Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

United States District Court for the District of Utah

June 3, 2020, Decided; June 3, 2020, Filed

Civil No. 1:17-cv-79

Counsel:  [*1] For Gerald Finken, Plaintiff: P. Matthew Muir, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lesley A. Manley, JONES WALDO HOLBROOK & MCDONOUGH, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

For USA
Cycling, Defendant: Robert L. Janicki, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lance H. Locke, STRONG & HANNI, SANDY, UT.

For Ogden Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, Ogden/Weber Convention & Visitors Bureau, Defendants: Lloyd R. Jones, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF LLOYD R JONES, OKLAHOMA CITY, OK.

For Breakaway Promotions, LLC, Defendant: Dennis R. James, LEAD ATTORNEY, MORGAN MINNOCK RICE & MINER, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

Judges: Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge. Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner.

Opinion by: Clark Waddoups

Opinion

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Gerald Finken entered the 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race. On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map published for the race. As he came around a turn on the route, he saw a concrete barrier blocking the road. Finken attempted to swerve around it, but crashed and suffered serious neck and back injuries. He has filed suit against USA Cycling, Inc. and Breakaway Promotions, LLC for negligently failing to warn riders about the barricade. Defendants have moved for summary judgment [*2]  on the ground that Finken signed a waiver of liability. For the reasons stated below, the court denies the motions for summary judgment.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA
Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 20); USA
Cycling Answer, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 30). It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 7 (ECF No. 56-7). Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate[].” Id.
USA
Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [*3]  [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.
1
USA
Cycling Depo., 33:19-35:1 (ECF No. 38-5) (given by Charles R. Hodge).

Before publication, USA
Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Leif Depo., 9:24-10:10 (ECF No. 45-1). Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” Id. 10:10-14. “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Id. at 10:15-20. Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA
Cycling to review, and then “USA
Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course.” Sperry Depo., 30:4-17 (ECF No. 56-8). USA
Cycling disputes it prepared the map. Id. at 30:18-23; Leif Depo., 11:1-5 (ECF No. 45-1).

Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA
Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. [*4]  Sperry Depo., 20:10-14, 23:1-3 (ECF No. 56-8). A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. Id. at 21:2-6, 22:16-20. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. Id. at 26:21-23. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.

Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Id. at 22:9-15, 23:8-11. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA
Cycling‘s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. Leif Depo., 12:22-24 (ECF No. 45-1). “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA
Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” Id. at 14:1-19, 15:3-5. The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. Id. at 14:18-22, 39:24-40:2. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Id. at 15:10-13. Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing [*5]  pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. See id. at 13:11-17, 15:6-9, 16:13-22. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. Id. at 17:14-18. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Id. at 30:3-10. Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure. Sperry Depo., at 40:10-25 (ECF No. 56-8).

On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA
Cycling. Finken Depo., 60:5-7, 63:6-16 (ECF No. 38-3). Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Id. at 68:8-25. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. Id. at 78:18-79:12. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Id. at 77:10-16, 80:7-12, 82:24-83:21. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. Id. at 82:4-5, 83:25-84:2. He was hospitalized for [*6]  two days for serious neck and back injuries. Id. at 107:16-108:25.

After the accident, USA
Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event. Leif Depo., 24:23-25:3, 26:3-7, 27:9-21. Finken contends Breakaway and USA
Cycling were negligent in not giving that warning sooner. Both defendants contend, however, they cannot be liable for negligence because Finken signed a pre-injury waiver entitled, “Acknowledgment of Risk, Release of Liability, Indemnification Agreement and Covenant not to Sue” (the “Waiver”).

Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Order Summary, at 4 (ECF No. 45-1). Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious [*7]  physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id.
Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA
Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Id. (emphasis omitted). Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection[] with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id.

ANALYSIS

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

“Summary judgment is proper if the movant demonstrates that there is ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact’ and that it is ‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Thom v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). The defendants’ motions seek summary judgment based on the terms of a preinjury waiver. The parties have applied Utah law to address the claims in this case.

II. WAIVER AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENTS

In Utah, “[i]t is well settled that preinjury releases of claims for ordinary negligence can be valid and enforceable.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (citation omitted). “Indeed . . . the majority of jurisdictions” permit “people to surrender their rights [*8]  to recover in tort for the negligence of others.” Id. (citations omitted). This does not mean, however, that preinjury waivers are favored. Rather, “the shortcomings of exculpatory clauses . . . provide ample cause to approach preinjury releases with caution.” Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, ¶ 11, 171 P.3d 442, overruled in part by Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150. Thus, not all preinjury waivers are valid. “Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (quotations and citations omitted).

As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.” Id. (citation omitted).

A. Clarity of the Waiver

“Preinjury releases, to be enforceable, must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.” Pearce v. Utah Athletic Found., 2008 UT 13, ¶ 22, 179 P.3d 760, 767, overruled in part by Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150, (quotations and citations omitted). The Utah [*9]  Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law. Daines v. Vincent, 2008 UT 51, ¶ 25, 190 P.3d 1269 (citation omitted). If there is ambiguity as to the intent of the parties, that is a question of fact requiring admission of parol evidence. Id. (citation omitted). In this case, however, the court only addresses facial ambiguity because if the Waiver is not clear on its face, it is unenforceable.

i. USA
Cycling

The Waiver has clear language releasing USA
Cycling from negligence. What is less clear is negligence from what activity? The Waiver notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” due to such dangers as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, at 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis added). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id. (emphasis added). These provisions appear to provide notice about the event itself and [*10]  the dangers that may arise from it. Finken‘s injuries, however, arose from a pre-ride. When a map is published of a racecourse on a public road, one reasonably anticipates that road is open to travel. Although both defendants knew the road was closed until the race, they did not inform participants of that fact. Thus, they exposed pre-riders to a risk that is not inherent in a race on a public road. See Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Fin., Co., LLC, 2019 UT 27, ¶¶ 19, 79, 445 P.3d 474 (citation omitted) (noting inherent risks are those that are an essential characteristic of a sport and “cannot be alleviated by the use of reasonable care” by an operator).

The Waiver goes on to state, however, that it releases “all damages which may be sustained by [Finken] directly or indirectly in connection[] with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id. (emphasis added). The only reason Finken was on the Old Snowbasin Road was in preparation for the event. His pre-ride therefore was in connection with his participation in that 2014 Championship race. Accordingly, the court concludes the Waiver was clear as to USA
Cycling.

ii. Breakaway

Breakaway contends the waiver also applied to it because it releases [*11]  “USA
Cycling‘s Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials.” Mem. in Supp., at 14 (ECF No. 56). While the Waiver does release those persons, Breakaway has not specified which of those it was. It has failed to show it was an event director, affiliate, agent, or official.

The Waiver was USA
Cycling‘s waiver, and it appears to protect those persons directly affiliated with USA
Cycling. Based on Leif’s title as National Event Manager and Rice’s title as Vice President of National Events, the “Event Directors” may reference them and not Breakaway. The term is not defined in the Waiver and is too ambiguous for the court to conclude the Waiver is sufficiently clear on its fact to apply to Breakaway.

Breakaway entered an Independent Contractor Agreement that specifies it was “not an employee, or servant of” USA
Cycling. Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 2 (ECF No. 56-7). The agreement further specifies that Breakaway would “be solely and entirely responsible for its acts, and for the acts of independent contractor’s agents, employees, servants and subcontractors during the performance of this agreement.” Id. ¶ 3 (emphasis omitted). Nowhere in the agreement does it identify Breakaway as an event director, [*12]  or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA
Cycling.

Because the Waiver does not clearly and unambiguously extend to Breakaway as an independent contractor, the court concludes Finken‘s claim against Breakaway is not barred67 c x.

B. Public Interest Exception

The public interest exception invalidates a preinjury release when “it attempts to limit liability for activities in which there is a strong public interest.” Berry, 2007 UT 87, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 442. The Utah Supreme Court has adopted the six factors stated in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (Cal. 1963) to determine if the public interest exception applies. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 17, 179 P.3d 760 (citations omitted). For recreational activities, however, it has gone one step further. In Pearce, the Court “join[ed] other states in declaring, as a general rule, that recreational activities do not constitute a public interest and that, therefore, preinjury releases for recreational activities cannot be invalidated under the public interest exception.” Id. at ¶¶ 18, 21.

As stated above, Finken‘s pre-ride was done in connection with his expected participation in the 2014 Championship. Because the event and the pre-ride were recreational activities, the court concludes the public interest exception is inapplicable in this case.

C. Public Policy Exception

Finken [*13]  further contends the Waiver is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy. “To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 26, 301 P.3d 984. The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.” Id. (quotations, citation, and alteration omitted). Thus, this exception should be applied, “if at all, only with the utmost circumspection.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted).

i. Penunuri Analysis – Equine Act

In Penunuri, the Utah Supreme Court addressed whether Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act made certain preinjury waivers unenforceable as a matter of public policy. The waiver at issue in Penunuri, noted “that horseback riding involves significant risk of serious personal injury, and that there are certain inherent risks associated with the activity . . . that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them.” Id. at ¶ 3 (quotations omitted).

Utah’s Equine Act specifies “equine [*14]  activity sponsors are not liable for injuries caused by the ‘inherent risks’ associated with equine activities.” Id. at ¶ 9 (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202)). The same section also specifies, however, that a sponsor may be liable if an injury results from actions of the sponsor. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202(2). The plaintiff argued the Legislature struck a balance as a matter of public policy by removing liability for inherent risks but keeping liability for negligent actions. She asserted the balancing of interests was similar to the Court’s analysis in Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 2007 UT 96, 175 P.3d 560. Thus, she argued any waiver barring recovery from a sponsor who was negligent was contrary to public policy. The Court disagreed.

It found the Equine Act did not have a public policy statement like Utah’s Inherent Risk of Skiing Act addressed in Rothstein. Id. at ¶ 24. When the Legislature eliminated liability for the inherent risks of horseback riding, it did “not explain the motivation behind” that decision. Id. at ¶ 32. Nor did the Equine Act note the economic importance of the activity for the State. Most importantly, it lacked the central purpose of the Skiing Act to “permit equine sponsors to purchase insurance at affordable rates.” Id. at ¶ 33 (quotations and citation omitted). [*15]  “[I]t was that ‘central purpose’ . . . that led [the Court] to infer that the Legislature had struck a ‘public policy bargain’ when it eliminated liability for the inherent risks of skiing.” Id. Without “a similar expression . . . in the Equine Act,” the Court “resist[ed] the temptation to add language or meaning to the Act where no hint of it exist[ed] in the text.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the Court concluded the waiver in Penunuri did not violate public policy. The Court reached a similar conclusion in Pearce, whereby “a preinjury release between a public bobsled ride operator and an adult bobsled rider” was deemed enforceable. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 15, 179 P.3d 760.

ii. Rothstein Analysis – Skiing Act

The distinguishing factor between Rothstein and other cases is the combination of a public policy statement and a legislative balancing of risks between operators and participants. In Rothstein, a skier “collided with a retaining wall constructed of stacked railroad ties and embedded partially in the mountain.” Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶ 3, 175 P.3d 560. “At the time of the accident, a light layer of snow camouflaged the retaining wall from [the skier’s] view. . . . [T]he retaining wall was unmarked and no measures had been taken to alert skiers [*16]  to its presence.” Id. Rather, the ski resort “had placed a rope line with orange flagging near the wall,” but the rope stopped short and created “a large gap between the end of the rope and a tree.” Id. The skier thought the gap “indicated an entrance to the Fluffy Bunny run.” Id. He suffered serious injuries when he collided with the retaining wall. Id.

When analyzing Utah’s Skiing Act, the Court observed that “[s]eldom does a statute address directly the public policy relevant to the precise legal issue confronting a court.” Id. ¶ 11. It nevertheless found a clear “public policy rationale” for the Skiing Act. Id. Within that statute, the Legislature found that skiing “‘significantly contribute[es] to the economy of this state.'” Id. ¶ 12 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51 renumbered at
§ 78B-4-401). The Legislature also found ski operators were having difficulty obtaining insurance at an affordable rate or at all. Id. (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51). Thus, it struck a balance where operators could not be held liable “‘for injuries resulting from those inherent risks.'” Id. (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51).

The Court therefore found the following:

The bargain struck by the Act is both simple and obvious from its public policy provision: ski area operators would [*17]  be freed from liability for inherent risks of skiing so that they could continue to shoulder responsibility for noninherent risks by purchasing insurance. By extracting a preinjury release from [the skier] for liability due to their negligent acts, [the resort] breached this public policy bargain.

Id. ¶ 16. The distinguishing factor between the balance struck in the Equine Act and the balance struck in Skiing Act was the express public policy statement that the balance was necessary due to the economic benefit to the State and the ski resort’s inability to insure itself for the inherent risks associated with skiing.

iii. Bike Racing Analysis

The facts giving rise to Finken‘s injuries are closely analogous to the facts in Rothstein. In Rothstein, a wall was unmarked and where one did not expect it to be. In this case, a barricade was unmarked on the course map and where one did not expect it to be. Neither the wall nor the barricade was within the inherent risks of the relevant sport. Although the facts are similar between the two cases, the issue before the court is whether Utah has a public policy that precludes USA
Cycling from avoiding liability for risks that are not inherent in a [*18]  bike race.

The Utah Legislature has found there are inherent risks associated with bike riding. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-509(1)(a), (d). For injuries arising from inherent risks of participating in bike riding, the Legislature has afforded protection to “a county, municipality, local district, . . . or special service district.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(a). It also has afforded protection to “the owner of property that is leased, rented, or otherwise made available to” the government “for the purpose of providing or operating a recreational activity.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(b). The Legislature chose not to “relieve any other person from an obligation that the person would have in the absence of this section to exercise due care.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(3)(b). That balance is different from the Equine Act and the Skiing Act because it leaves operators of biking events without any statutory protections.

In another section of statute, the Legislature more particularly addressed bike races. It stated bike racing is permitted on a highway only if approved by the highway authority of the relevant jurisdiction. Id.
§ 41-6a-1111. The State has a significant interest in ensuring safety on its public highways. Bike racing can impact not just the participants, but spectators or those in a motor vehicle trying [*19]  to navigate the same highway. Thus, the Legislature specified before approval may be granted, conditions must exist to “assure reasonable safety for all race participants, spectators, and other highway users.” Id.
§ 41-6a-1111(2)(b).

The Utah Department of Transportation instituted regulations to carry out the intent and purpose of the statute. The Department noted one purpose of its regulation was to “[e]ncourage and support special events such as . . . bicycle races” because it “recognize[d] their importance to Utah’s economy and to the well-being of residents of and visitors to Utah.” Utah Admin. Code R920-4-1(1)(b). Nevertheless, “to further . . . governmental interests,” it implemented safety protocols to ensure “[t]he safety of all participants in, and spectators of, special events,” as well as the travelling public. Id. at R920-4-1(2)(b), (c).

One protocol requires a person or entity to obtain a special event permit before holding a bike race on a highway. Id. at R920-4-1(4)(g), (i). To obtain a special event permit, the applicant must “provide a detailed map.” Id. at R920-4-13. The applicant also must have “liability insurance,” and such insurance must list the State of Utah “as an additional insured.” Id. at R920-4-9(1);  [*20] see also id. at R920-4-6. Consistent with statute, the applicant must obtain a waiver and release of liability from participants that releases the State and governmental personnel. Id. at R920-4-9(3)-(4). Although the statutory provision bars claims against the government for inherent risks, the regulatory waiver bars all claims. Similarly, though, there is no exclusion from liability for the operator of a bike race.

Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, [*21]  and the travelling public.

Utah has recognized, however, that if liability insurance must cover inherent and non-inherent risks of a sport, the cost may be prohibitive and thereby hinder holding events or activities that would provide an economic benefit to the state. Hindering such economic benefits would be contrary to one of the stated purposes of the regulation. Thus, one may reasonably conclude that liability for inherent risks may be waived by the bike race participants so as not to hinder the economic benefits to the State.

The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of [*22]  public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA
Cycling.
2

iv. Modification of the Utah’s Skiing Act

An additional issue has arisen since briefing on the motions. From 2007 until 2020, the Rothstein balance existed between operators and skiers whereby preinjury waivers were enforceable for risks inherent in skiing, but not for unforeseen risks arising from the negligent actions of the operator. See Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶¶ 16, 19, 175 P.3d 560. In 2020, the Utah Legislature altered this balance by passing legislation that allows preinjury waivers without regard to whether the risk was unforeseen. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-405 (2020). Moreover, claims brought on or after May 12, 2020, if not otherwise barred, have a noneconomic damages cap of $1,000,000. Id. at § 78B-4-406. The Legislature’s actions have abrogated the ruling in Rothstein and will necessarily impact future preinjury waiver analyses for other recreational activities.

The question here is whether the Legislature’s change of public policy should be applied retroactively to the analysis in this case. The United States Supreme Court has stated “the principle that the legal effect [*23]  of conduct should ordinarily be assessed under the law that existed when the conduct took place has timeless and universal appeal.” Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 265, 114 S. Ct. 1483, 1497, 128 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1994) (quotations and citation omitted). Moreover, the Due Process Clause “protects the interests in fair notice and repose that may be compromised by retroactive legislation.” Id. at 266 (citation omitted).

Here, the legislation was approved on March 28, 2020, but made effective May 12, 2020. This shows a clear intent for future application of law. Accordingly, the public policy analysis applied in Rothstein was still applicable at the time of the events in this case and informs this court’s decision.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the court DENIES the Motions for Summary Judgment filed by USA
Cycling and Breakaway (ECF Nos. 38, 56).

DATED this 3rd day of June, 2020.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Clark Waddoups

Clark Waddoups

United States District Judge


PA Supreme Court determines colleges owe a duty to provide medical care to student-athletes and releases are valid for stopping claims by student athletes.

Court also sets forth requirements for a release to be valid under Pennsylvania law.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs: , Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch

Defendant: Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff’s

Year: 2017

Summary

In this decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviews requirements for how a release must be written in Pennsylvania law to be valid. Pennsylvania has no definition of gross negligence, but a release is still not valid to stop a gross negligence claim.

Finally, if you create a duty or make a promise that people rely on to their detriment or injury you are liable. Here a college is liable to its student-athletes who were injured during practice for not having certified athlete trainers on the field.

Facts

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna.

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second attempt at certification.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed [*7] new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent).

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based by the trial court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants. The Plaintiff’s then appealed that dismissal of their complaint to the Pennsylvania Superior Court (intermediate appellate court). The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court on several issues. The defendants then filed this appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was based on two issues.

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

That means the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will only look at the two issues it has decided that need to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and nothing else.

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

What is interesting are two things.

First, the court allowed a release to be used by a college to prevent lawsuits when a student is injured during practice for an NCAA sport. The analysis did not center around the relationship between the student athlete and the university; it centered around the fact the University had told student athletes they would have trainers and did not.

Sort of a detrimental reliance claim: I relied upon your statements that then injured me. Or as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

The court found the College had created an expectation, relied upon by the students, that there would be athletic trainers available on the field during practice. Because the two trainers on the field were not certified, and possibly, to some extent, the actions of the school in changing the requirements or the people on the field to help the athletes from trainers to medical responders, the court found a legal theory where the college could be liable.

The second issue is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of Pennsylvania release law. Under Pennsylvania law “Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” To meet that criteria the court restated four requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

(1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause).

The first issue the court reviewed in determining if the release was valid was the lack of the word negligence in the release. If the release failed to specifically state the release stopped claims for the defendants negligence was it enforceable. The court said the release was valid even if it did not include the word negligence in its wording. To be valid the release must spell “…out the intention of the parties with particularity” and show “the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.”

That means the court must review the party’s intentions in creating the agreement between them. Furthermore, the injuries suffered by the plaintiff must be encompassed within the terms of the release. That does not mean a specific list of injuries, just a general idea that the injury suffered was within the contemplation of the release.

The court then looked at ordinary negligence and gross negligence under Pennsylvania law. The court first stated there is a difference between ordinary, gross and reckless conduct or negligence.

However, the court avoided the issue of defining gross negligence or the issue of whether gross negligence was valid in this claim. The court stated, “([A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”

The court then looked at how both parties in their briefs defined the actions of the defendant college. The court then reviewed public policy requirements to void a release under Pennsylvania law.

A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards. “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .”

However, the court then stated that pre-injury contracts, releases, are unenforceable when the liability of the defendant arises from recklessness. So the court refused to define gross negligence and used an old definition of recklessness. The Court then held that recklessness, not necessarily defined in a definition of negligence, could void a release.

Again, the Court repeated that Pennsylvania had not defined gross negligence in a civil liability setting.

Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care.

The court did then define gross negligence but did so in a way that did not set the definition in stone under Pennsylvania law. It just pulled definitions of gross negligence from lower courts and did not adopt any of them as the definition.

…in essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care.

As we have seen, gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.

The court then repeated that the release would not stop a claim for gross negligence.

Moreover, although the Waiver bars’ recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness.

Pennsylvania joins the list of states that a release will not stop a claim for gross negligence. A gross negligence claim must be decided by the trier of fact, the jury, in these cases.

So Now What?

First, we have definitive guidelines from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on how the court wants a release to be written. Second, we know that Pennsylvania joins the majority of states where a release cannot stop a claim for gross negligence.

We also know that recklessness is enough to void a release as well as gross negligence. However, terms we will result in battles by both sides to use the definitions they want applied to the facts of each particular case.

