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California decision imposes three specific requirements for a release to be valid. On requirement is a release must be understood by a person untrained in the law.

Lawsuit filed by family of deceased runner who died of cardiac arrest after crossing the finish line of a race. Release and assumption of the risk blocked all claims except the claim for gross negligence.

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

Plaintiff: Eden Gonzalez Hass et al

Defendant: Rhodyco Productions

Plaintiff Claims: negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: Split decision, however case to continue on issue of gross negligence

Year: 2018

Summary

This California Appellate decision added some new requirements for releases to be valid in California. Two of those new requirements stem from the requirements of the California wrongful death statute. The other two are simple.

Under California law, inherent is a limiting word when it is used to describe the risks in a release, and a release must be understandable by a non-lawyer.

Facts

The deceased, Peter Hass, crossed the finish line of the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed and died. His wife and his two children, referred to as the Hess Family in the opinion, sued the event organizer for negligence.

Before entering the race, the deceased signed a release online.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event

The race organizer had been putting on events for twenty-five year. This even had approval from the city which approval required providing an emergency management plan. The plan stated that a medical team and ambulance would be at the finish line and stationed on the course. The medical team the family argued was inadequate.

Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances.

The Hess family sued. Initially, the trial court granted the defendant RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and assumption of the risk. The family objected and argued in a hearing they should have the right to amend their complaint and bring additional claims. After the hearing, the trial court agreed and granted the Hess family’s motion for a new trial.

Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

The defendant RhodyCo filed a notice of appeal, and the Hess family filed a notice of cross appeal bringing the matter to the California Court of Appeals, which issued the opinion here.

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

The appellate court first looked at the wrongful-death claim of the plaintiff Hess family. Under California law, a wrongful-death claim is not a derivative claim. Meaning the claim does not arise from a superior claim of the plaintiff. It is a claim, in and of itself, and not a claim of the deceased by a claim of the deceased’s family.

In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful-death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedents “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful-death action.

Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'” “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a subsequent wrongful death cause of action

For a release to block a wrongful-death claim, the language in the release, not the law of releases. Looking at the entire document, is it clear the parties expressed the intent to assume the risk, thus blocking the wrongful-death claim.

Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

…in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff Hess family argued the assumption of the risk language was insufficient to make that claim because the release used the term “inherent” to describe the risks. As such the risks that killed the deceased were not covered in the release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks.

Again, the release used terms that limited the scope of the risks the deceased was to assume, which limited the breath of the release.

Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

The court found that the language in other parts of the release were broad enough to cover the risks the deceased undertook and thus assumed.

Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence.

California also has a requirement that the “release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law.” This requirement was argued stated twice in the decision.

A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The Hess family then argued the release was void because it violated public policy. The Hess Family claimed the defendants were negligent in providing the medical care that responded, and medical care is a necessity and as such should not be protected by a release.

The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”

California Civil code § 1668 does not allow a release to be sued to stop a claim if the service or the nature of the contract is based on public policy.

All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.

There is a six-part test to determine if the agreement is one affecting the public interest. Not all six of the requirements must be met.

“‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'”

However, courts in California have declined to find releases used for recreational activities as violating the statute and thus being void because of the public interest argument.

Most recreational activities may require first aid or greater medical services. However, people do not engage in the sport or activity because of the first aid or medical issues. The first aid and medical issues are ancillary to the activity and as such not the main purpose for the activity or the release.

Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way.

The next issue was the issues of pleading the claim for gross negligence. California like most, if not all, other states do not allow a release to stop a gross negligence claim. If the Hess family is able to argue to the trier of fact that the actions of the defendant, RhodyCo rose to the level of gross negligence the release is not a defense.

Under California law, gross negligence is a want of even scant care.

…”‘[g]ross negligence’ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.'” In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'”

Normally, to appeal an issue or even argue an issue at the trial court level, you must first include the claim in your complaint or amend your complaint to bring a new issue in. The Hass family did not include any claim in their complaint for gross negligence.

However, the court found that there was no need in California to specifically plead gross negligence as it was part of negligence, sort of. The court never specifically stated why it was reviewing the gross negligence claim, only that other courts had found that it was not necessary to specifically plead gross negligence.

The court then found the plaintiff’s complaint, and arguments had raised enough issues that the plaintiffs might have a claim for gross negligence.

In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context.

Primary assumption of the risk was the final issue reviewed by the court. Primary assumption of the risk is a complete bar to negligence claims, including gross negligence claims because it removes any duty on the part of the defendant to the plaintiff. Meaning, the defendant cannot be negligent because they have not duty to the plaintiff.

Specifically, our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.”

When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.”

Primary assumption of risk arose out of sports and recreational activities so that the activities could be played with the intensity and vigor so that the reason, and sport of the game was not lost.

The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.”

The issue then becomes what duty is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff that was not assumed by the plaintiff to the extent that it was then breached by the defendant.

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family.

The court then stated that the organizer of the even does not have a duty to decrease the risk of any activity or event. However, there is a duty to minimize extrinsic risks.

While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm.

The court reasoned this was a necessary departure from the encompassing defense provided by assumption of the risk to keep owners and organizers from avoiding “accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it.”

The court did not point out specific facts or risks that created the issue that the defendant RhodyCo had been grossly negligent.

The case was sent back to trial on the sole issue on whether or not the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent.

So Now What?

At the end of the decision, the court awarded costs to the Hess family. Costs on appeal are awarded to the winner of the appeal, in terms of overall and in terms of the number of claims. The defendant won all but one of the issues on appeal in this case. The only claim the defendant did not win was the plaintiffs did not plead gross negligence in their complaint, so they cannot argue it now.

Yet the court still awarded costs to the plaintiffs. It is only a guess, but does this indicate leaning in favor of the plaintiff’s in this case?

There are three specific takeaways from this decision affecting the law of California and releases.

1.    Consequently, a release must be written differently under California law if it is to be used to stop a wrongful-death claim.

2.    Under California law for a release to block a claim for wrongful death, it must also be an assumption of risk agreement that on its face shows the parties intended for the deceased to assume the risk.

3.    Use of the term Inherent in describing risks in a release limits the risks that can be assumed by the signor.

4.    A release under California law must be written so that an ordinary person untrained in the law can understand it.

The final issue to come out of this decision a new back door to defeating the primary assumption of the risk claim. Now if the risk is not enumerated in the release, the plaintiff is going to argue it is extrinsic and therefore, not covered by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk to defeat the defense.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710

Hass v. RhodyCo Productions

Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Four

August 13, 2018, Opinion Filed

2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 710 *; 2018 WL 3830002

EDEN GONZALEZ HASS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. RHODYCO PRODUCTIONS, Defendant and Appellant.

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of San Francisco of City and County, No. CGC-12-520492, A. James Robertson II, Judge.

Counsel: Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Jeffry A. Miller, Lann G. McIntyre, Shawn A. Toliver, Helen L. Greenberg for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Office of Gerald Clausen, Gerald Clausen, Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP, Robert J. Waldsmith, Jeffrey R. Smith for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: Opinion by Reardon, J., with Streeter, Acting P. J., and Smith, J.*, concurring.

Opinion by: Reardon, J.

Opinion

REARDON, J.—After crossing the finish line at the 2011 Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon, Peter Hass (Hass) tragically suffered a cardiac arrest, collapsed, and died. Hass’s wife, Eden Gonzalez Hass, and his two minor children (collectively, the Hass Family) consequently filed this wrongful death action, alleging that numerous race-affiliated individuals and entities—including event organizer David Rhody, individually and doing business as RhodyCo Productions (RhodyCo)—were negligent in the organization and management of the race, particularly with respect to the provision of emergency medical services.1 The trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion in this matter, concluding that the instant action was barred [*2]  under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. However, after the Hass Family filed a motion for new trial, the trial court reversed itself. Specifically, the court found that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend their complaint to plead gross negligence, conduct falling outside of the scope of the written waiver and release. On appeal, RhodyCo argues that the trial court’s initial grant of summary judgment was correct, even if the issue of gross negligence is considered on its merits. The Hass Family, in contrast, generally champions the court’s new trial order, but argues that the express release in this case was invalid on additional grounds rejected by the trial court and that the court should have concluded on the evidence before it that a triable issue of material fact exists as to RhodyCo’s gross negligence. We agree with the trial court that summary judgment was not warranted in this case based on primary assumption of the risk. However, we believe the trial court erred in requiring amendment of the complaint to plead gross negligence and determine, [*3]  based on our independent review of the record before us, that a triable issue of material fact exists on this issue. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part, with instructions to enter a denial of RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The annual Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Half Marathon & 5K Run in Golden Gate Park (Half Marathon) consists of two different events—a 13.1-mile half marathon and a five-kilometer run. In 2011, the anticipated attendance for the two races was estimated to include 10,000 participants and 600 volunteers. RhodyCo provided event management and production services for the Half Marathon from 2006 through 2011. In order to obtain the necessary temporary street closure permit for the event, RhodyCo was required to submit an emergency medical services plan (EMS Plan) to the City and County of San Francisco (City) for review and approval by the City’s emergency medical services agency (Agency).

The approved EMS Plan for 2011 stated, as it had in previous years, that the medical personnel at the Half Marathon would be provided by Palmer College of Chiropractic-West (PCCW) and American Medical Response (AMR). More specifically, [*4]  it asserted that PCCW would “‘provide event trained Medical Personnel for the event, (students are all CPR certified and have taken emergency response class). Med Teams will be located at key areas (Start Line, Finish Lines, Postrace Medical Tent, and mobile units on the course). The head clinician event day, Dr. Hal Rosenberg [phone number], will be onsite at the Postrace Medical Tent. AMR will provide an [emergency medical technician] who will be posted with PCCW Med Team in the postrace Medical Tent at the Finish of the race—AMR is also providing an ALS ambulance to respond [to] medical emergencies—the standby will be posted on Lincoln at the Great Hwy … . The Standby and Medical Team will be equipped with cellphone active Nextel radios with direct communication to the Event Coordinator and each other.'” Other portions of the approved EMS Plan, however, indicated that one M.D., 6+ EMTs, and one automatic external defibrillator (AED) would be located at the finish line.

Having signed a release (Release) in which he agreed, among other things, to “accept the inherent dangers and risks” arising from his participation in the race and to release RhodyCo from “any and all claims” [*5]  based on injuries he might suffer “at or enroute to and from this event,” Hass participated in the Half Marathon on February 6, 2011. Almost immediately after crossing the finish line at 10:05:34 a.m., Hass suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and collapsed. Another runner, Dr. Charles Whitehill, crossed the finish line 13 seconds after Hass and heard him fall. Dr. Whitehill—who had significant experience in providing and overseeing resuscitation efforts for patients—began to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Hass within 30 to 60 seconds of arriving at Hass’s side. Dr. Whitehill was involved in CPR efforts for five to eight minutes, after which CPR was continued by another bystander who identified himself as an off-duty paramedic. Approximately 11 minutes after Hass collapsed a third bystander brought the AED from the postrace tent, which was located somewhere between 100 and 200 yards beyond the finish line. When the AED was applied, it showed that Hass had no shockable heart rhythm. CPR efforts were then continued until paramedics from the City’s fire department arrived at approximately 10:31 a.m. and took over treatment. Unfortunately, Hass was pronounced dead shortly thereafter [*6]  at 10:49 a.m. RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for over 25 years, including at least 400 running, walking, and other events involving over 1.5 million participants. Hass’s tragic death was the only fatality ever experienced at a RhodyCo-managed event.

On May 3, 2012, the Hass Family filed this wrongful death action (Complaint), alleging, among other things, that RhodyCo had negligently organized and planned the Half Marathon; negligently “hired, retained, … supervised, [and] controlled” the medical team; and negligently “managed, trained, supervised and controlled emergency and medical resources.” In particular, the Hass Family highlighted the use of chiropractors rather than medical doctors, the use of chiropractic students rather than EMTs, the lack of ambulance personnel at the finish line, inadequate communication and communication devices, and inadequate AEDs and ambulances. RhodyCo answered, generally denying the Complaint allegations and asserting several affirmative defenses, including primary assumption of the risk and express contractual assumption of the risk and release of liability.

RhodyCo then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing [*7]  that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was completely barred based on the two aforementioned affirmative defenses. Specifically, RhodyCo claimed that Hass had agreed to be bound by the Release when he registered for the Half Marathon, which included a waiver of liability and assumption of the risk agreement that was binding on his heirs. In addition, RhodyCo asserted that sudden cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running and that it had done nothing to increase this risk. Under these circumstances, RhodyCo opined, the Hass Family’s action was barred under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.

In opposition to the summary judgment motion, the Hass Family argued with respect to the Release that it was void to the extent it purported to cover emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest; that it was not a clear and unambiguous waiver of future liability for a wrongful death claim; and that it was ineffective to exempt RhodyCo from liability for gross negligence. With respect to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, the Hass Family agreed that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of long-distance running, but argued that [*8]  a sponsoring entity is nevertheless obligated to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks to the extent it is able to do so without altering the nature of the sport. They further maintained that RhodyCo had increased the risk of death beyond that inherent in the sport by failing to comply with the EMS Plan.

On the issue of negligence, the Hass Family presented evidence indicating that medical emergencies (including cardiac arrests) are more likely to occur near the finish line of a race because runners tend to push themselves to improve their times, causing an adrenaline rush and an arrhythmia. Moreover, as the City, itself, has recognized: “[C]losing off several major streets at the same time to accommodate a race often causes … potential interference with emergency services.” (San Francisco Transportation Code, § 6.11, subd. (a).) The Hass Family argued that, although RhodyCo’s EMS Plan for the Half Marathon properly identified the finish line as a “‘key area'” and indicated numerous resources would be stationed there—including a medical doctor, AED, and “6+” EMTs—the only medical personnel assigned to the finish line were Dr. Rosenberg (a chiropractor) and the event coordinator (a chiropractic [*9]  student), neither of whom were actually at the finish line when Hass collapsed. They further claimed that the AED was in the medical tent located approximately 200 yards away, in the postrace expo area; that no event medical personnel arrived at the scene until 10 minutes after Hass collapsed; and that, when a bystander arrived with the AED at the 11-minute mark, it was too late to help Hass. The Hass Family also found fault with the communications equipment provided by RhodyCo for the Half Marathon. Although the EMS Plan represented that “all event safety personnel” would have “cell phone active radios,” the Hass Family averred that only six or seven radios were provided to the medical team; that no radio was provided to the ambulance or to either chiropractic doctor onsite; and that there was no radio in the medical tent. Finally, the Hass Family presented declarations from several experts indicating that the standard of care for an event like the Half Marathon is to have a competent medical director who is a medical doctor and to follow the medical plan. Moreover, according to one of the Hass Family’s experts, because races like the Half Marathon can disrupt the local 911 system, [*10]  the standard of care additionally requires enough onsite ambulances (and/or backfilling of ambulances) to provide for rapid medical care for runners who collapse due to sudden cardiac arrest, particularly near the finish line.2

As stated above, the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, concluding that the Hass Family’s wrongful death action was barred under theories of primary assumption of the risk and express waiver. The Hass Family then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court had erred in its legal analysis of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. In addition, they asserted that all of the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the Release were erroneous. In particular, they argued that they were not required to plead gross negligence in the Complaint and that, in any event, it was an abuse of discretion to deny their request to amend the Complaint to cure any such perceived defect. The Hass Family also provided new evidence that they alleged supported finding a triable issue with respect to gross negligence—the deposition testimony of Dr. Brown, the head of the Agency, stating that nothing in the EMS Plan indicated [*11]  that chiropractic students would be substituted for EMTs at the finish line and that his discussions with RhodyCo regarding the use of chiropractic students was limited to their use on the mobile teams. Dr. Brown also testified that he had never discussed with RhodyCo the propriety of substituting a chiropractic doctor for a medical doctor as race supervisor. RhodyCo opposed the motion for new trial, arguing that the trial court’s initial decision was correct under the law; that Dr. Brown’s deposition testimony should not be considered as the Hass Family had not acted with diligence in producing it; and that, regardless, the statements from the deposition highlighted by the Hass Family were undercut by other deposition testimony.

