Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660Posted: May 1, 2019
Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT
156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660
December 13, 2017, Decided
THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia
COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.
Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.
JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER
In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.
ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.
The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.
[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.
Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.
“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).
Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).
The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).
[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky diving case.Posted: June 1, 2015
Plaintiff’s claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to present enough evidence to support any elements of his claim for his injuries skydiving.
State: New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division
Plaintiff: Joseph Dare and Patricia Dare
Defendant: Freefall Adventures, Inc., John Ed-Dowes, Warren Acron and Eric Keith Johnson, Defendants-Respondents.
The plaintiff was injured when he attempted to avoid colliding with another sky diver. The co-participant had left the airplane first and was lower than the plaintiff; therefore, the co-participant had the right of way.
The plaintiff had been jumping from this site with the defendant for two years, which totaled 137 jumps, including every week the six months before the accident.
Prior to jumping the plaintiff signed a release. The release was five pages long and included an indemnity agreement. The plaintiff also signed a release for Cross Keys Airport, Inc.
The plaintiff sued his co-participant sky diver, as well as the jump facility for his injuries.
The plaintiff denied that it was the cause of his injury; however, he had made arrangements to have his wife photograph him during the jump. In order to allow his wife the opportunity to photograph him, he had to steer through buildings towards the concession trailer where his wife was located.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted because the plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence.
Prima facie, Latin for first look, which legally means the plaintiff, could not establish any facts or sufficient facts to support its claims. A plaintiff must show enough to the court to establish the very basics supporting the elements in its claim.
The defendant had argued that based on the release it should be awarded its attorney fees and costs also; however, the trial court did not grant this motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked at the standard of care between participants in a sporting event.
…the duty of care applicable to participants in informal recreational sports is to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.” The Court’s determination was grounded on two policy considerations; the promotion of vigorous participation in athletic activities, and the avoidance of a flood of litigation generated by voluntary participation in games and sports.
The reckless standard is a greater standard than the negligence standard. That means the acts of the co-participant to be liable for the injuries of another participant must be beyond negligent acts.
The applicability of the heightened standard of care for causes of action for personal injuries occurring in recreational sports should not depend on which sport is involved and whether it is commonly perceived as a “contact” or “noncontact” sport. The recklessness or intentional conduct standard of care articulated in Crawn was not meant to be applied in a crabbed fashion. That standard represented the enunciation of a more modern approach to our common law in actions for personal injuries that generally occur during recreational sporting activities.
Another reason for the application of the reckless standard rather than the negligence standard is the concern that the lower standard would create a flood of lawsuits for any sporting injury.
Recklessness under New Jersey law “entails highly unreasonable conduct, involving “an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent.”
“The standard is objective and may be proven by showing that a defendant ‘proceeded in disregard of a high and excessive degree of danger either known to him [or her] or apparent to a reasonable person in his [or her] position.'”. “Recklessness, unlike negligence, requires a conscious choice of a course of action, with knowledge or a reason to know that it will create serious danger to others.”
The court also felt that a failure on the part of the plaintiff to provide expert testimony as to what standard of care was for skydiving doomed the plaintiff’s claims.
skydiving requires the training and licensing of participants. According to the record, it involves knowledge and conduct peculiar to the activity, including an understanding of wind direction and velocity, proper diver spacing, control of descent, and avoidance of ground hazards.
The appellate court upheld the trial courts dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the other co-participant sky diver. The court then looked at the plaintiffs’ claims against the defendant sky diving operation. The court found that the recklessness standard did not apply to the facility.
Consequently, the question here was whether, under the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, considering the nature of the risks associated with skydiving and the foreseeability of injury, plaintiff’s risk of injury was materially increased beyond those reasonably anticipated by skydiving participants as a result of the manner by which Freefall operated its facility. Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate such a material increase in risk.
For the plaintiff to make a claim against the defendant facility, he would have to prove that facility materially increased the risks over that of a normal sky-diving facility. Again, the plaintiff failed to prove that or provide enough evidence to proceed with his claims.
There was absolutely no evidence presented that Freefall failed to supervise the divers on the day of plaintiff’s accident. The record established that the loading of the aircraft, its operation, and the jumps themselves, were uneventful. Nothing suggests that Freefall personnel knew or should have known that plaintiff, or any other diver, was in peril because of the conduct of other participants. Moreover, Freefall had no way of controlling plaintiff’s, Johnson’s, or any other jumper’s maneuvering of their parachute canopies during the descent. Both plaintiff and Johnson were trained and licensed sky-divers. It is undisputed that once airborne, it was their duty alone to proceed with due care.
Plaintiff also claimed the landing zone of the defendant facility was not in accordance with regulatory minimums; however, he never stated what those minimums were or how the defendant’s facility failed to meet those minimums.
The appellate court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.
We conclude that the recklessness standard applied to Johnson and the ordinary negligence standard applied to Freefall, and, based on the evidentiary material submitted, summary judgment was properly granted to all defendants.
The court then looked at the indemnification provisions in the release which the court called “fee shifting provisions.”
The court looked at how other states had handled fee shifting provisions in sky-diving cases. New Jersey had not looked at the issue in skydiving, but had examined the issue in other cases, which had found the provisions were void.
The court reiterated that the plaintiff’s claim had been dismissed based on the plaintiff’s failure to present a prima facie case, not based on the release. The fee shifting provisions were part of the release. Under New Jersey law, “that sound judicial administration is best advanced if litigants bear their own counsel fees.” Even when fee shifting provisions are allowed, they will be strictly construed.
Essentially, the fee-shifting clause in Freefall’s release/waiver may be construed as an indemnification agreement, whereby plaintiff has agreed to pay counsel fees incurred by Freefall in defending plaintiffs’ suit, even if the cause of plaintiff’s injuries was Freefall’s own negligence. Such agreements, of course, must also be strictly construed against the indemnitee.
Reviewing construction law and finding no recreational case law where a fee shifting provision had been upheld the court determined the provisions were void as a violation of public policy.
Against this backdrop, we conclude that the fee-shifting provision in Freefall’s agreement is void as against public policy. It obviously runs counter to our strong policy disfavoring fee shifting of attorneys’ fees.
The deterrent effect of enforcing such a fee-shifting agreement offends our strong policy favoring an injured party’s right to seek compensation when it is alleged that the injury was caused by the tortious conduct of another.
The court also justified its decision by saying that because skydiving was regulated boy by the FAA and the New Jersey Department of Transportation it would be wrong to allow recovery of attorney fees by the defendant when the plaintiff argued the regulations had been violated, Even though the plaintiff’s arguments had no proof.
The defendant also attempted to argue the plaintiff’s complaint was frivolous which under a New Jersey statute would have allowed the defendant to recover their attorney fees defending a frivolous claim. However, the court found there were enough bases in the plaintiff’s complaint that it did not meet the frivolous claim threshold.
So Now What?
As stated in several other cases, indemnification clauses, even when well written, as you might assume from a five-page release, rarely result in recovery of attorney fees.
This also shows that the length of the release is not a deterrent, whether the release is effective in some court. Some people balk at a release over one page. However, when stopping a multi-million dollar claim a few pieces of paper are not a big issue.
Have your release written so that it protects you and all possible co-defendants and maybe includes a well-written indemnification clause.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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