Paperwork, the death of trees and in this case the only defense the defendant had at this stage of the trial because the paperwork was not taken care of properly.

The youth camp failed to keep a good copy of the registration paperwork. What was presented to the court as a forum selection clause was illegible so the court held it was not valid.

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Ben Epps, et al.

Defendant: 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Motion to Dismiss because of improper venue

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

Lawsuits are not games; they are not invitations to parties, there is a lot of money riding on the outcome in most cases. Documents needed for the case must be given to the attorneys defending the case in the condition in which they are maintained. In this case, a document was faxed to the defense attorneys and in such a bad way the court could not read the document. Since the court could not read the document, the court assumed the original was the same, and therefore, the document was not valid.

At the same time, if you are collecting and keeping documents that may end up in court, you need to create a system that preserves these documents in perfect condition so if they do get to court the judge can read them.

Finally, you must get the documents from the people you need a signature from in a condition the court will accept.

Facts

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independent Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions.

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause.

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin.

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause.

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

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs had filed the case in the wrong court according to the agreement, the registration form signed by the parents of the injured youth. The forum selection clause as defined by the courts or agreement to hold the trial at a specific court, allegedly stated the trial was to be held in Wayne County Court, Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs filed the case in the federal district our in Pennsylvania. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss from federal court and force the case to the state court.

The jurisdiction in the case was going to be Pennsylvania law no matter what; however, the trial would not be held in the back yard of the defendant, which is normally a good thing for the defendant.

When in the federal district court system, if a forum selection clause is upheld the case is simply transferred to the proper court. However, in this case because the selection clause stated a state court the case could not be transferred. The case would be dismissed at the federal court. The case could be refiled in the state court at that time if the statute of limitations had not run.

However, here, the document that was presented to the court that was the alleged agreement by the parents to only sue in state court was not legible.

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, it’s essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

The agreement was a copy that had been faxed, was illegible and could not be read by the court.

Since the court could not read the document, the legal wording was incomplete and the entire document had sections missing the court could not find there was an agreement. The motion to change venue was dismissed.

So Now What?

I would guess the camp had received the faxed copy from the parents. There would be no need to fax the documents around the camp. The camp probably had sent the documents to the parents for their signature, and they had faxed them back. This was mistake one, because the camp accepted a badly faxed copy of the document.

  1. When you receive an email, fax, or original where you cannot make out what is going on, signature seems off, the document is unreadable, you must get a good copy. Tell the signor to do it again and make the copy legible.
  2. Set up a system to check documents when they come in.
  3. Set the system up with enough time so that is time to correct problems. Don’t place yourself in a position where you are balancing the money coming in versus proper paperwork you need.

Second, the camp seemed to not locate the original fax, but only had a copy of the faxed document.

  1. Develop a system to store and maintain the documents. Now day’s scanners are so efficient all the documents can be scanned and maintained in seconds. The original paper documents can be preserved and kept for the statue of limitations for the state, and a good electronic copy is also available.

Don’t allow a kid or adult to come to camp, attend the program, participate in the activity unless you have all the paperwork you need, signed and in a good legible condition. Then and only then cash the check and open the gates.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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forum selection clause, venue, parties, improper venue, enforceability, terms, legible, notice, motion to dismiss, conspicuous, applies, factors, invalid, print, 1.I.L., INC., Independent Lake Camp, forum selection clause,


Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Ben Epps, et al., Plaintiffs, v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 07-02314

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

December 19, 2007

ORDER

MEMORANDUM

James T. Giles J.

I. Introduction

Before the court is Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3). Plaintiffs, Bens Epps and Amy Monroe, as parents and natural guardians of Axel Epps and in their own right, bring suit based in diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, against Defendant 1.I.L. Inc. for personal injuries allegedly sustained by their son, Axel, while attending Defendant’s camp.

The primary issue raised by Defendant’s motion and determined by the court is whether the forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement at issue is valid and enforceable. The court finds that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is not enforceable because it does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court concludes that Plaintiffs have brought suit in a proper venue and denies Defendant’s motion to dismiss for the reasons that follow.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independant Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 6.) Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 7.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 8.)

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 9.) Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Plaintiffs, citizens of New York, brought suit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania because Defendant is a citizen of Pennsylvania with offices in both Montgomery County and Wayne County. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 1-4; Pls.’ Br. in Supp. of Ans. to Mot. of Def. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Pls.’ Supp. Ans.”) 1; Def.’s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Def.’s Supp.”) 1, 5.) Plaintiffs demand damages in excess of $150,000 for each of the two counts in the complaint as well as interest and costs of the suit.

III. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on June 7, 2007. Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss 2.) Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) The blank Registration Agreement, in which the print is small but clear and legible, provides in part:

It is agreed that any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause. (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2, Ex. B ¶¶ 2-3 (Ben Epps Aff.), Ex. C ¶¶ 2-3 (Amy Monroe Aff.).)

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. (Gould Aff. ¶¶ 5, 7-10.) He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. (Gould Aff. ¶ 10.) The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin. (Gould Aff. Ex. A (Signed Registration Agreement).)

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.) Consequently, if the print were clearly legible, when compared with the clear, blank version of the agreement, the forum selection clause would read:

It is agree [sic] any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in V [or three-quarters of a W] County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Gould Aff. Ex. A.) Thus, if legible, most or all of the letters in the word “Wayne,” as in “Wayne County Pennsylvania,” are missing. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ reply to Defendant’s affidavit, Plaintiffs do not dispute that Plaintiff Ben Epps’ signature appears on the copy of the Registration Agreement. Nor do Plaintiffs argue that the entire agreement itself is invalid. (Compare Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2-3 (arguing, before Defendant’s production of a signed agreement, that the Registration Agreement was not enforceable because there was no objective manifestation of the parties’ intention to be contractually bound), with Pls.’ Reply to Def.’s Aff. 1 (arguing, after Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the forum selection clause because the wording of the clause was truncated and indiscernible).) Thus, the issue determined by the court is the enforceability of the forum selection clause.

III. Discussion

Federal law applies in the determination of the effect given to a forum selection clause in diversity cases. Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 877 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Jones v. Weibrecht, 901 F.2d 17, 19 (2d Cir. 1990)). To evaluate the enforceability of the forum selection clause here, the court determines if the standard for dismissal or transfer is proper.[1] See id. at 877-78. If the standard for transfer applies, the court then determines if the forum selection clause is reasonable. See id. at 880 (citing M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972)).

A. Dismissal or Transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or 1406.

Although dismissal is a “permissible means of enforcing a forum selection clause that allows suit to be filed in another federal forum,” the Third Circuit cautions that “as a general matter, it makes better sense, when venue is proper but the parties have agreed upon a not- unreasonable forum selection clause that points to another federal venue, to transfer rather than dismiss.” Salovaara v. Jackson Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 246 F.3d 289, 298-99 (3d Cir. 2001); see Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 28-29, 32 (1988) (holding that a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction should treat a request to enforce a forum selection clause in a contract as a motion to transfer venue under applicable federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a)); 15 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (2d ed. 1986 & Supp. 2006).

Transfer, however, is not available when a forum selection clause specifies a non-federal forum. Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298. The forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement, if valid and untruncated, would provide that “any dispute . . . can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania” and does not limit jurisdiction to state court. The provision’s plain language is construed to permit the action in any court of the county, including the federal court in the federal judicial district encompassing Wayne County, Pennsylvania, regardless of whether the federal court is physically located in the county. See Jumara, 55 F.3d at 881 (construing an arbitration provision requiring the action to transpire within a particular county to mean that the action would be permitted in any court, state or federal, with jurisdiction encompassing that county). Transfer is an available remedy because the forum selection clause, if valid and untruncated, includes a federal forum. See id. at 881-83 (applying the § 1404(a) analysis for transfer where a forum selection clause permitted any state or federal forum within a particular county).

Because transfer is the appropriate remedy, the court must then consider whether 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or § 1406 applies. “Section 1404(a) provides for the transfer of a case where both the original venue and the requested venue are proper. Section 1406, on the other hand, applies where the original venue is improper and provides for either transfer or dismissal of the case.” Id. at 878. Whether venue is proper in this district is governed by the federal venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1391. Id.

