Illinois upholds release stopping a claim for injury from bouldering at defendant North Wall.

However, defendant climbing wall admitted it had not followed its own procedures or Climbing Wall Association manual with the plaintiff, law in Illinois saved defendant.

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Patricia Cizek

Defendant: North Wall, Inc., d/b/a North Wall Rock Climbing Gym

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Willful & Wanton Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Open & Obvious & Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff was boulder for the first time and not given the normal or required introduction at the bouldering gym. She fell off the wall and missed a crash pad breaking her ankle. Court held the release she signed stopped her lawsuit.

Facts

On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent’s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.” Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.” Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.” Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.” There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.” At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent’s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?” Kosinski said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.” Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.” Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,” explaining that “[y]ou use your core.” Plaintiff would “shimmy” down when she got “sore.” She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.” She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

Plaintiff was injured during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.” An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff’s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski’s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff’s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

The court also went through a litany of issues the defendant climbing gym did not do with the plaintiff.

Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri [gym manager] to go over “any and all safety procedures” with new climbers.

There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,” but there was an “unofficial manual” kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer [gym owner] instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee” manager.” He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

Aside from ascertaining a customer’s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.” Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules” of the Climbing Wall Association.

On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.” They did “orientate climbers” and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.” This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

Obviously, the defendant gym failed to follow its own rules or the rules and ideas of the CWA that the gym, in the court’s mind, had adopted.

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

The court first looked at the issue that falling was an open and obvious risk.

In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.”). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

The court moved on to review release law in Illinois. Illinois supports the use of releases, unless the contract is between parties with unequal bargaining power, violates public policy or there is a special relationship between the parties.

Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties; however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].

When written the release must be expressed in clear, explicit an unequivocal language. The release must also be written in a way that both parties to the contract intended to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm to the plaintiff. However, the release must not be written precisely to cover the exact conduct or exact harm.

Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release.

The court found the language “…arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym, whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however, the injury or damage is caused.” w sufficient to the injury the plaintiff received based on the conduct (or lack of conduct in this case) of the defendant.

The court held “In sum, the release, here is clear, pertains to use of defendant’s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.”

The court then reviewed the willful and wanton claims of the plaintiff. The court described willful and wanton as “”Conduct is “willful and wanton” where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. It is an “aggravated form of negligence.”

The plaintiff argued that failing to follow the defendant bouldering gym’s own policies or evaluate her abilities was proof of willful and wanton conduct. She also pointed out the defendant failed to tell her not to climb above the bouldering line.

Quickly, the court determined the plaintiff had not pled or provided any facts to support her willful and wanton claims. Even if the defendant had followed its own policies, the plaintiff could not show that would have prevented her injuries. Falling at a height above the bouldering line is an open and obvious risk so failing to tell the plaintiff not to climb high is not relevant.

The risk of falling is open and obvious and none of the arguments made by the plaintiff as to the defendants actions overcame that doctrine.

So Now What?

It is great that Illinois supports the use of releases. Even in a case where the defendant failed to follow its own policies or the “manual” of the trade association it belonged to. Even better the court did not find the CWA manual or the defendant’s failure to follow its policies as an issue that could over come the release.

However, from the court’s writing, it is obvious, that the open and obvious doctrine was the most persuasive in supporting both the release and ignoring the defendant’s actions or lack of action.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Grosch v. Anderson, 2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529

Grosch v. Anderson, 2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529

Grosch v. Anderson

Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

September 12, 2018, Order Filed

No. 2-17-0707

Reporter

2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529 **

TRACEY GROSCH, Individually and as Mother and Next Friend of Riley Grosch, a Minor, Plaintiff and Counterdefendant-Appellant, v. BRIAN ANDERSON, JO ANDERSON, CARY-GROVE EVANGELICAL FREE CHURCH, d/b/a Living Grace Community Church of Cary, Defendants and Counterplaintiffs-Appellees.

Notice: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 14-L-619. Honorable James R. Murphy, Judge, Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Judges: JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court. Justices McLaren and Burke concurred in the judgment.

Opinion by: BIRKETT

Opinion

JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court.

Justices McLaren and Burke concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

 [*P1] 
Held: The trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of defendants because the fire pole was an open and obvious condition and no exception existed, and there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment.

 [*P2]  Plaintiff, Tracey Grosch, individually and as mother and next friend of Riley Grosch, a minor, appeals the judgment of the circuit court of Kane County, granting summary judgment in favor of defendants, Brian Anderson, Jo Anderson, and the Cary-Grove Evangelical Free Church d/b/a Living Grace Community Church on plaintiff’s claims of negligence related to Riley’s fall as he was attempting to slide down a fire pole in the Andersons’s back yard during an event sponsored by the Church’s youth ministry. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in relying on the open-and-obvious doctrine and in concluding [**2]  that there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment. We affirm.

 [*P3]  I. BACKGROUND

 [*P4]  We summarize the pertinent facts. On November 14, 2016, the Andersons were members of the Church; plaintiff’s family attended the Church, but were not members. According to Pastor Cory Shreve, quite a few more people attended the Church than were members. Shreve was the youth pastor and was responsible for running and administering the Church’s youth ministry. He was in charge of the Radiate program which provided for fellowship and religious mentoring of youths beginning in seventh grade and ending upon high school graduation. Radiate was open to members and attendees, and it incorporated youths from other churches and even the “unchurched” as well. Radiate had contacted the Andersons seeking to hold a bonfire at their home; the group had held a bonfire there previously.

 [*P5]  In the Andersons’ back yard, Brian had constructed a platform in a tree from which he had removed the upper branches and foliage. The platform was about 25 feet above the ground. The platform was reached by a ladder tied to the tree. The platform had a rail around it, but no other fall protection. The [**3]  platform had a triangular hole in it, and through the hole, was a metal “fire pole.” The pole was made out of sprinkler pipe, was affixed in concrete at the base, and was 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The surface of the pole had oxidized. The ground around the pole was grass covered, and no force-absorbing material, such as sand or wood chips, had been placed around the bottom of the pole.

 [*P6]  Brian explained that he built the platform and fire pole for his children. Both Brian and Jo testified in deposition that between 150 to 200 people had used the pole, all without injury. Brian testified that he was a construction contractor and was familiar with fall protection for working above the ground and had employed it in his work; no fall protection was installed or available on the platform. Brian testified that he did not research or follow any building codes for the platform and fire pole.

 [*P7]  On the day of the Radiate event, Shreve arrived 15-30 minutes before the announced start of the event. Some of the parents stayed to socialize, others dropped their children off. Plaintiff dropped off Riley and then went shopping nearby, intending to finish shopping and then return for the balance of the [**4]  event. Jo was inside the house for the event, and she monitored the food and drinks, making sure that there was plenty for all of the guests. She also socialized with the other parents. Brian was also inside socializing. Shreve was monitoring the bonfire. At one point, he intercepted one of the youths who tried to jump over the bonfire and explained to the youth why that was not a wise decision. At the time of Riley’s accident, Shreve had gone inside.

 [*P8]  Riley, the Andersons, and Shreve all testified that it was a cool or cold evening, estimating the temperature was anywhere from the 20s to the 40s. According to Shreve and Brian, the point of the event was the bonfire and indoor fellowship; the youths attending were not expected to play in the back yard, but were expected to roast marshmallows in the bonfire and to play in the basement, where pool, basketball, and board games were available. After about an hour outside, Shreve went inside, planning to steer the event towards worship. One of the youths came inside and alerted Shreve and the adults that Riley was hurt.

 [*P9]  Riley testified that he climbed up the ladder. The ladder had metal rungs, so his hands became cold. At the top, on the [**5]  platform while waiting for his turn, he put on gloves. Riley testified that the gloves were like ski gloves, and believed they were slick, possibly made of nylon. Riley testified that he awaited his turn along with several other youths. On that day, Riley was 13 years of age. He grabbed the pole with his hands, but he did not wrap his arms or legs around the pole. As Riley began his descent, he lost control, grabbed for the edge of the platform but could not hang on, and he plummeted the rest of the way to the ground. Riley suffered a comminuted fracture of his left femur and broke several long bones in his right foot. Riley’s femur was repaired surgically, and he had a rod emplaced in the bone. There is a possibility that the rod may have to be removed at a future date. Riley also developed a foot drop following his fall from the platform.

 [*P10]  The adults came out to investigate after they were notified. One of the youths, an Eagle Scout, obtained a rigid table top, and after they had ascertained that Riley had no apparent head or spinal injuries, placed him on the table top and moved him inside. Their purpose was to get him off of the cold ground; Riley apparently was complaining of resting [**6]  on the cold ground. Plaintiff was informed and told to return to the Andersons’ house. According to Brian, she arrived in minutes; plaintiff and other deponents testified that it was closer to 20 minutes. Eventually, an ambulance was called. It appears that plaintiff made the call for an ambulance as the other adults wanted to defer to her wishes. The ambulance took Riley to the hospital where he was treated for his injuries.

 [*P11]  Shreve and the Andersons testified that, when the plans were made to use the Anderson property for the Radiate bonfire, they did not conduct an inspection of the property to determine if there were any unsafe conditions. Rather, Brian testified that he had a safe house, including the fire pole, because nobody had been injured using it up to that time.

 [*P12]  Plaintiff’s expert, Alan Caskey, a park and recreation planner and consultant, testified that the fire pole was too wide, too high, and the landing area was too hard. Caskey opined that the width of the pole, being almost twice the diameter that industry standards allowed in playground equipment, contributed to Riley’s injury, because the excessive width of the pole decreased the strength of the user’s grip of the [**7]  pole. Caskey did not, however, offer any opinion about the effect of Riley’s gloves on his ability to grip the pole, but noted that any effect would depend on the type of glove, which he could not recall. Caskey also specifically noted that the fall height was much greater than industry standards allowed (five feet is the norm), and the landing area did not contain any force-mitigating substances, and these circumstances caused or contributed to the likelihood and severity of injury. Caskey also opined that the darkness could have contributed to Riley losing his grip on the pole because it obscured the size of the pole and its texture. However, Caskey admitted that these were assumptions on his part, and he conceded that there was no testimony specifically addressing these issues.

 [*P13]  As to the procedural posture of this case, on December 15, 2014, plaintiff timely filed her initial complaint; on February 19, 2015, plaintiff filed the first amended complaint at issue in this case. On April 28, 2016, the Andersons filed their motion for summary judgment followed on June 29, 2016, with the Church’s motion for summary judgment. The motions were stayed while plaintiff procured her expert testimony. [**8]  In November 2016, defendants filed their counterclaims against plaintiff.

 [*P14]  On March 16, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion for leave to file a second amended complaint, which the trial court granted. On March 31, 2017, the Church, joined by the Andersons, filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s grant of leave to file the second amended complaint. On April 6, 2017, the trial court vacated its order granting leave to file the second amended complaint and reinstated the briefing schedule on defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

 [*P15]  On May 15, 2017, the trial court apparently heard the parties’ arguments regarding defendants’ motions for summary judgment. On that date, the trial court continued the cause until June 2, 2017, for ruling. On June 2, 2017, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of defendants and against plaintiff. The court specifically held that:

“defendants owed no duty to plaintiff based on the open and obvious nature of the subject condition [(the platform and fire pole)] on the property; there being no proximate cause between the condition on the property and the injury to [Riley]; and there being no question of material fact raised by plaintiff.”

The trial court [**9]  entered judgment for defendants and dismissed plaintiff’s case. No transcripts of either the argument or the pronouncement of judgment were included in the record.

 [*P16]  On June 30, 2017, plaintiff filed her motion to reconsider. On August 11, 2017, the trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, and plaintiff timely appeals.

 [*P17]  II. ANALYSIS

 [*P18]  On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in holding that the platform and fire pole presented open and obvious conditions precluding the imposition of a duty. Plaintiff specifically contends that the design flaws in the construction of the platform and the fire pole and the lack of lighting rendered the dangers hidden rather than open and obvious; alternatively, plaintiff argues that the distraction doctrine should apply. Plaintiff also contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding “the true cause” of Riley’s fall. We consider the arguments in turn.

 [*P19]  A. General Principles

 [*P20]  This case comes before us following the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits in the record [**10]  show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2016). The purpose of summary judgment is not to try a factual issue but to determine if a factual issue exists. Monson v. City of Danville, 2018 IL 122486, ¶ 12. While summary judgment provides an expeditious means to resolve a lawsuit, it is also a drastic means of disposing of litigation. Id. Because of this, the court must construe the record strictly against the moving party and favorably towards the nonmoving party, and the court should grant summary judgment only if the moving party’s right to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Id. We review de novo the trial court’s judgment on a motion for summary judgment. Id.

 [*P21]  Here, plaintiff alleged that defendants were negligent regarding the platform and fire pole. In a negligence action, the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, that the defendant breached the duty owed, and that an injury proximately resulted from the breach. Bujnowski v. Birchland, Inc., 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 12, 394 Ill. Dec. 906, 37 N.E.3d 385. The existence of a duty is a question of law and may properly be decided by summary judgment. Id. If the plaintiff cannot demonstrate the existence of a duty, no recovery by the plaintiff [**11]  is possible, and summary judgment in favor of the defendant must be granted. Wade v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2015 IL App (4th) 141067, ¶ 12, 396 Ill. Dec. 315, 39 N.E.3d 1141. With these general principles in mind, we turn to plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P22]  B. Open and Obvious

 [*P23]  Plaintiff argues the trial court erred in determining that the platform and the fire pole were open and obvious conditions precluding the finding of a duty on the part of defendants. As a general matter, the owner or possessor of land owes a visiting child the duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and to warn the visitor of dangerous nonobvious conditions, but if the conditions are open and obvious, the owner or possessor has no duty. Friedman v. Park District of Highland Park, 151 Ill. App. 3d 374, 384, 502 N.E.2d 826, 104 Ill. Dec. 329 (1986). The analysis of duty with respect to children follows the customary rules of negligence. Id. This means that a dangerous condition on the premises is deemed one that is likely to cause injury to a general class of children, who, by reason of their immaturity, might be unable to appreciate the risk posed by the condition. Id. However, the open-and-obvious doctrine may preclude the imposition of a duty. Id.

 [*P24]  Recently, this court gave a thoroughgoing analysis of the open-and-obvious doctrine, how exceptions to that doctrine are accounted for, and, ultimately, how duty is imposed [**12]  in these types of cases. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶¶ 13-46.1 We concluded that, in cases in which the open-and-obvious doctrine applies, the court will consider whether any exception to the doctrine applies, such as the distraction exception (id. ¶ 18 (discussing Ward v. K Mart Corp., 136 Ill. 2d 132, 149-50, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288 (1990) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff’s attention might be distracted so that the plaintiff will not discover or will forget what is obvious)) or the deliberate-encounter exception (id. ¶ 32 (discussing LaFever v. Kemlite Co., 185 Ill. 2d 380, 391, 706 N.E.2d 441, 235 Ill. Dec. 886 (1998) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff, generally out of some compulsion, will recognize the risk but nevertheless proceed to encounter it because, to a reasonable person in the same position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk)). When no exception applies, the court proceeds to the general four-factor test for imposing liability: (1) whether an injury was reasonably foreseeable; (2) the likelihood of injury; (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury; and (4) the consequences of placing that burden on the defendant. Id. ¶ 19 (quoting Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 151).

 [*P25]  We held that the case law had developed into two approaches in applying the four-factor [**13]  duty test. In one approach, the first two factors will favor the defendant (because the danger is open and obvious), and the court must consider the third and fourth factors which could, at least theoretically, counterbalance the first two factors. Id. ¶ 46. Under the second approach, which we deemed to be more consistent with section 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343A (1965)) on which our supreme court had relied, the last two factors could never outweigh the first two factors, so even if the burden and consequences were minimal, the defendant necessarily would not have any duty to the plaintiff. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶ 46.

 [*P26]  Generally, falling from a height is among the dangers deemed to be open and obvious and appreciable even by very young children. Qureshi v. Ahmed, 394 Ill. App. 3d 883, 885, 916 N.E.2d 1153, 334 Ill. Dec. 265 (2009). The risk that confronted Riley as he clambered up to the platform and attempted to use the fire pole was simply a fall from a height, and thus, was an open and obvious risk. We next turn to whether there is an available exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine.

 [*P27]  Plaintiff first argues that the distraction exception applies here. The distraction exception had its genesis in Ward, 136 Ill. 2d 132, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288. In that case, a shopper exited the store carrying large mirror he had just purchased and was injured when he walked into a [**14]  concrete post. Id. at 135. The court explained that, even though the post was an open and obvious condition, harm was nevertheless reasonably foreseeable because the store had reason to expect that its customer’s attention may have been distracted so that the customer would not have discovered what is obvious, or would have forgotten what was discovered, or would have failed to protect himself. Id. at 149-50.

 [*P28]  In support of her argument that the distraction exception should apply, plaintiff cites only Ward and Sollami v. Eaton, 201 Ill. 2d 1, 15-16, 772 N.E.2d 215, 265 Ill. Dec. 177 (2002). Ward gave several examples of circumstances in which the distraction exception could apply. As an example, stairs are generally not unreasonably dangerous, but they may be so if, under the circumstances, the plaintiff may fail to see the stairs. Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 152. Additionally, an open and obvious condition may nevertheless be unreasonably dangerous if it exists in an environment in which the plaintiff is attending to his or her assigned workplace duties and encounters the condition. Id. at 153. For example, a builder carrying roof trusses steps into an open hole in the floor, or a dock worker unloading a truck steps off of a lowered dockplate while unloading a truck, or a customer falls when he or she misses the step off of the stoop [**15]  at the entrance to the store, are all instances in which the defendant should have foreseen the risk of harm caused by the otherwise open and obvious condition.

 [*P29] 
Sollami, by contrast, involved a child “rocket jumping” on a trampoline with several other children when she injured her knee after being “rocketed” to a greater-than-usual height and landing on the surface of the trampoline. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 4. After briefly discussing the parameters of the distraction exception (id. at 15-16), the court held that there was no evidence to show that the child was distracted while jumping on the trampoline (id. at 16). In other words, the child was using the trampoline as she intended to, and she was fully aware of the danger jumping on it may have presented.

 [*P30]  Considering the evidence in the record, we conclude that there was no evidence of distraction presented in the record. Riley climbed up the ladder to the platform, some 25 feet above the ground. Once there, he waited in a line for the fire pole. He did not testify that any of the other persons in the line bothered or distracted him as he prepared to slide down the fire pole. Instead, he put on slick nylon gloves and attempted to slide down the pole by grasping the pole with [**16]  only his hands. As he began his descent, he lost control, attempted to arrest his descent by grabbing the deck of the platform, failed, and fell from a height onto the ground. There is nothing in the evidence in the record to support a conclusion that Riley was distracted. He was not going about his profession or avocation as in the examples in Ward when he encountered the condition. Rather, he was participating in using the fire pole as he intended, as in Sollami. Indeed, Riley attributed his fall to losing his grip when he attempted to slide down the pole using only his hands and not wrapping his arms and legs around the pole. Accordingly, we hold the distraction exception does not apply here.

 [*P31]  Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening distracted Riley from perceiving the width of the fire pole and the height of the drop from the platform. We disagree. Riley had to have been acutely aware of the height of the platform, having climbed every inch of the 25-foot height up the ladder. As to the width of the pole, Riley would have perceived it as he grasped it. Brian Anderson testified that everyone he had observed use the pole had instinctually wrapped their arms and legs around [**17]  it. Riley testified that he attempted to use only his hands to grip the pole for his descent, despite the fact that a number of other children had used the pole before him and he apparently had the opportunity to observe them while waiting his turn.

 [*P32]  We also note that there is no evidence that Riley stepped through the opening while trying to use the fire pole, which would, perhaps, have brought the circumstances within the examples in Ward in which workers encountered a condition that was otherwise open and obvious while performing work-related tasks. Instead, Riley testified that he was able to negotiate his way to the pole and grasp it to begin his descent. Thus, there is no evidence that he simply stepped into the opening which went unperceived due to the darkness of the evening. Likewise, there is no evidence that one of the persons waiting for a turn distracted him so he stepped into the opening and fell. There is no evidence of distraction evident, so we reject plaintiff’s contention that Riley was distracted by the darkness and the other children, or that the presence of darkness and other children were sufficient to demonstrate a factual issue in the absence of any evidence [**18]  that these purported distracting circumstances contributed in Riley’s fall.

 [*P33]  The deliberate-encounter exception is usually raised in cases in which an economic compulsion (such as employment) causes the plaintiff to encounter the dangerous condition because, to a reasonable person in that position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 15-16. Plaintiff does not contend that the deliberate-encounter exception is applicable to the circumstances. While the deliberate-encounter exception may not be limited to circumstances of economic compulsion, there is no evidence that Riley was under any compulsion, such as peer pressure, to attempt to slide down the fire pole. Because there is no evidence, we hold the deliberate-encounter exception does not apply.

 [*P34]  In the Bujnowski analytical framework, we now turn to the four-factor duty test. Because the condition was open and obvious, namely falling from a height, Riley’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable, because falling from a height is among the risks that even very young children (and Riley was not a very young child but 13 years of age) are capable of appreciating and avoiding that risk. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. Likewise, the likelihood of injury is [**19]  small because the risk was apparent. Thus, the first two factors strongly favor defendants.

 [*P35]  The remaining factors appear to be split between plaintiff and defendant. The burden of guarding against the injury appears relatively slight. Defendants could have forbidden the children to use the platform and fire pole. The consequences of placing the burden on defendants are perhaps greater. The Andersons testified that they erected the structure for the amusement of their children. They also testified that of hundreds of users and uses, no one had ever been injured, from young children to older adults. (Plaintiff testified that one of the Andersons told her that one of their children had been injured using the fire pole; the Andersons denied making this statement and denied that any of their children had been injured using the fire pole.) The consequences of forbidding the structure’s use that evening would have been miniscule; the consequences of forbidding access altogether would have been much greater. Even if this calculus on the final two factors favors plaintiff, we cannot say that, in light of the open and obvious nature of the hazard, that they outweigh the first two factors. See [**20] 
Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55 (no published case has held both that the open-and-obvious doctrine applied without any exception being present and the defendant still owed a duty to the plaintiff). Accordingly, we hold that defendants did not owe Riley any duty in this case.

 [*P36]  Plaintiff argues that the hazard in this case was not open and obvious. Plaintiff argues first that the fire pole, being almost twice the diameter recommended in the industry, was a hidden and dangerous condition. We disagree. The risk posed by the structure was a fall from a height, and the evidence shows that Riley made the climb up to the platform and fell when he had donned slick nylon-shelled ski gloves and did not wrap his arms and legs around the pole.

 [*P37]  Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening concealed the width of the pole from Riley. Riley did not testify that he fell through the opening because it was too dark to see. Rather, he testified that he fell when he tried to slide down without wrapping his arms and legs around the pole and when his slick gloves caused his grip to fail. We reject plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P38]  Plaintiff contends that, due to the construction of the structure and the darkness of the evening, the dangers [**21]  associated with it were not obvious to Riley. We disagree. Riley climbed up to the platform, so he knew that he was very high above the ground. The risk of a fall from a height was therefore clearly apparent, as even very young children are deemed to appreciate the risk of a fall from a height. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. We therefore reject plaintiff’s contention and persist in holding that the risk was open and obvious.

 [*P39]  As plaintiff has neither convinced us that the risk was not open and obvious nor that any exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine was applicable, we affirm the judgment of the trial court on this point.

 [*P40]  C. Factual Issues

 [*P41]  Plaintiff argues there is a factual issue whether Riley’s slick gloves or the 3 1/2-inch diameter of the pole caused Riley’s fall. Plaintiff contends that Caskey testified that the pole was so wide that Riley had inadequate grip strength to descend safely (perhaps implying the converse that, if the pole were narrower, Riley’s grip strength would have been adequate). Plaintiff concludes that there is a factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall, and this issue should have precluded summary judgment.

 [*P42]  We disagree. Even conceding a factual issue in the mechanism [**22]  of Riley’s fall, defendants did not owe Riley any duty because the risk of a fall from a height was open and obvious, no exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine applied, and the final two factors of the four-factor duty test did not outweigh the first two factors. Thus, the factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall was not material in the absence of a duty.

 [*P43]  Plaintiff also contends that defendants owed a duty to instruct Riley on the use of the pole. While this contention is perhaps structurally misplaced in plaintiff’s argument, it is unavailing. The danger of the structure to Riley was open and obvious: a fall from a height. If, as plaintiff appears to contend, Riley did not know how to descend a fire pole, the risk of a fall from a height was still something he could appreciate. Under the law, then, Riley is deemed to be able to appreciate and avoid that risk, including his own limitations on using the fire pole to descend from the height. Accordingly, we reject plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P44]  We close with the following observation from Bujnowski: “[t]ragic as the facts of this case are, they are not extraordinary in a legal sense and do not call for a result that would [**23]  appear to be without precedent.” Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55.

 [*P45]  III. CONCLUSION

 [*P46]  For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Kane County.

 [*P47]  Affirmed.

End of Document


Even hikers sue for their injuries.

Although I would guess this is a subrogation claim because the plaintiff is now a quadriplegic.

Citation: Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

State: California, United States District Court, C.D. California

Plaintiff: Jill and Scott Kalter

Defendant: Grand Circle Travel

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2009

Summary

The plaintiff fell trying to climb wet stone steps in Machu Pichu. She sued the travel agency she hired to take her there and lost. Climbing wet stones is an open and obvious risk and the doctrine of assumption of the risk prevented the plaintiff’s recovery.

Facts

Grand Circle is a tour operator that arranges vacation packages to destinations around the world. Jill Kalter (” Kalter” ) purchased a Grand Circle ” Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest” tour, along with an optional post-trip extension to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Prior to departing on her trip, Kalter received from Grand Circle an itinerary of the Machu Picchu trip extension (the ” Itinerary” ), which stated that her group would visit Machu Picchu on two consecutive days, and that on the second day she would have the option of remaining with a guide or exploring the ruins on her own. The Itinerary also stated: ” [t]hese Inca sites are not like ancient squares in Europe; they are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces…. In the ruins, there are no handrails some places where you might like one.” Kalter received and read the itinerary prior to departing on her trip. In addition, the tour guide, Jesus Cardenas, distributed a map of Machu Picchu to the tour participants prior to entering the park. The map includes a section entitled ” Visit Regulations,” which states, among other things, ” Do not climb the walls,” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.”

It was raining on both days Kalter was at Machu Picchu. The first day, she remained with Cardenas and walked on the stone paths The second day, she opted to explore on her own, and ventured off the established paths. states that he gave verbal warnings to the group to use caution due to wet and slippery conditions. Kalter states that she did not hear Cardenas give these warnings, but that she ” has no reason to doubt” that he did so. Kalter went to an area known as the ” terraces,” filled with vertical rock walls that contain small stone protrusions called ” floating steps.” Some of these terraces are along paths color-coded by length, and no paths at Machu Picchu require traversing floating steps. Approximately one hour after venturing out on her own, Kalter became lost and disoriented, and was concerned about connecting with her group so that she would not miss the train. In an effort to get a better view of where she was, Kalter stepped up onto the bottom two floating steps of a vertical wall. Kalter did not think this was a dangerous act. As a result, Kalter fell and suffered serious injuries, and is now a quadriplegic.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted.

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

The defense raised by the plaintiff’s was assumption of the risk.

The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies where ” the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” To determine if primary assumption of the risk applies, courts look to the nature of the activity, and the parties’ relationship to that activity. The question turns on whether the plaintiff’s injury is within the ” inherent” risk of the activity. A risk is inherent to an activity if its elimination would chill vigorous participation in the activity and thereby alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Accordingly, ” the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where ‘ conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part’ of the activity itself.” When primary assumption of the risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries ” if the defendant ‘ engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity’ or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.”

However…

If, on the other hand, ” the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty,” the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk applies, which is analyzed under comparative fault principles.

The court found that inherent in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain among ancient ruins is the risk of falling and becoming injured.

The court then looked at the information the plaintiff received prior to going to Machu Picchu.

The Itinerary Kalter received prior to the tour informed her that the Inca sites at Machu Picchu ” are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces.” (Itinerary 65.) Eliminating tour participants’ access to these large stone steps and uneven surfaces in an attempt to protect against the risk of falling would eliminate the ability to view the Inca sites, and thus ” alter the fundamental nature of the activity.”

…Kalter did not fall while engaging in the activities condoned by Defendants-she chose to leave the established stone pathway, and further endangered herself by stepping onto the floating steps. Accordingly, the Court finds that primary assumption of the risk applies to Kalter’s injuries from falling while hiking at Machu Picchu.

The defendant would be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries only if the defendant’s conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in hiking among ancient ruins or uneven terrain.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant was liable for encouraging the plaintiff to roam the ruins on her own.

…Grand Circle’s act of allowing Kalter to explore on her own areas she had not been to with Cardenas was not ” so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity” involved in the excursion, nor did it increase the inherent risk of falling and sustaining injury involved in hiking in this region.

The next issue was whether or not the defendant had a duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers equally obvious to both the plaintiff and others. The plaintiff admitted it was raining and admitted the steps were wet. The map she received told her not to climb the walls.

The court found the risks of the floating steps the plaintiff climbed leading to her fall were open and obvious, and she assumed the risk when climbing on them. “Moreover, numerous courts have held that tour companies and guides have no duty to warn of obvious dangers their customer’s encounter on trips.” Consequently, the defendant had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers of climbing on the steps that lead to her fall.

The court held for the defendant.

As explained above, neither Grand Circle nor Cardenas are liable for Kalter’s injuries because the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies, and because neither had a duty to warn her of the open and obvious danger of falling while climbing wet stone steps protruding from a vertical wall.

So Now What?

The plaintiff was a quadriplegic, so I suspect here health or disability insurance carrier started the lawsuit to recover the paid on behalf of the plaintiff. Alternatively, the plaintiff could have started the litigation because so much money was involved if they won that it might have been a lottery.

However the simple fact the plaintiff fell while on her own exploring, a ruin in Peru does not give rise to liability in this case.

What keeps coming to the surface in cases over the past couple of years is the defense of assumption of the risk. Looking at this from a different perspective. The more you educate your client, the less likely you will be sued and the less likely you will lose that lawsuit.

I’ve been saying that for more than thirty years, and it seems to come back with greater defenses and benefits for both the guests and the outfitters.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

Kalter, et al., v. Grand Circle Travel, et al., 631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

631 F.Supp.2d 1253 (C.D.Cal. 2009)

Jill Kalter, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

Grand Circle Travel, et al., Defendants.

No. CV 08-02252 SJO (AGRx).

United States District Court, C.D. California.

June 24, 2009

David B. Leichenger, Jon Matthew Steiner, Levitt Leichenger and Aberle, Beverly Hills, CA, for Plaintiffs.

John S. Murray, Mary Agnes Watson, Walsworth Franklin Bevins & McCall LLP, Orange, CA, Robert Mueller, Rodney E. Gould, Rubin Hay and Gould PC, Framingham, MA, for Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[Docket No. 57]

S. JAMES OTERO, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants Grand Circle, LLC (erroneously sued as Grand Circle Travel, Overseas Adventure Travel and Overseas Adventure Travel Partners, Inc.) and Grand Circle Corporation’s (collectively, ” Grand Circle” ) Motion for Summary Judgment, filed May 13, 2009. Plaintiffs Jill and Scott Kalter (collectively, ” Plaintiffs” ) filed an Opposition, to which Grand Circle replied. The Court found this matter suitable for disposition without oral argument and vacated the hearing set for June 1, 2009. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the following reasons, Grand Circle’s Motion is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

Grand Circle is a tour operator that arranges vacation packages to destinations around the world. (Olson Decl., filed as Gould Decl. Ex D, ¶ ¶ 2, 8; Pls.’ Separate Statement of Undisputed and Disputed Material Fact (” Statement” ) ¶ 1.) Jill Kalter (” Kalter” ) purchased a Grand Circle ” Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest” tour, along with an optional post-trip extension to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. (Olson Decl. ¶ 13; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 2.) Prior to departing on her trip, Kalter received from Grand Circle an itinerary of the Machu Picchu trip extension (the ” Itinerary” ), which stated that her group would visit Machu Picchu on two consecutive days, and that on the second day she would have the option of remaining with a guide or exploring the ruins on her own. (Kalter Dep., filed as Gould Decl. Ex. A, 35:5-35:7, 36:15-20; 44:19-45:22; Itinerary, filed as Leichenger Decl. ” Kalter Dep. Ex. 20″ ; Pls.’ Statement ¶ ¶ 3-4.) The Itinerary also stated: ” [t]hese Inca sites are not like ancient squares in Europe; they are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces…. In the ruins, there are no handrails some places where you might like one.” (Itinerary at 65.) Kalter received and read the itinerary prior to departing on her trip. (Kalter Dep. 36: 15-20.) In addition, the tour guide, Jesus Cardenas, distributed a map of Machu Picchu to the tour participants prior to entering the park.[1] (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 20; Kalter Dep. 59:18-20.) The map includes a section entitled ” Visit Regulations,” which states, among other things, ” Do not climb the walls,” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.” (Map, filed as Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.)

It was raining on both days Kalter was at Machu Picchu. (Kalter Dep. 54:12-16, 71:8-11.) The first day, she remained with Cardenas and walked on the stone paths. Id. 52:22-25, 64:11-16. The second day, she opted to explore on her own, and ventured off the established paths. Id. 67:24-68:1, 126:4-6; Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 11-12. Cardenas states that he gave verbal warnings to the group to use caution due to wet and slippery conditions. (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 13.) Kalter states that she did not hear Cardenas give these warnings, but that she ” has no reason to doubt” that he did so. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 7; Kalter Dep. 54:24-55:2.) Kalter went to an area known as the ” terraces,” filled with vertical rock walls that contain small stone protrusions called ” floating steps.” (Kalter Dep. 8:5-14; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 10; see Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 12, Ex. C (photographs of only set of floating steps above the location where Kalter was found after the fall).[2]) Some of these terraces are along paths color-coded by length, and no paths at Machu Picchu require traversing floating steps. (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 5.) Approximately one hour after venturing out on her own, Kalter became lost and disoriented, and was concerned about connecting with her group so that she would not miss the train. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 10; Kalter Dep. 85:11-13, 101:20-21.) In an effort to get a better view of where she was, Kalter stepped up onto the bottom two floating steps of a vertical wall. (Kalter Decl. ¶ ¶ 10-11; Kalter Dep. 8:16-20; Supplemental Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Kalter did not think this was a dangerous act. (Kalter Decl. ¶ 11.) As a result, Kalter fell and suffered serious injuries, and is now a quadriplegic.[3] (Pl.’s Opp’n 3.)

