk inherent with riding and dismounting from a chairlift under New York law. Cases from New York State courts leave as an issue of fact for the jury whether a particular infant (regardless of the child’s age) was capable of assuming the risk of his or her activities. New York courts do not create a bright line rule that minors at five years or older are incapable of assuming risk, but cf. Smith v. Sapienza, 115 A.D.2d 723, 496 N.Y.S.2d 538 (2d Dep’t 1985) (holding, as matter of law, that three and a half year old child victim of dog attack was incapable of being held responsible for his actions for contributory negligence). New York common law “has long disclaimed any per se rule with regard to the age at which a child cannot legally assume a risk and thereby not be responsible for comparative fault for his or her injury,” Clark v. Interlaken Owners, Inc., 2 A.D.3d 338, 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d 58, 60 (1st Dep’t 2003) (Tom, J., dissent). The majority of Clark court held that assumption of risk doctrine did not apply to a five-year-old playing around exposed construction equipment, “where the danger was even more accessible [than another case cited] and the risk at least as unappreciated by this five-year-old plaintiff,” 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (emphasis supplied), citing Roberts v. New York City Hous. Auth., 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23 (1st Dep’t), leave to appeal denied, 93 N.Y.2d 811, 716 N.E.2d 698, 694 N.Y.S.2d 633 (1999), concluding [*9] that instructing the jury on assumption of the risk was error as a matter of law, Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60. In Roberts, the Appellate Division held a “six-year old under these circumstances” that is, a child exposed to a steam line fenced off by an easily breached fence next to the lawn where children played, did not have the doctrine of assumption of risk apply, 257 A.D.2d at 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23, 23. Roberts provided an opportunity for establishing an age-based bright line rule but the court decided on the specific facts of that case; hence the standard plaintiffs are in effect arguing was not adopted by New York courts.
Plaintiff argues that LD was just days away from being one year older than the non sui juris status of age four and being incapable as a matter of law being culpable (Docket No. 66, Pls. Opp. Memo. at 4-5). Assumption of risk is a distinct defense from contributory negligence, see Arbegast v. Board of Educ. of S. New Berlin Cent. School, 65 N.Y.2d 161, 165, 480 N.E.2d 365, 490 N.Y.S.2d 751, 754-55 (1985), but both defenses are subject to the doctrine of non sui juris, see M.F. v. Delaney, 37 A.D.3d 1103, 1104-05, 830 N.Y.S.2d 412, 414 (4th Dep’t 2007) (assumption of risk and culpable conduct by plaintiffs should have been dismissed because plaintiffs were 2 and 3 years old and hence were non sui juris). Plaintiffs point to the concept of non sui juris that absolves children of a certain age or younger from culpability since (as [*10] a matter of law) they are incapable of comprehending danger to be negligent or responsible for her actions, Republic Ins. Co. v. Michel, 885 F. Supp. 426, 432-33 (E.D.N.Y. 1995) (Azrack, Mag. J.). Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, id. at 432; younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety. The law calls such a child, non sui juris,” id. at 433; see also id. at 433 n.8 (literal translation of Latin phrase is “not his own master,” quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1058 (6th ed. 1990)). The non sui juris child is incapable of committing negligence, id. at 433. “Where an infant is older than four years of age, the status of that child as sui juris or non sui juris is to be determined by the trier of fact,” id. (citing cases), with factors of the child’s intelligence and maturity dictating that status, id. One federal court, applying New York contributory negligence doctrines, held that the status of a child over the age of four was a question of fact addressing “the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for himself,” [*11] Republic Ins. Co., supra, 885 F. Supp. at 432 (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 5-6). If there is a bright-line rule under New York law, the age is four years old, not five as was LD when she was injured.
The age of the plaintiff is a factor in determining whether they are capable of assuming risk of their actions, see Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 396, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, 130 (2010); Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (error to instruct on assumption of risk for five-year-old on construction vehicle) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 6); Roberts, supra, 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d at 24; Trippy v. Basile, 44 A.D.2d 759, 354 N.Y.S.2d 235, 236 (4th Dep’t 1974) (error to instruct jury that five and half year old child contributorily negligent, and could be so charged only if he had the age, experience, intelligence development and mental capacity to understand the meaning of the statute violated and to comply therewith) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 5-6). As noted by the Court of Appeals in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 130, in an almost 12-year-old child’s claim from sliding down a bannister, that court states that children often act impulsively or without good judgment, “they do not thereby consent to assume the consequently arising dangers” for assumption of risk. Plaintiffs distinguish DeLacy v. Catamount Dev. Corp., 302 A.D.2d 735, 755 N.Y.S.2d 484 (3d Dep’t 2003), due to the plaintiffs in that case being two years older than LD was in 2010 (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 5; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 4; but cf. Docket No. [*12] 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). But the New York Court of Appeals has not ruled on this question, but the consensus of other New York courts do not recognize a bright line rule that at age five or six a child is incapable of having the requisite knowledge and maturity to assume the risks of their actions; non sui juris status is applicable to four years old and that age or older is an issue of fact.
Courts in New York have concluded that assumption of the risk is a question of fact for the jury, Moore v. Hoffman, 114 A.D.3d 1265, 1266, 980 N.Y.S.2d 684, 685 (4th Dep’t 2014), in particular, riding and dismounting a chairlift has risks that raises questions of fact, DeLacy, supra, 302 A.D.2d at 736, 755 N.Y.S.2d at 486 (questions of fact whether a seven-year-old novice skier fully appreciated the risks associated with using a chairlift) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 6). One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 18, Ex. C, LD EBT Tr. at 9), even to having Bryan hold [*13] his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift (id., Tr. at 9). Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.
This is notwithstanding defendants’ argument that plaintiffs’ motion in limine here is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6; Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 2-3). As plaintiffs rebut (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply at 2-4), they are not seeking entry of judgment to dismiss a defense, instead they properly seek preclusion of evidence. But the factual issues in this case under New York law require production of evidence of LD’s capacity to assume risk.
2. Preclude Evidence of LD’s 2015 Snowboarding Incident
Plaintiffs next seek excluded evidence from an accident LD had at Holimont in 2015 resulting in injuries to her clavicle, contending that the evidence is prejudicial and would be admitted [*14] to show her to be accident prone (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 7-10). LD’s injuries in 2010 were to her left leg and hip and not to her clavicle (id. at 8). As argued in the motion to quash the subpoena to Holimont (Docket No. 43, Pls. Memo. at 7), LD did not waive the physician-patient privilege for LD’s treatment of the 2015 injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 8, 9-10). Plaintiffs conclude that LD’s subsequent snowboarding accident is not relevant to her 2010 injuries (id. at 9).
Defendants contend that LD’s injuries are not limited to her leg and hip, but also include loss of enjoyment of life and emotional injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 12, citing Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. H, Response to Defs. Interrog. No. 1). Again, as argued to defend the subpoena upon Holimont, defendants contend that Second Department law provides that LD put her physical condition at issue, justifying admissibility of her 2015 injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 13).
But as noted in deciding plaintiffs’ earlier motion (Docket No. 43), this Court in diversity is bound by the common law of New York as settled by the New York State Court of Appeals or this Court’s prediction of how the New York Court [*15] of Appeals would decide the issue if brought to it (see Docket No. 70, Order of February 22, 2017, at 13). This Court has held that the Court of Appeals, if it addressed the waiver of physician-patient privilege, would limit that waiver to so much of LD’s physical or mental condition placed in controversy here (id. at 17; see id. at 16-17 (holding that plaintiffs have standing to object to the subpoena based upon the unwaived privilege)). This case is about LD’s injuries from the 2010 incident, with physical injuries to her lower body. Discussion of LD’s accident five years later and to an unrelated body part is not relevant to her claims and would prejudice plaintiffs, see Fed. R. Evid. 403. Admitting evidence of the 2015 accident would introduce character evidence that LD acted in accordance with a particular trait (clumsiness), see Fed. R. Evid. 404(a)(1). Defendants have other means of establishing the limits on LD’s loss enjoyment of life and limitations on her activities after the 2010 accident (such as her father’s deposition testimony as to her activities, see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. C, Bryan DiFrancesco EBT Tr.10-21, 23, 95-96)).
This Court ordered plaintiffs to produce for in camera inspection the Holimont medical records [*16] from the 2015 incident for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This in camera inspection was for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as discussion of LD’s 2010 injuries or distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident had on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This Court received those in camera medical records (received March 6, 2017)2 and reviewed them and find that the following documents should be produced and those that should not. Below is Table 1, a spreadsheet listing the reviewed documents and their production status.
2 These documents were not Bates numbered or otherwise identified or paginated. Thus, this Court described the reviewed documents by their date and generic type, to avoid disclosure of contents.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
The documents ordered to be produced are those relevant to LD’s 2010 injuries, namely to her left leg and hips. Excluded are those documents that refer only to her 2015 clavicle injury. The documents that plaintiffs are to produce are the April 1, 2017, memorandum; the January 4, 2015, consultation report; notes from July 30, 2015; and the July 30, 2015, notes from Hamilton Health Sciences. The remaining documents exclusive involve the 2015 incident and injury and there was not connection made to LD’s 2010 injuries.
Thus, so much of plaintiffs’ motion (Docket No. 56) to preclude evidence from LD’s 2015 Holimont accident is granted in part, denied in part, with plaintiffs only to produce the documents identified above.
3. Preclude [*18] Evidence as Against Public Policy
Plaintiffs point to General Obligations Law § 5-326 that render defendants’ disclaimers as the operator of a place of amusement void as against public policy (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 4-5), see Rogowicki v. Troser Mgmt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 (4th Dep’t 1995). Defendants counter that the statutory and regulatory scheme under the Safety in Skiing Code, N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106; Labor Law §§ 202-c (use of ski tows), 867 (Safety in Skiing Code), authorized the release warning given in the form signed by LD’s uncle (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493.
Plaintiffs also argue that any release here would be ineffective as to LD since she never read or signed it, hence it could not serve as a waiver of liability for her injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 5), see Franco v. Neglia, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004) (release invalid against 14-year-old participant, who signed release, in first kickboxing class); Kaufman v. American Youth Hostels, Inc., 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (release signed by father invalid for child’s injuries) (id.). Plaintiffs’ reply that defendants fail to address how LD’s uncle can bind LD on the registration form waiver (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 4), by not distinguishing Franco, supra, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004), or Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (id.). They note that General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) lists the risks inherent in skiing but do not mention the risks inherent in riding a chairlift (id.). Specifically, [*19] none of those risks include having a second child obey a sign to open the chairlift bar prematurely and the negligent location of that sign (see id. at 4-5). Plaintiffs argue that assumption of risk is not automatic for every personal injury case that a novice (regardless of their age) cannot as a matter of law assume a risk (id. at 6, citing Corrigan v. Musclemakers Inc., 258 A.D.2d 861, 863, 686 N.Y.S.2d 143, 145 (3d Dep’t 1999) (injured 49-year-old woman who never been on treadmill)).
But in Franco the infant fourteen-year-old plaintiff signed the release, 3 Misc. 3d at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691. The Supreme Court, Appellate Term, held that an infant is not bound by releases which exculpate defendants from damages for personal injury “since they lack the capacity to enter into such agreements,” id., at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691 (citing Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587). The plaintiff’s decedent fifteen-year-old child in Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589, signed the release with her father. The Appellate Division, applying Oregon law, see id. at 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 589, held that the effect of the father’s signature was ambiguous, id. at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589. The decedent’s capacity there to sign the release by reason of her infancy “was effectively exercised by [her] by the act of commencing this action,” id., at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. The Appellate Division upheld striking the defense of decedent’s release because she disaffirmed “the agreement by reason of her infancy” exercised by her father’s commencement [*20] of this action but reversed regarding striking that defense for the father’s separate action against the hostel, id. at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. Neither case held that the signature of the parent or guardian alone of a release was binding upon the infant for whom the guardian signed. Thus, these cases do not go as far as plaintiffs contend to render ineffective a release signed by a guardian on behalf of an infant participating in a risky activity.
a. Infant Disaffirmance of Release
“A minor is not bound by a release executed by his parent,” Alexander v. Kendall Cent. Sch. Dist., 221 A.D.2d 898, 899, 634 N.Y.S.2d 318, 319 (4th Dep’t 1995); I.C. ex rel. Solovsky v. Delta Galil USA, 135 F. Supp. 3d 196, 209 (S.D.N.Y. 2015); Shields v. Gross, 58 N.Y.2d 338, 344, 448 N.E.2d 108, 461 N.Y.S.2d 254, 257 (conceding that infant, Brooke Shields, could under common law disaffirm consent executed by another on her behalf), rehearing denied, 59 N.Y.2d 762, 450 N.E.2d 254, 463 N.Y.S.2d 1030 (1983). The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344-45, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257.