Without considering the forum selection clause, venue is proper in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Neither party disputes that Defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction in this district because Defendant transacts business here. See 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c); Jumara, 55 F.3d at 878-79; Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29 n.8 (“The parties do not dispute that the District Court properly denied the motion to dismiss the case for improper venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a) because respondent apparently does business [there].”); see also (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 1; Def.’s Supp. 3). This court therefore concludes that the appropriate analysis is whether the case should be transferred under § 1404(a). See Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298-99.

B. Transfer under 1404(a) Is Improper Because the Forum Selection Clause Is Unreasonable and Unenforceable.

Section 1404(a) controls the inquiry of whether to give effect to a forum selection clause and to transfer a case.[2] Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29, 32. Before considering the factors under Section 1404(a), the court first examines the validity or reasonableness of the forum selection clause through application of the test in M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972). “Where the forum selection clause is valid, which requires that there have been no ‘fraud, influence, or overweening bargaining power,’ the plaintiffs bear the burden of demonstrating why they should not be bound by their contractual choice of forum.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80 (quoting Bremen, 407 U.S. at 12-13).

A forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid if the objecting party demonstrates that (1) the forum selection clause is the result of fraud or overreaching, (2) its enforcement would violate a strong public policy of the forum, or (3) its enforcement would result in litigation so seriously inconvenient and unreasonable that it would deprive a litigant of his or her day in court. Bremen, 407 U.S. at 15-17; In re Diaz Contracting, Inc., 817 F.2d 1047, 1051-52 (3d Cir. 1987).

To dispose of this issue, the court need only address whether the enforcement of the forum selection clause violates a strong public policy of the forum. Under Pennsylvania law, a clause in a contract must be conspicuous, so as to provide notice of its terms to a reasonable person. See, e.g., 13 Pa.C.S. § 2316 (requiring that limitation of warranties terms be conspicuous); 13 Pa.C.S. § 1201 (defining “conspicuous”); Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 2006 Pa. Super 159, P23-24 & n.12-13 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (relying on the requirement for conspicuous terms in the sale of goods context in a case involving the sale of services, and finding that disclaimer language on a ski ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous to put a purchaser on notice of its contents). Plaintiffs argue that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is invalid because the wording of the clause is “truncated and indiscernible.” (Pls.’ Reply 1.)

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, its essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

V. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue is denied. An appropriate order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 19th day of December, 2007, upon consideration of Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue (Doc. No. 4), Plaintiffs’ Response in opposition thereto, Defendant’s Affidavit of Daniel Gould and Exhibits (Doc. Nos. 8 & 9), and Plaintiffs’ Reply, it is hereby ORDERED that said motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth in the attached memorandum.

Notes:

[1] Prior to Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, Plaintiffs argued that the forum selection clause should not be enforced because it did not meet the standard of reasonable communicativeness, as set forth in Marek v. Marpan Two, Inc., 817 F.2d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1987), due to the agreement’s small print. Marek applies primarily in cases involving maritime law. See, e.g., Gibbs v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 314 F.3d 125, 130 (3d Cir. 2002); Hodes v. S. N.C. Achille Lauro ed Altri-Gestione, 858 F.2d 905, 906, 909-12 (3d Cir. 1988). As discussed below, the court follows more recent Third Circuit precedent on the enforceability of forum selection clauses.

[2] Section 1404(a) provides that “a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought” for “the convenience of parties and witnesses” and “in the interest of justice.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a); see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29. Courts must adjudicate motions to transfer based on an “individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness,” weighing a number of factors. Id. (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622 (1964)). A court’s review is not limited to the three enumerated factors in § 1404(a) – convenience of the parties, convenience of witnesses, or interests of justice – and courts may consider various private and public interests. Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80.

The parties’ agreement as to the proper forum, although not dispositive, receives “substantial consideration” in the weighing of relevant factors. Id. at 880; see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29-30 (“The presence of a forum selection clause . . . will be a significant factor that figures centrally in the district court’s calculus. . . . The flexible and individualized analysis Congress prescribed in § 1404(a) thus encompasses consideration of the parties’ private expression of their venue preferences.”). The deference generally given to a plaintiff’s choice of forum is “inappropriate where the plaintiff has already freely chosen an appropriate venue.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 880.


Get check boxes and initials out of your release!

If the defendants release did not have a catch all phrase at the bottom of the document the release would be invalid because an initial had not been signed by the plaintiff.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

State: Pennsylvania: United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff did not initial one of the initial boxes on the release she signed. This gave the plaintiff enough of an argument to make an appellate argument. But for a final paragraph that covered the uninitialed box language this release would have failed.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses.

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

The court first reviewed the validity of releases under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania has a three-part test to determine if releases are valid.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state.

The three requirements all evolve around the public policy argument. It is against public policy to have someone sign a release for a necessity, where the bargaining power is not equal or if the contract is so nasty it should not be signed by anyone. A release, a contract, to ride an ATV is valid because it is not a necessity, it is between parties of equal bargaining power and it is voluntary.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”

If the release passes the first three tests, it still must be scrutinized by the court to determine if it clearly relieves the defendant of liability. If the language of the agreement sets forth the requirements necessary for the plaintiff to understand she is liable for her injuries.

Even if an exculpatory clause is facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

If the release, or any contract under Pennsylvania law meets those tests it is finally reviewed to determine if both parties clearly understood the intent of the agreement. In the case of a release, both parties must understand that the possible plaintiff is giving up his or her right to sue the possible defendant.

Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter.

In this case, the court found the release passed all of the tests.

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

Once the release was found to be valid the next issue was whether or not the plaintiff had signed the release. The plaintiff argued because she had not initialed an initial box, had not read the release in its entirety

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first.” In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.)

The court did look at situations were the release was enforceable even if the plaintiff did not read the release or could not read the release.

…(written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable because it was inconspicuous. However, the argument seemed to be based on case law that found waivers to be void then the real facts of this case.

The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply.

The saving language of the release that covered the un-initialed section 10 was. Even though paragraph 10 was not initialed, the heading clearly stated what the document was and the intentions of the parties. The language that covered the un-initialed paragraph 10 was:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

The court found that the entire agreement was covered by this saving language above. So, the failure to initial one paragraph was not enough to void the release.

The court summarized its reasoning for finding the release valid and upholding the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims because of the release.

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable.

So Now What?

But for language at the bottom of the release which the court found to cover for the language that was not initialed the release would have failed. It is important to note; the court analysis stated the language that was not initialed was not part of the release.

If you have initial boxes, initials, etc., and one box is not initialed, in Pennsylvania that paragraph that is not initialed or initialed is invalid. Dependent upon the language, your release maybe void, if you don’t have the boxes checked or initialed.

Why use them anyway. Here the court explains why they are unnecessary, the language at the bottom of your release should tie everything together. Once you sign you acknowledge that you have read and understood the entire document. The checkboxes or initials can only hurt you in a release, not help you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym, check box, checkbox, initials, The Lost Trails, The Lost Trails LLC, ATV, All Terrain Vehicle, Release, Public Policy


Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Core Terms

exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym

Counsel: [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2] those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3] party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4] did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5] (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6] OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7] any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8] County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “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). A fact is “material” only [*9] if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10] such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11] law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13] who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14] facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15] riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16] of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17] at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18] first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19] this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20] conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21] the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22] the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23] Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge


Lawsuit because a ski helmet failed to protect a plaintiff from concussion.

Is this, the beginning of an avalanche of lawsuits for concussions from people wearing helmets?

Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEIS 217233

State: Wisconsin: United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin

Plaintiff: Steven Scott Rogers, by his guardian, Tracy Rogers, Tracy Rogers, Samba Health Benefit Plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, and State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Defendant: K2 Sports, LLC, Lexington Insurance Company, and AIG Europe Limited

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, strict product liability, and breach of warranty

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

This appears to be the first lawsuit over a ski helmet not protecting the skier from a brain injury. This is just a motion hearing. However, it provides some insight into the claims and defenses that will spring up in the future if people continue to believe that human-powered recreation helmets are going to protect against concussions and fatal head injuries.

