Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153

Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153

Claire A. Donahue, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. Ledgends, Inc. d/b/a Alaska Rock Gym, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

Supreme Court Nos. S-14910/14929, No. 6932

SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA

2014 Alas. LEXIS 153

August 1, 2014, Decided

NOTICE:

THIS OPINION IS SUBJECT TO CORRECTION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE PACIFIC REPORTER. READERS ARE REQUESTED TO BRING ERRORS TO THE ATTENTION OF THE CLERK OF THE APPELLATE COURTS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Andrew Guidi, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-10-07305 CI.

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-Plaintiff alleged injured party’s negligence claim failed because a release stated waived risks, used “negligence,” stated important factors in emphasized language, specifically disclaimed liability, did not imply safety standards conflicting with a release, was not contested on public policy grounds, and was not modified by advertising; [2]-The Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, AS 45.50.471 et seq., did not apply because conflicts with a personal injury claim barred assuming such a legislature intent, which “ascertainable loss of money or property” in AS 45.50.531(a) did not state; [3]-It was no clear error to find defendant gym waived Alaska R. Civ. P. 68 attorney’s fees because it only raised its offer of judgment when seeking fees under an indemnity clause, and only raised enhanced fees under Alaska R. Civ. P. 82, before its reconsideration motion.

OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.

COUNSEL: Christine S. Schleuss, Law Office of Christine S. Schleuss, Anchorage, for Appellant and Cross-Appellee.

Tracey L. Knutson, Girdwood, for Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

JUDGES: Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.

OPINION BY: MAASSEN

OPINION

MAASSEN, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

This case arises from an injury at a climbing gym. Claire Donahue broke her tibia during a class at the Alaska Rock Gym after she dropped approximately three to four-and-a-half feet from a bouldering wall onto the floor mat. Before class Donahue had been required to read and sign a document that purported to release the Rock Gym from any liability for participants’ injuries.

Donahue brought claims against the Rock Gym for negligence and violations of the Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (UTPA). The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment, contending that the release bars Donahue’s negligence claim. It also moved to dismiss the UTPA claims on grounds that the act does not apply to personal injury claims and that Donahue failed to state a prima facie [*2] case for relief under the act. Donahue cross-moved for partial summary judgment on the enforceability of the release as well as the merits of her UTPA claims. The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s, then awarded attorney’s fees to the Rock Gym under Alaska Civil Rule 82.

Donahue appeals the grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym; the Rock Gym also appeals, contending that the superior court should have awarded fees under Alaska Civil Rule 68 instead of Rule 82. We affirm the superior court on all issues.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Ledgends, Inc. does business as the Alaska Rock Gym, a private indoor facility that is open to the public. Its interior walls have fixed climbing holds and routes; for a fee, it provides classes and open gym or free climbing time. There are signs posted around the Rock Gym warning of the dangers of climbing, including falling; at her deposition Donahue did not dispute that the signs were there when she visited the gym.

Donahue had been thinking about trying rock climbing for several years, and she finally decided in March 2008 to attend a class at the Rock Gym called “Rockin’ Women.” She testified that she chose the class because she thought it could be tailored to specific [*3] skill levels, and because she “got the impression [from the advertisements] that that is the type of group it was, that it was a . . . safe way to learn to climb.” She also testified she understood that the essential risk of climbing is falling.

Donahue had no rock climbing experience, but she was an occasional runner and cyclist and had pursued other high-risk athletic activities such as kite-boarding. She had been a river guide on the Colorado River after college. She had engaged in physical occupations such as commercial fishing and construction. She testified that she understood the nature of risky activities and felt competent to decide about them for herself. In connection with other recreational activities, she had signed releases and waivers similar to the one she signed at the Rock Gym. She testified that she understood that parties who sign contracts generally intend to be bound by them.

When Donahue arrived at the Rock Gym for her first class, she was given a document entitled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.” She was aware of the document’s nature and general intent but testified that although [*4] she signed it voluntarily, she did not read it closely.

The release contains nine numbered sections on two single-spaced pages. There is also an unnumbered introductory paragraph; it defines the Rock Gym to include, among others, its agents, owners, participants, and employees, as well as “all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf.”

Section one of the release contains three paragraphs. The first recites the general risks of rock climbing, including injury and death, and explains that these risks are essential to the sport and therefore cannot be eliminated. The second paragraph lists about a dozen specific risks inherent in rock climbing, including “falling off the climbing wall,” “impacting the ground,” “the negligence of other[s],” and “my own negligence[,] inexperience, . . . or fatigue.” The third paragraph asserts that the gym and its instructors “seek safety, but they are not infallible.” It describes some errors instructors might make, including being ignorant of a participant’s abilities and failing to give adequate warnings or instructions. The final sentence in the third paragraph reads, “By signing this [release], I acknowledge that I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE [*5] for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals, or activities.”

Section two begins, “I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all the risks . . .”; it then highlights the voluntary nature of participation in Rock Gym activities.

Section three is the clause that releases the Rock Gym from liability (the releasing clause). It reads in full,

I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].

The next six sections of the release address other issues: indemnification for attorney’s fees, certification that the participant is fit to climb, permission to provide first aid, permission to photograph for promotional purposes, the voluntariness of participation and signing the release, and jurisdiction for claims arising from the release.

The ultimate paragraph is printed in bold. It reads in part,

By signing this [*6] document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.

Finally, centered on the second page, in bold capital letters directly above the signature line, the release reads: “I HAVE HAD SUFFICIENT OPPORTUNITY TO READ THIS ENTIRE DOCUMENT. I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD IT, AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.”

Donahue’s hand-printed name and the date appear on the first page of the release, and her initials are at the bottom of the page; her signature appears on the second page, along with her printed name, her contact information, and the date.

Donahue completed her first class on harnessed climbing on March 23, 2008, and returned for a second class on May 11. When class began she was told that the day’s focus would be on bouldering, or unharnessed climbing on low walls. She did not express any hesitation. She climbed for almost two hours, successfully ascending and descending a number of routes. [*7] During this time she saw other people drop from the wall without injury. After another successful ascent near the end of the lesson, she felt unable to climb down using the available holds. Her feet were somewhere between three and four-and-a-half feet from the ground. Her instructor suggested that she drop to the mat and told her to be sure to bend her knees. Donahue landed awkwardly and broke her tibia in four places. She was attended to immediately by Rock Gym personnel and a physician who happened to be present.

The Rock Gym had run various advertisements during the two years preceding Donahue’s accident, using a number of different slogans. One newspaper ad, running on at least three occasions, stated: “[T]the only safe place in town to hang out.” Another Rock Gym ad showed an adult bouldering and a child climbing while harnessed; its text contained the same slogan and added, in part, “Trust us, it still exists. . . . [E]very child in your family will be reminded of what it’s all about — friends and fun.” A third ad described climbing programs for everyone in the family and said, “[Y]ou have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” In an affidavit, Donahue testified she had read these ads.

Donahue [*8] sued the Rock Gym for negligent failure to adequately train and supervise its instructors. She alleged that the Rock Gym was liable for its employee’s negligent instruction to drop from the bouldering wall. She also alleged a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act, contending that the Rock Gym’s advertisements “misleadingly advertised [the gym] as a safe place where users of its services had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

The Rock Gym moved for summary judgment on all of Donahue’s claims. She opposed the motion and cross-moved for partial summary judgment herself, arguing that the Rock Gym had violated the UTPA as a matter of law and that the release she had signed was null and void.

The superior court granted the Rock Gym’s motion and denied Donahue’s cross-motion. It then granted the Rock Gym, as prevailing party, partial attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(a)(3).

III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

[HN1] We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.1 In making this determination, we construe the facts in favor of the non-moving party.2 If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving [*9] party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.3

1 Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013) (citing Yost v. State, Div. of Corps., Bus. & Prof’l Licensing, 234 P.3d 1264, 1272 (Alaska 2010)).

2 Id. (citing McCormick v. City of Dillingham, 16 P.3d 735, 738 (Alaska 2001)).

3 Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012).

