Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


A loss of consortium claim started as a way to compensate a husband for the loss of his wife and the duties she performed in the home, including sex.

In most states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim, meaning that the claim is successful if the original claim, the husband’s claim is successful.

In Maine, a loss of consortium claim may be derivative or independent and is based on a statute.

Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

State: Maine, Supreme Judicial Court of Maine

Plaintiff: Brent D. Hardy et al.

Defendant: David St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses:

Holding:

Year: 1999

Summary

In the majority of states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim, and a release stops those claims as well as the original claim of the injured plaintiff. In Maine, a loss of consortium claim is a separate claim and not stopped when the plaintiff signs a release.

Facts

The husband was part of a pit crew for a race car. He signed a release to enter the track and work on the race car he crewed for. During the race, a specific set of seats in the bleachers were reserved for the pit crew. While sitting in the bleachers, a plank on a set of bleachers collapsed, injuring him.

The trial court granted summary judgment on the husband’s claim but allowed the wife’s loss of consortium claim to continue.

Maine’s loss of consortium claims originally only available to a husband when a wife was injured. When the first claims from wives appeared based on husband’s injuries the courts determined it was not their job to make that decision on whether the wife had a claim, that it was the legislature’s responsibility. “However, “under common law, a wife had no cause of action for her loss of consortium occasioned by her husband’s injuries.”

The Maine legislature passed a law giving both husband and wife, when married, loss of consortium claims. The statute stated the claims were available to be brought in the person’s own name or in their spouse’s name.

In most states, a loss of consortium claim is a derivative claim. Meaning the claim is brought with the injured spouse’s claim and is subject to the defenses to the injured spouses claim. Alternatively, the non-injures spouse can only win if the injured spouse wins.

Based on the language of the Maine Statute, the trial court determined the loss of consortium claim of the non-injured spouse could continue. The defendant appealed that decision and this is the Maine Supreme Court’s decision on that issue.

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

The court started by reviewing the release, and Maine release law. As in most states the court started its analysis with:

Courts have traditionally disfavored contractual exclusions of negligence liability and have exercised a heightened degree of judicial scrutiny when interpreting contractual language [that] allegedly exempts a party from liability for his own negligence.”

Under Maine’s law, this means that a release must “expressly spell out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability” That means the court must look at the plain language of the agreement and determine the intent of the parties as set forth in the agreement.

Although the release was mainly written to cover injuries received as a member of the pit crew and stock-car racing, the court found that since the seating area where the injury occurred could only be occupied by members of a pit crew, the release covered the injuries the plaintiff suffered when the plank broke. The court stated.

…had Brent not been participating in the race events, he would not have been on the section of bleachers that collapsed because that section was reserved for members of the pit crews and not open to the general public

The plaintiff’s injuries were determined to have risen directly from the racing event. Overall, the court determined the agreement was written to extinguish negligence liability.

Finding the release prevented the claims of the husband, the court then turned to the issue of the loss of consortium claim of the spouse.

Looking at the law of releases, a release only bar’s claims of the person who signed the release. If the wife’s claims are derivative, then her claims would be barred also when the husband signed the release.

States adopting the derivative approach generally conclude that a cause of action for loss of consortium is subject to the same defenses available in the injured spouse’s underlying tort action. States adopting the independent approach generally conclude that a consortium claim is not subject to such defenses.

However, under the statute, the court found that loss of consortium claims in Maine are separate, independent causes of action. The wife’s loss of consortium claim could continue.

So Now What?

In Maine, and the minority of states that follow this line of reasoning, to bar all claims for injuries, a defendant is going to have to get a signature on a release for everyone who might have a claim based upon the injury of the injured person.

That could mean the spouse would have to sign a release, minor children if they are allowed, heirs of the plaintiff if he dies, or anyone else that could bring a claim all would have to release any possible defendant.

Understand if you live in a state where loss of consortium claims is derivative and covered by a release or stand alone and not covered by your release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

Hardy et al. v. St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway,1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

Brent D. Hardy et al. v. David St. Clair d/b/a Wiscasset Raceway

Wal-99-107

SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE

1999 ME 142; 739 A.2d 368; 1999 Me. LEXIS 161

September 10, 1999, Argued

October 15, 1999, Decided

DISPOSITION: [***1] Judgment affirmed.

CORE TERMS: consortium, spouse, loss of consortium, cause of action, derivative, raceway, public policy, common law, negligence liability, negligence claim, indemnity agreements, releasee, own negligence, own name, civil action, citation omitted, indemnification, contractual, extinguish, indirectly, occasioned, claimant, married, bleachers, crew, pit, plain language, tort action, particularity, contractually

COUNSEL: Attorneys for plaintiffs: James C. Munch III, Esq., (orally), Marvin G. Glazier, Esq., Vafiades, Brountas & Kominsky, Bangor, ME.

