McGowen v. Montes, 152 N.E.3d 654; 2020 Ind. App. LEXIS 335; 2020 WL 4516816
Court of Appeals of Indiana
August 6, 2020, Decided; August 6, 2020, Filed
Court of Appeals Case No. 19A-CT-1707
152 N.E.3d 654 *; 2020 Ind. App. LEXIS 335 **; 2020 WL 4516816
Eric McGowen and Vision Logistics, Inc., Appellants/Cross-Appellees, v. Bradley Montes, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT: Christopher G. Stevenson, Wilson Kehoe Winningham LLC, Indianapolis, Indiana; Kyle E. Cray, Kisti Good Risse, Bennett Boehning & Clary LLP Lafayette, Indiana; ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE INDIANA TRIAL LAWYERS ASSOCIATION, Brian A. Karle, Sarah M. Wyatt, Ball Eggleston PC, Lafayette, Indiana.
Friedlander, Senior Judge.
P1 Eric McGowen and Bradley Montes were injured in a vehicle accident after McGowen stopped at the scene of a prior vehicle accident and Montes collided with his vehicle. McGowen sued Montes, and Montes sued McGowen and McGowen’s employer, Vision Logistics, Inc.
P2 In this interlocutory appeal, the parties cross-appeal the trial court’s rulings on their cross-motions for summary judgment, in which the court determined that a dispute of material fact remains to be decided at trial. We affirm in part but also reverse [**2] in part and remand because we conclude there are no disputes of material fact and McGowen and Vision are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
P3 On the morning of November 4, 2016, before the sun had risen, there was heavy fog in rural Tippecanoe County. McGowen was driving a semi-tractor (without a trailer) owned by his employer, Vision, on a two-lane county road. Traffic was sparse, but McGowen drove at thirty-five to forty miles per hour, well below the speed limit of fifty miles per hour, due to poor visibility. As he drove east, McGowen saw a truck in a ditch on the side of the road. The truck was upright and its headlights were on, pointing at McGowen’s semi as he approached. The truck’s roof, windshield, and hood were heavily damaged. McGowen also saw another vehicle stopped in the road near the truck, but that vehicle drove off as McGowen approached. McGowen speculated that there had been a two-car accident, and the other vehicle was leaving the scene.
P4 McGowen saw a man, later identified as Ryan Patton, “kind of wandering around” the truck. Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s App. Vol. II, p. 40. McGowen thought Patton “was drunk at first” or possibly injured. Id.
P5 McGowen stopped [**3] his semi in the road. He kept his foot on the brake, rather than shifting the semi’s transmission to park. The semi’s rear brake lights activated automatically when the driver pressed on the brake pedal. McGowen checked his side mirrors as he slowed to a halt, but he did not see any sign of vehicles approaching from behind.
P6 McGowen rolled down the passenger window and asked Patton, “Are you okay?” Id. Patton climbed up to the semi’s passenger-side window and responded, “Yeah.” Id. Next, McGowen asked Patton if he wanted McGowen to call 911. Patton responded, “Yeah, if you don’t mind.” Id.
P7 Rebecca Higgins was traveling westbound on the same road and she saw the headlights of McGowen’s semi, stopped in the road. She pulled past the semi, parked on the side of the road opposite the semi, and activated her hazard lights. She saw Patton’s truck after she had passed the semi. Higgins also saw the semi’s brake lights.
P8 Meanwhile, Montes was also driving east on the same county road. Higgins saw Montes’ car traveling in her direction. She activated her vehicle’s high beams to warn Montes, but he did not slow down. Higgins also rolled down her window, waved her arms, and yelled, but Montes [**4] still did not slow down. He instead collided with the rear of McGowen’s semi, without braking, immediately after Patton had asked McGowen to call 911. McGowen estimated no more than fifteen to thirty seconds had elapsed from the time he stopped until the time Montes struck the semi. Another vehicle that was also traveling east on the [*657] road, behind Montes, saw McGowen’s semi and stopped before hitting Montes’ car.
P9 Both McGowen and Montes suffered injuries from the collision. Montes later recalled seeing the rear of McGowen’s semi prior to the collision, but he was unsure of the distance at which he first saw it.
