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

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

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

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

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

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

CASE SUMMARY

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

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

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

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

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

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* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

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I. INTRODUCTION

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

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

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

A. The Release

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Rafting Trip

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

C. Legal Proceedings

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

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

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

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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

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

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IV. DISCUSSION

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

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

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

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

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

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

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

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

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

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

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

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

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20 Id. at 348.

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

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

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

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

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

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23 Id. at 348.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

13 Id. at 963.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

14 Id.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


Whitewater rafting case where one of the claims is the employer should have provided eye protecting during the rafting trip.

Plaintiff was injured during a corporate team building exercise when she ended up with a small rock in her eye after the whitewater rafting trip.

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

State: Florida, United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division

Plaintiff: Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria

Defendant: Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Defendants

Year: 2018

Summary

A whitewater rafting trip in Honduras booked as a team-building event ended up in litigation in the US. The allegations were the corporation that booked the team building for its employees failed to provide the necessary safety equipment for whitewater rafting.

The allegations may be taken to allege there is a higher duty owed to employees of a corporation partaking in a sport or recreation event then to other participants. The duty of the raft company appears to remain the same. Only employers are argued to have a requirement of higher standards of care.

Facts

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conduct-ed” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye.

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

There were legal discussions about what law applied and other items that won’t be discussed here. It is unclear how a Honduran corporation, and a raft trip in Honduras ended up in a Florida Federal District Court.

The court was succinct in its analysis of the law and facts. The plaintiff argued the defendants were negligent.

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plain-tiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage.

According to the plaintiff, there was a duty of the employer, Integro not to select the rafting event and to: “provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.”

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defend-ants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

The next argument made by the plaintiff was a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high

The court dismissed this claim finding the plaintiff failed to allege any instances of outrageous, extreme or atrocious conduct.

The plaintiff also sued for breach of contract. “To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach.”

The court dismissed the breach of contract claims against the individual defendants and granted the plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint against the corporate defendant to clarify or restate her breach of contract claim.

So Now What?

Simple case, right? Well maybe. In the negligence complaint which survived the motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s allegations stated:

The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.”

Two issues surface here. The first is the allegation that white-water rafting requires you to have eye protection. However, the second has possibly greater results. The complaint of not providing enough safety gear is not against the raft company, but against the plaintiff’s employer who booked the trip. The allegation is the employer who booked the trip had a duty to provide proper gear for the trip.

This shifts the burden away from the people who understand the risks, rafting companies, to people who do not understand the risks, companies, churches, groups that book raft trips. Every raft company might be able to argue successfully, that the standards in the industry are to provide a PFD.

However, the company will have to rely on the industry standards of whitewater rafting (or any other sport or recreational activity) but then check to see if there is a higher standard of care owed to employees.

Here the plaintiff seemed to lose most of here employment law claims. The decision indicates she was denied worker’s compensation for her injuries. However, if the activity was argued to be part of her employment, then this may create a greater duty and a greater reluctance on the part of corporations to do team building events.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.

Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

State: Wyoming

Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs

Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.

The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.

Facts

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.

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

The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.

Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”

The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.

The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:

Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The court then reviewed the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act. The plaintiff’s argued the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply for three reasons.

First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.

Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.

The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.

The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.

‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]

Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”

However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)

Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.

The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.

The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:

To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation

The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.

The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”

Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.

So Now What?

Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.

There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.

Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Chavarria, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff, v. Intergro, Inc., et al., Defendants.

CASE NO. 8:17-cv-2229-T-23AEP

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA, TAMPA DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117631

July 16, 2018, Decided

July 16, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Carmen Elena Monteilh Chavarria, Plaintiff: Carlos A. Leyva, LEAD ATTORNEY, Digital Business Law Group, P.A., Palm Harbor, FL; Linda Susan McAleer, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Law Offices of Linda S. McAleer, San Diego, CA.

For Intergro, Inc., Timothy Dolan, Felix Renta, Defendants: Catherine M. DiPaolo, Richard M. Hanchett, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Trenam, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye, O’Neill & Mullis, Tampa, FL.

JUDGES: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

OPINION

ORDER

On September 25, 2017, the plaintiff sued (Doc. 1) the defendants for negligence, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for breach of contract. Asserting the same claims, the plaintiff amended (Doc. 15) her complaint on October 25, 2017. On November 8, 2017, the defendants moved (Doc. 19) to dismiss the amended complaint,1 and on April 28, 2018, the plaintiff moved (Doc. 39) — for the first time — for an order determining that Honduran law governs the claims in this action.2

1 “Defendants’ motion to dismiss amended complaint, alternative motion to strike certain allegations and the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva, and alternative notice of objection to testimony of Carlos A. Leyva.” (Doc. 19)

2 Also, the plaintiff moves “for partial summary judgment as to liability only, pursuant to [the] breach of contract claim.” (Doc. 43 at 1)

By failing to timely assert the claim, a party waives the application of foreign law. Daewoo Motor Am., Inc. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 459 F.3d 1249, 1257 (11th Cir. 2006); Lott v. Levitt, 556 F.3d 564, 568 (7th Cir. 2009) (holding that the plaintiff “explicitly submitted to Illinois [not Virginia] law and relied solely on it, and having done so, the district [*2] court was right to apply it to the dispute. . . . The principle of waiver is designed to prohibit this very type of gamesmanship — [the plaintiff] is not entitled to get a free peek at how his dispute will shake out under Illinois law and, when things don’t go his way, ask for a mulligan under the laws of a different jurisdiction.”); Vukadinovich v. McCarthy, 59 F.3d 58, 62 (7th Cir. 1995) (holding that choice of law is “normally waivable”); Anderson v. McAllister Towing and Transp. Co., 17 F. Supp. 2d 1280, 1286 n.6 (S.D. Ala. 1998) (Volmer, J.) (holding that the defendant waived the right to have Saudi Arabian law applied to a contractual dispute because the defendant failed to give reasonable notice of its intent to assert that foreign law applied). “The failure to give proper notice of the applicability of foreign law does not warrant dismissal . . . . It is more likely that a failure to give reasonable notice will result in a waiver of the applicability of foreign law to the case.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 9, § 44.1.03[3] (3d ed. 2016).