Attorneys for defendant: Richard L. Suter, Esq., (orally, George D. Hepner III, Esq., Suter & Hepner, P.A., Falmouth, ME.

JUDGES: Panel: RUDMAN, DANA, SAUFLEY, ALEXANDER, and CALKINS, JJ.

OPINION BY: RUDMAN

OPINION

[**369] RUDMAN, J.

[*P1] Brent D. Hardy and Carie Hardy appeal and David St. Clair cross-appeals from a summary judgment entered in the Superior Court (Waldo County, Marsano, J.) concluding that a release signed by Brent D. Hardy barred his negligence claim, but did not bar his wife’s claim for loss of consortium. We agree with the trial court and affirm the judgment.

[*P2] This action arises from injuries allegedly sustained by Brent D. Hardy at the Wiscasset Raceway, a facility owned by David St. Clair. As a condition to Brent’s service as a member of a pit crew supporting a race car racing at the raceway, Brent was required to sign a document entitled “Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” Brent was injured when a plank on a set of bleachers at the raceway reserved for members of the [***2] pit crews collapsed under him. The trial court granted a summary judgment in favor of the raceway on the basis that the agreement barred Brent’s negligence claim, but concluded that the agreement did not bar Carie’s loss of consortium claim. This appeal ensued.

I.

[*P3] The Hardys contend that the agreement is ambiguous and violates Maine law and public policy and that the peril which caused Brent’s injury was not contemplated by the parties. “Courts [HN1] have traditionally disfavored contractual exclusions of negligence liability and have exercised a heightened degree of judicial scrutiny when interpreting contractual language [that] allegedly exempts a party from liability for his own negligence.” 1 [HN2] Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1207 (Me. 1979). Accordingly, a release must “expressly spell out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). To discern the parties’ intention, we look to the plain language of the agreement.

1 Wiscasset Raceway cites Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1207-08 (Me. 1979) and Emery Waterhouse Co. v. Lea, 467 A.2d 986, 993 (Me. 1983). In support of its contention that, “under Maine law, release and indemnity agreements exempting the releasee/indemnitee from liability for his or her own negligence are considered lawful and are not against public policy.” In Doyle, 403 A.2d at 1207 n.2, we declined to address whether such agreements were unlawful and contrary to public policy, stating:

Because we do not construe the documents executed … as releases or indemnification agreements, we have no occasion to reach the further issue whether contractual provisions which relieve a party from liability for that party’s own negligence would be unenforceable and void as contravening public policy. See, e.g., Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (1963); Prosser, Torts § 68 (4th ed. 1971).

In Emery Waterhouse Co., 467 A.2d at 993, we stated that “indemnity [HN3] clauses to save a party harmless from damages due to negligence may lawfully be inserted in contracts . . ., and such clauses are not against public policy.”

[*P4] [***3] The pertinent provisions of the Agreement state that, by signing the document, Brent:

2. HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE [Wiscasset Raceway] FROM ALL LIABILITY [sic]… FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE, AND ANY CLAIM OR DEMANDS THEREFOR ON ACCOUNT OF INJURY TO THE PERSON OR PROPERTY … ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

. . . .

[**370] 4. HEREBY ASSUMES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY RISK OF BODILY INJURY, DEATH OR PROPERTY DAMAGE arising out of or related to the EVENT(S) whether caused by the NEGLIGENCE OF RELEASEES or otherwise.

. . . .

6. HEREBY agrees that this Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement extends to all acts of negligence by the Releasees . . . and is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws. . . .

The Agreement further provides:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS TERMS, UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE GIVEN UP SUBSTANTIAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT, AND INTEND MY SIGNATURE TO BE A COMPLETE AND [***4] UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE OF ALL LIABILITY TO THE GREATEST EXTENT ALLOWED BY LAW.

[*P5] According to the second and fourth paragraphs of the Agreement, Brent cannot recover for any injuries “arising out of or related to the EVENT(S).” The term “EVENT(S)” refers to Wiscasset Raceway’s “Regular Races & 50 Lap Heavyweight.” Although Brent did not receive injuries directly “arising out of or related to the events,” his injuries were related to the events and indirectly resulted from them. The race events did not directly cause the bleachers to collapse under Brent. However, had Brent not been participating in the race events, he would not have been on the section of bleachers that collapsed because that section was reserved for members of the pit crews and not open to the general public.