Finally, as in most states, if you make a promise to someone, and they rely on that promise to their detriment, you are going to write a check!

It is an interesting opinion purely from the allowance of the student-athletes to sue their college. However, the reasoning behind how a release must be written in Pennsylvania has great value.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.

Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.

The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.

Facts

The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.

To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

[Emphasize added]

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

[Emphasize added]

If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.

Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’

[Emphasize added]

Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.

As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

[Emphasize added]

In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.

The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.

The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.

Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.

Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 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

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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,


Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 5, 2018, Argued; August 20, 2019, Decided

No. 75 MAP 2017

Reporter

215 A.3d 3 *; 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615 **

AUGUSTUS FELECCIA AND JUSTIN T. RESCH, Appellees v. LACKAWANNA COLLEGE A/K/A LACKAWANNA JUNIOR COLLEGE, KIM A. MECCA, MARK D. DUDA, WILLIAM E. REISS, DANIEL A. LAMAGNA, KAITLIN M. COYNE AND ALEXIS D. BONISESE, Appellants

Subsequent History: As corrected August 26, 2019.

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court at No. 385 MDA 2016 dated February 24, 2017, reconsideration denied April 26, 2017, Reversing the Judgment of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, at No. 12-CV-1960 entered February 2, 2016 and Remanding for trial.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 2017 PA Super 44, 156 A.3d 1200, 2017 Pa. Super. LEXIS 117 (Pa. Super. Ct., Feb. 24, 2017)

Counsel: For Pennsylvania Association for Justice, Amicus Curiae: Barbara Axelrod, Esq., Beasley Firm, L.L.C. (The).

For Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, Amicus Curiae: Christopher D. Carusone, Esq., Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC.

For National Athletic Trainers’ Association & PA Athletic Trainers’ Society, Inc., Amicus Curiae: Mitchell Y. Mirviss, Esq.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Steven Jay Engelmyer, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Eric Joseph Schreiner, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel [**2]  A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Joshua John Voss, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Andrew P. Motel, Esq., Law Offices of Andrew P. Motel, L.L.C. (The).

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Robert A. Saraceni Jr., Esq.

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Daniel Joel Siegel, Esq., Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, L.L.C.

Judges: SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ. Justices Baer, Todd, Donohue and Mundy join the opinion. Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Wecht file concurring and dissenting opinions.

Opinion by: DOUGHERTY

Opinion

 [*5]  JUSTICE DOUGHERTY

In this discretionary appeal arising from the dismissal of personal injury claims on summary judgment, we consider whether the Superior Court erred in 1) finding a duty of care and 2) holding a pre-injury waiver signed by student athletes injured while playing football was not enforceable against claims of negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness. After careful review, we affirm the Superior Court’s order only to the extent it reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on the  [*6]  claims of gross negligence and recklessness, and we remand [**3]  to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

Appellees, Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, (collectively, appellees) were student athletes who played football at Lackawanna Junior College (Lackawanna), a non-profit junior college. See Complaint at ¶¶ 29, 30. At all times relevant to this matter, the following individuals were employed by Lackawanna and involved in its football program: (1) Kim A. Mecca, the Athletic Director for Lackawanna College who oversaw all of Lackawanna’s athletic programs, including the football program (AD Mecca); (2) Mark D. Duda, the head coach (Coach Duda); (3) William E. Reiss, an assistant and linebacker coach (Coach Reiss); (4) Daniel A. Lamagna, an assistant and quarterback coach (Coach Lamagna); (5) Kaitlin M. Coyne, hired to be an athletic trainer (Coyne); and (6) Alexis D. Bonisese, hired to be an athletic trainer (Bonisese) (collectively with Lackawanna referred to as appellants). Id. at ¶¶31-34, 40, 41, 43, 44.

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position [**4]  of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna. See Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 2017 PA Super 44, 156 A.3d 1200, 1203 (Pa. Super. 2017).

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second [**5]  attempt at certification. Id. at 1203-04.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed  [*7]  new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors [**6]  of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced [**7]  with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent). See Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ at Exhibit 18(b). Appellee Resch “skimmed” and signed the Waiver on March 22, 2010. Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1205. Feleccia also executed the Waiver on March 22, 2010. The Waiver provided as follows:

1. In consideration for my participation in [Football] (sport), I hereby release, waive, discharge and covenant not to sue Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents, and employees from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever arising out of or related [**8]  to any loss, damage, or injury, including death, that may be sustained by me, or to any property belonging to me,  [*8]  while participating in such athletic activity.

2. To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any physical disability or health-related reasons or problems which would preclude or restrict my participation in this activity. I am fully aware of the risks and hazards connected with [Football] (sport), and I hereby elect to voluntarily participate in said activity, knowing that the activity may be hazardous to me and my property. I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss, property damage, or personal injury, including death, that may be sustained by me, or any loss or damage to property owned by me, as a result of being engaged in such activity.

3. I have adequate health insurance necessary to provide for and pay any medical costs that may directly or indirectly result from my participation in this activity. I agree to indemnify and hold harmless Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents, and employees, from any loss, liability, damage or costs, including court costs and attorneys’ fees that may be incurred, due to my participation in said activity. [**9]

4. It is my express intent that this Release and Hold Harmless Agreement shall bind my family, if I am alive, and my heirs, assigns and personal representative, if I am deceased, and shall be deemed as a release, waiver, discharge and covenant not to sue Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents and employees. I hereby further agree that this Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement shall be construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In signing this release, I acknowledge and represent that I have read the foregoing Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement, understand it and sign it voluntarily; no oral representations, statements, or inducements, apart from the foregoing written agreement, have been made; I am at least eighteen (18) years of age and fully competent; and I execute this Release for full, adequate and complete consideration fully intending to be bound by the same. Parent/Guardians’ signature required for individuals under eighteen (18) years of age.

Waiver attached as Exhibit A to Appellants’ Answer with New Matter.

Appellees also signed the Consent that provided, in pertinent part, as follows:

(1) I do hereby off[er] [**10]  my voluntary consent to receive emergency medical services in the event of an injury during an athletic event provided by the athletic trainer, team physician or hospital staff.

Consent attached as part of Exhibit 18(b) to Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ.

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder,  [*9]  i.e., experiencing numbness, [**11]  tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

Appellees filed suit against appellants, Lackawanna, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese, asserting claims for damages caused by negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly.” Complaint at ¶¶82, 97, 98, 102 & 103. Appellants filed preliminary objections which were overruled, and filed an answer with new matter raising defenses, including that the Waiver precluded liability on all of appellees’ claims.

At the close of discovery, appellants filed a motion for summary judgment, relying primarily on the Waiver; appellants argued they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law due to appellees’ voluntary release of appellants from any and all liability for damages resulting from participation in the Lackawanna football program. See Appellants’ Brief in Support of [**12]  MSJ at 13. In response, appellees argued Lackawanna “ran its Athletic Training Department in a manner demonstrating a total disregard for the safety of its student-athletes or the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ at 1. Appellees argued appellants had required appellees to sign the Consent for treatment by an “athletic trainer,” thus taking on a duty to provide an athletic trainer, but then failed to provide an athletic trainer for its football team. See id. at 18-20.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellants. The court ruled the Waiver: (1) did not violate public policy; (2) was a contract between Lackawanna and college students relating to their own private affairs, and (3) was not a contract of adhesion. See Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 2016 WL 409711, at *5-*10 (Pa..Com.Pl. Civil Div. Feb. 2, 2016), citing Chepkevich. v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174 (Pa. 2010) (setting forth elements of valid exculpatory agreements).

The court then considered whether the Waiver was enforceable, i.e., whether it “spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows the intent to release [Lackawanna] from liability by express stipulation.” Id. at *10, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (additional citations omitted). The court noted the Waiver did not specifically use the word “negligence” or mention the [**13]  Oklahoma Drill, but it was executed freely by appellees, and stated they were fully aware of the risks and hazards in the activity and “voluntarily assume[d] full responsibility for any . . . personal injury” resulting from it. Id. at *11, quoting the Waiver. The court found the Waiver immunized appellants from liability because it addressed the “risks and hazards” ordinarily inherent in the sport of football. Id. at *12.3 Finding the negligence claims barred, the court ruled the claim for punitive damages also failed, and discussion of the Waiver’s applicability to those allegations was unnecessary. Id. at *14 n.13.  [*10]  The court concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact and appellants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the Waiver.

Appellees filed an appeal and the Superior Court reversed.4 Although the panel agreed with the trial court’s holding the Waiver was valid under Chepkevich, the panel disagreed that the Waiver barred all of appellees’ claims as a matter of law. The panel first observed the Waiver was “not sufficiently particular and without ambiguity” to relieve appellants of liability for their own acts of negligence. Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1212-13, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189 (exculpatory [**14]  clause is unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”).

The panel also held the trial court erred in failing to address appellees’ allegations underlying their claim for punitive damages, and whether the Waiver applied to preclude liability based on those allegations. Id. at 1213. The panel recognized this Court’s jurisprudence holding exculpatory clauses are not enforceable to preclude liability for reckless conduct. Id. at 1214, citing Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 47 A.3d 1190, 616 Pa. 385 (Pa. 2012).

Finally, the panel’s “most important” reason for reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was that, after reviewing the record in the light most favorable to appellees as the non-moving parties, there were genuine issues of material fact as to “whether the College’s failure to have qualified medical personnel at the March 29, 2010 practice constitute[d] gross negligence or recklessness,” and whether that failure caused appellees’ injuries or increased their risk of harm. Id. at 1214, 1219. The panel’s determination in this regard was based on its view that Lackawanna had a “duty of care to its intercollegiate student athletes . . . to have qualified medical personnel available at the [**15]  football tryout on March 29, 2010, and to provide adequate treatment in the event that an intercollegiate student athlete suffered a medical emergency.” Id. at 1215. The panel relied in part on Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College, 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Circ. 1993), where the Third Circuit predicted this Court “would hold that a special relationship existed between the [c]ollege and [student-athlete] that was sufficient to impose a duty of reasonable care on the [c]ollege.” Id. at 1367. The panel further held it was for a jury to decide whether appellees signed the Waiver “unaware that [Lackawanna’s] athletic department did not include qualified athletic trainers.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1219. Accordingly, the panel remanded the matter for trial.

Upon petition by appellants we granted allowance of appeal to address following issues:

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 644 Pa. 186, 175 A.3d 221 (Pa. 2017) (per curiam).

HN1[] This matter presents pure questions of law, over which our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. See [**16]  In re Vencil, 638 Pa. 1, 11-12, 152 A.3d 235 (Pa. 2017). “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial  [*11]  court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to [a] judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (Pa. 2003), citing Pappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (Pa. 2001). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

A. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

Appellants argue the Superior Court created a brand new common law duty of care requiring colleges to have qualified medical personnel available to render treatment at every practice and every game. Appellants aver the Superior Court did so without attempting to analyze the factors set forth in Althaus ex rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 756 A.2d 1166, 1169 (Pa. 2000) (before recognizing new duty of care courts must analyze the relationship between the parties; the social utility of the actor’s conduct; the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and the overall public interest in the proposed solution). Appellants’ Brief at 18-20, citing Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215. Appellants [**17]  assert that, in creating this new duty of care, the Superior Court relied only on a decades-old, non-binding federal decision. Id., citing Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1371. Appellants argue that, had the Superior Court applied the Althaus factors instead, it would not have created such a duty. Appellants’ Brief at 20-22. Appellants argue a proper analysis of these factors either weighs against the creation of a new duty or is neutral. Accordingly, appellants request we reverse the Superior Court’s decision to the extent it created a new duty.5

Appellees respond that the panel did not create a new, onerous duty, and that appellants actually failed to comply with existing common law and statutory duties to have qualified medical personnel available at intercollegiate athletic events. Appellees refer to MPA provisions that set forth the qualifications for an “athletic trainer” and the manner in which they must perform their duties. Specifically, appellees note the regulations implementing the MPA establish restrictions and protocols for licensed athletic trainers, and they also prohibit the use of the title “athletic trainer” by any person without a Board-issued license. [**18]  See Appellees’ Brief at 29-30, quoting 63 P.S. §422.51a (“An athletic trainer who meets the requirements of this section shall be licensed, may use the title ‘athletic trainer’ . . . and may perform athletic training services. A person who is not licensed under this section may not use the designation of licensed athletic trainer, athletic trainer or any of the listed abbreviations for that title, including ‘L.A.T.’ or ‘A.T.L.,’ or any similar designation.”). Appellees thus argue the Superior Court’s holding recognizes appellants have a duty to provide athletic trainers at practices,  [*12]  who, by statute, should be qualified medical personnel. Appellees’ Brief at 31.

Appellees also submit appellants’ claim the Superior Court ignored the Althaus factors is disingenuous. Appellees note the panel explicitly relied on Kleinknecht and, although the federal decision predated Althaus, the Third Circuit considered the same factors ultimately set forth in Althaus. Appellees’ Brief at 39-40, citing Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215 (Kleinknecht court recognized: special relationship between college and student-athlete requiring college to act with reasonable care towards athletes; risk of severe injuries during athletic activities was foreseeable; [**19]  and college acted unreasonably in failing to protect against risk). In any event, appellees reiterate, the Superior Court did not create a new common law duty, but rather recognized the “duty of care is necessarily rooted in often amorphous public policy considerations[.]” Appellees’ Brief at 38, quoting Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169.

Finally, appellees observe appellants themselves undertook the duty to protect their student-athletes by customarily hiring licensed athletic trainers prior to 2009, and holding out Coyne and Bonisese as “athletic trainers” in the documentation regarding their employment, including executed job descriptions, where Coyne and Bonisese acknowledged they were required to have passed the national certification exam, which is a pre-requisite to use of the title “athletic trainer.” See Appellees’ Brief at 41-43, quoting Rstmt (2d) of Torts, §323 (“One who undertakes . . . to render services to another . . . is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking[.]”). Appellees argue the evidence presented was sufficient to raise factual jury questions regarding whether appellants breached this duty and whether [**20]  that breach led to appellees’ injuries.6

Having considered the parties’ arguments and the opinion below, we acknowledge the Superior Court articulated a duty not previously recognized by Pennsylvania Courts: a college has a “duty of care to its intercollegiate student athletes requir[ing] it to have qualified medical personnel available at [athletic events, including] the football tryout, . . . and to provide adequate treatment in the event that an intercollegiate student athlete suffer[s] a medical emergency.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215, citing Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1369-70. We further recognize the Superior Court did not analyze the Althaus factors, as  [*13]  required when imposing a previously unarticulated common law duty. Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169. Instead, the panel relied on non-binding federal case law to impose what it viewed as a new common law duty. In this specific regard, the panel erred.

HN2[] Courts should not enter into the creation of new common law duties lightly because “the adjudicatory process does not translate readily into the field of broad-scale policymaking.” Lance v. Wyeth, 624 Pa. 231, 85 A.3d 434, 454 (Pa. 2014), citing Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1245; see also Official Comm. of Unsecured Creditors of Allegheny Health Educ. & Research Found. v. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 605 Pa. 269, 989 A.2d 313, 333 (Pa. 2010) (“Unlike the legislative process, the adjudicatory process is structured to cast a narrow focus on matters framed by litigants before the Court in [**21]  a highly directed fashion”). We also acknowledge it “is the Legislature’s chief function to set public policy and the courts’ role to enforce that policy, subject to constitutional limitations.” Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1245 & n.19 (additional citations omitted). “[T]he Court has previously adopted the default position that, unless the justifications for and consequences of judicial policymaking are reasonably clear with the balance of factors favorably predominating, we will not impose new affirmative duties.” Id. at 1245 (citations omitted).

Applying the Althaus factors is not a mere formality, but is necessary when courts announce a new common law duty. Althaus requires consideration of the justifications for and the relevant consequences and policy concerns of the new duty of care. See Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169 (setting forth factors for determination of new common law duty). Further, “determining whether to impose a duty often requires us to weigh ‘amorphous public policy considerations, which may include our perception of history, morals, justice and society.'” Walters v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, 187 A.3d 214, 223 (Pa. 2018), quoting Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169 (additional citations omitted). The Superior Court did not engage these factors, nor did the summary judgment record include relevant data regarding, for example, injury rates [**22]  at practices, the consequences of having (or not having) available qualified medical professionals, the budgetary or other collegiate resource impact, or the relative public policy concerns involved.7

Importantly, however, an Althaus analysis was not necessary here because our review reveals the present circumstances involve application of existing statutory  [*14]  and common law duties of care. See, e.g., Dittman v. UPMC, 196 A.3d 1036, 1038 (Pa. 2018) (analysis of Althaus factors not required where case is one involving “application of an existing duty to a novel factual scenario”). In Dittman, for example, we recognized the legal duty of an employer (UPMC) “to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet-accessible computer system.” Id. at 1038. We did so because UPMC had required its employees to provide sensitive personal information, and then collected and stored that information on its computer system without implementing adequate security measures, such as encryption, firewalls, or authentication protocols. Id. at 1047. We reasoned that this “affirmative conduct” by UPMC created the risk of a data breach, which in [**23]  fact occurred. Id. We further determined that, in collecting and storing its employees’ data on its computers, UPMC owed those employees a duty to “exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm arising out of that act.” Id. Dittman may have been our first opportunity to recognize this duty in the context of computer systems security, but there is longstanding jurisprudence holding that “[i]n scenarios involving an actor’s affirmative conduct, he is generally ‘under a duty to others to exercise the care of a reasonable man to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm to them arising out of the act.'” Id. at 1046, quoting Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1246. This existing duty “appropriately undergirds the vast expanse of tort claims in which a defendant’s affirmative, risk-causing conduct is in issue.” Id. at 1047, quoting Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1246, see also Dittman, 796 A.3d at 1056-57 (Saylor, CJ, concurring and dissenting) (requirement to provide confidential information as condition of employment created “special relationship” between employer and employees giving rise to duty of reasonable care to protect information against foreseeable harm).

Additionally, HN3[] we have adopted as an accurate statement of Pennsylvania law the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323 (1965). Gradel v. Inouye, 491 Pa. 534, 421 A.2d 674, 677-78 (Pa. 1980) (“Section 323(a) of the Restatement of Torts has been part [**24]  of the law of Pennsylvania for many years.”). Section 323 provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

Restatement. (Second) of Torts, §323 (1965). See also Feld v Merriam, 506 Pa. 383, 485 A.2d 742, 746 (Pa. 1984) (landlord that undertook duty to provide secured parking for tenants may be liable for damages arising from failure to exercise reasonable care in doing so).

In Feld, the plaintiffs were injured during a carjacking that began inside the garage of their apartment building. They filed a negligence lawsuit against their landlord, who had charged tenants additional rental fees to provide a gate and security guard for its parking garages. In discussing the viability of the plaintiffs’ negligence action, the Feld Court first noted landlords do not generally owe a duty as insurer to protect the safety of their tenants. However, the Court noted such a duty might [**25]  arise if the landlord undertook  [*15]  to provide secured parking and failed to exercise reasonable care in doing so, and the tenants, who had relied on those services, were injured as a result. Id. at 746, citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, §323 (1965) (identifying discrete duty where a “landlord [who] by agreement or voluntarily offers a program to protect the premises, . . . must perform the task in a reasonable manner and where a harm follows a reasonable expectation of that harm, he is liable.”).

Application of these legal principles to the present factual scenario supports a determination that “affirmative conduct” by appellants created a “special relationship” with and increased risk of harm to its student athletes such that appellants had a duty to “exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm arising” from that affirmative conduct. Dittman, supra. In addition, the record supports a finding appellants undertook a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its student athletes participating in athletic events, including the football practice on March 29, 2010,8 although it remains to be determined whether the steps actually taken by appellants satisfied that duty. [**26]  See Wilson v. PECO Energy Co., 2012 PA Super 279, 61 A.3d 229, 233 (Pa. Super. 2012) (sufficient facts alleged to overcome summary judgment and reach jury on question of scope of duty undertaken and its breach).

Specifically, when we consider the record in the light most favorable to appellees as the non-moving parties, we observe the following: before hiring Coyne and Bonisese, Lackawanna customarily employed athletic trainers, who were licensed as required by applicable statutes and regulations; Lackawanna required its student athletes including appellees to execute the Consent to treatment by “athletic trainer, team physician or hospital staff” in the event of an emergency during participation in the football program; Lackawanna held out Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers to appellees and their teammates, despite its knowledge they lacked the statutorily required licenses; Lackawanna demonstrated its awareness that Coyne and Bonisese did not have the qualifications of athletic trainers by renaming them “first responders,” but did not alter their job descriptions, which encompassed the duties of “athletic trainers”; Coyne and Bonisese were the only individuals present at the March 29, 2010 football tryout to provide treatment [**27]  to injured student athletes; the coaching staff propagated the misrepresentation of Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers; and Coyne and Bonisese  [*16]  performed the role of athletic trainers by attending appellees when they were injured, and directing appellee Feleccia to return to practice when he was “feeling better.”

Under these circumstances, appellants clearly created an expectation on which the student athletes might reasonably rely — i.e. in the case of injury during an athletic event, they receive treatment from a certified athletic trainer, as clearly outlined in the Consent they were required to sign. We thus easily conclude appellants undertook a duty to provide treatment by a certified athletic trainer at the March 29, 2010 practice. We further conclude the record, taken in the light most favorable to appellees, demonstrates the existence of a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to overcome summary judgment regarding whether appellants breached this duty and caused appellees’ injuries. Thus, we hold the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of appellants.

