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Poorly written jurisdiction and venue clause places the defendant in jam when the defendant counter claims for attorney fees and costs.

This case was based on a zip-line accident. The release signed by the plaintiff had a forum selection clause, also known as a jurisdiction and venture clause. However, the clause was limited way so that when the defendant brought a counterclaim for attorney fees, it negated the forum selection clause.

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

State: Massachusetts, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Josephine Pittman

Defendant: Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: gross negligence and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Basically, for the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

This case was based on a zip line accident at the defendant’s location. The plaintiff filed the case in state court in Massachusetts. The defendant then removed the case to Federal District Court because the parties were from two different states.

After removal, the defendant filed a counterclaim for fees and costs as per the release. The plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss the counter claim because it was filed in the wrong court. Meaning the jurisdiction and venue clause was written in such a way it only applied to the complaint and not the counterclaim.

Facts

The facts concerning the actual accident are nowhere in the decision. This decision is based solely on the issues of jurisdiction and venue.

This opinion is based upon a motion to dismiss filed by the plaintiff, to dismiss the counter claim of the defendant for attorney fees and costs for filing the complaint to begin with.

No decision on the facts was made as of the writing of this decision.

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

The court did a thorough analysis of forum selection clauses in its review of the issues.

In that jurisdiction, forum selection clauses, also known as jurisdiction and venue clauses, are valid and usually upheld. “Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'”

There are two issues the court must review to determine if the forum selection clause should be followed.

Before giving effect to a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold is-sues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it.

There are two types of forum selection clauses, mandatory and permissive. Permissive forum selection clauses allow the parties to change the jurisdiction and venue. Mandatory clauses require the court to follow the contract and change the venue and apply the jurisdiction identified in the forum selection clause.

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'”

Not only is the language in the clause used to determine if it is permissive or mandatory, but also if the forum selection clause refers to a venue. Mandatory forum selection clauses include a required venue.

The next part, whether the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to the clause was the major issue. Consequently, the language of the clause was the difference. The clause stated: “”[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement

The court interpreted the clause to only apply to the lawsuit brought by the plaintiff, as the clause states. The court found the forum selection clause did not apply to the counterclaim filed by the defendant against the plaintiff.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, here is where the decision starts to twist, and the defendant is saved, but only saved by accident.

The plaintiff in filing their motion to dismiss the counterclaim did not also move to change the venue or send the case back to state court. The plaintiff’s claim was going to be litigated in Federal District court where it has been moved.

The court implies if the plaintiff had moved to dismiss or change venue the court might have been inclined to do so. As it was, the forum selection clause only applied to the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant. The court claim was not subject to the clause.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, since the majority of the lawsuit would be based on the plaintiff’s complaint, it would be jurisdictionally economical to keep both cases together. Furthermore, the plaintiff claimed in her defense to the release that she was fraudulently induced to sign the release. If she prevailed on that claim, the forum selection clause would not apply because the contract, the release would not be valid.

If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.

So, until the trial is over on the plaintiff’s complaint and the validity of the plaintiff’s defense to the release, the motion to change the venue because the forum selection, clause did not apply to the country claim was denied.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the defendant’s counterclaim.

So Now What?

Here again, not understanding the breath of a lawsuit when writing a release almost cost the defendant. Judicial economy, not wasting the court’s time and money or either of the parties’ time and money is what saved the day.

If you need your release written properly to cover the issues, you have, the people you market too and the activities you offer, please contact me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 16-30182-MGM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

June 9, 2017, Decided

June 9, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Adopted by, Motion denied by Pittman v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106873 (D. Mass., July 11, 2017)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT; Timothy P. Wickstrom, Wickstrom Morse, LLP, Whitinsville, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant, Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA; Michael W. Garland, Burns & Farrey, P.C., Worcester, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA.

For Josephine Pittman, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT.

JUDGES: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

OPINION

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTERLCLAIM FOR IMPROPER VENUE

(Dkt. No. 11)

ROBERTSON, U.S.M.J.

I. Introduction

On or around October 19, 2016, plaintiff Josephine Pittman (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint in the Trial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Superior Court Department, Franklin County (Dkt. No. 1-1). In summary, the complaint alleged that Plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a participant in a zip [*2] line canopy tour on the premises of defendant Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc. (“Defendant”). Defendant removed the case to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which provides for removal of actions where the parties are diverse (Dkt. No. 1). In this court, Defendant answered the complaint and asserted a counterclaim against Plaintiff for fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3). Presently before the court is Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss Counterclaim for Improper Venue (“Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss”), which was referred to the undersigned for Report and Recommendation by the presiding District Judge (Dkt. No. 27). For the reasons set forth below, the court recommends that Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss be denied.

