How Long Should I hold onto Releases/Assumption of the risk Forms

There are several factors you need to find out before you can identify the exact number of years to hold on to contracts, assumption of the risk forms and releases. However, with modern technology, it does not matter anymore, hold onto them forever.

The old method

When boxes of releases were common, we used to calculate how long you should hold onto documents. The calculation relied on two major factors: The statute of limitations for a tort in your state and the age of the participant or person signing the document.

In most states, the statute of limitations for torts is two or three years. For an adult, you would hold on to a release for the statute of limitations plus one year. That plus one year is ” in case” (also translated meaning lawyer paranoia). That means in Colorado three years after an event, trip or whatever had ended you can shred the documents.

If the person was a minor, no matter if the minor signed it or their parent, you hold onto the document for the number of years until the minor turns eighteen (19 in Mississippi and 21 in Nebraska). (See The age that minors become adults.) You add those years to the statute of limitations.

As an example

Statute of Limitations in Colorado is two years for a tort.    2

Minor was 14 at the time of his injury: 18-14 =    4

One year just in case.    1

You would hold onto that release for seven years.    7

The reason for this is the minor can sue once he reaches the age of 18, until the statute of limitations runs. 99% of lawsuits for minors are started immediately, but you never know when a minor might decide that mom, and dad missed the boat when college tuition is needed.

However, sorting releases and assumption of the risk agreements signed by minors from those signed by adults was time consuming so the length of time to hold onto a release became forever. It was easier to collect and store the files then it was to sort them.

New Method = Forever, but a lot faster and easier

Scan the releases into a PDF file and store them on several hard drivers, thumb drives or in the cloud forever. You DO NOT need to sort them by name or separate them out into individual files. Just store them by date.

So, everyone who went Whitewater rafting on June 2, 2019 would be in the PDF dated 6.2.19. If you needed the release, you can just pull up the file and search or do a manual scan for the right release. Since a copy of the original is as good as the original, you do not need to keep the original. Colorado Rules of Evidence 1002; Federal Rules of Evidence 1002.

The exception to this rule would be if you know that someone was injured. You then need to go through a multi-step process.

  1. Scan the releases, including the one signed by the injured party and store them like all other releases. You do this with all the participants on the trip or program. You may need to contact the other parties as witnesses and having them in the same group as the injured party makes the other people at the event or on the boat easy to find.
  2. Collect all other necessary data that may be important years later. Examples of this might include:
    1. A roster of participants at the event
    2. A roster of staff attending the event
    3. All witness lists.
    4. All information and marketing material used to promote the event.
    5. Copy of the Weather report, water level, snow report, etc. for the day
    6. Program, Handouts, Agenda’s etc.
    7. Maintenance logs for equipment used in the event.
    8. Training, certifications, etc., of all staff for the activity
    9. Any photographs/videos of the activity
      1. Any photographs/videos from before the activity
      2. Any photographs/videos from after the activity
    10. Map of the area, as current as possible
    11. Etc.
  3. Take this information you have collected and scan it all into an electronic format.
    1. Send copies to your attorney(s)
    2. Send copies to your insurance company

      Tell them it is for safe keeping.

  4. Make paper copies of all paper and send a complete set of copies to your insurance company and attorney. Ask both what to do with the originals.
    1. Keep one good set of copies for yourself if you are told to send the originals to the insurance company or attorney, if not keep the originals.

For paper files, I suggest using a file or folder color that will attract attention, so they are not thrown out by accident. Red, Orange or Yellow good colors of files or folder colors to use. Keep the paperwork in a closed folder or envelope. Put everything in and seal it shut so nothing can fall out and the store this file somewhere so everyone knows where it is and why. If you find more information after you have sealed the first envelope or folder, create a second one, and write 1 of 2 and 2 of 2 on them. Put a large rubber band around both or secure them some way, so they do not get separated. Always right the last name of the injured party and the date on the outside so they don’t have to be opened to determine what files they contain.

After 10 years, you can shred these files.

Instead of having a warehouse full of releases or a back wall of your office with an additional 12 inches of insulation, you can have a hard drive of all the necessary documents needed in case of litigation.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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E.M. v. House of Boom Ky., LLC (In re Miller), 2019 Ky. LEXIS 211, 2019 WL 2462697

E.M. v. House of Boom Ky., LLC (In re Miller), 2019 Ky. LEXIS 211, 2019 WL 2462697

In Re: Kathy Miller, as Next Friend of Her Minor Child, E.M.

v.

House of Boom Kentucky, LLC

No. 2018-SC-000625-CL

Supreme Court of Kentucky

June 13, 2019

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY LOUISVILLE DIVISION CASE NO. 3:16-CV-332-CRS

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Grover Simpson Cox Grover S. Cox Law Office Vanessa Lynn Armstrong U.S. District Court

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Anthony M. Pernice Reminger Co., LPA

COUNSEL FOR AMICUS CURIAE KENTUCKY JUSTICE ASSOCIATION: Kevin Crosby Burke Jamie Kristin Neal Burke Neal PLLC

OPINION

VANMETER, JUSTICE

By order entered February 14, 2019, this Court granted the United States District Court, Western District of Kentucky’s request for certification of law on the following issue:

Is a pre-injury liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child enforceable under Kentucky law?

After careful consideration, we hold that such a waiver is unenforceable under the specific facts of this case.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

House of Boom, LLC (“House of Boom”) is a for-profit trampoline park located in Louisville, Kentucky. The park is a collection of trampoline and acrobatic stunt attractions. On August 6, 2015, Kathy Miller purchased tickets for her 11-year-old daughter, E.M., and her daughter’s friends to go play at House of Boom. Before purchasing the tickets, House of Boom required the purchaser to check a box indicating that the purchaser had read the waiver of liability. The waiver reads:

(1) RELEASE OF LIABILITY: Despite all known and unknown risks including b[u]t not limite[d] to serious bodily injury, permanent disability, paralysis and loss of life, I, on behalf of myself, and/or on behalf of my spouse, minor child(ren)/ward(s) hereby expressly and volun[]tarily remise, release, acquit, satisfy and forever discharge and agree not to sue HOUSE OF BOOM, including its suppliers, designers, installers, manufacturers of any trampoline equipment, foam pit material, or such other material and equipment in HOUSE OF BOOM’S facility (all hereinafter referred to as “EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS”) and agree to hold said parties harmless of and from any and all manner of actions or omission(s), causes of action, suits, sums of money, controversies, damages, judgments, executions, claims and demands whatsoever, in law or in equity, including, but no[t] limited to, any and all claim[s] which allege negligent acts and/or omissions committed by HOUSE OF BOOM or any EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS, whether the action arises out of any damage, loss, personal injury, or death to me or my spouse, minor child(ren)/ward(s), while participating in or as a result of participating in any of the ACTIVITIES in or about the premises. This Release of Liability, is effective and valid regardless of whether the damage, loss or death is a result of any act or omission on the part of HOUSE OF BOOM and/or any EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS.

The agreement goes on to state:

1. By signing this document, I understand that I may be found by a court of law to have forever waived my and my spouse and/or child(ren)/ward(s) right to maintain any action against HOUSE OF BOOM on the basis of any claim from which I have released HOUSE OF BOOM and any released party herein and that I have assumed all risk of damage, loss, personal injury, or death to myself, my spouse and/or my minor child(ren)/wards(s) and agreed to indemnify and hold harmless HOUSE OF BOOM and all EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS from and against any all losses, liabilities, claims, obligations, costs, damages and/or expenses whatsoever paid, incurred and/or suffered by HOUSE OF BOOM and all EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS as a result of the participation in ACTIVITIES in or about the facility by myself, my spouse and/or child(ren)/ward(s) and/or claims asserted by myself, my spouse and/or child(ren)/ward(s) against HOUSE OF BOOM and all EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS related to such participation in ACTIVITIES. I have had a reasonable and sufficient opportunity to read and understand this entire document and consult with legal counsel, or have voluntarily waived my right to do so. I knowingly and voluntarily agree to be bound by all terms and conditions set forth herein.

The above waiver includes language that, if enforceable, would release all claims by (1) the individual who checked the box, (2) her spouse, (3) her minor child, or (4) her ward against House of Boom. Once Miller checked the box, E.M. participated in activities at House of Boom. She was injured when another girl jumped off a three-foot ledge and landed on E.M’s ankle, causing it to break. Miller, as next friend of her daughter, sued House of Boom for the injury. House of Boom, relying on Miller’s legal power to waive the rights of her daughter via the release, moved for summary judgment. The Western District of Kentucky concluded that House of Boom’s motion for summary judgment involved a novel issue of state law and requested Certification from this Court which we granted. Both parties have briefed the issue and the matter is now ripe for Certification.

II. Analysis.

The question before this Court is whether a parent has the authority to sign a pre-injury exculpatory agreement on behalf of her child, thus terminating the child’s potential right to compensation for an injury occurring while participating in activities sponsored by a for-profit company. Although an issue of first impression in the Commonwealth, the enforceability of a pre-injury waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a child has been heavily litigated in a multitude of jurisdictions. House of Boom categorizes these decisions in as those that enforced the waiver and those that did not, but the decisions of those jurisdictions more accurately fall into four distinct categories: (1) jurisdictions that have enforced a waiver between a parent and a for-profit entity;[1] (2) jurisdictions that have enforced waivers between a parent and a non-profit entity;[2] (3) jurisdictions that have declared a waiver between a parent and a for-profit entity unenforceable;[3] and (4) jurisdictions that have declared a waiver between a parent and a non-profit entity unenforceable.[4]House of Boom is a for-profit trampoline park, and eleven out of twelve jurisdictions that have analyzed similar waivers between parents and for-profit entities have adhered to the common law and held such waivers to be unenforceable.[5]

Pre-injury release waivers are not per se invalid in the Commonwealth but are generally “disfavored and are strictly construed against the parties relying on them.” Hargis v. Baize, 168 S.W.3d 36, 47 (Ky. 2005) (citation omitted). We analyze these agreements for violations of public policy. See Cobb v. Gulf Refining Co., 284 Ky. 523, 528, 145 S.W.2d 96, 99 (1940) (citing Restatement of Contracts § 575). The relevant public policy here is whether a parent has the authority to enter into an exculpatory agreement on their child’s behalf, negating any opportunity for a tort claim-a child’s property right-if House of Boom’s negligence causes injury to the child.

