You can collect for damaged gear you rented to customers if your agreements are correct. This snowmobile outfitter recovered $27,000 for $220.11 in damages.

It helps to get that much money if the customer is a jerk and tries to get out of what they owe you. It makes the final judgment even better when one of the plaintiffs is an attorney.

Citation: Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514, 2012 WL 95208

State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne

Defendant: Leonard M. Gelman

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Fair Debt Collections Act

Defendant Defenses: They did not violate the act

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2012

Summary

The plaintiff’s in this case rented snowmobiles and brought one back damaged. The release they signed to rent the snowmobiles stated if they damaged the snowmobiles they would have to pay for the damage and any lost time the snowmobiles could not be rented (like a car rental agreement).

The plaintiffs damaged a snowmobile and agreed to pay for the damages. The Snowmobile outfitter agreed not to charge them for the lost rental income.

When the plaintiff’s got home, they denied the claim on their credit card bill. The Snowmobile outfitter sued them for the $220.11 in damages and received a judgment of $27,000.

The plaintiff then sued the attorney representing the snowmobile outfitter for violation of the federal fair debt collection’s act, which is the subject of this lawsuit. The plaintiff lost that lawsuit also.

This case shows how agreements in advance to pay for damages from rented equipment are viable and can be upheld if used.

Facts

Although this is described as a debt collection case, it is a case where an outfitter can recover for the damages done to his equipment that he rented to the plaintiffs. The facts are from this case, which took them from an underlying County Court decision in Summit County Colorado.

Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely visible to any driver. At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee and charged Mr. Henne a total of only $220.11.

…one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court. This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court does not believe that the fairing just fell off.”

Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.”

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s sig-nature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.”

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees pro-vision, the court awarded CBR $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.”

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

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

The facts set forth in the underlying damage recover case, are the important part. In this case, the attorney for the snowmobile outfitter was found not to have violated the federal fair debt collections act.

In awarding judgment to the defendant in this case, the judge also awarded him costs.

Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

Adding insult to injury. Sometimes it be better to quit while you are behind.

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Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

January 12, 2012, Decided

January 12, 2012, Filed

CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees

COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.

For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.

JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya

OPINION

ORDER

This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1

1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.

Background

On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)

2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)

4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)

Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.

Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)

6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.

7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.

8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)

Analysis

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.

B. Request for Additional Discovery

As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]

The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)

As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.

C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector

The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).

The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.

The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).

9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.

The Act defines “debt collector” as:

[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed

Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.

Id. at 62-63.

1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group

The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.

After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.

One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)

10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11

11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.

In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.

Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.

12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)

13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.

2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology

This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)

a. Debt Collector Preface

In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.

14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.

Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).

When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.

b. Use of Form Letters

Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.

The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.

c. Pattern of Litigation Activity

Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.

d. Summary

Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.

Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.

Wherefore, it is ORDERED

1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.

3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED

Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya

Kathleen M Tafoya

United [*27] States Magistrate Judge


Whitewater rafting case where one of the claims is the employer should have provided eye protecting during the rafting trip.

Plaintiff was injured during a corporate team building exercise when she ended up with a small rock in her eye after the whitewater rafting trip.

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

State: Florida, United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division

Plaintiff: Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria

Defendant: Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Defendants

Year: 2018

Summary

A whitewater rafting trip in Honduras booked as a team-building event ended up in litigation in the US. The allegations were the corporation that booked the team building for its employees failed to provide the necessary safety equipment for whitewater rafting.

The allegations may be taken to allege there is a higher duty owed to employees of a corporation partaking in a sport or recreation event then to other participants. The duty of the raft company appears to remain the same. Only employers are argued to have a requirement of higher standards of care.

Facts

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conduct-ed” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye.

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

There were legal discussions about what law applied and other items that won’t be discussed here. It is unclear how a Honduran corporation, and a raft trip in Honduras ended up in a Florida Federal District Court.

The court was succinct in its analysis of the law and facts. The plaintiff argued the defendants were negligent.

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plain-tiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage.

According to the plaintiff, there was a duty of the employer, Integro not to select the rafting event and to: “provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.”

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defend-ants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

The next argument made by the plaintiff was a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high

The court dismissed this claim finding the plaintiff failed to allege any instances of outrageous, extreme or atrocious conduct.

The plaintiff also sued for breach of contract. “To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach.”

The court dismissed the breach of contract claims against the individual defendants and granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint against the corporate defendant to clarify or restate her breach of contract claim.

So Now What?

Simple case, right? Well maybe. In the negligence complaint which survived the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s allegations stated:

The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

Two issues surface here. The first is the allegation that white-water rafting requires you to have eye protection. However, the second has possibly greater results. The complaint of not providing enough safety gear is not against the raft company, but against the plaintiff’s employer who booked the trip. The allegation is the employer who booked the trip had a duty to provide proper gear for the trip.