While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257. “Where a statute expressly permits a [*21] certain class of agreements to be made by infants, that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable,” id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, with that statute being construed strictly, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257 (citing McKinney’s Consol. Laws of N.Y., Book 1, Statutes § 301(b)).
Here, the Safety in Skiing Code had as part of its legislative purpose
“(3) that it is appropriate, as well as in the public interest, to take such steps as are necessary to help reduce the risk of injury to downhill skiers from undue, unnecessary and unreasonable hazards; and (4) that it is also necessary and appropriate that skiers become apprised of, and understand, the risks inherent in the sport of skiing so that they may make an informed decision of whether or not to participate in skiing notwithstanding the risks. Therefore, the purpose and intent of this article is to establish a code of conduct for downhill skiers and ski area operators to minimize the risk of injury to persons engaged in the sport of downhill skiing and to promote safety in the downhill ski industry,”
N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-101. The act establishing this Code empowered the New York State Commissioner of Labor to promulgate “any and all rules and regulations necessary to the timely implementation [*22] of the provisions of this act,” 1988 N.Y. Laws ch. 711, § 4. These regulations “applies to all skiers and ski areas” and owners and operators of ski areas to which the Code applied to, N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & R. tit. 12, § 54.1 (2017) (hereinafter cited as “12 N.Y.C.R.R.”), without special provision or exception for juvenile skiers. That same act authorized the Commissioner of Labor to make rules to guard “against personal injuries to employees and the public in the use and operation of ski tows, other passenger tramways and downhill ski areas,” N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.
The Code also imposed on skiers the additional duties “to enable them to make informed decisions as to the advisability of their participation in the sport,” to
“seek out, read, review and understand, in advance of skiing, a ‘Warning to Skiers’ as shall be defined pursuant to subdivision five of section eight hundred sixty-seven of the labor law [N.Y. Labor L. § 867(5)], which shall be displayed and provided pursuant to paragraph a of subdivision one of this section [N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a)]; and . . . to obtain such education in the sport of skiing as the individual skier shall deem appropriate to his or her level of ability, including the familiarization with skills and duties necessary to reduce [*23] the risk of injury in such sport,”
N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(2), (a), (b); see N.Y. Labor Law § 867(5); 12 N.Y.C.R.R. §§ 54.5(l)(1), 54.4(c)(1); see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a) (ski are operator’s duty to post conspicuously “Warning to Skiers”). “Unless otherwise specifically provided in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law,” N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-107.
The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier. The definitions under these regulations for “skier,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(h) (“Skier means any person wearing a ski or skis and any person actually on a ski slope or trail located at a ski area, for the purpose of skiing”), or “passenger,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(d) (“Passenger means a person in or on or being transported by a tramway”), riding a “passenger tramway,” see 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(e) (“Passenger [*24] tramway means a mechanical device intended to transport skiers for the purpose of providing access to ski slopes and trails as defined by the Commissioner of Labor pursuant to Section two hundred two-c or eight hundred sixty-seven of the Labor Law [N.Y. Labor Law §§ 202-c, 267]”), also do not create a separate infant category. Although the Court of Appeals refers to the State Legislature either abrogating the infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or conferring upon the infant a recognized right to make binding contracts, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, the State Legislature here enacted the code that delegated to the Commissioner of Labor the authority to enact rules and regulations necessary to implement the Code. The Commissioner, by requiring regulations to apply to “all skiers” either abrogated an infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or authorized infant skiers to enter into binding contracts with ski area operators, including the warning and release to authorize the infant skier to engage in the risky activities of skiing and the related, risky activities leading up to skiing.
The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the [*25] infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release (Docket No. 56) is denied.
b. Effect of General Obligations Law § 5-326
As an alternative grounds for its decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982-83, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493, narrowed the scope of the general provisions for amusement or recreation sites under General Obligations Law § 5-326 to exclude ski resorts from that statute, with those resorts being governed by the Safety in Skiing Code and its Warning to Skiers codified in General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 18-107 (“unless otherwise specifically provide in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law”). Part of the Safety in Skiing Code includes use of a ski tow, N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.
The Holiday Valley registration form (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. G) signed by LD’s uncle, Dean DiFrancesco, had the adult signer agree that he acknowledged (among other things)
“that I have read and understand the information contained in the brochure for the Holiday Valley Mountain Adventure Children’s Ski and Snowboard Program, and also understand [*26] and am aware that there are inherent and other risks involved in participating in ski and snowboard lessons, skiing/riding, and use of lifts, which could cause death or serious injury to the registrant(s). This includes use of chairlifts and or tows or boardwalks with or without an instructor.
“[C]hildren may be required to ride chairlifts with other children in the class, ski patrol/hosts, or other persons in the lift line while loading assistance may be given by chairlift attendants. Riding a chairlift can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren). By allowing the registrant(s) to ride a chair lift, you acknowledge the dangers involved and accept any and all risks of injury to the registrant(s). Other risks include, but are not limited to, . . . boarding, riding and disembarking from moving chairlifts, rope tows or boardwalks. With full knowledge of the danger involved, I voluntarily request that the registrant(s) participate in the program. I have read this agreement to the registrant(s) and he/she has acknowledged that he/she understands its contents. On behalf of the registrant(s) and myself, I expressly assume all risks inherent in the sport of skiing and riding and any and all damages, [*27] injury, illness, or harm which may result directly or indirectly from said risks.”
(Id., paragraphs 5, 6, emphasis added.) This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).
The statutory scheme for ski resorts provided in the Safety in Skiing Code provides a more specific regime that the General Obligations Law § 5-326 for other recreational facilities including the basis for the release executed by LD’s uncle. New York public policy carved out ski resorts from the general ban on releases by recreational facility operators. On this alternative ground, plaintiffs’ motion to exclude that release (Docket No. 56) is denied.
B. Defense Motions in Limine, Docket Nos. 53, 58
1. Excluding Evidence of Subsequent Remediation
In their initial motion in limine, defendants seek to exclude evidence of their subsequent remediation in changing signage at the chairlift (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 2-4). Federal Rule of Evidence 407 precludes admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures to prove negligence, culpable conduct, or [*28] a need for a warning (id. at 2). They also contend that evidence as a warning should be excluded under Rule 403 since the probative value is exceeded by its prejudice to them (id.). Plaintiffs counter that this evidence is admissible for impeachment or to contest the feasibility of relocating the sign to a safer location (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 1-3; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 8), see Fed. R. Evid. 407; Pitasi v. Stratton Corp., 968 F.2d 1558 (2d Cir. 1992). Defendants reply that the impeachment exception to Federal Rule of Evidence 407 should be narrowly read, that it could only be used to avoid the jury being misled (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 8-9). They conclude that plaintiffs also should be precluded from introducing evidence regarding the red light/green light system used by another ski resort, Holimont, arguing that Holimont installed this system four years after the 2010 incident at issue here (id. at 10; see also Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 3-4; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. C).
The questions here under Rule 407 are at what point (if ever) may plaintiffs impeach defendants with the change in the sign location, and whether the sign location can be introduced by them as to feasibility. As for impeachment, whether plaintiffs can discuss relocation of the sign will depend [*29] upon what defense witnesses testify about to the warnings provided on site on the chairlift. Rulings on this point will await trial testimony.
As for feasibility, plaintiffs may introduce sign location and alternative locations if defendants’ witnesses testify as to the feasible location for warning signs.
As to the probative/prejudice balance under Rule 403, evidence inadmissible under Rule 407 “would also likely lead to prejudice and confusion under Rule 403,” Bak v. Metro North R.R., No. 12 Civ. 3220 (TPG), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60736, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2015), but remedial evidence may be admitted for rebuttal or impeachment evidence, id., without affecting the probative/prejudice balance of Rule 403.
Finally, Holimont currently uses a red light/green light on its chairlifts to advise skiers when to disembark from the chairlift. But that system was implemented years after this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Aff. of David Riley ¶¶ 1, 4-8 (Holimont general manager); Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. 3-4). Holimont general manager David Riley stated that he had not seen this light warning system in United States slopes prior to his tour of Europe in 2014 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Riley Aff. ¶ 8). Thus, it was not feasible in 2010 to have such a light warning system and admission of evidence [*30] of the Holimont lighting system would be prejudicial. Plaintiffs are precluded from introducing evidence of this system as a feasible alternative.
Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted in part, with some issues to be decided at trial upon the proffer or introduction of evidence at issue.
2. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Liability Expert, Dick Penniman,
Defendants next seek to preclude testimony from plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman, on various subjects. Plaintiffs globally respond that Penniman is a forty-year veteran of the ski industry, performing various duties as a member of ski patrol, lift operator, ski lift maintenance man, and “mountain manager/assistant operations manager” of a number of ski areas (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 27-29, Ex. Q (Penniman curriculum vitae)). Penniman testified as an expert in Whitford v. Mt. Baker Ski Area, Inc., Case No. C11099112RSM, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 23, 2012) (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11), opining in that case about the lift attendant’s duties and whether a catch net used at that resort was adequate, id., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Plaintiffs conclude that defense objections to Penniman goes to the weight, not the admissibility, [*31] of his expert testimony (id. at 10, 11). Plaintiffs do not provide a point-for-point refutation of defense objections to Penniman as an expert.
As noted by the court in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3, “the trial court must act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure that proffered expert testimony is both relevant and reliable,” id. citing Kumho Tire Co. Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999). Where expert testimony is technical rather than purely scientific, “the Court must ensure that it ‘rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand,'” id. (quoting United States v. Hermanek, 289 F.3d 1076, 1093 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting in turn Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993))). As gatekeeper, this Court has to “make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterize the practice of an expert in the relevant field,” Kumho, supra, 526 U.S. at 152; Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3-4. The Whitford court, in considering testimony for other specialized knowledge, construed Federal Rule of Evidence 702 liberally, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4 (citing 9 th Circuit case and Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory committee note, 2000 amendment, rejection of an expert is the exception rather than the rule).
From Penniman’s curriculum vitae (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. Q), his expertise is ski patrol (including lift operation and hazard evaluation and mitigation), avalanche safety, and slope preparation. [*32] He worked for two years supervising lift operations in Chile (id.). Since 1983, Penniman has been a consultant and expert witness; he was qualified as an expert in safe skiing including lift operations and ski instruction (id.). As a threshold matter, Penniman’s expert testimony comes from decades of performing various tasks at several ski resorts and evaluating skiing hazards.
