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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Thomas Jackson Miller

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

STOP

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

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

The Lift Ticket itself stated:

LIABILITY RELEASE

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

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

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

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

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

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

The court first looked at New Hampshire law on releases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court further defined reckless under New Hampshire law as:

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

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

The court summed up its analogy as:

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BoycottNH New Hampshire charges for Search & Rescue. Do not recreate in New Hampshire

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

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

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

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

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

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

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

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

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

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

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

I. Applicable legal standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3]  internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

II. Background

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

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

 [*586]  STOP

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

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

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

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

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

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

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

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

(Emphasis in original).

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

 [*587]  III. Analysis

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

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

A. Public policy

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

1. New Hampshire statutory law

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

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

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

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

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

Id. (emphasis added).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Injurious to the public interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

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

1. Signature

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

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

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

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

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

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

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

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

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

1. Recklessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

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

3. Potential [**48]  certification

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

IV. Conclusion

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

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

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


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

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

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

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Brenda Wright

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

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1995

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

But!

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

No. 94-266

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

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

August 22, 1995, Decided

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

PRIOR HISTORY: Merrimack County.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CASE SUMMARY:

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

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

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

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

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

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

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Opposition > General Overview

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Standards > Genuine Disputes

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Exculpatory Clauses > Interpretation

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > Construction & Interpretation

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Indemnity

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

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Exculpatory Clauses

Contracts Law > Types of Contracts > Releases

Torts > Procedure > Settlements > Releases > General Overview

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

HEADNOTES

1. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Public Policy

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

2. Contracts–Construction–Ambiguity

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

3. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

4. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

5. Contracts–Liability for Negligence–Exculpatory Provision

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

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

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

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

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Audley, we concluded:

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


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

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

Reversed and remanded.

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

DISSENT BY: THAYER

DISSENT

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

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

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

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


What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.

3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.

4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.

COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.

JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

[**400]   [*629]  Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

On August 14, 2007,  [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion  [**401]  for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

[*630]  On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the  [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.

[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.

[1]  [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading  [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.

[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not.  [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997).  [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity,  [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not  [*631]  perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.

The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the  [**402]  correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.

[4] The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would  [***7] apply in this case.

Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.

 


Lizzol v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Et. Al., 2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427

Lizzol v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Et. Al., 2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427

Jennifer Lizzol, Michael Lizzol, and T.G., Plaintiffs v. Brothers Property Management Corporation, Out Back Kayak, Inc., and Martin Welch, Defendants

Case No. 15-cv-100-SM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

2016 DNH 199; 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150427

October 31, 2016, Decided

October 31, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Lizzol v. Bros. Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16863 (D.N.H., 2016)

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Jennifer Lizzol, Michael Lizzol, T. G., Plaintiffs: Philip R. Waystack, Jr., Sandra L. Cabrera, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Waystack Frizzell, Colebrook, NH.

 

For Brothers Property Management Corporation, Out Back Kayak, Inc. OBK, Defendants: Paul B. Kleinman, Bouchard Kleinman & Wright PA (M), Manchester, NH.

For Martin Welch, Defendant: Paul B. Kleinman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Bouchard Kleinman & Wright PA (M), Manchester, NH.

JUDGES: Steven J. McAuliffe, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Steven J. McAuliffe

OPINION

ORDER

Jennifer Lizzol, her husband Michael, and their son, T.G., filed suit to recover damages for injuries sustained as a result of a snow machine accident that occurred during a winter vacation at the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa, in Whitefield, New Hampshire (“Mountain View Grand”). Defendants move for summary judgment based upon a liability release and covenant not to sue executed by Jennifer and Michael before the accident. Defendants also move for summary judgment on Michael Lizzol’s and T.G’s bystander liability claim. For the reasons discussed, defendants’ motion is granted.

Standard of Review

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must “constru[e] the record in the light most favorable to the [*2]  nonmoving party and resolv[e] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In this context, “a fact is ‘material’ if it potentially affects the outcome of the suit and a dispute over it is ‘genuine’ if the parties’ positions on the issue are supported by conflicting evidence.” Int’l Ass’n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Winship Green Nursing Ctr., 103 F.3d 196, 199-200 (1st Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). See also Nolan v. CN8, 656 F.3d 71, 76 (1st Cir. 2011). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

Background

Construing the record in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, and resolving all reasonable inferences in their favor, the controlling facts appear to be as follows.

