Every time someone comes to your business or every time they sign up again they should sign a release. This time it got rid of a major problem.

Dearnley v. Mountain Creek, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527

Releases work for future injuries and for injuries that may have all ready occurred.

This is a case where as part of the employment at a ski area, the family of the employee was able to get season passes. A requirement for the season pass was to sign a release.

In this case, the plaintiff was injured skiing on a season pass issued to the family member of an employee. The plaintiff sued the ski resort for his injuries. After the lawsuit had commenced but before trial, the plaintiff got another season pass and signed another release. The second release language was sufficient to stop the lawsuit.

The release was called a post injury release now because it stopped a lawsuit after the injury. Normally, I discuss pre-injury releases. Pre-Injury releases are releases that are signed in case someone is injured in a negligent manner.

Summary of the case

After it was discovered the plaintiff had signed a second release, the defense moved to amend their answer and filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion to amend and add the defense of release and accord and satisfaction. The plaintiff appealed.

Release” is an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is one that must be plead immediately in the answer of the defendant or the defense is waived. Release as a defense means that the parties have executed an agreement that releases the defendant from any claims.

Accord and Satisfaction” are also an affirmative defense. Accord and Satisfaction means the party have come to an agreement, an accord and resolved their differences to the satisfaction of all parties.

The plaintiff argued that the post injury release was unconscionable. The contract should not be enforced because of:

“….inadequacies, such as age, literacy, lack of sophistication, hidden or unduly complex contract terms, bargaining tactics, and the particular setting existing during the contract formation process.”

An unconscionable contract or a contract of adhesion is one that the terms were offered on a take or leave it basis the terms are unjust to the point the court cannot allow the contract to stand. The contract must be so bad as to shock the conscience of the court. However, the contract cannot just be bad to one party.

Here, there are several factors that would not make the contract unconscionable. The contract is not for a necessary service. The services could be received from the same party in other ways. (Instead of signing a release and getting a season pass, the plaintiff could have purchased daily lift tickets and not signed a release.) The services were available from other providers.

The court found there were no coercion, duress, fraud or “sharp practices” by the defendant. The agreement did not change the duty of care nor did it “incentivize negligence.” Each of the contracting parties gained or gave away something of value.

So Now What?

Here the defendant was lucky. The plaintiff unknowingly signed a release to get his season pass that had the language necessary to stop a claim that had already occurred. There are two important points to bring up from this case.

1        Make sure your release has language to top future claims and past claims.

2.      Every single time have every single-person sign a release. Get a new season pass, you sign the release again. Go rafting again, you sign the release. Buy another widget sign the release.

You just never know when a release from the future may stop a claim from the past.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Dearnley v. Mountain Creek, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527

Dearnley v. Mountain Creek, 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527

Derek Dearnley and Vicky Dearnley, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Mountain Creek, its agents, servants and employees, Defendant-Respondent.

Docket no. A-5517-10T1

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 527

February 29, 2012, Argued

March 12, 2012, Decided

Notice: not for publication without the approval of the appellate division.

Please consult new jersey rule 1:36-3 for citation of unpublished opinions.

Prior History: [*1]

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-540-09.

CORE TERMS: season, summary judgment, ski area, unconscionability, unconscionable, affirmative defenses, resort, Law Division, contract of adhesion, exculpatory provisions, releasor’s, surgery, ski, pass holder, bold, tort liability, de novo, contracting party’s, public policy, sliding scale, unenforceable, snowboarding, exculpatory, non-moving, favorable, equitable, adhesion, binding, bargain, quod

COUNSEL: Evan D. Baker argued the cause for appellants (Law Offices of Rosemarie Arnold, attorneys; Mr. Baker, of counsel and on the brief).

Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for respondent (Hueston McNulty, P.C., attorneys; Mr. McNulty, of counsel and on the brief; John F. Gaffney and Stephen H. Shaw on the brief).

JUDGES: Before Judges Harris and Koblitz.

OPINION

PER CURIAM

Plaintiffs Derek Dearnley and Vicky Dearnley appeal from the June 16, 2011, summary judgment dismissal of their six-count complaint. Plaintiffs sought tort remedies for injuries suffered by Mr. Dearnley while snowboarding at defendant Mountain Creek Resort, Inc.’s ski area in Vernon. We affirm.

