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

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

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

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

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

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reversed and remanded.

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

 

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States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue

If your state is not listed here, you should assume a parent cannot waive a minor’s right to sue in your state.

State

By Statute Restrictions
Alaska Alaska: Sec. 09.65.292 Sec. 05.45.120 does not allow using a release by ski areas for ski injuries
Arizona ARS § 12-553 Limited to Equine Activities
Colorado C.R.S. §§13-22-107
Florida Florida Statute § 744.301 (3) Florida statute that allows a parent to release a minor’s right to sue
Virginia Chapter 62.  Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202.  Liability limited; liability actions prohibited Allows a parent to sign a release for a minor for equine activities
Utah 78B-4-203.  Limitations on Liability for Equine and Livestock Activities Limited to Equine Activities
(b) providing a document or release for the participant, or the participant’s legal guardian if the participant is a minor, to sign.
 

By Case Law

California Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647 (1990)
Florida Global Travel Marketing, Inc v. Shea, 2005 Fla. LEXIS 1454 Allows a release signed by a parent to require arbitration of the minor’s claims
Florida Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So.2d 1067, 29 Fla. L. Weekly D1147 Release can be used for volunteer activities and by government entities
Maryland BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc. v. Rosen, 435 Md. 714; 80 A.3d 345; 2013 Md. LEXIS 897 Maryland top court allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. Release was not fantastic, but good enough.
Massachusetts Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99; 769 N.E.2d 738; 2002 Mass. LEXIS 384
Minnesota Moore vs. Minnesota Baseball Instructional School, 2009 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 299
North Dakota McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3 North Dakota decision allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue
Ohio Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 696 N.E.2d 201, 82 Ohio St.3d 367 (1998) Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity
Wisconsin Osborn v. Cascade Mountain, Inc., 655 N.W.2d 546, 259 Wis. 2d 481, 2002 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1216, 2003 WI App 1 However the decision in Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 may void all releases in the state
 

On the Edge, but not enough to really rely on

Decisions are by the Federal District Courts and only preliminary motions
North Carolina Kelly v. United States of America, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations
New York DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695 New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Did a Federal District Court in New Hampshire allow a release to bar a minor’s claims? Maybe, but only by omission, not by intent I believe.

This decision also looks at requiring initials in a release. Stupid move to require initials in any document, it just creates an argument for the plaintiff and requires more time on the defendant’s part to review the signed document.

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

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

Plaintiff: Jennifer Lizzol, Michael Lizzol, and T.G.,

Defendant: Brothers Property Management Corporation, Out Back Kayak, Inc., and Martin Welch,

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, including negligent training and supervision, vicarious liability, bystander liability, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2016

This case has two important articles regarding release law. The first is whether a plaintiff can sign away a minor’s right to sue. The results of the decision are yes; however, the issue was never argued or discussed in the decision.

The second is the use of places to initial in a release. The court ruled them of no value. However, because two of the plaintiff’s had not initialed certain sections, it allowed the plaintiff to argue those sections were not valid. Get rid of places to initial in your release because not all courts will rule this way.

The plaintiffs were a husband, wife and minor child who had booked a vacation at the defendant resort. As part of that vacation, they booked  a snowmobile (snow machine in the decision) instructions and tour. The booking was done online and occurred as soon as the plaintiff’s checked into the resort.

The snowmobile tours were run by a third party, also a defendant, Out Back Kayak, Inc. This defendant was not named on the release as a party to be protected. Upon arriving at the tour the plaintiffs were instructed to pick out a helmet and sign the release.

Mountain View Grand employee, who told them to quickly pick out helmets and sign a two-page document that bore the following heading:

Snow Machine Tour

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF RISKS AND HAZARDS

COVENANT NOT TO SUE

WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY

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

The release had five sections, Section A through E, which had to be initialed. The mother did not initial two sections and the father did not initial one section.

The Release includes five lettered paragraphs that provide tour participants with a designated space in which to place his or her initials, thereby confirming that he or she understands and acknowledges the following:

********************

Id. Jennifer did not initial Paragraph B or Paragraph D, and Michael did not initial Paragraph B. [Emphasize added]

The plaintiff’s received a few minutes of instruction on how to steer brake and operate the snow machines then the tour took off. The plaintiff husband and wife were riding together right behind the guide, and their son was farther back in the line.

The guide told everyone he would not exceed twenty miles per hour. The guide exceeded the self-imposed speed limit immediately and continued to speed. The plaintiff mother was driving the snow machine, and she quickly fell behind and was lost. While attempting to follow the tracks of the guide, she lost control of the machine which flipped and she and her husband fell down an embankment.

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

The plaintiff’s later learned that numerous customers complained about the guide driving too fast. One manager of the resort asked the husband if the guide had been driving too fast. plaintiff’s later learned that numerous customers complained about the guide driving too fast. One manager of the resort asked the husband if the guide had been driving too fast.

The plaintiffs later learned that other customers may have complained that Welch drove too quickly during earlier snow machine tours. After the accident, Mountain View Grand manager, Chris Diego, asked Michael if Welch had been “going too fast again.”

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release. The court granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.

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

In making its decision reviewed here the court first looked at the requirements for releases in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has three requirements to make a release enforceable.

Exculpatory contracts are enforceable if: “(1) they do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.”

The plaintiff first argued the release did not apply because the release language looked at renting the equipment and did not contemplate the guide’s failure to act reasonably.

Altogether, they say, the impression is given that the Release applies only to injuries inherent to snow machine activity and the use of snow machine equipment, but not to harm resulting from an instructor’s or guide’s failure to act with reasonable care.

However, the court did not find this argument persuasive because releases are reviewed applies the common meaning to the words in the release and as long as the language is clear and specifically indicates the intent of the parties it will be upheld.

Under applicable New Hampshire law, courts examine the language of a release and “give the language used by the parties its common meaning and give the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” “As long as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.”

However, any doubt in the language as to whether the plaintiff agreed to assume the risk, and the release would not be enforced.

However, a defendant “will not be released from liability when the language of the contract raises any doubt as to whether the plaintiff has agreed to assume the risk of a defendant’s negligence.

The language in the release was broad in reach, detailed and clear and as such upheld against this argument of the plaintiff.

The language of the Release unarguably applies to claims or suits based on the negligence of Mountain View Grand owners, employees, officers or agents. The Release does not qualify or limit the “negligence” being released in any way, nor is the Release ambiguous in that regard. [Emphasize added for further discussion.]

A reasonable person “would have contemplated that the agreements released the defendants from any negligence, not just from negligence inherent” in snowmobiling.

The next argument was another that would not have gone in favor of the defendants in many states. The actual party that employed the guide, OBK, was not a named defendant in the release. However, case law in New Hampshire had held that parties protected by a release did not necessarily have to be named in the release. (This is an exception to the rule! Do not rely upon this when writing your release.)

Under New Hampshire law, the release need not specifically name the parties to be protected by only provide functional identification of the parties.

An exculpatory contract need not specifically identify the defendant by name.” “However, the contract must at least provide a functional identification of the parties being released.”

In this release enough of an agency relationship was covered in the release to protect the defendant OBK.

…the Release here makes evident that it pertains not just to the furnishing and use of equipment associated with the snow machine activity, but also to the furnishing of services associated with that activity.

The initial issue was next reviewed. The plaintiff made a great argument to void the sections of the release not initialed by the plaintiff.

Plaintiffs next argue that, even if the Release does encompass the claims at issue, it is still not enforceable against Jennifer, because she failed to initial paragraphs B and D of the Release. Plaintiffs characterize the lettered paragraphs as “several distinct exculpatory clauses” that they were required to agree to separately, and which, as structured, give the impression that “the participant might agree to certain terms, but not others.

However, the court found the concluding language of the release encompassed the entire agreement and by signing the release right below that language the plaintiff agreed to the entire agreement.

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

The first requirement for a valid release under New Hampshire law is that does not violate public policy. This was the last argument raised by the plaintiff and reviewed in the court’s decision. Under New Hampshire law, a release must not violate public policy.

“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” “‘A special relationship exists when “the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service.'” Additionally, a release may be against public policy if, among other things, “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.”

The plaintiff’s relied on the “disparity of bargaining power” argument to claim the release violated New Hampshire public policy. “”Where there is a disparity in bargaining power, the plaintiff may not be deemed to have freely chosen to enter into the contract.” However, the court found this would not work.

Here, the plaintiffs were “under no physical or economic compulsion to sign the release,” and “[s]ince the defendants’ service is not an essential one, the defendants had no advantage of bargaining strength” over the plaintiffs or others who sought to participate in the snowmobile lesson and tour.

The plaintiff’s also argued public policy was violated because they were fraudulent induced to sign the release based upon the knowledge that the guide drove too fast.