The Lizzols travelled to the Mountain View Grand from Long Island, New York, on January 27, 2013, arriving in the afternoon. Prior to their arrival, Jennifer had scheduled a snowmobile lesson and tour for herself, her husband, and her son, as well as for a few of their friends, through the Mountain View Grand’s website. [*3]  Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C at p. 2. The lessons and guided tour were provided by Out Back Kayak, Inc. (“OBK”). Upon arrival at the resort, the Lizzols quickly put their luggage in their rooms, and then left to participate in the snowmobile activity, including a lesson and tour. Id.

The Lizzols were directed by the hotel activities desk to a small building on the grounds, where they met a Mountain View Grand employee, who told them to quickly pick out helmets and sign a two-page document that bore the following heading:

Snow Machine Tour

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF RISKS AND HAZARDS

COVENANT NOT TO SUE

WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY

(the “Release”). The Lizzols felt rushed during the process, see, e.g., Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C. at p. 3, but both Jennifer and Michael had an opportunity to review the Release, and each signed and initialed it. (Jennifer executed the release on behalf of her minor son, T.G.). The Release includes the following language:

I . . . hereby voluntarily agree to release, waive, discharge, hold harmless, defend and indemnify BPMC, the field operator, the event promoter, the owners of premises used to conduct the snowmobile activity, their owners, [*4]  agents, officers and employees from any and all claims, actions or losses for bodily injury, property damage, wrongful death or injury, loss of services or otherwise which may arise out of my use of eques[trian] or other equipment or my participation in any BPMC activity. I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions presently or in the future for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, designees or employees of BPMC.

Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A, p. 1. The Release includes five lettered paragraphs that provide tour participants with a designated space in which to place his or her initials, thereby confirming that he or she understands and acknowledges the following:

(A) that he or she is physically fit to participate in the activity;

(B) that participation in the activity may result in “bodily injury, disease, strains, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis, eye injury, dental injury, blindness, . . . cold weather injuries, heart attack, asthma, vehicle injuries, mental duress, death or other ailments that could cause serious disability;”

(C) that “[t]hese risks and dangers [*5]  [of bodily injury] may be caused by the negligence of the owners, employees, officers or agents of the Mountain View Grand and/or the negligence of the participants . . . ;”

(D) that by participating “in these activities and/or use of equipment, [the participant] . . . assume[s] all risks and dangers and all responsibility for any loss and/or damages, whether caused in whole or in part by the negligence or other conduct of the owners, agents, officers, designees, employees of BPMC, or by any other person[;]” and

(E) that the participant “understand[s] that [he or she is] undertaking this snowmobiling activity at [his or her] own risk, freely and voluntarily without any inducement[.]”

Id. Jennifer did not initial Paragraph B or Paragraph D, and Michael did not initial Paragraph B.

After signing the Release and obtaining their helmets, the Lizzols met their tour instructor, OBK employee Martin Welch, and his assistant, Jennifer Welch. The Lizzols had no snow machine experience. Welch provided a very brief introduction to and instruction regarding operation of the snow machines. He explained how to accelerate, brake, and turn. He told them that the tour would never travel faster than 20 miles per hour. Welch then [*6]  assisted the tour members with their snowmobile selections, and the tour began.

Jennifer and Michael rode on a two-person snow machine, with Jennifer operating the vehicle. They were directly behind Welch in the line of snowmobiles. Their son, T.G., rode by himself and was farther back in the line. Welch drove rather quickly during the tour, and far exceeded the self-imposed 20 miles per hour speed limitation he had announced earlier. Jennifer did not keep pace, and, as Welch increased his speed during the second half of the tour, Jennifer lost sight of him. Jennifer attempted to follow Welch’s tracks in the snow, but, in doing so, lost control of the snowmobile, which left the path and flipped over. Jennifer, Michael, and the snow machine fell down a steep embankment that was approximately seventy-five feet high.

Both Jennifer and Michael suffered physical injuries, but Jennifer’s were particularly severe. She lost consciousness, had collapsed lungs, 10 broken ribs, and multiple injuries to her spine and back.

