What the term “strictly construed” actually means when used to describe how a release will be viewed by the court.Posted: July 9, 2018
The decision involves several legal issues, the one that concerns us is the issue of a release for a product. In Kansas, releases are strictly construed. In this case that meant that the language of the release did not meet the requirements of state law for a release. However, the court stretched incredibly far to come to that conclusion.
State: Kansas, United States District Court for the District of Kansas
Plaintiff: Patricia Fee
Defendant: Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation
Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty
Defendant Defenses: Statute of Limitations ran,
Holding: for the plaintiff
The lawsuit was brought over the failure of an automatic opener, which did not during a sky dive. The widow sued the manufacture of the device and the sky-diving center who sold the device to the deceased. The deceased signed a release and indemnity agreement, two separate documents when purchasing the automatic opener.
In Kansas, releases are allowed but strictly construed. Here strict construction is used, improperly, to interpret the release in an extremely narrow way to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
The deceased died when he was sky diving, and his automatic opening device failed to open. The automatic opening device was manufactured by the defendant.
The plaintiff spent eight years attempting to serve the defendant, starting in 1977 and finally serving the defendant in 1985. This lead to a discussion about when the lawsuit actually started, which takes the first half of the decision. Because the defendant had avoided service of process, because he knew about it and made attempts not to get sued, the date of the lawsuit started was the date he was served. However, due to the defendant’s actions, the statute of limitations did not run.
The widow purchased the automatic opener for the deceased, although the dates in the decision must be incorrect. The decision states the device was purchased a year after the deceased died. The device failed the first time it was used by the decedent.
The deceased signed a release for the parachute center. The defendant manufacturer raised the release as a defense to the claims of the plaintiff against the manufacture as well as those claims against the dive center.
The release was on one side of the paper and on the reverse was an assumption of risk language. The deceased also signed a separate indemnify agreement. The decedent signed both agreements.
This decision is that of the Federal District Court in Kansas.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked at release law in Kansas. If not against public policy, then Kansas recognizes exculpatory agreements, releases. However, like many state’s releases, the courts in Kansas use the language that releases “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Strictly construed does not require the specific term negligence but must clearly appear to express the intent to release from liability the defendant.
It is not necessary; however, that the agreement contained specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly ap-pears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties.
The court in reading the release found it did not stop the plaintiff’s claims.
The court first in looking at the language found the language covered use of the product but did not cover liability for “sale” of the product.
First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many devices,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter.
The court admitted the deceased understood that parachuting was dangerous, that was not enough. By making the determination that the product was defective when sold, the court found the release would not stand because you cannot release liability for selling a defective product.
Strictly construing the agreement; however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.
The court then determined the release would also not work to stop the plaintiff’s claims for breach of either express or implied warranty. The court found attempting to release the defendant parachute center from liability was unconscionable. Under Kansas law, a release could be used to stop warranty claims, unless that was found to be unconscionable.
We, therefore, hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by the plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore, inappropriate.
The indemnification agreement seemed to be ignored in reaching this determination by the court.
So Now What?
Strict construction is a term that gives leeway to a court to review the language of the release to make sure it conforms to the language required under state law. However, that term was created and applied to release’s decades ago and rarely used now except in rare situations like this. When the judge wants the defendant to pay.
Probably the term was created when courts were first asked to apply releases to a plaintiff’s claims and wanted a way to soften the blow. Now days, in most states it is quoted in the decision at the beginning and never heard of again. Eventually if the courts review enough releases, the term is not even quoted.
Few states allow a release to be used to stop product liability claims. However, several states do and several states allow assumption of risk to stop product liability claims. A well-written release that incorporates assumption of risk language is still effective in many product liability cases.
Here, however, the court reached as far as it could to find that the release was barred from stopping the claims. Part of that desire to allow the suit to proceed was probably because of the actions of the manufacturer who spend eight years avoiding service of the lawsuit.
The rest, however, was simply a stretch to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Patricia Fee, Plaintiff, v. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc.; Russell Young; SSE, Incorporated; Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc.; and John Doe Corporation, Defendants
CIVIL ACTION No. 84-2323
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF KANSAS
1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28158
March 14, 1986
CORE TERMS: parachute, sport, summary judgment, decedent, personally, covenant, implied warranties, statute of limitations, service of process, mail service, notice, mail, parachuting, personal injury, personal service, parachuter, consumer, assigns, wrongful death, strict liability, territorial limits, unconscionable, consequential, predecessor, disclaimer, diversity, automatic, warranty, opening, saving
COUNSEL: [*1] John E. McKay, LAW OFFICES OF BENSON & McKAY, 911 Main Street, Suite 1430, Kansas City, Missouri 64105, (816) 842-7604; Mark R. Singer/Micheline Z. Burger ROMAIN, BURGER & SINGER, CHTD., The College View Building, 4500 College Blvd., Suite 103, Overland Park, Kansas 66221, (913)649-5224; Paul v. Herbers, James E. Cooling, Cooling, Herbers & Sears, P.C., P.O. Box 26770, Kansas City, MO 64196, (816) 474-0770; Russell C. Leffel, 7315 Frontage Road, Suite 111, Shawnee Mission, KS 66204, 913-362-9727, Neal E. Millert, Larry J. Tyrl, James, Millert, Houdek, Tyrl & Sommers, 804 Bryant Building, 1102 Grand, Kansas City, Missouri 64106, Randolph G. Austin, Speer, Austin, Holliday, & Ruddick, 261 N. Cherry, P.O. Box 1000, Olathe, Kansas 66061.
