Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak EnglishPosted: October 2, 2017
An outfitter must follow industry norms when dealing with guests. If the rest of the industry gives guests a safety talk, then you better give guests a safety talk. The problem arises when your guest cannot understand what you are saying.
State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two
Plaintiff: Erika Grotheer
Defendant: Escape Adventures, Inc., the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher, and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc.,
Plaintiff Claims: negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed its passengers a heightened duty of care
Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver.
Holding: For the Defendant
Being labeled a common carrier means you owe a higher degree of care to your guests than normal. However, a hot-air balloon ride is not classified as a common carrier because the analysis used under California law, whether the operator has control over the activity, is not met in ballooning. A balloon pilot can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon, all else is left to Mother Nature.
Assumption of risk under California law eliminates a duty that might be owed by the outfitter or in this case the balloon operator. However, not giving a safety talk before the ride is not an inherent risk assumed by the plaintiff. Since the industry, the ballooning industry, gives safety talks, then there is a duty on a balloon operator to give a safety talk to its guests.
However, if no safety talk was given, that still does not mean the outfitter is liable if the injury the plaintiff received was not proximately caused by the failure to give a safety talk.
The plaintiff is German and does not speak English. Her son signed her up for a balloon flight in the California wine country. The ride crash landed, as most balloon flights do and the plaintiff suffered a broken leg.
The three defendants were the balloon company, the balloon pilot and the winery where the launch and crash occurred.
The plaintiff sued alleging negligence and because the defendant was a common carrier, the defendant owed the plaintiff a higher duty of care.
A common carrier in most states is a business operating moving people from one place to another for a fee. The transportation company owes a higher degree of care to its passengers because the passenger has no control over the way the transportation is provided or how the transportation is maintained.
A good example of this is a commercial airline. You have no idea if the plane is maintained, and you cannot fly the plane. Consequently, your life is totally in the hands of a commercial airline.
The other component of a common carrier is usually the movement is from point A to point B and the main reason is the passenger needs to get from point A to point B. In California the movement is not as important as it is in the other states. In California, the decided factor is the control factor. California’s definition of a common carrier is much broader and encompasses many more types of transportation, including transportation for recreation or thrills, not necessarily for getting from one place to the next.
However, in California the analysis is not who has control but who has what control.
For additional articles about common carriers see Zip line accused of being a common carrier who makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense and California case examines the relationship between a common carrier and public policy when applied to a ski area chair lift.
The plaintiff based her claim on failing to instruct her in the risks of ballooning and what to do if the balloon were to crash. The balloonists met at the winery and then drove to the launch site. All but the plaintiff rode with the balloon company where the defendants claim they gave a safety speech. The plaintiff rode with her son to the launch site and did not hear the speech.
More importantly, the plaintiff did not speak or understand English so even if she would have heard the safety talk, whether or not she could have understood it would be a question.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims find the plaintiff could not prove the element of duty; One of the four requirements to prove negligence. The trial court also found the plaintiff had assumed the risk and as such the defendants did not owe her any duty of care. The plaintiff appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court started with the Common Carrier analysis.
California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.
The court defined common carrier by statute as “A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” This higher degree of care only applies to carriers who hold themselves out to the public for hire.
A carrier of persons without reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.
The level of care is not absolute; common carriers are not insurers of the safety of their passengers. However, they are required to do all that “human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.” This heightened duty originated in England, prior to the US becoming a country and was based on:
This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.
In California, the common carrier status started with stage coaches. Since then the application of the term and the heightened duty has evolved and broadened to include recreational transportation, “scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters “have all been deemed common carriers under California law.”
In California, the degree of care is defined more by the control the passenger has over the transportation. Roller Coasters are common carriers because the passenger has no control over the speed of the coaster or the maintenance on the coaster. At the same time, bumper cars are not common carriers because the passenger is able to steer and control the speed and direction of the bumper car.
In California, the “inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury.”
The court found the hot-air balloon was not a common carrier. Although the passenger has little if any control over the flight of the balloon, neither does the pilot of the balloon. The only control the pilot has is changing the altitude of the balloon.
…balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity.
The analysis the court applied then turned on how much control the operator of the transportation had, not how little the passenger had.
But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.
Thus a balloon pilot does not owe his or her customer a heightened duty of care.
Assumption of the risk was the next defense the court examined. Under California law if the plaintiff assumes the risk, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any duty of care.
Under California law, a balloon operator does not owe his or her passengers a duty of care for the inherent risks of the activity. “The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”
Because the pilot of a hot-air balloon can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon and no other control of the balloon, the passenger must assume the risk of all things ballooning.
We therefore hold the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.
Consequently, the pilot and the balloon company owed no duty to the plaintiff. The inherent risks of ballooning include crashing.
The court then looked at the issue of whether or not the plaintiff received any safety instructions prior to the flight. A guide, outfitter or operator of a balloon which is an inherently dangerous activity still owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks. However, those steps must not fundamentality alter the activity. “The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous.”
What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.
The issue then becomes whether or not the balloon operator owes a duty to provide safety instructions.
Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty.
Foreseeability is a primary factor in determining whether a duty exists. In this case, the court concluded that providing a safety briefing was custom in the industry. Nor would giving a safety lecture be overly burdensome to the balloon operator or pilot.
The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires
only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry.
So the balloon operator did owe the plaintiff a duty to provide her with a safety instruction. However, that was not the end of the analysis. To prove negligence you must prove a duty, a breach of the duty an injury that was proximately caused by the breach of the duty and damages. In this case, the failure to provide a safety breeching was not the reason why the plaintiff broke her leg, or at least, the plaintiff could not prove the proximate causation.
Examined another way, for the injury of the plaintiff to be proximately caused by the breach of duty of the defendant, the acts of the defendant must be a substantial factor in that injury.
To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.”
The balloon landing was called a jarring and violent crash by all witnesses. The plaintiff was on the bottom of the pile of people when the basket stopped moving, lying on its side. Any safety talk probably would not have helped the plaintiff prevent her leg from breaking in such a landing. “The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury.”
Consequently, although the balloon operator breached his duty of care to the plaintiff, the injury that occurred to the plaintiff was due to the crash of the balloon which was a violent event rather than the plaintiff being able to deal with a normal landing properly.
So Now What?
The safety instruction duty is troublesome. How is an outfitter supposed to provide a safety instruction if the customer cannot comprehend what is being said. In this case, there might have been a way around it if the son could translate for the plaintiff. However, in many cases a family from a foreign country with little or no English shows up for a recreational activity with little or no understanding of the activity or the risks. The outfitter has no way of making sure the customer understands the safety briefing if the outfitter does not speak the customer’s language.
In California, if you have a customer who does not understand what you are saying, you must probably turn them away.
Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Erika Grotheer, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., Defendants and Respondents.
Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two
14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764
August 31, 2017, Opinion Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County, No. RIC1216581, John W. Vineyard, Judge.
COUNSEL: The Law Office of Robert J. Pecora and Robert J. Pecora for Plaintiff and Appellant.
Agajanian, McFall, Weiss, Tetreault & Crist and Paul L. Tetreault for Defendants and Respondents.
JUDGES: Opinion by Slough, J., with Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurring.
OPINION BY: Slough, J.
SLOUGH, J.–Plaintiff and appellant Erika Grotheer is a non-English speaking German citizen who took a hot air balloon ride in the Temecula [*1288] wine country and suffered a fractured leg when the basket carrying her and seven or eight others crash-landed into a fence. Grotheer sued three defendants for her injuries: the balloon tour company, Escape Adventures, Inc. (Escape), the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher (Gallagher), and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc. (Wilson Creek) (collectively, defendants or respondents). Grotheer alleged Escape and Gallagher negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed [**2] its passengers a heightened duty of care. (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Grotheer also alleged Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct because the vineyard shared a special relationship with the balloon company.
Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver before the flight. The trial court agreed Grotheer could not establish the element of duty, finding Grotheer had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine and, as a result, Escape and Gallagher owed her no duty of care whatsoever. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendants, and Grotheer appealed.
Grotheer contends the trial court erred in concluding her claim was barred by primary assumption of risk and reasserts on appeal that Escape is a common carrier. We affirm the judgment, but on a different ground than relied on by the trial court. We hold: (1) a balloon tour company like Escape is not a common carrier subject to a heightened duty of care; (2) the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars [**3] Grotheer’s claim that Gallagher negligently failed to slow the balloon’s descent to avoid a crash landing; and (3) Escape does have a duty to provide safe landing instructions to its passengers, but the undisputed evidence regarding the crash demonstrates that any failure on Escape’s part to provide such instructions was not the cause of Grotheer’s injury.