Facts

Scott wore a K2 Phase 08 helmet while skiing with his stepson Coby at the Afton Alps Ski Area in Washington County, Minnesota, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Around 8:40 p.m., Scott and Coby skied down a beginner’s run called Nancy’s Nursery. Scott fell about halfway down the hill near some small mounds called “rollers.” Coby was in front of Scott and did not witness the fall. Another skier did witness the fall, but he was not able to recall any details about it, except that the fall did not seem unusual.

The fall left Scott unconscious and bleeding from his left ear. Scott was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors conducted tests including a CT scan of Scott’s head. The accident caused brain hemorrhages and fractured Scott’s skull, left clavicle, and numerous ribs along Scott’s left side. As a result of permanent brain damage caused by the accident, Scott now lives at a VA hospital where he receives round-the-clock care.

The K2 helmet was certified as compliant with the standards of ASTM International, which is an organization that develops and [*4] publishes technical standards for a wide range of products.2 Compliance with ASTM standards is voluntary. The K2 helmet has three layers. The exterior layer is a hard-plastic shell. The shell is lined with an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) energy-attenuating layer, which is supposed to absorb and dissipate shock from a blow to the head. The third layer is a comfort liner that can be adjusted to fit on the user’s head. After Scott’s accident, the lower left rear of the exterior shell was cracked. And, in the same area, the shock-absorbing EPS layer was flattened, and chunks of the EPS were missing.

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

This was a motion’s decision. A Motion for summary judgment was filed by the defendant who was denied and motions to exclude witnesses, expert witness testimony, etc., which were denied in part and granted in part for both parties.

The main issue is, it is a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a human-powered recreation helmet manufacturer for a concussion.

The motions covered a broad range of topics; this discussion will look at the important points from an outdoor recreation perspective.

The court started by looking at the Wisconsin Product Liability statute.

Wisconsin product liability law is codified under Wisconsin Statute § 895.047.5 A product liability claim has five elements: (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous; (3) the defect existed when the product left the control of the manufacturer; (4) the product reached the consumer without substantial change; and (5) the defect caused the claimant’s damages.

The substantial change requirement is interesting. That reasoning provides a defense for the manufacturer if the retailer makes modifications to the helmet for a sale. At the same time, it is how all people in the chain of custody of a product are held liable for a product liability claim. Any of the people in the chain of custody, manufacture, distributor, retailers could have identified the defect and prevented the defective product from reaching the consumer.

Generally, product liability claims are one of three types: “design defects, manufacturing defects, and warning defects.”

Design defects are levied when the product is designed badly from the beginning. Although there are a lot of design defect claims, there are rarely judgments based on design because most manufacturers understand safety issues.

One area that does pop up in design defects is when a product is used differently from what it was originally designed. If the manufacturer leans about the misuse of the product, then the manufacturer may be held liable for injuries due to the misuse of the product.

Manufacturing defects are simply a failure of quality control. Although in this day, you would think, manufacturing defects would be rare, they occur constantly. A manufacturing defect is usually the reason for a recall of a product.

The final defect, warning defects, are the easiest and toughest at the same time. Making sure the information on how to use a product and any warnings on how not to use the product are critical. At the same time, it is difficult for manufacture to envision how their product could be used and all the risks from those different uses.

As an example, when I’m design manuals and warnings, I want the product. After I have examined it thoroughly and tried every possible way to use it improperly, I ask someone who has no understanding of the product to use it. A sixteen-year-old kid can do amazing things that no one ever envisioned with some products.

Many times, a product liability lawsuit will include a negligence claim. Here the court compared the issues of proving a product negligence claim and a product liability claim.

Plaintiffs also bring a claim for negligence. To sustain this claim, plaintiffs must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant, (2) a breach of that duty of care, (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the injury. In Wisconsin, a manufacturer’s duty of care includes the duty to safely design the product so it is fit for its intended purpose, and the duty to conduct adequate inspections and tests to determine the extent of defects.

The bold issue is another point you rarely know about. Your duty to design is just step one. Step two is you must test your product to make sure that it meets the intended purpose and the limits of your design. You design a product to do something. Once manufactured you must test the product initially and sometimes ongoing to make sure it still does what you say it will within the parameters you say it will operate.

This duty to test is increased if the duty arises from labeling or marketing. If you say the product contains X ounces of Sample or only breaks under loads greater than XX pounds you have to make sure each of your products meets that test.

The issue in ski helmets is not what the manufacturer says it can or cannot do. The issue is what the consumer believes the product will do. The consumer/plaintiff believes the ski helmet is designed to protect against a concussion, where, in reality; the design is just to slightly minimize the injury potential.

In this case, the plaintiff was claiming the helmet was defective. The plaintiff had to prove:

…a product is defective in design if the “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”

The helmet manufacturer, K2 brought up the fact that the helmet met the ASTM standards for ski helmets. That standard required the helmet to “keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.” If you look at that standard, it is minimal.

However, the ASTM helmet is not a 100% defense to a claim. It only shifts the burden to the plaintiff to prove the helmet was defective, more so since all helmet standards are voluntary.

The ASTM standards may be relevant, but they are not dispositive. If the ASTM standards were adopted by federal or state law, then K2 would be entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the helmet was not defective. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(3)(c). But the ASTM standards are only voluntary. Compliance with voluntary standards at the time of manufacturing may be evidence that K2 behaved reasonably, in defense of plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

Voluntary standards, which most standards are identified as, are really only a sword and not a shield. If you don’t meet a standard, then it is proof you don’t care, and you had a cheap product. Failing to meet a standard is better in the plaintiff’s hands to proof you were bad, rather than in the defendant’s hands as a shield.

Under Wisconsin law, the court set forth the issues needed to prove a defect based on inadequate warnings on the product or provided to the consumer.

Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings if “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the manufacturer and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a). Plaintiffs do not need to show that Scott actually read the instructions to prove causation. When a product is missing an adequate warning, the missing warning is a substantial factor in causing injury if a reasonable person would have heeded the warning and as a result avoided injury. There is a presumption that any missing instructions would have been read, and therefore a presumption of causation.

Here again, warnings are another weak shield for the defendant and a better sword for the plaintiff in litigation. Warnings show you tried to inform the consumer, or you told the consumer not to do something and they consumer did it anyway. The lack of a warning is a major sword to the plaintiff who can show the jury the lack of care and concern on the part of the manufacturer that should have and could have warned the consumer of the risk.

You can see the difference in the value of some arguments between the plaintiff and the defendant. If the defendant had the warning, it really does not matter except to hope you can argue it was written in a way that the consumer had to have seen it. If the manufacturer fails to have a warning, then the presumption is the consumer would have read the warning and not been hurt. But for the failure to have a warning, there would be no injury. If you are a manufacturer believing that since you have met the standards you are safe, you are soon to be renamed “Defendant.”

Even the voluntary part of the term “voluntary standard” can come back to haunt a manufacturer. If the manufacturer decides not to meet the standard, it is easy for the plaintiff’s attorney to argue the manufacturer did not meet the standard to save money, or because they did not care about their customers. Consequently, once a standard is created, voluntary or not, every manufacturer must meet the standard.

Worse, any standard then restricts research and development because of the fear of not meeting the standard and looking bad in court.

The motion did not look at the issues, we would like some clarification or the facts. What happened to cause the head injury that turned the plaintiff into a vegetable and more importantly, what did the plaintiff believe when they purchased the helmet.

So Now What?

The decision had a few interesting points. However, the greatest issue is the floodgates are now probably open for head injuries that occur to skiers and other recreationists while wearing a helmet. It will be interesting to see how this decision progresses through the courts and whether the issues of the amount of protections afforded versus the expectations of the consumer becomes an issue.

As the decision states. Ski helmets have limited ability to protect. The ASTM standard quoted in the decision requires the helmet to meet a simple test.