II. Relevant background

Plaintiff’s initial complaint (“Complaint”) asserted claims of gross negligence (Count I) and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability (“Participant Agreement”) signed by Plaintiff as a condition of her participation in the zip lining activity (Count II) (Dkt. No. 1-1).1 In its response to the Complaint, Defendant asserted a counterclaim for contractual indemnification based on the contents of the Participation Agreement signed by Plaintiff. [*3] 2 Defendant attached a copy of the Participant Agreement as Exhibit A to Defendant’s Answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint, Counterclaim and Claim for Jury Trial (Dkt. No. 3).

1 With leave of court, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on June 5, 2017 (“Amended Complaint”), adding a claim of ordinary negligence and claims of loss of consortium on behalf of her husband, Ronald Pittman, and her daughter, Lillian Pittman (Dkt. No. 34).

2 The formal title of the document is “Participant Agreement, Release and Acknowledgement of Risk.”

In relevant part, the Participant Agreement provides as follows:

2. I expressly agree to and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity [expressly including zip line canopy tours]. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless Zoar from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of Zoar’s equipment, vehicles, facilities, or premises before, during, and after this activity including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of Zoar.

4. Should Zoar or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.

. . .

6. In the event that I file a lawsuit against Zoar, I agree the Venue of any dispute that may arise out of this agreement [*4] or otherwise between the parties to which Zoar or its agents is a party shall be either in the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts. I further agree that the substantive law of Massachusetts shall apply in that action without regard to the conflict of law rules of that state.3

(Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2).

3 The court takes judicial notice of the fact that a “town of Charlemont Justice Court” does not exist in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The parties agreed at oral argument that the Superior Court in Franklin County is the venue designated by the forum selection clause.

Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is based solely on the forum selection clause in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 11).

III. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

In this circuit, a motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause is treated “as a motion alleging the failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6).” Rivera v. Centro Medico de Turabo, Inc., 575 F.3d 10, 15 (1st Cir. 2009) (citing Silva v. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 239 F.3d 385, 387 & n.3 (1st Cir. 2001)). This court “must ‘accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint, draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the [counterclaim] plaintiff’s favor, and determine whether the [counterclaim], so read, limns facts sufficient to justify recovery on any cognizable theory.'” Id. (quoting LaChapelle v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 142 F.3d 507, 508 (1st Cir. 1998)). A court considering a motion to dismiss “may properly consider only facts and documents that are part of or incorporated into the complaint.” Trans-Spec Truck Serv., Inc. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 524 F.3d 315, 321 (1st Cir. 2008). In the present [*5] action, Defendant has attached the Participant Agreement in support of its counterclaim, and neither party disputes the authenticity of the document. Accordingly, in ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss, the court may appropriately take into account the contents of the Participant Agreement, including the choice of forum provision which is the basis of that motion. See Alternative Energy, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 267 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2001) (document sufficiently referred to in the complaint, the authenticity of which is not disputed, properly may be considered on a 12(b)(6) motion).

It remains an unsettled question in this circuit whether “‘forum selection clauses are to be treated as substantive or procedural for Erie purposes.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16 (quoting Lambert v. Kysar, 983 F.2d 1110, 1116 & n.10 (1st Cir. 1993)). This is a question that the court need not address. See id. The forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement provides that Massachusetts law shall apply to legal actions arising out of the agreement or otherwise between the parties (Dkt. No. 35-1 at 1, ¶ 6). This court should, therefore, look to Massachusetts law for principles bearing on interpretation of the Participant Agreement. That said, there is no conflict between federal common law and Massachusetts law regarding the enforceability and interpretation [*6] of forum selection clauses. See generally Boland v. George S. May Int’l Co., 81 Mass. App. Ct. 817, 969 N.E.2d 166, 169-74 (Mass. App. Ct. 2012) (relying on federal and Massachusetts law for purposes of interpreting a forum selection clause). Accordingly, it is also appropriate for this court to apply federal common law in ruling on the enforceability and interpretation of the Participant Agreement’s forum selection clause. See Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16-17; see also OsComp Sys., Inc. v. Bakken Express, LLC, 930 F. Supp. 2d 261, 268 n.3 (D. Mass. 2013) (relying on federal common law where the parties did so; noting that there do not appear to be material discrepancies between federal and Massachusetts law regarding the validity and interpretation of forum selection clauses); Summa Humma Enters., LLC v. Fisher Eng’g, Civil No. 12-cv-367-LM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 856, 2013 WL 57042, at *3 (D. Me. Jan. 3, 2013) (court would apply Maine law to interpretation of forum selection clauses; because Maine law was co-extensive with federal law concerning the interpretation of a forum selection clause, the court would also apply federal common law to the interpretive task).