In both the complaint and the amended complaint, the plaintiff asserts emphatically (and highlights in bold) that each claim is brought under Florida common law. The plaintiff’s response to the motion to dismiss is based entirely on Florida law. Seven months elapsed between the day the plaintiff sued [*3] and the day the plaintiff moved for “choice of law.” Because the plaintiff failed to give timely notice of the claimed applicability of foreign law, she has waived her right to assert that Honduran law governs her claims.

BACKGROUND

Contracting with Intergro in October 2014, the plaintiff, a Honduran national, agreed to provide accounting services at Intergro’s “Shared Services Center” in Honduras. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff reported to Felix Renta, CFO of the group of companies owned by Timothy Dolan. (Doc. 15 at 4) The plaintiff alleges that both Intergro and Seproma3 “conducted” in Honduras a joint training session for employees. The activities included a white-water rafting event in which the employees were purportedly “supplied with a life jacket and a helmet, but with no other protective equipment, including no eye protection gear.” (Doc. 15 at 5)

3 Seproma, a subsidiary of Intergro, is not a party to this action.

After the rafting event, the plaintiff noticed a burning sensation in her right eye. Later she required eye surgery to remove a small stone. After the surgery, the plaintiff began experiencing “significant” difficulty with her vision. (Doc. 15 at 6) Following a diagnosis of “post traumatic cataract disorder,” the plaintiff required two [*4] further surgeries. In June 2016, a doctor diagnosed her with a 75% loss of vision in the injured eye. (Doc. 15 at 6)

DISCUSSION

Negligence

To state a claim for negligence, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the breach caused the plaintiff damage. Lewis v. City of St. Petersburg, 260 F.3d 1260, 1262 (11th Cir. 2001). The plaintiff alleges that Integro owed her a duty “not to select” the rafting event in which she was injured and a duty to provide effective personal protective gear instead of “solely allowing the operator of the rafting event to make the decision as to what protective equipment to provide.” (Doc. 15 at 8) The defendants argue (1) that the plaintiff fails to allege sufficiently that the defendants knew that the rafting event posed an unreasonable risk of harm and (2) that, even if the plaintiff had alleged a duty of care owed by Intergro to the plaintiff, she fails to allege any individual duty owed by Dolan or Renta.

The plaintiff alleges that the defendants, who purportedly authorized, sponsored, and paid for the work event, owed her a duty of care; that the defendants breached that duty by failing to ensure that employees were adequately protected; [*5] that the breach caused her injury; and that she has suffered actual damages as a result of the defendants’ negligence. The plaintiff states a claim for negligence.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

To state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant intentionally or recklessly committed outrageous conduct and that the conduct caused severe emotional distress. Stewart v. Walker, 5 So. 3d 746, 749 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) The standard for outrageous conduct is distinctly high. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. McCarson, 467 So. 2d 277, 278 (Fla. 1985) (“Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”). Whether a person’s alleged conduct is sufficiently outrageous or intolerable is a matter of law. De La Campa v. Grifols America, Inc., 819 So. 2d 940 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002).

The plaintiff alleges (1) that the “[d]efendants understood that their collective refusal to compensate Plaintiff for work related injurious activities, including lost wages and medical care, would cause emotional anxiety and distress to a single working mother of three children[]” (Doc. 15 at 7) and (2) that the defendants’ “intentional refusal to pay Plaintiff’s lost [*6] wages, medical expenses, and other benefits as required by Honduran law . . . caused Plaintiff emotional distress” (Doc. 15 at 9). The plaintiff fails to allege a single instance of “outrageous,” “extreme,” and “atrocious” conduct. Count II is dismissed for failing to state a claim.

Breach of contract

The plaintiff sues for breach of contract “pursuant to non-payment of employment termination benefits.” (Doc. 15 at 1) To state a claim for breach of contract, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a contract, a material breach of the contract, and damages resulting from the breach. Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1272 (11th Cir. 2009).

Intergro

The amended complaint fails to identify an unfulfilled contractual obligation. Instead, the plaintiff claims entitlement to payment of benefits under Honduran law but fails to identify the law or the benefits to which she is entitled. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is granted. In amending Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract, the plaintiff must clarify the allegation that “Intergro breached the Contract by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to [*7] Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) Ambiguity exists as to whether Honduran law or the contract governs the obligation to pay, whether Honduran law or the contract governs the amount of the required payment, or to whether and to what extent Honduran law and the contract otherwise control the obligation to pay and the amount of the payment. The amended complaint must clarify the plaintiff’s claim in this respect, among others.

Dolan and Renta

The plaintiff fails to state a claim against either Dolan or Renta. In Count III, the plaintiff alleges that the plaintiff’s “employment with Intergro was controlled by a binding contract” and that Intergro breached the contract “by failing to pay Plaintiff the benefits that were due under same pursuant to Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 9-10) But in the prayer for relief, the plaintiff (who purportedly contracted only with Intergro) prays for judgment against all defendants “for the full amount of contractual benefits due under Honduran law.” (Doc. 15 at 10) The complaint lacks an allegation that Dolan and Renta are parties to the contract. Count III fails to state a claim against Dolan and Renta.

