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

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

United States District Court for the District of Utah

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

Civil No. 1:17-cv-79

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion by: Clark Waddoups

Opinion

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

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

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANALYSIS

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

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

II. WAIVER AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENTS

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

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

A. Clarity of the Waiver

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

i. USA
Cycling

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

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

ii. Breakaway

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

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

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

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

B. Public Interest Exception

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

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

C. Public Policy Exception

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

i. Penunuri Analysis – Equine Act

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

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

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

ii. Rothstein Analysis – Skiing Act

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

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

The Court therefore found the following:

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

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

iii. Bike Racing Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iv. Modification of the Utah’s Skiing Act

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

DATED this 3rd day of June, 2020.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Clark Waddoups

Clark Waddoups

United States District Judge


Twenty years ago, the New Hampshire Supreme Court shows how you can trample common sense to find a release invalid.

Release was signed for a trail ride and plaintiff claimed she told guide his horse was getting ready to act out before it kicked her.

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

Defendant: Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

Twenty-year-old New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions shows how convoluted a court can get when it decides a release will not be enforced. Court held the language in the release was confusing. However, to get that point the court had to not read the release I think.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up for a trail ride with the defendant. While on the ride she was kicked in the leg by another horse. She sued. On appeal she argued that her guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse, the one that kicked the plaintiff, was about to “act out.”

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.”

[Every time I’ve been bit or kicked by a horse there was no warning. Sure, if a horse’s ears go back, there is a warning, but most times, horse 1, Moss 0. I wish there were indications that a horse was going to act out.]

Prior to suing she signed a release. The trial court dismissed her claim because of the release. She appealed.

New Hampshire has a two-tier court system. The trial court is called the Superior Court and appeals from the Superior Court are appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. This appeal was decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

The entire issue before the court was “whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence.”

The defendant argued the release “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding’“.

The Supreme Court looked at this decision in its analysis in a slightly different way.

This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.”

“Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”

The court then read the release to determine if a reasonable person would have known about the exculpatory clause in the release. The court then worked hard to find a reasonable person would not.

A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” We will assess the clarity of the con-tract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case.

The language the court examined was in all caps so the language stood out from the surrounding language. However, the court stated that when the entire agreement was read, the all cap language was unclear. (?) The court’s determination that the clause was not clear was based on the word therefore.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that rea-son: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The court found additional language that it held confused the meaning of the release. The court concluded its analysis with this statement.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions.

There was a dissent by two justices. Both who found the majority’s analysis was just a little ridiculous.

So Now What?

Sometimes your release is not going to win. In those cases, you are going to rely on your insurance company. In this case, the court worked hard to find little ways it could justify its desire to not support the release.

Possibly, this release might have had a better chance with a simple clear statement that by signing the release the signor could not sue for negligence. This release reads like it was written by an attorney training to kill trees rather than write documents for consumers.

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, 140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

Brenda Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation d/b/a Loon Mountain Equestrian Center

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

140 N.H. 166; 663 A.2d 1340; 1995 N.H. LEXIS 119

August 22, 1995, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: [***1] Released for Publication September 7, 1995.

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

PROCEDURAL POSTURE: Plaintiff injured brought a negligence action against defendant tour company after being hurt while on a horseback riding tour. The injured appealed the decision of the Superior Court of Merrimack County (New Hampshire), which granted the tour company’s motion for summary judgment.

OVERVIEW: Before going horseback riding on the tour, the injured signed an exculpatory agreement that released the tour company from liability as a result of various occurrences. The tour company successfully argued in the trial court that the exculpatory agreement barred the injured’s suit. The court found that the issue of whether the injured understood the agreement presented an issue of fact. In assessing the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, the court found that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses and did not clearly relieve the tour company of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in the case. The court reasoned that one clause was understandable to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injures that occurred for that reason. However, the court found that receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence was not an inherent danger. Because the contract did not put the injured on clear notice, the tour company was not entitled to summary judgment.