The plaintiffs later learned that other customers may have complained that Welch drove too quickly during earlier snow machine tours. After the accident, Mountain View Grand manager, [*7]  Chris Diego, asked Michael if Welch had been “going too fast again.” Pls.’ Opp. to Summary Judgment, Exh. 4, p. 6.

Jennifer, Michael, and their son brought suit against Brothers Property Management Corporation (which owns and operates the Mountain View Grand), OBK, and Martin Welch, asserting claims for negligence, including negligent training and supervision, vicarious liability, bystander liability, and loss of consortium. The defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that the contractual Release is both valid and enforceable.

Discussion

Defendants argue that the scope of the Release plainly encompasses the claims at issue here because the complaint alleges that, as a result of the defendants’ negligence, they were injured while participating in the snow machine lesson and tour activity. Plaintiffs disagree.

New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts. McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009). But, there are exceptions. Exculpatory contracts are enforceable if: “(1) they do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation [*8]  of the parties when they executed the contract.” Id. at 542 (quoting Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)).

A. The Scope of the Release

Plaintiffs argue that the Release is not enforceable because they did not understand it to encompass claims for negligent instruction, or negligent guidance on the snow machine tour, and a reasonable person in their position would not understand the Release to bar such claims. They say that the content, structure, and organization of the Release – which plaintiffs contend is verbose, employs obfuscating language, and uses confusing sentence structure – disguised any intent to relieve the defendants of liability for their own negligence related to instruction or guidance along the trail. They point out that the words “instruction,” “lesson” and “guide” are terms that do not appear in the Release. Rather, the Release focuses on terms like “services,” “use of equipment,” and “participation in activities.” Altogether, they say, the impression is given that the Release applies only to injuries inherent to snow machine activity and the use of snow machine equipment, but not to harm resulting from an instructor’s or guide’s failure to act with reasonable care.

The parties’ differing subjective understandings [*9]  of the Release’s intent is of limited relevance to the controlling analysis, however, since courts must “judge the intent of the parties by objective criteria rather than the unmanifested states of mind of the parties.” Dean, 147 N.H. at 267 (citing Lake v. Sullivan, 145 N.H. 713, 715, 766 A.2d 708 (2001) and Barnes v. New Hampshire Karting Ass’n, Inc., 128 N.H. 102, 107, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). Under applicable New Hampshire law, courts examine the language of a release and “give the language used by the parties its common meaning and give the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Dean, 147 N.H. at 267). “As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Dean, 147 N.H. at 267). However, a defendant “will not be released from liability when the language of the contract raises any doubt as to whether the plaintiff has agreed to assume the risk of a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 414, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002) (citations omitted).

The language used in the Release at issue here is broad in reach, detailed, and clear. A reasonable person would be hard pressed to avoid recognizing the significance and effect of the words used. The Release [*10]  plainly purports to release Mountain View Grand employees and agents of all liability for their own negligence, or the negligence of others (e.g. other snowmobile activity participants), related to the snow machine instruction and tour (equipment and services). The Release repeatedly references waiving the negligence of MVG’s employees, officers and agents. For example, after warning the signatory of the serious risks of injury associated with participation in the snow machine tour, including bodily injury and death, the Release explains that those risks could be caused by “the negligence of the owners, employees or agents of the Mountain View Grand.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A. The Release then states that the signatory agrees to “assume all risks and dangers and all responsibility for any loss and/or damages whether caused in whole or in part by the negligence . . . of the owners, agents, officers, designees, employees of BPMC.” Id. The Release further provides: “I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions . . . for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, [*11]  designees or employees of BPMC.” Id.

The language of the Release unarguably applies to claims or suits based on the negligence of Mountain View Grand owners, employees, officers or agents. The Release does not qualify or limit the “negligence” being released in any way, nor is the Release ambiguous in that regard. References in the Release to “participation in [the] activity” also make clear that claims arising from the releasees’ negligence associated with the described activity are being waived.

