Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

Hawkins v. Switchback MX, LLC, 339 F. Supp. 3d 543, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 155249

United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

September 12, 2018, Decided; September 12, 2018, Filed




Counsel:  [**1] For KAMERON HAWKINS, &, AMBER LYNN DURBIN, Plaintiffs: George R. Farneth , II, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Farneth Law Group, LLC, Wellsburg, WV.

For SWITCHBACK MX, LLC, doing business as, SWITCHBACK RACEWAY, Defendant: Michael John Pawk, Lutz & Pawk, Butler, PA.

Judges: Christopher C. Conner, Chief United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Christopher C. Conner



Plaintiff Kameron Hawkins (“Hawkins”) suffered injuries after he unsuccessfully attempted a jump while riding a dirt bike on an indoor course at defendant Switchback Raceway (“Switchback”). Hawkins and his mother, plaintiff Amber Lynn Durbin (“Durbin”), commenced this diversity action advancing three negligence claims against Switchback under Pennsylvania law. Before the court are the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History1

This personal injury lawsuit arises from physical injuries suffered by Hawkins following a dirt bike accident at Switchback’s off-road riding and racing facility in Butler, Pennsylvania. Switchback promotes and stages dirt bike races for participants of all skill levels. (Doc. 28 ¶ 1; Doc. 32 ¶ 2). Switchback’s website articulates [**2]  its waiver and consent policy as follows:

Dirtbike/ATV riding is dangerous. Accidents, injuries, and even death can occur. Ride at your own risk! All riders must sign a waiver before they will [be] permitted to ride. Minors will be required to have parental consent. During practice, there are limited to no flaggers. Please, ride safely.

There is no trespassing on Switchback property. Anyone caught trespassing will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

All minors that come without their legal parents they must have a NOTARIZED waiver to be able to ride. NO EXCEPTIONS.

(Doc. 30-9 at 1). Switchback’s track manager, Mark Brader (“Brader”), testified that,  [*546]  pursuant to this policy, a minor is not be permitted to ride without a signed parental consent form and waiver. (Brader Dep. 29:5-18, 42:13-21).2 He also testified that it was his responsibility to ensure that minors did not misrepresent their age or otherwise engage in efforts to improperly gain access to the track. (Id. at 56:4-8; see also Doc. 28 ¶ 10).

Hawkins began riding a dirt bike at the age of five or six. (Doc. 32 ¶ 4). He learned the ins and outs of dirt bike riding [**3]  from his father, who raced dirt bikes and often brought Hawkins to spectate at off-road races. (See id. ¶¶ 7-9; Hawkins Dep. 20:5-22:4 (“Hawkins Dep.”)). Hawkins began participating in races himself at “a young age” and even secured sponsorships. (Doc. 32 ¶ 6). He testified that he was aware of the dangers of riding dirt bikes from early on in his experience, that his father instructed him to avoid jumps that “you don’t think you can handle,” and that he wore protective gear to guard against the risk of injury. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8; Hawkins Dep. 21:20-22:21, 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12, 147:18-148:6). He acknowledges that dirt bike riding is “a dangerous sport,” that “you could get hurt” on a dirt bike, and that a fall could cause “injury . . . or even death.” (Hawkins Dep. 25:17-26:4, 38:13-21, 39:14-25, 147:18-148:6). Despite his protective measures, Hawkins has suffered injuries in the past riding a dirt bike. (Doc. 32 ¶ 14; see also Hawkins Dep. 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12). Hawkins had been to Switchback on three prior occasions: once as a spectator, once as pit crew member for his friend Jonathan Franjko (“Franjko”), and once as a rider. (Doc. 32 ¶ 28).

The events preceding Hawkins’ accident on January [**4]  9, 2016 are disputed by the parties and not fully explored in the Rule 56 record. According to Hawkins, he arrived at Switchback with several friends and met with Brader, who asked them whether they had been to Switchback before. (Hawkins Dep. 49:5-12). Hawkins relayed that, after the group responded affirmatively, Brader told them to sign in, accepted their payment, and provided them with wristbands to attach to their helmets to indicate they had been authorized to ride. (See id.) He denied ever being asked to present identification and did not recall being asked his age. (Id. at 133:13-23).