Grand Circle now moves for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Plaintiffs’ claims are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk; (2) Grand Circle had no duty to warn Kalter of the dangerous nature of the floating steps because it was open and obvious; and (3) Grand Circle is not liable for the actions of Cardenas because he is an independent contractor.

II. DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is proper only if ” the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A ” material” fact is one that could affect the outcome of the case, and an issue of material fact is ” genuine” if ” the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, courts view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

A. Primary Assumption of the Risk Bars Plaintiffs’ Claims.

” The question of the existence and scope of a defendant’s duty of care is a legal question which depends on the nature of the sport or activity in question and on the parties’ general relationship to the activity, and is an issue to be decided by the court, rather than the jury.” Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal.4th 296, 313, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992). The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies where ” the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” Id. at 314-315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. To determine if primary assumption of the risk applies, courts look to the nature of the activity, and the parties’ relationship to that activity. Branco v. Kearny Moto Park, Inc., 37 Cal.App.4th 184, 190, 43 Cal.Rptr.2d 392 (1995). The question turns on whether the plaintiff’s injury is within the ” inherent” risk of the activity. Neinstein v. Los Angeles Dodgers, Inc., 185 Cal.App.3d 176, 182, 229 Cal.Rptr. 612 (1986). A risk is inherent to an activity if its elimination would chill vigorous participation in the activity and thereby alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 318, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. Accordingly, ” the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where ‘ conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part’ of the activity itself.” Andia v. Full Serv. Travel, No. 06-437, 2007 WL 4258634, at *4, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *13 (S.D.Cal. Nov. 29, 2007) (citing Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696). When primary assumption of the risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries ” if the defendant ‘ engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity’ or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.” Id. (citing Saville v. Sierra College, 133 Cal.App.4th 857, 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515 (Cal.Ct.App.2005)).

If, on the other hand, ” the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty,” the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk applies, which is analyzed under comparative fault principles. Knight, 3 Cal.4th at 315, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. In such a case, ” the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.” Id.

Here, Kalter was engaged in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain amongst ancient ruins. Inherent in this activity is the risk that one will fall and become injured. ( SeeAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *15) (holding that ” falling is always a risk when engaging in any kind of strenuous hike on steep and uneven terrain” ). The Itinerary Kalter received prior to the tour informed her that the Inca sites at Machu Picchu ” are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces.” (Itinerary 65.) Eliminating tour participants’ access to these large stone steps and uneven surfaces in an attempt to protect against the risk of falling would eliminate the ability to view the Inca sites, and thus ” alter the fundamental nature of the activity.” SeeKnight, 3 Cal.4th at 318, 11 Cal.Rptr.2d 2, 834 P.2d 696. In other words, ” hiking across uneven and challenging natural terrain is an inherent risk of hiking to [the ancient ruins at Machu Picchu], without which the general public would be substantially deprived of viewing the … phenomenon.” Seeid. Moreover, as discussed further below, Kalter did not fall while engaging in the activities condoned by Defendants-she chose to leave the established stone pathway, and further endangered herself by stepping onto the floating steps. Accordingly, the Court finds that primary assumption of the risk applies to Kalter’s injuries from falling while hiking at Machu Picchu. Therefore, Grand Circle is only liable for only liable for Kalter’s injuries ” if [it] engage[d] in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in [hiking amongst ancient ruins on uneven terrain] or increase[d] the inherent risk involved in the activity.” SeeSaville, 133 Cal.App.4th at 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515.

Plaintiffs argue that Grand Circle breached its duty to Kalter by ” encouraging and permitting her to roam the ruins of Machu Picchu on her own, then directing her to an area unknown, i.e. which was not explored with her Trip Leader the prior day, and given the conditions of that day, was dangerous and confusing.” (Pls.’ Opp’n 10.) Kalter was an experienced hiker, and prior to electing to explore the ruins on her own instead of remaining with Cardenas, she had read Grand Circle’s Itinerary informing her that she would encounter steep hillsides, large stone steps, and uneven surfaces. (Itinerary 65; Kalter Dep. 36: 15-20, 48:9-14.) She also received the map from Cardenas which stated ” Do not climb the walls” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.” (Kalter Dep. 59:18-20; Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Moreover, Plaintiffs do not dispute that visitors to Machu Picchu often wander the ruins on their own, and that park regulations do not prohibit them from doing so. ( See Cardenas Decl. ¶ 15; Pls.’ Statement ¶ 26.) In addition, Plaintiffs provide no evidence that Cardenas or Grand Circle knew Kalter would attempt to climb the floating steps, and do not dispute Cardenas’ statement that Kalter ” never asked me if she could climb down from or up to any terraces. At no time did I tell Ms. Kalter that she should climb down or up the series of terraces, and at no time did I tell Ms. Kalter that it would be okay for her to climb up or down the stone terrace walls or on the ‘ floating steps.’ ” (Cardenas Decl. ¶ 16.)

Given these undisputed facts, Grand Circle’s act of allowing Kalter to explore on her own areas she had not been to with Cardenas was not ” so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity” involved in the excursion, nor did it increase the inherent risk of falling and sustaining injury involved in hiking in this region. SeeSaville, 133 Cal.App.4th at 866, 36 Cal.Rptr.3d 515. The Court also notes that other participants in the tour stated that Cardenas was ” outstanding and the accident was not at all [his] fault. And of course, [Kalter] fell on a day of totally independent activities.” ( See Dobbins Dep. 13-25; see also Garvey Dep. 121:21- 25.) Moreover, even if Grand Circle or Cardenas erred in estimating Kalter’s ability to hike on her own across the uneven terrain at Machu Picchu in rainy weather, ” an instructor’s assessment errors-either in making the necessarily subjective judgment of skill level or the equally subjective judgment about the difficulty of conditions-are in no way ‘ outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.’ ” Kane v. Nat’l Ski Patrol, 88 Cal.App.4th 204, 214, 105 Cal.Rptr.2d 600 (Cal.Ct.App.2001); see alsoAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *16 (holding that tour guide’s ” decision to allow Plaintiff to return to the Rangers station alone [during a guided hike to a lava flow] … at most constituted ‘ assessment errors,’ but these ‘ subjective judgments about the difficulty of the conditions were ‘ in no way so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved’ in the activity of lava hiking” ).

Plaintiffs have submitted a declaration by Alexander Anolik, a travel and tourism attorney, stating that Cardenas ” failed to insist, explain the need for or put together a ‘ buddy system’ whereby Ms. Kalter would not have to be in this strange and dangerous area by herself,” and contending that his conduct of allowing Kalter to explore on her own fell below the standard of care in the travel industry. (Anolik Decl. ¶ 4.) Anolik submits no case law or any other information to suggest that such conduct falls below a standard of care, or that any other tour companies or guides employ such practices. ( See Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 3, stating that he is unaware of any other tour guide at Machu Picchu that requires a buddy system.) Further, as explained above, allowing tour participants to hike on their own, even off trail on uneven terrain, is not so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in hiking. SeeAndia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *5, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247, at *16. As such, the Court finds Anolik’s bare assertions insufficient to create a triable issue of fact regarding whether Defendants’ conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity or otherwise increased the inherent risk involved in the activity of hiking amongst ancient ruins in an undeveloped area. Accordingly, Grand Circle is not liable for Kalter’s injuries under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk.

B. Grand Circle Had No Duty to Warn Kalter of the Open and Obvious Danger Posed by the Wet Floating Steps.

” It is established law, at least in the exercise of ordinary care, that one is under no duty to warn another of a danger equally obvious to both.” Andia, 2007 WL 4258634, at *6, 2007 U.S. Dist. 88247, at *18 (citing Marshall v. United Airlines, 35 Cal.App.3d 84, 90, 110 Cal.Rptr. 416 (1973)). Here, it was obvious to both Kalter and Cardenas that it was raining, and Kalter admitted at her deposition that she ” knew [the stones] were slippery and wet.” (Kalter Dep. 64:19-65:3, 71:14-15.) Moreover, the danger of slipping and falling from stepping on a small wet stone step protruding from a vertical wall is undoubtedly an obvious danger.

Plaintiffs conclusorily state that ” there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the conditions that caused Ms. Kalter’s injuries were open and obvious,” but offer no evidence to support this claim. (Pls.’ Opp’n 13.) Indeed, Kalter admits that it was ” raining on and off,” that she ” knew the rocks could be slippery” , and that before she started climbing she could see the third step was missing. (Kalter Dep. 71:8-15, 101:12-18.) Kalter offers no evidence to suggest that she believed climbing the floating steps was allowed or common, or that she saw anyone else climbing them. Further, it appears that the danger of climbing the steps was obvious to other members of Kalter’s tour; when asked whether he saw anyone climbing the steps, one member responded, ” Good Lord. Someone, probably the guide, said that the Indians might have used them.” (Dobbins Dep. 24:23-25.) In addition, the map Kalter received prior to entering the park instructed her not to climb the walls. (Cardenas Decl. Ex. C.) Kalter also testified at her deposition that she ” thought there would be some risk in climbing up the floating steps.” (Kalter Dep. 110:12-22.) Further, Plaintiffs offer no evidence that the risk of slipping on the wet floating steps was any less obvious to Kalter than to Cardenas, especially in light of the fact that Kalter had walked on stone with Cardenas the previous day and noted that the stone was ” slippery at times.” (Kalter Dep. 64:15-18.)

Plaintiffs also cite case law holding that ” although the obviousness of a danger may obviate the duty to warn of its existence, if it is foreseeable that the danger may cause injury despite the fact that it is obvious (e.g. when necessity requires persons to encounter it), there may be a duty to remedy the danger, and the breach of that duty may in turn form the basis for liability.” (Pls.’ Opp’n 12), citing Martinez v. Chippewa Entrps., Inc., 121 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1184, 18 Cal.Rptr.3d 152 (Cal.Ct.App.2004) (emphasis in original) (holding that trial court erred in granting summary judgment based on obvious danger where plaintiff slipped on water covering defendant landowner’s driveway.) While a landowner may be required to remedy a dangerous but obvious condition on his property, the situation differs with regards to a tour guide and tour company, where, as here, the dangerous condition is neither on the guide or company’s property nor within their control. Further, in Martinez, the plaintiff slipped on water in a defendant’s driveway that she had to cross to get by; in contrast, ” necessity” did not ” require [Kalter] to encounter” the floating steps. SeeMartinez, 121 Cal.App.4th at 1184, 18 Cal.Rptr.3d 152.

Moreover, numerous courts have held that tour companies and guides have no duty to warn of obvious dangers their customers encounter on trips. See, e.g.,Tei Yan Sun v. Governmental Auths. of Taiwain, 2001 U.S. Dist. 1160, at *31-32 (finding no liability for failure to disclose dangers of ” severe undertow, high waives, and strong surf” at beach, and noting that travel agents have no duty to disclose obvious dangers to travelers) (citing McCollum v. Friendly Hills Travel Ctr., 172 Cal.App.3d 83, 95, 217 Cal.Rptr. 919 (Cal.Ct.App.1985)); Passero v. DHC Hotels & Resorts, 981 F.Supp. 742, 744 (D.Conn.1996)(” A tour operator may be obligated, under some circumstances, to warn a traveler of a dangerous condition unknown to the traveler but known to it…. This doctrine applies to situations where a tour operator is aware of a dangerous condition not readily discoverable by the plaintiff. It simply does not apply to an obvious dangerous condition equally observable by plaintiff.” ); Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F.Supp. 284, 287 (E.D.Mo.1993) (noting that travel agents owe no duty to disclose information that is obvious and apparent to the traveler). Plaintiffs cite no cases in which courts have found tour companies or guides liable for failing to warn of or remedy open and obvious dangers.

Accordingly, the Court finds that Grand Circle had no duty to warn Kalter that the floating steps might be slippery and dangerous in the rain, as this danger was readily observable.

C. Since Neither Grand Circle Nor Cardenas Are Liable for Kalter’s Injuries, the Court Need Not Reach the Issue of Whether Cardenas Is an Employee or Independent Contractor.

As explained above, neither Grand Circle nor Cardenas are liable for Kalter’s injuries because the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies, and because neither had a duty to warn her of the open and obvious danger of falling while climbing wet stone steps protruding from a vertical wall. Further, Plaintiffs do not argue that Cardenas’ actions after Kalter fell caused or contributed to her injury. As such, whether Cardenas is Grand Circle’s employee or an independent contractor does not affect Grand Circle’s liability, and the Court need not reach the issue.

III. RULING

For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS Grand Circle’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] The map is produced by the Peru National Institute of Culture, not Grand Circle.

[2] Plaintiffs object to these photographs on the grounds that they ” lack proper foundation, are misleading in that the angles from which most are taken (particularly the closeups) and the two-dimensional nature of them cannot fairly (and accurately) depict how Ms. Kalter viewed the conditions at the time that she stepped on the two lowest steps.” (Pls.’ Objections to Evidence 2.) However, Cardenas states in his declaration that he took all of the photographs, and that they fairly and accurately reflect the conditions and terrain at Machu Picchu. (Supplemental Cardenas Decl. ¶ 8.) The Court finds these photographs to fairly and accurately represent the floating steps.

[3] It is unclear exactly how Kalter fell, as she does not remember and there were apparently no witnesses. (Kalter Dep. 12:22-13:5.)


Words and Phrases Defined in an Articles

The articles next to the term or phrase and state identify an article where the court has defined the term in the legal decision and it is quoted in the article.

This does not cover every decision posted on Recreation-law.com. However, you might find it helpful to understand some terms.

Term or Phrase

State

Article that Defines the Term or Phrase

Adhesion Agreement Colorado Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.
Admiralty Law Nevada Admiralty law did not stop a release from barring a claim for negligence for a parasailing injury.
Agency New Jersey The use of the PGA name was not enough to tire the PGA to a golf camp where they had no relationship or control. As such, they were dismissed from the suit because they had no duty to the injured minor.
Amicus Curiae Colorado 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Colorado law concerning releases in a whitewater rafting fatality.
Ambiguity Minnesota Plaintiff argues under Minnesota law the language on the back of the season pass created an ambiguity which should void the season pass release for a ski area.
Apparent Authority New Jersey The use of the PGA name was not enough to tire the PGA to a golf camp where they had no relationship or control. As such, they were dismissed from the suit because they had no duty to the injured minor.
Pennsylvania Apparent Agency requires actual acts to hold a hotel liable for the injuries allegedly caused by a tour company
Assumption of Risk Assumption of the Risk    http://rec-law.us/wMtiET
Assumption of Risk — Checklist
California Assumption of the Risk to be a bar to a claim the defendant must now owe a duty to the plaintiff that means the plaintiff must be involved in recreation or a sport.
Hawaii The risk of hiking over lava fields is an obvious risk; falling while hiking is also a possibility….so is suing when you do both…but you won’t win
Massachusetts Duty of care for a Massachusetts campground is to warn of dangerous conditions.
New York If you have a manual, you have to follow it, if you have rules you have to follow them, if you have procedures, you have to follow them or you lose in court.

Skier assumes the risk on a run he had never skied before because his prior experience.

Ohio Ohio Appellate decision defines assumption of the risk under Ohio law and looks at whether spectators assume the risk.
Pennsylvania The harder a court works to justify its decision the more suspect the reasoning.
Pennsylvania PA court upholds release in bicycle race.
Pennsylvania Scary and Instructional case on assumption of the risk in a climbing wall case in Pennsylvania
South Carolina Assumption of the risk is used to defeat a claim for injuries on a ropes course.
Express Assumption of risk California BSA (Cub Scout) volunteer was not liable for injuries to cub because cub assumed the risk of his injuries. The BSA & Council were not liable because volunteer was not an agent.
Delaware If you agree to the rules you have to follow the rules
Pennsylvania Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.
Implied Assumption of the risk Missouri Missouri decision about ski rental form and a release that does not conform to MO law spell a mess for the ski resort
Pennsylvania Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.
Primary Assumption of Risk Delaware If you agree to the rules you have to follow the rules
Minnesota Assumption of Risk used to defend against claim for injury from snow tubing in Minnesota
Ohio In Ohio, Primary Assumption of the Risk is a complete bar to claims for injuries from hiking at night.

BSA (Cub Scout) volunteer not liable for injuries to cub because cub assumed the risk of his injuries. BSA & Council not liable because volunteer was not an agent.

Ohio Appellate decision defines assumption of the risk under Ohio law and looks at whether spectators assume the risk.

New York New York Decision explains the doctrine of Primary Assumption of the Risk for cycling.
South Carolina South Carolina Supreme Court writes a clear decision on Assumption of the Risk for sporting activities.
Secondary
Assumption of Risk
Arkansas Proof of negligence requires more than an accident and injuries. A Spectator at a rodeo needed proof of an improperly maintained gate.
California Most references in case law to assumption of the risk are to this California decision
Ohio Ohio Appellate decision defines assumption of the risk under Ohio law and looks at whether spectators assume the risk.
Business Invitee Pennsylvania Release lacked language specifying the length of time it was valid. Since the court could not determine the time the case was sent to a jury for that determination.
Ohio Poorly written release on a sign in sheet barely passes protecting Ohio defendant swimming area from suit.
Causation Indiana An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.
Certiorari Colorado Colorado Supreme Court rules that an inbounds Avalanche is an inherent risk assumed by skiers based upon the Colorado Skier Safety Act.
Common Carrier California Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English
Contracts
Meeting of the Minds North Carolina When is a case settled? When all parties (and maybe their attorneys) agree it is settled
Consideration What is a Release?
Concurring Opinion Utah The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to beat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality
Contribution Massachusetts Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release
Declaratory Judgment New Hampshire What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire you have no coverage.
Derivative Claim Sign in sheet language at Michigan health club was not sufficient to create a release.
Duty of Care California Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English
New Jersey Is a negligent act to open a car door into a bike lane when a cyclists is in the lane in New Jersey
South Carolina South Carolina Supreme Court writes a clear decision on Assumption of the Risk for sporting activities.
Washington Summer Camp, Zip line injury and confusing legal analysis in Washington

Good News ASI was dismissed from the lawsuit

Essential Public Services Colorado 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Colorado law concerning releases in a whitewater rafting fatality.
New Hampshire New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.
Expert Witness Connecticut Summer camp being sued for injury from falling off horse wins lawsuit because the plaintiff failed to find an expert to prove their case.
Failure to Warn New York “Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels
Foreseeability Colorado Be Afraid, be very afraid of pre-printed forms for your recreation business
Illinois When there is no proof that the problem created by the defendant caused the injury, there is no proximate causation, therefore no negligence
New Jersey Is a negligent act to open a car door into a bike lane when a cyclists is in the lane in New Jersey
Ohio Liability of race organizer for State Park Employees?
Washington Dive Buddy (co-participant) not liable for death of the diver because the cause of death was too distant from the acts of the plaintiff.
Idaho Federal Court in Idaho holds camp not liable for assault on third party by runaway minors.
Forum non conveniens Kansas If you fall down in a foreign country, and you have paid money to be there, you probably have to sue there.
Fraud Colorado 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Colorado law concerning releases in a whitewater rafting fatality
Fraudulent Inducement New Hampshire Did a Federal District Court in New Hampshire allow a release to bar a minor’s claims?
Fraudulent Misrepresentation Georgia Lying in a release can get your release thrown out by the court.
California Defendant tells plaintiff the release has no value and still wins lawsuit, but only because the plaintiff was an attorney
Gross Negligence California Release saves riding school, even after defendant tried to show plaintiff how to win the case.
Idaho Statements made to keep a sold trip going come back to haunt defendant after whitewater rafting death.
Maryland Sky Diving Release defeats claim by Naval Academy studenthttp://rec-law.us/1tQhWNN
Massachusetts Colleges, Officials, and a Ski Area are all defendants in this case.
Massachusetts Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release
Michigan Good Release stops lawsuit against Michigan bicycle renter based on marginal acts of bicycle renter

Allowing climber to climb with harness on backwards on health club climbing wall enough for court to accept gross negligence claim and invalidate release.

Nebraska In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury
New Hampshire In this mountain biking case, fighting each claim pays off.
New Jersey New Jersey upholds release for injury in faulty bike at fitness club
New York New York judge uses NY law to throw out claim for gross negligence because the facts did not support the claim
Pennsylvania Scary and Instructional case on assumption of the risk in a climbing wall case in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.
Tennessee 75 Ft waterfall, middle of the night, no lights and a BAC of .18% results in two fatalities and one lawsuit. However, facts that created fatalities were the defense
Texas Suit against a city for construction retaining wall in City Park identifies defenses to be employed to protect park patrons.
Utah Utah’s decision upholds a release for simple negligence but not gross negligence in a ski accident.

The safety precautions undertaken by the defendant in this mountain bike race were sufficient to beat the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence in this Utah mountain bike fatality

Inherently Dangerous Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
Inherent Risks California This California decision looks at assumption of the risk as it applies to non-competitive long distance bicycle rides and also determines that assumption of the risk also overcomes a violation of a statute (negligence per se).
Interlocutory Appeal Tennessee Tennessee still does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue, but might enforce a jurisdiction and venue clause, maybe an arbitration clause
Utah Utah courts like giving money to injured kids
Invitee Missouri Missouri decision about ski rental form and a release that does not conform to MO law spell a mess for the ski resort
Mississippi Mississippi retailer not liable for injury to a child who rode a bicycle through aisles he found on the store floor.
Joint Venture Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV or J.N.O.V.) Maryland Skiing collision in Utah were the collision was caused by one skier falling down in front of the other skier
Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
Lex loci contractus Tennessee Tennessee still does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue, but might enforce a jurisdiction and venue clause, maybe an arbitration clause
Long Arm Statute Requirements New York To sue a Vermont ski area there must be more than a web presence to sue in New York
Material Breach of a Contract Texas University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit
Motion to Dismiss Colorado Colorado Premises Liability act eliminated common law claims of negligence as well as CO Ski Area Safety Act claims against a landowner.
Illinois When an organization makes rules and regulations that a subsidiary organization is supposed to obey, and then fails to follow, both organizations are liable to any plaintiff injured due to the failure to follow or enforce the organizational rules, policies, regulations or standards.
Negligence Georgia Georgia court finds no requirement for employee to interview when higher trained first aid providers are present
Idaho Idaho Supreme Court holds is no relationship between signs posted on the side of the trampoline park in a duty owed to the injured plaintiff
Illinois When an organization makes rules and regulations that a subsidiary organization is supposed to obey, and then fails to follow, both organizations are liable to any plaintiff injured due to the failure to follow or enforce the organizational rules, policies, regulations or standards.
Indiana Indiana decision upholds release signed by mother for claims of an injured daughter for the inherent risks of softball.

An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.

Louisiana Louisiana State University loses climbing wall case because or climbing wall manual and state law.
Maryland Plaintiff failed to prove that her injuries were due to the construction of the water park slide and she also assumed the risk.
Massachusetts Industry standards are proof of gross negligence and keep defendant in lawsuit even with good release
Mississippi Mississippi decision requires advance planning and knowledge of traveling in a foreign country before taking minors there.
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on duty to have and use an AED defines how statutes are to be interpreted and when liability can attach and cannot attach to a statute
South Dakota Great analysis of the “Rescue Doctrine” in a ballooning case from South Dakota
Texas University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit
Negligence (Collateral) Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
Negligence Per Se Colorado Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability
Florida Motion for Summary Judgement failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case.
South Dakota Great analysis of the “Rescue Doctrine” in a ballooning case from South Dakota
Illinois (does not exist) When an organization makes rules and regulations that a subsidiary organization is supposed to obey, and then fails to follow, both organizations are liable to any plaintiff injured due to the failure to follow or enforce the organizational rules, policies, regulations or standards.
Negligent Misrepresentation New York The basics of winning a negligence claim is having some facts that show negligence, not just the inability to canoe by the plaintiff
No Duty Rule Pennsylvania The harder a court works to justify its decision the more suspect the reasoning.
Open and Obvious Michigan The assumption of risk defense is still available when the claim is based on a condition of the land. This defense is called the open and obvious doctrine.
New York “Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels
Pennsylvania Release lacked language specifying the length of time it was valid. Since the court could not determine the time the case was sent to a jury for that determination.
Rhode Island
Passive-Retailer Doctrine Utah Retailers in a minority of states may have a defense to product liability claims when they have nothing to do with the manufacture of the product
Premises Liability Colorado Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability
Mississippi Mississippi retailer not liable for injury to a child who rode a bicycle through aisles he found on the store floor.
Prima facie New Jersey New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky diving case.
Prior Material Breach Texas University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit
Product Liability Georgia Federal Court finds that assumption of the risk is a valid defense in a head injury case against a bicycle helmet manufacturer.
Tennessee Pacific Cycle not liable for alleged defective skewer sold to plaintiff by Wal-Mart
Utah Retailers in a minority of states may have a defense to product liability claims when they have nothing to do with the manufacture of the product
Negligent Product Liability Illinois Plaintiff fails to prove a product liability claim because she can’t prove what tube was the result of her injury
Public Policy California Defendant tells plaintiff the release has no value and still wins lawsuit, but only because the plaintiff was an attorney
Delaware Delaware Supreme Court decision quickly determines a health club release is not void because of public policy issues and is clear and unequivocal
Oregon Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.
Pennsylvania Release lacked language specifying the length of time it was valid. Since the court could not determine the time the case was sent to a jury for that determination.
New Hampshire New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.

Did a Federal District Court in New Hampshire allow a release to bar a minor’s claims?

Tennessee Tennessee still does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue, but might enforce a jurisdiction and venue clause, maybe an arbitration clause
Punitive Damages New York “Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels
Rescue Doctrine South Dakota Great analysis of the “Rescue Doctrine” in a ballooning case from South Dakota
Recklessness Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
New Jersey New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky diving case.
Ohio BSA (Cub Scout) volunteer was not liable for injuries to cub because cub assumed the risk of his injuries. The BSA & Council were not liable because volunteer was not an agent.

Ohio Appellate decision defines assumption of the risk under Ohio law and looks at whether spectators assume the risk.

Pennsylvania Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.
Release Connecticut Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it
Colorado 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Colorado law concerning releases in a whitewater rafting fatality

Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.

New Hampshire New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.
Oklahoma Oklahoma Federal Court opinion: the OK Supreme Court would void a release signed by the parent for a minor.
New Hampshire Did a Federal District Court in New Hampshire allow a release to bar a minor’s claims?
Pennsylvania Tubing brings in a lot of money for a small space, and a well-written release keeps the money flowing

Release lacked language specifying the length of time it was valid. Since the court could not determine the time the case was sent to a jury for that determination.

Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.

Texas University climbing wall release along with Texas Recreational Use Act and Texas Tort Claims Act defeat injured climber’s lawsuit
Release Fair Notice Requirement under Texas law Texas Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.
Remittitur Missouri Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.
res ipsa loquitur Illinois When an organization makes rules and regulations that a subsidiary organization is supposed to obey, and then fails to follow, both organizations are liable to any plaintiff injured due to the failure to follow or enforce the organizational rules, policies, regulations or standards.
Respondeat superior Missouri US Army and BSA not liable for injured kids on Army base. No control by the BSA and recreational use defense by US Army.
New Jersey The use of the PGA name was not enough to tire the PGA to a golf camp where they had no relationship or control. As such, they were dismissed from the suit because they had no duty to the injured minor.
Restatement (Second) of Torts Pennsylvania The harder a court works to justify its decision the more suspect the reasoning.
Standard Colorado
California
Words: You cannot change a legal definition
New York New York Decision explains the doctrine of Primary Assumption of the Risk for cycling
Ohio In Ohio, Primary Assumption of the Risk is a complete bar to claims for injuries from hiking at night
Rhode Island Rhode Island, applying New Hampshire law states a skier assumes the risk of a collision.
Standard of Review Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on duty to have and use an AED defines how statutes are to be interpreted and when liability can attach and cannot attach to a statute
Sudden Emergency Doctrine New York Eighteen year old girl knocks speeding cyclists over to protect children; Sudden Emergency Doctrine stops suit
Summary Judgment Connecticut Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on duty to have and use an AED defines how statutes are to be interpreted and when liability can attach and cannot attach to a statute
Superseding or Intervening Causation Indiana An ugly case balancing the marketing program to make people feel safe, which is then used to prove the incident giving rise to the negligence claim, was foreseeable.
Tort Louisiana Louisiana court holds a tubing operation is not liable for drowning or failure to properly perform CPR
Unconscionable Delaware Delaware Supreme Court decision quickly determines a health club release is not void because of public policy issues and is clear and unequivocal
United States Constitution Fourteenth Amendment Buy something online and you may not have any recourse if it breaks or you are hurt
Willful, Wanton or Reckless Illinois When an organization makes rules and regulations that a subsidiary organization is supposed to obey, and then fails to follow, both organizations are liable to any plaintiff injured due to the failure to follow or enforce the organizational rules, policies, regulations or standards.
Ohio Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity.
Ohio Poorly written release on a sign in sheet barely passes protecting Ohio defendant swimming area from suit.
Minnesota Plaintiff argues under Minnesota law the language on the back of the season pass created an ambiguity which should void the season pass release for a ski area.
Missouri Missouri decision about ski rental form and a release that does not conform to MO law spell a mess for the ski resort
Nebraska Fees are charged, recreation is happening, but can the recreational use act still protect a claim, yes, if the fees are not for the recreation
Washington Dive Buddy (co-participant) not liable for death of the diver because the cause of death was too distant from the cause of the death.
Wyoming Rental agreement release was written well enough it barred claims for injuries on the mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming
Wrongful Death Ohio Poorly written release on a sign in sheet barely passes protecting Ohio defendant swimming area from suit.

Last Updated April 24, 2018


Only a New York City bike share case create a 34-page opinion on just motions that are filed. The results are all over the board, both the defendants and the plaintiff winning issues on an electronic release

A Ten-page release was upheld as valid. But the process was full of enough holes the plaintiff is still in the game.
Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

State: New York: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

Plaintiff: Ronald D. Corwin, et al

Defendant: NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk Immunity

Holding: Mixed

Year: 2017

Summary

Extremely complicated decision because of the number of claims of the plaintiff and the number of defendants in the case. Each defendant has a different perspective to the defenses.

The decision looks at what happens if you are not wearing a helmet while cycling and you receive a head injury as well as how assumption of the risk and open and obvious defenses are dealt with in a city and against city agencies.

The last issue, is electronic releases in New York City.

Facts

The plaintiff had signed up for a year long bike share rental agreement with New York City bike share. He did that online and, in the process, agreed to a release that was ten pages.

He rented a bike one day and was riding on the street. He felt pressure from traffic on his left. A bike share area was coming up on his right and he rode into it. The bike share locations must be on the streets in New York. He continued through the area and at the end hit a concrete wheel stop. He crashed suffering injuries.

Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, in-stalled, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.

He sued everyone there was in New York. Sixteen different law firms are listed in the case. The plaintiff sued:

City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program

NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system

New York City Department of Transportation

Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company

Alta Planning + Design (“APD”)

Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system

Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) installation

Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”) installation

The lawsuit was in Federal District Court. This opinion is the magistrate’s opinion on the motions filed by the parties. Judge assign non-trial work, such as deciding motions to magistrates. After the magistrate’s opinion is filed the parties have X days to respond/object. The judge then reviews and either adopts, modifies or writes his own opinion.

When the judge rules on the magistrate’s opinion there is usually a written record of the ruling. There are two additional motions the magistrate writes about that are in the record, but no ruling from the court.

Probably the parties settled based on this ruling.

There are a lot of arguments in this 34-page ruling. I’m only going to write about the ones that are important to the outdoor recreation and cycling community.

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

The first defense discussed here is the electronic release signed by the plaintiff to become a bike share member and rent bikes.

The first issues were plaintiff did not remember signing the release, but did sign up and admitted that he probably agreed to things.

The Bike Share program could not produce a release “signed” by the plaintiff. The produced a release that was in use at the time the plaintiff signed the release and the produced testimony of a former manager to testified that the only way the plaintiff could have become a member and ride bikes was if he had agreed to the release.

The plaintiff also argued the release was Unconscionable.

A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party

The court first went into the issue of whether the release existed and was signed. The release was determined to be a “clickwrap” agreement.

Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.”

The court found clickwrap agreements were enforceable.

Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.

However, the presumption of enforceability is based several factors.

The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind them-selves to contract terms

In New York the courts have already set a group of tests to determine if a clickwrap agreement is enforceable.

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement.

Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink.

Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements).

Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

Using this set of parameters, the magistrate reviewed the bike Share release and found it was not unconscionable.

The plaintiff then argued the release was not clear, coherent or unambiguous.

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims.

This ambiguity was based on contradictions between two sections in the ten-page release. However, the court found there was no ambiguity.

Then the plaintiff argued the release was void on public policy grounds.

The plaintiff raised three arguments on why the release violated public policy. It violated New York City Administrative Code, it violated New York General Obligations law § 5-326 and it violated the cities common law duty to maintain roads.

The court found New York City administrative code could not serve as a basis for invalidating a release.

New York General Obligations law § 5-326 is the statute that restricts on who can use a release. The language of the statutes says that “operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” can’t use a release. Since the bike share program was not a facility, the release was valid.

Finally, the common law duty the city of New York had to maintain the roads did not violate the release because “…the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads.”

The release was not void based on public policy considerations.

However, the release did not apply to the city of New York because that would be contrary to public policy.

In the end the negligence claims of the plaintiff were denied because of the release. The gross negligence claims were still valid. Under New York Law and the law of most states, claims for gross negligence cannot be stopped by a release.

The next issue was how the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet, at the time of his injury, would be used in the case.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff not wearing a helmet should be used by the defendants to show the plaintiff was liable for his injuries, (that the plaintiff was comparative negligence), to prove assumption of the risk and to mitigate the damages he incurred.

The plaintiff argued that since there was no statutory duty to wear a helmet, then the defendants could not make their arguments.

The court applied the same rationale to wearing a bike helmet as the courts had done in New York to wearing a seat belt in a car crash. Not wearing a bike helmet, it could not be used to prove liability on the part of the plaintiff but it could be used to reduce damages.

…the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how dam-ages, if any, should be assessed.

The defendant then argued they should have qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims of failing to provide a bike helmet to him while renting a bike.

Immunity is granted by statute to governments and their agencies for the decisions they make. As long as the decisions are not intentional and thought out the immunity applies. The immunity then stops the courts from reviewing those decisions as long as the decisions are made under the guidelines the law has set out.

Although the city may use the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet to reduce any damages the city might owe to the plaintiff. The plaintiff cannot use that argument to say the city was liable for not providing helmets. Nor can the plaintiff argue the his not wearing a helmet was unreasonable and did not breach a duty of care.

Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.

Here those guidelines were made by the city in its decision to not include helmets in the rentals of the bikes.

He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

Assumption of the Risk

The defendants moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries while riding a bike. Primary assumption of the risk is defined as:

In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.

The risks were also identified in the release the plaintiff signed and which had been accepted by the court.

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.”