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

Fraud in the inducement is a valid defense to contracts and releases. (Remember Marketing Makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay For) to prove fraud in the inducement the plaintiffs must prove:

As the parties seeking to invalidate the Release on fraudulent inducement grounds, plaintiffs bear a substantial burden: they “must establish that the other party made a representation with knowledge of its falsity or with conscious indifference to its truth with the intention to cause another to rely upon it. In addition, the party seeking to prove fraud must demonstrate justifiable reliance.”

However, the plaintiffs could produce no facts to support fraud, an intentional act so to speak on the part of the defendants to support their argument.

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

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

For those reasons, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed, and the case closed.

So Now What?

There are several important points made in this decision.

Whether or not the court intended for the release to be valid against the claims of the minor is not known. A defendant was probably a minor, and his claims were dismissed based upon the signature on a release signed by his mother.  However, this is not a strong enough decision to rely upon at this time.

The statement by the court that the language of the release “does not qualify or limit the “negligence” being released in any way…” is important. So often releases are written with the intent to soften the effect in the mind of the writer or the release is inadvertently written in a way that limits the value of the release. Write a release as broadly as possible and allow the court to restrict it. Why do the court’s job in advance and eliminate a possible defense you may have to a claim.

The final issue is initials. GET RID OF INITIALS in your release. They have no value. You need a signature at the end of the contract and nothing else. The only value initials provide is to the plaintiff to make an argument that a place on the release that is not initialed should void the release or at least void that section of the release.

This case would probably have a different outcome in another jurisdiction.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law           Rec-law@recreation-law.com     James H. Moss

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

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

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

Case No. 15-cv-100-SM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

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

October 31, 2016, Decided

October 31, 2016, Filed

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

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

 

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

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

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

OPINION BY: Steven J. McAuliffe

OPINION

ORDER

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

Standard of Review

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

Background

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

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

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

Snow Machine Tour

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF RISKS AND HAZARDS

COVENANT NOT TO SUE

WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

A. The Scope of the Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Release encompasses the negligence claims against OBK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. The Release does not violate public policy.

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

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

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

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

The Release does not violate public policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Steven J. McAuliffe

Steven J. McAuliffe

United States District Judge

October 31, 2016

 


New York Federal Magistrate in a Motion in Limine, hearing holds the New York Skier Safety Statute allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

This is not enough law to rely on, but it is a start to build upon to argue that a parent can sign a release for a minor for skiing activities, and the minor cannot sue.

DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695

State: New York, United States District Court for the Western District of New York

Plaintiff: Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD,

Defendant: Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: allege negligent instruction and supervision

Defendant Defenses: Child assumed the risk and release

Holding: Decision was mixed concerning the evidentiary issues

Year: 2017

This is a motion in limine decision. That means it was the judge’s response to motions by both sides to include or exclude evidence. Meaning one party files a motion in limine to prevent the other party from introducing a document, testimony or in some cases witnesses at trial.

This answer covered numerous motions for both parties. The analysis here will only cover issues relevant to the outdoor industry in general and not cover the purely legal arguments.

The case is about a five-year-old girl who suffered injuries when she fell out of the chairlift while taking a ski lesson from the defendant. The suit was filed in Federal District Court in New York because the plaintiffs are from Canada.

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

The first issue that the court reviewed was whether a five-year-old  could assume the risk of her injury. Each state has different age groups that have been determined over the years for when a child can assume the risks of their injuries. In New York, a child cannot assume the risk of their injury under the age of 5. Children 5 and above, the issue has not been determined to set a real standard a court could rely upon. If there was a set age, a jury would still have to determine if the child assumed the risk.

The plaintiffs were arguing the plaintiff was too young to assume the risk.

Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety.

The plaintiff argued that assumption of the risk should not be a defense in the case because the injured child was 5. Since the child had been skiing in the past, the defense wanted to bring the defense of assumption of the risk. The child has skied, been injured skiing previously and had written chairlifts before, although always with an adult. The court found it was a subject the jury had the right to determine.

One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift. Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.

The next argument the plaintiff made was the release was void as against public policy in New York. This was confusing because no release was presented or explained. However, it appears that the New York Safety in Skiing code allows for releases in the statute. By the end of the discussion, it seems the uncle of the injured child signed a release on her behalf.

The plaintiff argued that the New York law that voided releases in general applied and should void this release, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. However, the court agreed with the defendant that the New York Safety in Skiing code authorized the release and over ruling New York General Obligations Law § 5-326.

The plaintiff’s also argued that since the injured plaintiff has never read or signed the release, she could not be held to it.

The court broke down its analysis of the issue first by looking at whether the injured five-year-old  disaffirmed the release. In this case, disaffirmance means the child can argue a release signed on their behalf is invalid. In New York that is normally the case. However, the legislature has created exceptions to that rule.

“The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant,….

While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts. “Where a statute expressly permits a certain class of agreements to be made by infants that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable….

The court then looked at the New York Safety in Skiing code and found the statute specifically created that exception.

The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier.

The court held that a minor could be held to a release signed by a parent or in this case, a temporary guarding uncle.

The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release is denied.

However, this was not a blanket decision saying the release eliminated all claims of the plaintiff. The court found the uncle had to have read the release to the injured plaintiff. Whether she understood its contents, and the risks outlined there was a question to be determined at trial.

This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).

The court then reviewed the defense’s motions in limine which were mostly legal in their scope and not of value here.

This case as of March 2017 is proceeding to trial.

So Now What?

First, this decision was made by a Federal District Court magistrate applying New York State law. The New York courts can ignore the law and until the New York Supreme court rules on the issues, this is not binding to any major degree on other courts. However, it is a start and quite interesting in the analysis of the issues.

The first is assumption of the risk is a valid defense in New York possibly applies to children as young as five. You can develop ways for five year olds to understand the risk; you can use that defense against claims. Probably the easiest way is a video, or maybe two videos. The first video is shown to the children which shows them the risk of the activity they are about to undertake. The second video is of the children watching the video.

This should always be backed up with as many other options as you can create. Have your release state the parent has explained the risks to the child and that the parent, and the child accept them. Put those risks in the release and have the parent state they reviewed the release with the child. Place the risks on your website in different ways and have the parent state they have reviewed the risks on the website with the child and agree to that in the release.

Any way you can show that the child knew of the risks, can create a defense for you for a claim by an injured minor.

The second issue is actually more interesting. 1.) that an adult can sign away a minor’s right to sue in New York and 2.) that adult does not have to be a parent as long as the adult reviews the release with the minor.

Again, this was a preliminary motion hearing in a Federal district court; however, the ruling was explained and supported by case law. As such, it may have some validity and lead to further decisions like this.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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By Recreation Law           Rec-law@recreation-law.com     James H. Moss

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DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695

DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695

Bryan DiFrancesco as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Plaintiffs, v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants.

13CV148

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39695

March 20, 2017, Decided

March 20, 2017, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: DiFrancesco v. Win-Sum Ski Corp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24784 (W.D.N.Y., Feb. 22, 2017)

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Bryan DiFrancesco, as father and natural guardian of the infant minor, LD, Bryan DiFrancesco, Individually, Plaintiffs: Philip L. Rimmler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Russell T. Quinlan, Paul William Beltz, P.C., Buffalo, NY.

For Win-Sum Ski Corp, Holiday Valley, Inc., Defendants: Maryjo C. Zweig, Steven M. Zweig, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Cheroutes Zweig, PC, Hamburg, NY.

JUDGES: Hon. Hugh B. Scott, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Hugh B. Scott

OPINION

CONSENT

Order

The parties then consented to proceed before the undersigned as Magistrate Judge, including presiding over a jury trial (Docket No. 37). Presently before the Court are the parties’ first round of motions in limine in preparation for a jury trial. Defendants first submitted their motion in limine (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ then filed their motion in limine (Docket No. 56). Defendants then supplemented their motion in limine (Docket No. 58). As scheduled in the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), these initial motions in limine were due by January 3, 2017 (id.), later extended at the parties’ request to January 6, 2017 (Docket No. 42); responses initially were due by January 17, 2017, and they were to be argued with the Final Pretrial Conference on January 18, [*2]  2017, and then be deemed submitted (Docket No. 40). Responses to these motions were postponed then and were due by February 3, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 65) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 66); and reply by February 10, 2017 (Docket No. 63), which defendants submitted (Docket No. 67) and plaintiffs submitted (Docket No. 68); and argument was held on February 16, 2017 (Docket Nos. 63, 69 (minutes)). These motions were deemed submitted at the conclusion of oral argument. During that argument, scheduling for the Pretrial Conference and jury selection and trial were discussed with the trial reset for July 17, 2017 (Docket No. 69; see Docket Nos. 70, 71). The jury selection and trial of this case was scheduled for February 1, 2017 (Docket No. 40, Final Pretrial Order), but was later adjourned (Docket Nos. 63, 64).

Separately, this Court addressed plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash two subpoenas (Docket Nos. 43 (motion), 70, Order of February 22, 2017), familiarity with which is presumed.

