Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

Andrew Hojnowski, a Minor, through his Parents and Guardians Ad Litem, Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski and Jerry Hojnowski and Anastasia Hojnowski, in their own right, Plaintiffs-Respondents and Cross-Appellants, v. Vans Skate Park, Defendant-Appellant and Cross-Respondent, and Mccown Deleeuw Company, John Doe(s) Skate Park Owner (a fictitious name) and Jane Doe(s) Insurance Company (for med pay only), Defendants.

A-17/A-45 September Term 2005

SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY

187 N.J. 323; 901 A.2d 381; 2006 N.J. LEXIS 1080

January 30, 2006, Argued

July 17, 2006, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087 (2005).

Hojnowski ex rel. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 868 A.2d 1087, 2005 N.J. Super. LEXIS 79 (App.Div., 2005)

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiffs, a minor and his parents, sued defendant skate park for negligence. The park moved to compel arbitration; the trial court granted the park summary judgment and dismissed the suit. Plaintiffs appealed; the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, affirmed the grant of summary judgment but held that the waiver of liability contained in a pre-injury release signed by a parent was void. Plaintiffs sought further review.

OVERVIEW: Plaintiffs alleged the minor fractured his femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to the park, forced him off a skateboard ramp. One parent had executed a release on the minor’s behalf that provided for mandatory arbitration of claims against the park and limited its liability. Plaintiffs moved to invalidate the release; the trial court did not rule on the validity of the limitation of liability, leaving this issue for the arbitrators to decide. The intermediate appellate court held that the arbitration provision was valid, that the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the liability waiver, and that it was invalid. The high court agreed. Under the parens patriae doctrine, the public policy of New Jersey prohibited a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility. But under the public policy expressed in the New Jersey Arbitration Act, former N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2A:24-1 to -11, a parent’s agreement to arbitrate was enforceable against any tort claims asserted on the minor’s behalf, in the absence of fraud, duress, unconscionability, or ambiguity.

OUTCOME: The high court affirmed the judgment of the intermediate appellate court and referred the matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings.

CORE TERMS: arbitration, pre-injury, minor child, public policy, exculpatory, parental, settlement, bind, post-injury, tort claims, arbitration agreements, agreement to arbitrate, recreational, enforceable, arbitrator, arbitrate, arbitration provision, unenforceable, public interest, inherent risks, reasonableness, guardian, waive, commercial enterprise, recreational facility, best interests, cause of action, invalidate, implicate, patriae

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Andrew Hojnowski, a minor v. Vans Skate Park, et als. (A-17/45-05)

Argued January 30, 2006 — Decided July 17, 2006

ZAZZALI, J., writing for the Court.

The issue before the Court is whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate.

In January 2003, twelve-year-old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a facility operated by Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf, which was required in order for Andrew to enter the skate park. The exculpatory release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as provisions limiting Vans’ liability for injury.

[***2] In August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges, among other things, negligent supervision and failure to warn, and negligent failure to provide a safe place. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. The Hojnowskis then moved to enjoin the arbitration and invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing the Hojnowskis’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding the issue for the arbitrators to determine.

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in respect of the validity of the arbitration provision. In addition, the panel found that because the issue presented a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the validity of the waiver. The panel was divided in its resolution of that question. The majority determined that a pre-injury release [***3] of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is, therefore, unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and, hence, should have enforced the waiver.

Vans appealed to the Supreme Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. The Court granted certification on the question of whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration.

HELD: Although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility.

1. Because exculpatory agreements can encourage a lack of care, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. The relevant public policy implicated in this case is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine, which refers to the State’s capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care [***4] for themselves. In keeping with that doctrine, the Legislature and the courts have historically afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims, requiring the parent to obtain statutory or judicial approval to dispose of the minor’s existing cause of action. The purpose underlying the post-injury settlement rule also applies in the pre-injury context. (Pp. 9-15)

2. Business owners owe invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment because it is the business owners who are in the best position to control the risk of harm. In this case, the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train staff in respect of the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. The business operator can also obtain insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. In addition, the expectation [***5] that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe is especially important where the patron’s are minors. To permit waivers of liability would remove a significant incentive for operators of these types of facilities that attract children to take reasonable steps to protect their safety. The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions are in accord with the decision to invalidate such waivers. (Pp. 15-19)

3. In view of the protections that New Jersey historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part of commercial enterprises attracting children, a parent’s execution of a pre-injury release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable. (P.19)

4. Vans’ remaining contentions are unconvincing. Van’s argument that allowing a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claim is no different than a parent’s decision never to bring suit on the child’s behalf ignores the tolling provisions enabling a minor to retain the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority. Nor does the Court accept the argument that the parental release [***6] implicates the parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of the child. Nor is the Court persuaded by the argument that such releases are necessary to ensure the continued validity of businesses offering sports activities to minors. Tort liability is not an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. (Pp. 19-23)

5. Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In New Jersey, arbitration is also a favored means of dispute resolution. An agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under State law unless it violates public policy. Allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to the Court’s duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. A pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require the minor to give up any substantive rights; rather, it specifies only the forum in which those rights are redressed. Furthermore, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. Case law [***7] from other jurisdictions reinforces this conclusion. (Pp. 23-31)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is referred to an arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins, is in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms the enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject their dispute to arbitration. Justice LaVecchia dissents from the majority’s invalidation of the waiver of liability that the parties executed as a condition of the minor’s use of Van’s property to skateboard. Because the type of waiver entered into in this case generally would be enforceable as against an adult, there is no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of the minor, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

COUNSEL: Richard C. Wischusen argued the cause for appellant and cross-respondent (Reilly, Supple & Wischusen, attorneys; Alex W. Raybould, on the briefs).

Robert A. Porter argued the cause for respondents and cross-appellants (Bafundo, [***8] Porter, Borbi & Clancy, attorneys).

David G. Evans submitted a brief on behalf of amicus curiae, Pacific Legal Foundation.

JUDGES: Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. Chief Justice PORITZ and Justices LONG, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE. Justices LaVECCHIA and RIVERA-SOTO. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

OPINION BY: ZAZZALI

OPINION

[*327] [**383] Justice ZAZZALI delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal, we must determine whether a parent can bind a minor child to either a pre-injury waiver of liability or an agreement to arbitrate. In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski was injured while skateboarding at a skate park facility operated by defendant Vans, Inc. (Vans). On a previous visit to the facility, Andrew’s mother had executed a release on Andrew’s behalf. That release contained a clause agreeing to submit any claims against Vans to arbitration, as well as a provision limiting Vans’ liability. After Andrew and his parents (plaintiffs) brought suit seeking recovery for Andrew’s injuries, Vans filed for commercial arbitration. Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin arbitration and to invalidate the [***9] liability release signed by Andrew’s mother.

The trial court found that plaintiffs were bound by the arbitration provision and dismissed their complaint without prejudice. The court declined to rule on whether the liability release was valid, concluding that that issue should be determined by the arbitrator. On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously voted to uphold the arbitration provision but divided on the validity of the liability release. The majority determined that a pre-injury release of liability executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child violates public policy and is therefore unenforceable. The dissent argued that the court should have deferred to the parent’s decision to enter into the agreement and enforced the waiver. We affirm the majority and hold that although a parent may agree to bind a minor child to an arbitration provision, which in essence constitutes a choice of forum, a parent may not bind a minor child to a pre-injury release of a minor’s prospective tort claims resulting from the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Pursuant to our parens patriae duty to protect the best interests [*328] of the child, we will not enforce such a release [***10] in the context of this case.

I.

In January 2003, twelve-year old Andrew Hojnowski and his mother, Anastasia Hojnowski, visited a Vans Store in Moorestown, New Jersey. Defendant Vans operated the retail store that sold skateboards and related merchandise and maintained a recreational skateboard facility. To enter the skate park, Vans required Andrew’s mother to sign an exculpatory release. It appears that Andrew’s mother did not execute a release on the date in question but had executed a release in December 2002, which Vans had kept on file.

The release, entitled “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILTY AND JURY TRIAL WITH INDEMNITY (FOR ALL VANS SKATEPARKS, STORES AND FACILITIES (COLLECTIVELY, ‘PARKS’) IN NEW JERSEY),” begins by stating:

Please read this document. It affects Your legal rights against Vans, Inc. if you are injured. Do not sign this document unless you understand it. If You are a minor, Your parent or guardian is required to sign this legal document.

The document then provides, in relevant part:

2. Can You Make A Claim For Money If You Are Injured?

If you are injured and want to make a claim, you must file a demand before the American Arbitration [***11] Association (the “AAA”). . . . You agree that any dispute between You and Vans will be decided by the AAA. Vans, Inc. will pay all costs of the arbitration for You. . . .

[**384] 3. Vans Is Asking You To Give Up Legal Rights in Order to Enter This Park

Because using Vans’ Park, or even entering the Park as a spectator may increase your risk of harm, Vans is asking you to give up certain valuable legal rights. Here are the rights you are giving up when you sign this document:

(a) You give up your right to sue Vans in a court of law.

(b) You give up your right to a trial by jury.

(c) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you are injured unless Vans intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices.

(d) You give up the right to claim money from Vans if you wait more than one year from the injury in order to make a claim.

[*329] (e) You give up the right to claim money from Vans, Inc. if you are injured by another person.

(f) You give up the right to recover damages to punish or make an example of Vans, Inc.

4. Rights You Do Not Give Up

You do not give up the right:

(a) To have safe equipment, [***12] structures and devices at the Park for Your intended use.

(b) To claim compensation for Your injury from Vans, Inc. if you are hurt because the equipment, structures and devices at the Park are not safe for Your intended use.

. . . .

(e) To make a claim if Vans, Inc. or anyone working for Vans, Inc. intentionally hurts you.

5. Who Is Bound By This Document?

You are bound by this document. Anyone who has or can obtain Your rights is also bound by this document, such as Your family, relatives, guardians, executors or anyone responsible for You. . . .

6. Other Information Important For You To Know

You have the right to demand money if You believe Vans, Inc. intentionally caused You harm. If parts of this document are determined to be invalid, then that portion will be unenforceable and the remainder of the document will continue in full legal force and effect. . . .

Following those provisions, Andrew’s mother answered “Yes” to the question: “Do You understand that You are giving up rights by signing this document if You are hurt?” The document also informed customers that “[b]y signing this document You agree that Vans, Inc. may rely [***13] on Your answers.” Andrew’s mother signed the release on Andrew’s behalf in the space provided beneath that provision.

Plaintiffs claim that, during his use of Vans’ facility in January 2003, Andrew suffered a fractured femur when an aggressive skateboarder, about whom his parents had complained to Vans, forced him off a skateboard ramp. Consequently, in August 2003, Andrew, acting through his parents as guardians ad litem, and his parents, in their own right, filed suit against Vans. Their complaint alleges that Vans “negligently fail[ed] to supervise the activities at the skate park, negligently failed to control activities of aggressive skateboarders, negligently failed to warn Plaintiffs’ parents that [*330] the activities of aggressive skateboarders would not be monitored, and negligently failed to provide a safe place to skateboard.” Plaintiffs also filed suit against an unnamed corporate owner and insurance company. Vans responded by filing a demand for commercial arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. [**385] Plaintiffs then moved to enjoin the arbitration and to invalidate the pre-injury release signed by Andrew’s mother, and Vans cross-moved for summary judgment. The [***14] trial court granted Vans’ motion, dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint without prejudice and ordering arbitration. The trial court, however, did not rule on the validity of the liability release, finding that the issue is “for the arbitrators to determine.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment concerning the validity of the arbitration provision. Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 375 N.J. Super. 568, 574-75, 868 A.2d 1087 (App.Div.2005). The panel held that “a parent can enter into an enforceable contract, binding on the parent’s minor child, that waives the right to trial by jury of the minor’s bodily injury claims and requires submission of ‘any dispute’ to arbitration.” Ibid. The panel also found that because the validity of a pre-injury liability waiver presents a question of public policy, the trial court should have ruled on the waiver’s validity and not referred that question to the arbitrator. Id. at 581-82, 868 A.2d 1087. The panel then divided on the resolution of that issue.

The majority concluded that, under the circumstances of this matter, a parent lacks the authority “to sign a pre-tort [***15] agreement limiting the liability of a tortfeasor to exclude negligent conduct” and therefore voided the release. Id. at 583, 868 A.2d 1087. The majority reasoned that “the judiciary must stand as guardians of the State’s children” and that

[w]ere [the court] to decide otherwise, [it] would be relieving an alleged wrongdoer from its traditional legal responsibility to provide compensation for injuries caused by its negligence and shifting the economic burden to families, public welfare agencies and private charities without any concomitant benefit to either an injured child or his parents.

[*331] [Id. at 590, 868 A.2d 1087.]

Judge Fisher dissented, arguing that the court should have enforced the liability waiver and deferred to a parent’s decision regarding such matters. Id. at 591-92, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In his view, “in the absence of parental unfitness, courts should not overrule parental decisions but should instead defer to a parent’s own weighing of the benefits and risks when entering into agreements that relate to the activities of their children.” Id. at 592, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring [***16] in part and dissenting in part).