The general common law rule in Kentucky is that “parents ha[ve] no right to compromise or settle” their child’s cause of action as that “right exist[s] in the child alone,” and parents have no right to enter into contracts on behalf of their children absent special circumstances. Meyer’s Adm’r v. Zoll, 119 Ky. 480, 486, 84 S.W. 543, 544 (1905); see also Wilson v. Wilson, 251 Ky. 522, 525, 65 S.W.2d 694, 695 (1933) (“[W]hile the mother might enter into a contract regarding her rights, she could not contract away the rights of her unborn child[]”);GGNSC Stanford, LLC v. Rome, 388 S.W.3d 117, 123 (Ky. App. 2012) (“In light of the limited authority granted to custodians by KRS[6] 405.020 and KRS 387.280, we cannot conclude they are permitted to contractually bind their wards without formal appointment as guardians[]”). Thus, we must determine whether Kentucky public policy supports a change in the common law that would protect for-profit entities from liability by enforcing pre-injury liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of their children. First, KRS 405.020 provides that “[t]he father and mother shall have the joint custody, nurture, and education of their children who are under the age of eighteen (18).” However, this grant of custody and a parent’s right to raise their child, choose the child’s educational path, and make healthcare decisions on a child’s behalf has never abrogated the traditional common law view that parents have no authority to enter into contracts on behalf of their child when dealing with a child’s property rights, prior to being appointed guardian by a district court. Scott v. Montgomery Traders Bank & Trust Co., 956 S.W.2d 902, 904 (Ky. 1997).

In Scott, the parent at issue attempted to settle her child’s tort claim and fund a trust with the settlement funds without being appointed guardian by a district court. Id. This Court held that

[i]t is fundamental legal knowledge in this state that District Court has exclusive jurisdiction “. . . for the appointment and removal of guardians . . . and for the management and settlement of their accounts” and that a person must be appointed as guardian by the Court in order to legally receive settlements in excess of $10, 000.00.

Id. (quoting KRS 387.020(1), KRS 387.125(b)) (emphasis added). Additionally, our precedent dictates that even when acting as next friend, a minor’s parent has no right to compromise or settle a minor’s claim without court approval or collect the proceeds of a minor’s claim.[7] Metzger Bros. v. Watson’s Guardian, 251 Ky. 446, 450, 65 S.W.2d 460, 462 (1933). Thus, finding no inherent right on the part of a parent to contract on behalf of their child, the remaining question is whether public policy demands enforcement of these contracts within the Commonwealth.

House of Boom’s initial public policy argument is that a parent’s fundamental liberty interest “in the care and custody of their children” supports enforcing a for-profit entity’s pre-injury liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child. Morgan v. Getter, 441 S.W.3d 94, 112 (Ky. 2014) (citing Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000) (“The liberty interest … of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children-is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court[]”). Although this Court recognizes a parent’s fundamental liberty interest in the rearing of one’s child, this right is not absolute, and the Commonwealth may step in as parens patraie[8] to protect the best interests of the child. See Hojnowski, 901 A.2d at 390 (“the question whether a parent may release a minor’s future tort claims implicates wider public policy concerns and the parens patriae duty to protect the best interests of children[]”); see also Cooper, 48 P.3d at 1235 n. 11 (parental release of child’s right to sue for negligence is “not of the same character and quality as those rights recognized as implicating parents’ fundamental liberty interest in the ‘care, custody and control’ of their children[]”). House of Boom argues that the parens patriae doctrine “is difficult to defend in a post-Troxel world.” However, if Troxel is read to grant parents the decision to enter into pre-injury liability waivers, then, logically, our court-appointed guardian statutes and statutes restricting a parent’s ability to settle claims post-injury would also infringe upon a parent’s fundamental liberty interest. As litigation restrictions upon parents have remained a vital piece of our Commonwealth’s civil practice and procedure, we do not recognize a parent’s fundamental liberty interest to quash their child’s potential tort claim.

House of Boom next argues that public policy concerns surrounding post-injury settlements between parents and defendants are not present when a parent is signing a pre-injury release waiver (signing in the present case being checking a box on an I phone), and therefore, the state only needs to step in to protect the child post-injury, not pre-injury. First, we note that since Meyer’s Adm’r and Metzger Bros., this Court and the legislature have protected minor’s rights to civil claims. See KRS 387.280. Indeed, “children deserve as much protection from the improvident compromise of their rights before an injury occurs [as our common law and statutory schemes] afford[] them after the injury.” Hojnowski, 901 A.2d at 387. As summarized in Hawkins, 37 P.3d at 1066,

[w]e see little reason to base the validity of a parent’s contractual release of a minor’s claim on the timing of an injury. Indeed, the law generally treats preinjury releases or indemnity provisions with greater suspicion than postinjury releases. See Shell Oil Co. v. Brinkerhoff-Signal Drilling Co., 658 P.2d 1187, 1189 (Utah 1983). An exculpatory clause that relieves a party from future liability may remove an important incentive to act with reasonable care. These clauses are also routinely imposed in a unilateral manner without any genuine bargaining or opportunity to pay a fee for insurance. The party demanding adherence to an exculpatory clause simply evades the necessity of liability coverage and then shifts the full burden of risk of harm to the other party. Compromise of an existing claim, however, relates to negligence that has already taken place and is subject to measurable damages. Such releases involve actual negotiations concerning ascertained rights and liabilities. Thus, if anything, the policies relating to restrictions on a parent’s right to compromise an existing claim apply with even greater force in the preinjury, exculpatory clause scenario.

The public policy reasons for protecting a child’s civil claim pre-injury are no less present than they are post-injury, and we are unpersuaded by House of Boom’s arguments to the contrary.

Lastly, House of Boom argues that enforcing a waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a child to enter a for-profit trampoline park furthers the public policy of encouraging affordable recreational activities. In making this argument, House of Boom relies on the decisions of states that have enforced these waivers between a parent and a non-commercial entity. Granted, this Commonwealth has similar public policy to these jurisdictions to “encourage wholesome recreation for boys and girls” and to limit liability for those volunteering, in a variety of ways, to increase recreational and community activities across the Commonwealth. Wilson v. Graves Cty. Bd. Of Educ, 307 Ky. 203, 206, 210 S.W.2d 350, 351 (1948); see also KRS 162.055 (granting limited immunity to school districts for allowing the public to use school grounds for “recreation, sport, academic, literary, artistic, or community uses”); KRS 411.190(2) (“[t]he purpose of this section is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes[]”). However, the same public policy implications that apply when dealing with the voluntary opening of private property or a school district’s limited immunity allowing community use of school property do not apply when dealing with a commercial entity.

A commercial entity has the ability to purchase insurance and spread the cost between its customers. It also has the ability to train its employees and inspect the business for unsafe conditions. A child has no similar ability to protect himself from the negligence of others within the confines of a commercial establishment. “If pre-injury releases were permitted for commercial establishments, the incentive to take reasonable precautions to protect the safety of minor children would be removed.” Kirton, 997 So.2d at 358. Accordingly, no public policy exists to support House of Boom’s affordable recreational activities argument in the context of a commercial activity.[9]

HI. Conclusion.

Under the common law of this Commonwealth, absent special circumstances, a parent has no authority to enter into contracts on a child’s behalf. Based upon our extensive research and review of the relevant policy in this Commonwealth and the nation as a whole, we find no relevant public policy to justify abrogating the common law to enforce an exculpatory agreement between a for-profit entity and a parent on behalf of her minor child.[10] Simply put, the statutes of the General Assembly and decisions of this Court reflect no public policy shielding the operators of for-profit trampoline parks from liability.

All sitting. All concur.

———

Notes:

[1] Maryland’s highest court is the only judicial body to enforce these waivers when one of the parties is a for-profit entity. However, Maryland’s court rules allow parents to “make decisions to terminate tort claims” without “judicial interference.” BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. v. Rosen, 80 A.3d 345, 356-57 (Md. 2013) (citing Md. Code Ann. § 6-205). Kentucky does not have a similar provision in our court rules, statutes, or judicial decisions.

[2] See Kelly v. United States, 809 F.Supp.2d 429, 437 (E.D. N.C. 2011) (waiver enforceable as it allowed plaintiff to “participate in a school-sponsored enrichment program that was extracurricular and voluntary[]”); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647, 649-50 (Cal.Ct.App. 1990) (upholding a pre-injury release executed by a father on behalf of his minor child which waived claims resulting from an injury during a school sponsored activity); Sharon v. City of Newton, 769 N.E.2d 738, 747 (Mass. 2002) (upholding a public school extracurricular sports activities waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 205 (Ohio 1998) (holding that public policy supporting limiting liability of volunteer coaches and landowners who open their land to the public “justified] giving parents authority to enter into [pre-injury liability waivers] on behalf of their minor children!]”).