Next, this Court turns to the specific defense objections to Penniman’s expert testimony.
a. Prohibit Penniman from Opining Regarding Relocation of Unload Sign
First, defendants seek to bar Penniman’s opinion about the proper location of signage for unloading or discharging skiers from the chairlift (the “unload/open restraint bar”) and changes in the text of the registration form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5, 6-7). As for Penniman opining on sign location, his expertise as a ski lift operator and evaluator of skiing accidents informs his opinions about such things. Penniman lists in his curriculum vitae experience in signage at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q), but does not specify if this includes the location of chairlift instructions or warning signage. The bulk of his stated expertise and [*33] experience involves avalanches, so the signage Penniman is familiar with appears to be for ski trails. In his deposition regarding signage, Penniman testified that applicable New York State regulations when the Creekside lift was erected in 2003 were based on the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”) standards from 19993 , with a 20064 amendment of ANSI standards expressly calling for sign placement (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 23). The 2006 ANSI amendments grandfathered pre-2006 construction to be governed by earlier standards (id., Tr. at 25), but the 2006 standard for sign location called for signs to be ahead of the off load point (id., Tr. at 25-26), while the 1999 standard did not require signage at all (id., Tr. at 24, 39). Penniman noted that one ski resort, White Pine, had its raise bar signs in front of shacks near the unload points (id., Tr. at 28), while at other resorts, Penniman observed these signs either on chairlift towers 20-30 feet before the unload area or as close to the unload area as possible (id., Tr. at 32-34; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 33-34). Penniman concluded that defendants violated New York State standards for the location [*34] of Holiday Valley’s signs, violating ANSI 1999 and 2003 standards that signage be ahead of the offload area (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 37-38). Penniman did not know if New York State inspected the location of these signs (id., Tr. at 40-41). Penniman noted that New York law also required use of the restraint bar on chairlifts; requiring a rider to not use a restraint bar for 50 yards, Penniman opined, would require the rider to violate New York law (id., Tr. at 38).
3 Pls. Ex. 67.
4 Pls. Ex. 68; Defs. Exs. 56, 65.
From review of Penniman’s deposition testimony, the issue is whether placement of the offload warning sign should be at the offload area or in advance of that area (e.g., id., Tr. at 39). Penniman’s experience seems to be from his observations at various resorts, without knowing the written policies for sign placement at those areas. A foundation, therefore, will need to be established that Penniman has sufficient expertise in sign location of chairlift instructions to credit Penniman’s opinion as an expert. Penniman’s testimony also is limited regarding subsequent changes in the sign location, as indicated above. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No 53) on these grounds is granted.
b. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Expert [*35] Penniman from Opining on Risk of Chairlift Not Being Inherent to Skiing
Next, defendants seek to preclude Penniman’s opinion on the risk of using a chairlift not being inherent to skiing (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). Plaintiffs argue that the New York Court of Appeals decision in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d 392, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, changed the standards for primary assumption of the risk that coincides with Penniman’s opinion that use of a chairlift is distinct from the sport of skiing (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 6-7).
There is a preliminary question whether this is an evidentiary issue or a matter requiring an expert opinion at all. New York cases recognize that use of a chairlift is an inherent part of skiing, with distinct risks from the sport of skiing. There are separate, but related, duties of care with operating a chairlift and downhill skiing, Morgan v. Ski Roundtop, Inc., 290 A.D.2d 618, 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d 135, 137 (3d Dep’t 2002) (hereinafter “Ski Roundtop”) (inherent risk in skiing and “some risk of injury inherent in entering, riding and exiting from a chairlift”); see Morgan v. New York State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421, 427 (1997); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 1707, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 787-88 (4th Dep’t 2011); see also Tone v. Song Mtn. Ski Ctr., 113 A.D.3d 1126, 1127, 977 N.Y.S.2d 857, 858 (4th Dep’t 2014) (claim from chairlift, assumption of risk applied for “athletic activity,” quoting Ski Roundtop, supra, 290 A.D.2d at 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d at 137). As defendants note (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 4), riding and disembarking a chairlift is inherent in Alpine downhill skiing, [*36] see also Litz v. Clinton Cent. Sch. Dist., 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636 (4th Dep’t 2015) (assumption of risk for playing hockey applied to injury suffered in rink locker room).
Factually, Trupia involved horseplay on a bannister by a twelve-year-old, rather than engaging in a sporting activity or the steps leading to that activity (with the inherent risks of those steps), supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 393, 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 128, 129. Again, this is more akin to the ancillary dangers in the locker room preparing for participation in a sport, e.g., Litz, supra, 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636; but for the sporting activity, a participant would not be injured in the locker room or on the chairlift, each is necessary to prelude to athletic participation. This participant is only in these places to engage in a sport with its own inherent dangers and risks.
As noted in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *9, wherein Penniman was accepted as an expert, he “is not required to be an expert in the law; he is only required to be an expert in the subject matter of his testimony,” id. Thus, as a matter of law, there are risks, distinct from those in alpine skiing, to riding a chairlift that are related to those of skiing. This does not require an expert opinion one way or the other. Defense motion in limine on this point (Docket No. 53) is granted.
c. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Registration Form
Defendants [*37] next contend that Penniman lacked any foundation to make an opinion about the registration form used by Holiday Valley (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6-7; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, Penniman’s Supp’al Expert Report at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). They object to Penniman’s supplemental opinion that noted defendants’ changes to the registration form to require a parent to initial the form at paragraph 6 on chairlift use (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). Plaintiffs do not respond specifically to this objection. Penniman opined that the sentence about a child riding the chairlift without adult supervision was vaguely written (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. L, at 5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6).
Again, looking at the actual registration form quoted above (at pages 19-20, supra), participants are warned that children may ride with other children on the chairlift, followed by a warning that riding the chairlift “can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren)” (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. [*38] G, paragraph 6). That text implies that children may ride together without an adult. As noted in detail by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7), Penniman lacks expertise in developing ski school policies, drafting registration forms, or have expertise in human factors, engineering, or psychology. Thus, his opinion on the text of the registration form is a little more informed than that of a layperson. Penniman’s opinion in this area is excluded; defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.
As for Penniman’s observation of the post-accident changes in the form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. E, at 5; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. L, at 5), this also goes to proof of subsequent remediation and, unlike the impeachment use plaintiffs propose for the relocation of signs or feasibility of change, Penniman’s opinion on the changes in the registration form would only come as part of his direct testimony. Such introduction violates Rule 407 and its prejudice outweighs its probative value under Rule 403. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to Penniman’s opinion in this area is granted.
d. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on Human Factor
Defendants next argue that Penniman lacks [*39] the qualifications to opine on the impact of the human factor in this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7-8). Penniman testified that generally an infant should have been accompanied by an adult on a chairlift based on “best practices.” Penniman based these best practices on his experience, observations, and involvement in ski schools and he concludes that a majority of ski areas “are concerned about small children riding up chairs alone, or with other kids without an adult accompanying them. There are some I have observed where they don’t care. But the majority do, and I call that best practices.” (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, excerpts of Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66.) Penniman testified that, from the age of 8, he had observed ski schools recruit adults to ride up with unaccompanied children, that the “vast majority [of resorts] do,” or so Penniman found (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 67). He noted that other ski areas do not let small children on chairlifts and “the majority of ski resorts, when it’s not an instruction situation, leave that decision up to the parents” (Docket [*40] No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). But Penniman had not investigated the policies of individual ski resorts in New York whether they require adult accompaniment on chairlifts and he could not testify to written policies of ski resorts (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). Penniman, however, admitted that he was not familiar with Holimont’s policies regarding adult accompaniment or the policies of other Western New York ski resorts on this issue (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 18-19).
Penniman’s opinion on how small children react on chairlifts may be informed by his experience operating ski lifts, observing at ski resorts, and investigating skiing accidents, but this expertise does not rise to the level that it should be credited as an expert. Similar to the registration form objection, Penniman’s expertise is in ski resort operations and not on how patrons will react. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.
e. Prohibit Penniman from Opining about the Operation of a Ski School
Defendants contend that Penniman cannot render an opinion about how to operate a ski school due to lack of qualifications [*41] on how to operate such a program and not knowing Holiday Valley’s policies (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9). Defendants point out that Penniman testified that he was only at level one (of three levels) as a certified ski instructor by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (or “PSIA”) (id.; Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 11) and that Penniman was never employed as a ski instructor at any resort where he worked (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 12), but he later stated that he taught skiing informally and once at a resort as a ski patroller (id. at 41-42). Penniman also admitted that he never developed policies for a ski school (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 13). According to plaintiffs’ retort, Penniman performed several different tasks in the ski industry for forty years (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 10-11), including experiences with ski schools and policies of the White Pine Ski Area related to children riding chairlifts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.d., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 19-20 (being familiar with policies of resorts regarding children on chairlifts), membership in the PSIA (id., Ex. Q), and as a private ski instructor (id., ¶ 29.e., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 42-44). [*42] He was qualified as an expert on skiing safety including chairlift operations and ski instruction (id.).
Reviewing his experience and stated expertise, Penniman essentially provided private ski lessons, “step[ped] in once at White Pine” ski resort as an instructor while a ski patroller and provided instruction, and instructed ski patrollers (Docket No. 53, Ex. F, at 42-43). He admits to never developing policies for a ski school. Given that the focus of Penniman’s expertise is more on trails (such as avalanches); his experience is only slightly more than a layperson regarding ski school policies. This is despite the fact that Penniman has testified as an expert in Whitford (but cf. Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11); in that case he testified about the lift attendant’s duties and the adequacy of the chairlift’s safety netting, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Penniman there was not asked to opine on ski school policies (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 7).
Thus, defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on Penniman rendering his opinion on ski school policies is granted.
f. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Custom for Chairlift Signage
Defendants next argue that Penniman should not be allowed to testify about customary [*43] chairlift signage or sign location (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9-10). Again, plaintiffs apparently rely upon Penniman’s forty years of experience operating ski lifts and in the ski industry generally and do not point to specifics as to his expertise regarding the customary location of warning signage (see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.e., h., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 33-34, 68-69). Penniman’s experience as to the location of unloading signage is at three North America ski areas and his 40 years of seeing where signs have been located at those and other ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29, e. h.). Again, Penniman lists experience in “signing” at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q) without specifying what signage he positioned. Continuing to review Penniman’s stated experience, most of his training focused on ski patrol, avalanches, and ski safety, with attendance at a congress for transportation by wire rope in 1999 and ski lift maintenance. He is affiliated with the International Society of Skiing Safety and the PSIA. These could be sources for Penniman’s opinion about the national or continental safety standards, but a foundation needs to be established [*44] to confirm this before Penniman’s opinion on this subject is admissible. As noted above, the basis for Penniman’s opinions are from his observation of practices at ski areas and what he believes to be best practices. But he extrapolates this experience to conclude continental practices regarding where these signs are placed and should be placed without additional foundation. Absent such a foundation for a broader opinion, Penniman can only testify to his observations of what he observed at other ski resorts. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) on this issue is granted in part.
3. Exclude Prior and Subsequent Incidents at Holiday Valley
Finally in the initial motion in limine, defendants argue that evidence of prior and subsequent incidents of youths falling from chairlifts at Holiday Valley should not be admitted (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 10-17; Docket No. 56, sealed Exs. G-S). They argue that introducing all of these incidents would be prejudicial to them, Fed. R. Evid. 403 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15, 11-15). Defendants argue that the Creekside open restraint bar sign was moved to Tower 6 after LD’s accident. Therefore, subsequent incidents would allow plaintiffs, by the [*45] “back door,” to introduce evidence of subsequent remediation (id. at 16). Further, only one incident (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) involved Creekside chairlift, while other post-2010 incidents (id., Defs. Exs. R-S) are not substantially similar to LD’s incident (see Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 16).
Plaintiffs argue that defendants did not cite federal cases on the admissibility of subsequent accidents (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 14). They claim one subsequent incident was similar (id. at 15; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35, Ex. X) (four-year-old fell from Mardi Gras chairlift on February 26, 2012).
Plaintiffs argue that evidence of prior incidents is admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 to show the existence and notice of the dangerous condition (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). They also claim that proof of subsequent accidents also is admissible to show the existence of the dangerous condition (id.). They reviewed defendants’ reports of similar incidents both before and after LD’s 2010 accident and argue that several of them are admissible since they present examples of youth slightly older than five-year-old LD (ages six to ten years old before the 2010 accident, and a four-year-old after5) opening the restraining [*46] bar prematurely due to the location of the signs instructing them to open that bar (id. at 12-14; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 34, Exs. S, T, U, V, W; ¶ 35, Ex. X). Plaintiffs argue that pictures after 2010 showing relocation of the signs would be admissible only to rebut testimony regarding feasibility, impeaching the defense of culpable conduct (id. at 14). Their claim is that “very young children were needlessly exposed to serious injury by having the ‘open restraint bar’ sign posted too far away from the unload point, and resulting in the restraint bar being lifted at a point when the chairlift is too far above the ground,” hence it was unnecessary for plaintiffs to allege that the chairlift itself was defective (id. at 15); if there was any defect, it was in the location of the signage relative to the height of the chairlift.