[HN2] We decide questions of law, including statutory interpretation, using our independent judgment.4 We will adopt the most persuasive rule of law in light of precedent, reason, and policy.5 This requires us, when interpreting statutes, to “look to the meaning of the language, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute.”6

4 Therchik v. Grant Aviation, Inc., 74 P.3d 191, 193 (Alaska 2003).

5 ASRC Energy Servs. Power & Commc’ns, LLC v. Golden Valley Electric Ass’n, 267 P.3d 1151, 1157 (Alaska 2011).

6 Id.

[HN3] “A superior court’s determination whether waiver occurred is a question of fact that we review for clear error.”7

7 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. The Release Is Enforceable And Bars Donahue’s Negligence Claims.

Three cases define Alaska law on pre-activity releases from liability.8 [HN4] These cases consistently state that such releases are not per se invalid;9 in each of the cases, however, we concluded that the release at issue did not bar the plaintiff’s claim.

8 Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991).

9 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961-62 (noting that “under Alaska law pre-recreational exculpatory releases are held to a very high standard of clarity”); Moore, 36 P.3d at 631 (noting that “an otherwise valid release is ineffective when releasing a defendant from liability would violate public policy” (emphasis added)); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to [*10] sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (quoting 15 Samuel Williston, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 1750A, at 143-45 (3d ed. 1972)); see also Mitchell v. Mitchell, 655 P.2d 748, 751 (Alaska 1982) (upholding provision not to sue in settlement agreement and noting that, “[a]s a matter of law, . . . a valid release of all claims will bar any subsequent claims covered by the release”).

Kissick v. Schmierer involved a plane crash that caused the deaths of all four people aboard.10 The three passengers had signed a covenant not to sue before they boarded the plane.11 They agreed in the release not to bring a claim “for any loss, damage, or injury to [their] person or [their] property which may occur from any cause whatsoever.”12 When the passengers’ surviving spouses filed wrongful death claims against the pilot, their claims were allowed to proceed despite the release.13 We ruled that [HN5] “[i]ntent to release a party from liability for future negligence must be conspicuously and unequivocally expressed.”14 We also held that a release must use the word “negligence” to establish the required degree of clarity, something the release in Kissick did not do.15 Further, since liability for “death” was not specifically disclaimed and the term “injury” [*11] was ambiguous, we held that the release did not apply to claims for wrongful death, construing it against the drafter.16

10 Kissick, 816 P.2d at 188.

11 Id. at 189.

12 Id.

13 Id.

14 Id. at 191 (citations omitted).

15 Id. (citing W.Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, at 483-84 (5th ed.1984) (footnotes omitted)).

16 Id. at 191-92.

The second case, Moore v. Hartley Motors, involved an injury during a class on driving all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).17 We first addressed whether the plaintiff’s signed release violated public policy.18 We noted that the type of service involved was neither essential nor regulated by statute;19 these factors, along with the voluntariness of the plaintiff’s participation, persuaded us that the defendants 20 had no “decisive advantage in bargaining strength.”21 We therefore held that the release did not violate public policy.22

17 36 P.3d 628, 629 (Alaska 2001).

18 Id. at 631-32.

19 Id. at 631-32 (noting that ATV riding is similar to parachuting, dirt biking, and scuba diving, for which releases have been upheld in other jurisdictions).

20 The defendants included the dealer that sold the plaintiff the ATV and referred her to the safety course, the ATV Safety Institute that developed the curriculum, and the individual instructor. Id. at 629.

21 Id. at 631-32.

22 Id.

We did decide, however, that the release did not conspicuously and unequivocally [*12] express an intent to release the defendants from liability for the cause of the exact injury that occurred — a rollover when the plaintiff drove over a big rock hidden in tall grass.23 The release covered the inherent risks of ATV riding, but we found that it also included “an implied and reasonable presumption that the course [was] not unreasonably dangerous.”24 We found there to be fact questions about whether “the course posed a risk beyond ordinary negligence related to the inherent risks of off-road ATV riding assumed by the release,” and we held that summary judgment for the defendants on the basis of the release was therefore improper.25

23 Id. at 632.

24 Id.

25 Id. at 633-34.

The third case, Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, involved the same rock gym as this case.26 It involved a similar injury as well, sustained when the plaintiff fell from a bouldering wall.27 Unlike Donahue, however, who landed squarely on the floor mat, the plaintiff in Kerr was allegedly injured when her foot slipped through the space between two floor mats.28 The plaintiff alleged the gym knew of the defect in the landing area but had failed to fix it.29

26 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004).

27 Id. at 961.

28 Id.

29 Id.

The superior court, whose order we approved and attached as an appendix to our opinion, cited Kissick [*13] for the notion that a pre-activity release for tortious conduct must be “clear, explicit, and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”30 The superior court also noted the requirement that “such an agreement, read as a whole, must clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.”31 With these principles in mind, the superior court pointed to language in the release that was problematic because it was internally inconsistent: the release stated that the gym would try to keep its facilities safe and its equipment in good condition, but it simultaneously disclaimed liability for actions that failed to meet such standards.32 The superior court construed this ambiguity against the drafter and held that the release was not valid as a bar to the plaintiff’s negligence claims, a holding we affirmed.33

30 Id. at 961-62 (quoting Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

31 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191) (internal quotation marks omitted).

32 Id. at 963.

33 Id.

In this case, the superior court concluded that Kissick, Moore, and Kerr, considered together, meant that [HN6] “an effective liability release requires six characteristics.” We agree with the superior court’s formulation of the list:

(1) the risk being waived must [*14] be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language by using simple words and capital letters; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

The superior court found that each of these characteristics was satisfied in this case, and again we agree.34

34 Donahue does not challenge the release on public policy grounds, so the fourth characteristic of a valid release is satisfied here. Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities. Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191 (“A promise not to sue for future damage caused by simple negligence may be valid.” (internal citations [*15] and quotation marks omitted)). The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case involving claims against a health club, held that liability releases in gym cases do not violate public policy in part because gyms remain liable for their gross negligence or recklessness — levels of culpability not alleged in this case. Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., 203 N.J. 286, 1 A.3d 678, 681 (N.J. 2010); see also City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal. 4th 747, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095, 1102-03 (Cal. 2007) (surveying jurisdictions and concluding that “[m]ost, but not all” hold that releases of ordinary negligence in recreational activities do not violate public policy but “the vast majority of decisions state or hold that such agreements generally are void” if they attempt to release “aggravated misconduct” such as gross negligence).

1. The risks being waived (falling and instructor negligence) are specifically and clearly set forth.

[HN7] A conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived is the keystone of a valid release.35 Here, the release clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue: injury from falling while climbing. The following are excerpts from the Rock Gym’s release:

I specifically acknowledge that the inherent risks associated with rock climbing . . . include[], but [are] not limited to: falling off of the climbing wall, . . . impacting [*16] the ground . . . , general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant’s limits, . . . my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue . . . .

To the extent that the risk at issue is the risk of hitting the ground after falling (or dropping in what is essentially an intentional fall), the first characteristic of a valid release is satisfied by this language.

35 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001); Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.

Rather than focusing on her injury, however, Donahue focuses on its alleged cause, which she argues was the negligent training and supervision of Rock Gym instructors and the consequently negligent instructions she was given. She claims that the release did not specifically and clearly set forth this risk, and that she was therefore unaware that she was waiving the right to sue for instructor negligence.

But the release did cover this risk. The first paragraph expressly incorporates “employees” into the definition of the entity being released. The release further warns that Rock Gym “instructors, [*17] employees, volunteers, agents or others . . . are not infallible” and that “[t]hey may give inadequate warnings or instructions.” In its on-site interactions with the public, the Rock Gym necessarily acts through its instructors and other employees; Donahue knew she would be taking a class and that classes require instructors. It would not be reasonable to conclude that the Rock Gym sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees, and we cannot construe the release in that way.36 We agree with the superior court’s conclusion that “the Release clearly expresses that it is a release of liability for the negligence of the releasor-participant, other participants, climbers, spotters or visitors, as well as [the Rock Gym’s] negligence, including [Rock Gym] employees.”

36 See Kahn v. E. Side Union High Sch. Dist., 31 Cal. 4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, 40 (Cal. 2003) (holding that “the risks associated with learning a sport may themselves be inherent risks of the sport. . . . [A]nd . . . liability should not be imposed simply because an instructor asked the student to take action beyond what, with hindsight, is found to have been the student’s abilities” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).