BACKGROUND

This is a diversity personal injury action. Plaintiffs are a Canadian father and daughter, while defendants are New York corporations [*3]  which operate Holiday Valley. Plaintiff LD (hereinafter “LD,” cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2) was a five-year-old in 2010 who skied at Holiday Valley. Plaintiffs allege that LD was injured falling when from a chairlift at Holiday Valley (Docket No. 1, Compl.; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. B).

According to plaintiffs’ earlier motion, LD was participating in a ski lesson at Holiday Valley on February 15, 2010, under the supervision of defendants’ employee, a ski instructor, when she fell from the chairlift sustaining injuries to her left leg and left hip. Plaintiffs allege negligent instruction and supervision during the course of that lesson resulting in LD’s fall. (Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 9, Ex. E; see id., Pls. Memo. at 1-2.)

The Scheduling Order (after extensions, see Docket Nos. 14-15, 20, 23, 25, 27) in this case had discovery conclude on April 30, 2015 (Docket No. 27; see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. D). No motions to compel were filed and the parties reported on October 5, 2015, readiness for trial (Docket No. 30). Plaintiffs’ motion to quash subpoenas and for a protective Order led to the parties exchanging supplemental discovery, which was to be completed by April 5, [*4]  2017 (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 21, 22). Defendants’ First Motion in Limine (Docket No. 53)

Pursuant to the Final Pretrial Order (Docket No. 40), defendants filed their motion in limine, seeking preclusion of portions of the opinions of plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman; evidence of defendants’ subsequent remediation; and evidence of prior and subsequent incidents similar to the accident at issue (Docket No. 53). Plaintiffs’ response and defendants’ reply will be addressed below at each particular item. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine (Docket No. 56)

Plaintiffs also filed their timely motion in limine (Docket No. 56), seeking to preclude evidence that infant LD assumed the risk of riding the chairlift, evidence from LD’s injury at Holimont in 2015, and evidence of a disclaimer that plaintiffs argue is against public policy (id.).

Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion in limine is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment and that issues of fact exist, hence there is no basis to preclude evidence as to plaintiffs’ assumption of the risk or comparative negligence (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). They contend that the registration form with the release signed by [*5]  LD’s uncle is admissible because the release tracks the “Warning to Skiers” required by New York General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) and regulations under 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.5(l)(1) (id. at 7). They fault plaintiffs for not addressing Vanderwall v. Troser Management, Inc., 244 A.D.2d 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d 492 (4th Dep’t 1997), leave to appeal denied, 91 N.Y.2d 811, 694 N.E.2d 883, 671 N.Y.S.2d 714 (1998) (id.). That case charged the jury there with express assumption of the risk for exposure to drainage ditches even though those risks were not enumerated in “Warning to Skiers,” Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493 (id.). Defendants’ Supplemental Motion in Limine (Docket No. 58)

Defendants later supplemented their motion in limine seeking preclusion of undisclosed expert testimony and to limit as expert testimony from LD’s parents as to her treatment (both past and future) and LD’s physical therapist testifying as to causation and diagnosis (Docket No. 58).

Plaintiffs’ respond that they did provide disclosure of future medical expenses; alternatively, they contend that defendants waived any objection to an omitted response by not moving to compel or for preclusion (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18).

During oral argument of plaintiffs’ motion for a protective Order and to quash the two subpoenas (Docket No. 69), the parties submitted on their respective papers for these motions in limine (id.). They also discussed the need to supplement [*6]  their disclosure, especially LD’s future medical treatment and needs (id.).

DISCUSSION

I. Applicable Standards

In a diversity jurisdiction action, this Court initially must apply the substantive law of our forum state, New York, see Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1983); Ocean Ships, Inc. v. Stiles, 315 F.3d 111, 116 n.4 (2d Cir. 2002), including its choice of law regime, Klaxon v. Stentor, 313 U.S. 487, 61 S. Ct. 1020, 85 L. Ed. 1477 (1941). This Court has to apply New York law as construed by the highest court of the state, the New York State Court of Appeals, not the local intermediate appellate court. When the New York State Court of Appeals has not ruled on the particular question, this Court then has to predict the direction the Court of Appeals would go if given that issue, see Gasperini v. Center for Humanities, Inc., 66 F.3d 427, 430 (2d Cir. 1995).

In personal injury actions, New York generally applies the law of the jurisdiction in which the injury occurred. See Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919 (1993); Neumeier v. Kuehner, 31 N.Y.2d 121, 286 N.E.2d 454, 335 N.Y.S.2d 64 (1972). “New York’s current choice-of-law rules require the court to consider the following three elements: the domicile of the plaintiff, the domicile of the defendant, and the place where the injury occurred.” Lucas v. Lalime, 998 F. Supp. 263, 267 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (Heckman, Mag. J., R&R, adopted by Arcara, J.). Where more than one element is in the same state, that state’s law should apply. Id.; Datskow v. Teledyne Continental Motors, 807 F. Supp. 941, 943 (W.D.N.Y. 1992) (Larimer, J.). Under these choice of law rules “the first step in any case presenting a potential choice of law is to [*7]  determine whether there is an actual conflict between the laws of the jurisdiction involved.” Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. (Stolarz), 81 N.Y.2d 219, 223, 613 N.E.2d 936, 597 N.Y.S.2d 904, 905 (1993).

Here, the accident and defendants are in New York, plaintiffs are from Ontario. As a second1 Neumeier situation, New York law would apply, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70; Cooney v. Osgood Machinery, Inc., 81 N.Y.2d 66, 72, 612 N.E.2d 277, 595 N.Y.S.2d 919, 922 (1993) (conduct-regulating laws, the law of the jurisdiction where the tort occurs applies while loss allocation laws have additional factors to determine which jurisdiction applies, citations omitted). In addition, the parties in effect have stipulated to apply forum (New York) law to this case. Both sides cite New York law and made no reference to any other jurisdiction’s law having application. Neither side has presented any law that conflict with New York law. New York courts enforce stipulations to choice of law, see Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, 47 F. Supp.2d 330, 343 (E.D.N.Y. 1999) (citing, among other cases, Tehran-Berkeley Civil & Envtl. Eng’rs v. Tippetts-Abett-McCarthy-Stratton, 888 F.2d 239, 242 (2d Cir. 1989) (parties briefed New York law, court applies New York law based upon implied consent of parties)); Roginsky v. Richardson-Merrell, Inc., 378 F.2d 832, 834 n.2 (2d Cir. 1967) (Friendly, J.); Klein v. Jostens, Inc., No. 83 Civ. 5351, 1985 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18115, at *6 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 1985). As a result New York law applies and the legal issues surrounding these evidentiary disputes will be resolved under New York law.

1 The second Neumeier situation is the defendant is from state A, plaintiff from state B, state A is where tort occurs; state A allows recovery, defendant cannot invoke state B’s law, similarly if state A does not allow recovery, defendant is not liable, thus state A’s law applies; or, as stated in New York Jurisprudence Conflict of Laws § 57, 19A N.Y. Jur., where local law favors respective domiciliary, the law of the place of injury generally applies, Neumeier, supra, 31 N.Y.2d at 128, 335 N.Y.S.2d at 70.

II. Application

A. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine, Docket No. 56

1. Preclude Evidence of LD’s Assumption of Risk

The heart of [*8]  this case is whether this five-year-old child can assume the risk inherent with riding and dismounting from a chairlift under New York law. Cases from New York State courts leave as an issue of fact for the jury whether a particular infant (regardless of the child’s age) was capable of assuming the risk of his or her activities. New York courts do not create a bright line rule that minors at five years or older are incapable of assuming risk, but cf. Smith v. Sapienza, 115 A.D.2d 723, 496 N.Y.S.2d 538 (2d Dep’t 1985) (holding, as matter of law, that three and a half year old child victim of dog attack was incapable of being held responsible for his actions for contributory negligence). New York common law “has long disclaimed any per se rule with regard to the age at which a child cannot legally assume a risk and thereby not be responsible for comparative fault for his or her injury,” Clark v. Interlaken Owners, Inc., 2 A.D.3d 338, 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d 58, 60 (1st Dep’t 2003) (Tom, J., dissent). The majority of Clark court held that assumption of risk doctrine did not apply to a five-year-old playing around exposed construction equipment, “where the danger was even more accessible [than another case cited] and the risk at least as unappreciated by this five-year-old plaintiff,” 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (emphasis supplied), citing Roberts v. New York City Hous. Auth., 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23 (1st Dep’t), leave to appeal denied, 93 N.Y.2d 811, 716 N.E.2d 698, 694 N.Y.S.2d 633 (1999), concluding [*9]  that instructing the jury on assumption of the risk was error as a matter of law, Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60. In Roberts, the Appellate Division held a “six-year old under these circumstances” that is, a child exposed to a steam line fenced off by an easily breached fence next to the lawn where children played, did not have the doctrine of assumption of risk apply, 257 A.D.2d at 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d 23, 23. Roberts provided an opportunity for establishing an age-based bright line rule but the court decided on the specific facts of that case; hence the standard plaintiffs are in effect arguing was not adopted by New York courts.