Switchback’s account diverges considerably. According to Brader, Hawkins entered the indoor facility on January 9, 2016 with Franjko, who had a Switchback membership card. (See Brader Dep. 56:9-18). Brader did not recognize Hawkins and thought he appeared to be under the age of 18. (See id. at 56:19-57:2). Brader reported that he told Hawkins he needed to “take home a waiver and fill it out” and that he had to “bring [the waiver] out next time and join us another day.” (Id. at 56:23-57:6). Brader does not recall Hawkins signing in on Switchback’s sign-in sheet for January 9, 2016, but testified that he [**5]  told Hawkins he “could not ride” without waiver and consent forms on file. (Id. at 76:12-77:1). Brader also testified that he does not know how Hawkins ultimately came to access the track on January 9, 2016. (Id. at 91:12-16). It is undisputed that Durbin did not execute a parental consent form allowing Hawkins to participate in dirt bike riding at Switchback. (Doc. 28 ¶ 12).

On January 9, 2016, Hawkins somehow gained access Switchback’s indoor dirt bike racing track. (See Doc. 28 ¶ 13; Doc.  [*547]  32 ¶¶ 1, 13, 31). Hawkins “attempted a jump, without enough speed,” on one of the track’s “table top jumps,” which caused the frame of his dirt bike to hit the ground and “flip [the] bike and Hawkins over.” (Doc. 32 11 13, 31). According to Brader, it was only after this wreck that he became aware that Hawkins had accessed the track. (See Brader Dep. 57:4-11). Brader testified that Hawkins “didn’t look right” and that he offered to call an ambulance. (Id. at 82:10-83:12). Franjko confirmed that Brader asked “a couple times” whether Hawkins wanted medical attention. (See Franjko Dep. 58:12-59:1). Hawkins left Switchback’s facility with his friends without receiving medical attention. (See Doc. 28 [**6]  ¶ 17; Doc. 39 ¶ 17). Hawkins was subsequently treated for injuries including a lacerated kidney and pancreas, trauma to his spleen, a broken hip, a concussion, and post-concussion syndrome. (Doc. 28 ¶ 18). The accident occurred four months before Hawkins’ 18th birthday. (See Doc. 32 ¶ 3).

Hawkins and Durbin commenced this lawsuit on November 15, 2016, asserting one claim of negligence each and one claim of negligence per se together. Plaintiffs contend that Switchback violated its internal policies and its legal duty of care by failing to ensure that Hawkins, a minor, did not access its facility without parental consent. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on each of the plaintiffs’ claims. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact” and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with “affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings,” in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The court is to view [**7]  the evidence “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

Courts are permitted to resolve cross-motions for summary judgment concurrently. See Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Johnson v. Fed. Express Corp., 996 F. Supp. 2d 302, 312 (M.D. Pa. 2014); 10A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720 (3d ed. 2015). When doing so, the court is bound to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party with respect to each motion. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Lawrence, 527 F.3d at 310 (quoting Rains v. Cascade Indus., Inc., 402 F.2d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 1968)).

III. Discussion

Pennsylvania substantive law governs the negligence claims raised by the plaintiffs in this diversity action. See Maghakian v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., 171 F. Supp. 3d 353, 358 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (citing Chamberlain v. Giampapa, 210 F.3d 154, 158 (3d Cir. 2000)); see also Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). Under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must prove the “four basic  [*548]  elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages.” Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC, 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (quoting Loughran v. Phillies, 2005 PA Super 396, 888 A.2d 872, 874 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). That is, plaintiffs must prove: (1) the existence of a legal duty requiring a certain standard of conduct; (2) breach of that duty by the defendant; (3) a causal connection between defendant’s breach and plaintiffs’ injury; and (4) actual loss or damages. Id. (quoting Berrier v. Simplicity Mfg., Inc., 563 F.3d 38, 61 (3d Cir. 2009)).

The parties’ [**8]  cross-motions for summary judgment concenter on two disputes: first, whether Switchback owed a legal duty of care to Hawkins in view of the no-duty rule set forth in Pennsylvania’s Comparative Negligence Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102, and second, whether Hawkins assumed the risk of injury, negating any duty of care, by engaging in an activity which he understood to be dangerous.3

A. Duty of Care

The parties offer competing perspectives of the applicable duty of care. Switchback maintains that it had no duty to protect Hawkins from risks inherent in off-road dirt bike riding. Switchback invokes the no-duty rule set forth in Pennsylvania’s Comparative Negligence Act, which provides that an operator of an off-road vehicle riding area—such as Switchback—”shall have no duty to protect riders from common, frequent, expected and nonnegligent risks inherent to the activity, including collisions with riders or objects.” 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1). Switchback avers that the possibility of falling and suffering injury while engaged in off-road riding is an inherent, expected risk of the activity, and that the no-duty rule forecloses liability in this case.