[*P6] In light of other broader language in the Agreement, however, this appeal does not turn on whether the Agreement expressly extinguishes Wiscasset Raceway’s negligence liability for injuries indirectly arising out of the racing events. The sixth paragraph provides that the scope of the Agreement “extends to all acts of negligence by [Wiscasset Raceway] . . . And is intended to be as broad [***5] and inclusive as is permitted by the laws.” Further, the last portion of the Agreement indicates that Brent intended his signature to be “A COMPLETE AND UNCONDITIONAL RELEASE OF ALL LIABILITY TO THE GREATEST EXTENT ALLOWED BY LAW.” Even when strictly construed against Wiscasset Raceway, the Agreement “expressly spell[s] out with the greatest particularity the intention of the parties contractually to extinguish negligence liability.” Doyle, 403 A.2d at 1207 (internal quotations omitted). In light of the plain language of the Agreement, the trial court did not err in concluding that the Agreement barred Brent’s negligence claim.

II.

[*P7] By way of cross-appeal, Wiscasset Raceway contends that the trial court erred in concluding that the Agreement did not bar Carie’s loss of consortium claim. Wiscasset Raceway argues that, “under Maine law, although a loss of consortium claim is often referred to as being both ‘derivative’ and ‘independent,’ such claims are often greatly limited by statutory and common law defenses associated with the injured spouse’s cause of action.” Wiscasset Raceway further contends that, regardless, the indemnification provision bars Carie’s [***6] loss of consortium claim. 2 In response, the Hardys argue that Carie’s consortium claim was independent, and [**371] that Brent did not have the ability to release her claim without her consent.

2 Although we recognize that the indemnification clause contained in the Agreement may render this determination a pyrrhic victory, the existence of that clause, by itself, cannot eliminate the noninjured spouse’s claim.

[*P8] “For centuries[,] courts have recognized a husband’s right to recover damages for the loss of consortium 3 when a tortious injury to his wife detrimentally affects the spousal relationship.” Macomber v. Dillman, 505 A.2d 810, 813 (Me. 1986). However, “under common law, a wife had no cause of action for her loss of consortium occasioned by her husband’s injuries.” Dionne v. Libbey-Owens Ford Co., 621 A.2d 414, 417 (Me. 1993). In 1965, in Potter v. Schafter, we declined to “judicially legislate” such a cause of action and, instead, deferred to the Legislature [***7] so that “the diverse interests affected by such proposition may be heard.” Potter v. Schafter, 161 Me. 340, 341-43, 211 A.2d 891, 892-93 (1965). In 1967, “fun response to our decision in Potter v. Schafter, the Legislature enacted section 167-A of Title 19[,] [which] provided that ‘[a] married woman may bring a civil action in her own name for loss of consortium of her husband.'” Dionne, 621 A.2d at 417 (footnote omitted) (citation omitted). Thereafter, the Legislature repealed section 167-A and replaced it with the gender-neutral section 302 of Title 14, which provides that [HN4] “[a] married person may bring a civil action in that person’s own name for loss of consortium of that person’s spouse.” 14 M.R.S.A. § 302.

3 [HN5] The term “consortium” refers to “the nonpecuniary interests a person may have in the company, cooperation, affection, and aid of another.” BRYAN A. GARNER, A DICTIONARY OF MODERN LEGAL USAGE 208 (2d ed. 1995). “Consortium” [HN6] means the “conjugal fellowship of husband and wife, and the right of each to the company, society, co-operation, affection, and aid of the other in every conjugal relation.” BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 309 (6th ed. 1990). BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY further states:

Loss of “consortium” consists of several elements, encompassing not only material services but such intangibles as society, guidance, companionship, and sexual relations. Damages for loss of consortium are commonly sought in wrongful death actions, or when [a] spouse has been seriously injured through [the] negligence of another, or by [a] spouse against [a] third person alleging that he or she has caused [the] breaking-up of [the] marriage. [A] cause of action for
“consortium” occasioned
by injury to [a] marriage partner[] is a separate cause of
action belonging to
the
spouse of
the
injured
married partner and [,]
though
derivative
in the sense
of being occasioned by injury to [the]
spouse, is a
direct
injury to the spouse
who has lost the
consortium.

Id. (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[*P9] [***8] As an initial matter, the Agreement did not directly bar Carie’s consortium claim because she did not sign it and was not a party to the contract. [HN7] A release is a contract that can only bar a claim if the claimant was a party to the agreement. See, e.g., Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc., 63 Ohio St. 3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384, 392 (Ohio 1992); Arnold v. Shawano County Agric. Soc’y, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 330 N.W.2d 773, 779 (Wis. 1983). Hence, the issue facing us is whether, by expressly barring Brent’s negligence claim, the Agreement indirectly barred Carie’s consortium claim. Stated otherwise, we must determine whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent.”