After hearing, the trial court granted the Hass Family’s new trial motion. Specifically, the court agreed with the Hass Family that primary assumption of the risk was inapplicable on these facts and further determined that the Hass Family should have been allowed to amend the Complaint to plead gross negligence. Although it refused to rule on the existence of a triable issue with respect to gross negligence pending the filing of the amended Complaint, it did [*12]  reject RhodyCo’s argument that the Hass Family had not moved with diligence in taking the deposition of Dr. Brown.

RhodyCo’s notice of appeal and the Hass Family’s notice of cross-appeal now bring the matter before this court.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

CA(1)[] (1) As described above, the procedural posture of this case is somewhat convoluted. Although the trial court initially granted RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion, it subsequently reversed itself on one ground (primary assumption of the risk) and then deferred ruling on another ground it had previously rejected (gross negligence) pending amendment of the Complaint, effectively granting a new trial on both issues. HN1[] Such an order is appealable. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 858 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar) [noting, in finding appealability under similar circumstances, that it “makes no difference” that an order granting a new trial following an order granting summary judgment “may operate like an order denying summary judgment, which is nonappealable”].) Further, HN2[] although orders granting a new trial are generally examined for abuse of discretion, any determination underlying the new trial order is scrutinized using “the test appropriate for that determination.” (Douglas v. Fidelity National Ins. Co. (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 392, 407 [177 Cal. Rptr. 3d 271]; see also Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 859–860.)

Here, then, [*13]  the trial court’s conclusions with respect to the appropriateness of summary judgment are subject to our de novo review. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 860; In re Automobile Antitrust Cases I & II (2016) 1 Cal.App.5th 127, 150 [204 Cal. Rptr. 3d 330] (Automobile Antitrust Cases).) In this regard, we review the trial court’s ruling; not its rationale. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 150.) “Thus, ‘[t]he sole question properly before us on review of the summary judgment [order] is whether the judge reached the right result … whatever path he [or she] might have taken to get there.'” (Id. at pp. 150–151.)

CA(2)[] (2) Moreover, HN3[] the underlying issues implicated by RhodyCo’s summary judgment motion are also subject to our independent review. For instance, HN4[] “‘[c]ontract principles apply when interpreting a release, and “normally the meaning of contract language, including a release, is a legal question.” [Citation.] “Where, as here, no conflicting parol evidence is introduced concerning the interpretation of the document, ‘construction of the instrument is a question of law, and the appellate court will independently construe the writing.'”‘” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1483 [72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471] (Cohen); see also Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754–755 [29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177] (Paralift).) CA(3)[] (3) Similarly, it has long been recognized that HN5[] application of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine is a legal question, to be determined by the courts as a matter of law. (See Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003–1004; see also Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 257 [179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473] [“‘[T]he legal question of duty, [*14]  and specifically the question of whether a particular risk is an inherent part of a sport, “is necessarily reached from the common knowledge of judges, and not the opinions of experts”‘”].) In our resolution of this matter, then, we are writing on what is essentially a clean slate, bearing in mind that HN6[] we should resolve any evidentiary doubts in the Hass Family’s favor, given that they are the party opposing summary judgment. (Automobile Antitrust Cases, supra, 1 Cal.App.5th at p. 151 [“In undertaking our analysis, we ‘”accept as true the facts … in the evidence of the party opposing summary judgment and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them.”‘”].)

B. Express Waiver

During the online registration process for the Half Marathon, Hass was presented with the following warning regarding his need to execute the Release: “Please read any waiver carefully. It includes a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprives you of the ability to sue certain parties. Do not agree to this document unless you have read and understood it in its entirety. By agreeing electronically, you acknowledge that you have both read and understood all text presented to you as part of the registration process. You also understand and agree [*15]  that events carry certain inherent dangers and risks which may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage, or death. Your ability to participate in the event(s) is/are subject to your agreement to the waiver and by agreeing herein, you accept and agree to the terms of the waiver and release agreement.” (Italics added.) The document referenced in this warning—which could either be printed out or read in its entirety online—is entitled “Waivers” and reads in pertinent part as follows: “I understand that by registering I have accepted and agreed to the waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me during registration and that these documents include a release of liability and waiver of legal rights and deprive me of the right to sue certain parties. By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from participation in the event. [¶] In consideration [*16]  of your accepting this entry … , I, intending to be legally bound, do hereby for myself, my heirs, executors, and/or administrators, waive and release any and all claims for damages I may accrue against … RhodyCo … any and all contractors, their employees, representatives, agents and heirs from any and all injuries that may be suffered by me at or enroute to or from this event. I attest that I am physically fit and sufficiently trained for this strenuous competition. I will assume my own medical and emergency expenses in the event of an accident or other incapacity or injury resulting from or occurring in my participation. …” (Italics added.)3

As stated above, RhodyCo argued in its summary judgment motion that the Release signed by Hass acted as a complete bar to the instant action. The trial court initially agreed, rejecting the Hass Family’s arguments that the wording of the Release was insufficient to exempt RhodyCo from wrongful death claims and that the Release was void on public policy grounds. In addition, because gross negligence was not specifically alleged in the Complaint, the court refused to consider the Hass Family’s third argument—that RhodyCo [*17]  had engaged in gross negligence falling outside of the scope of the Release. However, the trial court later granted a new trial on this issue, stating it would allow the Hass Family to amend its Complaint to cure this defect. The court declined to determine whether a triable issue as to RhodyCo’s alleged gross negligence existed, pending the filing of the amendment. In this appeal and cross-appeal, the parties raise all three of these issues involving the impact of the executed Release as potential grounds either supporting or undermining the trial court’s summary judgment decision. We therefore address each contention in turn.

1. Waiver of Wrongful Death Claim

CA(4)[] (4) Our high court has explained that HN7[] wrongful death claims “are not derivative claims but are independent actions accruing to a decedent’s heirs.” (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 841 [114 Cal. Rptr. 3d 263, 237 P.3d 584]; see also Madison v. Superior Court (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 [250 Cal. Rptr. 299] (Madison) [“‘The longstanding rule is that a wrongful death action is a separate and distinct right belonging to the heirs, and it does not arise until the death of the decedent.'”].) “Because a wrongful death claim is not derivative of the decedent’s claims, an agreement by the decedent to release or waive liability for [his or] her death does not necessarily bar a [*18]  subsequent wrongful death cause of action … .” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 725 [183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234].) Rather, a distinction is made in these circumstances “between the legal ineffectiveness of a decedent’s preinjury release of his [or her] heirs'[] subsequent wrongful death action and the legal effectiveness of an express release of negligence by a decedent which provides a defendant with ‘a complete defense.‘” (Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at p. 597.) In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s “express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks” acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action. (Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 758, 763–764 [276 Cal. Rptr. 672] (Saenz); see also Ruiz, supra, 50 Cal.4th at pp. 851–852 [“although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his [or her] heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk”].) Under such circumstances, the releasor is essentially agreeing not to expect the other party to act carefully, thus eliminating that person’s duty of care. (Coates v. Newhall Land & Farming, Inc. (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 1, 7 [236 Cal. Rptr. 181] (Coates).)

As an example, in Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d 1, the decedent, a dirtbike rider, signed a release before using the defendant’s motorcycle park. (Id. at pp. 3–4.) After [*19]  the decedent was fatally injured, his heirs sued, arguing that the defendant had been negligent in the design and maintenance of the trail on which the decedent was hurt. (Ibid.) The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the decedent’s release barred the subsequent wrongful death action. Specifically, the court noted that, in the first half of the release, the decedent “expressly waived liability for injuries or death which might result from respondents’ ordinary negligence in the future. In the second half, he expressly assumed all risk of injury from dangers inherent in dirtbike riding on respondents’ premises.” (Id. at p. 7; see also id. at p. 4 & fn. 2.) The court concluded that this express assumption of the risk also bound the decedent’s heirs. (Id. at p. 8.) The court additionally opined that whether or not the decedent had “sufficient knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death” was irrelevant under the circumstances of the case because “knowledge of a particular risk is unnecessary when there is an express agreement to assume all risk.” (Id. at pp. 8–9.)

CA(5)[] (5) Our own decision in Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d 758 is in accord. There, the decedent fell out of a raft on a white-water rafting trip hosted by Whitewater, a commercial rafting [*20]  company, and drowned. (Id. at pp. 759, 762.) Prior to this fatal incident, the decedent had signed a release, stating: “‘I am aware that certain risks and dangers may occur on any river trip with Whitewater … . These risks include, but are not limited to, hazards of and injury to person and property while traveling in rafts on the river, accident or illness in remote places without medical facilities, the forces of nature … . [¶] … I hereby assume all of the above risks and, except in the case of gross negligence, will hold Whitewater … harmless from any and all liability, actions, causes of action, debts, claims, and demands of every kind and nature whatsoever which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my trip or participation in any activities with Whitewater … .’ The agreement further stated it operated as a release and assumption of risk for his heirs.” (Id. at p. 763, fn. 7, italics added.) Noting that “drafting a legally valid release is no easy task,” we opined that HN8[] “‘[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection … . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.'” [*21]  (Id. at p. 765.) Given that the plain language of the Saenz release indicated that the decedent consented to assume the risks associated with white-water rafting and release Whitewater from any and all liability arising out of the trip, the fact that the exculpatory sentence did not explicitly state that it covered Whitewater’s negligence and did not specifically mention death or drowning was insufficient to invalidate the otherwise clear release. (Id. at pp. 765–766; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [“‘If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant.'” (italics added)].)

Indeed, generally speaking, “‘[w]hether a release bars recovery against a negligent party “turns primarily on contractual interpretation, and it is the intent of the parties as expressed in the agreement that should control.”‘” (Sanchez v. Bally’s Total Fitness Corp. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 62, 66–67 [79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 902].) Moreover, in this regard, “‘[o]ur analysis is not based on the mechanical application of some formula. The presence or absence of the words “negligence” or “bodily injury” is not dispositive. We look instead to the intention of the parties as it appears in the release forms before the court.'” (Id. at p. 67; see also Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1488
[noting that release should be understood as speaking to an ordinary person untrained in the law].) By [*22]  signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that Hass intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release RhodyCo (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the Hass Family’s wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.

The Hass Family, however, argues that the Release executed by Hass in this case is ineffective as a defense to their wrongful death claim because the express assumption of the risk language is limited solely to risks “inherent” in race participation—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—which does not include any potentially negligent conduct by RhodyCo that may have increased those inherent risks. They further contend that the release language contained in the next sentence of the Release is similarly ineffectual in the wrongful death context because it is limited to “any and all claims for damages I [i.e., Hass] may accrue,” thus excluding claims accrued by his heirs. We are not persuaded.

HN9[] CA(6)[] (6) “With [*23]  respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1484.) Here, reading the Release as a whole—as would an ordinary person untrained in the law—we are convinced it expresses Hass’s intent to assume all risks arising from his participation in the Half Marathon, including any risks related to RhodyCo’s negligence. In particular, and as we remarked in Saenz (also a wrongful death action), we believe that the juxtaposition of the assumption of risk language and the blanket release language conveys the message that Hass assumed all risks related to participation in the Half Marathon while excusing RhodyCo from any liability arising from the race. (See Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at pp. 756–757 [considering broad release language as well as assumption language in upholding release in wrongful death action]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 765 [same]; Coates, supra, 191 Cal.App.3d at pp. 7, 9 & fn. 2 [release valid where decedent waived all liability for injury or death and assumed risk of injury from dangers inherent in riding dirt bike on premises]; see also National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 937–938, 940 [264 Cal. Rptr. 44] (Street Racers) [in case claiming lack of competent medical [*24]  attention/rescue equipment, release is valid even though it included an assumption of “‘all risk inherent in racing'” because it also released “in unqualified terms … all claims arising from plaintiff’s participation in the race”].)4

We similarly reject the Hass Family’s assertion that the assumption of risk language used in the Release—I “accept the inherent dangers and risks … that arise from participation in the event”—is ambiguous as “accept” in this context could reasonably mean “understand” as well as “assume.” (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485 [an ambiguity in a release exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning; an ambiguity “‘should normally be construed against the drafter'” of the release].) The complete sentence at issue reads: “By agreeing electronically, I have acknowledged that I have both read and understand any waiver and release agreement(s) presented to me as part of the registration process and accept the inherent dangers and risks which may or may not be readily foreseeable, including without limitation personal injury, property damage or death that arise from [*25]  participation in the event.” (Italics added.) Since the signator, in the first part of the sentence, has already acknowledged understanding the contents of the waiver—which includes the statement that there are risks inherent in participating—it seems unlikely that he or she would be asked to acknowledge such an understanding a second time in the latter part of the sentence. Rather, the much more reasonable interpretation of this second clause is that the signator is agreeing to shoulder—i.e., take on or otherwise assume—the dangers and risks inherent in the activity.

Finally, in construing the Release, we are cognizant of the fact that “[i]n cases arising from hazardous recreational pursuits, to permit released claims to be brought to trial defeats the purpose for which releases are requested and given, regardless of which party ultimately wins the verdict. Defense costs are devastating. Unless courts are willing to dismiss such actions without trial, many popular and lawful recreational activities are destined for extinction.” (Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d at p. 938.) While certainly imperfect, we believe that the Release was intended to be, and was accepted as, a comprehensive assumption of all risks associated [*26]  with race participation. We therefore agree with the trial court that the Release constitutes a complete defense to a wrongful death action based on ordinary negligence.

2. Public Policy

CA(7)[] (7) The Hass Family, however, argues that, even if the Release might otherwise be deemed a valid bar to their negligence claim, it is void as against public policy to the extent it purports to apply to the provision of emergency medical services, as such services implicate the public interest. Civil Code section 1668 provides that “[a]ll contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”
HN10[] A contractual provision exculpating a party from liability is invalid under this statute if it “affects the public interest.” (Tunkl v. Regents of University of California (1963) 60 Cal.2d 92, 96, 98 [32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441] (Tunkl).)

CA(8)[] (8) In Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d 92, HN11[] our high court identified six characteristics typical of contracts affecting the public interest: “‘[1] It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often [*27]  a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.'” (Id. at pp. 98–101, fns. omitted.) Not all of these factors need to be present for an exculpatory contract to be voided as affecting the public interest. (Id. at p. 98.) However, in Tunkl, the Supreme Court found all six factors were implicated and, on that basis, concluded that a release from liability [*28]  for future negligence imposed as a condition for admission to a charitable research hospital affected the public interest and was thus invalid. (Id. at pp. 94, 101–102.) In making this determination, our high court found “hardly open to question” the fact that “the services of the hospital to those members of the public who are in special need of the particular skill of its staff and facilities constitute a practical and crucial necessity.” (Id. at p. 101.)