Plaintiffs rejoin that the no-duty rule has no application here. They assert that [**9]  this case does not concern a duty to protect patrons from the risks of off-road riding once they have accessed the track, but instead concerns Switchback’s alleged negligence in allowing minors to access its facility in the first instance. Plaintiffs rely on the Armstrong County Court of Common Pleas’ decision in Emerick v. Fox Raceway, 68 Pa. D. & C. 4th 299 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 2004), wherein the state court found that off-road riding area operators have a legal duty to develop and follow internal procedures to check a prospective rider’s age and to ensure minor riders do not access their facility without parental consent. Id. at 318. To hold otherwise, the court found, would be “contrary to good public policy.” Id.

Plaintiffs insist that the Emerick decision is on all fours with their claims. The trouble with Emerick is that it fails to engage with or even acknowledge the no-duty rule, which became law on July 15, 2004—a mere six days before the Emerick decision issued. Plaintiffs posit that the lack of discussion of the new rule suggests that the court deemed it inapplicable, given that the case before the court involved policies which allowed a plaintiff to sneak onto the track rather than the conditions of the track itself. Switchback, for its part, insists [**10]  that the court was either unaware of the new enactment or deemed it inapplicable because the accident at issue occurred before the statute’s effective date.

We cannot ascribe weight to the Emerick decision when it failed to engage with this transformative legislative enactment.  [*549]  The court’s opinion expressly states that it is grounded largely in public policy—but the state legislature six days prior explicitly and substantially transformed the Commonwealth’s negligence policy as concerns tort liability for operators of off-road riding areas. In our view, the failure of the Emerick court to account for the no-duty rule severely diminishes its value as precedent. Nonetheless, because we determine infra that the assumption of the risk doctrine negates any duty that Switchback may have had to protect Hawkins, we need not determine, as a matter of law, what duty of care remains for operators of off-road riding areas with respect to minors attempting to access their facilities.

B. Assumption of the Risk

Most tort claims in Pennsylvania are governed by the comparative negligence doctrine. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(a). But the legislature expressly preserved assumption of the risk as a defense in two categories of activities: [**11]  off-road vehicle riding, see id. § 7102(b.3)(2), and downhill skiing, see id. § 7102(c)(2). Specifically, as pertains off-road vehicle riding areas, the Comparative Negligence Act states: “The doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk shall apply to all actions to recover damages for negligence resulting in death or injury to person or property brought against any off-road vehicle riding area operator.” Id. § 7102(b.3)(2). The assumption of the risk doctrine operates to negate any legal duty ascribed to those plaintiffs seek to hold liable: “to the extent the injured plaintiff proceeded in the face of a known danger, he relieved those who may have otherwise had a duty, implicitly agreeing to take care of himself.” Montagazzi v. Crisci, 2010 PA Super 78, 994 A.2d 626, 635 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2010) (citing Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 124 (Pa. 1983)). The doctrine operates as a “no-duty” rule; that is, for those facilities for which the legislature preserved the assumption of the risk defense, the owner or operator “has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1185-86 (Pa. 2010) (citations omitted).

Pennsylvania courts apply a subjective standard when determining whether a minor assumed the risk of a given activity. That is, the court must ask what the “particular minor plaintiff knows, sees, hears, comprehends, and appreciates” [**12]  with respect to the risk involved. Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, LP, 550 F.3d 263, 269 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Berman v. Phila. Bd. of Educ., 310 Pa. Super. 153, 456 A.2d 545, 550 (Pa. 1983)). To grant summary judgment based on an assumption of the risk defense, the court must find that the plaintiff (1) “consciously appreciated the risk” attending the activity, (2) assumed the risk of injury by nonetheless engaging in the activity, and (3) sustained an injury that was “the same risk of injury that was appreciated and assumed.” Zeidman v. Fisher, 2009 PA Super 161, 980 A.2d 637, 641 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009) (quoting Hadar v. Avco Corp., 2005 PA Super 326, 886 A.2d 225, 229 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). When reasonable minds could not disagree, the question of assumption of the risk is for the court. See Carrender, 469 A.2d at 124; see also M.D. v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., No. 14-CV-1576, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81392, 2015 WL 3866050, at *4 (M.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 469 cmt. e (Am. Law Inst. 1965)).