Grotheer’s son, Thorsten, purchased his mother a ticket for a hot air balloon tour with Escape during her visit to California, as a present for her [*1289] 78th birthday. On the morning of the tour, Grotheer and Thorsten met with the Escape crew and the other passengers in the parking lot of the vineyard owned by Wilson Creek, near the field where Escape launched its balloons. Thorsten later testified at his deposition that when they arrived to check in, he tried to explain his mother’s language barrier to the flight crew so Escape could ensure she understood any safety instructions. Thorsten said Gallagher, the pilot, responded by waving him away and saying, “Everything is going to be fine.” Thorsten tried telling two more Escape employees his mother could not understand English, but they appeared to be in [**4] a rush and told him he could not be in the immediate launch vicinity if he had not purchased a ticket. At some point during this check-in activity, Grotheer signed Escape’s liability waiver, which purported to release the company and its agents from claims based on “ordinary negligence.”
Gallagher then drove the passengers to the nearby launchsite. Grotheer drove over separately, with Thorsten. In his declaration, Gallagher said he gave the passengers safety instructions during the drive, as is his custom. He said the instructions covered what to do during landing: “I described to my passengers what to expect in terms of lifting off … and landing … I told them to bend their knees and hold on upon landing, and not to exit the basket until told to do so.”
According to passengers Boyd and Kristi Roberts, however, neither Escape nor Gallagher provided safety instructions. Boyd declared he sat in the front passenger seat next to Gallagher during the drive, which lasted a little over a minute and during which Gallagher described his credentials and years of experience. Boyd remembered receiving “a very general informational talk … about what to expect on [the] flight,” but said [**5] “[t]here was no mention of safety issues or proper techniques for take-off and landing.” Boyd’s wife, Kristi, also rode to the launchsite with Gallagher and said she never heard him give instructions, “other than to hold on as we took off.”
B. The Crash
The tour proceeded without incident until the landing. According to the four accounts in the record, as the balloon descended at a high rate of speed, the basket crashed into a fence then crashed into the ground and bounced and skidded for about 40 yards before finally coming to a stop, on its side. By all accounts, the event was forceful and caused the passengers to be tossed about the basket.
Boyd Roberts described the crash landing as follows: “The balloon was being pushed at a good clip by the wind and we were travelling in a horizontal direction as we were also descending. We were going sideways, [*1290] and … [b]efore we landed, we actually crashed into and took out several sections of [a] 3 rail fence.” After the basket collided with the fence, it hit the ground “with a hard bump and a bounce.” The passengers were “taken for a wild ride as [the basket] was getting dragged downwind [by the balloon].” The basket “became more and more horizontal” as [**6] it was being dragged. “We easily skipped 30 or 40 yards, with a couple of hard impacts along the way.” When the basket finally came to rest, it was “on its side, not its bottom,” with Grotheer’s section on the bottom and Boyd’s on top. He recalled that Grotheer was below him “lying on what was the side of the [basket] which was now the floor.”
Kristi Roberts’s account of the crash landing matches Boyd’s. She said, “we were going pretty fast towards the ground and it looked like we might hit the fence. We did hit the fence, as the [basket] crashed in the top of the three rails, and knocked it right apart.” After that, the basket “hit the ground hard.” Kristi recalled, “I was holding on as tight as I could to the [b]asket, but we were all standing up and it was hard to keep from falling over when we crashed into the ground.”
Gallagher described the landing similarly, though not in as much detail. He said the balloon had been “descending more quickly than anticipated” and the “passenger compartment of the balloon made a hard landing, first on a fence, then on the ground.” He believed the balloon’s descent had been hastened by a “false lift,” which he described as a condition where the wind travels [**7] faster over the top of the balloon than the rest of the balloon. The faster wind creates lift, but when the wind slows the aircraft can quickly lose altitude unless the pilot adds more heat to the balloon’s envelope. In his declaration, Gallagher said he “applied as much heat as possible to the envelope to add buoyancy,” but the additional heat was not sufficient to arrest the descent before the balloon hit the fence.
In her deposition, Grotheer said the balloon basket experienced two forceful impacts, first with the fence, then with the ground. She recalled she had been holding on to the metal rod in the basket when it hit the fence, but despite holding on, she was “still sliding.” She believed her leg broke upon the second impact–when the balloon hit the ground after the collision with the fence. She described her injury as follows: “The people in the balloon, they were all holding. It was hard. It hit the ground hard. And one woman just came like this (indicating).” Grotheer added, “[a]nd the lady is innocent because even her, she was pushed. She was pushed around by the other people in the basket.” Grotheer did not think anyone collided with her after that initial impact with the ground. [**8] She explained, “I just got myself real quick together. [The injury] was just at the beginning.” [*1291]
James Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert who has piloted balloons for over 25 years, concluded the cause of the crash landing was Gallagher’s “failure to maintain safe control over the ‘delta’ temperature[,] anticipate changing pressure differentials[,] and counterbalance the effects on the rate of descent.” He disagreed with Gallagher’s false lift theory, opining instead the balloon had likely simply experienced a wind shear. He believed all Gallagher had to do “to avoid this crash entirely” was add “sufficient heat” to the envelope “before the Balloon was already about to crash.”
Kitchel explained that many people perceive ballooning as a gentle, peaceful experience, but in reality, balloon rides “can be violent, high speed events with tragic results.” What makes a balloon a risky conveyance is the pilot’s inability to directly control the balloon’s movement. A pilot can directly control only the balloon’s altitude, which is done by managing the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. The direction and speed of the wind determines lateral movement. Kitchel stated, “There is no way of steering [**9] a Balloon, such as by having a rudder. … [A] Balloon pilot never truly knows where the Balloon is going to land. He is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.”
Kitchel also opined that the industry standard of care requires a commercial balloon operator to give “at the very least, one detailed safety presentation.” According to Kitchel, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA Handbook) suggests the following safety instructions to prepare passengers for a “firm impact” upon landing: (1) “Stand in the appropriate area of the basket”; (2) “Face the direction of travel”; (3) “Place feet and knees together, with knees bent”; (4) “‘Hold on tight’ in two places”; and (5) “Stay in the basket.” Kitchel did not believe any one particular set of instructions was required and he described the FAA Handbook’s safe landing procedures as a “good minimum standard.”
C. The Complaint
Grotheer’s complaint against defendants alleged she was injured when the balloon “crash land[ed] into a fence located on WILSON CREEK property.” She alleged her injury was a result of negligent piloting and failure to provide safety instructions. She also alleged Escape is a common carrier and [**10] has a duty to ensure the safety of its passengers.
D. The Summary Judgment Motion
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law because she had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Defendants also [*1292] sought summary judgment on their liability waiver affirmative defense, claiming Grotheer had expressly waived her right to assert a negligence claim. In opposition, Grotheer argued: (1) the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not apply to common carriers like Escape; (2) the doctrine did not relieve Escape and Gallagher of a duty to avoid the crash landing and to provide safety instructions; and (3) the liability waiver was invalid because Escape knew she did not speak English and could not understand it. Grotheer also argued Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape’s breach because the two companies were in a “symbiotic business relationship.”
After a hearing, the court concluded it was undisputed hot air ballooning is a risky activity that can involve crash landings, Grotheer assumed the risk of injury from a crash landing by voluntarily riding in the balloon, and defendants [**11] owed no duty whatsoever to protect her from her injury. The court also concluded Wilson Creek was not vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct. However, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on the liability waiver defense, stating, “there is at least an arguable duress in being separated from her son who was her translator at the time and not understanding the circumstances based on the language. I think that’s a triable issue of fact.” Based on its finding of no duty, the court concluded Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law, and it entered judgment in favor of defendants.
A. Standard of Review
[HN1] A trial court properly grants summary judgment when there are no triable issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) “The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties’ pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar).)
[HN2] A defendant who moves for summary judgment bears the initial burden to show the action has no merit–that is, “one or more elements of the [**12] cause of action, even if not separately pleaded, cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to [that] cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subds. (a), (p)(2).) Once the defendant meets this initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of [*1293] material fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) “From commencement to conclusion, the moving party defendant bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Laabs v. Southern California Edison Co. (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260, 1268-1269 [97 Cal. Rptr. 3d 241].) [HN3] We review the trial court’s ruling on a summary judgment motion de novo, liberally construing the evidence in favor of the party opposing the motion and resolving all doubts about the evidence in favor of the opponent. (Miller v. Department of Corrections (2005) 36 Cal.4th 446, 460 [30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 797, 115 P.3d 77].) We consider all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion, except that which the court properly excluded.1 (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476 [110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370, 28 P.3d 116].)