[*P10] Jurisdictions are divided over whether to treat a loss of consortium claim as a “derivative” or “independent” cause of action with regard to the underlying tort claim. 4
See, e.g., McCoy v. Colonial Baking [**372] Co., 572 So. 2d 850, 856-61 (Miss. 1990) (comparing positions of state courts); Carol J. Miller, Annotation, Injured Party’s Release of Tortfeasor as Barring
Spouse’s
Action for
Loss
of Consortium, 29 A.L.R.4th 1200 (1981) [***9] (analyzing state and federal cases). States adopting the derivative approach generally conclude that a cause of action for loss of consortium is subject to the same defenses available in the injured spouse’s underlying tort action. See Miller, supra. States adopting the independent approach generally conclude that a consortium claim is not subject to such defenses. See id.

4 The terms “derivative” and “independent” are imprecise, and may be misleading. See, Jo-Anne M. Balo, Loss of Consortium: A Derivative Injury Giving Rise to a Separate Cause of Action, 50 FORDHAM L. REV. 1344, 1351-54 (1982) (noting that “there is no precise definition of a derivative action”). According to another commentator:

Writers have observed that the conflict which has developed in such cases “suggests the need for basic explanations of which there has been something of a shortage” and that a court’s adoption of either the derivative or independent approach “sounds more like a conclusion than a reason.” The question confusing courts is whether the consortium claim is dependent upon the injury or the injured spouse’s cause of action.

Antonios P. Tsarouhas, Bowen v.
Kil-Kare,
Inc.: The Derivative
and
Independent Approach to Spousal Consortium, 19 OHIO N.U. L. REV. 987, 990-91 (1993) (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

[*P11] [***10] Although we have heretofore declined to address whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent,” see, e.g., Morris v. Hunter, 652 A.2d 80, 82 (Me. 1994); Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983), 5 our case law lends support for the trial court’s conclusion that consortium claims are separate, independent causes of action. In Taylor v. Hill, 464 A.2d 938, 944 (Me. 1983), we recognized that [HN8] a consortium claim, “though derived from an alleged injury to the person of [the claimant’s spouse], constitutes a distinct and separate cause of action.” Similarly, in Dionne, 621 A.2d at 418, we indicated that a wife’s statutory right to bring a consortium claim “belongs to the wife and is separate and apart from the husband’s right to bring his own action against the party responsible for his injuries.”

5 In Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983), we declined to decide whether a consortium claim is “derivative” or “independent,” but noted that [HN9] “an independent cause of action accrues when the plaintiff is damaged by the negligent conduct of the defendant; the law will imply nominal damages from any violation of the plaintiffs rights.” Box v. Walker, 453 A.2d 1181, 1183 (Me. 1983).

[*P12] [***11] The express language of section 302 offers no support for the conclusion that a consortium claim is entirely “derivative.” See 14 M.R.S.A. § 302. To the contrary, section 302’s provision that a consortium claimant may bring a civil action “in that person’s own name” suggests that the cause of action is independent and separate from the underlying tort action of the victim spouse. 14 M.R.S.A. § 302. Further, we have recognized that the Legislature, by enacting the statutory predecessor to section 302, “established a separate right to the wife.” Dionne, 621 A.2d at 418 (holding that damages wife recovered under consortium claim were not subject to husband’s employer’s lien). Although derivative in the sense that both causes of action arise from the same set of facts, the injured spouse’s claim is based on the common law of negligence while the claim of the other spouse is based on statutory law. Each claim is independent of the other and the pre- or post-injury release of one spouse’s claim does not bar the other spouse’s claim. A consortium claim is an independent cause of action, and, therefore, the trial court committed no error in ruling that [***12] the Agreement failed to bar Carie’s consortium claim. 6

6 We need not determine whether a loss of consortium claim may be subject to traditional common law or statutory defenses to the claims of the injured spouse. We decide only that [HN10] a release of the injured spouse’s claim does not simultaneously release the loss of consortium claim of the noninjured spouse.

The entry is:

Judgment affirmed.


A season pass release for a Pennsylvania ski are was limited to the inherent risks of skiing. Consequently, the plaintiff was able to argue his injury was not due to an inherent risk.