Plaintiff argues that LD was just days away from being one year older than the non sui juris status of age four and being incapable as a matter of law being culpable (Docket No. 66, Pls. Opp. Memo. at 4-5). Assumption of risk is a distinct defense from contributory negligence, see Arbegast v. Board of Educ. of S. New Berlin Cent. School, 65 N.Y.2d 161, 165, 480 N.E.2d 365, 490 N.Y.S.2d 751, 754-55 (1985), but both defenses are subject to the doctrine of non sui juris, see M.F. v. Delaney, 37 A.D.3d 1103, 1104-05, 830 N.Y.S.2d 412, 414 (4th Dep’t 2007) (assumption of risk and culpable conduct by plaintiffs should have been dismissed because plaintiffs were 2 and 3 years old and hence were non sui juris). Plaintiffs point to the concept of non sui juris that absolves children of a certain age or younger from culpability since (as [*10]  a matter of law) they are incapable of comprehending danger to be negligent or responsible for her actions, Republic Ins. Co. v. Michel, 885 F. Supp. 426, 432-33 (E.D.N.Y. 1995) (Azrack, Mag. J.). Over the age of four, the status of a child is a question of fact regarding the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for herself, id. at 432; younger than four years of age, “an infant . . . may be so young that he is unable to apprehend the existence of danger, take precautions against it and exercise any degree of care for his own safety. The law calls such a child, non sui juris,” id. at 433; see also id. at 433 n.8 (literal translation of Latin phrase is “not his own master,” quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1058 (6th ed. 1990)). The non sui juris child is incapable of committing negligence, id. at 433. “Where an infant is older than four years of age, the status of that child as sui juris or non sui juris is to be determined by the trier of fact,” id. (citing cases), with factors of the child’s intelligence and maturity dictating that status, id. One federal court, applying New York contributory negligence doctrines, held that the status of a child over the age of four was a question of fact addressing “the particular child’s ability to comprehend danger and care for himself,” [*11]  Republic Ins. Co., supra, 885 F. Supp. at 432 (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 5-6). If there is a bright-line rule under New York law, the age is four years old, not five as was LD when she was injured.

The age of the plaintiff is a factor in determining whether they are capable of assuming risk of their actions, see Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 396, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, 130 (2010); Clark, supra, 2 A.D.3d at 340, 770 N.Y.S.2d at 60 (error to instruct on assumption of risk for five-year-old on construction vehicle) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 6); Roberts, supra, 257 A.D.2d 550, 685 N.Y.S.2d at 24; Trippy v. Basile, 44 A.D.2d 759, 354 N.Y.S.2d 235, 236 (4th Dep’t 1974) (error to instruct jury that five and half year old child contributorily negligent, and could be so charged only if he had the age, experience, intelligence development and mental capacity to understand the meaning of the statute violated and to comply therewith) (Docket No. 54, Pls. Tr. Memo. at 5-6). As noted by the Court of Appeals in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 130, in an almost 12-year-old child’s claim from sliding down a bannister, that court states that children often act impulsively or without good judgment, “they do not thereby consent to assume the consequently arising dangers” for assumption of risk. Plaintiffs distinguish DeLacy v. Catamount Dev. Corp., 302 A.D.2d 735, 755 N.Y.S.2d 484 (3d Dep’t 2003), due to the plaintiffs in that case being two years older than LD was in 2010 (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 5; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 4; but cf. Docket No. [*12]  65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). But the New York Court of Appeals has not ruled on this question, but the consensus of other New York courts do not recognize a bright line rule that at age five or six a child is incapable of having the requisite knowledge and maturity to assume the risks of their actions; non sui juris status is applicable to four years old and that age or older is an issue of fact.

Courts in New York have concluded that assumption of the risk is a question of fact for the jury, Moore v. Hoffman, 114 A.D.3d 1265, 1266, 980 N.Y.S.2d 684, 685 (4th Dep’t 2014), in particular, riding and dismounting a chairlift has risks that raises questions of fact, DeLacy, supra, 302 A.D.2d at 736, 755 N.Y.S.2d at 486 (questions of fact whether a seven-year-old novice skier fully appreciated the risks associated with using a chairlift) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 6). One factual element in this case is the maturity and knowledge of LD as to whether she assumed the risk of riding the chairlift here despite being five years old. LD testified at her deposition that prior to the 2010 incident she rode chairlifts two or three other times, each time with her father plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco who assisted her getting on and off the lift (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 18, Ex. C, LD EBT Tr. at 9), even to having Bryan hold [*13]  his ski pole over LD’s lap until it was time to get off the chairlift (id., Tr. at 9). Whether LD in her circumstances could assume the risk of riding and disembarking from the chairlift by herself is an issue of fact and evidence regarding her maturity, age, experience, intelligence, literacy, and mental capacity to understand the risks she faced is relevant and admissible. As a result, plaintiffs’ motion precluding evidence of LD assuming the risk is denied.

This is notwithstanding defendants’ argument that plaintiffs’ motion in limine here is in fact an untimely motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 5-6; Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 2-3). As plaintiffs rebut (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply at 2-4), they are not seeking entry of judgment to dismiss a defense, instead they properly seek preclusion of evidence. But the factual issues in this case under New York law require production of evidence of LD’s capacity to assume risk.

2. Preclude Evidence of LD’s 2015 Snowboarding Incident

Plaintiffs next seek excluded evidence from an accident LD had at Holimont in 2015 resulting in injuries to her clavicle, contending that the evidence is prejudicial and would be admitted [*14]  to show her to be accident prone (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 7-10). LD’s injuries in 2010 were to her left leg and hip and not to her clavicle (id. at 8). As argued in the motion to quash the subpoena to Holimont (Docket No. 43, Pls. Memo. at 7), LD did not waive the physician-patient privilege for LD’s treatment of the 2015 injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 8, 9-10). Plaintiffs conclude that LD’s subsequent snowboarding accident is not relevant to her 2010 injuries (id. at 9).

Defendants contend that LD’s injuries are not limited to her leg and hip, but also include loss of enjoyment of life and emotional injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 12, citing Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. H, Response to Defs. Interrog. No. 1). Again, as argued to defend the subpoena upon Holimont, defendants contend that Second Department law provides that LD put her physical condition at issue, justifying admissibility of her 2015 injuries (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 13).

But as noted in deciding plaintiffs’ earlier motion (Docket No. 43), this Court in diversity is bound by the common law of New York as settled by the New York State Court of Appeals or this Court’s prediction of how the New York Court [*15]  of Appeals would decide the issue if brought to it (see Docket No. 70, Order of February 22, 2017, at 13). This Court has held that the Court of Appeals, if it addressed the waiver of physician-patient privilege, would limit that waiver to so much of LD’s physical or mental condition placed in controversy here (id. at 17; see id. at 16-17 (holding that plaintiffs have standing to object to the subpoena based upon the unwaived privilege)). This case is about LD’s injuries from the 2010 incident, with physical injuries to her lower body. Discussion of LD’s accident five years later and to an unrelated body part is not relevant to her claims and would prejudice plaintiffs, see Fed. R. Evid. 403. Admitting evidence of the 2015 accident would introduce character evidence that LD acted in accordance with a particular trait (clumsiness), see Fed. R. Evid. 404(a)(1). Defendants have other means of establishing the limits on LD’s loss enjoyment of life and limitations on her activities after the 2010 accident (such as her father’s deposition testimony as to her activities, see Docket No. 43, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. C, Bryan DiFrancesco EBT Tr.10-21, 23, 95-96)).

This Court ordered plaintiffs to produce for in camera inspection the Holimont medical records [*16]  from the 2015 incident for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This in camera inspection was for this Court to determine if there is anything applicable to this case, such as discussion of LD’s 2010 injuries or distinguishing 2010-caused injuries from 2015 injuries or the effects of the 2015 incident had on LD’s 2010 injuries (Docket No. 70, Order of Feb. 22, 2017, at 17-18). This Court received those in camera medical records (received March 6, 2017)2 and reviewed them and find that the following documents should be produced and those that should not. Below is Table 1, a spreadsheet listing the reviewed documents and their production status.

2 These documents were not Bates numbered or otherwise identified or paginated. Thus, this Court described the reviewed documents by their date and generic type, to avoid disclosure of contents.

[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]

The documents ordered to be produced are those relevant to LD’s 2010 injuries, namely to her left leg and hips. Excluded are those documents that refer only to her 2015 clavicle injury. The documents that plaintiffs are to produce are the April 1, 2017, memorandum; the January 4, 2015, consultation report; notes from July 30, 2015; and the July 30, 2015, notes from Hamilton Health Sciences. The remaining documents exclusive involve the 2015 incident and injury and there was not connection made to LD’s 2010 injuries.