5 According to the report for that accident, Feb. 26, 2012, the injured four-year-old was sitting next to his father on the chairlift when he fell, Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35.a., Ex. X.
a. Prior Incidents
As for prior incidents at Holiday Valley, they are admissible in this case provided they are “substantially similar” to the 2010 accident on trial here, Bellinger v. Deere & Co., 881 F. Supp. 813, 817 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (case citations omitted); see Sawyer v. Dreis & Krump Mfg. Co., 67 N.Y.2d 328, 336, 493 N.E.2d 920, 502 N.Y.S.2d 696, 701 (1986) (under New York law, similar prior accidents are admissible to show dangerousness of conditions and notice) (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 11). Defendants note (id.) that New York [*47] law allows admission of proof of similar incidents to show dangerousness of conditions and notice, Sawyer, supra, 67 N.Y.2d at 336, 502 N.Y.S.2d at 701. The parties differ here on whether the prior incidents are substantially similar to LD’s 2010 accident. As defendants concede that one incident of the eleven prior incidents at Holiday Valley identified by defendants is substantially similar to LD’s situation (id.; see Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. A, Pls.’ Response to Interrogatories, Interrogatory No. 11), that a five-year-old novice skier riding a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult fell between Towers 5 and 6 of the Creekside chairlift. The conceded incident is admissible. The ten other prior incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Atty. Exs. G-P) had one or two distinguishing facts that defendants conclude makes them not sufficiently similar to be admissible.
Table 2 below lists the factors defendants argue distinguish these ten prior incidents from LD’s 2010 incident, listing the youths as they were identified by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12-15), cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
6 Injured youth #3 rode with a brother whose name was redacted by defendants, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12; Docket No. 56, Ex. I. The report does not give the brother’s age; thus, it is presumed that he is a minor as well.
7 Defendants claim that this incident occurred at Creekside, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, but defendants argue that it did not occur at a similar location, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12. They distinguish this incident since there is no reference to use of a restraint bar, Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11. The lift operator’s description of that incident, however, said that the restraint bar was up, Docket No. 56, Ex. H, at 2.
Two of the prior incidents are also distinct due to the greater expertise of the youth skier (#8, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 14-15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. N) and the age of the skier as compared with LD’s age in 2010 (#10, 16 year old, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P) who was involved in horseplay that led to the fall (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P).
Plaintiffs argue that whether these prior incidents were during a ski lesson is immaterial to whether they are similar to LD’s 2010 experience (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). But one factor here is that LD was a relative novice in 2010 and had not ridden on a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult. Also, plaintiffs’ claim is for inadequate supervision by the ski instructor while LD was on the chairlift (Docket No. 1, Compl. ¶ 15); that inadequacy would not occur in prior incidents that were not ski lessons. Therefore, to be sufficiently similar to LD’s circumstances, the prior instances must factor in the experience of the youth involved, shown by defendants from whether the incidents [*49] occurred during a ski lesson (as was for LD) as well as a review of the incident reports showing whether these youths were identified as being “novices” in the ability and days skied portions of the Holiday Valley incident reports.
To plaintiffs, “the similar circumstances at issue in this case are a very young child falling off a chair lift when the restraint bar was lifted at the point indicated by the ‘open restraint bar’ sign” (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13). The prior incidents occurred at various chairlifts at Holiday Valley and the records for each incident does not indicate either where the “open restraint bar” signs were relative to where the youths fell or the distance they were from the appropriate discharge point. At least one youth, #3 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. I) appears to have fallen shortly after boarding the chairlift. Another prior incident occurred at Tower 4 of School House chairlift, well before Towers 5 and 6 of Creekside where LD fell (Incident #5, Docket No. 56, Ex. K). Thus, it is difficult to determine if these falls at other chairlifts were similar to LD’s fall at Creekside.
Plaintiffs next point to five prior instances that they claim were substantially [*50] similar to LD’s in which the restraint bar was opened prematurely and each child fell (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13-14; Incident #2, 4, 6, 7, 9 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, J, L, M, O; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Exs. S, T, U, V, W). Defendants reply that plaintiffs’ parsing of these prior incidents focus on singular favorable points and did not meet the burden of establishing that any of these incidents were substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 10-11). They again distinguish these five incidents from the 2010 incident (id. at 11-12).
Incidents where the child was riding with a parent or other adult are not substantially similar to LD riding without an adult. The location of the fall also has to be similar to the 2010 Creekside incident; one of the issues is the location of the warning signage and where the restraining bar was lifted or the youth attempted to dismount (see also Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11, on Incident #4, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. J; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. T). While not considered by the parties, the age as well as the experience of the youth involved (shown by whether use of the lift was during a ski lesson [*51] and the identified skiing ability on the Holiday Valley incident reports) is an important factor to determine if a prior incident was substantially similar to LD’s incident.
The next table (Table 3) lists the prior incidents at issue, the defense and plaintiffs’ exhibits identifications, the age of the youth, and their skiing experience (novice or not).
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
Reviewing these prior incidents, the five identified by plaintiffs are not sufficiently similar to LD’s 2010 experience to admit them into evidence. These incidents each had an adult present (#2, 4, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, V, W); or were not during a ski lesson (#2, 4, 6, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, L, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, U, V, W); or were not at the Creekside chairlift or the youths did not fall at a point similar to where LD fell from the Creekside chairlift [*52] (id.). But the child in Incident #9 was a six-year-old novice who skied for two days, describing the incident as lifting the safety bar “at prescribed point” (rather than earlier), slipped forward and left the lift (#9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. W). Finally, LD is younger than any of the youth in the prior incidents.
One incident defendants attempt to distinguish, Incident #2, involves a fall by a seven-year-old novice skier (with two to nine days skied) at Creekside where the chairlift stopped thirty feet from the unloading ramp and the lift operator reported that the restraint bar was up (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S). The lift operator went to the child and “waited for parents” prior to ski patrol arriving (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, at 2; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, at 3). It is unclear where defendants got the impression that the parents were with that child on the chairlift. This incident is similar to LD’s experience and thus is admissible.
Therefore, Incident #2 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S), and the incident conceded by defendants to be similar are admissible, but the other prior incidents identified [*53] by defendants are not similar and are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to the admission of evidence of prior incidents substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident is granted in part, save for the conceded prior incident.
b. Subsequent Incidents
As for subsequent incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. Q-S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X (Feb. 26, 2012, incident), Table 4 lists these incidents, with this Court continuing the incident numbering scheme the parties used for the prior incidents.
[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]
Plaintiffs argue that one incident, #13 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X) is similar to LD’s 2010 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35). There, a four-year-old youth was riding with his father on February 26, 2012, and was on a different chairlift, Mardi Gras, approximately 32 yards from the bull wheel (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X). According to the eight-year-old sister of that youth, that child wiggled in the chairlift seat and fell from it (id.). These differences [*54] distinguish this incident from LD’s by the later child riding with a parent and no mention of the restraint bar having a role in the incident. This incident is distinct from LD’s.
As for the other two incidents, the youths were older than LD and had more skiing experience. Incident #11 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) is the closest to LD’s 2010 experience; that incident had a 6 1/2 year old youth fall from the Creekside chairlift 62 feet above Tower 5. That youth claimed he “never really got on chair” and the chair stopped and he fell (id. at 1). Witnesses reported that the restraint bar was down as other skiers held the youth until losing their grip (id. at 7). But this incident is sufficiently distinct from what LD experienced to not admit that subsequent incident into evidence.
Thus, the subsequent incidents are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine on this ground (Docket No. 53) is granted as discussed above.
4. Defense Supplemental Motion (Docket No. 58), Exclude Non-Disclosed Expert Testimony
In their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58), defendants next ask that undisclosed plaintiffs’ expert testimony be excluded (id., Defs. Memo. at 2-3). Plaintiffs contend that they did disclose regarding [*55] future medical expenses; alternatively, they argue that defendants waived any objection to that disclosure by not moving to compel further disclosure (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Atty. Reply Decl.¶ 3, Ex. A (supplementing plaintiffs’ discovery). Plaintiffs also argue that defendants overstate the scope of the witnesses defendants claim are plaintiffs’ experts (plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco, wife Natascha DiFrancesco, and brother Dean DiFrancesco); for example, uncle Dean DiFrancesco would not testify as an expert regarding inadequate supervision but would testify as to his expectation regarding supervision of youth (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 36). During oral argument, plaintiffs offered to supplement evidence of LD’s future medical requirements (see Docket No. 69). The parties reserved the right to file a new round of motions in limine regarding this supplementation (as well as other supplemented discovery).
Plaintiffs do not list the DiFrancescos as expert witnesses in their pretrial submissions (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Pretrial Memo. at 14-15), only expressly identifying Penniman as their expert witness (id. at 21). Defendants’ supplemental motion [*56] in limine (Docket No. 58) on this ground is deemed moot, but subject to renewal upon receipt of the supplemental discovery.
5. LD’s Mother Is Not Qualified as an Expert to Opine on LD’s Future Treatment
Defendants next contend that LD’s mother, Natascha DiFrancesco is not qualified as an expert to render an opinion as to LD’s need for future treatments (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3), since Mrs. DiFrancesco has degrees in sociology and physical therapy and lacks the medical qualification to opine as to LD’s physical care needs (id. at 3; id., Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. C, EBT Tr. Natascha DiFrancesco).
Plaintiffs respond that the parents would testify to medical expenses incurred but health care provider witnesses would testify to the medical necessity for future treatment of LD (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 37). They also point out Dr. Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco are both “health care professionals and have had extensive contact and conversations with the infant plaintiff’s health care providers, an understanding of immediate health care surveillance she requires and the fact that they have been informed that the infant plaintiff is a candidate for require [sic] future [*57] medical surveillance, treatment, injections, surgery and imaging” (id.). Both parents discussed LD’s care and future medical needs with treating orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Devin Peterson (id. ¶¶ 40, 41).
Plaintiff Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco can testify to the facts of LD’s past treatment and the recommended follow up, with health care providers testifying as to the necessity of future medical care. Plaintiffs, however, are not holding them out as “experts,” they claim that Natascha DiFrancesco would testify as to the necessity for LD having future medical care (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 15). Thus, they cannot invoke Dr. and Mrs. DiFrancesco’s respective experience in health care professions (according to defense moving papers, Natascha DiFrancesco has degrees in occupational therapy and sociology, Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 8) to bolster their factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other layperson could testify to their injured daughter or son. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.
6. Physical Therapist Emily Wray Cannot Offer an Expert Opinion on Causation or Diagnosis
Defendants caution that plaintiffs’ physical therapist, [*58] Emily Wray, is not an expert as to the cause or diagnosis for LD’s injuries (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3-4). Defendants produced a copy of plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco’s business website for the Active Body Clinic. This website listed among the staff of that clinic Ms. Wray (Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. B). Plaintiffs, however, offer Ms. Wray’s testimony as to her observations in treating LD in 2015 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 38, Ex. AA; see also Docket No. 54, Pls. Memo. at 23-24). Thus, she is being called as a treating witness rather than an expert. This Court notes that Wray’s employment with Bryan’s Active Body Clinic raises issues of bias but this goes to her ultimate credibility and not to the admissibility of her testimony. Again, as modified to restrict her testimony to her factual observations, defendants’ motion (Docket No. 58) is granted.
7. Plaintiff Father Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco Cannot Opine on Fractures, Surgical Procedures on LD
Finally, defendants move to preclude plaintiff Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco from testifying as an expert on LD’s fractures and surgical procedures (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4). Defendants contend [*59] that plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco is a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and physical therapist and thus lacks the expertise to render an opinion as to LD’s treatment of her fractured femur (id.; Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 8, Ex. B). Defendants point out that plaintiffs have not provided disclosure of the nature and extend of future treatments that LD requires (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4).