Vans appealed to this Court as of right on the issue of the validity of the pre-injury release of liability. R. 2:2-1(a)(2). We also permitted the Pacific Legal Foundation to submit a brief as amicus curiae on that issue and granted plaintiffs’ petition for certification on the question whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitration. 1 185 N.J. 36, 878 A.2d 853 (2005).

1 On appeal, plaintiffs did not raise the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration provision or the pre-injury liability release against the parents in their own right. Accordingly, our analysis is limited to a determination of the enforceability of those provisions against the minor child. Because the issue is not before us, we neither express nor imply an opinion concerning whether a waiver-of-rights provision of the nature entered into by the parties would be enforceable as against an adult.

II.

We first address whether New Jersey’s public policy permits [***17] a parent to release a minor child’s potential tort claims arising out of the minor’s use of a commercial recreational facility. Plaintiffs argue that [**386] a parent may not waive a minor child’s right to sue for negligence. Relying on Fitzgerald v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 111 N.J. Super. 104, 267 A.2d 557 (Law Div.1970), and numerous out-of-state decisions, plaintiffs claim that the vast majority of states have held that a parent’s attempt to waive a child’s prospective cause of action is void as a matter of public policy. Plaintiffs assert that public policy disfavors pre-injury waivers of liability [*332] because they encourage tortious conduct by absolving a commercial enterprise of its ordinary duty to exercise due care. Plaintiffs also maintain that because a parent is not permitted to settle a child’s post-injury tort claim without judicial approval, a parent should not be allowed to waive a child’s potential claim before an injury occurs.

Defendant recognizes that the enforcement of parental liability waivers has been “treated in varied fashions by different states.” However, defendant asserts that “[t]he more substantial and well-considered decisions favor enforcement [***18] of exculpatory agreements based on the fundamental right of parents to raise their children as they decide.” Defendant further contends that it is “erroneous” to equate pre-tort releases of liability with post-tort releases because “[t]he conflict of interest and potential for harm to befall a minor are far different in the context of a release of an accrued tort claim where settlement funds are present and may be misappropriated.” Finally, defendant claims that “[w]ithout enforceable [r]eleases many activities available to children may be forced to close due to liability concerns.”

A.

We begin our analysis of that issue by noting that there is ambiguity in the pre-injury release concerning whether the agreement extinguishes or merely limits plaintiffs’ ability to recover against defendant for negligence. For example, although paragraph 3(c) provides that plaintiffs have “give[n] up the right to claim money from [defendant] unless [defendant] intentionally failed to prevent or correct a hazard caused by unsafe equipment or devices,” paragraph 4(b) states that plaintiffs have not “give[n] up the right to claim compensation [if] the equipment, structures and devices [***19] at the Park are not safe for [their] intended use.” We need not determine the precise scope and meaning of those terms, however, because we hold that the public policy of New Jersey prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing a minor child’s [*333] potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.

B.

[HN1] Exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law because they encourage a lack of care. See, e.g., Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004); Ultimate Computer Servs., Inc. v. Biltmore Realty Co., 183 N.J. Super. 144, 151, 443 A.2d 723 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 91 N.J. 184, 450 A.2d 522 (1982). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize liability releases and invalidate them if they violate public policy. See, e.g., Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491, 841 A.2d 907 (App.Div.2004) (“[C]ourts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.”). It is well settled that to contract in advance to release tort liability resulting from intentional or reckless conduct [***20] violates public policy, Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981), as does a contract that releases liability from a statutorily-imposed duty, [**387] McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Further, courts have found that exculpatory agreements for negligence claims violate public policy in a variety of settings, such as in residential leases, Cardona v. Eden Realty Co., 118 N.J. Super. 381, 384, 288 A.2d 34 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 60 N.J. 354, 289 A.2d 799 (1972), or in connection with rendering professional services, Lucier, supra, 366 N.J. Super. at 495, 841 A.2d 907; Erlich v. First National Bank, 208 N.J. Super. 264, 287, 505 A.2d 220 (Law Div.1984).

The relevant public policy implicated in this matter is the protection of the best interests of the child under the parens patriae doctrine. [HN2] Parens patriae refers to “the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1144 (8th ed.2004). [***21] In keeping with that policy, the Legislature and the courts historically [*334] have afforded considerable protections to claims of minor children. The most significant of those protections concerns the compromise or release of a minor’s post-injury claims. Under Rule 4:44, after a minor has suffered a tortious injury, a minor’s parent or guardian may not dispose of a minor’s existing cause of action without statutory or judicial approval. See
Moscatello ex rel. Moscatello v. Univ. of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 342 N.J. Super. 351, 361, 776 A.2d 874 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 170 N.J. 207, 785 A.2d 435 (2001); Riemer v. St. Clare’s Riverside Med. Ctr., 300 N.J. Super. 101, 110-11, 691 A.2d 1384 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 152 N.J. 188, 704 A.2d 18 (1997); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986). That Rule applies regardless of whether suit has been filed on the minor’s behalf, see, e.g., Moscatello, supra, 342 N.J. Super. at 361, 776 A.2d 874, and its purpose is “to guard a minor against an improvident compromise [and] to secure the minor against dissipation of [***22] the proceeds,” Colfer, supra, 214 N.J. Super. at 377, 519 A.2d 893.

Although the Rule governing post-injury settlements is not dispositive of our treatment of pre-injury releases, we find that the purposes underlying the post-injury settlement rule also apply in the present context. First, children deserve as much protection from the improvident compromise of their rights before an injury occurs as Rule 4:44 affords them after the injury. Moreover, at the time a parent decides to release the potential tort claims of his or her child, the parent may not fully understand the consequences of that action and may not have even read the waiver before signing. As the Utah Supreme Court has noted:

These clauses are . . . routinely imposed in a unilateral manner without any genuine bargaining or opportunity to pay a fee for insurance. The party demanding adherence to an exculpatory clause simply evades the necessity of liability coverage and then shifts the full burden of risk of harm to the other party. Compromise of an existing claim, however, relates to negligence that has already taken place and is subject to measurable damages. Such releases involve actual negotiations [***23] concerning ascertained rights and liabilities. Thus, if anything, the policies relating to restrictions on a parent’s right to compromise an existing claim apply with even greater force in the preinjury, exculpatory clause scenario. [Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (2001) (emphasis added).]

[*335] Further, in both the pre- and post-injury context, it is necessary to ensure that children retain the ability to seek compensation for an injury. When a parent signs a pre-injury release of liability and the child is later injured, the parent is [**388] left to provide for the child’s injuries while the negligent party suffers no liability. If a parent is unable to finance the child’s injuries, the child may be left with no resources to obtain much needed care or support. See
Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1235 (Colo.2002) (“[T]o allow a parent to release a child’s possible future claims for injury caused by negligence may as a practical matter leave the minor in an unacceptably precarious position with no recourse, no parental support, and no method to support himself or care for his injury.” (footnote omitted)); Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 12 (1992) [***24] (“[W]here parents are unwilling or unable to provide for a seriously injured child, the child would have no recourse against a negligent party to acquire resources needed for care.”).

Those concerns are even more acute in the context of commercial premises liability. [HN3] In New Jersey, “[b]usiness owners owe to invitees a duty of reasonable or due care to provide a safe environment for doing that which is in the scope of the invitation.” Nisivoccia v. Glass Gardens, Inc., 175 N.J. 559, 563, 818 A.2d 314 (2003). That is because business owners “are in the best position to control the risk of harm. Ownership or control of the premises, for example, enables a party to prevent the harm.” Kuzmicz v. Ivy Hill Park Apartments, Inc., 147 N.J. 510, 517, 688 A.2d 1018 (1997) (citations omitted). It follows that in this case the risk of loss should fall on the party best suited to avert injury. See
Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426, 447, 625 A.2d 1110 (1993) (recognizing “salutary effect of shifting the risk of loss . . . to those who should be able and are best able to bear them”). The operator of a commercial recreational enterprise [***25] can inspect the premises for unsafe conditions, train his or her employees with regard to the facility’s proper operation, and regulate the types of activities permitted to occur. Such an operator also can obtain [*336] insurance and spread the costs of insurance among its customers. Children, on the other hand, are not in a position to discover hazardous conditions or insure against risks. Moreover, the expectation that a commercial facility will be reasonably safe to do that which is within the scope of the invitation, see
Nisivoccia, supra, 175 N.J. at 563, 818 A.2d 314, is especially important where the facility’s patrons are minor children. If we were to permit waivers of liability, we would remove a significant incentive for operators of commercial enterprises that attract children to take reasonable precautions to protect their safety.

In finding that the exculpatory provision in this matter is invalid, we are in agreement not only with our own State’s case law, but also with the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Fitzgerald, supra, 111 N.J. Super. at 108, 267 A.2d 557 (invalidating exculpatory agreement executed by parent on behalf of minor [***26] child that released defendant from liability to child for future injuries and required parent to indemnify defendant for any claims brought by minor); In re Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., 403 F. Supp. 2d 1168, 1172-73 (S.D.Fla.2005) (stating that where “a release of liability is signed on behalf of a minor child for an activity run by a for-profit business, outside of a school or community setting, the release is typically unenforceable against the minor”); Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa.1987) (concluding that parent’s execution of pre-injury release did not exculpate third party from potential claims of minor child); Apicella v. Valley Forge Military Acad. & Junior Coll., 630 F. Supp. 20, 24 (E.D.Pa.1985) (“Under Pennsylvania law, parents do not possess the authority to release . . . potential claims of a minor [**389] child merely because of the parental relationship.”); Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1233-35 (holding that Colorado’s public policy prohibits parents from contractually releasing child’s future claims for injury caused by negligence); Meyer v. Naperville Manner, Inc., 262 Ill. App. 3d 141, 634 N.E.2d 411, 415, 199 Ill. Dec. 572 (1994) [***27] (concluding that because “parent’s waiver of liability was not authorized by any statute or judicial approval, it had no effect to bar the minor child’s (future) [*337] cause of action”); Santangelo v. City of New York, 66 A.D.2d 880, 411 N.Y.S.2d 666, 667 (1978) (holding that minor was not bound by exculpatory release executed by parent on minor’s behalf); Munoz v. II Jaz, Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207, 209-10 (Tex.Ct.App.1990) (concluding that allowing parent to waive child’s right to sue for personal injury “would be against the public policy to protect minor children”); Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (“To the extent a parent’s release of a third party’s liability for negligence purports to bar a child’s own cause of action, it violates public policy and is unenforceable.”); Hawkins, supra, 37 P.3d at 1065-66 (concluding that “a parent does not have the authority to release a child’s claims before an injury”); see also
Auto. Workers v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 213, 111 S. Ct. 1196, 1211, 113 L. Ed. 2d 158, 183 (1991) (White, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment) [***28] (stating that “the general rule is that parents cannot waive causes of action on behalf of their children”); Doyle v. Bowdoin Coll., 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me.1979) (stating in dicta that parent cannot release child’s cause of action); Williams v. Patton, 821 S.W.2d 141, 147 n.8, 35 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 65 (Tex.1991) (Doggett, J., concurring) (stating that parental releases of minor’s potential tort claims are “outrightly disfavored”).

Although we recognize that jurisdictions are not uniform on the question of waiver, our research discloses that the only published decisions in which such agreements have been upheld are in connection with non-commercial ventures, such as volunteer-run or non-profit organizations. See, e.g., Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647, 648-50 (1990) (upholding parental agreement releasing any claims of minor child resulting from child’s participation in school-sponsored event); Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So. 2d 1067, 1067 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.2004) (upholding parental liability release in context of “community or school supported activities”); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 207 (1998) [***29] (holding that parent may bind minor child to provision releasing volunteers and sponsors of non-profit sports activity from liability for negligence); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 [*338] N.E.2d 738, 741, 745 (2002) (concluding that parent had authority to bind minor child to exculpatory release as condition of child’s participation in public-school extracurricular sports activities). Without expressing an opinion on the validity of parental liability releases in such settings, it suffices to note that volunteer, community, and non-profit organizations involve different policy considerations than those associated with commercial enterprises. Such a distinction is buttressed by the fact that the Legislature has afforded civil immunity from negligence to certain volunteer athletic coaches, managers, officials, and sponsors of non-profit sports teams, see, e.g., N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-6 to -6.2, while not providing similar immunities from negligence in the commercial realm.

Accordingly, [HN4] in view of the protections that our State historically has afforded to a minor’s claims and the need to discourage negligent activity on the part [***30] of commercial enterprises attracting children, we hold that a parent’s execution of a pre-injury [**390] release of a minor’s future tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility is unenforceable.

C.