Under the ASTM standards, a helmet must keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.

Human-powered recreation helmets, ski, bike, rollerblading, scooters, etc., only protect against minor scalp injuries, nothing more. If the NFL cannot protect football players with helmets costing thousands of dollars why to you think the piece of plastic you paid $100 is going to protect you from a concussion.

More articles about helmets

A helmet manufacture understands the issues (Uvex, Mouthguards)    http://rec-law.us/xpxX6n

A new idea that makes sense in helmets: the Bern Hard Hat    http://rec-law.us/yPerOd

Are we using safety as an excuse not to spend time with people? Is here, “wear your helmet” taking the place of let me show you how to ride a bike?    http://rec-law.us/1fqwlpV

Do you really want to sell helmets this way? Does this article promote the industry?    http://rec-law.us/NfoMTs

Does being safe make us stupid? Studies say yes.    http://rec-law.us/Ao5BBD

Great article on why helmet laws are stupid    http://rec-law.us/zeOaNH

Great editorial questioning why we need laws to “protect” us from ourselves.    http://rec-law.us/Ayswbo

Helmets do not increase risk of a neck injury when skiing    http://rec-law.us/wPOUiM

Helmets: why cycling, skiing, skateboarding helmets don’t work    http://rec-law.us/RVsgkV

Law requires helmets, injuries down fatalities up?    http://rec-law.us/YwLcea

Mixed emotions, but a lot of I told you so.    http://rec-law.us/ysnWY2

More information over the debate about ski helmets: Ski Helmets ineffective crashes were the wear is going faster than 12 miles per hour    http://rec-law.us/z4CLkE

The helmet issue is so contentious people will say the stupidest things    http://rec-law.us/zhare9

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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helmet, summary judgment, testing, injuries, plaintiffs’, ASTM, instructions, contends, expert testimony, warning, ski, drop, product liability, move to strike, design defect, manufacturing, time of an accident, measured, opined, centimeters, parties, loss of consortium, admissibility, inadmissible, speculation, simulation, chinstrap, requires, warranty, exposed


Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217233

 Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217233

United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin

December 28, 2018, Decided; December 28, 2018, Filed

17-CV-534-JDP

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEIS 217233 *

STEVEN SCOTT ROGERS, by his guardian, Tracy Rogers, TRACY ROGERS, SAMBA HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN, BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF WISONSIN, and STATE OF WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES, Plaintiffs, v. K2 SPORTS, LLC, LEXINGTON INSURANCE COMPANY, and AIG EUROPE LIMITED, Defendants.

Core Terms

helmet, summary judgment, testing, injuries, plaintiffs’, ASTM, instructions, contends, expert testimony, warning, ski, drop, product liability, move to strike, design defect, manufacturing, time of an accident, measured, opined, centimeters, parties, loss of consortium, admissibility, inadmissible, speculation, simulation, chinstrap, requires, warranty, exposed

Counsel: [*1] For Steven Scott Rogers, By his Guardian Tracy Rogers, Tracy Rogers, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, doing business as Athem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Lexington Insurance Company, Plaintiffs, Counter Claimant, Counter Defendants: Charles M. Bye, Robert A. Parsons, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brian F. Laule, Bye, Goff, & Rohde, Ltd, River Falls, WI.

For Samba Health Benefit Plan, Plaintiff, Cross Claimant: Matthew Robert Falk, LEAD ATTORNEY, Falk Legal Group, Milwaukee, WI.

For State of Wisconsin – Department of Health Services, Involuntary Plaintiff, Plaintiff: Jesus Gabriel Garza, State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Madison, WI.

For K2 Sports, LLC, f/k/a K-2 Corporation, Defendant, Cross Defendant: Anne Marie Ellis, Gary A Wolensky, Michael Preciado, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Buchalter Nemer, Irvine, CA; Eric J. Meier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Husch Blackwell, LLP, Milwaukee, WI; Leslie Gutierrez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Milwaukee, WI; Christopher Hossellman, Buchalter, APC, Irvine, CA.

For AIG Europe Limited, Defendant, Cross Defendant: Charles W. Browning, Sara D. Corbello, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Plunkett Cooney, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Eric J. Meier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Husch Blackwell, LLP, Milwaukee, WI.

Judges: JAMES D. PETERSON, [*2] District Judge.

Opinion by: JAMES D. PETERSON

Opinion

OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiff Steven Scott Rogers fell while skiing and suffered a serious brain injury. Scott and his wife, plaintiff Tracy Rogers, contend that Scott’s helmet, made by defendant K2 Sports, was defectively designed and that the defect was a cause of his injury. They have sued K2 for negligence, strict product liability, and breach of warranty. Dkt. 32. Tracy also claims loss of consortium as a result of her husband’s injuries.1 K2 denies that the helmet was defective, contending instead that the helmet was the wrong size and that Scott had not properly fastened it, and that he was injured by direct contact with the ground.

K2 moves for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs’ claims. Dkt. 102. Plaintiffs oppose, and they move to strike defendant’s experts’ opinions that the helmet moved out of position when Scott fell. Dkt. 139.

At the heart of this case is a straightforward dispute about the role of the helmet in Scott’s injury. The court will limit the testimony of K2’s experts about how the injury occurred because some of those opinions are too speculative. But that still leaves genuine disputes about the fit of the helmet and whether it was [*3] properly designed, so K2’s motion for summary judgment will be denied.

UNDISPUTED FACTS

The following facts are undisputed except where noted.

Scott wore a K2 Phase 08 helmet while skiing with his stepson Coby at the Afton Alps Ski Area in Washington County, Minnesota, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Around 8:40 p.m., Scott and Coby skied down a beginner’s run called Nancy’s Nursery. Scott fell about halfway down the hill near some small mounds called “rollers.” Coby was in front of Scott and did not witness the fall. Another skier did witness the fall, but he was not able to recall any details about it, except that the fall did not seem unusual.

The fall left Scott unconscious and bleeding from his left ear. Scott was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors conducted tests including a CT scan of Scott’s head. The accident caused brain hemorrhages and fractured Scott’s skull, left clavicle, and numerous ribs along Scott’s left side. As a result of permanent brain damage caused by the accident, Scott now lives at a VA hospital where he receives round-the-clock care.

The K2 helmet was certified as compliant with the standards of ASTM International, which is an organization that develops and [*4] publishes technical standards for a wide range of products.2 Compliance with ASTM standards is voluntary. The K2 helmet has three layers. The exterior layer is a hard-plastic shell. The shell is lined with an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) energy-attenuating layer, which is supposed to absorb and dissipate shock from a blow to the head. The third layer is a comfort liner that can be adjusted to fit on the user’s head. After Scott’s accident, the lower left rear of the exterior shell was cracked. And, in the same area, the shock-absorbing EPS layer was flattened, and chunks of the EPS were missing.

The parties sharply dispute what happened to the helmet when Scott fell. K2 contends that the helmet was improperly fit and not properly fastened. K2’s theory is that as Scott fell, his helmet shifted out of place and the left posterior region of his head was exposed and directly hit the ground. Dkt. 144, ¶ 38. K2 contends that the helmet only partially protected Scott’s head, and that the point of impact on the helmet was below the “test line,” which is the lower limit of the area that is supposed to be protected under ASTM standards. K2 also contends that pictures from the [*5] day of the accident show that Scott failed to tighten the helmet’s chinstrap. Id., ¶ 39.

Plaintiffs contend that the helmet did not actually meet ASTM standards. Plaintiffs’ theory is that the bottom rear of the helmet was excessively tapered at the test line. As a result of the tapering, the helmet did not afford sufficient protection against a blow such as the one Scott suffered. Plaintiffs also contend that the helmet was the right size for Scott.

ANALYSIS

K2 moves for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiffs cannot prove that Scott’s K2 helmet was defective or that it caused Scott’s injuries. In connection with their opposition to K2’s motion, plaintiffs move to strike parts of K2’s expert evidence. The court begins with plaintiffs’ challenge to the expert evidence.