Again, plaintiffs are not holding Dr. Bryan out as an “expert,” his anticipated testimony is regarding LD’s condition before and after the accident, including the necessity for future treatment (Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 14); thus, they cannot invoke his expertise in health care professions as a chiropractor, acupuncturist and physical therapist to bolster factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other parent not in a health care profession could testify for their injured daughter or son. It is unclear in this record the extend of Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco’s medical training that he received in obtaining his chiropractic and physical therapy degrees in Canada. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.
For the reasons stated [*60] above, plaintiffs’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above. Plaintiffs’ motion to exclude evidence of infant LD’s assumption of the risk is denied, as well as evidence of the release (as being contrary to New York State public policy) is denied but on different grounds; their motion to preclude evidence of LD’s 2015 clavicle injury at Holimont is granted in part with medical records first subject to this Court’s in camera review.
Defendants’ first motion in limine (Docket No. 53) is granted in part, denied in part as provided in detail above. Their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above.
Jury selection and trial is set for Monday, July 17, 2017, commencing at 9:30 am (Docket Nos. 69, 71), with a Final Pretrial Conference to be scheduled and a further Pretrial Order to be separately issued. The Interim Pretrial Conference (Docket Nos. 71, 63), remains set for Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 10:30 am (Docket No. 72).
/s/ Hugh B. Scott
Hon. Hugh B. Scott
United States Magistrate Judge
Dated: Buffalo, New York
March 20, 2017
Griffith v. Jumptime Meridian, LLC, 2017 Ida. LEXIS 90
Seth Griffith, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jumptime Meridian, LLC, an Idaho Limited Liability Company, Defendant-Respondent.
Docket No. 44133-2016, 2017 Opinion No. 29
SUPREME COURT OF IDAHO
2017 Ida. LEXIS 90
April 10, 2017, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Ada County. Hon. Deborah A. Bail, District Judge.
DISPOSITION: The judgment of the district court is affirmed.
COUNSEL: Eric Clark, Clark & Associates, Eagle, argued for appellant.
William Fletcher, Hawley Troxell Ennis & Hawley LLP, Boise, argued for respondent.
JUDGES: EISMANN, Justice. Chief Justice BURDICK, and Justices JONES, HORTON and BRODY CONCUR.
OPINION BY: EISMANN
This is an appeal out of Ada County from a judgment dismissing an action brought against JumpTime Meridian, LLC, by Seth Griffith seeking damages for an injury he received while attempting a triple front flip when he was seventeen years of age. We affirm the judgment of the district court.
On January 11, 2014, seventeen-year-old Seth Griffith (“Plaintiff”) was seriously injured when he attempted a triple front flip into a pit filled with foam blocks (“foam pit”) at an indoor trampoline park owned and operated by JumpTime Meridian, LLC (“JumpTime”). Plaintiff went to the facility with his girlfriend and her younger brother and sister. Plaintiff initially played with the brother on trampolines for about ten or fifteen minutes, and [*2] then they went to an area where there were runway trampolines. Plaintiff spent about fifteen to twenty minutes doing front flips, back flips, and cartwheels on the runway trampolines, and he taught the brother to do a front flip. He then started showing off to the brother, doing various gymnastic tricks. He jumped up, did a back flip, jumped up, and did another back flip, and a female JumpTime employee, who was monitoring the foam pit area, told him it was pretty cool.
The facility had foam pits, one large (sixteen feet by eighteen feet) and one small (nine feet by sixteen feet). The large foam pit had twin trampolines that were each twelve feet long leading to it, and the small foam pit had a 58-foot-long trampoline runway leading to it.
Plaintiff’s girlfriend and her sister were near the large foam pit. He walked over to where they were and talked to them. While he was there, he jumped into the large foam pit a few times. He then spent about 45 minutes “kind of horsing around on both the runway trampoline and the foam pit and the twin trampolines.” After he did a double front flip into the small foam pit, the monitor came up to him and asked if he had ever done a double before. He [*3] answered that he had, and she said, “Oh, that was pretty sweet.” As he continued performing double front flips into the small foam pit, he noticed that doing them was easier than it used to be for him. He decided to try a triple front flip. When he attempted it, he did not rotate far enough and landed on his head and neck, suffering a cervical dislocation and fracture, which required a fusion of his C6 and C7 vertebrae.
Plaintiff filed this action alleging that JumpTime negligently caused his injury. He contended that because he was under the age of eighteen, JumpTime had a duty to supervise him. He had been intentionally landing the double front flips on his back in the pit. He testified that he did so “because you don’t want to land on your feet because you can bash your head against your knees.” JumpTime’s written policy manual instructed its employees with respect to the foam pit to “[f]ollow the rules outlined on the wall and continuously enforce it.” There were signs on the walls near the two pits that instructed customers to land on their feet. A large sign painted on the wall next to where the runway trampoline ended at the small foam pit said:
• Jump feet first into the pit
• Land on [*4] your feet and seat
• No landing on your head or Stomach
Just past the small foam pit was a sign titled “FOAM PIT RULES,” which included the admonition: “WHILE YOU JUMP: DO NOT land on head, neck or belly. NO DIVING; FEET FIRST.” A third sign located on the wall near the large foam pit was titled “FOAM PIT PATRON RESPONSIBILITY CODE,” and it included the admonition, “Jump and land on two feet.” Plaintiff contended that had the attendant told him to land on his feet, he would not have attempted the triple front flip.
JumpTime moved for summary judgment alleging that there was no negligence, based upon the opinion of an expert that industry standards permitted landing a front flip into a foam pit on one’s feet, buttocks, or back, and that there was no evidence of causation. In response, Plaintiff contended that the signs on the wall stating how to land in the foam pit established the standard of care and that because of the attendant’s failure to admonish him for landing incorrectly, he was not discouraged from attempting a more difficult maneuver like a triple front flip. The district court granted JumpTime’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Plaintiff had failed to produce evidence [*5] of negligence and causation. Plaintiff then timely appealed.
Did the District Court Err in Granting JumpTime’s Motion for Summary Judgment?
When reviewing on appeal the granting of a motion for summary judgment, we apply the same standard used by the trial court in ruling on the motion. Infanger v. City of Salmon, 137 Idaho 45, 46-47, 44 P.3d 1100, 1101-02 (2002). We construe all disputed facts, and draw all reasonable inferences from the record, in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 47, 44 P.3d at 1102. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the evidence in the record and any admissions show that there is no genuine issue of any material fact regarding the issues raised in the pleadings and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.
The elements of common law negligence have been summarized as (1) a duty, recognized by law, requiring a defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the resulting injuries; and (4) actual loss or damage.” Alegria v. Payonk, 101 Idaho 617, 619, 619 P.2d 135, 137 (1980). In this case, there were no facts in the record showing a causal connection between JumpTime’s alleged negligence and Plaintiff’s injury.
The issue of causation is why Plaintiff attempted the triple front flip. He did not tell [*6] anyone he was going to attempt it, nor is there any evidence indicating that the monitor knew or should have known that he would try a triple front flip. Plaintiff argues on appeal that he is “entitled to the reasonable inference that had JumpTime enforced its rules and interceded when [he] was landing improperly and dangerously on his back, [he] would not have felt emboldened and would never have attempted a triple flip.”
First, there is no evidence that it was dangerous to land on one’s back. Even Plaintiff testified that he believed it was safer because it avoided the risk of hitting his face with his knees.
Second, Plaintiff did not testify during his deposition that had the monitor admonished him to land on his feet that he would not have attempted the triple front flip, nor did he testify that the conduct of the monitor was part of that decision. He testified that he decided to attempt the triple front flip because completing the double front flips was easier than previously had been for him, that he was having to come out of his rotation earlier than he previously had to, and that he was confident he was in the air long enough to do a triple front flip, which would be exciting. [*7]
Plaintiff testified that performing the double front flips was easier than it previously had been for him.
Q. Well, tell me everything. Let’s just move in chronological order about what is happening and work up to the incident. So if you are at that point, then go ahead.
A. After about 45 minutes of just kind of horsing around on both the runway trampoline and the foam pit and the twin trampolines, I got onto the runway trampoline, plus the foam pit, and I kind of noticed I had been doing doubles easier than what I was normally used to, like I was just either spinning faster or getting higher. It was just easier than what I was accustomed to. So I decided to go for a triple.
He was asked why he attempted the triple front flip, and he did not answer that JumpTime was in any way responsible for that decision. He said that when doing double front flips he had to come out of his rotation earlier than he previously had to and he thought he had enough air to perform a triple front flip.
Q. Okay. So was the reason that you attempted this triple flip in the small foam pit just because it had a longer runway?
A. No. I had been doing doubles easier, like I was—I had to break from my rotation earlier [*8] than I previously would have to. So it was like I was having more time in the air to actually do the flips. So I kind of thought that I would be able to have enough air to do a triple.
He also stated that he was confident he could perform the triple front flip and was excited to try.
Q. Did you have any concerns about being able to do the triple without hurting yourself?
A. No. The time when I was about to do it I was pretty confident that I could.
. . . .
Q. Were you nervous at all before attempting the triple?
A. No. I was actually pretty excited about it.
Q. Why would you say that?
A. Just because, like I used to be an avid gymnastics person, so doing a new trick, like if I could—like if I added a 360 onto a front flip, I’d get pretty excited. If I did like an aerial for the first time, like I got excited. So new things kind of excited me.
Plaintiff’s testimony does not support an inference that JumpTime was in any way responsible for his decision to try the triple front flip. Therefore, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to JumpTime based upon the lack of evidence regarding causation.
Is Either Party Entitled to an Award of Attorney Fees on Appeal?
Both parties [*9] request an award of attorney fees on appeal pursuant to Idaho Code section 12-121..An award of attorney fees under that statute will be awarded to the prevailing party on appeal only when this Court is left with the abiding belief that the entire appeal was brought, pursued, or defended frivolously, unreasonably, or without foundation. McGrew v. McGrew, 139 Idaho 551, 562, 82 P.3d 833, 844 (2003); Benz v. D.L. Evans Bank, 152 Idaho 215, 231-32, 268 P.3d 1167, 1183-84 (2012). Because Plaintiff is not the prevailing party on appeal, he is not entitled to an award of attorney fees under that statute. VanderWal v. Albar, Inc., 154 Idaho 816, 824, 303 P.3d 175, 183 (2013). Although it is a close question, we decline to award attorney fees on appeal to JumpTime because we do not find that this appeal meets the requirements for such an award.
We affirm the judgment of the district court, and we award Respondent costs, but not attorney fees, on appeal.
Chief Justice BURDICK, and Justices JONES, HORTON and BRODY CONCUR.
Statute requires ski area to mark equipment on the slope. The ski area argued the release protected them from negligence claims based on the statute, and the court disagreed.
State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Complex Litigation Docket at Rockville
Plaintiff: Alexandra Laliberte
Defendant: White Water Mountain Resorts
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: Connecticut Skier Safety Act & release
Holding: for the plaintiff
The plaintiff was skiing as part of a high school varsity ski team. She hit a snow making device which was inadequately identified and placed on the trail according to the plaintiff.
The defendant moved for summary judgment based on the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and a release the plaintiff had signed to participate on the ski team.
The release had been signed when the plaintiff was a minor, however, she did not rescind the release when she became an adult.
As noted above, the plaintiffs concede that the release was signed by the plaintiffs knowingly and willingly. Also, the plaintiffs make no attack on the efficacy of the waiver because Ms. Laliberte was a minor at the time of its execution.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first argument was whether the Connecticut Skier Safety Act shielded the defendant from liability. The act requires the ski area operator to mark conspicuously the location of snow making equipment.