In so holding, we find that defendant’s remaining contentions and those of the dissent below are unconvincing. First, we are not persuaded by the argument that we should allow for parental liability releases because a pre-injury release of a minor’s potential tort claims is no different than a parent’s decision not to bring suit on a minor’s behalf. That argument ignores the fact that, under the tolling provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21, a minor retains the right to sue for most personal injuries for two years after reaching the age of majority, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. One of the rationales behind the tolling provision is that a child should not “be penalized for the ignorance or neglect of his parents or guardian in failing to assert [his or her legal] rights.” O’Connor v. Altus, 67 N.J. 106, 131-32, 335 A.2d 545 (1975) (Pashman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Consequently, although [***31] a parent may control a minor’s right to seek tort compensation [*339] until the age of majority–either by choosing not to sue or by neglecting to do so–a minor’s claim is not eliminated by the parent’s decision; it merely is delayed. Were we to uphold the challenged pre-injury release, however, we would permanently bar the minor’s tort claim, a far more draconian effect.

Nor do we accept the argument that a parental release of liability on behalf of a minor child implicates a parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of his or her child. [HN5] Although parents undoubtedly have a fundamental liberty interest “in the care, custody, and control of their children,” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65, 120 S. Ct. 2054, 2060, 147 L. Ed. 2d 49, 56 (2000), the question whether a parent may release a minor’s future tort claims implicates wider public policy concerns and the parens patriae duty to protect the best interests of children. See
Cooper, supra, 48 P.3d at 1235 n.11 (concluding that parental release of child’s right to sue for negligence is “not of the same character and quality as those rights recognized as implicating parents’ fundamental [***32] liberty interest in the ‘care, custody and control’ of their children”). As the majority opinion below noted, “[w]ere it otherwise, existing restrictions on parental conduct in the context of litigation involving minors would long ago have been abrogated in New Jersey.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 585, 868 A.2d 1087. Indeed, the post-injury settlement rule is but one example of such restrictions. Moreover, nothing in our analysis interferes with the constitutionally protected right of a parent “to permit or deny a child’s participation in any or all of the recreational activities that may be available.” Id. at 597, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

We also reject defendant’s argument that enforcing parental releases of liability is necessary to ensure the continued viability of businesses offering sports activities to minors. We do not view tort liability as an unreasonable economic restraint on the ability of business owners to operate commercial recreational facilities. See
Scott, supra, 834 P.2d at 12 (finding “[n]o legally sound reason . . . for removing children’s athletics from the normal tort system”). [***33] [*340] Indeed, by invalidating pre-injury releases of liability executed by a parent on a minor’s behalf, we are not altering the landscape of common-law tort liability principles by which commercial enterprises typically must abide. Rather, we are preserving the traditional duties owed by business owners to their invitees. Further, as noted, because such facilities [**391] derive economic benefit from their operation, they are better able to assume the costs associated with proper maintenance and the prevention of injury than are the children to whom they cater.

Finally, the dissent below argued that invalidating parental releases of liability “is at odds with our Legislature’s willingness to render participants solely responsible for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of similar activities.” Hojnowski, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 593, 868 A.2d 1087 (Fisher, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). That argument refers to legislative acts in the areas of skiing, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11; roller skating, N.J.S.A. 5:14-1 to -7; and equestrian activities, N.J.S.A. 5:15-1 to -12, which place the [***34] responsibility for injuries resulting from “inherent risks” of the sport on the participant. However, those statutes do not absolve an operator of a facility from liability for its own negligence. Instead, the statutes apply only to inherent risks, which, by their very nature, are those “that cannot be removed through the exercise of due care if the sport is to be enjoyed.” Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, Inc., 144 N.J. 479, 499, 677 A.2d 705 (1996); see also
Pietruska v. Craigmeur Ski Area, 259 N.J. Super. 532, 537, 614 A.2d 639 (Law Div.1992) (finding that “[i]mproper operation of a ski lift is not an inherent risk of skiing since, with due care, it can be eliminated”). As such, inherent risks need not be the subject of waiver because “the general law of negligence has long recognized that a defendant has no duty with regard to such risks.” Brett, supra, 144 N.J. at 499, 677 A.2d 705; see also
Meistrich v. Casino Arena Attractions, Inc., 31 N.J. 44, 49, 155 A.2d 90 (1959) (stating that assumption of inherent risk “is an alternate expression for the proposition that defendant was not negligent”). Thus, a commercial enterprise [***35] is [*341] not liable for injuries sustained as a result of an activity’s inherent risks so long as that enterprise has acted in accordance with “the ordinary duty owed to business invitees, including exercise of care commensurate with the nature of the risk, foreseeability of injury, and fairness in the circumstances.” Rosania v. Carmona, 308 N.J. Super. 365, 374, 706 A.2d 191 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 609, 713 A.2d 500 (1998).

III.

The second issue that we must decide is whether a parent can bind a minor child to an agreement to arbitrate future disputes arising out of a commercial recreation contract. Plaintiffs contend that “[although] arbitration is an approved alternative to a jury trial, an unsophisticated parent, about to have [his or her] child enter a recreational facility, should not be permitted to bind [his or her] child to a waiver of a trial by jury.” Defendant counters that this Court should enforce the parent’s agreement to submit the minor’s claims to arbitration because the Appellate Division previously upheld such an agreement in Allgor v. Travelers Insurance Co., 280 N.J. Super. 254, 654 A.2d 1375 (App.Div.1995). [***36] Defendant also argues that plaintiffs should be bound to arbitrate the present matter because public policy favors the arbitration of disputes. We agree and find that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate a minor’s potential tort claims is not contrary to public policy.

A.

[HN6] Federal policy has favored the enforcement of arbitration agreements for many years. In 1925, Congress enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.A. §§ 1-16, to reverse then existing judicial hostility to arbitration agreements and “to place arbitration agreements upon [**392] the same footing as other contracts.” Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 24, 111 S. Ct. 1647, 1651, 114 L. Ed. 2d 26, 36 (1991). To that end, § 2 of the FAA provides:

[HN7] [*342] A written provision in any . . . contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such a contract or transaction . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract. [Emphasis added.]

[HN8] Although the FAA applies to both state [***37] and federal judicial proceedings, state contract-law principles generally govern a determination whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists. See, e.g., First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S. Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L. Ed. 2d 985, 993 (1995) (“When deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitrate a certain matter (including arbitrability), courts generally . . . should apply ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts.”). However, “a state cannot subject an arbitration agreement to more burdensome requirements than those governing the formation of other contracts.” Leodori v. CIGNA Corp., 175 N.J. 293, 302, 814 A.2d 1098, cert. denied, 540 U.S. 938, 124 S. Ct. 74, 157 L. Ed. 2d 250 (2003).

[HN9] In New Jersey, arbitration also is a favored means of dispute resolution. See, e.g., Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., 173 N.J. 76, 84-85, 800 A.2d 872 (2002); Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs., 168 N.J. 124, 131, 773 A.2d 665 (2001); Marchak v. Claridge Commons Inc., 134 N.J. 275, 281, 633 A.2d 531 (1993). Our Legislature [***38] codified its endorsement of arbitration agreements in the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11, which, like its federal counterpart, provides that agreements to arbitrate shall be valid save for “such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of a contract,” N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1. 2 In accordance with those principles, an agreement to arbitrate generally will be valid under state law unless it violates public policy. See, e.g., Marchak, supra, 134 N.J. at 281-82, 633 A.2d [*343] 531 (“Honoring an agreement to submit a matter to arbitration is consistent with the premise that, as long as the agreement does not violate public policy, parties may bargain freely.”); Faherty v. Faherty, 97 N.J. 99, 105, 477 A.2d 1257 (1984) (“A court generally will enforce an arbitration agreement unless it violates public policy.”).

2 N.J.S.A. 2A:24-1 to -11 was superseded by a modified version of the Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 to -32, effective January 1, 2003, and applicable to agreements entered into on or after that date, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-3a. Because the arbitration agreement at issue in this appeal was executed prior to that date, this matter is governed by the former statute.

[***39] B.

In light of the strong public policy favoring the settlement of disputes through arbitration, we conclude that allowing a parent to bind a minor child to arbitrate future tort claims is not contrary to our duty as parens patriae to protect the best interests of the child. As opposed to a pre-injury release of liability, a pre-injury agreement to arbitrate does not require a minor to forego any substantive rights. Rather, such an agreement specifies only the forum in which those rights are vindicated. See, e.g., Global Travel Mktg., Inc. v. Shea, 908 So. 2d 392, 403 (Fla.2005) (stating that distinction between waiver of forum in which claim is presented and outright waiver of legal claim “is a crucial consideration in determining whether state’s interest in protecting children renders [**393] the waiver unenforceable”); Cross v. Carnes, 132 Ohio App. 3d 157, 724 N.E.2d 828, 836 (1998) (stating that “parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim”). In that respect, our Appellate Division has observed that

[t]he ancient practice of [***40] arbitration “[i]n its broad sense, . . . is a substitution, by consent of the parties, of another tribunal for the tribunal provided by the ordinary processes of law. The object of arbitration is the final disposition, in a speedy, inexpensive, expeditious, and perhaps less formal manner, of the controversial differences between the parties.”

[Carpenter v. Bloomer, 54 N.J. Super. 157, 162, 148 A.2d 497 (App.Div.1959) (quoting E. Eng’g Co. v. City of Ocean City, 11 N.J. Misc. 508, 510-11, 167 A. 522 (Sup.Ct.1933)).]

Further, although this Court previously has not ruled on the issue, permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children. For example, in [*344] Allgor, supra, the Appellate Division concluded that a father’s contractual agreement to submit to arbitration disputes arising under his underinsured motorist policy also bound his minor son who filed a claim under that policy. 280 N.J. Super. at 262-65, 654 A.2d 1375. The court rejected the contention that “arbitration is not appropriate when the best interests [***41] of a child are at stake.” Id. at 261, 654 A.2d 1375. Our decision in Faherty also supports enforcement of the arbitration provision at issue. In that case, we held that public policy permits spouses to include provisions in their separation agreements for arbitration of child support disputes, subject only to heightened judicial review of the arbitrator’s award. Faherty, supra, 97 N.J. at 108-09, 477 A.2d 1257. We reasoned that

[w]e do not agree with those who fear that by allowing parents to agree to arbitrate child support, we are interfering with the judicial protection of the best interests of the child. We see no valid reason why the arbitration process should not be available in the area of child support; the advantages of arbitration in domestic disputes outweigh any disadvantages.

[Id. at 109, 477 A.2d 1257 (emphasis added).]

Finally, a review of case law from other jurisdictions reinforces our conclusion that a parent should be permitted to bind a minor child to arbitration. In Global Travel Marketing, supra, the Florida Supreme Court recently reversed a Florida Court of Appeals ruling, upon which plaintiffs relied, [***42] which held that parents lack authority to bind a minor child to arbitrate prospective claims arising out of a commercial travel contract for an African safari. 908 So. 2d at 394-95. In finding that such agreements are “not contrary to the public policy of protecting children,” id. at 405, the court recognized a “crucial” distinction between an outright waiver of a minor’s legal claims and a waiver of the forum in which the claims are presented, id. at 403.

The Ohio Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in Cross, supra, 724 N.E.2d 828. There, the producers of a television show sought to enforce an arbitration agreement signed by a parent on behalf of a child who sued the show for fraud and defamation after the show allegedly portrayed [*345] the child as a bully. Id. at 830-31. The court upheld that agreement and found that “a parent has the authority to bind his or her child to a resolution of the child’s claims [**394] through arbitration.” Id. at 836. The court reasoned that the Ohio Supreme Court previously had upheld a liability waiver executed by a parent on behalf of a minor participating in a recreational [***43] activity sponsored by a non-profit organization. Ibid. (citing Zivich, supra, 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201). In relying on Zivich, however, the court noted that

[a] parent’s consent and release to arbitration only specifies the forum for resolution of the child’s claim; it does not extinguish the claim. Logically, if a parent has the authority to bring and conduct a lawsuit on behalf of the child, he or she has the same authority to choose arbitration as the litigation forum.

[Ibid.]

See also
Doyle v. Giuliucci, 62 Cal. 2d 606, 401 P.2d 1, 3, 43 Cal. Rptr. 697 (1965) (stating that arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by parent on minor’s behalf “is a reasonable restriction, for it does no more than specify a forum for the settlement of disputes”); accord
Leong v. Kaiser Found. Hosps., 71 Haw. 240, 788 P.2d 164, 169 (1990) (concurring with reasoning of Doyle and holding that minor was bound by arbitration provision in contract for medical services signed by father).

Although we recognize that certain cases from other jurisdictions have found a minor’s claims to be non-arbitrable, [***44] those cases are distinguishable because they were decided solely on the basis of the individual contracts at issue in those appeals. They did not directly rule on the larger issue presented by this appeal–whether a parent can bind a minor child to arbitrate future disputes. Fleetwood Enters. Inc. v. Gaskamp, 280 F.3d 1069, 1077, reh’g denied, 303 F.3d 570 (5th Cir.2002) (holding that minor children were not bound to arbitrate injuries suffered as result of formaldehyde inhalation because children were neither signatories to mobile-home sales contract signed by their parents nor third-party beneficiaries of that contract); Billieson v. City of New Orleans, 863 So. 2d 557, 562-63 (La.Ct.App.2003) (concluding that children’s claims for lead poisoning were not precluded by [*346] arbitration agreement between city housing authority and property management company because children were not third-party beneficiaries of agreement); see also
Lewis v. Cedu Educ. Servs., 135 Idaho 139, 15 P.3d 1147, 1152 (2000) (concluding that child was not bound to arbitrate based on language of contract and expressly declining to determine [***45] whether “minors should or should not be bound to arbitrate disputes arising out of contracts entered into on their behalf by their parents”); Accomazzo v. Cedu Educ. Servs., Inc., 135 Idaho 145, 15 P.3d 1153, 1156 (2000) (same). Therefore, [HN10] in the absence of any allegations relating to fraud, duress, or unconscionability in the signing of the contract or that the agreement to arbitrate was not written in clear and unambiguous terms, we conclude that a parent’s agreement to arbitrate is valid and enforceable against any tort claims asserted on a minor’s behalf.