I.1

1 This appeal arises from the motion court’s grant of summary judgment in defendant’s favor. Accordingly, we present the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs. See Durand v. The Nutley Sun, N.J. , (2012) (slip op. at 3 n.1) (citing G.D. v. Kenny, 205 N.J. 275, 304 (2011) (citations omitted); R. 4:46-2(c)).

Between 1998 and 2010, Mrs. Dearnley was employed by defendant in its retail department. As part of her compensation benefits, [*2] she and her family members were entitled to apply for, and obtain, a free season pass to use defendant’s facilities at its Vernon ski resort. On November 25, 2008, because her husband desired to take advantage of this benefit for the 2008-2009 winter season, Mrs. Dearnley applied for, and obtained, the pass. She signed, on his behalf, a document entitled, “Season Pass Contract, Student Ski & Ride Voucher Program, Rules and Conditions of Sale, Release of Liability and Indemnity Agreement” (the 2008 agreement). The 2008 agreement contained exculpatory provisions purporting to release tort claims before they occurred. For example, the pass holder “fully release[d] Mountain Creek FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY for personal injury, death or property damage arising out of or resulting from [the pass holder’s] participation in this sport, MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE, conditions on or about the premises and facilities or the operations of the ski area” (capitalization in the original). The outcome of this appeal, however, does not turn on this language.

On January 4, 2009, Mr. Dearnley was snowboarding at the Mountain Creek ski area when he suffered an accident that he attributes to defendant’s [*3] negligence and breach of its duties under N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11 (the Ski Act). As a result of the accident, Mr. Dearnley incurred serious injuries, which required immediate emergency surgery to stabilize his back by the implantation of metal rods and screws. According to his answers to interrogatories, Mr. Dearnley ultimately spent approximately six weeks in the hospital, had to endure three surgeries, and underwent weeks of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

On October 13, 2009, plaintiffs filed their personal injury and per quod complaint against defendant in the Law Division, Sussex Vicinage. Defendant’s answer listed ten affirmative defenses, but did not assert that the 2008 agreement’s exculpatory provisions barred the action.

Two months later, on December 21, 2009, while his wife was still employed by defendant, Mr. Dearnley applied for a season pass for the 2009-2010 winter season. He was presented with, and signed, a two-page document entitled, “Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. 2009-’10 Season Pass Wavier” (the 2009 agreement). In bold, capitalized print at the top of the first page, the 2009 agreement stated, “RELEASE, WARNINGS AND DISCLAIMERS ON SKIING.”

At the top of the second [*4] page, to which Mr. Dearnley affixed his signature, the following appeared in bold typeface:

I FURTHER RELEASE AND GIVE UP ANY AND ALL CLAIMS AND RIGHTS THAT I MAY NOW HAVE AGAINST MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC. THIS RELEASES ALL CLAIMS, INCLUDING THOSE OF WHICH I AM NOT AWARE AND THOSE NOT MENTIONED IN THIS RELEASE. THIS RELEASE APPLIES TO CLAIMS RESULTING FROM ANYTHING WHICH HAS HAPPENED UP TO NOW.

The 2009 agreement also stated in bold typeface: “I AM AWARE THAT THIS CONTRACT IS LEGALLY BINDING AND THAT I AM RELEASING LEGAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT.”

During discovery, the 2008 and 2009 agreements were exchanged between the parties’ attorneys. Upon the realization of what Mr. Dearnley had signed, plaintiffs filed a motion “for an Order barring the affirmative defenses related to two adhesion contracts.” Defendant filed a cross-motion seeking (1) summary judgment, (2) permission to file an amended answer, and (3) denial of plaintiffs’ motion.

On April 29, 2011, Judge Edward V. Gannon heard oral argument. The judge granted defendant’s motion to amend its answer to permit the pleading of (1) release and (2) accord and satisfaction as affirmative defenses. The judge noted that the 2009 agreement [*5] was executed after both the filing of plaintiffs’ complaint and defendant’s answer, and therefore could not have been contemplated by the first exchange of pleadings. Reciprocally, he denied plaintiff’s motion to bar the affirmative defenses. Finally, he reserved decision on what he called “a matter of first impression with regard to this particular type of release.”

On June 16, 2011, Judge Gannon entered an order granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice. He explained his decision in a thorough ten-page statement of reasons, taking pains to carefully explicate the two agreements and then analyze them under the lens of applicable law. This appeal ensued.

II.