[3] See In re Complaint of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 403 F.Supp.2d 1168, 1172-73 (S.D. Fla. 2005) (where “a release of liability is signed on behalf of a minor child for an activity run by a for-profit business, outside of a school or community setting, the release is typically unenforceable against the minor[]”); Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F.Supp. 140, 144 (E.D. Pa. 1987) (invalidating a pre-injury release waiver signed by a parent in adherence with the “common law rule that minors, with certain exceptions, may disaffirm their contracts [based on] the public policy concern that minors should not be bound by mistakes resulting from their immaturity or the overbearance of unscrupulous adults[]”); Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1237 (Colo. 2002) (“[T]o allow a parent to release a child’s possible future claims for injury caused by negligence may as a practical matter leave the minor in an unacceptably precarious position with no recourse, no parental support, and no method to support himself or care for his injury[]”), superseded by statute, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107(3)); Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349, 358 (Fla. 2008) (invalidating agreement between parent and for-profit ATV park, but limiting the holding to “injuries resulting from participation in a commercial activity[]”); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 634 N.E.2d 411, 414 (111. 1994) (invalidating waiver between parent and for-profit horse riding stable); Woodman ex. rel Woodman v. Kera LLC, 785 N.W.2d 1, 16 (Mich. 2010) (holding, in a case against a for-profit inflatable play area, that state common law indicated that enforcement of a waiver signed by parent was “contrary to the established public policy of this state” and that the legislature is better equipped for such a change in the common law); Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 901 A.2d 381, 386 (N.J. 2006) (“the public policy of New Jersey prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility[]”); Ohio Cas. Ins. Co. v. Mallison, 354 P.2d 800, 802 (Or. 1960) (invalidating an indemnity provision in a settlement agreement-after settlement the child sustained further injury-in part because a parent’s duty to act “for the benefit of his child [is] not fully discharged where the parent enters into a bargain which gives rise to conflicting interests[]”); Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC, 523 S.W.3d 624, 651 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2017) (in holding a parent-signed waiver unenforceable, the court held that Tennessee had no public policy supporting the “desire to shield the operators of for-profit trampoline parks from liability[]”); Munoz u. IUaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 210 (Tex. App. 1993) (“in light of this state’s long-standing policy to protect minor children, the language, ‘decisions of substantial legal significance’in section 12.04(7) of the Family Code cannot be interpreted as empowering the parents to waive the rights of a minor child to sue for personal injuries[]”); Hawkins v. Peart, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (Utah 2001) (concluding that “a parent does not have the authority to release a child’s claims before an injury”); Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 834 P.2d 6, 11-12 (Wash. 1992) (“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[]”).

[4] See Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of America, Inc., 143 A.2d 466, 468-69 (Conn. 1958) (invalidating a waiver signed by a child’s parents allowing the child to attend Boy Scout camp); Galloway v. State, 790 N.W.2d 252, 259 (Iowa 2010) (invalidating a pre-injury release waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a child attending a school sponsored field trip because of Iowa’s “strong public policy favoring the protection of children’s legal rights”).

[5] While a slight majority of jurisdictions support enforceability in the context of a non-profit recreational activity, non-profits and volunteer youth sports raise different public policy concerns which we need not address in this opinion today.

[6] Kentucky Revised Statutes.

[7] The legislature has sought fit to slightly change this portion of the common law and has authorized parents to receive funds less than $10, 000, but those settlements must be approved by a court before the funds may be paid to a parent in custody of a child. KRS 387.280. Thus, a parent, based merely on custody, still maintains no right to negotiate a settlement on behalf of their child.

[8] See Parens Patriae, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th. ed 2014) (“The state regarded as a sovereign; the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves”); see also KRS 600.010(2)(a) (the Commonwealth should “direct its efforts to promoting protection of children”); Giuliani v. Gutter, 951 S.W.2d 318, 319 (Ky. 1997) (relevant public policy existed to support the enlargement of children’s legal rights under the common law derived from KRS 600.010(2)(a)’s directive to protect children).

[9] As previously noted, the question of whether public policy exists to require enforcement of parent-signed, pre-injury waivers in a non-commercial context is not before this Court today, and thus we make no determination on the issue.

[10] House of Boom retains the ability to urge change in the common law by petitioning the General Assembly to enact a statute that supports a parent’s ability to waive their child’s legal rights. See Alaska Stat. § 09.65.292 (2004) (“a parent may, on behalf of the parent’s child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence against the provider of a sports or recreational activity in which the child participates to the extent that the activities to which the waiver applies are clearly and conspicuously set out in the written waiver and to the extent the waiver is otherwise valid. The release or waiver must be in writing and shall be signed by the child’s parent[]); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107(3) (2003) (“A parent of a child may, on behalf of the child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence[]”).

———


Marino v. Morrison, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2016 NY Slip Op 31876(U

Marino v. Morrison, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2008 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 10971, 2016 NY Slip Op 31876(U

Michael Marino, an infant under the age of 18, by his Mother and Natural Guardian, Elena Marino, and Elena Marino, Individually, Plaintiffs,

v.

Richard Morrison, Jr, Carmela Morrison and Richard Bedrosian, Defendants.

No. 2016-31876

Index No. 10-11831

CAL. No. 15-00738OT

Supreme Court, Suffolk County

September 8, 2016

Unpublished Opinion

MOTION DATE 9-15-15

ADJ. DATE 3-1-16

SURIS & ASSOCIATES, P.C. Attorney for Plaintiffs.

JOHN T. McCARRON, PC Attorney for Defendant C. Morrison.

PENINO & MOYNIHAN, LLP Attorney for Defendant Bedrosian.

PRESENT: Hon. PETER H. MAYER, Justice

PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.

Upon the reading and filing of the following papers in this matter: (1) Notice of Motion/Order to Show Cause by defendant Carmela Morrison, dated August 19, 2015, and supporting papers; (2) Notice of Cross Motion by defendant Richard Bedrosian, dated August 19, 2015, and supporting papers; (3) Affirmation in Opposition by plaintiffs, dated December 1, 2015, and supporting papers; (4) Reply Affirmations by defendants, dated February 28, 2016 and January 4, 2016, and supporting papers; (and after hearing counsels’ oral arguments in support of and opposed to the motion); and now

UPON DUE DELIBERATION AND CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT of the foregoing papers, the motion is decided as follows: it is

ORDERED that the motion (seq. 001) by defendant Carmela Morrison and the motion (seq, 002) by defendant Richard Bedrosian are consolidated for purposes of this determination; and it is

ORDERED that the motion by defendant Carmela Morrison for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against her is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that the motion by defendant Richard Bedrosian for summary judgment dismissing the complaint against him is granted.

This action was commenced by plaintiff to recover damages for injuries infant plaintiff Michael Marino allegedly sustained as a result of an accident involving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on July 28. 2009. The complaint alleges that Mr. Marino was a passenger on the rear seat of the ATV, that he was caused to be ejected from the ATV, and that the accident took place on property located behind the address known as 29 Buckingham Drive, Dix Hills, New York. Elena Marino individually asserts a derivative claim for loss of love, services, companionship, and household support. Defendant Richard Bedrosian asserts cross claims against defendant Richard Morrison, Jr., who has tailed to appear in this action.

Defendant Carmela Morrison now moves for summary judgment in her favor on the grounds that she is exempt from liability pursuant to General Obligations Law §9-103. that Mr. Marino assumed the risk inherent in the activity, and that plaintiffs lack knowledge as to the location of the alleged accident or the manner in which it occurred. In support of her motion, Ms. Morrison submits copies of the pleadings and transcripts of the deposition testimony of Michael Marino, Richard Bedrosian, and herself.

Defendant Richard Bedrosian also moves for summary judgment in his favor on the grounds that he is exempt from liability pursuant to General Obligations Law § 9-103, plaintiffs lack knowledge as to the location of the alleged accident or die maimer in which it occurred, and he had no knowledge that Mr. Marino was present on his property, and Mr. Marino assumed the risk inherent in the activity. In support of his motion, he submits copies of the pleadings and transcripts of the deposition testimony of himself and Michael Marino.

At his deposition, infant plaintiff Michael Marino testified that, on the date in question, he was 15 years old and was spending time at the house of his school friend, Richie Morrison. Mr. Marino indicated that Mr. Morrison’s father purchased an ATV for Mr. Morrison “a few years” prior, which was parked on the premises next to a shed. Mr. Marino explained that he, Mr. Morrison, and Mr. Morrison’s cousin were waiting for a few friends to arrive at Morrison’s house. Mr. Marino testified that at some point, after it had gotten dark outside and when Mr. Morrison’s parents were not home, Mr. Morrison and his cousin began drinking liquor they had stolen from Mr. Morrison’s parents’ liquor cabinet, Mr. Marino explained that the young men had been playing video games in Mr. Morrison’s basement for a number of hours, but eventually went into the backyard, at which time Mr. Morrison and Mr. Morrison’s cousin began driving the ATV in question around the backyard of the premises. Mr. Marino, upon being offered a ride on the ATV, stated that he climbed aboard and sat behind Mr. Morrison and that neither one of them wore a helmet. Mr. Marino testified that after he sat down on the ATV, Mr. Morrison began driving it on the premises and the next thing he remembers is waking up in a basement with people “picking branches out of [his] head.” He stated that although they started out riding the ATV in Mr. Morrison’s backyard, due to his losing consciousness he is unable to identify exactly where the accident took place. Mr. Marino testified that he later came to learn from “mutual friends” that the accident occurred due to the ATV’s brakes failing, the ATV hitting something, and he and Mr. Morrison being thrown off the ATV. Mr. Marino further testified that he was later informed by his friend, Peter Frisina, that he, too, was injured in a similar way on that same ATV.