IV.

We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division and refer this matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI’s opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO joins.

CONCUR BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT BY: LaVECCHIA (In Part)

DISSENT

Justice LaVECCHIA, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

I am in full agreement with that portion of the majority’s decision that affirms enforcement of the parties’ agreement to subject [***46] their dispute to arbitration. I part company from my colleagues, however, in so far as they have chosen to invalidate the [**395] waiver of liability that the parties to this appeal executed as a condition of the minor Andrew’s use of defendant’s property to skateboard. In that respect, I am in substantial agreement with the Appellate Division dissent that was penned by Judge Fisher. Essentially, because a waiver of rights of the type entered into by these parties generally would be enforceable as against an adult, I see no reason why this Court should prevent a parent from ratifying such a waiver on behalf of a child, provided that a court or arbitrator determines that the release is reasonable.

[*347] Although the majority declines to express any view on whether the waiver would be invalid if enforced against an adult, it is noteworthy that the waiver does not appear to involve any of the grounds that New Jersey courts have heretofore invoked to invalidate an exculpatory waiver. For example, the waiver does not exempt defendant from liability for a “future intentional tort or willful act or gross negligence.” Kuzmiak v. Brookchester, Inc., 33 N.J. Super. 575, 580, 111 A.2d 425 (App.Div.1955). [***47] Nor does the waiver seek a release from any statutorily imposed duty. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 542, 226 A.2d 713 (1967). Furthermore, although the majority notes that “[e]xculpatory agreements have long been disfavored in the law,” that proposition has been invoked not to invalidate a waiver, as the Court does here, but rather to explain that such waivers should be narrowly construed:

Contracts of this nature are not favored by the law. They are strictly construed against the party relying on them and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such a liability.

[McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 87 N.J. Super. 442, 450, 209 A.2d 668 (Law Div.1965), aff’d, 90 N.J. Super. 574, 218 A.2d 871 (App.Div.1966), aff’d, 48 N.J. 539, 226 A.2d 713 (1967).]

See also
Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247, 845 A.2d 720 (App.Div.2004) (stating more recently that because “the law does not favor exculpatory agreements,” “[a]ny doubts or ambiguities as to the scope of the exculpatory language must be resolved against the drafter”).

The fact that exculpatory waivers receive [***48] narrow construction from courts does not render such waivers unenforceable. Previously, we have stated that “[w]here [exculpatory agreements] do not adversely affect the public interest, exculpatory clauses in private agreements are generally sustained.” Mayfair Fabrics v. Henley, 48 N.J. 483, 487, 226 A.2d 602 (1967). Such clauses most commonly are used and enforced in a “commercial context,” Chem. Bank, N.A. v. Bailey, 296 N.J. Super. 515, 527, 687 A.2d 316 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 150 N.J. 28, 695 A.2d 671 (1997), and generally are valid and enforceable against individuals so long as the particular exculpatory clause does not involve a matter of [*348] public interest. McCarthy v. NASCAR, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543, 226 A.2d 713 (1967) (citing Boyd v. Smith, 372 Pa. 306, 94 A.2d 44, 46 (1953)). Many states also look to the notion of “public interest,” or other related concepts, when determining whether to uphold the validity of an exculpatory waiver. The California Supreme Court’s decision in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33 (1963), [***49] provides arguably the most widely accepted test applied to exculpatory agreements. Tunkl set forth six factors, one of which is whether “[t]he 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 [**396] members of the public.” Id. at 33, 383 P.2d at 445.

In my view, recreational activities such as skateboarding do not implicate the “public interest.” 1 The majority apparently does not assert otherwise, lodging no objection to the content of the waiver. Rather, the majority focuses on the fact that defendant is attempting to enforce this particular waiver of rights against a minor.

1 That conclusion is in accord with the majority of jurisdictions that have addressed the subject; they have concluded that recreational activities do not implicate the public interest. See, e.g.
Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn. App. 334, 35 P.3d 383, 388 (2001) (stating that “skiing is not a ‘service of great importance to the public,’ much less a service of ‘practical necessity.'”). Courts have upheld liability waivers in the context of the following recreational activities: automobile racing, being a spectator at an automobile race, scuba diving, horseback riding, roller skating, skydiving, mountain biking, recreational sumo wrestling, weightlifting at a fitness center, motorcycle racing, go-cart racing, bicycling, and ski racing. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 752-53 (2005) (Norcott, J., dissenting) (collecting cases). On the other hand, a minority of states have found that snow-tubing and skiing activities do implicate the public interest. See
Hanks, supra, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (majority opinion); Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35 (Vt. 1997); Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (1995). I find those cases unpersuasive. To find that recreational activities implicate the “public interest,” would strip that term of meaningful content.

[***50] Invoking the “best interests” of children under the parens patriae doctrine, the majority holds that the waiver is invalid as [*349] against public policy, and analogizes the instant situation to the requirement under Rule 4:44 that parental settlement of a minor’s post-injury claims receive judicial approval. There is an important difference between the present pre-injury waiver and the circumstances Rule 4:44 seeks to address. “Our rules for friendly settlements, R. 4:44-1 et seq., are intended to minimize or prevent conflicts of interest from occurring and to assure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman v. Piper Pools, 232 N.J. Super. 74, 90, 556 A.2d 775 (App.Div.1989). See also
Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 377, 519 A.2d 893 (App.Div.1986) (noting that “[t]he purpose of the rule is not only to guard a minor against an improvident compromise but also to secure the minor against dissipation of the proceeds.”). Because the pre-injury setting does not involve the specter of a potential monetary settlement that looms over post-injury settlements, conflicts are of little [***51] concern in the pre-injury setting. See
Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738, 747 n.10 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201, 206 (1998); Angeline Purdy, Note, Scott v. Pacific West Mountain Resort: Erroneously Invalidating Parental Releases of a Minor’s Future Claim, 68 Wash. L. Rev. 457 (1993).

Assuming, nonetheless, that a pre-injury contractual setting is similar to a post-injury setting, that does not support the conclusion that all waivers entered into on behalf of minors are unenforceable, a conclusion that simply goes too far. Rule 4:44 does not bar parental settlements. Rather, the rule requires judicial scrutiny “to ensure the reasonableness of settlements.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. If Rule 4:44 provides an appropriate analogy, then the standard of reasonableness that applies to post-injury settlements should apply to the review of pre-injury waivers.

I acknowledge that as a general rule, minors can, before they reach the age of majority, disaffirm contracts into which they enter. [**397] Mechanics Fin. Co. v. Paolino, 29 N.J. Super. 449, 453, 102 A.2d 784 (App.Div.1954) [***52] (stating that “[i]t is generally true that an [*350] infant may avoid his contract.”); Boyce v. Doyle, 113 N.J Super. 240, 241, 273 A.2d 408 (Law Div.1971) (stating that “[t]here can be no doubt but that contracts not of necessity may be voided by an infant either before or a reasonable time after he obtains his majority.”); Restatement (Second) of Contracts §§ 12, 14 (1981); 7 Corbin on Contracts § 27.2 (Perillo rev.2002); 5 Williston on Contracts § 9.5 (Lord ed., 4th ed.1993). That general rule is not altered by a parent’s signing of the contract on behalf of a minor. See 42 Am. Jur. 2d Infants § 46 (2000) (stating that “[a]s a general rule, an infant’s right to avoid his contract is not defeated by the fact that the contract was made by the infant and his or her parent, was made with the approval of his or her parent [or] was approved and ratified by his or her guardian”); Del Bosco v. U.S. Ski Ass’n, 839 F. Supp. 1470, 1474 n.2 (D.Colo.1993) (noting that “[c]ourts that have decided the issue have determined that the signature of a parent does not validate [***53] an infant’s contract.”).

However, contracts entered into by minors can be enforceable if the contract is approved by a court. Indeed, as noted, Rule 4:44 allows settlement agreements involving minors to be enforced so long as a reviewing court determines that the agreement is “reasonable.” Zukerman, supra, 232 N.J. Super. at 90, 556 A.2d 775. Beyond the settlement context, other states have enacted statutory schemes that bar minors from disaffirming certain contracts that have received judicial approval. See, e.g., Cal. Fam. Code § 6750-53 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes); Cal. Lab. Code § 1700.37 (2006) (covering contracts between a minor and a talent agency); N.Y. Arts & Cult. Affr. Law § 35.03 (2006) (covering entertainers and athletes).

Although our Legislature has not yet enacted similar legislation, freedom of contract principles lead me to the conclusion that a pre-tort waiver entered into by a minor, or ratified by a parent on behalf of a minor, should be enforceable when a reviewing court or arbitrator determines that the waiver was reasonable and not [***54] based on unequal bargaining positions. See
Simmons v. Parkette Nat’l Gymnastic Training Ctr., 670 F. Supp. 140, 144 (E.D.Pa. [*351] 1987) (invalidating minor’s pre-injury waiver and relying, in part, on the fact that “there was no court involvement in the transaction”). If the reasonableness of the waiver is approved, then a minor should be barred from disaffirming the contract, an approach that is consistent with Rule 4:44. It differs somewhat from Rule 4:44 in that I would allow a trial court to review the “reasonableness” of a pre-tort waiver when a defendant, post-injury, raises the waiver as a defense to a suit brought by an injured party.
2

2 Under Rule 4:44 litigants must obtain court approval at the time of entry into the settlement agreement. Requiring judicial approval at the time that a minor enters into a pre-injury waiver would be impractical and inefficient. Review would have to be limited to situations when an injury actually occurs. The reviewing court, of course, would have to view the “reasonableness” of the waiver as of the time that the waiver was executed.

[***55] Post-injury review of pre-injury waivers eliminates the certainty that is provided by Rule 4:44 or, for example, the process established by statute in California and New York, all of which mandate that courts review contracts at the time they are executed. Potential defendants may, however, wish to bear the risk of such uncertainty given the benefits of any waiver ultimately upheld as reasonable. Absent action by the Legislature, I would permit court or arbitrator review and approval, as described, to validate a minor’s [**398] contract in respect of the type of pre-injury liability waivers presented herein. In so stating, I offer no judgment about what forms of liability defendant purported to waive by this exculpatory release. I would have allowed the arbitrator to sort out the reasonableness and the reach of the waiver executed by the parties.

Accordingly, I would affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the matter for further proceedings.

Justice RIVERA-SOTO joins in this opinion. [*352]


New Jersey holds that if you signed the release, you are held to its terms even if you cannot read English.

There was a ton of issues that in many states might have voided the release, 8 pt font, missing initial and the plaintiff not understanding English were just a few of them.

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

State: New Jersey, United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Plaintiff: Soon Ja Kang

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

Summary

If you sign the membership agreement containing a release in New Jersey, you are held to the terms of the release, even if you can’t speak or read English. Plaintiff could not read or speak English, signed LA Fitness membership agreement and could not sue after she was injured on a piece of equipment.

Facts

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership.

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

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

The court started its analysis by looking at the release and the injury the plaintiff suffered. The court found the injury fell within the confines of the release.

As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

The issue then became whether or not the release applied to someone who did not speak or read English. Releases in New Jersey are enforceable if:

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

The court throughout the third factor because the defendant was not a public utility or common carrier. The court then reviewed whether the exculpatory clause affected the public interest. The court found it did not.

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

There seemed to be somewhat of a limit to the release based on the courts next comment about the reach of the release.

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

The plaintiff then argued the release violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. The act requires a consumer contract to be “written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.”

The plaintiff then argued the act was violated because the print size (font) was 8 points, and the margins of the paper were .5″ “reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.”

Reviewing examples of bad language found in the act, the court determined the release did not violate the Plain Language Act.

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

The next issue was there any legal duty to perform on the part of the defendant part 2 of the four requirements.

There were no state statutes or regulation’s setting standards for fitness facilities. The plaintiff argued that National Associations had created standards that applied to fitness facilities. However, the court could not find that to be valid. “However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state.”

The final argument was the release was unconscionable because of unequal bargaining power between the plaintiff and defendant.

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter.

The court did not agree with any of the plaintiffs’ arguments. And stated in clear language that the plaintiff’s inability to speak English did not stop her from becoming bound to the terms of the release.

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

The court went on to explain that if you sign the agreement, you are bound to the terms of the agreement, whether or not you understood the agreement.

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

The final issue was the missing initial in the document. Because she had signed the agreement, the signature at the bottom of the agreement was all that was needed for the release to be valid.