Thus, so much of plaintiffs’ motion (Docket No. 56) to preclude evidence from LD’s 2015 Holimont accident is granted in part, denied in part, with plaintiffs only to produce the documents identified above.

3. Preclude [*18]  Evidence as Against Public Policy

Plaintiffs point to General Obligations Law § 5-326 that render defendants’ disclaimers as the operator of a place of amusement void as against public policy (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 4-5), see Rogowicki v. Troser Mgmt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 (4th Dep’t 1995). Defendants counter that the statutory and regulatory scheme under the Safety in Skiing Code, N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106; Labor Law §§ 202-c (use of ski tows), 867 (Safety in Skiing Code), authorized the release warning given in the form signed by LD’s uncle (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493.

Plaintiffs also argue that any release here would be ineffective as to LD since she never read or signed it, hence it could not serve as a waiver of liability for her injuries (Docket No. 56, Pls. Memo. at 5), see Franco v. Neglia, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004) (release invalid against 14-year-old participant, who signed release, in first kickboxing class); Kaufman v. American Youth Hostels, Inc., 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (release signed by father invalid for child’s injuries) (id.). Plaintiffs’ reply that defendants fail to address how LD’s uncle can bind LD on the registration form waiver (Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 4), by not distinguishing Franco, supra, 3 Misc. 3d 15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 690 (N.Y. App. Term 2004), or Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587, 593 (2d Dep’t 1958) (id.). They note that General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) lists the risks inherent in skiing but do not mention the risks inherent in riding a chairlift (id.). Specifically, [*19]  none of those risks include having a second child obey a sign to open the chairlift bar prematurely and the negligent location of that sign (see id. at 4-5). Plaintiffs argue that assumption of risk is not automatic for every personal injury case that a novice (regardless of their age) cannot as a matter of law assume a risk (id. at 6, citing Corrigan v. Musclemakers Inc., 258 A.D.2d 861, 863, 686 N.Y.S.2d 143, 145 (3d Dep’t 1999) (injured 49-year-old woman who never been on treadmill)).

But in Franco the infant fourteen-year-old plaintiff signed the release, 3 Misc. 3d at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691. The Supreme Court, Appellate Term, held that an infant is not bound by releases which exculpate defendants from damages for personal injury “since they lack the capacity to enter into such agreements,” id., at 16, 776 N.Y.S.2d at 691 (citing Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d 223, 177 N.Y.S.2d 587). The plaintiff’s decedent fifteen-year-old child in Kaufman, supra, 6 A.D.2d at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589, signed the release with her father. The Appellate Division, applying Oregon law, see id. at 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 589, held that the effect of the father’s signature was ambiguous, id. at 229, 225, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593, 589. The decedent’s capacity there to sign the release by reason of her infancy “was effectively exercised by [her] by the act of commencing this action,” id., at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. The Appellate Division upheld striking the defense of decedent’s release because she disaffirmed “the agreement by reason of her infancy” exercised by her father’s commencement [*20]  of this action but reversed regarding striking that defense for the father’s separate action against the hostel, id. at 229, 177 N.Y.S.2d at 593. Neither case held that the signature of the parent or guardian alone of a release was binding upon the infant for whom the guardian signed. Thus, these cases do not go as far as plaintiffs contend to render ineffective a release signed by a guardian on behalf of an infant participating in a risky activity.

a. Infant Disaffirmance of Release

“A minor is not bound by a release executed by his parent,” Alexander v. Kendall Cent. Sch. Dist., 221 A.D.2d 898, 899, 634 N.Y.S.2d 318, 319 (4th Dep’t 1995); I.C. ex rel. Solovsky v. Delta Galil USA, 135 F. Supp. 3d 196, 209 (S.D.N.Y. 2015); Shields v. Gross, 58 N.Y.2d 338, 344, 448 N.E.2d 108, 461 N.Y.S.2d 254, 257 (conceding that infant, Brooke Shields, could under common law disaffirm consent executed by another on her behalf), rehearing denied, 59 N.Y.2d 762, 450 N.E.2d 254, 463 N.Y.S.2d 1030 (1983). The exception from this common law power of the infant to disaffirm written consents made on her behalf is where the New York State Legislature either abrogates this common law right or makes particular infant agreements binding upon the infant, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344-45, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257.

While conceding that at common law an infant could disaffirm written consent made for her, the Court of Appeals in Shields recognized that the State Legislature could abrogate that right or create a right upon infants to enter into binding contracts, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257. “Where a statute expressly permits a [*21]  certain class of agreements to be made by infants, that settles the question and makes the agreement valid and enforceable,” id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, with that statute being construed strictly, id., 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257 (citing McKinney’s Consol. Laws of N.Y., Book 1, Statutes § 301(b)).

Here, the Safety in Skiing Code had as part of its legislative purpose

“(3) that it is appropriate, as well as in the public interest, to take such steps as are necessary to help reduce the risk of injury to downhill skiers from undue, unnecessary and unreasonable hazards; and (4) that it is also necessary and appropriate that skiers become apprised of, and understand, the risks inherent in the sport of skiing so that they may make an informed decision of whether or not to participate in skiing notwithstanding the risks. Therefore, the purpose and intent of this article is to establish a code of conduct for downhill skiers and ski area operators to minimize the risk of injury to persons engaged in the sport of downhill skiing and to promote safety in the downhill ski industry,”

N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-101. The act establishing this Code empowered the New York State Commissioner of Labor to promulgate “any and all rules and regulations necessary to the timely implementation [*22]  of the provisions of this act,” 1988 N.Y. Laws ch. 711, § 4. These regulations “applies to all skiers and ski areas” and owners and operators of ski areas to which the Code applied to, N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & R. tit. 12, § 54.1 (2017) (hereinafter cited as “12 N.Y.C.R.R.”), without special provision or exception for juvenile skiers. That same act authorized the Commissioner of Labor to make rules to guard “against personal injuries to employees and the public in the use and operation of ski tows, other passenger tramways and downhill ski areas,” N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.

The Code also imposed on skiers the additional duties “to enable them to make informed decisions as to the advisability of their participation in the sport,” to

“seek out, read, review and understand, in advance of skiing, a ‘Warning to Skiers’ as shall be defined pursuant to subdivision five of section eight hundred sixty-seven of the labor law [N.Y. Labor L. § 867(5)], which shall be displayed and provided pursuant to paragraph a of subdivision one of this section [N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a)]; and . . . to obtain such education in the sport of skiing as the individual skier shall deem appropriate to his or her level of ability, including the familiarization with skills and duties necessary to reduce [*23]  the risk of injury in such sport,”

N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(2), (a), (b); see N.Y. Labor Law § 867(5); 12 N.Y.C.R.R. §§ 54.5(l)(1), 54.4(c)(1); see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-106(1)(a) (ski are operator’s duty to post conspicuously “Warning to Skiers”). “Unless otherwise specifically provided in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law,” N.Y. Gen. Oblig. L. § 18-107.

The Safety in Skiing Code and its regulations provide an abrogation of the common law right of an infant skier to disaffirm the release signed on her behalf. First, the State Legislature used the term “skier” without expressly distinguishing the age of skier. Second, the State Legislature authorized and directed the Commissioner of Labor to enact necessary rules and regulations. Pursuant to that authority, the Commissioner enacted 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.1 to have the regulations under the Safety in Skiing Code apply to “all skiers,” again without distinction due to the age of the skier. The definitions under these regulations for “skier,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(h) (“Skier means any person wearing a ski or skis and any person actually on a ski slope or trail located at a ski area, for the purpose of skiing”), or “passenger,” 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(d) (“Passenger means a person in or on or being transported by a tramway”), riding a “passenger tramway,” see 12 N.Y.C.R.R. § 54.3(e) (“Passenger [*24]  tramway means a mechanical device intended to transport skiers for the purpose of providing access to ski slopes and trails as defined by the Commissioner of Labor pursuant to Section two hundred two-c or eight hundred sixty-seven of the Labor Law [N.Y. Labor Law §§ 202-c, 267]”), also do not create a separate infant category. Although the Court of Appeals refers to the State Legislature either abrogating the infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or conferring upon the infant a recognized right to make binding contracts, Shields, supra, 58 N.Y.2d at 344, 461 N.Y.S.2d at 257, the State Legislature here enacted the code that delegated to the Commissioner of Labor the authority to enact rules and regulations necessary to implement the Code. The Commissioner, by requiring regulations to apply to “all skiers” either abrogated an infant’s common law right of disaffirmance or authorized infant skiers to enter into binding contracts with ski area operators, including the warning and release to authorize the infant skier to engage in the risky activities of skiing and the related, risky activities leading up to skiing.