OUTCOME: The judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded.

CORE TERMS: horse, exculpatory, horseback riding, reasonable person, exculpatory provision, personal injury, own negligence, summary judgment, public policy, animal, exculpatory clauses, issue of fact, opportunity to prove, contravenes, inclusive, obscured, verb, tour guide, qualifying, notice, ridden, matter of law, entitled to judgment, contract language, misunderstanding, unabridged, exhaustive, quotations, prefaced, genuine

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Movants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

[HN2] The court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision. Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

[HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

[HN4] The court examines the language of the release to determine whether a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have known of the exculpatory provision. A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence. The court assesses the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated words and phrases.

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

New Hampshire Supreme Court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy.

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

The plaintiff’s understanding of the release presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

A reasonable person would “understand” an exculpatory provision if its language clearly and specifically indicated the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

Release language should be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

The release language fails where it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases and doesn’t put the plaintiff on clear notice.

COUNSEL: Craig, Wenners, Craig & Casinghino, P.A., of Manchester (Gary L. Casinghino and Gemma M. Dreher on the brief, and Mr. Casinghino orally), for the plaintiff.

Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A., of Manchester (Gregory D. H. Jones and Joseph M. McDonough, III, on the brief, and Mr. Jones orally), for the defendant.

JUDGES: JOHNSON, J.; THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[*167] [**1341] JOHNSON, J. The question presented is whether an exculpatory contract signed by the plaintiff, Brenda Wright, released the defendant, Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, from liability for its own negligence. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) found that the signed release barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. We reverse.

Before embarking on a horseback riding tour at the Loon Mountain Equestrian Center, owned and operated by the defendant, the plaintiff was asked to read, complete, and sign the following exculpatory [***2] agreement:

I accept for use, as is, the animals listed on this form and accept full responsibility for its care while it is in my possession. I have made no misrepresentation to Loon Mountain regarding my name, address or age. I agree to hold harmless and indemnify Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation and its owners, agents and employees for any loss or damage, including any that result from claims for personal injury or property damage related to the use of this animal.

I understand and am aware that horseback riding is a HAZARDOUS ACTIVITY. I understand that the above activity and the use of horses involves a risk of injury to any and all parts of my body. I hereby agree to freely and expressly assume and accept any and all risks of injury or death from the use of this animal while participating in this activity.

I understand that it is not possible to predict every situation and condition of the terrain a horse will be ridden on; therefore, it is impossible to guarantee the horse I am riding will react safely in all riding situations. [*168]

I realize that it is mandatory that I wear a helmet at all times while horseback riding, and that I will obey all trail signs [***3] and remain only on open trails.

I therefore release Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation, its owners, agents and employees FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR DAMAGES AND PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF OR ANY PERSON OR PROPERTY RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF LOON MOUNTAIN RECREATION CORPORATION TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all damages or injury of any kind which may result. (PLEASE SIGN: Brenda Wright/s)

I agree that there have been no warranties, expressed or implied, which have been made to me which extend beyond the description of the equipment listed on this form. I the undersigned, acknowledge that I have carefully read this agreement and release of liability, and I understand its contents. I understand that my signature below expressly waives any rights I have to sue Loon Mountain Recreation Corporation for injuries and damages.

The plaintiff signed this agreement after the fifth paragraph and at the bottom.

While on the tour, the plaintiff was kicked in the leg by her guide’s horse and sustained an injury. She brought a negligence action against the defendant, alleging [***4] that her tour guide had failed to respond to indications that his horse was about to “act out.” The defendant argued that the exculpatory contract barred the plaintiff’s suit and moved for summary judgment. The Superior Court (Manias, J.) granted its motion, and this appeal followed.

[**1342] On appeal, the defendant argues that we should uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the contract “clearly and specifically indicated an intent to release Loon Mountain from liability for injury resulting from its own negligence while [the plaintiff] was engaged in the activity of horseback riding.”