Orders granting summary judgment pursuant to Rule 4:46-2 are reviewed de novo, and we apply the same legal standard employed by the Law Division. Canter v. Lakewood of Voorhees, 420 N.J. Super. 508, 515 (App. Div. 2011). In performing our appellate function we consider, as did the motion court, “‘whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in [*6] favor of the non-moving party.'” Advance Hous., Inc. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 422 N.J. Super. 317, 327 (App. Div. 2011) (quoting Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995)), certif. granted, N.J. (Jan. 24, 2012).

Similarly, when the legal conclusions of a motion court’s Rule 4:46-2 summary judgment decision are reviewed on appeal, “‘[a] trial court’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference[,]’ and, hence, an ‘issue of law is subject to de novo plenary appellate review.'” Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 382-83 (2010) (quoting City of Atl. City v. Trupos, 201 N.J. 447, 463 (2010)).

Judge Gannon dismissed plaintiffs’ claims based upon the release contained in the 2009 agreement, which was personally executed by Mr. Dearnley months after his injuries and surgeries, months after he hired a lawyer, and months after he filed suit. From our review of the undisputed factual record, we are satisfied that this case does not present any novel or first impression issues. Rather, it revolves around an ordinary release —- not exculpatory —- clause and is governed [*7] by familiar principles of contract interpretation. As Judge Gannon stated,

Invalidating the agreed upon waiver would signal judicial mistrust of our citizen’s ability to intelligently enter contracts, in which benefits derive from the assumptions of burdens. In this case, Mr. Dearnley surrendered his right to maintain this suit in exchange for the benefits afforded to season pass holders. A contracting party’s assumption of a substantial burden is no basis for interfering with our citizens’ right to freely contract.

We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Gannon, and add only the following brief comments.

Plaintiffs condemn the 2009 agreement as a contract of adhesion, fraught with unconscionabilty, and contrary to public policy. We emphasize that our review is limited to the 2009 agreement, not the 2008 agreement. We are not concerned with defendant’s efforts to exculpate itself from tort liability before an invitee becomes injured at its ski area. Instead, we parse Mr. Dearnley’s release of a claim after it allegedly accrued.

We begin our analysis of the enforceability of the release contained in the 2009 agreement with recognition of the deep-seated principle that [*8] contracts will be enforced as written. Vasquez v. Glassboro Serv. Ass’n, Inc., 83 N.J. 86, 98-100 (1980). Ordinarily, courts will not rewrite contracts to favor a party, for the purpose of giving that party a better bargain. Relief is not available merely because enforcement of the contract causes oppression, improvidence, or unprofitability, or because it produces hardship to one of the parties. Brunswick Hills Racquet Club, Inc. v. Route 18 Shopping Ctr. Assocs., 182 N.J. 210, 223 (2005). A court cannot “‘abrogate the terms of a contract unless there is a settled equitable principle, such as fraud, mistake, or accident, allowing for such intervention.'” Id. at 223-24 (quoting Dunkin’ Donuts of America, Inc. v. Middletown Donut Corp., 100 N.J. 166, 183-84 (1985)).

Rational personal and economic behavior in the modern post-industrial world is only possible if agreements between parties are respected. The reasonable expectations created by mutual assent ought to receive the protection of the law and courts should not be encouraged to fashion a better arrangement for a party because of a gaffe to which the other party is not privy. In other words, avoidance of a contract is a very stern [*9] remedy that requires clear evidence demonstrating that the consequences of the mistake are so grave that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable. That formidable threshold has not been surmounted here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, a contract provision that is procedurally and substantively unconscionable can be set aside. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of Rehoboth Beach, 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1338, 127 S. Ct. 2032, 167 L. Ed. 2d 763 (2007). “[P]rocedural unconscionability . . . ‘can include a variety of inadequacies, such as age, literacy, lack of sophistication, hidden or unduly complex contract terms, bargaining tactics, and the particular setting existing during the contract formation process[.]'” Ibid. (quoting Sitogum Holdings, Inc. v. Ropes, 352 N.J. Super. 555, 564-66 (Ch. Div. 2002). A contract of adhesion, presented by the drafting party to the other party on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, as here, typically involves “some characteristics of procedural unconscionability[.]” Id. at 16. The determination “that a contract is one of adhesion, however, ‘is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry’ into whether a contract, or any specific term therein, [*10] should be deemed unenforceable based on policy considerations.” Id. at 28 (citing Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm., 127 N.J. 344 (1992)).