1 Without supporting argument, Grotheer claims the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to consider her objections to defendants’ evidence, and her responses to defendants’ objections to her evidence, on the ground they were untimely filed on the day of the hearing. We will not consider this claim, however, because Grotheer has not explained why any of her objections or responses had merit, or how she was prejudiced by the court’s failure to consider them. (City of Santa Maria v. Adam (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 266, 287 [149 Cal. Rptr. 3d 491] [“we may disregard conclusory arguments that … fail to disclose [appellant’s] reasoning”].)
B. Escape Is Not a Common Carrier and Did Not Owe Grotheer a Heightened Duty To Ensure Her Safe Carriage
Grotheer claims Escape is a common carrier and therefore owed its passengers a heightened duty of care to ensure their safe carriage during the balloon tour. We conclude a hot air balloon operator like Escape is not a common [**13] carrier as a matter of law.
[HN4] (1) In general, every person owes a duty to exercise “reasonable care for the safety of others,” however, California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. (See Civ. Code, §§ 1714, subd. (a), 2100, 2168.) “A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Contrary to Escape’s contention, it is necessary to resolve whether Escape is a common carrier because the heightened duty of care in Civil Code section 2100 precludes the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1161 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa).) [*1294]
Whether a hot air balloon operator is a common carrier is an issue of first impression in California.2 It is also a question of law, as the material facts regarding Escape’s operations are not in dispute.3 (Huang v. The Bicycle Casino, Inc. (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 329, 339 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 591] (Huang).)
2 The only published case addressing the issue is Balloons Over the Rainbow, Inc. v. Director of Revenue (Mo. 2014) 427 S.W.3d 815, where a hot air balloon operator argued it was a common carrier under Missouri law for tax purposes. The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the administrative hearing commissioner’s determination the operator was not a common carrier because it exercised discretion regarding which passengers to fly and therefore did not “carry all people indifferently,” as the statutory definition required. (Id. at pp. 825-827.)
3 Escape claims it stipulated to being a common carrier in its motion for summary judgment. Actually, Escape stated was it was not “controvert[ing] at [that] time the assertion that it is a common carrier.” But even if it had so stipulated, [HN5] we are not bound by agreements that amount to conclusions of law. (E.g., People v. Singh (1932) 121 Cal.App. 107, 111 [8 P.2d 898].)
[HN6] (2) A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” (Civ. Code, § 2168.) The Civil Code treats common carriers differently depending on whether they act gratuitously or for reward. (Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1130 [29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 352, 113 P.3d 41] (Gomez).) “A carrier of persons without [**14] reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” (Gomez, at p. 1128.) Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100; accord, Gomez, at p. 1130.) While common carriers are not insurers of their passengers’ safety, they are required “‘to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.'” (Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1507 [3 Cal. Rptr. 2d 897].) This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.” (Ibid.)
Common carrier status emerged in California in the mid-19th century as a narrow concept involving stagecoaches hired purely for transportation. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1131.) Over time, however, the concept expanded to include a wide array of recreational transport like scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters. (Id. at pp. 1131-1136.) This expansion reflects the policy determination [**15] that a passenger’s purpose, be it recreation, thrill-seeking, or simply conveyance from point A to B, should not control whether the operator should bear a higher duty to protect the passenger. (Id. at p. 1136.)
In Gomez, the California Supreme Court concluded roller coasters are common carriers, despite their purely recreational purpose, because they are [*1295] “‘operated in the expectation that thousands of patrons, many of them children, will occupy their seats'” and are “held out to the public to be safe.” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) As with other recreational transportation like ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, “‘the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings'” are entrusted to the roller coaster operator’s “‘diligence and fidelity.'” (Ibid., quoting Treadwell v. Whittier (1889) 80 Cal. 574, 591 [22 P. 266].)
Despite the consistent trend toward broadening the common carrier definition to include recreational vehicles, almost a decade after Gomez the California Supreme Court refused to apply the heightened duty of care to operators of bumper cars, finding them “dissimilar to roller coasters in ways that disqualify their operators as common carriers.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) Crucial to the analysis in Nalwa was that bumper car riders “‘exercise independent control over the steering and acceleration,'” [**16] whereas roller coaster riders “‘ha[ve] no control over the elements of thrill of the ride; the amusement park predetermines any ascents, drops, accelerations, decelerations, turns or twists of the ride.'” (Ibid.) This difference in control convinced the court that “[t]he rationale for holding the operator of a roller coaster to the duties of a common carrier for reward–that riders, having delivered themselves into the control of the operator, are owed the highest degree of care for their safety–simply does not apply to bumper car riders’ safety from the risks inherent in bumping.” (Ibid., italics added.)
(3) This precedent teaches that [HN7] the key inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) While a bumper car rider maintains a large degree of control over the car’s speed and direction, a roller coaster rider recognizes the thrills and unpredictability of the ride are manufactured for his amusement by an operator who in reality maintains direct control over the coaster’s speed and direction at all times. (Gomez, at p. 1136.) As our high court explained, the roller coaster rider “expects [**17] to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.” (Ibid.)
It is in this critical regard we find a hot air balloon differs from those recreational vehicles held to a common carrier’s heightened duty of care. Unlike operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity. (See [*1296] Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 333, 345-346 [214 Cal. Rptr. 194] [hot air ballooning “involve[s] a risk of harm to persons or property” because pilots cannot “direct their paths of travel … [or] land in small, targeted areas”]; Note, Negligence in the [Thin] Air: Understanding the Legal Relationship Between Outfitters and Participants in High Risk Expeditions Through Analysis of the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy (2008) 40 Conn. L.Rev. 769, 772 [“hot air ballooning” is a “high-risk activity”].) As Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert, [**18] put it, a balloon pilot “is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.” (See Note, On a Wind and a Prayer (1997) 83 A.B.A. J. 94, 95 [“winds … can transform a wondrous journey into a life-or-death struggle”].)
[HN8] (4) The mere existence of risk is not sufficient to disqualify a vehicle as a common carrier, however. Roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains all pose “‘inherent dangers owing to speed or mechanical complexities.'” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.
Operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains can take steps to make their conveyances safer for passengers without significantly altering the transportation experience. For example, roller coaster operators can invest in state-of-the-art construction materials and control devices or task engineers with designing a ride that provides optimal thrills without sacrificing passenger safety. With a balloon, on the other hand, safety measures and pilot training [**19] go only so far toward mitigating the risk of midair collisions and crash landings. The only way to truly eliminate those risks is by adding power and steering to the balloon, thereby rendering vestigial the very aspect of the aircraft that makes it unique and desirable to passengers.
(5) Because no amount of pilot skill can completely counterbalance a hot air balloon’s limited steerability, ratcheting up the degree of care a tour company must exercise to keep its passengers safe would require significant changes to the aircraft and have a severe negative impact on the ballooning industry. For that reason, we conclude [HN9] Escape is not a common carrier as a matter of law.
C. The Trial Court Incorrectly Determined Escape Owed Grotheer No Duty of Care
Having concluded a hot air balloon company does not owe its passengers a heightened duty of care, we must decide whether Escape owed Grotheer any [*1297] duty of care to protect her from her injury. Grotheer claims Escape and Gallagher had a duty to safely pilot the balloon and to provide safety instructions. Escape contends it owed neither duty under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. We analyze each separately.
1. Balloon piloting and primary assumption [**20] of risk
Grotheer alleges her injury was caused in part by Gallagher’s subpar piloting. Her expert opined the cause of the crash was Gallagher’s failure to control the speed and direction of the balloon’s descent by anticipating changing pressure differentials and maintaining the proper amount of heat in the balloon’s envelope. According to Kitchel, Gallagher could have avoided the crash entirely by “adding sufficient heat … in a timely manner.”
[HN10] (6) “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others … , some activities … are inherently dangerous,'” such that “‘[i]mposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1154, citation omitted.) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies, the operator is not obligated to protect its customers from the “inherent risks” of the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)
“‘Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty [**21] which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature.'” (Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 601 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536].) “Although the doctrine is often applied as between sports coparticipants, it defines the duty owed as between persons engaged in any activity involving inherent risks.” (Ibid.) The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.” (Record v. Reason (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 472, 482 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 547]; see Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 650, 658 [96 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105] [by attending Burning Man festival plaintiff assumed risk of being burned during ritual burning of eponymous effigy].)