B. Is the Waiver enforceable as to the negligence claims?

Notwithstanding the existence of a duty [**28]  on the part of appellants, and factual allegations of a breach of that duty which would support a negligence claim, we must now consider whether the Waiver completely precludes any liability on such a claim, or on appellees’ additional claims of gross negligence and recklessness. Appellants observe that by signing the Waiver appellees released “any and all liability, claims, demands, actions and causes of action whatsoever arising out of or related to any loss, damage, or injury, including death, that may be sustained” while playing football at Lackawanna. Appellants’ Brief at 38. Appellants submit Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 626 A.2d 98, 100, 533 Pa. 468 (Pa. 1993) held a Waiver of “any and all” liability was sufficiently clear to bar claims of all negligence, and the Superior Court erred in holding the Waiver is unenforceable because “it does not indicate that Lackawanna was being relieved of liability for its own acts of negligence.” Appellants’ Brief at 39, quoting Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 100 (“[T]he word ‘all’ needs no definition; it includes everything and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence.”) (additional citations omitted). Appellants emphasize “Pennsylvania [**29]  courts have consistently held that exculpatory clauses may bar suits based on negligence even where the language of the clause does not specifically mention negligence at all.” Appellants’ Brief at 43, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193 (emphasis added).

Appellees submit the only issue preserved by appellants with respect to the validity of the Waiver is whether it is enforceable as to negligence, and that in this regard, the Superior Court correctly determined the Waiver is not sufficiently explicit regarding appellants’ own negligence to be enforceable. Appellees further assert the law is clear the Waiver is not enforceable to protect appellants from liability arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and the Superior Court properly remanded for further proceedings to determine whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness. Appellees’ Brief at 45-46, citing Tayar, supra, and Chepkevich, supra.

At the outset, we note appellants concede, as they must, that appellees’ claims of liability arising from recklessness are not precluded by the Waiver. See, e.g. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (finding public policy prohibits pre-injury waivers from releasing reckless behavior). The issue before us is thus narrowed to whether the Waiver, which purports [**30]  to release “any  [*17]  and all liability,” precludes liability on appellees’ claims of negligence and, relatedly, gross negligence.9 We bear in mind that exculpatory contracts are generally disfavored, and subject to close scrutiny. See Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Bus. Men’s Ass’n, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (Pa. 1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since they are not favorites of the law”); see also Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200 & n.8, citing Chepkevich and Topp Copy. Our case law provides “guiding standards” for assessing the enforceability of exculpatory contracts. See, e.g., Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99 (1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause).

i. Ordinary Negligence

The Superior Court considered the Waiver to be unenforceable as to appellees’ claims of negligence because its “language does not indicate that Lackawanna was being relieved of liability for its own acts of negligence.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1213. The court further found fault with the Waiver because it did not specifically include the word “negligence.” Id. at 1212-13. Although our cases have directed that exculpatory clauses must clearly provide “a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence[,]” we have not prescribed specific language. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189, quoting Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. In this case, the Waiver purported to protect appellants from “any and all liability” arising out of “any injury” sustained by student athletes while playing football at Lackawanna. We have determined such language is sufficient to express the parties’ intention to bar ordinary negligence claims. See Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99, 101 (lease agreement releasing lessor from ‘”any and all liability” clearly and unambiguously covered negligence claims’); see also Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 160 A. 595, 596 (Pa. 1932) (lease releasing landlord from “all liability” was sufficient to cover liability for negligence).

 [*18]  The Superior Court, in reaching the opposite result, failed to acknowledge the trial court did not find [**32]  the mere existence of the Waiver automatically extinguished all potential claims of liability. Rather, the trial court applied the Topp Copy guiding standards to determine “whether the [exculpatory] clause ‘spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.'” Trial Court op. at 19, quoting McDonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., 2015 PA Super 104, 116 A.3d 99, 121 (Pa. Super. 2015), quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191. The trial court examined the facts of record, including the parties’ intentions related to the execution of the Waiver as well as whether the risks undertaken by appellees and injuries suffered were encompassed within its terms. Trial Court op. at 18-22. The trial court determined it could not “say that the risks associated with Lackawanna’s Oklahoma Drill are so far beyond those risks ordinarily inherent to the sport of football and addressed in the Waiver as ‘risks and hazards’ typical of the sport that we must, as a matter of law, invalidate the Waiver.” Id. at 21-22. The trial court thus found the Waiver was enforceable and entered summary judgment in favor of appellants. We conclude that the Superior Court’s reversal of this holding with respect to appellees’ claims of ordinary negligence was error.10  [**33] See, e.g., Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194-95 (release enforceable to preclude liability for general claims of negligence); see also, Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 101 (release of “any and all” liability sufficient to preclude liability resulting from landlord’s negligence); see also Cannon, 160 A. at 597 (“The covenant in this lease against liability for acts of negligence does not contravene any policy of the law.”).

ii. Gross Negligence

As we have seen, appellees’ claims of ordinary negligence are barred by the Waiver, their claims of recklessness are not, and the allegations of recklessness will be tested at trial on remand. We have yet to rule on whether appellees may also proceed to trial on their allegations of gross negligence, or whether such claims are precluded by the Waiver. See Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199 n.7 (“[A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”).

Appellants consider gross negligence to be more closely aligned with negligence than recklessness, describing it as a form of negligence where there is a more significant departure from the standard of care, but without the “conscious action or inaction” that characterizes recklessness. [**34]  See Appellants’ Brief at 52. Appellants view gross negligence as a type of negligence that is covered by the Waiver and precludes appellees’ action for damages. Id. at 53-54.

Appellees respond that gross negligence is “more egregiously deviant conduct than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. . . . The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.”  [*19]  Appellees’ Brief at 50, quoting Bloom v. Dubois Reg’l Med. Ctr., 597 A.2d 671, 679, 409 Pa. Super. 83 (Pa. Super. 1991); accord Albright v. Abington Mem’l Hosp., 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164 (Pa. 1997) (“We believe that this definition is a clear, reasonable, and workable definition of gross negligence[.]”). Here, appellees assert, there were sufficient facts presented for the jury to conclude appellants’ conduct was grossly negligent, and public policy compels the conclusion such conduct should not be immunized by the Waiver. Appellees’ Brief at 52-53.

HN4[] A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards.” See Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199, citing Williams v. GEICO Gov’t Employees Ins. Co., 613 Pa. 113, 32 A.3d 1195, 1200 (Pa. 2011). “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion [**35]  in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .” Id., quoting Williams, 32 A.3d at 1200. Our law is clear that pre-injury exculpatory contracts purporting to protect a party from liability arising from recklessness are unenforceable on this public policy basis.

Although we have equated “gross negligence” with “recklessness” in the criminal law context, we have not expressly applied that equation in the civil context. See Com. v. Huggins, 575 Pa. 395, 836 A.2d 862, 867 (Pa. 2003) (gross negligence equates with recklessness for purpose of establishing mens rea for manslaughter). In the civil context, there is some difficulty in ascertaining the term’s precise meaning. See In re Scheidmantel, 2005 PA Super 6, 868 A.2d 464, 484-85 (Pa. Super. 2005) (recognizing “gross negligence” is frequently invoked but is not well defined in the civil context and “Pennsylvania Courts have struggled to provide a workable definition for ‘gross negligence’ when faced with the need to apply the concept.”). In Albright, 696 A.2d at 1164, we defined gross negligence in the context of the Mental Health Procedures Act11 as a “form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard [**36]  of care.” Id. at 1164, quoting Bloom, 597 A.2d at 679.

HN5[] Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care. See, e.g., Albright, supra; Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 2000 PA Super 239, 758 A.2d 695, 703 (Pa. Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001). See also Pa. Suggested Standard Civil Jury Instructions 13.50 (“Gross negligence is significantly worse than ordinary negligence” requiring proof actor “significantly departed from how a reasonably careful person would act under the circumstances”). To the extent our courts have used the term, the “general consensus finds gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. Other Pennsylvania sources have observed:

 [*20]  In essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care [**37]  comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

2 Summ. Pa. Jur. 2d Torts §20:5 (internal citations omitted).

HN6[] Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care. Royal Indem. Co. v. Sec. Guards, Inc., 255 F.Supp.2d 497, 505 (E.D. Pa. 2003), quoting Williams v. State Civil Serv. Comm’n, 9 Pa. Commw. 437, 306 A.2d 419, 422 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973), aff’d 457 Pa. 470, 327 A.2d 70 (Pa. 1974); see also Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d at 485 (gross negligence is “a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in ‘reckless disregard’ of a legal duty and the consequences to another party”). See also Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) (gross negligence is a “lack of slight diligence or care” and a “conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party”). With these principles in mind, we now proceed to consider whether a pre-injury exculpatory [**38]  waiver is valid to preclude claims of gross negligence.12

In Tayar, we held an exculpatory clause was not valid to preclude liability arising from reckless conduct because allowing such waivers would permit parties to “escape liability for consciously disregarding substantial risks of harm to others[.]” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203. We recognized such pre-injury releases are unenforceable in circumstances where they “would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Id.

As we have seen, HN7[] gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.” Royal Indem. Co., 255 F.Supp.2d at 505. See also 2 Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of  [*21]  Torts § 140 (gross negligence is “a high, though unspecified degree of negligence, or as courts sometimes say, the failure to use even slight care.”) Thus, gross negligence involves more than a simple breach of the standard of care (which would establish ordinary negligence), and instead [**39]  describes a “flagrant” or “gross deviation” from that standard. Bloom, 597 A.2d at 679 (gross negligence involves behavior that is “flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care”). As such, the same policy concerns that prohibit the application of a waiver in cases of recklessness — i.e., allowing it would incentivize conduct that jeopardizes the signer’s health, safety and welfare to an unacceptable degree requires a similar holding with regard to gross negligence.13 Accordingly, we hold the Waiver is not enforceable to preclude liability arising from appellees’ claims of gross negligence, and the allegations supporting such claims should be tested at trial on remand.

III. Conclusion

For all the foregoing reasons, we hold appellants had a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its student athletes participating in athletic events, including the football practice of March 29, 2010, and there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether appellants breached this duty. Moreover, although the Waiver bars recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising [**40]  from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness. Accordingly, we affirm the Superior Court’s order only to the extent it vacated the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on these claims specifically, and we remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

Justices Baer, Todd, Donohue and Mundy join the opinion.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Wecht file concurring and dissenting opinions.

Concur by: SAYLOR; WECHT

Dissent by: SAYLOR; WECHT

Dissent

CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION

CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR

I join the majority opinion to the extent it reverses the Superior Court’s creation of a generalized duty of care owed by Pennsylvania colleges to student athletes to have medical personnel available at all football practices. See Majority Opinion, slip op. at 14. I respectfully differ, however, with the majority’s follow-on holding that, under an assumption-of-duty theory as reflected in Section 323 of the Second Restatement of Torts, Lackawanna College definitively owed a duty of care to Plaintiffs on the date in question.

As a general matter, whether a defendant owed a duty of care to another person at [**41]  the relevant time is a legal issue to be decided on the underlying facts. See, e.g., Dittman v. UPMC,     Pa.    ,    , 196 A.3d 1036, 1046 (2018); accord Kukis v.  [*22]  Newman, 123 S.W.3d 636, 639 (Tex. Ct. App. 2003) (“The existence of a duty is a question of law for the court to decide based on the specific facts of the case.”). Because the complaint was dismissed on a defense motion for summary judgment, the majority appropriately “consider[s] the record in the light most favorable to [Plaintiffs] as the non-moving parties[.]” Majority Opinion, slip op. at 19. In doing so the majority recites certain facts which remain in dispute. This alone is not problematic given that, again, the record is being viewed favorably to Plaintiffs. The difficulty arises when the majority holds, in definitive terms, that a duty existed in light of such circumstances.

For example, the majority states, “Lackawanna held out Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers to [Plaintiffs] and their teammates,” and that these same two individuals “performed the role of athletic trainers by attending [Plaintiffs] when they were injured[.]” Id. Notably, Appellees expressly denied that Coyne and Bonisese held themselves out as athletic trainers or Lackawanna College held them out as such. See Defendants’ Answer and New Matter at ¶¶40, 42, 43, 44 (averring [**42]  that, at all relevant times, Coyne and Bonisese were held out by themselves and the college as first responders). Thus, I would frame the holding in more abstract terms and allow the common pleas court to determine, after resolution of any necessary factual disputes, whether Appellees’ affirmative conduct created a duty under the circumstances — and if so, the scope that duty.1

In terms of the second question accepted for review — whether the exculpatory clause is valid as to negligence — I also respectfully differ with the majority’s conclusion that the clause is unenforceable as contrary to public policy relative to a claim based on gross negligence.2

It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in  [*23]  regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. There must be a positive, well-defined, universal public sentiment, deeply integrated in the customs and beliefs of the people and in their conviction of what is just and right and in the interests of the public weal.

Shick v. Shirey, 552 Pa. 590, 600, 716 A.2d 1231, 1235-36 (1998) (quoting Mamlin v. Genoe, 340 Pa. 320, 325, 17 A.2d 407, 409 (1941)); see also Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 399, 47 A.3d 1190, 1199 (2012) (recognizing that “avoidance of contract [**43]  terms on public policy grounds requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards”). Tayar cited Williams v. GEICO Government Employees Insurance Co., 613 Pa. 113, 32 A.3d 1195 (2011), for this position, and continued as follows:

Public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest. As the term “public policy” is vague, there must be found definite indications in the law of the sovereignty to justify the invalidation of a contract as contrary to that policy[.] . . . Only dominant public policy would justify such action. In the absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or of violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts . . . contrary to public policy. The courts must be content to await legislative action.

Tayar, 616 Pa. at 399-400, 47 A.3d at 1199 (quoting Williams, 613 Pa. at 120-21, 32 A.3d at 1200) (alterations made by Tayar).

In this vein, it seems to me that, to invalidate the waiver relative to gross negligence claims as contrary to public policy, the concept of gross negligence would, at a minimum, have to be well understood and defined. [**44]  Apart from a clear notion of what constitutes gross negligence as distinguished from ordinary negligence, it seems difficult to contend that laws, legal precedents, long governmental practice, or other recognized indicators of longstanding, dominant public policy are so firmly entrenched in this Commonwealth against such waivers as to permit this Court to declare, as the majority presently does, that they are judicially prohibited.

Yet, as the majority explains, it is difficult even to ascertain the precise meaning of gross negligence, as that term represents an “amorphous concept,” that is, at its essence, “merely negligence with a vituperative epithet.” The majority proceeds to describe gross negligence as “appear[ing] to lie somewhere between” negligence and recklessness. Majority Opinion, slip op. at 21 n.9, 27.

This type of uncertainty in discerning just what gross negligence consists of, in my view (and for reasons more fully explained below) undermines the concept that liability waivers should be deemed unenforceable as against claims of gross negligence although they can be valid and enforceable in relation to claims of ordinary negligence.

In terms of the competing interests involved, it should go [**45]  without saying that athletic and other recreational pursuits by Pennsylvania residents are in the public interest and should be encouraged. See, e.g., Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 30, 2 A.3d 1174, 1191 (2010) (reviewing cases). On the other hand, it is plainly contrary to public policy to enforce releases which would allow individuals intentionally to harm others with impunity. Accord Tayar, 616 Pa. at 401, 47 A.3d at 1200. In Tayar, this Court extended that understanding to harm stemming  [*24]  from recklessness, that is, conduct in which the actor knowingly disregards an unreasonable risk of harm. Tayar reasoned that the conscious act of ignoring such a risk “aligns . . . closely with intentional conduct.” Id. at 403, 47 A.3d at 1201. Still, this Court should not overlook the competing policy grounds underlying the enforceability of liability waivers relative to inherently risky athletic activities.

Generally speaking, an exculpatory clause is a renunciation of a right and, as such, it constitutes a means of allocating risk as between contracting parties. See generally Anita Cava & Don Wiesner, Rationalizing a Decade of Judicial Responses to Exculpatory Clauses, 28 Santa Clara L. Rev. 611, 648 (1988). Because incurring risks is costly, shifting risks from the organizer of the athletic endeavor (the “supplier”) to the participant (the “consumer”) allows the supplier to lower the price of the activity, [**46]  particularly where there is market competition and/or where, as here, the provider is a non-profit organization. Cf. Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 594, 111 S. Ct. 1522, 1527, 113 L. Ed. 2d 622 (1991) (applying similar reasoning to a contractual forum-selection clause). See generally Brief for Amicus Ass’n of Indep. Colls. & Univs. of Pa. at 12-14 (detailing that complying with the generalized duty imposed by the Superior Court would be likely to impose significant costs on the Association’s member institutions). A lower price, in turn, serves the public interest because, on the margin at least, recreational opportunities become available to lower-income residents who would otherwise be excluded from such events.

It may be assumed that another factor favoring enforcement is the recognition that, subject to limiting principles, parties are generally at liberty to enter into contracts of their choosing. See Cent. Dauphin Sch. Dist. v. American Cas. Co., 493 Pa. 254, 258, 426 A.2d 94, 96 (1981). This is reflected in the test for enforceability, one element of which asks whether each party is a “free bargaining agent.” Tayar, 616 Pa. at 399, 47 A.3d at 1199 (citing Emp’rs Liab. Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966)).

Conversely, enforcing waivers of liability based on any kind of fault — including ordinary negligence — diminishes incentives for the supplier to manage risks which it is in a better position than the consumer to control.

None of the above is to suggest that negligent or grossly negligent [**47]  conduct is in any sense socially beneficial. Rather, it is offered solely for the purpose of illustrating that multiple competing interests are at stake when a litigant requests that we judicially invalidate an otherwise binding contractual provision on public policy grounds. Presumably, this Court’s line of decisions enforcing waivers as to ordinary negligence reflects a balancing of these considerations.

Certainly, and as noted, a weighing of such policies favors unenforceability where intentional or reckless conduct is concerned. In such instances, not only are there obvious reasons based on enduring societal mores which support such a result, but — and perhaps less obvious — any competing interest in cost reduction is not unduly compromised. This is because, absent some proof of intentional conduct or conscious disregard, the common pleas court can, in a given case, be expected to act as a gatekeeper so that the supplier need not incur the cost of litigating the case to the conclusion of a jury trial and, perhaps, post-trial motions.

The same cannot be said for gross negligence precisely because of its “amorphous” nature. After today it will be difficult for common pleas courts to [**48]  decide — when the  [*25]  defendant is in possession of a validly-executed waiver covering the activity in question — whether the complaint should be dismissed on the grounds that it only alleges ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. As a consequence, litigants can be expected to argue, with regard to any supportable allegation of negligence, that they are entitled to have a jury decide whether the defendant’s negligence was, in fact, “gross.” Absent thorough and detailed appellate guidance as to the types of facts that must be pled to allege gross negligence, such an argument is likely to prevail in many if not most cases.

In all events, the type of policy making this Court presently undertakes is best suited to the General Assembly. We have observed on multiple occasions that the legislative branch is the appropriate forum for the balancing of social policy considerations and interests and the making of social policy judgments, and that it has the tools to perform these tasks — tools which the courts lack. See, e.g., Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 618 Pa. 632, 653, 57 A.3d 1232, 1245 & n.19 (2012).

Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from the holding reached in Part II(b) of the majority opinion. I note, however, that I do not foreclose reconsidering my [**49]  position if, in the future, the concept of gross negligence in Pennsylvania is made subject to a more precise definition which allows for some measure of consistency and predictability in litigation.

CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION

JUSTICE WECHT

I. Introduction

Like the Majority, I believe that Lackawanna College had a duty to ensure that certified athletic trainers were available to treat student-athletes injured during the March 29, 2010 football tryouts. Considering the record in the light most favorable to Feleccia and Resch, as we must, it is clear that Lackawanna College assumed this duty through its own actions and representations.1 As a general matter, I agree as well with the Majority’s analysis regarding the enforceability of the liability waiver that Feleccia and Resch signed. Specifically, I join in the conclusion that the waiver was enforceable as to ordinary negligence, and not enforceable as to gross negligence.2

 [*26]  I write separately because, while the Majority limits Lackawanna College’s duty to the obligation it undertook through its own actions and representations, see Maj. Op. at 18-19, principles of Pennsylvania tort law require us to go further. Based upon [**50]  the factors that this Court articulated in Althaus ex rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 756 A.2d 1166 (Pa. 2000), as well as the persuasive opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg Coll., 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Cir. 1993), colleges owe a duty to their student-athletes to ensure that qualified medical personnel3 are available to render needed assistance during school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate contact sport activities.

II. Legal Backdrop

A. Kleinknecht

While this Court previously has rejected the doctrine of in loco parentis as a basis for finding that colleges owe a duty of care to their students,4 we have not addressed whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes. In a case with similar facts, the Third Circuit predicted that this Court would indeed conclude that a college’s relationship with its student-athletes created a duty of care to these athletes during their participation in intercollegiate contact sports. Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1367-69. In Kleinknecht, a college lacrosse player suffered cardiac arrest during practice and ultimately died. No medical personnel were present at the practice, and the coaches lacked any immediate means to contact emergency services.

