“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “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.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


Strawbridge, Jr. v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated, et al., 152 Fed. Appx. 286; 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23459

Strawbridge, Jr. v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated, et al., 152 Fed. Appx. 286; 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23459

Vincent F. Strawbridge, Jr.; Rebecca S. Strawbridge, Plaintiffs – Appellants, versus Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated; B. Dale Stancil, individually; The Sugar Mountain Irrevocable Trust; The B. Dale Stancil Irrevocable Trust, Defendants – Appellees.

No. 04-2250, No. 04-2331

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

152 Fed. Appx. 286; 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23459

September 19, 2005, Argued

October 28, 2005, Decided

COUNSEL: ARGUED: R. Hayes Hofler, III, HAYES HOFLER & ASSOCIATES, P.A., Durham, North Carolina, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees.

Wyatt Shorter Stevens, ROBERTS & STEVENS, P.A., Asheville, North Carolina; James Robert Fox, BELL, DAVIS & PITT, P.A., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

ON BRIEF: Daniel B. Hill, HAYES HOFLER & ASSOCIATES, P.A., Durham, North Carolina, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees.

Jennifer I. Oakes, BELL, DAVIS & PITT, P.A., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants B. Dale Stancil, The Sugar Mountain Irrevocable Trust, The B. Dale Stancil Irrevocable Trust.

JUDGES: Before WILLIAMS and MICHAEL, Circuit Judges, and James C. DEVER, III, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, sitting by designation.

OPINION

[*287] PER CURIAM:

This is an appeal from a defense verdict [**2] in a case brought by Vincent and Rebecca [*288] Strawbridge against Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc. (SMR), its alleged alter-ego, B. Dale Stancil, and two trusts created by Stancil. (We will refer to the defendants as SMR and Stancil.) Mr. Strawbridge was injured in a skiing accident at the SMR resort. The Strawbridges contend that the district court erred in refusing to allow them additional voir dire or grant a new trial after the defense’s voir dire allegedly revealed that two jurors had failed to respond to an important question posed by the Strawbridges during their voir dire. The Strawbridges also claim that the district court erred in excluding evidence about rocks at the site of Mr. Strawbridge’s accident. Alternatively, the Strawbridges argue that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to enforce a settlement agreement allegedly reached before trial. Finding no error, we affirm.

I.

The Strawbridges allege that on January 22, 1998, Mr. Strawbridge skied over a ledge at SMR’s resort, where he hit a bare spot of dirt, lost control, and fell. Mr. Strawbridge sustained serious physical injuries. In their complaint, filed April 22, 2002, the Strawbridges asserted claims [**3] of negligence and loss of consortium and sought both compensatory and punitive damages. Stancil was named as a defendant on the theory that SMR was his alter ego. Stancil’s presence as a defendant was of moment because SMR carried only $1 million in liability insurance.

SMR and Stancil filed motions for summary judgment on December 1, 2003, and the motions were referred to the magistrate judge. The magistrate judge held a hearing on these motions on February 4, 2004, and two days later, on February 6, filed a memorandum recommending the award of summary judgment to the defendants on all claims. After considering the magistrate judge’s recommendation de novo, the district judge granted summary judgment to SMR on the Strawbridges’ request for punitive damages, but otherwise denied the summary judgment motions. Strawbridge v. Sugar Mountain Resort, 320 F. Supp. 2d 425 (W.D.N.C. 2004).

In the meantime the parties had been involved in settlement negotiations. Prior to the February 4, 2004, summary judgment hearing, the Strawbridges demanded $8 million to settle their claims. Wyatt Stevens, the lawyer for SMR’s insurer, made a $450,000 counteroffer, which the Strawbridges [**4] rejected. Shortly after the February 4 hearing, a lawyer retained directly by SMR, Robert Riddle, asked the Strawbridges to reconsider settlement.

The parties dispute the facts concerning subsequent settlement negotiations. According to the Strawbridges’ lawyer, Hayes Hofler, at approximately 11: 00 a. m. on February 6, 2004, Riddle made an offer to settle for the policy limits of $1 million, and Hofler accepted on behalf of the Strawbridges. The Strawbridges allege that, after accepting, Hofler asked Riddle if the payment could be structured as loss of future income in an effort to avoid a $400,000 lien arising from Mr. Strawbridge’s medical bills. The Strawbridges claim that Riddle responded that he thought that approach would not be a problem and that he would discuss it with Stevens. SMR disputes this account. It claims that Hofler indicated that his clients (the Strawbridges) would accept the policy limits of $1 million on the condition that payment be structured as loss of future income. SMR insists that because it never accepted this condition, the parties never reached a settlement agreement.