Motion to strike

The defendant moves (Doc. 19) under Rule 12(f), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to strike [*8] the allegations in paragraphs 7, 8, 14, 31, 32, 35, and 37 of the amended complaint and moves to strike the affidavit of Carlos A. Leyva (Doc. 15-1). Under Rule 12(f), “[t]he court may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” “A motion to strike is a drastic remedy” and “will usually be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties.” Augustus v. Board of Public Instruction of Escambia County, Fla., 306 F.2d 862, 868 (5th Cir. 1962). “An allegation is ‘impertinent’ or ‘immaterial’ when it is neither responsive nor relevant to the issues involved in the action. . . . ‘Scandalous’ generally refers to any allegation that unnecessarily reflects on the moral character of an individual or states anything in repulsive language that detracts from the dignity of the court.” Moore’s Federal Practice, Vol. 2, s 12.37[3] (3d ed. 2016). The defendant fails to identify and describe why the allegations are immaterial, irrelevant, and scandalous, and the plaintiff argues plausibly that the allegations are “related” to the controversy, are material, and are pertinent.

The defendant argues that Carlos Leyva’s affidavit contains allegations that have “no relation to [*9] this controversy and cause prejudice to Defendants because they are inadmissible hearsay.” (Doc. 19 at 12) The plaintiff responds that the “[d]efendants . . . conflate what is required for summary judgment with what is required in the pleadings. . . . The evidentiary burden that Defendants assume . . . does not exist at this stage in the proceedings.” (Doc. 21 at 16) For the reasons stated by the plaintiff, the defendants’ motion to strike Carlos Leyva’s affidavit is denied.

CONCLUSION

The defendant’s motion (Doc. 19) to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART. Count II is DISMISSED. Count III is DISMISSED against Dolan and Renta. Construed as a motion for a more definite statement of Count III, the motion (Doc. 19) is GRANTED. The plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Intergro for breach of contract.

The defendant’s “alternative motion [Doc. 19] to strike certain allegations and to strike the affidavit of attorney Carlos A. Leyva” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 39) for “choice of law” is DENIED. The plaintiff’s motion (Doc. 43) for partial summary judgment on Count III is DENIED.

No later than JULY 27, 2018, the plaintiff must amend the complaint [*10] to comply with this order4 The plaintiff must add no new claim.

4 That is, the plaintiff must (1) remove the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and (2) remove the claims against Dolan and Renta for breach of contract. Also, the plaintiff must amend Count III to provide a more definite statement of the claim against Integro for breach of contract.

ORDERED in Tampa, Florida, on July 16, 2018.

/s/ Steven D. Merryday

STEVEN D. MERRYDAY

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs, vs. Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc., Defendants.

Case No. 08-CV-139-J

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING

2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

October 1, 2009, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Alexis R Rizas, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of John J Rizas, John Friel, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Elizabeth A Rizas, Ronald J Miciotto, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Linda Lewis Clark, James Clark, individually, Lawrence Wilson, individually, Joyce Wilson, individually, Plaintiffs: Mel C Orchard, III, Roy A Jacobson, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, SPENCE LAW FIRM Jackson, WY USA.

For Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant: Joe M Teig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Susan Combs, HOLLAND & HART, Jackson, WY USA; Maryjo C Falcone, Peter W Rietz, LEAD ATTORNEY, RIETZ LAW FIRM, Dillon, CO USA.

For Tauck Inc, a New Jersey corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, also known as Tauck Tours Inc, also known as Tauck World Discovery Inc, Defendant: William M McKellar, LEAD ATTORNEY, McKELLAR TIEDEKEN & SCOGGIN, Cheyenne, WY USA.

JUDGES: ALAN B. JOHNSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON

OPINION

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ [*2] motions for summary judgment. Tauck, Inc. filed five motions and Grand Teton Lodge Company (“GTLC”) filed one, all on July 22, 2009. After careful consideration of the arguments and evidence supplied by both Plaintiffs and Defendants, for the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the inherent risk of the river float activity. In all other respects, the Court will grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

FACTS

The Court relates the following facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are opposing Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108, ¶ 9. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” Id. ¶ 24. This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming [*3] and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.” Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Fraud, Ex. 5.

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. Stipulated Facts ¶ 27. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. Id. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Id. ¶ 28. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria [*4] Urrutia. Id. ¶ 29. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years. Id. ¶ 30.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. Id. ¶ 32. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result. Further facts will be discussed as necessary to resolve each legal issue.

DISCUSSION

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants. Vail Resorts was dismissed from this case for lack of jurisdiction on June 16, 2009. Plaintiffs are citizens of Maryland, Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia. GTLC is incorporated in Wyoming, which is also its principal place of business. Tauk is incorporated in New Jersey, and its principal place of business is Connecticut.

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” [*5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); e.g., Kerber v. Qwest Pension Plan, 572 F.3d 1135, 1144 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view all facts and make inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. E.g., Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, 566 F.3d 1236, 1242 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court may consider only admissible evidence. Wright-Simmons v. City of Oklahoma City, 155 F.3d 1264, 1268 (10th Cir. 1998). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1).

Choice of Law

Because the Court is sitting in diversity, it would normally apply Wyoming law. See Butt v. Bank of America, N.A., 477 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, however, Plaintiffs have raised a choice-of-law issue by urging this Court to apply Connecticut law. A federal court sitting in diversity applies the choice-of-law principles of the state in which it sits. Morrison Knudson Corp. v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063, 1077 n.12 (10th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, this Court will apply Wyoming choice-of-law principles.

Plaintiffs first contend that Connecticut law applies because Tauck and its clients signed a contract to that effect. Specifically, the contract states the following:

It is agreed by Tauck World Discovery and the Tour Member that all legal claims, actions and proceedings against Tauck World Discovery under, in connection with, resulting from or incident to a tour may be instituted, if at all, only in a state or federal court within the State of Connecticut, USA, to the exclusion of the courts of or in any other state or jurisdiction. It is further agreed that all such claims, actions and proceedings shall [*6] be governed by and decided in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims for Fraud, Ex. 2. Tauck counters by claiming that the choice-of-law provision was intended for its benefit, and therefore it can waive that provision. Furthermore, it points out that, if the contract is to be enforced, there are a number of other provisions that would benefit Tauck, such as the choice-of-forum provision in the excerpt above.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. J.W. Denio Milling Co. v. Malin, 25 Wyo. 143, 165 P. 1113, 1116 (Wyo. 1917). There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.” E.g., Lanna v. Greene, 399 A.2d 837, 841 (Conn. 1978). See Takahashi v. Pepper Tank & Contracting Co., 58 Wyo. 330, 131 P.2d 339, 354 (Wyo. 1942). The question in this case is whether the choice-of-law provision was included for Tauck’s benefit.