Distinguishing prior cases in which courts held that colleges owed no duty to their students, [**51]  the Kleinknecht court explained that, unlike in those cases, the lacrosse player was not acting as a private student engaged in his own affairs when he collapsed.5 Instead, the student was  [*27]  participating in a scheduled practice for an intercollegiate, school-sponsored team under the supervision of coaches employed by the college. The court also found the college’s recruitment of the lacrosse player significant, noting that it could not “help but think that the College recruited [the athlete] for its own benefit, probably thinking that his [athletic skill] would bring favorable attention and so aid the College in attracting other students.” Id. at 1368.

Additionally observing that the imposition of a duty is justified when the foreseeable risk of harm is unreasonable, the Kleinknecht court considered the foreseeability and magnitude of the risk at the lacrosse practice. The court found that it is “clearly foreseeable that a person participating [in an intercollegiate contact sport] will sustain serious injury requiring immediate medical attention.” Id. at 1371. The court also opined that the “magnitude of foreseeable harm—irreparable injury or death to [a student-athlete] as a result of inadequate [**52]  preventative emergency measures—is indisputable.” Id. at 1370. Accordingly, in light of the relationship between a college and its student-athletes and the foreseeability of grave injury during athletes’ participation in contact sports, the court opined that the college owed a duty “to provide prompt and adequate emergency medical services” to its intercollegiate athletes when they are “engaged in a school-sponsored athletic activity for which [they] ha[ve] been recruited.” Id. at 1371.

B. Althaus

Seven years after the Third Circuit decided Kleinknecht, this Court compiled earlier approaches to the duty inquiry and distilled them into a five-factor framework.6 Observing that the concept of duty is “necessarily rooted in often amorphous public policy considerations,” Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169, we acknowledged that discerning a “previously unrecognized duty” is an inherently difficult task. See Walters v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, 187 A.3d 214, 222 (Pa. 2018). To assist in this undertaking, we identified the following five factors for courts to consider: “(1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public [**53]  interest in the proposed solution.” Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169. We also have noted that “[n]o one of these five factors is dispositive. Rather, a duty will be found to exist where the balance of these factors weighs in favor of placing such a burden on a defendant.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008-09 (Pa. 2003).

III. Analysis

Although some twenty-six years have passed since the Third Circuit’s prediction in Kleinknecht, this Court has yet to resolve whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes. Allowing for argument’s  [*28]  sake that this is a new duty, a principled weighing of the Althaus factors leads to the conclusion that colleges owe a duty to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes participating in school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate contact sports.7

A. Althaus (1): The relationship between the parties8

A party’s duty of care to another can arise from the parties’ relationship. See Morena v. S. Hills Health Sys., 501 Pa. 634, 462 A.2d 680, 684 (Pa. 1983). In light of the increased autonomy afforded to college students in modern times, courts have rejected the notion that colleges act in loco parentis or as [**54]  “insurer[s] of the safety of [their] students.” See Sullivan, 572 A.2d at 1213 (quoting Bradshaw, 612 F.2d at 138). However, despite widespread agreement among courts on this general principle, courts differ as to whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes.9 In recent  [*29]  decades, scholars have opined that the unique relationship between colleges and their student-athletes justifies the imposition of a duty upon the college when the athletes participate in intercollegiate contact sports. These commentators observe that, unlike the relationship between a college and its average student, the relationship between colleges and their student-athletes is characterized by mutual benefits and by the college’s assertion and exercise of significant control over the athletes’ lives, thereby justifying the recognition of a duty of care.10

In the case before us today, the relationship between [**55]  Lackawanna College and its intercollegiate football players weighs in favor of recognizing a duty similar to the one that the Third Circuit articulated in Kleinknecht. Like the student-athlete in Kleinknecht, at the time of their injuries, Feleccia and Resch both were engaged in something other than their own private affairs. Rather, Feleccia and Resch were participating in tryouts for the intercollegiate, school-sponsored football team under the supervision of coaches employed by the college. Like the Third Circuit in Kleinknecht, I would find that the college expected its relationship with the student-athletes to benefit the college. Before Feleccia and Resch enrolled at Lackawanna College, its head football coach contacted both of them about playing football for the school’s intercollegiate team, presumably because the college expected to gain favorable attention or other benefits from their participation in the program. Moreover, as the Majority aptly observes, Feleccia’s and Resch’s relationship with Lackawanna College rested in part upon their reasonable expectation, based upon the college’s actions and representations, that a certified athletic trainer would treat them if they [**56]  were injured during athletic activities. See Maj. Op. at 19.

Accordingly, like the school-athlete relationship at issue in Kleinknecht, the relationship between Lackawanna College and its intercollegiate football players weighs in favor of recognizing a duty.

B. Althaus (2): The social utility of the actor’s conduct

The conduct at issue in any negligence case is the “act or omission upon which liability is asserted.” Walters, 187 A.3d at  [*30]  234. In cases in which an actor’s omission is at issue, courts must consider not only the social utility of the actor’s conduct, but also the utility of the individual’s failure to act. For example, in Walters, this Court weighed the social utility of UPMC providing health care services to the community against the utility of UPMC’s failure to report a former employee’s theft of fentanyl to the appropriate authorities. Although we concluded that UPMC’s provision of health care was beneficial to society, we found that its failure to take “steps to enhance public safety” by ensuring that its former employee did not “repeat his dangerous and criminal conduct” lacked any social utility. Id. at 235.

Similarly, in Phillips, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, this Court weighed the social utility of a company manufacturing butane lighters [**57]  against the utility of the company’s failure to manufacture these lighters with child safety features. After opining that the lighters had obvious social utility, we observed:

[T]he evidence does not show that the utility of the lighter is increased when a child safety device is lacking. Conversely, it is readily apparent that a device which would prevent small children, who lack the discretion and caution of the average adult, from creating a flame would have great utility in our society.

Id. at 659-60. Therefore, we concluded that this factor weighed in favor of imposing a duty.11

Here, we must weigh the social utility of Lackawanna College maintaining an intercollegiate athletic program against the utility of the college’s failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available to its student-athletes during football tryouts. Unquestionably, intercollegiate athletics furnish many benefits. As the Supreme Court of California observed in Avila, “[i]ntercollegiate competition allows a school to, on the smallest scale, offer its students the benefits of athletic participation and, on the largest scale, reap the economic and marketing benefits that derive from maintenance of [**58]  a major sports program.” Avila, 131 P.3d at 392. Intercollegiate athletic programs provide numerous revenue sources for colleges. In addition to the money colleges earn from ticket sales at intercollegiate athletic events, successful athletic programs serve as magnets for corporate sponsorships and substantial donations from alumni and fans.12 These programs also exponentially increase the sales of merchandise bearing the school’s name, mascot, and logo, generating significant profits for schools.13

Intercollegiate athletic programs also may increase the school’s marketability and enrollment.14 These programs inevitably  [*31]  facilitate the recruitment of other athletes, who desire to play for a reputable team. Intercollegiate athletics attract media attention, expanding the school’s visibility to prospective students. Further, the culture surrounding intercollegiate athletic programs improves the quality of students’ college experience by fostering and enhancing school spirit, and by offering students the opportunity to participate in a variety of social activities that attend these sports. Thus, by improving the quality of campus life, such programs enhance the school’s appeal to athletes and non-athletes [**59]  alike. Additionally, cheering for or participating in intercollegiate sports often creates a lasting connection between students and their universities, increasing the likelihood that they will donate to the school as alumni, recommend the school to potential students, or otherwise volunteer their services in order to help the school succeed.

In contrast, Lackawanna’s failure to ensure that certified athletic trainers were available during football tryouts lacks any social utility. Undoubtedly, the availability of qualified medical personnel such as certified athletic trainers increases the social utility of intercollegiate programs by providing athletes with proper medical care, and by preventing injuries like Feleccia’s and Resch’s. Moreover, as discussed more fully infra, the college’s failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available severely undermined the benefits that intercollegiate athletics generate.

Thus, because the social utility of maintaining intercollegiate athletic programs is great, and because the failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes during intercollegiate contact sports lacks any social utility, [**60]  this factor weighs in favor of imposing a duty.

C. Althaus (3): The nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred

In addition to identifying the nature of a college’s relationship with its student-athletes as a basis for imposing a duty of care upon the college, the Kleinknecht court also found that the college owed its athletes a duty of care based upon the foreseeability of severe injury at a practice for a contact sport. Here, the risk of injury exceeded the risk at issue in Kleinknecht. As observed by amicus curiae, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (“NATA”), collegiate football has one of the highest injury rates of all collegiate sports, and the preseason practice injury rate is over twice the rate during in-season practices. See Amicus Brief for NATA at 8. Moreover, college football players routinely suffer severe injuries. The drill that led to Feleccia’s and Resch’s injuries was a variation of the once-prevalent Oklahoma Drill, a tackling drill that has been the subject of extensive criticism during recent concussion litigation.15 Two experts, including the former head football coach at Texas A&M University and a certified athletic trainer at Stevenson [**61]  University, also opined that Lackawanna College ran a particularly dangerous variant of the drill.16

 [*32]  The foreseeability of the risk of the exacerbation of practice injuries was only enhanced when Lackawanna College employed Alexis Bonisese and Kaitlin Coyne to fulfill the roles of athletic trainers, despite the school’s awareness that these two individuals possessed neither the athletic training certifications nor the skills necessary to perform the duties of athletic trainers. See Maj. Op. at 3-4, 19. By employing Bonisese and Coyne, Lackawanna College not only failed to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available to care for injured football players, but also created an additional risk for the College’s athletes by allowing them to receive care and advice from unqualified individuals whom the athletes believed to be certified trainers. The athletes thus were unable to make an informed decision as to whether to consult or follow the recommendations of (uncertified) staff, exposing those athletes to the hidden risk of greater injury arising from bad advice.17

Given the magnitude and frequency with which players [**62]  sustain serious injury in contact sports, and football in particular, and given the likelihood that uncertified individuals undertaking the responsibilities of athletic trainers will render bad advice that further endangers athletes, the harm that Feleccia and Resch suffered was entirely foreseeable. In light of these considerations, Lackawanna College’s failure to protect against these risks was unreasonable, and this factor weighs in favor of imposing a duty on colleges in favor of student-athletes.

D. Althaus (4): The consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor

Requiring colleges to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes participating in intercollegiate contact sports undoubtedly imposes a financial burden upon colleges and universities, particularly small colleges lacking the resources of larger institutions. Some schools may be hard-pressed to find the money to fulfill this obligation, and could face a difficult decision between cutting spending in other areas of their budgets and reducing the number of intercollegiate sports that they offer. Additionally, it may be difficult for some colleges to find qualified medical personnel who are willing [**63]  to work for their schools, depending upon the individual’s salary requirements and the location of the college. However, for several mitigating reasons, these burdens weigh only modestly, if at all, against imposing a duty upon colleges.

First, this duty is limited. Like Lackawanna College, the college in Kleinknecht contended that imposing a duty of care would create a slippery slope, requiring colleges to provide medical personnel for all sports, irrespective of whether the sport posed a substantial risk of injury or whether the college sponsored or supervised the athletic event. The Third Circuit rejected this argument as an “unwarranted extension” of its holding, explaining that the duty it imposed was limited to the particular facts of the case in which an athlete suffered a medical emergency  [*33]  while participating in an intercollegiate contact sport for which the college had recruited him. Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1370-71. I agree generally with the Kleinknecht court’s suggested limitation,18 such that the duty in question should extend only to intercollegiate contact sports. At least for present purposes, other athletic activities, such as intramurals, necessarily fall outside the scope of this duty.19

Second, Lackawanna College and colleges like it are tuition-dependent for the bulk of their revenue. See Deposition of Suellen Musewicz, 11/11/14, at 15. For all the reasons discussed above, maintaining an intercollegiate athletic program attracts more students, increasing tuition revenue. Indeed, Feleccia and Resch both averred that they attended Lackawanna College because they wanted to participate in its football program.20 Furthermore, although hiring qualified medical personnel such as certified athletic trainers increases the cost of colleges’ athletic programs, it also can increase the appeal of these programs to prospective student-athletes, in additional service of the above-stated benefits. By contrast, developing a reputation for employing unqualified individuals to treat injured players has the potential to decrease the number of students willing to participate on a college’s sports teams. Failing to ensure that injured athletes have access to proper medical care during athletic events increases injury rates, decreasing the college’s ability to capitalize on the benefits that successful programs generate. Additionally, such failures can result in litigation [**65]  (as evidenced by the present case), which presents its own financial and reputational challenges for colleges.

Third, hiring qualified medical personnel is hardly cost-prohibitive. This is particularly true because the number of medical personnel a college must employ to cover its intercollegiate contact sports is dependent upon a variety of factors unique to each college. As one example, NATA has promulgated worksheets to assist colleges in calculating an appropriate amount of medical coverage for their athletic programs. These worksheets incorporate many factors, including the intercollegiate sports that the college offers, the injury rates of those sports, the length of each sport’s season, and the number of participating athletes.

Using Lackawanna College as an example, to be staffed adequately in-season for all sports during the 2009-10 academic year according to NATA’s recommendations, one expert opined that the college needed to hire approximately 2.27 full-time athletic trainers. See Expert Report of M.  [*34]  Scott Zema, 9/28/15, at 4 (unnumbered). This number is roughly consistent with the two full-time certified athletic trainers that Lackawanna College had on staff prior to employing [**66]  Bonisese and Coyne, an expense that evidently was deemed cost-effective at the time. Thus, requiring Lackawanna College to meet NATA’s suggestion would require it to do little more than restore the staffing it had prior to creating the dubious “first responder” positions for the uncertified Bonisese and Coyne.

In short, the consequences of recognizing this duty are not de minimis, but this impact is offset by the aforementioned considerations, particularly when considering the facts of this case. Thus, in my view, the fourth Althaus factor weighs only slightly, if at all, against imposing a duty.

E. Althaus (5): The overall public interest in the proposed solution

In cases in which we have considered whether one party owed a duty to another, this Court time and again has observed that the concept of duty amounts to “the sum total of those considerations of policy which led the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection.” See Sinn v. Burd, 486 Pa. 146, 404 A.2d 672, 681 (Pa. 1979) (quoting Leong v. Takasaki, 55 Haw. 398, 520 P.2d 758, 764 (Haw. 1974)). Accordingly, like Dean Prosser, we have recognized:

These are shifting sands, and no fit foundation . . . . The word serves a useful purpose in directing attention to the obligation to be imposed upon the defendant, rather than the [**67]  causal sequence of events; beyond that it serves none. In the decision whether or not there is a duty, many factors interplay: The hand of history, our ideas of morals and justice, the convenience of administration of the rule, and our social ideas as to where the loss should fall. In the end the court will decide whether there is a duty on the basis of the mores of the community, “always keeping in mind the fact that we endeavor to make a rule in each case that will be practical and in keeping with the general understanding of mankind.”

Gardner ex rel. Gardner v. CONRAIL, 573 A.2d 1016, 1020, 524 Pa. 445 (Pa. 1990) (quoting William L. Prosser, Palsgraf Revisited, 52 Mich. L. Rev. 1, 14-15 (1953)). Thus, a duty arises, in part, from society’s interest in protecting the plaintiff from a certain harm.

In Kleinknecht and in the present case, the public has a substantial interest in protecting the health and well-being of intercollegiate athletes. As the Superior Court observed, “[c]olleges are expected to put a priority on the health and safety of their students, especially student[-]athletes engaged in dangerous sports.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1219. As discussed supra, student-athletes participating in intercollegiate contact sports face a significant and foreseeable risk of acute injury, and colleges benefit considerably [**68]  from students’ participation in their athletic programs. The receipt of such benefits at the expense of these athletes’ health and well-being is, as one scholar opined, “grossly unfair.”21

Colleges are best positioned to ensure that their athletes receive timely, competent medical attention when they participate in contact sports. In theory, one might suggest that student-athletes could  [*35]  seek out their own treatment when they are injured and decide for themselves when they feel well enough to return to play. The wisdom of imposing such a responsibility on student-athletes is questionable, at best. Scholars have observed that, when allowed to make their own decisions regarding injuries and returning to play, collegiate athletes often are willing to sacrifice their bodies in pursuit of their athletic goals, and to take great risks because they believe themselves to be impervious to injury.22 Further, in addition to the pressure that they place upon themselves, student-athletes also experience pressure from coaches, teammates, parents, sponsors, and the media to perform despite their injuries.23 This pressure can cause athletes to return to play before recovering fully from an illness [**69]  or injury or to play through pain rather than receiving necessary medical attention.24 These considerations are only amplified in the context of a competitive tryout, when an athlete may fear losing the chance to play entirely. Moreover, the extensive training and certification required of an athletic trainer demonstrates just how unqualified student-athletes are to make their own decisions regarding whether they need medical attention and when they can return to play.25

Our Commonwealth’s imposition of rigorous requirements on those wishing to claim the title “athletic trainer” also demonstrates the interest of our citizens, expressed through their General Assembly, in ensuring that athletes who seek athletic training services receive a certain standard of care. The Medical Practice Act of 1985 and its implementing regulations prohibit unlicensed individuals from using the title “athletic trainer” or providing athletic training services, and allow the imposition of injunctions and penalties on those who [**70]  violate the Act.26 As these laws indicate,  [*36]  the interest of Pennsylvania and its citizens in the health and safety of student-athletes is particularly great when a college affirmatively purports to provide its athletes with care from certified athletic trainers while in fact allowing uncertified individuals to masquerade in performing athletic training duties. In such circumstances, an athlete’s decision-making ability regarding his medical care and return to play not only is compromised by the aforementioned pressures, but also is impaired by his ignorance of the caregiver’s lack of qualification to deliver advice.

Lackawanna College’s conduct makes clear that the public’s interest in protecting the health and safety of intercollegiate athletes cannot be entrusted categorically to colleges based upon the assumption that they will in all instances ensure that their athletic departments are staffed adequately to provide treatment to injured student-athletes. Judicial recognition of this duty is necessary to ensure that colleges take the necessary precautions to protect their athletes from injury by holding them accountable for failing to fulfill this obligation.

Because the public [**71]  has a strong interest in protecting collegiate athletes from injury, and from receiving athletic training services from uncertified individuals, this factor also weighs in favor of imposing a duty.

IV. Conclusion

Based upon this analysis of the Althaus factors, the better view of Pennsylvania law is that colleges and universities bear a duty to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes when the athletes participate in intercollegiate contact sports. Whether Lackawanna College breached this duty, and whether this breach caused Feleccia’s and Resch’s injuries, remain questions for the jury.27 Thus, while I agree with the Majority to the extent that it concludes that Lackawanna College owed a duty to Feleccia and Resch in this case, I disagree with the Majority’s choice to limit its holding to this case-specific evaluation of this school’s particular representations and these parties’ course of conduct. Unintentionally, but in practical effect, such limitation may create a perverse incentive for institutions like Lackawanna College to do less rather than more to protect their athletes by encouraging the institutions to make no representations at all.

End of Document


Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Grant Tuttle et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

Heavenly Valley, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

G056427

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

February 5, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2015- 00813230 Nathan R. Scott, Judge. Affirmed.

The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

DUNNING, J. [*]

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.[ 1] Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant ;unreasonably increased the risks… over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing. The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

THE RELEASE

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.[ 2] The release begins with an all-capital advisement: WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS. Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. In paragraph 2, she ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS… known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions;… variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features;… [and] collisions. Paragraph 5 advised: The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY… for… injury or loss to [her], including death. This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE…. In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was binding to the fullest extent permitted by law… on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

II.

THE ACCIDENT AND THE LAWSUIT

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.[ 3] Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

III.

THE JURY TRIAL

The jury trial spanned five weeks.[ 4] The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered yes to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel were not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the jurors’ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.[ 5] The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and-release of liability and waiver was executed-existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated. (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could end up finding that the release was not valid and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as the release in evidence releases negligence. And the questions on the verdict form go[] to gross negligence, and-this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk. Defendant’s counsel remarked the dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: Right. Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, [a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form…. [¶]… If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them-you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

THE SPECIAL VERDICT

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

Yes X No __

4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes __ No X

If you answered Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question 5. [¶] If you answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

If you answered Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number 0′ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes X No __

Because the jury answered yes to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2, 131, 831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

ENTRY OF A DEFENSE JUDGMENT

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1, 065, 915.50, plus costs and interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.[ 6]

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle. The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: [D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.’

The trial court acknowledged the structure of the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

PLAINTIFFS’ POSTJUDGMENT MOTIONS

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint. (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence, [ 7] the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ postjudgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

THE RELEASE COVERED TUTTLE’S ACCIDENT.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

OVERVIEW: ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight)[ 8] and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.[ 9] Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility. (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.’ (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

ANALYSIS

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only concern is whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.’ (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise. She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it FROM ALL LIABILITY… BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE. No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, inherent or otherwise did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, [t]he term otherwise,’ when paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’… is best understood to mean NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release bears many similarities to the release in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently and unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning (id. at p.1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.’ (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use the word negligence’ or any particular verbiage… [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee. (Id. at pp. 1488 1489.) The release in Cohen used the word negligence only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release also did not indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities. (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5that p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. [ 10] (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

ENFORCEMENT OF THE RELEASE DOES NOT VIOLATE CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC POLICY.