In the operation of a passenger tramway or ski area, each operator shall have the obligation to perform certain duties including, but not limited to: (1) Conspicuously marking all trail maintenance vehicles and furnishing the vehicles with flashing or rotating lights which shall be operated whenever the vehicles are working or moving within the skiing area; (2) conspicuously marking the entrance to each trail or slope with a symbol, adopted or approved by the National Ski Areas Association, which identifies the relative degree of difficulty of such trail or slope or warns that such trail or slope is closed; (3) ensuring that any lift tower that is located on a trail or slope is padded or otherwise protected; (4) maintaining one or more trail boards, at prominent locations within the ski area, displaying such area’s network of ski trails and slopes, designating each trail or slope in the same manner as provided in subdivision (2) of this section and notifying each skier that the wearing of ski retention straps or other devices used to prevent runaway skis is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; (5) in the event maintenance personnel or equipment are being employed on any trail or slope during the hours at which such trail or slope is open to the public, conspicuously posting notice thereof at the entrance to such trail or slope; (6) conspicuously marking trail or slope intersections; (7) ensuring that passenger tramways, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, are equipped with restraint devices; (8) at the entrance of a passenger tramway, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, conspicuously posting instructions regarding the proper use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway and notice that the use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; and (9) ensuring that any hydrant, snow-making equipment and pipes that are located within the borders of a designated slope, trail or area that is approved and open for skiing by the operator and regularly groomed as part of the operator’s normal maintenance activities are padded or marked by portable fencing or a similar device.
Emphasize (bold) added
The plaintiff’s argued it was not marked. The ski area argued that the snow making device was not located on a ski trail or slope. Consequently, the court held that because there was a factual dispute, this matter had to go to trial.
The next issue was whether the release stopped claims created or based upon the statute. Normally, these claims are called negligence per se claims. (See Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability or Motion for Summary Judgement failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case for more on Negligence Per Se claims.) Negligence per se claims are negligence claims based on a statute or rule created to protect people. Normally, releases do not work against negligence per se claims. That wording or pleading in describing the claim was not used in this case.
The parties agreed that the release itself was valid. The issue was what the release applied to.
“The interpretation of an exculpatory contract is colored by two diametrically opposed legal principles: the first, that it is against public policy to contract away one’s liability for negligent acts in advance and the second, that the court will enforce agreements of the parties made with consideration.”
Squarely presented, however, is the issue of whether a preinjury release is enforceable to relieve the defendant of civil liability for an alleged negligent violation of a statutorily created duty with respect to the operation of a recreational facility.
The court first looked at the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and found the act was silent on the effect of a release. The court then reviewed other Connecticut cases and decisions from other states where a release was raised as a defense to a negligence claim based upon a statute. Generally, the court found “… the statute created a public duty which the tenant had no power to extinguish. Private parties cannot “suspend the law by waiver or express consent.” Quoting from another case the court found ““parties may not stipulate for protection against liability for negligence in the performance of a duty imposed by law or where public interest requires performance.”
The court found two bases for invalidating releases when argued to bar claims like this.
These cases invalidating preinjury waivers where the basis of liability is a violation of a statute appear to be based either on a presumption that such releases are against public policy or on the legal inability of the releasor to waive a duty which protects the public or a class of persons of which the releasor is only one member.
Here the court found using a release to avoid liability for a statutory duty would allow defendants to have free reign to ignore the statute.
If liability for breach of statutory duty may be waived preinjury, the operator of a recreational facility could design, construct, and run a facility in total disregard of the legislatively prescribed rules with impunity, as to civil damages, simply by restricting use of the facility to those patrons willing to sign a release. In other words, the operator could repeal the protection of the legislatively selected class member by member.
The motion for summary judgment was denied and the case set for trial.
So Now What?
This result is probably the result you will find in all cases where the release is raised as a defense to a statutory duty. The only way to avoid this is to have the statute that creates the duty, include a clause that states the release is still valid.
Similar arguments are used by courts when they have determined that a statute that may have statutory duties and also has statutory protections eliminates the use of a release in full. Meaning the statute provided the protection the legislature wanted, that is all you get. Hawaii did this (Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release) and New Mexico in Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332; 2002 NMCA 60; 48, P.3d 70; 2002 N.M. App. 39; 41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25.
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Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194
Alexandra Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts
Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Complex Litigation Docket at Rockville
2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194
August 2, 2004, Decided
August 2, 2004, Filed
Notice: [*1] This decision is unreported and may be subject to further appellate review. Counsel is cautioned to make an independent determination of the status of this case.
Judges: Sferrazza, J.
Opinion By: Sferrazza
Opinion: Memorandum of Decision
The defendant, White Water Mountain Resorts, Inc., moves for summary judgment as to all counts in this action filed by the plaintiff Suzanne Bull, individually and as next friend of her daughter, Alexandra Laliberte. The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that the defendant, a ski area operator, negligently failed to mark a snow-making device conspicuously so as to comply with General Statutes § 29-211.
The movant contends that judgment ought to enter in its favor because General Statutes § 29-212 exempts the defendant from liability and because the plaintiffs executed a valid waiver of liability. The plaintiffs argue that a genuine factual dispute exists which puts into doubt the applicability of § 29-212 and that the plaintiffs had no power to waive liability for any statutory obligation imposed by § 29-211.
Summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings and documentary proof submitted demonstrate that [*2] no genuine dispute as to material fact exists and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Practice Book § 17-49.
It is undisputed that on January 13, 2003, Alexandra Laliberte sustained serious injury to her left leg while engaged in ski practice, as a member of the Glastonbury High School varsity ski team, while at the defendant’s ski area. The plaintiffs’ complaint avers that this injury was caused when Laliberte struck a snow-making machine which was inadequately identified and which was positioned upon a portion of a ski trail or slope.
On November 14, 2002, the plaintiffs knowingly and voluntarily signed an anticipatory release of liability absolving the defendant from any claims by the plaintiffs resulting from participation in the ski team practices or events at the defendant’s ski facility, even if such “injury is caused by the negligence” of the defendant. It is uncontroverted that, if this waiver is enforceable, it would exonerate the defendant from the liability on the plaintiffs’ claims.
The court first addresses the movant’s contention that § 29-212 exempts the defendant from liability. Section 29-212 must be examined in conjunction with [*3] § 29-211 because these related provisions “form a consistent, rational whole.” Jagger v. Mohawk Mountain Ski Area, 269 Conn. 672, 681, 849 A.2d 813 (2004). These statutes were enacted to delineate the respective responsibilities of the skier and the ski area operator. Id., 682. Section 29-212 enumerates a nonexhaustive list of risks inherent in the sport of skiing for which ski area operators bear no responsibility if injury ensues. Id. Section 29-211, on the other hand, imposes specified duties upon ski area operators. Id., 681.
Subsection 29-211(2) obligates the operator to mark conspicuously the location of snow- making devices that are placed on a trail or slope. A review of the pleadings and documents submitted discloses that a genuine factual dispute exists as to whether the particular device which Laliberte struck was sited on a ski trail or slope. Consequently, summary judgment is unavailable on this ground.
The enforceability of the preinjury release poses a more difficult question.
“The interpretation of an exculpatory contract is colored by two diametrically opposed legal principles: the first, that it is [*4] against public policy to contract away one’s liability for negligent acts in advance and the second, that the court will enforce agreements of the parties made with consideration.” Fischer v. Rivest, Superior Court, New Britain J.D. Complex Litigation, dn. X05-CV00-509627, 33 Conn. L. Rptr. 119 (August 15, 2002), Aurigemma, J.
As noted above, the plaintiffs concede that the release was signed by the plaintiffs knowingly and willingly. Also, the plaintiffs make no attack on the efficacy of the waiver because Ms. Laliberte was a minor at the time of its execution. Squarely presented, however, is the issue of whether a preinjury release is enforceable to relieve the defendant of civil liability for an alleged negligent violation of a statutorily created duty with respect to the operation of a recreational facility.
The statutes regarding skiing and ski area operations, General Statutes §§ 29-211 though 29-214 are silent as to whether waiver of the duties imposed on ski area operators are permitted or forbidden.
In Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003), our Supreme Court held that a preinjury waiver [*5] which omitted express reference to negligence was insufficient to absolve the ski area operator, the same defendant as in the present case, from liability for negligence. Id., 643.
The majority explicitly stated that its decision ventured no opinion regarding the viability of an anticipatory release should it include the missing language.
Id., 640 and 643, fn. 11. Despite this disclaimer, the Hyson case, supra, does provide some guidance bearing on the issue before this court because the majority reiterated the proposition that a preinjury release from liability for negligent acts “is scrutinized with particular care.” Id., 642.
The two dissenting justices in Hyson, supra, indicated that such preinjury releases are valid despite the absence of the use of a form of the word negligence expressly. Id., 649. Implicit in the dissenters’ position is that such waiver is possible as to violations of the duties imposed by § 29-211.
While a plausible argument can be made that this implication supports the movant ‘s contention, this Court is reluctant to harvest precedential value on this issue from that dissent [*6] because the precise claim of unenforceability raised in the present case was never raised in Hyson, supra.
In L’Heureux v. Hurley, 117 Conn. 347, 168 A. 8 (1933), the Supreme Court ruled that where a statute compels a landlord to illuminate a common stairwell, a tenant cannot waive that burden and could, indeed, sue the landlord for injury caused by that statutory violation. Id., 355-56. The Supreme Court determined that the statute created a public duty which the tenant had no power to extinguish. Id. Private parties cannot “suspend the law by waiver or express consent.” Id., 357. Of course, L’Heureux, supra, involved a tenancy and not recreational activity.
A similar case is Panaroni v. Johnson, 158 Conn. 92, 256 A.2d 246 (1969). There, another tenant was permitted to sue a landlord based on housing code violations despite a written lease containing a waiver clause. Id., 104. Again, Panaroni v. Johnson, supra, did not involve a recreational activity waiver.
A Connecticut case closer to the facts of the present one is Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, 21 Conn.Sup. 38, 143 A.2d 466 (1958). [*7] The trial court granted a demurrer to a special defense based on a written waiver signed by the injured boy’s father, which waiver purported to release a boy scout camp from liability.
The court stated that “parties may not stipulate for protection against liability for negligence in the performance of a duty imposed by law or where public interest requires performance.” Id., 39.
On the national level, some jurisdictions invalidate recreational activity releases if the negligent conduct contravenes public policy as embodied in statutorily imposed duties while other jurisdictions recognize the enforceability of such preinjury waivers. See 54 A.L.R.5th 513 (2004), §§ 5[a] and [b].
In McCarthy v. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s invalidation of a preinjury release in a case where the plaintiff was allegedly harmed by the defendants’ failure to comply with a state regulation governing the placement of fuel lines in racing cars. That Court stated that the “prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be, [*8] the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified.” Id. 54. That opinion recognized that such anticipatory releases are enforceable when they relate to strictly private affairs, however the Court remarked that the “situation becomes an entirely different one in the eye of the law when the legislation in question is . . . a police measure obviously intended for the protection of human life; in such event public policy does not permit an individual to waive the protection which the statute is designed to afford him.” Id.
The West Virginia Supreme Court reached a similar result in Murphy v. American River Runners, Inc., 186 W.Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504 (1991). West Virginia has a statutory scheme regarding the division of responsibility for harm resulting from the risks of whitewater rafting. That scheme immunizes commercial rafting operators from liability for risks inherent in that activity but “imposes in general terms certain statutory duties upon commercial whitewater outfitters.” Id., 317. A rafter suffered injuries when the outfitter ‘s employee attempted to use one raft to dislodge another which was hung up on some rocks. Id., 313-14. [*9] That Court concluded “when a statute imposes a standard of care, a clause in an agreement purporting to exempt a party from tort liability to a member of the protected class for failure to conform to that statutory standard is unenforceable.” Id., 318. The West Virginia Supreme Court also observed that that state’s skiing statutes were very similar to their whitewater rafting legislation. Id., 317.
These cases invalidating preinjury waivers where the basis of liability is a violation of a statute appear to be based either on a presumption that such releases are against public policy or on the legal inability of the releasor to waive a duty which protects the public or a class of persons of which the releasor is only one member. The court finds this reasoning persuasive.
Common-law negligence is a breach of a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to another when confronting a particularized and individualized set of surrounding circumstances which may never arise again. A party is entitled to contract away the right to hold the releasee responsible for careless conduct peculiar to the releasor’s situation.