In any event, later in the day of February 6, before Stevens responded to Riddle [**5] about payment structuring, Stevens learned that the magistrate judge recommended [*289] dismissal of the case. Shortly thereafter, Stevens contacted Riddle and told him that a $1 million settlement, with the structuring condition, was unacceptable. Around 5:00 p.m. Hofler (on behalf of the Strawbridges) left a telephone message for Stevens in an effort to confirm settlement. Stevens returned Hofler’s call around 5:30 and told him that Riddle did not have authority to settle the case in light of the Strawbridges’ request to structure payment.

In March 2004 the Strawbridges, claiming that a settlement agreement had been reached, filed a motion to enforce it, and the district court held a hearing. After considering the lawyers’ oral representations, their affidavits, and transcripts of some of the telephone calls at issue, the court found that no settlement had been reached because the parties never agreed to all material terms of settlement.

The case proceeded to trial on July 12, 2004. During voir dire the judge asked the jury panel some preliminary questions related to possible bias, including: “Do[any] of you have any prejudices or biases that you know of that would affect your ability [**6] to sit in a case of this kind involving a ski incident, just simply by the reason of the nature of the sport or exercise, whatever you wish to call it?” J.A. 1131. There was no affirmative response. Later, the Strawbridges’ lawyer asked the panel:

Do any of you have anybody, family, close family, relatives, children, who is in any way involved in the ski industry, not necessarily on the slopes themselves, but maybe providing supplies to a resort or making deliveries to a resort or going there to make repairs, that kind of thing, in any way that might be remotely connected with the ski industry?

J.A. 1144. There was no response. The Strawbridges passed on the panel, and the defense side began its questioning. Defense counsel asked whether any of the jurors knew anyone closely connected with the ski industry. Juror Nicholson responded that the president of the company for which he worked was a volunteer ski patroller who might have worked for SMR. Juror McDonald reported that the son of one of her best friends owns a local ski shop. When defense counsel passed on the panel, the Strawbridges requested that voir dire be reopened to allow them to inquire of jurors Nicholson [**7] and McDonald. This request was denied. At the close of evidence the Strawbridges moved to strike jurors Nicholson and McDonald, and this motion was denied. The jury returned a verdict for the defendants on the seventh day of trial, and the district court later denied the Strawbridges’ motion for a new trial that was based on the claim of inadequate voir dire and juror bias.

The Strawbridges appeal the adverse rulings discussed above. SMR cross-appeals the district court’s refusal to give a jury instruction on assumption of risk, and Stancil cross-appeals the court’s denial of his motion for summary judgment on the alterego issue.

II.

A.

The Strawbridges contend that the district court erred in refusing to reopen voir dire. They insist that the failure of the two jurors (Nicholson and McDonald) to provide pertinent information in response to their question about ties to the ski industry prevented them from intelligently exercising their peremptory challenges. We conclude that the district court did not err in refusing to reopen voir dire. [HN1] A trial judge has broad discretion in overseeing the conduct of voir dire, subject to “essential demands of fairness.” Aldridge v. United States, 283 U.S. 308, 310, [*290] 51 S. Ct. 470, 75 L. Ed. 1054 (1931); [**8] United States v. Rucker, 557 F.2d 1046, 1049 (4th Cir. 1977). Trial judges “must reach conclusions as to [a prospective juror’s] impartiality and credibility by relying on their own evaluations of demeanor evidence and of responses to questions.” Rosales-Lopez v. United States, 451 U.S. 182, 188, 101 S. Ct. 1629, 68 L. Ed. 2d 22 (1981). An “appellate court [cannot] easily second-guess the conclusions of [a trial judge] who heard and observed” a juror’s responses and demeanor during voir dire. Id.

In the present case, the trial judge asked his own preliminary questions on voir dire that were aimed at uncovering any bias or prejudice relating to the sport of skiing. There was no response that raised a red flag. In addition, the judge observed the responses and demeanor of the two jurors in question. The judge declined to reopen voir dire, reasoning that both sides had been given adequate opportunity to question jurors, and all jurors seated assured the judge that they could be fair and impartial. The judge was satisfied that “had there been some bias or prejudice that would affect [the jurors’] verdict . . . it would have been uncovered” during voir dire. [**9] J.A. 1194. The trial judge thus determined that the voir dire was adequate on matters of potential bias. We have ample grounds for deferring to this determination, and we conclude that the judge did not err in refusing to reopen voir dire.

B.