However, the court rejected the defense because the plaintiff at the time of his injury was not engaged in a sporting activity.

Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her con-sent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.

So, assumption of the risk only applies to recreation and sports in New York? If you are walking down a sidewalk and see a hole in the sidewalk, on your way to work you don’t assume the risk if you fall into the hole?

The next argument by the defendants are not liable because the danger the plaintiff encountered was open an obvious.

The Open and Obvious defense seems fairly simple. If the thing or condition that injured the plaintiff was open and obvious then the plaintiff cannot sue for his injuries. It is very similar to an assumption of the risk defense.

A defendant has “no duty to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous. Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion

The defendants argue the concrete wheel stop was open and obvious.

…because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.

The plaintiff’s argument, based on the testimony of his expert witness was the wheel stop was not open and obvious because it was too big and was located in the travel lane had been camouflaged, in the way it was put in and painted.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.”.

How something could be too big and then not be open and obvious is confusing. This was enough for the court to deny motion for summary judgment based on the open and obvious theory.

Gross Negligence of the Bike Share defendant

Gross negligence under New York law is

…conduct that evinces a reckless disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.

The plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants ignored sound engineering practices when creating and installing the wheel stop and that it was foreseeable that the injuries would occur when the wheel stop was placed in the cycling path. Based on that language, the court found that the actions of the defendants could be defined as gross negligence.

The defendant won most of the decisions, however the plaintiff won enough and won significant ones that allowed the litigation to continue.

So Now What?

The final paragraph of the decision has a review of all decisions for the plaintiff and the defendants if you would like to keep a tally. However, there are several decisions concerning plaintiffs that were not reviewed here because they had no relationship to outdoor recreation or the legal issues commonly faced in outdoor recreation.

Obviously, the injuries to the plaintiff are significant to bring such forces to this litigation to justify this much work. The amount of effort put into prosecuting a case for a plaintiff can SOMETIMES be an indication of the damages to the plaintiff when those damages are not identified in the decision.

More importantly, the legal issues of suing New York City and its agencies are far more complex then found in most cities.

There are some interesting points worth noting. You could guess that the judge thought a ten-page release was long since she pointed it out. However, you cannot argue that your release is too long. Especially since electronically they do not have a length that is measured so easily.

Not wearing a helmet can be an issue in cycling and possibly skiing, even though the effectiveness of wearing one can be disputed. I suspect the next step would be to find a helmet expert by the plaintiff to argue that a helmet would not have prevented the damages the plaintiff received and the defendants will find an expert to argue the opposite.

The failure to provide proof that the plaintiff signed the release was overcome. However, design your system so you don’t have to jump through these hurdles. Crate a system that matches the signing to the credit card or other way of showing that on this date at this time the person entered his name and address, credit card number and clicked on this button saying he accepted the release. Then you add, his credit card would not have been charged unless he agreed to the release.

If you are designing bike share locations, do so in a way that people on bikes can assume they can ride through them.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

Ronald D. Corwin, et al., Plaintiffs, -against- NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., Defendants.

14-CV-1285 (SN)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

March 1, 2017, Decided

March 1, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53812 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 7, 2017)

Summary judgment granted by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57254 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 13, 2017)

CORE TERMS: bike, station, wheel, helmet, bicycle, summary judgment, street, cyclist’s, parking, user, roadway, lane, public policy, matter of law, traffic, wear, installation, riding, notice, negligence claims, qualified immunity, affirmative defenses, municipality, contractor, installed, recreational, planning, genuine, rider, safe

COUNSEL: [**1] For Ronald D. Corwin, Beth Blumenthal, Plaintiffs: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT; Neil R. Finkston, Law Office of Neil R. Finkston, Great Neck, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., Defendants, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Peter W. Beadle, Law Offce of Vaccaro & White, LLP, New York, NY; Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Howard Martin Wagner, Trief and Olk, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning + Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Defendants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY; Katherine Buchanan, The Law Firm of Hall & Hall, LLP, Staten Island, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., Defendant: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, [**2] Inc., Defendant, Cross Defendant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY; Brian L. Battisti, Morrison Mahoney, LLP(NYC), New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA Inc., ADR Provider: Mitchell John Baker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Baker, Leshko, Saline & Blosser, LLP, White Plains, NY.

For Metro Express, Inc., Interested Party: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For New York City Department of Transportation, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Kimberly Kristen Brown, Hoey, King,Epstein, Prezioso & Marquez, New York, NY.

For NYC Bike Share LLC, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY.

For Alta Planning Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY.

For Beth Blumenthal, Cross Defendant: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & [**3] Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT.

For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.

For MetroExpress Services, Inc., MetroExpress Services, Inc., Cross Defendant, Cross Claimants: Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.

For Sealcoat USA, Inc., Cross Claimant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY.

JUDGES: SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: SARAH NETBURN

OPINION

[*480] OPINION & ORDER

SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge:

On October 25, 2013, Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging [*481] that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and [**4] professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.1

1 As Blumenthal’s claims depend entirely on the viability of Corwin’s causes of actions, the two claims are referred to in shorthand as “Corwin’s” throughout the text of the opinion. Where the Court grants summary judgment or partial summary judgment to defendants on certain of Corwin’s claims, Blumenthal’s claims are dismissed as well. Vega-Santana v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 956 F. Supp. 2d 556, 562 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (“Where the primary cause of action is dismissed on summary judgment, the loss of consortium claim must be dismissed as well.”).

On February 27, 2014, Corwin brought claims against three defendants: the City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program; NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system, and the New York City Department of Transportation (“DOT”). ECF No. 1, Compl. On December 31, 2014, Corwin amended his complaint to remove the DOT and add three additional defendants: Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company; and Alta Planning + Design (“APD”) and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system. ECF No. 27, First Am. Compl. After conducting significant discovery, Corwin moved for and was granted leave to amend his complaint to join two additional defendants, Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”), both contractors who are [**5] alleged to have participated, in violation of the station’s design plan, in the installation of the wheel stop struck by Corwin. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl.

All of the defendants move separately for summary judgment on a variety of grounds.2 All defendants argue that the condition was open and obvious and that Corwin’s negligence claims generally fail as a matter of law. The City, NYCBS, and APD argue that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims were released by the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”) that he had to sign as a condition of Citi Bike membership, and that they are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. APD, Metro Express and Sealcoat argue that, as third-party entities in a contractual relationship with Corwin, they owed him no duty of care. APD additionally argues that the Citi Bike station’s deviation from the design is an absolute bar to liability, and that there was no causation between its design and Corwin’s injury. The City also contends that Corwin’s claims are barred due to the doctrine of qualified immunity and its lack of written notice of the condition pursuant to a municipal notice statute.

2 As their liability is exclusively a product of being a parent company of a wholly owned subsidiary, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc./Motivate, Inc. moves for summary judgment together with NYCBS, and APD moves together with APDNY. For the sake of brevity, these motions are referred to as the “NYCBS” and “APD” motions, respectively.

For his [**6] part, Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on two issues. First, he argues that the Release Agreement is unenforceable on numerous statutory, public policy, and contract formation grounds, and that defendants’ affirmative defenses [*482] relying on the Agreement should be dismissed as a matter of law. Second, he contends that the fact that he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident is irrelevant as a matter of law to issues of assumption of the risk, comparative fault, or failure to mitigate damages, and therefore defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on this argument should be dismissed.

For the following reasons, the cross-motions for summary judgment are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is DENIED as to NYCBS; the Agreement is enforceable as a matter of law as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion to dismiss the affirmative defenses relating to the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City because a contractual waiver of the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain public thoroughfares would be contrary to public policy. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relating [**7] to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED; as stated above, the Release Agreement is ineffective to waive Corwin’s claims at to the City, and the City has not demonstrated its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on qualified immunity, notice, or other grounds. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable as to NYCBS, Corwin’s common-law negligence claims are barred, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED because APD and APDNY did not owe any duty to Corwin. Accordingly, APD and APDNY are dismissed from this case. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED because a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether they owed Corwin a duty of care under applicable New York law.

BACKGROUND

I. History of the Citi Bike Program

Beginning in 2009, the City of New [**8] York began to study the feasibility of installing a bike share system in and around City streets, located in curbside parking lanes, on sidewalks, and near public spaces and parks. ECF No. 293, City’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“City St.”) ¶ 2. On April 10, 2012, the City and NYCBS entered into an agreement for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and publicizing of “Citi Bike,” a network of self-service bike share stations with publicly available bicycles. ECF No. 310, Corwin’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“Corwin St.”) ¶ 2. The system became operational in May 2013. City St. ¶ 5; ECF No. 317, NYCBS’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“NYCBS St.”) ¶ 1.

The City-NYCBS contract required NYCBS to design and install on-street bike parking stations “with appropriate protections and markings from adjacent parking and moving traffic. . . . [including] non-permanent bollards and paint markings.” City St. ¶ 31. The contract also noted that all protections and markings were to be preapproved by the DOT’s Division of Traffic. Id.

The design for the Citi Bike stations was modeled in part on the City’s previous experience with “bike corrals,” which were also placed in parking lanes and were designed by the DOT’s Highway Design Unit and [**9] Pedestrian and Bicycle Group. City St. ¶¶ 41-42. These corrals had many elements that would ultimately be integrated [*483] into the Citi Bike stations, such as wheel stops, paint marking and bollards. Id. ¶ 42.

At the time that the NYCBS contract was signed with the City, APD and APDNY were subsidiaries of Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., NYCBS’s parent company. Id. ¶ 48. APD assembled a team of architects, engineers, and designers to collaborate with the City on station design. Id. ¶¶ 49-50. Using a bike corral on Smith and Sackett Street as an exemplar, the APD and the City developed “Station Siting Guidelines” that included the use of unpainted, concrete wheel stops. Id. ¶¶ 51-57. Though the City originally approved the use of rubber wheel stops, it instructed NYCBS to replace them with concrete wheel stops because the rubber stops were not sufficiently durable. Id. ¶ 96. The wheel stops were considered by APD to be necessary to prevent damage to the station equipment by encroaching vehicles. Id. ¶ 58.

The final design for Citi Bike stations situated in parking lanes included white thermoplastic markings and three-foot tall, reflective, flexible delineators on or near the markings. Wheel stops [**10] were to be used in the stations to protect the station equipment. Id. ¶¶ 64-66. These elements were collectively referred to as “street treatment.” Id. ¶ 81. While NYCBS installed the station equipment directly, it contracted the installation of street treatment to Metro Express, allegedly without the City’s awareness. Id. ¶ 83. MetroExpress, in turn, subcontracted this work to another entity, Sealcoat, allegedly without the awareness of either the City or NYCBS. Id. ¶¶ 85-86.

The City considered, but chose not to mandate that Citi Bike riders wear helmets. It also did not provide helmets for Citi Bike riders on demand. Id. ¶ 8. The City came to this conclusion because (a) New York law did not mandate that adult cyclists wear helmets and it did not want to promote different standards for Citi Bike riders and other cyclists as a matter of public policy; (b) it believed, based on studies conducted in other cities, that mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and bike share system use in particular; (c) certain statistics indicated that mandatory helmet laws actually decreased cyclist safety by reducing the number of cyclists on the road; and (d) research suggested [**11] that helmeted cyclists tended to ride more recklessly than those without helmets. Id. ¶¶ 9-16; Corwin St. ¶ 10. The City also specifically evaluated the feasibility and wisdom of instituting a public helmet distribution system, but ultimately concluded that there were numerous logistical barriers to such a system, such as hygiene, the fact that the structural integrity of helmets would be compromised if they were involved in an accident, and lack of proper fitting and sizing capabilities. City St. ¶¶ 18-22. The City further considered what it viewed as unfavorable experiences with such systems in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. Id. ¶ 25. The City did, however, provide annual Citi Bike members with discounted vouchers for helmets and expanded its helmet giveaway and fitting programs. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

II. Design and Installation of Citi Bike Station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue

The station where Ronald Corwin’s accident occurred was located at the intersection of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 98. The City issued a permit to NYCBS for the installation of the station on July 22, 2013, and the station equipment was installed on July 30, 2013. Id. ¶¶ 103-04. [**12] The City approved APD’s design drawing of the station on August 6, 2013, including all street treatment. Id. ¶ 100. The approved design had only one wheel stop at the west end of the station, [*484] no thermoplastic striping within the boxes at the ends of the station, a station width of eight feet, and a total of six delineators. ECF No. 301, Alta Planning and Design Rule 56.1 Statement (“APD St.”) ¶ 30. None of the site plan drawings, including the approved drawing, contained a wheel stop at the east end of the station closest to Madison Avenue.

The street treatment at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station was installed on or about October 22, 2013. APD St. ¶ 31. Notwithstanding its absence on the approved plan, a wheel stop was installed at the east end of the station as well, and the station did not conform to the approved plan in several other respects: the station footprint was made wider by the installation of thermoplastic striping more than eight feet in width, additional delineators were added, and cross-hatched striping was installed on either end of the station underneath the wheel stops. Id. ¶ 34. Though this is disputed by the defendants, Corwin argues that the wider footprint [**13] is relevant because, as it provided less clearance between the edge of the station and moving traffic, it would have encouraged a cyclist to use the station itself as a temporary riding lane. ECF No. 335, Decl. of Pl.’s Exp. James E. Green, ¶¶ 56-58. The City denies approving the installation of a second wheel stop at this site, and claims that its records do not show that it had written notice regarding the additional wheel stop. City St. ¶¶ 102, 106, 108.

The entity responsible for installing the wheel stop is contested; Metro Express and Sealcoat contend that an October 18, 2013 email from NYCBS informed them only of the need for repairs to the station, and that after Sealcoat representative Ryan Landeck visited the station on October 22, 2013, he reported that there was nothing to be done at the station in a October 24, 2013 email to Metro Express. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck Depo. at 41, 51; ECF No. 368-4, Landeck Oct. 24, 2013 E-mail. Metro Express further contends that the City had often instructed NYCBS, who in turn had instructed Metro Express to install “Supplemental Street Treatments” not depicted on station plans, and that such supplemental installations included second wheel [**14] stops. ECF No. 368-8, May 17, 2013 Email; ECF No. 335-20, Strasser 06/28/16 Depo. at 48-51. Metro Express alleges that on July 17, 2013, and October 9, 2013, it was specifically ordered by NYCBS to install a second wheel stop not depicted on station plans at three stations around the network. ECF 368-10; 368-11; 368-12; 368-13; 368-14. There is no direct evidence in the record, however, that such a request was ever issued for the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station.

III. Ronald Corwin’s Citi Bike Membership and Release Agreement

Ronald Corwin signed up online for an annual Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013. Corwin St. ¶ 15. Corwin does not remember the details of the process, and did not recall clicking on or reading the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement as a condition of membership. Id. ¶ 18. Nevertheless, he did admit in deposition testimony that “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike Pass.” NYCBS St. ¶ 21. NYCBS has not, however, produced a version of the Agreement dated contemporaneously to Corwin’s registration, or Corwin’s actual electronic signature. Corwin St. ¶ 22.

While the applicability and enforceability [**15] of the Release Agreement is disputed by the parties, there is no serious dispute as to its content. NYCBS has produced an agreement dated July 25, 2014, and Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of [*485] NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, testified that this agreement was active on the date that Corwin became a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl. ¶¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl. ¶¶ 2-3; ECF 316-1, Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). Ginsburgh attested that it would be impossible to become a Citi Bike member without first being shown the Release Agreement in a scrollable text box and then clicking a box stating “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in (sic) User Agreement.” NYCBS St. ¶¶ 17-18; City St. ¶¶ 118-20.

The Release Agreement contains several provisions, which are reproduced below in relevant part:

Section 6. Releases:

In exchange for You being allowed to use any of the Services, Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information, You . . . do hereby fully and forever release [**16] and discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. Such releases are intended to be general and complete releases of all Claims. The Released Persons may plead such releases as a complete and sufficient defense to any Claim, as intended 3rd beneficiaries of such releases.

“Claims” is defined in the Release Agreement as “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, disputes, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories), proceedings [or] damages that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information . . . .” “Released Persons” is defined in the Agreement, as relevant, as including: “(i) NYCBS and all of its owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns [and] (ii) the City of New York.”

Section 7. Disclaimers:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that your use of any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, is at your sole risk. . . . [**17] All of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or related information are provided “as is” and “as available” (and you rely on them solely at your own risk). . . . You assume full responsibility and risk of loss for using any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, and NYCBS and all other released persons are not liable for any claim attributable to any of the foregoing.

Section 8. Limited Liability:

You do hereby acknowledge and agree that, except as may otherwise be limited by New York General Obligation Law Section 5-326, NYCBS and all other released persons are not responsible or liable for any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to (A) any risk, danger or hazard described in the Agreement, (B) Your use of or inability to use, any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated (sic) information, (C) your breach of this agreement or your violation of any law, (D) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction by you, (E) your failure to wear a bicycles helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle, or (F) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction of any third party. You do hereby waive all claims with respect to any [**18] [*486] of the foregoing, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, even if NYCBS or any of the other released persons has been advised of the possibility of such claims. The total liability of NYCBS and all other released persons for all claims, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, is limited to the sum of $100.

Section 9. Assumption of Risk by Member:

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death to Member or others, as well as damage to property, and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.

IV. Ronald Corwin’s Ride and Accident

At 10:57 a.m. on October 25, 2013, Ronald Corwin picked up a Citi Bike at a station located on the southeastern corner of 6th Avenue and East 56th Street. From there, he travelled in the direction of Grand Central Station. Corwin St. ¶ 25; NYCBS St. ¶ 32. He was not wearing a helmet. Corwin St. ¶ 26; City St. ¶ 137. Corwin proceeded eastbound in the [**19] traffic lane on East 56th Street, with vehicular traffic proceeding to his left. NYCBS St. ¶ 34. Because Corwin claimed to have been “under pressure” from the vehicular traffic, he turned into the Citi Bike station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 35. The station area was indicated by a perimeter of 4 inch white thermoplastic stripes on the asphalt roadway, and three foot tall white flexible delineators with gray reflective tape spaced approximately every 10 feet along the thermoplastic striping. Id. ¶ 36. At either end of the station, unpainted concrete wheel stops measuring 5 feet, 10.5 inches long by five inches high, were installed on the roadway. Id. ¶ 40. These wheel stops were framed by a box of white thermoplastic striping with diagonal cross-hatching, staked out by three-foot tall flexible delineators. Id. ¶ 41. While he was travelling within the station “envelope,” the front wheel of Corwin’s Citi Bike hit the concrete wheel stop installed near the crosswalk at the Madison Avenue end of the station, causing him to crash onto the pavement and sustain serious injury. Corwin St. ¶ 26.

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court “shall grant summary judgment if [**20] the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party must show that “under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that there are no material facts in dispute and must provide “affirmative evidence” from which a factfinder could return a verdict in its favor. Id. at 257. Then “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to point to record evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact.” Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 273 (2d Cir. 2006). “[T]he trial court’s task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to [*487] deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., LP, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference [**21] could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. . . .” Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). To create a disputed fact sufficient to deny summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence in the record and “may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible. . . .” Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993). Instead, the response “must set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

II. Waiver and Release

It is undisputed that in order to become a member of Citi Bike, Corwin would have been required to assent to a release of claims as set forth in the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). This Agreement covered “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories) . . . that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information or (b) Your use of any of the foregoing.” It required Corwin to “discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except [**22] for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement. As relevant here, the Agreement expressly included NYCBS and the City of New York, as well as all of NYCBS’s “owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns” within the definition of “Released Persons.” Id.

Corwin moves for partial summary judgment to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses based on the Release Agreement, arguing that the Agreement is ambiguous, contrary to law, and/or void as a matter of public policy. For their part, the City and NYCBS move for summary judgment arguing that Corwin’s negligence claims against them are waived by the release, with the exception of those sounding in gross negligence. Though it is not expressly named in the release, APD also argues that the claims against it are released because of its relationship to NYCBS.

As a threshold issue, the Court considers if there is a genuine dispute as to whether Corwin signed a release and, if so, its scope. Corwin argues that because defendants have failed to produce an actual copy of the Release Agreement with his electronic signature, or a [**23] copy of the Agreement as it existed when he became an annual member, defendants cannot demonstrate that he signed the waiver at all. Defendants have produced a declaration from Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, that describes the membership process and states that Corwin would have [*488] had to agree to the terms of the Agreement in order to become a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., ¶¶ 7-9. Ginsburgh also declares that the Release Agreement appended to his declaration, dated July 15, 2014, was a “true and complete copy of the User Agreement that was in effect in May 2013 when Mr. Corwin became a Citi Bike member.”3 Id. at ¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 (“The User Agreement . . . was fully in effect when plaintiff Ronald Corwin obtained his Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013.”). Ginsburgh had previously noted in deposition testimony, however, that he was no longer in his General Manager position as of April 1, 2014, and therefore “[didn’t] know if any changes occurred [to the membership signup] after that.” ECF No. 360-6, Justin Ginsburgh Depo. [**24] at 463. Corwin stated in deposition testimony that he completed the membership application and “signed whatever it is [he] had to sign in order to get [his] Citi Bike pass,” but did not remember the contents of the Agreement or whether he had read it. ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

3 The first Ginsburgh Declaration inaccurately references Corwin becoming a Citi Bike member in May 2013; in fact, Corwin became a Citi Bike member on June 25, 2013.

Corwin has failed to “set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial,” Wright, 554 F.3d at 266, as to the existence and scope of the Agreement. Defendants have produced declaration testimony from Justin Ginsburgh, and Corwin has challenged the credibility of those statements. He has not, however, despite extensive discovery, introduced any evidence that there was an agreement with different terms in effect when Corwin became a Citi Bike member, or even any evidence that raises doubt as to whether the Agreement provided by defendants was in effect. Nor has Corwin provided any evidence that he was somehow able to sign up for his Citi Bike membership without following the process described by Ginsburgh, which required him to manifest assent to the Release Agreement. Therefore, Corwin has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the existence of a contract between [**25] the parties. Accordingly, whether or not Corwin’s claims are barred by the Release Agreement shall depend solely on the effectiveness of Corwin’s assent under the circumstances, and the enforceability of the waiver provisions as to the various defendants.

A. Unconscionability Analysis in Online “Clickwrap” Contracts

The first question for the Court’s consideration is whether, absent any overarching questions of statutory or common law public policy, the contract is enforceable on its own terms or whether, as Corwin argues, it is an “unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion.” A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party.” Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 10, 534 N.E.2d 824, 537 N.Y.S.2d 787 (1988) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Desiderio v. Nat’l Ass’n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 207 (2d Cir. 1999).

The parties agree that the contract in question is a “clickwrap” agreement. Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of [*489] service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, [**26] potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.” Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2d Cir. 2004). Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.'” Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15-CV-9796 (JSR), 199 F. Supp. 3d 752, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 29, 2016) (citing Cullinane v. Uber Techs., Inc., No. 14-CV-14750 (DPW), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89540, 2016 WL 3751652, at *6 (D. Mass. July 11, 2016)). While the Court of Appeals has not categorically ruled on the issue, it has strongly implied that such contracts are presumptively enforceable. See, e.g., Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., 796 F.3d 193, 197 (2d Cir. 2015) (noting that case would have been “simpler to resolve had [defendant] used a ‘clickwrap’ mechanism to provide reasonable notice and to obtain [plaintiff’s] assent”). Accordingly, most lower courts have enforced such contracts, absent extraordinary circumstances. See Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F. Supp. 3d 359, 397 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (collecting cases); Centrifugal Force, Inc. v. Softnet Commc’n, Inc., No. 08-CV-5463 (CM), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20536, 2011 WL 744732, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2011) (“In New York, clickwrap agreements are valid and enforceable contracts.”).

Nevertheless, a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability [**27] of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms.” Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 (2d Cir. 2002) (Sotomayor, J.). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways.” Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *8.

In Berkson, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide this inquiry. First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement. Berkson, 97 F. Supp. 3d at 401 (citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 (9th Cir. 2014)). Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink. Id. (citing Ticketmaster Corp. v. Tickets.Com, Inc., No. 99-CV-7654 (HLH), 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6483, 2003 WL 21406289, at *2 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 7, 2003)). Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” Id. at 401-02 (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements). Special attention [**28] should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable. Id. at 402; see also Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *10 (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text [*490] about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

In this case, NYCBS represents that “before the prospective member can proceed to pay for the membership, each person is shown the . . . ‘User Agreement.’ The User Agreement is displayed on the page in its own scrollable text box, which may also be opened in a new window for ease [**29] of viewing and printing.” ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., at ¶ 7. The “continue” button allowing Corwin to provide his payment information would not activate until Corwin clicked on a statement reading “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in [sic] User Agreement.” Id. at ¶¶ 8-9; Release Agreement, ECF No. 316-1 at 56. The Release Agreement itself, roughly 10 pages in length, contained a bold-faced and underlined section in larger font titled “Releases; Disclaimers; Limited Liability; Assumption of the Risk.” The text of the sections in question are in normal-sized font. Though Corwin stated that he had no specific recollection of reading and signing the Release Agreement, he did admit “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike pass.” ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.

Applying the considerations in Berkson, the Release Agreement is enforceable. The full scrollable text of the agreement was available on the same page a user must utilize to register, requiring no clicking of hyperlinks, and the user cannot continue to input his payment information until [**30] he signals assent to the agreement by taking the affirmative step of clicking a box. While it is possible to imagine clearer signaling of the importance of the waiver provisions to an unwary or unsophisticated consumer, the terms are not hidden or buried in an obscure part of the website, but rather are in plain view. Accordingly, the Release Agreement is not unconscionable, and Corwin is not entitled to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses on this basis.

B. Ambiguity

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims. See, e.g., Spancake v. Aggressor Fleet Ltd., No. 91-CV-5628 (DLC), 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7319, 1995 WL 322148, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 26, 1995). Corwin argues that the waiver is unenforceable due to ambiguity, finding a conflict between Section 8 (“Limited Liability”), which purports to release defendants from claims arising from riders’ “failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Citi Bike bicycle,” and Section 5, which does not list failing to wear a helmet as one of 11 “Prohibited Acts.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement.

There is plainly no contradiction between Section 5 and Section 8. Section 5 lists actions, such as defacing a Citi Bike bicycle, transferring a bicycle to a non-member, or using a cellphone while riding that [**31] could presumably lead to contractual consequences for the member. Not wearing a helmet is not prohibited, which is also consistent with New York law allowing adult cyclists to ride without a helmet. See infra Part III.

Section 8 instead provides a non-exhaustive list of circumstances for which the [*491] contract seeks to limit liability. On its face, the fact that this list is not identical to that in Section 5 presents no contradiction, as they are presented for entirely different purposes.4 Moreover, the examples in Section 8 are meant only to illustrate some of the circumstances under which liability is to be limited; the section refers to limited liability for “any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to . . . your failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle.” Id. (emphasis added).

4 On wholly separate grounds, in Part III of its opinion, the Court grants Corwin summary judgment on Defendants’ affirmative defenses that Corwin’s failure to wear a bicycle helmet relieves them of liability because as a matter of New York law, the failure to wear a helmet goes only to the question of mitigation of damages. This does not, however, affect the clear and unambiguous nature of the waiver provisions.

As such, the Release Agreement is not void due to ambiguity.

C. Unenforceability on Public Policy Grounds

New York law “frowns upon contracts intended to exculpate a party from the consequences of his own negligence and though, with certain exceptions, they are enforceable, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny.” Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 106, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (1979). Therefore, an exculpatory contract must express “in unequivocal terms the [**32] intention of the parties to relieve a defendant of liability for the defendant’s negligence.” Lago v. Krollage, 78 N.Y.2d 95, 100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 (1991); Roane v. Greenwich Swim Comm., 330 F. Supp. 2d 306, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (finding that appearance of the actual word “negligence” was significant in determining whether exculpatory contract was to be enforced). But “even an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced . . . if it is found to violate public policy . . . .” Ash v. New York Univ. Dental Ctr., 164 A.D.2d 366, 369, 564 N.Y.S.2d 308 (1st Dep’t 1990).

Public policy “is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interests.” Lubov v. Horing & Welikson, P.C., 72 A.D.3d 752, 753, 898 N.Y.S.2d 244 (2d Dep’t 2010) (citation omitted); see also Lewis v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Civil Serv., 60 A.D.3d 216, 222, 872 N.Y.S.2d 578 (3d Dep’t 2009) (defining New York public policy as “the law of the [s]tate, whether found in the Constitution, the statutes or judicial records”) (citation omitted). Parties may, however, “agree to give up statutory or constitutional rights in a contract, as long as public policy is not violated.” J. D’Addario & Co., Inc. v. Embassy Indus., Inc., 20 N.Y.3d 113, 119, 980 N.E.2d 940, 957 N.Y.S.2d 275 (2012).

Corwin argues that the Release Agreement violates three sources of public policy–New York City Administrative Code § 19-110, which provides that municipal permit holders may be held liable for their own negligence, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326, which invalidates exculpatory clauses in agreements with operators of recreational facilities, and [**33] the City’s non-delegable common-law duty to maintain the public streets.

i. New York City Administrative Code § 19-110

New York City Administrative Code (“NYCAC”) § 19-110 reads:

Liability for damage. In all cases where any person shall engage in any activity for which a permit is required pursuant to [the subchapter concerning streets [*492] and sidewalks], such person shall be liable for any damage which may be occasioned to persons, animals, or property by reason of negligence in any manner connected with the work.

Corwin argues that this statute represents a “public policy” intended to provide a “statutory remedy” against all persons who negligently perform work subject to the issuance of a permit. He notes that there was no explicit reference to waiving any rights or remedies under NYCAC § 19-110 in the Release Agreement, but even if there were, such a waiver would be unenforceable because of an alleged public policy to protect the public and ensure a remedy against any person acting under a permit to individuals injured by their negligence.

Case law regarding § 19-110 (and its predecessor provision, § 19-107) is sparse, and no court has held that § 19-110 provides a statutory right at all–much less a non-waivable statutory right elevated to [**34] the status of public policy. Instead, the available case law deals exclusively with whether the statute can be invoked as a basis for the City to seek indemnification, as opposed to contribution, from a negligent municipal contractor. See City of New York v. Consol. Edison Co., 198 A.D.2d 31, 31-32, 603 N.Y.S.2d 47 (1st Dep’t 1993) (finding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification, but rather only that a contractor was responsible for its own negligence); Petrucci v. City of New York, 167 A.D.2d 29, 34, 569 N.Y.S.2d 624 (1st Dep’t 1991) (concluding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification of the City, but only an “intent to render the contractor responsible for those damages actually caused to injured third parties or property by its own negligence or carelessness”); Libardi v. City of New York, 201 A.D.2d 539, 540-41, 607 N.Y.S.2d 717 (2d Dep’t 1994) (same).

This limited case law appears to do no more than clarify, in line with common-law negligence principles, that the City may seek contribution for damages to third parties occasioned by a negligent contractor or property owner conducting work pursuant to a municipal permit. It is plainly insufficient to constitute an overarching public policy guaranteeing Corwin the right to sue any contractor notwithstanding a contractual waiver. Indeed, Corwin has cited no case in which the statute was interpreted to provide a plaintiff a private right of action or a “statutory [**35] remedy” differing in any way from a common-law negligence claim. Accordingly, NYCAC § 19-110 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

ii. New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

New York has a statutory restriction that invalidates exculpatory clauses or agreements between users and owners and operators of recreational facilities. N.Y. General Obligations Law (“GOL”) § 5-326 provides:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be [*493] deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The Release Agreement explicitly refers to this statute, noting that Released Persons are not “responsible or liable . . . except as may [**36] otherwise be limited by New York General Obligations Law 5-326.” ECF No. 316-1.

In order for GOL § 5-326 to apply, the plain text of the statute indicates that the agreement in question must (1) be made between a user and an owner or operator of a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” and (2) a fee or other compensation must be paid for “use” of a “facility” covered by the statute. Courts that have considered situations where equipment was rented and taken out of the control of the facility owner or operator have additionally considered whether the owner or operator exercised a substantial level of control over the environment in which the recreational activity takes place. See, e.g., Dumez v. Harbor Jet Ski, Inc., 117 Misc. 2d 249, 250, 458 N.Y.S.2d 119 (Sup. Ct. Niagara Cty. 1981).

Corwin argues that the Citi Bike program was primarily, or at the very least, substantially, a “recreational” program, and that the defendants’ business plan presupposed a significant number of daily and recreational users. He cites to a state court proceeding in which a neighborhood association challenged the installation of a Citi Bike station in a public park on the grounds that it was purely a commuter program. There, the City argued and the court held that the program fulfilled a valid recreational purpose. Friends of Petrosino Square v. Sadik-Khan, 42 Misc. 3d 226, 977 N.Y.S.2d 580 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2013), aff’d, 126 A.D.3d 470, 5 N.Y.S.3d 397 (1st Dep’t 2015). Therefore, [**37] according to Corwin, because the Citi Bike rental station where the accident occurred was a “place of recreation,” and he paid a fee to access the facility in the form of his annual membership, GOL § 5-326 operates to invalidate the exculpatory clause in the contract.5

5 Corwin also argues that the express language in the Release Agreement referencing GOL § 5-326 operates as an admission that negligence claims stemming from Citi Bike are not waivable and “is compelling proof of defendants’ recognition that [the] waiver is void.” ECF No. 361, Pl.’s Reply Mem. at 8. This is incorrect. Rather, the reference to GOL § 5-326 is plainly to ensure that the waiver provisions are not overbroad, putting users on notice that any such claims, were they to exist, would not be waived. It is not an admission that such claims actually could exist, or that in this case they do exist.

While the parties may dispute whether Corwin’s fateful Citi Bike ride was “recreational” in character, it is clear that the applicability of GOL § 5-326 cannot possibly turn on whether the given individual was using the bicycle recreationally or for commuting purposes. Defendants, moreover, argue that the statute does not apply because the membership fee does not entitle the user access or use of any physical facility; the fee is solely for the rental of a bike, while any individual is free to traverse the Citi Bike stations or New York City streets.

Several New York courts have held that GOL § 5-326 does not apply to accidents occurring on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Deutsch v. Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 A.D.3d 776, 777, 985 N.Y.S.2d 716 (2d Dep’t 2014) (statute not applied to plaintiff who rented a Segway vehicle and was taken on defendant-guided tour of muddy public trail “because the fee she paid to the defendant was for the rental of the Segway vehicle, and was not an admission [**38] fee for the use of the public trail over which the tour was conducted”); [*494] Brookner v. N.Y. Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 A.D.3d 841, 842, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 (2d Dep’t 2008) (statute not applied to marathon runner because entry fee “was for his participation in the marathon, and was not an admission fee allowing him to use the City-owned public roadway over which the marathon was run” and “public roadway in Brooklyn where the plaintiff alleges he was injured is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Tedesco v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth., 250 A.D.2d 758, 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 (2d Dep’t 1998) (statute not applied to cyclist on paid bike tour “since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the plaintiff . . . was injured, is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Stuhlweissenburg v. Town of Orangetown, 223 A.D.2d 633, 634, 636 N.Y.S.2d 853 (2d Dep’t 1996) (statute not applied to accident occurring in softball game where no fee was paid to access field).