The Court finds that it was. As far as the evidence indicates, none of the tour members or their survivors who are involved in this action are residents of Connecticut. [*7] The three plaintiffs who were also tour members, Mr. Clark and the Wilsons, are residents of Louisiana and Georgia, respectively. The residence of the three deceased tour members is not clear from the evidence submitted to the Court. Even if one of the three decedents were residents of Connecticut, that does not necessarily mean that the provision existed for that person’s benefit. Tauck drafted the provision at issue. The provision benefits Tauck by ensuring that any claims will be litigated in the forum most convenient to it, and under the law with which it is most familiar. Meanwhile, there is little or no benefit to any tour member who is not a resident of Connecticut. Even then, the choice-of-law provision would benefit the tour member by happenstance rather than by intention. Accordingly, Tauck may waive the choice of law provision, and has affirmatively stated that it has done so. Its waiver is further supported by the fact that it has never contended that suit is improper in this Court as a result of the choice-of-forum provision in the same contract.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due [*8] to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of Wyoming’s Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through -123 (LexisNexis 2009). The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(iii). Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

It is this very policy of protecting these providers that renders the contractual choice-of-law provision invalid. The Wyoming Supreme Court has not answered the question of whether the Act represents so strong a Wyoming policy as to render invalid a contractual choice-of-law provision that would eliminate the Act’s application. This Court believes that Wyoming, like other states, would look to general contract principles to resolve this question. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 187 (1971) states:

(1) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern [*9] their contractual rights and duties will be applied if the particular issue is one which the parties could have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue.

(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either

(a) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties choice, or

(b) application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.

(3) In the absence of a contrary indication of intention, the reference is to the local law of the state of the chosen law.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract [*10] because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i) (LexisNexis 1989). In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” 1996 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 78, § 1. Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation [*11] providers in Wyoming:

The Court recognizes that its reading of the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act provides enormous protection to those in the business of providing recreational activities. . . . Consumers in Wyoming are now faced with an entire industry whose economic and consequent legislative power enables them to conduct business with only a passing thought to the safety of those who utilize their services. Despite this frightening prospect, the Court recognizes its place in our nation’s federal system of government. A court should not decimate the purpose of a legislative act, no matter how distasteful, when that purpose is clearly incorporated in the language of the act.

Cooperman v. David, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1315, 1321 (D. Wyo. 1998). Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The Court’s decision is consistent with precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In Electrical Distributers, Inc. v. SFR, Inc., one issue considered by the court was whether the trial court properly applied Colorado law where a covenant not to compete named Colorado as the applicable law, [*12] but was to be performed exclusively in Utah. 166 F.3d 1074, 1083-84 (10th Cir. 1999). Using the analysis that this Court has adopted above, the Court of Appeals determined that Utah’s strong interest in careful scrutiny of covenants not to compete controlled over any interest Colorado had in enforcement of a contract made within its boundaries, but to be performed outside them. Id.

Recreation Safety Act

Defendants rely on Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act and claim that, pursuant to the Act, they owed no duty of care to any of the tour members. In response, Plaintiffs provide three reasons that the Act does not apply. First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants. Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act. Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act. The Court will now address Plaintiffs second and third arguments in turn.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(ii) defines “provider” as follows: “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.” Plaintiffs claim that Tauck is not a provider because of its position that it did not conduct the activity itself, but rather was a travel agent [*13] that procured the raft trip on behalf of its tour members. In doing so, however, Plaintiffs overlook the undisputed fact that Tauck offered the float trip as part of its tour package. Given that the Act includes offering a recreational opportunity in its definition of “provider,” it is obvious that Tauck is, in fact, a provider.

Plaintiffs’ preemption argument requires significantly more discussion. State law may be preempted by federal law in three ways. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law. Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31, 116 S. Ct. 1103, 134 L. Ed. 2d 237 (1996). Second, Congress may preempt an entire field by regulating that field so comprehensively that there is no room for state regulation. Id. at 31. Third, federal and state law may be in irreconcilable conflict, preempting state law even though Congress has not explicitly stated its intent to do so. Id. None of these three types of preemption occurred in this case.

The specific federal “law” that Plaintiffs believe preempt the Act is the concession contract between GTLC and the National Park Service. In particular, Plaintiffs point to the following language in the concession contract:

The Concessioner is responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for its employees and clients as outlined [*14] in the Contract. The Concessioner will develop a Risk Management Program that will be approved by the Service in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Service Guidelines. The Risk Management Program will be reviewed annually by the Service.

Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion For Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 3. Plaintiffs claim that the concession contract “change[s] the character of the state law provisions encompassed by” the Act, and therefore results in an actual conflict between state and federal law. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, at 12. Plaintiffs also point to the National Park Service Management Policies 2006, which provides for visitor safety emergency response and emergency preparedness. That document refers several times to the safety of visitors to the park. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 4.

Plaintiffs make an argument similar to that raised by the plaintiff in Carden v. Kelly, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (D. Wyo. 2001). In Carden, this Court summarized the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows:

1) Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, the Bridger-Teton National Forest; 2) Defendants, in order to operate [*15] their business in the Bridger-Teton National Forest had to obtain a special-use permit from the Forest Service; 3) because Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, federal law, namely Forest Service regulations and the Defendants’ special-use permit apply; 4) the special-use permit contains provisions concerning negligence and injury to patrons of Forest Service permit holders, which Plaintiff claims requires the permit holders to inform their guests of the risks and have them sign a risk acknowledgment form; and 5) provisions in the Forest Service regulations requiring patrons of the Forest Service concessionaires to assume “usual” risks of activities within the National Forest conflicts with, and thus preempts, the Wyoming Recreation Statute.