OPINION BY: O’CONNOR
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
EARL E. O’CONNOR, CHIEF JUDGE.
This matter is before the court on defendants’ motions for summary judgment and plaintiff’s motion for costs. This is a diversity action for wrongful death and survivorship based on claims of negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties.
I. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant SSE, Incorporated.
Defendant SSE, Incorporated, moves for [*2] summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s action is barred by the two-year statute of limitations found at K.S.A. 60-513(a). For the following reasons, defendant’s motion must be denied.
[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate when the matters considered by the court disclose 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.” Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c). The court must look at the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Prochaska v. Marcoux, 632 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 984 (1981). Before summary judgment may be granted, the moving party must establish that it is entitled to summary judgment beyond a reasonable doubt. Ellis v. El Paso Natural Gas Co., 754 F.2d 884, 885 (10th Cir. 1985).
The uncontroverted facts relevant to this motion are as follows:
1. The plaintiff’s decedent died while skydiving on December 11, 1982, when his parachute failed to open. Decedent’s parachute was equipped with an automatic opening device, which was manufactured by the defendant SSE, Incorporated.
2. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on August 13, [*3] 1984, consisting of wrongful death and survival claims based on negligence, product liability and breach of warranty. Plaintiff named Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., as a defendant, claiming that it was a Pennsylvania corporation that designed, manufactured and sold the defective device.
3. On August 14, 1984, the complaint was mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., at a New Jersey address.
4. Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., had changed its name to “SSE, Incorporated,” in November of 1977. Its corporate headquarters, however, remained at the same location.
5. SSE, Incorporated, received the complaint at the New Jersey address.
6. ln a telephone conversation with plaintiff’s counsel, the attorney for SSE, Incorporated, advised plaintiff’s counsel that neither SSE nor its predecessor corporation, Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., would accept service by mail.
7. On November 1, 1984, counsel for SSE, Incorporated, rated, wrote to plaintiff’s counsel, again informing him that SSE intended not to acknowledge the mail service.
8. On November 14, 1984, the complaint was again mailed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc. SEE, Incorporated, received the complaint, but refused to sign or [*4] return an acknowledgement.
9. On December 7, 1984, plaintiff filed her first amended complaint, adding SSE, Incorporated, as a defendant.
10. From January 1985 to August 28, 1985, plaintiff’s process servers made thirty-three attempts to personally serve SSE, Incorporated.
11. On August 29, 1985, plaintiff successfully served Steve Snyder, the registered agent and president of SSE, Incorporated.
Defendant SSE, Incorporated, argues that summary judgment is appropriate on all of plaintiff’s claims because they are barred by the two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions set forth at K.S.A. 60-513(a)(5). The court notes, however, that not all of plaintiff’s claims are for wrongful death — Counts VI through VIII are survival actions based on negligence, strict liability and breach of express and implied warranties. Nevertheless, a similar two-year statute of limitations (see K.S.A. 60-13(a)(4)) applies to the negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty claims. See Grey v. Bradford-White Corp., 581 F.Supp. 725 (D. Kan. 1984). The court will therefore treat defendant’s motion as seeking summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims and not merely plaintiff’s [*5] wrongful death claims.
To decide whether plaintiff’s claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations, we must first determine when plaintiff’s suit was commenced. [HN2] In a diversity action, the court must apply the state law prescribing when an action commences for statute of limitations purposes rather than Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Walker v. Armco Steel Corp., 446 U.S. 740 (1980); Ragan v. Merchants Transfer & Warehouse Company, 337 U.S. 530 (1949). [HN3] Kansas law provides that an action is commenced at the time a petition is filed if service of process is obtained within ninety days. See K.S.A. 60-203(a)(1). If service is not obtained during the 90-day period, then the action is commenced at the time of service. Id.
Defendant argues that plaintiff’s action did not com- mence until August 29, 1985, when plaintiff personally served the agent of SSE, Incorporated, Steve Snyder. Accordingly, since plaintiff’s cause of action arose on December 11, 1982, her claims are barred by the two-year statute of limitations. We are not persuaded by defendant’s argument.
We conclude that plaintiff’s action was timely commenced under the saving provisions [*6] of K.S.A. 60-203(b). That section provides:
[HN4] If service of process or first publication purports to have been made within the time specified by subsection (a)(1) but is later adjudicated to have been invalid due to any irregularity in form or procedure or any defect in making service, the action shall nevertheless be deemed to have been commenced by the original filing of the petition if valid service is obtained or first publication is made within 90 days after that adjudication, except that the court may extend that time an additional 30 days upon a showing of good cause by the plaintiff.
Applying this statute to the facts in this case, we find that plaintiff purported to serve process by mail on August 14, 1984, only one day after the suit was filed. Service by mail is proper under a recent amendment to the Kansas Code of Civil Procedure. 1
See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985). We find, however, that plaintiff’s service was invalid due to the defendant’s failure to complete and return the enclosed notice. Under the saving provision of section 60-203(b), we may nevertheless deem plaintiff’s action to have been commenced on the date plaintiff’s complaint was filed, [*7] so long as plaintiff makes personal service on the defendant within ninety days of this order.