In contrast, California courts have consistently declined to apply the Tunkl factors to invalidate exculpatory agreements in the recreational sports context. (See Street Racers, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d 934 [upholding release in case claiming lack of competent medical attention/rescue equipment]; see also Platzer v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1259 [128 Cal. Rptr. 2d 885] [fall from chairlift during ski lesson]; Randas v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 158, 161–162 [21 Cal. Rptr. 2d 245] [swim class]; Paralift, supra, 23 Cal.App.4th at p. 756 [skydiving]; Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 764 [commercial river rafting]; Madison, supra, 203 Cal.App.3d at pp. 593, 597–599 [scuba diving]; Okura v. United States Cycling Federation (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1462, 1464, 1466–1468 [231 Cal. Rptr. 429] [bicycle race].) Although they acknowledge the current state of California law, the Hass Family invites us to revisit the issue based on an analysis of the Tunkl factors by the Washington Supreme Court in Vodopest v. MacGregor (1996) 128 Wn.2d 840 [913 P.2d 779] (Vodopest). In that case, the plaintiff agreed to join a mountain trek that was designed as a research trip to test the efficacy of a breathing technique used to eliminate high altitude [*29]  sickness. (Id. at pp. 843–844.) Portions of the research proposal were submitted to the University of Washington Human Subjects Review Committee (University) for approval. (Id. at p. 845.) Prior to the trek, the plaintiff executed a broad release in researcher MacGregor’s favor. (Ibid.) A similar release which included the University was rejected by the University as invalid because “releases from liability for negligence are not allowed as a part of any approved study, as the federal government does not allow exculpatory language in human subject experimentation.” (Id. at p. 846.) Ultimately, the plaintiff suffered a cerebral edema from altitude sickness on the trek and sued MacGregor for negligence and gross negligence. (Id. at p. 847.)

The sole issue on appeal in Vodopest was whether the release signed by the plaintiff violated public policy and was thus unenforceable. (Vodopest, supra, 128 Wn.2d at p. 848.) The court noted that medical research was a significant component of the trek and that the “critical question” in the case was “whether the alleged conduct giving rise to the cause of action for negligence occurred in the context of the mountain trekking or within the scope of the research project.” (Id. at pp. 850, 852–853.) It concluded—after consideration of the six Tunkl factors—that to [*30]  the extent MacGregor attempted to use the release “to release herself as a researcher from negligent acts performed in the furtherance of medical research,” it was unenforceable as violative of public policy. (Id. at p. 853; see id. at pp. 853–862.) In particular, the court opined that “there are critical public policy reasons to maintain the usual standard of care in settings where one person is using another as a medical research subject.” (Id. at p. 856.)

CA(9)[] (9) Vodopest is obviously distinguishable on its facts and we reject the Hass Family’s invitation to depart from long-existing California precedent based on this Washington decision. HN12[] Many recreational activities may require the ancillary provision of first aid or emergency medical services by event organizers, but that fact alone does not change such pursuits into anything other than the voluntary leisure pastimes that they are. In particular, with reference to the Tunkl factors, we note that half marathons are not an activity of great importance to the general public and are certainly not a matter of necessity. No racer is required to enter a particular event or to run it in any particular way. (Cf. Okura, supra, 186 Cal.App.3d at p. 1468 [bicycle race participant retains complete control and can drop out of the race or [*31]  adjust his pace at any time; organizers have no control over how the participant approaches the race].) The Tunkl court, itself, made clear that such private, voluntary exculpatory contracts are permissible: “While obviously no public policy opposes private, voluntary transactions in which one party, for a consideration, agrees to shoulder a risk which the law would otherwise have placed upon the other party, the above circumstances [admission to research hospital] pose a different situation. In this situation the releasing party does not really acquiesce voluntarily in the contractual shifting of the risk, nor can we be reasonably certain that he receives an adequate consideration for the transfer.” (Tunkl, supra, 60 Cal.2d at p. 101.) Here, Hass was permitted to make the voluntary decision, in return for being allowed to participate in the race, to shoulder the risk of RhodyCo’s potential negligence. “‘”‘The power of the courts to declare a contract void for being in contravention of sound public policy is a very delicate and undefined power, and … should be exercised only in cases free from doubt.'”‘” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, fn. 53 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095] (Santa Barbara).) We decline to exercise it here.

3. Gross Negligence

CA(10)[] (10) The final issue with respect to the impact [*32]  of the Release in this matter is whether the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of material fact as to whether RhodyCo acted with gross negligence in its management of the Half Marathon. Even if the Release was sufficient to block a claim for ordinary negligence—as we have held—HN13[] it is insufficient, as a matter of public policy, to preclude liability for gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 751 [“an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy”].) For purposes of this distinction, ordinary negligence “consists of a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (Id. at pp. 753–754.) “‘[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,'” amounts to ordinary negligence. (Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 48 [135 Cal.Rptr. 761].) In contrast, “‘[g]ross negligence‘ long has been defined in California and other jurisdictions as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754.) “‘“[G]ross negligence” falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, [*33]  and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind.‘” (Gore v. Board of Medical Quality Assurance (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 184, 197 [167 Cal. Rptr. 881]; see also Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792].) In assessing where on the spectrum a particular negligent act falls, “‘[t]he amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the apparent risk. As the danger becomes greater, the actor is required to exercise caution commensurate with it.'” (Gore, supra, 110 Cal.App.3d at p. 198.)

CA(11)[] (11) In the present case, we agree with both parties that the trial court erred by refusing to consider the Hass Family’s claim of gross negligence because they had not pled gross negligence in their Complaint. Several appellate courts have opined that California does not recognize a separate cause of action for gross negligence. (Saenz, supra, 226 Cal.App.3d at p. 766, fn. 9; Ordway v. Superior Court (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 98, 108, fn. 5 [243 Cal. Rptr. 536], disapproved on other grounds in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 306–309 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) In Santa Barbara, the Supreme Court did not definitively resolve this issue, commenting only that it did not view its holding invalidating releases for future gross negligence “as recognizing a cause of action for gross negligence.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 779–780.) Instead, as is more relevant here, the high court went on to declare: “Our holding simply imposes a limitation on the defense that is provided by a release. HN14[] A plaintiff is not required to anticipate such a defense [citation]; [*34]  instead, the defendant bears the burden of raising the defense and establishing the validity of a release as applied to the case at hand.” (Id. at 780, fn. 58.) Thus, regardless of whether gross negligence can be a separate cause of action, and/or the Hass Family could have alleged gross negligence in the Complaint in anticipation of RhodyCo’s likely defense, they were not required to do so. The consequences of this pleading decision in the context of a summary judgment motion were summarized in Westlye v. Look Sports, Inc. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 1715 [22 Cal.Rptr.2d 781]—which involved alleged negligence by a ski rental company in the adjustment of ski bindings—as follows: “Had plaintiff anticipated the defense of the release agreement in his complaint and alleged facts suggesting [its invalidity], the matter would have been a material issue which defendants would have had to refute in order to obtain summary adjudication.” (Id. at pp. 1723–1724, 1739–1740; see also id. at p. 1740 [“‘If … the plaintiff pleads several theories or anticipates affirmative defenses by a show of excusing events or conditions, the challenge to the opponent is made by the complaint, requiring the moving defendant to affirmatively react to each theory and excusing or justifying event, or condition which supports a theory, if the motion is [*35]  to be successful'”].) In contrast, “[s]ince plaintiff’s complaint said nothing about the agreement, the matter of [its validity] was not a material issue for purposes of defendants’ initial showing on its motion for summary adjudication. [The defendant] met its initial burden by adducing evidence of the … agreement and plaintiff’s execution. The burden thereafter shifted to plaintiff to raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Id. at p. 1740.)

Similarly, here, although the Hass Family set forth certain facts in the Complaint which could be viewed as supporting a claim of gross negligence, it cannot be said that the Complaint—which does not even mention the Release—anticipated the Release defense or raised gross negligence as a material issue which RhodyCo was required to refute in order to succeed on summary judgment. Instead, RhodyCo met its initial burden by producing evidence of the existence of the Release and its execution by Hass. The burden then shifted to the Hass Family to raise a triable issue of material fact as to gross negligence.

CA(12)[] (12) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Hass Family, we believe they have met their burden in this case, making summary judgment inappropriate. [*36] 5
It is true that HN15[] summary judgment on the issue of gross negligence may be warranted where the facts fail to establish an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care as a matter of law. However, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence.” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358 [257 Cal. Rptr. 356].) In this case, there are clearly factual and credibility questions that need to be answered regarding exactly what was required under the terms of the EMS Plan. For example, there is conflicting evidence as to whether the “finish line” included the crowded postrace expo area for purposes of compliance with the EMS Plan, and it must also be established exactly what medical personnel and equipment were required to be stationed at the finish line. We will not here catalogue every conceivable argument that the Hass Family could present in an attempt to prove grossly negligent conduct by RhodyCo in this context. We conclude only that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to them, it is possible that the Hass Family could establish that, despite the potential for grave risk of harm in the sport of long-distance running, RhodyCo failed to implement the EMS Plan in several [*37]  material ways and that its management of the Half Marathon—in particular with respect to the allocation of medical resources to the finish line and communication among race personnel—constituted an extreme departure from the standard of care for events of its type. This is sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to gross negligence.
6

In sum, we have concluded that the Release is not void on public policy grounds and that it is adequate to bar the Hass Family’s action for ordinary negligence. However, since we have additionally determined that a triable issue of material fact exists as to whether RhodyCo’s provision of emergency medical services was grossly negligent, the trial court’s new trial order reversing its initial grant of summary judgment was appropriate, unless the Hass Family’s negligence action is completely barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. We therefore turn finally to that question.

C. Primary Assumption of the Risk

CA(13)[] (13) In Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296, the Supreme Court considered the continued applicability of the assumption of the risk doctrine in light of the court’s prior adoption of comparative fault principles. (Id. at pp. 299–300.) Specifically, [*38]  HN16[] our high court distinguished between two different types of assumption of the risk: primary assumption of the risk—”those instances in which the assumption of risk doctrine embodies a legal conclusion that there is ‘no duty’ on the part of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk”—and secondary assumption of
risk—”those instances in which the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff but the plaintiff knowingly encounters a risk of injury caused by the defendant’s breach of that duty.” (Id. at p. 308.) When applicable, primary assumption of the risk “operate[s] as a complete bar to the plaintiff’s recovery.” (Id. at p. 315.) In contrast, secondary assumption of the risk “is merged into the comparative fault scheme, and the trier of fact, in apportioning the loss resulting from the injury, may consider the relative responsibility of the parties.” (Ibid.; id. at p. 314 [“a jury in a ‘secondary assumption of risk’ case would be entitled to take into consideration a plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport … in determining whether the plaintiff properly should bear some share of responsibility for the injuries he or she suffered”]; see also Kahn, supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1003 [in a secondary assumption [*39]  of the risk case, “the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence“].)

CA(14)[] (14) The Supreme Court further concluded in Knight that HN17[] “the question whether the defendant owed a legal duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm … [turns] on the nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309.) Although Knight dealt with the duty owed by a coparticipant in recreational activity (an informal touch football game on Super Bowl Sunday), it also discussed the potential liability here at issue, that of operators and organizers of recreational events. (Id. at pp. 300–301, 315–317.) For instance, the Knight court opined: “In the sports setting … conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself. Thus, although moguls on a ski run pose a risk of harm to skiers that might not exist were these configurations removed, the challenge and risks posed by the moguls are part of the sport of skiing, and a ski resort has no duty to eliminate them. [Citation.] … [¶] Although defendants generally [*40]  have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm. The cases establish that the latter type of risk, posed by a ski resort’s negligence, clearly is not a risk (inherent in the sport) that is assumed by a participant.” (Id. at pp. 315–316, italics added.) The high court also cited with approval a case involving an injury from a thrown baseball bat in which the jury returned a verdict in favor of the baseball player (since throwing bats is inherent in the game), but implicitly recognized “the duty of the stadium owner to provide a reasonably safe stadium with regard to the relatively common (but particularly dangerous) hazard of a thrown bat.” (Id. at p. 317.) Finally, Knight acknowledged a line of cases in which the duty of an operator is defined “by reference to the steps the [*41]  sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Id. at p. 317.)

CA(15)[] (15) Twenty years later, in Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa), the Supreme Court revisited the scope of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine in the specific context of the duty owed by an operator/organizer. The Nalwa court summarized the doctrine as follows: HN18[] “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a)), some activities—and, specifically, many sports—are inherently dangerous. Imposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.’ [Citation.] The primary assumption of risk doctrine, a rule of limited duty, developed to avoid such a chilling effect. [Citations.] Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity, operators, instructors and participants in the activity owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.” (Id. at p. 1154.) Applying this analytical framework to the case at hand, the high court concluded that the operator of a bumper car ride at an amusement park had [*42]  no duty to protect the plaintiff from the collision which fractured her wrist. (Id. at pp. 1152, 1157–1158, 1162–1163.) Rather, “[l]ow-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in—are the whole point of—a bumper car ride.” (Id. at p. 1157.) Thus, “‘[i]mposing liability would have the likely effect of the amusement park either eliminating the ride altogether or altering its character to such a degree—by, for example, significantly decreasing the speed at which the minicars could operate—that the fun of bumping would be eliminated, thereby discouraging patrons from riding.'” (Id. at pp. 1157–1158.)

Here, RhodyCo asserts that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine serves as a complete bar to the Hass Family’s negligence claim, and thus the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. Specifically, RhodyCo argues that the risk of cardiac arrest is inherent to the sport of long-distance running and that, since it did nothing to increase Hass’s risk of suffering cardiac arrest in the way it conducted the Half Marathon, it owed no further duty to the Hass Family. In particular, according to RhodyCo—under the test articulated in Nalwa—it had no duty to minimize Hass’s risk of death from cardiac arrest. Or, put another way, it had no duty to [*43]  reduce the natural consequences of Hass’s cardiac arrest or increase his chances of recovery.

In taking this position, RhodyCo acknowledges that the appellate court in Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497] (Saffro) held that a race producer has a duty to conduct a “reasonably safe event,” which “requires it to take reasonable steps to ‘minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.'” (Id. at p. 175.) In Saffro, a marathon runner suffered a grand mal seizure after a race and was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia, likely caused by his inability to consume adequate amounts of water and fluids containing electrolytes (such as Gatorade) during the race. (Id. at p. 176.) Although the race organizer sent written materials to participants prior to the event indicating that such liquids would be provided in sufficient quantities, the evidence suggested that they were not. (Id. at pp. 176–177.) The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the race organizer, concluding that hyponatremia is an inherent risk of running a marathon. (Id. at pp. 177–178.) The appellate court reversed, stating that a race organizer’s duty to conduct a reasonably safe event includes “the obligation to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia by providing adequate water and electrolyte [*44]  fluids,” especially where the race organizer had made representations to the participants that such fluids would be available. (Id. at p. 179.) Since Saffro had presented sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the race organizer had breached this duty, summary judgment was improper. (Id. at pp. 179–181; see also Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 1079, 1082–1083 [although collisions with coparticipants are an inherent risk of motocross, operator of a motocross track has a duty to minimize this risk without altering the nature of the sport by providing a warning system, such as caution flaggers; triable issue of fact existed as to whether failure to provide a caution flagger constituted gross negligence].) RhodyCo claims that Saffro is inapplicable both because it is a secondary assumption of the risk case and because the “duty to minimize risk” language from Knight that Saffro and other cases have “latched onto” is dictum which has been abrogated by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Nalwa.

We disagree with RhodyCo that the Nalwa court’s formulation of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine somehow supplanted the high court’s earlier discussion of the matter in Knight, particularly with respect to the Supreme Court’s statements [*45]  regarding an organizer/operator’s duty “to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) Rather, Nalwa—far from disagreeing with Knight—referenced it as the “seminal decision explicating and applying primary assumption of risk in the recreational context.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1155.) Moreover, Nalwa‘s formulation of the limited duty existing in a primary assumption of the risk case—”the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity”—comes directly from Knight. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1154–1155, 1162–1163.) Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, Nalwa did not reject cases such as Saffro and Rosencrans which concluded, based on language found in Knight, that operators/organizers have a duty to minimize risks without altering the nature of the sport. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 & fn. 7.) Instead, it characterized them as “decisions addressing the duty to reduce extrinsic risks of an activity” and found them distinguishable in that particular case because it concluded that the risk of injury from bumping—at any angle—was not an extrinsic risk, but was instead a risk inherent to riding bumper cars. (Id. at pp. 1157–1158, 1163.)