This shifts the burden away from the people who understand the risks, rafting companies, to people who do not understand the risks, companies, churches, groups that book raft trips. Every raft company might be able to argue successfully, that the standards in the industry are to provide a PFD.

However, the company will have to rely on the industry standards of whitewater rafting (or any other sport or recreational activity) but then check to see if there is a higher standard of care owed to employees.

Here the plaintiff seemed to lose most of here employment law claims. The decision indicates she was denied worker’s compensation for her injuries. However, if the activity was argued to be part of her employment, then this may create a greater duty and a greater reluctance on the part of corporations to do team building events.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., Defendants.

CASE NO. 8:17-cv-2229-T-23AEP

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, TAMPA DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

July 16, 2018, Decided

July 16, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff: Carlos A. Leyva, LEAD ATTORNEY, Digital Business Law Group, P.A., Palm Harbor, FL; Linda Susan McAleer, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Law Offices of Linda S. McAleer, San Diego, CA.

For Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta, Defendants: Catherine M. DiPaolo, Richard M. Hanchett, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Trenam, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye, O’Neill & Mullis, Tampa, FL.

JUDGES: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

OPINION

ORDER

On September 25, 2017, the plaintiff sued (Doc. 1) the defendants for negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract. Asserting the same claims, the plaintiff amended (Doc. 15) her complaint on October 25, 2017. On November 8, 2017, the defendants moved (Doc. 19) to dismiss the amended complaint,1 and on April 28, 2018, the plaintiff moved (Doc. 39) — for the first time — for an order determining that Honduran law governs the claims in this action.2

1 “Defendants’ motion to dismiss amended complaint, alternative motion to strike certain allegations and the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva, and alternative notice of objection to testimony of Carlos A. Leyva.” (Doc. 19)

2 Also, the plaintiff moves “for partial summary judgment as to liability only, pursuant to [the] breach of contract claim.” (Doc. 43 at 1)

By failing to timely assert the claim, a party waives the application of foreign law. Daewoo Motor Am., Inc. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 459 F.3d 1249, 1257 (11th Cir. 2006); Lott v. Levitt, 556 F.3d 564, 568 (7th Cir. 2009) (holding that the plaintiff “explicitly submitted to Illinois [not Virginia] law and relied solely on it, and having done so, the district [*2] court was right to apply it to the dispute. . . . The principle of waiver is designed to prohibit this very type of gamesmanship — [the plaintiff] is not entitled to get a free peek at how his dispute will shake out under Illinois law and, when things don’t go his way, ask for a mulligan under the laws of a different jurisdiction.”); Vukadinovich v. McCarthy, 59 F.3d 58, 62 (7th Cir. 1995) (holding that choice of law is “normally waivable”); Anderson v. McAllister Towing and Transp. Co., 17 F. Supp. 2d 1280, 1286 n.6 (S.D. Ala. 1998) (Volmer, J.) (holding that the defendant waived the right to have Saudi Arabian law applied to a contractual dispute because the defendant failed to give reasonable notice of its intent to assert that foreign law applied). “The failure to give proper notice of the applicability of foreign law does not warrant dismissal . . . . It is more likely that a failure to give reasonable notice will result in a waiver of the applicability of foreign law to the case.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 9, § 44.1.03[3] (3d ed. 2016).

In both the complaint and the amended complaint, the plaintiff asserts emphatically (and highlights in bold) that each claim is brought under Florida common law. The plaintiff’s response to the motion to dismiss is based entirely on Florida law. Seven months elapsed between the day the plaintiff sued [*3] and the day the plaintiff moved for “choice of law.” Because the plaintiff failed to give timely notice of the claimed applicability of foreign law, she has waived her right to assert that Honduran law governs her claims.

BACKGROUND

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.” (Doc. 15 at 5)

3 Seproma, a subsidiary of Intergro, is not a party to this action.

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. (Doc. 15 at 6) Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two [*4] further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye. (Doc. 15 at 6)

DISCUSSION

Negligence

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage. Lewis v. City of St. Petersburg, 260 F.3d 1260, 1262 (11th Cir. 2001). The plaintiff alleges that Integro owed her a duty “not to select” the rafting event in which she was injured and a duty to provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.” (Doc. 15 at 8) The defendants argue (1) that the plaintiff fails to allege sufficiently that the defendants knew that the rafting event posed an unreasonable risk of harm and (2) that, even if the plaintiff had alleged a duty of care owed by Intergro to the plaintiff, she fails to allege any individual duty owed by Dolan or Renta.

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; [*5] that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defendants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. Stewart v. Walker, 5 So. 3d 746, 749 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. McCarson, 467 So. 2d 277, 278 (Fla. 1985) (“Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”). Whether a person’s alleged conduct is sufficiently outrageous or intolerable is a matter of law. De La Campa v. Grifols America, Inc., 819 So. 2d 940 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002).