1 We must look to the Kansas law prescribing the method of service. This is a diversity action in which plaintiff asserts jurisdiction over the defendant pursuant to the Kansas long-arm statute, K.S.A. 60-308. Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(f) provides that “process other than a subpoena may be served anywhere within the territorial limits of the state in which the district court is held, and when authorized by a statute of the United States or by these rules, beyond the territorial limits of that state.” There is no applicable federal statute that would allow service of process outside the state in this case. Thus, in order to obtain service beyond the territorial limits of the court, there must be authorization in “these rules.” Rule 4(e) provides for service of process on defendants who are not inhabitants of or found within the state. In pertinent part it states:
Whenever a statute or rule of court of the state in which the district is held provides (1) for service of a summons, or of a notice, or of an order in lieu of summons upon a party not an inhabitant of or found within the state, . . . service may . . . be made under the circumstances and in the manner prescribed in the [state] statute or rule.
Clearly, service by mail is a “manner” of service provided by the Kansas statute in this situation. See K.S.A. 60-314 (Supp. 1985).
[*8] Defendant also argues that because plaintiff’s mail service was directed to Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., rather than to SSE, Incorporated, it was totally ineffective. We find defendant’s argument meritless for two reasons. First, under the saving provision discussed above, plaintiff’s mistake in naming defendant’s predecessor corporation qualifies as a defect in the service that may be remedied by plaintiff reserving the defendant under its proper name within ninety days of this order. Second, [HN5] both the federal rules (Rule 15(c)) and Kansas law (K.S.A. 60-215(c)) allow for relation back of an amendment changing a party. Under these provisions, [HN6] a change in party relates back so long as the claim asserted arose out of the events set forth in the original complaint and
within the period provided by law for commencing the action against him, the party to be brought in by amendment (1) has received such notice of the institution of the action that he will not be prejudiced in maintaining his defense on the merits, and (2) knew or should have known that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the proper party, the action would have been brought against him.
Federal Rule [*9] of Civil Procedure 15(c); K.S.A. 60-215(c).
In this case, an amendment changing defendant’s name from Steve Snyder Enterprises, Inc., to SSE, Incorporated, would clearly relate back. First, the claims asserted would be identical to those originally filed. Second, SSE, Incorporated, admits it had notice of this action within the statutory period. Counsel for SSE, Incorporated, informed plaintiff’s counsel in August and November of 1984 that SSE had received the mail service but chose not to acknowledge it. Third, SSE, Incorporated, knew that but for plaintiff’s confusion over the name of its predecessor corporation, the action would have been brought against it.
We therefore hold that plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated. Upon such service, plaintiff’s action will be deemed to have commenced on August 13, 1984, when the case was filed. Plaintiff’s claims will therefore be timely. If, however, plaintiff fails to serve SSE, Incorporated, within the 90-day time period, plaintiff’s action against this defendant will be deemed time-barred. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment will therefore be held in abeyance [*10] for ninety days from the date of this order to allow plaintiff to properly serve the defendant.
II. Plaintiff’s Motion for Costs.
Plaintiff moves for payment of the costs incurred in plaintiff’s previous attempts to personally serve defendant. [HN7] Costs are available pursuant to both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(2)(D) and K.S.A. 60-314:
Unless good cause is shown for not doing so the court shall order the payment of the costs of personal service by the person served if such person does not complete and return within 20 days after mailing, the notice and acknowledgment of receipt of summons.
Defendant in this case has shown no reason why costs should not be assessed against it. Defendant deliberately refused to acknowledge mail service and even went so far as to inform plaintiff that it was electing to assert its “right to service of process in the customary manner and not by mail.” Defendant’s Exhibit 4. Not only did defendant refuse mail service, but it also made every attempt to thwart personal service. Plaintiff was thus forced to attempt service at least thirty-three times against defendant. We therefore hold that plaintiff is entitled to recover costs in [*11] the amount of $1,628.47 as requested in her motion. Furthermore, plaintiff will be entitled to recover costs incurred in serving the defendant again, as discussed in part I above, upon plaintiff’s submission of proof of expenses.
III. Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center.
Defendant Russell Young moves for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff’s decedent signed a release and covenant not to sue in favor of Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. (hereinafter the Parachute Center), and its employees and agents. The Parachute Center joins in said motion.
The material uncontroverted facts are as follows:
1. On May 8, 1982, plaintiff’s decedent signed a “Release and Covenant Not To Sue,” which read in pertinent part:
[I] do hereby fully and forever release and discharge the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. and their employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns, and all other persons whomsoever directly or indirectly liable, from any and all other claims and demands, actions and cause of action, damages, costs, loss of services, [*12] expenses and any and all other claims of damages whatsoever, resulting from PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGES SUSTAINED BY ME, arising out of AIRCRAFT FLIGHTS, PARACHUTE JUMPS, or any other means of lift, ascent or descent from an aircraft of any nature, or arising out of the ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control of any vehicle, whether motor vehicle, aircraft, or otherwise, or any device, or mooring, while on the ground or in flight, and meaning and intending to include herein all such PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE resulting from or in any way connected with or arising out of instructions, training, and ground or air operations incidental thereto.
This release and covenant not to sue is made and entered in consideration of the permission extended to me by Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. to participate in a course of parachuting instructions, parachuting training flying activities, ground or air operations incidental to parachuting and flying.