Donahue also argues that [*18] she could not understand the risks involved due to the release’s appearance and presentation. However, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her, the record does not support her argument. Although Donahue did not carefully read the release before signing it,37 she was aware she was signing a liability release. She has signed a number of such documents in the past and was familiar with their general purpose. When asked to read the release at her deposition, she testified that she understood the pertinent risks it described. There is no reason to believe that she would have found it less comprehensible had she read it at the time she signed it.

37 [HN8] Failure to read a contract in detail before signing it is no defense to its enforceability. Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991).

2. The waiver of negligence is specifically set forth using the word “negligence.”

Kissick and Kerr both emphasize that a valid release from liability for negligence claims requires use of the word “negligence.”38 This requirement is met here.

38 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 961; Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191.

The Rock Gym’s release first lists negligence among the inherent risks of climbing (“the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants” and “my own negligence”). It then provides: [*19] “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].” (Emphasis added.) The phrase “any and all claims” is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.

Cases from other jurisdictions support the conclusion that the language in the Rock Gym’s release covers all of Donahue’s negligence claims. In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., the plaintiff was injured on a motocross track after falling from his bike and being struck by two other riders.39 A California Court of Appeal concluded that the signed waiver releasing the track from liability for “any losses or damages . . . whether caused by the negligence of [the Releasees] or otherwise” precluded the plaintiff’s claim “for ordinary negligence as well as negligent hiring and supervision” of employees at the racetrack (though it did not release the track from liability for gross negligence — a claim not made here).40

39 192 Cal. App. 4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, 27 (Cal. App. 2011).

40 Id. at 30. See also Morris v. JTM Materials, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 28, 49 (Tex. App. 2002) (“Negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claims are all simple negligence causes of action based on an [*20] employer’s direct negligence rather than on vicarious liability.” (citations omitted)).

In short, the requirement that a waiver of negligence be specifically set out using the word “negligence” is satisfied by the Rock Gym’s release.

3. The important factors are brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language with simple words and capital letters.

Donahue argues that although “negligence” is expressly mentioned and disclaimed in the release, its placement at the end of long sentences written in small font rendered its presence meaningless to her. Quoting a California case, she argues that when the risk of negligence is shifted, a layperson “should not be required to muddle through complex language to know that valuable, legal rights are being relinquished.”41 Donahue also cites New Hampshire and Washington cases in which the structure and organization of releases obscured the language that purported to shield the defendants from claims.42 These cases considered factors such as “whether the waiver is set apart or hidden within other provisions, whether the heading is clear, [and] whether the waiver is set off in capital letters or in bold type.”43 In one Washington case, a release [*21] was invalidated because the releasing language was in the middle of a paragraph.44

41 Conservatorship of the Estate of Link v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 158 Cal. App. 3d 138, 205 Cal. Rptr. 513, 515 (Cal. App. 1984).

42 See Wright v. Loon Mtn. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1342 (N.H. 1995); Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn. App. 533, 210 P.3d 1021, 1023 (Wash. App. 2009).

43 Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1023 (citing Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (Wash. 1971)).

44 Baker, 484 P.2d at 407.

Fundamentally, Donahue argues that the Rock Gym’s release was so ambiguous and laden with legalese that she lacked any real ability to understand that she was agreeing to release the Rock Gym from the negligence of its instructors. She complains of the release’s “lengthy, small-printed, and convoluted” language which required a “magnifying glass and lexicon” to decipher. She points out that the clause purporting to release the Rock Gym from liability is not obvious or emphasized through bold print or capital letters. She testified at her deposition that she believed the waiver shielded the gym only “from frivolous lawsuits, from people blaming them for something that’s not their fault.”

It is true that the release’s text is small and the releasing clause is in the middle of the document toward the bottom of the first page. But the clauses addressing negligence do not appear to be “calculated to conceal,” as Donahue argues. Though not highlighted, they are in a logical place where they cannot be missed by someone who reads the release. The clause releasing the Rock Gym from liability is [*22] a single sentence set out as its own numbered paragraph, and it is not confusing or needlessly wordy.45 The inherent risks of climbing are enumerated in great detail but using ordinary descriptive language that is easy to understand.46 Several sentences are devoted to the role of the gym’s “instructors, employees, volunteers, agents or others,” stating that they “have difficult jobs to perform,” that they “seek safety, but they are not infallible,” and that they may “be ignorant of mine or another participant’s fitness or abilities” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”

45 Paragraph 3 of the release reads: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless the [Rock Gym] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in these activities or my use of [the Rock Gym’s] equipment, rentals or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the Rock Gym].”

46 Paragraph 1 of the release lists the inherent risks of climbing as including “but . . . not limited to”:

falling off of the climbing wall, being fallen on or impacted by other participants, poor or [*23] improper belaying, the possibility that I will be jolted or jarred or bounced or thrown to and fro or shaken about while climbing or belaying, entanglement in ropes, impacting the ground and/or climbing wall, loose or dropped or damaged ropes or holds, equipment failure, improperly maintained equipment which I may or may not be renting from [the Rock Gym], displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure, general slips/trips/falls or painful crashes while using any of the equipment or walls or bouldering areas or landing pits or work-out areas or the climbing structures or the premises at large, climbing out of control or beyond my or another participant[‘s] limits, the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present, participants giving or following inappropriate “Beta” or climbing advice or move sequences, mine or others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym], my own negligence or inexperience, dehydration or exhaustion or cramps or fatigue — some or all of which may diminish my or the other participants’ ability to react or respond.

Because [HN9] releases should be read “as a whole” in order to decide whether they “clearly [*24] notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement,”47 we consider these provisions in the context of the entire document. Three other sections of emphasized text mitigate Donahue’s complaints about ambiguity and incomprehensibility. First, section one reads in part, “I AM ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE for my own safety during my use of or participation in [Rock Gym] facilities, equipment, rentals or activities” (bold in original). This alone makes it clear to the reader that the Rock Gym, to the extent it is allowed to do so, intends to shift responsibility to the climber regardless of the actions of anyone else. Second, a final unnumbered paragraph, set out in bold letters, reads in part: “By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or killed or property is damaged during my participation in or use of [Rock Gym] activities or premises or facilities or rental equipment, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit against [the Rock Gym] on the basis of any claim from which I have released them herein.” And finally, directly above the lines where Donahue entered her signature, her printed name, her contact [*25] information, and the date, the release reads, in bold and capital letters, “I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD [THE RELEASE], AND I AGREE TO BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS.” If Donahue had read the release and found herself genuinely confused about any of its terms, she was prominently notified that she should inquire about it before signing.

47 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991).

The New Hampshire case on which Donahue relies, Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., examined the release in question to determine whether “a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have understood that the agreement clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence.”48 Applying that test here, we conclude that a reasonable person in Donahue’s position could not have overlooked or misunderstood the release’s intent to disclaim liability. Our case law’s third characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.

48 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340, 1343-44 (N.H. 1995); see also Johnson, 210 P.3d at 1021 (holding reasonable persons could disagree about the conspicuousness of the release provision in the waiver, and remanding for trial).

4. Regardless of whether falling and instructor negligence are inherent risks of rock climbing, the release specifically disclaims [*26] liability for them.

The fifth characteristic set forth by the superior court 49 is that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”50 This requirement stems from the release’s ill-defined scope in Moore; the injury that occurred — arguably caused by an unreasonably dangerous ATV training course — was not obviously included in the inherent risks of riding ATVs, which the signed release did intend to cover.51 Here, in contrast, the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered by the release, as explained above. Negligence claims are specifically contemplated, as are “falls,” “impact” with the ground, and “inadequate warnings or instructions” from Rock Gym instructors. Regardless of whether these are inherent risks of climbing, they are specifically covered by the release. This characteristic of a valid release is therefore satisfied.

49 As noted above, the fourth characteristic of a valid release — that it not violate public policy — is not at issue on this appeal. See supra note 34.

50 See Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 633-34 (Alaska 2001).

51 Id.

5. The release does not represent or imply standards of safety or maintenance that [*27] conflict with an intent to release negligence claims.