P10 This case began on August 24, 2017, when McGowen sued Montes, claiming negligence.1 Montes filed an answer, counter-sued McGowen for negligence, and sued Vision as a third-party defendant, alleging McGowen had been working for Vision at the time of the collision.
P11 In January 2019, McGowen and Vision filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to determine that they were immune from Montes’ negligence claims under Indiana Code section 34-30-12-1 (2008), also known as the Good Samaritan Law (“GSL”). Montes responded to the motion and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment, asserting [**5] the GSL did not apply to McGowen’s conduct.
P12 After a hearing, the trial court issued an order determining: (1) there is no dispute of material fact that McGowen was rendering emergency care, for purposes of the GSL, when he stopped and offered to call 911; but (2) there is a dispute of material fact as to whether McGowen’s act in stopping on the road amounted to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, for purposes of the GSL. The court granted in part and denied in part McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment, and denied Montes’ cross-motion for partial summary judgment.
P13 Montes, McGowen, and Vision asked the trial court to certify its order for interlocutory review. The court granted the motion. Next, both sides separately asked the Court to accept this appeal. The Court granted the motions, and this appeal followed.
1. Standard of Review
HN1 P14 Summary judgment orders are reviewed de novo, applying the same standard of review as the trial court. AM General LLC v. Armour, 46 N.E.3d 436 (Ind. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence designated by the parties demonstrates “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Ind. Trial Rule 56(C).
HN2 P15 The [**6] movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000 (Ind. 2014). If the movant bears its burden, then the nonmovant must present contrary evidence showing an issue for the trier of fact. Id. All evidence must be construed in favor of the nonmovant. Mahan v. Am. Standard Ins. Co., 862 N.E.2d 669 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), trans. denied.
HN3 P16 Cross-motions for summary judgment do not alter our standard of review. Alexander v. Linkmeyer Dev. II, LLC, 119 N.E.3d 603 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019). Instead, we consider each motion separately to determine whether the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Mahan, 862 N.E.2d 669.
P17 In addition, this case requires us to review the trial court’s application of the GSL. HN4 Interpretation of a statute is a question of law reserved for the courts and, as is the case for a summary judgment order, is reviewed under a de novo standard. Ind. State Bd. of Educ. v. Brownsburg Cmty. Sch. Corp., 865 N.E.2d 660 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).
2. The Good Samaritan Law
(a) This section does not apply to services rendered by a health care provider (as defined in IC 34-18-2-14 or IC 27-12-2-14 before its repeal) to a patient in a health care facility (as defined in IC 27-8-10-1).
(b) Except as provided in subsection (c), a person who comes upon the scene of an emergency or accident, complies with IC 9-26-1-1.5, or is summoned to the scene of an emergency or accident and, in good faith, gratuitously renders emergency care at the scene [**7] of the emergency or accident is immune from civil liability for any personal injury that results from:
(c) This subsection applies to a person to whom IC 16-31-6.5 applies. A person who gratuitously renders emergency care involving the use of an automatic external defibrillator is immune from liability for any act or omission not amounting to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct if the person fulfills the requirements set forth in IC 16-31-6.5.
(d) This subsection applies to an individual, business, or organization to which IC 16-31-6.5 applies. An individual, business, or organization that allows a person who is an expected user to use an automatic external defibrillator of the individual, business, or organization to in good faith gratuitously render emergency care is immune from civil liability for any damages resulting from an act or omission not amounting to gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct by the user or for acquiring [**8] or providing the automatic external defibrillator to the user for the purpose of rendering the emergency care if the individual, business, or organization and the user fulfill the requirements set forth in IC 16-31-6.5.
(e) A licensed physician who gives medical direction in the use of a defibrillator or a national or state approved defibrillator instructor of a person who gratuitously renders emergency care involving the use of an automatic external defibrillator is immune from civil liability for any act or omission of the licensed physician or instructor if the act or omission of the licensed physician or instructor:
P19 The GSL has rarely been addressed by Indiana’s appellate courts. HN5 The statute’s grant of immunity from civil liability under certain circumstances limits a claimant’s right to bring suit, “in derogation of the common law.” Beckerman v. Gordon, 614 N.E.2d 610, 612 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993), reh’g denied, 618 N.E.2d 56 (1993), trans. denied. We strictly construe such statutes against limitations on the right to sue. Id.