The defendant one because the court was able to interpret the risk as one that was inherent in skiing. The defendant also, laid out the risks of skiing quite broadly in its information to the plaintiff.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

State: Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Adams County, Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for failing to properly maintain its ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning an icy area

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding:

Year: 2006

Summary

Plaintiff was injured when he skied over an icy spot and fell at the defendant’s ski area. However, this case was quickly dismissed because he had signed a release and the risk of ice at a ski area was an inherent risk of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

Facts

The plaintiff purchased a season pass to ski at the defendant’s ski area. He purchased his season pass on-line and signed a release at that time, online. When he went to pick up his season pass, he signed another written release. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.)

While skiing one day the plaintiff fell on an icy section. He claimed he was unaware of the ice. He severely injured is face, back, ribs and left hand. He sued the defendants for his injuries.

The defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is an argument that the pleadings do not make a legal case to continue the litigation.

A motion for judgment on the pleadings is in the nature of a demurrer as it provides the means to test the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. All of the [P]laintiffs’ allegations must be taken as true for the purposes of judgment on the pleadings. Unlike a motion for summary judgment, the power of the court to enter a judgment on the pleadings is limited by the requirement that the court consider only the pleadings themselves and any documents properly attached thereto. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only where the pleadings demonstrate that no genuine issue of fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court looked at Pennsylvania law. Like most states in Pennsylvania “exculpatory agreements, or releases, are valid provided, they comply with the safeguards enunciated by our Superior Court.”

Under Pennsylvania law, a release to be valid must:

The contract must not contravene any policy of the law. It must be a contract between individuals relating to their private affairs. Each party must be a free bargaining agent, not simply one drawn into an adhesion contract, with no recourse but to reject the entire transaction…[T]o be enforceable, several additional standards must be met. First, we must construe the agreement strictly and against the party asserting it. Finally, the agreement must spell out the intent of the parties with the utmost particularity.

The court then went through the facts in this case to see if the requirements under the law were met.

The plaintiff was not forced to sign the release but did so freely. The release was signed based on a personal choice of the plaintiff to ski at the defendant’s facilities. “Clearly, this activity is not essential to Cahill’s personal or economic well-being but, rather, was a purely recreational activity.”

The release does not violate public policy because the agreement was private in nature and “in no way affect the rights of the public.”

The court found the release was unambiguous. The release spelled out the intent of the parties and gave notice to the plaintiff of what he was signing.

The releases executed by Cahill are unambiguous in both their language and intent. The language spells out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise patrons of the contents and purpose of the document as both a notice of risk and a release of liability. The waiver uses plain language informing the skier that downhill skiing is a dangerous sport with inherent risks including ice and icy conditions as well as other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, the condition of which vary constantly due to weather changes and use. Importantly, after advising a patron of these dangers, the documents unequivocally, in both bold and capital letters, releases Ski Liberty from liability for any injuries suffered while using the ski facilities regardless of any negligence on the part of Ski Liberty, its employees, or agents. The application of the releases to use of Ski Liberty facilities is not only spelled out specifically in the document but is reinforced by other references to the releases throughout the body of the document.

The plaintiff had ample opportunity to read and review the release before paying for it. The court found the release was clear and spelled out in detail in plain language the intent of the parties.

The plaintiff argued the icy condition was a hazardous condition created by the defendant and is not an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. Because the condition was hazardous, the plaintiff argued you could not assume the risk of the icy area, and the release should be void.

The court found that icy conditions were an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

Cahill is an experienced skier who obviously has personal knowledge of the inherent dangers involved in the sport. His experience undoubtedly has taught him that the sport of skiing is not conducted in the pristine and controlled atmosphere of a laboratory but rather occurs in the often hostile and fickle atmosphere of a south central Pennsylvania winter. Those familiar with skiing, such as Cahill, are aware that nature’s snow is regularly supplemented with a man made variety utilizing water and a complex system of sprayers, hydrants, and pipes. Human experience also teaches us that water equipment frequently leaves puddles which, in freezing temperatures, will rapidly turn to ice. The risks caused by this variety of ever-changing factors are not only inherent in downhill skiing but, perhaps, are the very nature of the sport. The self-apparent risks were accepted by Cahill when he voluntarily entered into a business relationship with Ski Liberty. He chose to purchase a ski ticket in exchange for the opportunity to experience the thrill of downhill skiing. In doing so, he voluntarily assumed the risks that not only accompany the sport but may very well add to its attractiveness.

The court upheld the release and granted the defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings. This effectively ended the lawsuit.

So Now What?

It is rare that a Judgment on the Pleadings works, normally; the plaintiff can make an argument that the court finds requires more investigation, so the case can continue.

Here though, the release was well-written and the plaintiff’s argument was thrown out as a risk covered in the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

In this case, the plaintiff was dealt a double blow, with only one being necessary for the defendant to win. He signed a valid release and the risk he undertook was an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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