[HN1] The trial court must grant summary judgment when it finds no genuine issue of material fact, after considering the affidavits and other evidence presented in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and when the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The party opposing summary judgment must put forth contradictory [*169] evidence under oath, sufficient to indicate that a genuine issue of fact exists so that the party should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial. All reasonable doubts should be resolved against the movant.


Phillips v. Verax [***5] Corp., 138 N.H. 240, 243, 637 A.2d 906, 909 (1994) (brackets, ellipses, and quotations omitted).

[HN2] This court will not enforce an exculpatory contract that contravenes public policy. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H.. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777, 779 (1994). “Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that a reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151, 154 (1986). “Since the terms of the contract are strictly construed against the defendant, the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” Id.

The plaintiff does not argue that the exculpatory contract contravenes public policy. Accordingly, we determine only whether “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement,” and if not, whether “a reasonable person in [her] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Id.

The parties dispute whether the plaintiff understood the agreement to release the defendant from [***6] liability for its own negligence. [HN3] The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable. See Phillips, 138 N.H. at 243, 637 A.2d at 909; Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

[HN4] We therefore examine the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154; cf. Raudonis v. Ins. Co. of North America, 137 N.H. 57, 59, 623 A.2d 746, 747 (1993) (interpretation of insurance contract language a question of law; we construe terms as would reasonable person in insured’s position). A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence . . . .” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154. We will assess the clarity of the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining isolated [*170] words and phrases. See Chadwick v. CSI, Ltd., [***7] 137 N.H. 515, 524, 629 A.2d 820, 826 (1993).

We conclude that the contract structure and organization obscured the exculpatory clauses. Strictly construing the contract language against the defendant, we find the contract did not clearly relieve the defendant of responsibility for the sort of negligence at issue in this case. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, 509 A.2d at 154.

The defendant emphasizes the language of the agreement’s fifth paragraph, which states: “I therefore release [the defendant] from ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE, accepting myself the full responsibility for any . . . injury of any kind which may result.” (Emphasis added.) We find that when this clause is read within the [**1343] context of the entire agreement, its meaning is less than clear.

In this case, the term “therefore” is significant. A common definition of “therefore” is “for that reason: because of that: on that ground . . . .” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2372 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). A clause that is introduced [***8] by the term “therefore” cannot be understood without reading the antecedent language.

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.” Being kicked by a horse is a danger inherent to horseback riding; receiving an injury that would not have occurred but for a tour guide’s negligence, however, is not.

The exculpatory phrase in the fifth paragraph is further clouded by the qualifying language that follows. Pursuant to the contract, the defendant is released from liability for its negligence “to include negligence in selection, adjustment or any maintenance of any horse.” If we parse these terms, they do not necessarily restrict the defendant’s release to liability for negligent selection, adjustment, or maintenance of any horse. The superfluity of the terms, however, serves to obscure rather than clarify. Moreover, one sense of the word “inclusive” is “covering or intended to cover all items . . . .” Webster’s, [***9] supra at 1143. A reasonable person reading the clause thus might conclude that the agreement relieved the defendant of responsibility for the enumerated types of negligence only.

[*171] Whether the tour guide’s failure to control his horse constitutes “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse,” is unclear. Webster’s gives several definitions for the word “maintain,” the two most relevant being: (1) “to keep in a state of repair, efficiency, or validity: preserve from failure or decline” and (2) “to provide for: bear the expense of: SUPPORT.” Webster’s, supra at 1362. When read in the context of selection and adjustment, therefore, a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff might understand “the negligent . . . maintenance of any horse” to relate to negligent upkeep rather than control.