The test is whether the activity “‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) As we concluded above in the section on common carriers, a balloon’s limited steerability creates risks of midair collisions and crash landings. Moreover, those risks cannot be mitigated except by adding power [*1298] and steering, which would fundamentally alter the free-floating nature of a balloon, turning it into a dirigible.4 “‘[T]he excitement of [ballooning] is that you never know exactly where you’re going to land. [¶] … [¶] … It’s taking something that is unsteerable [**22] and trying to steer it. That’s the challenge.'” (Note, On a Wind and a Prayer, supra, 83 A.B.A. J. at pp. 95, 94; cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1157-1158 [refusing to impose liability on bumper car operators for injuries caused in collisions as doing so would have the effect of “‘decreasing the speed'”–and ultimately the fun–of the ride].)
4 The term “dirigible” literally means “steerable.” It comes from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning “to direct,” and refers to lighter-than-air aircraft capable of being steered, like blimps and zeppelins. (Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1993) p. 642.)
(7) We therefore hold [HN11] the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.
(8) To avoid this outcome, Grotheer alleged Gallagher’s piloting was not only negligent, but grossly negligent, thereby increasing the inherent risk of crash landing. Grotheer is correct [HN12] the primary assumption of risk does not eliminate an operator’s duty to refrain from engaging in reckless conduct that “unreasonably increase[s] the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.” ( [**23] Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162.) However, she has provided no evidence Gallagher’s piloting fell so outside the range of ordinary it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of crash landing.
Gross negligence is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 754 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095].) In this context, such extreme conduct might be, for example, launching without sufficient fuel, in bad weather, or near electrical towers; using unsafe or broken equipment; or overloading the passenger basket. In the absence of evidence of such conduct, we hold the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Grotheer’s piloting claim.
Grotheer compares Gallagher’s piloting to the conduct of the skier defendant in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area v. Graham (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1367 [38 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422] (Mammoth Mountain), but the analogy is inapt. In Mammoth Mountain, a snowboarding instructor was injured when he collided with a skier who had stopped midslope to throw snowballs at his brother. The [*1299] court reversed summary judgment granted on the basis of primary assumption of risk, concluding there was a factual issue as to whether the skier’s behavior was so “outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport of snowboarding” that it increased the inherent risk of colliding with others on the slope. [**24] (Id. at pp. 1373-1374.) Gallagher’s alleged failure to control the balloon’s descent is nothing like the skier’s conduct in Mammoth Mountain. Skiing does not entail throwing snowballs, whereas managing speed and direction in the face of changing wind conditions is the principal challenge in ballooning. As a result, the failure to surmount that challenge falls squarely within the range of ordinary activity for ballooning.
2. Safety instructions and the duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks
(9) Grotheer also claims her injury was caused, at least in part, by Escape’s failure to give safety instructions. The trial court rejected this theory of liability when it concluded ballooning was an inherently risky activity and, as a result, Escape owed Grotheer no duty at all to protect her from injury. We conclude that ruling was too broad. Under Knight, [HN13] even an operator of an inherently risky activity owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize those inherent risks, if doing so would not fundamentally alter the activity. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) As we explain, instructing passengers on safe landing procedures takes little time and effort, and can minimize the risk of passenger injury in the event of a rough landing. [**25]
The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous. (Record v. Reason, supra, 73 Cal.App.4th at pp. 484-485; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162 [“The primary assumption of risk doctrine helps ensure that the threat of litigation and liability does not cause such recreational activities to be abandoned or fundamentally altered in an effort to eliminate or minimize inherent risks of injury”].) For example, an obligation to reduce a bumper car’s speed or the rider’s steering autonomy would impede the most appealing aspect of the ride–the ability to collide with others. (Id. at pp. 1157-1158.) “‘Indeed, who would want to ride a tapper car at an amusement park?'” (Id. at p. 1158.) Similarly, in the context of white water rafting, an obligation to design the rafts to minimize the “risk of striking objects both inside and outside the raft,” would transform the activity into “a trip down the giant slide at Waterworld.” (Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 248, 256 [38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65].) Safety is important, but so is the freedom to engage in recreation and challenge one’s limits. The primary assumption of risk doctrine balances these competing concerns by absolving operators of activities with inherent risks from an obligation to protect [**26] their customers from those risks. [*1300]
(10) What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317-318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. As the court explained in Knight, “in the sports setting, as elsewhere, the nature of the applicable duty or standard of care frequently varies with the role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case.” (Knight, at p. 318.) [HN14] When the defendant is the operator of an inherently risky sport or activity (as opposed to a coparticipant), there are “steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport [or activity].” (Id. at p. 317.)
Even before Knight, tort law imposed on operators a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks of their activity. (See Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317, citing Quinn v. Recreation Park Assn. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 725, 728-729 [46 P.2d 144]; Shurman v. Fresno Ice Rink (1949) 91 Cal.App.2d 469, 474-477 [205 P.2d 77].) Within our own appellate district we find precedent for imposing on hot air balloon operators and their pilots a duty of care to instruct passengers [**27] on how to position themselves for landing.
In Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] (Morgan), Division One of our appellate district held a golf course owner had a duty to design its course to minimize the risk of being hit by a golf ball, despite the fact such a risk is inherent to golfing, because doing so was possible “‘without altering the nature of [golf].'” (Id. at p. 134.) Our colleagues explained this duty stemmed from the fact the defendant was the golf course owner. If, on the other hand, the plaintiff had sued the golfer who had hit the errant ball, the action would have been barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Id. at pp. 133-134.)
Nearly a decade after Morgan, the same court held a race organizer had a duty to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia5–risks inherent to marathons–by “providing adequate water and electrolyte fluids along the 26-mile course” because “[s]uch steps are reasonable and do not alter the nature of the sport [of marathon running].” (Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173, 179 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497].) Faced with a similar situation in Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22], this court held an owner of a motocross track had a duty to provide a system for signaling when riders have fallen in order to minimize the risk of collisions. (Id. at p. 1084.) Track owners could satisfy this duty by employing “caution flaggers,” [**28] or some similar device, which [*1301] would be relatively easy to implement and would not alter the nature of motocross. (Ibid.) As these cases demonstrate, the primary assumption of risk doctrine has never relieved an operator of its duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks without altering the nature of the activity.
5 A condition which occurs as a result of decreased sodium concentration in the blood.
(11) Having determined the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not absolve Escape of a duty to exercise reasonable care in all aspects of its operations, we turn to the existence and scope of the duty at issue here–safety instructions. (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1213 [63 Cal. Rptr. 3d 99, 162 P.3d 610] [HN15] [the existence and scope of a duty of care are questions of law for the trial court to determine in the first instance and the appellate court to independently review].) [HN16] Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty. (See, e.g., Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 675, fn. 5 [25 Cal. Rptr. 2d 137, 863 P.2d 207].)
[HN17] (12) Foreseeability is the primary factor in the duty analysis. (Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 359, 366 [163 Cal. Rptr. 3d 55].) Our task in evaluating foreseeability “‘is not to decide whether a particular plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable [**29] in light of a particular defendant’s conduct, but rather to evaluate more generally whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced that liability may appropriately be imposed.'” (Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 772 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 313, 248 P.3d 1170].) The existence and scope of a duty of care “is to be made on a more general basis suitable to the formulation of a legal rule” to be applied in a broad category of cases. (Id. at p. 773; see Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at pp. 342-343.)
In this case, the evidence is undisputed that giving passengers a brief presentation on safe landing procedures (such as the instructions Grotheer’s expert cites from the FAA Handbook) is a customary and standard practice in the ballooning industry. To paraphrase Grotheer’s expert, these safe landing procedures are: (1) stand in the appropriate area of the basket; (2) face toward or away from the direction of travel, but not sideways (to minimize the risk of a side-impact injury to the hips or knees); (3) place the feet and knees together, and bend the knees; (4) hold on tightly to the rope, handles, or other stabilizing device, and (5) stay inside the basket. Gallagher himself agreed safety instructions are crucial. He said he always explains what passengers can [**30] expect during launch and landing. In preparation for landing, he tells them to hold on to the handles, bend their knees, and not to exit the basket until told to do so. [*1302]
As to foreseeability, undisputed evidence in the record tells us that rough landings are a risk of ballooning and instructing passengers on proper landing positioning can reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of injury in the event the landing does not go smoothly. Additionally, we see no public policy reason why balloon operators should not be required to give safe landing instructions. (Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 342.) As Kitchel, an experienced balloon pilot, owner, and operator, explained, “[a] detailed safety briefing takes no more than 5 minutes and is time well spent.” While “[m]any balloon landings are gentle, stand-up landings … the pilot should always prepare passengers for the possibility of a firm impact,” as rough landings can result in severe injuries.