CA(16)[] (16) Indeed, Nalwa expressly states that “[t]he operator of a bumper car ride might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to [*46]  increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 316) by failing to provide routine safety measures such as seatbelts, functioning bumpers and appropriate speed control.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.) Thus, Nalwa actually reaffirms Knight‘s conclusions regarding the duties owed to participants by operators/organizers of recreational activities. In short, HN19[] such operators and organizers have two distinct duties: the limited duty not to increase the inherent risks of an activity under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine and the ordinary duty of due care with respect to the extrinsic risks of the activity, which should reasonably be minimized to the extent possible without altering the nature of the activity. Nalwa explains the interplay between these two types of duties by confirming that an operator’s or organizer’s negligence with respect to extrinsic risks “might violate its ‘duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent’ in the activity.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163.)

In the present case, both parties acknowledge that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of the sport of long-distance running. Further, it is not suggested on these facts that RhodyCo did [*47]  anything that increased the risk that Hass would have a heart attack.7 Moreover, requiring runners to slow down or take breaks in order to decrease this inherent risk would alter the character of racing to such a degree that it would likely discourage runners from participating. However, as both Knight and Nalwa teach us, this is not the end of the inquiry. While the operator or organizer of a recreational activity has no duty to decrease risks inherent to the sport, it does have a duty to reasonably minimize extrinsic risks so as not to unreasonably expose participants to an increased risk of harm. (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1163 [while risk of injury from bumping bumper cars is generally low, an operator could violate its duty not to increase this inherent risk by failing to provide routine safety measures]; Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315–316 [negligent maintenance of towropes by ski resort could violate duty not to expose skiers to increased risk of harm]; Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc. (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 1283, 1297–1302 [222 Cal. Rptr. 3d 633] [crash landings caused by failure to safely pilot a hot air balloon are an inherent risk of hot air ballooning, but an operator has a duty not to increase that risk by failing to instruct participants on safe landing procedures, a customary practice in the ballooning industry]; Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 610–611 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536] [although [*48]  contact with the floor is an inherent risk in dancing, school may have increased student’s risk of harm through failure to properly disseminate its no-flip policy]; Rosencrans, supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1083–1086 [negligent failure to provide collision warning system in motocross]; Saffro, supra, 98 Cal.App.4th at pp. 175, 179–181 [duty not to increase risk of dehydration and hyponatremia by unreasonably failing to provide adequate fluids]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 364–367 [114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265] [although falling is an inherent risk of skiing, failure to mark off race area containing jumps which an ordinary skier would not expect to encounter may breach duty not to increase inherent risk]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] [although being hit by a golf ball is an inherent risk of golfing, golf course owner had a duty to design course to minimize the risk of being hit where possible without altering the nature of golf].) As the Fourth District recently opined in Grotheer, “[w]hat the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do … is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317–318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.” (Grotheer, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 1300.) And, in Solis, the appellate court succinctly [*49]  illustrated the issue raised by these cases as follows: “[F]alling off a horse is an inherent risk of horseback riding. But if a person put a barrel in the middle of the Churchill Downs racetrack, causing a collision and fall, we would not say that person owed no duty to the injured riders, because falling is an inherent risk of horseback riding.” (Solis, supra, 94 Cal.App.4th at p. 365.)

When viewed under this analytical framework, Rotolo v. San Jose Sports & Entertainment, LLC (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 307 [59 Cal. Rptr. 3d 770], disapproved on another ground as stated in Verdugo v. Target Corp. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 312, 327 [173 Cal. Rptr. 3d 662, 327 P.3d 774], and Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8 [45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855]—two cases relied upon by RhodyCo—are not inconsistent. In Rotolo, parents of a teenager who died as a result of sudden cardiac arrest while playing ice hockey sued the ice hockey facility for wrongful death, claiming that the facility had a duty to notify facility users of the existence and location of the facility’s AED. (Rotolo, supra, 151 Cal.App.4th at p. 313.) The appellate court disagreed, noting that sudden cardiac arrest is a risk inherent in playing strenuous sports and that the facility had done nothing to increase this risk. (Id. at p. 334.) During the course of its analysis, the Rotolo court stated: “We have found no authority for the proposition that a sports facility operator has a duty to reduce the effects of an injury that is an inherent risk in the sport, or to increase [*50]  the chances of full recovery of a participant who has suffered such a sports-related injury, or to give notice regarding any first aid equipment that may be available for such a purpose.” (Id. at pp. 334–335.) In making this determination, however, the Rotolo court searched exhaustively for a duty that the facility could have breached in this context and could not find one. (Id. at pp. 319–339.) In particular, it noted that the facility had not breached its duties to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition or to summon emergency medical aid.8 (Rotolo, at pp. 316–317, 332–334.) Since the sports facility had not acted negligently with respect to any risks extrinsic to the sport of hockey, thereby increasing its inherent risks, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred recovery. (Id. at pp. 334–335.) Similarly, in Connelly, the plaintiff argued that the ski resort had insufficiently padded a ski lift tower, thereby causing him serious injury when he collided with it. (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at pp. 10–11.) The appellate court concluded that colliding with a ski lift tower is an inherent risk of skiing and that the ski resort had done nothing to increase this risk by padding the towers, which the resort had no duty to do in the first place. (Id. at pp. 12–13.) In essence, the court concluded that the ski [*51]  resort had not breached its underlying duty to provide a reasonably safe ski resort and thus the primary assumption of the risk doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence action. (See id. at pp. 11–14.)

CA(17)[] (17) It is undisputed in this case that RhodyCo has provided event management and production services for “high profile” running and walking events for over 25 years and that, while these events involved over 1.5 million participants, Hass was the first fatality. Thus, while death from cardiac arrest is undeniably a risk associated with long-distance running, it appears from RhodyCo’s own facts to be a slight one. The question therefore remains whether RhodyCo, as the organizer of the Half Marathon, acted negligently in its provision of emergency medical services—a risk extrinsic to the sport of long-distance running—in such a way that it exposed Hass to an increased risk of harm over and above that generally inherent in the activity itself. Since we have previously concluded that the Hass Family has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether RhodyCo was grossly negligent in this regard, the primary assumption of the risk doctrine does not act as a complete bar to the present negligence action. [*52] 9 The trial court’s decision to reverse itself on this ground and allow the case to continue was therefore not error.

CA(18)[] (18) As a final matter, we note that HN20[] imposing a duty of due care with respect to “extrinsic” risks for operators and organizers of recreational activities makes sense based on the policies underlying the primary assumption of the risk doctrine. As stated above and as articulated in Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pages 1156–1157: “The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration—or cause abandonment’ of the activity. … [¶] … Allowing voluntary participants in an active recreational pursuit to sue other participants or sponsors for failing to eliminate or mitigate the activity’s inherent risks would threaten the activity’s very existence and nature.” (Id. at pp. 1156–1157.) Moreover, “active recreation, because it involves physical activity and is not essential to daily life, is particularly vulnerable to the chilling effects [*53]  of potential tort liability for ordinary negligence.” (Id. at p. 1157.) The Nalwa court counseled that the doctrine’s parameters should be drawn according to this underlying policy goal. (Ibid.) Obviously, requiring an operator or organizer of recreational activities to provide a reasonably safe event, reasonably maintained attractions, and/or customary safety warnings—far from chilling vigorous participation in such activities—would almost certainly increase their attractiveness to potential participants. Moreover, an owner or event organizer is still protected from liability with respect to the inherent risks of these activities. And, given that participation in these recreational pursuits is almost always contingent on the signing of a release, such owners and organizers are generally also relieved of the consequences of their ordinary negligence. Allowing owners and organizers to avoid accountability for their gross negligence in this context, based on the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, would contravene public policy, not support it. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 750–751; see also id. at pp. 767–776 [rejecting as unsupported by empirical evidence the assertion that refusing to uphold agreements releasing liability for future gross negligence [*54]  will lead to the extinction of many popular and lawful recreational activities].)

III. DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. In particular, the trial court is instructed to enter an order denying RhodyCo’s motion for summary judgment. The Hass Family is entitled to its costs on appeal.

REARDON, J.

We concur:

STREETER, Acting P. J.

SMITH, J.*


Employee of one New York climbing wall sues another NYC climbing wall for injuries when she fell and her foot went between the mats.

Release thrown out because of New York’s anti-release statute and condition causing plaintiff’s injury was the risk was “un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased” eliminating assumption of the risk claim.

McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Meghan McDonald

Defendant: Brooklyn Boulders, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence,

Defendant Defenses: Release and Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Summary

Another case where it appears, the court was more on the plaintiff’s side then neutral. However, you must play with the cards you are dealt. Here a person injured at a climbing gym survived a motion for summary judgment because the release violated New York’s release law, and she could not assume the risk of the mats separating because it was not obvious or known to her.

Facts

The plaintiff was an employee of another climbing wall business. She was the coach of the climbing team there. She was at the defendant’s climbing wall business either to coach her team or to climb personally, which were in dispute. While climbing on an overhang she fell and her foot went between the mats causing her injury.

The plaintiff did not pay to climb because the clubs had reciprocal agreements allowing employees to climb at other gyms for free. The mats were Velcroed together. The plaintiff sued. The defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment, and this is the court’s response to that motion.

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

The defendant argued the release should stop the plaintiff’s lawsuit, and she assumed the risk of her injury.

The plaintiff argued New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 made the release unenforceable.

The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect

New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 has been held to not apply to teaching, Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003). Because the plaintiff was there with students, the defendant argued the statute did not apply.

However, the plaintiff argued she was not teaching, just climbing with friends who were former students.

In support of her position that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work.

The other defense to New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is there was no fee paid by the plaintiff to climb at the defendant gym. She was there because of the reciprocal program in place with her employer.

The court agreed she was not teaching and found she had paid a fee to climb at the defendant’s gym. Because the program was part of her employment compensation, she had paid a fee by taking advantage of the opportunity as an employee.

In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of their employment and thus could be considered compensation.

The final defense was assumption of the risk. The plaintiff said she had never been to that area of the gym before, however, she did scan the area before climbing.

Under NY law, the assumption of risk defense is defined as:

The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”

By engaging in the activity or sport the plaintiff gives consent to the risks and limits the duty owed by the defendant. However, the risks of the activity, according to this court must be “fully comprehended or perfectly obvious.” The court then determined “Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks.”

Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’

The Velcro connection holding the mats together was an injury for the jury to determine because the court found the condition was a concealed risk.

So Now What?

It is pretty skanky (legal word) for an employee of one gym, climbing for free, to sue another gym. I suspect the lawsuit was probably a subrogation claim where her health insurance was attempting to recover for her medical bills. However, that is just speculation.

New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is read differently by ever judge that reviews it. Some simply say it does not apply and allows the release to prevail. Any court that seems to do an analysis of the law seems to rule on the side of the plaintiff lately. The late is left over from the days when consumers did not know what a release was and were caught off guard when they risked their neck in gyms.

However, the chances of it being repealed are slim, too many plaintiffs use the law so having a recreation business in New York requires more work on the part of the recreation provider to prove assumption of the risk.

Video’s, lengthy assumption of the risk agreements outlining the known and unknown risks and more in-depth classes for beginners and new people at the gym will be required in this jurisdiction.

Can you see this climbing coach being told she must take a one-hour class on climbing because she has never been to the gym before?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

[**1] Meghan Mcdonald, Plaintiff, – against – Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., Defendant. Index No. 503314/12

503314/12

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)

April 12, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: climbing, mat, climb, team, rock climbing, recreational, leave to amend, affirmative defense, risk doctrine, instructional, bouldering, void, appreciated, concealed, teaching, training, wasn’t, amend, sport’, Rock, gym, matting, reciprocal agreement, public policy, dangerous condition, unreasonably, amusement, watching, unaware, advice

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. MARK I. PARTNOW, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: MARK I. PARTNOW

OPINION

Upon the foregoing papers, defendant Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (defendant or Brooklyn Boulders) moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff Meghan McDonald’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.

[**2] Background

Plaintiff is employed as a program director and head coach of a youth rock climbing team at The Rock Club, an indoor rock climbing gym in New Rochelle, New York and has been so employed since 2006. On September 1, 2011, plaintiff went to Brooklyn Boulders with some of the members of her youth climbing team and other adults. Brooklyn Boulders is an indoor rock climbing and bouldering facility located in Brooklyn, New York. Plaintiff testified that this trip was a treat for her team and that she would be climbing that day too. It is undisputed that plaintiff signed a waiver before she began climbing and that she did not pay an entry fee pursuant to a reciprocal agreement in place between The Rock Club and Brooklyn Boulders as well as other rock climbing facilities. After [*2] approximately one and a half hours of bouldering with her team, plaintiff went to an area of the bouldering wall known as The Beast, which is very challenging in that it becomes nearly horizontal for some distance. It was her first time on the Beast, although she had been to Brooklyn Boulders on prior occasions. Plaintiff testified that she visually inspected the area below the Beast before she began her climb. Lance Pinn, the Chief Marketing Officer, President and founder of Brooklyn Boulders testified that there was foam matting system in place, with matting wall to wall in the area of the Beast. The largest pieces available were 9 feet by 7 feet so the area where the foam pieces met when placed on the ground was covered with Velcro to keep the foam matting pieces flush together.

[**3] Plaintiff finished her upward climb and then climbed down as far as she could and then looked down below to make sure there were no shoes in her way and that her spotter was out of the way. She stated that she knew that there were mats underneath so she jumped down a distance of approximately five feet. Her right foot landed on the mat but her left foot landed on the Velcro strip where two floor mats met. [*3] She testified that her left foot went through the Velcro into a space between the two mats. Plaintiff sustained an ankle fracture as a result and required surgeries and physical therapy.

Brooklyn Boulders’ Motion

Brooklyn Boulders moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.

Defendant argues that the liability waiver that plaintiff signed when she entered the facility releases it from liability. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was an expert climber and coach and understood the meaning of the waiver and appreciated the assumption of risk involved in the activity that she was engaged. Defendant also points out that she did not pay a fee to climb that day based upon the reciprocal program in place with other climbing facilities. Defendant claims that plaintiff was instructing her students that day as they observed her climbing and point to her testimony as follows:

[**4] Q: And were you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?

A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question [*4] they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice. (Page 30, lines 12-17).

Q. Did you ever teach any or give any instruction there?

A. Just of terms of like in my kids I probably give instruction everywhere I go. There are so many people that climb at Brooklyn Boulders that are total beginners. I’m often spotting brand new people and telling them how to spot one another. (Page 45, lines 5-12).

Defendant notes that although General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 renders contract clauses which release certain entities from liability void as against public policy, activities which are “instructional” as opposed to recreational are found to be outside the scope of GOL §5-326. Defendant maintains that here, plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members and thus GOL §5-326 is not applicable. Moreover, defendant argues that the waiver at issue was explicit, comprehensive and expressly provided that Brooklyn Boulders was released from liability for personal injuries arising out of or connected with plaintiff’s participation in rock climbing.

In support of its motion, defendant submits the signed waiver which states, in pertinent part:

I acknowledge [*5] that climbing on an artificial climbing wall entails known and unanticipated risks which could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential [**5] qualities of the activity. I have examined the Climbing Wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the Climbing Wall, including but not limited to:

a:. All manner of injury resulting from my falling off or from the Climbing Wall and hitting the floor, wall faces, people or rope projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, loose and/or damaged artificial holds, musculoskeletal injuries and/or overtraining; head injuries; or my own negligence . . . I further acknowledge that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with the Climbing Wall and related training facilities and I agree that such list in no way limits the extent or reach of this Assumption of Risk, Release and Indemnification . . .

Defendant also argues that since plaintiff did not pay a fee to climb that day that her activity was [*6] outside the scope of GOL §5-326.