The plaintiff alleges (1) that the “[d]efendants understood that their collective refusal to compensate Plaintiff for work related injurious activities, including lost wages and medical care, would cause emotional anxiety and distress to a single working mother of three children[]” (Doc. 15 at 7) and (2) that the defendants’ “intentional refusal to pay Plaintiff’s lost [*6] wages, medical expenses, and other benefits as required by Honduran law . . . caused Plaintiff emotional distress” (Doc. 15 at 9). The plaintiff fails to allege a single instance of “outrageous,” “extreme,” and “atrocious” conduct. Count II is dismissed for failing to state a claim.

Breach of contract

The plaintiff sues for breach of contract “pursuant to non-payment of employment termination benefits.” (Doc. 15 at 1) To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach. Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1272 (11th Cir. 2009).

Intergro

The amended complaint fails to identify an unfulfilled contractual obligation. Instead, the plaintiff claims entitlement to payment of benefits under Honduran law but fails to identify the law or the benefits to which she is entitled. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is granted. In amending Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract, the plaintiff must clarify the allegation that “Intergro breached the Contract by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to [*7] Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) Ambiguity exists as to whether Honduran law or the contract governs the obligation to pay, whether Honduran law or the contract governs the amount of the required payment, or to whether and to what extent Honduran law and the contract otherwise control the obligation to pay and the amount of the payment. The amended complaint must clarify the plaintiff’s claim in this respect, among others.

Dolan and Renta

The plaintiff fails to state a claim against either Dolan or Renta. In Count III, the plaintiff alleges that the plaintiff’s “employment with Intergro was controlled by a binding contract” and that Intergro breached the contract “by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 9-10) But in the prayer for relief, the plaintiff (who purportedly contracted only with Intergro) prays for judgment against all defendants “for the full amount of contractual benefits due under Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) The complaint lacks an allegation that Dolan and Renta are parties to the contract. Count III fails to state a claim against Dolan and Renta.

Motion to strike

The defendant moves (Doc. 19) under Rule 12(f), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to strike [*8] the allegations in paragraphs 7, 8, 14, 31, 32, 35, and 37 of the amended complaint and moves to strike the affidavit of Carlos A. Leyva (Doc. 15-1). Under Rule 12(f), “[t]he court may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” “A motion to strike is a drastic remedy” and “will usually be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties.” Augustus v. Board of Public Instruction of Escambia County, Fla., 306 F.2d 862, 868 (5th Cir. 1962). “An allegation is ‘impertinent’ or ‘immaterial’ when it is neither responsive nor relevant to the issues involved in the action. . . . ‘Scandalous’ generally refers to any allegation that unnecessarily reflects on the moral character of an individual or states anything in repulsive language that detracts from the dignity of the court.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 2, s 12.37[3] (3d ed. 2016). The defendant fails to identify and describe why the allegations are immaterial, irrelevant, and scandalous, and the plaintiff argues plausibly that the allegations are “related” to the controversy, are material, and are pertinent.

The defendant argues that Carlos Leyva’s affidavit contains allegations that have “no relation to [*9] this controversy and cause prejudice to Defendants because they are inadmissible hearsay.” (Doc. 19 at 12) The plaintiff responds that the “[d]efendants . . . conflate what is required for summary judgment with what is required in the pleadings. . . . The evidentiary burden that Defendants assume . . . does not exist at this stage in the proceedings.” (Doc. 21 at 16) For the reasons stated by the plaintiff, the defendants’ motion to strike Carlos Leyva’s affidavit is denied.

CONCLUSION

The defendant’s motion (Doc. 19) to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART. Count II is DISMISSED. Count III is DISMISSED against Dolan and Renta. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is GRANTED. The plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract.

The defendant’s “alternative motion [Doc. 19] to strike certain allegations and to strike the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 39) for “choice of law” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 43) for partial summary judgment on Count III is DENIED.

No later than JULY 27, 2018, the plaintiff must amend the complaint [*10] to comply with this order4 The plaintiff must add no new claim.

4 That is, the plaintiff must (1) remove the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and (2) remove the claims against Dolan and Renta for breach of contract. Also, the plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Integro for breach of contract.

ORDERED in Tampa, Florida, on July 16, 2018.

/s/ Steven D. Merryday

STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


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

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

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

State: Rhode Island, Supreme Court of Rhode Island

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: 

Defendant Defenses: Open and Obvious and Recreational Use Statute 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

Summary

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

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

Facts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court concluded. 

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

So Now What? 

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

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

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

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

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

SUPREME COURT OF RHODE ISLAND

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

June 23, 2016, Filed

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

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

CASE SUMMARY:

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

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

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

OPINION BY: Paul A. Suttell

OPINION

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

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

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

I

Facts and Travel

A

World War II Veterans Memorial Park and Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B

The Events of July 10, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

C

The Jury Verdict and Posttrial Motions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

Parties’ Arguments on Appeal

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

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

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

III

Judgment as a Matter of Law

A

Standard of Review

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

B

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

Conclusion

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


Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English

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.

Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

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 

Year: 2017 

Summary

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.

Facts

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.

 What do you think? Leave a comment. 

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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