(13) Escape contends the duty to provide safe landing instructions will be overly burdensome to balloon operators, citing the complexity of the preflight instructions operators of passenger-carrying airplanes are required to give under federal regulation. (See 14 C.F.R. § 121.571 (2017).) We find the concern misplaced. [**31] [HN18] The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. (Cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161 [noting bumper car operator “enforce[d] various riding instructions and safety rules” before giving control of the car’s speed and steering to riders]; Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at p. 251 [operator of white water rafting tour gave plaintiff “safety instructions,” such as “where to sit, that it was necessary to hold onto the raft while navigating rapids and where to hold on, and how to react if thrown out of the raft into the water”].) Because the evidence supports Grotheer’s allegation Escape failed to give safety instructions of any kind to any of its passengers, we need not go into precisely what warnings are required, [**32] including whether a commercial balloon operator must ensure passengers with known language barriers understand the safety instructions.
We therefore conclude the court incorrectly applied the primary assumption of risk doctrine to absolve Escape of a duty to provide safe landing procedures. However, this conclusion does not end our analysis. We must also consider whether Grotheer’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law because she has not demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact on causation. (Coral Construction, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco (2010) 50 Cal.4th 315, 336 [113 Cal. Rptr. 3d 279, 235 P.3d 947] [“‘[i]t is axiomatic that [HN19] we review the trial court’s rulings and not its reasoning'” and [*1303] “[t]hus, a reviewing court may affirm a trial court’s decision granting summary judgment for an erroneous reason”].)
D. Any Lack of Safety Instructions Was Not a Substantial Factor in Causing Grotheer’s Injury
[HN20] (14) “The elements of actionable negligence, in addition to a duty to use due care, [are] breach of that duty and a proximate or legal causal connection between the breach and plaintiff’s injuries.” (Onciano v. Golden Palace Restaurant, Inc. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 385, 394 [268 Cal. Rptr. 96] (Onciano).) [HN21] (15) To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 969 [67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 16, 941 P.2d 1203].) Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial [**33] factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. (Ibid.) If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.'” (Toste v. CalPortland Construction (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 362, 370 [199 Cal. Rptr. 3d 522], quoting 6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, § 1185, p. 552.) As our high court has explained, “‘a force which plays only an “infinitesimal” or “theoretical” part in bringing about injury, damage, or loss is not a substantial factor.'” (Bockrath v. Aldrich Chemical Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 71, 79 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 846, 980 P.2d 398].)
[HN22] While proximate cause ordinarily is a question of fact, it may be decided as a question of law if “‘”‘under the undisputed facts, there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.'”‘” (Onciano, supra, 219 Cal.App.3d at p. 395.) As noted, once a defendant claiming the plaintiff cannot satisfy an element of his or her claim meets the initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a triable issue of fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) When the evidence supports only one reasonable inference as to the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, courts should not engage in “unreasonable speculation that other contradictory evidence exists but was not adduced in the summary judgment proceedings.” (Constance B. v. State of California (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 200, 211 [223 Cal. Rptr. 645] [dismissal [**34] of negligence claim was proper because no reasonable fact finder could find a causal nexus between defendant store owner’s improper lighting and the assault on plaintiff based on the evidence presented during the summary judgment proceedings].)
As explained in the previous part, the purpose of the safety instructions is to reduce injury in the event of rough landings. Here, however, the undisputed descriptions of the landing establish it was not merely rough, but rather [*1304] was a forceful and violent event–a crash. According to Boyd and Kristi Roberts, whose uncontested descriptions are the most detailed, the basket was descending “pretty fast” when it hit the fence with such force it “knocked it right apart,” taking out several fence sections. The basket then hit the ground “hard” and skidded for about 40 yards, becoming more and more horizontal as it was dragged, before coming to a stop on its side with Grotheer’s section on the bottom. Gallagher, the pilot, said the balloon had been descending more quickly than he had anticipated when the basket made a “hard landing, first on the fence and then on the ground.” Grotheer too described both impacts as “hard.” Both Grotheer and Kristi [**35] said they had been holding on to the handles (Kristi as tightly as she could) but were unable to keep from slipping or falling.
From these descriptions, we gather the crash landing was a jarring and violent experience, a “wild ride” so forceful that several passengers fell–even one who had tried desperately not to fall by gripping the basket handles as tightly as possible. (See Endicott v. Nissan Motor Corp. (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 917, 926 [141 Cal. Rptr. 95] [“If the violence of a crash is the effective efficient cause of plaintiff’s injuries to the extent that it supersedes other factors … and makes them immaterial, plaintiff cannot recover”].) The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury. The burden then shifted to Grotheer to explain how things may have played out differently had everyone been instructed on proper body positioning during landing. She produced no such evidence. Instead, she said at her deposition she believed everyone had in fact been holding on to the basket handles during the descent. While one could speculate that Kristi had been the only passenger holding the handles correctly and the woman who fell into Grotheer [**36] had employed an improper grip (say, using only one hand or not holding “tight,” as the FAA Handbook instructs), Grotheer presented no evidence to support such a theory. As a result, she did not meet her burden of demonstrating an evidentiary dispute about whether the provision of instructions would have produced a different outcome.
(16) We conclude any failure to instruct on Escape’s part was not a proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury, and we affirm the grant of summary judgment on that ground. Given our holding that defendants are not liable for negligence, it is unnecessary to review the trial court’s ruling on Wilson Creek’s vicarious liability or its ruling on defendants’ liability waiver defense.6
6 Defendants asked us to review the ruling on their affirmative defense in the event we reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 906, which allows a respondent, without appealing from a judgment, to seek appellate review (at the court’s discretion) of any ruling that “substantially affects the rights of a party,” for “the purpose of determining whether or not the appellant was prejudiced by the error … upon which he relies for reversal.” Because we do not reverse the grant of summary judgment, we need not reach the issue of defendants’ affirmative defense.
We affirm the judgment. The parties shall bear their costs on appeal.
Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurred.
West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act.
Chapter 20. Natural Resources.
Article 3B. Whitewater Responsibility Act.
GO TO WEST VIRGINIA STATUTES ARCHIVE DIRECTORY
W. Va. Code Ch. 20, Art. 3B Notes (2014)
Validity, construction, and effect of agreement exempting operator of amusement facility from liability for personal injury or death of patron, 54 A.L.R.5th 513.
Every year, in rapidly increasing numbers, the inhabitants of the State of West Virginia and nonresidents are enjoying the recreational value of West Virginia rivers and streams. The tourist trade is of vital importance to the State of West Virginia and the services offered by commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides significantly contribute to the economy of the State of West Virginia. The Legislature recognizes that there are inherent risks in the recreational activities provided by commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides which should be understood by each participant. It is essentially impossible for commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides to eliminate these risks. It is the purpose of this article to define those areas of responsibility and affirmative acts for which commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides are liable for loss, damage or injury.
Section 20-3B-3 imposes a standard of care, and a clause in an agreement purporting to exempt a party from tort liability to a member of the protected class for failure to conform to that statutory standard is unenforceable. Murphy v. North Am. River Runners, 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504, 1991 W. Va. LEXIS 222 (1991).
Lewis v. Canaan Valley Resorts, Inc., 185 W. Va. 684, 408 S.E.2d 634, 1991 W. Va. LEXIS 126 (1991).
Fahey, “Landlord Liability in West Virginia for Criminal Acts on the Premises,” 98 W. Va. L. Rev. 659 (1996).
Unless the context of usage clearly requires otherwise:
(a) “Commercial whitewater outfitter” means any person, partnership, corporation or other organization, or any combination thereof, as defined in section twenty-three [§ 20-2-23], article two of this chapter.
(b) “Commercial whitewater guide” means any person as defined in section twenty-three [§ 20-2-23], article two of this chapter.
(c) “Participant” means any person using the services of a commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide on any river, portions of rivers or waters of the State.
Murphy v. North Am. River Runners, Inc., 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504, 1991 W. Va. LEXIS 222 (1991).