Carden, 175 F. Supp. 2d at 1322. The Court determined that, although Congress had the authority to pre-empt the Recreation Safety Act on federal lands, it did not do so. Id. at 1322-26.

In the current case, the Court will follow Carden‘s sound reasoning. The Management Policies and the concession contract cited by Plaintiffs do broadly emphasize the Park Service’s interest in public safety, but does not indicate any intent to preempt Wyoming tort law. “Courts do not ‘lightly attribute [*16] to Congress or to a federal agency the intent to preempt state or local laws.'” Ramsey Winch Inc. v. Henry, 555 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) quoting Nat’l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n v. Killian, 918 F.2d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 1990).

Plaintiffs in the case at bar attempt to distinguish Carden by noting that the requirements in Carden were imposed by the Forest Service, while this case involves the Park Service. Plaintiffs do not point out how this fact is relevant, and the Court does not discern any. The Park Service was created to

promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

16 U.S.C. § 1. Its mission is therefore one of conservation, and the Court does not perceive any intent to impact state tort law. The Court finds that federal law has not preempted the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act.

It is now incumbent upon the Court to determine if the Act applies to the circumstances of this case and insulates the defendants from liability. The Act states, in relevant part,

(a) Any person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport [*17] or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to himself or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(b) A provider of any sport or recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity.

(c) Actions based upon negligence of the provider wherein the damage, injury or death is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity shall be preserved pursuant to W.S. 1-1-109.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.

Past disputes regarding the Act’s application involve, as does this case, questions about what constitutes an “inherent risk.” “‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Id. § 1-1-122(a)(i). The Wyoming Supreme Court has had few occasions to address the determination of what is an inherent risk of a particular activity. One of the more recent cases arose as a certified question from this Court. Jackson Hole Mount. Resort Corp. v. Rohrman, 2006 WY 156, 150 P.3d 167 (Wyo. 2006). The [*18] question certified was: “When faced with motions for summary judgment in which there are no genuine issues of material fact, how should a court differentiate, as a matter of law, between ‘inherent risks’ . . . and non-inherent risks . . . ?” Id. at 168.

[The] general answer is that if such a motion is filed, the trial court must scrutinized the facts brought forward by the parties with great care. If the court can say that, given the evidence, this is an “inherent risk” and reasonable minds cannot differ about that, then summary judgment is appropriate. If the risk is an inherent one, then the provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control it. On the other hand, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether or not the risk was one inherent to the recreational activity, then summary judgment is not appropriate and the answer to the question must be assigned to the jury (or other fact finder).

Id. This formulation, of course, depends on properly characterizing the activity and risk. For example, in the current case, the activity may be characterized as a “scenic float trip”–as Plaintiffs do throughout their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment–or as “river rafting.” The particular [*19] risk may be described generically as falling out of the boat or, more specifically, as colliding with a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft.

Governing precedent demands that the activity and risk be described as particularly as possible. In Cooperman v. David, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that, “[w]hen attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the [injured person] was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record.” 214 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 2000). In this case, the activity is best described as river floating under the water conditions that were apparent when the tour members embarked. The risk is best described as the risk that the raft would encounter a log jam, ejecting one or more tour members into the river.

Applying the law from this point forward is somewhat more problematic because the precedent in this area is not entirely clear. In Cooperman, the court affirmed this Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant because a loose saddle cinch was an inherent risk of the activity of horseback [*20] riding. Id. at 1169. The trial court received expert testimony that a slipping saddle was a risk inherent to horseback riding. Id. at 1168. There was also testimony that the particular saddle at issue was cinched too loosely, and an inference that the loose cinching caused the saddle to slip. Id. The Cooperman court said that, even with this evidence, the risk was inherent because a person cinching a saddle had to balance between doing so too tightly and too loosely. “This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ of and therefore ‘inherent in’ the sport of horseback riding.” Id. Critically, the court stated,

As part of the Coopermans’ burden of showing that [the provider] owed Dr. Cooperman a duty of care, the Coopermans must provide some evidence to explain why the saddle fell, which explanation is not inherent to the sport. . . . Thus, stating only that the cinch was not tight enough does not show that the risk was no longer inherent to the sport. The Coopermans have the burden of presenting some evidence on summary judgment that would raise a question of fact that the loosely cinched saddle was caused, not by an inherent risk, but rather by a risk that was atypical, uncharacteristic, [*21] not intrinsic to, and thus not inherent in, the recreational activity of horseback riding. The Coopermans have not met this burden.

Id. at 1168-69.

The current case presents certain parallels. It is undisputed based on the evidence before the Court that being ejected or otherwise falling out of a raft is generally an inherent risk of river floating. For example, Sheri Griffith, an outfitter and river guide, testified that it is an inherent risk that a person might “become a swimmer” during a float trip. Griffith Depo. 152. There is no testimony that contradicts her opinion. It is also undisputed that the rafting guide instructed the tour members that, if they were to end up in the river, the proper procedure was to float on their back until they could be recovered. L. Wilson Depo. 318; Hobbs Depo. 136. This is similar to the expert testimony in Cooperman that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding: it describes the risk in general terms without looking at the specific cause. Also like Cooperman, Plaintiffs in this case have not submitted admissible evidence that describes a specific cause of the injury, and shown that the particular cause falls outside of the realm of being an inherent [*22] risk. Following the Cooperman analysis, then, the Court would conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether encountering a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft is an inherent risk of river floating.