The Strawbridges also contend that they are entitled to a new trial because the two jurors (Nicholson and McDonald) failed to provide honest responses at voir dire. [HN2] A new trial is warranted when (1) a juror failed to answer a material question honestly on voir dire, even if the failure was innocent, and (2) a correct response would have provided a basis for a challenge for cause. McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 556, 104 S. Ct. 845, 78 L. Ed. 2d 663 (1984). The question the Strawbridges posed to the panel was:

Do any of you have anybody, family, close family, relatives, children, who is in any way involved in the ski industry, not necessarily on the slopes themselves, but maybe providing supplies to a resort or making deliveries to a resort or going there to make repairs, that kind of thing, in any way that might be remotely connected with the ski industry?

J.A. 1144. The Strawbridges maintain that [**10] because the question contained the word “anybody,” the two jurors were dishonest when they did not respond with information about non-familial ties to the ski industry.

A new trial is not warranted because, as the district judge found, the jurors did not respond dishonestly to the Strawbridges’ question. According to the trial judge, the most logical interpretation of the question is that it was limited to potential jurors’ family ties to the ski industry. This interpretation led the judge to conclude that the jurors’ responses were neither inconsistent nor dishonest. We agree with the judge’s analysis. The Strawbridges’ inability to obtain the information they sought during voir dire is attributable to their failure to state their question clearly, not the jurors’ failure to answer the question honestly.

C.

The Strawbridges further argue that they are entitled to a new trial based on the actual bias of jurors Nicholson and McDonald or the trial court’s error in denying a hearing (including further questioning) on the issue of actual bias. [HN3] A showing that a juror was actually biased, regardless of whether the juror was truthful [*291] or deceitful, can entitle a party to a new trial. [**11] Jones v. Cooper, 311 F.3d 306, 310 (4th Cir. 2002). A trial court has broad discretion to determine whether to order a hearing on a claim of juror bias. See McDonough, 464 U.S. at 556 (Blackmun, J., concurring); Fitzgerald v. Greene, 150 F.3d 357, 363 (4th Cir. 1998).

The Strawbridges have simply made no showing that either Nicholson or McDonald was a biased juror. Moreover, we have reviewed the record and conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to hold a hearing or permit further questioning on the issue of actual bias.

III.

The Strawbridges argue that the trial court erroneously excluded evidence showing that rocks existed on the area of the slope where Mr. Strawbridge fell. Because Mr. Strawbridge testified that he encountered a bare spot of dirt (he did not mention rocks), the court did not err in excluding evidence of rocks on the basis that it was not relevant under Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402.

IV.

The Strawbridges argue that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to enforce a settlement [**12] agreement they allegedly reached with SMR. [HN4] A court should enforce a settlement agreement when the partes have agreed on all material terms. Piver v. Pender County Bd. of Educ., 835 F.2d 1076, 1083 (4th Cir. 1987); Boyce v. McMahan, 285 N.C. 730, 208 S.E.2d 692, 695 (N.C. 1974). After holding a hearing on the settlement question and carefully reviewing the facts, the district court found that there was no meeting of the minds. Riddle, SMR’s lawyer, considered the deal to be conditioned upon the Strawbridges’ requirement that payment be structured as loss of future income. The Strawbridges argue that the court should enforce the agreement because payment structure was not a material condition. However, as the district court found, payment structure was material because the defense side feared exposure to liability on Mr. Strawbridge’s medical liens. The district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to enforce the alleged settlement agreement.

V.

Because our rulings on the voir dire, jury bias, evidentiary, and settlement issues mean that the jury’s finding of no liability on the part of the defendants will stand, we have no reason to [**13] reach the Strawbridges’ argument that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to SMR on the issue of punitive damages. Likewise, because the judgment for the defendants will be affirmed, we will not consider the issues raised in the defendants’ cross-appeals. The judgment is affirmed.

AFFIRMED


When is a case settled? When all parties (and maybe their attorneys) agree it is settled

Skier sued ski resort for injuries received skiing into bald spot. Skier argued they had agreed on a settlement before trial, which only became an issue after the plaintiff lost at trial.

Strawbridge, Jr. v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated, et al., 152 Fed. Appx. 286; 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 23459

State: North Carolina, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Plaintiff: Vincent F. Strawbridge, Jr.; Rebecca S. Strawbridge

Defendant: Sugar Mountain Resort, Incorporated; B. Dale Stancil, individually; The Sugar Mountain Irrevocable Trust; The B. Dale Stancil Irrevocable Trust,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, loss of consortium and requested compensatory and punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: not stated

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2005

This case is difficult to understand the facts of what happened and what the claims or defenses are. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was succinct in its opinion and reasoning for its opinion.