The sixth characteristic of a valid release is that it does not imply standards of safety or maintenance that conflict with an intent to waive claims for negligence.52 The Rock Gym argues that nothing in the release confuses its purpose, unlike the release at issue in Kerr, which at least implicitly promised that equipment would be kept “in good condition.”53 We agree. In fact, far from providing assurances of safety, the release highlights the fallibility of the Rock Gym’s employees, equipment, and facilities, explicitly stating that the equipment may “fail,” “malfunction[,] or be poorly maintained” and that the staff is “not infallible,” may be ignorant of a climber’s “fitness or abilities,” and “may give inadequate warnings or instructions.”

52 See Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960, 962-63 (Alaska 2004).

53 Id. at 963.

Donahue agrees that the release is not internally inconsistent, but she argues that the advertisements run by the Rock Gym had the same confounding impact on her understanding of it as the release’s language about equipment maintenance had in Kerr. She contends that she relied on the ads’ assurances that the gym was “a safe place” and the class “would be a safe way to learn to climb” when [*28] she enrolled in the climbing class. She argues that these assurances created ambiguity that, as in Kerr, requires that the release be interpreted in a less exculpatory way.

Although extrinsic evidence may be admissible as an aid to contract interpretation,54 the release here clearly defines climbing as an inherently risky activity. And we have said that

[HN10] where one section deals with a subject in general terms and another deals with a part of the same subject in a more detailed way, the two should be harmonized if possible; but if there is a conflict, the specific section will control over the general.55

Were we to give the Rock Gym’s advertisements any weight in our analysis of the release, we would not find that their use of the word “safe” overrode the release’s very clear warnings about the specific risks of climbing.

54 Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1004 (Alaska 2004) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Gentile, 922 P.2d 248, 256 (Alaska 1996)).

55 Id. (quoting Estate of Hutchinson, 577 P.2d 1074, 1075 (Alaska 1978)).

Because the advertisements cannot reasonably be considered as modifications to the release, and because the release does not otherwise contain implicit guarantees of safety or maintenance that could confuse its purpose, we find the final requirement of a valid release to be satisfied. The release thus satisfies all characteristics of a valid release [*29] identified by our case law, and we affirm the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the Rock Gym on this issue.

B. The UTPA Does Not Apply To Personal Injury Claims.

[HN11] Under the UTPA, “[a] person who suffers an ascertainable loss of money or property as a result of another person’s act or practice declared unlawful by AS 45.50.471 may bring a civil action to recover for each unlawful act or practice three times the actual damages . . . .”56 Donahue alleges that, by publishing ads that gave the impression the Rock Gym was safe, the Rock Gym engaged in “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce” which are unlawful under the statute.57 [HN12] We have not yet decided whether the statutory phrase “loss of money or property” includes personal injury claims. We now hold that it does not.

56 AS 45.50.531(a) (emphasis added).

57 AS 45.50.471(a).

[HN13] The UTPA was “designed to meet the increasing need in Alaska for the protection of consumers as well as honest businessmen from the depredations of those persons employing unfair or deceptive trade practices.”58 The act protects the consumer from deceptive sales and advertising practices,59 and it protects honest businesses from their unethical [*30] competitors.60 Donahue concedes that we have limited the UTPA to “regulating practices relating to transactions involving consumer goods and services.”61 She contends, however, that because we have never restricted the types of damages available for conduct within the UTPA’s reach, damages for personal injury should be recoverable.

58 W. Star Trucks, Inc. v. Big Iron Equip. Serv., Inc., 101 P.3d 1047, 1052 (Alaska 2004) (quoting House Judiciary Committee Report on HCSCS for S.B. 352, House Journal Supp. No. 10 at 1, 1970 House Journal 744) (court’s emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted).

59 See, e.g., Kenai Chrysler Ctr., Inc. v. Denison, 167 P.3d 1240, 1244-45 (Alaska 2007) (affirming superior court’s award of treble damages against a car dealer for its insistence on enforcing an invalid contract); Pierce v. Catalina Yachts, Inc., 2 P.3d 618, 624 (Alaska 2000) (holding unconscionable sailboat manufacturer’s warranty in favor of buyers).

60 See, e.g., Garrison v. Dixon, 19 P.3d 1229, 1230-31, 1236 (Alaska 2001) (holding suit to be frivolous where real estate buyer’s agents sued competitors, alleging false and misleading advertising); Odom v. Fairbanks Mem’l Hosp., 999 P.2d 123, 127, 131-32 (Alaska 2000) (holding viable physician’s claims against hospital for retaliatory and anticompetitive behavior).

61 See Roberson v. Southwood Manor Assocs., LLC, 249 P.3d 1059, 1062 (Alaska 2011) (holding the UTPA does not apply to residential leases) (citing Aloha Lumber Corp. v. Univ. of Alaska, 994 P.2d 991, 1002 (Alaska 1999) (holding the UTPA does not apply to the sale of standing timber because it is real property rather than a consumer good)).

The superior court observed that there is nothing [*31] in the UTPA’s legislative history to support Donahue’s contention that the Alaska Legislature intended the act “to expand liability for personal injury or wrongful death or to supplant negligence as the basis for such liability.” The superior court identified “significant incongruities between the elements of common law personal injury claims and the UTPA, which suggest that the two claims cannot be reconciled.” The court explained:

For most of the past twenty years the Alaska Legislature has enacted and amended, in various forms, multiple iterations of tort reform aimed at reducing, not expanding, the scope of civil liability for personal injury and wrongful death. Expanding UTPA liability to personal injury and wrongful death would contradict many of the tort reform provisions enacted by the legislature in AS 09.17.010-080. For example, AS 09.17.020 allows punitive damages only if the plaintiff proves defendant’s conduct was outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives, or with reckless indifference to the interest of another person. The UTPA, on the other hand, does not require such a culpable mental state and almost as a matter of course allows a person to receive trebled actual damages. [*32] AS 09.17.060 limits a claimant’s recovery by the amount attributable to the claimant’s contributory fault; the UTPA, in contrast, does not provide a contributory fault defense. Moreover, AS 09.17.080 apportions damages between multiple tortfeasors whereas the UTPA does not permit apportionment of damages. A UTPA cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death would sidestep all of these civil damages protections.

We agree with the superior court that [HN14] the private cause of action available under the UTPA conflicts in too many ways with the traditional claim for personal injury or wrongful death for us to assume, without clear legislative direction, that the legislature intended the act to provide an alternative vehicle for such suits. The language of AS 45.50.531(a) — “ascertainable loss of money or property” — does not provide that clear direction. The legislature is well aware of how to identify causes of action involving personal injury and wrongful death, does so in other contexts,62 and declined to do so in this statute.

62 See, e.g., AS 04.21.020(e) (for purposes of statute governing civil liability of persons providing alcoholic beverages, ” ‘civil damages’ includes damages for personal injury, death, or injury to property of a person”); [*33] AS 05.45.200(4) (in statutes governing liability of ski resorts, “‘injury’ means property damage, personal injury, or death”); AS 09.10.070(a) (providing general statute of limitations for “personal injury or death”); AS 09.17.010 (limiting noneconomic damages recoverable “for personal injury or wrongful death”); AS 46.03.825(b)(1) (providing that limitations on oil spill damages do not apply to “an action for personal injury or death”).