No court has explored the assumption of the risk doctrine in the context of off-road riding areas following the 2004 amendment to the Comparative Negligence Act. But several courts have interpreted the doctrine as pertains to downhill skiing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that retention of the assumption of the risk doctrine in that context reflects the legislature’s intent that a ski resort  [*550]  owner owes no duty of care to patrons for any risk “‘inherent’ in downhill skiing.” Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (Pa. 2000); see also Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268. Knowledge of the inherent risk has been deemed the sine qua non of an assumption of the risk defense. See M.D., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81392, 2015 WL 3866050, at *3. The plaintiff’s age and relative degree of experience [**13]  with the activity are relevant in determining whether that particular plaintiff was aware of a given risk. See id. (citing Bjorgung, 550 F.3d 263; Chepkevich, 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174; Hughes, 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339). We can conceive of no reason why these principles, developed in the analogous context of downhill skiing, should not apply with equal force to negligence claims involving off-road riding areas. Compare 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1)-(2) with id. § 7102(c)(1)-(2).

We must first query whether the risk of falling during a jump and suffering serious injury is inherent in the activity of off-road riding. An “inherent risk” is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of the activity. Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Crews v. Seven Springs Mountain Resort, 2005 PA Super 138, 874 A.2d 100, 105 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2005)). The Comparative Negligence Act identifies “collisions with riders or objects” as risks inherent in off-road riding. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102(b.3)(1). Common sense dictates that the risk of a fall or collision that does not involve another rider or object is equally inherent in the activity. Indeed, Hawkins’ own experience bears this out—he testified that his accident on January 9, 2016, was not his first; that he knew from personal experience that attempting jumps carried a certain risk; and that he wore protective gear in an attempt to mitigate that risk. (Hawkins Dep. 38:22-39:25, 133:3-12, 147:24-148:6). We find that the [**14]  risk of suffering serious injury when attempting a dirt bike jump is one which “cannot be removed without altering the fundamental nature” of dirt bike riding and is thus inherent in the activity. See Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Crews, 874 A.2d at 105).

We further conclude that reasonable persons could not debate whether Hawkins appreciated and knowingly assumed that risk. Hawkins was nearly 18 years old at the time of the accident and had been riding dirt bikes for more than 12 years. He was a vastly experienced rider. He was well aware that dirt bike riding carried the risk of serious injury and even death. Indeed, Hawkins acknowledged that a dirt bike presents a certain danger “even when the bike’s on the ground.” (Hawkins Dep. 92:4-93:2). Given this unequivocal record testimony, we have little difficulty finding that this particular rider—plaintiff Kameron Hawkins—knew, appreciated, and assumed the risks attending off-road dirt bike riding.

Anticipating the defense’s strategy sub judice, plaintiffs contend that a minor cannot ever assume the risk of a particular activity, again invoking Emerick, in which the Armstrong County Court of Common Pleas held that, because a minor plaintiff is incapable of entering into a contract [**15]  and cannot expressly waive liability for a given activity, a minor cannot impliedly assume that same risk by his or her actions. Emerick, 68 Pa. D. & C. 4th at 319. The state court provided no precedent in support of this sweeping conclusion. In this respect, Emerick
runs counter to the great weight of authority in the state courts and in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals which have held consistently that a minor is capable of assuming the risk of a dangerous activity. See, e.g., Bjorgung, 550 F.3d at 268-69 (quoting Berman, 456 A.2d at 550); Montagazzi, 994 A.2d at 635-36; Berman, 456 A.2d at 550; see also Johnson v. Walker, 376 Pa. Super. 302, 545 A.2d 947, 949-50 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988).