I further acknowledge that I will not rely on any oral or written representation of Greene County Sports Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc. or any agent thereof. [*13] I fully understand that there are dangerous risks in the sport of parachute jumping, and I assume said risks. . . .
I HAVE READ AND FULLY UNDERSTAND that Release and Covenant Not to Sue and sign the same as my own free act.
2. Plaintiff’s decedent also signed an “Indemnity Clause,” which read:
I acknowledge that Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., is not an insurer of me. I do, for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, hereby expressly stipulate, covenant and agree to indemnify and hold forever harmless the said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its employees, servants, stockholders, agents, successors, and assigns, and all other persons whomsoever against and from any and all actions, causes of action, claims and demands for damages, judgments, executions, costs, loss of services, expenses, compensation, including reimbursement of all legal costs and reasonable counsel fees incurred or paid by the said indemnified parties or any of them, for the investigation, prosecution or defense of any such action, cause of action or claim or demand for damages, and any and all other claims for damages, whatsoever, [*14] which may hereafter arise, or be instituted or recovered against said Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Ks., Inc., and its servants, employees, stockholders, agents, successors, assigns or any other person or persons whomsoever, by me or by any other person whomsoever, whether for the purpose of making or enforcing a claim for damages, on account of PERSONAL INJURIES, DEATH, OR PROPERTY DAMAGE sustained by me, or whether for the purpose of enforcing a claim for damages of any nature by any person whomsoever, on account of, or in any way resulting therefrom.
3. The decedent signed both the clause and release and certified that he had read them. His signature was witnessed by defendant Russell Young, President of the Parachute Center.
4. On the reverse side of the release, the decedent also signed and certified the following statements:
(9) I understand there are potential dangers and risks involved in this sport and acknowledge that the training I have received is intended to minimize such but is no guarantee or representation that there are none.
(10) I understand that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper functions of these parachutes [*15] or any parachute cannot be and is not guaranteed.
5. The decedent ordered and promised to pay for an automatic parachute opening device from the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young. Young delivered the device to the decedent in December 1982.
6. The decedent used the device for the first time while skydiving on December 11, 1982. His parachute failed to open, he fell to the ground and was fatally injured.
7. The decedent’s widow paid the Parachute Center $254.60 for the device on January 27, 1983.
[HN8] Kansas courts have long recognized the validity of exculpatory agreements relieving a party from liability unless it would be against the settled public policy to do so. See, e.g., Belger Cartage Service, Inc. v. Holland Construction Co., 224 Kan. 320, 329, 582 P.2d 1111, 1118 (1978); Hunter v. American Rentals, 189 Kan. 615, 617, 371 P.2d 131, 133 (1962). Exculpatory contracts, however, “are not favored by the law and are strictly construed against the party relying on them.” Cason v. Geis Irrigation Co., 211 Kan. 406, 411, 507 P.2d 295, 299 (1973). Accord. Belger, 224 Kan. at 329, 582 P.2d at 1119. The terms of the agreement are not to be extended to [*16] situations not plainly within the language employed. Baker v. City of Topeka, 231 Kan. 328, 334, 644 P.2d 441, 446 (1982); Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. v. City of Topeka, 213 Kan. 658, 664, 518 P.2d 372, 377 (1973). It is not necessary, however, that the agreement contain specific or express language covering in so many words the party’s negligence, if the intention to exculpate the party from liability clearly appears from the contract, the surrounding circumstances and the purposes and objects of the parties. Bartlett v. Davis Corp., 219 Kan. 148, 159, 547 P.2d 800, 806 (1976).
After reviewing the language of the contract and the totality of the circumstances to determine the intent of these parties, we conclude that the release and indemnity clause do not preclude plaintiff’s action. First, a review of the agreement itself shows that, although it specifically releases the Parachute Center from liability for injuries or death arising out of the “ownership, operation, use, maintenance or control” of many device,” the agreement fails to mention any release of liability revolving around the sale of any product to the parachuter. Granted, there is a paragraph in [*17] which the parachuter states that he understands that parachuting is a potentially dangerous sport and that the proper function of the parachute cannot be guaranteed. Strictly construing the agreement, however, we do not believe that this should be interpreted to exempt the Parachute Center from a failure to use due care in furnishing safe equipment, or should allow it to sell a product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the parachuter. To do so would impermissibly extend the terms of the agreement to situations not plainly within its language.
Other courts have held that similar releases exempt parachute centers and trainers only from injuries that ordinarily occur without any fault of the defendant. See Diedrich v. Wright, 550 F.Supp. 805 (N.D. Ill. 1982); Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 424 N.Y.S.2d 65, 400 N.E.2d 306 (Ct.App. 1979). We agree with these courts that the language alerting the parachuter to the dangers in parachute jumping is used to drive home to the individual that he must enter into this sport with an apprehension of the risks inherent in the nature of the sport. See 550 F.Supp. at 808; 49 N.Y.2d at
, 424 N.Y.S.2d at 369, 400 [*18] N.E.2d at It does not, however, follow that he must accept enhanced exposure to injury or death based on the carelessness of the defendants in selling him a defective product or failing to warn him about its use.