The Safety in Skiing Code statutory and regulatory scheme including “all skiers” makes releases signed by adults bind infant skiers and removes the [*25]  infants’ common law right to disaffirm the releases executed in their minority. On this basis, plaintiffs’ motion in limine to exclude the Holiday Valley release (Docket No. 56) is denied.

b. Effect of General Obligations Law § 5-326

As an alternative grounds for its decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Vanderwall, supra, 244 A.D.2d at 982-83, 665 N.Y.S.2d at 493, narrowed the scope of the general provisions for amusement or recreation sites under General Obligations Law § 5-326 to exclude ski resorts from that statute, with those resorts being governed by the Safety in Skiing Code and its Warning to Skiers codified in General Obligations Law § 18-106(1)(a) (Docket No. 65, Defs. Memo. at 7), see also N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 18-107 (“unless otherwise specifically provide in this article, the duties of skiers, passengers, and ski area operators shall be governed by common law”). Part of the Safety in Skiing Code includes use of a ski tow, N.Y. Labor Law § 202-c.

The Holiday Valley registration form (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. G) signed by LD’s uncle, Dean DiFrancesco, had the adult signer agree that he acknowledged (among other things)

“that I have read and understand the information contained in the brochure for the Holiday Valley Mountain Adventure Children’s Ski and Snowboard Program, and also understand [*26]  and am aware that there are inherent and other risks involved in participating in ski and snowboard lessons, skiing/riding, and use of lifts, which could cause death or serious injury to the registrant(s). This includes use of chairlifts and or tows or boardwalks with or without an instructor.

“[C]hildren may be required to ride chairlifts with other children in the class, ski patrol/hosts, or other persons in the lift line while loading assistance may be given by chairlift attendants. Riding a chairlift can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren). By allowing the registrant(s) to ride a chair lift, you acknowledge the dangers involved and accept any and all risks of injury to the registrant(s). Other risks include, but are not limited to, . . . boarding, riding and disembarking from moving chairlifts, rope tows or boardwalks. With full knowledge of the danger involved, I voluntarily request that the registrant(s) participate in the program. I have read this agreement to the registrant(s) and he/she has acknowledged that he/she understands its contents. On behalf of the registrant(s) and myself, I expressly assume all risks inherent in the sport of skiing and riding and any and all damages, [*27]  injury, illness, or harm which may result directly or indirectly from said risks.”

(Id., paragraphs 5, 6, emphasis added.) This release itself raises factual issues, such as whether Uncle Dean DiFrancesco actually read the release to LD and whether she understood its contents, including the risks stated therein (particularly, the risks in riding and dismounting a chairlift).

The statutory scheme for ski resorts provided in the Safety in Skiing Code provides a more specific regime that the General Obligations Law § 5-326 for other recreational facilities including the basis for the release executed by LD’s uncle. New York public policy carved out ski resorts from the general ban on releases by recreational facility operators. On this alternative ground, plaintiffs’ motion to exclude that release (Docket No. 56) is denied.

B. Defense Motions in Limine, Docket Nos. 53, 58

1. Excluding Evidence of Subsequent Remediation

In their initial motion in limine, defendants seek to exclude evidence of their subsequent remediation in changing signage at the chairlift (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 2-4). Federal Rule of Evidence 407 precludes admission of evidence of subsequent remedial measures to prove negligence, culpable conduct, or [*28]  a need for a warning (id. at 2). They also contend that evidence as a warning should be excluded under Rule 403 since the probative value is exceeded by its prejudice to them (id.). Plaintiffs counter that this evidence is admissible for impeachment or to contest the feasibility of relocating the sign to a safer location (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 1-3; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Reply Memo. at 8), see Fed. R. Evid. 407; Pitasi v. Stratton Corp., 968 F.2d 1558 (2d Cir. 1992). Defendants reply that the impeachment exception to Federal Rule of Evidence 407 should be narrowly read, that it could only be used to avoid the jury being misled (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 8-9). They conclude that plaintiffs also should be precluded from introducing evidence regarding the red light/green light system used by another ski resort, Holimont, arguing that Holimont installed this system four years after the 2010 incident at issue here (id. at 10; see also Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 3-4; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. C).

The questions here under Rule 407 are at what point (if ever) may plaintiffs impeach defendants with the change in the sign location, and whether the sign location can be introduced by them as to feasibility. As for impeachment, whether plaintiffs can discuss relocation of the sign will depend [*29]  upon what defense witnesses testify about to the warnings provided on site on the chairlift. Rulings on this point will await trial testimony.

As for feasibility, plaintiffs may introduce sign location and alternative locations if defendants’ witnesses testify as to the feasible location for warning signs.

As to the probative/prejudice balance under Rule 403, evidence inadmissible under Rule 407 “would also likely lead to prejudice and confusion under Rule 403,” Bak v. Metro North R.R., No. 12 Civ. 3220 (TPG), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60736, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 8, 2015), but remedial evidence may be admitted for rebuttal or impeachment evidence, id., without affecting the probative/prejudice balance of Rule 403.

Finally, Holimont currently uses a red light/green light on its chairlifts to advise skiers when to disembark from the chairlift. But that system was implemented years after this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Aff. of David Riley ¶¶ 1, 4-8 (Holimont general manager); Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. 3-4). Holimont general manager David Riley stated that he had not seen this light warning system in United States slopes prior to his tour of Europe in 2014 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. C, Riley Aff. ¶ 8). Thus, it was not feasible in 2010 to have such a light warning system and admission of evidence [*30]  of the Holimont lighting system would be prejudicial. Plaintiffs are precluded from introducing evidence of this system as a feasible alternative.

Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted in part, with some issues to be decided at trial upon the proffer or introduction of evidence at issue.

2. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Liability Expert, Dick Penniman,

Defendants next seek to preclude testimony from plaintiffs’ expert, Dick Penniman, on various subjects. Plaintiffs globally respond that Penniman is a forty-year veteran of the ski industry, performing various duties as a member of ski patrol, lift operator, ski lift maintenance man, and “mountain manager/assistant operations manager” of a number of ski areas (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 27-29, Ex. Q (Penniman curriculum vitae)). Penniman testified as an expert in Whitford v. Mt. Baker Ski Area, Inc., Case No. C11099112RSM, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 23, 2012) (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11), opining in that case about the lift attendant’s duties and whether a catch net used at that resort was adequate, id., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Plaintiffs conclude that defense objections to Penniman goes to the weight, not the admissibility, [*31]  of his expert testimony (id. at 10, 11). Plaintiffs do not provide a point-for-point refutation of defense objections to Penniman as an expert.

As noted by the court in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3, “the trial court must act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure that proffered expert testimony is both relevant and reliable,” id. citing Kumho Tire Co. Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999). Where expert testimony is technical rather than purely scientific, “the Court must ensure that it ‘rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand,'” id. (quoting United States v. Hermanek, 289 F.3d 1076, 1093 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting in turn Daubert v. Merrel Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993))). As gatekeeper, this Court has to “make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterize the practice of an expert in the relevant field,” Kumho, supra, 526 U.S. at 152; Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *3-4. The Whitford court, in considering testimony for other specialized knowledge, construed Federal Rule of Evidence 702 liberally, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4 (citing 9 th Circuit case and Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory committee note, 2000 amendment, rejection of an expert is the exception rather than the rule).

From Penniman’s curriculum vitae (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. Q), his expertise is ski patrol (including lift operation and hazard evaluation and mitigation), avalanche safety, and slope preparation. [*32]  He worked for two years supervising lift operations in Chile (id.). Since 1983, Penniman has been a consultant and expert witness; he was qualified as an expert in safe skiing including lift operations and ski instruction (id.). As a threshold matter, Penniman’s expert testimony comes from decades of performing various tasks at several ski resorts and evaluating skiing hazards.

Next, this Court turns to the specific defense objections to Penniman’s expert testimony.

a. Prohibit Penniman from Opining Regarding Relocation of Unload Sign

First, defendants seek to bar Penniman’s opinion about the proper location of signage for unloading or discharging skiers from the chairlift (the “unload/open restraint bar”) and changes in the text of the registration form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5, 6-7). As for Penniman opining on sign location, his expertise as a ski lift operator and evaluator of skiing accidents informs his opinions about such things. Penniman lists in his curriculum vitae experience in signage at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q), but does not specify if this includes the location of chairlift instructions or warning signage. The bulk of his stated expertise and [*33]  experience involves avalanches, so the signage Penniman is familiar with appears to be for ski trails. In his deposition regarding signage, Penniman testified that applicable New York State regulations when the Creekside lift was erected in 2003 were based on the American National Standards Institute (“ANSI”) standards from 19993 , with a 20064 amendment of ANSI standards expressly calling for sign placement (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 23). The 2006 ANSI amendments grandfathered pre-2006 construction to be governed by earlier standards (id., Tr. at 25), but the 2006 standard for sign location called for signs to be ahead of the off load point (id., Tr. at 25-26), while the 1999 standard did not require signage at all (id., Tr. at 24, 39). Penniman noted that one ski resort, White Pine, had its raise bar signs in front of shacks near the unload points (id., Tr. at 28), while at other resorts, Penniman observed these signs either on chairlift towers 20-30 feet before the unload area or as close to the unload area as possible (id., Tr. at 32-34; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 33-34). Penniman concluded that defendants violated New York State standards for the location [*34]  of Holiday Valley’s signs, violating ANSI 1999 and 2003 standards that signage be ahead of the offload area (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 37-38). Penniman did not know if New York State inspected the location of these signs (id., Tr. at 40-41). Penniman noted that New York law also required use of the restraint bar on chairlifts; requiring a rider to not use a restraint bar for 50 yards, Penniman opined, would require the rider to violate New York law (id., Tr. at 38).