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

The plaintiff then argued the release and fitness contract containing the release were unconscionable. The court summed up the plaintiffs’ unconscionable argument as an amalgamation of all of her other arguments. The court found the exculpatory clause did not offend public policy, and the other arguments for unconscionability did not change the release validity.

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

The motion for summary judgment of the defendant was granted the plaintiff’s claims dismissed.

So Now What?

New Jersey is another state that upholds the idea that if you sign a release, you are bound to the terms of the release no matter if you could understand the release, the type was too small; you did not read or speak English, or you just want out of the release.

At the same time, this list from my studies has only two states on it, California being the other state. See Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


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

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

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

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

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

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

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

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

I. Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

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

B. Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. Mutual Assent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Unconscionability

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Conclusion

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


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

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

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

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

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

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

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

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

I. Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

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

B. Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a. Mutual Assent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

b. Unconscionability

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Conclusion

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


Tennessee Supreme Court makes writing releases a little trickier.

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

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

State: Tennessee

Plaintiff: Frederick Copeland

Defendant: MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Releases in Tennessee are still valid in Tennessee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn




If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


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

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

Supreme Court of Tennessee, At Jackson

May 31, 2018, Session Heard at Nashville1; December 20, 2018, Filed

No. W2016-02499-SC-R11-CV

FREDERICK COPELAND v. HEALTHSOUTH/METHODIST REHABILITATION HOSPITAL, LP ET AL.

Prior History: Tenn. R. App. P. 11 [*1] Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Judgment of the Trial Court Vacated; Remanded to the Trial Court. Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals, Circuit Court for Shelby County. No. CT-000196-16. Rhynette N. Hurd, Judge.

Counsel: Donald K. Vowell, Knoxville, Tennessee, and David E. Gordon and Erin L. Hillyard, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Frederick Copeland.

Diana M. Comes, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc.

Judges: SHARON G. LEE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which JEFFREY S. BIVINS, C.J., and CORNELIA A. CLARK, HOLLY KIRBY, and ROGER A. PAGE, JJ., joined.

Opinion by: SHARON G. LEE

OPINION

I.

Frederick Copeland was a patient at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital North Memphis (HealthSouth [*3] or the hospital) after having knee replacement surgery. On December 2, 2014, Mr. Copeland had an appointment to see his orthopedic surgeon. The hospital had contracted with MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc. (MedicOne), a medical transportation company, to provide transportation services for its patients, including Mr. Copeland.

On the day of Mr. Copeland’s appointment at his orthopedic surgeon’s office, a MedicOne employee driving a wheelchair van2 arrived at the hospital to take Mr. Copeland to and from the appointment. After the driver pushed Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair from his room to the entrance of the hospital, Mr. Copeland got out of the wheelchair, walked to the van using a walker, and climbed into the front passenger seat. Before leaving HealthSouth, the MedicOne driver gave Mr. Copeland a pre-printed two-sided document that contained on one side a Wheelchair Van/Transportation Run Report (Run Report) and on the other side a Wheelchair Van Transportation Agreement (Agreement). The Run Report provided that HealthSouth was responsible for MedicOne’s charges. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. [*4] The exculpatory language provided that Mr. Copeland was releasing MedicOne from any and all claims arising from or in any way associated with any transportation services provided by MedicOne. After Mr. Copeland signed the Run Report and the Agreement, the MedicOne driver took him to his doctor’s appointment.

After the appointment, the MedicOne driver returned to the doctor’s office to take Mr. Copeland back to the hospital. As Mr. Copeland was getting into the van, he lost his footing on the running board, fell, and was injured.

Mr. Copeland sued MedicOne for negligence in the Shelby County Circuit Court.3 MedicOne moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment based on the exculpatory language in the Agreement. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of MedicOne.4 The trial court found that the Agreement was not a contract of adhesion and that the services provided by MedicOne were not professional services, but merely transportation services, and so, the exculpatory provisions were enforceable. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the case involved non-professional transportation services and presented no significant public interest considerations. Copeland [*5] v. HealthSouth/Methodist Rehab. Hosp., LP, No. W2016-02499-COA-R3-CV, 2017 Tenn. App. LEXIS 548, 2017 WL 3433130, at *3, *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2017).

II.

The issue here is the validity of the exculpatory language in the Agreement signed by Mr. Copeland releasing MedicOne from any liability. HN3[] We review the trial court’s summary judgment ruling on this question of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Rye v. Women’s Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 250 (Tenn. 2015) (citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997)); Circle C Constr., LLC v. Nilsen, 484 S.W.3d 914, 917 (Tenn. 2016) (citing Hamblen Cnty. v. City of Morristown, 656 S.W.2d 331, 335-36 (Tenn. 1983)) (stating that contract interpretation is a question of law).

There is a natural tension between Tennessee’s public policy that favors allowing parties to have freedom to contract5 and the public policy that disfavors allowing a party to escape the consequences of the party’s negligence. In Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429 (Tenn. 1977), we adopted factors to be considered when determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement. Olson involved an agreement, signed by a patient before a medical procedure, releasing the doctor from “any present or future legal responsibility associated with” the procedure. Id. at 429-30. The procedure was unsuccessful, and the patient sued the doctor. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit based on the agreement. Id. at 429. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Id.

On review, we acknowledged that HN4[] parties may agree that one party will not be liable for negligence to [*6] the other party, subject to certain exceptions. Id. at 430 (citing Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 340 S.W.2d 902 (Tenn. 1960)). This Court recognized a line of Tennessee cases upholding such agreements,6 but none involving a physician, who is a “professional person operating in an area of public interest and pursuing a profession subject to licensure by the state.” Id. at 430. We distinguished between “tradesmen in the market place” and those “experts” who were practicing state regulated professions. Id. This Court noted that because certain relationships require of one party “‘greater responsibility than that required of the ordinary person,'” an exculpatory agreement between such parties is “‘peculiarly obnoxious.'” Id. (quoting Williston on Contracts § 1751 (3d ed. 1972)). To guide the analysis, this Court adopted a series of factors from Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963), to be considered in determining whether a transaction affected the public interest:

a. It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation.

b. 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.

c. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member [*7] of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

d. As a result of the essential nature of the services, 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.

e. In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional fees and obtain protection against negligence.

f. Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.

Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431. Noting that HN5[] not all of these factors must be present for the exception to apply, we found that all the factors were present in Olson and held that the exculpatory agreement was unenforceable. Id. at 431-32.

After our decision in Olson, there was some confusion about whether the Olson factors applied only to exculpatory agreements involving professional services. In two cases, the Court of Appeals determined that the Olson analysis did not [*8] apply because the cases did not involve contracts for professional services. In Schratter v. Development Enterprises, Inc., 584 S.W.2d 459, 461 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1979), the Court of Appeals upheld an exculpatory provision in a residential lease, based in part on its determination that this Court had limited application of the Olson factors to professional service contracts.7 Likewise, in Parton v. Mark Pirtle Oldsmobile-Cadillac-Isuzu, Inc., 730 S.W.2d 634, 636 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1987) (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430), the Court of Appeals declined to apply the Olson factors to a contract for automobile repair because it concluded that this Court did not intend for the Olson analysis to apply to tradesmen in the market place.8 By the same token, in Petty v. Privette, 818 S.W.2d 743 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), the Court of Appeals applied the Olson factors to exculpatory language in a will that was intended to protect the attorney who had drafted the will. Finding only two of the Olson factors were present, the Court of Appeals held that this was insufficient to render the exculpatory clause in the will unenforceable as against public policy. Id. at 746.9

Yet the Court of Appeals in other cases applied the Olson factors when ruling on the enforceability of exculpatory provisions in contracts not involving professional services. In Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), the Court of Appeals analyzed an exculpatory release for participation in the Special Olympics. The intermediate appellate [*9] court held that the release did not fall under the exception provided by Olson based on the lack of any business motivations, citing the references in Olson to “‘business, bargaining strength in economic settings, purchasers, and payment of additional fees, to obtain protection against negligence'” and concluded that “the rule was intended to operate primarily in the marketplace.” Id. at 4 (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431). The Court of Appeals in Smith v. Peoples Bank of Elk Valley, No. 01A01-9111-CV-00421, 1992 Tenn. App. LEXIS 477, 1992 WL 117061, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 3, 1992), analyzed an exculpatory provision in a safe deposit box rental contract using the Olson factors. The intermediate appellate court held that the exculpatory provision was unenforceable because all factors were present — safe deposit box rental was regulated by statute and involved a service of great importance to the public; banks hold themselves out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public able to pay the rental fees; banks have greater bargaining power because most people cannot provide that type of protection for their valuables; it was a standardized contract of adhesion not open to negotiation; and the customer’s property was placed under the control of the bank. 1992 Tenn. App. LEXIS 477, [WL] at *4.

In still other post-Olson cases, the Court of Appeals did not mention the Olson [*10] factors or any professional services requirement but relied on the language of the contract to determine the enforceability of the exculpatory provisions. In Hays v. Ernesto’s, Inc., 1987 Tenn. App. LEXIS 2684, 1987 WL 11119, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 19, 1987), the Court of Appeals found that exculpatory language in a release signed by a party before riding a mechanical bull was enforceable because parties may contract for a release from liability and an assumption of the risk incident to negligence. Similarly, in Buckner v. Varner, 793 S.W.2d 939, 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990), the Court of Appeals upheld a waiver of liability signed by the plaintiff before participating in horseback riding.

After Olson, this Court upheld contractual provisions limiting liability to a sum certain. In Affiliated Professional Services v. South Central Bell Telephone Co., 606 S.W.2d 671, 672 (Tenn. 1980), the Court declined to apply the Olson analysis to a provision in a contract with a telephone company that limited the company’s liability for errors or omissions in yellow pages advertisements to the cost of the advertisement. Citing Smith v. Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co., 51 Tenn. App. 146, 364 S.W.2d 952 (Tenn. 1962) and noting that nearly every appellate court that had considered this frequently litigated issue had upheld the limitation of liability in these contracts with telephone companies, the Court found that the case did not fall within the purview of Olson and upheld the agreement. Affiliated Professional Services, 606 S.W.2d at 672. Later, in Houghland v. Security Alarms & Services, Inc., 755 S.W.2d 769, 773 (Tenn. 1988), this Court upheld a clause limiting the liability [*11] of a company providing security alarm monitoring to a sum certain, citing cases from other jurisdictions and noting that such limitations of liability have generally been upheld in these types of cases against providers of alarm monitoring services. The Court in Houghland mentioned Olson, observing that agreements such as the one examined there would be unenforceable if licensed professional personnel were involved. Id. (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d 429). Houghland and its progeny involved limitations of liability and liquidated damages provisions, and thus were distinguishable from the agreement in Olson. In addition, the alarm monitoring company in Houghland did not present the contract on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, but offered the customer the opportunity to pay more for the services in return for the company assuming greater liability. Id.; see also Underwood v. Nat’l Alarm Servs., Inc., No. E2006-00107-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 305, 2007 WL 1412040 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 14, 2007); E.B. Harvey & Co., Inc. v. Protective Sys., Inc., 1989 Tenn. App. LEXIS 105, 1989 WL 9546 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989).

In another post-Olson case, Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73, 75 (Tenn. 1985), this Court did not reference the Olson factors in finding that a release signed by a participant in a motorcycle race was enforceable in a claim for ordinary negligence.10 Instead, the Court noted that the public policy of Tennessee favors freedom to contract and [*12] that releases from liability in motor racing events are expressly permitted by statute in Tennessee.11
Id. at 75-76.

This Court next considered the applicability of the Olson factors to a nonprofessional services contract in Crawford v. Buckner, 839 S.W.2d 754 (Tenn. 1992). Analyzing an exculpatory clause in a residential lease contract, the Court found that the landlord-tenant relationship satisfied all of the Olson factors, and thus the exculpatory clause in the lease was unenforceable because it was contrary to public policy. Id. at 758-59. The Court explained HN6[] “where there is no declaration in the Constitution or the statutes, and the area is governed by common law doctrines, it is the province of the courts to consider the public policy of the state as reflected in old, court-made rules.” Id. at 759. Thus, “the exception to the freedom of contract rule for exculpatory [provisions] affecting the public interest is also a judicial declaration of public policy.” Id.

The Court in Crawford expressly overruled Schratter and other prior inconsistent decisions, noting Schratter’s conclusion that the Olson factors applied only to contracts involving professional services. Id. at 760. The Court held that “under the facts here,” the exculpatory clause in the lease was against public policy. Id. [*13] This limiting language appears to have added to the confusion about the applicability of the Olson factors because even after Crawford, the inconsistency in application continued.