Furthermore, we hold that the release was ineffective under Kansas law to limit liability for a breach of either an express or implied warranty. [HN9] With respect to disclaimer of express warranties, K.S.A. 84-2-719(3) provides:
Consequential damages may be limited or excluded unless the limitation or exclusion is unconscionable. Limitation of consequential damages for injury to the person in the case of consumer goods is prima facie unconscionable but limitation of damages where the loss is commercial is not.
In this case, the automatic opening device qualifies as a consumer good under K.S.A. 84-9-109. Under section 84-2-719(3), the defendants’ attempt to exclude consequential damages for personal injury was unconscionable and therefore unenforceable.
Furthermore, with respect to disclaimer of implied warranties of merchantability, [HN10] the Kansas Consumer Protection Act flatly prohibits in consumer cases the use of any limitation on remedies or liability for implied [*19] warranties, and declares that any such disclaimers are void. K.S.A. 50-639(a) and (e). See also id. at 84-2-719 (Kansas Comment).
We therefore hold that plaintiff’s action is not barred by the release, covenant not to sue and indemnity clause signed by plaintiff’s decedent. Summary judgment in favor of the defendants Parachute Center and Russell Young is therefore inappropriate.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendants’ motion for summary judgment by Russell Young and Greene County Sport Parachute Center of Wellsville, Kansas, Inc., is denied.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that defendant’s motion for summary judgment by SSE, Incorporated, shall be held in abeyance until plaintiff obtains personal service upon SSE, Incorporated. Plaintiff shall have ninety (90) days from the date of this order to personally serve SSE, Incorporated. If plaintiff fails to so serve the defendant, defendant’s motion for summary judgment will be granted.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that plaintiff’s motion for costs to personally serve the defendant SSE, Incorporated, in the amount of $1,628.47, is granted.
Dated this 14th May of March, 1986, at Kansas City, Kansas.
Rarely do you see recreation or release cases from the District of Columbia; in this case, the appellate court upheld the release for an injury in a gymPosted: June 26, 2017
Plaintiff’s arguments about the release and attempt to invalidate the release by claiming gross negligence all failed.
State: District of Columbia, District of Columbia Court of Appeals
Plaintiff: Richard J. Moore
Defendant: Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the defendant health club
The plaintiff was a member of the exercise facility and had signed a release when he joined. One day while at the facility to exercise, he was asked by a kick boxing instructor to hold an Everlast body bag so the instructor could demonstrate kicks to the class. The plaintiff reluctantly did so.
The kick boxing instructor showed the plaintiff how to hold the bag. The instructor then kicked the bag five times in rapid succession. The plaintiff was out of breath after the demonstration and stated with irony that it was not hard to do.
A month after the class the plaintiff determined he had been injured from holding the bag and sued.
The defendants motioned for summary judgment with the trial court which was granted, and the plaintiff appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court stated that it did not often look at releases in this context. The court looked at Maryland and other states for their laws concerning releases as well as the release law in DC, which was mostly in other types of business contracts.
DC like most other states will not allow a release to stop claims for “intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, wanton, or gross [negligence].” The plaintiff did not argue the acts of the defendant were grossly negligent, but did argue the acts were reckless.
However, the court could find nothing in the pleadings that indicated the defendant’s actions were reckless. In fact, the pleadings found the instructors efforts to show the plaintiff how to hold the bag was for safety purposes and as such; safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence.
The appellate court also looked at the release itself and found it was clear and unambiguous.
…”exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”
The plaintiff also argued the release was written so broadly that it was written to cover reckless or gross negligence and as such should be thrown out. However, the court looked at the issue in a different way. Any clause in a release that attempts to limit the liability for gross negligence is not valid; however, that does not invalidate the entire release.
We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that any “term” in a contract which at-tempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].
This is the acceptable way under contract law to deal with clauses or sections that are invalid. However, many contracts have clauses that say if any clause is invalid only that clause can be thrown out; the entire contract is still valid.
DC recognizes that some releases can be void if they reach too far.
We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”)
However, releases found within health club agreements do not violate public policy.
However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers.
The appellate court upheld the decision of the trial court.
So Now What?
This decision does not leap with new information or ideas about releases. What is reassuring are two points. The first is releases are valid in DC. The second is when in doubt the court looked to Maryland, which has held that a release signed by a parent can stop a minor’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.
If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Moore v. Waller, et al., 930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476
Richard J. Moore, Appellant, v. Terrell Waller and Square 345 Limited Partnership T/A Grand Hyatt Hotel, Appellees.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS
930 A.2d 176; 2007 D.C. App. LEXIS 476
June 20, 2006, Argued
August 2, 2007, Decided
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1]
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-1522-04). (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge).
COUNSEL: John P. Fatherree for appellant.
Terrell Waller, Pro se.
Rocco P. Porreco for appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership.
JUDGES: Before GLICKMAN, KRAMER, and FISHER, Associate Judges.
OPINION BY: FISHER
[*177] FISHER, Associate Judge: Appellant Richard Moore claims that he was injured on February 26, 2001, while participating in a demonstration of kick boxing at Club Fitness, which is operated by the appellee, Square 345 Limited Partnership (hereinafter Grand Hyatt). Relying on a waiver and release of liability Moore signed when he joined the fitness center, the Superior Court granted summary judgment, first for Grand Hyatt and then for Terrell Waller, the instructor who allegedly injured Moore. We affirm.