 [*551]  The undisputed Rule 56 record establishes beyond debate that Hawkins knew, appreciated, and assumed the risk of injury attending off-road dirt bike riding. He was an experienced dirt bike rider who was fully aware that attempting a jump on a dirt bike carried with it an inexorable risk of injury. And he proceeded to attempt a jump on Switchback’s indoor track notwithstanding that understood risk. Switchback accordingly had no duty to protect Hawkins on January 9, 2016. We will grant summary judgment to Switchback on Hawkins’ negligence claim. Because Durbin’s claim for economic damages is derivative of Hawkins’ individual claim, we will likewise grant summary judgment to Switchback on Durbin’s claim.

IV. Conclusion

We are [**16]  not unsympathetic to the serious injuries suffered by Hawkins. But the unequivocal fact remains that Hawkins—having more than a decade of experience riding on similar off-road tracks—voluntarily engaged in the dangerous sport of dirt bike riding knowing full well the risks of the activity. Switchback is not legally responsible for the injuries that Hawkins suffered at its facility. Accordingly, the court will grant summary judgment to Switchback on plaintiffs’ negligence claims. An appropriate order shall issue.

/s/ Christopher C. Conner

Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

United States District Court

Middle District of Pennsylvania

Dated: September 12, 2018


AND NOW, this 12th day of September, 2018, upon consideration of the parties’ cross-motions (Docs. 27, 31) for summary judgment, and the parties’ briefs in support of and opposition to said motions, (Docs. 29, 33, 36, 38, 41), and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that:

1. Plaintiffs’ motion (Doc. 27) for summary judgment is DENIED.

2. Defendant’s motion (Doc. 31) for summary judgment is GRANTED as follows:

a. Judgment is ENTERED in favor of defendant and against plaintiffs on [**17]  the negligence claims set forth in Counts I and II of plaintiffs’ complaint.

b. The negligence per se claim set forth in Count III of plaintiffs’ complaint is DISMISSED.

3. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.

/s/ Christopher C. Conner

Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

United States District Court

Middle District of Pennsylvania

Dated: September 12, 2018


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,


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:


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.


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]


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:


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.


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


[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.

Alabama follows the majority of states and does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

J.T., Jr., a minor v. Monster Mountain, Llc, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130407; 78 Fed. R. Serv. 3d (Callaghan) 182

This is an interesting case based on who actually signed the release on behalf of and in an attempt to bind the minor.

The minor traveled from Indiana to Alabamato ride at the defendant’s motocross facility. The parents of the minor signed a power of attorney giving the

English: Great Seal of The State of Alabama

Image via Wikipedia

coach the authority to sign on their behalf “all release of liability and registration forms and to give consent for medical treatment” for the minor while on the trip. This was a proper power of attorney, signed by the parents and notarized.

The coach then registered the plaintiff each day and signed the release on the plaintiff’s behalf.

While riding on the third day the minor went over a jump. While airborne he saw a tractor that had been parked on the track which he collided with. The minor sued in Federal District Court for his injuries claiming the act of leaving the tractor on the track was negligent.

Summary of the case

Under Alabama law, like in most jurisdictions a minor cannot contract. That is done so that adults will not take advantage of minors. The exception to the rule is a minor can contract for necessities. Necessities are food, utilities, etc., those things necessary to live.

Also under Alabama law, and most other states, a parent cannot sign away a minor’s right in advance except in with regard to insurance. A parent can sign away a minor’s right in an insurance policy with regard to the subrogation right in the insurance policy. The court reasoned the minor cannot have the benefits of the insurance without the responsibility also.

So Alabama is like the majority of states. A parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue and a minor cannot contract or sign a release.

So Now What?

In most states, the only real defense available to stop a lawsuit by a minor is assumption of the risk. Because a minor cannot contract, the minor cannot agree to assume the risk in writing. You the outdoor business or program must be able to show that you gave the minor the information so the minor knew the risks and accepted them. It is up to the trier of fact to determine if the minor understood those risks.

1. Make your website an information resource. Any and every question about the activity should be there including what the risks are and how to deal with them. Put in pictures, FAQ’s and videos. Show the good and the bad.
2. Provide a bonus or a benefit for completing watching and reviewing the website. If a minor collects the bonus or benefit then you have proof the minor know of the risks.
3. Review the bigger risks and the common ones with all minors before they are allowed to participate in the activity.
4. Still have the parents sign a release. Remember the parents have a right to sue for the minor’s injuries. A release will stop the parent’s suit. Put in the release that the parent has reviewed the website with the minor to make sure the minor understands the risks of the activity.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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