In some post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals determined that the Olson factors did not apply because the agreement did not involve professional services. Petry v. Cosmopolitan Spa Int’l, Inc., 641 S.W.2d 202, 203 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1982) (stating that “Olson did not overrule Empress” because spas are not “businesses ‘of a type generally thought suitable for regulation'”) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 431); Floyd v. Club Sys. of Tenn., Inc., No. 01-A-01-9807-CV-00399, 1999 Tenn. App. LEXIS 473, 1999 WL 820610, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 20, 1999) (finding, based on Petry, that the Olson test did not apply to health club contracts); Henderson v. Quest Expeditions, Inc., 174 S.W.3d 730, 732-33 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (upholding an exculpatory waiver for whitewater rafting because it did not involve a professional trade affecting the public interest); Thrasher v. Riverbend Stables, LLC, No. M2008-02698-COA-RM-CV, 2009 Tenn. App. LEXIS 50, 2009 WL 275767, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2009) (quoting Russell v. Bray, 116 S.W.3d 1, 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003)) (upholding an exculpatory provision in a contract for boarding and training horses because the Olson test applied only to agreements involving a professional person).

Yet in other post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals applied the Olson analysis to contracts that did not involve professional services. Lomax v. Headley Homes, No. 02A01-9607-CH-00163, 1997 Tenn. App. LEXIS 360, 1997 WL 269432, at *7-9 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 22, 1997) (holding an exculpatory provision in a home construction loan agreement [*14] unenforceable under the Olson analysis); Hancock v. U-Haul Co. of Tenn., No. 01-A-01-9801-CC-00001, 1998 Tenn. App. LEXIS 828, 1998 WL 850518, at *4-5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 10, 1998) (concluding an exculpatory provision was enforceable in a self-storage facility contract because although three of the Olson factors were present, the “important questions” of state regulation, reasonable alternatives for the plaintiff, and control over the plaintiff’s property were lacking); Lane-Detman, L.L.C. v. Miller & Martin, 82 S.W.3d 284, 293-94 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002) (applying the Olson analysis to a contract with a law firm to provide background checks and holding that the contract was enforceable because “at most” three of the Olson factors were present, both parties to the contract were sophisticated commercial entities, and the services provided were not subject to regulation); Tompkins v. Helton, No. M2002-01244-COA-R3-CV, 2003 Tenn. App. LEXIS 433, 2003 WL 21356420, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 12, 2003) (applying the Olson factors to uphold a waiver signed at a racetrack because races are not of great importance to the public or a practical necessity; there was no disparity in bargaining power; and because the activity was voluntary, the plaintiff had not been placed under the control of the racetrack owner); Maxwell v. Motorcycle Safety Found., Inc., 404 S.W.3d 469, 474-75 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Henderson, 174 S.W.3d at 733; Tompkins, 2003 Tenn. App. LEXIS 433, 2003 WL 21356420 at *1) (determining that a release for a motorcycle safety course was enforceable under the Olson analysis because it was a voluntary activity much like a motor speedway race or whitewater [*15] rafting).

In other post-Crawford cases, the Court of Appeals found that exculpatory provisions were unenforceable and against public policy under the Olson analysis specifically because the cases involved professional services or services that affected the public interest in a way analogous to a professional services contract. In Russell v. Bray, 116 S.W.3d 1, 6 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (citing Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430; Parton, 730 S.W.2d at 636), the Court of Appeals stated that the Olson analysis should be “limited to situations involving a contract with a professional person, rather than a tradesman.” The Russell court found that an exculpatory provision in a home inspection contract was suitable for analysis under the Olson test because unlike tradesmen, home inspectors do not perform hands-on tasks but sell their expert analysis and opinions. Id.; see also Carey v. Merritt, 148 S.W.3d 912 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (holding an exculpatory clause in a home inspection contract unenforceable based on the holding in Russell). In Maggart v. Almany Realtors, Inc., No. M2005-02532-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 482, 2007 WL 2198204 at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 26, 2007) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430-31), aff’d on other grounds, 259 S.W.3d 700 (Tenn. 2008), the Court of Appeals analogized an exculpatory agreement between employer and employee to exculpatory provisions in business contracts with consumers, observing that the relationship was one requiring greater responsibility [*16] on the part of the employer, which would render an exculpatory release in favor of the employer “obnoxious.”

There are also post-Crawford cases in which the Court of Appeals did not mention Olson, but relied solely on the common law of contracts and the language of the agreement to determine the enforceability of an exculpatory provision. Pettit v. Poplar-Union Extended Mini-Storage, 1995 Tenn. App. LEXIS 32, 1995 WL 30602, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 26, 1995) (holding an exculpatory provision in a self-storage contract enforceable because the language was unambiguous); Burks v. Belz-Wilson Props., 958 S.W.2d 773, 777 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997) (citation omitted) (finding a release for participation in a work-sponsored athletic event unenforceable because the wording was ambiguous and thus construed against the drafter); Fleming v. Murphy, No. W2006-00701-COA-R3-CV, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 451, 2007 WL 2050930, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 19, 2007) (citing Ouzts v. Womack, 160 S.W.3d 883, 885 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004)) (“Under the common law of contracts, we interpret exculpatory clauses according to the plain meaning of their terms.”); Gibson v. Young Men’s Christian Ass’n of Middle Tenn., No. M2015-01465-COA-R9-CV, 2016 Tenn. App. LEXIS 337, 2016 WL 2937320, at *2-3 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 16, 2016) (applying the rules of contract interpretation and looking at the plain meaning of the words to find the exculpatory provision enforceable where the agreement was clear and the plaintiff was injured while using the facilities as contemplated by the parties).

Federal courts have followed suit by inconsistently applying [*17] Olson. See Teles v. Big Rock Stables, L.P., 419 F. Supp. 2d 1003, 1008-09 (E.D. Tenn. 2006) (analyzing a contract with a horse stable under the Olson test and finding that it did not fall under the Olson exception prohibiting exculpatory provisions, although there was a genuine issue of material fact as to gross negligence that precluded summary judgment); Farris v. KTM N. Am., Inc., No. 3:04-CV-354, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1635, 2006 WL 73618, at *3 (E.D. Tenn. Jan. 11, 2006) (quoting Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430) (citing Olson in support of enforcing an exculpatory waiver for test driving motorcycles because it did not involve a service of great importance to the public, but noting that application of the Olson factors is typically limited to a contract for professional services).

This Court has not addressed the enforceability of exculpatory agreements since Crawford in 1992.12 Because of the inconsistency in how these agreements have been reviewed, we take this opportunity to restate the proper analysis to be applied to these agreements.

III.

Although courts throughout the country have taken numerous and varied approaches to exculpatory agreements, there are some common principles.13 First, HN7[] a party may not, for public policy reasons, exempt itself from liability [*18] for gross negligence, reckless conduct, or intentional wrongdoing. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 (1981); Maxwell, 404 S.W.3d at 476 (citing Buckner, 793 S.W.2d at 941).

Second, HN8[] exculpatory provisions in contracts involving common carriers are unenforceable on the grounds of public policy and disparity of bargaining power. 14 Am. Jur. 2d Carriers § 853 (Nov. 2018 update) (noting that public policy forbids relieving carriers of responsibility based on their position of advantage over members of the public who are compelled to deal with them); see also Trailmobile, Inc. v. Chazen, 51 Tenn. App. 576, 370 S.W.2d 840, 841-42 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1963); Moss, 340 S.W.2d at 904. The same rule applies to inns and airports that assume “a duty of public service” to certain segments of the public. 1A Stuart M. Speiser et al., American Law of Torts § 5:39 (Mar. 2018 update).14

Third, HN10[] although exculpatory agreements are generally enforceable, in many states they are disfavored. See 8 Williston on Contracts § 19:25 (4th ed. 1993).15

Fourth, HN12[] most courts require that the exculpatory language be unequivocal and clear. Williston § 19:22. An exculpatory clause must “clearly, unequivocally, specifically, and unmistakably” state the intention to exempt one of the parties from liability for its own negligence. Id. § 19:25; see also, e.g., Parton, 730 S.W.2d at 638 (holding an exculpatory [*19] clause invalid based on a lack of evidence that it had been pointed out to the plaintiff or that “a person of ordinary intelligence and experience” would understand that the agreement relieved the defendant of all liability); Sirek v. Fairfield Snowbowl, Inc., 166 Ariz. 183, 800 P.2d 1291, 1295 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1990) (stating that exculpatory language should alert the party signing the release that “it is giving up a very substantial right”); Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256, 261 (Fla. 2015) (holding exculpatory agreements enforceable if the language is “so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away”).

Fifth, HN13[] most jurisdictions do not enforce exculpatory provisions that are contrary to public policy. There is no bright line rule defining when a provision is contrary to public policy, but Williston suggests that whether an exculpatory agreement is void as against public policy depends on:

all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the making of the agreement; society’s expectations; the identity and nature of the parties involved, including their relative education, experience, sophistication, and economic status; and the nature of the transaction itself, including the subject matter, the existence or absence of competition, the relative bargaining strength [*20] and negotiating ability of the economically weaker party, and the terms of the agreement itself, including whether it was arrived at through arm’s length negotiation or on terms dictated by the stronger party and on an adhesive, take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Williston § 19:22.

This Court adopted the Olson factors based on the Tunkl analysis. Tunkl, however, is the minority approach, with only five other states currently relying on the Tunkl factors to determine the enforceability of exculpatory provisions.16 Courts in several states have observed that the factors fail to consider the totality of circumstances and, as a result, are overly rigid and arbitrary. See Wolf v. Ford, 335 Md. 525, 644 A.2d 522, 527 (Md. 1994) (declining to adopt Tunkl because of concern that the six fixed factors may be too rigid and arbitrary); Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 924 (Minn. 1982) (noting that although a number of courts cite Tunkl with approval, post-Tunkl cases generally consider disparity in bargaining power and whether the agreement involves a public or essential service); Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 744 (Conn. 2005) (stating that public interest cannot adequately be defined within the four corners of a formula, and thus the analysis should be guided but not limited by the Tunkl factors).

After reviewing precedent in this state and across the country, we conclude that HN14[] the public policy in Tennessee has historically favored freedom of contract. Thus, contracts exempting one party from liability for negligence are not disfavored and are generally enforceable. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430. That said, not all exculpatory agreements should be enforceable, and courts should determine their enforceability by consideration of the circumstances of the parties, the language used in the agreement, and the public interest. While the factors adopted in Olson remain instructive and may be considered when relevant, the Olson approach is too rigid, fails to consider all the relevant circumstances, and is followed by only a handful of jurisdictions.

We, therefore, need to restate our approach to determining the validity of exculpatory agreements. After surveying the factors adopted by courts in other states17 and considering Tennessee precedent, we hold that HN15[] the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement should be determined by considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing these non-exclusive factors: (1) relative bargaining power of the parties; (2) clarity [*22] of the exculpatory language, which should be clear, unambiguous, and unmistakable about what the party who signs the agreement is giving up; and (3) public policy and public interest implications. HN16[] The totality of the facts and circumstances of each case will dictate the applicability of and the weight to be given to each of these factors. The factors need not be weighed equally in any given case — rather, the analysis should involve balancing each of these considerations given the facts and circumstances surrounding the formation of the agreement. In addition, we hold that there is no “professional services criterion” that restricts application of this analysis to contracts for professional services. Therefore, we overrule Parton, 730 S.W.2d 634; Petty, 818 S.W.2d 743; Petry, 641 S.W.2d 202; Floyd, 1999 Tenn. App. LEXIS 473, 1999 WL 820610; Henderson, 174 S.W.3d 730; Thrasher, 2009 Tenn. App. LEXIS 50, 2009 WL 275767; Russell, 116 S.W.3d 1; Carey, 148 S.W.3d 912; and any other previous decisions to the extent these cases conflict with our holding.

We next turn to defining these factors to provide additional guidance in their application to the facts and circumstances of each case.

Relative bargaining power. HN17[] Although there is no precise rule by which to define sufficient disparity in bargaining power between the parties to invalidate an exculpatory agreement, two key [*23] criteria are the importance of the service at issue for the physical or economic well-being of the party signing the agreement and the amount of free choice that party has in seeking alternate services. Schmidt v. United States, 1996 OK 29, 912 P.2d 871, 874 (Okla. 1996). For example, a standardized form offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis may be invalid if there was great disparity of bargaining power, no opportunity for negotiation, and the services could not reasonably be obtained elsewhere. Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 924.18

Clarity of language. HN18[] The language of an exculpatory agreement must clearly and unequivocally state a party’s intent to be relieved from liability, and the wording must be “so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.” Sanislo, 157 So. 3d at 260-61.19 The language must also alert the party agreeing to the exculpatory provision that the provision concerns a substantial right. Sirek, 800 P.2d at 1295. The language in the agreement should not be so broad as to relieve the exculpated party from liability for any injury for any reason. Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777 (holding exculpatory provision relieving the defendant “from any and all liability . . . relating to participation in these events” unenforceable as overly broad and ambiguous); Roberts v. T.H.E. Ins. Co., 2016 WI 20, 367 Wis. 2d 386, 879 N.W.2d 492, 503 (Wis. 2016) (citing Richards v. Richards, 181 Wis. 2d 1007, 513 N.W.2d 118, 121 (Wis. 1994)).20 Ambiguous language [*24] will be construed against the party that drafted the agreement. Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777.

