One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.

Badly written release and a bad attempt to tie two documents together almost cost outfitter

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc

State: Colorado, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Alicia Hamric, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor

Defendant: Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

Badly written release and medical form with release language in them give the plaintiff the opportunity to win a lawsuit. However, a lawsuit where Colorado law is applied is going to support the release.

Facts

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

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

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is an appellate court that sits in Denver. The Tenth Circuit hears cases from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. The court, consequently, hears a few appeals of recreation cases.

This appealed covered four different legal issues. Three of the issues were procedural and won’t be reviewed. The fourth was the dismissal of the case by the lower-court magistrate on a motion for summary judgement because of the release.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read using Texas law because the release was read and signed in Texas.

There was no Jurisdiction and Venue Clause in the Release!

The defendant had the deceased sign two forms. One was a release, and the second was a medical form. Having a medical information formed signed is a quick give away that the defendant does not understand the legal issues involved. The defendant wrote both forms, so they conflicted with each other in some cases and attempted to tie the forms together. Neither really worked.

The plaintiff argued the forms were one because they conflicts would have made both forms basically invalid.

Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise, the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.

The plaintiff’s argument in many jurisdictions might have prevailed. However, the 10th circuit covers the outdoor recreation center of the universe, and state laws protect outdoor recreation, and outdoor recreation is a major source of income for these states. Consequently, any issues are going to lean towards protecting recreation.

After a lengthy review, the court found the forms were two different documents and ignored the medical form and the release like language in it.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI.

The next issue is what law should apply to determine the validity of the release. Choice of laws is a complete course you can take in law school. I still have my Choice of Laws’ textbook after all these years because it is a complicated subject that hinges on minutia in some cases to determine what court will hear a case and what law will be applied.

The case was filed in the Federal Court covering Colorado. Since the defendant was not a Texas business or doing business in Texas, the lawsuit needed to be in the defendant’s state. Federal Court was chosen because disputes between citizens of two states should be held in a neutral court, which are the federal courts. A Texan might not feel they are getting a fair deal if they have to sue in a Colorado state court. That is called the venue. What court sitting where, will hear the case.

So, the decision on what court to sue in was somewhat limited. However, that is not the end. Once the court is picked the next argument is what law will be applied to the situation. The plaintiff argued Texas Law. Texas has stringent requirements on releases. The defendant argued Colorado law, which has much fewer requirements for releases.

Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas.

Here is the court’s analysis on what states laws should apply.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (a) the place of contracting, (b) the place of negotiation of the contract, (c) the place of performance, (d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and (e) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

It is not a slam dunk for Colorado law. In this case, the plaintiff made a very good argument that Texas law should apply. The deceased was a Texas resident recruited in Texas by the defendant. The release had been given to the deceased in Texas, and he signed it in Texas. If the analysis ended there, Texas law would have applied.

There was more to the investigation the court is required to do.

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado.

This argument switched the discussion from applying Texas law to Colorado law.

Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

It is significant to note that the court looked at the issue of waiting until customers arrive in the state of Colorado to have them sign the release. The court intimated that doing so would put pressure on them to sign after already traveling to Colorado. Legally, that could be argued as duress, which voids a release or contract.

It is important to remember this point. If you are marketing out of state and book travel from out of state, you need to get your release in the hands of your out of state clients when they book the travel.

In a rare statement, the court also commented on the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the need for releases.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado.

So Now What?

This was a badly written set of documents. Probably the attempt was made to cover as many legal issues as possible as many was as possible. Writing to documents that both contained release language. However, as written here and in Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.
Write too many documents with release language in them and you can void all the releases.

The second major disaster is not having a venue and jurisdiction clause. The only real attempt to win the plaintiff had, was the release did not have a venue and jurisdiction clause. Never sign any contract without one, or if signing a contract written by someone else, find out where you have to sue and what law is applied to the contract. It makes a major difference.

Sad, so much time, energy and money were wasted on poorly written contracts (Yes, a release is a contract).

Sadder yet the plaintiff died.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both releases void.

Upon signing the second release the first is void based on Novation and the second is void because there is not consideration for the second release.

Example I: You sign a release electronically to participate in an activity. Upon arrival, the outfitter of the activity has you sign a paper release.

Example II: You sign up with a rec center to go skiing. The rec center has you sign a release and when you get to the activity, the ski area has you sign a release. Both releases stop lawsuits for skiing accidents but one protects the rec center, and one protects the ski area. Each release has different language.

Novation is a legal term that states that once you sign a second identical or similar contract to the first contract the second contract voids the first contract based on Novation. Terms such as the amount due, interest owed, etc., can be different as long as the basic agreement is the same, and the parties are generally the same.

Law.com defines Novation as:

An agreement of parties to a contract to substitute a new contract for the old one. It extinguishes (cancels) the old agreement. A novation is often used when the parties find that payments or performance cannot be made under the terms of the original agreement, or the debtor will be forced to default or go into bankruptcy unless the debt is restructured.