Other states have similar laws, and their courts’ interpretations are helpful. Section 531(a) has a counterpart in Oregon’s UTPA, which likewise allows private actions by those who suffer a “loss of money or property.”63 The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering an action for personal injuries occurring after a mechanic allegedly misrepresented the state of a car’s brakes, held that the UTPA was not a vehicle for the pursuit of personal injury claims.64 It held that the Act plainly had a restitutionary purpose — “i.e., restitution for economic loss suffered by a consumer as the result of a deceptive trade practice.”65 It noted the lack of any legislative history “to the effect that by the adoption of that provision the legislature intended to confer upon private individuals a new cause of action for personal injuries, including [*34] punitive damages and attorney fees,” or of “any decisions to that effect by the courts of any of the many other states which have adopted similar statutes.”66 It emphasized the availability of common law remedies, which provided a range of possible causes of action for personal injury — negligence, breach of warranty, and strict products liability — and noted that these remedies provide for a more expansive range of damages, such as pain and suffering, not available under the UTPA.67

63 ORS 646.638(1); ORS 646.608.

64 Gross-Haentjens v. Leckenby, 38 Ore. App. 313, 589 P.2d 1209, 1210-11 (Or. App. 1979).

65 Id. at 1210; see also Fowler v. Cooley, 239 Ore. App. 338, 245 P.3d 155, 161 (Or. App. 2010).

66 Gross-Haentjens, 589 P.2d at 1210-11.

67 Id. at 1211. Other courts have reached similar conclusions. See Beerman v. Toro Mfg. Corp., 1 Haw. App. 111, 615 P.2d 749, 754 (Haw. App. 1980) (“[T]hough individual actions based on damage to a consumer’s property may be within the purview of [the Hawaii consumer protection act], the scope of the statutes does not extend to personal injury actions.”); Kirksey v. Overton Pub, Inc., 804 S.W.2d 68, 73 (Tenn. App. 1990) (“We must hold that the General Assembly intended for the Consumer Protection Act to be used by a person claiming damages for an ascertainable loss of money or property due to an unfair or deceptive act or practice and not in a wrongful death action.”); Stevens v. Hyde Athletic Indus., Inc., 54 Wn. App. 366, 773 P.2d 871, 873 (Wash. App. 1989) (“We hold actions for personal injury do not fall within the coverage of the [Washington consumer protection act].”).

We agree with the reasoning of the Oregon court and conclude that Alaska’s [*35] UTPA does not provide the basis for a claim for personal injury.

C. The Superior Court Did Not Clearly Err In Finding That The Rock Gym Waived Any Claim For Rule 68 Attorney’s Fees.

The superior court granted the Rock Gym, as the prevailing party, 20 percent of its reasonable, actual attorney’s fees under Civil Rule 82(b)(2). [HN15] Twenty percent of “actual attorney’s fees which were necessarily incurred” is the presumptively reasonable award for a party who prevails in a case resolved short of trial but who does not recover a money judgment.68

68 See Williams v. Fagnani, 228 P.3d 71, 77 (Alaska 2010) (“Awards made pursuant to the schedule of Civil Rule 82(b) are presumptively correct.”).

The Rock Gym contends that it should have been awarded fees under Civil Rule 68 instead. [HN16] Rule 68 provides that (a) where an adverse party makes an offer to allow judgment entered against it in complete satisfaction of the claim, and (b) the judgment finally entered is at least five percent less favorable to the offeree than the offer, the offeree shall pay a percentage of the reasonable actual attorney’s fees incurred by the offeror from the date of the offer, the percentage depending on how close the parties are to trial when the offer is made. The Rock Gym made a Rule 68 offer of judgment on February 7, 2012, over two months before [*36] the April trial date. Donahue rejected the offer. Under these facts, once judgment was granted in the Rock Gym’s favor, the conditions for an award of 30 percent of “the offeror’s reasonable actual attorney’s fees” under the Rule 68 schedule were satisfied.69

69 Alaska R. Civ. P. 68(b)(3). We note that the award of fees under Rule 68 was likely to be only nominally greater than that under Rule 82. Rule 68 affects only fees incurred after the date the offer is made, here February 7, 2012. The parties had already completed their summary judgment briefing by that time, and summary judgment was entered a month later.

The question presented here, however, is whether the Rock Gym waived any request for Rule 68 fees. The Rock Gym initially argued to the superior court that it should be awarded full fees because of express language in the release, which reads:

Should [the Rock Gym] or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.

While arguing this point, the Rock Gym noted in a footnote that it was eligible for full fees under AS 09.30.065 (the statute authorizing the Rule 68 procedure). But it made that observation only in support of its argument [*37] for full fees under the release. Its motion did not otherwise mention Rule 68; rather, as an alternative to fees under the indemnity clause, the Rock Gym asked the court to use its discretion to award up to 80 percent of its fees under Rule 82 — far more than the scheduled award of 20 percent — in light of Donahue’s “vexatious” behavior, particularly having complicated the case with claims under the UTPA.

The superior court denied the Rock Gym’s request for full fees based on the release and ordered it to submit an affidavit detailing its counsel’s billings. The order also stated, “Plaintiff should address the effect, if any, of defendant’s Rule 68 offer on the amount of fees that may be awarded.” The Rock Gym submitted the required fee affidavit and also moved for reconsideration, again arguing that full fees should be awarded under the release’s indemnity clause; again relying on Rule 82 as an alternative; and failing to mention Rule 68 at all. Donahue submitted no response.

The superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s argument based on the release’s indemnity clause and ordered the Rock Gym to submit a more detailed fee affidavit. The Rock Gym filed another affidavit which did not address the offer of judgment. [*38]

In its third order, the superior court again rejected the Rock Gym’s request for full attorney’s fees and awarded 20 percent of its fees under Rule 82(b)(2). The Rock Gym again moved for reconsideration. This time the Rock Gym argued that it was entitled to 30 percent of its fees under Rule 68, relying on the footnote in its first motion to contend that the argument was not waived.70

70 As noted above, the increased percentage of attorney’s fees would only apply to those fees incurred after the date the offer of judgment was made; the amount at issue thus appears to be minimal.

The superior court then issued its fourth order on fees. It reaffirmed its Rule 82 award, finding that the Rock Gym had not adequately or timely made a claim under Rule 68. The court observed that the Rock Gym’s failure to make the claim earlier was likely a “tactical decision, initially, to pursue full attorney fees based on indemnity rather than present all of its alternative fee award theories at once.”

[HN17] The superior court’s finding that the Rock Gym waived a request for fees under Rule 68 is reviewed for clear error.71 We see no clear error here. The Rock Gym’s reference to its offer of judgment in its motion for attorney’s fees was made only to support its [*39] request for full fees under the indemnity provision of the release; the only alternative it expressly requested was an award of enhanced fees under Rule 82. As the superior court observed, it was not the court’s duty in this context “to solicit additional arguments for a moving party.”72 Nor was the superior court obliged to consider the Rule 68 argument when it was raised for the first time in motions for reconsideration.73 And under the circumstances of this case, including the modest difference between fee awards under Rule 82 and Rule 68 and an apparent deficiency in the Rule 68 offer itself,74 we cannot see plain error.75

71 See Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011).

72 See, e.g., Forshee v. Forshee, 145 P.3d 492, 498 (Alaska 2006).

73 See Haines v. Cox, 182 P.3d 1140, 1144 (Alaska 2008) (holding that the plaintiff’s submission of evidence only when she moved for reconsideration forecloses her claim that the court abused its discretion by failing to rely on that evidence); Koller v. Reft, 71 P.3d 800, 805 n.10 (Alaska 2003) (noting that superior court is not obliged to consider documents presented for the first time with a motion for reconsideration).

74 The offer did not encompass the Rock Gym’s counterclaim against Donahue for contractual indemnity. See Progressive Corp. v. Peter ex rel. Peter, 195 P.3d 1083, 1089 (Alaska 2008) (“Both Rule 68 and AS 09.30.065 . . . implicitly require that an offer of judgment include all claims between the parties and be capable of completely resolving the case by way of a final [*40] judgment if accepted.”).

75 [HN18] The plain error doctrine requires a party to prove that the error waived below was “so prejudicial that failure to correct it will perpetuate a manifest injustice.” Forshee, 145 P.3d at 500 n.36 (quoting Hosier v. State, 1 P.3d 107, 112 n.11 (Alaska App. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

V. CONCLUSION

The judgment of the superior court is AFFIRMED.


Making statements contrary to release can be barred by a release, maybe, but may be gross, wilful and wanton negligence which the release does not stop.

Plaintiff signed a release to participate in the Warrior Dash race. An employee of the race was encouraging participants to dive into a mud pit. Plaintiff dove into the mud pit rendering himself a quadriplegic.

Sa v. Red Frog Events, LLC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

State: Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Plaintiff: James Sa

Defendant: Red Frog Events, LLC, an Illinois corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct

Defendant Defenses: release and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted

Holding: for the defendant on the negligence claim because of the release, for the plaintiff on the gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct claims

Year: 2013

This case is possible still ongoing. How the final decision will evolve is unknown. However, the federal district court did arrive at some great analysis of the case.