Regarding his experience with ATVs. Mr. Marino testified that his father owned one and he had both driven it and been a passenger on it “since [he] was young, ” Mr. Marino stated that neither Carmela Morrison nor Richard Bedrosian ever gave him permission to ride on Mr. Morrison’s ATV, and that neither parent was aware of any alcohol consumption by the young men.

At her deposition, Carmela Morrison testified that her partner, Richard Bedrosian, owns the subject premises. She further testified that she was not home at the time of the alleged ATV accident, but was told by various parties that, contrary to plaintiffs’ allegations, Mr. Marino had been the driver of the ATV and that her son was the rear passenger. Ms. Morrison indicated that she had taken her son and Mr. Marino to the beach earlier in the day with Mr. Marino’s mother’s permission. She stated that at approximately 6:00 p.m., after they all had returned to the subject premises, she left the house in order to attend a networking event. She explained that she asked Mr, Marino if his mother was coming to pick him up and he said “yes.” She informed him that he was welcome to stay to eat some pizza that she had recently ordered. She testified that she then left the young men at the premises with Mr. Morrison’s 20-year-old sister, Kristina, who was preparing to go out and was not present at the time of the accident. Carmela Morrison indicated that at approximately 8:00 p.m. she received a call saying that there had been an accident at the premises and she went home immediately. When asked whether her son obtained permission from her to use the ATV on the date in question, she replied “[a]bsolutely not.” Regarding prior accidents involving the ATV, Ms. Morrison testified that a few months prior to the date in question, Mr. Morrison’s friend, Peter, was driving it, fell off of it, and sustained scratch to his face. She further testified that after Peter’s fall, she “took the key and gave it to Bedrosian and said T don’t want this ATV used at alt.'”

At his deposition, Richard Bedrosian testified that he is the owner of the subject premises, but does not know exactly where the accident in question occurred, although he was told by his girlfriend, Carmela Morrison, that it happened “off property, ” on state land behind his backyard. He stated that his property is approximately 1.9 acres in size, completely fenced, with the backyard consuming % of that land. Of that backyard, he explained, Vi of it is ungroomed woods. Regarding the ATV in question, Mr. Bedrosian testified that it was a Christmas gift from Mr. Morrison’s biological father, defendant Richard Morrison, Jr., to Mr. Morrison, which he received approximately seven months before the accident. Mr. Bedrosian testified that he strongly disapproved of the ATV being on his property, but was told by Mr. Morrison’s father that he had no place to store it. Mr. Bedrosian indicated that Mr. Morrison would occasionally drive it around the backyard in circles or into the wooded area, but that Mr. Morrison’s father promised Mr. Bedrosian that he would take Mr. Morrison to off-premises locations to ride it and, based on that proviso, Mr. Bedrosian allowed the ATV to be stored on his property. Mr. Bedrosian testified that Mr. Morrison was forbidden from operating it if he or Carmela Morrison were not home.

Regarding the date in question, Mr. Bedrosian testified that he was told by Carmela Morrison, Mr. Morrison, and Tony Yacende that Mr. Marino was the driver of the ATV at the time and that Mr. Morrison was the passenger. Also, Mr. Bedrosian explained that no one was permitted to operate the ATV on the date in question because he had taken its only key and put it in a desk in his home office- a location that was “off limits to everybody.”

A party moving for summary judgment must make a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, tendering sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issues of fact (Nomura Asset Capital Corp. v Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, 26 NY3d 40, 19 N.Y.S.3d 488 [2015]; Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., 68 N.Y.2d 320, 508 N.Y.S.2d 923 [1986]). If the moving party produces the requisite evidence, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to establish the existence of material issues of fact which require a trial of the action (Nomura, supra; see also Vega v Restani Constr. Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 499, 942 N.Y.S.2d 13 [2012]). Mere conclusions or unsubstantiated allegations are insufficient to raise a triable issue (Daliendo v Johnson, 147 A.D.2d 312, 543 N.Y.S.2d 987 [2d Dept 1989]). In deciding the motion, the Court must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party (Nomura, supra; see also Ortiz v. Varsity Holdings, LLC, 18 N.Y.3d 335, 339, 937 N.Y.S.2d 157 [2011]).

It is axiomatic that for a plaintiff to recover against a defendant in a negligence action, plaintiff must prove defendant owed plaintiff a duty and that the breach of that duty resulted in the injuries sustained by plaintiff (see Lugo v Brentwood Union Free School Dist, 212 A.D.2d 582, 622 N.Y.S.2d 553 [2d Dept 1995]; Kimbar v.Estis, 1 N.Y.2d 399, 153 N.Y.S.2d 197 [1956]).

“The doctrine of primary assumption of risk provides that a voluntary participant in a sporting or recreational activity consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of die sport generally and flow from such participation” (Shivers v Elwood Union Free Sch. Dist, 109 A.D.3d 977, 978 [2d Dept 2013] [internal quotation omitted]; see Trupia v Lake George Cent. School Dist, 14 N.Y.3d 392, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 [2010]; Morgan v State of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997]). “A plaintiff is barred from recovery for injuries which occur during voluntary sporting or recreational activities if it is determined that he or she assumed the risk as a matter of law” (id at 978; see Leslie v. Splish Splash at Adventureland, 1 A.D.3d 320, 766 N.Y.S.2d 599 [2d Dept 2003]; Morgan v State of New York, supra). “It is not necessary to the application of the doctrine that the injured plaintiff should have foreseen the exact manner in which the injury occurred so long as he or she is aware of the potential for injury of the mechanism from which the injury results” (Cruz v Longwood Cent Sch. Dist., 110 A.D.3d 757, 758, 973 N.Y.S.2d 260 [2d Dept 2013] [internal quotation omitted]).

“There is … a duty by a parent to protect third parties from harm resulting from [his or her] infant child’s improvident use of a dangerous instrument, at least, and perhaps especially, when the parent is aware of and capable of controlling its use” (Nolechek vGesuale, 46 N.Y.2d 332, 336, 413 N.Y.S.2d 340 [1978]), “Parents are permitted to delegate to their children the decision to participate in dangerous activities, but they are not absolved from liability for harm incurred by third parties when the parents as adults unreasonably, with respect to such third parties, permit their children to use dangerous instruments” (id. at 339). “In order for a third-party claim of this kind against a parent or guardian . . . negligence must be alleged and pleaded with some reasonable specificity, beyond mere generalities” (LaTorre v Genesee Mgmt, 90 N.Y.2d 576, 584, 665 N.Y.S.2d 1 [1997]).

Defendants Carmela Morrison and Richard Bedrosian, both relying on nearly identical arguments in support of their motions, have established a prima facie case of entitlement to summary judgment by offering sufficient proof that Mr. Marino voluntarily assumed die risks inherent in riding an ATV (see Shivers v Elwood Union Free Sch. Dist., supra; see generally Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., supra). Moving defendants proved that Mr. Marino voluntarily boarded the ATV, either as a driver or a passenger, having possessed significant prior experience with such machines. Further, there is nothing in the record indicating that Mr. Marino did not have full awareness of Mr. Morrison’s consumption of alcohol, if true, the weather and lighting conditions, and the landscaping of the backyard prior to riding on the ATV. Even if the Court were to assume, for the purposes of this decision, that Mr. Morrison’s consumption of alcohol, or some other factor, exceeded the level of risk Mr. Marino can be said to have assumed, plaintiffs have not proven the manner in which Mr. Marino allegedly sustained his injuries or even that Mr. Marino’s injuries were sustained on Mr. Bedrosian’s property. Accordingly, moving defendants, having established their entitlement to summary judgment on the ground of Mr. Marino’s primary assumption of the risk, the Court need not reach defendants’ other arguments.

Defendant having established a prima facie case entitlement to summary judgment, the burden shifted to plaintiff to raise an issue of fact necessitating a trial (see Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., supra). Plaintiffs argue that: (1) General Obligations Law § 9-103 does not apply to the facts of this case; (2) that enhanced risks were present at the time of Mr. Marino’s alleged injury, which he cannot be expected to assume; and (3) defendants owed a duty of care to Mr. Marino and failed to supervise him properly. In opposition, plaintiffs submit a copy of the Bill of Particulars and Michael Marino’s own affidavit.

Generally, “a plaintiff who suffers from amnesia as the result of the defendant’s conduct is not held to as high a degree of proof in establishing [his or her] right to recover for [his or her] injuries as a plaintiff who can describe the events in question” (Menekou v Crean, 222 A.D.2d 418, 419, 634 N.Y.S.2d 532 [2d Dept 1995]; Sawyer v Dreis & Krump Mfg. Co., 67 N.Y.2d 328, 502 N.Y.S.2d 696 [1986]; Santiago v Quattrociocchi, 91 A.D.3d 747, 937 N.Y.S.2d 119 [2d Dept 2012]). However, in order to invoke that lower burden of proof, plaintiff must not only make a prima facie case, but must also submit an expert’s affidavit demonstrating the amnesia through clear and convincing evidence (Menekou v Crean, supra). Plaintiffs have failed to meet that burden here. Therefore, plaintiffs’ attempts to raise triable issues will be evaluated in the usual manner (see Alvarez v Prospect Hosp., supra).

