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“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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#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, Opportunities, Incorporated, Trek Bicycle Corporation, Bicycle South, Inc., Skid Lid Manufacturing Company, Open and Obvious, Assumption of the Risk, Product Liability, Helmet, Wheel, Cycling, Bicycle, Bike,

 

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