Public policy and the public interest. HN21[] The third factor, public policy and the public interest, is the most difficult to articulate. Public policy has been defined as “‘that principle of law under which freedom of contract or private dealings is restricted by law for the good of the community.'” Roberts, 879 N.W.2d at 501-02 (quoting Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Ctr., 2005 WI 4, 277 Wis. 2d 303, 691 N.W.2d 334, 339 (Wis. 2005)). A private contract violates public policy if it conflicts with the constitution, statutes, or judicial decisions of this state or tends to be harmful to the public good, public interest, or public welfare. Spiegel v. Thomas, Mann & Smith, P.C., 811 S.W.2d 528, 530 (Tenn. 1991). As this Court explained in Crawford, without a declaration in the constitution or the statutes of Tennessee, a judicial declaration of public policy is within the province of the courts. 839 S.W.2d at 759. Public policy is also determined by societal expectations that are flexible and change over time. See Wolf, 644 A.2d at 527-28 (“The ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.”).

HN22[] Whether the public interest is affected may be determined by considering whether a party to [*25] the transaction has a public service obligation, such as a public utility, common carrier, or innkeeper. Wolf, 644 A.2d at 526. This analysis also includes transactions that are not as readily defined, but are so important to the public good that an exculpatory clause would be contrary to society’s expectations. Id. (quoting Md.-Nat’l Capital Park & Planning Comm’n v. Wash. Nat’l Arena, 282 Md. 588, 386 A.2d 1216, 1228 (Md. 1978)); see also Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 744 (Conn. 2005) (citations omitted) (agreeing with the Maryland and Vermont Supreme Courts that the public interest must be determined based on the totality of the circumstances and that the analysis, guided but not limited by Tunkl, “is informed by any other factors that may be relevant given the factual circumstances of the case and current societal expectations”); Williston § 19:22.

In determining whether the service involved is a public or essential service, courts should consider whether it is a type of service generally considered suitable for public regulation. Schlobohm, 326 N.W.2d at 925-26. And in deciding whether enforcement of an exculpatory provision would be against public policy, courts should consider whether the services involved are of great importance to the public, which are a practical necessity for some members of the public. Id.; see also Plant v. Wilbur, 345 Ark. 487, 47 S.W.3d 889, 893 (Ark. 2001) (upholding release signed by a spectator at a car race because [*26] that activity involved a narrow segment of the public, unlike a public utility, common carrier, or “a similar entity connected with the public interest”).

IV.

In applying this restated analysis to the facts before us, we take the strongest legitimate view of the evidence in favor of Mr. Copeland as the non-moving party for summary judgment and allow all reasonable inferences in his favor. B & B Enters. of Wilson Cnty., LLC v. City of Lebanon, 318 S.W.3d 839, 844-45 (Tenn. 2010); Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn. 2008) (citing Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 89 (Tenn. 2000)).

We begin with the first factor — disparity in bargaining power. Mr. Copeland was a seventy-seven-year-old hospital patient recovering from knee replacement surgery who needed to go to a follow-up appointment at his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland did not select, hire, or pay MedicOne. Instead, the hospital where Mr. Copeland was a patient arranged for his transportation with MedicOne. The MedicOne driver presented Mr. Copeland with a pre-printed, two-sided document containing two different forms — the Run Report and the Agreement — which Mr. Copeland had limited time to review and sign before being transported to his doctor’s appointment. The Agreement consisted of nine single-spaced paragraphs, including three paragraphs of exculpatory language. The MedicOne driver spent only nineteen minutes [*27] at the hospital, which began with his arrival, and included going to Mr. Copeland’s room, pushing Mr. Copeland in a wheelchair to the hospital entrance, getting him into the van, loading his walker into the back of the van, and having Mr. Copeland review and sign the two forms.

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

Mr. Copeland had a practical necessity to get to his medical appointment. He had the difficult choice of signing the Agreement or delaying or forgoing his medical care that day. Mr. Copeland’s situation was analogous to the difficult choice presented to the plaintiff in Wofford v. M.J. Edwards & Sons Funeral Home, Inc., 490 S.W.3d 800 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015). There, a funeral home presented the plaintiff with a contract for funeral services after her father’s body had been embalmed. Relying on Buraczynski v. Eyring, 919 S.W.2d 314 (Tenn. 1996), the Wofford court ruled that the arbitration clause in the contract was unenforceable because it was a contract of adhesion, offered on a take-it-or-leave-it [*28] basis, and the plaintiff’s failure to sign the agreement would have interrupted the rendition of services and caused delay, resulting in a “difficult choice.” 490 S.W.3d at 824. Recognizing that the Buraczynski analysis rests on the critical finding of a unique relationship built on trust (such as the doctor-patient relationship in Buraczynski), the Wofford court found that the plaintiff had no realistic choice other than to sign the contract, and that asking her to stop the funeral services at that point would be like asking her “to swap horses midstream.” Id. at 816. Mr. Copeland may not have had a preexisting relationship with MedicOne that was “unique and built on trust,” but he did have a hospital-patient relationship with HealthSouth, the entity that had arranged for his transportation by MedicOne. Mr. Copeland also faced the same kind of difficult choice — refusing to sign the Agreement, offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis that would have potentially interrupted and caused a delay in his medical care by requiring him to reschedule his appointment or, as the Court of Appeals suggested, calling a taxi. In our view, asking Mr. Copeland to make such a choice would be like asking him to “swap horses in [*29] midstream.” Id. There is ample evidence in the record of relative disparity in the parties’ bargaining power.

We now turn to the second factor — the clarity of the Agreement’s exculpatory language. Much of the exculpatory language appears in bold print and all capital letters. Even so, although portions of paragraphs three and four purport to limit the exculpatory language in those paragraphs to simple negligence by expressly excluding gross negligence and willful misconduct, this limiting language begins by stating, “WITHOUT LIMITATION OF THE FOREGOING . . . .” The “foregoing” in paragraph three reads:

Client does hereby release and forever discharge MedicOne . . . from any and all claims, suits, rights, interests, demands, actions, causes of action, liabilities, accident, injury (including death), costs, fees, expenses and any and all other damages or losses of any kind whatsoever, whether to person or property . . . arising out of, incidental to, associated with, or in any way related to any transportation services provided to Client by MedicOne.

Similarly, the “foregoing” in paragraph four reads:

CLIENT WILL INDEMNIFY, DEFEND AND HOLD HARMLESS MEDICONE RELATED PARTIES FROM AND AGAINST [*30] ANY AND ALL CLAIMS ASSERTED BY CLIENT, ANY PERSON OR ENTITY RELATED TO CLIENT OR ASSERTING A CLAIM BY OR THROUGH CLIENT, OR ANY OTHER THIRD PARTIES OR ENTITIES WHICH, IN ANY WAY, ARISE OUT OF, ARE INCIDENTAL TO, ASSOCIATED WITH, OR IN ANY WAY RELATED TO ANY TRANSPORTATION SERVICES PROVIDED TO CLIENT BY MEDICONE.

Paragraph six contains no limitation for claims of gross negligence or willful misconduct, but purports to release MedicOne from “any liability, damage or expense arising out of any claim in any way associated with or relating to any transportation services provided to Client by MedicOne.”

HN23[] Courts in many jurisdictions, including Tennessee, have found such unlimited language to be so overly broad as to render the provisions unenforceable. See Burks, 958 S.W.2d at 777 (holding release “from any and all liability claims, demands, actions or causes of action whatsoever, arising out of or any injury, illness loss or damage including death relating to participation in these events” unenforceable because it would “extend its exculpation to unbounded limits”); Fisher v. Stevens, 355 S.C. 290, 584 S.E.2d 149, 152-53 (S.C. Ct. App. 2003) (finding a waiver signed at a racetrack to be overly broad and unenforceable based on public policy because the waiver released from liability “any [*31] persons in any restricted area”); Jesse v. Lindsley, 149 Idaho 70, 233 P.3d 1, 7-8 (Idaho 2008) (holding exculpatory clause in a residential lease unenforceable because it purported to release the landlord from liability “for any occurrence of any nature”); Alack v. Vic Tanny Int’l of Mo., Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 337-38 (Mo. 1996) (finding exculpatory clause unenforceable based on its ambiguity because the clause did not specifically state that the customer was releasing the health club from liability for negligence and used words like “any” and “all” injuries and claims, which could include intentional or grossly negligent conduct that cannot be excluded from liability); Roberts, 879 N.W.2d at 503 (holding waiver unenforceable because it was too broad and all-inclusive, ambiguous about whether it covered injury while waiting in line for the activity, and was a standard pre-printed form with no opportunity to negotiate).

We find the exculpatory language in the Agreement to be overly broad and ambiguous. Although the Agreement also contains a severability clause,21 the three paragraphs containing broad, all-encompassing exculpatory language combined with the severability paragraph do not make it clear and unmistakable what Mr. Copeland was giving up by signing the Agreement, especially during the limited time he was given to read and comprehend [*32] the document.

Finally, we turn to the third factor — public policy and public interest implications. Mr. Copeland’s appointment with his doctor was a medical necessity. That practical necessity distinguishes this case from those involving purely voluntary or recreational activities, which generally do not affect the public interest or raise public policy concerns. Maxwell, 404 S.W.3d at 475; Henderson, 174 S.W.3d at 733. Although public policy and the [*33] public interest are difficult concepts to define, some relationships require greater responsibility of one of the parties. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 430. MedicOne was in a position of greater responsibility when it undertook to transport Mr. Copeland to and from his doctor’s office. Mr. Copeland had limited time to read and comprehend the overly broad and ambiguous Agreement and the Run Report. Under these circumstances, it is not reasonable to conclude that Mr. Copeland could have just called a taxi or rescheduled his appointment. HN24[] Our public policy protects patients and clients of professionals, residential tenants, employees, bank customers, and homebuyers from exculpatory provisions. It only makes sense that our public policy should also protect a hospital patient under the circumstances faced by Mr. Copeland when he signed the Agreement. Based on the circumstances of the parties, including contemporary societal expectations, we conclude that enforcement of the Agreement against a member of the public in Mr. Copeland’s position would be contrary to the public interest.

V.

In sum, after considering the totality of the circumstances and weighing the inequality in the relative bargaining power of the parties, the [*34] lack of clarity of the exculpatory language, and the public policy and public interest implications, we hold that, as a matter of law, the exculpatory provisions in the Agreement signed by Mr. Copeland are unenforceable and do not bar his claim against MedicOne. We vacate the judgment of the trial court, reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We tax the costs of this appeal to MedicOne Medical Response Delta Region, Inc., for which execution may issue if necessary.

SHARON G. LEE, JUSTICE


Okura v. United States Cycling Federation et al., 186 Cal. App. 3d 1462; 231 Cal. Rptr. 429; 1986 Cal. App. LEXIS 2178

Okura v. United States Cycling Federation et al., 186 Cal. App. 3d 1462; 231 Cal. Rptr. 429; 1986 Cal. App. LEXIS 2178

Kevin Okura, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. United States Cycling Federation et al., Defendants and Respondents

No. B021058

Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Five

186 Cal. App. 3d 1462; 231 Cal. Rptr. 429; 1986 Cal. App. LEXIS 2178

November 12, 1986

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. SWC-77239, Abraham Gorenfeld, Temporary Judge. *

* Pursuant to California Constitution, article VI, section 21.

DISPOSITION: For the foregoing reasons, the judgment is affirmed.

CALIFORNIA OFFICIAL REPORTS SUMMARY In an action for personal injuries brought by a participant in a bicycle race for injuries suffered during the race, against the organizers of the race and the city in which the race was held, the trial court entered summary judgment for defendants based on a release which plaintiff had signed prior to entry in the race. (Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. SWC-77239, Abraham Gorenfeld, Temporary Judge. *)

In an action for personal injuries brought by a participant in a bicycle race for injuries suffered during the race, against the organizers of the race and the city in which the race was held, the trial court entered summary judgment for defendants based on a release which plaintiff had signed prior to entry in the race. (Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. SWC-77239, Abraham Gorenfeld, Temporary Judge. *)

* Pursuant to California Constitution, article VI, section 21.

The Court of Appeal affirmed. The court held that the release was not one involving a transaction affecting the public interest, and was therefore not invalid under Civ. Code, § 1668, making contracts which have exemption of anyone from responsibility for his own wilful injury to the person or property of another as their object against the policy of the law. Further, there were no triable issues of fact regarding whether the release form was clear and legible or whether the release form released defendants from the type of risk which caused plaintiff’s injuries. (Opinion by Hastings (Gary), J., + with Feinerman, P. J., and Ashby, J., concurring.)

+ Assigned by the Chairperson of the Judicial Council.

HEADNOTES

CALIFORNIA OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

Classified to California Digest of Official Reports, 3d Series

(1) Compromise, Settlement and Release § 8–Requisites and Validity–Preincident Releases. –Preincident releases that do not involve transactions affecting “the public interest” are not invalid under Civ. Code, § 1668, providing that contracts which have exemption of anyone from responsibility for his own wilful injury to the person or property of another as their object are against the policy of the law. The areas to consider to determine whether or not the public interest is affected are whether it concerns a business suitable for public regulation; whether the party seeking exculpation is performing a service of great importance to the public; whether the party holds himself out as willing to perform the service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards; whether, 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; whether, in exercising his superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and whether, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.