IV. Analysis

Notwithstanding citations to cases ruling that forum selection clauses can constitute a waiver of a defendant’s right to remove a case to federal court, Plaintiff has not moved for dismissal or remand of this case to the state court where it was filed. Rather, Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is limited [*7] to seeking dismissal of Defendant’s counterclaim. On this point, Plaintiff contends that this court is an improper venue for a counterclaim alleging contractual indemnity because the claim is a dispute between the parties that arises out of the Participant Agreement. Plaintiff notes that, in setting forth the designated venue, the forum selection clause uses the word “shall,” which, Plaintiff argues, connotes a mandatory choice of venue which is binding on Defendant (Dkt. No. 12). Defendant opposes Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss on the ground that the forum selection clause was binding on Plaintiff, but by its terms, did not constrain Defendant’s choice of venue for any claims it had against Plaintiff arising from the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 15). In the court’s view, Defendant has the better of the arguments.

Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'” Silva, 239 F.3d at 386 (quoting M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972)). “A forum selection clause ‘does not divest a court of [the] jurisdiction it otherwise retains, rather it constitutes a stipulation in which the parties join in asking the court to give effect to their agreement by declining to exercise jurisdiction.'” Provanzano v. Parker View Farm, Inc., 827 F. Supp. 2d 53, 58 (D. Mass. 2011) (quoting Silva, 239 F.3d at 389 n.6). Before giving effect to [*8] a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold issues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it. See id.

1. The Forum Selection Clause is Mandatory as to Claims to Which it Applies

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 17 (quoting 14D C.A. Wright, A.R. Miller & E.H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (3d ed. 1998)). “The use of words such as ‘will’ or ‘shall’ demonstrate parties’ exclusive commitment to the named forum.” Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Summit Packaging Sys., Inc. v. Kenyon & Kenyon, 273 F.3d 9, 12 (1st Cir. 2001)). Moreover, “[a] crucial distinction between mandatory and permissive clauses is whether the clause only mentions jurisdiction or specifically refers to venue.” Arguss Communs. Group, Inc. v. Teletron, Inc., No. CIV. 99-257-JD, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18085, 2000 WL 36936, at *7 (D.N.H. Nov. 19, 1999). In the present case, “[b]ecause the [Participant] Agreement uses the term ‘shall’ to describe . . . the commitment to resolving . . . [certain] litigation [*9] ‘in [either the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts,’] [and because it refers to ‘venue,’ not just ‘jurisdiction,’] it is a mandatory clause.” Xiao Wei Yang Catering Linkage in Inner Mongolia Co., LTD v. Inner Mongolia Xiao Wei Yang USA, Inc., 150 F. Supp. 3d 71, 77 (D. Mass. 2015). Indeed, the parties do not appear to dispute that the forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement is mandatory as to claims to which it applies.

2. The Forum Selection Clause Does Not Apply to Defendant’s Counterclaim

Whether to enforce a forum selection clause depends on whether the clause governs the claims asserted in the lawsuit. See Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Huffington v. T.C. Grp., LLC, 637 F.3d 18, 21 (1st Cir. 2011)); see also Pacheco v. St. Luke’s Emergency Assocs., P.C., 879 F. Supp. 2d 136, 140 (D. Mass. 2012). This is a matter of interpreting the terms of the contract between the parties. “The construction of a written contract which is plain in its terms and free from ambiguity presents a question of law for the court,'” Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 173 (quoting Hiller v. Submarine Signal Co., 325 Mass. 546, 91 N.E.2d 667, 669 (Mass. 1950)), and it is “‘the language of the forum selection clause itself that determines which claims fall within its scope.'” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140 (quoting Rivera, 575 F.3d at 19).