Substantive unconscionability essentially refers to the inclusion within a contract of “harsh or unfair one-sided terms.” Id. at 15 (citing Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 564-66). It is also described as “‘the exchange of obligations so one-sided as to shock the court’s conscience.'” B & S Ltd., Inc. v. Elephant & Castle Intern., Inc., 388 N.J. Super. 160, 176 (Ch. Div. 2006)(quoting Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 565).

Generally, courts must undertake “a careful fact sensitive examination into [claims of] substantive unconscionability.” Id. at 16 (footnote omitted). “When making the determination that a contract of adhesion is unconscionable and unenforceable, we consider, using a sliding scale analysis, the way in which the contract was formed and, further, whether enforcement of the contract implicates matters of public interest.” Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).

The release provisions of the 2009 agreement are not the analytical equivalent of its exculpatory provisions. “The law does not favor exculpatory [*11] agreements because they encourage a lack of care.” Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247 (App. Div. 2004). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize attempts to contract in advance to release tort liability. “‘[C]ourts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.'” Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 333 (2004) (quoting Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491 (App. Div. 2004)).

The subject release does not call forth any of the foregoing concerns. Mr. Dearnley’s 2009 agreement with defendant neither eroded defendant’s duty of care nor did it incentivize negligence. Each of the contracting parties gained or gave away something of value. There was no coercion, duress, fraud, or sharp practices afoot. Public policy is not offended by requiring a non-incapacitated adult to honor the type of promise given here. See Raroha v. Earle Fin. Corp., 47 N.J. 229, 234 (1966) (holding that in the absence of fraud, misrepresentation or overreaching by the releasee, in the absence of a showing that the releasor was suffering from an incapacity affecting his ability to understand the meaning of [*12] the release and in the absence of any other equitable ground, it is the law of this State that the release is binding and that the releasor will be held to the terms of the bargain he willingly and knowingly entered).

Judge Gannon properly calibrated the “sliding scale” of our unconscionabilty jurisprudence and correctly determined that the 2009 agreement’s release was enforceable. Mr. Dearnley’s releasor’s remorse is an insufficient basis to return this matter to the Law Division for trial.2

2 Mrs. Dearnley’s claims are entirely derivative of her husband’s and consequently her per quod action must fall in the wake of Mr. Dearnley’s release. See Ryan v. Renny, 203 N.J. 37, 62 n.1 (2011) (noting that “the viability of [that claim] is subject to the survival of [her husband]’s claim” (quoting Sciarrotta v. Global Spectrum, 194 N.J. 345, 350 n.3 (2008)).)

Affirmed.

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Will the ski industry ignore itself into litigation nightmares or will it decided to make skiers assume the risk

Angland v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2542

The issue as identified in this case is ongoing throughout the US, is the standard of care reckless skiing, the standard of care in most of life or just failing to ski perfectly.

This is another case that cannot be relied upon for any major legal principle because it is still facing months or years of litigation. However, it identifies an issue in the ski industry, and probably other industries in the future on the standard of care a skier owes another skier. (In this case I use the term skier to mean anyone on the mountain, skier, boarder, telemark skier, snow bike, etc.)

Is the standard of care that of someone acting recklessly or is the standard of care violating the “skier’s responsibility code?”

This case

The case is simple with drastic consequences. A snowboarder and a skier were on the same slope. Allegedly, another person cut the snowboarder off, and he quickly turned to his left colliding with Angland, the deceased. Angland fell and slid a distance into a wall where he died. Here is the court’s interpretation of what happened.

In order to avoid the unidentified skier, Brownlee turned quickly to his left. In doing so, Brownlee’s snowboard and the decedent’s skis became entangled. The two men collided, fell, and slid downhill. Decedent ultimately impacted a concrete bridge headfirst. He died as a result. Brownlee stopped sliding. He stood up and went to Angland’s assistance.

The family/estate of the deceased sued the ski area, Mountain Creek and the snowboarder. Mountain Creek and the snowboarder filed motions for summary judgment. Mountain Creek was dismissed from the suit based on the New Jersey Ski Statute. The court held that there was enough factual issue in the arguments of the parties that had to be decided by a jury so therefore the snowboarder was not dismissed from the case.

The main issue appears to be did the snowboarder violate the standard of care as set forth in the New Jersey Ski Statute. The relevant part of the statute is:

N.J.S.A. § 5:13-4. Duties of skiers  

(4)        Knowingly engage in any act or activity by his skiing or frolicking, which injures other skiers while such other skiers are either descending any trail, or standing or congregating in a reasonable manner, and due diligence shall be exercised in order to avoid hitting, colliding with or injuring any other skier or invitee.