As Richie Morrison, Tony Yacende, and Peter Frisina have not been deposed, the Court must decide this matter solely on the three deposition transcripts and single affidavit submitted by the parties herein. The undisputed facts can be summarized as follows: (I) Mr. Bedrosian owned the subject premises, but was unaware of Mr. Marino’s presence there at the time of the incident; (2) Mr. Marino, Mr. Morrison, and Mr. Yacende were unsupervised for a period of time on the evening in question; (3) Mr. Marino voluntarily rode on an ATV while not wearing protective equipment; (4) Mr. Marino was knocked unconscious at some point in the evening and awoke in a basement surrounded by friends and his father; (5) Mr. Marino was transported to the hospital via ambulance; (6) Peter Frisina sustained an injury while riding the subject ATV on an occasion prior to plaintiffs alleged injuries; and (7) Ms. Morrison and Mr. Bedrosian took the keys for the ATV away from Mr. Morrison and forbade Mr, Morrison using the ATV after Peter Frisina’s injury.

Here, plaintiffs rely almost entirely on hearsay not subject to any exception, in an attempt to raise triable issues. Any reference by plaintiffs’ counsel to “defective” brakes is unfounded and speculative (see Daliendo v Johnson, supra). Further, plaintiffs have failed to provide any proof as to the mechanism of Mr. Marino’s alleged injury (see Passaro v Bouquio, 79 A.D.3d 1114, 914 N.Y.S.2d 905 [2d Dept 2010]}. Based upon the admissible, non-hearsay evidence submitted, it is just as likely that Mr. Marino jumped from the moving ATV; took an uneventful ride on the ATV, then attempted to climb a tree and fell to the ground; or was hit in the head by some unknown object, causing him to become unconscious, as it is that the ATV crashed and he was thrown from it. Furthermore, the “dangerous instrument” exception is inapplicable here, as plaintiffs have not submitted evidence that movants gave Mr. Morrison permission to use the ATV or supplied him with access to it (see Nolechek v Gesuale, supra). Instead, uncontroverted evidence has been submitted that movants took affirmative steps to deny use of the ATV to Richie Morrison.

Accordingly, the motions by defendants Carmela Morrison and Richard Bedrosian for summary judgment in their favor dismissing the complaint against them is granted.


Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Thomas A Lynam, III and Antoinette M. Lynam, as Parents and Natural Guardians of Thomas A. Lynam, IV, a minor,

v.

Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel Inc. and Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC

C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

October 4, 2016

Submitted: July 6, 2016

On Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

Tabatha L. Castro, Esquire The Castro Firm, Inc. Attorney for Plaintiffs

Leonard G. Villari, Esquire Villari, Lentz & Lynam, LLC Attorney Pro Hac Vice for Plaintiffs

Marc S. Casarino, Esquire Dana Spring Monzo, Esquire Nicholas Wynn, Esquire White and Williams, LLP Attorneys for Defendants Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel, Inc.

Dear Counsel:

I. INTRODUCTION

Pending before this Court is Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s (“Defendants”)[1] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that minor Thomas Lynam, IV (“Tommy”) was riding his motocross bicycle on Defendants’ motocross track. After riding off a jump, Tommy landed, lost control of his motocross bicycle, and collided with a metal shipping container near the track. Tommy apparently sustained serious injuries. Plaintiffs’ complaint raises one count of “negligence” as a theory for liability.[2]Although not listed as a separate count in their complaint, Plaintiffs allude in their general “negligence” claim to a theory of reckless conduct by Defendants in connection with the operation of the motocross track.

In their motion, Defendants assert that their alleged behavior was, as a matter of fact and law, neither negligent nor reckless. Alternatively, Defendants raise an affirmative defense that they are released from any liability for negligent or reckless conduct due to a release agreement (the “Release”) signed by the Plaintiffs. Additionally, Defendants raise the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a separate affirmative defense as a bar to recovery.

Plaintiffs agree that they released Defendants from liability for Defendants’ own “negligence.” However, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants’ conduct amounted to recklessness, and that Plaintiffs never released Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. In response to Defendants’ claim that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury, Plaintiffs contend that the risk of a collision with a metal shipping container was not contemplated at either the signing of the Release or when Tommy began using the facilities.

This Court concludes that the Release was not specifically tailored so as to release Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. The Court also finds that the factual record is insufficiently developed to make a legal determination of whether Defendants’ conduct as a matter of law amounted to recklessness. Finally, the Court concludes that it is premature at this juncture to consider Defendant’s affirmative defense. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

II.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 6, 2013, Tommy, then thirteen years old, was riding a motocross bicycle at Blue Diamond Motocross near New Castle. Plaintiffs allege that the track was advertised as being composed of “safe jumps.”[3] While riding, Tommy rode off a jump, made a hard landing, and was unable to stop in time before colliding with a large metal shipping container.

Prior to granting Tommy admission to the Blue Diamond facilities to ride his motocross bicycle, Blue Diamond required Tommy’s father to sign a release agreement. The Release, entitled “Parental Consent, Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement, ” stated that Plaintiffs understood the “risks and dangers of serious bodily injury” posed by motocross and relieved Defendants from liability for their own negligence.[4] The Release also released Defendants from liability for injuries suffered by Plaintiffs through their own negligence.[5]

In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants negligently allowed the container to remain on the premises at an unsafe distance from the motocross track.[6] While Plaintiffs do not specifically allege recklessness as a separate claim for recovery, but rather include it in a single count of “Negligence, ” Plaintiffs’ complaint references reckless conduct as another potential theory of recovery.[7]Plaintiffs, however, now agree that their claims of negligence are barred by the Release.[8] But Plaintiffs assert that the Release did not specifically address or contemplate potential claims against Defendants for “reckless” behavior.[9]

III. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed.[10] The standard of review in the context of a motion for judgment on the pleadings requires a court to “accept all the complaint’s well-pleaded facts as true and construe all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.”[11] “The motion will be granted when no material issues of fact exist, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[12] “The standard for a motion for judgment on the pleadings is almost identical to the standard for a motion to dismiss.”[13]

B. The Parties Agree that the Release Bars Plaintiffs’ Recovery Against Defendants for Any Negligence

Defendants contend that the executed Release bars recovery for negligence. At oral argument on this motion, Plaintiffs agreed (Plaintiffs’ filings were not explicit on this point) that the Release bars recovery for injuries resulting from Defendants’ allegedly negligent conduct.[14] Although Plaintiffs are residents of Pennsylvania, the parties agree that Delaware law applies to the present motion, as Defendants are Delaware businesses and the incident giving rise to the case at bar occurred in Delaware.

Under Delaware law, parties may enter into an agreement that relieves a business owner of liability for injuries to business invitees that result from the owner’s negligent conduct.[15] However, the release must be unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. [16] Further, the release must be “‘crystal clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability for possible future negligence.”[17]

In Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, the Delaware Supreme Court recently determined the validity of a release waiving liability for negligence.[18] The release in Ketler provided:

‘I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that [the defendant] . . . will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendant] or anyone on [the defendant’s] behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge [the defendant] from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions, or causes of action.'[19]

The Delaware Supreme Court held that the release was sufficiently clear and unequivocal, and that it expressly released the defendant from any and all causes of actions relating to the defendant’s own negligence.[20] Defendants rely heavily on this case, asserting that it applies to claims of reckless conduct.[21]

The Release that Plaintiffs executed in this case is also sufficiently “clear and unequivocal.” The Release provides:

3. I consent to the Minor’s participation in the Event(s) and/or entry into restricted areas and HEREBY ACCEPT AND ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, KNOWN AND UNKNOWN, AND ASSUME ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE LOSSES, COSTS, AND/OR DAMAGES FOLLOWING SUCH INJURY, DISABILITY, PARALYSIS OR DEATH, EVEN IF CAUSED, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” NAMED BELOW.

4. I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s) . . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . . . FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED . . . BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.[22]

Similar to the language at issue in Ketler, the Release expressly states that the signor assumes responsibility for injuries caused by Defendants’ own negligent conduct. The release also expressly states that the Defendants are released from any and all causes of action that may arise from Defendants’ negligent conduct. Accordingly, this Court agrees with the parties that the Release validly exculpates Defendants from liability for their own negligence.

Defendants also rely on Lafate v. New Castle County[23] and Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[24] to support their position that the Release waives claims of reckless conduct. Both Lafate and Devecchio concern agreements that released the tortfeasors from liability for their own negligent conduct. Both cases also discussed whether the language of the releases was sufficiently tailored to release the tortfeasor’s negligent conduct. In Lafate, this Court refused to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that the release did not clearly and unambiguously release the tortfeasor from claims that it was negligent.[25] In Devecchio, this Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff signed a valid covenant not to sue for injury resulting from the plaintiffs own negligence.[26]

Defendants’ reliance on these cases in light of Plaintiffs’ potential claim of reckless conduct is inapposite. Because the parties have agreed that Defendants are insulated from claims of negligence, the question of whether the release clearly and unambiguously insulates the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct is moot. Neither the holding in Lafate nor in Devecchio relate to allegations of reckless conduct. Accordingly, because Plaintiffs now assert that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, Lafate and Devecchio are distinguishable from the case at bar.