3 Pls. Ex. 67.

4 Pls. Ex. 68; Defs. Exs. 56, 65.

From review of Penniman’s deposition testimony, the issue is whether placement of the offload warning sign should be at the offload area or in advance of that area (e.g., id., Tr. at 39). Penniman’s experience seems to be from his observations at various resorts, without knowing the written policies for sign placement at those areas. A foundation, therefore, will need to be established that Penniman has sufficient expertise in sign location of chairlift instructions to credit Penniman’s opinion as an expert. Penniman’s testimony also is limited regarding subsequent changes in the sign location, as indicated above. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No 53) on these grounds is granted.

b. Prohibit Plaintiffs’ Expert [*35]  Penniman from Opining on Risk of Chairlift Not Being Inherent to Skiing

Next, defendants seek to preclude Penniman’s opinion on the risk of using a chairlift not being inherent to skiing (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 5-6). Plaintiffs argue that the New York Court of Appeals decision in Trupia, supra, 14 N.Y.3d 392, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127, changed the standards for primary assumption of the risk that coincides with Penniman’s opinion that use of a chairlift is distinct from the sport of skiing (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 6-7).

There is a preliminary question whether this is an evidentiary issue or a matter requiring an expert opinion at all. New York cases recognize that use of a chairlift is an inherent part of skiing, with distinct risks from the sport of skiing. There are separate, but related, duties of care with operating a chairlift and downhill skiing, Morgan v. Ski Roundtop, Inc., 290 A.D.2d 618, 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d 135, 137 (3d Dep’t 2002) (hereinafter “Ski Roundtop”) (inherent risk in skiing and “some risk of injury inherent in entering, riding and exiting from a chairlift”); see Morgan v. New York State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421, 427 (1997); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 1707, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 787-88 (4th Dep’t 2011); see also Tone v. Song Mtn. Ski Ctr., 113 A.D.3d 1126, 1127, 977 N.Y.S.2d 857, 858 (4th Dep’t 2014) (claim from chairlift, assumption of risk applied for “athletic activity,” quoting Ski Roundtop, supra, 290 A.D.2d at 620, 736 N.Y.S.2d at 137). As defendants note (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 4), riding and disembarking a chairlift is inherent in Alpine downhill skiing, [*36]  see also Litz v. Clinton Cent. Sch. Dist., 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636 (4th Dep’t 2015) (assumption of risk for playing hockey applied to injury suffered in rink locker room).

Factually, Trupia involved horseplay on a bannister by a twelve-year-old, rather than engaging in a sporting activity or the steps leading to that activity (with the inherent risks of those steps), supra, 14 N.Y.3d at 393, 396, 901 N.Y.S.2d at 128, 129. Again, this is more akin to the ancillary dangers in the locker room preparing for participation in a sport, e.g., Litz, supra, 126 A.D.3d 1306, 5 N.Y.S.3d 636; but for the sporting activity, a participant would not be injured in the locker room or on the chairlift, each is necessary to prelude to athletic participation. This participant is only in these places to engage in a sport with its own inherent dangers and risks.

As noted in Whitford, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *9, wherein Penniman was accepted as an expert, he “is not required to be an expert in the law; he is only required to be an expert in the subject matter of his testimony,” id. Thus, as a matter of law, there are risks, distinct from those in alpine skiing, to riding a chairlift that are related to those of skiing. This does not require an expert opinion one way or the other. Defense motion in limine on this point (Docket No. 53) is granted.

c. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Registration Form

Defendants [*37]  next contend that Penniman lacked any foundation to make an opinion about the registration form used by Holiday Valley (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6-7; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, Penniman’s Supp’al Expert Report at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). They object to Penniman’s supplemental opinion that noted defendants’ changes to the registration form to require a parent to initial the form at paragraph 6 on chairlift use (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 4-5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl., Ex. L, at 5). Plaintiffs do not respond specifically to this objection. Penniman opined that the sentence about a child riding the chairlift without adult supervision was vaguely written (Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. E, at 5; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. L, at 5; Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 6).

Again, looking at the actual registration form quoted above (at pages 19-20, supra), participants are warned that children may ride with other children on the chairlift, followed by a warning that riding the chairlift “can be a hazardous activity for your child(ren)” (Docket No. 56, Pls. Atty. Decl. Ex. [*38]  G, paragraph 6). That text implies that children may ride together without an adult. As noted in detail by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7), Penniman lacks expertise in developing ski school policies, drafting registration forms, or have expertise in human factors, engineering, or psychology. Thus, his opinion on the text of the registration form is a little more informed than that of a layperson. Penniman’s opinion in this area is excluded; defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.

As for Penniman’s observation of the post-accident changes in the form (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. E, at 5; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. L, at 5), this also goes to proof of subsequent remediation and, unlike the impeachment use plaintiffs propose for the relocation of signs or feasibility of change, Penniman’s opinion on the changes in the registration form would only come as part of his direct testimony. Such introduction violates Rule 407 and its prejudice outweighs its probative value under Rule 403. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to Penniman’s opinion in this area is granted.

d. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on Human Factor

Defendants next argue that Penniman lacks [*39]  the qualifications to opine on the impact of the human factor in this incident (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 7-8). Penniman testified that generally an infant should have been accompanied by an adult on a chairlift based on “best practices.” Penniman based these best practices on his experience, observations, and involvement in ski schools and he concludes that a majority of ski areas “are concerned about small children riding up chairs alone, or with other kids without an adult accompanying them. There are some I have observed where they don’t care. But the majority do, and I call that best practices.” (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, excerpts of Penniman EBT Tr. at 65-67, 66.) Penniman testified that, from the age of 8, he had observed ski schools recruit adults to ride up with unaccompanied children, that the “vast majority [of resorts] do,” or so Penniman found (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. P, Tr. at 67). He noted that other ski areas do not let small children on chairlifts and “the majority of ski resorts, when it’s not an instruction situation, leave that decision up to the parents” (Docket [*40]  No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). But Penniman had not investigated the policies of individual ski resorts in New York whether they require adult accompaniment on chairlifts and he could not testify to written policies of ski resorts (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 67; Docket No. 66, Ex. P, Tr. at 67). Penniman, however, admitted that he was not familiar with Holimont’s policies regarding adult accompaniment or the policies of other Western New York ski resorts on this issue (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, Tr. at 18-19).

Penniman’s opinion on how small children react on chairlifts may be informed by his experience operating ski lifts, observing at ski resorts, and investigating skiing accidents, but this expertise does not rise to the level that it should be credited as an expert. Similar to the registration form objection, Penniman’s expertise is in ski resort operations and not on how patrons will react. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on this ground is granted.

e. Prohibit Penniman from Opining about the Operation of a Ski School

Defendants contend that Penniman cannot render an opinion about how to operate a ski school due to lack of qualifications [*41]  on how to operate such a program and not knowing Holiday Valley’s policies (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9). Defendants point out that Penniman testified that he was only at level one (of three levels) as a certified ski instructor by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (or “PSIA”) (id.; Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 11) and that Penniman was never employed as a ski instructor at any resort where he worked (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 12), but he later stated that he taught skiing informally and once at a resort as a ski patroller (id. at 41-42). Penniman also admitted that he never developed policies for a ski school (Docket No. 53, Defs. Ex. F, at 13). According to plaintiffs’ retort, Penniman performed several different tasks in the ski industry for forty years (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 10-11), including experiences with ski schools and policies of the White Pine Ski Area related to children riding chairlifts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.d., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 19-20 (being familiar with policies of resorts regarding children on chairlifts), membership in the PSIA (id., Ex. Q), and as a private ski instructor (id., ¶ 29.e., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 42-44). [*42]  He was qualified as an expert on skiing safety including chairlift operations and ski instruction (id.).

Reviewing his experience and stated expertise, Penniman essentially provided private ski lessons, “step[ped] in once at White Pine” ski resort as an instructor while a ski patroller and provided instruction, and instructed ski patrollers (Docket No. 53, Ex. F, at 42-43). He admits to never developing policies for a ski school. Given that the focus of Penniman’s expertise is more on trails (such as avalanches); his experience is only slightly more than a layperson regarding ski school policies. This is despite the fact that Penniman has testified as an expert in Whitford (but cf. Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 11); in that case he testified about the lift attendant’s duties and the adequacy of the chairlift’s safety netting, supra, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40166, at *4. Penniman there was not asked to opine on ski school policies (see Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 7).