A. Plaintiffs’ motion to exclude expert evidence

Under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993), and Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999), the court must serve as a gatekeeper to ensure that proffered expert testimony meets the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Essentially, the gatekeeping function consists of a three-part test: the court must ensure that the expert is qualified, that the expert’s opinions are based on reliable methods and reasoning, and that the expert’s opinions will assist the jury in [*6] deciding a relevant issue. Myers v. Ill. Cent. R. R. Co., 629 F.3d 639, 644 (7th Cir. 2010). The proponent of expert evidence bears the burden of establishing that the expert’s testimony is admissible. Lewis v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., 561 F.3d 698, 705 (7th Cir. 2009).

Plaintiffs move to strike aspects of the expert reports of P. David Halstead and Irving Scher. Although plaintiffs dispute Halstead’s qualifications, the main question is whether Halstead and Scher used reliable methodologies and reasoning. The admissibility inquiry undertaken by the court “must be ‘tied to the facts’ of a particular case.” Kumho, 526 U.S. at 150 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591). The “critical inquiry” for admissibility is whether the opinion is rationally connected to the underlying data or “connected to the existing data ‘only by the ipse dixit of the expert.'” Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 877 F.3d 771, 781, 732 Fed. Appx. 484 (7th Cir. 2017). Expert testimony that merely asserts a “bottom line” or provides testimony based on subjective belief or speculation is inadmissible. Metavante Corp. v. Emigrant Sav. Bank, 619 F.3d 748, 761 (7th Cir. 2010).

1. P. David Halstead

P. David Halstead is the Technical Director of Southern Impact Research Center. Halstead conducted a series of drop tests to try to replicate the damage on Scott’s helmet, and thereby to determine the amount of force that the helmet and Scott experienced at the time of Scott’s fall. Dkt. 110, at 6. Halstead offers two main opinions: (1) [*7] that the helmet was not defective, and (2) that the helmet was out of place at the time of the accident. Plaintiffs move to strike three aspects of Halstead’s report. Dkt. 137, at 6-7.

First, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion that the helmet was out of position at the time of the accident. Halstead expresses that opinion in various forms:

• “It is my opinion that Mr. Rogers’ injuries were caused by complex fall kinematics that resulted while his helmet was out of position (rotated slightly to the left and possibly higher on the right) exposing his temporal bone in the area he sustained the mastoid fracture.” Dkt. 110, at 7.

• “Mr. Rogers sustained his injuries when his partially helmeted head, with the mastoid area of the temporal bone exposed, made contact with a somewhat compliant surface such as snow substantially similar to the snow measured at Afton Alps.” Id. at 9.

• “The skull fracture is a result of functionally direct contact with the impact surface to the mastoid area.” Id.

• “Given the test results had the helmet been in position the skull fracture almost certainly would not have occurred.” Id.

The court agrees with plaintiff that Halstead has not shown that this opinion is [*8] rationally connected to underlying data.

Halstead conducted a series of drop tests using K2 Phase 08 helmets, the same model as Scott’s helmet. Id. at 6. Under the ASTM standards, a helmet must keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less. Dkt. 124-13, at 3. Although these drop tests were not testing for ASTM compliance, Halstead used 300 g as a threshold for the helmet’s effectiveness. Halstead conducted eleven tests by dropping helmets on to a modular elastomer programmer (MEP), a rubber pad that is somewhat harder than packed snow. Dkt. 110, at 6. None of the drops resulted in an acceleration of more than 181 g or damaged the helmet in a way that resembled the damage to Scott’s helmet. So Halstead conducted three more tests using a harder, steel anvil. Id. at 6. One of these drops did crack the helmet, but the damage was still not as severe as Scott’s helmet.

Halstead opined that because his tests could not replicate the damage to Scott’s helmet, Scott’s helmet must not have been in place on Scott’s head at the time of the accident. Id. at 8-9. Halstead did not conduct any follow-up testing; he [*9] did not, for example, try dropping the helmet while it was out of place on the headform or try dropping the helmet without using a full-sized headform. Instead, Halstead scanned both the accident helmet and the most severely damaged test helmet with a laser. Id. After eyeballing the results of the laser scan, Halstead again concluded that the damage did not match and that therefore the helmet was not in place at the time of the accident. He opined specifically that the helmet rotated to the left, exposing the area where Scott’s skull was fractured.

Two factors that a court may consider regarding the admissibility of expert testimony are whether the expert “unjustifiably extrapolated from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion” and whether “the expert has adequately accounted for obvious alternative explanations.” Gopalratnam, 877 F.3d at 788 (quoting Fuesting v. Zimmer, Inc., 421 F.3d 528, 534-35 (7th Cir. 2005)). Both factors support striking Halstead’s opinion here. When Halstead’s test results failed to re-create the damage to Scott’s helmet, Halstead had a basis for concluding that Scott’s fall was in some way atypical. But he had no foundation to then extrapolate from these results that the helmet was therefore out of position. And he was even less justified [*10] in hypothesizing on the helmet’s exact orientation during the accident. Halstead did not confirm his hypothesis through additional testing, nor did he address alternative explanations for the damage to Scott’s helmet, such as the existence of a manufacturing defect or a weakening of the helmet through multiple impacts. And his use of laser scanning provided no additional details to support his hypothesis. Halstead simply picked one possible explanation for the test results and then assumed it was true. Halstead concedes that he is not an expert in the “full body kinematics” that are critical to understanding how Scott was injured. Dkt. 110, at 7.

Second, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion regarding the speed and force of impact on Scott’s head at the time of the accident:

Based on biomechanical testing the likely impact speed of his head to the surface was 13-14 mph or higher, head accelerations were in the range of 170 g — 220 g with angular acceleration between 7000-8000 rad/sec2.

Dkt. 110, at 7. The court will strike this opinion. Rule 702 places the responsibility on the expert to explain how his methodologies support his opinions. Metavante, 619 F.3d at 761. Although not explicitly stated, Halstead appears [*11] to have adopted these numbers from the results of his tests on the MEP pad. Dkt. 110, at 6. But as Halstead emphasized in his report, the tests on the MEP pad were unable to replicate Scott’s accident. It is not clear why the speeds and forces of impact must nonetheless be correct, and Halstead does not provide an explanation.

Third, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion regarding the helmet’s ability to protect against high-speed impact:

“As the biomechanical testing shows the helmet, at its thinnest, well below the test line is able to take an impact at nearly 14 miles per hour with a hemi anvil and still remain under 300g.”

Id. at 7. The court will not strike this opinion, which is based on the test results. Plaintiffs suggest that Halstead is not qualified to provide “biomechanical engineering opinions,” but in their reply brief, plaintiffs concede that Halstead is an experienced technician who is qualified to conduct the type of drop testing he performed. Dkt. 151, at 2.

The bottom line is that the court will consider Halstead’s drop testing analysis, but it will not consider his testimony that the helmet was out of place at the time of the accident.

2. Irving Scher, Ph.D., P.E

Irving [*12] Scher is a biomechanical engineer at Guidance Engineering and Applied Research. Scher’s report includes two separate sets of conclusions that are relevant to summary judgment. First, Scher used computer models to determine the fit and looseness of the helmet that Scott wore. Second, Scher conducted a biomechanical engineering analysis to determine the “kinematics” of the accident—the movement of Scott’s body and ski equipment according to the laws of physics. Plaintiffs move to strike both sets of conclusions. Dkt. 137, at 7-8.

a. Helmet fit

Scher opines that the helmet was poorly fit and that it was loose enough to move out of place:

• “Mr. Roger’s head circumference at the hat line is approximately 57 centimeters. Because the head size recommended for the subject helmet ranges from 59 to 62, Mr. Rogers’ head was at or below the lower end of the subject helmet’s size.” Dkt. 107, ¶¶ 10-12.

• “At the level of the helmet brim there was at least 2 to 4 centimeters of free space between Mr. Rogers’ head and the helmet in the anterior-posterior direction, and the helmet had space to rotate 20 degrees clockwise and counter-clockwise.” Id. ¶ 13.