Plaintiffs next argue the release’s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of aggravated negligence. Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release of other forms of aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence. (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for any negligent act’ related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence. (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668, [ 11] impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence. (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to aggravated wrongs (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and aggravated misconduct (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, the distinction between ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary. (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ENTERING JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other postjudgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING SPECIAL VERDICTS

A special verdict must include conclusions of fact as established by the evidence… [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation may be disregarded as surplusage. (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703.) Additionally, where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.’ (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092.)

B.

THE TRIAL COURT’S RULING

As noted, the jury was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form…. But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer YES’ to one question and NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages. (Italics and bold omitted.)

The trial court further explained: Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶]… [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion-a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw-that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.

The trial court also correctly concluded the jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.

C.

ANALYSIS

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring a statutorily authorized post-trial motion challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine as is and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179 [because the defendant did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

PLAINTIFFS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they excepted to those errors, but then were penalized because the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley. Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431, [ 12] to which they agreed, misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options. Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which… made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs]… were… induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs]. This characterization misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or worked against plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would proceed with the verdict form as is. This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third−and significantly−plaintiffs’ counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

WE CONCUR: BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J.

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Notes:

[*] Retired judge of the Orange Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

[ 1] We refer to Dana Tuttle as Tuttle and to her spouse and sons collectively as plaintiffs. We refer to Heavenly Valley as defendant.

Plaintiffs erroneously identified Heavenly Valley in the complaint as the Vail Corporation. There is no dispute Heavenly Valley is the correct defendant in this case.

[ 2] Tuttle purchased the ski pass online. No actual signature was required; she signed the release by clicking the appropriate box on the electronic form.

[ 3] The jury exonerated Slater from liability. He is not a party to this appeal.

[ 4] The appellate record is lengthy. Given the limited issues before this court, however, we do not recite the trial evidence in detail.

[ 5] The trial court denied defendant’s first nonsuit motion two days earlier. At that time, the trial judge announced he would be prepared to find as a matter of law that colliding with a snowboarder or colliding with a tree is an inherent risk of skiing, but the jury would decide whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk of the sport.

[ 6] Defendant also requested a statement of decision addressing the applicability of primary implied and express assumption of the risk doctrines; the trial court denied the request. The trial court’s denial of this request is not at issue in this appeal.

[ 7] Plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in this appeal.

[ 8] Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296 was a plurality decision authored by Chief Justice George that all members of the court except Justice Kennard subsequently accepted. (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 107, citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 491.)

[ 9] Whether a risk is inherent to a particular active sport presents a question of law for the court. (Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 23 (Hass).)

[ 10] So it is here. Paragraph 13 of Tuttle’s release also binds her assignees, subrogors, distributors, heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

A wrongful death action is not a derivative action. Nonetheless, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk. (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 851 852; see Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 25 [In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks’ acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action].)

[ 11] Civil Code section 1668 lists the types of contractual releases that are unenforceable as a matter of public policy (i.e., those exempting anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent). Gross negligence is not on the list.

[ 12] Plaintiffs do not challenge the modified version of CACI No. 431 in this court, either. The modified instruction read: If you find that Heavenly Valley unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, or that Heavenly Valley was grossly negligent, and also find that Heavenly Valley’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm, then Heavenly Valley is responsible for the harm. Heavenly Valley cannot avoid responsibility just because some other person, condition, or event, including but not limited to Dana Tuttle’s own negligence or the acts of Anthony Slater were also a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm.

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Backing of a lift ticket peeled off by Plaintiff to attach lift ticket to his jacket held by Federal District court to be a release and prevents plaintiffs’ claims for skiing into hidden snow making equipment.

Five Federal District Courts have ruled that the information on the back of a lift ticket is a release. No state Courts have ruled this way.

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

State: New Hampshire, United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Thomas Jackson Miller

Defendant: The Sunapee Difference, LLC d/b/a Mount Sunapee Resort

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Facts

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

The major difference in this case was the lift ticket identified itself as a release. The back of the lift ticket, on the part that peeled away to reveal the sticky section where the lift ticket attached to itself to create a two-sided lift ticket stated:

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket was the following:

STOP

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The Lift Ticket itself stated:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

The language on this lift ticket specifically stated that it was a release, not just a lift ticket and not just a warning.

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

The court first looked at New Hampshire law on releases.

Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

The plaintiff argued that the release was void because it violated public policy, and a reasonable person would only understand that the release applied to the inherent risks of skiing.

New Hampshire public policy requires a showing that no special relationship exists between the parties to the agreement and there is no disparity in the bargaining power between the parties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found that an agreement would violate public policy if “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.”

The plaintiff admitted that there was no special relationship between the parties nor was there a disparity of bargaining power. He centered his public policy argument on the theory that the release violated New Hampshire statutory law and that the release was injurious so the public interest. The statutory law argument was based on the New Hampshire Ski Area Act. The Act requires ski area operators to mark visible man-made objects. This object was not visible so therefor the plaintiff argued it should be marked and therefore, was negligence not to pad or mark it. However, the court would not buy into adding language to the statute where none existed. On top of that another section of the statute specially stated a ski assumes the risks of hitting snow making equipment.

The next argument advanced to argue the release violated public policy was based on several prior court decisions that held there was a duty on the state to do things. However, here again, the court found the was no duty in the New Hampshire Ski Area Act other than found in the plain language of the act. The duty the plaintiff was attempting to create was based on tying different sections of the act together that were not related.

The final public policy argument was because the ski area, Mount Sunapee was located on state-owned land and developed with federal funding, that created a greater duty to the public. However, the plaintiff could not provide any support for this theory, other than arguing sections of the lease between the ski area, and the state required it. The court found there was no language in the lease that created supported a public policy argument.

In most states, to create a contract, there are several requirements. One of those is there must be a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the minds requires the parties to know they are entering into a contract and the general terms of the agreement. This was clearly not the case in this situation (and in most lift ticket cases); however, New Hampshire does not require a meeting of the minds to enforce a contract.

The plaintiff then argued that without a signature, there could be a release. However, New Hampshire had a lot of case law where unsigned contracts were enforced.

The plaintiff argued he did not have an opportunity to read the release. However, that does not matter in New Hampshire and in most states when you sign it. However, here there was no signature.

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of the release.” As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced.

Here the court sort of worked its way around that issue because it found the plaintiff was a personal injury attorney. The plaintiff had submitted affidavits on the issue, which the court found lacking in the information needed to support the plaintiff’s arguments. The court did hammer plaintiff’s counsel at oral argument until plaintiff’s counsel admitted he had the opportunity to read it if he wanted.

Another issue is what the parties were contemplating when they made the agreement. A requirement for a contract under New Hampshire law. The court found the language of the release, which it had earlier found valid, contained the necessary information to define what the intention of the release was.

If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .”

The court then went into the Reckless, Wanton or positive misconduct claims of the plaintiff. New Hampshire has adopted the Restatement of Torts definition of Reckless.

Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.”

The court further defined reckless under New Hampshire law as:

…at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.

However, the court found that the pleadings of the plaintiff pled no more than simple negligence. Meaning the facts argued by the plaintiff did not rise to the level needed to create a recklessness claim.

The court summed up its analogy as:

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

So Now What?

It seemed obvious that this court was going to hold for the ski area. The decision explored all the arguments and possible arguments the plaintiff’s made and then ruled for the defendants.

The back of the pass had more than normal warning language as required by most statutes. This peel away release stated it was a release. There is also an issue that the purchaser of the lift ticket had already paid for the ticket before they found out there was a release giving rise to misrepresentation and fraud claim may be.

What is interesting is the change in the past five year, only in Federal District Courts holding that a lift ticket is a valid release at least mentioning the lift ticket as more than a receipt or a pass to access the lifts.

For more articles about Lift Tickets being used to stop lawsuits at ski areas see:

Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states    http://rec-law.us/1bO85eU

Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.    http://rec-law.us/2vHUXf1

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Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

March 31, 2018, Decided; March 31, 2018, Filed

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

Counsel:  [**1] For Thomas Jackson Miller, Plaintiff: Arend R. Tensen, Cullenberg & Tensen, Lebanon, NH.

For The Sunapee Difference, LLC, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort, other Mount Sunapee Resort, Defendant: Thomas B.S. Quarles, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Brendan P Mitchell, Devine Millimet & Branch PA, Manchester, NH.

Judges: Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Invoking the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), plaintiff Thomas Jackson Miller, a New York resident, sued The Sunapee Difference, LLC, operator of the Mount Sunapee Resort (“Mount Sunapee”), a New Hampshire ski area, for injuries he sustained when he struck the unmarked and unpadded post that was concealed by fresh snow. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), Mount Sunapee moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the liability release printed on Miller’s [**2]  lift ticket bars his claim. Miller argues that the release is unenforceable under New Hampshire law and inapplicable on its face. As both sides submitted  [*585]  documents outside the pleadings in litigating this motion, the court has, with the parties’ consent,1 converted the motion into one for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).2 Having considered the parties’ filings and hearing oral argument, the court finds that the release is both applicable and enforceable, and therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Mount Sunapee.3

I. Applicable legal standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3]  internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

II. Background

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket [**4]  was the following:

 [*586]  STOP

[a red octagon image similar to a traffic-control “stop sign”]

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area [**5]  or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

(Emphasis in original).

After timely filing this lawsuit,5 Miller filed an Amended Complaint6 asserting a single count of negligence. He alleges that Mount Sunapee failed to mark or warn skiers of the pipe, or otherwise mitigate its danger to skiers, by, for example, padding it or making it visible to skiers. In addition, Miller alleges that Mount Sunapee breached its duties to create a safe environment for guests, and to perform in-season trail maintenance [**6]  work. Finally, Miller claims that Mount Sunapee is liable because it failed to comply with N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:23 (II)(b), which provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he ski area operator shall warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.”7

 [*587]  III. Analysis

As noted at the outset, Sunapee argues that the release printed on Miller’s lift ticket — in combination with the acceptance of its terms on the backing sheet — bars his claim. “Although New Hampshire law generally prohibits a plaintiff from releasing a defendant from liability for negligent conduct, in limited circumstances a plaintiff can expressly consent by contract to assume the risk of injury caused by a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 413, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002). Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract. McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009) (citing Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)); Lizzol v. Brothers Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 DNH 199, *7.

Plaintiff argues that the [**7]  release satisfies none of these criteria, because: 1) it violates public policy; 2) a reasonable person would have understood the release to exclude only “inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in New Hampshire’s “ski statute,” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24; 3) the release does not encompass reckless, wanton, or willful conduct; and 4) the release is unsigned.

A. Public policy

“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that an exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543 (quoting Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has also found an agreement to be against public policy “if, among other things, it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Id. (citing Harper v. Healthsource New Hampshire, 140 N.H. 770, 775, 674 A.2d 962 (1996)). Miller does not argue that he had a special relationship with Mount Sunapee or that there was a disparity in bargaining power between the two.8 Instead, he confines his public policy argument to two points: 1) that the release violates New Hampshire statutory law; and 2) that it is injurious to the interest of the public. Neither argument [**8]  withstands scrutiny.

1. New Hampshire statutory law

Miller argues that the combination of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 225-A:23, II, and 225-A:24 requires ski area operators to plainly mark or make visible snow-making equipment. Therefore, he concludes, applying the release to the allegedly hidden snow gun holder would allow Mount Sunapee to impermissibly evade this statutory responsibility. As a general proposition, Miller is correct that a release can not excuse a ski area‘s statutory violation. Harper, 140 N.H. at 775; cf. Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, 140 N.H. 675, 683, 671 A.2d 548 (1996) (noting, in ski accident case, that ski areas’ immunity does not apply to claim based on statutory violation). However, Miller’s argument here is built on a faulty premise — that  [*588]  § 225-A:24, denoted “Responsibilities of Skiers and Passengers” — imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to mark or make visible snow-making equipment. The court rejects this argument for several reasons.

First, Miller attempts, without legal support, to create an affirmative duty out of the text of § 225-A:24 where none exists. Section 225-A:24 “is an immunity provision for ski area operators.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). It has been “interpreted to mean that ski area operators owe no duty to skiers to protect them from the inherent risks of skiing.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area/Gunstock Area Comm’n, 146 N.H. 495, 497, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001). One of the inherent “risks, hazards, or dangers which [**9]  the skier . . . assumes as a matter of law” is “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment.” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Miller argues that because unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment is not “an inherent risk” enumerated by the statute, ski areas therefore have a statutory duty to mark them or make them visible.

This argument is both contrary to the language of the statute and unsupported by any legal authority. While the language of the statutory immunity provision — enumerating a “Skier’s Responsibilities” — arguably does not bar Miller’s claim9 that he struck an unmarked and not visible piece of equipment, it likewise creates no affirmative duties for ski areas. Stated differently, while New Hampshire law may allow
ski area liability for injuries resulting from collisions with unmarked equipment, it does not logically follow that New Hampshire law requires the marking of such equipment. The statute sets forth no such obligation or legal duty.

To avoid the plain language of §225-A:24, Miller argues that Rayeski, supra, imposes an affirmative duty on Mount Sunapee when read in conjunction with § 225-A:23. In that case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, invoking §225-A:24, upheld the dismissal of a skier’s claim for injuries sustained [**10]  in a collision with an unmarked light pole. 146 N.H. at 500. The plaintiff in Rayeski argued that the light pole collision was similar to a collision with unmarked snow-making equipment, which the statute “implies . . . is not an inherent risk of skiing” by not barring such a claim. Id. at 498. In the course of finding that the pole collision was an inherent risk of skiing (despite not being specifically enumerated as such in the statute), the Court distinguished between poles and snow making equipment:

We conclude that the legislature’s explicit reference to “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment” was intended to balance the immunity granted to ski area operators under RSA 225-A:24 with their duty under RSA 225-A:23, II(b) (2000) to warn skiers of snow making or grooming activities by denying immunity to ski area operators who breach a statutorily imposed safety responsibility.

Id. (emphasis added).

Based on the emphasized language, Miller argues that § 225-A:23 required Mount Sunapee to mark or make visible the snow gun holder he struck. This argument ignores the plain language both of Rayeski and the statute. The Rayeski
opinion referred only to “snow making or grooming activities,” and made no reference to marking equipment. And [**11]  the statute, captioned “Base Area; Information to Skiers and  [*589]  Passengers,” requires that a ski area operator “warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.” (Emphasis added). Thus, contrary to Miller’s argument, this section imposes no requirement to “mark or make visible” the snow gun holder at issue in this case. Instead, the statute requires the ski area to post “at the base area” a warning concerning grooming and snowmaking operations, if applicable.
10See Nardone v. Mt. Cranmore, Civ. No. 91-114-SD, slip op. at 6-7 (holding that § 225-A:23, II(b)‘s warning requirement does not apply where snowmaking was not in progress and where plaintiff collided with fixed, unmarked piece of snowmaking equipment) (emphasis added).11 Miller does not dispute Mount Sunapee’s contention that there was no grooming or snow making “in progress” at the time of or in the vicinity of Miller’s accident.12 An inoperative snow gun holder is neither an “activity” nor an “operation.”

Further undermining Miller’s argument that § 225-A:24 creates obligations for ski area
operators is the fact that [**12]  its five sub-sections are explicitly and unambiguously addressed to skiers and passengers (as opposed to ski area
operators), as follows: I) “Each person who participates in the sport of skiing . . . accepts . . . the dangers inherent in the sport . . . .”; II) “Each skier and passenger shall have the sole responsibility . . . “; III) “Each skier or passenger shall conduct himself or herself . . .”; IV) “Each passenger shall be the sole judge of his ability . . .”; V) “No skier or passenger or other person shall . . .” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I-V (emphasis added).

In addition, under New Hampshire statutory construction law, “[t]he title of a statute is ‘significant when considered in connection with . . . ambiguities inherent in its language.'” Appeal of Weaver, 150 N.H. 254, 256, 837 A.2d 294 (2003) (quoting State v. Rosario, 148 N.H. 488, 491, 809 A.2d 1283 (2002); see also, Berniger v. Meadow Green-Wildcat Corp., 945 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1991) (interpreting N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24 and observing that “[i]t is well established that a statute’s title may aid in construing any ambiguities in a statute.”). As noted, the title of § 225-A:24 is explicitly directed at “skiers and passengers,” not ski area operators. While this court discerns no such ambiguity that would justify a foray into ascertaining “legislative intent,” our Court of Appeals has stated that “the title indicates the legislative intent to limit the application [**13]  of [§ 225-A:24] to skiers and passengers and similar classes of individuals, which does not include a ski operator or its employees.” Berniger, 945 F.2d at 9 (1st Cir. 1991). This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the preceding provision, § 225-A:23, is captioned “Responsibilities of Ski Area Operators,” further  [*590]  suggesting § 225-A:24‘s inapplicability here. This statutory structure — clearly distinguishing ski area operator responsibilities from visitor responsibilities — is especially important in light of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s requirement that statutes be construed “as a whole.” Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721, 82 A.3d 917 (2013); see also, Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2529, 186 L. Ed. 2d 503 (2013) (“Just as Congress’ choice of words is presumed to be deliberate, so too are its structural choices.”); DeVere v. Attorney General, 146 N.H. 762, 766, 781 A.2d 24 (2001) (noting that structure of a statute can be an interpretive tool). Accordingly, the court finds that the Mount Sunapee release does not impermissibly seek to avoid statutory liability.13

In addition to his misplaced reliance on Rayeski, Miller also argues that the McGrath Court’s allowance of liability releases is “limited to situations where the public statute at issue contains a statutorily imposed enforcement mechanism,” which allows state officials to protect the public interest by imposing [**14]  penalties on violators.14

The holding in McGrath, which involved a snowmobiling accident, is not as broad as plaintiff posits. It is true that the Court in McGrath, in rejecting a claim that a liability waiver violated public policy because it allowed defendants to avoid certain snowmobile safety statutes, noted that the waiver did not affect the State’s ability to enforce snowmobiling rules and penalize infractions, and thus did not entirely relieve the defendant property owners of any statutory responsibility. 158 N.H. at 543 (citing N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 215-C:32 and 34). But several factors undercut Miller’s reliance on McGrath. First, plaintiff’s argument is premised on his assertion that Mount Sunapee is trying to avoid liability for a statutory violation. The court has already rejected plaintiff’s premise as an untenable reading of §§ 225-A:23 and 24. Next, the State enforcement criterion was not dispositive in McGrath, as the Court found that the liability waiver did not contravene public policy because, “[i]rrespective of the statute, the plaintiff has voluntarily agreed not to hold the ski area, or its employees, liable for injuries resulting from negligence so that she may obtain a season ski pass.” Id. at 543 (emphasis added). In addition, even [**15]  if the court read McGrath to require a state law enforcement vehicle to protect the public interest, the New Hampshire ski statutes do in fact provide one. Under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:26, “any person . . . violating this chapter . . . shall be guilty of a violation if a natural person, or guilty of a misdemeanor if any other person.”

Plaintiff argues that this statutory enforcement provision is limited to tramway operations, and thus does not satisfy McGrath. He supports this argument with a letter from a supervisor at the New Hampshire Division of Fire Safety,15 which  [*591]  correctly observes, pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:3-a, that the authority of the Passenger Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”16 The letter also states that the penalty provision of § 225-A:26 “specifically relates to operating a tramway without it first being registered.”17 The letter also specifically mentions §§ 225-A:23 and 24, as being outside the tramway board’s authority.18

There are several reasons why the letter does not advance plaintiff’s statutory argument. First, the letter is not properly part of the summary judgment record. According to its terms, it was sent in response [**16]  to plaintiff’s counsel’s request for documents concerning the enforcement of § 225-A:26. However, “[i]n opposing a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must proffer admissible evidence that could be accepted by a rational trier of fact as sufficient to establish the necessary proposition.” Gomez-Gonzalez v. Rural Opportunities, Inc., 626 F.3d 654, 662 n.3 (1st Cir. 2010) (emphasis added). The letter itself is inadmissible hearsay, as it is being offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted with respect to enforcement of § 225-A:23 and 24. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2); see also Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 2011) (“It is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment for the truth of the matter asserted.”). Moreover, although apparently issued by a government office (the plaintiff made no effort to lay such a foundation), the letter is not admissible under the Public Records hearsay exception. See
Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) (requiring, for admissibility, the evidence in question to, inter alia, set out the public office’s activities and involve a matter observed while under a legal duty to report). It is true that some forms of evidence, such as affidavits and declarations, may be considered on summary judgment, even if they would not be admissible at trial, so long as they “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence” [**17]  if the affiant or declarant testified to them at trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4). The letter in question, however, is neither an affidavit nor a declaration. In addition to being an unsworn letter, it fails to show how the letter writer is expressing “personal knowledge,” and fails to show that she is “competent to testify on the matters stated,” as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); see also
Fed. R. Evid. 602 (personal knowledge requirement).

Next, even if the letter was properly before the court, it lacks any legal force, either as a pronouncement of New Hampshire law, or an interpretation thereof. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:8 empowers the Tramway Safety Board to make rules regarding tramways. “Rules and Regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, pursuant to a valid delegation of authority, have the full force and effect of laws.” State v. Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. 794, 803, 887 A.2d 1133 (2005). Under New Hampshire administrative law, however, as set forth under its Administrative Procedure Act, the letter in question is not a rule, and thus lacks such force. It is simply a letter answering a question posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer. See
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 541-A:1, XV (explicitly excluding, under definition of “Rule,” “informational pamphlets, letters or other explanatory materials which refer to a statute or rule without affecting its substance or [**18]  interpretation”). Notably, the plaintiff cites no provision of New Hampshire’s administrative  [*592]  law involving the Passenger Tramway Safety Board or Rules which support his theory. See N.H. Code. Admin. R. Ann. (PAS 301.01 et. seq. (2016)).