(a) All commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides offering professional services in this State shall provide facilities, equipment and services as advertised or as agreed to by the commercial whitewater outfitter, commercial whitewater guide and the participant. All services, facilities and equipment provided by commercial white-water outfitters and commercial whitewater guides in this State shall conform to safety and other requirements set forth in article two [§§ 20-2-1 et seq.] of this chapter and in the rules promulgated by the commercial whitewater advisory board created by section twenty-three-a [§ 20-2-23a], article two of this chapter.
(b) In addition to the duties set forth in subsection (a) of this section, all commercial whitewater guides providing services for whitewater expeditions in this state shall, while providing such services, conform to the standard of care expected of members of their profession.
This section imposes a standard of care, and a clause in an agreement purporting to exempt a party from tort liability to a member of the protected class for failure to conform to that statutory standard is unenforceable. Murphy v. North Am. River Runners, 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504, 1991 W. Va. LEXIS 222 (1991).
Whitewater rafting not governed by maritime law.
In consolidated actions involving wrongful death and negligence arising from a commercial white water rafting accident against a commercial white water rafting outfitter and a guide (defendants), defendants’ petition for a writ of prohibition was granted to the extent of vacating the trial court’s determination that maritime law applied to the case. The trial court erred by determining that maritime law applied to the case as white water rafting, as a matter of law, did not constitute traditional maritime activity and was, therefore, not governed by maritime law. River Riders, Inc. v. Steptoe, 223 W. Va. 240, 672 S.E.2d 376, 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 116 (2008).
Pingley v. Perfection Plus Turbo-Dry, LLC, 2013 W. Va. LEXIS 422 (Apr 26, 2013).
(a) Participants have a duty to act as would a reasonably prudent person when engaging in recreational activities offered by commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides in this State.
(b) No participant may:
(1) Board upon or embark upon any commercial whitewater expedition when intoxicated or under the influence of nonintoxicating beer, intoxicating beverages or controlled substances; or
(2) Fail to advise the trip leader or the trip guide of any known health problems or medical disability and any prescribed medication that may be used in the treatment of such health problems during the course of the commercial whitewater expedition; or
(3) Engage in harmful conduct or willfully or negligently engage in any type of conduct which contributes to or causes injury to any person or personal property; or
(4) Perform any act which interferes with the safe running and operation of the expedition, including failure to use safety equipment provided by the commercial whitewater outfitter or failure to follow the instructions of the trip leader or trip guide in regard to the safety measures and conduct requested of the participants; or
(5) Fail to inform or notify the trip guide or trip leader of any incident or accident involving personal injury or illness experienced during the course of any commercial whitewater expedition. If such injury or illness occurs, the participant shall leave personal identification, including name and address, with the commercial whitewater outfitter’s agent or employee.
It is recognized that some recreational activities conducted by commercial whitewater outfitters and commercial whitewater guides are hazardous to participants regardless of all feasible safety measures which can be taken.
(a) No licensed commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide acting in the course of his employment is liable to a participant for damages or injuries to such participant unless such damage or injury was directly caused by failure of the commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide to comply with duties placed on him by article two [§§ 20-2-1 et seq.] of this chapter, by the rules of the Commercial Whitewater Advisory Board, or by the duties placed on such commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide by the provisions of this article.
(b) The limitations on liability created by this article apply only to commercial whitewater outfitters li-censed under the provisions of article two of this chapter and to commercial whitewater guides who are agents or employees of licensed commercial whitewater outfitters, and only when the commercial whitewater outfitter or commercial whitewater guide is acting within the course of his employment.
Section 20-3B-3 imposes a standard of care, and a clause in an agreement purporting to exempt a party from tort liability to a member of the protected class for failure to conform to that statutory standard is unenforceable. Murphy v. North Am. River Runners, 186 W. Va. 310, 412 S.E.2d 504, 1991 W. Va. LEXIS 222 (1991).
Whitewater rafting not governed by maritime law.
In consolidated actions involving wrongful death and negligence arising from a commercial white water rafting accident against a commercial white water rafting outfitter and a guide (defendants), defendants’ petition for a writ of prohibition was granted to the extent of vacating the trial court’s determination that maritime law applied to the case. The trial court erred by determining that maritime law applied to the case as white water rafting, as a matter of law, did not constitute traditional maritime activity and was, therefore, not governed by maritime law. River Riders, Inc. v. Steptoe, 223 W. Va. 240, 672 S.E.2d 376, 2008 W. Va. LEXIS 116 (2008).
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A summer camp in eastern Pennsylvania is suing the state of Pennsylvania over the right to run rafting trips on the Youghiogheny River. This statement does not seem like much at first however it is a very interesting legal argument about a state’s right to control commercial activities on its rivers. See SBTW sues DCNR for right to raft.
In this case the summer camp is Summer’s Best Two Weeks (SBTW), a Christian youth camp that has been running raft trips for its campers for more than 30 years. Several years ago the state licensed four outfitters as the only commercial rafting operators on the Youghiogheny River and ordered SBTW to quit running raft trips.
It is not evident from the information whether SBTW was offered a commercial permit.
The commercial rafting companies were probably excited because they knew they could pick up the $30,000 of rafting that SBTW would provide. Yet it seems no one in the state or the commercial operators understood basic economies: supply and demand. In this case SBTW did not hire one outfitter for one trip. The cost of hiring a commercial raft company to take the campers down the river was more than the summer camp could pay. Simple economics, rafting is fun, but at a price.
I have to admit a little bias in this case. While I was working on the rivers in the west my brother was a raft guide for SBTW.
We do not know the states reasoning for either excluding or not including SBTW. Was it to keep SBTW off the river or where they influenced by commercial companies to increase their income?
This story can be repeated on rivers and trails across the US. You can change out the word camp for college or any other non-profit group and see outfitters believing that by excluding them from being on the same area they can profit from the result. It never works. There is a ceiling on the amount these some groups can pay and in the case of college programs there are different goals. Commercial companies want to provide entertainment for their clients. Colleges may want to educate, teach, build teams or have numerous other goals.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for outfitters, they are my bread and butter. But the outdoor industry never looked at the economics of outdoor activities other than their own bottom line. Campers and their parents, college students and their parents, most groups and parents have a fixed amount of money they can be spent on the summer or an education. Once that amount of money is spent, no more activities are undertaken.
There scenario has been played out for years at various recreational hot spots and is going to boil over as the forest service notifies more colleges and universities that they are no longer allowed on USFS land without a permit or a commercial outfitter on a permit.
An eastern canoe livery operation was open during high water after Hurricane Floyd. A canoe livery is a hybrid between an Outfitter and a Rental operation. Courts have determined that because the Livery is in charge of the pickup and return of the guest as well as only allowing the rental of the canoe on one river, the livery is not a rental program but more closely aligned to an outfitter. Although customers rent canoes, the livery controls every aspect of the customer’s experience, as such, the livery owner is held to the standard of an outfitter.
At a canoe livery, the customer pays for a canoe, paddles, life jacket and transportation. The customer is fitted with a life jacket, handed a paddle and escorted to his/her canoe. At the end of the specified trip the canoeist pulls over and is driven back to the rental operation by the livery operator. In some cases, a customer is transported up river and floats back to the livery operation. The canoe livery controls where the activity takes place, the time the participant is on the river, and transportation to and from the river. Most liveries operate on class 0 or 1 rivers, rivers with current but no rapids.
Liveries are mainly located in the eastern United States, usually within 2-3 hours of large cities. Church, school and youth groups are a large part of their business. Most are family run businesses that have been in operation for twenty years or more.
Instruction is generally not provided and rarely requested. The rivers are calm. Sitting in the canoe and holding on, will normally allow you to arrive at the takeout unscathed.
Ten years ago, life jackets where an “add on” – provided if the customer requested one. Normally, customers were handed a floating seat cushion. Since then, the standard in the industry has evolved to giving every customer a life jacket which buckles or straps on, even though most states by law do not require them in canoes.
FACTS OF THE CASE
1. Livery Statement: In this case, a recent storm had increased the river flow. The river was higher than normal but not closed. The customer called the livery the day before to see if the river was open. The customer was informed the river was high, but still open. The customer claims they were told the river was “safe.” Four customers arrived, rented two canoes for $54.00 and paid with a credit card. The livery transported the customers and the equipment upriver to float down to the livery office. The bus driver reiterated to the customers that the water was high.
The customers over-turned their canoes. They came back to the operation, cold, wet and mad. At the livery, the customers claimed they had lost a wallet containing $600.00 in cash, prescription glasses, and other items. They had minor scratches, but refused medical treatment.