• “The subject helmet was not snugly fitted to Mr. [*13] Rogers’ head.” Id. ¶ 14.

These opinions are rationally connected to the reasonably reliable data that Scher considered; the court will not strike them.

Scher created a 3D computer model of Scott’s head from the CT scans on the night of Scott’s accident. Dkt. 112, at 15. Using this model, Scher calculated circumference of Scott’s head as 57 centimeters. Because the helmet that Scott purchased was recommended for head circumferences of 59 to 62 centimeters, Scher opined that Scott’s helmet was one size too large. Scher scanned an exemplar K2 helmet of the same size as Scott’s helmet. Within his computer modeling software, Scher placed the 3D model of the helmet on the 3D model of Scott’s head. Scher determined that there was at least 2.25 centimeters of free space between Scott’s head and the interior of the helmet, and that with this extra space the helmet could freely rotate 20 degrees clockwise and counterclockwise. Finally, Scher viewed photographs of Scott on the day of the accident and determined that Scott’s chin strap was “loose.” Id. at 16. Scher’s analysis of the helmet’s fit led Scher to conclude that it was possible for the helmet to move out of position and expose a portion of the [*14] posterior region of Scott’s head.

Plaintiffs contend that Scher’s analysis is unreliable because Scott’s head actually has a circumference of 60 centimeters, not 57 centimeters. Plaintiffs’ measurement comes from Tracy’s declaration that she measured Scott’s head with a tape measure. Dkt. 123, ¶¶ 7-8.3 Neither party adduces evidence showing that the other party’s measurement is manifestly incorrect, so the size of Scott’s head is a matter of genuine dispute.4 Such a dispute does not render Scher’s opinion inadmissible.

b. Kinematics analysis

Scher also offered opinions about how Scott fell and how he was injured, which Scher refers to as a “kinematics” analysis. He expresses those opinions as follows:

• “Mr. Rogers likely caught his ski edge, fell forward and leftward while rotating clockwise and continuing downhill, and contacted the left, posterior region of his helmeted head on his acromioclavicular joint and proximal humerus, a very rigid area of hard-packed snow, or both.” Dkt. 112, at 36.

• “Because the helmet was not snug on Mr. Rogers’s head and he did not adjust appropriately the chin strap, the subject helmet was able to (and did) move out of position during Mr. Rogers’s fall [*15] and subsequent head impact.” Id.

• “No snowsport helmet would be able to prevent the injuries sustained by Mr. Rogers in the subject accident.” Id.

• “The subject helmet rotated axially counterclockwise and rightwards on Mr. Rogers’ head during his fall such that his helmet was out of place and exposed a portion of the left posterior region of his head just prior to impact.” Dkt. 107, ¶ 9.

• “Mr. Rogers failed to properly tighten the subject helmet’s chin strap, which allowed the subject helmet to move out of position as he fell.” Id. ¶ 15.

• “Immediately before Mr. Rogers’ head contacted the ground, the subject helmet moved out of position, causing the point of impact to be below the helmet’s test line.” Id. ¶ 18.

• “In my professional opinion, any snow sport helmet with a similar fit and loose chin strap on Mr. Rogers’ head would have similarly moved relative to his head in the subject fall.” Id. ¶ 20.

The court will not consider these opinions because they are too speculative: there is simply not enough information about how Scott fell to support this analysis.

Based on the assumption that “catching an edge” is a common occurrence among skiers, and the location and severity of Scott’s [*16] injuries, Scher created a computer simulation using the computer program MADYMO. Scher ran several simulations in MADYMO, using different estimates for Scott’s speed and the conditions on the ski slope. Id. at 29. He tweaked the variables in the simulation until he was able to create a simulation that could result in injuries similar to Scott’s injuries. Then based on that simulation, he opined on Scott’s body movements as he fell, and the forces that Scott experienced when he hit the ground. Scher opines both that Scott’s helmet hit the ground below the test line, and that Scott hit the ground with such force that no helmet could have prevented Scott’s injuries.

Scher’s simulation, and the opinions based on it, are inadmissible because they are based on guesswork rather than the facts of Scott’s accident. An expert must show that he has sufficient data to use the methodology employed. See Gopalratnam, 877 F.3d at 781 (Rule 702 requires the underlying data to be both qualitatively and quantitatively sufficient to conduct the analysis). Opinions that are based on speculation are inadmissible. Metavante, 619 F.3d at 761. Here, there was no witness who could describe the moments leading up to the fall, no measurement or even estimate of Scott’s speed at the [*17] time of the fall, and no reliable evidence of Scott’s skiing abilities or style. The court will exclude the opinions expressed on pages 21 through 31 of Scher’s report. Dkt. 112.

Scher is free to testify that the helmet was loose and that it might have moved out of position. And he can testify that based on Halstead’s testing, and based on the literature regarding head injuries and ski accidents, it seems unlikely that a typical fall could have caused the injuries that occurred. But Scher cannot speculate that the helmet actually moved or opine on the exact location of the helmet at the time of impact.

B. K2’s motion for summary judgment

Plaintiffs bring claims under theories of strict product liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. K2 moves for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs’ claims. The court will grant summary judgment on only the breach of warranty claims, which plaintiffs waive. Genuine disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment on the other claims.

1. Summary judgment standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court views all facts [*18] and draws all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment will not be granted unless “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Sarver v. Experian Info. Sols., 390 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2004) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986)).

2. Strict Product liability claim

Wisconsin product liability law is codified under Wisconsin Statute § 895.047.5 A product liability claim has five elements: (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous; (3) the defect existed when the product left the control of the manufacturer; (4) the product reached the consumer without substantial change; and (5) the defect caused the claimant’s damages. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1). K2 contends that they are entitled to summary judgment because plaintiffs cannot show that the helmet had a defect that rendered it unreasonably dangerous and because plaintiffs cannot show that the alleged defect caused Scott’s injuries.

There are three different categories of defects under the statute: design defects, manufacturing defects, and warning defects. Plaintiffs concede that they do not have evidence of a manufacturing defect, but they bring alternative claims for defective design if the helmet was in place during the accident and [*19] defective warning if the helmet fell out of place before the impact. Under the first theory, plaintiffs must show that the helmet had a design defect that caused Scott’s injuries to be worse than they would have been without the defect. Under the second theory, plaintiffs must show that the helmet’s instructions did not warn users to tighten the chinstrap. K2 seeks summary judgment as to both theories.

a. Defective design

Defendants contend that plaintiffs cannot adduce evidence of a design defect and that, even if a defect exists, plaintiffs cannot show that it caused Scott’s injuries. The court will address each element in turn.

i. Unreasonably dangerous defect

Summary judgment is inappropriate when resolution of a claim requires the court to choose between opposing expert testimony. See Wipf v. Kowalski, 519 F.3d 380, 385 (7th Cir. 2008) (explaining that “in a case of dueling experts . . . it is left to the trier of fact . . . to decide how to weigh the competing expert testimony”). That is the case here. Both parties hired experts to test K2 helmets according to ASTM standards, but the experts disagree on the testing procedures and achieved different results.6

Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective in design [*20] if the “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a).

K2 contends that plaintiffs have not shown any evidence of a design defect. But plaintiffs’ expert, Mariusz Ziejewski, provides evidence sufficient to support a reasonable jury verdict that a foreseeable risk of harm could have been reduced by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design. Ziejewski’s report states that due to tapering at the edge, the K2 helmet does not provide the protection required by ASTM standards when struck in the lower back. Dkt. 116; Dkt. 124-7. Ziejewski further states that other helmets without this tapering do provide the protection required by ASTM. This makes the K2 helmet more dangerous than helmets from K2’s competitors.