Finally, even if the letter was a properly admissible part of the summary judgment record in support of the proposition that the enforcement of § 225-A:26 is limited to tramway operations, and even if it were a duly-promulgated article of New Hampshire administrative law, it still fails to advance the plaintiff’s argument (to the extent it even addresses the issue before the court), because it incorrectly contradicts the governing statute, § 225-A:26.

As noted, the letter states that the authority of the Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”19 This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, as it tracks the language of § 225-A:3-a. That observation misses the point, however, as § 225-A:26 does not limit enforcement of § 225-A to the Tramway Board. To the contrary, the statute holds “any person” “guilty” of a violation or misdemeanor for violations of “this chapter,” i.e., the entirety of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A, a chapter which [**19]  addresses a wider variety of ski-related activities than ski lifts and tramways. Thus, the letter contradicts the plain language of the statute by inaccurately portraying the applicability of § 225-A:26 as limited to “operating a tramway without it first being registered.”20 Under New Hampshire law, “[r]ules adopted by administrative agencies may not add to, detract from, or in any way modify statutory law,” Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. at 803, and the letter’s pronouncement, even it were a duly adopted Rule, would be invalid. See Appeal of Gallant, 125 N.H. 832, 834, 485 A.2d 1034 (1984) (noting that agency regulations that contradict the terms of a governing statute exceed the agency’s authority and are void). The statute penalizes not only failing to register, but also “violating this chapter or rules of the [Tramway Safety] board.” (emphasis added). In effect, the plaintiff is asking the court to ignore the plain language of the statute in favor of a letter which is neither properly before the court nor is a valid administrative rule and which fails to address the issue before the court — the scope of § 225-A:26. The court is not free to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, New Hampshire’s Administrative Procedure Act,21 or the plain language of New Hampshire’s ski-related statutes.

Accordingly, the court finds that New Hampshire statutory law provides no support to plaintiff’s public policy argument.

2. Injurious to the public interest

Plaintiff next argues that the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy as injurious to the public interest because Mount Sunapee is located on state-owned land that was, at least in part, developed with federal funding. Plaintiff cites no authority for this argument, but instead relies on various provisions in the lease between Mount Sunapee and the State of New Hampshire. None of these provisions establish or support the proposition that public policy prohibits the enforcement of the release.

For example, the lease requires the property to be used for “public outdoor recreational uses,” “for the mutual benefit of the public and the Operator,” and “as a public ski area . . . for the general public.”22 In addition, the ski area operator is  [*593]  required to “allow public access,” “maintain the Leased Premises in first class condition,” and “undertake trail maintenance.”23 Even assuming, arguendo, that the lease theoretically establishes public policy, the plaintiff makes no coherent argument how the release in question runs afoul of any [**21]  of its provisions. Instead, plaintiff argues, strenuously but without authority, that condoning Mount Sunapee’s requirement that a skier agree to the release as a condition of skiing there “effectively sanctions the conversion of public land by Mount Sunapee.”24 He also argues, again without authority, that:

“[p]rivate operators of public lands, to which the public must be allowed access, cannot be allowed to limit access to such lands to those individuals who are willing to forego their statutory rights by exculpating the private operators from the consequences of their own negligence. To hold otherwise, would mark the first step toward eliminating public access to public lands at the expense of the general public.”

(Emphasis added). Initially, the court reiterates its finding, supra, Part III.A.1, that the language at issue in this case does not implicate plaintiff’s statutory rights. Moreover, whatever persuasive force his policy-based arguments hold, plaintiff cites no authority — in the form of cases, statutes or regulations — upon which the court can rely to accept them.25

As a final public-interest related matter, the parties dispute the import of liability releases used at Cannon [**22]  Mountain, a state-owned and operated ski area. In its motion, Mount Sunapee cited those releases to demonstrate that New Hampshire’s public policy does not generally disfavor liability releases.26 Plaintiff, however, points out that because the Cannon release does not use the word “negligence,” it may, in fact, not release Cannon from its own negligence. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (noting that “the [exculpatory] contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”). Therefore, plaintiff suggests, Sunapee’s release may have exceeded what public policy (as articulated in the Cannon release) permits. Regardless of the Cannon release’s enforceability — a matter on which the court offers no opinion — the court finds that Mount Sunapee has the better of this argument. New Hampshire’s public policy is likely best expressed by its legislative enactments, particularly N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I, under which “ski area operators owe no duty to protect patrons from the inherent risks of skiing and thus are immunized from liability for any negligence related to these risks.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 295, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). Such legislatively-enacted immunity from negligence undercuts Miller’s argument that the Cannon release demarcates [**23]  the outer boundary of New Hampshire public policy. Ultimately, the court is skeptical that, as both parties implicitly argue, the state’s risk management decisions and devices, as embodied in certain ski area releases, constitute articulations of public policy.

Having failed to demonstrate any statutory transgressions or injury to the public interest, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy.

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

The next factor the court must consider in assessing the enforceability of the Mount Sunapee release is whether the plaintiff or a reasonable person in his position would have understood its import. Dean, 147 N.H. at 266-67. Miller argues that a factual dispute exists as to this criterion because there was no “meeting of the minds” sufficient to form an enforceable binding agreement.27 He bases this proposition, in turn, on two assertions: 1) that the release is unsigned; and 2) that he did not read it. The court finds that New Hampshire law does not require a signature to effectuate the terms of a release and that the plaintiff had — but chose not to take advantage of — an opportunity to read the release.

1. Signature

As an initial matter, the court notes that a “meeting of the minds” is not an explicit requirement of enforceability under New Hampshire law. The Court in Dean required only that “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement.” 147 N.H. at 266-67. While a signature might be evidence of such understanding, it has never been held to be a prerequisite. Indeed, in Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 552 A.2d 99 (1988), the Court enforced an unsigned and unread release of an insurance claim.

Plaintiff asserts that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has never explicitly upheld the enforcement of an unsigned liability release. See, e.g., McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (“[t]he ski pass application signed by the plaintiff”); Dean, 147 N.H. at 266 (“Mr. Dean signed the Release before entering the infield pit area”); Audley, 138 N.H. at 417 (“two releases signed by the plaintiff”); Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106 (“release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed”). Even if one were to accept this proposition despite the holding in Gannett, which is arguably distinguishable from the line of New Hampshire cases just cited, it is not dispositive, because the Court has also never explicitly required a signature on a liability release as a condition [**25]  of enforceability.

In a diversity case such as this one, if the state’s highest court has not spoken directly on the question at issue, this court must try to predict “how that court likely would decide the issue,” looking to the relevant statutory language, analogous state Supreme Court and lower state court decisions, and other reliable sources of authority. Gonzalez Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 318-19 (1st Cir. 2009). A review of an analogous decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and several New Hampshire trial court decisions reviewing ski area liability releases leads the court to conclude that Miller’s unsigned release is enforceable.

The court finds some guidance in Gannett, supra, where the Court enforced a release of an insurance claim even though the releasing party neither read nor signed the release, but returned it before cashing the insurer’s check. 131 N.H. at 270. Especially salient here, the Court found it “irrelevant whether [plaintiff] actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when she had the opportunity to read it.” Id. at 269-270 (emphasis added). The Gannett Court cited the passage in Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108, enforcing an un-read liability  [*595]  release where the defendant felt rushed through the admittance line. The Barnes court enforced [**26]  the release where “[t]here was no evidence . . . that [the plaintiff] was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.” Id.

Two New Hampshire Superior Court cases involving ski lift ticket releases also inform this analysis. See Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967) (noting that decrees of lower state courts should be “attributed some weight”, but are not controlling, where the highest State court has not spoken on an issue). In Camire v. Gunstock Area Comm’n, No. 11-C-337, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 (N.H. Super. Ct., Mar. 22, 2013) (O’Neil, J.), the court granted the defendant ski area summary judgment based on an unsigned release. 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *8. (“[T]he fact that Ms. Camire did not sign the agreement does not render it unenforceable, as a participant’s signature is not required under the factors set forth in [Dean]“), aff’d on other grounds, 166 N.H. 374, 97 A.3d 250 (2014). While the trial judge also noted that the ski area had a large sign near the ticket kiosk calling attention to the existence of the lift ticket release, and that plaintiff testified in her deposition that she would have understood the ticket’s release language had she read it, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *5, the trial court’s observation that the lack of a signature was not dispositive is entitled, as the United States Supreme Court has [**27]  noted, to “some weight.” Bosch’s Estate, 387 U.S. at 465.

The court also draws some guidance from a New Hampshire trial court that denied a ski area operator’s motion for summary judgment in another case involving a lift ticket release. In Reynolds v. Cranmore Mountain Resort, No. 00-C-0035, (N.H. Super. Ct., March 20, 2001) (O’Neil, J.), the plaintiff’s lift ticket contained a peel off backing similar to the one at issue here, including the red “STOP” sign symbol. Id. at 2. The plaintiff claimed that she did not sign the release and that the release language was not conspicuous enough to give notice to a reasonable person. Id. at 5. While the court did not rule on the signature issue, it ruled that a jury issue remained as to whether the “STOP” sign on the ticket was sufficiently conspicuous, because the peel-off backing contained an advertisement for a free workout, also written in red, in a larger font than much of the warning on the backing. Id. at 1-2, 7. In so ruling, the court relied on Passero v. Killington, Ltd., 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, 1993 WL 406726 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 1993), a Pennsylvania case in which the lift ticket at issue contained an advertisement in a larger typeface than the release language. 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, [WL] at * 7 (“[Plaintiff] argues that the exculpatory clause’s minuscule size, its setting against a dark background, and the existence [**28]  of a much larger advertisement for a 15% discount on a “COMPLETE OVERNIGHT SKI TUNE-UP” on the lift ticket’s adhesive backing, all serve to distract the skier’s attention away from the substantive rights he or she is supposedly relinquishing by purchasing the lift ticket.”). The Superior Court found that it was “best left to the trier of fact to determine whether the language of the lift ticket reasonably communicated the existence of a contractual agreement to the purchaser . . . .” Id. Here, the Mount Sunapee lift ticket contains no such distracting advertisement or font sizes greater than that of the release language on the ticket. As the distracting features were the basis for the New Hampshire Superior Court’s denial of summary judgment in Reynolds, the lack of any such features here is significant. Accordingly, the court finds that the lack of a signature on the lift ticket release is not, under the circumstances of this case, a barrier to its enforceability where the plaintiff had an opportunity to read it and the terms were unambiguous and not contrary to public policy.

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of [**29]  the release.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced. Dean, 147 N.H. at 270; cf. Jenks v. N.H. Motor Speedway, Inc., 2010 DNH 38 (material factual dispute existed as to whether plaintiff had opportunity to read release where plaintiff put his name on a sign-up sheet and release may have been obscured).

Plaintiff, a personal injury attorney, originally submitted two sparse affidavits in opposition to Mount Sunapee’s dispositive motion.28 The affidavits’ only reference to the release is that he did not read the language on the lift ticket or the peel off backing, nor was he instructed to. He did not claim that he lacked the time or opportunity to read it, or was discouraged from doing so. Nor do the affidavits state that he did not peel off the lift ticket from the backing paper.

To be sure, the plaintiff carries no burden of proof at summary judgment, but the sparse and somewhat cryptic nature of the plaintiff’s affidavits — one of which conspicuously tracked the facts emphasized in the Reynolds Superior Court decision, supra, but added nothing more — led this court to ask several pointed questions at oral argument. When pressed by the court regarding the omitted, but [**30]  critical, subject matter, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Miller purchased the ticket, affixed it to his own jacket, had the opportunity to read the backing and the release, and would have recognized it as a release (although not as interpreted by Mount Sunapee).29

In an abundance of caution, and reluctant to grant summary judgment terminating plaintiff’s claims without a more fully developed record, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental discovery concerning, inter alia, the issue of plaintiff’s purchase and use of the lift ticket on the day of his injury.30 Although the plaintiff resisted defense counsel’s attempts to elicit direct answers to straightforward questions about his handling and viewing of the lift ticket, plaintiff’s deposition confirmed certain relevant facts that his counsel conceded at oral argument. First, plaintiff testified that he was handed the lift ticket with the release language facing up, and did not see the language on the peel-off backing.31 Nevertheless, plaintiff confirmed that he had the opportunity to read the release language on the lift ticket and the peel off backing before he removed the ticket from the backing and affixed it to his clothing.32 Even [**31]  though plaintiff testified  [*597]  that he attached the ticket to his pants immediately after receiving it, and thus did not read it, he agreed that he was not pressured to do so,33 and had the opportunity to read it if he so chose.34

Based on the summary judgment record, the plaintiff’s concessions at oral argument and his supplemental deposition testimony sua sponte ordered by the court in an abundance of caution, the court finds that the undisputed facts demonstrate that plaintiff purchased the lift ticket, peeled it from its backing before attaching it to his clothing, had the opportunity to read both sides of it,35 and that “a reasonable person in plaintiff’s position” would have “known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. The court therefore finds that plaintiff’s decision to not  [*598]  read the lift ticket release language does not render it unenforceable.36

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

The final factor the court considers is whether the plaintiff’s claims “were within the contemplation of the parties.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. This factor concerns whether plaintiff’s claims were within the scope of the release. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. To determine the scope and application of a liability release agreement, the court must examine its language. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545.

While plaintiff’s counsel conceded at oral argument that a reasonable person would have recognized the lift ticket language as a release, he argues that it would only be understood as applying to “the inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in § 225-A:24,37 and not to the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident.38 As [**35]  explained below, this argument is based on an incomplete reading of the release and a flawed reading of persuasive New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent. It is therefore rejected.

Plaintiff argues that the first words of the release — “Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous”39 — limit the scope [**36]  of the release to  [*599]  the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, which, he posits, do not include collisions with unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment. The remainder of the release, however, is far broader, explicitly encompassing “all risks . . . of personal injury . . . resulting from . . . inherent or any other risks or dangers.” (Emphasis added). Additional language in the release is similarly broad:

I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCEwhich may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause.40

(Bold emphasis in original; underlining added). While plaintiff acknowledges that his “participation in skiing” might trigger the release, he argues that the expansive “any and all” language is qualified by the first sentence’s reference to skiing as “inherently dangerous,” which, he asserts, warrants limiting [**37]  the release to the risks itemized in § 225-A:24.

In support of his “inherent risks” argument, plaintiff relies on Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995), a case in which a horseback rider was kicked by her guide’s horse, allegedly due to the guide’s negligence. Id. at 168. The Court in Wright held that a release which first noted the “inherent hazards” of horseback riding “obscured” the later following exculpatory clause, part of which resembled the one employed here by Mount Sunapee. Id. at 170. But there is a significant textual difference between the release in
Wright and the one at issue here, and that difference was the lynchpin of the Wright Court’s analysis: the operative language of the Wright release affirmatively referred back to the “inherent hazards” language. In Wright, the exculpatory clause purporting to release the defendant from “any and all” liability began with the phrase “I therefore release . . .” Id. (emphasis added). The Court found the word “therefore” not only significant but dispositive, noting that it means, inter alia, “for that reason” and thus “cannot be understood without reading the antecedent [inherent hazards] language.” Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “[b]ecause the exculpatory [**38]  clause is prefaced by the term ‘therefore,’ a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.”
41Id. The Court ultimately held that the negligence of a guide is not such an “inherent risk.” Id.

Unlike the release in Wright, however, the Mount Sunapee release contains no such “therefore” or other referential language which might call into question the breadth of the language that follows. As such, the court finds that the release  [*600]  “clearly state[s] that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence,” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, and explicitly called particular attention “to the notion of releasing the defendant for liability for its own negligence.” Cf. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 419, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (rejecting exculpatory clause because it failed to call particular attention to releasing defendant from liability). The court therefore finds that the Mount Sunapee release is not limited to the “inherent risks” of skiing enumerated in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Accordingly, even assuming that Miller’s accident did not result from an “inherent risk” of skiing, his claim is nevertheless encompassed by the terms of the release and within the contemplation [**39]  of the parties.

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

After Mount Sunapee’s initial motion for judgment on the pleadings raised the lift ticket release as a defense, Plaintiff added four paragraphs to his suit in an Amended Complaint, all in support of his one negligence count. The new additions quote from a handwritten note on a “grooming report” prepared by Mount Sunapee Mountain Operations Manager Alan Ritchie two weeks prior to plaintiff’s accident. Ritchie’s note states the following: “keep the skier’s left guardrail 3′ from the tower guns at BTM (Hidden Hydrants below the snow[)]. Remove 2′ of snow from just above the Blue Shield around the Teckno fan gun.”42 Based solely upon this entry, Miller asserts that Mount Sunapee knew of buried snowmaking equipment and that failing to mark it or otherwise make it visible both violated its statutory duty and constituted “reckless, wanton, and positive acts of misconduct” from which it can not legally be released.43

In response, Mount Sunapee argues: 1) that the allegations do not support a claim for a statutory violation; 2) that New Hampshire law does not recognize extra-culpable, non-releasable categories of negligence; and 3) that [**40]  the Amended Complaint and attached documents fail, in any event, to set forth facts amounting to anything other than ordinary negligence. The court has already found no statutory violation44 and further finds that the complaint, even as amended, alleges nothing more than ordinary negligence.

1. Recklessness

Plaintiff argues that the additional allegations in the Amended Complaint state a claim for reckless behavior, which, he argues, is not within the purview of the release. The court finds that the new amendments do not allege conduct that is more culpable than negligence, which is subject to the terms of the Mount Sunapee release.45

The New Hampshire Supreme Court generally refers favorably to the Restatement of Torts and has done so with respect to its description of “reckless” conduct:

 [*601]  Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial [**41]  physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.” Id.
comment a at 588.

Boulter v. Eli & Bessie Cohen Found., 166 N.H. 414, 421, 97 A.3d 1127 (2014).

As the Court noted in Thompson v. Forest, 136 N.H. 215, 220, 614 A.2d 1064 (1992), a litigant’s characterization of conduct as evincing a particular culpable mental state is not particularly useful. “Recklessness,” at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.” Id. (quoting WP Keaton, et al., Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts § 8 (5th ed. 1984)). Here, notwithstanding the descriptive adjectives employed by the plaintiff, the facts and allegations pled do not suggest that, to anyone affiliated with Mount Sunapee, there was “a substantial certainty” that serious foreseeable harm would occur based on its alleged conduct or that Mount Sunapee’s conduct involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm “substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that the risk was one involving an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.

Plaintiff relies on a recent New Hampshire Superior Court case involving an injured ski lift [**42]  passenger in which the trial judge held that the plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness were sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.46 In Perry v. SNH Dev., No. 2015-CV-00678, 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 (N.H. Super. Ct., Sept. 13, 2017) (Temple, J.), the child plaintiff was injured after first dangling from, and then falling from, a chair lift into which she was improperly loaded. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. There, the plaintiff successfully pled facts that alleged recklessness and avoided the ski area‘s enforceable negligence release. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *23. Specifically, the plaintiffs in Perry alleged that the ski area‘s:

employee(s)[‘] total and complete failure to monitor the safe and proper loading of the Rocket chair lift in any fashion, coupled with the undisputed failure (actions or inactions) to stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress and ongoing for a considerable period of time, were failures to do acts which the employees had a duty to perform for [plaintiffs] and constitute a reckless disregard of safety.

2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *27. The court denied the ski area‘s motion for summary judgment on the recklessness issue, first noting the allegation that there “were multiple employees of Crotched Mountain in or around [**43]  the area observing that Sarah was not able to properly and/or safely board the Rocket chair lift; but rather [was] dangling from the chair lift.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. The court found this allegation sufficient to support an inference that the ski area‘s employees  [*602]  “knew that [the child plaintiff] was not properly loaded on the chair lift, but chose not to act.” Id. The court additionally cited the allegations that the ski area‘s employees knew that their failure to “stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress” would create an “unreasonable risk of physical harm or death.” Id. These facts, the Superior Court concluded, were sufficient to establish a claim of reckless conduct. Id.

In reaching its decision, the Perry court assumed that recklessness involved a defendant’s “conscious choice.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *32 (citing State v. Hull, 149 N.H. 706, 713, 827 A.2d 1001 (2003)). Here, plaintiff argues that a reasonable inference can be made that Mount Sunapee knowingly disregarded the risk of harm posed by hidden snowmaking equipment, and that they “knew that ‘hidden’ hydrants posed a danger, but chose not to act.47

The court finds no such inference. As noted, the amended allegations do not pertain to a time or place related to Miller’s accident. [**44]  There is nothing in the Ritchie affidavit that supports an allegation that Mount Sunapee made a “conscious choice” to create a “risk that was substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that . . . [involved] an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422 (internal quotation marks omitted). Significantly, the allegations in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby lift passenger already in obvious danger, a child literally dangling from the moving chair lift. Under plaintiff’s theory, any collision with buried snowmaking equipment would constitute a claim for recklessness.