On the other hand, other courts have applied GOL § 5-326 to certain accidents on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Williams v. City of Albany, 271 A.D.2d 855, 856-57, 706 N.Y.S.2d 240 (3d Dep’t 2000) (declining to follow Stuhlweissenburg and invalidating waiver for accident occurring in publicly accessible field for plaintiff playing in privately-operated flag football league); Filson v. Cold River Trail Rides, Inc., 242 A.D.2d 775, 777, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 (3d Dep’t 1997) (invalidating waiver in horseback-riding accident guided by defendant but occurring on publicly accessible parkland); Wright v. Freeport Hudson Anglers, Inc., 2009 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4712 (Sup Ct. Nassau Cnty. Apr. 8, 2009) (invalidating waiver for sea accident occurring in fishing tournament).

In seeking to reconcile [**39] the case law, Defendants point out that every court to consider the applicability of GOL § 5-326 to an accident occurring on a public, paved, urban street has found the statute to be inapplicable. Corwin, for his part, argues that these cases are inapposite because the bike station was not part of a public road at all, but rather a separate “recreational facility” that happened to be located on a public road.6

6 If true, this, of course, would contradict Corwin’s argument that the Release Agreement is unenforceable as to the City because it purports to waive the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain its roads.

Considering the case law and the legislative intent animating the statute, the Court finds as a matter of law that a Citi Bike station is not a “facility” for the purposes of § 5-326. The stations are plainly more properly characterized as storage facilities for bicycles rather than facilities for recreation in and of themselves. Even if riders incidentally enter or pass through the stations on their bicycles, or if the design of the particular bike station that was the site of the accident encouraged riders to pass through it, this does not turn them into “places of amusement or recreation.” Assuming without deciding that Citi Bike is properly characterized as a primarily recreational program, the intended sites for that recreational use are the City’s roadways and bike lanes–the very types of [**40] paved public thoroughfares that courts have held are not “places of amusement or recreation.” See, e.g., Brookner, 51 A.D.3d at 842. Therefore, the station can only be defined in two ways: either it is part of the public road on which riders are meant to engage in recreational activity, or it is a storage facility that is not part of the roadway. Either way, it is not a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” as required to trigger the statute. Accordingly, GOL § 5-326 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.

iii. City’s Common Law Duty to Maintain the Roads

New York courts have long held “that a municipality owe[s] to the public the absolute [*495] duty of keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition.” Friedman v. State, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283, 493 N.E.2d 893, 502 N.Y.S.2d 669 (1986) (quotations omitted); see also Wittorf v. City of New York., 23 N.Y.3d 473, 480, 991 N.Y.S.2d 578, 15 N.E.3d 333 (2014) (“[A] municipality has a duty to maintain its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition and liability will flow for injuries resulting from a breach of that duty.”). As this duty has been characterized as “absolute” and “non-delegable” (though subject to the doctrine of qualified immunity, see infra Part IV), Corwin argues that the City’s duty applies to the bike station and wheel stop at issue and cannot be released by means of a private contract. The City [**41] contends that while it does indeed have a duty to maintain public roadways, a contractual waiver of this duty is permissible and would not offend any overarching public policy.

Before considering whether the City’s duty to maintain public roadways may be released by contract to a voluntary participant in a public transportation program such as Citi Bike, the Court must first determine whether the Citi Bike station where Corwin’s accident occurred properly falls within the scope of that duty. Indeed, defendants argue repeatedly that cyclists are not intended to use bike station areas as a travel lane, and that those facilities are intended only for the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. They contend that the presence of the concrete wheel stops and surrounding cross-hatching, white thermoplastic striping, and flexible delineators plainly distinguished the bike station from the adjoining roadway, and should have indicated to a cyclist that it was an area in which cycling was not permitted.

In determining the scope of a municipality’s duty, New York courts have generally considered whether the municipality affirmatively undertook to provide an improved area adjacent to the road, [**42] such as a shoulder. If so, it has generally been held to be responsible for its maintenance. See Bottalico v. State, 59 N.Y.2d 302, 305, 451 N.E.2d 454, 464 N.Y.S.2d 707 (1983) (finding highway shoulder to be within scope of duty because it was “both foreseeable and contemplated that, once provided, an improved shoulder at times will be driven upon”). The touchstone of this analysis is foreseeability. It does not necessarily depend on the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s conduct. A municipality is required to “maintain the shoulder in a reasonably safe condition for foreseeable uses, including its use resulting from a driver’s negligence.” Id. at 304; see also Stiuso v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 889, 891, 663 N.E.2d 321, 639 N.Y.S.2d 1009 (1995) (same); Saulpaugh v. State, 132 A.D.2d 781, 781-82, 517 N.Y.S.2d 328 (4th Dep’t 1987) (same).

On the other hand, no duty exists where a paved roadway “is more than adequate for safe public passage and travel beyond those limits is neither contemplated nor foreseeable.” Tomassi v. Town of Union, 46 N.Y.2d 91, 97, 385 N.E.2d 581, 412 N.Y.S.2d 842 (1978) (noting that “utility poles, drainage ditches, culverts, trees and shrubbery are often in close proximity to the traveled right of way . . . [b]ut for the careful driver, the placement of these items near the pavement creates no unreasonable danger”). The courts have repeatedly denied recovery for roadway users whose injury stemmed from the lack of maintenance of areas near the roadway whose use was unforeseeable even in emergencies. [**43] See, e.g., Preston v. State, 6 A.D.3d 835, 836, 775 N.Y.S.2d 115 (3d Dep’t 2004) (no recovery for driver hitting tree seven feet from the edge of the travel line, where “nothing in the record indicat[ed] [*496] that defendant affirmatively took any action to create or maintain the area”); Green v. Cty. of Allegany, 300 A.D.2d 1077, 1077, 752 N.Y.S.2d 487 (4th Dep’t 2002) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch and culvert headwall); Muller v. State, 240 A.D.2d 881, 882, 658 N.Y.S.2d 727 (3d Dep’t 1997) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch headwall beyond the traversable shoulder where the “emergency use of such additional area was neither contemplated nor foreseeable”).

The record does not demonstrate that the City actively contemplated that cyclists would be passing through Citi Bike stations; indeed, precisely the alleged failure to contemplate this possibility forms the basis for Corwin’s argument that the City is not entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. The Court does find, however, that the possibility of cyclists passing through Citi Bike stations located in on-street parking lanes was foreseeable. At times, defendants’ representatives have seemed to admit that riding in the parking lane was, if not expressly permitted, at least a common practice of cyclists. ECF No. 335-24, Jon Orcutt 09/03/15 Depo. at 396-97. (“There are plenty of places with a wide parking lane . . . where [**44] a wide parking lane is kind of implemented as a stealth bike lane.”) This conclusion is buttressed by a brief traffic study conducted by Corwin’s expert, James M. Green. ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶¶ 35, 57 (finding that cyclists regularly circulated through the station at issue and arguing that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design,” which was wider and jutted further out into the traffic lane). But even absent the expert’s study, logic dictates that, just as an automobile is not generally permitted to drive on an improved shoulder but may swerve into it (negligently or not) in a situation where the circumstances so require, it is foreseeable that a cyclist such as Corwin may (negligently or not) enter into the Citi Bike station seeking safety when feeling pressured by tight traffic.

This is, perhaps, an imperfect analogy: whereas the express and primary purpose of an improved highway shoulder is to provide a safe outlet for motorists in emergency situations, this is not so for Citi Bike stations, whose primary purpose is the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. Nevertheless, the applicable case law does not require that the primary purpose of the improved [**45] space abutting the road be for such emergency uses; as stated above, foreseeability is sufficient to trigger the municipality’s duty. Nor have courts drawn distinctions between motorists and other roadway users; instead, they have found that cyclists may bring claims predicated on state or municipal government’s failure to maintain roadways. See, e.g., Cotty v. Town of Southampton, 64 A.D.3d 251, 255, 880 N.Y.S.2d 656 (2d Dep’t 2009) (primary assumption of risk doctrine “not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition . . . and such a result does not become justifiable merely because the roadway happens to be in use by a person operating a bicycle”); Caraballo v. City of Yonkers, 54 A.D.3d 796, 796-97, 865 N.Y.S.2d 229 (2d Dep’t 2008) (“[T[he infant plaintiff cannot be said, as a matter of law, to have assumed the risk of being injured by a defective condition of a pothole on a public street, merely because he was participating in the activity of recreational noncompetitive bicycling, and using the bicycle as a means of transportation.” (citations omitted)).

Finally, there can be no question that the duty to maintain the roads applies not only to the physical condition of the road itself, but also to the placement of [*497] obstacles or hazards that make use of the road unsafe. Annino v. City of Utica, 276 N.Y. 192, 196-97, 11 N.E.2d 726 (1937) (municipality found liable [**46] for a tripod dangerously placed over a manhole cover so as to constitute a dangerous obstruction); Whitney v. Town of Ticonderoga, 127 N.Y. 40, 44, 27 N.E. 403 (1891) (“[T]he impairment of a highway for public use may be no less such by an obstruction placed in it than by a physical disturbance or injury to the bed of the roadway.”).

Accordingly, the Court finds that the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads. Therefore, the Court must now decide whether the City can waive this duty by contract as a condition of participating in the Citi Bike public transportation program.

“[E]ven an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced by the courts . . . if it is found to violate public policy either by way of conflicting with an overriding public interest or because it constitutes an abuse of a special relationship between the parties, or both.” Ash, 164 A.D.2d at 369. Indeed, when choosing to invalidate such clauses, courts have often analyzed the “public interest” and “special relationship” prongs together. See id. at 369-71 (invalidating exculpatory clause between dental clinic and patient both [**47] because of the public interest in protecting the welfare of its citizens and ensuring medical quality and the uniqueness of the physician-patient relationship); Conklin v. Canadian-Colonial Airways, Inc., 266 N.Y. 244, 247-48, 194 N.E. 692 (1935) (invalidating clause between common carrier and passenger because allowing public service corporations to disclaim all liability for negligence by contract is contrary to public interest, and passengers are not typically given a choice in contracting); Johnston v. Fargo, 184 N.Y. 379, 384-85, 77 N.E. 388 (1906) (invalidating exculpatory clause between employer and employees both because of the state interest in the “maintenance of proper and reasonable safeguards to human life and limb” and the unequal bargaining power between the parties). On the other hand, courts have readily enforced exculpatory clauses in arm’s length commercial transactions between two private parties, see, e.g., Florence v. Merchants Cent. Alarm Co., Inc., 51 N.Y.2d 793, 412 N.E.2d 1317, 433 N.Y.S.2d 91 (1980), when not expressly prohibited by statute.

No case has considered the specific question of whether a municipality’s duty to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel can be waived by contract. For almost two centuries, however, New York state courts have spoken of an “absolute” duty that could not be delegated to third parties. See Annino, 276 N.Y. at 196 (1937) (“The city owed to the public the absolute duty of [**48] keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel and was bound to exercise reasonable care to accomplish that end.”) (emphasis added) (citations omitted); Storrs v. City of Utica, 17 N.Y. 104, 108-09 (1858) (finding that municipal corporations “owe[] to the public the duty of keeping its streets in a safe condition for travel” and “although the work may be let out by contract, the corporation still remains charged with the care and control of the street in which the improvement is carried on . . . [and cannot] either avoid indictment in behalf of the public or its liability to individuals who are injured.”). The only significant exception to this nondelegable duty is that “it is intended to protect the traveling public”–therefore, [*498] the duty has been held not to extend to injured employees of independent contractors working on road construction projects. Lopes v. Rostad, 45 N.Y.2d 617, 624-25, 384 N.E.2d 673, 412 N.Y.S.2d 127 (1978). In reaching this conclusion, the Lopes court stated that, because the government is responsible for providing the public with roads and highways for travel:

[w]ith this responsibility comes the further obligation to assure, insofar as is reasonably possible, that the thoroughfares of travel will be constructed and maintained in a safe condition. A governmental body would hardly [**49] have fulfilled its responsibility if the roadways it provided for public use were a source of public danger. It is for this reason that “[g]overnments have ever been most zealous to afford special protection to the users of streets, highways and other means of transportation” (1936 Report of NY, Law Rev Comm, p 955).

Id. at 625.

Corwin, a cyclist passing through a bike station located in a parking lane on a public street, falls within the category of those deemed protected by a municipality’s duty to maintain its roadways. While it is certainly understandable that the City would seek to limit its exposure to liability stemming from those using the Citi Bike program, its desire to see this salutary transportation initiative succeed is not sufficiently related to the key, centuries-old public policy of guaranteeing the safety of the users of City streets. It is this public policy that underlies its non-delegable duty to keep streets and roadways safe. The City has designed a public transportation system that involves physical installations in parking lanes on heavily transited streets, and permitted a contractor, NYCBS, to implement and manage that program. Even though the purported liability waiver is confined [**50] to road conditions in the circumscribed area of the bike stations, the Court finds that the enforcement of such a waiver against over a million Citi Bike users is contrary to the public policy that dictates that the City has the duty to guarantee road safety.7

7 The waiver would certainly be effective as to claims unrelated to road conditions, such as, for example, the quality of the bicycles or the malfunctioning of the rental kiosks.

After all, the fact that Corwin was riding a Citi Bike, as opposed to his own bicycle, at the time of his accident was purely coincidental. The City does not articulate any public policy in barring Corwin’s claim but permitting a claim brought by a non-member of Citi Bike who strikes the same wheel stop while riding his own bicycle. There is no basis for immunizing the City from suit by one class of cyclists–who participate in a highly publicized transportation program such as Citi Bike–while allowing non-Citi Bike users to bring suit for the same accident occurring in the same area of the street. Simply put, the law clearly imposes upon the City a duty to ensure road safety for all pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and road users on all sections of the road that are foreseeably transitable.

At oral argument, counsel for the City indicated that the execution of transportation programs such as Citi Bike would not be feasible without [**51] such waivers of liability. But the City is not left wholly unprotected. As discussed in Parts IV and V of this opinion, the finder of fact may determine that the City is entitled to qualified immunity in regards to the station design, or that the City was not “affirmatively negligent” and is thus protected by the notice provisions of New York Administrative Code § 7-201. Therefore, the Court does not believe that its invalidation of the [*499] waiver as to road conditions and hazards within the bike stations threatens the viability of the Citi Bike program.

D. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, the Release Agreement effectively releases Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS, allowing only claims of gross negligence to proceed against it. The waiver does not apply to the City, however, because such a release of the City’s duty would be contrary to public policy; accordingly, Corwin may proceed with his common-law negligence claims against the City. The Court need not decide if the APD is a “Released Person” under the Agreement, as it grants summary judgment to APD on all claims in Part VIII of this opinion on other grounds.

III. Affirmative Defenses Based on Corwin’s Failure to Wear [**52] a Helmet

Defendants have set out various affirmative defenses–including comparative negligence, primary assumption of the risk, and failure to mitigate damages–premised on the uncontested fact that Corwin was not wearing a bicycle helmet at the time of the crash. Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on all of these defenses, arguing that there was no statutory obligation that he do so, that the City and NYCBS themselves represented that wearing a helmet was unnecessary, and that New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”) § 1238(7) and case law in New York and other jurisdictions expressly prohibits such conduct from being considered for the purposes of liability or damages.

As a preliminary matter, Corwin argues that defendants have failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a factual question as to whether there was an unreasonable risk of a head injury while riding a Citi Bike without a helmet. Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party . . . .” Chambers, 43 F.3d at 37. There are disputed questions of material fact in this case as to both (a) whether a reasonably prudent person in Corwin’s [**53] circumstances would have worn a helmet and (b) whether wearing such a helmet would have mitigated the damages Corwin suffered. See, e.g., ECF No. 344, Decl. of Elizabeth McCalley (arguing that Corwin would not have sustained many of his severe injuries had he worn a helmet).

There is no dispute that Corwin was not obligated to wear a helmet while riding a Citi Bike or any other bicycle; unlike the seatbelt requirements of N.Y. VTL § 1229-c, there is no statutory obligation for an adult bicyclist to wear a helmet while riding a bike on a public road. N.Y. VTL § 1238(5) does require children under the age of fourteen to do so, but imposes no affirmative obligations on individuals over that age. A subsection of the same statute also indicates that “the failure of any person to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute contributory negligence or assumption of risk, and shall not in any way bar, preclude or foreclose an action for personal injury or wrongful death by or on behalf of such person, nor in any way diminish or reduce the damages recoverable in any such action.” VTL § 1238(7); see also Lamica v. Precore, 273 A.D.2d 647, 647-48, 709 N.Y.S.2d 694 (3d Dep’t 2000) (in accident involving helmetless child on bicycle, dismissing defendants’ counterclaim that parents were negligent [**54] for failing to ensure child wore helmet). Therefore, Corwin argues, if New York has seen fit to preclude expressly the consideration of helmet evidence for either liability or damages purposes even when wearing a helmet is mandated [*500] by law, surely the failure to wear a helmet by someone not obligated to do so by law should be similarly inadmissible.

The fact that New York has categorically barred the consideration of such evidence in a statute aimed at the protection of children does not, however, imply that the state has a general public policy against the admission of such evidence for all bicycle riders. Indeed, though Corwin argues that it would be “anomalous and irrational” to admit helmet evidence for an older rider under no legal obligation to wear a helmet, there is a clear and obvious rationale for the limited reach of the statute: a desire to prevent families from being burdened with costs stemming from accidents occurring on account of their young children’s inability to perceive risks, and a determination that parents should not be found negligent for failing to ensure that their children wear helmets. No court has interpreted VTL § 1238(7) to stand for a general public policy that the [**55] failure to wear a helmet is inadmissible for purposes of measuring comparative negligence or mitigation of damages, and the Court declines to do so today.

While the New York Court of Appeals has not spoken authoritatively on the specific question of whether the non-use of a bicycle helmet is admissible under such circumstances, the framework that it adopted regarding the non-use of seat belts in automobiles is instructive. At a time when no law mandated that occupants of a passenger car wore seat belts, the court explicitly rejected the failure to wear a seat belt as a basis for contributory negligence8 or primary assumption of the risk, but concluded that:

nonuse of an available seat belt . . . is a factor which the jury may consider, in light of all the other facts received in evidence, in arriving at its determination as to whether the plaintiff has exercised due care, not only to avoid injury to himself, but to mitigate any injury he would likely sustain. However . . . the plaintiff’s nonuse of an available seat belt should be strictly limited to the jury’s determination of the plaintiff’s damages and should not be considered by the triers of fact in resolving the issue of liability. [**56]

Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 449-50, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916 (1974).

8 Though the Spier decision was rendered before New York’s adoption of the comparative fault system and therefore discussed only if a plaintiff would be wholly barred from recovery under the then-existing doctrine of contributory negligence, New York courts have consistently considered seat belt evidence exclusively for purposes of mitigation of damages, and not for the apportionment of comparative fault. See, e.g., Stein v. Penatello, 185 A.D.2d 976, 976-77, 587 N.Y.S.2d 37 (2d Dep’t 1992).

Therefore, in cases involving the failure to wear a seat belt, New York law imposes a pre-accident obligation to mitigate damages, and the burden of proving that the injured party failed to do so rests upon the defendant. Davis v. Davis, 49 A.D.2d 1024, 1024, 374 N.Y.S.2d 482 (4th Dep’t 1975). Lower New York courts have applied the same principles to other types of protective gear as well. See, e.g., Penzell v. State, 120 Misc. 2d 600, 466 N.Y.S.2d 562, 567 (Ct. Cl. 1983) (motorcycle helmets); Giannetti v. Darling Del. Carting Co., 175 Misc. 2d 1, 666 N.Y.S.2d 372, 374-76 (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Cnty. 1997) (safety gloves in fast food restaurant). And, indeed, in the state court proceedings parallel to this case, the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how [*501] damages, if any, should be assessed.” Corwin v. City of New York, 141 A.D.3d 484, 490, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118 (1st Dep’t 2016) (citation omitted).9

9 State courts in other jurisdictions have also drawn analogies between seat belt and helmet use. See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads, 2002 WI 73, 253 Wis. 2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (Wis. 2002) (same principles govern seat belt and helmet defenses for ATV rider); Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (same for moped rider); Warfel v. Cheney, 157 Ariz. 424, 758 P.2d 1326 (Ariz. App. 1988) (same for motorcyclist).

To be sure, some courts across the country have reached contrary conclusions.10 See, e.g., Cordy v. Sherwin Williams Co., 975 F. Supp. 639, 647-48 (D.N.J. 1997) (noting that nothing in federal or state law alerts adult cyclists that their rights may be prejudiced by failure to wear a helmet, finding fewer safety concerns with helmetless biking and rejecting analogy to seat belt laws); Walden v. State, 250 Mont. 132, 818 P.2d 1190, 1196-97 (Mont. 1991) (holding same in state where evidence [**57] of seat belt use is inadmissible for mitigation of damages purposes). The decision in Corwin, however, and the logic of Spier and the New York cases extending it beyond the seat belt domain, compel denial of Corwin’s motion for summary judgment as it pertains to the affirmative defenses relating to mitigation of damages.

10 Corwin relies on Phelan v. State of New York, 11 Misc. 3d 151, 804 N.Y.S.2d 886 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 2005), where the New York Court of Claims declined to consider a bicyclist’s non-use of a helmet in mitigation of damages. The case, however, is distinguishable as “no persuasive testimony, medical or otherwise, was proffered to establish that [plaintiff’s] injuries would have been either avoided or reduced had she worn a helmet.” Id. at 167. Therefore, the defendant failed to make even a prima facie case that damages should be mitigated by the decedent’s failure to wear a helmet. To the extent that Phelan also based the decision on the fact the “[d]ecedent was not required to wear a helmet [by law],” this is inconsistent with the Appellate Division’s decision in Corwin, 141 A.D.3d 484, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118, and the logic of Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916.

Nevertheless, even as Spier and its progeny indicate that Corwin’s non-use of a helmet will be admissible for the purposes of calculating damages, the cases also hold that such evidence is inadmissible on questions of liability. Therefore, defendants shall not be permitted to argue that Corwin was comparatively negligent for failing to wear a helmet.11 For the same reason and for the reasons expressed in Part VI of this Opinion, defendants will also not be permitted to argue that Corwin’s claims are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. See also Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 256 (2d Dep’t 2009) (“[R]iding a bicycle on a paved public roadway normally does not constitute a sporting activity for purposes of applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine.”).

11 Of course, defendants may still argue at trial that Corwin was comparatively negligent for other reasons, including, inter alia, the speed, manner, and location of where he was riding his bicycle.

Accordingly, Corwin’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED as to the City’s Seventh and Ninth affirmative defenses (ECF. No. 200), NYCBS’s Sixth affirmative [**58] defense (ECF No. 199), and Metro Express’s Sixth affirmative defense (ECF No. 213) concerning the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to mitigation of damages, and GRANTED as the City’s Second and Eighth affirmative defenses, NYCBS’s First and Seventh affirmative defenses and Metro Express’s Second and Seventh affirmative defenses, inasmuch as those defenses assert the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to comparative negligence and assumption of the risk. Sealcoat [*502] did not explicitly reference Corwin’s failure to use a helmet as an affirmative defense, (ECF No. 211) and in Part VIII, the Court grants summary judgment to APD and APDNY, thus rendering the question of summary judgment on their First affirmative defense moot.

IV. Qualified Immunity

A. City’s Qualified Immunity for Bike Station Design and Wheel Stop Placement

The City of New York moves for summary judgment on the grounds that its involvement in the design and planning of the Citi Bike program is a uniquely governmental function for which it is entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. See Valdez v. City of New York, 18 N.Y.3d 69, 76, 960 N.E.2d 356, 936 N.Y.S.2d 587 (2011) (“Even if a plaintiff establishes all elements of a negligence claim, a state or municipal defendant engaging in a governmental [**59] function can avoid liability if it . . . proves that the alleged negligent act or omission involved the exercise of discretionary authority.”).

“When a negligence claim is asserted against a municipality, the first issue for a court to decide is whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose.” Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 21 N.Y.3d 420, 425, 995 N.E.2d 131, 972 N.Y.S.2d 169 (2013). A municipality engages in governmental functions when its acts are “undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers,” and in proprietary functions when “its activities essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises.” Id. (citations omitted). If a municipality acts in a governmental capacity, the plaintiff must prove that he was owed a special duty, and that the exercise of governmental authority was not discretionary. Turturro v. City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 478-79, 45 N.Y.S.3d 874, 68 N.E.3d 693 (2016).

Traffic planning decisions, including decisions about the design of roads and other facilities, are proprietary functions, arising from a municipality’s “proprietary duty to keep its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition.” Wittorf, 23 N.Y.3d at 480. This duty, while “nondelegable . . . is measured by the courts with consideration given [**60] to the proper limits on intrusion into the municipality’s planning and decision-making functions.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). As such, “in the specific proprietary field of roadway safety, a municipality is afforded ‘a qualified immunity from liability arising out of a highway planning decision'” under certain circumstances. Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 479-80 (quoting Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283)).

Such immunity arises only when the defendant can “demonstrate that a public planning body considered and passed upon the same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 30 A.D.3d 289, 290-91, 818 N.Y.S.2d 32 (1st Dep’t 2006) (finding general evaluation of buses referencing passengers’ ability to grab onto overhead racks insufficient to grant qualified immunity on claim that transit authority should have installed grab bars and handholds); Leon v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 96 A.D.3d 554, 554-55, 947 N.Y.S.2d 33 (1st Dep’t 2012) (denying qualified immunity for passenger injured by falling in gap between train car and platform when City had only studied the risk that train would scrape platform); see [*503] also Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 483 (no qualified immunity for City’s failure to study speeding traffic on avenue); Poveromo v. Town of Cortlandt, 127 A.D.3d 835, 837, 6 N.Y.S.3d 617 (2d Dep’t 2015) (no qualified immunity for municipality’s failure to install certain traffic devices at an intersection absent a study); Kuhland v. City of New York, 81 A.D.3d 786, 787, 916 N.Y.S.2d 637 (2d Dep’t 2011) (no qualified immunity for design of traffic [**61] intersection in absence of any pedestrian traffic studies); cf. Levi v. Kratovac, 35 A.D.3d 548, 549, 827 N.Y.S.2d 196 (2d Dep’t 2006) (qualified immunity granted for design of traffic intersection pursuant to a pedestrian safety study and reasonable traffic plan).

In light of these principles, the key question is whether the City’s planning of the Citi Bike program “passed upon the same question of risk” that this case presents–namely, that the placement of unpainted concrete wheel stops within Citi Bike stations could pose a tripping danger to cyclists. The City describes a collaborative process between it and APD based on its experiences with “bike corrals” that employed similar features, including wheel stops. ECF No. 293, City St. ¶¶ 40-42, 50. The City indicates that it viewed wheel stops as “the most important safety feature that was also installed in 2011.” Id. ¶ 46. Accordingly, the result of its collaboration with APD was a set of guidelines including the use of “non-permanent bollards, wheel stops, and paint markings.” Id. ¶ 55; ECF No. 289-19, 04/23/12 Station Siting Guidelines at 11. The City notes that APD and APDNY considered a wheel stop to be a necessary feature to protect the bike station from vehicles encroaching on the station and [**62] damaging the equipment or injuring individuals who may be within the station. City St. ¶ 58; ECF No. 289-3, Adrian Witte 08/14/15 Depo. at 20-21; ECF No. 289-5, Jeff Olson 09/29/15 Depo. at 410-11. The City did not, however, approve of the use of wheel stops that extend outside of the parking lane and into the travel lane. City St. ¶ 66; ECF No. 291, Sameer Barkho Decl. ¶ 10. The City determined that a yellow and black object marker, which had been included in the original design of some bike corrals, was “optional” because the on-street bike parking station sat in a parking lane and not a travel lane, and “pavement markings were more than sufficient to signal to an approaching motorist or bicyclist the presence of the on-street bike parking station and the presence of the wheel stop in the parking lane.” Id. ¶ 11. On the contrary, wheel stops would be situated within a white painted rectangular box with “white paint markings forming diagonal lines within the rectangular box.” Id. at ¶ 12.

The record plainly indicates that the decision to install concrete wheel stops in Citi Bike stations was the product of careful consideration and deliberation between the City and APD’s design and [**63] engineering experts. This mere fact, however, does not suffice for the City to be entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Corwin does not merely seek to have the fact finder “examine the criteria that were considered by the State’s professional staff, emphasize factors allegedly overlooked, and, with the benefit of hindsight, rule that the studies were inadequate as a matter of law.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 285-86. Rather, he argues that though the City considered the need and efficacy of wheel stop placement to prevent cars from encroaching into the stations and harming individuals or property, it conducted no studies whatsoever as to whether such wheel stops could constitute tripping hazards for cyclists passing through such stations.

[*504] Though it is a close question, because the City has obviously given the coloring, placement, and demarcation of wheel stops some thought, the Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City studied or “passed upon the same question of risk” presented in this case. While there is extensive testimony in the record that the City believed that wheel stops were of great importance in protecting stations from automobiles, the City has presented [**64] no specific study that suggests that it considered the effect of wheel stop placement or design on the safety of pedestrians or cyclists passing through the station, or whether the City considered that the wheel stops might be in the foreseeable paths of cyclists who, by custom or necessity, pass through the Citi Bike station footprints. In particular, it is not clear on what basis the City decided that object markers were to be made “optional,” or if the City considered the adequacy of shorter wheel stops that would extend no further into the parking lane than the bikes themselves. Therefore, as a reasonable fact-finder could find that the City did not study or pass on the “same question of risk,” the City is not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law on the specific question of wheel stop placement. At trial, the jury will be asked special interrogatories to resolve these disputed facts.

B. City’s Qualified Immunity for Failure to Provide Bicycle Helmets to Citi Bike Users

The City also moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on Corwin’s claims that “the intentional failure and refusal of the Defendants to design Citi Bike to include a convenient system [**65] of helmet rentals–as in place in Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle–or otherwise provide helmets at all Citi Bike sites, was negligent . . . .” ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 352.

The record plainly demonstrates that the City’s decision not to mandate or provide helmets to Citi Bike users was the fruit of a well-reasoned policy based on extensive study of the “same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson, 30 A.D.3d at 290. As early as 2009, the City’s Feasibility Study noted that “increasing the number of bicyclists is one of the most reliable ways to increase bicyclist safety,” and cast doubt on the feasibility of helmet distribution. City St. ¶ 4; ECF No. 290-1, Bike Share Feasibility Study. The director of the City’s Bike Share Unit stated that the City found that “mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and decreased participation in bike share programs in particular. [The City] considered statistics showing that mandatory helmets laws actually decreased the safety of bicycling . . . [and] bicycle riders wearing helmets tend to ride more recklessly than riders who do not.” ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 5. The City specifically noted that in Melbourne, [**66] Australia, mandatory helmet laws resulted in a lowered rate of bicycle usage. City St. ¶ 13; ECF No. 289-2, Kate Fillin-Yeh 08/20/15 Depo. at 46-48. The City also specifically considered installing automatic helmet rental machines and rejected the proposal on hygiene and structural integrity grounds in public comments justifying the policy choice. ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 6; ECF No. 289-1, Stephanie Levinsky-Shaw 08/12/15 Depo. at 222. Nevertheless, the City encouraged bicycle helmet use by distributing discount voucher coupons for the purchase of helmets to annual members and expanding helmet fitting and giveaway programs. ECF No. 290, Frost Decl. ¶ 7; ECF No. 289-2, Fillin-Yeh Depo. at 56, 60.

[*505] Contrary to Corwin’s contentions, the fact that Defendants may raise the issue of his non-use of a helmet to prove a failure to mitigate damages does not affect the City’s qualified immunity on this issue. Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.” [**67] Corwin, 141 A.D.3d at 495 (Andrias, J., dissenting). He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. See Weiss v. Fote, 7 N.Y.2d 579, 588, 167 N.E.2d 63, 200 N.Y.S.2d 409 (1960) (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

V. New York City Administrative Code § 7-201

New York City Administrative Code § 7-201(c)(2) provides that:

No civil action shall be maintained against the city for damage to property or injury to person or death sustained in consequence of any street . . . being out of repair, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed, unless it appears that written notice of the defective, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed condition, was actually given to the commissioner of transportation . . . or where there was previous injury to person or property as a result of the . . . condition, and written notice thereof was given to a city agency, or there was written acknowledgement from the city of the . . . condition, and there was a failure or neglect [**68] within fifteen days after the receipt of such notice to repair or remove the defect, danger or obstruction complained of, or the place otherwise made reasonably safe.

Popularly known as the “Pothole Law,” the purpose of § 7-201(c)(2) is to prevent municipal liability for “nonfeasance” and to limit it to cases where the municipality had actual notice and opportunity to correct the hazardous condition. Katz v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 241, 243, 661 N.E.2d 1374, 638 N.Y.S.2d 593 (1995). It is uncontested that the City did not have written notice of the installation of the specific wheel stop at the Madison Avenue end of the Citi Bike station where the crash occurred until after the accident, and that the drawing accompanying the permit does not show a wheel stop at that location. City St. ¶¶ 107-12. City records do not demonstrate any written complaints or claims of injury regarding a wheel stop at that location. Id. at ¶¶ 111-13.

There are, however, two exceptions to § 7-201(c)(2)–“that the municipality affirmatively created the defect through an act of negligence or that a special use resulted in a special benefit to the locality.” Yarborough v. City of New York, 10 N.Y.3d 726, 728, 882 N.E.2d 873, 853 N.Y.S.2d 261 (2008) (citation omitted).

Corwin does not merely allege that the City failed to remediate a dangerous condition created by a third party; indeed, his entire theory of liability [**69] is predicated on the premise that the City was affirmatively negligent in the design and placement of Citi Bike stations and wheel stops in the system as a whole. Additionally, he argues that the City was on notice of contractors’ failures to install stations as per plan specifications and yet failed to monitor them effectively, and ultimately approved an [*506] identical policy of putting wheel stops on both ends of Citi Bike stations. ECF No. 335-33, NYC Comptroller Audit; ECF No. 336-25, Station Plan w/ 2 Wheel Stops. The City, for its part, notes that neither it nor NYCBS, with whom it had a contractual relationship, actually installed the wheel stop at issue; rather, it alleges that it was installed by Sealcoat, a contractor of MetroExpress, who itself was NYCBS’s contractor. City St. ¶¶ 83-84.

The Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City was affirmatively negligent so as to lose the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2). While Corwin cannot produce “smoking gun” evidence that the City affirmatively directed NYCBS or its agents to install the specific wheel stop in question, Corwin does provide evidence indicating that similar wheel stops were installed [**70] elsewhere in the City and that modifications to station plan installations were often done informally. See ECF No. 368-6 (10/30/2013 email from Dani Simons, NYCBS, to Stephanie Levitsky, DOT, stating “I do not know why [the wheel stop is] not in the drawings. I do know that [NYCBS directors] Hasib [Ikramullah] and Michael [Pellegrino] have both told me that we’ve started putting them on the cross-walk side of stations in high traffic areas . . . .”); ECF No. 336-19 (07/01/2013 email from Stephanie Levinsky to Jon Orcutt referencing “numerous on the fly modification[s]”); ECF No. 368-8 (May 15, 2013 email from DOT to NYCBS referencing “supplemental street treatments” not on the initial plan diagrams).

This evidence could lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that either the specific wheel stop in question, or all wheel stops that enter into the foreseeable pathway of a cyclist, were installed pursuant to affirmative acts of negligence by the City. The fact that the City had no direct contractual relationship or knowledge of the involvement of Metro Express or Sealcoat is not dispositive. Just as the City cannot delegate its duty to maintain the roads to a contractor, it cannot do so to a subcontractor [**71] of that contractor.

Accordingly, the question of whether the affirmative negligence exception to the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2) applies is a disputed question of fact to be resolved at trial, and the City is not entitled to summary judgment because it was not provided notice of the allegedly defective condition.12

12 Because the Court finds that the “affirmative negligence” exception may apply and because neither party has adequately briefed the “special use resulting in a special benefit” exception to § 7-201(c)(2), the Court declines to address the “special use” exception in this opinion.

VI. Primary Assumption of the Risk

The City, NYCBS, and APD also move for summary judgment on the grounds that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk bars Corwin’s negligence claims. In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.” Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). In this case, the Release Agreement signed by Corwin contained explicit provisions on assumption of the risk, which state, inter alia, that “Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or [*507] avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, [**72] and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.” ECF No. 316-1, Release Agreement. Whether or not the broad assumption of the risk language is applicable depends on what courts consider to be the risks inherent in bicycling, recreational or otherwise, on a paved road in an urban environment.

The New York Court of Appeals has cautioned that the doctrine of assumption of risk is justifiable exclusively for its utility in “‘facilitat[ing] free and vigorous participation in athletic activities'” and warned that the doctrine must be “closely circumscribed” and not “applied outside this limited context” lest it unduly displace the state’s comparative negligence regime. Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 (2010) (citing Benitez v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 657, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989)).13 Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her consent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 255. Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational [**73] or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.” Id.; see also Moore v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 751, 752, 816 N.Y.S.2d 131 (2d Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff did not assume risk of recreational cycling on paved park road); Vestal v. Cty. of Suffolk, 7 A.D.3d 613, 614-15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 491 (2d Dep’t 2004) (“[T]he injured plaintiff cannot be said as a matter of law to have assumed the risk of being injured as a result of a defective condition on a paved pathway merely because she participated in the activity of bicycling,” even where County argued that the pathway was “abandoned”).

13 In its reply memorandum of law, NYCBS appears to characterize Trupia as permitting an open-ended “social benefit” analysis to determine whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies and discusses the numerous beneficial aspects of the Citi Bike program as a public transit system. Trupia, however, was limited to discussing the social benefit to certain risky athletic activities and explicitly warns against applying the doctrine in any other context. 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127.

To be sure, courts have held that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in other contexts involving recreational cyclists. See, e.g., DeJesus v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 401, 402, 815 N.Y.S.2d 502 (1st Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff assumed risk for riding on pedestrian-only pathway in housing development); Chrem v. City of New York, 293 A.D.2d 301, 302, 741 N.Y.S.2d 201 (1st Dep’t 2002) (plaintiff assumed risk of steep drop-off in the back of a dirt mound not designated for cycling); Furgang v. Club Med, Inc., 299 A.D.2d 162, 162, 753 N.Y.S.2d 359 (1st Dep’t 2002) (“[T]he risk of encountering ruts and bumps while riding a bike over a rough roadway without a helmet is so obvious [that] as a matter of law, plaintiff assumed any risk inherent in the activity . . . .”); Goldberg v. Town of Hempstead, 289 A.D.2d 198, 198, 733 N.Y.S.2d 691 (2d Dep’t 2001) (“Since the risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk in riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces, [**74] and the defective condition in this case was open and obvious, the infant plaintiff assumed [*508] the risk associated with riding her bicycle on the ballfield.”) (citations omitted); Calise v. City of New York, 239 A.D.2d 378, 379, 657 N.Y.S.2d 430 (2d Dep’t 1997) (plaintiff assumed the risk of hitting an exposed tree root on unpaved path in public park). These cases, however, are readily distinguishable because they all involved individuals riding a bicycle on an unpaved path or other area plainly not designated for cycling. While defendants contend that the Citi Bike station was such an “undesignated” area, the station was obviously integrated into the public roadway, and Corwin has at the very least raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the design of this station compelled or encouraged him to ride through it to avoid riding dangerously close to traffic. Therefore, his brief passage through the parking lane and bike station cannot be analogized to a considered decision to engage in recreational mountain biking or to ride down an undesignated pedestrian walkway.

Accordingly, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is unavailable, and defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on this theory.

VII. “Open and Obvious”

A defendant has “no duty [**75] to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous.” Stern v. River Manor Care Ctr., Inc., 106 A.D.3d 990, 990, 965 N.Y.S.2d 377 (2d Dep’t 2013). Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Russo v. Home Goods, Inc., 119 A.D.3d 924, 925-26, 990 N.Y.S.2d 95 (2d Dep’t 2014). Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion . . . .” Tagle v. Jakob, 97 N.Y.2d 165, 169, 763 N.E.2d 107, 737 N.Y.S.2d 331 (2001). Defendants contend that Corwin’s claims fail as a matter of law because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.”

Defendants’ claims are buttressed by cases holding that wheel stops located in parking lots or similar environments were sufficiently “open and obvious” so as to bar claims by injured pedestrians. See, e.g., May v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc., No. 13-CV-170 (FJS)(ATB), 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140090, 2014 WL 4966544, at *5-6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 2, 2014) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious especially given plaintiff’s admission that she had previously seen it); Abraido v. 2001 Marcus Ave, LLC, 126 A.D.3d 571, 571-72, 4 N.Y.S.3d 43 (1st Dep’t 2015) (wheel stop in well-lit parking lot open and obvious); Bellini v. Gypsy Magic Enters., Inc., 112 A.D.3d 867, 868, 978 N.Y.S.2d 73 (2d Dep’t 2013) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious when plaintiff admitted she was attempting to step over it); Wachspress v. Cent. Parking Sys. of New York, Inc., 111 A.D.3d 499, 499-500, 974 N.Y.S.2d 439 (1st Dep’t 2013) (parking [**76] lot wheel stop open and obvious); Zimkind v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 12 A.D.3d 593, 593-94, 785 N.Y.S.2d 108 (2d Dep’t 2004) (same).

Whether or not a potential hazard is readily visible to the naked eye is evidently an important consideration in determining whether it is open and obvious, but it does not definitively resolve the question because “[t]he nature or location of some hazards, while they are technically visible, make them likely to be overlooked.” Westbrook v. WR Activities-Cabrera Mkts., 5 A.D.3d 69, 72, 773 N.Y.S.2d 38 (1st Dep’t 2004). On at least two occasions, New York courts, considering the broader context of plaintiffs’ encounter with wheel stops, declined [*509] to find that they were “open and obvious.” In Rivera v. Queens Ballpark Co., LLC, 134 A.D.3d 796, 797-98, 22 N.Y.S.3d 106 (2d Dep’t 2015), the court found that a concrete wheel stop that began in a designated parking space but partially extended into and obstructed a pedestrian walkway was not “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Similarly, in O’Leary v. Saugerties Cent. Sch. Dist., 277 A.D.2d 662, 662, 716 N.Y.S.2d 424 (3d Dep’t 2000), a plaintiff who tripped over a concrete parking lot wheel stop raised a triable issue of fact by arguing that it was undetectable and camouflaged by cars parked bumper-to-bumper.

Were the Court to view the wheel stop, cross-hatching, and delineators in isolation, it would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the conspicuous parking lot wheel stops that New York courts have found to be “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Notwithstanding [**77] Corwin’s argument that the wheel stop was “camouflaged” because it was not painted in a bright color that would contrast it with its surroundings, photographic evidence submitted by both Corwin and defendants suggests to the Court that it would have been readily visible to an observant pedestrian. Nevertheless, the types of obstacles that a pedestrian might expect to encounter in a parking lot are substantially different from those that a cyclist would expect in an on-street bike station. Therefore, the Court finds that Corwin has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the wheel stop was open and obvious to an attentive person in his position–that is, a cyclist traveling within a station that arguably invited use as a bike lane.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶ 56. An [**78] hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Id. ¶¶ 35, 57. Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. Id. ¶ 46. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.” Id. ¶¶ 48-49.

In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott, 550 U.S. at 378. Drawing all inferences in his favor, Corwin has distinguished the cases that feature garden-variety wheel stops in parking lots. Similar to the scenario in Rivera, 134 A.D.3d at 797, where the court did not find that a wheel stop was open and obvious as a matter of law when it partially obstructed a pedestrian walkway, there is a genuine dispute of material [**79] fact as to whether the wheel stop hazardously obstructed a path that was foreseeably and actually utilized by cyclists.

Accordingly, defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the wheel stop that caused Corwin’s accident was “open and obvious.”

[*510] VIII. Claims against Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC

Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC (collectively, “APD”), the architects and designers for the Citi Bike project who collaborated with the City to generate site plans for stations, move for summary judgment on Corwin’s claims of common law, gross, and professional negligence. APD notes that the key elements of the station that Corwin alleges caused his crash–primarily, the installation of the additional wheel stop at the east end of the station and the increased width of the station footprint–were installed in violation of its approved design. Corwin alleges that, even if APD did not recommend the installation of the specific wheel stop, their recommendation of unpainted concrete wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system, and wheel stops’ placement within the [**80] foreseeable path of cyclists passing through stations were substantial factors in his accident. The Court need not resolve this dispute, however, because it finds that, regardless of the propriety of its recommendations to the City, APD did not owe a duty of care to Corwin under Espinal v. Melville Snow Contractors, Inc., 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002).

It is uncontested that, as an architecture firm, APD did not have any contractual obligations to install, inspect, or maintain Citi Bike stations and, therefore, could not be liable to Corwin under any theory dependent on its control of Citi Bike stations or wheel stops. See Gibbs v. Port Auth. of New York, 17 A.D.3d 252, 254, 794 N.Y.S.2d 320 (1st Dep’t 2005) (“Liability for a dangerous condition on property may only be predicated upon occupancy, ownership, control or special use of such premises . . . .”). It is similarly clear that APD had no direct contractual obligation to Corwin. Therefore, any duty to Corwin would necessarily flow out of APD’s contractual obligation to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS. “In the ordinary case, a contractual obligation, standing alone, will impose a duty only in favor of the promisee and intended third-party beneficiaries.” Eaves Brooks Costume Co. v. Y.B.H. Realty Corp., 76 N.Y.2d 220, 226, 556 N.E.2d 1093, 557 N.Y.S.2d 286 (1990); see also H.R. Moch Co. v. Rensselaer Water Co., 247 N.Y. 160, 168, 159 N.E. 896 (1928) (Cardozo, J.) (noting that a contrary holding would imply that a contracting party would be forced into “the involuntary assumption [**81] of a series of new relations, inescapably hooked together”).

In Espinal, the New York Court of Appeals, synthesizing decades of case law, announced three exceptions to the general principle that contracting parties do not owe a duty of care to third persons. These exceptions are:

(1) where the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, ‘launche[s] a force or instrument of harm’ (Moch, 247 N.Y. at 168); (2) where the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties (see Eaves Brooks, 76 N.Y.2d at 226) and (3) where the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely (see Palka v. Servicemaster Mgmt. Servs. Corp., 83 N.Y.2d 579, 589, 634 N.E.2d 189, 611 N.Y.S.2d 817 (1994)).

Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d at 140.

Corwin could not have relied on APD’s continuing performance under its contract with Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because [*511] APD had no such obligations except submitting site plans, and it had no effect on the duty of the other defendants to maintain the bike stations safely. Therefore, the only Espinal exception that arguably applies is that APD “launched a force or instrument of harm” with its allegedly negligent site plans and recommendations for wheel stop placements. This standard is met where “the promisor, while engaged affirmatively in [**82] discharging a contractual obligation, creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others, or increases that risk.” Church v. Callanan Indus., Inc., 99 N.Y.2d 104, 111, 782 N.E.2d 50, 752 N.Y.S.2d 254 (2002); see also Guzman v. Wackenhut Corp., 394 F. App’x 801, 803 (2d Cir. 2010) (summary order).

On these facts, accepting the argument that providing allegedly negligent design advice and site plans is sufficient to “launch a force or instrument of harm” would lead to the very limitless expansion of tort liability that New York law seeks to prevent. Moch Co., 247 N.Y. at 165 (Cardozo, J.) (“An intention to assume an obligation of indefinite extension to every member of the public is seen to be the more improbable when we recall the crushing burden that the obligation would impose.”). Indeed, Corwin’s argument is that APD’s negligence consists not of specific malfeasance relating to the design of the Citi Bike station where his accident occurred,14 but its general negligence in approving the type, appearance, and placement of wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system. The logical conclusion of this argument is that by providing services to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, APD would be subjecting itself to potential tort liability to literally millions of potential plaintiffs who could be involved in an accident involving wheel stops in any one of hundreds of Citi Bike stations–even as [**83] it had no responsibility for the maintenance or installation of the allegedly hazardous obstructions.15 This is not the law as summarized in Espinal.

14 Indeed, as APD argues, the Citi Bike station at issue in this case did not conform to its plan at all. See ECF No. 321-30, APD Expert Report. Corwin’s own expert would seem to agree. In a rebuttal report, James M. Green contended that “the original Engineering design [presented by APD] was proper in minimizing the clearance behind the parked bicycles and leaving out a wheel stop at the [relevant] intersection and was not followed during the construction of the bike station.” ECF No. 321-24, Green 01/06/16 Rebuttal Report at 9.

15 Corwin’s evidence that APD actually had some responsibility for the installation of Citi Bike stations, which appears to consist of a single May 22, 2013 email from APD engineer Adrian Witte referring the installation of station “bridging” (ECF No. 336-28), and deposition testimony references to the “collaborative” process between APD, NYCBS, and the City (ECF No. 335-6. Jeff Olson 08/26/15 Depo. at ¶¶ 401-02, 484, 530), is insufficient to raise a genuine dispute of material fact about APD’s lack of responsibility over Citi Bike stations.

Finally, Corwin argues that APD was an alter ego of Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because APD served as the parent company over Alta Bicycle Share before its sale in 2014. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16. “It is well-settled that the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil has the burden of establishing that there is a basis to do so.” Maggio v. Becca Constr. Co., 229 A.D.2d 426, 427, 644 N.Y.S.2d 802 (2d Dep’t 1996) (citations omitted). Notwithstanding the close relationship between APD and Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, and their former association, Corwin has failed to establish that APD is anything but a legitimate and separate business entity engaging in planning and design. “Those seeking to pierce a corporate veil of course bear a heavy burden of showing that the corporation was dominated as to the transaction [*512] attacked and that such domination was the instrument of fraud or otherwise resulted in wrongful or inequitable consequences. . . . An inference of abuse does not arise . . . where a corporation was formed for legal purposes or is engaged in legitimate business.” TNS Holdings, Inc. v. MKI Sec. Corp., 92 N.Y.2d 335, 339-40, 703 N.E.2d 749, 680 N.Y.S.2d 891 (1998); see also Joseph Kali Corp. v. A. Goldner, Inc., 49 A.D.3d 397, 398-99, 859 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dep’t 2008) (refusing to pierce corporate veil [**84] between two entities operated by same principal). On the record before it, the Court sees no conceivable equitable reason to disregard the corporate form in this case.

As the Court concludes that APD did not owe any duty to Corwin under Espinal, it need not consider APD’s alternate arguments regarding proximate causation and its defense that Corwin’s claim arose out of a deviation from its design. The Court GRANTS APD’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

IX. Claims against Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc.

Defendants Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Metro Express” and “Sealcoat,” respectively), third-party contractors who are alleged to have installed or sub-contracted the installation of the specific wheel stop that caused Corwin’s injuries, move for summary judgment, arguing that they did not owe Corwin a duty of care under Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002), and that the wheel stop is an open and obvious condition as a matter of law. Having already rejected the “open and obvious” argument in Part VII of this opinion, the Court considers whether Metro Express and Sealcoat had a duty to Corwin under one of the three Espinal exceptions discussed in Part VIII.

As was true [**85] for APD, there is no argument that Corwin “detrimentally relie[d] on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties” or that Metro Express or Sealcoat “entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.” Id. at 140. Detrimental reliance becomes a consideration only when there is some form of continued contractual performance by the third-party contractor and is not relevant when the alleged negligent conduct concerns a one-time installation of station equipment (even if the contractor may have installed said equipment in many stations). And there is no evidence in the record that Metro Express or Sealcoat assumed any responsibilities, much less exclusive responsibilities, for the maintenance and safety of Citi Bike facilities.

Therefore, the only issue is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact that Metro Express or Sealcoat “launch[ed] a force or instrument of harm.” Corwin contends that the wheel stop on the east side of the Citi Bike station was an “instrument of harm,” and a contractor negligently responsible for its installation could be found liable under Espinal. To be sure, “[a] builder or contractor is justified in relying upon the plans and specifications [**86] which he has contracted to follow unless they are so apparently defective that an ordinary builder of ordinary prudence would be put upon notice that the work was dangerous and likely to cause injury.” Ryan v. Feeney & Sheehan Bldg. Co., 239 N.Y. 43, 46, 145 N.E. 321 (1924). There are, however, genuine disputes of material fact as to whether the contractors installed the wheel stop in question and whether they did so pursuant to a plan provided them by NYCBS.

Citing ambiguities in emails received from NYCBS, Metro Express contends that a full installation of street treatments [*513] was never ordered for the Citi Bike station at issue, and in fact NYCBS only ordered Metro Express and Sealcoat to carry out repairs. ECF No. 366, Metro Express Reply Mem. at 3-4. Metro Express further notes that Sealcoat reported that there was nothing wrong with the station and never invoiced or received payment for any work. Id. at 5. Finally, it contends that Metro Express was never provided with a plan for the Station, and that NYCBS had been instructing Metro Express to install “supplemental street treatments” not depicted on the station plans, noting two specific instances in which they were ordered to do so in stations at Jay Street and Tech Place, and Charles Street and Greenwich [**87] Ave. Id. at 7-9.

While Metro Express and Sealcoat certainly raise issues of fact about their liability, there is sufficient information in the record to preclude a finding that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For example, in addition to NYCBS’s allegations that Metro Express and Sealcoat were responsible for the installation, Ryan Landeck, Sealcoat Vice President, admitted in non-party deposition testimony in 2015 that Sealcoat had installed the wheel stop in question under Metro Express’s direction. ECF No. 289-10, Landeck 11/19/15 Depo. at 34, 45.16

16 Mr. Landeck later testified at a deposition that took place after Sealcoat was joined in the case that Sealcoat found that there was nothing to do be done at that location and Sealcoat did not invoice or receive payment for its alleged work at the station. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck 05/25/2016 Depo. at 51, 55. An October 23, 2013 email from Landeck to Michael Strasser, General Manager at Metro Express, further stated that “nothing was wrong at this station.” ECF No. 368-4.

Accordingly, the Court concludes that, unlike APD, there is a material dispute whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm” if plaintiffs prove at trial that they negligently installed the wheel stop at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue Citi Bike station in contravention of the site plan and the directions received from NYCBS. Unlike the case for APD, who provided general designs for hundreds of Citi Bike stations, there is no danger of an undue ballooning of tort liability because the contractors would be liable only for their own negligence and have an absolute defense if they can demonstrate [**88] that they were carrying out a pre-existing plan. Cf. In re World Trade Ctr. Lower Manhattan Disaster Site Litig., 44 F. Supp. 3d 409, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (finding that Espinal and Moch stood for “the general public policy that courts will not impose a tort duty on a contracting party where doing so would expose the party to potentially unlimited and undefined liability” and finding a duty where there was “no risk of . . . boundless tort liability”).

Therefore, because the Court finds that a question of fact exists regarding whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm,” Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

X. Gross Negligence Claims

Given that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS are barred by the enforceability of the Release Agreement as discussed in Part II of the opinion, NYCBS moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Corwin’s gross negligence claims fail as a matter of law.17

17 The City has also moved for summary judgment on this point; however, the Court has found that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims may proceed as to the City.

Under New York law, gross negligence is “conduct that evinces a reckless [*514] disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” Am. Tel. & Tel. Co. v. City of New York, 83 F.3d 549, 556 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Colnaghi, U.S.A., Ltd. v. Jewelers Prot. Servs., Ltd., 81 N.Y.2d 821, 823-24, 611 N.E.2d 282, 595 N.Y.S.2d 381 (1993)). “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” Curley v. AMR Corp., 153 F.3d 5, 13 (2d Cir. 1998). “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross [**89] negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.'” Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut v. Losco Grp., Inc., 204 F. Supp. 2d 639, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (quoting Hong Kong Exp. Credit Ins. Corp. v. Dun & Bradstreet, 414 F. Supp. 153, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 1975)).

Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Corwin, the nonmoving party, summary judgment is not appropriate on Corwin’s gross negligence claims. If, as argued by Corwin’s expert James M. Green, NYCBS is proven at trial to have unjustifiably ignored sound engineering practices and placed camouflaged wheel stops in the direct and foreseeable paths of cyclists, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that their conduct was sufficiently reckless and/or aggravated to meet the gross negligence standard. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Corwin’s gross negligence claims is therefore denied.

CONCLUSION

Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City and DENIED as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions [**90] of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable, Corwin’s common-law negligence and professional negligence and malpractice claims are dismissed, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.

The Clerk of Court is respectfully directed to terminate Dkt. Nos. 288, 295, 303, 304, 309, and 314 and terminate defendants Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC from the case.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Sarah Netburn

SARAH NETBURN

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: New York, New York

March 1, 2017


Georgia Recreational Use Statute

 OFFICIAL CODE OF GEORGIA
ANNOTATED

 TITLE 51.  TORTS

 CHAPTER 3.  LIABILITY OF OWNERS AND OCCUPIERS OF LAND

 ARTICLE 2.  OWNERS OF PROPERTY USED FOR RECREATIONAL
PURPOSES

 § 51-3-20.  Purpose of article

§ 51-3-21.  Definitions

§ 51-3-22.  Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally

§ 51-3-23.  Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation

§ 51-3-24.  Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation

§ 51-3-25.  Certain liability not limited

§ 51-3-26.  Construction of article

§ 51-3-20.  Purpose of article

The purpose of this article is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owners’ liability toward persons entering thereon for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-21.  Definitions

As used in this article, the term:

(1) “Charge” means the admission price or fee asked in return for invitation or permission to enter or go upon the land.

(2) “Land” means land, roads, water, watercourses, private ways and buildings, structures, and machinery or equipment when attached to the realty. 

(3) “Owner” means the possessor of a fee interest, a tenant, a lessee, an occupant, or a person in control of the premises.

(4) “Recreational purpose” includes, but is not limited to, any of the following or any combination thereof: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, pleasure driving, aviation activities, nature study, water skiing, winter sports, and viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic, or scientific sites. 

§ 51-3-22. Duty of owner of land to those using same for recreation generally 

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-23.  Effect of invitation or permission to use land for recreation 

Except as specifically recognized by or provided in Code Section 51-3-25, an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use the property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

(2) Confer upon such person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; or

(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property caused by an act of omission of such persons.

§ 51-3-24.  Applicability of Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 to owner of land leased to state or subdivision for recreation 

Unless otherwise agreed in writing, Code Sections 51-3-22 and 51-3-23 shall be deemed applicable to the duties and liability of an owner of land leased to the state or any subdivision thereof for recreational purposes.

§ 51-3-25.  Certain liability not limited 

Nothing in this article limits in any way any liability which otherwise exists:

(1) For willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity; or 

(2) For injury suffered in any case when the owner of land charges the person or persons who enter or go on the land for the recreational use thereof, except that, in the case of land leased to the state or a subdivision thereof, any consideration received by the owner for the lease shall not be deemed a charge within the meaning of this Code section. 

§ 51-3-26.  Construction of article 

Nothing in this article shall be construed to: 

(1) Create a duty of care or ground of liability for injury to persons or property; or

(2) Relieve any person using the land of another for recreational purposes from any obligation which he may have in the absence of this article to exercise care in his use of the land and in his activities thereon or from the legal consequences of failure to employ such
care.
 

 


This is a hard case–hard not in the sense that it is legally difficult or tough to crack, but in the sense that it requires us to deny relief to a plaintiff for whom we have considerable sympathy.

We do what we must, for ‘it is the duty of all courts of justice to take care, for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law. 

Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

State: Rhode Island, Supreme Court of Rhode Island

Plaintiff: Dawn K. Roy, in her capacity as the administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy, et al.

Defendant: Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and two individuals in their official capacities as DEM employees 

Plaintiff Claims: 

Defendant Defenses: Open and Obvious and Recreational Use Statute 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

Summary

The title is a quote from another case and states perfectly the situation most judges face when looking at a case. 

In this one, a man dove into a lake at a State Park in Rhode Island. He broke his neck and became a quadriplegic. The Rhode Island Supreme Court dismissed his claims because the assumed the risk and the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute prevented his claims. 

Facts 

The state owned the land in question and ran it as a state park. There was a man-made pond in the park that was “treated much like a swimming pool.” Because of changes to the pond, the decision was made to close the pond and now allow swimming. No swimming signs were posted, and no lifeguards were on duty. Other parks of the park were still open, including the bathhouses.

Rhode Island did not allow the operation of a body of water on a swim at your own risk basis. 

The plaintiff was a 29-year-old  husband and father of two. He went to the park with a friend. While at the park he ran and dove into the water breaking his neck and becoming a paraplegic. 

The plaintiff by and through his wife, as Administratrix of the estate of the plaintiff used the state and various agencies for his injuries. The case when to trial and the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. The plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted and the defendant filed this appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. 

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

The state based its appeal on the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute, and the state owed no duty for an open and obvious natural condition. 

The court first looked at the Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute. The statute provided immunity to landowners and to state and municipalities. The limitation was not absolute. A landowner could be liable if the plaintiff could prove “…[f]or
the willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity after   discovering the user’s peril…
” 

The state argued nothing it did established proof of willful or malicious failure to warn. The court could not find any evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims. On top of that, the best defense was provided by the plaintiff when he admitted
he knew about the dangers of diving into shallow water, and that he had not checked the depth of the water. Finally, he admitted he was probably irresponsible. 

The court then looked at the open and obvious danger defense. Here again, the plaintiff failed.  

This Court held that the defendants had not owed any duty of care to the plaintiff in that case in part because “requiring citizens to place warnings against[–]and barriers preventing persons from[–]diving into shallow water would provide little disincentive to individuals * * *. As a practical matter, the danger of diving into shallow water is one of common knowledge, and one [the plaintiff] admit he was aware of.” 

The court concluded. 

Because it is our considered opinion that the state bore no liability for Roy’s injuries–either because diving is an open and obvious danger or because it was protected under the Recreational Use Statute–we conclude that the trial justice erroneously denied its motion for judgment as a matter of law. 

So Now What? 

To many this case might suck, sending this young man to live a life without the financial support he may need. However, as the quote in the beginning said, the law is the law. When you undertake to engage in a sport or activity, you assume
the risks of those activities. 

More importantly when recreating on land for free, the landowner owes no duty to keep you safe from yourself. If not, recreation would only be on federal lands where the chance of proving a claim is negligible. State, City and County Parks and Open Spaces would all close because they could not afford the insurance needed to keep them open.

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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By Recreation Law   Rec-law@recreation-law.com        James H. Moss 

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pool, Recreational Use, Recreational Use Statute, Open and Obvious,


 

 


Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

Roy v. The State of Rhode Island et al., 139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

Dawn K. Roy, in her capacity as the administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy, et al.1 v. The State of Rhode Island et al.

1 The original plaintiff, Brett A. Roy, passed away while the instant appeal was pending. An order substituting “Dawn K. Roy, the  administratrix of the estate of Brett A. Roy” as a party in this case entered on April 15, 2016. See Rule 25(a) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

No. 2013-213-Appeal. No. 2014-39-Appeal.

SUPREME COURT OF RHODE ISLAND

139 A.3d 480; 2016 R.I. LEXIS 88

June 23, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Providence County Superior Court. (PC 09-2874). Associate Justice Susan E. McGuirl.

Roy v. State, 2013 R.I. Super. LEXIS 54 (2013)

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: For Plaintiffs: Patrick C. Barry, Esq., Douglas E. Chabot, Esq.

For State: Rebecca T. Partington, Department of the Attorney General; Adam J. Sholes, Department of the Attorney General.

JUDGES: Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

OPINION BY: Paul A. Suttell

OPINION

[*482] Chief Justice Suttell, for the Court. A wise jurist once wrote:

“This is a hard case–hard not in the sense that it is legally difficult or tough to crack, but in the sense that it requires us * * * to deny relief to a plaintiff for whom we have considerable sympathy. We do what we must, for ‘it is the duty of all courts of justice to take care, for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law.'” Burnham v. Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, 873 F.2d 486, 487 (1st Cir. 1989) (Selya, J.) (quoting United States v. Clark, 96 U.S. 37, 49, 24 L. Ed. 696, 13 Ct. Cl. 560 (1877) (Harlan, J., dissenting)).

This is indeed such a hard case. Tragically, on July 10, 2008, twenty-nine-year-old Brett A. Roy broke his neck when diving into the pond at World War II Veterans Memorial Park in Woonsocket, resulting in his paralysis from the neck down. Roy’s injuries were vast and undeniable. Roy and his wife, Dawn K. Roy (plaintiffs), individually and as the parents of their two children, [**2] filed this action against the state, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and two individuals in their official capacities as DEM employees (collectively, the state), alleging several counts of negligence and premises liability. After a multi-week trial and lengthy deliberations, a jury returned a verdict for the state, finding that the state had not “fail[ed] to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity” or against a “non-obvious, latent dangerous condition” at the pond. Subsequently, both parties filed renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law, which the trial justice denied. However, the plaintiffs also filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted. Thereafter, the state brought the instant appeal arguing that the trial justice erred in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial, and that, as a matter of law, the state owed no duty to Roy. The plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal arguing that their motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted and that the trial justice erred in denying their motion for additur or alternatively their motion for a new trial on damages only. For the reasons set forth herein, [**3] we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

I

Facts and Travel

A

World War II Veterans Memorial Park and Pond

In July 2008, the pond at World War II Veterans Memorial Park in Woonsocket [*483] was one of several bodies of water operated by the state as a recreational facility. At trial several state workers testified to the condition and maintenance of the park and pond.

The director of DEM at the time of the incident, W. Michael Sullivan, testified that the man-made pond was “filled mechanically” and “treated much like a swimming pool.” Sullivan testified that, in June 2008, he made the decision to fill the pond, and he appeared at a press conference where he announced his decision.2 Sullivan stated that, in July 2008, there were “no swimming” signs posted, but DEM “expected that there would be people * * * using the park.” Sullivan explained that facilities such as the bathhouses were open, but he stated that he “did not ever consider the beach to be open.” Sullivan agreed that it was prohibited under DEM rules to operate the pond on a “swim-at-your-own-risk” basis, and he explained that, “if there were not lifeguards present at a swimming facility, that the swimming facility was closed.” Sullivan [**4] explained that, in July 2008, staff on-site at the park had been directed “to tell people that the beach — that the water was closed to swimming, to point to signage and refer them to that, but it was not expected that they would stand there and order people out [of the water] * * *.”

2 Sullivan had explained that, in February 2008, World War II Veterans Memorial Park had been “slated for closure” in the budget presented to the Legislature that year. However, at the end of June, after local officials expressed concern, he made the decision as the Director of DEM to fill the pond.

The Associate Director of Natural Resources for DEM, Larry Mouradjian, also testified at trial. He described the pond, explaining that there was a designated lap pool, a swim area, and a diving platform. He testified that he had seen the pond with and without water, and, based on his opinion, diving near the wall into the lap pool would be dangerous because it was too shallow. Mouradjian testified that the pond was typically not filled “until such time as we were able to fully staff the * * * swim area and invite the public to swim at the pond * * *.” Mouradjian stated that he thought the decision to fill the [**5] pond was untimely “[b]ecause the things normally done to prepare the pond to be open to the public had not been done * * *.” He testified that he had spoken to Sullivan and recommended that the pond be drained or left empty until DEM “beg[a]n to acquire the resources necessary.”

The DEM Chief of the Rhode Island Division of Parks and Recreation, Robert Paquette, and the Deputy Chief, John Faltus, also testified at trial. Paquette confirmed that Mouradjian was hesitant to open the pond and that Mouradjian told him that “we should really look into this.” However, Paquette testified that “[Sullivan] was ordering [him] to open up the facility.” Paquette also testified that he had never been told that “there was ever a problem with shallow water [along the wall of the pond].” Faltus testified that he was never “officially informed” that people were diving at the pond, but he had “heard hearsay that there’s possible diving activity after hours.” Faltus stated that generally they did not “allow diving at any [state] swimming areas.” However, he also admitted that “[p]eople [were] allowed to possibly do some shallow entry dives,” explaining that whether diving was allowed “[d]epends on how you define ‘dive.'”

William Mitchell [**6] Jr., the Regional Park Manager for DEM in 2008, testified that there was no “system that was in place to warn people of the depth of the water.” However, he stated that “if a patron * * * [*484] ask[ed] an employee * * * they would advise them as to the depth of the water, [and] if they asked about diving, [they] would tell them the rules and regulations * * *.” Mitchell agreed that Roy’s injury was “[g]enerally” the type of thing that he could foresee and he was concerned that it was the kind of injury that would happen when he was told to fill the pond before lifeguards had been hired.

Peter Lambert, a DEM caretaker supervisor who was employed at World War II Veterans Memorial Park from 1990 to 2008, testified at trial extensively about the physical characteristics and operation of the park and pond. He explained that, as the caretaker supervisor, he was the “acting park manager,” testifying that he “handled pretty much everything that had to do with the park itself: scheduling the staff, supervising the lifeguards, interviewing park rangers, interviewing seasonal people, assigning various work to people.” Essentially he either directly worked on or helped supervise everything that needed to be done at the [**7] park.