K2 argues that Ziejewski’s report is insufficient to establish a design defect because the report does not specifically opine that the design of the K2 helmet rendered it “not reasonably safe” or “unreasonably dangerous.” Dkt. 103, at 12. But an expert does not need to parrot the exact language [*21] used in the statute. See In re Zimmer NexGen Knee Implant Prods. Liab. Litig., 218 F. Supp. 3d 700, 725 (N.D. Ill. 2016), aff’d sub nom. In re Zimmer, NexGen Knee Implant Prods. Liab. Litig., 884 F.3d 746 (7th Cir. 2018) (“Plaintiffs are not required to put forth an expert to say the magic words . . . But Plaintiffs must provide sufficient evidence to allow a jury to reach that conclusion without resorting to speculation”) (applying Wisconsin law). A jury could use the evidence in the report to find that the increased danger posed by the K2 helmet’s tapering is unreasonable.

K2 also contends that to establish a design defect, plaintiffs must show that the K2 helmet failed the ASTM standards that were in effect at the time of manufacturing. K2 argues that Ziejewski instead tested the K2 helmet according to current ASTM testing procedures. Ziejewski concedes that he used the updated procedures, but he argues that it is more accurate than the old testing standard. Dkt. 124, ¶¶ 22-23. Plaintiffs need to show only that a reasonable alternative design would have eliminated the risk of harm. Ziejewski tested multiple helmets using the same test methods and concluded the K2 helmet failed where alternative designs did not.

The ASTM standards may be relevant, but they are not dispositive. If the ASTM standards were adopted by federal or state law, then K2 would be entitled [*22] to a rebuttable presumption that the helmet was not defective. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(3)(c). But the ASTM standards are only voluntary. Compliance with voluntary standards at the time of manufacturing may be evidence that K2 behaved reasonably, in defense of plaintiffs’ negligence claim. See Michaels v. Mr. Heater, Inc., 411 F. Supp. 2d 992, 997 (W.D. Wis. 2006) (citing Getty Petroleum Marketing, Inc. v. Capital Terminal Co., 391 F.3d 312, 326 (1st Cir. 2004)). So, at trial, K2 can raise this defense in response to plaintiffs’ negligence claim. But it is only a piece of evidence that the jury may weigh when deciding whether defendants met their duty to exercise reasonable care. Id.

ii. Causation

K2 also contends that it is entitled to summary judgment because the helmet was out of place at the time of impact, so plaintiffs cannot show that any alleged defect caused Scott’s injuries. The location of the helmet at the time of the accident is sharply and genuinely disputed, so that theory provides no basis for granting summary judgment to K2.

Nevertheless, K2 contends that even if the helmet was in place, it is still entitled to summary judgment because no helmet could have prevented Scott’s injury because preexisting injuries made him particularly vulnerable. This theory provides no basis for granting summary judgment to K2 either.

K2 adduces some evidence that Scott had suffered [*23] previous head injuries. Dkt. 144, ¶¶ 45-50. But K2 has scant evidence that the prior injuries were serious ones. More important, K2 does not adduce any evidence to support the outlandish statement in its brief that “no helmet would have been able to prevent the injuries he sustained on December 31, 2015.” Dkt. 103, at 10. K2’s own proposed findings of fact undermine this idea:

Had Mr. Rogers not been wearing a helmet, his brain injury would have been at least as severe if not more severe than it was on December 331, 2015, leaving him with worse permanent residuals or traumatic brain injury, or could have even adversely impacted his survival.

Dkt. 144, ¶ 51. K2 also says that plaintiffs’ expert Ziejewski “concedes that an alternative design would not have prevented Mr. Rogers from suffering a traumatic brain injury or a subdural hematoma in the subject incident.” Dkt. 103, at 11 (citing Dkt. 144, ¶ 28). As plaintiffs point out, K2 has grossly misstated the substance of Ziejewski’s deposition testimony in this proposed fact. Ziejewski testified that a properly designed helmet would have prevented a subdural hematoma, a level 4 injury. Ziejewski acknowledged that even with a properly designed [*24] helmet, “mild traumatic brain injury” was still a possible or likely outcome. Dkt. 122, at 28:21-29:25.

b. Defective Instructions

Plaintiffs’ alternative theory is that if the helmet slipped out of place before impact, it slipped because of defective instructions. Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings if “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the manufacturer and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a). Plaintiffs do not need to show that Scott actually read the instructions to prove causation. When a product is missing an adequate warning, the missing warning is a substantial factor in causing injury if a reasonable person would have heeded the warning and as a result avoided injury. Michaels, 411 F. Supp. 2d at 1006 (citing Tanner v. Shoupe, 228 Wis. 2d 357, 596 N.W.2d 805, 817-18 (Ct. App. 1999)). There is a presumption that any missing instructions would have been read, and therefore a presumption of causation. Id.

Throughout its briefing, K2 contends that the looseness of Scott’s chinstrap was a factor that caused the helmet to slip out of place. Plaintiffs contend [*25] that any mistake by Scott in tightening his chinstrap was caused by the fitting instructions included with the helmet. The helmet’s instructions state that the helmet should be snug and that after adjusting the straps and pads, “the skin on your forehead should move with the helmet.” Dkt. 145, ¶ 10. The instructions do not include specific directions on the tightness of the chinstrap. A reasonable jury could find that this instruction does not warn consumers that they need to tighten the chinstrap in addition to adjusting the pads and comfort liner.

K2 contends that plaintiffs are required to adduce expert testimony regarding the effectiveness of product warnings. Dkt. 103, at 15. But K2 cites no case in which expert testimony was required to show that a warning was defective. Under Wisconsin law, expert testimony is required only if the court finds that “the underlying issue is not within the realm of the ordinary experience of mankind.” State v. Kandutsch, 2011 WI 78, ¶ 28, 336 Wis. 2d 478, 799 N.W.2d 865 (internal quotations omitted). And Wisconsin courts have declined to require expert testimony in cases involving much more complex issues than these fitting instructions. See Lindeman v. Mt. Olympus Enterprises, Inc., No. 14-cv-435, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105756, 2015 WL 4772925, at *3 (W.D. Wis. Aug. 12, 2015) (collecting cases). [*26] Here, the instructions are written in plain language, and the act of reading and following instructions is well within the ordinary experience of mankind.

The court denies K2’s motion for summary judgment on the defective instructions claim.

3. Negligence claim

Plaintiffs also bring a claim for negligence. To sustain this claim, plaintiffs must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant, (2) a breach of that duty of care, (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the injury. Smaxwell v. Bayard, 2004 WI 101, ¶ 32, 274 Wis. 2d 278, 682 N.W.2d 923. In Wisconsin, a manufacturer’s duty of care includes the duty to safely design the product so it is fit for its intended purpose, and the duty to conduct adequate inspections and tests to determine the extent of defects. Wis. Civil Jury Instructions § 3200(2).

K2 contends that plaintiffs have not adduced evidence of “specific acts of negligence.” Dkt. 103, at 17. But plaintiffs can rely on the same evidence used to establish their product liability claims. Although negligence and product liability are alternative theories of liability, there is significant overlap between the two. See Krien v. Harsco Corp., 745 F.3d 313, 317 (7th Cir. 2014) (“[A] [*27] claim of strict products liability is much like a negligence claim because it requires proof either that the product was unreasonably dangerous or, what amounts to the same thing, that it was defective”). Plaintiffs’ expert testimony from Ziejewski is sufficient to create a material dispute regarding whether K2 breached its duty to design a product that was safe for skiers.

4. Breach of warranty claim

K2 moves for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty on two grounds. Dkt. 103, at 17-18. First, K2 contends that under Austin v. Ford Motor Co., claims for breach of warranty cannot be brought when the plaintiff has a tort claim. See 86 Wis.2d 628, 273 N.W.2d 233, 240 (1979) (“[I]t is inappropriate to bring an action for breach of warranty where a tort remedy is sought”). Second, K2 contends that there is no privity of contract between plaintiffs and K2. See St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. v. Viking Corp., 539 F.3d 623, 626 (7th Cir. 2008) (Wisconsin law requires privity of contract between parties before liability can be founded on breach of express or implied warranty).

Plaintiffs have not substantively responded to either of these arguments. Dkt. 137, at 52-53. Failure to respond to an argument can result in waiver or forfeit of a claim. Nichols v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 509 F. Supp. 2d 752, 760 (W.D. Wis. 2007) (collecting cases). Because plaintiffs did not [*28] respond to K2’s arguments regarding privity or the ability to bring warranty claims in a tort case, the court will grant summary judgment for K2 on plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty.