Next defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine bars plaintiff’s claims because, as a general rule, a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sporting or recreational event is held to have consented to those commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in, and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation in such event.

Finally, defendant argues that it should be allowed to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense of release. Defendant contends that it was unaware of the existence of the release and waiver when it served its answer. Moreover, defendant contends that plaintiff will not be prejudiced because she was, in fact, questioned about the release that she signed during her deposition.

[**6] Plaintiff opposes defendant’s motion arguing that General Obligations Law §5-326 renders the waiver and release that she signed void. She points out that defendant is attempting to circumvent this law by asserting that the activity in which plaintiff was involved was instructional as opposed to recreational and misstates her testimony in an attempt to mislead the court. Plaintiff contends that such behavior should be sanctioned. In support of her position [*7] that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work. (Page 62, lines 5-13). She further points to the following testimony:

Q: In September of 2011 when you went there on the date in question what was your purpose of being there?

A: I went there with a handful of kids who are on my climbing team, but it wasn’t a specific training day. Usually when we go it would be for training but this was just like a fun day. I was going to climb with them.

Q: And were they climbing around you.

A: Yeah, they were.(page 29, lines 14-25).

Q: And were you supervising them?

A: I wasn’t their active supervisor. I’m a coach though so I’m always watching what they do. But this was one of the few times that I was actually going to be climbing so it was kind of a treat for them I guess to be able to climb with me.

[**7] Q: Were they watching you?

A: A few of them were watching me yeah.

Q: And were [*8] you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?

A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice (page 30, lines 2-17).

Plaintiff also contends that defendant incorrectly argues that GOL §5-326 does not apply because she cannot be classified a user since she did not pay to climb that day. In this regard, plaintiff contends that she is indeed a user and the law is applicable because there was a reciprocal agreement between the gym at which she was employed and Brooklyn Boulders pursuant to which employees were not required to pay a fee to use either gym. Thus, she contends the value of the reciprocity agreement is the compensation.

Next, plaintiff argues that the assumption of risk doctrine is not applicable where the risk was un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased. Plaintiff argues that the question of whether the gap in the mats at Brooklyn Boulders is a commonly appreciated risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing necessitates denial of the summary judgment motion. She claims that she did not assume the risk that there would be a gap in the matting that was in [*9] place as protection from a fall. Moreover, plaintiff maintains that defendant fails to proffer any evidence demonstrating when the mats were last inspected prior to plaintiff’s accident.

Plaintiff argues that issues as to whether dangerous or defective conditions exist on property and whether the condition is foreseeable can only be answered by a jury. Thus, she [**8] contends that whether the condition of the mats was dangerous and/or defective is an issue of fact and that defendant has failed to proffer any evidence that the mats were in a reasonably safe condition.

Finally, plaintiff opposes defendant’s request to amend its answer to add the affirmative defense of waiver. Plaintiff argues that the existence of the waiver was known and that it is disingenuous at best to assert otherwise. Plaintiff contends that this request, post note of issue, is highly prejudicial to plaintiff.

In reply, defendant argues that plaintiff’s demand for sanctions lacks merit and that plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was in fact, instructing her students when her accident occurred. Defendant contends that the waiver applies. Next defendant claims that as far as inspection of its equipment it had a [*10] route setting department that checked its walls and mats and that bouldering climbers were responsible for enuring their own safety when climbing. Finally, defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine applies and that plaintiff visually inspected the area before the accident and that the Velcro covers were visible and moreover, she had the option to use additional mats underneath her while climbing. Defendant further contends that the mats did not constitute a dangerous condition. Finally, Brooklyn Boulders reiterates its request for leave to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense.

[**9] Discussion

Leave to Amend

Generally, in the absence of prejudice or surprise to the opposing party, leave to amend pleadings should be freely granted unless the proposed amendment is palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit (Yong Soon Oh v Hua Jin, 124 AD3d 639, 640, 1 N.Y.S.3d 307 [2015]; see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 821, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352 [2015]; Rodgers v New York City Tr. Auth., 109 AD3d 535, 537, 970 N.Y.S.2d 572 [2013]; Schwartz v Sayah, 83 AD3d 926, 926, 920 N.Y.S.2d 714 [2011]). A motion for leave to amend is committed to the broad discretion of the court (see Ravnikar v Skyline Credit-Ride, Inc., 79 AD3d 1118, 1119, 913 N.Y.S.2d 339 [2010]). However, where amendment is sought after the pleader has filed a note of issue, “a trial court’s discretion to grant a motion to amend should be exercised with caution” (Harris v Jim’s Proclean Serv., Inc., 34 AD3d 1009,1010, 825 N.Y.S.2d 291 [3d Dept 2006]).

Here, while the court is not satisfied with counsel’s explanation that he was unaware of the [*11] existence of the release and waiver signed by plaintiff at the time that the original answer was served, the court notes that plaintiff was questioned about the release and waiver during her May 6, 2014 deposition so the court finds that there is no surprise of prejudice in allowing defendant leave to serve its amended answer and assert the affirmative defense of release and waiver. Accordingly, that branch of defendant’s motion seeking leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include this affirmative defense is granted.

[**10] General Obligations Law §5-326

GOL §5-326 states that:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall [*12] be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

Such contracts or agreements are void as against public policy unless the entity can show that its facility is used for instructional purposes as opposed to recreational purposes. “The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect (see Lux v Cox, 32 F.Supp.2d 92, 99 [1998]; McDuffie v Watkins Glen Int’l, 833 F. Supp. 197, 202 [1993] ). Facilities that are places of instruction and training (see e.g. Millan v Brown, 295 AD2d 409, 411, 743 N.Y.S.2d 539 [2002]; Chieco v Paramarketing, Inc., 228 AD2d 462, 463, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 [1996]; Baschuk v Diver’s Way Scuba, 209 AD2d 369, 370, 618 N.Y.S.2d 428 [1994] ), rather than “amusement or recreation” (see e.g. Meier v Ma-Do Bars, 106 AD2d 143, 145, 484 N.Y.S.2d 719 [1985] ), have been found to be outside the scope of the statute. “In assessing whether a facility is instructional or recreational, courts have [**11] examined, inter alia, the organization’s name, its certificate of incorporation, its statement of purpose and whether the money it charges is tuition or a fee for use of the facility” (Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 1019, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 [2003], lv denied 2 NY3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 [2004]). In cases involving a mixed use facility, courts have focused less on a facility’s ostensible purpose and more on whether the person was at the facility for the purpose of receiving instruction (Id. At 1019; see Scrivener v Sky’s the Limit, 68 F Supp 2d 277, 281 [1999]; Lux v Cox, 32 F Supp 2d at 99). Where [*13] a facility “promotes . . . a recreational pursuit, to which instruction is provided as an ancillary service,” General Obligations Law § 5-326 applies even if the injury occurs while receiving instruction (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 [2007]; Bacchiocchi v Ranch Parachute Club, 273 AD2d 173, 175, 710 N.Y.S.2d 54 [2000]).

Here, defendant asserts that GOL §5-326 is not applicable because plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members. The court disagrees. Plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was at Brooklyn Boulders with her team for a day of fun and not to teach them how to climb. Her testimony that she would give advice to the students if they asked does not rise to the level of providing rock climbing instruction on that day. Moreover, the court notes that the cases invloving the exemption for instrctional activities generally involve the person being instructed sustaining an injury and not the person who was providing the instruction. In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, [**12] where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of [*14] their employment and thus could be considered compensation. Accordingly, the court finds that the release and waiver signed by plaintiff is void pursuant to GOL §5-326.

Assumption of Risk

The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997]; Paone v County of Suffolk, 251 AD2d 563, 674 N.Y.S.2d 761 [2d Dept 1998]), including the injury-causing events which are the known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation (see Rosenbaum v Bayis Ne’Emon Inc., 32 AD3d 534, 820 N.Y.S.2d 326 [2d Dept 2006]; Colucci v Nansen Park, Inc., 226 AD2d 336, 640 N.Y.S.2d 578 [2d Dept 1996]). A plaintiff is deemed to have given consent limiting the duty of the defendant who is the proprietor of the sporting facility “to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986]). Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks (see Manoly v City of New York, 29 AD3d 649, 816 N.Y.S.2d 499 [2d Dept 2006]; Pascucci v Town of Oyster Bay, 186 AD2d 725, 588 N.Y.S.2d 663 [2d Dept 1992]). It is well settled that “awareness of [**13] risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to [*15] be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1985]; see also Benitez v New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 NY2d 650, 657-658, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 [1989]; Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 440, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986]; Latimer v City of New York, 118 AD3d 420, 421, 987 N.Y.S.2d 58 [2014]). When applicable, the assumption of risk doctrine “is not an absolute defense but a measure of the defendant’s duty of care” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d at 439). Thus, “a gym or athletic facility cannot evade responsibility for negligent behavior ‘by invoking a generalized assumption of risk doctrine as though it was some sort of amulet that confers automatic immunity’ (Jafri v Equinox Holdings, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5330, 4-5 [Sup. Ct, New York County quoting Mellon v Crunch & At Crunch Acquisition, LLC, 32 Misc 3d 1214[A], 934 N.Y.S.2d 35, 2011 NY Slip Op 51289[U] [Sup Ct, Kings County 2011]; Livshitz v United States Tennis Assn. Natl. Tennis Ctr., 196 Misc 2d 460, 466, 761 N.Y.S.2d 825 [Sup Ct, Queens County 2003]).

Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’ (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485. quoting Owen v R.J.S. Safety Equip., 79 NY2d 967, 970, 591 N.E.2d 1184, 582 N.Y.S.2d 998 [1992]; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467 [2d Dept 2015]; Weinberger v Solomon Schechter Sch. of Westchester, 102 AD3d 675, 678, 961 N.Y.S.2d 178 [2d Dept 2013]). Participants, however, do not assume risks which have been unreasonably increased or [**14] concealed over and above the usual dangers inherent in the activity (see Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485; Benitez, 73 NY2d at 657-658; Muniz v Warwick School Dist., 293 AD2d 724, 743 N.Y.S.2d 113 [2002]).

In this regard, the court finds that plaintiff has raised a question of fact regarding whether the condition of the mats, with the Velcro connection, increased the risk in the danger [*16] of the activity and caused a concealed dangerous condition. Thus it cannot be said that plaintiff assumed the particular risk that was present and caused her injuries.

Based upon the foregoing, that branch of Brooklyn Boulders motion seeking summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint is denied.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.

ENTER,

/s/ Mark I Partnow

J. S. C.

HON. MARK I PARTNOW

SUPREME COURT JUSTICE


Whitewater rafting release upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Language in the release stated the defendant would and had done their best to keep people adequate… that language almost voided the release. Don’t put in a release information that can be used against you!

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

State: Alaska, Supreme Court of Alaska

Plaintiff: Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton

Defendant: Nova River Runners, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death and multiple theories of Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The deceased died whitewater rafting. Alaska has a six-prong test to determine if a release is valid. Here, the plaintiff argued the release in question failed on every point.

The Alaskan Supreme Court disagreed; however, on a few of the issues, the court struggled to have this release meet the requirements needed.

Facts

The defendant operated whitewater raft trips on Six Mile Creek near Hope, Alaska. The deceased signed a release prior to going rafting. No one could remember if the deceased read both sides of the release, however, ample time was given so the release could have been read.

The release is a 2-sided document. One side is labeled Participants Acknowledgment of Risk. The other side is where the participants acknowledge they have read the release.

The raft trip consists of three canyons. After the first two canyons, the participants are given an opportunity to get off the trip because the third canyon is the hardest. The deceased did not leave the trip. Sometime in the canyon is raft capsized, and the decedent died.

The spouse of the deceased brought his lawsuit on her behalf and as the executor (personal representative) of the estate. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the deceased. The plaintiff appealed.

The decision was heard by the Alaska Supreme Court. Alaska does not have an intermediate appellate court so appeals from the trial court go to the Supreme Court.

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

Alaska has a statute, Alaska Statute 09.65.290, that protects recreational defendants from liability from the inherent risks of the activity. The court recognized the statute is weak and stated that business in Alaska must supplement their protection by using a release.

The Alaska Supreme Court decided one prior decision concerning releases Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 2014 Alas. LEXIS 153, See Alaskan Supreme Court upholds releases for climbing gym and sets forth requirements on how releases will be upheld in AK. The court relied on its prior decision in Donahue to support its decision here.

In Donahue, the court created a six-part test to test the validity of a release.

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

The plaintiff argued the release in this case did not satisfy the requirements set forth in Donahue.

The first argument was the release was not conspicuous and unequivocal because the release was two sided, and the sides did not appear to incorporate or be connected to each other.

The court did not agree with the argument because whether or not it was two different documents and whether or not the deceased read both sides was irrelevant because he signed the document. “We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.

The next argument was different.

The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.”

The court found that the language in the release was broad enough to cover this claim.

However, the Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.”

The court also found that in Donahue,

…we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”

The plaintiffs then argued that a release must use the word negligence in it. This is a requirement of many states. Here, however, the argument failed because the release did use the term negligence, several times. The plaintiff’s argued that each time the word negligence was used, it was used in a way that was different from the prior ways so the release was not clear and explicit.

Next the plaintiff’s argued the language was not clear and did not adequately define the activity. The court found this release used capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence, and the negligence clause was not concealed from view.

The clause contained some legalese; however, releases should be read “as a whole” to determine whether or not the language in the release “clearly notify the prospective releasor of the effect of signing the agreement.”

The release was a general release in that it also included release language for glacier hiking and ice climbing. However, the inherent risks outlined in the release were the risks of whitewater rafting. With that risk language, the court found the reader would know they were signing a release.

Based on that language it is obvious the release would fail for ice climbing and glacier hiking?

The plaintiff’s argued the release violated public policy. However, the court outlined Alaska’s definition of public policy in relation to recreation activities.

In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.

A release for recreational activities does not violate public policy in Alaska.

The plaintiffs also argued the “release suggests an intent to exculpate nova from liability for employee negligence.

The court said, yes it does and that is OK. However, the court also specifically identified weaknesses in the release in this area. However, the weaknesses were not enough to void the release.

Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.

The plaintiffs also argued the defendants violated their own requirements set forth in the release. The release stated:

“…the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.”

The court worked around this stating the language before and after this [stupid] section defined the risks of the activity, which should have shown the deceased that no matter what steps taken, there were still risks. The court stated, read as a whole, the release outlined numerous risks of whitewater rafting.

The plaintiff argued a case out of Florida, which also had numerous safety standards the defendant promised to meet and had not, should be controlling here. The court had been struggling through four paragraphs eventually concluded.

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

The court found the release met all the six requirements needed in Alaska to be a release and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

If your release, and I hope, it does, covers more than one page, make sure the pages connect or relate to each other. First, if on just one piece of paper, at the bottom of each page put in the footer, “Please Read Other Side.” If the release is more than two pages, besides the admonition to read the other side include page numbers on the document.

Write the document so it flows. You don’t have to have a heading at the top of each page. The two different headings in this case raised the argument it was two separate and unrelated documents. If the document were two different documents, then the first page should have had a signature line also, which is what the plaintiff argued. With no signature line, the first page of the document was a separate document and could not be held against the deceased.

If the writing flows, the paragraph or idea continues on the next page, then this would have been a non-issue.

Next you have to write your release to cover not only could happen but will happen, and it is all tied back to your employees. Always protect your employees and write the release broadly so it covers all the possible actions or acts an employee could take that may lead to a claim.