The Lizzols participated in an activity that consisted of a snow machine lesson and a snow machine tour. Plaintiffs’ claim that they were injured because defendants negligently conducted both the snow machine lesson and the tour. Their negligence claims, then, necessarily arise directly from their participation in the activity (the snow machine lesson and tour). That the Release does not include terms like “instruction,” “lesson” or “guide” is not dispositive: “[T]he parties need not have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries, and may adopt language that covers a broad range of accidents.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (internal citations omitted) (citing Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). So, attempting to carve out [*12]  discrete acts of negligence from the Release is futile if, as here, those discrete acts are associated with the conduct of the snow machine instruction and tour activity.

A reasonable person “would have contemplated that the agreements released the defendants from any negligence, not just from negligence inherent” in snowmobiling. McGrath, 158 N.H. at 547.

B. The Release encompasses the negligence claims against OBK

Plaintiffs further argue that the Release failed to place them on notice that they were releasing OBK from liability, since OBK is not a named party to the exculpatory contract, and is not mentioned by name. Relying on Porter v. Dartmouth College, No. 07-cv-28-PB, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831 (D.N.H. Sept. 30, 2009), plaintiffs note that the Release repeatedly makes reference to the Mountain View Grand and its equipment, but does not mention OBK or its instructors. Therefore, they say, a reasonable person would not understand that the Release also purported to absolve OBK from liability for its own negligence.

“An exculpatory contract need not specifically identify the defendant by name.” Porter, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831, at *3 (citing Dean, 147 N.H. at 270). “However, the contract must at least provide a functional identification of the parties being released.” Id. Here, the Release reads in relevant part:

I . [*13]  . . voluntarily agree to release . . . BPMC, the field operator, the event promoter, the owners of premises used to conduct the snowmobile activity, their owners, agents, officers and employees from any and all claims, actions or losses for bodily injury, . . . wrongful death or injury, loss of services or otherwise which may arise out of my use of [equestrian] or other equipment or my participation in any BPMC activity. I specifically understand that I am giving up any rights that I may have by releasing, discharging and waiving any claims or actions . . . for the negligent acts or other conduct by the owners, agents, officers, designees or employees of BPMC.

Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A (emphasis supplied).

Defendants point out that OBK, and Welch individually, are covered by the Release because they are both “agents” of BPMC, and they acted as the referenced “field operator” for the snow machine tour. Indeed, plaintiffs specifically alleged the existence of an agency relationship between BPMC and OBK in their Complaint. See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 48 (“Mountain View Grand controlled in whole or in part the activities engaged in by Out Back Kayak and/or its employees and is vicariously [*14]  liable for the negligent actions of the snow mobile tour guides committed while engaged in the scope of employment.”). The asserted agency relationship is an essential element of plaintiffs’ vicarious liability claim. Defendants readily agree that OBK and Welch were agents of BPMC. For reasons satisfactory to the parties, they do not dispute OBK’s or Welch’s status as agents of BPMC. As BPMC’s agent, OBK and Welch are plainly covered by the Release.

Moreover, plaintiffs’ reliance on Porter is unhelpful. In Porter, the plaintiff, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College, was fatally injured while participating in a class that included ski lessons, at a facility owned, operated, and maintained by Dartmouth. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, 2009 WL 3227831, at *1. Her estate filed suit, asserting claims for negligence and wrongful death. Id. Dartmouth argued that the claims were barred by a release agreement plaintiff signed before renting ski equipment for the class. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, [WL] at *2. The release in Porter, which had been drafted by Solomon (the ski and bindings manufacturer), did not mention Dartmouth by name, and repeatedly emphasized and referred only to ski equipment being rented by the student. See 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90516, [WL] at *3. Based on those distinguishing facts, the court concluded [*15]  that the release failed to place the “equipment renter on even functional notice that Dartmouth was in any way a party” to the release agreement. Id.

Unlike the release at issue in Porter, the Release here makes evident that it pertains not just to the furnishing and use of equipment associated with the snow machine activity, but also to the furnishing of services associated with that activity. The clearest example is found in the first paragraph of the Release, which provides: “In consideration of Brothers Property Management Corporation . . . furnishing services and equipment to enable me to participate in the Snow Machine tour (snowmobiling), I acknowledge and agree as follows.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A (emphasis added). Indeed, nearly every time the Release references the signatory’s use of equipment, the Release also references the signatory’s participation in the snow machine lesson and tour. See id. Such references objectively manifest the parties’ intent that the Release encompass all claims based upon the negligent provision of services – including services provided by Mountain View Grand’s agent, OBK — that related to plaintiffs’ participation in the snow machine [*16]  tour activity. While not identified by name, OBK and Welch were functionally identified as benefitting from the Release, when acting as agents of Mountain View Grand.