Lambert described the park as “16 acres * * * in the center of * * * Woonsocket [with] a man made [sic] pond, * * * two tennis courts, a playground area, horseshoe pits, * * * [an] Olympic pool area, * * * and the beach area * * *.” Lambert described the water depth near the wall where the Olympic pool met the beach area as being “pretty consistent over the years.” He testified that, when the pond was drained, he would try to “smooth the bottom” of it. Lambert explained that the pond “wouldn’t be perfectly level like a pool,” but testified that he “would try to eliminate any erosion, any heels, any high spots.” He testified that he was unable to do “any preparatory work to the bottom” of the pond in 2008 because he had been “informed that the park was closing and the beach wouldn’t be opened that year, and [his] job was being eliminated.” However, Lambert also explained that he did not rake the pond every year because “there were years when there was very little shifting on the bottom.” Subsequently, Lambert testified about the diving policies at the pond. He stated that diving had “never [been] allowed.” However, he admitted to seeing “people periodically dive * * * off of [the] [**8] wall on the pool area, [but] not during hours that [the pond was] in operation.”

B

The Events of July 10, 2008

Kenneth Henderson, a seasonal laborer for DEM who worked as a groundskeeper at the park in 2008, testified at trial that he was working on July 10, 2008. Henderson stated that he saw “about half a dozen” people swimming in the pond that day but did not tell them that swimming was prohibited because, in his words, “[he] had no authority.”

Laura Oliver and Carol Gear had also been at the park on July 10, 2008, and testified at trial. Oliver testified that on July 10 there were no lifeguards, lifeguard chairs, or buoy lines in the pond, and the fountain was off. Oliver said that she allowed her children to go swimming despite the “no swimming” signs “because there [had been] a write-up in the paper, and nobody told [them] different[ly].” She added that there were often “no swimming” signs in place, even when lifeguards were present and watching the swimmers. However, Oliver testified that a DEM employee, who she later learned was a groundskeeper, had told her children not to jump in the water. Oliver explained that she saw people jumping and “do[ing] all kinds of stuff” off the diving platform on July [**9] 10. However, she knew from experience that diving was not allowed in the pond because in previous years if someone [*485] dove into the water, then “lifeguards would be on top of it. If they kept doing it, [the lifeguards] would tell them they had to leave.” She added that she never saw anyone get hurt while diving prior to July 10. Oliver described Roy’s dive as “a belly flop kind of dive; not a complete dive.”

Gear testified that she had been to the pond to swim “[t]hree times” before July 10, 2008, and had seen people dive, but had never seen anyone injured from diving before Roy suffered his injury. Gear described Roy’s actions that she witnessed on July 10, stating: “He threw something on the ground, and [ran], like you run when you bowl, and then he just dove in.” She labeled Roy’s dive as a “[r]egular kind of dive.” She clarified that she would call it “a shallow dive.” She explained that “[i]t was more like he * * * just * * * put his head down and kind of went in. It wasn’t like a real dive like on a diving board.”

Hope Braybon, who accompanied Roy to the pond on July 10, also testified to the events of the day. Braybon stated that she watched Roy “jog” from the car in the parking lot and “d[i]ve in.” She testified [**10] that, as Roy was diving, she “was telling him not to dive over there * * * because it was shallow water.”

Roy was unable to testify at trial but his deposition was read into the record. Roy was six feet tall and twenty-nine years old at the time of the incident. Roy testified that on July 10 he had dropped Braybon, her daughter, and his children at the park and “they * * * walked towards the beach.” He recalled seeing “20 to 30 people, small children, adults, adolescent children in the middle of the pond” swimming, which indicated to him that the park was open. He testified that he “never saw a sign that said ‘[n]o [s]wimming.'” Roy further testified that, when he arrived at the park, he “walked over towards the corner [of the pond], * * * [a]nd * * * wasn’t going to jump in,” but, he described the day as “hot, * * * very hot. So, [he] figured * * * [he would] jump in.” He stated that he looked at the water and “[i]t looked deep enough.” He described the water as “murky” and said that he “definitely couldn’t see the bottom.” He explained that “if the water was too shallow, [he would] be able to see it.” Before jumping in, Roy returned to his car to put his things away and then he “walked down to the end[,] [**11] * * * dove in the water[,] and [he] broke [his] neck.” Roy described his dive as a “shallow dive, just like a normal, flat dive,” meaning, “the only parts that [he] would want to hit the water would be the * * * tops of [his] hand and [his] belly.” Roy testified that around July 2007 he dove in the same spot, and “[n]othing was ever said to [him].” Roy admitted that he knew there was soil erosion in the pond, and, consequently, that soil had been added to the pond in the past. Roy stated that “the way that [he] check[ed] the depth of the water * * * was probably irresponsible * * *.”

C

The Jury Verdict and Posttrial Motions

After the close of evidence, both parties filed motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, and the trial justice denied both motions. Subsequently, the jury was charged on May 25, 2011. During the course of deliberations, the jury exchanged over fifty notes with the trial justice. On the morning of the third day of deliberations, the trial justice addressed the jury and asked the jurors to keep deliberating because she was “really confident that the eight [jurors were] going to be able to * * * reach a decision that is fair and just for everyone.”

[*486] On the fourth day of deliberations, [**12] the jury asked the court to “clarify if [six] jurors are for one party and [two] jurors are for another[,] [d]o the questions have to be answered in favor of the way the six jurors feel and the [other two jurors would] not be able to express their own feelings[?]” The trial justice responded that she was “not exactly sure what [they] [were] asking but the jury’s verdict must be unanimous with all [eight] [jurors] agreeing.” Later that day, the trial justice held a chambers conference at which she suggested to counsel that, in light of the jury’s note, the jury might be split six to two.

During the fifth day of deliberations, the jury asked the trial justice to reinstruct them that they needed to follow the instructions of law and not their emotions. After a series of conferences with juror No. 109 and the jury foreperson, individually, the trial justice excused juror No. 109. At approximately 3:50 p.m. that day, the jury sent a note to the trial justice that it could not come to a unanimous agreement. Approximately ten minutes later the trial justice responded: “Is there anything we can do to assist you?” The jury responded that “nothing else will make a difference” and indicated a six-to-one [**13] split. Thereafter, the trial justice released the jurors for the day and asked counsel to think of options and to determine from their respective clients whether they would accept a split verdict.

The following day–day six of deliberations–both parties agreed to accept a six-to-one split decision if the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The parties expressed that they “understood at the time that the jury would be sent to deliberate” and that if the jury “inform[ed] the [c]ourt that it could not reach a unanimous verdict, [the trial justice] would then disclose [to the jury] that the parties [had] agreed to accept a [six] to [one] split decision * * *.” Subsequently, the jury exchanged additional notes with the trial justice and returned for additional instructions on the Recreational Use Statute and the issue of liability, included as questions 1 and 2 on the verdict form. Thereafter, the jury indicated that it had reached a verdict.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict and found that the state had not “willfully or maliciously failed to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity at the pond * * *” and therefore was not liable under question 1. However, the jury [**14] found that the state was liable under question 2 for “willfully or maliciously fail[ing] to guard against a non-obvious, latent dangerous condition, knowing that there existed a strong likelihood that a user of the swimming pond would suffer serious injury or death[.]” The jury rejected the assumption-of-the-risk defense and found that both parties were negligent and assigned a 50/50 split with “zero” damages. The trial justice then called counsel to sidebar where plaintiffs argued that the jurors were not following the instructions because they found in favor of them but awarded no damages; the state disagreed. The trial justice instructed the jury that they were required to award damages. At that time, the state moved for a mistrial “based on the inconsistencies of the answers to the questions on the verdict sheet”; plaintiffs objected, and the trial justice denied the motion. The jury then sent a note explaining that they had “reached a unanimous verdict [because] no money was awarded.” They explained that if they had to award damages, “part of [the] jury [would] have one answer [and] part [would] have another. In other words, [they would] have to begin again.” The trial justice clarified [**15] with the jury that they were “referring to the [six-to-one] split/vote” and then released the jury for the day.

[*487] After the jury was sent home, the trial justice held a chambers conference with counsel. The parties discussed four potential options to consider: (1) a mistrial; (2) accept a six-to-one verdict; (3) accept half of the verdict; or (4) allow the verdict to stand. On the seventh day of deliberations, plaintiffs made a motion for additur or, in the alternative, for a new trial on the issue of damages. The trial justice denied plaintiffs’ motion and offered the parties a choice of accepting a split verdict or a mistrial. Both parties agreed to accept a six-to-one split verdict. The trial justice notified the jury that the parties would accept a six-to-one verdict. The jury returned the verdict and answered “no” to questions 1 and 2–finding no liability on behalf of the state, and judgment entered.

Following the jury verdict, both parties made renewed motions for judgment as a matter of law. In support of its motion, the state argued that plaintiffs failed to establish the state’s liability under the Recreational Use Statute and that, as a matter of law, Roy’s conduct was so “highly [**16] dangerous” that “no duty was owed to him.” The plaintiffs argued that the state’s witnesses admitted sufficient facts at trial to establish the state’s liability as a matter of law under the Recreational Use Statute. Additionally, plaintiffs moved for a new trial on damages, or, in the alternative, a new trial on all the issues. The trial justice issued a written decision on March 26, 2013, denying both parties’ motions for judgment as a matter of law, and granting plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial on all the issues. The state timely appealed this decision, and plaintiffs filed a cross-appeal.

II

Parties’ Arguments on Appeal

On appeal, the state argues that the trial justice erred in refusing to apply the decisions in Banks v. Bowen’s Landing Corp., 522 A.2d 1222 (R.I. 1987) and Bucki v. Hawkins, 914 A.2d 491 (R.I. 2007), which, the state contends, “stand for the proposition that the [s]tate owed no duty to Roy to protect him from an open and obvious natural condition * * *.” The state maintains that, “under the proper application of the Recreational Use Statute, the evidence fails to establish that the state willfully and/or maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous condition.” The state also argues that “Roy assumed the risk of injury by diving into murky water without first checking [**17] its depth” and that plaintiffs failed to prove the element of causation. Furthermore, the state contends that it is shielded from liability under the theory of discretionary immunity. The state also asserts that “the trial justice misconstrued material evidence and committed significant errors of law in granting plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial.” However, the state adds, if the matter is remanded for a new trial, “the statutory cap on damages should apply.”

In response, plaintiffs argue that the trial justice properly granted their motion for a new trial. The plaintiffs aver that they proved liability under the Recreational Use Statute and that the “open and obvious danger” rule articulated in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 496, is inapplicable here due to distinguishable facts. The plaintiffs maintain that Roy could not have “assumed the risk” under these facts as a matter of law and that plaintiffs proved proximate causation. Furthermore, plaintiffs contend that the trial justice and two motion justices properly applied the law and limited the state’s defenses with respect to governmental immunity and the damages cap. On cross-appeal, plaintiffs argue that the trial justice incorrectly denied their motions for additur, [**18] a new trial on the issue [*488] of damages only, and judgment as a matter of law. Additionally, plaintiffs argue that a new trial was warranted based on other legal errors made by the trial justice and that the second jury verdict was “the result of bias, prejudice, or passion.”

Because we conclude that the state owed no duty to Roy, we shall address only the state’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

III

Judgment as a Matter of Law

A

Standard of Review

[HN1] “In reviewing a trial justice’s decision on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, this Court is bound to follow the same rules and legal standards as govern the trial justice.” Hough v. McKiernan, 108 A.3d 1030, 1035 (R.I. 2015) (quoting Perry v. Alessi, 890 A.2d 463, 467 (R.I. 2006)). “The trial justice, and consequently this Court, must examine ‘the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, without weighing the evidence or evaluating the credibility of witnesses, and draw[] from the record all reasonable inferences that support the position of the nonmoving party.'” Id. (quoting Perry, 890 A.2d at 467). Thus, a trial justice should enter judgment as a matter of law “when the evidence permits only one legitimate conclusion in regard to the outcome.” Id. (quoting Long v. Atlantic PBS, Inc., 681 A.2d 249, 252 (R.I. 1996)).

B

Discussion

[HN2] The Rhode Island Recreational Use Statute, G.L. 1956 [**19] chapter 6 of title 32, limits the liability of landowners, declaring that one

“who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge any person to use that property for recreational purposes does not thereby:

“(1) Extend any assurance that the premises are safe for any purpose;

“(2) Confer upon that person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed; nor

“(3) Assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to any person or property caused by an act of omission of that person.” Section 32-6-3.

[HN3] The purpose of this statute “is to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability to persons entering thereon for those purposes.” Section 32-6-1. In order to achieve this, “the [Recreational Use Statute] modifies the common law by treating users of public and private recreational properties as trespassers, thus greatly reducing the duty of care that owners owe to recreational users.” Symonds v. City of Pawtucket, 126 A.3d 421, 424 (R.I. 2015). As we have noted, “it is clear from the unambiguous language of the 1996 amendment [to the Recreational Use Statute] that the [L]egislature intended to include the state and municipalities among owners entitled to immunity [**20] under the statute.” Id. (quoting Pereira v. Fitzgerald, 21 A.3d 369, 373 (R.I. 2011)).3

3 In 1996, the General Assembly amended the definition of “owner” in G.L. 1956 § 32-6-2(3) to include the state and municipalities. P.L. 1996, ch. 234, § 1.

[HN4] Although the Recreational Use Statute limits liability, this limitation is not absolute. Section 32-6-5 provides, in relevant part: “(a) Nothing in this chapter limits in any way any liability which, but for this chapter, otherwise exists: (1) [f]or the willful or malicious failure to guard or [*489] warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity after discovering the user’s peril * * *.” “Thus, the Legislature declared that all people who use this state’s public recreational resources are classified as trespassers to whom no duty of care is owed, save to refrain from willful or malicious conduct as defined in the [Recreational Use Statute].” Berman v. Sitrin, 991 A.2d 1038, 1044 (R.I. 2010).

On appeal, the state argues that the evidence presented at trial did not establish that the state willfully and/or maliciously failed to warn against a dangerous condition. Specifically, the state argues that “there was no evidence of a substantial number of injuries flowing from a known dangerous condition”; that “the state did not fail to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, [**21] structure, or activity”; and that “no witness made testimonial admissions sufficient to extinguish protection under the Recreational Use Statute.” Conversely, plaintiffs argue that they proved liability under the Recreational Use Statute because the evidence supported a finding that the state “breached the duty to refrain from willful and malicious failures to guard and warn against known latent conditions.” In support of this argument, plaintiffs rely on Berman.

In Berman, 991 A.2d at 1042, the plaintiff was walking on the Newport Cliff Walk when the ground “gave way,” causing the plaintiff to suffer injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic. This Court specifically noted that this was “not * * * a case in which a visitor came too close to the edge of a cliff and fell off, as tragic as that would be.” Id. at 1049. Rather, “the events leading to [the plaintiff’s] tragic injury were caused by latent defects in the structure of the Cliff Walk that [were] not obvious to the occasional visitor.” Id. This Court explained that “the record before [it was] replete with evidence demonstrating that * * * the city knew that the forces of natural erosion were taking a toll on the Cliff Walk.” Id. at 1050. Thus, this Court concluded that “because [**22] of the multiple incidents of death and grievous injury * * * the city [could] not successfully defend [the plaintiff’s] claim based on an assertion that it had no specific knowledge of [the plaintiff] or any peril confronting him.” Id. at 1051. Consequently, this Court held that “the immunity provided by the [Recreational Use Statute] [was] not available to defendant City of Newport, in the context of the Cliff Walk” because a “fact-finder reasonably could find that * * * the city voluntarily and intentionally failed to guard against the dangerous condition, knowing that there existed a strong likelihood that a visitor to the Cliff Walk would suffer serious injury or death.” Id. at 1052, 1053.

The plaintiffs argue that this case is comparable to Berman because the “record is replete with evidence of DEM’s admitted knowledge of numerous unique dangerous conditions, including shallow water in areas where users had been known to dive from the park’s structures, and the historic presence of the sandbar in the same (normally deeper) area.” The plaintiffs maintain that the “shallow water and dangers of diving at this particular facility were not obvious to users * * * yet were in fact known to DEM.”

In the case at bar, [**23] although the state admitted knowledge of the unique features of the pond, Roy also admitted that he was aware of the danger of making a dive into shallow water and that “the way that [he] check[ed] the depth of the water * * * was probably irresponsible * * *.” He confirmed that he knew the soil in the pond was eroding and, consequently, that soil was added to the pond. We would note that, examining the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs as we [*490] must, the actions of the defendants are a far cry from the egregious conduct attributed to the City of Newport in Berman. There, we held that “[i]t is because of the multiple incidents of death and grievous injury that we conclude that the city may not successfully defend this claim based on an assertion that it had no specific knowledge of [the plaintiff] or any peril confronting him.” Berman, 991 A.2d at 1051. Here, there is only one indication in the record of a relatively minor injury reported several days before Roy’s catastrophic injuries. Therefore, we are of the opinion that, under these circumstances, this case is distinguishable from Berman. There is no evidence to support a finding that the state “willful[ly] or malicious[ly] fail[ed] to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, [**24] use, structure, or activity after discovering [a] user’s peril * * *.” See § 32-6-5(a)(1). Thus, the state’s motion for judgment as a matter of law should have been granted.

Moreover, even if the Recreational Use Statute did not apply, this Court has held that [HN5] the danger of diving in and of itself is an “open and obvious” danger, Bucki, 914 A.2d at 496, one of “common knowledge,” Banks, 522 A.2d at 1225, such that a landowner does not owe a duty of care to warn individuals who enter the premises. In Banks, 522 A.2d at 1224, the plaintiff filed a negligence claim for injuries he suffered after diving off a railing on the defendant’s property into the Newport Harbor. This Court held that the defendants had not owed any duty of care to the plaintiff in that case in part because “requiring citizens to place warnings against[–]and barriers preventing persons from[–]diving into shallow water would provide little disincentive to individuals * * *. As a practical matter, the danger of diving into shallow water is one of common knowledge, and one [the plaintiff] admit he was aware of.” Id. at 1225. Similarly, in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 493, the plaintiff filed a negligence claim for injuries he sustained after diving into a lake while he was a guest at one defendant’s waterfront property. This Court concluded that [**25] the plaintiff’s harm was foreseeable but again held that the defendants did not have a duty to warn of the dangers of diving. Id. at 496-97. This Court stated that:

“It is only reasonable for a diver, who cannot ascertain the water’s depth by looking, to further inspect the area before diving into dark water. The danger of diving into shallow water was open and obvious to a twenty-four-year-old man, regardless of whether a sign was erected alerting him to the danger.” Id. at 496.

Thus, this Court held that “as a matter of law, [the] plaintiff must be held to have had knowledge and an appreciation of this risk [because][,] [u]ltimately, it was [the] plaintiff’s own behavior that caused his injuries.” Id.

We also note that other courts have reached similar conclusions. For example, the Maryland Court of Appeals commented that:

“Bodies of water like the stream involved in this case have historically and consistently been afforded distinctive treatment in the law relating to landowners’ liability. The necessity, or at least desirability, of maintaining such bodies of water, coupled with known inherent dangers and the difficulty of effectively protecting against those dangers, have led courts across the country to pronounce [**26] water an ‘open and obvious danger,’ for which no warning or special precaution is ordinarily needed.” Casper v. Charles F. Smith & Son, Inc., 316 Md. 573, 560 A.2d 1130, 1134-35 (Md. 1989).

[*491] In a case affirming the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Chicago Park District against swimmers who were injured when they dove into Lake Michigan from concrete seawalls, Bucheleres v. Chicago Park District, 171 Ill. 2d 435, 665 N.E.2d 826, 827, 828, 839, 216 Ill. Dec. 568 (Ill. 1996), the Illinois Supreme Court pronounced:

“In cases involving obvious and common conditions, such as fire, height, and bodies of water, the law generally assumes that persons who encounter these conditions will take care to avoid any danger inherent in such condition. The open and obvious nature of the condition itself gives caution and therefore the risk of harm is considered slight; people are expected to appreciate and avoid obvious risks.” Id. at 832.

The Illinois Supreme Court further reasoned that “bodies of water are ordinarily considered to be open and obvious conditions and thereby carry their own warning of possible danger.” Id. at 835. This is clearly the position adopted by this Court in Bucki, 914 A.2d at 497, where this Court stated that “[w]e are of the opinion that in this case [the] defendant did not owe [the] plaintiff a duty of care, but, rather, that [the] plaintiff voluntarily exposed himself to the perils of an open and obvious danger.” [**27] Because it is our considered opinion that the state bore no liability for Roy’s injuries–either because diving is an open and obvious danger or because it was protected under the Recreational Use Statute–we conclude that the trial justice erroneously denied its motion for judgment as a matter of law.

IV

Conclusion

For the reasons stated herein, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court and remand the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the state. The record shall be returned to the Superior Court.


“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Release lacked language specifying the length of time it was valid. Since the court could not determine the time the case was sent to a jury for that determination.

Release lacked one clause and consequently, failed to protect the defendant sending the case to trial.

Weinrich v. Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, 2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 79

State: Pennsylvania: Common Pleas Court of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, Civil Division

Plaintiff: Nicholas Weinrich

Defendant: Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, incorrectly Identified As Lehigh Valley Grand Prix LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release & Premises Liability

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2015

This is an interesting case. The activity is outside the normal area of the law covered by this site; however, the legal issues are very important to everyone reading these posts.

The plaintiff was injured driving a go-kart around the defendant’s go-kart track. This was the second time the plaintiff had been at the go-kart track; the first time was about six months prior.

While driving around the track a piece of plastic from the guard rail was sticking into the track. The plaintiff drove past it and it hit is leg giving him a two-inch laceration.

The plaintiff had signed a release the first time he attended the go-kart track which was six months prior to the date of his injury. He did not sign one the second time when he was injured. The defendant stated that people who have already signed a release are not asked to sign one again.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release the Pennsylvania Premises Liability Act. The act stated that a defendant’s business did not owe a duty to the business invitee for open and obvious hazards.

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

First, the court reviewed the requirements for a release to be valid in Pennsylvania.

First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly; each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.

The next issue was whether a release for recreational issues violates public policy in Pennsylvania. Again, releases for recreational activities do not violate Pennsylvania public policy concerns. Participants are free to go to any recreational facility or none at all.

In the context of recreational activities, releases generally function as a bar to liability because the party executing the release is free to choose whether or not he or she wants to participate in the activity. Such releases do not contravene public policy. However, where the injury was caused by recklessness or gross negligence, enforcement of the release would contravene public policy and the releases are thereby rendered void under those circumstances.

The court then got into the real issue. The plaintiff argued the release was not valid because he had signed the release six months prior to the date of his injury. The issue then resolved around when a contract terminates. Normally, a contract terminates based on a date or time frame which is based on language within the contract itself. This release had no language as to how long the release was supposed to last. “The salient issue in evaluating the instant waiver is that the language on the form neither limits the time for its applicability nor specifies the event or occasion to which it applies.”

Generally, time frames are to be determined by the parties to the agreement. If not by the parties, then the language of the release is to be examined for an indication of time. Failing language in the release terminating the agreement, the court can infer from the parties intended performance, which must be within a reasonable amount of time.

Since the release had no language on termination, then the court determined the release terminated within a reasonable amount of time. Since this was not defined, then a term, phrase or clause was missing from the release.

If an essential term is left out of a contract, the court can infer the term. (An essential term is always the one that the issue resolves around in court.)

In this case, the release Plaintiff executed is silent as to duration. Based on the foregoing case law, the Court determines that this is an essential term which is left out of the agreement. Therefore, a reasonable term is to be imposed instead of invalidating the release as a whole. Id. Because contract principles further dictate that contractual duration is presumed to be for a reasonable amount of time in the absence of a specified time for performance, the parties’ release must therefore be deemed to apply for a reasonable period of time.

However, since the reasonable period of time is not set forth by the industry, parties, the release or the law, that time period must be determined by the factfinder. The fact finder when a case has been set for a jury trial is the jury. “What constitutes a reasonable time, however, is generally a question of fact to be resolved by the factfinder.”

Consequently, Defendant’s argument in support of summary judgment based on the existence of a release must be denied. Summary judgment is only appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Whether six months following the execution of a release for a recreational activity constitutes a reasonable amount of time is a question more appropriately posed to a finder of fact. The reasonableness of the duration in question is therefore, a genuine issue of material fact and summary judgment is inappropriate.

The simple phrase stating the release is valid for a year or more sent this case back to the jury for trial.

The other issue argued by the defendant was the definition of a business invitee which as defined did not create liability on the part of the defendant. A landowner does not owe a duty for open and obvious conditions on the land. In this case, the open and obvious condition would be the piece of plastic sticking out into the track.

As a general rule, possessors of land are not liable to invitees for physical harm caused to them by activities or conditions on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness.

The issue of open and obvious then was reviewed as it is defined in Pennsylvania.

A danger is deemed to be “obvious” when “both the condition and the risk are apparent to and would be recognized by a reasonable man, in the position of the visitor, exercising normal perception, intelligence, and judgment.” “For a danger to be ‘known,’ it must not only be known to exist, but … also be recognized that it is dangerous and the probability and gravity of the threatened harm must be appreciated.”

Generally in Pennsylvania, a landowner has no duty to protect business invitees from open and obvious dangers. “In the context of amusement facilities, Pennsylvania courts have held that there is no duty to protect participants against the typical risks attendant to those activities.”

However, here again whether something is open and obvious in this case, a plastic part peeling off a guard rail is something that must be determined by the factfinder.

Nonetheless, the question of whether conditions on land were, in fact, open and obvious is generally a question of fact for a jury to decide. Id. It may be decided by a court where reasonable minds could not differ as to the conclusion.

Because in both cases, the release and the definition of the law required completion by the fact finder, the case was sent back for trial.

Summary judgment would not be appropriate on these grounds because there are factual issues regarding constructive notice and whether there were appropriate steps undertaken by Defendant. Testimony before a factfinder is necessary to assess whether and to what extent the employees were aware in advance of the existence of the dangerous condition. These are all factual questions to be resolved by a factfinder.

So Now What?

Here again, the release failed either because of a lazy program, an ineffective system or with both those failing a release that is missing components.

Either every time someone comes to your facility, event or business, they sign a release, or you have a system that tracks when people have signed the release and not and a release that covers that period of time.

At a minimum, you should have someone sign your release yearly. Season’s change, activities change and you might change your business, program, activities, anything and everything. That change may need to be placed in your release and at least follows up on.

This change in your program or start of the new year or season is the perfect opportunity to have an attorney review your release. Inform your attorney of any changes in your operation. Have your release checked to make sure it will do the job you and your insurance company expect it to do.

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Weinrich v. Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, 2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 79

Weinrich v. Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, 2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 79

Nicholas Weinrich, Plaintiff -VS- Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Inc, incorrectly Identified As Lehigh Valley Grand Prix LLC, Defendant

File No. 2014-C-0226

COMMON PLEAS COURT OF LEHIGH COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, CIVIL DIVISION

2015 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 79

August 14, 2015, Decided

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, track, plastic, depositions, public policy, citations omitted, duration, genuine, issue of material fact, question of fact, reasonable amount, contravene, factfinder, covering, invitee, silent, rink, dangerous condition, constructive notice, protruding, inspection, customer, go-kart’s, execute, notice, repeat, snap, general rule, moving party’s, liability theory

COUNSEL: [*1] Robert G. Bauer, Esq. for Plaintiff.

Ian T. Baxter, Esq. for Defendant.

JUDGES: Douglas G. Reichley, J.

OPINION BY: Douglas G. Reichley

OPINION

ORDER

AND NOW, this 14 day of August, 2015, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, filed May 19, 2015, and after argument conducted August 12, 2015,

IT IS ORDERED Defendant’s Motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum Opinion.

By the Court:

Douglas G. Reichley, J.

Memorandum Opinion

Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, Inc., Defendant, owns and operates a go-kart track located at 649 South 10th Street, Allentown, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Nicholas Weinrich, Plaintiff, filed the instant action alleging he was injured while patronizing the facility. On May 19, 2015, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant’s motion is denied.

Factual and Procedural History

According to the Complaint, on June 4, 2012 at approximately 8:15 p.m, Plaintiff was operating a go-kart on Defendant’s track during which time a piece of the plastic covering the guardrail broke and was sticking out toward the track. As Plaintiff drove around the track, the plastic caught his go-kart’s bumper causing it to snap into his [*2] left leg. Plaintiff sustained a laceration on his leg less than two inches wide.

During depositions, Plaintiff testified that six months prior to the incident, he patronized Defendant’s facility without issue. On the date in question, Plaintiff completed two laps and did not notice the plastic covering jutting out. On his third lap, Plaintiff came around the adjacent turn and maintained momentum. He was near the wall, and the piece of the plastic guard was hanging out, bent toward him. He heard a loud snap, and subsequently felt pain in his calf.

Deposition testimony from Defendant’s staff indicated that the protrusion onto the track was common enough that employees were trained on how to repair it. Defendant’s owner conceded that it was possible for the plastic piece on the wall to snap and protrude onto the track.

Six months before the incident in question, on December 4, 2011, Plaintiff patronized Defendant’s establishment. At that time he was required to execute a waiver in order to participate in the race. When he returned in June of 2012, he was not presented with his original waiver, nor was he asked to execute a second one. Testimony from Michael Achey, the manager of Defendant’s [*3] establishment, indicated that repeat customers are not asked to re-execute the waiver. (N.T. Deposition of Michael P. Achey, February 25, 2015, at 45.) Mr. Achey acknowledged that while he has indicated to some repeat customers that they did not need to execute another waiver because one was already on file, he did not say that to every repeat customer. (Id. at 45-46.)

Plaintiff filed his Complaint on April 4, 2014. Defendant filed its Answer on April 29, 2014. On May 19, 2015, Defendant filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff filed his response on June 19, 2015. Defendant filed a sur-reply brief on August 6, 2015. The Court heard oral argument on August 12, 2015, after which time the matter was taken under advisement.

This Opinion follows.

Discussion

The standard of review for a motion seeking summary judgment is as follows:

A trial court properly enters summary judgment if “there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary clement of the cause of action.” Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2(1). The moving party’s right to summary judgment has to be clear and free from doubt after examination of the record in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolution of all doubts as to the existence [*4] of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party

Liss & Marion, P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 983 A.2d 652, 657 (Pa. Super. 2009).

Defendant seeks summary judgment on two grounds. First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff executed a voluntary waiver which bars his recovery. Second, Defendant argues that even if the release were not binding and valid, as a landowner, Defendant cannot be held liable under these circumstances under a premises liability theory.

In Pennsylvania, exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed. Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Assoc., 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (1966). Releases from liability are disfavored as a matter of public policy, but are nonetheless “valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)).

The courts of Pennsylvania have traditionally determined the effect of a release using the ordinary meaning of its language and interpreted the release as covering only such matters as can fairly be said to have been within the contemplation of the parties when the release was given. Moreover, releases [*5] are strictly construed so as not to bar the enforcement of a claim that had not accrued at the date of the execution of the release.

Fortney v. Callenberger, 2002 PA Super 182, 801 A.2d 594, 597 (Pa. Super. 2002) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

In the context of recreational activities, releases generally function as a bar to liability because the party executing the release is free to choose whether or not he or she wants to participate in the activity. Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1197 (Pa. 2012). Such releases do not contravene public policy. Id. However, where the injury was caused by recklessness or gross negligence, enforcement of the release would contravene public policy and the releases are thereby rendered void under those circumstances. Id.

The relevant language of the release in question provides:

IN CONSIDERATION of being permitted to compete, officiate, observe, work, or participate in the EVENT(s), use the equipment, premises, facilities and/or services of Lehigh Valley Grand Prix, LLC., [the undersigned agrees to the release terms] …

Plaintiff argues that the waiver was no longer valid on the date in question because he executed it six months prior to the date of the accident. In support of this argument, Plaintiff does not cite any case law from Pennsylvania or any federal [*6] authority interpreting Pennsylvania law on this matter. The sole case upon which Plaintiff relics is a Florida case, Cain v. Banka, 932 So.2d 575 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006), which held a release unenforceable because the release contained no express language advising the plaintiff that it covered every future visit to a motocross track.

There are not any Pennsylvania cases reflecting the Florida court’s holding. Federal cases interpreting Pennsylvania law merely look at the language of the release to gauge its degree of applicability. See Savarese v. Camelback Ski Corp., 417 F.Supp.2d 663, 667 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (applying Pennsylvania law, language on the back of a ski lift ticket constituted a valid exculpatory agreement once the plaintiff purchased the ticket).

The salient issue in evaluating the instant waiver is that the language on the form neither limits the time for its applicability nor specifies the event or occasion to which it applies. When asked about the release’s duration during oral argument, Defendant’s counsel maintained that the waiver would be effective forever without limitation.

“As a general rule, releases encompass only such matters as may fairly be said to have been within the contemplation of the parties when the release was given.” Farrell v. Lechmanik, Inc., 417 Pa. Super. 172, 611 A.2d 1322, 1323 (Pa. Super. 1992). “[I]t is axiomatic that releases are construed in accordance [*7] with traditional principles of contract law, fundamental to which is the directive that the effect of a release must be determined from the ordinary meaning of its language.” Maloney v. Valley Med. Facilities, Inc., 2008 PA Super 32, 946 A.2d 702, 706 (Pa. Super. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Under contract principles, where a contract is silent as to the time for performance, courts must infer that the parties intended that performance occur within a reasonable amount of time. Cashdollar v. Mercy Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 406 Pa. Super. 606, 595 A.2d 70, 76 (Pa. Super. 1991) (“When the exact period for which the parties intended to contract cannot be ascertained, the agreement is not vitiated; rather, an agreement for a ‘reasonable time’ will be inferred.”).

In construing a contract, courts must adopt “an interpretation which under all circumstances ascribes the most reasonable, probable, and natural conduct of the parties, bearing in mind the objects manifestly to be accomplished.” Metzger v. Clifford Realty Corp., 327 Pa. Super. 377, 476 A.2d 1, 5 (Pa. Super. 1984) (citation omitted). “If an essential term is left out of the agreement, the law will not invalidate the contract but will include a reasonable term.” Stephan v. Waldron Elec. Heating & Cooling LLC, 2014 PA Super 205, 100 A.3d 660, 668 (Pa. Super. 2014) (quoting RegScan, Inc. v. Con-Way Transp. Services, Inc., 2005 PA Super 176, 875 A.2d 332 (Pa. Super. 2005)).