This case comes out of the new fad, extreme obstacle racing. In these races participants run through live electrical wires, jump through fire and here, crawl through a mud pit. These races are known by various names, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the most well-known.

In this case, the plaintiff signed up for a Warrior Dash 5K race and signed a release. The release specifically warned against diving into the mud pit. The mud pit was right in front of the bleachers and the last obstacle on the course.

At the mud, pit was an employee of the defendant with a microphone, and loudspeaker “acting as an emcee” for the event.

Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged.

So many people were diving into the mud pit that people were blogging about it and posting photos online.

The plaintiff followed the emcee’s “encouragement” and dove into the mud pit resulting in paralysis from the chest down. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.

A motion to dismiss is usually filed by the defendant prior to filing an answer. The basis is the pleadings are so lacking in any facts or there is no law to support a claim. In reviewing the motion, the court must accept the allegations and facts in the complaint as true. It is unclear in reading this case when the motion to dismiss was filed. This opinion is the court’s response to the motion to dismiss.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at whether the release acted to stop the negligence claims of the plaintiff. Releases are valid in Michigan. Under Michigan law a release’s validity:

…turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.

Whether the release is valid is a question of law. The plaintiff did not argue that he signed the release. The court pointed out possible ways the plaintiff could void the release which the plaintiff did not use.

He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.

Ninety-nine percent of the time plaintiff’s attack the validity of the release based on their competence or understanding of the release. In not doing so, I would guess the plaintiff shocked the judge so he put in this language. The plaintiff’s first argued the release was invalid because:

…that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.

(This argument has been used endlessly and is so easily avoided. Use the word negligence in your release.)

Here the language used by the defendant met the requirements to put the plaintiff on notice that he was giving up his rights to sue for negligence. “…although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.”

The release language under Michigan’s law is called the indemnity provision or clause. That translation of the phrase is different from most other states. Here, it is like saying, by signing the release the plaintiff agrees to indemnify himself for his injuries.

…the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.

The next argument of the plaintiff’s is brilliant and if successful would bring down hundreds of releases across the United States. Releases written by attorneys or non-attorneys in an attempt to soften the blow will put statements in the release about how safe the activity is, how well run the operation is or that accidents rarely happen.

The plaintiff argued that other statements in the release gave the plaintiff the impression that the defendant would not be negligent in the operation of the race.

For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.

The court did not accept this argument because the paragraph this language was in went on stating there was a risk of injury entering the race.

The final argument by the plaintiff was also unique and if accepted would invalidate dozens of releases. The plaintiff argued that the statements by the employee of the defendant, the emcee, invalidated the release. In legal language, the statements of the emcee “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.”

In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James [the plaintiff] to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.”

Under Michigan’s law, any waiver of a written contract must be in writing unless the waiver language is consistent with the strict compliance language of the contract. Meaning the waiver language must be of the same type and of the same legal tone as the original contract.

Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.

The court upheld the validity of the release and held the release stopped the simple negligence claims of the plaintiff.

On the second and third claims, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct, a release under Michigan’s law does not work. The issue then becomes are there enough allegations to the facts in the complaint and documents filed with the court to this point to support the plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct.

Under Michigan’s law:

Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.”

Under Michigan’s law, a release does not stop claims for gross negligence. So the gross negligence claim survives the defense of release. The issue then is whether the plaintiff as plead enough facts that a jury may find give rise to gross negligence.

…it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result.

The court, based upon the statements of the emcee at the mud pit encouraging people to dive into the pit were enough to possibly support a claim for gross negligence.

Under Michigan’s law, Wilful and Want misconduct is different and distinct from gross negligence.

“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to an-other, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.”

…willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.

Here again, the court found the actions of the emcee in encouraging participants to dive into the mud pit might be found to be an intent to harm or an indifference.

Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head-first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks, to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]”

Consequently, the court granted the motion to dismiss on the negligence claims and denied the motion to dismiss on the claims of gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct.

Again, this case probably is not over yet.

So Now What? 

Don’t give an injured participant the opportunity to sue you. Don’t dance with the possibility that your language you use instead of the word negligence will meet the requirements of the law.

JUST USE THE WORD NEGLIGENCE IN YOUR RELEASE!

Second, don’t allow anyone who is an employee or may appear to participants to be an employee to encourage people to take actions that might injure them or is contrary to the rules of your activity.

It seems to be common sense; however, in the heat of the activity or an unfounded belief the release is ironclad, people get excited and might encourage a participant to take risks they are not expected or ready for.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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The Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms a Permission Slip is not a release, but leaves open the argument that releases may stop a minor’s claim for negligence.

City Parks Department sued for injuries of an eight-year-old girl hit by a flying bat at a baseball game field trip.

Sweeney v. City of Bettendorf, 762 N.W.2d 873; 2009 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 26

State: Supreme Court of Iowa

Plaintiff: Tara Sweeney, Individually, and by Cynthia Sweeney, Her Mother and Next Friend

Defendant: City of Bettendorf and Bettendorf Parks and Recreation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release (Permission Slip), No duty owed,

Holding: Split, the permission slip was not a release however there triable issues to the defense of duty owed

Year: 2009

The city recreation department would take kids on field trips to see minor-league baseball games in other cities. The plaintiff was an eight-year-old girl who loved baseball and her mother. The minor went on several of these field trips in the past. Her mother signed the permission slip and she went off on the trip.

In the past, the participants had sat behind home plate which was protected by netting from flying objects. This time the kids were taken to bleachers along the third baseline. They were told they had to sit there and could not move.

During the game, a player lost his grip on the bat which sailed down the third baseline hitting the girl. The minor had turned to talk to her friend when she was struck. No adults were around at the time.

The plaintiffs sued for negligent. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment citing a permission slip the mother had signed as a release and that the plaintiff had not shown a breach of duty owed to the injured minor.

The plaintiff’s opposed the motion for summary judgment arguing:

The plaintiffs further argued that even if the permission slip amounted to a valid release, it was fatally flawed because it purported to release only the Department and not the City. Finally, plaintiffs asserted even if the permission slip amounted to an anticipatory release of future claims based on acts or omissions of negligence, statutory and common law public policy prevents a parent from waiving such claims on behalf of a minor child.

The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment based on the permission slip no evidence of a breach of duty. The plaintiff’s appealed.

Summary of the case

The court reviewed several procedural issues and then looked into releases under Iowa law. The court found the permission slip was deficient in many ways.

…the permission slip contains no clear and unequivocal language that would notify a casual reader that by signing the document, a parent would be waiving all claims relating to future acts or omissions of negligence by the City. The language at issue here refers only to “accidents” generally and contains nothing specifically indicating that a parent would be waiving potential claims for the City’s negligence.

Based on the language in the permission slip the court found it could not enforce the release because it was not a release.

Next the court looked at whether being hit by a bat at a baseball game was an inherent risk of being a spectator at a baseball game. In Iowa this is called the inherent risk doctrine. (This doctrine is very similar to a secondary assumption of risk argument.) What created a difference in this issue, is the issue of whether a flying bat is an inherent risk, is a defense of the baseball team/promoter/owner or field rather than a city recreation department field trip.

In the majority of cases, spectators sitting outside protective netting at baseball stadiums have been unable to recover from owners or operators for injuries related to errant bats and balls on the ground that such injuries were an “inherent risk” of attending the game.

Regardless of whether the approach is characterized as involving inherent risk or a limited duty, courts applying the doctrine have held that the owner or operator of a baseball stadium is not liable for injury to spectators from flying bats and balls if the owner or operator provided screened seating sufficient for spectators who may be reasonably anticipated to desire such protection and if the most dangerous areas of the stands, ordinarily the area behind home plate, were so protected.

Because the inherent risk was not one of a field trip, the court found differently than if the defense was argued by the owner of the field. The issue was not one of attending a sporting event invited by the event, but supervision of a minor child by a recreation department.

A negligent supervision case is fundamentally different than a case involving premises liability. The eight-year-old child in this case made no choice, but instead sat where she was told by the Department. The plaintiffs further claim that there was inadequate adult supervision where the child was seated. The alleged negligence in this case does not relate to the instrumentality of the injury, but instead focuses on the proper care and supervision of children in an admittedly risky environment.