Customer Complaint: Soon after the incident, the customers filed a complaint with a State Consumer Agency. In the complaint, they stated they had rented the canoes 2 days after Hurricane Floyd. While they were concerned the river might be too high, too dangerous or obstructed, they assumed the campground would have checked for these things and suspended their trips if the trip was too dangerous for their skill level. The customers informed the livery they were novices. They did not receive instructions or warnings from the livery.
According to the complaint: “In fact they [the livery] broadly proclaimed we could ‘float back’ in 4 hours. The river was so high that we were over our heads and the banks were under water. When we complained to the livery they admitted that no one had checked the river since the storm, yet they sent us out in these canoes…. They refused to refund our money for the rentals or compensate us for our losses…. They took a chance with our lives to make a lousy $54.00! … We could have easily been seriously injured or died as a result of their blatant negligence.”
Over a month later the customer sent a complaint letter to the livery. In the letter they claimed $840.00 in lost cash and one day of lost work because of a physician visit. The lost work was valued at $200.00. The customer also complained that “no advice or instructions were offered by your representative” concerning canoeing. They also claimed that no warning given about the high water conditions.
3. Documents: The livery’s brochure offers no information as to risk or whether a release must be signed. Another brochure advises that “If you are unable to swim – a life jacket will be available.” There is no risk or release information in the second brochure either. The only notice is about failure to return equipment.
The customers did sign a rental contract, which they relied upon in making their compliant. However, a rental contract is in fact and in law not a contract; it is a receipt. A receipt contains information about the renter and the return of the items rented, including life jackets. At the very bottom of this rental contract, there is a statement about returning equipment on time. There is also a line for the customer’s signature below the return policy.
4: Insurance Company: The customer’s complaint was forwarded to the livery’s insurance company. The insurance company wrote the complaining customer. [Starting the lawsuit!] The insurance company letter said in part:
The insurance company denied any claim.
5. Complaint: Approximately 2 months after the original rental, the customer filed a complaint in the Small Claims court requesting $1,408.00.
The Plaintiff in the Complaint stated as follows: “XXX Campground operates a canoe rental concession. On XX/XX/XX myself & three others rented a canoe for a pleasure trip. Defendant was asked in advance if the conditions were safe to allow canoeing. The stated condition was safe. All four of us were thrown from our canoes into the river as the result of surging waters well above normal state. I ____ lost of personal goods and work time. They were negligent in not checking conditions on river & allowing anyone to navigate the river.”
Basic Mistakes: No properly written release. No pre-trip safety talk. No pre-trip National Livery Safety System video. No information in their brochure about risk, loss of property or that a release had to be signed.
Less obvious with respect to defending a lawsuit, but much more critical in preventing a lawsuit: No thorough knowledge of their insurance policy and no understanding of how their insurance company would react; not dealing with the complaint immediately; not dealing with the complaint when a complaint was filed with the state; knowing the customer was lying; and, basing their response on the “customer lied” rather than focusing the bigger problem.
The customer in two documents states they were told the river was safe. This guarantees a lawsuit and a loss for the livery or any outfitter. No river is safe. Life is not safe. By stating that your river, trip or activity is safe you are making a promise you cannot meet. It might have been safe for the previous 1 million people who went down the river, but the next person who goes down and may be injured and will not have a safe trip. Your promise of “safe” makes their suit for negligence golden. The outfitter denies making those claims. However, something was said that induced the people to come to the river, even after they called to confirm the river was open during high water.
A complaint based on the concept that a livery should check river conditions is rare – and relatively new. Some livery owners inspect the river each day; however, the vast majorities do not. There are definitely situations when an inspection is warranted, i.e., when a customer or third party notifies you of a problem, or if your canoes quit coming down river. At the beginning of the season and possibly after high water, you might also require a check. However, checking river conditions each day is probably not necessary.
To alleviate the need to check daily, a statement regarding your policy should be included in the release, along with language about who owns the river and what is and is not within your control. Similarly, a statement that Mother Nature controls the river – not the livery owner – should also be included. You might want to place a similar statement in your brochure and on your website.
Another complaint is the “lack of instruction.” The customer claimed they were not given adequate instruction to navigate the river. No liveries provide instruction except in answering basic questions. However, this area is changing with the use of the National Livery Safety System video. The NLSS video provides several minutes of instruction that would have helped the customer in this case. Possibly guests should be prompted to ask questions or if they have any questions, maybe even a sign at the check in that asks the customer to ask questions.
Another statement that stands out is the one about the water being over the customer’s heads. Either the customer was under the belief the river was shallow or someone had implied this was so. No customer should ever enter a river with the belief they can stand up in the river. Two reasons exist for this: (1) river bottoms change. A river can be six inches deep one day and the next be 20 feet deep; (2) Foot entrapments. Foot entrapments are a major cause of death in canoeing and rafting river deaths. A person walking along the riverbed steps in a hole and the current keeps them from being able to remove their foot. As such, they can be quickly shoved under the water and drowned. Here again, the NLSS video speaks about foot entrapments.
Brochures: Every brochure should do three things to prevent litigation: (1) the brochure should state the livery is not responsible for any injury or death. (2) The brochure should state the livery is not responsible for lost property. (3) The brochure should state the customer will be required to sign a release before undertaking the trip. Failure to inform your guests of the risks and the potential losses they are going to be taking on is weak at best and leads to lawsuits.
Releases: In this day and age, a properly written release is a must for any livery, outfitter or risk operation.
INSURANCE COMPANY MISTAKES
This is the scariest part of the entire situation. The insurance company in an effort to save a nickel could have cost themselves millions. They took legalese and attempted to use it to stop a lawsuit. A common technique of insurance companies is to deny coverage and provide the upset customers with the information for them to sue.
Fatal Insurance Company Error 1: No one had mentioned a lawsuit until the insurance company brought it up: “That is, if the matter were taken to court, they could be found responsible.” Let’s translate this for the common man: “You can’t get any money from the livery or us unless you sue us.” Small claims court is easy. It is easier still to stay up late and watch TV, make a toll free call in the morning and find an attorney to take on the arrogant insurance company. That is what those late night ads are all about.
Fatal Insurance Company Error 2: “The duties owed you by Livery are to: (1) Exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of the premises for your safety; (2) Warn you of any dangerous condition which are not open and obvious and of which the owner has knowledge; (3) Make reasonable inspections of the premises and remedy any dangerous conditions the inspections reveal.” The insurance company denied any claim. Let’s interpret this as a reasonable man would.
Reasonable Care: It was blatantly obvious to the customer that “reasonable” would have been for the livery to canoe the river and check it out. “Reasonable” legally means what every other outfitter is doing. The customer, however, does not care what every other outfitter is doing. They only care about what the one they paid did as compared to what they believe or were led to believe would happen.
Open and Obvious: To a competent canoeist, a strainer is obvious. To novice canoer’s, strainers may not be obvious until they are caught in one.
Owner has knowledge: The customer believed the livery should have had knowledge of the river conditions.
Reasonable Inspection: It was blatantly obvious that the customer believed it was reasonable to canoe the river.
Premises. The insurance company defined this as the land area being insured, probably only as that land owned by the livery. The customer defined this as everything the customer was upon while paying the livery for the day, the land, the river and the bus.
The legal paragraph quoted above said this to the customer: It was reasonable for the livery to check out the river. Once they did they should have told us more about the river.
The insurance company gave the customer the reason to go to court on a silver platter. While this letter might not afford the customer solid legal grounds in a higher court, in small claims court, they could hold up the insurance company letter and make an augment that will likely win. Because it is small claims court, the insurance company has no liability and will not pay to defend. The insurance company ducked out, costing the livery some money but it could have cost them both thousands.
More importantly, the insurance company told the customer to sue! The insurance company letter stated the only way they customer could recover was if they sued, so the customer did. In fact, they were told to sue by the livery’s insurance company.
Isn’t this the opposite of everything you expect from your insurance company and what your insurance company stands for? Aren’t your insurance companies supposed to assist you in stopping lawsuits, in making sure you do not go to court? Yet the insurance company sent a letter that told the angry customer that they could sue and get money.
INTERESTING LEGAL ISSUES
The customer made a claim for negligence in the complaint. If the judge finds negligence the judge can award more than the damages requested, kick the case to another court, or ignore the negligence claim.
The livery dodged a bullet; the insurance company dodged a bullet. Wet, cold angry customers came into the operation after their trip and could have been dealt with then. However, they were sent on their way, still wet, cold and angry. Angry customers, who feel their lives have been put at risk don’t stop complaining and don’t let go of their angry easily. These customers spent six months dealing with the anger. Each time they received an unsatisfactory answer, they kept going till they got an answer.