The expert witness for the plaintiff testified that the snowboarder did violate the statute and consequently, the standard of care when he deviated “… from the statutory standard occurred when Brownlee failed to keep a proper lookout, made a panic stop, and turned to his left in front of decedent.”

If you are turning to avoid a collision, you are maintaining a proper lookout. If you are a goofy footed snowboarder you have limited vision to your left. Again, if you are avoiding a collision or a problem, you turn in skiing and boarding.

The court did not dismiss the complaint of the snowboarder because the court believed the snowboarder may have violated the statute. The statute is not aligned with the other states in how it describes the standard of care leaving a large whole in understanding what level of care is owed by one skier to another.

Do any of those issues rise to the level that they are reckless?

In the past, the standard to determine if a skier was skiing in a negligent manner was whether the skier was skiing recklessly. Reckless skiing is defined as:

….intentionally injure or engage in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport. Mastro v. Petrick, 93 Cal. App. 4th 83; 112 Cal. Rptr. 2d 185; 2001 Cal. App. LEXIS 2725; 2001 Cal. Daily Op. Service 9124 (California)

Carelessness and recklessness,’ though more than ordinary negligence, is less than willfulness or wantonness.” Strawbridge vs. Sugar Mountain Resort, 320 F. Supp. 2d 425; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14561 (North Carolina)

A defendant, however, may not be held liable for negligent, or even reckless or intentional injurious conduct that is not outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport. Fontaine v. Boyd, 2011 R.I. Super. LEXIS 27 (Rhode Island)

done heedlessly and recklessly, without regard to consequences, or of the rights and safety of others, particularly the plaintiff. Stamp, v. The Vail Corporation, 172 P.3d 437; 2007 Colo. LEXIS 1082 (Colorado)

…recklessness is “a conscious choice of a course of action either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man, and the actor must recognize that his conduct involves a risk substantially greater . . . than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent, Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al., 276 Conn. 314; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500

Recklessness is not intentional acts; it is just short of that. The expert in this case looked at the issues and identified three things that the defendant snowboarder did that violated the New Jersey Ski Statute:

·        failed to keep a proper lookout

·        made a panic stop

·        turned to his left in front of decedent

In my opinion, none of the actions of the defendant in this case violated the standard of care. Looking at this from the standard of care of all other states with ski areas the defendant snowboarder was not reckless. However, if the plaintiff’s bar has its way, the actions of the defendant snowboarder may have violated the skier responsibility code.

The heart of the argument is the plaintiffs are attempting to change the standard of care from reckless to a much lower level. Usually, that level is aligned with the public-safety program developed by the National Ski Patrol called the Skier Responsibility Code. A few caveats about the code.

          1. It is not set in stone; in fact, an internet search for the code will identify dozens of different codes. The version on the National Ski Patrol website and the National Ski Area Association website are even different.

          2. It was created as a guideline, not a standard of care.

          3. Only Montana has incorporated the code in its statute.

So Now What?

My issue with the entire issue is no one seems to want to take a stand and say this is going to be a disaster if we don’t do something about it. Allowing the definition of a breach of the standard of care between skiers/boarders on the slope is going to cost ski areas a lot of money, more so if they are not named in the suit.

Every lawsuit based ski area land; the ski area is going to have to do things that cost money.

1.      Copies of reports, maps, and ski patrol information must be identified and provided to opposing parties.

2.    Employees will be deposed and attend trial; the resort is going to have to pay them to attend.

3.    When employees are being deposed, and possibly attend trial, attorneys are going to have to be hired to represent the employees.

These are just three quick instances. This does not include such things as closing the slope for a site inspection. If only two employees are subpoenaed think of the cost of preparing for deposition, being deposed, preparing for trial and attending a trial to a ski area.

This is very expensive and if the ski area is not named in the suit, there is no insurance to cover these costs.

From the perspective of this case, there is a lot left to argue. We can only wait and see what the outcome is, if we ever learn.

From the perspective of the ski industry, the industry needs to realize that this is only going to get worse.

The industry needs to:

·        Inform people that collisions, unless reckless or intentional are assumed and part of the risk of skiing. California has done this.

·        Change statutes to say that collisions in skiing, like in football, basketball, soccer, baseball are part of the risk of skiing, and a participant assumes the risk.

·        Define the Skier Responsibility Code as help, not the standard of care.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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