The plaintiff was skiing at the defendant Sugar Mountain Resort when he skied over a ledge into a bar spot where he fell. The plaintiff’s (husband and wife) sued for $8 million. They sued the ski area, and they sued the owner of the ski area because the ski area only had $1 million in liability insurance.

At one point before trial and before and after the magistrates ruling the parties were close to a settlement agreement. The settlement the defendant had offered was $450,000 and the plaintiff had counter offered $1 million. The plaintiff was trying to avoid the subrogation claims of his insurance companies, which amounted to $400,000. So one of the issues negotiated was how the money was to be paid, as damages or as lost future income. Damages would be subject to subrogation claims.

However, no agreement was reached; no settlement was signed, and no money exchanged hands between the parties. The magistrate held a hearing on the issue and held that no settlement had occurred because there had not been an agreement to the material terms of the agreement. Both parties to a contract must understand and agree to the major terms of a contract for a contract to be valid, and a settlement agreement is a contract.

The magistrate ruled that the defendant should win its motion for summary judgement. The federal district court ruled that only the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages should be dismissed, and the rest should go to trial.

A trial occurred which the defendant won. The plaintiff appealed whether or not a settlement had occurred and issues pertaining to jury selection. The defendant appealed the issue of why assumption of the risks was not allowed as a defense.

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

The majority of the agreement looks at the issues on how the jury was selected and is not important here. The court also said that evidence of rocks in the bare spot was not admitted. However, the court found that since the plaintiff did not mention rocks in his testimony, only a bare spot, then the denial of the admittance of the evidence of rocks was correct.

The next issue was whether there was a settlement between the parties. The district court had also held a hearing on the issue of whether the parties had settlement and held that there was no meeting of the minds.

The final issue the court reviewed was the settlement agreement, which the appellate court agreed with the lower court and ruled there was no meeting of the minds. The way the money was to be paid was a material factor in the agreement which was not agreed upon by the parties so the parties did not have a contract.

So Now What?

To sue the owner of the ski area you would have to breach the corporate veil. That means you would have to find a reason to prove the corporation was a sham. Normally, that is something like using the corporation personally, not maintaining corporate records or not running the corporation properly. The most-used way to pierce the corporate veil is to prove a corporation was used for fraudulent purposes. One way to pierce the corporate veil that is rarely, if ever used, is because the corporation is underfunded.

Here it is not explained what theory the plaintiff was relying upon to sue the owner individually. However, the fact that a large corporation only had $1 million in liability insurance could fall both as running a corporation without enough money or running it improperly. More than anything, it is just stupid.  

Until any agreement is finalized, proving a settlement with some way to prove the terms, and the agreement to the terms, is difficult. Once you agree, do not relax until all parties and the parties’ attorneys have signed the settlement agreement, and the judge has dismissed the case.

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Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release

Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release

Wheelock vs. Sport Kites, 839 F. Supp. 730 (9th Cir. 1993); and,

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511

Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 663-1.54

Badly written statute which was already full of holes was turned absolutely worthless by Hawaiian Federal District Court Decision. You cannot give up the best defense you have when you try and gain more defenses.

In Wheelock vs. Sport Kites

Plaintiff: Mary Rose Wheelock, individually, as Administratrix of the Estate of David William Wheelock, as Guardian Ad Litem for Maggie Wheelock and David William Wheelock, minors

Defendant: Sport Kites, Inc., a foreign corporation, dba Wills Wing, Rob Kells, an individual, Kualoa Ranch, Inc., a Hawaii corporation, and Sport Aviation Hawaii, Inc., a Hawaii corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Gross Negligence and Product Liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Holding for the Defendant on the Negligence claim and for the Plaintiff on the Gross Negligence and Product Liability claims.

In King v. CJM Country Stables

Plaintiff: John King and Patricia King

Defendant: CJM Country Stables

Plaintiff’s Claims: Negligence, Negligence Per Se, Strict Liability, Intentional, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Loss of Consortium, Punitive Damages, Respondeat Superior

Defendant Defenses: release and the Hawaiian Recreational Activity Liability Statute

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Tourists are the life blood of the outdoor recreation industry. No place does that ring any truer than Hawaii. Without tourists who are there for a vacation or as a stop on a cruise ship, Hawaii’s economy would grind to a stop.

In an effort to limit liability for outdoor recreation activities, the recreation providers passed a law attempting to reduce or prevent lawsuits for injuries tourists received recreating.  However, this Hawaiian law backfired by eliminating the use of releases a defense against a claim in the statute.