5. Loss of consortium claim

K2 moves for summary judgment on Tracy’s loss of consortium claim because it is derivative of Scott’s injuries. Because the court denies summary judgment on Scott’s product liability and negligence claims, it will also deny summary judgment on Tracy’s claim for loss of consortium.

K2 also moves to dismiss Tracy’s claim on the ground that plaintiffs have not properly pleaded loss of consortium in their amended complaint. Plaintiffs’ amended complaint does not include “loss of consortium” as an independent cause of action, but it does include allegations that “Plaintiff Tracy Rogers . . . has been deprived of the services, society, companionship and consortium of Scott Rogers as a proximate result of his enhanced injuries.” Dkt. 32, ¶ 23. K2 contends that this is insufficient under the plausible pleading standard of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).

Plaintiffs’ allegations are sufficient to state a claim. Even post-Iqbal, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only “adequate notice of the scope of, and basis for” the asserted claims. [*29] Avila v. CitiMortgage, Inc., 801 F.3d 777, 783 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Vincent v. City Colleges of Chi., 485 F.3d 919, 923 (7th Cir.2007)). Here, K2 had adequate notice that Tracy was seeking relief for loss of consortium as a result of the enhanced injuries caused by the K2 helmet.

C. Additional motions and requests for relief

As a final matter, plaintiffs ask the court to deny certain requests by K2 that plaintiffs contend were improperly included in K2’s summary judgment reply. Dkt. 149. Some of the “motions” to which plaintiffs refer are objections to allegedly inadmissible evidence—objections that K2 is allowed to raise during summary judgment. For example, K2 objects that the declarations from Tracy and Ziejewski, first produced with plaintiffs’ summary judgment opposition, are untimely expert testimony. Dkt. 143, at 3-10. There is nothing improper about K2 making these objections in its summary judgment reply. (The court has overruled the objection to Tracy’s declaration, and it has not considered the Ziejewski declaration. Whether the Ziejewski evidence will be allowed at trial will be addressed later at the final pretrial conference.)

But K2 requests two additional forms of relief in its reply brief. First, K2 contends that plaintiffs should be sanctioned for spoliation because Tracy adjusted the helmet’s [*30] comfort liner and therefore altered it from its condition at the time of the accident. Dkt. 143, at 7-8 fn. 7. Second, K2 contends that plaintiffs did not disclose the existence of Scott’s ski goggles and must be ordered to turn them over. Id. at 8.

A party may not raise new issues in a reply brief. See Casna v. City of Loves Park, 574 F.3d 420, 427 (7th Cir. 2009). In any event, both of K2’s requests for additional relief are undeveloped. The spoliation arguments are relegated to a footnote. And both requests misconstrue the history of this case. K2’s own experts previously removed the helmet’s comfort lining at issue. Dkt. 112, at 10-11. And K2 was already aware of Scott’s goggles, Dkt. 130 (Tracy dep. 33:9-17), and Halstead included a pair of goggles as a factor in his testing. Dkt. 110, at 4. The court will deny K2’s requests for additional relief, thus granting plaintiffs’ request.

ORDER

IT IS ORDERED that:

1. Plaintiffs motion to exclude the opinion testimony of K2’s experts, Dkt. 139, is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, as provided in this opinion.

2. Defendant K2’s motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 102, is DENIED for the most part. The motion is GRANTED only with respect to plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty.

3. Plaintiffs Scott Rogers and [*31] Tracy Rogers’ motion, Dkt. 149, for summary denial of K2’s motions is GRANTED in part. The court denies defendant K2’s motions to produce ski goggles and to sanction plaintiffs for spoliation.

4. Pursuant to the parties’ stipulation, Dkt. 250, all claims as to defendants Lexington Insurance Company and AIG Europe Limited are DISMISSED without prejudice.

Entered December 28, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ JAMES D. PETERSON

District Judge


Tennessee Supreme Court makes writing releases a little trickier.

The facts support throwing out the release, but the way the court did makes it tough to write a release.

Copeland v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 745

State: Tennessee

Plaintiff: Frederick Copeland

Defendant: MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

To get to a physical therapy appointment arranged by a hospital the patient was forced to sign a release. While exiting the car service the plaintiff was injured. The Tennessee Supreme Court worked hard but said if you treat people this badly, we will throw out your release and did.

Facts

Mr. Copeland was a seventy-seven-year-old hospital patient recovering from knee replacement surgery who needed to go to a follow-up appointment at his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland did not select, hire, or pay MedicOne. Instead, the hospital where Mr. Copeland was a patient arranged for his transportation with MedicOne. The MedicOne driver presented Mr. Copeland with a pre-printed, two-sided document containing two different forms — the Run Report and the Agreement — which Mr. Copeland had limited time to review and sign before being transported to his doctor’s appointment. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The MedicOne driver spent only nineteen minutes at the hospital, which began with his arrival, and included going to Mr. Copeland’s room, pushing Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair to the hospital entrance, getting him into the van, loading his walker into the back of the van, and having Mr. Copeland review and sign the two forms.

The MedicOne driver presented the Agreement to Mr. Copeland on a take-it-or-leave-it basis with the expectation that he would sign it. The driver did not understand the implications of the Agreement, could not have explained it if asked, had no authority to alter it, and would not have transported Mr. Copeland to his appointment if he had not signed the document.

The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The exculpatory language provided that Mr. Copeland was releasing MedicOne from any and all claims arising from or in any way associated with any transportation services provided by MedicOne.

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

The facts explain the plaintiff was put in a position where he had no choice, suffer further injury by missing his appointment or sign the document.

The court said releases are fine in Tennessee, but not this one.

We find the exculpatory language in the Agreement to be overly broad and ambiguous. Although the Agreement also contains a severability clause, the three paragraphs containing broad, all-encompassing exculpatory language combined with the severability paragraph do not make it clear and unmistakable what Mr. Copeland was giving up by signing the Agreement, especially during the limited time he was given to read and comprehend the document.

That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns.

Based on the circumstances of the parties, including contemporary societal expectations, we conclude that enforcement of the Agreement against a member of the public in Mr. Copeland’s position would be contrary to the public interest.

The court went through the five steps necessary to write a valid release in Tennessee.

First, a party may not, for public policy reasons, exempt itself from liability for gross negligence, reckless conduct, or intentional wrongdoing.

Second, exculpatory provisions in contracts involving common carriers are unenforceable on the grounds of public policy and disparity of bargaining power.

Third, although exculpatory agreements are generally enforceable, in many states they are disfavored.

Fourth, most courts require that the exculpatory language be unequivocal and clear. An exculpatory clause must “clearly, unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably” state the intention to exempt one of the parties from liability for its own negligence.

Fifth, most jurisdictions do not enforce exculpatory provisions that are contrary to public policy.

Releases in Tennessee are still valid in Tennessee.

After reviewing precedent in this state and across the country, we conclude that the public policy in Tennessee has historically favored freedom of contract. Thus, contracts exempting one party from liability for negligence are not disfavored and are generally enforceable.

However, the court tightened up the requirements for a release to be valid. The court then created 3 factors that any release must meet to be valid in Tennessee.

…we hold that the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement should be determined by considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing these non-exclusive factors: (1) relative bargaining power of the parties; (2) clarity. of the exculpatory language, which should be clear, unambiguous, and unmistakable about what the party who signs the agreement is giving up; and (3) public policy and public interest implications.

The court also decided the bargaining power of the parties should also be taken into consideration.

Relative bargaining power. Although there is no precise rule by which to define sufficient disparity in bargaining power between the parties to invalidate an exculpatory agreement, two key criteria are the importance of the service at issue for the physical or economic well-being of the party signing the agreement and the amount of free choice that party has in seeking alternate services.

The court did carve out a specific exception, to some extent for recreational activities.

That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns.

So Now What?

If your activities are in Tennessee or your business is in Tennessee you need to check to make sure your release meets these new requirements.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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