As a negligent supervision case, the recreation department owed a different type and a higher degree of care to the minor.

Viewed as a negligent supervision case, the City had a duty to act reasonably, under all the facts and circumstances, to protect the children’s safety at the ball park. The gist of the plaintiffs’ claim is that a substantial cause of the injury was the supervisors’ decision to allow the children, who cannot be expected to be vigilant at all times during a baseball game, to be seated in what a jury could conclude was an unreasonably hazardous location behind third base instead of behind the safety of protective netting.

Add to this the change in sitting and the restrictions the adults placed on where the minors could sit and the court found there was a clear issue as to liability.

The third issue reviewed by the court was whether the recreation department failed to provide an adequate level of care to the minor. Here the court agreed with the recreation department. Not because the level of care was sufficient, but because the plaintiff could not prove the level of care was inadequate.

There was a dissent in this case, which argued that the risk of being hit by a bat was an inherent risk of attending a baseball game and that the permission slip was a valid release.

The case was then sent back for trial on the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

What is of interest is the single sentence that argues a release signed by an adult stops the claims of a minor. It was argued by the plaintiff’s as one of the ways the permission slip was invalid. However, the court did not look at the issue in its review and decision in the case.

The court’s review was quite clear on releases. If you do not have the proper language in your release, you are only killing trees. It was a stretch, and a good one, by the recreation department to argue that a document intended to prove the minor could be on a field trip was also a release of claims.

Releases are different legal documents and require specific language.

You also need to remember that defenses that are available to a lawsuit are not just based on the activity, like baseball, but the relationship of the parties to the activity. If the minor child had attended the baseball game on her own or with her parents, the Iowa Inherent Risk Doctrine would have probably prevented a recovery. However, because the duty owed was not from a baseball game to a spectator, but from a recreation department to a minor in its care, the inherent risk defense was not available.

 

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Proof of negligence requires more than an accident and injuries. A Spectator at a rodeo needed proof of an improperly maintained gate.

Spectators are business invitees, which are owed a high degree of care and never sign a release. Any event, sport, race or contest, the greatest chance of a lawsuit winning comes from those watching.

Mahan v. Keith Hall, d/b/a Keith Hall Rodeo, 320 Ark. 473; 897 S.W.2d 571; 1995 Ark. LEXIS 296; 68 A.L.R.5th 813

State: Arkansas Supreme Court

Plaintiff: Melonie Mahan as Next and Best Friend of Shawn Mahan

Defendant: Keith Hall, d/b/a Keith Hall Rodeo

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no negligence

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 1995

The injured minor paid to attend a rodeo put on by the defendant at the local fairgrounds. After finding their seat, the minor and a friend went to get a drink. They then walked around looking at the event. A horse bucked it’s rider off, circled the inside of the arena then broke through the gate where the two youth were standing injuring them. The plaintiff also argued that their view of the horse coming at them was blocked by the rodeo announcer.

The mother of the injured youth sued on behalf of herself and her son. The fairground was sued and settled out of court. The rodeo was put on by the defendant Keith Hall Rodeo. The court directed a verdict for the defendant finding the plaintiff had not proven their case. No evidence was presented that the defendant Rodeo was negligent.

A directed verdict is a decision by the court that one party has completely failed to prove their case, and the other party must win. Directed verdicts can be granted at any time during a trial or after the jury has rendered its verdict. “A motion for directed verdict may only be granted if there is no substantial evidence to support a jury verdict.” Directed verdicts are rare.

Summary of the case

The injured youth was a business invitee which the defendant owed a “duty to use reasonable care to prevent injuries” to him. The plaintiff argued that the fact the horse got through the gate was proof the gate was not secure. However, proof of an injury is not proof of negligence.

The trial court agreed, finding that while Ms. Mahan had proven an accident and had shown where it had occurred, she had not shown any breach of duty on the part of Mr. Hall. It is from the trial court’s granting of Mr. Hall’s motion for a directed verdict that Shawn appeals.

The court defined negligence as:

…the failure to do something which a reasonably careful person would do; a negligent act arises from a situation where an ordinarily prudent person in the same situation would foresee such an appreciable risk of harm to others that he would not act or at least would act in a more careful manner.

However, the plaintiff was not able to present any testimony or proof that the gate was not maintained in a reasonably safe condition. “…the fact that a[n] injury, collision or accident occurred is not of itself evidence of negligence or fault on the part of anyone.”

The Supreme Court upheld the directed verdict of the trial court.

So Now What?

Two important points can be found in this decision. The first is just because there is an injury does not mean there is a lawsuit. The defendant must have done something or not done something to create liability.

The second is the identification of a very large group of potential plaintiffs. If you host/put on/conduct events/contests/races or other activities were spectators are present, anything goes wrong injuring a spectator you might be liable. Spectators are owed a high degree of care, based on the state, and you are probably required to keep them safe. Spectators don’t sign releases and if they are viewing the activity in an area where you have allowed them to stand, then assumption of the risk is probably not available as a defense.

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Well written decision from Wyoming defines release law and how releases should be written.

This case is interesting because one of the attempts to remove the release from the decision was a claim the plaintiff was at the defendant gym working out because he was told to by a physician, and the gym was owned by a different physician.

Massengill, v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132; 2000 Wyo. LEXIS 21

Plaintiff: James Massengill and Kaylea Massengill

Defendant: S.M.A.R.T. Sports Medicine Clinic, P.C.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

The plaintiff was injured when a pin in a lat-pull-down machine that secured the weights came out, and he fell backwards injuring his wrist. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant raised the defense of release.

The plaintiff was told by his physician to exercise more. One day while at a drugstore, he had met an owner of the defendant gym, a physician, who talked to him about the gym.

The plaintiff and his wife went to the gym. They were given a release and told to take it home and read it. Three days later the plaintiff’s came back, signed the release and began to use the facilities.

The plaintiff had not asked for instructions on the lat-pull-down machine and did not ask for any because he had used one previously. He had been using the particular machine for a month and had noticed that the pin did not appear to fit when he was injured.

The trial court ruled the release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs, dismissing the case. The plaintiff’s appealed. This case is based in Wyoming, which only has trial courts and the Wyoming Supreme Court, in intermediate appellate courts.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at the language of the release, to determine if the language was clear and unequivocal.

Our reading of the Agreement and Release convinces us that the intention of S.M.A.R.T., and the Massengills is expressed in clear and unequivocal language. The language clearly assigns the risk to members who agree to be liable for any and all risks. The Agreement and Release continues with an unequivocal statement that S.M.A.R.T. shall not be liable for any injuries or damages to any member or the member’s property, including those caused by the negligence of S.M.A.R.T.

The court found the language was clear and unequivocal as well as broad and specially released the defendant from claims and actions for negligence.

The court then examined the release based on contract law. Releases are contracts and are interpreted using traditional contract principles. The entire document is examined as a whole.

The language of the Agreement and Release is clear in manifesting an intention to release S.M.A.R.T. and those involved with the facility from liability; it specifically states that S.M.A.R.T. will not be held liable for “those damages resulting from acts of negligence on the part of S.M.A.R.T. SPORTS, its officers or agents.”

Wyoming has four factors to examine to determine if a release is valid.

(1) whether a duty to the public exists;

(2) the nature of the service performed;

(3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and

(4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language

The court found the release in question was properly reviewed by the trial court, and the release met all four tests. The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims the release violated public policy. Under Wyoming law, a duty to the public exists “if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest, and the service performed is considered an essential service.” A release that affecting a public interest giving rise to a duty to the public is one that:

“concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it * * *. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.”

In Wyoming, this list of businesses would be “common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers, and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”

A health club or gym is recreational in nature and do not meet the requirements and do not qualify as a business suitable for public regulation. A gym or health club is not essential.

The services offered by S.M.A.R.T. to its members were those of a private recreational business which did not qualify as suitable for public regulation because they did not affect the public interest nor could they be considered as necessary or essential….

Then court then looked at the plaintiff’s claims that he was at the gym for medical reasons. However, the court could find no evidence that the plaintiff was at the gym engaging in rehabilitation.

The court then looked at the plaintiff’s claim that there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties which should void the release. However, this argument also failed.