But the Court must also consider Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096 (10th Cir. 2002). In that case, a six-year-old girl was injured when her horse bolted. Sapone, 308 F.3d at 1098. The plaintiffs presented evidence from an expert that “(1) the instructions were inadequate, (2) the horse was too large, (3) headgear should have been provided, (4) the trail ride may have been too dangerous, and (5) her parents were not notified of the accident.” Id. at 1104. It is not entirely clear why these facts would affect the nature of the risk. The court concluded “that a reasonable jury might conclude that [the girl’s] injuries were the result of negligence that is not characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part [of] horseback riding.” Id. at 1105. Two possible interpretations of this passage are that negligence is never an integral part of horseback riding, or that some negligence is an integral part, but not the negligent acts complained of in that case. The former interpretation would render the statute futile [*23] as a way to safeguard recreation providers against liability, so it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals intended that meaning. The latter interpretation is more plausible, but raises the difficult question of what types of negligence are inherent to a particular activity and which are not. In either case, a trial court or fact finder is confronted with the difficult task of determining whether negligence occurred in order to determine whether the defendant owed a duty.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Rutter Depo. Ex. 1. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. [*24] Complex braiding obscures the main channel and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

Negligence

Tauck moved for summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. Tauck’s argument boils down to an assertion that it is essentially a travel agency, and therefore is not liable for any negligence committed by GTLC. Plaintiffs contend that Tauck is a common carrier, and therefore subject to a heightened duty of care. They also assert that Tauck assumed a duty to warn of dangerous conditions when it distributed a form entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk” on the way to the river.

As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control. E.g., Sova v. Apple Vacations, 984 F. Supp. 1136, 1140 (S.D. Ohio 1997).1 The general rule may not apply, however, in the face of contractual language to the [*25] contrary. In this case, Plaintiffs contend that Tauck’s promotional materials contained promises that Tauck would assume a certain duty. For example, they point to language in which Tauck states tour members will “enjoy VIP attention from our experienced Tauck Directors who are dedicated to making your trip the best it can be” and that “[o]nce you arrive at your Tauck Bridges destination, leave the day-to-day details to us–all you need to do is have fun with your family.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5-6. They compare this language to that relied upon by the court in Stevenson v. Four Winds Travel, Inc. to find that the plaintiff had a right to expect a warning of a slippery condition while on a tour. 462 F.2d 899, 906-07 (5th Cir. 1972).

1 The Wyoming Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question, but it would likely follow this general rule.

Stevenson, however, is distinguishable from the current case. First, the language in the promotional materials in Stevenson is considerably stronger than those distributed by Tauck. For example, the materials stated that guests would be “cared for by a carefully selected Four Winds Tour escort” and that the tour directors “know precisely what you will be seeing and doing every day.” Id. In contrast, Tauck’s materials state that trips “are enhanced by [*26] our experienced directors,” and that Tauck will “take care of all [arrangements] for you, so you can indulge in the joys of travel without any of the day-to-day hassles.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5. To the extent that these vague statements mean anything at all, it falls far short of a promise to assume a duty. In addition, there is no indication in Stevenson that there was a separate contract. In this case, however, Tauck’s “Conditions of Tour”–relied upon by Plaintiffs in its argument that Connecticut law is applicable–contains a provision in which Tauck disclaims liability for “any Damages, or any problems concerning any . . . supplier providing tour services [or] programs, . . . including but not limited to . . . negligence by any . . . other supplier providing tour services [or] programs.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 1. Courts have relied on similar disclaimers to bar liability for acts of third parties that are beyond the control of the tour operator because the disclaimers are evidence that the operator did not intend to assume a guarantee of safety, even if the disclaimer is not itself [*27] contractually binding. E.g., Sova, 984 F. Supp. at 1139-40 (collecting illustrative cases). Accordingly, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, Tauck had no duty, either by virtue of its position as a tour operator or assumed through its promotional materials.

Plaintiffs next contend that Tauck is a common carrier pursuant to the common law and Article 10, Section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. That provision states: “All corporations engaged in the transportation of persons, property, mineral oils, and minerals products, news or intelligence, including railroads, telegraphs, express companies, pipe lines and telephones, are declared to be common carriers.” Plaintiffs then rely upon section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that a common carrier has a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action “to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm,” and to render aid if they are harmed. Tauck contends that it is not a common carrier because it does not actually transport tour members during the river floating trip.

Tauck’s position has merit, and there is authority for the proposition that a tour operator is not a common carrier. E.g., Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 284, 287 (E.D. Mo. 1993). The Court need not resolve the question of whether Tauck is a common carrier, however, because even if it is in general, it was not transporting [*28] tour members at the time of the raft collision. The undisputed evidence is that the tour members, during the rafting trip, were being transported by GTLC, not Tauck. In short, the tour members were no longer subject to Tauck’s custody or control, and therefore Tauck owed no duty. See Id. (tour operator had no duty to warn of dangerous condition on premises not under its control).

This leaves the question of whether distribution of “Acknowledgment of Risk” forms resulted in an imposition of a duty on Tauck. Plaintiffs cite section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states:

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

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

(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or

(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.

The Wyoming Supreme Court adopted this provision as reflected in subsection (a) in Ellsworth Bros., Inc. v. Crook, 406 P.2d 520, 524 (Wyo. 1965). Relying [*29] on the Restatement, Plaintiffs claim that “by requiring its Tour Directors to get guests to sign GTLC’s Acknowledgment of Risk form well in advance of arriving at the Lodge, Tauck undertook the duty to inform guests about risks associated with the raft trip.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 7.

This statement, however, assumes that by undertaking to distribute the “Acknowledgment of Risk” form, Tauck was undertaking the broader task of informing guests about risks associated with the raft trip. There is no evidence before the Court to support this assumption. The only evidence that Tauck undertook to do anything for GTLC is testimony that GTLC asked Tauck to present the form to those tour members who were to participate in the rafting trip. Rice Depo. 47.2 There is no testimony that suggests Tauck was asked, or agreed, to inform guests of all risks involved in the rafting trip.

2 There is some conflict in the record regarding precisely when the tour members were given the form, but that is not material for resolution of this issue.

The Court finds as a matter of law that Tauck did not owe a duty to the tour members to warn them of the conditions of the river or otherwise act to prevent their injuries. Tauck may not be found negligent on a theory of direct liability.