C. Jennifer’s failure to initial certain paragraphs of the Release does not preclude its enforcement.

Plaintiffs next argue that, even if the Release does encompass the claims at issue, it is still not enforceable against Jennifer, because she failed to initial paragraphs B and D of the Release. Plaintiffs characterize the lettered paragraphs as “several distinct exculpatory clauses” that they were required to agree to separately, and which, as structured, give the impression that “the participant might agree to certain terms, but not others.” Pls.’ Mem. in Opp. to Mot. for Summary Judgment at p. 18. Because Jennifer did not initial two of the contract’s paragraphs, plaintiffs say, those paragraphs are not enforceable against her. At the very least, plaintiffs continue, Jennifer’s failure to initial those paragraphs gives rise to disputed issues of material fact regarding her intent to be bound by those paragraphs, and whether there was a “meeting of the minds” with respect to releasing defendants from liability for their [*17]  own negligence. Id.

In response, defendants point out that the final paragraph of the Release reads:

I have read the above paragraphs and fully understand their content. I understand that this is a Release of Liability, which will legally prevent me or any other person from filing suit and making any other claims for damages in the event of personal injury, death or property damage.

Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. A. Defendants argue that the final paragraph clearly and explicitly incorporates the terms of paragraphs B and D, and therefore plaintiffs’ argument is unavailing.

The final paragraph of the Release is unambiguous. By signing the Release, Jennifer acknowledged that she had read the entire agreement and agreed to its terms; all of its terms. Cf. Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., No. 14-CV-049-JD, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *3 (D.N.H. July 16, 2015) (finding that plaintiff’s failure to sign a release on the back of a form did not bar enforcement, where plaintiff had signed the front of the agreement following a statement acknowledging that she had read the agreement on the back of the form concerning the release of liability, and agreed to its terms); see also Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 269-70, 552 A.2d 99 (1988) (“The plaintiff argues, however, that she is not bound by the [*18]  condition in the release, as she never returned the release to Merchants. The return of the release, however, is irrelevant, as it was the acceptance of a check offered on the condition that it constitute payment in full, rather than the signing of the release, which bound [plaintiff]. It is also irrelevant whether she actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when [plaintiff] had the opportunity to read it before cashing the check.”). Here, Jennifer acknowledged having read the entire release and objectively manifested her agreement, after which she accepted the services to be provided only on condition that a full release first be given.

The parties do not cite New Hampshire authorities directly on point, nor has the court found any, but it appears that the Tenth Circuit addressed a nearly identical issue in Elsken v. Network Multi-Family Security Corp, 49 F.3d 1470 (10th Cir. 1995). In Elsken, the plaintiff entered into a services agreement with a security corporation to provide a 24-hour alarm system. Id. at 1471. The agreement contained a limitation of liability clause, on the same page as a space provided for a party to initial. Id. at 1473. The plaintiff signed the agreement, but failed to initial the line next to the [*19]  limitation of liability clause. Plaintiff there also signed the agreement below a provision “articulating a presumption that the agreement was properly executed,” which read:

Resident acknowledges that resident has read and understands all of this resident agreement including the terms and conditions on this side and the reverse side, particularly Paragraph 3.0 Limitation of Liability and agrees to the amounts set forth herein.

Id. at 1473. The plaintiff was subsequently fatally stabbed in her apartment. Her estate filed suit against the security alarm company, asserting claims for breach of contract, negligence, and breach of warranties based on the alarm company’s failure to properly respond to an alarm. Plaintiffs argued that the limitation of liability clause was not effective because plaintiff did not initial the line provided for that purpose, and, therefore, had not objectively manifested her agreement to the waiver provision. Id. at 1472-73.

The court of appeals found that plaintiff’s failure to initial the line provided did not preclude summary judgment, since plaintiff had signed “directly below a statement of acceptance of the contract that explicitly incorporates the provisions on the reverse side [*20]  of the page.” Id. at 1474. The court determined that, “[b]ased upon a plain reading of the contract,” plaintiff agreed to the contract in its entirety as written. Id. So too, here. Jennifer’s signature directly follows a paragraph that references the liability waiver clauses defendants seek to enforce.