They never got the answer they wanted, “We’re sorry, here is your money back.” They got a lot more money, but that is the only thing the court could give them. See It’s Not Money.
The livery also got angry. A customer was stupid enough to take valuables down a river and then demanded compensation when they lost then. That anger increased when each time a claim was made, the value of the items lost increased.
Two angry people are now fighting each other. One because they felt they were treated badly, their lives put at risk. The other because they felt someone was trying to cheat them.
This case is a miracle. The customer, if they could prove they were told the trip was safe could sue for negligence, and probably win. This case could have been settled for $54.00 or less, instantly. It could have been settled easily at any stage along the way, until the insurance company became involved. Any settlement of less than $10,000 is probably a good deal.
- The customer should never be told the river was safe.
- The customer should have been told to leave their valuables in their car and their keys in the livery office. This should have been confirmed in writing in a release
- It is better to have no money and somewhat satisfied customers rather than $54.00 and angry customers.
- The conditions and acknowledgment of the river should have been in writing
- The customers should have been informed in advance in the brochure or website that instruction is not provided; it is just a rental, not training.
- The river should have been checked by the livery if not regularly, at least every time the river flow changes to look for problems, strainers and ascertain the river is still runable.
- The letter sent by the insurance company was an invitation to sue the livery. The livery should have handled the problem because it is their customer. Insurance companies have no empathy and are better at starting lawsuits than they are at stopping them. The insurance company basically told the customers to sue.
Deal with your own problems because no one will deal with them as well as you will.
I don’t know of anyone making videos you can use to point out the risks and dangers of your sports. Stay in touch with Quietwater Films, who maybe is working on some.
Several years ago Justin R. Melat of the Colorado Springs law firm of Melat, Pressman, Ezell & Higbie, LLP sent a letter to Representative Mark Larson of the Colorado Legislation asking him if he would sponsor a bill eliminating the uses of releases in Colorado. Accompanying the letter was a copy of a page from Trial Talk, the Plaintiff’s bar newsletter. The Trial Talk letter was from Eric Leaper who decried the use of releases in outdoor recreation programs. Eric Leaper has testified several times on behalf of Plaintiffs in whitewater cases.
The injury that prompted the letter was a church group from Kansas who lost a leader while whitewater rafting in Colorado. The facts as set forth in the letter are as follows: As Church Group stepped off the bus to enter the boats they were handed a release. They were told Colorado law required that they sign a release. The boat captain had 2 weeks experience. The boat flipped and the Chaperone died.
I have not been able to verify the death or the incidence; however, the facts are not that different from similar incidents in the past.
The law firm emphasized the trips were pre-arranged and pre-paid as well as non-refundable. The letter then explored common law that did not allow the release of a future tort. The final paragraph of the letter is well written:
“Future releases are especially inappropriate and damaging to Colorado’s tourism, when there is no prior warning of the requirement. A simple statute declaring releases of “future” negligence that is negligence not yet committed to be void, as a matter of public policy would allow the law to operate smoothly and cases to be settled and releases given for negligence past, as it always has been.”
A quick review of where the outfitter acted in a way to increase his chances of being sued, based on the law firms letter is in order here.
The Outfitter did not communicate the release to the group before they arrived in Colorado.
Releases must be given to clients with the opportunity to read, understand, sign and/or reject them. Handing out releases at the put-in is a great way to have a court void a release. It does not give the person the necessary opportunity to read and understand the release.
Many times this is done so customers will not quit a trip. This attitude leads to litigation. A person who does not sign the release is a great person for any outdoor recreational activity. Those are people who read and understand your release and make a decision not to go on the trip. That person should be thanked, have there money cheerfully refunded and helped to their car. They are the ones who are going to sue you in the future if they are forced to undertake a trip because they could not get their money back.
I would love to see an outfitter defend him or herself in court when sued for a refund. The little lady on the stand would state she did not understand what whitewater rafting was and when she saw the river and heard the safety talk, she was too afraid to go on the trip. Then the big mean outfitter did not give her money back. Every judge in Colorado would land on that outfitter with both feet and a money extracting judgment.
If you are not refunding clients money after they have read and understood your release form, you deserve to be sued and go out of business. You should always refund money if someone, after reading the release, looking at the rock or seeing the river, decides they do not want to take the trip.
- By not sending the releases in advance, the releases are worthless pieces of paper against any action by an injured or deceased youth.
This was a youth trip. People under the age of 18 cannot contract away their legal rights. This entire action was an exercise in wasted paper by the outfitter because most of the people on the trip would have the release thrown out by the court immediately.
By only providing the release forms at the put in, the outfitter ignored the only real chance at using an effective release, having the parents sign the form. As such, the only person who could have the form used against them was the only person who died.
Here again, the fears of losing a client made the outfitter think in a way that might have lost him is business. There are many old proverbs that prove this thinking process is defective. You would think they would not need repeating in the 90’s.
- Release forms should be provided to the customer as soon as possible.
As soon as you know about a person, coming to your business, you should provide them with a copy of your release. Besides saving time and money on the day the trip departs, this allows participants, parents and leaders to honestly evaluate the risk of the trip and made the decision as to whether they want to undertake the activity.
This also increases the chances that your release documents will effectively stop some of the possible litigation. If one parent signs, then there is one less person to sue you if a minor is hurt or injured.
Brochures and marketing information should tell future customers that they will be required to sign a release. A marketing program should also inform customers that they outfitter is not responsible for lost property or any injury they receive. Be honest and up front in your documents and you save a lot of hassles later.
The releases can be collected rather than signed at any point along the way. People knowledgeable about the release are answering questions about the release, rather than a guide who may misinterpret the legal document. (Remember statements by your guides can void your release.)
- The outfitter lied to their customers with the statement that Colorado law required the release. (Duress)
The fear of having a customer refuse to sign a release made a liar out of the outfitter. If the Plaintiff’s attorney had realized this, he probably could have voided the release and sued the outfitter. The outfitter would be labeled a liar. There is no Colorado law requiring the use of a release.
Don’t lie to customers. Don’t inflate or deflate the risk of the activities. I enjoy brochures for the Arkansas River advertising river sections one full class above their historical rating. This is an easy way to prove that anything an outfitter may say on the stand is a lie. They lied to customers in their brochure, what is stopping them from lying o the stand.
Second, the heirs of the deceased person could have claimed the release was signed under duress. Duress is being forced to sign a document. Having not right to a refund and being forced to sign a release because the law requires it, when it in fact does not require it may be enough to support a defense of duress.
This story relates examples that should have gone the way of the bell-bottom pants and the disco. However, like the disco, which is returning as much as a joke as a fad, these operations still exist. This outfitter should be encouraged to attend state and national meetings to learn the latest in properly handling clients. The numerous mistakes made which the heirs and their attorneys missed took a big chunk out of the outfitters “luck” box. The next time the heirs may find a sharper attorney.
If Eric Leaper’s letter is in Trial Talk, this could be a major war for the outfitting industry. Trial Talk is a highly respective magazine that encourages and supports Plaintiff’s lawsuits. By subscribing you learn the latest and greatest new plaintiffs and ways to win lawsuits. Eric has been making money as an expert witness for the Plaintiffs over the past several years. His letter does a good job of weaving different ideas and legal theories into a plausible argument. Several interesting quotes from his letter are set forth here:
“We are concerned about the present lack of accountability of commercial rafting companies and other outdoor outfitters in Colorado.”
“But we often see outfitters sending inexperienced “first season” guides into hard whitewater rapids with inadequate equipment.”
“The use of these release forms is fraud. As you know, they are unlawful in other states.”
“At present, the outfitter business in Colorado is untrustworthy, to put it mildly.”
“There are organizations of experienced river runners and conservationists (such as our organization” and there are outfitter trade organizations. But there is no organization of outfitter customers. Trial Lawyers are their only advocates. Therefore, we would urge you to thoroughly demonstrate that these dangerous rafting practices violate national standards and that these all-encompassing release forms are fraudulent.”
If Mr. Leaper’s statements were true, then this set of facts would have allowed the Plaintiffs to sue successfully. Colorado state law specifically sets forth that outfitters must use safe equipment. If use of a release is fraudulent, then the release is void.
There are several lessons to be learned from these letters and the facts surrounding this case. Don’t make these mistakes.
More importantly, find out what you Colorado legislator is doing and whether he received one of these letters. Start now to prepare for another battle to eliminate releases in Colorado.