HN6 P20 When applying a statute to a case, “our first task is to give its words their clear and plain [**9] meaning, while considering the structure of the statute as a whole.” City of Lawrence Utils. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. 2017). If a statute contains clear and unambiguous language, it is not subject to judicial interpretation. Yates v. Kemp, 979 N.E.2d 678 (Ind. 2012).
3. Cross-Appeal: Emergency Care
P21 We first address Montes’ cross-appeal claim because, if it is meritorious, it would be dispositive of the appeal. He argues the trial court should have granted his motion for partial summary judgment because McGowen was not rendering emergency care for purposes of the GSL when he stopped at the accident scene to ask if Patton was okay and whether he should call 911. Montes argues that the GSL applies only to “persons actively participating in rendering care or assistance,” Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s Br. p. 15, and not to people in McGowen’s situation.2 He further argues the facts demonstrate there was no emergency at the time McGowen stopped his semi.
HN7 P22 The General Assembly has defined the phrase “gratuitously renders emergency care,” as set forth in the GSL, in relevant part:
Ind. Code § 34-6-2-51 (1999). This statute focuses on the element of gratuitousness and does not address what conduct, other than the use of a defibrillator, meets the definition of emergency care.
P23 Similarly, Indiana’s prior cases applying the GSL have not sought to define “emergency care.” In McKinney v. Public Service Company of Indiana, Inc., 597 N.E.2d 1001 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), trans. denied, a panel of this Court was asked to determine whether a vehicle that was disabled due to a flat tire, where the driver was uninjured, was an “accident” for purposes of the Samaritan Law. The panel determined that those circumstances did not amount to an accident, and the person who stopped to change the flat tire was not immune from civil suit under the GSL. In Beckerman, 614 N.E.2d 610, this Court was similarly asked to determine whether the circumstances of that case amounted to an “accident” for purposes of the GSL. A doctor had been called to a house to treat an ill person, who subsequently died from a heart attack. This Court concluded the victim’s medical condition was not a “sudden calamitous event,” and the GSL did not provide immunity from suit. Id. at 613.
P24 The parties cite several cases from other jurisdictions in support of their claims. Those [**11] cases are not particularly helpful here because other states’ Good Samaritan laws are drafted differently from Indiana’s, and the courts applying those statutes have reached differing results. See, e.g., McDowell v. Gillie, 2001 ND 91, 626 N.W.2d 666, 675 (N.D. Sup. Ct. 2001) (stopping at an accident to ask if assistance is needed can constitute rendering “aid” for North Dakota’s GSL); Howell v. City Towing Assoc., Inc., 717 S.W.2d 729, 731 (Tex. Ct. App. 1986) (tow truck driver calling his dispatcher after passenger suffered medical emergency did not amount to “emergency care” as defined by Texas’ GSL), writ refused.
P25 In the absence of a statutory definition or prior caselaw, we define “emergency care” in accordance with our principles of statutory application. HN8 Subsection (b)(2) of the GSL distinguishes between medical treatment and other forms [*660] of emergency assistance, providing immunity for persons who “provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care.” Ind. Code § 34-30-12-1(b)(2) (emphasis added). Based on the plain language of the statute, “emergency care” thus encompasses actions other than direct medical treatment. In addition, the Samaritan Law immunizes an “act or failure to act to provide or arrange for further medical treatment or care for the injured person.” Id. In the current case, it is undisputed that McGowen stopped his semi to ask Patton if he [**12] was okay and if McGowen should contact 911. McGowen was thus seeking to arrange medical treatment, as mentioned in the statute.
P26 Montes and amicus curiae argue that, reading the GSL in its entirety, the statute encompasses only medical care or first aid. We disagree. Subsections (c), (d), and (e) of the GSL address the use of a defibrillator to provide medical assistance. The General Assembly clearly knew how to specify medical care, including specific medical treatments, in the GSL. If the General Assembly had intended to specify that “emergency care” meant only medical treatment or first aid, they could have done so. HN9 “We cannot add new words to a statute but are bound to apply statutes as the legislature has written them.” Matter of Supervised Estate of Kent, 99 N.E.3d 634, 639 (Ind. 2018). HN10 We conclude from the unambiguous language of the GSL that stopping and asking if a person who has been involved in an accident needs help is “emergency care.”