Finally, plaintiffs point to no evidence in the record that might support a finding that Jennifer’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D was in any way motivated by an objection to or non-acceptance of either of those terms. Nor do they point to evidence in the record that would support a finding that Jennifer ever expressed any objection to the terms of paragraphs B and D before executing the agreement. Indeed, the relevant evidence of record suggests that Jennifer’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D was not the product of a conscious decision. See Defs.’ Mot. for Summary Judgment, Exh. C, p. 4 (Q: “Do you have any explanation for why A, C, and E were initialed, but not B and D?” Jennifer Lizzol: “No.” . . . Q: “Was there a conscious decision on your part not to initial B and D?” Jennifer Lizzol: “No.”)

Jennifer Lizzol’s failure to initial paragraphs B and D of the Release does not render the Release [*21]  or those paragraphs unenforceable against her. The same general analysis applies to Michael Lizzol’s failure to initial Paragraph B of the Release.

D. The Release does not violate public policy.

Plaintiffs argue that the Release contravenes public policy, because its enforcement would relieve an instructor from liability for his own negligent instruction. Plaintiffs contend that because the instructor/guide holds a position of authority over the conduct of the snow machine tour, the instructor/guide is uniquely positioned to ensure that the tour is conducted in a reasonably safe manner. So, plaintiffs say, releasing an instructor of his or her obligation to exercise reasonable care will result in that instructor failing to make a good faith effort to carry out his duties, which, they say, is what happened here. That contravenes public policy, they argue, because it will surely impede public safety.

The argument, while creative, avoids the public policy analysis required under New Hampshire law. “A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there [*22]  was no other disparity in bargaining power.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106. “‘A special relationship exists when “the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service.'” Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106). Additionally, a release may be against public policy if, among other things, “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Serna, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (citing McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543).

Plaintiffs do not contend that a “special relationship” existed between the parties, as that term is used in the liability waiver context. Nor could they. While the Mountain View Grand is an inn, the Release does “not pertain to the usual activities of running an inn,” but instead to the Mountain View Grand’s facilitation of collateral outdoor recreation activities. Serna v. Lafayette Nordic Vill., Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2. And snowmobiling (like skating, Serna, id., and snowboarding, McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544) constitutes recreational activity, not “an activity ‘of such great importance or necessity to the public that it creates a special relationship.'” Serna, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92669, 2015 WL 4366250, at *2 (quoting McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544).

“Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 544 (citing Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). But, “there [is] no [*23]  substantial disparity in bargaining power among the parties, despite the fact that [plaintiffs were] required to sign the release in order to” participate in the snow machine lesson and tour. Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Here, the plaintiffs were “under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release,” and “[s]ince the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength” over the plaintiffs or others who sought to participate in the snowmobile lesson and tour. Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108.

The Release does not violate public policy.

E. The plaintiffs have not sufficiently established fraud in the inducement.

Finally, plaintiffs argue that the Release is unenforceable because they were fraudulently induced to enter into the agreement. Plaintiffs assert that defendants had prior knowledge that Welch generally drove too quickly when conducting snow machine tours, and, notwithstanding that knowledge, failed (negligently) to take reasonable steps to ensure that Welch conducted the tours safely. Plaintiffs further contend that they were induced to sign the Release based upon defendants’ false assurances that the lesson and tour would be conducted in a safe manner, with adequate instruction, and at [*24]  a safe speed. Relying on those assurances, plaintiffs signed the Release. Plaintiffs argue that, at the very least, whether the defendants made assurances (and omissions) regarding the nature of the snow machine tour with conscious indifference to the truth, and whether the plaintiffs justifiably relied upon those statements when signing the Release, are disputed issues of material fact precluding summary judgment.