Finally, the Court considers whether, for purposes of this motion, recklessness is subsumed in negligence, and is therefore barred as a form of negligence. Prosser and Keeton on Torts is particularly informative, providing that “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[27] Adopting Prosser and Keeton’s interpretation, this Court finds that although the Release does insulate Defendants from liability for negligent conduct, it does not bar claims of “more extreme forms of negligence, ” such as “reckless” conduct.[28]

C. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is Inappropriate at this Juncture in Light of any Undeveloped Claims of Reckless Conduct

Although Tommy’s father’s execution of the Release precludes recovery from Defendants on a theory of “negligence, ” Plaintiffs assert that the Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.” Plaintiffs did not explicitly allege in a separate count of the complaint that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, but Plaintiffs did make it apparent in the complaint that it was an intended theory of liability.[29] In their briefing and at oral argument, Plaintiffs suggested that Defendants, among other things, had been aware of previous collisions with the shipping container, and that their ignorance of these prior incidents amounts to reckless behavior.[30]Accordingly, the Court must determine whether the Release bars Plaintiffs from asserting claims resulting from injuries caused by Defendants’ reckless conduct.

Courts in Delaware have a strong preference for resolving cases on their merits, or at least allowing discovery to proceed such that additional evidence in support of the parties’ contentions can be developed.[31] While this preference is not outcome-determinative, the preference for resolving cases on the merits is a strong factor in determining whether to grant or deny a dispositive motion.

Plaintiffs, at oral argument and in their response to the motion, argue that they are entitled to recovery based on Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct. The parties agree that this theory is separate from the one count of “negligence” listed in the complaint.[32] The operative language of the Release does not explicitly enumerate or contemplate recklessness as a theory of recovery barred by the Release. Under Delaware law, as provided in Ketler, a release must be “clear and unambiguous” in order to effectively release the business owner from liability.[33]

This Court finds that the language of the release is not “clear and unambiguous” with respect to Defendants’ liability for their own allegedly reckless conduct. In Ketler, the release at issue specifically used the word “negligence, ” and stated that Defendants “will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendants].” The Delaware Supreme Court held that this language satisfied the “clear and unequivocal” standard and upheld the language of the agreement.

Turning to the Release that Plaintiffs executed, this Court finds that the Release is silent as to claims of recklessness. The Release does not mention “reckless” conduct, and instead only expressly refers to injury caused by Defendants’ “negligence.” In the absence of such language, the Release does not clearly and unambiguously exculpate Defendants from liability for their own reckless conduct. Accordingly, the Release does not operate to bar Plaintiffs’ claim of recklessness.[34]

This Court holds that the Release does not bar claims of reckless conduct. This Court expresses no opinion at this juncture as to whether Plaintiffs ultimately can establish claims against for recklessness. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and will grant Plaintiffs leave to conduct further discovery with the option of potentially amending the complaint in support of their contention that Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.”[35]

D. The Court does Not Reach Defendant’s Argument under the Doctrine of Assumption of the Risk

Finally, Defendants’ contend that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ alleged reckless conduct. However, the record has not been sufficiently developed to determine whether Defendants’ conduct was reckless or whether Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct.[36] Accordingly, the Court does not reach this contention at this stage of the litigation.

IV. CONCLUSION

Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED. The Court has enclosed an Order establishing a Scheduling Conference in this case.

Very truly yours,

Richard R. Cooch Resident Judge

Notes:

[1] Defendant Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC did not make an appearance in this case and had a default judgment taken against it on June 21, 2016.

[2]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[3]Compl. ¶ 48.

[4]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[5]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A. Tommy also signed an agreement, titled “Minor’s Assumption of the Risk Acknowledgment, ” that Defendants reference in their motion as another reason they are not liable for Plaintiffs’ injuries. However, it appears from the motion and subsequent filings that the release signed by Tommy is only mentioned in passing, and is not relied upon by Defendants. The release signed by Tommy’s father is the determinative release in the case at bar.

[6]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[7]Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that “Defendants’ failure to exercise reasonable care as alleged above comprised outrageous conduct under the circumstances, manifesting a wanton and reckless disregard of the rights of the Plaintiffs.” Compl. ¶ 87. The Complaint also alleges that Tommy’s injuries were caused by the “reckless indifference” of Defendants. Compl. ¶¶ 51, 77. Moreover, the Complaint alleges that the track was “reckless[ly] design[ed].” Compl. ¶ 49.

[8]At oral argument, Plaintiffs’ counsel answered in the affirmative when the Court asked “Am I understanding Plaintiffs’ position correctly when I read the papers to say that Plaintiffs are not alleging ordinary negligence, but rather recklessness?” Lynam et al. v. Blue Diamond LLC Motocross et al, C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC, at 6 (Del. Super. July 6, 2016) (TRANSCRIPT) [hereinafter Oral Arg. Tr.].

[9] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[10] A judgment on the pleadings is based only upon a review of Plaintiffs’ complaint and Defendants’ answer. However, under Rule 12(c), “If, on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the Court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment.” Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(c). In the case at bar, Defendants introduced the two executed releases as exhibits to their motion. However, the releases were not a part of the pleadings. Nevertheless, the parties agree that this motion should be treated as a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

[11] Silver Lake Office Plaza, LLC v. Lanard & Axilbund, Inc., 2014 WL 595378, at *6 (Del. Super. Jan. 17, 2014) (quoting Blanco v. AMVAC Chem. Corp., 2012 WL 3194412, at *6 (Del. Super. Aug. 8, 2012)).

[12] Id. (quoting Velocity Exp., Inc. v. Office Depot, Inc., 2009 WL 406807, at *3 (Del. Super. Feb. 4, 2009).

[13] Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

[14] See Oral Arg. Tr. at 6.

[15] Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 132 A.3d 746 (Del. 2016) (upholding “hold harmless” agreements and releases that relieve a proprietor from liability for its own negligent activities).

[16] Id. at 747-48.

[17] Riverbend Cmty., LLC v. Green Stone Eng’g, LLC, 55 A.3d 330, 336 (Del. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Interstate Amiesite Corp., 297 A.2d 41, 44 (Del. 1972)).

[18] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Oral Arg. Tr. at 14-16.

[22] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A (emphasis added).

[23] 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999).

[24] 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[25] The plaintiff in Lafate was injured by a metal bar used to divide a basketball court. This Court found that while the agreement did “speak[] of ‘any and all injuries which may be suffered by [players] during [their] participation, ‘” the absence of the word “negligence” insufficiently insulated the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct. Lafate, 1999 WL 1241074, at *4.

[26] In Devecchio, the defendant owned a motorcycle race track that required riders to sign agreements releasing the defendant from liability for injuries resulting from both the riders and the defendant’s negligence. The release pertaining to the defendant’s negligence expressly used the word “negligence.” This Court found that the release using the word “negligence” was sufficiently clear and unambiguous, and therefore insulated the defendant from liability for its own negligent conduct. Devecchio v. Enduro Riders, Inc., 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[27] W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)). Delaware courts often rely on Prosser and Keeton on Torts in reaching their conclusions. See, e.g., Culver v. Bennett, 588 A.2d 1094, 1097 (Del. 1991); Lafate v. New Castle County, 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999); Brzoska v. Olson, 668 A.2d 1355, 1360 (Del. 1995).

[28] Additionally, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instructions for negligence and recklessness are substantially different. The Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for negligence provides:

This case involves claims of negligence. Negligence is the lack of ordinary care; that is, the absence of the kind of care a reasonably prudent and careful person would exercise in similar circumstances. That standard is your guide. If a person’s conduct in a given circumstance doesn’t measure up to the conduct of an ordinarily prudent and careful person, then that person was negligent. On the other hand, if the person’s conduct does measure up to the conduct of a reasonably prudent and careful person, the person wasn’t negligent.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.1 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. On the other hand, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for reckless conduct states:

Reckless conduct reflects a knowing disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. It amounts to an “I don’t care” attitude. Recklessness occurs when a person, with no intent to cause harm, performs an act so unreasonable and so dangerous that he or she knows, or should know, that harm will probably result.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.9 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. It is apparent from a comparison of the two different jury instructions that negligence conduct requires a departure from the ordinary standard of care exhibited by the reasonably prudent person, an objective standard. However, in contrast, it appears from the pattern jury instructions that reckless conduct requires a subjective “I don’t care” attitude that evidences an even greater departure from the ordinary standard of care, amounting to an unreasonable conscious disregard of a known risk.

[29] Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. For example, Plaintiffs allege that “The reckless design of the track, which was intentionally constructed next to the pre-existing intermodal container, requires riders to land from a jump and immediately decelerate in order to execute a 90° right turn.” Compl. ¶ 49. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that Tommy’s injuries were “a direct and proximate result of the negligence, carelessness and reckless indifference of Defendants.” Compl. ¶ 77.

[30] Pl.’s Suppl. Resp. in Opp’n to the Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, at 2.

[31] Keener v. Isken, 58 A.3d 407, 409 (Del. 2013); see also Wallace v. Wood, 2007 WL 3331530 (Del. Ch. Oct. 31, 2007); DeSantis v. Chilkotowsky, 2004 WL 2914314, at *2 (Del. Super. Nov. 18, 2004), Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 56.

[32] Plaintiffs did not plead any explicit claim of recklessness. See, e.g., J.L. v. Barnes, 33 A.3d 902, 916 n.77 (De. 2011) (treating recklessness and gross negligence as interchangeable and noting, “In order for a plaintiff to plead gross negligence with the requisite particularity, the plaintiff must articulate ‘facts that suggest a wide disparity between the process [] used . . . and that which would have been rational.'” J.L. states that a complaint pleading ten pages of facts to support a claim of gross negligence or recklessness was sufficient to meet the pleading standard). Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not properly pleaded reckless conduct under Superior Court Civil Rule 9(b). However, the Court need not reach that issue since it will give Plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint.