One of the cases cited in Perry supports the court’s conclusion. In Migdal v. Stamp, 132 N.H. 171, 564 A.2d 826 (1989), the plaintiff, a police officer, was shot by a 15-year old who had been involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health issues. Id. at 173. The day after his release into his parents’ custody, the teen took several guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an unsecured gun cabinet in their home, fired them throughout the house, and then shot and injured the plaintiff, who responded to the scene. Id. The injured officer sued the shooter’s parents, [**45]  who sought dismissal based on the “fireman’s rule.”48 After first noting that the rule bars claims of negligent, but not reckless, conduct, id. at 176, the Court concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled recklessness by alleging that the parents “failed to seek recommended medical treatment” for their son and allowed him access to “an array of firearms and ammunition,” despite their knowledge that their son “was suffering from mental and emotional instabilities,” had “exhibited dangerous propensities,” and had ransacked and vandalized the house the day before. Id. Mount Sunapee’s conduct — failure to mark or make visible the snow gun holder — is neither of the same type nor degree as the defendants’ conduct in Migdal.

A ski case from the District of Massachusetts is also instructive. In Brush v. Jiminy Peak Mountain, 626 F. Supp. 2d 139 (D. Mass. 2009), a ski racer was injured when she lost control and collided with a ski tower support located off the trail. Id.
 [*603]  at 143. In suing, inter alia, the ski area, the plaintiff alleged that netting and other safety devices should have been placed around the support, as required by certain ski racing standards and as had been done by the defendant in the past. Id. at 145. In order to avoid application of a release, the plaintiff asserted [**46]  a claim for gross negligence, which, under Massachusetts law, is a less culpable standard than recklessness. Id. at 151 (citing Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 121 N.E. 505, 506 (Mass. 1919)). The Court concluded that plaintiff had alleged only simple negligence. Id. The Court first observed that “[t]here is no evidence in the record, and indeed no allegation, that any of the Defendants, or anyone at the competition, became aware that there was an area of the trail without netting where netting was normally placed and declined to remedy the situation.” Id. Ultimately, the Court held, “[a]t most there was a collective failure to take a step that might have lessened the injuries suffered by Plaintiff. No reasonable jury could find that this simple inadvertence, no matter how tragic its consequences, constituted gross negligence.” Id.

The court views the conduct alleged here as much more akin to that alleged in Brush — which alleged conduct that was less culpable than recklessness — than that in Perry
or Migdal. The factual allegations in this case fall far short of recklessness. First, as previously noted, the grooming report on which plaintiff relies is remote both in time and location. Next, the conduct alleged here is significantly less egregious than the [**47]  allegations in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby passenger already in danger of falling from a lift chair, or the conduct in Migdal, where the defendant parents, one day after their son had exhibited mental instability, ransacked the family home, and exhibited dangerous tendencies, failed to seek treatment for him and to secure multiple firearms and ammunition. As in Brush, the most that can be said here is that Mount Sunapee failed to take a step that — while not legally required, see supra, § III.A.1 — might have prevented plaintiff’s accident. These allegations do not support a claim that their acts or omissions in not clearing snow away from a snow gun holder in an ungroomed area “were substantially more serious” than ordinary negligence. Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.
49

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

In an attempt to characterize his claims in such a way to avoid the language of the release, plaintiff’s Amended Complaint describes them as “wanton and positive acts of misconduct,” that is, more culpable than negligence, but not intentional.50 The court, however, has already determined that the Complaint alleges no more than ordinary negligence, so this argument fails.

3. Potential [**48]  certification

If the court had found that the facts alleged by the plaintiff could constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, it would have considered certifying an unresolved question to the New Hampshire  [*604]  Supreme Court: whether conduct more culpable than negligence, but less than intentional could be the subject of a release like the one at issue here. See
N.H. Sup. Ct. R. 34. In the absence of such allegations, certification is unnecessary.

IV. Conclusion

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

As plaintiff has alleged only that Mount [**49]  Sunapee’s negligence caused his injuries, and that the facts he alleges do not constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, the court finds that plaintiff’s claims fall within the ambit of the Mount Sunapee release and that the release is enforceable against the plaintiff. Therefore, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, having been converted to a motion for summary judgment51 is GRANTED.52

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


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.


Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 Del. Super. LEXIS 495

Thomas A Lynam, III and Antoinette M. Lynam, as Parents and Natural Guardians of Thomas A. Lynam, IV, a minor,

v.

Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel Inc. and Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC

C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

October 4, 2016

Submitted: July 6, 2016

On Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

Tabatha L. Castro, Esquire The Castro Firm, Inc. Attorney for Plaintiffs

Leonard G. Villari, Esquire Villari, Lentz & Lynam, LLC Attorney Pro Hac Vice for Plaintiffs

Marc S. Casarino, Esquire Dana Spring Monzo, Esquire Nicholas Wynn, Esquire White and Williams, LLP Attorneys for Defendants Blue Diamond LLC and Parkway Gravel, Inc.

Dear Counsel:

I. INTRODUCTION

Pending before this Court is Defendants Blue Diamond LLC’s and Parkway Gravel, Inc.’s (“Defendants”)[1] Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that minor Thomas Lynam, IV (“Tommy”) was riding his motocross bicycle on Defendants’ motocross track. After riding off a jump, Tommy landed, lost control of his motocross bicycle, and collided with a metal shipping container near the track. Tommy apparently sustained serious injuries. Plaintiffs’ complaint raises one count of “negligence” as a theory for liability.[2]Although not listed as a separate count in their complaint, Plaintiffs allude in their general “negligence” claim to a theory of reckless conduct by Defendants in connection with the operation of the motocross track.

In their motion, Defendants assert that their alleged behavior was, as a matter of fact and law, neither negligent nor reckless. Alternatively, Defendants raise an affirmative defense that they are released from any liability for negligent or reckless conduct due to a release agreement (the “Release”) signed by the Plaintiffs. Additionally, Defendants raise the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a separate affirmative defense as a bar to recovery.

Plaintiffs agree that they released Defendants from liability for Defendants’ own “negligence.” However, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants’ conduct amounted to recklessness, and that Plaintiffs never released Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. In response to Defendants’ claim that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury, Plaintiffs contend that the risk of a collision with a metal shipping container was not contemplated at either the signing of the Release or when Tommy began using the facilities.

This Court concludes that the Release was not specifically tailored so as to release Defendants from liability for their allegedly reckless conduct. The Court also finds that the factual record is insufficiently developed to make a legal determination of whether Defendants’ conduct as a matter of law amounted to recklessness. Finally, the Court concludes that it is premature at this juncture to consider Defendant’s affirmative defense. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

II.FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On January 6, 2013, Tommy, then thirteen years old, was riding a motocross bicycle at Blue Diamond Motocross near New Castle. Plaintiffs allege that the track was advertised as being composed of “safe jumps.”[3] While riding, Tommy rode off a jump, made a hard landing, and was unable to stop in time before colliding with a large metal shipping container.

Prior to granting Tommy admission to the Blue Diamond facilities to ride his motocross bicycle, Blue Diamond required Tommy’s father to sign a release agreement. The Release, entitled “Parental Consent, Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement, ” stated that Plaintiffs understood the “risks and dangers of serious bodily injury” posed by motocross and relieved Defendants from liability for their own negligence.[4] The Release also released Defendants from liability for injuries suffered by Plaintiffs through their own negligence.[5]

In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants negligently allowed the container to remain on the premises at an unsafe distance from the motocross track.[6] While Plaintiffs do not specifically allege recklessness as a separate claim for recovery, but rather include it in a single count of “Negligence, ” Plaintiffs’ complaint references reckless conduct as another potential theory of recovery.[7]Plaintiffs, however, now agree that their claims of negligence are barred by the Release.[8] But Plaintiffs assert that the Release did not specifically address or contemplate potential claims against Defendants for “reckless” behavior.[9]

III. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

Under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed.[10] The standard of review in the context of a motion for judgment on the pleadings requires a court to “accept all the complaint’s well-pleaded facts as true and construe all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.”[11] “The motion will be granted when no material issues of fact exist, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[12] “The standard for a motion for judgment on the pleadings is almost identical to the standard for a motion to dismiss.”[13]

B. The Parties Agree that the Release Bars Plaintiffs’ Recovery Against Defendants for Any Negligence

Defendants contend that the executed Release bars recovery for negligence. At oral argument on this motion, Plaintiffs agreed (Plaintiffs’ filings were not explicit on this point) that the Release bars recovery for injuries resulting from Defendants’ allegedly negligent conduct.[14] Although Plaintiffs are residents of Pennsylvania, the parties agree that Delaware law applies to the present motion, as Defendants are Delaware businesses and the incident giving rise to the case at bar occurred in Delaware.

Under Delaware law, parties may enter into an agreement that relieves a business owner of liability for injuries to business invitees that result from the owner’s negligent conduct.[15] However, the release must be unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy. [16] Further, the release must be “‘crystal clear and unequivocal’ to insulate a party from liability for possible future negligence.”[17]

In Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, the Delaware Supreme Court recently determined the validity of a release waiving liability for negligence.[18] The release in Ketler provided:

‘I understand and voluntarily accept this risk and agree that [the defendant] . . . will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendant] or anyone on [the defendant’s] behalf whether related to exercise or not. Accordingly, I do hereby forever release and discharge [the defendant] from any and all claims, demands, injuries, damages, actions, or causes of action.'[19]

The Delaware Supreme Court held that the release was sufficiently clear and unequivocal, and that it expressly released the defendant from any and all causes of actions relating to the defendant’s own negligence.[20] Defendants rely heavily on this case, asserting that it applies to claims of reckless conduct.[21]

The Release that Plaintiffs executed in this case is also sufficiently “clear and unequivocal.” The Release provides:

3. I consent to the Minor’s participation in the Event(s) and/or entry into restricted areas and HEREBY ACCEPT AND ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, KNOWN AND UNKNOWN, AND ASSUME ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE LOSSES, COSTS, AND/OR DAMAGES FOLLOWING SUCH INJURY, DISABILITY, PARALYSIS OR DEATH, EVEN IF CAUSED, IN WHOLE OR IN PART, BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” NAMED BELOW.

4. I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s) . . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . . . FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED . . . BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.[22]

Similar to the language at issue in Ketler, the Release expressly states that the signor assumes responsibility for injuries caused by Defendants’ own negligent conduct. The release also expressly states that the Defendants are released from any and all causes of action that may arise from Defendants’ negligent conduct. Accordingly, this Court agrees with the parties that the Release validly exculpates Defendants from liability for their own negligence.

Defendants also rely on Lafate v. New Castle County[23] and Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[24] to support their position that the Release waives claims of reckless conduct. Both Lafate and Devecchio concern agreements that released the tortfeasors from liability for their own negligent conduct. Both cases also discussed whether the language of the releases was sufficiently tailored to release the tortfeasor’s negligent conduct. In Lafate, this Court refused to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on grounds that the release did not clearly and unambiguously release the tortfeasor from claims that it was negligent.[25] In Devecchio, this Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff signed a valid covenant not to sue for injury resulting from the plaintiffs own negligence.[26]

Defendants’ reliance on these cases in light of Plaintiffs’ potential claim of reckless conduct is inapposite. Because the parties have agreed that Defendants are insulated from claims of negligence, the question of whether the release clearly and unambiguously insulates the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct is moot. Neither the holding in Lafate nor in Devecchio relate to allegations of reckless conduct. Accordingly, because Plaintiffs now assert that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, Lafate and Devecchio are distinguishable from the case at bar.

Finally, the Court considers whether, for purposes of this motion, recklessness is subsumed in negligence, and is therefore barred as a form of negligence. Prosser and Keeton on Torts is particularly informative, providing that “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[27] Adopting Prosser and Keeton’s interpretation, this Court finds that although the Release does insulate Defendants from liability for negligent conduct, it does not bar claims of “more extreme forms of negligence, ” such as “reckless” conduct.[28]

C. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is Inappropriate at this Juncture in Light of any Undeveloped Claims of Reckless Conduct

Although Tommy’s father’s execution of the Release precludes recovery from Defendants on a theory of “negligence, ” Plaintiffs assert that the Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.” Plaintiffs did not explicitly allege in a separate count of the complaint that Defendant’s conduct was reckless, but Plaintiffs did make it apparent in the complaint that it was an intended theory of liability.[29] In their briefing and at oral argument, Plaintiffs suggested that Defendants, among other things, had been aware of previous collisions with the shipping container, and that their ignorance of these prior incidents amounts to reckless behavior.[30]Accordingly, the Court must determine whether the Release bars Plaintiffs from asserting claims resulting from injuries caused by Defendants’ reckless conduct.

Courts in Delaware have a strong preference for resolving cases on their merits, or at least allowing discovery to proceed such that additional evidence in support of the parties’ contentions can be developed.[31] While this preference is not outcome-determinative, the preference for resolving cases on the merits is a strong factor in determining whether to grant or deny a dispositive motion.

Plaintiffs, at oral argument and in their response to the motion, argue that they are entitled to recovery based on Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct. The parties agree that this theory is separate from the one count of “negligence” listed in the complaint.[32] The operative language of the Release does not explicitly enumerate or contemplate recklessness as a theory of recovery barred by the Release. Under Delaware law, as provided in Ketler, a release must be “clear and unambiguous” in order to effectively release the business owner from liability.[33]

This Court finds that the language of the release is not “clear and unambiguous” with respect to Defendants’ liability for their own allegedly reckless conduct. In Ketler, the release at issue specifically used the word “negligence, ” and stated that Defendants “will not be liable for any injury, including, without limitation, personal, bodily, or mental injury . . . resulting from the negligence of [the defendants].” The Delaware Supreme Court held that this language satisfied the “clear and unequivocal” standard and upheld the language of the agreement.

Turning to the Release that Plaintiffs executed, this Court finds that the Release is silent as to claims of recklessness. The Release does not mention “reckless” conduct, and instead only expressly refers to injury caused by Defendants’ “negligence.” In the absence of such language, the Release does not clearly and unambiguously exculpate Defendants from liability for their own reckless conduct. Accordingly, the Release does not operate to bar Plaintiffs’ claim of recklessness.[34]

This Court holds that the Release does not bar claims of reckless conduct. This Court expresses no opinion at this juncture as to whether Plaintiffs ultimately can establish claims against for recklessness. Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and will grant Plaintiffs leave to conduct further discovery with the option of potentially amending the complaint in support of their contention that Defendants’ conduct was “reckless.”[35]

D. The Court does Not Reach Defendant’s Argument under the Doctrine of Assumption of the Risk

Finally, Defendants’ contend that Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ alleged reckless conduct. However, the record has not been sufficiently developed to determine whether Defendants’ conduct was reckless or whether Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury from Defendants’ allegedly reckless conduct.[36] Accordingly, the Court does not reach this contention at this stage of the litigation.

IV. CONCLUSION

Defendant’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED. The Court has enclosed an Order establishing a Scheduling Conference in this case.

Very truly yours,

Richard R. Cooch Resident Judge

Notes:

[1] Defendant Houghton’s Amusement Park, LLC did not make an appearance in this case and had a default judgment taken against it on June 21, 2016.

[2]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[3]Compl. ¶ 48.

[4]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[5]Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A. Tommy also signed an agreement, titled “Minor’s Assumption of the Risk Acknowledgment, ” that Defendants reference in their motion as another reason they are not liable for Plaintiffs’ injuries. However, it appears from the motion and subsequent filings that the release signed by Tommy is only mentioned in passing, and is not relied upon by Defendants. The release signed by Tommy’s father is the determinative release in the case at bar.

[6]Compl. ¶¶ 79-87.

[7]Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that “Defendants’ failure to exercise reasonable care as alleged above comprised outrageous conduct under the circumstances, manifesting a wanton and reckless disregard of the rights of the Plaintiffs.” Compl. ¶ 87. The Complaint also alleges that Tommy’s injuries were caused by the “reckless indifference” of Defendants. Compl. ¶¶ 51, 77. Moreover, the Complaint alleges that the track was “reckless[ly] design[ed].” Compl. ¶ 49.

[8]At oral argument, Plaintiffs’ counsel answered in the affirmative when the Court asked “Am I understanding Plaintiffs’ position correctly when I read the papers to say that Plaintiffs are not alleging ordinary negligence, but rather recklessness?” Lynam et al. v. Blue Diamond LLC Motocross et al, C.A. No. N14C-11-121 RRC, at 6 (Del. Super. July 6, 2016) (TRANSCRIPT) [hereinafter Oral Arg. Tr.].

[9] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A.

[10] A judgment on the pleadings is based only upon a review of Plaintiffs’ complaint and Defendants’ answer. However, under Rule 12(c), “If, on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the Court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment.” Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(c). In the case at bar, Defendants introduced the two executed releases as exhibits to their motion. However, the releases were not a part of the pleadings. Nevertheless, the parties agree that this motion should be treated as a motion for judgment on the pleadings.

[11] Silver Lake Office Plaza, LLC v. Lanard & Axilbund, Inc., 2014 WL 595378, at *6 (Del. Super. Jan. 17, 2014) (quoting Blanco v. AMVAC Chem. Corp., 2012 WL 3194412, at *6 (Del. Super. Aug. 8, 2012)).

[12] Id. (quoting Velocity Exp., Inc. v. Office Depot, Inc., 2009 WL 406807, at *3 (Del. Super. Feb. 4, 2009).

[13] Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

[14] See Oral Arg. Tr. at 6.

[15] Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 132 A.3d 746 (Del. 2016) (upholding “hold harmless” agreements and releases that relieve a proprietor from liability for its own negligent activities).

[16] Id. at 747-48.

[17] Riverbend Cmty., LLC v. Green Stone Eng’g, LLC, 55 A.3d 330, 336 (Del. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting State v. Interstate Amiesite Corp., 297 A.2d 41, 44 (Del. 1972)).

[18] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Oral Arg. Tr. at 14-16.

[22] Defs.’ Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, Ex. A (emphasis added).

[23] 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999).

[24] 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[25] The plaintiff in Lafate was injured by a metal bar used to divide a basketball court. This Court found that while the agreement did “speak[] of ‘any and all injuries which may be suffered by [players] during [their] participation, ‘” the absence of the word “negligence” insufficiently insulated the defendants from liability for their own negligent conduct. Lafate, 1999 WL 1241074, at *4.

[26] In Devecchio, the defendant owned a motorcycle race track that required riders to sign agreements releasing the defendant from liability for injuries resulting from both the riders and the defendant’s negligence. The release pertaining to the defendant’s negligence expressly used the word “negligence.” This Court found that the release using the word “negligence” was sufficiently clear and unambiguous, and therefore insulated the defendant from liability for its own negligent conduct. Devecchio v. Enduro Riders, Inc., 2004 Del. Super. LEXIS 444 (Del. Super. Nov. 30, 2004).

[27] W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)). Delaware courts often rely on Prosser and Keeton on Torts in reaching their conclusions. See, e.g., Culver v. Bennett, 588 A.2d 1094, 1097 (Del. 1991); Lafate v. New Castle County, 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super. Oct. 22, 1999); Brzoska v. Olson, 668 A.2d 1355, 1360 (Del. 1995).

[28] Additionally, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instructions for negligence and recklessness are substantially different. The Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for negligence provides:

This case involves claims of negligence. Negligence is the lack of ordinary care; that is, the absence of the kind of care a reasonably prudent and careful person would exercise in similar circumstances. That standard is your guide. If a person’s conduct in a given circumstance doesn’t measure up to the conduct of an ordinarily prudent and careful person, then that person was negligent. On the other hand, if the person’s conduct does measure up to the conduct of a reasonably prudent and careful person, the person wasn’t negligent.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.1 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. On the other hand, the Delaware Civil Pattern Jury Instruction for reckless conduct states:

Reckless conduct reflects a knowing disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk. It amounts to an “I don’t care” attitude. Recklessness occurs when a person, with no intent to cause harm, performs an act so unreasonable and so dangerous that he or she knows, or should know, that harm will probably result.

Del. Super. P.J.I. Civ. § 5.9 (2003), http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=85928. It is apparent from a comparison of the two different jury instructions that negligence conduct requires a departure from the ordinary standard of care exhibited by the reasonably prudent person, an objective standard. However, in contrast, it appears from the pattern jury instructions that reckless conduct requires a subjective “I don’t care” attitude that evidences an even greater departure from the ordinary standard of care, amounting to an unreasonable conscious disregard of a known risk.

[29] Compl. ¶¶ 49, 51, 77, 87. For example, Plaintiffs allege that “The reckless design of the track, which was intentionally constructed next to the pre-existing intermodal container, requires riders to land from a jump and immediately decelerate in order to execute a 90° right turn.” Compl. ¶ 49. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that Tommy’s injuries were “a direct and proximate result of the negligence, carelessness and reckless indifference of Defendants.” Compl. ¶ 77.

[30] Pl.’s Suppl. Resp. in Opp’n to the Mot. for J. on the Pleadings, at 2.

[31] Keener v. Isken, 58 A.3d 407, 409 (Del. 2013); see also Wallace v. Wood, 2007 WL 3331530 (Del. Ch. Oct. 31, 2007); DeSantis v. Chilkotowsky, 2004 WL 2914314, at *2 (Del. Super. Nov. 18, 2004), Sup. Ct. Civ. R. 56.