“Under New Hampshire law, fraud in the inducement is a valid defense to a contract action and can be raised to void a contract.” Bryant v. Liberty Mut. Grp., Inc., No. 11-CV-217-SM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76713, 2013 WL 2403483, at *9 (D.N.H. May 31, 2013) (citing Nashua Trust Co. v. Weisman, 122 N.H. 397, 400, 445 A.2d 1101 (1982)). As the parties seeking to invalidate the Release on fraudulent inducement grounds, plaintiffs bear a substantial burden: they “must establish that the other party made a representation with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to its truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it. In addition, the party seeking to prove fraud must demonstrate justifiable reliance.” Trefethen v. Liberty Mut. Grp., Inc., No. 11-CV-225-SM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76753, 2013 WL 2403314, at *7 (D.N.H. May 31, 2013)(quoting Van Der Stok v. Van Voorhees, 151 N.H. 679, 682, 866 A.2d 972 (2005)) (additional citations omitted).

Plaintiffs rely on Van Der Stok v. Van Voorhees, but that decision offers little support. That case arose [*25]  out of a transaction for the sale of real estate. The plaintiff represented that defendant-purchaser would be able to build on the property, but did not disclose that his own earlier application to the zoning board for a permit to build on the property had been denied. After the closing, defendant went to the town offices to inquire about the property, and first learned that plaintiff’s earlier permit application had been denied. Defendant stopped payment on the check given at closing to cover the purchase price. The plaintiff subsequently filed an action, and defendant raised fraud in the inducement as a defense to plaintiff’s claims. Plaintiff argued the defendant could not show reasonable reliance on his purported misrepresentation, because the purchase and sale agreement provided, “Seller makes no representations as to land use law or regulations.” Id. at 682.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected that argument for two reasons. First, the court was unconvinced that the disclaimer “would put a reasonable person on notice that he could not rely upon the specific representation made . . . that the particular lot he was buying was a buildable lot.” Id. at 683. Moreover, the plaintiff had “made a representation [*26]  with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to the truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it.” Id. (quoting Snierson v. Scruton, 145 N.H. 73, 77, 761 A.2d 1046 (2000)). Such “positive fraud,” the court stated, “vitiates every thing.” Id. (quoting Jones v. Emery, 40 N.H. 348, 350 (1860)).

This case is distinguishable from Van Der Stok because the Lizzols have not shown what representation defendant(s) allegedly made “with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to its truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it.” Id. In support of their assertion that defendants knew (or believed) that Walsh was likely to conduct their particular tour in an unsafe manner, plaintiffs point to the following: (1) “[u]pon information and belief, there had been complaints from customers that OBK’s tour guides, specifically Martin Welch, had driven unreasonably fast while conducting tours; (2) after the incident, the MVG manager asked Michael if Welch had been “driving too fast again.”

Admissibility of that evidence is doubtful, and it is plainly insufficient to support a finding that defendants knew that plaintiffs’ lesson and tour would be conducted in a negligent or actionably unsafe manner or were recklessly indifferent to that likelihood. And [*27]  plaintiffs have identified no particular representation made by defendants, with the intention to induce plaintiffs to rely upon it, and, upon which they justifiably relied, that either proved to be false or the product of reckless indifference to the truth. The only statement in the record to which they point (Welch’s statement that he would not drive the snow machines faster than 20 miles per hour) occurred after plaintiffs signed the Release. The record is also utterly silent with respect to whether speed in excess of 20 mph is considered dangerous or negligent when conducting a snowmobile tour, or whether “too fast” in the past equates to the speed driven by the guide on plaintiffs’ tour, or even what “too fast” might mean in the context of a snowmobile tour that included novices.

Because plaintiffs have not produced sufficient evidence from which a finder of fact could conclude that the defendants knowingly made fraudulent representations to them, they have not established that a genuine issue of fact exists with respect to whether their execution of the Release was fraudulently induced, and is therefore ineffective.

The Release is valid and enforceable, and it encompasses the plaintiffs’ [*28]  bystander liability claim as well as their negligence claims.

Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, and for those argued in the defendants’ memoranda, the motion for summary judgment (document no. 23) is necessarily granted under controlling New Hampshire law. The Release at issue here is not ambiguous. It unmistakably released the defendants from any liability relating to their negligence, and that of their employees and agents. Neither qualifying language nor any other provision in, nor the structure of the Release, obscured the defendants’ intent to be relieved of all liability for their own negligence. A reasonable person would have understood that the Release relieved the defendants of all liability for injuries caused by their negligence. The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment for defendants and close the case.

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Steven J. McAuliffe

Steven J. McAuliffe

United States District Judge

October 31, 2016