On the other hand, statutory negligence [*10] is based on deviation from a legislatively mandated course of conduct which governs a generalized set of circumstances. The statutory rule applies in every case in which those generic circumstances may exist and where the injured party falls within the class the statute was designed to protect. Coughlin v. Peters, 153 Conn. 99, 101, 214 A.2d 127 (1965). The doctrine of statutory negligence applies to create liability regardless of whether the defendant acted with reasonable prudence. Jacobs v. Swift & Co., 141 Conn. 276, 279, 105 A.2d 658 (1954).
If liability for breach of statutory duty may be waived preinjury, the operator of a recreational facility could design, construct, and run a facility in total disregard of the legislatively prescribed rules with impunity, as to civil damages, simply by restricting use of the facility to those patrons willing to sign a release. In other words, the operator could repeal the protection of the legislatively selected class member by member.
Given our Supreme Court’s reluctance to afford liberal recognition to preinjury waivers and the need to prevent the undermining of statutorily defined duties, the court holds [*11] as a matter of law, that the plaintiffs’ release in this case is unenforceable to defeat the claims of a violation of § 29-211.
The motion for summary judgment is, therefore, denied.
Holly Wethington and Makenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs, v. Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant.
Case No. CIV-14-899-D
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169145
December 18, 2015, Decided
December 18, 2015, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Sanctions allowed by, in part, Sanctions disallowed by, in part Wethington v. Swainson, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 171126 (W.D. Okla., Dec. 23, 2015)
Motion granted by Wethington v. Swainson, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7421 (W.D. Okla., Jan. 22, 2016)
COUNSEL: [*1] For Holly Wethington, individually, Mackenzie Wethington, Plaintiffs: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
Robert Swainson, doing business as Pegasus Airsport Center, Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Third Party Plaintiff, Pro se.
Joseph Wethington, Third Party Defendant, Pro se.
Robert Swainson, Counter Claimant, Pro se.
For Holly Wethington, individually, Counter Defendant: James E Weger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jones Gotcher & Bogan, Tulsa, OK; Robert E Haslam, Haslam & Gallagher, Fort Worth, TX.
JUDGES: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI
The determinative issue before the Court concerns the authority of a parent to bind their minor child to an exculpatory agreement, which functions to preclude a defendant’s liability for negligence, before an injury has even occurred. Holly and Makenzie Wethington, mother and daughter (“Plaintiffs”), bring this action against Defendant Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport Center, for injuries suffered by Makenzie while skydiving.1 Under theories of negligence and breach of contract, Plaintiffs contend Defendant (1) provided inadequate training to [*2] Makenzie in preparation for the parachute jump, (2) selected a person to provide radio assistance who had no prior experience, (3) provided old equipment that malfunctioned during Makenzie’s jump, and (4) permitted Makenzie to use a parachute she was ill-prepared to use and which was inappropriate for her skill level. Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24], to which Plaintiffs have filed their response in opposition [Doc. No. 30]. The matter is fully briefed and at issue.
1 At the time this action was brought, Makenzie was a minor. She has since become eighteen and will thus be referenced by name.
The following facts are undisputed. On January 24, 2014, Makenzie, who was then sixteen years old and accompanied by her parents, went to Defendant to learn how to skydive. As part of the registration process, Makenzie executed a Registration Form and Medical Statement. Near the bottom of the document, Makenzie initialed a disclaimer which read:
I FURTHER UNDERSTAND THAT SKYDIVING AND GLIDING ARE VERY SERIOUS AND HAZARDOUS SPORTS IN WHICH I COULD SUSTAIN SERIOUS AND PERMANENT INJURIES OR EVEN DEATH
Makenzie underwent an instruction course that included [*3] determining the condition of the parachute after deployment, gaining control and resolving any deployment problems and, if necessary, activating her emergency parachute. In connection with her registration and training, Makenzie and her parents both signed and/or initialed an accompanying document entitled “Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk” (the Release). The Release contained numerous exculpatory provisions, which stated in pertinent part:
1. RELEASE FROM LIABILITY. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE [Defendant] from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I may hereafter have for injuries and damages arising out of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities, including but not limited to LOSSES CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES.
2. COVENANT NOT TO SUE. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR MAKE A CLAIM AGAINST [Defendant] for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
* * *
5. ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. I understand and acknowledge that parachuting activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or [*4] expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ACKNOWLEDGE ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN PARACHUTING AND OTHER AVIATION ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OR OTHER FAULT OF THE RELEASED PARTIES, including but not limited to equipment malfunction from whatever cause or inadequate training.
* * *
9. ENFORCEABILITY. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of risk is found to be unenforceable or against public policy, that only that portion shall fall and all other portions shall remain in full force and effect. . . . I also specifically waive any unenforceability or any public policy argument that I may make or that may be made on behalf of my estate or by anyone who would sue because of injury, damage or death as a result of my participation in parachuting and other aviation activities.
10. LEGAL RIGHTS. It has been explained to me, and I expressly recognize that this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk is a contract pursuant to which I am giving up important legal rights, and it is my intention to do so.
Near the bottom of the form, Makenzie [*5] read and rewrote the following statement: “I hereby certify that I have read this Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgment of Risk, that I fully understand the contents of this contract, that I wish to be bound by its terms, and that I have signed this contract of my own free will.” This statement was signed and dated by Makenzie and initialed by her mother. At the bottom of the Release, under the heading, “RATIFICATION BY PARENT/GUARDIAN if participant is under 18-years-of-age,” both parents attested that they had read the agreement, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby.
Makenzie received four hours of training and instruction. She was assigned a used parachute based on her size and weight. Defendant employed the assistance of Jacob Martinez to act as radio controller. Mr. Martinez’s duty was to help guide the jumpers onto the landing area and it was his first time to assist with the radio. Upon Makenzie’s jump, her chute malfunctioned, causing her to spin with increasing rapidity towards the ground. Makenzie landed at a high speed and impact, causing her to sustain serious injuries.
STANDARD OF DECISION
“Summary judgment is proper if, viewing the evidence in [*6] the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Bonidy v. U.S. Postal Service, 790 F.3d 1121, 1124 (10th Cir. 2015) (citing Peterson v. Martinez, 707 F.3d 1197, 1207 (10th Cir. 2013)). The Court’s function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter asserted, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Tolan v. Cotton, U.S. , 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014). An issue is “genuine” if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). An issue of fact is “material” if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id. Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to present sufficient evidence in specific, factual form to establish a genuine factual dispute. Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991).
The nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Rather, it must go beyond the pleadings and establish, through admissible evidence, there is a genuine issue of material fact that must be resolved by the trier of fact. Salehpoor v. Shahinpoor, 358 F.3d 782, 786 (10th Cir. 2004). Unsupported conclusory allegations do not create an issue of fact. Finstuen v. Crutcher, 496 F.3d 1139, 1144 (10th Cir. 2007).
Defendant contends the Release absolves him from all liability [*7] for any injury suffered by Makenzie. Plaintiffs respond that Defendant’s motion should be denied because (1) Makenzie was a minor when she signed the Release, rendering it invalid under Oklahoma law,2 (2) Defendant is clearly liable under the theories asserted, and (3) this Court had a duty to protect Makenzie as a minor.
2 In Oklahoma, a minor is any person under eighteen (18) years of age. 15 Okla. Stat. § 13.
“An exculpatory clause releases in advance the second party for any harm the second party might cause the first party after the contract is entered.” Arnold Oil Properties LLC v. Schlumberger Tech. Corp., 672 F.3d 1202, 1206-07 (10th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). While generally enforceable, such clauses are considered “distasteful to the law.” Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, P 8, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (emphasis in original).3 Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only if they meet the three following criteria:
(1) Their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages;
(2) At the time the contract was executed, there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between parties; and
(3) Enforcement of the clause would not (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual [*8] rights vis-a-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy.
Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874. “The clause will never avail to relieve a party from liability for intentional, willful or fraudulent acts or gross, wanton negligence.” Id. at 874 (citations omitted, emphasis in original); Satellite System, Inc. v. Birch Telecom of Okla., Inc., 2002 OK 61, P 11, 51 P.3d 585, 589 (“Oklahoma has a strong legislative public policy against contracts which attempt ‘to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another.'”) (citing 15 Okla. Stat. § 212).
3 Notwithstanding this admonition, courts should void contract clauses on public-policy grounds “rarely, with great caution and in cases that are free from doubt.” Union Pacific R. Co. v. U.S. ex rel. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 591 F.3d 1311, 1321 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Shepard v. Farmers Ins. Co., 1983 OK 103, P 3, 678 P.2d 250, 251).
Oklahoma courts, and others, have upheld exculpatory contracts similar to the present Release, i.e., contracts that exculpate the defendant from injuries suffered by plaintiffs while skydiving. See Manning v. Brannon, 1998 OK CIV APP 17, PP 15-17, 956 P.2d 156, 158-59 (exculpatory contract relieving defendant from any liability for injuries to plaintiff from parachuting activities was valid and enforceable); see also Scrivener v. Sky’s the Limit, Inc., 68 F. Supp. 2d 277, 280 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court, 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 756, 29 Cal.Rptr.2d 177, 181 (1993); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). This Court, likewise, finds the Release is generally valid on its face.
First, the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused [*9] by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction. Plaintiffs signed and initialed several clauses containing the headings, RELEASE FROM LIABILITY, COVENANT NOT TO SUE, and ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. Mrs. Wethington and her husband signed a ratification stating they had read the Release, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby. Second, there is no evidence of unequal bargaining power. “Oklahoma courts consider two factors in determining parties’ relative bargaining power: ‘(1) the importance of the subject matter to the physical or economic wellbeing of the party agreeing to the release, and (2) the amount of free choice that party could have exercised when seeking alternate services.'” Arnold Oil, 672 F.3d at 1208 (quoting Schmidt, 912 P.2d at 874). There is no evidence that skydiving was necessary or important to Plaintiffs’ wellbeing. In fact, when asked why she wanted to skydive, Makenzie answered, “It’s on my bucket list.” Moreover, Plaintiffs do not contend Makenzie had no choice but to agree to be trained by and jump with Defendant as opposed to going elsewhere. Third, as noted, Oklahoma courts have upheld such releases as not against public policy. See Manning, 956 P.2d at 159 (“we find a exculpatory contract in the [*10] context of a high-risk sport such as sky diving not against the public policy of this state.”).
Plaintiffs nevertheless maintain the Release is voidable because Makenzie was a minor when she signed it and her subsequent suit disaffirmed the agreement. It is also true that as a matter of public policy, courts have protected minors from improvident and imprudent contractual commitments by declaring the contract of a minor is voidable at the election of the minor after she attains majority. See 15 Okla. Stat. § 19. “A release is a contract.” Corbett v. Combined Communications Corp., 1982 OK 135, P 5, 654 P.2d 616, 617. Under Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent. Gomes v. Hameed, 2008 OK 3, P 26, 184 P.3d 479, 489 (citing Gage v. Moore, 1948 OK 214, P 8, 200 Okla. 623, 198 P.2d 395, 396).
In this case, however, Makenzie’s parents also knowingly signed the Release on her behalf, ratifying and affirming its exculpatory content, and agreeing to be bound thereby. Nevertheless, Defendant refers this Court to no controlling authority that permits the parent of a minor to, on the minor’s behalf, release or waive the minor’s prospective claim for negligence. The Court is unaware of any such authority, and therefore must predict how the Oklahoma Supreme Court would rule on the question. Ortiz v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., No. CIV-13-32-D, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41544, 2015 WL 1498713, at *5 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 31, 2015) (“A [*11] federal court sitting in diversity must apply state law as propounded by the forum’s highest court. Absent controlling precedent, the federal court must attempt to predict how the state’s highest court would resolve the issue.”) (quoting Royal Maccabees Life Ins. Co. v. Choren, 393 F.3d 1175, 1180 (10th Cir. 2005)).