To set the stage for Hawaii’s move towards recreation legislation, it is important to acknowledge the development of Hawaiian common law.  The landmark case, Wheelock vs. Sport Kites, 839 F. Supp. 730 (9th Cir. 1993), was the first time the Hawaiian courts dealt with whether an express release of liability bars all claims of negligence.  Wheelock plunged to his death while paragliding when all the lines connecting the canopy to his harness broke.  Wheelock’s wife sued, even though her husband signed a waiver releasing Sport Kites.  The court upheld the release for negligence, declaring that Wheelock assumed the risk of paragliding.

The court did not allow the release to bar claims for gross negligence and the product liability claim.

Despite the Wheelock decision, the statewide Activity Owners Association of Hawaii believed litigation over recreation accidents needed to be reduced. The belief was it would lower insurance premiums and promote business growth. (See Ammie Roseman-Orr, Recreational Activity Liability in Hawai’i: Are Waiver Worth the Paper on Which They Are Written?, 21 U. Haw. L. Rev. 715.) Without a law, every accident had the opportunity to test the waters of the legal system in hopes of a reward.  The Recreational Activity Liability Statute was enacted in 1997 to reduce recreation accident litigation’

§ 663-1.54.  Recreational activity liability.

(a) Any person who owns or operates a business providing recreational activities to the public, such as, without limitation, scuba or skin diving, sky diving, bicycle tours, and mountain climbing, shall exercise reasonable care to ensure the safety of patrons and the public, and shall be liable for damages resulting from negligent acts or omissions of the person which cause injury.

(b) Notwithstanding subsection (a), owners and operators of recreational activities shall not be liable for damages for injuries to a patron resulting from inherent risks associated with the recreational activity if the patron participating in the recreational activity voluntarily signs a written release waiving the owner or operator’s liability for damages for injuries resulting from the inherent risks. No waiver shall be valid unless:

(1) The owner or operator first provides full disclosure of the inherent risks associated with the recreational activity; and

(2) The owner or operator takes reasonable steps to ensure that each patron is physically able to participate in the activity and is given the necessary instruction to participate in the activity safely.

(c) The determination of whether a risk is inherent or not is for the trier of fact. As used in this section an “inherent risk”:

(1) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to be associated with the activity by the very nature of the activity engaged in;

(2) Is a danger that a reasonable person would understand to exist despite the owner or operator’s exercise of reasonable care to eliminate or minimize the danger, and is generally beyond the control of the owner or operator; and

(3) Does not result from the negligence, gross negligence, or wanton act or omission of the owner or operator.

This statute superseded the common law, which developed through Wheelock and the cases preceding it.

The first case to review the statute was King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061; 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511. In this case, the plaintiff was on a seven-day cruise that left Vancouver and went to Hawaii. While in Hawaii, the plaintiff booked a horseback ride through the cruise, with the defendant stable. While riding, the plaintiff was bit by another rider’s horse. She sued.

The court immediately reviewed the above Hawaiian Recreational Activity Liability Statute. Reading the statute the court concluded:

…these sections provide that a trier of fact must determine if injuries were caused by the “inherent risks” of a recreational activity. And if the trier of fact finds that the injuries were “caused solely by the inherent risk and unpredictable nature” of a horse, then there is a rebuttable presumption that the defendant’s negligence did not cause the injuries.

The court looked at the language of the release which states the trier of fact must determine if the injuries were caused by the activity, or in this case, the horse. The court found that under the statute, the court could not support the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because the statute “…explicitly precludes waiving liability for negligence.”

Since there was a genuine issue of material fact, meaning there were facts important to the case that had two different versions or interpretations (duh!) then the jury had to decide the case no matter what. The statute placed a burden on the plaintiff that was greater than the normal burden of proof, however the decision placed a greater burden on defendants in the increased cost of litigating cases.

…whether Defendant was negligent; and the Release Form’s validity as a waiver of liability, which depends on whether the horse-biting incident was an “inherent risk” of the recreational activity that Defendant provided to Plaintiffs. Defendant cannot satisfy its burden and thus, is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

So?

The statute left an enormous hole that will allow every injured party to recover something. The statute states that an “inherent risk” must be determined by the trier of fact, and that negligence cannot be an inherent risk. Consequently, the statute is worthless.

It gets worse. Under the previous common law, the judge could determine the inherent risk and grant summary judgment. In the case of Wheelock, the judge determined that, as a matter of law, equipment failure is an obvious risk of paragliding and set this as a precedent for future paragliding cases.  The recreation statute, on the contrary, declares that the trier of fact must determine the inherent risks of the activity. The trier of fact is the jury. Therefore, every claim will go to trial. That increases the cost and increases the chance that a settlement will occur to reduce the cost of litigation.