In the present case, the plain language of the forum selection clause mandated venue in the Franklin County Superior Court, but only as to claims asserted by Plaintiff. Plaintiff’s contention that the forum selection clause is binding on Defendant ignores the qualifying introductory clause of the provision, which states [*10] that “[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt No. 3-1 at 2). In this case, as in Rivera, the mandatory venue language “is preceded and informed by a qualifying phrase: ‘In the event that . . . [I file suit against Zoar] . . ., I . . . agree [the Venue] . . . .’ That is, the [Participant Agreement] required [Plaintiff] to assert any causes of action that [she] may have against [Defendant] in the [Franklin County Superior Court].” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 18. There is no comparable venue provision, nor is there any mandatory or restrictive language, in paragraph 4 related to an assertion by Defendant of a claim for recovery of attorney’s fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2). Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement. See Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140; Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 174; cf. Xiao Wei Catering Linkage, 150 F. Supp. 3d at 77 (satisfaction of condition precedent was required to trigger application of a forum selection clause).

Furthermore, because [*11] Plaintiff has not moved for remand and intends to prosecute her claims against Defendant in this court, it would be a waste of judicial resources to require Defendant to seek recovery of fees and costs in a separate state court action. In Count II of Plaintiff’s Complaint (and her amended complaint), she has alleged that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. “It is black-letter law that an agreement . . . is voidable by a party who is fraudulently induced to enter into it.” Green v. Harvard Vanguard Med. Assocs., Inc., 79 Mass. App. Ct. 1, 944 N.E.2d 184, 193 (Mass. App. Ct. 2011); see also St. Fleur v. WPI Cable Sys./Mutron, 450 Mass. 345, 879 N.E.2d 27, 35 (Mass. 2008) (a party is not bound by a contract she was fraudulently induced to sign). To prevail on the claim of ordinary negligence alleged in the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff will be required to prove that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. See Lee v. Allied Sports Assocs., 349 Mass. 544, 209 N.E.2d 329, 332-33 (Mass. 1965). If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 138.

V. Conclusion

For these reasons, it is this court’s RECOMMENDATION [*12] that Plaintiff’s Motion be DENIED.4

4 The parties are advised that under the provisions of Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b) or Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b), any party who objects to these findings and recommendations must file a written objection with the Clerk of this Court within fourteen (14) days of the party’s receipt of this Report and Recommendation. The written objection must specifically identify the portion of the proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for such objection. The parties are further advised that failure to comply with this rule shall preclude further appellate review by the Court of Appeals of the District Court order entered pursuant to this Report and Recommendation. See Keating v. Secretary of HHS, 848 F.2d 271, 275 (1st Cir. 1988); United States v. Valencia-Copete, 792 F.2d 4, 6 (1st Cir. 1986); Scott v. Schweiker, 702 F.2d 13, 14 (1st Cir. 1983); United States v. Vega, 678 F.2d 376, 378-79 (1st Cir. 1982); Park Motor Mart, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 616 F.2d 603, 604 (1st Cir. 1980). See also Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 154-55, 106 S. Ct. 466, 88 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1985). A party may respond to another party’s objections within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof.

/s/ Katherine A. Robertson

KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: June 9, 2017


Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, 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] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.

CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted

JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.

This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2]  and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”

1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.

Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3]  was grossly negligent. We agree.

The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:

When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]

In addition:

In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4]  documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.

As [*5]  evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:

  1. Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
  2. A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
  3. Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
  4. A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
  5. Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
  6. A. Yes.

* * *

  1. Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
  2. A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
  3. Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
  4. A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
  5. Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
  6. A. I could touch her. She was right there.

Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:

  1. Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
  2. A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
  3. Q. Belay
  4. A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .

David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:

  1. Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
  2. A. She was facing both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
  2. A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
  2. A. No.
  3. Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
  4. A. Correct.

In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:

  1. Q. What happened at that point?
  2. A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .

While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8]  accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication2 that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness. Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign [*9]  that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.

2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.

Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.

We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


Why is the Standard of Care lower in Skiing than in other Sports?

Sport and Recreation Law Association Annual conference 2016

Merry Moiseichik, R.Ed, J.D, University of Arkansas

Jim Moss, Esq, Recreation Law

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Why is the Standard of Care lower in Skiing than in other Sports?

This presentation looks at the different standards of care applied to collisions between people on a ski slope. Some states apply a negligence standard, some a reckless standard and some say the participants assume the risk of their injury in the sport.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Copyright 2016 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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

 

 

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