Never create in your release in a way for the plaintiff to sue you. Never make promises, never say you operate at a level, never say you use the best or even adequate anything. That language in this release almost was enough to defeat the release, and it was obvious the court struggled to find a very weak argument to beat this part of the plaintiff’s claims.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Only a New York City bike share case create a 34-page opinion on just motions that are filed. The results are all over the board, both the defendants and the plaintiff winning issues on an electronic release

A Ten-page release was upheld as valid. But the process was full of enough holes the plaintiff is still in the game.
Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034

State: New York: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York

Plaintiff: Ronald D. Corwin, et al

Defendant: NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al

Plaintiff Claims: was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice

Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk Immunity

Holding: Mixed

Year: 2017

Summary

Extremely complicated decision because of the number of claims of the plaintiff and the number of defendants in the case. Each defendant has a different perspective to the defenses.

The decision looks at what happens if you are not wearing a helmet while cycling and you receive a head injury as well as how assumption of the risk and open and obvious defenses are dealt with in a city and against city agencies.

The last issue, is electronic releases in New York City.

Facts

The plaintiff had signed up for a year long bike share rental agreement with New York City bike share. He did that online and, in the process, agreed to a release that was ten pages.

He rented a bike one day and was riding on the street. He felt pressure from traffic on his left. A bike share area was coming up on his right and he rode into it. The bike share locations must be on the streets in New York. He continued through the area and at the end hit a concrete wheel stop. He crashed suffering injuries.

Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, in-stalled, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.

He sued everyone there was in New York. Sixteen different law firms are listed in the case. The plaintiff sued:

City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program

NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system

New York City Department of Transportation

Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company

Alta Planning + Design (“APD”)

Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system

Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) installation

Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”) installation

The lawsuit was in Federal District Court. This opinion is the magistrate’s opinion on the motions filed by the parties. Judge assign non-trial work, such as deciding motions to magistrates. After the magistrate’s opinion is filed the parties have X days to respond/object. The judge then reviews and either adopts, modifies or writes his own opinion.

When the judge rules on the magistrate’s opinion there is usually a written record of the ruling. There are two additional motions the magistrate writes about that are in the record, but no ruling from the court.

Probably the parties settled based on this ruling.

There are a lot of arguments in this 34-page ruling. I’m only going to write about the ones that are important to the outdoor recreation and cycling community.

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

The first defense discussed here is the electronic release signed by the plaintiff to become a bike share member and rent bikes.

The first issues were plaintiff did not remember signing the release, but did sign up and admitted that he probably agreed to things.

The Bike Share program could not produce a release “signed” by the plaintiff. The produced a release that was in use at the time the plaintiff signed the release and the produced testimony of a former manager to testified that the only way the plaintiff could have become a member and ride bikes was if he had agreed to the release.

The plaintiff also argued the release was Unconscionable.

A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party

The court first went into the issue of whether the release existed and was signed. The release was determined to be a “clickwrap” agreement.

Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.”

The court found clickwrap agreements were enforceable.

Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.

However, the presumption of enforceability is based several factors.

The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind them-selves to contract terms

In New York the courts have already set a group of tests to determine if a clickwrap agreement is enforceable.

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement.

Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink.

Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements).

Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.

Using this set of parameters, the magistrate reviewed the bike Share release and found it was not unconscionable.

The plaintiff then argued the release was not clear, coherent or unambiguous.

To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims.

This ambiguity was based on contradictions between two sections in the ten-page release. However, the court found there was no ambiguity.

Then the plaintiff argued the release was void on public policy grounds.

The plaintiff raised three arguments on why the release violated public policy. It violated New York City Administrative Code, it violated New York General Obligations law § 5-326 and it violated the cities common law duty to maintain roads.

The court found New York City administrative code could not serve as a basis for invalidating a release.

New York General Obligations law § 5-326 is the statute that restricts on who can use a release. The language of the statutes says that “operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” can’t use a release. Since the bike share program was not a facility, the release was valid.

Finally, the common law duty the city of New York had to maintain the roads did not violate the release because “…the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads.”

The release was not void based on public policy considerations.

However, the release did not apply to the city of New York because that would be contrary to public policy.

In the end the negligence claims of the plaintiff were denied because of the release. The gross negligence claims were still valid. Under New York Law and the law of most states, claims for gross negligence cannot be stopped by a release.

The next issue was how the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet, at the time of his injury, would be used in the case.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff not wearing a helmet should be used by the defendants to show the plaintiff was liable for his injuries, (that the plaintiff was comparative negligence), to prove assumption of the risk and to mitigate the damages he incurred.

The plaintiff argued that since there was no statutory duty to wear a helmet, then the defendants could not make their arguments.

The court applied the same rationale to wearing a bike helmet as the courts had done in New York to wearing a seat belt in a car crash. Not wearing a bike helmet, it could not be used to prove liability on the part of the plaintiff but it could be used to reduce damages.

…the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how dam-ages, if any, should be assessed.

The defendant then argued they should have qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims of failing to provide a bike helmet to him while renting a bike.

Immunity is granted by statute to governments and their agencies for the decisions they make. As long as the decisions are not intentional and thought out the immunity applies. The immunity then stops the courts from reviewing those decisions as long as the decisions are made under the guidelines the law has set out.

Although the city may use the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet to reduce any damages the city might owe to the plaintiff. The plaintiff cannot use that argument to say the city was liable for not providing helmets. Nor can the plaintiff argue the his not wearing a helmet was unreasonable and did not breach a duty of care.

Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.

Here those guidelines were made by the city in its decision to not include helmets in the rentals of the bikes.

He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.

Assumption of the Risk

The defendants moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries while riding a bike. Primary assumption of the risk is defined as:

In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.

The risks were also identified in the release the plaintiff signed and which had been accepted by the court.

Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.”

However, the court rejected the defense because the plaintiff at the time of his injury was not engaged in a sporting activity.

Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her con-sent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.

So, assumption of the risk only applies to recreation and sports in New York? If you are walking down a sidewalk and see a hole in the sidewalk, on your way to work you don’t assume the risk if you fall into the hole?

The next argument by the defendants are not liable because the danger the plaintiff encountered was open an obvious.

The Open and Obvious defense seems fairly simple. If the thing or condition that injured the plaintiff was open and obvious then the plaintiff cannot sue for his injuries. It is very similar to an assumption of the risk defense.

A defendant has “no duty to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous. Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion

The defendants argue the concrete wheel stop was open and obvious.

…because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.

The plaintiff’s argument, based on the testimony of his expert witness was the wheel stop was not open and obvious because it was too big and was located in the travel lane had been camouflaged, in the way it was put in and painted.

The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.”.

How something could be too big and then not be open and obvious is confusing. This was enough for the court to deny motion for summary judgment based on the open and obvious theory.

Gross Negligence of the Bike Share defendant

Gross negligence under New York law is

…conduct that evinces a reckless disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.

The plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants ignored sound engineering practices when creating and installing the wheel stop and that it was foreseeable that the injuries would occur when the wheel stop was placed in the cycling path. Based on that language, the court found that the actions of the defendants could be defined as gross negligence.

The defendant won most of the decisions, however the plaintiff won enough and won significant ones that allowed the litigation to continue.

So Now What?

The final paragraph of the decision has a review of all decisions for the plaintiff and the defendants if you would like to keep a tally. However, there are several decisions concerning plaintiffs that were not reviewed here because they had no relationship to outdoor recreation or the legal issues commonly faced in outdoor recreation.

Obviously, the injuries to the plaintiff are significant to bring such forces to this litigation to justify this much work. The amount of effort put into prosecuting a case for a plaintiff can SOMETIMES be an indication of the damages to the plaintiff when those damages are not identified in the decision.

More importantly, the legal issues of suing New York City and its agencies are far more complex then found in most cities.

There are some interesting points worth noting. You could guess that the judge thought a ten-page release was long since she pointed it out. However, you cannot argue that your release is too long. Especially since electronically they do not have a length that is measured so easily.

Not wearing a helmet can be an issue in cycling and possibly skiing, even though the effectiveness of wearing one can be disputed. I suspect the next step would be to find a helmet expert by the plaintiff to argue that a helmet would not have prevented the damages the plaintiff received and the defendants will find an expert to argue the opposite.

The failure to provide proof that the plaintiff signed the release was overcome. However, design your system so you don’t have to jump through these hurdles. Crate a system that matches the signing to the credit card or other way of showing that on this date at this time the person entered his name and address, credit card number and clicked on this button saying he accepted the release. Then you add, his credit card would not have been charged unless he agreed to the release.

If you are designing bike share locations, do so in a way that people on bikes can assume they can ride through them.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

James Duhon versus Activelaf, LLC, D/B/A Skyzone Lafayette and Underwriters at Lloyds, London

No. 2016-CC-0818

SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA

2016-0818 (La. 10/19/16); 2016 La. LEXIS 2089

October 19, 2016, Decided

NOTICE:

THIS DECISION IS NOT FINAL UNTIL EXPIRATION OF THE FOURTEEN DAY REHEARING PERIOD.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Rehearing denied by Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. LEXIS 2483 (La., Dec. 6, 2016)

US Supreme Court certiorari denied by ActiveLAF, LLC v. Duhon, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 4039 (U.S., June 19, 2017)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE.

Duhon v. Activelaf, LLC, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La.App. 1 Cir., Apr. 5, 2016)

DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-Where plaintiff patron sued defendant trampoline park, alleging he was injured due to its negligence, the provision of an agreement he signed waiving his right to trial and compelling arbitration was adhesionary and thus unenforceable due to the lack of mutuality of obligations together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the agreement; [2]-As the high court applied Louisiana law applicable to contracts generally, not just to arbitration agreements, its ruling was consistent with the savings clauses in 9 U.S.C.S. § 2 of the FAA and La. Rev. Stat. § 9:4201.

OUTCOME: The judgment of the intermediate appellate court was reversed.

CORE TERMS: arbitration clause, arbitration, arbitration agreement, adhesionary, box, mutuality, patron’s, arbitration provision, contract of adhesion, unenforceable, auction, standard form, enforceable, bargaining positions, enforceability, weaker, ren, bargaining power, unequal, print, state law, physical characteristics, invalidate, arbitrate, consented, printed, real estate, distinguishing features, non-drafting, recreational

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > De Novo Review

Civil Procedure > Appeals > Standards of Review > Fact & Law Issues

[HN1] Where a case involves legal questions, the appellate court reviews the matter de novo.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Governments > Legislation > Interpretation

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (LBAL) is set forth in La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. § 9:4201. Such favorable treatment echoes the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. The LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law; thus, federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation

Civil Procedure > Federal & State Interrelationships > Choice of Law

[HN3] The Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq., makes arbitration agreements valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact. 9 U.S.C.S. § 2. This provision reflects both a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration, and the fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract. In line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in § 2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other contract dispute arising under state law. Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions.

Contracts Law > Formation > Execution

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Electronic Contracts

Computer & Internet Law > Internet Business > Contracts > Digital Signatures

[HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:2607. The court interprets and analyzes the terms of an electronic agreement using the same rules that it would apply to oral and written contracts.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

[HN5] Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms. Although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, the Louisiana Supreme Court is not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, it finds standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion. The real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

[HN6] In determining if a contract is adhesionary, consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable. A contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Contracts Law > Contract Conditions & Provisions > Arbitration Clauses

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Validity of ADR Methods

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate.

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

Contracts Law > Defenses

[HN8] The U.S. Supreme Court has admonished that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. Nor can courts apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the objectives of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C.S. § 1 et seq. Setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

Contracts Law > Formation > Meeting of Minds

Civil Procedure > Alternative Dispute Resolution > Arbitrations > Federal Arbitration Act > Arbitration Agreements

Constitutional Law > Supremacy Clause > Federal Preemption

[HN9] Consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; courts consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp. simply provide a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable.

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Adhesion Contracts

Contracts Law > Defenses > Unconscionability > Arbitration Agreements

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis.

COUNSEL: WILLIAMSON, FONTENOT, CAMPBELL & WHITTINGTON, LLC, Christopher Lee Whittington; For Applicant.

TAYLOR, PORTER, BROOKS & PHILLIPS, LLP, Tom Samuel Easterly; For Respondent.

JUDGES: JOHNSON CHIEF JUSTICE. WEIMER J. dissenting. GUIDRY J. dissents and assigns reasons. CRICHTON J. additionally concurs and assigns reasons. CLARK J. concurring. Hughes J. concurring.

OPINION BY: JOHNSON

OPINION

[Pg 1] JOHNSON, CHIEF JUSTICE

Patrons of Sky Zone Lafayette, an indoor trampoline park, are required to complete a “Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” document (“Agreement”) prior to entering the facility. The Agreement contains a clause waiving the participant’s right to trial and compelling arbitration. Plaintiff, James Duhon, was a patron at Sky Zone and was injured in the course of participating in the park’s activities. After Mr. Duhon filed suit seeking damages, Sky Zone filed an exception of prematurity seeking to compel arbitration pursuant to the Agreement. The district court overruled Sky Zone’s exception, but the court of appeal reversed, finding the arbitration provision should be enforced.

For the following reasons, we reverse the ruling of the court of appeal, holding the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone agreement [*2] is adhesionary and therefore unenforceable.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 19, 2015, James Duhon, accompanied by three minors, went to Sky Zone in Lafayette. Upon entering the facility, Mr. Duhon was directed by Sky Zone staff to a computer screen to check himself and the minors into the facility. Check-in [Pg 2] required all participants to complete a Participation Agreement which requested names and dates of birth for all participants, required participants to check three boxes next to certain terms of the Agreement, and required participants to digitally sign the Agreement.

The Agreement provided that in consideration for gaining access to Sky Zone Lafayette and engaging in the services, patrons agreed:

[ ] I acknowledge that my participation in [Sky Zone] trampoline games or activities entails known and unanticipated risks that could result in physical or emotional injury including, but not limited to broken bones, sprained or torn ligaments, paralysis, death, or other bodily injury or property damage to myself my children, or to third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity. I expressly agree [*3] and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My and/or my children’s participation in this activity is purely voluntary and I elect to participate, or allow my children to participate in spite of the risks. If I and/or my children are injured, I acknowledge that I or my children may require medical assistance, which I acknowledge will be at my own expense or the expense of my personal insurers. I hereby represent and affirm that I have adequate and appropriate insurance to provide coverage for such medical expense.

[ ] In consideration for allowing me and the minor child(ren) identified herein to participate in the [Sky Zone] activities and use the [Sky Zone] facility, I expressly and voluntarily agree to forever release, acquit, indemnify and discharge [Sky Zone] and agree to hold [Sky Zone] harmless on behalf of myself, my spouse, my children, my parents, my guardians, and my heirs, assigns, personal representative and estate, and any and all other persons and entities who could in any way represent me, or the minor children identified herein or act on our respective halves, from any and all actions or omissions, cause and causes of action, suits, debts, [*4] damages, judgments, costs, including, but not limited to attorney’s fees, and claims and demands whatsoever, in law or in equity, for any personal injury, death, or property damages that I and/or the minor children’s use of [Sky Zone] activities, [Sky Zone] premises or at offsite and camp activities related to [Sky Zone]. This waiver is intended to be a complete release of any and all responsibility or duties owed by [Sky Zone] as indemnitees for personal injuries, death and/or property loss/damage sustained by myself or any minor children identified herein while on the [Sky Zone] premises, or with respect to [Sky Zone] activities, whether using [Sky Zone] equipment or not, even if such injury or damage results from [Sky Zone] negligence, [Sky Zone] employee [Pg 3] negligence, improper supervision, improper maintenance of [Sky Zone] equipment or premises or negligence by other [Sky Zone] guests.