In this case, the release Plaintiff executed is silent as to duration. Based on the foregoing case law, the Court determines that this is an essential term which is left out of the agreement. Therefore, a reasonable [*8] term is to be imposed instead of invalidating the release as a whole. Id. Because contract principles further dictate that contractual duration is presumed to be for a reasonable amount of time in the absence of a specified time for performance, Metzger, 476 A.2d at 5, the parties’ release must therefore be deemed to apply for a reasonable period of time. What constitutes a reasonable time, however, is generally a question of fact to be resolved by the factfinder. See, e.g., Yates v. Clifford Motors, Inc., 283 Pa. Super. 293, 423 A.2d 1262, 1268 (Pa. Super. 1980) (in the Uniform Commercial Code context, whether goods were rejected within a reasonable amount of time where contract was silent as to time for rejection was question of fact for jury).

Consequently, Defendant’s argument in support of summary judgment based on the existence of a release must be denied. Summary judgment is only appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Whether six months following the execution of a release for a recreational activity constitutes a reasonable amount of time is a question more appropriately posed to a finder of fact. The reasonableness of the duration in question is therefore a genuine issue of material fact and summary judgment is inappropriate.

Defendant also argued in its motion [*9] that even if the release was not binding and valid, as a landowner, Defendant cannot be held liable under these circumstances under a premises liability theory. Plaintiff in this case was an invitee for premises liability purposes. An invitee is someone who is “invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public.” Restatement (Second) of Torts §332 (1965).

As a general rule, possessors of land are not liable to invitees for physical harm caused to them by activities or conditions on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness. Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 343A. A danger is deemed to be “obvious” when “both the condition and the risk are apparent to and would be recognized by a reasonable man, in the position of the visitor, exercising normal perception, intelligence, and judgment.” Carrender v. Fitterer, 503 Pa. 178, 469 A.2d 120, 123-24 (Pa. 1983) (citation omitted). “For a danger to be ‘known,’ it must not only be known to exist, but … also be recognized that it is dangerous and the probability and gravity of the threatened harm must be appreciated.” Id. at 124.

Nonetheless, the question of whether conditions on land were in fact open and obvious is generally [*10] a question of fact for a jury to decide. Id. It may be decided by a court where reasonable minds could not differ as to the conclusion. Id.; see also Long v. Manzo, 452 Pa. Super. 451, 682 A.2d 370, 373 (Pa. Super. 19%) (citation omitted) (issues of plaintiff’s knowledge of condition creating unreasonable risk of harm usually for jury to decide, but may be decided by court where reasonable minds could not differ).

In the context of amusement facilities, Pennsylvania courts have held that there is no duty to protect participants against the typical risks attendant to those activities. See Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525 (Pa. Super. 1983) (roller rink has no obligation to protect patrons from falling down or being bumped by other skaters). A duty arises only where the risks at play are atypical. See id. (liability found where accident attributable to a condition unique to defendant skating rink, i.e. a 60-foot wide opening in the rink and a 6″ drop-off on its side).

With respect to the requirement for notice, Plaintiff argued that Defendant’s employees’ depositions demonstrate an acute awareness that the sort of dangerous condition at issue–the broken plastic piece protruding into the racetrack–was something for which they were trained. While the record is devoid of evidence supporting [*11] actual notice, Plaintiff argued Defendant had constructive notice.

Neither the witnesses who were deposed nor Plaintiff testified that the plastic was protruding into the track for an extended period of time. The testimony at the depositions indicated that there are three scheduled inspections of the racetrack per day: morning, noon, and night. None of those inspections revealed the dangerous condition. There is also a visual inspection of the track in between each race according to the testimony offered by Michael McCreary, Defendant’s owner. Defendant’s employees, Michael Achey (manager) and Corey Dewalt (track marshal) conceded that it was possible that the protruding plastic could have been missed.

Summary judgment would not be appropriate on these grounds because there are factual issues regarding constructive notice and whether there were appropriate steps undertaken by Defendant. Testimony before a factfinder is necessary to assess whether and to what extent the employees were aware in advance of the existence of the dangerous condition. These are all factual questions to be resolved by a factfinder.

Conclusion

Because there is an outstanding factual issue concerning whether six [*12] months after execution of the subject release is a reasonable period of time for the release to remain in effect, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the ground of the release must fail. Further, there are outstanding factual questions concerning constructive notice which render summary judgment inappropriate on that basis. Accordingly, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.

By the Court:

Douglas G. Reichley, J.

8/14/15


The assumption of risk defense is still available when the claim is based on a condition of the land. This defense is called the open and obvious doctrine.

A landowner must protect invitees from hidden dangers. If the danger could have been seen or was seen, then it is open and obvious and the landowner must not protect the invitees from the danger.

Watkins, Jr., v St. Francis Camp on the Lake, 2010 Mich. App. LEXIS 1814

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: Robert Vincent Watkins, Jr.

Defendant: St. Francis Camp on the Lake

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Open and Obvious defect in the land

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2010

The plaintiff was attending the defendant camp. The camp was run for people with special needs. The plaintiff suffered from cerebral palsy and was a quadriplegic. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was 34 years old.

At the camp, a water slide was created. The slide was a 100’ long tarp, 20’ wide and placed upon a hill. Water was prayed on the tarp along with soap. Some of the campers used inner tubes on the slide; others just went down on the buttocks.  

At the bottom was a little ditch, 2.5’ long 2’ wide and 12-18” deep. The ditch had mud and water in it. When someone going down slide hit the ditch it would flip them.

On the day before the incident, the plaintiff had gone down the slide four or five times. He would ride down the hill on an inner tube with a camp counselor in an inner tube behind the plaintiff. After each ride, the plaintiff and tubes would be loaded on a golf cart and taken to the top of the hill.

The second day the plaintiff was injured on the slide during the flip, injuring his foot. He had already gone down the slide twice before his injury.

The plaintiff sued for his injuries. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The basis for the dismissal was the condition of the land that caused the plaintiff’s injuries was open and obvious. The plaintiff argued that this was a case not based upon the land but based upon the actions of the defendant. The actions of the defendant would set up a negligence claim. A claim based upon the condition of the land would be determined on the duty owed by the landowner to the plaintiff as an invitee.

Under Michigan’s law, the duty owed by a landowner to an invite was:

Generally, a premises possessor owes a duty of care to an invitee to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land. This duty generally does not encompass a duty to protect an invitee from “open and obvious” dangers. However, if there are “special aspects” of a condition that make even an “open and obvious” danger “unreasonably dangerous,” the premises possessor maintains a duty to undertake reasonable precautions to protect invitees from such danger.

The appellate court also found the claims rose from the land; therefore, the liability was from the relationship between the landowner and the plaintiff-invitee.

That is, the question was whether defendant had a duty as the owner of the land to protect plaintiff from harm and thus provide a water slide activity that was free from danger by not allowing a ditch at the bottom of the slide to exist, which propelled participants into the air.

Even if actions of the defendants contributed to the injury it was not enough to alter the relationship to create a negligence claim.

Consequently, although some alleged conduct on the part of defendant may have been involved-i.e. failing to protect plaintiff from harm, allowing the ditch to form, and/or failing to train staff to recognize the danger involved in allowing participants to hit the ditch and be propelled into the air-this does not change the fact that, as a matter of law, this negligence claim was based on premises liability law.

Because the condition was open and obvious, one that the plaintiff knew about normally because they could have or should have seen it and in this case did see it and did encounter it, there was no liability owed by the landowner-defendant.

Plaintiff argued that because the counselor’s did not recognize the danger, the danger could not be open and obvious.  

However, simply because one counselor did not see any danger in operating the slide (all the evidence pointed to the conclusion that all campers enjoyed the slide) does not result in a conclusion that an average user of ordinary intelligence would not have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection by going down a water slide, hitting the ditch, and flipping into the air.

Evidence of prior injuries would be needed to convert the actions of the counselors from that of a landowner to simple defendants. If the counselors kept the slide open after a person had been injured and then the plaintiff received his injury, then the open and oblivious claim may not work.

This argument fails for the simple reason that in a premises liability action when determining whether a condition is open and obvious, “the fact-finder must consider the ‘condition of the premises,’ not the condition of the plaintiff.”

The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the case by the trial court.

So Now What?

In this specific case, you can look at the open and obvious defense as similar to the defense of assumption of the risk.

More importantly always examine every possible defense when you are faced with a suit. Here, the answer was easy, although having campers launched into the air may not provide an open and obvious defense in all states.

If you are a camp or landowner, what you need to constantly be aware of and even search for are the non-open and obvious dangers on the land. Those things that cannot be seen by casual observation or that should have been seen by observation are what will hold you liable.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Watkins, Jr., v St. Francis Camp on the Lake, 2010 Mich. App. Lexis 1814

Watkins, Jr., v St. Francis Camp on the Lake, 2010 Mich. App. Lexis 1814

Robert Vincent Watkins, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v St. Francis camp on the lake, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 292578

Court of Appeals of Michigan

2010 Mich. App. LEXIS 1814

September 28, 2010, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

Hillsdale Circuit Court. LC No. 08-000601-NI.

CORE TERMS: water slide, ditch, camper, slide, went down, premises liability, amend, times, counselor, tube, matter of law, nuisance, flipped, invitee, futile, hit, air, obvious danger, pleaded, bottom, rolled, feet, leave to amend, physical condition, duty to protect, duty of care, liability case, liability claim, dangerous condition, ordinary intelligence

JUDGES: Before: MURPHY, C.J., and SAWYER and MURRAY, JJ. MURPHY, C.J. (concurring).

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

Plaintiff Robert Watkins, Jr., appeals by leave granted the trial court’s June 1, 2009, order granting defendant summary disposition, and its order denying his motion to amend. We affirm.

I. FACTS

Plaintiff, who is disabled, was injured using a water slide at a summer camp that defendant St. Francis Camp on the Lake runs for people with special needs. Plaintiff, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair because he is a quadriplegic, was approximately 34 years old at the time of the accident and was living with his parents. At the time of the accident, plaintiff was employed at the Roscommon county courthouse as a mail clerk, where he worked for the previous 15 years for about 20 hours per week. Plaintiff did not have a legal guardian.

A water slide was at the camp. The water slide consisted of a tarp, which was approximately 100 feet long and 20 feet wide, placed on a hill. Water was then sprayed onto the tarp and soap was put onto the campers so that the campers would slide down the tarp faster. Some of the campers would use inner tubes [*2] when going down the hill and some would slide down the hill on their buttocks. At the bottom of the slide was a “little ditch,” which was approximately two and one-half feet long, two feet wide, and 12 to 18 inches deep. There was water and mud in the ditch, and if a camper hit the ditch when sliding down the hill, which “pretty much everybody hit the ditch,” the camper would flip.

Robert Seger was a camp counselor while plaintiff was at the camp. Seger indicated that the camp basically “let the campers decide what they feel they can and can’t do. They try not to place any limitations on anybody. They want them to have the best experience possible there.” Camp counselors kept notes throughout the week about the campers. Seger’s notes about plaintiff reflected, “July 15th, Sunday. Robert W. excited to be at the new camp. Very happy and pleasant all day. Likes to try new things and is determined to do as much as he can do on his own.” Seger’s notes also reflected, “July 17th, Tuesday. Robert W. says he really likes the camp. The best one he has been to. Took him on the slip and slide. He does not let his physical limitations stop him from trying anything new. He loves the water slide.” [*3] 1

1 Plaintiff’s mother completed plaintiff’s camper medical information form and indicated on the form that plaintiff has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth, was a quadriplegic, used an electric wheelchair, and had a colostomy as well as arthritis and speech problems. One of the questions on the form provided, “Should camper’s activities be limited due to physical condition or illness?” Plaintiff’s mother circled “Yes” and explained “Spine/disc narrowing-disc bulging, and disc herniation.”

Seger testified that, on Tuesday, plaintiff went down the water slide four or five times. Seger testified that plaintiff was loaded onto a tube at the top of the hill, then a camp counselor sat in a tube behind plaintiff’s tube and went down the hill holding onto plaintiff’s tube. Plaintiff was subsequently loaded onto a golf cart and driven back up to the top of the hill. On Wednesday, plaintiff went down the water slide approximately four more times. Seger testified:

So Robby rolled a couple times, got up laughing. It was fine the first day. And that’s when, I believe the second day, he really took a good flip. Elizabeth went down with him on the slide as well. I believe that’s the day he might [*4] have, when he rolled might have hit his foot on the ground too hard. He might have caught it in the ditch down at the bottom. I am not quite too sure exactly the circumstances that led to bones being broken in his foot. But when he complained about it I noticed the bruising and said something to the nurse and had her examine it.

Seger further testified regarding the last two times that plaintiff went down the water slide on Wednesday:

The third time I do remember him flipping. He went one time after that which he flipped as well. So-I’m sorry. Like I said, I can’t necessarily-I don’t remember specific times, but his last two times he flipped really hard. And that’s when he decided he was done. He didn’t want to go anymore. And he had some scratches caused from the gravel from the rolling over. And I think I remember that there was-he complained-got the wind knocked out of him when they rolled over, because he had lain there for a bit. And we went down to check everything out, make sure he was okay, checked his colostomy bag. Because I mean, like I said, he rolled over pretty good. And he said he just kind of had the wind knocked out of him but he was fine. So we got him cleaned up, wiped [*5] the mud off of his face, put him back in the golf cart, took him to the top of the hill. And that was close to the end of the activity, but he didn’t want to go anymore anyways.

On March 6, 2008, plaintiff filed a complaint, which alleged the following:

7. On or about July 19, 2007, the Defendant and its agents and employees, including all camp instructors and supervisors, owed certain duties and obligations to the Plaintiff and those similarly situated, including but not limited to:

a. Ensuring that they were kept from harm;

b. Utilizing all means and methods to ensure that they would not cause serious and permanent injury to Plaintiff;

c. To abide by the wishes and request of any guardian or parent of the Plaintiff or other similar situated individuals so as to ensure that the Plaintiff was not exposed to an increase[d] risk of harm and injury in the activities undertaken during said time at the camp;

d. To ensure that individuals attending the facility such as the Plaintiff herein were protected from severe and permanent injury and damage during the course of normal activity;

e. To ensure that injuries and damages sustained by the Plaintiff or other[s] similar[ly] situated while staying [*6] at the camp were properly and adequately diagnosed and treated and then appropriate and prompt medical attention was provided to these individuals and the Plaintiff herein by qualified and competent medical professionals;

f. To ensure that the facility properly and adequately trained its personnel to recognize the dangers in activities, which they may undertake with campers so as to reduce or eliminate the danger for severe and permanent injury and damage; and

g. Such other duties and obligations as may be identified throughout the course of discovery.

On April 17, 2009, defendant moved for summary disposition, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)10), arguing that this was a premises liability case and that the alleged hazard was open and obvious. Plaintiff moved to amend his complaint in order to add a claim of nuisance in fact and moved to amend the scheduling order in order to extend scheduling dates 60 days so that he would have enough time to complete discovery. Plaintiff also opposed defendant’s motion.

At the hearing on the motion to amend the complaint, the trial court concluded:

This isn’t a nuisance case. This isn’t an issue that’s something open to the general public. It is for simply the [*7] private campers. You’ve got a negligence action, I think. It would appear that Mr. Watkins-at least from the briefs I’ve read thus far, subject to the arguments of both of you, I believe it’s Friday-didn’t even agree to this activity. It would appear that he simply was picked up out of a wheelchair, put on an inner tube, and he was accompanied by a counselor down the hill. This isn’t a nuisance case, it’s a negligence case. Doesn’t even appear to be a premises liability case.

So I think we’re-it would be futile to amend the complaint at this time. We’ll proceed with the complaint as drafted . . . .

At the hearing, the trial court also indicated that it was denying plaintiff’s request to have the scheduling order dates extended.

At the subsequent hearing on defendant’s motion for summary disposition, the trial court held:

This case has been described as a premises liability case. The reason the Court doesn’t consider it a negligence case in general is that I’m not sitting here with a patient that — or an individual that is not cognizant of what is going on around him. The staff followed his directions.

* * *

[I]n this particular case I’m dealing with a ditch at the bottom of a hill where [*8] water accumulates. As I have described here, based on the depositions, the condition was open, the condition was obvious, it was observed by Mr. Watkins, it was observed by everyone around. This could not be expected that this would result in a serious injury-severe injury. The condition of the premises cannot be considered unreasonable. You don’t have a situation where we could have an especially high likelihood of injury.

Hence, the trial court concluded that defendant’s motion for summary disposition should be granted because plaintiff’s claims were based on premises liability law and the condition was open and obvious and without special aspects that would remove the condition from the open and obvious danger doctrine. The trial court noted, however, that the claim relating to the failure to obtain proper medical services in a timely fashion remained pending. At the end of the hearing on the motion for summary disposition, the trial court entertained plaintiff’s motion for entry of order to dismiss the case without prejudice, which the trial court also granted.

II. ANALYSIS

Plaintiff argues that his claims of negligence should not have been summarily dismissed as claims sounding only [*9] in premises liability because it was defendant’s conduct in not properly and adequately training its personnel to recognize the dangers in activities that led to his injuries. Further, an objective reading of the complaint results in a finding that the negligence clearly involved the conduct of individuals with regard to the water slide activity. Thus, plaintiff’s claims should not have been dismissed on the basis of premises liability law because premises liability law does not apply to conduct.

We review de novo a trial court’s decision to grant summary disposition. Coblentz v City of Novi, 475 Mich 558, 567; 719 NW2d 73 (2006). We review the record in the same manner as the trial court to determine whether the movant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Morales v Auto-Owners Ins, 458 Mich 288, 294; 582 NW2d 776 (1998). A motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual sufficiency of the complaint. Maiden v Rozwood, 461 Mich 109, 120; 597 NW2d 817 (1999). In evaluating a motion for summary disposition brought under this subsection, a reviewing court considers affidavits, pleadings, depositions, admissions and other evidence submitted by the parties, MCR 2.116(G)(5), in the [*10] light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Coblentz, 475 Mich at 567-568. Where the proffered evidence fails to establish a genuine issue regarding any material fact, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. MCR 2.116(C)(10); MCR 2.116(G)(4); Coblentz, 475 Mich at 568.

Generally, where an injury arises out of a condition on the land, rather than conduct or activity, the action lies in premises liability. James v Alberts, 464 Mich 12, 18-19; 626 NW2d 158 (2001); Laier v Kitchen, 266 Mich App 482, 493; 702 NW2d 199 (2005). In other words:

In a premises liability claim, liability emanates merely from the defendant’s duty as an owner, possessor, or occupier of land. However, that does not preclude a separate claim grounded on an independent theory of liability based on the defendant’s conduct . . . . [Id.]

Premises liability law has been summarized by the Michigan Supreme Court as follows:

Generally, a premises possessor owes a duty of care to an invitee to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land. This duty generally does not encompass a duty to protect an invitee from “open [*11] and obvious” dangers. However, if there are “special aspects” of a condition that make even an “open and obvious” danger “unreasonably dangerous,” the premises possessor maintains a duty to undertake reasonable precautions to protect invitees from such danger. [Mann v Shusteric Enterprises, Inc, 470 Mich 320, 328; 683 NW2d 573 (2004) (citations omitted).]

The test to determine if a danger is open and obvious is whether an average user of ordinary intelligence would have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection. Joyce v Rubin, 249 Mich App 231, 238; 642 NW2d 360 (2002).

We conclude, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, that defendant’s alleged liability emanated from its duty as the owner of the land. Coblentz, 475 Mich at 568; Laier, 266 Mich App at 493. That is, the question was whether defendant had a duty as the owner of the land to protect plaintiff from harm and thus provide a water slide activity that was free from danger by not allowing a ditch at the bottom of the slide to exist, which propelled participants into the air. Id. The theory of liability directly related to a condition on the land, i.e. the premises. James, 464 Mich at 18-19. [*12] Consequently, although some alleged conduct on the part of defendant may have been involved-i.e. failing to protect plaintiff from harm, allowing the ditch to form, and/or failing to train staff to recognize the danger involved in allowing participants to hit the ditch and be propelled into the air-this does not change the fact that, as a matter of law, this negligence claim was based on premises liability law. Bertrand v Alan Ford, Inc, 449 Mich 606, 609; 537 NW2d 185 (1995); Laier, 266 Mich App at 489. 2 Indeed, in Laier we specifically held that the open and obvious doctrine applied to a claim pleaded as “a failure to warn of a dangerous condition or as a breach of a duty in allowing the dangerous condition to exist.” Id. at 489 (emphasis added). Accordingly, the trial court correctly determined that this case was based on premises liability law and analyzed the case under that theory. Id.

2 That is, of course, except for the negligence claim related to plaintiff’s subsequent care and treatment at the camp, which the trial court indicated remained pending, at least until the order dismissing the case without prejudice.

The undisputed facts reveal that the condition was also open and [*13] obvious. Joyce, 249 Mich App at 238. The testimony reflected that almost every time a camper went down the water slide, they hit the ditch and flipped or became covered in mud. In addition, plaintiff specifically testified that before he went down the water slide, he saw other people go down the water slide and fly into the air. Further, the testimony established that plaintiff went down the water slide several times before he was injured and that plaintiff was enjoying the water slide. We find on the record before us that an average user of ordinary intelligence would have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection. Id. Based on the foregoing, the danger of going down the water slide, hitting the ditch, and flipping into the air, was open and obvious. Id.

Plaintiff argues that because a counselor at the camp did not recognize the danger, there was genuine issue of material fact on whether the condition was open and obvious. However, simply because one counselor did not see any danger in operating the slide (all the evidence pointed to the conclusion that all campers enjoyed the slide) does not result in a conclusion that an average user of ordinary [*14] intelligence would not have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection by going down a water slide, hitting the ditch, and flipping into the air. Joyce, 249 Mich App at 238. Additionally, there was no evidence of prior injuries. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff, there is no genuine issue of material fact whether the condition was open and obvious, Coblentz, 475 Mich at 567-568, and no special aspects to this condition were presented. Lugo v Ameritech Corp, 464 Mich 512, 516-520; 629 NW2d 384 (2001). Hence, plaintiff’s claim was barred by the open and obvious doctrine.

In addition, plaintiff argues that defendant should have known or anticipated that, given plaintiff’s physical condition and his parent’s requested restrictions, plaintiff could have been hurt if propelled into the air after hitting the ditch. This argument fails for the simple reason that in a premises liability action when determining whether a condition is open and obvious, “the fact-finder must consider the ‘condition of the premises,’ not the condition of the plaintiff.” Mann, 470 Mich at 329. Hence, plaintiff’s physical condition was not pertinent to [*15] the determination that the condition was open and obvious. Id.

Plaintiff also argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied him the opportunity to amend his pleadings with additional theories of ordinary negligence. The grant or denial of leave to amend is within the trial court’s discretion. Weymers v Khera, 454 Mich 639, 654; 563 NW2d 647 (1997). Thus, “[we] will not reverse a trial court’s decision regarding leave to amend unless it constituted an abuse of discretion that resulted in injustice.” PT Today, Inc v Comm’r of the Office of Financial & Ins Servs, 270 Mich App 110, 142; 715 NW2d 398 (2006). “Leave to amend the pleadings should be freely granted to the nonprevailing party upon a grant of summary disposition unless the amendment would be futile or otherwise unjustified.” Lewandowski v Nuclear Mgt, Co, LLC, 272 Mich App 120, 126-127; 724 NW2d 718 (2006). Specifically, “[a]n amendment is futile where the paragraphs or counts the plaintiff seeks to add merely restate, or slightly elaborate on, allegations already pleaded.” Dowerk v Oxford Charter Twp, 233 Mich App 62, 76; 592 NW2d 724 (1998).

For two reasons the trial court did not abuse it’s discretion. First, [*16] the exclusive focus of plaintiff’s motion to amend was to amend the complaint to allege a “nuisance”, and plaintiff does not challenge the trial court’s conclusion that nuisance is not properly pleaded under these facts. Second, an amendment would have been futile because plaintiff’s alleged additional theories of ordinary negligence merely restated, and slightly elaborated on, the theories of negligence that plaintiff already pleaded. Id. And, as already stated above, the open and obvious doctrine applied because defendant’s alleged liability emanated from defendant’s duty as the owner of the land to protect plaintiff from harm, including in allowing the danger to exist. Bertrand, 449 Mich at 609; Laier, 266 Mich App at 493. In other words, the open and obvious doctrine applied to plaintiff’s alleged theories of negligence, which were set forth in his complaint, as well as plaintiff’s alleged additional theories of ordinary negligence (except as noted in footnote 2, supra) because defendant’s alleged liability emanated from defendant’s duty as the owner of the land to protect plaintiff from harm. Id. Thus, there was no abuse of discretion that resulted in an injustice because granting [*17] plaintiff leave to amend his complaint would have been futile. Dowerk, 233 Mich App at 76; Weymers, 454 Mich at 654.

Affirmed.

/s/ David H. Sawyer

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

CONCUR BY: William B. Murphy

CONCUR

MURPHY, C.J. (concurring).

I find it unnecessary to determine whether plaintiff’s lawsuit sounded solely in premises liability law. Assuming that plaintiff alleged an independent cause of action on a pure negligence theory, I would hold, as a matter of law, that defendant owed no specific duty of care to plaintiff that encompassed protecting him from or keeping him off the water slide. I would also analyze the premises liability claim in a slightly different manner. Accordingly, I respectfully concur.

“The elements of an action for negligence are (i) duty, (ii) general standard of care, (iii) specific standard of care, (iv) cause in fact, (v) legal or proximate cause, and (vi) damage.” Moning v Alfono, 400 Mich 425, 437; 254 NW2d 759 (1977). As a general rule, there is no common law duty that obligates one person to protect another person from danger. Dawe v Dr Reuven Bar-Levav & Associates, PC, 485 Mich 20, 25; 780 NW2d 272 (2010). An exception exists when there is a special relationship between a plaintiff [*18] and the defendant. Id. at 25-26. The Dawe Court, quoting Williams v Cunningham Drug Stores, Inc, 429 Mich 495, 499; 418 NW2d 381 (1988), observed:

“The rationale behind imposing a duty to protect in these special relationships is based on control. In each situation one person entrusts himself to the control and protection of another, with a consequent loss of control to protect himself. The duty to protect is imposed upon the person in control because he is best able to provide a place of safety.” [Dawe, 485 Mich at 26.]

Here, plaintiff’s allegations that presumably sounded in negligence were in the nature of claims that defendant had failed to protect him from or keep him off the water slide. Despite his physical limitations, plaintiff is an adult who was fully aware of the ditch at the end of the water slide, and there is nothing in the record to suggest that he was incapable of appreciating any potential dangers, nor that he was incapable of making his own informed decision whether to engage in the activity of using the water slide. The record reflects that plaintiff did not have a guardian and that he was employed as a mail clerk. This case does not present a situation in which plaintiff [*19] entrusted himself to the control and protection of defendant, as he never lost the ability to protect himself, which could have been accomplished by simply declining to participate in the activity. Defendant never forced plaintiff to use the water slide. Indeed, plaintiff later decided against further using the slide. I would hold, as a matter of law, that defendant owed no specific duty of care to plaintiff that encompassed protecting him from or keeping him off the water slide.

With respect to plaintiff’s claims predicated on premises liability law, this case is not truly one that concerns the open and obvious danger doctrine. Rather, we have a situation in which defendant had no duty because plaintiff had actual knowledge of the hazard and chose to proceed. Plaintiff knew that camp patrons, including himself, had flipped over in the ditch, considering that he had slid down the slide and flipped previously, and given that he observed others doing the same. As indicated in Bertrand v Alan Ford, Inc, 449 Mich 606, 610; 537 NW2d 185 (1995), liability will not be imposed on a landowner where a hazard is known or is open and obvious. “[T]he open and obvious doctrine will cut off liability [*20] if the invitee should have discovered the condition and realized its danger.” Id. at 611 (emphasis added). Thus, liability or a duty evaporates when a danger is open and obvious, as it should have been discovered, or when the danger was actually known, as it had been discovered, which is the case here. Plaintiff’s premises liability claim thus fails, as I do not find that the condition remained unreasonably dangerous despite plaintiff’s knowledge of it. Id.

In all other respects, I agree with the majority’s opinion.

I respectfully concur.

/s/ William B. Murphy


Georgia Federal Court finds that assumption of the risk is a valid defense in a head injury case against a bicycle helmet manufacturer.

If you purchase a helmet that only protects part of your head, then you cannot sue for injuries to the part of your head not protected.

Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682

State: Georgia, US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

Plaintiff: Lois Elaine Wilson

Defendant: Bicycle South, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability (breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence)

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Open and Obvious

Holding: For the defendants

Year: 1990

This case is fairly easy to understand, even though the opinion is quite complicated. The plaintiff was riding her bike from Florida to California. While traveling through Georgia she crashed suffering head injuries.

She sued claiming the rear wheel of the bike collapsed causing her crash. She claimed her head injuries were caused because the helmet failed to protect her head.

She sued the wheel manufacturer, Opportunities Inc., the bicycle manufacturer, Trek Bicycle Corporation and the retailer Bicycle South, Inc. The three defendants were found not liable at trial.

The jury did find the helmet manufacturer, Skid Lid Manufacturing Company liable for the plaintiff’s head injuries. The majority of the decision reviews the helmet issues. The plaintiff purchased the helmet for her ride. The helmet was a “half helmet” which only covered the top half of her head. The helmet came down to about the top of her ears.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on the head injury issue caused by the helmet manufacturer. The defendant Skid Lid moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, (JNOV), which the court granted. The defendant helmet manufacturer appealed the decision.

A JNOV is effectively a motion filed by the losing party and the judge overrules the jury. This is a motion that is rarely granted and only done so to overcome extreme or unreasonable jury verdicts. The judge must find that no reasonable jury could reach the decision that was reached by the jury in the case. Normally this is because there are insufficient facts to support the claims or the jury applied the law incorrectly.

In this case, the JNOV seemed to have been entered because the jury ignored the defenses presented by the defendant.

Summary of the case

Georgia at the time of the decision allowed several defense to product liability claims, two of which were: Assumption of the risk and the “open and obvious” defects. Variations of these defenses are available in some, but not all states. The trial judge in this case granted the JNOV based on the Assumption of the Risk defense. The appellate court looked at both of these defenses.

The open and obvious defense states a plaintiff cannot recover from a defendant when the alleged defect is patent and obvious to the user.

The open and obvious rule states that a product is not defective if the peril from which injury could result is patent or obvious to the user. This determination regarding the peril is made on the basis of an objective view of the product. In assessing what is obvious, it must be remembered that, contrary to the belief of some, the American public is not child-like.

This defense is not based on a defect in the product, only that the product will not or will do something that is patent, and open and obvious.

The defense applied here because the plaintiff when purchase the helmet purchased one that only covered part of her head. It was “obvious” that the helmet would not protect the part of her head that the helmet did not cover.

The assumption of risk defense is slightly different, but also applicable in this case. If the consumer knows of a defect in the product, is aware of the danger presented by the defect and proceeds to use the product anyway the plaintiff is barred from recovering. “The first part of the test, actual knowledge of the defect and danger, is fulfilled because appellant had subjective knowledge that the helmet she purchased only covered a portion of her head.”

The assumption of risk defense in Georgia is slightly more difficult to prove because the injured plaintiff must have known about the defect. (However, a defect only becomes one in pleadings after an injury has occurred.) What I mean by this is, as a manufacturer should point out the limitations of the product in the information supplied by the product. This provides the necessary notice to a user of the defect and provides a defense to the manufacturer.

The court also ruled on evidentiary issues in the case which are not important in understanding these issues.

So Now What?

For manufacturers, selling a product means more than just point out the great features of the product. You must warn the consumer of any problems or issues with the product and you must point out what the product cannot do.

That does not mean that you should point out your bicycle won’t get you to the moon. It might mean you should point out that the bicycle should only be ridden on roads if it is a road bike. Videos online show road bikes being ridden everywhere, but that does not mean as a manufacturer you should be liable when someone tries to ride the Monarch Crest Trail on your road bike.

As a retailer, you should point out the differences in products trying to specifically point out short comings about a product. This helmet has a MIPS system in side, this one does not.

Both of these defenses are easy to rely on, however not all states still allow the use of these defenses.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682

Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682

Lois Elaine Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Bicycle South, Inc., a Georgia Corporation, et al., Defendants-Appellees

No. 89-8522

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682

October 30, 1990

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: As Amended.

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. No.1: 85-cv-2658-CAM; Moye, Jr., Judge.

DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED.

COUNSEL: Robert H. Benfield, Jr., Middleton & Anderson, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

For Trek Bicycle: Stephen F. Dermer, Smith Gambrell & Russell, Atlanta, Georgia.

For Bicycle South: Jonathan Mark Engram, Swift Currie McGhee & Hiers, Thomas E. McCarter, Atlanta, Georgia.

For Opportunities, Inc.: Tommy T. Holland, Carter & Ansley, Christopher N. Shuman, Atlanta, Georgia.

For Skid Lid: Palmer H. Ansley, Long Weinberg Ansley & Wheeler, David A. Sapp, Atlanta, Georgia.

JUDGES: Clark, Circuit Judge, Morgan and Hill, * Senior Circuit Judges.

* See, Rule 34-2(b), Rules of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

OPINION BY: HILL

OPINION

[*1504] HILL, Senior Circuit Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

This appeal concerns a products liability action based upon alleged breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence resulting in injuries to Lois Elaine Wilson (“Wilson”), appellant. Wilson incurred head injuries during an accident in Georgia while on a cross-country bicycle trip. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Wilson and against one defendant on a bicycle helmet defect claim, and against Wilson and in favor of three defendants on a bicycle wheel defect claim. The district court granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the helmet claim. Plaintiff appeals [*1505] this grant and also alleges several other errors by the district court concerning the bicycle wheel claim.

A. Issues Presented

Appellant raises four distinct categories of issues on appeal. First, appellant claims that the district court erred in granting appellee Skid Lid Manufacturing Company’s (“Skid Lid”) motion for a judgment notwithstanding [**2] the verdict. Second, appellant contends that the district court improperly commented on the evidence. Third, she asserts that the district court committed reversible error by refusing to admit “similar accident” evidence. Finally, appellant maintains that the district court erred in charging the jury on the defense of “legal accident.”

We hold that the trial court did not err in granting the JNOV. Nor do the trial judge’s comments on the evidence provide cause for reversal. Similarly, we find appellant’s third and fourth contentions to be meritless.

B. Factual and Procedural History

On January 6, 1983, appellant purchased a Trek 614 touring bicycle. Trek Bicycle Corporation (“Trek”) manufactured the bicycle, Opportunities, Incorporated (“Opportunities”) assembled the bike’s rear wheel according to Trek’s specifications, and Bicycle South, Inc. (“Bicycle South”) sold the bike to appellant. The latter three parties will be referred to collectively as “the bicycle defendants.” On February 9, 1983, appellant also purchased, from a company not a party to this lawsuit, a bicycle helmet manufactured by Skid Lid. Rather than purchase a helmet covering her entire head, appellant chose [**3] one that only covered the top half of her head, coming down to about the top of her ears.