P27 Next, Montes argues the scene of the vehicle collision did not qualify as an “objective emergency.” Appellee/Cross-Appellant’s Br. p. 13. HN11 The Beckerman court defined an “accident” as a “sudden calamitous event.” Beckerman, 614 N.E.2d at 613. In this case, McGowen arrived on the scene of an automobile accident, possibly a two-car collision. Further, [**13] Patton was wandering around the truck, giving McGowen the impression that he was injured or drunk. This is ample, undisputed evidence of a sudden event, with a potentially injured person, that qualified as an emergency for purposes of the GSL. The trial court did not err in denying Montes’ motion for partial summary judgment.
4. Gross Negligence and Willful and Wanton Misconduct
HN12 P28 The GSL provides that a person is not shielded from civil liability if the person’s acts or omissions while providing emergency care amounted to “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” Ind. Code § 34-30-12-1. The trial court determined there was a dispute of material fact as to whether McGowen’s conduct was grossly negligent or willful or wanton. McGowen and Vision argue that the undisputed facts establish that his acts did not meet either standard, and they conclude the trial court should have granted their motion for summary judgment in its entirety.
P29 The General Assembly has frequently used the phrases “gross negligence” and “willful or wanton misconduct” in statutes granting immunity from civil damages. See, e.g., Ind. Code § 21-44.5-2-6 (2019) (administration of auto-injectable epinephrine); Ind. Code § 31-33-6-2 (2018) (reporting child abuse or neglect); [**14]
Ind. Code § 10-17-13.5-7 (2018) (physicians’ administration of hyperbaric oxygen treatments to veterans). We have not found a statutory definition of those terms for purposes of the GSL, and the parties have not directed us to any.
HN13 P30 The Indiana Supreme Court has defined gross negligence as “‘[a] conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of . . . the consequences to another party.'” N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co. v. [*661] Sharp, 790 N.E.2d 462, 465 (Ind. 2003) (quoting BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 1057 (7th ed. 1999)). A finding of gross negligence is predicated on a showing of negligence, as it is the intentional failure to perform a duty in reckless disregard of the consequences. York v. Fredrick, 947 N.E.2d 969 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011), trans. denied.
P31 In Miller v. Indiana Department of Workforce Development, 878 N.E.2d 346 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007), Miller was driving his employer’s truck when he stopped at a stop sign. Upon driving into the intersection, he collided with a vehicle approaching from his right side. Miller’s employer terminated him after the collision, citing a provision of a labor agreement that permitted instant termination for “gross negligence.” Id. at 350.
P32 Miller sought unemployment benefits, and he appealed the denial of his request. HN14 A panel of this Court applied the definition of gross negligence set forth above, noting “the question of whether an act or omission constitutes gross negligence is generally [**15] a question of fact, [but] the question may become one of law if ‘the facts are undisputed and only a single inference can be drawn from those facts.'” Id. at 356 (quoting Sharp, 790 N.E.2d at 466). The Court concluded that Miller’s failure to use due care when entering the intersection after stopping at the stop sign was “negligent, but not grossly negligent.” Id. at 357.
P33 In this case, the undisputed facts establish that McGowen was driving at only thirty-five to forty miles per hour when he stopped his semi in the road at the scene of an accident. McGowen did not put his semi in park but merely pressed on the brake, activating his rear brake lights. He was unaware of any vehicles behind him. McGowen asked Patton if he was okay and whether he should call 911, immediately before Montes collided with the rear of the semi. McGowen stated, without contradiction, that only fifteen to thirty seconds elapsed between him stopping his semi and being rear-ended by Montes. These circumstances resemble at worst the mere negligence at issue in Miller, rather than the reckless disregard for others that characterizes gross negligence.