[32] Plaintiffs did not plead any explicit claim of recklessness. See, e.g., J.L. v. Barnes, 33 A.3d 902, 916 n.77 (De. 2011) (treating recklessness and gross negligence as interchangeable and noting, “In order for a plaintiff to plead gross negligence with the requisite particularity, the plaintiff must articulate ‘facts that suggest a wide disparity between the process [] used . . . and that which would have been rational.'” J.L. states that a complaint pleading ten pages of facts to support a claim of gross negligence or recklessness was sufficient to meet the pleading standard). Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not properly pleaded reckless conduct under Superior Court Civil Rule 9(b). However, the Court need not reach that issue since it will give Plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint.

[33] Ketler, 132 A.3d at 747.

[34] Because the Court finds that Defendants’ release does not explicitly bar claims of “reckless” conduct, this Court does not reach the question of whether such a release is potentially permissible under Delaware law. However, this Court notes that other jurisdictions have differing perspectives on whether exculpatory agreements barring claims for recklessness, gross negligence, willful acts, or strict liability are enforceable. See Randy J. Sutton, Annotation, Validity, Construction, and Effect of Agreement Exempting Operator of Amusement Facility from Liability for Personal Injury or Death of Patron, 54 A.L.R.5th 513 (1997). For example, in Barker v. Colo. Region-Sports Car Club of Am., the Colorado Court of Appeals held that exculpatory agreements can release a party only for simple negligence, and not from willful and wanton negligence. 532 P.2d 372, 377 (Colo.App. 1974). Similarly, in Wheelock v. Sport Kites, Inc., the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii held that a release was invalid with respect to claims of gross negligence and strict liability. 839 F.Supp. 730, 736 (D. Haw. 1993). The above annotation suggests that a common reason to not enforce such an agreement is because they are void against the state’s public policy.

Alternatively, other jurisdictions have upheld agreements that exculpate business owners for reckless conduct or strict liability. For example, in Murphy v. N. Am. River Runners, Inc., the West Virginia Supreme Court discussed the matter, stating:

Generally, in the absence of an applicable safety statute, a plaintiff who expressly and, under the circumstances, clearly agrees to accept a risk of harm arising from the defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct may not recover for such harm, unless the agreement is contrary to public policy. When such an express agreement is freely and fairly made, between two parties who are in equal bargaining position, and there is no public interest with which the agreement interferes, it will generally be upheld.

412 S.E.2d 504, 508-09 (W.Va. 1991).

[35]Delaware Courts have previously allowed such an amendment to be made. As this Court held in Guy v. Phillips, a party may amend a complaint following additional discovery when the amended count arises out of the same factual basis for the original complaint. 1997 WL 524124 (Del. Super. July 2, 1997).

[36] In support of this defense, the Court notes that Defendants rely solely on Deuley v. DynCorp Int’l, Inc., 2010 WL 704895 (Del. Super. Feb. 26, 2010). However, Deuley is distinguishable from the case at bar. In Deuley, surviving relatives of decedents killed by an improvised explosive device (“IED”) in Afghanistan filed a wrongful death action. As part of the employment agreement, the decedents signed an agreement that provided employees expressly assumed the risk of injury or death. In reaching its conclusion that the decedents assumed the risk of death, the Court found that “when [the decedents] signed the releases, even a poorly informed American had to have appreciated that working in Afghanistan involved the general risk of insurgent or terrorist attacking by an IED.” Deuley, 2010 WL 704895, at *4. “The complaint offers no reason to find that any plaintiff here was probably unaware of the general risk of being injured or killed by a bomb.” Id. In the case at bar, drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, it is unlikely that Plaintiffs were aware of the risk posed by the shipping container, since they allege that they were unable to inspect the track prior to Tommy using it. Accordingly, Defendants’ reliance on Deuley is inapposite since it could be determined that a collision with the metal shipping container was not contemplated by the Plaintiffs when they signed the Release.


Texas appellate court allows a release to stop a gross negligence claim.

If you have a clause in your release that says, “except gross negligence” or something like that get rid of it. Why teach the plaintiff’s how to beat you, besides, you may win, which is what happened in this case.

Citation: Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

State: Texas: Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F of XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) and XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually

Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff injured her back attempting to do a back flip on a trampoline at the defendant’s facility rendering her a paraplegic. She sued for her injuries claiming negligence and gross negligence. The court found the release stopped the plaintiff’s claims for negligence and gross negligence.

Facts

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and denied the plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The issue for the appellate court was whether or not the motion for summary judgment granted for the defendant, and the cross motion for the plaintiff that was denied were done so correctly. Should a release bar a claim for negligence and gross negligence under Texas law.

Release law in Texas appears to be quite specific.

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action.

To win Jumpstreet only had to show the fair notice requirement of the law was met.

Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice.

The fair notice requirement under Texas law requires the release language to be clear, unambiguous and within the four corners of the contract.

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract.

The issue the court focused on was the claim the plaintiff originally made that the defendant identified in the release was not the defendant who owned and operated the facility where she was injured. The original defendant was an LLC and had been dissolved, and a new LLC had taken its’ place. The release was not updated to show these changes.

In many states, this would have been a fatal flaw for the defendant.

The court found the defendants were owned and run by the same brothers and were the same for the purposes of this lawsuit. The new LLC replaced the old LLC and was covered by the release.

The court then looked at the release and pointed out the reasons why the release was going to be supported.

As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries, including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Furthermore, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because a release under Texas law cannot waive the claims of a minor when signed by a parent. The court agreed. However, since the child was not the injured plaintiff, it did not matter.

The court did look at the issue of whether or not a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue. The court held the minor could still sue; however, a release signed by the parent would bar all the derivative claims based on the claims of the minor child. That means all claims by the parents, loss of consortium, etc., would be barred by the release. Only the claims of the minor child would survive.

The court then looked at whether a release could stop a claim for gross negligence. The court found that the decision had not been reviewed by the Texas Supreme Court and there was a mix of decisions in Texas regarding that issue.

The Texas courts that have allowed a release to top a gross negligence claim have held there is no difference between negligence and gross negligence under Texas law. The court went on to read the release and found the release in question had language that prevented claims for negligence and gross negligence. Therefore, the gross negligence claim was waived.

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

The release said it stopped claims for Gross Negligence and the Court agreed.

The defendant one because they had a well-written release that was easy to see and understand and said you can’t sue the defendant for negligence or gross negligence.

So Now What?

This is a first. A release was used to stop a gross negligence claim that was not based on a failure of the plaintiff to allege facts that were gross negligence. The release said it was effective against claims for negligence and gross negligence, and the court agreed.

Unless your state has specific statements were putting gross negligence in a release may void your release, or your supreme Court has specifically said a release cannot protect against gross negligence claims, you may want to add that phrase to your release.

No matter what, GET RID of clauses in your release that state the release is valid against all claims EXCEPT gross negligence. It is just stupid to put that in a release unless you have a legal system that requires it.

Putting that information into your release just tells the plaintiff and/or their attorney how to beat you. Don’t help the person trying to sue you!

Second, you never know; it may work. It did in this case in Texas.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) AND XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 3”), Appellants v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellees

No. 05-17-00948-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 9, 2018

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671

Before Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill Justices. [1]

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL J. O’NEILL JUSTICE, ASSIGNED

Appellant Graciela Quiroz brought a negligence suit against appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc., and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. (collectively Jumpstreet) for injuries she sustained while jumping on a trampoline at a Jumpstreet facility. Jumpstreet moved for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by Quiroz. Quiroz responded and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment, denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and dismissed all of Quiroz’s claims. In one issue, Quiroz contends the trial court erred in granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her motion for partial summary judgment. We affirm the trial court’s order.

Background

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

Issue Presented

In her sole issue on appeal, Quiroz contends the trial court erred by granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, no contract existed between her and Jumpstreet, LLC, the entity named in the Release. Quiroz argues there was no “meeting of the minds on the contract’s essential terms” between her and Jumpstreet, LLC because Jumpstreet, LLC had been dissolved in June 2011 and did not exist at the time of her injury in November 2014. Quiroz contends that because a nonexistent entity cannot form or enter into a contract, the Release is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.

Quiroz further contends the Release did not meet the “fair notice requirement” because none of the Jumpstreet defendants are named in the Release; only the nonexistent entity “Jumpstreet, LLC” is specifically named in the Release. Quiroz argues the Release also never specifically identified or released a claim for an injury due to paralysis. Further, Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, a parent cannot waive a minor’s claims, and a Release cannot waive any claims for gross negligence because that is against public policy.

Jumpstreet responds that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because Quiroz signed a valid, enforceable Release before using its facility. The Release satisfied both the fair notice requirement and the express negligence rule as to both negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet also argues the Release meets the general requirements of a valid contract because it shows a “meeting of the minds” and valid consideration. Jumpstreet further responds that because the consortium and bystander claims are derivative claims, they are barred as a matter of law.

Applicable Law

We review a trial court’s summary judgment order de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Dallas v. Dallas Morning News, LP, 281 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2009, no pet.); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166A(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When both sides move for summary judgment, however, each party bears the burden of establishing it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, we review the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties and determine all the questions presented. S. Crushed Concrete, LLC v. City of Houston, 398 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tex. 2013).

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action. Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice. Quintana v. CrossFit Dallas, L.L.C., 347 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2011, no pet, ).

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994). This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Discussion

Parties have the right to contract as they see fit as long as their agreement does not violate the law or public policy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 129 & n.11 (Tex. 2004). Texas law recognizes and protects a broad freedom of contract. Fairfield Ins. Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP, 246 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tex. 2008). Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). Public policy dictates that courts are not to interfere lightly with this freedom of contract. See, e.g., Gym-N-I Playgrounds, Inc. v. Snider, 220 S.W.3d 905, 912 (Tex. 2007) (commercial lease expressly waiving warranties); In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 129 & n.11 (contractual jury waiver); BMG Direct Mktg., Inc. v. Peake, 178 S.W.3d 763, 767 (Tex. 2005) (liquidated damages clause); Mo., Kan. & Tex. Ry. Co. of Tex. v. Carter, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).

A tortfeasor can claim the protection of a release only if the release refers to him by name or with such descriptive particularity that his identity or his connection with the tortious event is not in doubt. Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 420 (Tex. 1984); see also Frazer v. Tex. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 4 S.W.3d 819, 823-24 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.) (with use of “and its affiliated companies,” release sufficiently identified Texas Farm Bureau Underwriters such that its identity is not in doubt.). Here, the Release clearly and unambiguously stated it applied to all Jumpstreet entities that are engaged in the trampoline business. Although the Release specifically named “Jumpstreet, LLC,” it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”

The record shows the entity named “Jumpstreet, LLC” was dissolved in June, 2011. The record also contains a deposition transcript from Martin L. Brooks who testified he and Tim Crawford were cousins and the sole owners of all the Jumpstreet entities, all the Jumpstreet entities were engaged in the trampoline business, and the entity named “Jumpstreet, Inc.” was the parent company. The record shows that in her original petition, Quiroz named seventeen different Jumpstreet entities, including “Jumpstreet, Inc.,” the parent company. In her “fourth amended petition” that was in effect at the time of the summary judgment hearing, however, she named only three of the Jumpstreet entities, including the parent company. The Jumpstreet appellees in this case are all engaged in the trampoline business and described with such particularity that their identity was never in doubt. Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 420; Frazer, 4 S.W.3d at 823-24.

Although the Release in this case contains two pages, it conspicuously contains several paragraphs with bolded headings and capitalized font. On page one, an “assumption of risk” section is separate from a “release of liability” section. The Release warns prospective patrons to “please read this document carefully” and “by signing it, you are giving up legal rights.” This warning appears directly under the title of the Release and is written in all capital letters. On page two, the Release has an “assumption of the risk” paragraph in all capital letters and surrounded by a box, calling specific attention to it. On both pages, there are several references to the risks and dangers of participating in Jumpstreet services throughout the Release. The “waiver and release” language is repeated a final time, in capital lettering, immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452 (concluding a two-page contract titled “Health Assessment Waiver and Goals Work Sheet” that included word “release” in larger and bold print near top of second page and initialed by party was “sufficiently conspicuous to provide fair notice”).

The Release also does not run afoul of the express negligence rule. As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.” Id.

Quiroz next argues that a parent cannot waive a minor child’s claims. Quiroz asserts Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1993), is the leading Texas case. In Munoz, the parents sued an amusement park for damages after their child was injured on a ride. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by the parents. The appellate court reversed, holding that the Family Code did not give parents the power to waive a child’s cause of action for personal injuries. Munoz is distinguishable from Quiroz’s claims in that Quiroz sustained the injury and not her children. Moreover, the cause of action for loss of parental consortium, like the cause of action for loss of spousal consortium, is a derivative cause of action. As such, the defenses that bar all or part of the injured parent’s recovery have the same effect on the child’s recovery. Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463, 468 (Tex. 1990), on reh’g in part (Mar. 6, 1991). And although bystander claims are considered independent and not derivative, it is also true that the bystander plaintiff cannot recover unless the injured person can recover. Estate of Barrera v. Rosamond Vill. Ltd. P’ship, 983 S.W.2d 795, 799- 800 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.).

Quiroz lastly argues a pre-injury release cannot apply to gross negligence claims because that is against public policy. Generally, a contract provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1 (1981). Quiroz cites our case in Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, 402 S.W.3d 915 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.), for this proposition. There is disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims for gross negligence. The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury.[2] Some appellate courts have held that negligence and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. See Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1994, writ denied).

In contrast, we recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris, 402 S.W.3d at 926. We reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. We specifically pointed out that “our conclusion is limited to the context presented by this case.” See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. See Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 1986, no writ).

Van Voris is distinguishable from the case here in that Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Conclusion

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See City of Garland, 22 S.W.3d at 356. We conclude the trial court properly granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment. See Travelers Ins. Co., 315 S.W.3d at 862.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671. Opinion delivered by Justice O’Neill. Justices Myers and Boatright participating.

In accordance with this Court’s opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.

It is ORDERED that appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. recover their costs of this appeal from appellants Graciela Quiroz and Robert Sullivan.

—–

Notes:

[1] The Hon. Michael J. O’Neill, Justice, Assigned

[2] We note that Quiroz cited Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority Of Harris County., 449 S.W.3d 98 (Tex. 2014), in her “First Supplemental Brief,” for the proposition that “a pre-injury release of future liability for gross negligence is void as against public policy.” In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court had to decide, in a breach of contract case, whether a no-damages-for-delay provision shielded the owner from liability for deliberately and wrongfully interfering with the contractor’s work. In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court held the no-damages-for-delay provision at issue was unenforceable as against public policy. Zachry, however, is distinguishable because that case concerned how a no-delay-for-damages provision could be enforced if the Port’s intentional misconduct caused the delay. Here, Quiroz has not asserted that Jumpstreet’s alleged negligence was intentional, deliberate, or reckless.

gross negligence, entities, public policy, waive, summary judgment motion, summary judgment, partial summary judgment, trial court, cause of action, matter of law, fair notice, pet, negligence rule, conspicuousness, cross-motion, consortium, pre-injury, assumption of risk, trampoline, bystander, lettering, argues


Get check boxes and initials out of your release!

If the defendants release did not have a catch all phrase at the bottom of the document the release would be invalid because an initial had not been signed by the plaintiff.

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

State: Pennsylvania: United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrice Scott-Moncrieff

Defendant: The Lost Trails, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff did not initial one of the initial boxes on the release she signed. This gave the plaintiff enough of an argument to make an appellate argument. But for a final paragraph that covered the uninitialed box language this release would have failed.

Facts

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding.

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses.

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

The court first reviewed the validity of releases under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania has a three-part test to determine if releases are valid.

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state.

The three requirements all evolve around the public policy argument. It is against public policy to have someone sign a release for a necessity, where the bargaining power is not equal or if the contract is so nasty it should not be signed by anyone. A release, a contract, to ride an ATV is valid because it is not a necessity, it is between parties of equal bargaining power and it is voluntary.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”

If the release passes the first three tests, it still must be scrutinized by the court to determine if it clearly relieves the defendant of liability. If the language of the agreement sets forth the requirements necessary for the plaintiff to understand she is liable for her injuries.

Even if an exculpatory clause is facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

If the release, or any contract under Pennsylvania law meets those tests it is finally reviewed to determine if both parties clearly understood the intent of the agreement. In the case of a release, both parties must understand that the possible plaintiff is giving up his or her right to sue the possible defendant.

Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Here, the language of the waiver form is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter.

In this case, the court found the release passed all of the tests.

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

Once the release was found to be valid the next issue was whether or not the plaintiff had signed the release. The plaintiff argued because she had not initialed an initial box, had not read the release in its entirety

One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first.” In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.)

The court did look at situations were the release was enforceable even if the plaintiff did not read the release or could not read the release.

…(written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable because it was inconspicuous. However, the argument seemed to be based on case law that found waivers to be void then the real facts of this case.

The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply.

The saving language of the release that covered the un-initialed section 10 was. Even though paragraph 10 was not initialed, the heading clearly stated what the document was and the intentions of the parties. The language that covered the un-initialed paragraph 10 was:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

The court found that the entire agreement was covered by this saving language above. So, the failure to initial one paragraph was not enough to void the release.

The court summarized its reasoning for finding the release valid and upholding the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims because of the release.

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable.

So Now What?

But for language at the bottom of the release which the court found to cover for the language that was not initialed the release would have failed. It is important to note; the court analysis stated the language that was not initialed was not part of the release.

If you have initial boxes, initials, etc., and one box is not initialed, in Pennsylvania that paragraph that is not initialed or initialed is invalid. Dependent upon the language, your release maybe void, if you don’t have the boxes checked or initialed.

Why use them anyway. Here the court explains why they are unnecessary, the language at the bottom of your release should tie everything together. Once you sign you acknowledge that you have read and understood the entire document. The checkboxes or initials can only hurt you in a release, not help you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Core Terms

exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym

Counsel: [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2] those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3] party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4] did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5] (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6] OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7] any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8] County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “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). A fact is “material” only [*9] if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10] such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11] law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13] who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14] facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15] riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16] of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17] at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18] first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19] this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20] conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21] the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22] the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23] Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge


Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

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* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

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I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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13 Id. at 963.

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The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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14 Id.

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NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

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15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

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The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

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17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

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I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

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21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

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Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


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.

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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


Texas appellate court upholds release for claims of gross negligence in trampoline accident that left plaintiff a paraplegic.

However, the decision is not reasoned and supported in Texas by other decisions or the Texas Supreme Court.

Quiroz et. al. v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

State: Texas, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 1”) and Xxxx (“John Doe 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”)

Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Adult paralyzed in a trampoline facility sues for her injuries. The release she signed before entering stopped all of her claims, including her claim for gross negligence.

However, the reasoning behind the support for the release to stop the gross negligence claim was not in the decision, so this is a tenuous decision at best.

Facts

The plaintiff and her sixteen-year-old son went to the defendant’s business. Before entering she signed a release. While on a trampoline, the plaintiff attempted to do a back flip, landed on her head and was rendered a paraplegic from the waist down.

The plaintiff sued on her behalf and on behalf of her minor. Her claim was a simple tort claim for negligence. Her children’s claims were based on the loss of parental consortium and under Texas law bystander claims for seeing the accident or seeing their mother suffer. The plaintiff’s husband also joined in the lawsuit later for his loss of consortium claims.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The original entity named on the release was a corporation that was no longer in existence. Several successor entities now owned and controlled the defendant. The plaintiff argued the release did not protect them because the release only spoke to the one defendant.

The court did not agree, finding language in the release that stated the release applied to all “jumpstreet entities that engaged in the trampoline business.”

…it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”

The next argument was whether the release met the requirements on Texas law for a release. The court pointed out bold and capital letters were used to point out important parts of the release. An assumption of the risk section was separate and distance from the release of liability section, and the release warned people to read the document carefully before signing.

Texas also has an express negligence rule, the requirements of which were also met by the way the release was written.

Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.

Next the plaintiff argued that the release covered her and her sixteen-year-old minor son. As such the release should be void because it attempted to cover a minor and releases in Texas do not work for minors.

The court ignored this argument stating it was not the minor who was hurt and suing; it was the plaintiff who was an adult. The court then also added that the other plaintiffs were also covered under the release because all of their claims, loss of parental consortium and loss of consortium are derivative claims. Meaning they only succeed if the plaintiff s claim succeeds.

The final argument was the plaintiff plead negligence and gross negligence in her complaint. A release in Texas, like most other states, was argued by the plaintiff to not be valid.

The appellate court did not see that argument as clearly. First, the Texas Supreme Court had not reviewed that issue. Other appellate courts have held that there is no difference in Texas between a claim for negligence and a claim for gross negligence.

The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury. Some appellate courts have held that negligence, and gross negligence are not separable claims and a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence.

(For other arguments like this see In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury.)

The court looked at the release which identified negligence and gross negligence as claims that the release would stop.

Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.

Although not specifically writing in the opinion why the release stopped the gross negligence claims, the court upheld the release for all the plaintiff claims.

…Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived.

The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

First this case is a great example of believing that once you have a release you don’t have to do anything else. If the defendant’s release would have been checked every year, someone should have noticed that the named entity to be protected no longer existed.

In this case that fact did not become a major issue, however, in other states the language might not have been broad enough to protect everyone.

Second, this case is also proof that being specific with possible risks of the activities and have an assumption of risk section pays off.

Finally, would I go out and pronounce that Texas allows a release to stop claims for gross negligence. No. Finger’s crossed until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the issue or another appellate court in Texas provides reasoning for its argument, this is thin support for that statement.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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