[ ] I certify that I and/or my child(ren) are physically able to participate in all activities at the Location without aid or assistance. I further certify that I am willing to assume the risk of any medical or physical condition that I and/or my child(ren) may have. I acknowledge that I have [*5] read the rules, (the “Sky Zone Rules”) governing my and/or my child(ren)’s participation in any activities at the Location. I certify that I have explained the [Sky Zone] Rules to the child(ren) identified herein. I understand that the [Sky Zone] Rules have been implemented for the safety of all guests at the Location. I agree that if any portion of this Agreement is found to be void and unenforceable, the remaining portions shall remain in full force and effect. If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Louisiana and that the substantive law of Louisiana shall apply. If, despite the representations made in this agreement, I or anyone on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) file or otherwise initiate a lawsuit against [Sky Zone], in addition to [*6] my agreement to defend and indemnify [Sky Zone], I agree to pay within 60 days liquidated damages in the amount of $5,000 to [Sky Zone]. Should I fail to pay this liquidated damages amount within the 60 day time period provided by this Agreement, I further agree to pay interest on the $5,000 amount calculated at 12% per annum.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to videotape, and/or record me and/or my children on closed circuit television.

I further grant [Sky Zone] the right, without reservation or limitation, to photograph, videotape, and/or record me and/or my children and to use my or my children’s name, face, likeness, voice and appearance in connection with exhibitions, publicity, advertising and promotional materials.

I would like to receive free email promotions and discounts to the email address provided below. I may unsubscribe from emails from Sky Zone at any time.

By signing this document, I acknowledge that if anyone is hurt or property is damaged during my participation in this activity, I may be found by a court of law to have waived my right to maintain a lawsuit [Pg 4] against [Sky Zone] on the basis of any claim from which I have [*7] released them herein. I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I understand this Agreement and I voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.

I further certify that I am the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above on this Agreement or that I have been granted power of attorney to sign this Agreement on behalf of the parent or legal guardian of the children listed above.

Mr. Duhon electronically completed the Agreement on behalf of himself and the minors by checking the three boxes provided in the agreement, furnishing the relevant personal identifying information, and clicking on an “accept” button. Mr. Duhon and the minors then entered the facility.

Mr. Duhon asserts he was injured at the facility due to Sky Zone’s negligence. On August 12, 2015, Mr. Duhon filed suit against Activelaf, L.L.C., d/b/a Sky Zone Lafayette and its insurer (“Sky Zone”). In response, Sky Zone filed several exceptions, including an exception of prematurity. Sky Zone alleged that the Agreement contained a mandatory arbitration clause, thereby rendering Mr. Duhon’s suit premature. Mr. Duhon asserted he did not knowingly consent to arbitration, and argued the Agreement was adhesionary [*8] and ambiguous.

Following a hearing, the district court determined there was a lack of mutuality in the Agreement relative to the arbitration clause because only Mr. Duhon was bound to arbitrate claims. Thus, relying on this court’s decision in Aguillard Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1 and the Third Circuit’s opinion in Sutton Steel & Supply, Inc. v. Bellsouth Mobility, Inc., 07-146 (La. App. 3 Cir. 12/12/07), 971 So. 2d 1257, the district court refused to enforce the arbitration agreement and overruled Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.

The court of appeal granted Sky Zone’s writ and reversed the district court’s ruling:

There is a strong presumption favoring the enforceability of arbitration [Pg 5] clauses. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1. We find that plaintiff failed to establish that this arbitration provision is adhesionary, and accordingly, the arbitration provision should be enforced.

Judge Theriot dissented without reasons, stating he would deny the writ application. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0167, 2016 La. App. LEXIS 629 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/5/16) (unpublished).

On Mr. Duhon’s application, we granted certiorari to review the correctness of the court of appeal’s ruling. Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818 (La. 6/17/16), 192 So. 3d 762.

DISCUSSION

This [HN1] case involves the legal [*9] questions of whether the court of appeal erred in its “contract of adhesion” analysis of the arbitration clause in the Agreement, and whether the arbitration clause is unenforceable on general contract principles of consent or adhesion. Thus, we review the matter de novo. See Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 3; Prasad v. Bullard, 10-291 (La. App. 5 Cir. 10/12/10), 51 So. 3d 35, 39; Horseshoe Entertainment v. Lepinski, 40,753 (La. App. 2 Cir. 3/8/06), 923 So. 2d 929, 934, writ denied, 06-792 (La. 6/2/06), 929 So. 2d 1259.

[HN2] Louisiana and federal law explicitly favor the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 7. Louisiana Binding Arbitration Law (“LBAL”) is set forth in La. R.S. 9:4201 et seq. and expresses a strong legislative policy favoring arbitration. La. R.S. 9:4201 provides:

A provision in any written contract to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of the contract, or out of the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing between two or more persons to submit to arbitration any controversy existing between them at the time of the agreement to submit, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

As this court recognized in Aguillard, “[s]uch favorable treatment echos the Federal [Pg 6] Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq.” 908 So. 2d at 7. We noted the LBAL is virtually identical to the FAA, and determinations regarding [*10] the viability and scope of arbitration clauses are the same under either law, thus federal jurisprudence interpreting the FAA may be considered in construing the LBAL. Id. at 18. Further, to the extent that federal and state law differ, the FAA preempts state law as to any written arbitration agreement in a contract involving interstate commerce. Hodges v. Reasonover, 12-0043 (La. 7/2/12), 103 So. 3d 1069, 1072; FIA Card Services, N.A. v. Weaver, 10-1372 (La. 3/15/11), 62 So. 3d 709, 712; Collins v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 99-1423 (La. 1/19/00), 752 So. 2d 825, 827.

[HN3] The FAA makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contact.” 9 U.S.C. §2 (emphasis added). The United States Supreme Court has explained that this provision reflects both a “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration,” and the “fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1745, 179 L.Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (citing Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed. 2d 765 (1983) and Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63, 67, 130 S.Ct. 2772, 2776, 177 L.Ed. 2d 403 (2010)). The Supreme Court has instructed that in line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339 (citing Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440, 443, 126 S.Ct. 1204, 163 L.Ed. 2d 1038 (2006)). Despite this policy favoring enforcement of arbitration agreements, the Supreme Court has also recognized that, under the savings clause in §2, general state contract principles still apply to assess whether those agreements to arbitrate are valid and enforceable, just as they would to any other [*11] contract dispute arising under state law.[Pg 7] Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681, 686-87, 116 S.Ct. 1652, 1656, 134 L. Ed. 2d 902 (1996). Accordingly, ordinary state-law principles that govern the formation of contracts are applied when deciding whether the parties agreed to arbitration. First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944, 115 S.Ct. 1920, 1924, 131 L.Ed. 2d 985 (1995). Importantly, the savings clause in § 2 does not permit courts to invalidate an arbitration agreement under a state law applicable only to arbitration provisions. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Aguillard, 908 So. 2d at 8.

With these principles in mind, we consider whether the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement should be invalided under Louisiana law. As an initial matter, we note the electronic nature of the Agreement in this case is of no legal consequence and does not fundamentally change the principles of contract. [HN4] Louisiana law gives legal effect to both electronic contracts and signatures. See La. R.S. 9:2607. We interpret and analyze the terms of the Agreement using the same rules that we would apply to oral and written contracts.

Aguillard is the seminal case from this court addressing the validity of an arbitration agreement in a standard form contract. In Aguillard, the winning bidder at a real estate auction brought suit to enforce the auction sales agreement. This court, pursuant to its authority under La. R.S. 9:4201 and 9 U.S.C. § 2, applied a “contract [*12] of adhesion” analysis to determine the enforceability and validity of an arbitration agreement in the auction contract. In discussing the “contract of adhesion” doctrine, we explained: [HN5] “Broadly defined, a contract of adhesion is a standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party. Often in small print, these contracts sometimes raise a question as to whether or not the weaker party actually consented to the terms.” 908 So. 2d at 10. This court further stated that “although a contract of adhesion is a contract executed in a standard form in the vast majority of instances, not every [Pg 8] contract in standard form may be regarded as a contract of adhesion. Therefore, we are not willing to declare all standard form contracts adhesionary; rather, we find standard form serves merely as a possible indicator of adhesion.” Id. (Internal citations removed). We made clear that the “real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is not the standard form of the contract, but rather whether a party truly consented to all the printed terms. Thus, the issue is one of consent.” Id. (Internal citations removed). The court explained: [*13]

[HN6] Consent is called into question by the standard form, small print, and most especially the disadvantageous position of the accepting party, which is further emphasized by the potentially unequal bargaining positions of the parties. An unequal bargaining position is evident when the contract unduly burdens one party in comparison to the burdens imposed upon the drafting party and the advantages allowed to that party. Once consent is called into question, the party seeking to invalidate the contract as adhesionary must then demonstrate the non-drafting party either did not consent to the terms in dispute or his consent was vitiated by error, which in turn, renders the contract or provision unenforceable.

In summation, a contract is one of adhesion when either its form, print, or unequal terms call into question the consent of the non-drafting party and it is demonstrated that the contract is unenforceable, due to lack of consent or error, which vitiates consent. Accordingly, even if a contract is standard in form and printed in small font, if it does not call into question the non-drafting party’s consent and if it is not demonstrated that the non-drafting party did not consent or his [*14] consent is vitiated by error, the contract is not a contract of adhesion.

Id. at 10-11. Thus, the question we consider is whether Mr. Duhon truly consented to the arbitration provision in the Agreement.

In concluding the arbitration provision in Aguillard was not adhesionary, we noted (1) the arbitration provision was contained in a short, two-page document and was contained in a single sentence paragraph; (2) the arbitration provision was not concealed; (3) the contract did not lack mutuality because defendants did not reserve their right to litigate issues arising from the contract; and (4) the parties did not have a significant difference in bargaining power because a real estate auction is not a [Pg 9] necessary transaction that plaintiff was compelled to enter. Id. Thus, while not declaring a definitive test, this court effectively established a framework for examining the validity of an arbitration clause within a standard form contract by generally describing the characteristics of an unenforceable adhesionary agreement. Finding our analysis in Aguillard instructive, we consider the following factors to determine the enforceability of the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement: (1) [*15] the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, (2) the distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, (3) the mutuality of the arbitration clause, and (4) the relative bargaining strength of the parties. After our review of the Agreement in light of the above factors, we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable because of its placement in the Agreement and its lack of mutuality.

Examining the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause, we observe the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in the Agreement. However, the lack of distinguishing features and the specific placement of the arbitration clause serve to conceal the arbitration language from Sky Zone patrons. The Agreement is structured with check boxes next to the first three paragraphs, followed by five additional paragraphs without corresponding check boxes. The first check box is placed next to a single, six-sentence paragraph generally discussing participants’ risks of injuries and assumption of those risks. The second check box is placed next to a single paragraph containing two long sentences purporting to release Sky Zone from any liability. [*16] The third check box is placed next to one long paragraph discussing multiple topics. Specifically, the arbitration language is located starting in the eleventh line of this third paragraph, following provisions regarding patrons’ physical ability to participate in the activities, assumption of the risks, certification that Sky Zone’s rules have been explained to any children, and expressing agreement to follow those rules.

[Pg 10] In Aguillard, we noted “the arbitration provision, although not distinguished, was not concealed in any way, but rather was contained in a single sentence paragraph separated from the preceding and following paragraphs by double spacing.” 908 So. 2d at 16. Sky Zone argues the paragraph containing the arbitration clause was sufficiently distinguished and brought to patrons’ attention through the use of the check box feature. We disagree. Although patrons are required to check a box adjacent to the top of the third paragraph, significantly no check box was placed next to the arbitration language. In contrast, the other two check boxes in the Agreement were placed next to paragraphs limited to one subject matter. The Agreement also contains five additional paragraphs following [*17] the third paragraph that do not include corresponding check boxes. Each of these are short one-topic paragraphs addressing such items as Sky Zone’s right to videotape and record patrons and to use recordings for promotional materials. Thus, looking at the Agreement as a whole, the arbitration language appears to be the only specific provision not relegated to a separate paragraph or set apart in some explicit way. Here, the two-sentence provision mandating arbitration is camouflaged within the confines of an eleven sentence paragraph, nine of which do not discuss arbitration. The effect of the placement of the arbitration language is to cloak it within a blanket of boilerplate language regarding rules and risks of participating in the Sky Zone activities. Thus, although it is undisputed that Mr. Duhon electronically signed the Agreement, purportedly demonstrating an acceptance of its terms, under Louisiana contract law, we find Mr. Duhon did not truly consent to the arbitration provision.

Additionally, the lack of mutuality in the arbitration clause fortifies our finding that it is adhesionary. The arbitration provision requires only Sky Zone patrons to submit their claims to arbitration. [*18] The entire contract, including the arbitration clause, repeatedly includes “I acknowledge” and “I agree” language, with the “I” referencing [Pg 11] the “applicant” – here, Mr. Duhon. Specifically, the Agreement provides if there are any disputes regarding this agreement “I … hereby waive any right … to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be … determined by binding arbitration …” Although Sky Zone does not expressly reserve itself the right to pursue litigation, nowhere in the Agreement are “the parties” or Sky Zone particularly bound to arbitration. This is in stark contrast to the arbitration clause in Aguillard which clearly applied to both parties by providing: “Any controversy or claim arising from or relating to this agreement or any breach of such agreement shall be settled by arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association under is [sic] rules, and judgment on the award rendered by the arbitrator may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof.” 908 So. 2d at 4. Thus, in Aguillard, we found the arbitration clause did not lack sufficient mutuality to invalidate the clause as adhesionary because the arbitration clause severely limited both the defendants’ [*19] and the plaintiff’s right to litigate, and the defendants did not reserve their right to litigate in the document. Id. at 16. Even more troublesome in this case is the punitive provision compelling patrons to pay Sky Zone liquidated damages of $5,000 within sixty days should the patron file suit, with legal interest added at 12% per year. Sky Zone has no mutual obligation in the Agreement.

[HN7] The party seeking to enforce an arbitration provision has the burden of showing the existence of a valid contract to arbitrate. FIA Card Services, 62 So. 3d at 719. Sky Zone has failed to meet this burden. Considering the lack of mutuality together with the obscure placement of the arbitration language in the Agreement, and in comparison to the contract in Aguillard, we are compelled to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable.

In finding this arbitration clause invalid, we have carefully considered [HN8] the Supreme Court’s admonition that, under the doctrine of preemption, state courts [Pg 12] cannot adopt defenses that apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue. See, e.g., Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 339; Casarotto, 517 U.S. at 687. Nor can we apply state law rules that stand as an obstacle [*20] to the accomplishment of the FAA’s objectives. Concepcion, 563 U.S. at 343. We are mindful that setting forth a legal requirement relative to a particular form or method of distinguishing or highlighting arbitration clauses, or requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the FAA. However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that state courts may apply standard state law contract defenses to arbitration agreements. Id. at 339. Our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in the instant case is consistent with § 2 of the FAA, and we find no conflict between our holding today and Supreme Court decisions discussing preemption.

As explained earlier, [HN9] consideration of enforceability of contracts of adhesion is an issue of consent, and determining whether a party truly consented to the contract terms. Consideration of consent is not limited to arbitration clauses; we consider the issue of consent in any contract. Lack of consent is a generally applicable contract defense. See La. C.C. art. 1927. The factors discussed in Aguillard simply provided a template for considering consent to an arbitration clause contained in a standard contract. Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any [*21] degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable, nor did Aguillard prescribe a definitive rule that arbitration agreements must be delineated a particular way to be enforceable. Considering the Aguillard analysis in its entirety, it is clear we viewed the arbitration provision in the context of the overall contract and the surrounding circumstances, and our determination was based on weighing several factors. Were we not to consider factors relative to consent when examining the validity of an arbitration agreement, we would be operating in contravention to the mandate of the Supreme Court by [Pg 13] treating arbitration agreements differently from other contracts. Thus, we find our application of Louisiana contract law to invalidate the arbitration provision in this case is consistent with the savings clauses in § 2 of the FAA and La. R.S. 9:4201.