P34 Montes claims there are several material disputes of fact that justify the trial court’s partial denial [**16] of McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence. We disagree. He points to evidence that McGowen could have pulled off the road, contradicting Montes’ statement during a deposition that there was no space for his semi along the side of the road. This fact is immaterial due to the short duration of the stop prior to the collision and McGowen’s choice to not put the semi in park, allowing him to move on quickly if needed.
P35 There is also a dispute as to whether McGowen activated his vehicle’s hazard lights after stopping, in the brief interval before Montes collided with him. This factual dispute is also immaterial because it is undisputed that McGowen’s brake lights activated when he stopped, and: (1) the brake lights override the hazard lights, and (2) the brake lights are as bright as the hazard lights.
P36 Finally, Montes claims McGowen violated numerous traffic regulations and commercial driver standards when he stopped in the road. HN15 Even if McGowen’s acts were contrary to statutes, “violation of a statutory duty creates a presumption of negligence that may be rebutted.” Sandberg Trucking, Inc. v. Johnson, 76 N.E.3d 178, 188-89 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017). A presumption of negligence is dissimilar to a presumption of gross negligence. [**17] We conclude that there is no dispute [*662] of material fact as to whether McGowen was grossly negligent.
HN16 P37 Turning to willful or wanton conduct, such conduct consists of two elements: “(1) the defendant must have knowledge of an impending danger or consciousness of a course of misconduct calculated to result in probable injury; and (2) the actor’s conduct must have exhibited an indifference to the consequence of his conduct.” Witham v. Norfolk and Western Ry. Co., 561 N.E.2d 484, 486 (Ind. 1990). “The distinction between constructive willfulness and mere negligence depends on the actor’s state of mind.” McKeown v. Calusa, 172 Ind. App. 1, 6-7, 359 N.E.2d 550, 554 (1977).
P38 In Frybarger v. Coffelt, 180 Ind. App. 160, 387 N.E.2d 104 (1979), a passenger in Coffelt’s car died when Coffelt chose to race another driver on a two-lane highway at night and collided with a third car attempting to turn left across the highway. On appeal, the passenger’s estate argued that the trial court erred in determining Coffelt’s conduct did not meet the definition of willful or wanton misconduct. A panel of this Court concluded that, although Coffelt was racing at night at a high rate of speed, a dip in the road made it impossible for him to see the car in time to avoid striking it, and there was no evidence of any other reckless behavior by Coffelt. The Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that [**18] Coffelt had not behaved willfully and wantonly.
P39 In the current case, the standard of review is different, but McGowen’s conduct is far less reckless than Coffelt’s. On a dark, foggy morning, McGowen drove on a two-lane county road at thirty-five to forty miles per hour due to poor visibility. He came to a stop when he saw Patton and the wrecked truck along the side of the road, pressing on the brake rather than shifting into park. McGowen checked his side mirrors as he slowed to a halt, but he did not see any sign of approaching vehicles. He barely had time to ask Patton if he was okay and whether he should call 911 when Montes collided with the back of the semi. During McGowen’s deposition, when asked if he was concerned that stopping on the road may have been hazardous, he stated, “I was more concerned about [Patton]. I thought it was a two-car accident.” Appellants’/Cross-Appellees’ App. Vol. II, p. 104. There is no evidence that McGowen was indifferent to the results of his conduct. Rather, the undisputed facts demonstrate McGowen was aware of dangerous road conditions and attempted to drive carefully while rendering aid to Patton. As a matter of law, McGowen’s conduct did not [**19] meet the standard of willful or wanton misconduct. The trial court erred in denying in part McGowen and Vision’s motion for summary judgment, because they are entitled to the protection of the Good Samaritan Law.
Texas appellate court upholds release for claims of gross negligence in trampoline accident that left plaintiff a paraplegic.Posted: October 8, 2018
However, the decision is not reasoned and supported in Texas by other decisions or the Texas Supreme Court.
State: Texas, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas
Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 1”) and Xxxx (“John Doe 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”)
Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish.
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the Defendant
Adult paralyzed in a trampoline facility sues for her injuries. The release she signed before entering stopped all of her claims, including her claim for gross negligence.
However, the reasoning behind the support for the release to stop the gross negligence claim was not in the decision, so this is a tenuous decision at best.