[33] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[34] Because the Court finds that Defendants’ release does not explicitly bar claims of “reckless” conduct, this Court does not reach the question of whether such a release is potentially permissible under Delaware law. However, this Court notes that other jurisdictions have differing perspectives on whether exculpatory agreements barring claims for recklessness, gross negligence, willful acts, or strict liability are enforceable. See Randy J. Sutton, Annotation, Validity, Construction, and Effect of Agreement Exempting Operator of Amusement Facility from Liability for Personal Injury or Death of Patron, 54 A.L.R.5th 513 (1997). For example, in Barker v. Colo. Region-Sports Car Club of Am., the Colorado Court of Appeals held that exculpatory agreements can release a party only for simple negligence, and not from willful and wanton negligence. 532 P.2d 372, 377 (Colo.App. 1974). Similarly, in Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii held that a release was invalid with respect to claims of gross negligence and strict liability. 839 F.Supp. 730, 736 (D. Haw. 1993). The above annotation suggests that a common reason to not enforce such an agreement is because they are void against the state’s public policy.

Alternatively, other jurisdictions have upheld agreements that exculpate business owners for reckless conduct or strict liability. For example, in Murphy v. N. Am. River Runners, Inc., the West Virginia Supreme Court discussed the matter, stating:

Generally, in the absence of an applicable safety statute, a plaintiff who expressly and, under the circumstances, clearly agrees to accept a risk of harm arising from the defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct may not recover for such harm, unless the agreement is contrary to public policy. When such an express agreement is freely and fairly made, between two parties who are in equal bargaining position, and there is no public interest with which the agreement interferes, it will generally be upheld.

412 S.E.2d 504, 508-09 (W.Va. 1991).

[35]Delaware Courts have previously allowed such an amendment to be made. As this Court held in Guy v. Phillips, a party may amend a complaint following additional discovery when the amended count arises out of the same factual basis for the original complaint. 1997 WL 524124 (Del. Super. July 2, 1997).

[36] In support of this defense, the Court notes that Defendants rely solely on Deuley v. DynCorp Int’l, Inc., 2010 WL 704895 (Del. Super. Feb. 26, 2010). However, Deuley is distinguishable from the case at bar. In Deuley, surviving relatives of decedents killed by an improvised explosive device (“IED”) in Afghanistan filed a wrongful death action. As part of the employment agreement, the decedents signed an agreement that provided employees expressly assumed the risk of injury or death. In reaching its conclusion that the decedents assumed the risk of death, the Court found that “when [the decedents] signed the releases, even a poorly informed American had to have appreciated that working in Afghanistan involved the general risk of insurgent or terrorist attacking by an IED.” Deuley, 2010 WL 704895, at *4. “The complaint offers no reason to find that any plaintiff here was probably unaware of the general risk of being injured or killed by a bomb.” Id. In the case at bar, drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, it is unlikely that Plaintiffs were aware of the risk posed by the shipping container, since they allege that they were unable to inspect the track prior to Tommy using it. Accordingly, Defendants’ reliance on Deuley is inapposite since it could be determined that a collision with the metal shipping container was not contemplated by the Plaintiffs when they signed the Release.


New Jersey does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue so a binding arbitration agreement is a good idea, if it is written correctly.

The arbitration agreement in this case did not state how long the agreement was valid for, so the court held it was only valid for the day it was signed.

Citation: Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

State: New Jersey: Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Plaintiff: Lorianne Weed and Scott Trefero as parents and natural guardians of A.M., a minor,

Defendant: Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone Moorestown and/or a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone and David R. Agger

Plaintiff Claims: Contract failed to compel arbitration

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

When a parent cannot sign a release for a minor, because the states don’t enforce them, one option may be a binding arbitration agreement. Arbitration usually does not allow massive damages, is cheaper and quicker than going to trial.

However, your arbitration agreement, like a release, must be written in a way to make sure it is effective. This one was not, and the plaintiff can proceed to trial.

Facts

Plaintiff visited the trampoline facility in July 2016. Entrance to the park is conditioned on all participants signing a “Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate” (the Agreement). Weed executed the agreement on behalf of her son in July 2016.

Plaintiff returned to the facility with a friend in November 2016, and was injured while using the trampolines during a “Glow” event, which plaintiff submits used different and less lighting than was present at his earlier visit. Plaintiff entered the facility in November with an agreement signed by his friend’s mother on behalf of both her daughter and A.M.[2] In an affidavit submitted by Weed in opposition to the motion, she stated that she was unaware that her son was going to the facility at the time of the November visit.

After Weed filed suit on behalf of her son, defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement. Defendants argued that the agreements contained “straightforward, clear, and unequivocal” language that a participant was waiving their right to present claims before a jury in exchange for conditional access to the facility. They asserted that the first agreement signed by Weed remained in effect at the time of plaintiff’s subsequent visit in November as there was no indication that it was only valid for the one day of entry in July. Finally, defendants contended that any dispute as to a term of the agreement should be resolved in arbitration.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that nothing in the first agreement alerted Weed that it would remain in effect for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. To the contrary, defendants’ policy of requiring a new agreement to be signed each time a participant entered the park belied its argument that a prior agreement remained valid for a period of time.

On May 19, 2017, Judge Joseph L. Marczyk conducted oral argument and denied the motion in an oral decision issued the same day. The judge determined that the first agreement did not apply to the November visit because it did not contain any language that it would remain valid and applicable to all future visits. Therefore, there was no notice to the signor of the agreement that it would be in effect beyond that specific day of entry, and no “meeting of the minds” that the waiver and agreement to arbitrate pertained to all claims for any future injury.

As for the second agreement, the judge found that there was no precedent to support defendants’ contention that an unrelated person could bind plaintiff to an arbitration clause. This appeal followed.

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

In a state where there are no defenses except assumption of the risk for claims by minor’s arbitration can be a good way to speed up the process and limit damages. Each state has laws that encourage arbitration and, in most cases, create limits on what an arbitration panel (the people hearing the case) can award in damages. In man states, arbitration judges cannot award punitive damages.

You need to check your state laws on what if any benefits arbitration provides.

However, if you can use a release, the release is the best way to go because it cuts off all damages. Many times, in arbitration damages are awarded, they are just less.

To determine which states do not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue see States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

The best way of dealing with minor claims is the defense of assumption of the risk. However, this takes more time on the front end in making sure the minor participants understand the risk before embarking on the activity.

There were two issues before the appellate court: Whether the first agreement signed by the mother of the injured plaintiff extended beyond the day it was signed. The second issue was whether a second agreement signed by a friend, not a parent, legal guardian or someone acting under a power of attorney had any legal validity.

The first agreement was silent as to how long it was valid. There was no termination date, (which is a good thing) and nothing to indicate the agreement was good for a day or a lifetime. Because the contract was blank as to when the agreement was valid, the court ruled against the creator of the contract.

There is no evidence in the record before us to support defendants’ argument as the agreements are silent as to any period of validity. Defendants drafted these agreements and required a signature from all participants waiving certain claims and requiring submission to arbitration prior to permitting access to the facility. Any ambiguity in the contract must be construed against defendants.

When a contract is written any issues are held against the writer of the agreement. Here because the contract had no end date or did not say it was good forever, there was a gap in the agreement that was held against the defendant as the writer of the agreement.

So, the court ruled the agreement signed by the mother was only valid on the day it was signed and was not valid the second time when the minor came in and was injured.

The second argument made by the defendant was the friend who signed for the minor on the second visit signed an agreement that should be enforced and compel arbitration.

The court laughed that one out the door.

We further find that defendants’ argument regarding the November agreement lacks merit. The signor of that agreement was neither a parent, a legal guardian, nor the holder of a power of attorney needed to bind the minor plaintiff to the arbitration agreement. Defendants’ reliance on Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, is misplaced. While the Court found that a parent had the authority to waive their own child’s rights under an arbitration agreement in Hojnowski, there is no suggestion that such authority would extend to a non-legal guardian. Not only would such a holding bind the minor to an arbitration agreement, it would also serve to bind the minor’s parents, waiving their rights to bring a claim on behalf of their child. We decline to so hold.

So Now What?

New Jersey law is quite clear. A parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue, Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park. Consequently, arbitration was probably the way to go. In this case, one little slip up made the arbitration agreement worthless.

The one flaw in using an arbitration agreement is you could use a release to stop the claims for a parent. So, you should write a release that stops the claims of the parents/legal guardians and compels arbitration of the minor’s claims. Those get tricky.

And as far as another adult signing for a minor who is not their child, that is always a problem. A parent can sign for a minor, to some extent, and a spouse can sign for another spouse in certain situations. An officer of a corporation or a manager of a limited liability company can sign for the corporation or company. The trustee can sign for a trust, and any partner can sign for a partnership. But only you can sign for you.

The issue that outdoor businesses see all day long is a volunteer youth leader take groups of kids to parks, amusement rides and climbing walls, etc. Neighbors take the neighborhood kids to the zoo, and friends grab their kids’ friends to take on vacation. Unless the adult has a power of attorney saying they have the right to enter agreements on behalf of the minor child, their signature only has value if they are a celebrity or sports personality.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206

Lorianne Weed and Scott Trefero as parents and natural guardians of A.M., a minor, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone Moorestown and/or a/k/a and/or d/b/a Skyzone and David R. Agger, Defendants-Appellants.

No. A-4589-16T1

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

February 22, 2018

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued January 18, 2018

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-2790-16.

Marco P. DiFlorio argued the cause for appellants (Salmon, Ricchezza, Singer & Turchi LLP, attorneys; Joseph A. Ricchezza and Marco P. DiFlorio, on the briefs).

Iddo Harel argued the cause for respondents (Ross Feller Casey, LLP, attorneys; Joel J. Feller and Iddo Harel, on the brief).