Nolo.com defines Novation as:

The voluntary substitution of a new contract for an old one, usually to change the parties, duties, or payment terms.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Novation as:

A contract that (1) immediately discharges either a previous contractual duty or a duty, (2) creates a new contractual duty, and (3) includes as a party one who neither owed the previous duty nor was entitled to its performance.

Many definitions of Novation include the word debt, meaning an obligation to repay, a promissory note, but not all definitions do. One argument to make is the Novation does not apply to a release because it is not a debt.

In the first example, Novation could be argued to void the first release. A new agreement has been signed, which then cancels the first agreement.

In the second example, if the parties are the same or similar and the intent of the release is the same, then it is possible that one can argue that a novation occurred canceling the first release.

In the second agreement if the group is a Youth Group that is taking kids skiing, the youth group release includes the ski area as a released party the signature on the ski area release may cancel the youth group release.

Consideration is the second issue. For a contract to be valid, something of value must flow both ways in the contract. Normally, this means one side gives the other side money, and the other side provides a service or a thing of value. You give a ski area money, and the ski area gives you access to their lifts and ski area.

Law.com defines Novation as:

2) a vital element in the law of contracts, consideration is a benefit which must be bargained for between the parties, and is the essential reason for a party entering into a contract. Consideration must be of value (at least to the parties), and is exchanged for the performance or promise of performance by the other party (such performance itself is consideration). In a contract, one consideration (thing given) is exchanged for another consideration. Not doing an act (forbearance) can be consideration, such as “I will pay you $1,000 not to build a road next to my fence.” Sometimes consideration is “nominal,” meaning it is stated for form only, such as “$10 as consideration for conveyance of title,” which is used to hide the true amount being paid. Contracts may become unenforceable or rescindable (undone by rescission) for “failure of consideration” when the intended consideration is found to be worth less than expected, is damaged or destroyed, or performance is not made properly (as when the mechanic does not make the car run properly).

Nolo defines Novation as:

A benefit or right for which the parties to a contract must bargain. In order to be valid, a contract must be founded on an exchange of one form of consideration for another. Consideration may be a promise to perform a certain act — for example, a promise to fix a leaky roof in return for a payment of $1,000 — or a promise not to do something, such as build a second story on a house that will block the neighbor’s view (in return for money or something else). Whatever its particulars, consideration must be something of value to the people who are making the contract, even if the value is very low.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Consideration as:

Something (such as an act, a forbearance, or a return promise) bargained for and received by a promisor from a promisee; that which motivates a person to do something. Consideration or a substitute such as promissory estoppel, is necessary for an agreement to be enforceable.

If you paid your money for the activity in Example, I when you signed up and you do not pay more money when you signed the second release OR what you received when you signed the second release was no different than what you received when you signed the first, there was no consideration or no new consideration. Without new or additional consideration, the second agreement is void.

The second Example is quite interesting based on consideration. If you paid the ski area directly for your lift ticket, then there might not be any consideration for the release you signed with the rec center. If you paid the rec center for the lift ticket and the rec center did not receive any of the money, there might be an issue of consideration to the ski area. The rec center would argue as a non-profit they are not supposed to make money or the taxes paid by the person who signed up covered the consideration.

If the rec center bought 2 dozen tickets from the ski area and paid the ski area and then resold them to the participants, then the ski area release would not have any consideration, and the second release would be void. The contract with consideration was between the rec center and the ski area.

If the rec center took the money and had a guest sign their release, then took the money to the ski area which gave the rec center a lift ticket for the people who had signed up, then there would be a contract between the parties, the guest, the rec center and the ski area, however, whether or not the consideration went the right way and to the right people for the right agreement is best determined by an Ouija board or a judge.

Now, if both contracts are signed at the same time, then the consideration may not be an issue, and novation is not an issue. If you have no choice but to use two releases, then have them signed at the same place at the same time.

The decision in Forman v. Brown, d/b/a Brown’s Royal Gorge Rafting, 944 P.2d 559; 1996 Colo. App. LEXIS 343, the dissent argued that the two different contracts signed at the same time cancelled each other out. One was a release, the second contract  was titled “On River Prohibitions.” The act which caused the injury to the plaintiff in Forman was prohibited in the On River Prohibitions. Because the two contracts were in conflict and the plaintiff was encouraged to jump in the river, the prohibited act, the dissenting judge felt the release was void.

Do Something

If you are an outfitter working with business, programs or non-profits brining groups to you, then offer to have everyone sign your release, (if it is a well-written  release) and specifically include the group, program, business and/or non-profit in your release. You can sell this as a benefit that you have provided them with a well-written document that provides protection for everyone.

If you have your guests, sign releases electronically, then set up your system so you are comfortable with the system, and you know that someone has signed. That means if they have paid, they have signed the release. They can’t pay without signing the release.

You do have a problem then you need to write a new release so that it takes into account the novation and consideration issues in the new agreement. You have a client who swears they sent you a signed release. However, you do not have a copy. Get a paper copy of the release and write on it that the guest is signing the new release because the old one was lost and the consideration for the new release was the $XX paid to go rafting paid on XX day of XXX month 2015. Have the guest sign the release, and the additional language added the release. However, doing this is extremely risky.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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