Joint Venture

The Court must next address Tauck’s [*30] contention that it may not be held vicariously liable for GTLC’s negligence because the two companies did not form a joint venture. Tauck argues that GTLC was simply a supplier, and that the two businesses did not jointly embark on a business venture. In Wyoming, a person alleging the existence of a joint venture has the burden to prove four elements:

(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community of pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to a voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives an equal right of control.

Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545, 549 (Wyo. 1991) quoting Holliday v. Bannister, 741 P.2d 89, 93 n.1 (Wyo. 1987).

Considering the first element, that of an agreement, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tauck and GTLC agreed to provide services. Plaintiffs have submitted a document entitled “Tour Operator Contract,” which governs the terms of the sale of room blocks and river float trips to Tauck. Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Joint Venture, Ex. 5. Several witnesses, officials of Tauck, testified that they viewed GTLC as a supplier, not as a partner. Nevertheless, viewing [*31] the contract in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it is not unreasonable to characterize it as an agreement for the purposes of this joint venture analysis.

The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could find that Tauck and GTLC had a common purpose. This purpose was to sell tour members lodging and river float trips. Tauck’s purpose was somewhat broader, generally, because it sold lager tours of which the interaction with GTLC was a small part, but this does not remove the fact that GTLC and Tauck were united in purpose during this portion of the tour. Similarly, they both had a pecuniary interest in the enterprise. Tauck points out that GTLC received the same amount for its float tours whether its guests were members of a Tauck tour or individuals. But the arrangement nonetheless furthered GTLC’s financial goals by bringing significant numbers of guests to GTLC. Similarly, Tauck benefitted financially by featuring GTLC lodging and the float trip as part of its tour.

The Court does not find, however, that Tauck and GTLC had an equal right of control. Plaintiffs rely heavily on the fact that both business had the capability to cancel the float trip at their discretion, but that [*32] does not suggest an equal voice in the activity in question. For example, the evidence submitted to the Court indicates that the Tauck tour director brought the residents to the lodge and interacted with GTLC staff, but there is no indication that any Tauck official had the authority to direct any day-to-day activities. It had no input into the decision to hire Mr. Hobbs, the guide of Raft No. 2, or to direct the manner in which he conducted the rafting trip. Tauck could not have directed that the river guide take the group down a different part of the river, or terminated the guide’s employment. If GTLC had decided to terminate its river floating operations, Tauck would have been powerless to prevent it, aside from the scope of any service contract that was currently in place. Tauck and GTLC were two separate operations, and there is no evidence submitted to the Court that suggests otherwise. The Court finds, as a matter of law, that Tauck and GTLC did not have a joint venture.

The Court notes that, with no direct liability and no joint venture resulting in vicarious liability, Tauck is not liable for any claims of negligence.

Fraud

Plaintiffs have alleged that GTLC and Tauck committed [*33] fraud by enacting a scheme whereby the tour members were lured into taking a dangerous rafting trip as a result of GTLC and Tauck’s material misrepresentations regarding the level of danger. “To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation.” Garrison v. CC Builders, Inc., 2008 WY 34, 179 P.3d 867, 877 (Wyo. 2008). The false representation must be made knowingly: “One cannot be guilty of fraudulently or intentionally concealing or misrepresenting facts of which he is not aware.” Meeker v. Lanham, 604 P.2d 556, 559 (Wyo. 1979). Plaintiffs’ fraud claim fails because they have failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants knowingly made a false representation of a material fact.

Plaintiffs first cite statements made in Tauck’s travel brochure discussing the rafting trip. “[T]he record shows that Tauck’s 2006 Brochure described the Snake River as a ‘meandering float trip,’ when in actuality, the Plaintiffs’ [sic] ended up on a whitewater raft trip with Class IV rapids.”
[*34] Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Fraud Claim, 8. Plaintiffs also cite statements in Tauck’s promotional materials stating that its tour directors are “knowledgeable professionals, with a wealth of information,” and that Tauck “does it all for you,” and that tour members can “leave all day-to-day details” to Tauck. Id.

For the most part, these promotional statements are “mere puffery” E.g., Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1106 (10th Cir. 2009). The one arguable exception is the description of the activity as a “meandering float trip,” which may be sufficiently definite that a sensible person may be justified in relying on it to some degree. Even in that case, however, there is no indication that Tauck was aware that the river floating trip would be anything other than as described.

The key problem with Plaintiffs’ case is that there is no indication that this particular stretch of the Snake River was inherently dangerous on the day of the collision. Instead, the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, indicates that the guide of the raft that collided with the log jam took the raft into an unsafe channel. For example, the deposition of Wayne Johnson, one of the river guides on June 2, 2006, indicates [*35] that he viewed the “Funnelcake” channel as dangerous on that date. Johnson Depo. 184. Mr. Reed Finlay, a river guide with a different company, testified at some length about the “Funnelcake” channel, specifically that it was dangerous on the date of the collision. Finlay Depo. 126-32. Indeed, it is undisputed that the float trip on the day of the collision was peaceful and uneventful until Raft No. 2 entered the channel and struck the log jam. J. Wilson Depo. 76-77; R. Rizas Depo. 102, 209, 219. In short, there is no indication that Tauck made a misrepresentation when the rafting trip was marketed as a “meandering float trip.”

Plaintiffs also rely on several statements made by employees of Tauck and GTLC before the raft trip. First, Mr. Wilson saw saw people white water rafting while on the bus trip into Jackson on June 1, 2006. When the he asked the tour director, Mr. Rice, if that was what their rafting trip would be like, Mr. Rice replied that the rafting trip would be a “leisurely, scenic float down the Snake River,” and not to worry. Mr. Rice also stated that Tauck had “never lost anybody.” L. Wilson Depo. 61-62. Second, while the groups were in the GTLC vans on the way to the [*36] river, Ms. Elizabeth Rizas asked the van driver about the safety of the float trip. The van driver responded by telling her that she was more likely to be in an accident in the van traveling to the river than on the float trip. J. Wilson Depo 39-40. There is also some evidence that the van driver also stated that they had “never lost anybody yet.” Id. 60.