The plaintiff and her sixteen-year-old son went to the defendant’s business. Before entering she signed a release. While on a trampoline, the plaintiff attempted to do a back flip, landed on her head and was rendered a paraplegic from the waist down.
The plaintiff sued on her behalf and on behalf of her minor. Her claim was a simple tort claim for negligence. Her children’s claims were based on the loss of parental consortium and under Texas law bystander claims for seeing the accident or seeing their mother suffer. The plaintiff’s husband also joined in the lawsuit later for his loss of consortium claims.
The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted and the plaintiff appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The original entity named on the release was a corporation that was no longer in existence. Several successor entities now owned and controlled the defendant. The plaintiff argued the release did not protect them because the release only spoke to the one defendant.
The court did not agree, finding language in the release that stated the release applied to all “jumpstreet entities that engaged in the trampoline business.”
…it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”
The next argument was whether the release met the requirements on Texas law for a release. The court pointed out bold and capital letters were used to point out important parts of the release. An assumption of the risk section was separate and distance from the release of liability section, and the release warned people to read the document carefully before signing.
Texas also has an express negligence rule, the requirements of which were also met by the way the release was written.
Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.
Next the plaintiff argued that the release covered her and her sixteen-year-old minor son. As such the release should be void because it attempted to cover a minor and releases in Texas do not work for minors.
The court ignored this argument stating it was not the minor who was hurt and suing; it was the plaintiff who was an adult. The court then also added that the other plaintiffs were also covered under the release because all of their claims, loss of parental consortium and loss of consortium are derivative claims. Meaning they only succeed if the plaintiff s claim succeeds.
The final argument was the plaintiff plead negligence and gross negligence in her complaint. A release in Texas, like most other states, was argued by the plaintiff to not be valid.
The appellate court did not see that argument as clearly. First, the Texas Supreme Court had not reviewed that issue. Other appellate courts have held that there is no difference in Texas between a claim for negligence and a claim for gross negligence.
The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury. Some appellate courts have held that negligence, and gross negligence are not separable claims and a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence.
(For other arguments like this see In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury.)
The court looked at the release which identified negligence and gross negligence as claims that the release would stop.
Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.
Although not specifically writing in the opinion why the release stopped the gross negligence claims, the court upheld the release for all the plaintiff claims.
…Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.
The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.
So Now What?
First this case is a great example of believing that once you have a release you don’t have to do anything else. If the defendant’s release would have been checked every year, someone should have noticed that the named entity to be protected no longer existed.
In this case that fact did not become a major issue, however, in other states the language might not have been broad enough to protect everyone.
Second, this case is also proof that being specific with possible risks of the activities and have an assumption of risk section pays off.
Finally, would I go out and pronounce that Texas allows a release to stop claims for gross negligence. No. Finger’s crossed until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the issue or another appellate court in Texas provides reasoning for its argument, this is thin support for that statement.
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Graciela Quiroz, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 1”) and Xxxx (“John Doe 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”), Appellants v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellees
COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FIFTH DISTRICT, DALLAS
2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107
July 9, 2018, Opinion Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671.
In re Quiroz, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 7423 (Tex. App. Dallas, Aug. 7, 2017)
OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: -The trampoline facility owner met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because the release was enforceable when it met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule.
OUTCOME: Order affirmed.
CORE TERMS: summary judgment, entity, gross negligence, public policy, negligence claims, partial, matter of law, cause of action, pre-injury, consortium, waive, cross-motion, notice requirements, trampoline, bystander, specifically named, unenforceable, signing, mental anguish, signature line, conspicuousness, distinguishable, enforceable, derivative, lettering, parental, waiving, notice, void, issue of material fact
COUNSEL: For Graciela Quiroz, et al, Appellant: John T. Kirtley, Lead counsel, Ferrer, Poirot and Wansbrough, Dallas, TX.
For Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellee: Cassie Dallas, Shelby G. Hall, Wade C. Crosnoe, Lead Counsel, Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P., Dallas, TX; Michael A. Yanof, Lenahan Law, P.L.L.C., Dallas, TX; Randy Alan Nelson, Thompson Coe, Dallas, TX.
JUDGES: Before Justices Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill.1 Opinion by Justice O’Neill.