The contract is also unclear with respect to injuries involving horses not ridden by the plaintiff. The first, second, and third paragraphs emphasize only the horse that the plaintiff “accept[s] for use.” We reject the defendant’s argument that the phrase “use of this animal,” used in the first and second paragraphs, “is merely an alternative expression for the activity of ‘horseback [***10] riding.'” We also reject the defendant’s contention that the phrase “use of this animal” does not limit the contract’s application to injuries involving the plaintiff’s horse because “[a] careful reading . . . reveals that it is part of a clause modifying plaintiff’s agreement to ‘hold harmless and indemnify [the defendant] for any loss or damage. . . .'” The Barnes test requires that release language be plain; a careful reading should not be necessary to divine the defendant’s intent.

In Audley, we concluded:

Quite simply, the general release language does not satisfy the Barnes requirement that the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence. The release fails in this respect not because it neglects to use the word ‘negligence’ or any other special terms; instead it fails because no particular attention is called to the notion of releasing the defendant from liability for his own negligence. The general language in the context of the release simply did not put the plaintiff on clear notice of such intent.


Audley, 138 N.H. at 419, 640 A.2d at 779 (quotations and citations omitted). [***11] Whereas the release language in Audley failed because it was too general, the release language in the present case fails because it is obscured by qualifying terms and phrases. The cases are similar, however, because neither contract put the plaintiff “on clear notice,” id.

The exculpatory contract lacks a straightforward statement of the defendant’s intent [**1344] to avoid liability for its failure to use reasonable [*172] care in any way. The agreement easily could have been framed in a manner that would have expressed more clearly its conditions and exclusions. The defendant was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

THAYER, J., with whom BROCK, C.J., joined, dissented; the others concurred.

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

THAYER, J., dissenting: I would uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment because the exculpatory contract explicitly indicated an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. The contract in question purports to release the defendant from “ANY AND ALL LIABILITY FOR . . . PERSONAL INJURY TO MYSELF . . . RESULTING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF [THE DEFENDANT] TO INCLUDE NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE [***12] OF ANY HORSE.” The language clearly indicates an intent to release the defendant from liability for its own negligence. I agree with the majority that the use of the word “therefore” restricts the release to negligence associated with the inherent hazards of horseback riding. I do not agree, however, that the negligence alleged is not such a risk. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s employee had failed to properly control his horse, and that as a result, the horse “acted out.” Controlling a horse is an essential part of horseback riding. The possibility that someone will fail to exercise the proper control would seem to fall squarely within the category of dangers inherent in the sport.

The majority bases its holding in part on its interpretation of the phrase “to include.” In holding that the list prefaced by the words “to include” is meant to be exhaustive, the majority relies on a definition of the word “inclusive.” Such reliance is misplaced. The contract used the word “include” as a verb. The primary relevant definition of that word is “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or a larger group, class, or aggregate.” Webster’s Third New International [***13] Dictionary 1143 (unabridged ed. 1961) (Webster’s). “Inclusive,” however, is an adjective and its definition differs from the verb form of the word. See In re Dumaine, 135 N.H. 103, 107, 600 A.2d 127, 129 (1991). The use of the verb form of the word indicates that the listed types of negligence are “component[s] of a whole or a larger group,” Webster’s, supra, and that the list was not exhaustive.

The appropriate question, therefore, is whether the negligence alleged in this case is of the same type as those listed. The plaintiff [*173] alleges that the defendant’s employee failed to properly control his mount. This would seem to fall squarely within the type of negligence defined by the contract. That the horse causing the injury was not ridden by the plaintiff is irrelevant. The contract releases the defendant for negligence resulting from “the use of horses” and specifically from “NEGLIGENCE IN SELECTION, ADJUSTMENT OR ANY MAINTENANCE OF ANY HORSE.” (Emphasis added.) While the contract does refer to the plaintiff’s horse on a number of occasions, it also refers to horses generally and to “any” horse. This language cannot be read to restrict the defendant’s release [***14] solely to injuries caused by the plaintiff’s horse. I disagree with the majority’s reading of the exculpatory contract. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

BROCK, C.J., joins in the dissent.