Summary judgment cannot be granted because a jury trial must be held to determine if the risk is inherent.  The cost of litigating jury trials will be substantially higher than the cost of a motion for summary judgment.  A precedent cannot be set because it is determined, as a matter of fact, so the inherent risks must be determined in every case.

Even cases with identical inherent risks and injuries must be brought before a trier of fact, with the possibility for differing results.  Second, the statute explicitly states that providers will be liable for negligence.  Wheelock previously determined negligence could be an inherent risk that customers assumed when they signed the waiver for, thereby releasing the provider from liability.  The statute no longer allowed the customer to assume the risk of negligence, making the statute a major step backward for activity providers.

So Now What?

Although a good effort by the Activity Owners Association of Hawaiian, they probably wrote the legislation without help from attorneys or those knowledgeable in how the statute would be applied (someone who had been in a courtroom with a suit and briefcase).

The statute is great in its intent; the actual way it was written makes the statute the best thing that could happen for any injured person in Hawaii. No matter what, this statute is going to allow the plaintiff to recover because the cost of fighting every claim through trial is at least $50,000 or more. Consequently, it will always be cheaper to settle than to sue.

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BSA Summer Camp was able to have punitive damages claim dismissed prior to trial

Plaintiff’s complaint was not sufficient to adequately plead its claim for punitive damages.

N.H., a minor child, v. N.H., a minor child, v. Sequoyah Council, Inc., Boy Scouts of America, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87452 (ED Ten 2012)

Plaintiff: N.H., a minor child, by and through his parents Jorge Hernandez and Elizabeth Hernandez and Jorge Hernandez and Elizabeth Hernandez, Individually

Defendant: Sequoyah Council, Inc., Boy Scouts of America

Plaintiff Claims: (1) it [defendant] failed to keep the mountain bike trails in a reasonably safe condition; (2) it failed to warn the minor plaintiff of hidden perils of the trails which defendant knew, or by reasonable inspection, could have discovered; (3) it failed to properly train its employees; (4) it failed to properly mark the bike trail; (5) it failed to properly evaluate and assess the skill of the minor plaintiff before allowing him to ride the trail; and (6) it was “negligent in other manners

Defendant Defenses: Unknown

Holding: Motion to dismiss punitive damages claim by defendant granted for defendant

 

This is a pre-trial decision and should not be relied upon for a firm statement about the law in Tennessee as far as dismissing claims prior to trial.

The plaintiff was a boy who went to a Boy Scout Summer Camp in Tennessee. While mountain biking at the camp his brakes allegedly did not work, and he rode off the trail and hit a tree.

The plaintiff sued for a multitude of claims, including an allegation that punitive damages were being requested. The defendant filed this motion prior to trial to eliminate the claim for punitive damages.

Summary of the case

The court looked at Tennessee’s law concerning punitive damages. Under Tennessee’s law, punitive damages are only available for “only the most egregious of wrongs.” “Accordingly, under Tennessee’s law, “a court may … award punitive damages only if it finds a defendant has acted either (1) intentionally, (2) fraudulently, (3) maliciously, or (4) recklessly.”

Punitive damages are not available for gross negligence. To receive punitive damages under Tennessee’s law:

A person acts recklessly when the person is aware of, but consciously disregards, a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances.

In this case, the complaint did not make any allegations that fit within the required definitions. Consequently, the part of the complaint demanding punitive damages was dismissed.

So Now What?

This was a pre-trial motion that was of interest; however, this is not a final decision in the case and could be overturned by another court after the trial on this case.

Tennessee has higher requirements for most other states to ask for and receive punitive damages. Consequently, the defendant was able to dismiss that part of the complaint in advance of trial.

It never hurts to know the specifics of what is required to prove damages above normal damages. That knowledge can help keep you safe.

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Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 million

Judgment included $1,110,000 in punitive damages, which is not covered by insurance and not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Keeter v. Alpine Towers International, Inc., 399 S.C. 179; 730 S.E.2d 890; 2012 S.C. App. LEXIS 171

Plaintiff: Lawrence Keeter, Ronald Travis Keeter, and Rebecca Keeter,

Defendant: Alpine Towers International, Inc., and Ashley Sexton

Plaintiff Claims: strict liability, negligent design, and negligent training

Defendant Defenses: (1) judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to all causes of action and punitive damages, (2) a new trial, (3) an order requiring Larry to elect between the three causes of action, (4) set-off of the settlement paid by Fort Mill.

Holding: for the plaintiff’s in the amount of $3,400,500.00 actual damages and $1,110,000.00 in punitive damages.

This is the appeal that I first reported at “$4.7 million-dollar verdict in climbing wall case against Alpine Towers in South Carolina Court” The plaintiff at the time of his injury was a 17-year-old student who after falling 20’ was rendered a paraplegic.