1 The Hon. Michael J. O’Neill, Justice, Assigned
OPINION BY: MICHAEL J. O’NEILL
Opinion by Justice O’Neill
Appellant Graciela Quiroz brought a negligence suit against appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc., and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. (collectively Jumpstreet) for injuries she sustained while jumping on a trampoline at a Jumpstreet facility. Jumpstreet moved for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by Quiroz. Quiroz responded and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment, denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and dismissed all of Quiroz’s claims. In one issue, Quiroz contends the trial court erred in granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her motion for partial summary judgment. We affirm the trial court’s order.
On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release [*2] and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.
Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted [*3] the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.
Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.
In her sole issue on appeal, Quiroz contends the trial court erred by granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her cross-motion [*4] for partial summary judgment. Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, no contract existed between her and Jumpstreet, LLC, the entity named in the Release. Quiroz argues there was no “meeting of the minds on the contract’s essential terms” between her and Jumpstreet, LLC because Jumpstreet, LLC had been dissolved in June 2011 and did not exist at the time of her injury in November 2014. Quiroz contends that because a nonexistent entity cannot form or enter into a contract, the Release is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.
Quiroz further contends the Release did not meet the “fair notice requirement” because none of the Jumpstreet defendants are named in the Release; only the nonexistent entity “Jumpstreet, LLC” is specifically named in the Release. Quiroz argues the Release also never specifically identified or released a claim for an injury due to paralysis. Further, Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, a parent cannot waive a minor’s claims, and a Release cannot waive any claims for gross negligence because that is against public policy.
Jumpstreet responds that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because Quiroz signed a valid, enforceable Release [*5] before using its facility. The Release satisfied both the fair notice requirement and the express negligence rule as to both negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet also argues the Release meets the general requirements of a valid contract because it shows a “meeting of the minds” and valid consideration. Jumpstreet further responds that because the consortium and bystander claims are derivative claims, they are barred as a matter of law.
[HN1] We review a trial court’s summary judgment order de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Dallas v. Dallas Morning News, LP, 281 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2009, no pet.); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166a(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When both sides move for summary judgment, however, each party bears the burden of establishing it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, we review the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties and determine all the questions presented. [*6] S. Crushed Concrete, LLC v. City of Houston, 398 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tex. 2013).
The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. [HN2] A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action. Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice. Quintana v. CrossFit Dallas, L.L.C., 347 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2011, no pet,).
The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994). This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.
[HN3] Parties have the right to contract as they see fit as long as their agreement does not violate the law or public policy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 129 & n.11 (Tex. 2004). Texas law recognizes and protects a broad freedom of contract. Fairfield Ins. Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP, 246 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tex. 2008). Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written [*7] expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). Public policy dictates that courts are not to interfere lightly with this freedom of contract. See, e.g., Gym-N-I Playgrounds, Inc. v. Snider, 220 S.W.3d 905, 912 (Tex. 2007) (commercial lease expressly waiving warranties); In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 129 & n.11 (contractual jury waiver); BMG Direct Mktg., Inc. v. Peake, 178 S.W.3d 763, 767 (Tex. 2005) (liquidated damages clause); Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Carter, 95 Tex. 461, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).
[HN4] A tortfeasor can claim the protection of a release only if the release refers to him by name or with such descriptive particularity that his identity or his connection with the tortious event is not in doubt. Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 420 (Tex. 1984); see also Frazer v. Tex. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 4 S.W.3d 819, 823-24 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.) (with use of “and its affiliated companies,” release sufficiently identified Texas Farm Bureau Underwriters such that its identity is not in doubt.). Here, the Release clearly and unambiguously stated it applied to all Jumpstreet entities that are engaged in the trampoline business. Although the Release specifically named “Jumpstreet, LLC,” it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of [*8] Jumpstreet.”