Plaintiff Moore alleged that he had gone to the fitness center on February 26, 2001, to exercise. Although “he was not participating in the kick boxing classes, the instructor [*178] , defendant Waller, asked [Moore] to hold . . . a detached Everlast body bag, so [Mr.] Waller could demonstrate a kick to his class.” According to Mr. Moore, he “reluctantly agreed, saying to [Mr. Waller], ‘Not hard.’ Defendant [**2] Waller showed [Mr. Moore] how to hold the bag, braced against his body, and then kicked the bag five times, in rapid succession, with great force.” He claims that when Waller finished, “he was out of breath from the strenuous effort, and commented with obvious sarcasm and irony, ‘That wasn’t hard, was it.'” Moore states that he “immediately felt trauma to his body,” felt “stiff and achy” the next day, and consulted a physician about one month later. Mr. Moore asserts that “[h]e has been diagnosed as having torn ligaments and tendons from the trauma of the injury, and may have neurological damage, as well.” The resulting limitations on his physical activity allegedly have diminished the quality of his life in specified ways.
Mr. Moore had joined the fitness center on January 16, 2001, signing a membership agreement and initialing that portion of the agreement that purports to be a waiver and release of liability.
Article V – WAIVER AND LIABILITY
Section 1. The Member hereby acknowledges that attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including without limitation, the use of the Club’s equipment and facilities, . . . exercises [**3] (including the use of the weights, cardiovascular equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising), [and] selection of exercise programs, methods, and types of equipment, . . . could cause injury to the Member or damage to the Member’s personal property. As a material consideration for the Club to enter into this Agreement, to grant membership privileges hereunder and to permit the Member and the Member’s guests to use the Club and its facilities, the Member, on its own behalf and on behalf of the Member’s guests, agrees to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities, notwithstanding any consultation on any exercise programs which may be provided by employees of the Club.
By signing this Agreement, the Member understands that the foregoing waiver of liability on its behalf and on the behalf of the Member’s guests will apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any such claims, demands, personal [**4] injuries, costs, property loss or other damages resulting from or arising out of any of foregoing risks at the Club, the condominium or the associated premises.
The Member hereby, on behalf of itself and the Member’s heirs, executors, administrators, guests and assigns, fully and forever releases and discharges the Club and the Club affiliates, and each of them, from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action, present or future, known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated resulting from or arising out of the attendance at or use of the Club or their participation in any of the Club’s activities or programs by such Member, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club and/or the Club and the Club affiliates from any and all liability for any loss, or theft of, or damage to personal property, including, without limitation, automobiles and the contents of lockers.
[*179] THE MEMBER, BY INITIALING BELOW, ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HE/SHE HAS CAREFULLY READ THIS WAIVER AND RELEASE AND FULLY UNDERSTANDS THAT IT IS A WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY, AND ASSUMES THE RESPONSIBILITY TO INFORM HIS/HER GUESTS OF THE PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT.
If effective, [**5] this provision waives and releases not only claims against the Club but also claims against its “employees [and] agents.” 1
1 We assume for purposes of analysis that the Grand Hyatt is responsible for the conduct of Mr. Waller at issue here, but we need not determine whether he was an employee or an independent contractor.
Ruling on Grand Hyatt’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court concluded:
The Waiver and Liability section of the contract . . . expresses a full and complete release of all liability for personal injury occurring in the fitness center. Moore signed an acknowledgment indicating that [he] had read and understood that he was releasing Grand Hyatt from all liability for personal injuries that he might sustain. Furthermore, there is no allegation of fraud or overreaching in the amended complaint. In the circumstances, the court finds that the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt in this action.
The court later held “that the terms of the waiver . . . apply equally to defendant Terrell Waller….”
This court has not often addressed the validity of exculpatory clauses in contracts. We have enforced them, however. For [**6] example, “[i]t is well settled in this jurisdiction that a provision in a bailment contract limiting the bailee’s liability will be upheld in the absence of gross negligence, willful act, or fraud.” Houston v. Security Storage Co., 474 A.2d 143, 144 (D.C. 1984). Accord, Julius Garfinckel & Co. v. Firemen’s Insurance Co., 288 A.2d 662, 665 (D.C. 1972) (“gross negligence or willful misconduct”); Manhattan Co. v. Goldberg, 38 A.2d 172, 174 (D.C. 1944) (“a bailee may limit his liability except for gross negligence”). We recently considered such a clause contained in a home inspection contract and concluded that it would be sufficient to waive or limit liability for negligence. Carleton v. Winter, 901 A.2d 174, 181-82 (D.C. 2006). However, after surveying “leading authorities” and cases from other jurisdictions, we recognized that “courts have not generally enforced exculpatory clauses to the extent that they limited a party’s liability for gross negligence, recklessness or intentional torts.” Id. at 181. See also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 525 (Md. 1994) ( [HN1] “a party will not be permitted to excuse its liability for intentional harms or for the more extreme forms of negligence, i.e., reckless, [**7] wanton, or gross”); Seigneur v. National Fitness Institute, Inc., 132 Md. App. 271, 752 A.2d 631, 638 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2000) (exculpatory clause will not be enforced “when the party protected by the clause intentionally causes harm or engages in acts of reckless, wanton, or gross negligence”). In Carleton, the court remanded for further proceedings to determine whether the conduct of the defendants “was not just simple negligence, but rather gross negligence.” 901 A.2d at 182.