Again, there is no evidence indicating that these statements are deliberately false. Much like Tauck’s advertising, there was no reason for Tauck or GTLC to believe that the rafting trip would be anything other than a leisurely, scenic float trip. Although Plaintiffs repeatedly rely on the fact that the river was flowing stronger and faster than usual because of the spring thaw, there is no evidence suggesting that this change in conditions precluded GTLC from being able to provide the safe and relaxing experience that the tour members were expecting. The additional fact that the float trip resulted in a devastating collision instead is not relevant when considering what Tauck and GTLC knew at the time they made the statements at issue.

Lastly, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants committed fraud by failing to inform them of the full nature [*37] of the risks on this particular float trips. The Court finds that any failure to inform the guest of these dangers is not actionable as a matter of law. First, there can be no fraud because there is no statement involved. The Court also relies on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to adopt the tort of nondisclosure in Pittard v. Great Lakes Aviation, 2007 WY 64, 156 P.3d 964, 976 (Wyo. 2007). Plaintiffs have failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on the fraud issue.

Punitive Damages

GTLC has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.3 Plaintiffs’ response is similar to their fraud argument, that is, that GTLC deliberately misrepresented the float trip as safe and leisurely.

3 Tauck has also moved for summary judgment in its favor on the punitive damages issue. The Court, however, has already determined that Tauck is not liable, either directly or vicariously. Accordingly, the Court’s discussion addresses only Plaintiffs’ claim as it applies to GTLC.

The Wyoming Supreme Court has set out the following standard regarding punitive damages:

We have explained that punitive damages “are to be awarded only for conduct involving some element of outrage, similar to that usually found in crime. . . . We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intentional torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986). Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, [*38] or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. Mayflower Rest. Co. v. Griego, 741 P.2d 1106, 1115 (Wyo. 1987). “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 728 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 1986) (internal citation omitted).

Cramer v. Powder R. Coal Co., 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979-80 (Wyo. 2009).

Plaintiffs reason as follows:

Defendants here should have communicated the true Snake River conditions to the Plaintiffs rather than misrepresent the conditions and intentionally take the guests who had signed up for a scenic float trip into something knowingly quite different. Defendant’s failure to communicate the details indicates “reckless disregard of the consequences, and under such circumstances and conditions that a reasonable man would know, or have reason to know, that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in substantial harm to another.” Danculovich [v. Brown], 593 P.2d [187,] 191.

Plaintiffs’ Response to Motion for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages [*39]
, 11.

Plaintiffs’ contention that GTLC was aware that the float trip was materially more dangerous than previously represented to the tour members is not, as the Court has discussed, reflected in the record. Although it is undisputed that the level and flow of water was increased, and that this increase may heighten the risk of log jams or hide obstructions in the river, there is no evidence suggesting that the character of the river was altered to such an extent that it was willfully reckless to take passengers on the float trip.

The facts of this case are in stark contrast to those cases relied on by the Plaintiffs in which the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned trial courts’ grants of summary judgment in defendants’ favor on punitive damages. For example, the conduct alleged in Danculovich was drunk driving and speeding resulting in the driver losing control of the vehicle and killing the decedent. 593 P.2d at 190. The evidence in that case indicated that the defendant, who was driving the vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of 0.12%. Id. The court described the evidence of speeding as follows:

Radar clock of vehicle at 56 m.p.h. was made at north edge of business district. A witness estimated speed [*40] at 75 m.p.h. at city limits. Another witness estimated speed at 85 m.p.h. when vehicle passed him at point about .4 of mile before place of accident. Accident reconstruction expert estimated speed at place of accident to be minimum of 75 m.p.h. The speed limit within the city limits was 30 m.p.h. and beyond the city limits, 55 m.p.h.

Id. n.3. In Errington v. Zolessi, a treating physician conducted several cystograms of a patient following a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy. 9 P.3d 966, 968 (Wyo. 2000). The cystograms initially indicated the presence of a fistula, and later confirmed it, but the doctor told the patient that she was healing normally, albeit slowly. Id. The Wyoming Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the physician acted with reckless disregard for the patient’s safety. In either case, it is apparent that simply failing to advise the tour group members of the increased flow of the river does not rise to the level of reckless and willful misconduct. There is no question that the consequences of any negligence committed were devastating. But this Court must evaluate the question of outrageous conduct based on what was known [*41] at the time of the allegedly negligent act, not looking back at events with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say that this conduct may not constitute simple negligence, but it does not warrant punitive damages.

IT IS ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Docket No. 87, is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligence, Docket No. 81, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Joint Venture, Docket No. 84, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Fraud, Docket No. 90, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Punitive and Exemplary Damages, Docket No. 93, is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Grant Teton Lodge Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims, Docket No. 96, is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the motion is DENIED as it relates to application of the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and is in all other respects GRANTED.

Dated this day of October, 2009.

/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson

ALAN B. JOHNSON

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


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Paddling Magazine Product & Industry Awards
Submit your best products within 12 categories today. Buyers & media will be voting!
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136 Exhibitors

See the impressive list of participating vendors, their booth numbers & floor plan locations.

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Fab Demo Day Entertainment
OKC craft brewers COOP Ale Works will be ready to party at Riversport Adventure Park, along with newgrass funk band Arkansauce at 7pm, 8/27.
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To-Date Store Registrations
475 buyers have committed, with more signing up each day! Don’t delay: register for FREE.
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Take in OKC
Experience this 100-million-dollar paddling destination with your colleagues & paddling friends from around the world! Our OKC video sets the stage.

https://paddlesportsretailer.us15.list-manage.com/track/open.php?u=a2ca0cd34300ff7a11aa2898a&id=2599d53210&e=3b3f7654a6

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