(2) Compromise, Settlement and Release § 8–Requisites and Validity–Preincident Release–Participation in Organized Bicycle Race. –In an action for personal injuries brought by a participant in a bicycle race against the organizers of the race and the city in which the race was held, the trial court properly entered summary judgment for defendants based on a release which plaintiff had signed prior to entering the race. The release was not invalid under Civ. Code, § 1668, providing that all contracts which have for their object the exemption of anyone for responsibility for his own wilful injury to the person or property of another are against the policy of the law, since the preincident release did not affect the public interest.

(3) Compromise, Settlement and Release § 8–Requisites and Validity–Clarity and Legibility of Release Form. –In an action for personal injuries brought by a participant in a bicycle race against the organizers of the race and the city in which the race was held, the trial court properly granted summary judgment for defendants based on an otherwise valid preincident release which plaintiff had signed prior to entering the race, since no triable issues of fact existed regarding whether the release form was clear and legible. The release was not buried in a lengthy document or hidden among other verbiage. The type was clear and legible, and in light of the fact that the release had no other language to compete with, its size, three and one-half inches by eight inches, was appropriate.

(4) Compromise, Settlement and Release § 9–Construction, Operation and Effect–Release From Type of Risk Causing Injuries. –In an action for personal injuries brought by a participant in a bicycle race against the organizers of the race and the city in which the race was held, the trial court properly entered summary judgment for defendants based on a preincident release which plaintiff had signed prior to entering the race, since the otherwise valid release form released defendants from the type of risk which caused plaintiff’s injuries. The language was clear and unambiguous and the entities released from liability that could have arisen out of negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities mentioned in the release obviously included defendants, who were the promoters and sponsors of the event, and the city, which was an involved municipality.

COUNSEL: Edwin J. Wilson, Jr., and Jo Ann Iwasaki Parker for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Hagenbaugh & Murphy, Robert F. Donohue, Spray, Gould & Bowers, David T. Acalin, Cynthia Goodman and Robert Dean for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: Opinion by Hastings (Gary), J., + with Feinerman, P. J., and Ashby, J., concurring.

+ Assigned by the Chairperson of the Judicial Council.

OPINION BY: HASTINGS

OPINION

[*1464] [**429] On August 4, 1984, appellant was injured while participating in a bicycle race known as the Hermosa Beach Grand Prix. The race was organized and staffed by members and volunteers of the South Bay Wheelmen, Inc., a nonprofit affiliate of the United States Cycling Federation. The United States Cycling Federation is a nonprofit organization of amateur competitive cyclists which sanctions bicycle races and provides clinics and training for members to prepare them for racing events. The race was run on closed portions of the public streets of Hermosa [***2] Beach. The city had issued a permit for the event.

Appellant has brought suit against the South Bay Wheelmen, United States Cycling Federation and the City of Hermosa Beach alleging negligence in the preparation and maintenance of the course. Plaintiff was racing in the second to last race of the day and apparently fell when his bicycle hit [*1465] loose debris as he was crossing railroad tracks on the course. He slid into a loose guardrail and was injured upon impact.

Summary judgment was granted to respondents herein based upon a release admittedly signed by appellant prior to entering the race. The release is contained on the entry form which is titled “Southern California Cycling Federation Standard Athelete’s Entry Blank and Release Form.” The language of the release contained immediately below the title is as follows: “In consideration of the acceptance of my application for entry in the above event, I hereby waive, release and discharge any and all claims for damages for death, personal injury or property damage which I may have, or which may hereafter accrue to me, as a result of [**430] my participation in said event. This release is intended [***3] to discharge in advance the promoters, sponsors, the U.S.C.F., the S.C.C.F., the promoting clubs, the officials, and any involved municipalities or other public entities (and their respective agents and employees), from and against any and all liability arising out of or connected in any way with my participation in said event, even though that liability may arise out of negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities mentioned above.

“I further understand that serious accidents occasionally occur during bicycle racing: and that participants in bicycle racing occasionally sustain mortal or serious personal injuries, and/or property damage, as a consequence thereof. Knowing the risks of bicycle racing, nevertheless, I hereby agree to assume those risks and to release and hold harmless all of the persons or entities mentioned above who (through negligence or carelessness) might otherwise be liable to me (or my heirs or assigns) for damages.

“It is further understood and agreed that this waiver, release and assumption of risk is to be binding on my heirs and assigns.

“I agree to accept and abide by the rules and regulations of the United States Cycling [***4] Federation.” (Italics added.) The only remaining terms on the form are for information regarding the entrant such as: signature, name, address, phone number, date, age and class entered. The whole form is only eight inches wide and three and one-half inches high. The language of the release portion quoted above takes up approximately 40 percent of the form.

The facts presented to the trial court regarding the release were uncontradicted. Appellant admitted signing the release but complained he had no choice and that he had no chance to inspect the course himself because the organizers prevented the participants from going onto the course except during the race. He argues that the release form is void as against public [*1466] policy because it is a contract of adhesion and that the form itself is not sufficient to put a participant on notice that he is actually signing a release.

(1) (2) Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92 [32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 6 A.L.R.3d 693] sets forth the basic law regarding the validity of preincident releases. First of all, the case recognizes that [HN1] not all releases of liability are invalid under Civil Code section [***5] 1668. Those releases that do not involve transactions affecting “the public interest” may stand. The case sets forth six areas to consider to determine whether or not the public interest is affected: “In placing particular contracts within or without the category of those affected with a public interest, the courts have revealed a rough outline of that type of transaction in which exculpatory provisions will be held invalid. Thus [HN2] the attempted but invalid exemption involves a transaction which exhibits some or all of the following characteristics. [1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] 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. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] 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 [***6] bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of [**431] the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.” (Italics added, fns. omitted, 60 Cal.2d at pp. 98-101.) Bearing these in mind, we will analyze this case.

1. Public Regulation

The transaction in this case was entry into a public bicycle race organized by private nonprofit organizations. While bicycles generally are regulated to the extent they are subject to motor vehicle laws, the organized racing of bicycles is not the subject of public regulation. Neither the South Bay Wheelmen nor the United States Cycling Federation are subject to public regulation.

2. Is This a Service of Great Importance to the Public

The service provided here was the organization and running [***7] of competitive bicycle races for members of the organizers and the public. The race organizers [*1467] obtained the necessary permits; laid out the course; manned the course; obtained sponsors; and advertised the event. This is very similar to the organization and sponsorship of the numerous 10-kilometer and marathon running events that have blossomed since the mid to late 1970’s. However, herein, the races were divided into different classes. Appellant was riding in an “open” public event. Without such organization and sponsorship, those that desire to enter bicycle racing would undoubtedly have no chance to do so under organized settings. Therefore, there is no doubt but that respondents offer a public service. However, does it measure up to the public importance necessary to void the release.

In Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92, the question was whether or not a public hospital provided a service of great public importance. The question was answered in the affirmative. The question was also answered in the affirmative regarding escrow companies in Akin v. Business Title Corp. (1968) 264 Cal.App.2d 153 [70 Cal.Rptr. [***8] 287]. In Westlake Community Hosp. v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 465 [131 Cal.Rptr. 90, 551 P.2d 410], the Supreme Court held that hospitals, and the relationship between hospitals and physicians, were sufficiently important to prevent an exculpatory clause from applying to a doctor suing a hospital based upon hospital bylaws. In Vilner v. Crocker National Bank (1979) 89 Cal.App.3d 732 [152 Cal.Rptr. 850], the court found that the practice of night deposits was of great public importance regarding the banking industry and its customers so that an exculpatory clause in a night deposit agreement was unenforceable. Also, common carriers provide a sufficiently important public service that exculpatory agreements are void. ( Rest.2d Contracts, § 195, com. a, p. 66.)

Measured against the public interest in hospitals and hospitalization, escrow transactions, banking transactions and common carriers, this transaction is not one of great public importance. [HN3] There is no compelling public interest in facilitating sponsorship and organization of the leisure activity of bicycle racing for public participation. The number of participants is relatively minute compared [***9] to the public use of hospitals, banks, escrow companies and common carriers. Also, the risks involved in running such an event certainly do not have the potential substantial impact on the public as the risks involved in banking, hospitals, escrow companies and common carriers. The service certainly cannot be termed one that “is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.” ( Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, supra, 60 Cal.2d at p. 99.)

3. That the Service Is Open to Any Member of the Public.

It appears that anyone with a bicycle and the entrance fee who desires to enter the event can do so under standards established by the organizers.

[*1468] 4. The Economic Setting and “The Essential Nature of the Service.”

Item 4 seeks to measure the relative bargaining strengths of the parties. However, [**432] its prefaced by the words “the essential nature of the service.” (60 Cal.2d at pp. 99-100.) This ties in with item 2 above. The service provided herein can hardly be termed essential. It is a leisure time activity put on for people who desire to enter such an event. People are not compelled to enter the event [***10] but are merely invited to take part. If they desire to take part, they are required to sign the entry and release form. The relative bargaining strengths of the parties does not come into play absent a compelling public interest in the transaction.

5. Superior Bargaining Power and Standardized Adhesion Contract.

As set forth in item 4, this is not a compelled, essential service. The transaction raises a voluntary relationship between the parties. The promoters and organizers volunteer to hold a race if the entrants volunteer to take part for a nominal fee and signature on the entry and release form. These are not the conditions from which contracts of adhesion arise. Therefore, this item is not applicable.

6. The Provision of Control.

Compared to the patient who has placed himself in the exclusive control of the hospital in Tunkl, or the passenger who sits on a public conveyance, no such release of control exists here. Appellant retained complete control of himself and his bicycle and at any time could have dropped out of the race. Respondents had no control over how appellant rode his bicycle or approached the area in question except as to the general [***11] layout of the course.

Except for item 3, appellant’s situation does not fall within the guidelines set out in Tunkl. (60 Cal.2d at p. 92.) This situation does not present a transaction affecting the public interest. Therefore, there is no proscription for the release contained in the entry and release form herein. The trial court correctly relied upon the case of McAtee v. Newhall Land & Farming Co. (1985) 169 Cal.App.3d 1031 [216 Cal.Rptr. 465].

(3) (4) Finally, no triable issues of fact exist regarding whether the release form is clear and legible or whether the release form released respondents from the type of risk which caused appellant’s injuries. As previously indicated, the entire form is only three and one-half inches by eight inches and the only printing on the form other than the incidental information relating to the competitor is the release language. It is not buried in a lengthy document or hidden among other verbiage. The type is clear [*1469] and legible and in light of the fact it has no other language to compete with, its size is appropriate. The language is clear and unambiguous and the first paragraph concludes with “even though that liability [***12] may arise out of negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities mentioned above.” The entities mentioned obviously include the South Bay Wheelmen who were the “promoters and sponsors” of the event, the United States Cycling Federation and the City of Hermosa Beach, “any involved municipalities.”

For the foregoing reasons, the judgment is affirmed.

WordPress Tags: Okura,States,Federation,Rptr,LEXIS,Kevin,Plaintiff,Appellant,Defendants,Respondents,Court,Appeal,California,Second,Appellate,District,Division,Five,November,PRIOR,HISTORY,Superior,Angeles,Abraham,Gorenfeld,Temporary,Judge,Pursuant,Constitution,article,DISPOSITION,judgment,OFFICIAL,REPORTS,SUMMARY,action,injuries,participant,bicycle,organizers,transaction,Code,exemption,injury,person,policy,Further,fact,Opinion,Hastings,Gary,Feinerman,Ashby,Chairperson,Judicial,Council,HEADNOTES,Digest,Series,Compromise,Settlement,Release,Requisites,Preincident,Releases,transactions,areas,regulation,exculpation,importance,member,advantage,strength,adhesion,provision,purchaser,protection,negligence,seller,agents,Participation,Race,Form,verbiage,size,Construction,Operation,Effect,From,Type,Risk,entities,promoters,event,COUNSEL,Edwin,Wilson,Iwasaki,Parker,Hagenbaugh,Murphy,Robert,Donohue,Spray,Gould,Bowers,David,Acalin,Cynthia,Goodman,Dean,JUDGES,August,Hermosa,Beach,Grand,Prix,South,Wheelmen,clinics,events,streets,preparation,maintenance,debris,guardrail,impact,Southern,Standard,Athelete,Entry,Blank,acceptance,death,officials,municipalities,employees,accidents,participants,consequence,heirs,waiver,assumption,Italics,information,entrant,signature,Tunkl,Regents,Civil,category,Thus,characteristics,Public,bicycles,extent,vehicle,laws,Neither,Service,Great,sponsorship,settings,hospital,Akin,Title,Corp,Westlake,Hosp,Supreme,hospitals,relationship,physicians,clause,bylaws,Vilner,Crocker,National,Bank,industry,customers,agreement,Also,carriers,agreements,Rest,Contracts,leisure,Open,Economic,Essential,Nature,Item,strengths,People,Power,Contract,entrants,Control,conveyance,area,layout,Except,situation,guidelines,proscription,McAtee,Newhall,Land,competitor,paragraph,wilful,triable,whether,himself,whereby,three,upon,hereby,exculpatory,supra