Wilson purchased the bike and helmet for a cross-country bicycling trip from Florida to California. Eight days into her trip, on April 23, 1983, Wilson sustained head injuries in a fall from the bicycle while she was riding downhill on a two-lane Georgia highway between Plains and Americus, Georgia. Between January 6 and April 23, Wilson had ridden approximately 1200 to 1600 miles on the bicycle.

The cause of appellant’s fall is disputed by the parties. Appellant maintains that the rear wheel collapsed into a saddle-like shape as a result of an improper manufacturing process and a failure to retrue the spokes of the wheel after the rim was assembled. Under this theory, the tension in the wheel, which was not released after the rim was formed and the wheel assembled, caused the spokes to loosen after use and led to the collapse. The bicycle defendants, on the other hand, maintain that the fall did not result from the wheel collapse, but that the wheel collapsed as a result of appellant’s fall from the bike. 1

1 The actual cause of the fall does not affect the issues currently before this Court.

[**4] The point of initial impact between Ms. Wilson’s head and the pavement was behind her left ear and below the edge of the helmet. As a result of the impact, she claims that she sustained three injuries. The first two, a basilar skull fracture and occipital scalp laceration, were not particularly serious and do not comprise the more serious damage. The more serious injury was a “contre-coup” (an injury to the opposite side of the head from the point of initial impact) brain contusion.

Alleging defects in the bicycle wheel and helmet, Ms. Wilson filed a complaint in this products liability action based upon breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence. During the trial, appellant attempted to introduce evidence of a prior bicycle wheel defect claim brought by another party against Trek, Opportunities, and another bicycle store, alleging that the incidents were substantially similar. The trial court excluded the earlier incident.

At the beginning of his charge, the trial judge explained to the jury:

As a federal judge, I have the right, power, and duty to comment on the facts, to express my opinion with respect thereto . . . but remember, in the last analysis, every factual issue [**5] in this case must be decided by you, by you alone, and anything that anybody else in this room says [*1506] about the facts is a mere opinion, not binding upon you.

Subsequently, referring to witness testimony, the judge again emphasized that “as sole judges of the facts, you, the jury, and you only, must determine which of the witnesses you believe and what portion of their testimony you accept and what weight you attach to it.” Prior to analyzing and giving his opinion of the evidence that Ms. Wilson presented, 2 the judge again cautioned the jury that “you, as jurors, are at liberty to disregard each, every, and all comments of the court in arriving at your own findings of the facts.” At the conclusion of his remarks, the trial judge further emphasized:

Let me stress as strongly as I can that you, the jury, are the sole and only judges of the facts. The past several minutes I have been giving you [**6] my opinion with respect to matters committed solely to your decision, not mine. My comments are and can only be expressions of a personal opinion and are not binding on you in any way, shape, or form. Remember that in considering every issue in this case, including those to which I have just alluded, you must resort to your own recollection of the evidence, not that which I have just stated. . . . You must, in the diligent performance of your duty, rely on your recollection of all the evidence and not merely that which I may have called to your attention and emphasized.

2 The trial judge focused especially on items of derogatory information with respect to appellant’s expert, Mr. James Green.

On April 13, 1989, the jury returned a verdict in favor of appellant against appellee Skid Lid in the amount of $ 265,000 on the helmet claim. On the bicycle wheel claim, the jury returned a verdict against appellant and in favor of the bicycle defendants.

On April 21, 1989, appellee Skid Lid moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and on May 24 the trial court entered an Order granting the motion. The court did so because it found that Ms. Wilson had “assumed the risk of injury as to parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet.”

II. DISCUSSION

A. The Helmet & the Judgment Notwithstanding the [**7] Verdict

[HN1] We review the district court’s grant of a JNOV under the same standard as the district court used in determining whether to grant a JNOV. As we stated in Castle v. Sangamo Weston, Inc., 837 F.2d 1550, 1558 (11th Cir.1988):

All of the evidence presented at trial must be considered “in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.” A motion for judgment n.o.v. should be granted only where “reasonable [people] could not arrive at a contrary verdict. . . .” Where substantial conflicting evidence is presented such that reasonable people “in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusion, [sic]” the motion should be denied. (citations omitted)

In applying this standard for the sufficiency of evidence, we also look to Georgia substantive law to determine whether Skid Lid deserved judgment as a matter of law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); Salter v. Westra, 904 F.2d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir.1990).

Defendants in products liability actions have asserted two similar defenses in attempting to steer clear of liability, assumption of the risk and the “open and obvious [**8] rule.” 3 While the trial judge in this case based the JNOV on assumption of the risk, we also address the open and obvious rule because affirmance of the JNOV is proper even if based on a different rationale. See Paisey v. Vitale, 807 F.2d 889, 890 (11th Cir.1986).

3 This rule is also known as the “patent danger rule” and has its roots in a New York decision involving negligence law, Campo v. Scofield, 301 N.Y. 468, 95 N.E.2d 802 (1950). New York later abandoned the rule in Micallef v. Miehle Co., 39 N.Y.2d 376, 384 N.Y.S.2d 115, 348 N.E.2d 571 (1976).

[*1507] We need not reach the assumption of the risk issue if the helmet was not defective because Skid Lid would have breached no duty to Ms. Wilson. We thus initially address the open and obvious rule. [HN2] The open and obvious rule states that a product is not defective if the peril from which injury could result is patent or obvious to the user. Stodghill v. Fiat-Allis Construction Machinery, Inc., 163 Ga. App. 811, 295 S.E.2d 183, 185 (1982). This determination [**9] regarding the peril is made on the basis of an objective view of the product. Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., 195 Ga. App. 169, 393 S.E.2d 64, 66 (1990) (certiorari denied June 21, 1990). In assessing what is obvious, it must be remembered that, contrary to the belief of some, the American public is not child-like. Stodghill is instructive in this respect. In Stodghill, the plaintiff was using a bulldozer manufactured by the defendants to clear felled trees from a construction site when a tree jumped over the bulldozer blade and struck him in the chest. The plaintiff claimed that the machine was defective because it had no protective metal cage surrounding the driver’s seat. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized that the plaintiff “was obviously aware that the bulldozer he was operating had no protective cage and that the absence of this safety device exposed him to the danger of being injured by anything which might strike the driver’s compartment.” Id. 295 S.E.2d at 184. The court concluded that

“because the failure of the appellees in this case to install a protective cage over the driver’s seat of the bulldozer was an obvious characteristic of the machine [**10] which created no hidden peril and did not prevent the machine from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed, it cannot reasonably be considered a design or manufacturing defect under Georgia law.”

Id. at 185.

Similar to the absence of the protective cage on the bulldozer, it is or should be apparent to one who purchases an article of clothing or protective gear that the article can only protect that portion of the body which is covered. A person purchasing a bullet proof vest cannot realistically claim that he expected it to protect him from a bullet in the leg. Likewise, one purchasing a sleeveless t-shirt cannot protest that it should have protected him from a scrape on the arm. In the case at bar, rather than selecting a helmet covering her entire head, appellant elected to purchase a helmet that she knew covered only the top half of her head. She did know, or certainly should have known, that the helmet with less extensive coverage would not protect her from an impact to an area not covered by the helmet. Unlike a full helmet, the half-helmet was not designed to protect against impacts anywhere on the head. The extent of coverage was “an obvious characteristic [**11] of the [helmet] that created no hidden peril and did not prevent the [helmet] from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed.” Stodghill, 295 S.E.2d at 185. We thus find, as a matter of law, that the helmet was not defective under Georgia law. 4

4 We note that Georgia courts have been careful to avoid treating the American public as children where a peril is obvious or patent and the product thus not defective. In Weatherby, the five-year old plaintiff had been a passenger on an off-road motorcycle that did not have its gas cap in place. During the ride over uneven terrain, gasoline splashed from the open tank and ignited, causing burns to the plaintiff. The court found that an open fuel tank “surely suggests the possibility of spillage,” that because the fuel tank is located above the engine “gravity can be anticipated to bring the spilled fuel in contact with the engine and spark plug,” and that the dangers of spilled gasoline coming into contact with an engine are generally known. 393 S.E.2d at 67. The court consequently concluded as a matter of law that the peril of an open fuel tank resting over the engine and its spark plug was “an obvious or patent peril,” and that the product was thus not defective. Id. at 68.

[**12] Even if the failure to cover the full head were a defect, it is still beyond peradventure that appellant assumed the risk of injury to the parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet. [HN3] Under Georgia law, “‘if the user or consumer discovers the defect and is aware of the danger, but nevertheless proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product, he is [*1508] barred from recovery.'” 5 Center Chemical Co. v. Parzini, 234 Ga. 868, 870, 218 S.E.2d 580 (1975) (citation omitted). The first part of the test, actual knowledge of the defect and danger, is fulfilled because appellant had subjective knowledge that the helmet she purchased only covered a portion of her head. Had appellant, somehow, been unaware that the helmet only partially covered her head, the result might be different. As counsel for appellant admitted at oral argument, however, there is no evidence that she thought the helmet covered more of her head than it did cover, or that she believed it would protect her from injury to parts of her body not covered. Nor do we find, after our careful review of the transcript, any testimony to that effect. As for the second portion of the test, unreasonable use, it seems axiomatic [**13] to say that it is unreasonable to use a helmet to protect a portion of the body that the helmet clearly does not cover.

5 This test, in contrast to the open and obvious rule, looks to the subjective perceptions of the user or injured party. Another difference between assumption of the risk and the open and obvious rule is that while the latter places the burden of proof on the plaintiff, the former places it on the defendant. Weatherby, 393 S.E.2d at 66. See also Annotation, Products Liability: modern status of rule that there is no liability for patent or obvious dangers, 35 A.L.R. 4th 861, 865 (1985) (discussing open and obvious rule and the differences from assumption of the risk).

In sum, the district judge properly granted appellee Skid Lid’s motion for a JNOV.

B. Comments on the Evidence

At the close of the case, the district judge employed the time-honored, though little used, right and duty of a federal trial judge to comment on the evidence. As the Supreme Court stated in Quercia v. United [**14] States, 289 U.S. 466, 469, 53 S. Ct. 698, 698-99, 77 L. Ed. 1321 (1932):

[HN4] In a trial by jury in a federal court, the judge is not a mere moderator, but is the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct and of determining questions of law. (citation omitted) In charging the jury, the trial judge is not limited to instructions of an abstract sort. It is within his province, whenever he thinks it necessary, to assist the jury in arriving at a just conclusion by explaining and commenting upon the evidence, by drawing their attention to the parts of it which he thinks important; and he may express his opinion upon the facts, provided he makes it clear to the jury that all matters of fact are submitted to their determination. (citations omitted) Sir Matthew Hale thus described the function of the trial judge at common law: “Herein he is able, in matters of law emerging upon the evidence, to direct them; and also, in matters of fact to give them a great light and assistance by his weighing the evidence before them, and observing where the question and knot of the business lies, and by showing them his opinion even in matters of fact; which is a great advantage and [**15] light to laymen. (citation omitted)

[HN5]

The trial judge will not be reversed unless his comments “excite a prejudice which would preclude a fair and dispassionate consideration of the evidence.” Id. at 472, 53 S. Ct. at 700. See also United States v. Hope, 714 F.2d 1084, 1088 (11th Cir.1983) (“[a] trial judge may comment upon the evidence as long as he instructs the jury that it is the sole judge of the facts and that it is not bound by his comments and as long as the comments are not so highly prejudicial that an instruction to that effect cannot cure the error”). 6 It is only where [*1509] this prejudice exists that the substantial rights of the parties are affected and Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 permits disturbing a judgment. 7 In assessing whether this prejudice exists and has affected the parties’ substantial rights, we consider the record as a whole and not merely isolated remarks. See Newman v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 648 F.2d 330, 334-335 (5th Cir. Unit B June 1981). “The test is not whether the charge was faultless in every particular but whether the jury was misled in any way and whether it had understanding of the issues and its duty to determine those issues.” Bass v. International [**16] Bhd. of Boilermakers, 630 F.2d 1058, 1065 (5th Cir.1980) (citations omitted).

6 Other circuits have adopted similar language regarding a trial judge’s right to comment on the evidence. See, e.g., White v. City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421 (9th Cir.1990); Johnson v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 892 F.2d 422 (5th Cir.1990); Vaughn v. Willis, 853 F.2d 1372 (7th Cir.1988); United States v. Munz, 542 F.2d 1382 (10th Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1104, 97 S. Ct. 1133, 51 L. Ed. 2d 555 (1977); Mihalic v. Texaco, Inc., 377 F.2d 978 (3d Cir.1967); Meadows v. United States, 144 F.2d 751 (4th Cir.1944); A number of practitioners and commentators have also assessed the role of the judge in a jury trial. See, e.g., Bancroft, Jury Instructions, Communications, Juror Substitutions and Special/Partial Verdicts: Selected Topics — The Principal Law, 340 Prac.L.Inst. 611 (1987); Loeffler, Project — Seventeenth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals 1986-1987 (III. Trial: Authority of the Trial Judge), 76 Geo.L.J. 986 (1988); Murphy, Errors in the Charge, 14 Litig. 39 (1988).

[**17]

7 [HN6] Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 provides in part:

“No error . . . is ground for granting a new trial . . . unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”

Appellants allege that the district judge went too far in commenting on the evidence and on the testimony of their expert, Mr. Green. We do not doubt that a trial judge could misuse his authority. 8 After careful review of the record, however, while we are not prepared in this case to suggest the outside limits on a trial judge’s comments, we are satisfied that the district judge here did not overstep his bounds. As recounted in Part I.B. of this opinion, he went to great lengths to assure that the jury understood that it was the sole fact-finder in the case. 9 When his remarks are considered in their entirety, on the facts of this case we find no prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties.

8 Perhaps one of the best examples of a jury charge that would constitute an abuse of authority today, but was permitted prior to Quercia, is Judge Emory Speer’s eight and one-half hour, 92 page charge in United States v. Greene, 146 F. 803 (S.D.Ga.1906), cert. denied, 207 U.S. 596, 28 S. Ct. 261, 52 L. Ed. 357 (1907). In testimony before a congressional committee looking into the possibility of impeaching Judge Speer, Alexander Lawrence (one of Greene’s defense attorneys) characterized the judge and his charge as follows:

He knows the jury, knows how to play on their passions, on their prejudices, as no living man that I have seen could do it; he has a faculty for marshalling evidence that I have never seen another living man able to marshal; and in that Greene & Gaynor case he charged that jury for eight hours and I will challenge any six prosecuting attorneys in the United States, from the Attorney General down, all of them together, to take that mass of testimony taking three months’ time that Judge Speer heard, and then put it down in as ingenious an argument against the defense as Judge Speer put it in that thing. It was a masterpiece of oratory, but a very poor thing when you come down to look at it from a judicial standpoint.

H. Res. 234, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess. (1914) (Minority Report of Representative Volstead).

Since, Quercia, many appeals courts have overturned cases where the trial judge has gone too far. See, e.g., Bentley v. Stromberg-Carlson Corp., 638 F.2d 9, 11 (2d Cir.1981) (trial judge’s comments to the jury gave all the arguments for the defendant, being “tantamount to directing a verdict” for defendant); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 761 (5th Cir.1979) (trial judge’s mistaken assertions virtually destroyed appellant’s circumstantial case, requiring reversal); Maheu v. Hughes Tool Co., 569 F.2d 459, 471-472 (9th Cir.1978) (trial judge’s comments amounted to “personal character reference” for witness and thus “went too far”).

[**18]

9 It seems that the jurors responded to the trial judge’s direction that they were the sole fact-finders. The judge brought to their attention that appellant’s expert had been prepared to testify that the helmet was defective because of one set of facts and then shifted his reasoning when that set of facts was disproven; nevertheless, the jury still awarded appellant $ 265,000 against the helmet manufacturer.

In the course of his remarks, appellant also contends that the trial judge improperly restricted her case to the testimony of her one expert, Mr. Green. In stressing the importance of Mr. Green’s testimony to appellant’s case, the judge stated as follows:

In this case, as in every case, there are the two big main issues: one, liability, and, two, the amount of any damages proximately flowing therefrom. The plaintiff has the burden of proving each and every element of the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff’s entire case here, and in meeting the elements which must be proved, rests upon the expert testimony, [*1510] that is, the expert opinion, of Mr. Green. Except for Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff [**19] has not made out a case of liability. With Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff has made out a legal case on liability; therefore, the court suggests that the first, immediate, and crucial issue in the case for you to determine is the credibility or the believability of Mr. Green.

After studying the record, we find no merit in appellant’s contention. We are inclined to agree with the trial judge that, without Mr. Green, the case would not have been one for the jury.

In sum, we find that on the facts of this case the trial judge’s comments to the jury, when taken as a whole, neither excited a prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties nor incorrectly instructed the jury.

C. The Allegedly Similar Accident

Appellant argues that the trial court erred by refusing to admit evidence of the collapse of another wheel manufactured by appellees Trek and Opportunity. Appellant sought to show appellees’ notice of a defect in the wheel, the magnitude of the danger, appellees’ ability to correct a known defect, the lack of safety for intended purposes, the strength of the product, the standard of care, and causation.

The trial judge denied the proffer on the grounds that the evidence [**20] was not probative because of the necessity for a considerable amount of extrinsic evidence to determine whether the incidents were sufficiently similar to meet the standards of Fed.R.Evid. 403. 10 [HN7] A trial judge has broad discretion over the admission of evidence, Borden, Inc. v. Florida East Coast Ry. Co., 772 F.2d 750, 754 (11th Cir.1985), and we find that the district judge did not abuse his discretion. 11

10 The cause of the alleged similar incident had never been established because that case settled out of court. The parties in the instant case vigorously dispute the actual cause, demonstrating that even had the trial court reached the issue of whether the two incidents were similar this issue would have required a trial within a trial.

11 Because of our disposition of this issue, we need not reach the question of whether the two incidents were actually similar, and if so, whether the prior incident would have been properly excluded under Fed.R.Evid. 403.

D. The Charge on “Legal Accident”

In his [**21] instructions to the jury, the judge included a charge on “legal accident.” 12 To determine whether such a charge is appropriate, we first look to Georgia substantive law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 759 (5th Cir.1979). [HN8] Georgia law permits a charge on “legal accident” where there is evidence in the record authorizing a finding that the occurrence was an “accident.” 13 Chadwick v. Miller, 169 Ga. App. 338, 344, 312 [*1511] S.E.2d 835, 840 (1983). 14 Where appropriate, the charge is valid in a products liability case. Kemp v. Bell-View, Inc., 179 Ga. App. 577, 579, 346 S.E.2d 923, 926 (1986).

12 This portion of the charge reads as follows:

Now, let me tell you that the mere fact that an accident happened or an occurrence happened from which injury stemmed standing alone does not permit a jury to draw any inference that the occurrence was caused by anyone’s negligence or by any defect.

Now, I have used the word “accident” loosely, as I think is commonly the practice, is interchangeable with the word occurrence producing injury, but in Georgia law accidental injury means, in connection with personal injury actions such as this, any injury which occurs without being caused by the negligence either of the plaintiff or of the defendants. The idea of accident removes responsibility for the cause of the injury if found to have occurred by reason of a legal accident as defined under Georgia law, that is, one which is caused by the negligence neither of the plaintiff or the defendants.

It is necessary that you find from a preponderance of the evidence in this case, in order to find for the plaintiff, that the occurrence and/or resulting injuries were the result of defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty to the exclusion of legal accident, as I have defined that term to you, because the plaintiff has the burden of proof, as I will charge you later, to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the occurrence did, in fact, result from defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty, to the exclusion of legal accident.

[**22]

13 [HN9] “Accident” is defined as “an occurrence which takes place in the absence of negligence and for which no one would be liable.” Chadwick, 169 Ga. App. at 344, 312 S.E.2d 835.

14 Appellant cites Seaboard Coastline R.R. Co. v. Delahunt, 179 Ga. App. 647, 347 S.E.2d 627 (1986), for the proposition that a charge on “legal accident” can be given only where there is no evidence of negligence on the part of either party. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized in Stiltjes v. Ridco Exterminating Co., 192 Ga. App. 778, 386 S.E.2d 696, 697 (1989), however, that Delahunt had misstated the law in Georgia.

Because the manner of giving jury instructions is procedural rather than substantive, it is governed by federal rather than state law. McCullough, 587 F.2d at 759. In reviewing alleged errors in jury instructions, we must determine whether the trial court’s charge, considered as a whole, “sufficiently instructs the jury so that the jurors understand the issues involved and are not misled.” Mark Seitman & Assocs., Inc. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 837 F.2d 1527, 1531 (11th [**23] Cir.1988) (citation omitted). We will only reverse if we are left with “a substantial and ineradicable doubt as to whether the jury was properly guided in its deliberations.” Id. (citation omitted).

After careful review, we find evidence in the record that supports a charge on legal accident as defined by Georgia law. We are therefore satisfied that the district judge properly guided the jury with respect to this issue.

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

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Wynne, Jr., v. Summerland, Inc., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2684 (Conn Super 2012)

Wynne, Jr., v. Summerland, Inc., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2684 (Conn Super 2012)

John F. Wynne, Jr., Administrator of the Estate of Hunter E. Brothers v. Summerland, Inc. dba Camp Kenwood et al.

LLICV095006358S

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF LITCHFIELD AT LITCHFIELD

2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2684

November 1, 2012, Decided

November 2, 2012, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

JUDGES: [*1] John W. Pickard, J.

OPINION BY: John W. Pickard

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

This is a wrongful death action arising out of the death of Hunter E. Brothers (“Brothers”), a thirteen-year-old camper at Camp KenWood, a summer youth camp in Kent, Connecticut. Brothers died while engaged in a mountain biking activity supervised by two counselors from the camp. The defendant, Summerland, Inc. d/b/a Camp KenWood operated the camp. The defendants, David B. Miskit and Sharon B. Miskit (“the Miskits”), are directors of Camp KenWood. All defendants have moved for summary judgment (#152). The plaintiff, John F. Wynne, Jr., Administrator of the Estate of Hunter E. Brothers, objects (#158). The court heard oral argument on September 17, 2012.

I. Personal Liability of David and Sharon Miskit

The first basis of the motion for summary judgment is stated by the defendants as follows: “There is no genuine issue of material fact that David Miskit and Sharon Miskit, as officers of a corporation, do not incur personal liability for the corporation’s torts merely because of their official position. There is no evidence of any independently tortious conduct on the part of either David or Sharon Miskit, nor is there any evidence [*2] that Summerland served merely as their alter ego. Thus, summary judgment should enter in favor of David Miskit and Sharon Miskit.”

Paragraph 30 of the third count of the plaintiff’s complaint is based on negligence and is directed against the Miskits as follows: “David Miskit, as President of Summerland, and David and Sharon Miskit, as Directors of Camp KenWood, owed a duty of care to Brothers, because Brothers was a minor child who was entrusted to the care of David and Sharon Miskit, and under Section 19-13-B27a(s) of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, which provides as follows: ‘The camp director shall be responsible at all times for the health, comfort and safety of campers.'” Thus, David Miskit is sued as President of Summerland, Inc. and as a director of Camp Kenwood. Sharon Miskit is sued only as a director of Camp Kenwood.

The Miskits claim that there is no genuine issue of material fact that they do not incur personal liability for the corporations’ torts merely because of their official position. The plaintiff argues that the Miskits, as directors of Camp KenWood, owed Hunter a duty of care imposed by the statutes and regulations of the State of Connecticut. The [*3] plaintiff did not present a serious argument that David Miskit owed a duty of care to Brothers merely because he was the President of Summerland, Inc.

Before discussing the Miskits’ basis for summary judgment, it is necessary to distinguish between directors of corporations and directors of youth camps. [HN1] The position of director of a youth camp is one which is provided for in the statutes which regulate youth camps. C.G.S. §19a-422(c) provides: “[T]here shall be adequate and competent staff, which includes the camp director or assistant director, one of whom shall be on site at all times the camp is in operation, activities specialists, counselors and maintenance personnel, of good character and reputation.” C.G.S. §19a-428(a) provides that: “The Commissioner of Public Health shall adopt regulations, in accordance with the provisions of chapter 54, relating to the safe operation of youth camps, including, but not limited to, personnel qualifications for director and staff . . .”

The regulations adopted by the Commissioner of Public Health pertaining to youth camps are found in Regs., Connecticut State Agencies §19-13-B27a. Subsection (n) of that regulation provides, in part: [HN2] “(1) No person [*4] shall establish, conduct or maintain a youth camp without adequate and competent staff. (2) The camp director shall be over the age of twenty-one and of good character, shall not have been convicted of any offense involving moral turpitude, shall be certified as mentally competent by a physician, shall not use improperly any narcotic or controlled drug, and shall uphold and maintain the standards required under the Youth Camping Act. Except for those persons who have already served at least one summer as a camp director, a camp director shall have at least sixteen weeks administrative or supervisory experience, in an organized camp or in lieu thereof equivalent training or experience in camping satisfactory to the commissioner.” Subsection (s) of that regulation provides [HN3] “Responsibility of management. The camp director shall be responsible at all times for the health, comfort and safety of campers and staff and shall have responsibility for maintaining in good repair all sanitary appliances on the camp ground. He shall promptly prosecute or cause to be ejected from such ground any person who willfully or maliciously damages such appliances.”

[HN4] The statutory and regulatory scheme with [*5] respect to youth camps is clear that the director of a youth camp must be an individual, not a corporation. Also, the position of director of a youth camp is distinct from the position of director of the corporation which owns and operates the summer camp. A youth camp director is an employee and/or an agent of the camp when performing his or her duties. In summary, the director of a youth camp functions as the chief on-site official of the camp and is charged with certain responsibilities including to the safety of campers. Therefore, the statutes and regulations create a duty which the director owes to campers who attend the camp.

Turning to the first basis for summary judgment, the defendants are correct that David Miskit, as President of Summerland, Inc., cannot be liable for the negligence of the corporation absent evidence that he used the corporation as his alter ego. The plaintiff has not made the allegations which would be necessary to pierce the corporate veil. The real ground for the liability of the Miskits rests not on their status as directors or officers of Summerland, Inc., or on piercing the corporate veil, but upon their liability as directors of Camp KenWood.

The motion [*6] for summary judgment and the supporting brief never address the real ground of liability alleged by the plaintiff against the Miskits that as directors of Camp Kenwood they breached their statutory and regulatory duty to be responsible for the health, comfort and safety of the campers including Brothers. Instead, the defendants focus on whether the Miskits can be liable based upon their official capacities at Summerland, Inc. The last two sentences of the defendants’ brief on this point reads: “In short, David and Sharon Miskit have been named as party defendants merely because they are officers of Summerland, Inc. Officers of a corporation, however, do not incur personal liability for its torts merely because of their official position. Inasmuch as there is no evidence of any independently tortious conduct on the part of either David or Sharon Miskit, nor any evidence that Summerland served as their alter ego, they are entitled to summary judgment on all of the plaintiff’s claims.”

[HN5] The statutes and regulations of the State of Connecticut create a duty on the part of camp directors to care for the “health, comfort and safety of campers.” As co-directors of Camp KenWood, the Miskits [*7] are alleged to have breached this duty.1 The documentary evidence submitted by the plaintiff creates a genuine issue of material fact about whether, in fact, the Miskits breached their duty. ” [HN6] Practice Book §17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Sherman v. Ronco, 294 Conn. 548, 553-54, 985 A.2d 1042 (2010).

1 In paragraph thirty-one of the third count the plaintiffs allege that David and Sharon Miskit breached their duty of care to Hunter through their negligence, in that:

a. They failed to adequately supervise and train Summerland employees with respect to the use of mountain bicycles by campers, CPR techniques and emergency first aid skills:

b. They failed to provide adequate instruction to Camp KenWood’s campers, including Brothers, in the safety precautions necessary for mountain bicycle trips over steep [*8] and uneven terrain, including but not limited to the negotiation or avoidance of dangerous hills and curves and the adequate securing of a helmet:

c. they failed to have a policy which pre-screened and approved appropriate areas for mountain bicycle riding for campers of various ages;

d. They failed to have a policy that prohibited Camp KenWood’s employees from taking young campers on off-camp premises mountain bicycle trips that were not safe for young children.”

II. Open and Obvious

The defendants’ second basis for summary judgment is that, because the geography of Bald Hill Road was an open and obvious condition, the defendants had no duty to warn Brothers about it. The defendants argue that, as a matter of law, the court should determine that there is clear and undisputed evidence that the risk of riding a bicycle down Bald Hill Road was so open and obvious to thirteen-year-old Brothers that it would negate any duty to warn on the part of the two counselors who were supervising her. In support of that proposition the defendants have presented the court with portions of deposition transcripts and other documents. They argue that the grade and contours of Bald Hill Road were easily observable [*9] by Brothers. Also, the two counselors testified that they stopped with Brothers at the top of Bald Hill Road and told her that the hill got steeper near the bottom and that she would need to control her speed with her brakes. Based upon this discussion, the defendants argue that Brothers was actually aware of the condition of the road. The defendants have cited the court to various cases in which courts have held that dangerous conditions were open and obvious as a matter of law.

The plaintiff argues that the issue of whether the condition of Bald Hill Road is open and obvious is a genuine question of fact which cannot be decided on a motion for summary judgment. I agree. The documentary evidence about Bald Hill Road presents a genuine issue of fact as to whether the steep part of Bald Hill Road can be seen from the top of the hill. Brothers had never been on Bald Hill Road. Whether the discussion she had with the counselors at the top of the hill was sufficient to alert her to the danger is a question of fact as well.

Furthermore, unlike most of the cases cited by the defendants, this is not a premises liability case. There are nine separate allegations of negligence directed against [*10] Summerland, Inc., only one of which relates to a failure to warn. The defendants have not addressed these other allegations of negligence in the motion for summary judgment.

III. Conclusion

For the reasons given above, the motion for summary judgment is denied.

BY THE COURT,

John W. Pickard

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Connecticut statute allows Camp Director to be personal liable for injuries of camper

Connecticut has been moving towards the defendant is liable no matter what attitude.

Wynne, Jr., v. Summerland, Inc., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2684 (Conn Super 2012)

Plaintiff: John F. Wynne, Jr., Administrator of the Estate of Hunter E. Brothers

Defendant: Summerland, Inc. dba Camp Kenwood, David B. Miskit and Sharon B. Miskit, Camp Directors

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: individuals not personally liable and dangers were open and obvious to the plaintiff.

Holding: For the plaintiff, Connecticut statute creates personal liability for the camp directors and the open and obvious argument is a genuine issue of material fact to be determined by the jury.

Another case with good information, however, the case is probably not decided yet and the basis for the decision could be different than first reported.

The facts are spotty in this decision. The deceased was a thirteen-year-old  girl attending the defendant Camp Kenwood. As part of the camp, the plaintiff was mountain biking on Bald Hill Road. The road gets steeper as it descends.

The camper was biking on the road and seems to have run off the road which caused her fatality. The administrator of her estate sued the camp and the camp directors individually.

Summary of the case

This appeal was of a denial of a motion for summary judgment. The motion looked at two issues. The first was the individual camp directors should not be personally liable for the plaintiff’s claims. The second was the case should be dismissed because the risks of the riding a bike on that road is open and obvious.

The individual liability issue was the first examined by the court. Connecticut has several statutes regulating summer camps for minors. One of those statutes C.G.S. §19a-422(c) states:

[T]here shall be adequate and competent staff, which includes the camp director or assistant director, one of whom shall be on site at all times the camp is in operation, activities specialists, counselors and maintenance personnel, of good character and reputation.

Another statute C.G.S. §19a-428(a) states:

“The Commissioner of Public Health shall adopt regulations, in accordance with the provisions of chapter 54, relating to the safe operation of youth camps, including, but not limited to, personnel qualifications for director and staff….

The regulations adopted by the Commissioner of Public Health, included Regs., Connecticut State Agencies §19-13-B27a which states:

(1) No person shall establish, conduct or maintain a youth camp without adequate and competent staff. (2) The camp director shall be over the age of twenty-one and of good character, shall not have been convicted of any offense involving moral turpitude, shall be certified as mentally competent by a physician, shall not use improperly any narcotic or controlled drug, and shall uphold and maintain the standards required under the Youth Camping Act. Except for those persons who have already served at least one summer as a camp director, a camp director shall have at least sixteen weeks administrative or supervisory experience, in an organized camp or in lieu thereof equivalent training or experience in camping satisfactory to the commissioner.

Responsibility of management. The camp director shall be responsible at all times for the health, comfort and safety of campers and staff and shall have responsibility for maintaining in good repair all sanitary appliances on the camp ground. He shall promptly prosecute or cause to be ejected from such ground any person who willfully or maliciously damages such appliances.

The plaintiffs argued that because the statutes and regulations created a duty on the part of the directors to care for the “health, comfort and safety of camps” any injury to a camper created personal liability on the part of the camp director.

The defendant argued that liability for actions of a corporation, which owned the camp, could not be imputed to an individual, which is the law in most jurisdictions. That is the argument normally made in this situation where the employee is only acting on behalf of the employer or corporation and as such the corporation has the liability. However, the statutory scheme of Connecticut eliminated that defense.

Consequently, the court easily found that the statutory and regulatory framework in Connecticut created personal liability on the camp director.

The Open and Obvious argument was easier for the court to decide. Even though two camp counselors had warned the deceased of the risks of the road, and the road’s risks were discernible to any rider, the court found that whether or not a thirteen-year-old camper recognized and understood the risks was a decision for a jury.

So Now What?

Part of any plan to develop a business must look at any statutes that apply to the business. At the same time, when the legislature is making laws that may apply to your business you need to become involved and make sure the laws will not make your business life miserable or create liability.

If the statutes or regulations create liability either for the organization, business or program which you do not want to deal with or personal liability, make sure you want to deal with that state. In the alternative make sure can afford the insurance you will need.

Here what could probably appear to be a harmless statute created personal liability for the camp director. Normally, this is a “play” made by the plaintiff to try to increase the value of the case.

However, one issue that should be explored by any camp or outfitter is if the insurance coverage of the corporation provides a defense to individuals for actions of the individual who create statutory liability.

Absent that protection, the individual defendants could be personally liable for any damages. Their homeowner’s insurance would not provide coverage for the liability that occurs because of work. Whether or not their corporate documents, articles and bylaws, provide for indemnification of employees or the board of directors is willing to pay for the damages, the employees could be stuck with the bill personally. Dependent upon how the damages are paid; this could also create a tax liability for the individuals. The final issue is whether the insurance policy provides coverage for employees liable individually.

Whenever you are dealing with kids 12-14 years of age and younger, it is fairly impossible to prove assumption of the risk or the sub-set defense of open and obvious. Unless you have a record of prior experience, a video proving the training, you are going to have a difficult time with this defense.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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