As Moore’s counsel conceded at oral argument, he does not claim that Waller intentionally or purposefully injured [*180] him. The complaint does allege reckless conduct, however, 2 and he argued to the trial court, as he does to us, that the fitness center could not exempt itself from liability for reckless or wanton behavior or gross negligence. Nevertheless, the defendants had moved for summary judgment, and [HN2] “[m]ere conclusory allegations on the part of the non-moving party are insufficient to stave off the entry of summary judgment.” Musa v. Continental Insurance Co., 644 A.2d 999, 1002 (D.C. 1994); see also Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (e) (“the . . . response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this Rule, must set forth specific [**8] facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial”). “‘[T]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.'” Brown v. George Washington Univ., 802 A.2d 382, 385 (D.C. 2002) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). “‘The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence . . . will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-moving party].'” LaPrade v. Rosinsky, 882 A.2d 192, 196 (D.C. 2005) (quoting Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252).
2 In his second amended complaint, Moore alleged that “defendant Waller recklessly disregarded [his] duty of due care [and] acted with deliberate indifference to the likelihood that his action would injure the plaintiff. Defendant Waller’s reckless action was the direct and proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.” He also alleged that the Grand Hyatt was responsible for Waller’s actions.
Nothing Moore presented in opposition to summary judgment would be sufficient to prove gross negligence or reckless conduct. Indeed, in one of his affidavits Mr. Moore stated that “as I was shown by defendant [**9] Waller exactly how to hold the body bag while he demonstrated his kick(s), the purpose of his directions as communicated to me as to how to hold the bag were plainly for safety.” Such concern for safety is inconsistent with recklessness or gross negligence. See generally In re Romansky, 825 A.2d 311, 316 (D.C. 2003) (defining “recklessness”); District of Columbia v. Walker, 689 A.2d 40, 44 (D.C. 1997) (defining “gross negligence” for purposes of D.C. Code § 2-412 (2001) (formerly D.C.Code § 1-1212 (1981)). Moreover, Moore did not allege that defendant Waller kicked an unprotected portion of his body. Nor did he proffer expert testimony suggesting that the demonstration was so hazardous that it was reckless to undertake it, even with the protection of the Everlast body bag.
Because there is no viable claim for gross negligence, recklessness, or an intentional tort, we turn to the question of whether this particular contractual provision is sufficient to bar claims for negligence. 3 Although this is a suit for personal [*181] injury, not merely for economic damage, the same principles of law apply. See Wright v. Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., 394 F. Supp. 2d 27, 34 (D.D.C. 2005) (“by voluntarily [**10] signing the Contestant Release Form, plaintiff waived his right to bring any claims for negligently caused personal injury”; applying District of Columbia law). This court has not previously considered the effect of an exculpatory clause in a membership agreement with a health club or fitness center, but many jurisdictions have done so. After surveying the legal landscape, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals concluded that most courts hold “that [HN3] health clubs, in their membership agreements, may limit their liability for future negligence if they do so unambiguously.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 636. We have found the analysis in Seigneur to be very helpful.
3 Appellant’s brief explains that he “claims damages from Waller based upon negligent infliction of injury, and against Square 345 Limited Partnership based upon respondeat superior and upon apparent agency and authority, as well as negligent failure to properly select, train and supervise a person whose services were retained to provide lessons in an activity which would certainly be dangerous if not expertly and responsibly performed.” He later elaborates: “While kick boxing is an inherently dangerous activity, had the demonstration [**11] been conducted in a responsible, non-negligent way, it would not have been dangerous.” The words “strict liability” appear under the caption of the second amended complaint, but appellant has not cited any statute or regulation that purports to impose strict liability on demonstrations of kick boxing, nor has he alleged the common law elements of strict liability in tort. See Word v. Potomac Electric Power Co., 742 A.2d 452, 459 (D.C. 1999). Neither has he proffered facts which would support such a theory. In sum, the waiver is sufficient to cover any theory of liability which is supported by more than conclusory allegations.