This is sad, tragic, and honestly, a disaster of a case for both the defendant and the plaintiff. Worse, this case will have far-reaching effects into the climbing wall and ropes’ course industry. It probably won’t have any effect on those association’s writing standards; however, here again, this case is proof that writing standards by an association creates the cause of action needed by the plaintiff to win and in this case, win big.

The facts of the case are convoluted and made so not by what happened, but by the contracts created by the defendant.

The defendant built an Alpine Tower and sold it to an amusement park, Carowinds. The owner, Fort Mill purchased the Alpine Tower from Carowinds. Fort Mill (former defendant who probably settled out of the case) hired the defendant Alpine Towers International “to move it, install it, and train Fort Mill’s faculty to use it safely.” The term “it” in the sentence means the alpine tower. The contract to provide those services was probably the normal contract used when selling a tower by the defendant because it referred to Alpine Towers as the “Seller.” This came back to haunt the defendant because a seller has a greater degree of liability than just a mover. The agreement stated the seller would do much more than just move the tower.

The plaintiff was climbing the tower with another student belaying him. The belay rope became stuck in the belay device. The instructor was close by, and the student attempted to un-stick the rope herself. In doing so the belayer lost control of the rope, and the climber/plaintiff fell to the ground breaking his back. The plaintiff was rendered a paraplegic by the fall.

The plaintiff sued based on three causes of action.

(1) Alpine Towers was strictly liable for the manufacture and sale of a defective and unreasonably dangerous product; (2) Alpine Towers negligently designed the climbing tower without adequate safety equipment, instructions, and warnings; and (3) Alpine Towers was negligent in failing to properly train Fort Mill’s faculty on how to safely use the climbing tower, particularly in failing to train the faculty to teach student belayers to safely use the belay system.

The jury found for the plaintiff and his parents on all causes of action and awarded the plaintiff damages.

It awarded $500.00 for strict liability, $900,000.00 in actual damages and $160,000.00 in punitive damages for negligent design of the tower, and $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive damages for Alpine Tower’s negligence in training Fort Mill’s faculty. The jury also returned a verdict for Larry’s parents for $240,000.00 in actual damages.

Summary of the case

The defendant appealed only the injured plaintiff’s claims and judgment, not the plaintiff’s parent’s claims. The defendant lost all of its arguments on appeal.

The first issue and the third most aggravating issue in this decision was how the court accepted the jury’s decision on the strict liability theory claim. The plaintiff’s experts argued that the belay device being used on the tower was operated manually and if the defendant has supplied automatic devices the fall would not have occurred.

…Gerald George, Ph.D., testified that the Trango Jaws relies on the absence of human error to safely belay a climber. He explained that it was feasible to use an alternative design for the climbing tower incorporating a belay device called a GriGri.

“Absence of human error” is how all accidents occur.

Dr. George testified that without incorporating a “fail-safe” belay device such as the GriGri into the design of a climbing tower used for students, the climbing tower is defective and unreasonably dangerous.

So by using a particular belay device, which was not part of the climbing wall, the defendant was strictly liable. The defendant was liable for the injury because the tower was “defective” based upon the choice of belay devices.

The next issue was the negligent design claim. Negligent design in South Carolina is a failure to exercise due care with the focus on the conduct of the seller or manufacturer. The proof the court accepted in this case was:

[Plaintiff] presented evidence that Alpine Towers conducted a ten-year study ending in 1999 that concluded the majority of accidents on its climbing towers were caused by human error, specifically belayers dropping their climbers.

Proof of the negligent design claim is knowing you have a problem that injures people and failing to do anything about it. The study was the proof of the knowledge, and the plaintiff’s injury was proof of failing to do anything about the problem.

Granted, it seems to be a stretch to apply design to belayers dropping climbers; however, if you look at the structure as including the ropes and belay devices, then the claim makes more sense.

The negligent training claims the final claim and the one that will create the most problems for other people within the industry. The contract signed by the defendant for moving the tower stated that defendant would teach the owner how to use the tower. The purchaser, Fort Mill, intended to use it to teach climbing and belaying. The defendant had manuals, curriculums and classes in how to belay; however, it did not teach the owner how to teach how to belay.

First, Alpine Towers uses a written syllabus when it conducts classes to teach adults how to belay. However, it did not provide the syllabus to Fort Mill to enable Fort Mill to effectively teach students. Second, the belay system designed by Alpine Towers relies on a faculty supervisor to ensure the students are properly belaying the climbers. In addition to [defendant’s employee’s] testimony as to where the faculty supervisor should be positioned, the CEO of Alpine Towers, Joe Lackey, testified, “the staff member should stand directly behind the climber, . . . not thirty feet away.”