Since membership in a private recreational facility such as S.M.A.R.T. is purely optional and does not qualify as an essential service, no decisive bargaining advantage exists. “A disparity of bargaining power will be found when a contracting party with little or no bargaining strength has no reasonable alternative to entering the contract at the mercy of the other’s negligence.

The plaintiff’s raised one final argument that claimed the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to 1-1-123:

…creates a statutory duty on the part of providers of a sport or recreational opportunity because it preserves actions based upon negligence if damage or injury is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

The court called this a convoluted argument and did not agree with the argument.

The final argument was based on the wife’s claim for loss of consortium. The court held there were two different ways this claim also failed. The first was the wife signed a release at the same time as her husband; the plaintiff and the release stopped her suit. Also because her claim of loss of consortium is derivative, meaning only can exist if the original claim exists, then her claim fails also.

The record reflects that Massengill’s participation was purely recreational and S.M.A.R.T. did not owe him a public duty. S.M.A.R.T. is not engaged in a type of business generally thought suitable for public regulation, and Massengill was engaged in a recreational activity not an activity pursuant to a physician’s order.

The court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the claims.

So Now What?

This is a great decision to assist in writing a release in Wyoming. Of interest was the fact the court pointed out, the plaintiffs were given three days to review the release before signing.

The four requirements for a release are similar to most other states. How you deal with the issue of someone at your facility for health or rehabilitation reasons might present a problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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What do most attorneys think of extreme sports? ABA article provides some idea of their thinking.

However, even the American Bar Association (ABA) article is almost evenly written. What it does is bring up additional way’s plaintiff’s attorneys are attacking releases. It is well worth the read.

Here are some interesting quotes from the article.

However, unlike in other sports, the inherent risks aren’t always obvious; indeed, they are often intentionally magnified to titillate participants and crowds. This pushes the new sport somewhat outside the traditional framework of negligence and assumption of risk.

There seems to be a theory that the inherent risks are part of the necessity of a release. I’m not sure I agree, but I always suggest you include the risks, inherent and otherwise in your release.

Indeed, Tough Mudder racers often brag about having “survived” the event after signing what they like to call the “death waiver,” essentially a catchy phrase for any liability waiver that encompasses death. Obstacle course racing companies routinely tout the fact that participants could die during their event, upping the ante for thrill-seekers.

You can die doing anything. Consequently, you should point out in any release that a participant can die. I’ve known of a two lawsuits where someone had a heart attack while rafting, then fell in the river.

But critics argue that the waivers don’t adequately disclose the full panoply of dangers, and that many of the obstacles are made unnecessarily perilous.

The issue here is if the injured plaintiff can argue and prove that you purposely left out risks your release may be void. You are always at risk if you increase the risk of an activity and do not inform your guests.

“Lines have to be drawn between what the participants are signing up for and what they’re actually getting,” says Sengupta’s attorney, Robert J. Gilbert of the Andover, Mass.-based firm Gilbert & Renton. “Participants sign up for the challenge, but it’s less clear that they sign up for the dangers—particularly the undisclosed dangers or gratuitous dangers.”

Here again, this is another argument showing that you cannot mislead your guests or participants.

For example, defendants typically cannot escape liability in the event that their conduct in any way increased the risk of the activity, say, purposely shaping a ski jump to be wantonly dangerous or failing to put water stations on a marathon course. Another question pertaining to the enforceability of a waiver is whether the risk could be removed without changing the nature of the activity.

The first issue is obvious. The second, whether the increased risk can be changed, is where people, in these case writers and attorneys get lost. They do not understand the personal and emotional goals someone receives when they reach these goals or participate in these sports.

The following quote sums up the legal issues that you must be aware of!

On the one hand Tough Mudder holds up signs saying ‘Remember you signed a death waiver’ … while trying to downplay the same risk that they’re encouraging their participants to accept. That leads to questions of fraudulent inducement.”

Fraudulent inducement voids a release, and in some states would make you liable for additional damages and/or claims of negligence greater than ordinary negligence.

What I did get a kick out of was the sign from the Tough Mudder events.

clip_image002

Based on the sign, I think you opted out of death, right?

Read the article and read the comments both are enlightening.

See: Extreme sports are more popular than ever, prompting questions about legal liability.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Indiana decision upholds release signed by mother for claims of an injured daughter for the inherent risks of softball. However, language of the decision may apply to well written releases to stop all claims for negligence.

Decision appears to add Indiana to the list of states were a parent can sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries.

Wabash County Young Men’s Christian Association, Inc. v. Thompson, 2012 Ind. App. LEXIS 428

Date of the Decision: August 31, 2012

Plaintiff: Wabash County Young Men’s Christian Association, Inc. f/k/a Wabash Community Service, Appellant-Defendant

Defendant: Taylor M. Thompson, a minor, by next friends, Brian Thompson and Charlene Thompson

Plaintiff (Defendant on Appeal) Claims: negligent and violated its duty to protect Taylor by its failure to inspect, warn, and implement preventive measures designed to eliminate or reduce dangers posed by the condition of the second base “such that it was fixed as a rigid obstacle for participants to encounter while sliding into the base and, thereby, posing a clear safety hazard

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Release signed by the mother of the injured plaintiff (defendant on appeal) barred claims for the inherent risks of playing softball

Again, the plaintiff on appeal was the defendant in the trial court. The defendant at the trial court level filed a motion to dismiss. The motion was denied, and the defendant appealed that decision. Because of that timeline, the defendant became the plaintiff on appeal. Because of the confusion, I’ll just refer to the parties by their names: YMCA and Thompson.

The mother of Thompson, 17 years old at the time of her injury, signed a release to allow her daughter to play softball. The release was quite bad. It did not contain solid language, the word release, or explain any risks except the inherent risks of softball. The trial court rejected the YMCA’s argument and denied its motion for summary judgment based on the release.

The YMCA appealed the decision to the Indiana Appellate Court which reversed the decision.

Of note and of interest, Indian defines negligence in three steps, not the normal four steps as defined by the appellate court in this case.

In order to prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff is required to prove:

(1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff;

(2) a breach of that duty by the defendant; and

(3) an injury to the plaintiff proximately caused by the breach.”

Basically, Indiana combines the majority third and fourth step into Indiana’s third step to define the requirements to prove negligence.

Summary of the case

Thompson first argued that an Indiana statute required any release for a minor to be approved by the court before it became effective. Many states require court approval of the settlement of the claims of minors.

The court quickly dismissed this argument because the statute in question was part of the probate law of Indiana and only dealt with post injury claims. Thompson did not raise any other arguments against the release so the court declared the release valid.

The court then went through the requirements for a valid release under Indiana’s law.

It is well established in Indiana that exculpatory agreements are not against public policy. “Generally, parties are permitted to agree that a party owes no obligation of care for the benefit of another, and thus, shall not be liable for consequences that would otherwise be considered negligent.” However, this court has held that an exculpatory clause will not act to absolve a party from liability unless it “‘specifically and explicitly refer[s] to the negligence of the party seeking release from liability.'” An exculpatory clause may be found sufficiently specific and explicit on the issue of negligence even in the absence of the word itself. Furthermore, an exculpatory clause not referring to the negligence of the releasee may act to bar liability for those damages incurred which are inherent in the nature of the activity.

Of greater note was this statement from the court. “The requirement of specificity is only necessary when the risk of harm is a latent danger, i.e. the defendant’s own negligence.”

This may lead you to believe, and I believe properly that a properly written release would top a minor’s claim for negligence under Indiana Law.

The court concluded the release signed by the mother did not release the YMCA for all negligent acts because it was written so poorly. However, it will release the YMCA for what was stated in the release, the inherent risks of softball.

The court then reviewed whether sliding into a base was an inherent risk of softball.

Sliding into second base, notwithstanding its rigidity, is an activity inherent in the nature of playing baseball or softball and we conclude that Taylor’s injury was derived from a risk inherent in the nature of the activity.

So Now What?

It appears that Indiana will allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. A well-written release, including the magic word negligence, which identifies the risks other than the inherent risks, would stop a claim for negligence.

A well-written release would have eliminated half of this decision, maybe even the appeal. If the proper language, the magic word negligence and a broader definition of the risks were in the release, this case would have been decided faster and with less worthy.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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