[HN4] A fundamental requirement of any exculpatory provision is that it be clear and unambiguous. Maiatico v. Hot Shoppes, Inc., 109 U.S. App. D.C. 310, 312, 287 F.2d 349, 351 (1961) (“exculpation must be spelled out with such clarity that the intent to negate the usual consequences of tortious conduct is made plain”; also recognizing that in most circumstances modern law “permit[s] a person to exculpate himself by contract from the legal consequences of his negligence”). Cf. Adloo v. H.T. Brown Real Estate, Inc., 344 Md. 254, 686 A.2d 298, 305 (Md. 1996) (“Because it does not clearly, [**12] unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably express the parties’ intention to exculpate the respondent from liability resulting from its own negligence, the clause is insufficient for that purpose.”). The provision at issue here meets the requirement of clarity. Article V is entitled, in capital letters, “WAIVER AND LIABILITY.” The Article ends with a prominent “box” containing a sentence typed in capital letters. Appellant Moore initialed that box, verifying that he had “carefully read this waiver and release and fully understands that it is a waiver and release of liability . . . .” By accepting the terms of membership, Moore “agree[d] to assume any and all liabilities associated with the personal injury, death, property loss or other damages which may result from or arise out of attendance at or use of the Club or participation in any of the Club’s programs or activities . . . .” He understood that this waiver of liability would “apply to any and all claims against the Club and/or its owners, shareholders, officers, directors, employees, agents or affiliates . . . for any . . . personal injuries . . . resulting from or arising out of any of [the] foregoing risks at the Club . [**13] . . .” He “release[d] and discharge[d] the Club . . . from any and all claims, damages, demands, rights of action or causes of action…, including those which arise out of the negligence of the Club . . . .” This release is conspicuous and unambiguous, and it is clearly recognizable as a release from liability. Moreover, the injuries alleged here were reasonably within the contemplation of the parties. “Because [HN5] the parties expressed a clear intention to release liability and because that release clearly included liability for negligence, that intention should be enforced.” Anderson v. McOskar Enterprises, Inc., 712 N.W.2d 796, 801 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006) (health and fitness club). 4
4 Because this waiver expressly refers to “claims . . . which arise out of the negligence of the Club,” its effect is clear. We have held, however, that it is not always necessary to use the word “negligence” in order to relieve a party of liability for such conduct. See Princemont Construction Corp. v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. 131 A.2d 877, 878 (D.C. 1957) (“the terms of an indemnity agreement may be so broad and comprehensive that although it contains no express stipulation indemnifying against a party’s [**14] own negligence, it accomplishes the same purpose”); see also Avant v. Community Hospital, 826 N.E.2d 7, 12 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005)( [HN6] “an exculpatory clause need not include the word ‘negligence’ so long as it conveys the concept specifically and explicitly through other language”).
[*182] Appellant protests that the waiver provisions are so broad that they could be construed to exempt the Club from liability for harm caused by intentional torts or by reckless or grossly negligent conduct. Because such provisions are unenforceable, he argues that the entire release is invalid. We disagree. “‘A better interpretation of the law is that [HN7] any “term” in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire [contract].'” Anderson, 712 N.W.2d at 801 (quoting Wolfgang v. Mid-American Motorsports, Inc., 898 F. Supp. 783, 788 (D. Kan. 1995) (which in turn quotes RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195(1) (1981) (“A term exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.” (emphasis added))). See Ellis v. James V. Hurson Associates, Inc., 565 A.2d 615, 617 (D.C. 1989) [**15] (“The Restatement sets forth the relevant principles. Where less than all of an agreement is unenforceable on public policy grounds, a court may nevertheless enforce the rest of the agreement ‘in favor of a party who did not engage in serious misconduct.'” (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 184(1) (1981))).
Nor is Article V (the waiver and release) unenforceable due to unequal bargaining power, as Mr. Moore asserts. We do not suppose that the parties in fact had equal power, but Moore does not meet the criteria for invalidating a contract on the grounds he invokes. He does not invite our attention to any evidence that he objected to the waiver provision or attempted to bargain for different terms. Nor has he shown that the contract involved a necessary service.
[HN8] Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a “take it or leave it” basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract. There must be a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation and that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.
Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924-25 (Minn. 1982) (emphasis in [**16] original). “Health clubs do not provide essential services[,]” Shields v. Sta-Fit, Inc., 79 Wn. App. 584, 903 P.2d 525, 528 (Wash. Ct. App. 1995), and “[t]he Washington metropolitan area . . . is home to many exercise and fitness clubs.” Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 639 (rejecting argument that patron’s bargaining position was grossly disproportionate to that of the fitness club).
We, of course, would not enforce such a release if doing so would be against public policy. See Godette v. Estate of Cox, 592 A.2d 1028, 1034 (D.C. 1991) ( [HN9] “An exculpatory clause [in a will] that excuses self-dealing [by the personal representative] or attempts to limit liability for breaches of duty committed in bad faith, intentionally, or with reckless indifference to the interest of the beneficiary, is generally considered to be against public policy.”); George Washington Univ. v. Weintraub, 458 A.2d 43, 47 (D.C. 1983) (exculpatory clause in lease was ineffective to waive tenants’ rights under implied warranty of habitability); see also Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 526 (Md. 1994) (public policy will not permit exculpatory agreements in certain transactions affecting the performance of a public service obligation or “so important [*183] [**17] to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be patently offensive”). However, we agree with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and with numerous other courts which have held that it does not violate public policy to enforce exculpatory clauses contained in membership contracts of health clubs and fitness centers. Seigneur, 752 A.2d at 640-41 (and cases cited therein); see also, e.g., Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 926 (“the exculpatory clause in the contract before us was not against the public interest”); Ciofalo v. Vic Tanney Gyms, Inc., 10 N.Y.2d 294, 177 N.E.2d 925, 927, 220 N.Y.S.2d 962 (N.Y. 1961) (“there is no special legal relationship and no overriding public interest which demand that this contract provision, voluntarily entered into by competent parties, should be rendered ineffectual”); Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132 (Wyo. 2000). 5
5 The Supreme Court of Wisconsin refused to enforce one such clause on grounds of public policy. Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334 (Wis. 2005). That decision was based on several factors, however, and we do not understand the court to have announced a categorical rule. See id. at 340-42 (waiver was “overly broad [**18] and all-inclusive,” the word “negligence” was not included, the provision was not “sufficiently highlight[ed],” and there was “no opportunity to bargain”).
The trial court properly held that “the waiver and release is valid and enforceable and is a complete defense for Grand Hyatt [and Mr. Waller] in this action.” The judgment of the Superior Court is hereby