However, it gets worse. The plaintiff’s expert testified that no one should belay until they have been tested.

Moreover, despite knowing that Fort Mill would be teaching students to belay and that students were more susceptible to making belaying errors than adults, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it should test the students’ competency before allowing them to belay a climber. [Plaintiff’s expert] testified “as a matter of course in my industry, participants are tested,” including whether they are “able to . . . belay in a competent manner, catch falls, lower somebody . . . off a climb.”

However, the statements of the plaintiff’s experts were reinforced by the trade association that the defendant belonged to and that his own employees served on.

Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge Courses Technology, which [defendant] called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested.

Once again, the trade association (or as the defendant described it the “climbing society”) created standards which instead of helping the defendant win a trial, were used at trial to prove the defendant was negligent.

The final defense to the jury verdict raised by the defendant was Intervening Causation. Basically, this is an argument that something happened after the negligent acts of the defendant caused by a third party who either relieved the defendant of liability or is the real cause of the injury. If the intervening act was foreseeable, then it does not break the chain of liability between the parties. To be a defense, the intervening act must be the “bolt of lightning” without a thunderstorm, which came out of nowhere.

The test for whether a subsequent negligent act by a third party breaks the chain of causation to insulate a prior tortfeasor from liability is whether the subsequent actor’s negligence was reasonably foreseeable. “For an intervening act to break the causal link and insulate the tortfeasor from further liability, the intervening act must be unforeseeable.”

The defendant argued that the actions of the belayer, a co-defendant and the Fort Mill’s actions were an intervening cause. However, in this case, the acts of the defendant were foreseeable. In fact, for the belayer dropping a climber, the defendant had a study which showed what would happen.

So Now What?

The list of errors here is massive. Those errors were magnified by the plaintiff’s experts and trade association to which it belonged.

Marketing makes promises that Risk Management (actually your insurance company in most cases) must pay for. Here the wrong agreement was used where too many promises were made that were not kept by the defendant. If you put it in writing, you better make sure you are doing it; you have to complete the terms of the contract.

Add to that the language of the agreement using the term seller. The defendant created greater liability for itself. A mover moves; a seller agrees to move, set up, and in this case train.

It appears the plaintiff hired better experts. The court quoted from two of the plaintiff’s experts liberally. The court did not make a single quote from the defendant’s experts, or even mention if the defendant had an expert witness.

The defendant did a ten-year study on how people were injured using its towers. As usual, with a study that is not thought-out or done so with legal help, even when there could be legal consequences. The study was used by the plaintiff and the court to prove how negligent the design of the tower was. The study showed that most people were injured by belayers that dropped the climbers. That is what happened in this case.

The defendants own study showed the event was foreseeable, and occurred frequently. That was all the proof the plaintiff needed. If you do a study about injuries, you better solve the problems the study identifies. You just can’t look at the study and say, wow, what a great study.

Remember the big maps in ski patrol headquarters at ski resorts. Patrols used to stick a push pin or mark on the map were accidents occurred. Those maps are no longer found at the headquarters because they were proof that the ski area knew that accidents occurred at the locations with lots of holes in the map. If the injured skier can show his injury occurred at a holey part of the map, winning became much easier.

The worst part of this case is not in how it affects the defendant. The worst part is how this is going to affect climbing walls and rope’s courses across the US.

·        Instructors are going to have to stand behind belayers.

·        Instructional manuals have to be written in conjunction with an attorney. In this case, valuable information was removed from the manual which the judge attributed to a cause leading to the accident.

·        Belay devices are going to be a nightmare. Do you use one that does not fail, but that humans fail to use properly or do you use a static device.

·        Before allowing anyone to belay anywhere in the future the belayer is going to have to be tested.

The coup d’état or fait accompli of the case was the judge accepted that the defendant, who had several employees serving on the ACCT standards committee, failed to meet the standards created by the ACCT. What standard? The standard created on how to teach and test belayers.

Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge Courses Technology, which Lackey called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested.

Then the defendants own instruction manual was quoted by the court as proof the defendant had not followed its own standards.

Ashley testified she was not given a written test, but was required to do a “demonstration” and be watched by a faculty member to make sure she “knew how to do it.” There was no evidence; however, that Alpine Towers took any steps to ensure Fort Mill gave an adequate test of her competency. In fact, Alpine Towers’ instruction manual says only that students “will demonstrate proficiency in belaying before being permitted to belay.”

This is an appellate court decision; I searched but could not find out if this has been appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Hopefully……

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