Before Judges Currier and Geiger.

PER CURIAM

Defendants Sky NJ, LLC a/k/a/ Sky Zone Moorestown and David Agger (defendants) appeal from the May 19, 2017 order denying their motion to compel arbitration in this personal injury suit brought by plaintiffs after A.M.[1] suffered severe injuries while jumping on a trampoline at defendants’ facility. After a review of the presented arguments in light of the record before us and applicable principles of law, we affirm.

Plaintiff visited the trampoline facility in July 2016. Entrance to the park is conditioned on all participants signing a “Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate” (the Agreement). Weed executed the agreement on behalf of her son in July 2016.

Plaintiff returned to the facility with a friend in November 2016, and was injured while using the trampolines during a “Glow” event, which plaintiff submits used different and less lighting than was present at his earlier visit. Plaintiff entered the facility in November with an agreement signed by his friend’s mother on behalf of both her daughter and A.M.[2] In an affidavit submitted by Weed in opposition to the motion, she stated that she was unaware that her son was going to the facility at the time of the November visit.

Both agreements required the submission of all claims to binding arbitration and contained the following pertinent language:

I understand that this Agreement waives certain rights that I have in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation. I agree and acknowledge that the rights I am waiving in exchange for permission to gain access to the [l]ocation include but may not be limited to the following:

a. the right to sue [defendants] in a court of law;

b. the right to a trial by judge or jury;

c. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury within the scope of the risk assumed by myself;

d. the right to claim money from [defendants] for accidents causing injury unless [defendants] committed acts of gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct; and

e. the right to file a claim against [defendants] if I wait more than one year from . . . the date of this Agreement.

Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate

IF I AM INJURED AND WANT TO MAKE A CLAIM AND/OR IF THERE ARE ANY DISPUTES REGARDING THIS AGREEMENT, I HEREBY WAIVE ANY RIGHT I HAVE TO A TRIAL IN A COURT OF LAW BEFORE A JUDGE AND JURY. I AGREE THAT SUCH DISPUTE SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF THE DATE OF THIS AGREEMENT AND WILL BE DETERMINED BY BINDING ARBITRATION BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR TO BE ADMINISTERED BY JAMS[3] PURSUANT TO ITS COMPREHENSIVE ARBITRATIONRULES AND PROCEDURES.I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of New Jersey and that the substantive law of New Jersey shall apply. I acknowledge that if I want to make a claim against [defendants], I must file a demand before JAMS. … To the extent that any claim I have against [defendants] has not been released or waived by this Agreement, I acknowledge that I have agreed that my sole remedy is to arbitrat[e] such claim, and that such claim may only be brought against [defendants] in accordance with the above Waiver of Trial and Agreement to Arbitrate.

After Weed filed suit on behalf of her son, defendants moved to compel arbitration pursuant to the agreement. Defendants argued that the agreements contained “straightforward, clear, and unequivocal” language that a participant was waiving their right to present claims before a jury in exchange for conditional access to the facility. They asserted that the first agreement signed by Weed remained in effect at the time of plaintiff’s subsequent visit in November as there was no indication that it was only valid for the one day of entry in July. Finally, defendants contended that any dispute as to a term of the agreement should be resolved in arbitration.

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that nothing in the first agreement alerted Weed that it would remain in effect for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. To the contrary, defendants’ policy of requiring a new agreement to be signed each time a participant entered the park belied its argument that a prior agreement remained valid for a period of time.

On May 19, 2017, Judge Joseph L. Marczyk conducted oral argument and denied the motion in an oral decision issued the same day. The judge determined that the first agreement did not apply to the November visit because it did not contain any language that it would remain valid and applicable to all future visits. Therefore, there was no notice to the signor of the agreement that it would be in effect beyond that specific day of entry, and no “meeting of the minds” that the waiver and agreement to arbitrate pertained to all claims for any future injury.

As for the second agreement, the judge found that there was no precedent to support defendants’ contention that an unrelated person could bind plaintiff to an arbitration clause. This appeal followed.

“[O]rders compelling or denying arbitration are deemed final and appealable as of right as of the date entered.” GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 587 (2011). We review the judge’s decision to compel arbitration de novo. Frumer v. Nat’1 Home Ins. Co., 420 N.J.Super. 7, 13 (App. Div. 2011). The question of whether an arbitration clause is enforceable is an issue of law, which we also review de novo. Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 445-46 (2014). We owe no deference to the trial court’s “interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts.” Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Defendants argue that the trial court erred when it determined that the first arbitration agreement signed by Weed four months before plaintiff’s injury was no longer binding on the parties at the time of plaintiff’s injury. We disagree.

While we are mindful that arbitration is a favored means of dispute resolution in New Jersey, the threshold issue before us is whether Weed’s signature on the July agreement would be binding on plaintiff for all subsequent visits. We apply well-established contract principles, and ascertain the parties’ intent from a consideration of all of the surrounding circumstances. James Talcott, Inc. v. H. Corenzwit & Co., 76 N.J. 305, 312 (1978). “An agreement must be construed in the context of the circumstances under which it was entered into and it must be accorded a rational meaning in keeping with the express general purpose.” Tessmar v. Grosner, 23 N.J. 193, 201 (1957).

It is undisputed that neither agreement contains any reference to a term of validity. The parties submitted conflicting affidavits in support of their respective positions. Weed stated there was nothing in the agreement she signed to apprise a participant that the agreement was in effect for longer than the day of entry. Defendants contend that plaintiff did not need a second agreement signed for the November visit as the initial agreement remained in effect.

There is no evidence in the record before us to support defendants’ argument as the agreements are silent as to any period of validity. Defendants drafted these agreements and required a signature from all participants waiving certain claims and requiring submission to arbitration prior to permitting access to the facility. Any ambiguity in the contract must be construed against defendants. See Moscowitz v. Middlesex Borough Bldq. & Luan Ass’n, 14 N.J.Super. 515, 522 (App. Div. 1951) (holding that where a contract is ambiguous, it will be construed against the drafting party). We are satisfied that Judge Marczyk’s ruling declining enforcement of the July agreement was supported by the credible evidence in the record.

We further find that defendants’ argument regarding the November agreement lacks merit. The signor of that agreement was neither a parent, a legal guardian, nor the holder of a power of attorney needed to bind the minor plaintiff to the arbitration agreement. Defendants’ reliance on Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 346 (2006) is misplaced. While the Court found that a parent had the authority to waive their own child’s rights under an arbitration agreement in Hojnowski, there is no suggestion that such authority would extend to a non-legal guardian. Not only would such a holding bind the minor to an arbitration agreement, it would also serve to bind the minor’s parents, waiving their rights to bring a claim on behalf of their child. We decline to so hold. See Moore v. Woman to Woman Obstetrics & Gynecology, LLC, 416 N.J.Super. 30, 45 (App. Div. 2010) (holding there is no legal theory that would permit one spouse to bind another to an agreement waiving the right to trial without securing consent to the agreement).

As we have concluded the threshold issue that neither the July nor the November agreement is enforceable as to the minor plaintiff, we do not reach the issue of whether the arbitration provision contained within the agreement accords with our legal standards and case law. Judge Marczyk’s denial of defendants’ motion to compel arbitration was supported by the evidence in the record.

Affirmed.

Notes:

[1] Lorianne Weed is A.M.’s mother. Because A.M. is a minor, we use initials in respect of his privacy and we refer to him hereafter as plaintiff.

[2] The agreement required the adult to “certify that [she was] the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed [on the agreement] or that [she had] been granted power of attorney to sign [the] Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the child(ren) listed.” There were no proofs presented that the adult met any of these requirements.

[3] JAMS is an organization that provides alternative dispute resolution services, including mediation and arbitration.

 


States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

If your state is not listed here, you should assume a parent cannot waive a minor’s right to sue in your state.

State

By Statute

Restrictions

Alaska Alaska: Sec. 09.65.292 Sec. 05.45.120 does not allow using a release by ski areas for ski injuries
Arizona ARS § 12-553 Limited to Equine Activities
Colorado C.R.S. §§13-22-107
Florida Florida Statute § 744.301 (3) Florida statute that allows a parent to release a minor’s right to sue
Virginia Chapter 62. Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202. Liability limited; liability actions prohibited Allows a parent to sign a release for a minor for equine activities
Utah 78B-4-203. Limitations on Liability for Equine and Livestock Activities Limited to Equine Activities
(b) providing a document or release for the participant, or the participant’s legal guardian if the participant is a minor, to sign.

By Case Law

California Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647 (1990)
Florida Global Travel Marketing, Inc v. Shea, 2005 Fla. LEXIS 1454 Allows a release signed by a parent to require arbitration of the minor’s claims
Florida Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So.2d 1067, 29 Fla. L. Weekly D1147 Release can be used for volunteer activities and by government entities
Maryland BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714; 80 A.3d 345; 2013 Md. LEXIS 897 Maryland top court allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. Release was not fantastic, but good enough.
Massachusetts Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99; 769 N.E.2d 738; 2002 Mass. LEXIS 384
Minnesota Moore vs. Minnesota Baseball Instructional School, 2009 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 299
North Dakota McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3 North Dakota decision allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue
Ohio Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998) Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity
Wisconsin Osborn v. Cascade Mountain, Inc., 655 N.W.2d 546, 259 Wis. 2d 481, 2002 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1216, 2003 WI App 1 However the decision in Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 may void all releases in the state

On the Edge, but not enough to really rely on

Decisions are by the Federal District Courts and only preliminary motions
North Carolina Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations
New York DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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