The record shows the entity named “Jumpstreet, LLC” was dissolved in June, 2011. The record also contains a deposition transcript from Martin L. Brooks who testified he and Tim Crawford were cousins and the sole owners of all the Jumpstreet entities, all the Jumpstreet entities were engaged in the trampoline business, and the entity named “Jumpstreet, Inc.” was the parent company. The record shows that in her original petition, Quiroz named seventeen different Jumpstreet entities, including “Jumpstreet, Inc.,” the parent company. In her “fourth amended petition” that was in effect at the time of the summary judgment hearing, however, she named only three of the Jumpstreet entities, including the parent company. The Jumpstreet appellees in this case are all engaged in the trampoline business and described with such particularity that their identity was never in doubt. Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 420; Frazer, 4 S.W.3d at 823-24.
Although the Release in this case contains two pages, it conspicuously contains several paragraphs with bolded headings and capitalized font. On page one, an “assumption of risk” section is separate from a “release of liability” section. The Release warns prospective patrons to “please read this document [*9] carefully” and “by signing it, you are giving up legal rights.” This warning appears directly under the title of the Release and is written in all capital letters. On page two, the Release has an “assumption of the risk” paragraph in all capital letters and surrounded by a box, calling specific attention to it. On both pages, there are several references to the risks and dangers of participating in Jumpstreet services throughout the Release. The “waiver and release” language is repeated a final time, in capital lettering, immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452 (concluding a two-page contract titled “Health Assessment Waiver and Goals Work Sheet” that included word “release” in larger and bold print near top of second page and initialed by party was “sufficiently conspicuous to provide fair notice”).
The Release also does not run afoul of the express negligence rule. As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. Further, on page one in the assumption of [*10] risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.” Id.
Quiroz next argues that a parent cannot waive a minor child’s claims. Quiroz asserts Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1993), is the leading Texas case. In Munoz, the parents sued an amusement park for damages after their child was injured on a ride. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by the parents. The appellate court reversed, holding that the Family Code did not give parents the power to waive a child’s cause of action for personal injuries. Munoz is distinguishable from Quiroz’s claims in that Quiroz sustained the injury and not her children. [*11] Moreover, [HN5] the cause of action for loss of parental consortium, like the cause of action for loss of spousal consortium, is a derivative cause of action. As such, the defenses that bar all or part of the injured parent’s recovery have the same effect on the child’s recovery. Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463, 468 (Tex. 1990), on reh’g in part (Mar. 6, 1991). And although bystander claims are considered independent and not derivative, it is also true that the bystander plaintiff cannot recover unless the injured person can recover. Estate of Barrera v. Rosamond Vill. Ltd. P’ship, 983 S.W.2d 795, 799-800 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.).
Quiroz lastly argues a pre-injury release cannot apply to gross negligence claims because that is against public policy. Generally, a contract provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1 (1981). Quiroz cites our case in Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, 402 S.W.3d 915 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2013, no pet.), for this proposition. There is disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims for gross negligence. The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury.2 Some appellate courts have held that negligence [*12] and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. See Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1994, writ denied).
2 We note that Quiroz cited Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority Of Harris County., 449 S.W.3d 98 (Tex. 2014), in her “First Supplemental Brief,” for the proposition that “a pre-injury release of future liability for gross negligence is void as against public policy.” In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court had to decide, in a breach of contract case, whether a no-damages-for-delay provision shielded the owner from liability for deliberately and wrongfully interfering with the contractor’s work. In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court held the no-damages-for-delay provision at issue was unenforceable as against public policy. Zachry, however, is distinguishable because that case concerned how a no-delay-for-damages provision could be enforced if the Port’s intentional misconduct caused the delay. Here, Quiroz has not asserted that Jumpstreet’s alleged negligence was intentional, deliberate, or reckless.
In contrast, we recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris, 402 S.W.3d at 926. We reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. We specifically pointed out that “our conclusion is limited to the context presented by this case.” See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. See Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1986, no writ).
Van Voris is distinguishable from the case here in that Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the [*13] claims being waived. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.
The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See City of Garland, 22 S.W.3d at 356. We conclude the trial court properly granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment. See Travelers Ins. Co., 315 S.W.3d at 862.
We affirm the trial court’s order granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.
/s/ Michael J. O’Neill
MICHAEL J. O’NEILL
In accordance with this Court’s opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.
It is ORDERED that appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. recover their costs of this appeal from appellants Graciela Quiroz and Robert Sullivan.
Judgment entered this 9th day of July, 2018.