CONCLUSION

[HN10] The determination of whether an arbitration clause in a standard form contract is adhesionary is necessarily made on a case by case basis. Based on the facts of this case, the concealment of the arbitration clause and the lack of mutuality compels us to find the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is adhesionary and unenforceable. [*22] Accordingly, we find the court of appeal erred in reversing the district court’s ruling on Sky Zone’s exception of prematurity.1 Therefore, the ruling of the court of appeal is reversed, and the ruling of the district court is reinstated.

1 Because we hold the arbitration clause is adhesionary and unenforceable based on consideration of the factors set forth in Aguillard, we pretermit discussion of Mr. Duhon’s additional arguments relative to ambiguity of the Agreement or whether the scope of the arbitration clause covers personal injury.

DECREE

REVERSED AND REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.

CONCUR BY: CRICHTON; CLARK

CONCUR

[Pg 1] CRICHTON, J., additionally concurs and assigns reasons.

I agree with the majority decision, and write separately to emphasize that I do not view this decision as a rejection of arbitration agreements. To the contrary, Louisiana law favors the enforcement of arbitration agreements. See La. R.S. 9:4201 (Validity of arbitration agreements). Consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), arbitration agreements must be placed “upon the same footing” as other types of contracts.” Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Co., 417 U.S. 506, 511, 94 S. Ct. 2449, 41 L. Ed. 2d 270 (1974); see also 9 U.S.C. § 2. But just as Louisiana law should not create obstacles to the enforceability of arbitration [*23] agreements, see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (applying the FAA to preempt a state law condition to the enforceability of an arbitration agreement), neither should Louisiana law create exceptions for arbitration agreements that do not exist for other types of contracts.

Without question, arbitration can be a waiver of the traditional access to our judicial system. And so, applying Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So. 2d 1, this waiver must be in accord with Louisiana contract law, otherwise a party’s consent may be called into question. Thus, a [Pg 2] business entity or individual seeking to draft a contract that includes an arbitration agreement must meet all of the elements of an enforceable contract.

By concealing the existence of the arbitration agreement, this agreement deprives a party of redress in the justice system. To make a bad situation worse, this agreement does not bind Sky Zone to arbitration, yet it penalizes a Sky Zone patron–but not Sky Zone–for seeking to initiate a lawsuit. These blatant asymmetries exhibit a stunning lack of draftsmanship and fail to adhere to the principles set forth in Aguillard. Accordingly, in my view, this Court is bound to deem this agreement unenforceable.

CLARK, J., concurring.

I find that the contract at issue [*24] lacks mutuality to such an extent that the contract is adhesionary. Not only does the contract bind only patrons to arbitration, the contract stipulates that if a patron files a lawsuit against Sky Zone, the patron is liable for $5,000 in liquidated damages. At the same time, Sky Zone is free to file a lawsuit against the patron without any penalty.

[Pg 1] Hughes, J., concurring.

Although I do not agree that the arbitration language was hidden, I concur that it lacked mutuality, and thus with the result.

DISSENT BY: WEIMER; GUIDRY

DISSENT

[Pg 1] WEIMER, J., dissenting.

I agree with the majority’s assessment that the factors outlined in Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 04-2804 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, are an appropriate starting point for analyzing the issue presented in this matter.1 See Duhon v. ActiveLaf, LLC, 16-0818, slip op. at 7 (La. 10/ /16). However, I respectfully disagree with the majority’s conclusion that analysis of the Sky Zone Agreement using Aguillard’s four-factor “framework” supports a finding that the arbitration clause is adhesionary and not enforceable. To the contrary, I find the arbitration clause to be valid and enforceable. I also find that analysis of the clause using Aguillard’s factors, viewed in light of the strong and, as Aguillard describes it, “heavy” [*25] presumption in favor of arbitration, dictates that finding of enforceability. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 25, 908 So.2d at 18.

1 While I dissented in Aguillard, I did so solely on grounds that there was a threshold legal question that I believed needed to be resolved before reaching the issue of the enforceability of the arbitration clause: whether the arbitration clause at issue even applied in light of the fact that the Auction Agreement for the Purchase and Sale of Real Estate had been completed. Aguillard, 04-2804 at 1, 980 So.2d at 20-21 (Weimer, J., dissenting.).

As the majority recognizes, a contract of adhesion is broadly defined as “a standard contract, usually in printed form, [often in small print,] prepared by a party [Pg 2] of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 7-8 (quoting Aguillard, 04-2804 at 9, 908 So.2d at 8-9.) (Emphasis added.) Pursuant to this definition, a predicate factor to consider in determining whether a contract is adhesionary is the existence of unequal bargaining power. Indeed, this is one of the four factors delineated in the Aguillard analysis. Yet, the majority opinion does not mention, much less weigh, this factor in conducting its analysis-this, despite [*26] the fact that there must be unequal bargaining power for the contract to meet the definitional hurdle of a contract of adhesion in the first instance.

In this case, it is clear that, as in Aguillard, there was not “such a difference in bargaining positions between the parties so as to justify the application of the principle of contract of adhesion to the arbitration clause.” Aguillard, 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 16-17. As Aguillard explained in defining a contract of adhesion, “[o]wing to the necessities of modern life a particular kind of contract has been developed where one of the parties is not free to bargain.” Id., 04-2804 at 10, 908 So.2d at 9 (quoting Saul Litvinoff, Consent Revisited: Offer, Acceptance, Option, Right of First Refusal, and Contracts of Adhesion in the Revision of the Louisiana Law of Obligations, 47 La.L.Rev. 699, 757-59 (1986-1987)). Such a lack of bargaining power exists where “[t]he party in the weaker position is left with no other choice than to adhere to the terms proposed by the other.” Id. (Emphasis added.) Typical examples of such contracts include those entered into with “airlines, public utilities, railroad or insurance companies.” Id.

In Aguillard, this court recognized that the relative bargaining positions of the real estate auctioneer and the [*27] individual auction participant involved in that case were not so unequal as to justify invalidating the arbitration clause on grounds of adhesion, [Pg 3] reasoning that, although the participant was required to sign the agreement containing the arbitration clause in order to participate in the auction, “the underlying transaction, the real estate auction, [was] not … such a necessary transaction” that the participant “was compelled to enter it.” Id., 04-2804 at 22-23, 908 So.2d at 16-17. Indeed, the participant could have avoided arbitration by not signing the agreement, not participating in the auction, and simply walking away. See Id. 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. Under such circumstances, the court found “nothing sufficient to establish the [auctioneers] were in such a superior bargaining position as to render the [auction participant] a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.” Id. 04-2804 at 23, 908 So.2d at 17.

The rationale of the court in Aguillard applies with equal force to the Sky Zone Agreement at issue in this case. Here, the Agreement concerns not a “necessity of modern life,” but a purely voluntary recreational activity. The plaintiff was not compelled-physically, economically or otherwise-to visit the trampoline park, jump on its trampolines, or sign the Agreement [*28] containing the arbitration clause. Jumping on a trampoline is simply not a practical necessity of modern living like water, electricity, or even airline flight. Like the auction participant in Aguillard, the plaintiff, here, retained the ultimate bargaining chip in this situation: he could have refused to sign Sky Zone’s Agreement, walked away, and pursued an alternative form of recreational activity. Given these circumstances, there is simply no evidence to establish that Sky Zone was in such a superior bargaining position as to render the plaintiff a far weaker party or the contract adhesionary.

Further, and also contrary to the majority, I find nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement, itself, that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Agreement. This determination is based on my analysis of the [Pg 4] three factors that are addressed in the majority’s Aguillard analysis-(1) the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause; (2) the distinguishing features of that clause; and (3) the mutuality of the clause-and my differing conclusions as to each.

In addressing the first Aguillard factor-the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause-the [*29] majority acknowledges that “the arbitration language is consistent in size and font with the other provisions in Agreement.” Duhon, slip op. at 9. In fact, the clause is not in small print or otherwise unreadable, but is just as legible as every other word in the Agreement. The majority apparently concedes, therefore, and I agree, that the physical characteristics of the arbitration clause weigh in favor of finding the clause enforceable.

In addressing the second of the Aguillard factors-the distinguishing features of the clause-the majority, in my view, falls into error. It downplays the very feature that distinguishes the arbitration clause and calls its attention to the participant: the box located next to the paragraph in which the clause appears, a box which must be affirmatively checked before the Agreement can be completed. The majority chooses, instead, to focus solely on the fact that the arbitration language is not set out in a stand-alone paragraph to reach the conclusion that it is “camouflaged” and “cloak[ed] … within a blanket of boilerplate language” to such an extent that plaintiff could not have not consented to its terms, despite affirmatively indicating by checking the electronic box that he [*30] did just that. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. While it is true that the arbitration clause appears in a paragraph not limited to the single topic of arbitration, more than one-half of that paragraph concerns the agreed-upon arbitration, its procedure, its locale, governing law, and the consequences for refusing or otherwise breaching the agreement to arbitrate.2 The arbitration language is hardly [Pg 5] camouflaged. Further, the majority’s suggestion, that failure to set the arbitration language out in a stand-alone paragraph fails to sufficiently distinguish the arbitration clause, ignores the check box. See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 10. The presence of that box is akin to, and has the same legal force and effect as, requiring the plaintiff to initial next to the paragraph, a requirement that affirmatively alerts the participant to the contents and significance of the paragraph.3 Like the arbitration provision in Aguillard, and contrary to the majority, I find the arbitration language in the Sky Zone Agreement was not concealed in any way and that the use of the electronic check boxes reasonably distinguished the clause.

2 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op’n at 3.

3 Modern technology has introduced what is referred [*31] to as a “clickwrap” agreement as a mechanism for having a “user manifest his or her assent to the terms of the … agreement by clicking on an icon.” See Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2nd Cir. 2004).

Finally, as to the third Aguillard factor, the mutuality of the obligation to arbitrate, the majority acknowledges that “Aguillard did not create a per se rule that any degree of non-mutuality in an arbitration agreement renders it unenforceable,”4 and that “requiring term-for-term mutuality in an arbitration clause could risk running afoul of the [Federal Arbitration Act],”5 but then inexplicably invalidates the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement precisely because it lacks the term-for-term mutuality that it acknowledges the law does not require, and may even prohibit.6 In truth, the only difference between the arbitration clause in Aguillard and the one in the Sky Zone Agreement is the use of the “I” in the Sky Zone Agreement. However, the mere use of the word “I” does not render the clause non-mutual, [Pg 6] particularly in light of the fact, acknowledged by the majority, that the Agreement does not reserve to Sky Zone the right to pursue litigation.7

4 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 13.

5 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 12.

6 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11-13.

7 See [*32] Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 11.

Consequently, unlike the majority, I find an analysis of all four of the factors outlined in Aguillard leads to the conclusion that the Sky Zone Agreement is not adhesionary and is valid and enforceable. This conclusion is strengthened, not only by the strong legislative policy that favors arbitration,8 but also by the long-standing principle that signatures to documents are not mere ornaments.9 As Aguillard notes: “It is well[-]settled that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him.” Id., 04-2804 at 22, 908 So.2d at 17. In this case, as in Aguillard, the plaintiff signed the Agreement acknowledging that he “had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document … understand this Agreement and … voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.”10 As in Aguillard, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with Sky Zone because the plaintiff could have avoided arbitration and the contractual provisions as a whole by simply not signing the Sky Zone Agreement and pursuing an alternative recreational [*33] activity. Also as in Aguillard, there is nothing in the Sky Zone Agreement itself-its physical or distinguishing characteristics-that would call into question the validity of the plaintiff’s consent to the terms of the Sky Zone Agreement as indicated by his signature. I would affirm the decision of the court of appeal.

8 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 5 (citing La. R.S. 9:4201, et seq.).

9 See Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So. 2d 133, 137 (La. 1983) (quoting Boullt v. Sarpy, 30 La.Ann. 494, 495 (La. 1878)).

10 See Duhon, 16-0818, slip op. at 4.

[Pg 1] GUIDRY, J., dissents and assigns reasons.

I respectfully dissent from the majority’s reversal of the ruling of the court of appeal. In my view, the arbitration clause in the Sky Zone Agreement is not part of a contract of adhesion which would render it unenforceable.

As the majority correctly states, a contract of adhesion is a “standard contract, usually in printed form, prepared by a party of superior bargaining power for adherence or rejection of the weaker party.” Aguillard v. Auction Management Corp., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p.9 (La. 6/29/05), 908 So.2d 1, 8-9. It is undisputed that the real issue in a contract of adhesion analysis is consent, whether the non-drafting party, considered to be the weaker party, truly consented to all the printed terms. Id. In addressing the issue of consent, a court must look to the form, print, or unequal terms [*34] of the contract by considering the factors set forth in Aguillard, namely, the physical characteristics and distinguishing features of the arbitration clause, the relative bargaining position of the parties, and the mutuality or lack thereof in the arbitration clause. Id., 2004-2804, 2004-2857, p. 9, 908 So.2d at 17.

As an initial matter, I disagree with the majority’s finding that the arbitration clause was hidden and camouflaged within the Sky Zone Agreement in such a way that would indicate the plaintiff’s consent to the agreement could be called into [Pg 2] question. Neither the print nor the font size of the arbitration clause differed from that of the remainder of the contract executed by the plaintiff. The standard form agreement was relatively short and straightforward, consisting of a total of nine paragraphs, three of which were set off with boxes to be checked to signify the patron’s consent. The arbitration clause, while not set off alone, consisted of one-half of a paragraph that was required to be checked off. The clause commenced midway through the paragraph and ran until the end of the paragraph. The plaintiff does not dispute that he checked off the box reflecting his consent to the terms of the arbitration [*35] clause.

Furthermore, the record is absent any evidence that the plaintiff was not in an equal bargaining position with the defendants. At the heart of the transaction, the plaintiff was seeking admittance to a recreational facility. Indisputably, this was not a contract to which the plaintiff was compelled to enter into the terms. He could have simply elected to not sign the agreement and bypass the recreational activity. Instead, the plaintiff signed the arbitration agreement acknowledging that he had sufficient opportunity to read the entire document and understood its terms. Having signed the agreement, the plaintiff cannot seek to avoid his obligations by contending that he did not read or understand it. Basic contract law dictates that a party who signs a written instrument is presumed to know its contents and cannot avoid its obligations by contending that he did not read it, that he did not understand it, or that the other party failed to explain it to him. Coleman v. Jim Walter Homes, Inc., 2008-1221, p. 7 (La. 3/17/09), 6 So.3d 179, 183 (citing Tweedel v. Brasseaux, 433 So.2d 133, 137 (La.1983)). To overcome the presumption, the party has the burden of proving with reasonable certainty that he was deceived. Id. The plaintiff is unable to satisfy this burden, because there is no evidence in the record that [*36] the plaintiff made any effort to contact the defendant for an explanation or to discuss the terms of the contract in [Pg 3] any respect.

Next, the arbitration clause at issue substantially mirrors the Aguillard arbitration clause, which this court found to be mutual. The plaintiff has not shown anything in the clause that reserves Sky Zone’s right to litigate disputes related to the agreement that is not equally afforded to the plaintiff. As such, the majority errs in finding the lack of mutuality as to the parties.

Finally, in Aguillard, this court addressed the presumption of arbitrability:

[E]ven when the scope of an arbitration clause is fairly debatable or reasonably in doubt, the court should decide the question of construction in favor of arbitration. The weight of this presumption is heavy and arbitration should not be denied unless it can be said with positive assurance that an arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that could cover the dispute at issue. Therefore, even if some legitimate doubt could be hypothesized, this Court, in conjunction with the Supreme Court, requires resolution of the doubt in favor of arbitration.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 18.

Id., 04-2804 at 18, 908 So.2d at 25. In light of the controlling law indicating [*37] the favorable consideration afforded arbitration agreements, coupled with the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy his burden of proving the contract was adhesionary, the majority erred in invalidating the contract. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent and would affirm the ruling of the court of appeal.