Although the cases are split on the issue, it is well-recognized that the majority of state courts considering the issue have held a parent may not release a minor’s prospective claim for negligence. See Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of Am., 21 Conn. Supp. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 467-68 (Conn. 1958); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 356 (Fla. 2008) (pre-injury release executed by parent on behalf of minor is unenforceable against minor or the minor’s estate in a tort action arising from injuries resulting from participation in a commercial activity); Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 901 A.2d 381, 386 (N.J. 2006) (New Jersey public policy prohibits parents of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s potential tort claim arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 414, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994) (“[I]n the absence of statutory or judicial authorization, a parent cannot waive, compromise, or release a minor child’s cause of action merely because of the parental relationship . . . . This rule has also been extended to render ineffective releases or exculpatory agreements for future tortious conduct by other persons where such releases had been signed by parents on [*12] behalf of their minor children.”); Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252, 256 (Iowa 2010) (public policy precluded enforcement of parent’s pre-injury waiver of her child’s cause of action for injuries caused by negligence); Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n. 3 (Me. 1979) (“a parent, or guardian, cannot release the child’s or ward’s, cause of action.”); Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1, 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989); Woodman v. Kera, LLC, 280 Mich. App. 125, 760 N.W.2d 641, 655-56 (Mich. Ct. App. 2008) (pre-injury waivers effectuated by parents on behalf of their minor children are not presumptively enforceable); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F.Supp. 20, 24 (E.D. Penn. 1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release the claims or potential claims of a minor child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex. App. 1993) (statute which empowered parents to make legal decisions concerning their child did not give parents power to waive child’s cause of action for personal injuries); Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 11-12 (Wash. 1992) (“A parent does not have legal authority to waive a child’s own future cause of action for personal injuries resulting from a third party’s negligence”).4
4 Of the cases enforcing pre-injury releases executed by parents on behalf of minor children, most involve state-enacted legislation permitting such waiver or the minor’s participation in school-run or community-sponsored activities. See, e.g., Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Educ. Ctr., 715 F.3d 867, 874 (10th Cir. 2013); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1564, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 649-50 (1990); BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714, 80 A.3d 345, 362 (Md. 2013); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 746-47 (Mass. 2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 205 (Ohio 1998).
These decisions have invalidated such agreements on the grounds that (1) parents have no [*13] such power, or (2) the agreements violate public policy. The underlying rationale employed by many is that courts, acting in the role as parens patriae, have a duty to protect minors. Oklahoma recognizes its duty to protect minor children. Baby F. v. Oklahoma County District Court, 2015 OK 24, P 23, 348 P.3d 1080, 1088. In Oklahoma, a parent or guardian may not settle a child’s claim without prior court approval. See 30 Okla. Stat. § 4-702 (“A guardian, with the approval of the court exercising jurisdiction in the suit or proceeding, may compromise and settle any claim made by, on behalf of or against the ward in such suit or proceeding.”). As aptly summarized by the Washington Supreme Court in Scott:
Since a parent generally may not release a child’s cause of action after injury, it makes little, if any, sense to conclude a parent has the authority to release a child’s cause of action prior to an injury. In situations where parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care and this is true regardless of when relinquishment of the child’s rights might occur.
Scott, 834 P.2d at 11-12 (emphasis added).
Based on the case law in Oklahoma and other jurisdictions, the Court is led to the conclusion [*14] that (1) Makenzie’s acknowledgment and execution of the Release is of no consequence and does not preclude her claims against Defendant, and (2) the Oklahoma Supreme Court would find that an exculpatory agreement regarding future tortious conduct, signed by parents on behalf of their minor children, is unenforceable. Accordingly, to the extent the Release purports to bar Makenzie’s own cause of action against Defendant, it is voidable. Plaintiffs correctly argue that commencement of this lawsuit constitutes a disaffirmance of the Release (see, e.g., Gage, supra; Ryan v. Morrison, 1913 OK 598, 40 Okla. 49, 135 P. 1049), and the contract is void ab initio. Grissom v. Beidleman, 1912 OK 847, P 8, 35 Okla. 343, 129 P. 853, 857 (“The disaffirmance of a contract made by an infant nullifies it and renders it void ab initio; and the parties are returned to the same condition as if the contract had never been made.”). The ratification signed by Makenzie’s parents is likewise unenforceable as a bar to Makenzie’s claims. The Release, however, is otherwise conspicuous and clear so as to bar the parents’ cause of action based upon injury to their child. Therefore, Mrs. Wethington’s causes of action, individually, are barred.5
5 As noted, exculpatory clauses cannot excuse one for, inter alia, gross negligence. The statutory definition [*15] of gross negligence is “want of slight care and diligence.” 25 Okla. Stat. § 6. Under Oklahoma law, “gross negligence” requires the intentional failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of consequences or in callous indifference to life, liberty, or property of another. Palace Exploration Co. v. Petroleum Dev. Co., 374 F.3d 951, 954 (10th Cir. 2004). Plaintiffs expressly plead in their Complaint only causes of action for negligence and breach of contract. Moreover, although Plaintiffs’ Complaint seeks punitive damages based on Defendant’s alleged “gross, willful, and intentional acts,” Compl., P 8, Plaintiffs neither argue nor present any evidence indicating Defendant’s actions constituted anything beyond ordinary negligence.
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 24] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Defendant’s motion is granted as to Plaintiff Holly Wethington’s claims and denied as to Plaintiff Makenzie Wethington’s claim for negligence. Since the skydiving contract is rendered void ab initio by means of Makenzie’s lawsuit, her breach of contract claim cannot proceed as a matter of law.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 18th day of December, 2015.
/s/ Timothy D. DeGiusti
TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Oklahoma Federal Court opinion: the OK Supreme Court would void a release signed by the parent for a minor.Posted: December 28, 2015
Minor injured in a sky-diving accident is allowed to sue because the release, she and her parents signed are void under Oklahoma law. Parents are not allowed to sue for their claims because of the release.
State: Oklahoma, United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma
Plaintiff: Holly Wethington and Makenzie Wethington
Defendant: Robert Swainson, d/b/a/ Pegasus Airsport
Plaintiff Claims: (1) provided inadequate training to [*2] Makenzie in preparation for the parachute jump, (2) selected a person to provide radio assistance who had no prior experience, (3) provided old equipment that malfunctioned during Makenzie’s jump, and (4) permitted Makenzie to use a parachute she was ill-prepared to use and which was inappropriate for her skill level
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the defendant for the claims of the parents, for the plaintiff for her claims
The minor plaintiff was sixteen years old when she wanted to check another item off her bucket list. She went to the defendant’s sky-diving business along with her parents.
First, the minor plaintiff completed a Registration Form and Medical Statement which included a notice that sky diving was dangerous. The minor plaintiff also signed a release. Her parents also signed the release. The release required the minor plaintiff to write out a statement that she knew she was signing a release and understood the risks. She wrote this out and signed it. The bottom of the release also had a ratification paragraph which the Parent/Guardian was required to sign that stated they understood the risks and released the defendants. Both parents signed this.
In total, a warning in one document, a release signed by all three parents, an additional clause signed by the paragraphs and a written paragraph written and signed by the minor plaintiff is normally far in excess of what a party signs before engaging in recreational activities.
The minor plaintiff then received four houses of training. On her first jump, her parachute malfunctioned, and she hit the ground sustaining injuries.
The defendants filed for a motion for summary judgment based on the release.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court started by looking at the issues surrounding release law in Oklahoma. “An exculpatory clause releases in advance the second party for any harm the second party might cause the first party after the contract is entered.” Releases are enforceable in Oklahoma but are “distasteful.”
At the same time, releases in Oklahoma should not be voided because of public policy grounds. “Notwithstanding this admonition, courts should void contract clauses on public-policy grounds “rarely, with great caution and in cases that are free from doubt.” Public policy grounds are the normal way releases signed by minors are voided.
Releases in Oklahoma have to meet three criteria to be valid.
(1) Their language must evidence a clear and unambiguous intent to exonerate the would-be defendant from liability for the sought-to-be-recovered damages;
(2) At the time the contract was executed, there must have been no vast difference in bargaining power between parties; and
(3) Enforcement of the clause would not (a) be injurious to public health, public morals or confidence in administration of the law or (b) so undermine the security of individual rights vis-a-vis personal safety or private property as to violate public policy.
The court also stated that under Oklahoma law releases cannot work to prevent “liability for intentional, willful or fraudulent acts or gross, wanton negligence.”
After reviewing the release the court found the release was valid.
First, the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction. Plaintiffs signed and initialed several clauses containing the headings, RELEASE FROM LIABILITY, COVENANT NOT TO SUE, and ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISK. Mrs. Wethington and her husband signed a ratification stating they had read the Release, understood its terms, and agreed to be bound thereby.
The court then looked at whether there was inequality in the bargaining power of the plaintiff and found none.
Second, there is no evidence of unequal bargaining power. “Oklahoma courts consider two factors in determining parties’ relative bargaining power: ‘(1) the importance of the subject matter to the physical or economic wellbeing of the party agreeing to the release, and (2) the amount of free choice that party could have exercised when seeking alternate services.'” There is no evidence that skydiving was necessary or important to Plaintiffs’ wellbeing. In fact, when asked why she wanted to skydive, Makenzie answered, “It’s on my bucket list.”
The court found the plaintiffs were not bound to sky dive with the defendant; she was free to sky dive with anyone. Therefore, the plaintiff was not under any pressure or requirement to sky dive with the defendant.
The court then looked at Oklahoma law to see if parents could sign away a minor’s right to sue.
It is also true that as a matter of public policy, courts have protected minors from improvident and imprudent contractual commitments by declaring the contract of a minor is voidable at the election of the minor after she attains majority. Under Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent.
The court also found that for a claim to be approved for a minor for an injury resulting in a settlement, the court had to approve the settlement.
However, the court found this case was complicated by the fact the minor plaintiff’s parents had also signed the release. “In this case, however, Makenzie’s parents also knowingly signed the Release on her behalf, ratifying and affirming its exculpatory content, and agreeing to be bound thereby.”
The Oklahoma Supreme Court did not rule on the issue. Federal courts hearing cases based on the diversity of the parties dealing with state law issues must apply the law of the state where the lawsuit is based or the law that applies.
…federal court sitting in diversity must apply state law as propounded by the forum’s highest court. Absent controlling precedent, the federal court must attempt to predict how the state’s highest court would resolve the issue.
The next issue is disaffirmance of the contract. A minor must disaffirm a contract after reaching the age of majority or the contract is valid. The plaintiffs argued, and the court agreed that the filing of the lawsuit disaffirmed the release. “Plaintiffs correctly argue that commencement of this lawsuit constitutes a disaffirmance of the Release, and the contract is void ab initio.”
For more on this see Rare issue this case looked at a release signed by a minor that prevented a suit for his injuries after turning age 18However, this decision was later overturned in Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy
The court also examined the issue that the parents signed the release and found it had no bearing on the case. However, the release did stop claims by the parents.
The ratification signed by Makenzie’s parents is, likewise, unenforceable as a bar to Makenzie’s claims. The Release, however, is otherwise conspicuous and clear so as to bar the parents’ cause of action based upon injury to their child.
When a minor is injured, the minor can sue and the parents can sue. Dependent upon the state, the claims of the parents may include those of the minor or may be solely based on the parents’ loss.
The court then ruled that the minor claim was valid and not barred by the release. The parent’s claims, specifically the named plaintiff, the minor plaintiff’s mother, were barred by the release.
Defendant’s motion is granted as to Plaintiff Holly Wethington’s claims and denied as to Plaintiff Makenzie Wethington’s claim for negligence. Since the skydiving contract is rendered void ab initio by means of Makenzie’s lawsuit, her breach of contract claim cannot proceed as a matter of law.
So Now What?
The minor plaintiff can sue, and the mother cannot.
This decision is not controlling in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Supreme Court could still rule that a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue.
At the same time, this decision outlines release law in Oklahoma and does a great job. As far as how the Oklahoma Supreme Court will rule, the Federal District Court knows the Supreme Court in the state where they sit better than any other person, and I would vote with the Federal Court.
As in other cases in the majority of states, a parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue. To see the States where a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue and the decisions deciding that issue see States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.
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