Thus, defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) on Penniman rendering his opinion on ski school policies is granted.

f. Prohibit Penniman from Opining on the Custom for Chairlift Signage

Defendants next argue that Penniman should not be allowed to testify about customary [*43]  chairlift signage or sign location (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 9-10). Again, plaintiffs apparently rely upon Penniman’s forty years of experience operating ski lifts and in the ski industry generally and do not point to specifics as to his expertise regarding the customary location of warning signage (see Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29.e., h., Ex. P, Penniman EBT Tr. at 33-34, 68-69). Penniman’s experience as to the location of unloading signage is at three North America ski areas and his 40 years of seeing where signs have been located at those and other ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 29, e. h.). Again, Penniman lists experience in “signing” at two ski resorts (Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. Q) without specifying what signage he positioned. Continuing to review Penniman’s stated experience, most of his training focused on ski patrol, avalanches, and ski safety, with attendance at a congress for transportation by wire rope in 1999 and ski lift maintenance. He is affiliated with the International Society of Skiing Safety and the PSIA. These could be sources for Penniman’s opinion about the national or continental safety standards, but a foundation needs to be established [*44]  to confirm this before Penniman’s opinion on this subject is admissible. As noted above, the basis for Penniman’s opinions are from his observation of practices at ski areas and what he believes to be best practices. But he extrapolates this experience to conclude continental practices regarding where these signs are placed and should be placed without additional foundation. Absent such a foundation for a broader opinion, Penniman can only testify to his observations of what he observed at other ski resorts. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) on this issue is granted in part.

3. Exclude Prior and Subsequent Incidents at Holiday Valley

Finally in the initial motion in limine, defendants argue that evidence of prior and subsequent incidents of youths falling from chairlifts at Holiday Valley should not be admitted (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 10-17; Docket No. 56, sealed Exs. G-S). They argue that introducing all of these incidents would be prejudicial to them, Fed. R. Evid. 403 (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15, 11-15). Defendants argue that the Creekside open restraint bar sign was moved to Tower 6 after LD’s accident. Therefore, subsequent incidents would allow plaintiffs, by the [*45]  “back door,” to introduce evidence of subsequent remediation (id. at 16). Further, only one incident (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) involved Creekside chairlift, while other post-2010 incidents (id., Defs. Exs. R-S) are not substantially similar to LD’s incident (see Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 16).

Plaintiffs argue that defendants did not cite federal cases on the admissibility of subsequent accidents (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 14). They claim one subsequent incident was similar (id. at 15; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35, Ex. X) (four-year-old fell from Mardi Gras chairlift on February 26, 2012).

Plaintiffs argue that evidence of prior incidents is admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 to show the existence and notice of the dangerous condition (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). They also claim that proof of subsequent accidents also is admissible to show the existence of the dangerous condition (id.). They reviewed defendants’ reports of similar incidents both before and after LD’s 2010 accident and argue that several of them are admissible since they present examples of youth slightly older than five-year-old LD (ages six to ten years old before the 2010 accident, and a four-year-old after5) opening the restraining [*46]  bar prematurely due to the location of the signs instructing them to open that bar (id. at 12-14; Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 34, Exs. S, T, U, V, W; ¶ 35, Ex. X). Plaintiffs argue that pictures after 2010 showing relocation of the signs would be admissible only to rebut testimony regarding feasibility, impeaching the defense of culpable conduct (id. at 14). Their claim is that “very young children were needlessly exposed to serious injury by having the ‘open restraint bar’ sign posted too far away from the unload point, and resulting in the restraint bar being lifted at a point when the chairlift is too far above the ground,” hence it was unnecessary for plaintiffs to allege that the chairlift itself was defective (id. at 15); if there was any defect, it was in the location of the signage relative to the height of the chairlift.

5 According to the report for that accident, Feb. 26, 2012, the injured four-year-old was sitting next to his father on the chairlift when he fell, Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35.a., Ex. X.

a. Prior Incidents

As for prior incidents at Holiday Valley, they are admissible in this case provided they are “substantially similar” to the 2010 accident on trial here, Bellinger v. Deere & Co., 881 F. Supp. 813, 817 (N.D.N.Y. 1995) (case citations omitted); see Sawyer v. Dreis & Krump Mfg. Co., 67 N.Y.2d 328, 336, 493 N.E.2d 920, 502 N.Y.S.2d 696, 701 (1986) (under New York law, similar prior accidents are admissible to show dangerousness of conditions and notice) (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 11). Defendants note (id.) that New York [*47]  law allows admission of proof of similar incidents to show dangerousness of conditions and notice, Sawyer, supra, 67 N.Y.2d at 336, 502 N.Y.S.2d at 701. The parties differ here on whether the prior incidents are substantially similar to LD’s 2010 accident. As defendants concede that one incident of the eleven prior incidents at Holiday Valley identified by defendants is substantially similar to LD’s situation (id.; see Docket No. 53, Defs. Atty. Decl. Ex. A, Pls.’ Response to Interrogatories, Interrogatory No. 11), that a five-year-old novice skier riding a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult fell between Towers 5 and 6 of the Creekside chairlift. The conceded incident is admissible. The ten other prior incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Atty. Exs. G-P) had one or two distinguishing facts that defendants conclude makes them not sufficiently similar to be admissible.

Table 2 below lists the factors defendants argue distinguish these ten prior incidents from LD’s 2010 incident, listing the youths as they were identified by defendants (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12-15), cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2.

[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]

 6 Injured youth #3 rode with a brother whose name was redacted by defendants, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12; Docket No. 56, Ex. I. The report does not give the brother’s age; thus, it is presumed that he is a minor as well.

7 Defendants claim that this incident occurred at Creekside, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; see Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, but defendants argue that it did not occur at a similar location, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 12. They distinguish this incident since there is no reference to use of a restraint bar, Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11. The lift operator’s description of that incident, however, said that the restraint bar was up, Docket No. 56, Ex. H, at 2.

Two of the prior incidents are also distinct due to the greater expertise of the youth skier (#8, Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 14-15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. N) and the age of the skier as compared with LD’s age in 2010 (#10, 16 year old, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P) who was involved in horseplay that led to the fall (Docket No. 53, Defs. Memo. at 15; Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. P).

Plaintiffs argue that whether these prior incidents were during a ski lesson is immaterial to whether they are similar to LD’s 2010 experience (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 12). But one factor here is that LD was a relative novice in 2010 and had not ridden on a chairlift unaccompanied by an adult. Also, plaintiffs’ claim is for inadequate supervision by the ski instructor while LD was on the chairlift (Docket No. 1, Compl. ¶ 15); that inadequacy would not occur in prior incidents that were not ski lessons. Therefore, to be sufficiently similar to LD’s circumstances, the prior instances must factor in the experience of the youth involved, shown by defendants from whether the incidents [*49]  occurred during a ski lesson (as was for LD) as well as a review of the incident reports showing whether these youths were identified as being “novices” in the ability and days skied portions of the Holiday Valley incident reports.

To plaintiffs, “the similar circumstances at issue in this case are a very young child falling off a chair lift when the restraint bar was lifted at the point indicated by the ‘open restraint bar’ sign” (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13). The prior incidents occurred at various chairlifts at Holiday Valley and the records for each incident does not indicate either where the “open restraint bar” signs were relative to where the youths fell or the distance they were from the appropriate discharge point. At least one youth, #3 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. I) appears to have fallen shortly after boarding the chairlift. Another prior incident occurred at Tower 4 of School House chairlift, well before Towers 5 and 6 of Creekside where LD fell (Incident #5, Docket No. 56, Ex. K). Thus, it is difficult to determine if these falls at other chairlifts were similar to LD’s fall at Creekside.

Plaintiffs next point to five prior instances that they claim were substantially [*50]  similar to LD’s in which the restraint bar was opened prematurely and each child fell (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 13-14; Incident #2, 4, 6, 7, 9 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, J, L, M, O; see also Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. Exs. S, T, U, V, W). Defendants reply that plaintiffs’ parsing of these prior incidents focus on singular favorable points and did not meet the burden of establishing that any of these incidents were substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident (Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 10-11). They again distinguish these five incidents from the 2010 incident (id. at 11-12).

Incidents where the child was riding with a parent or other adult are not substantially similar to LD riding without an adult. The location of the fall also has to be similar to the 2010 Creekside incident; one of the issues is the location of the warning signage and where the restraining bar was lifted or the youth attempted to dismount (see also Docket No. 67, Defs. Reply Memo. at 11, on Incident #4, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. J; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. T). While not considered by the parties, the age as well as the experience of the youth involved (shown by whether use of the lift was during a ski lesson [*51]  and the identified skiing ability on the Holiday Valley incident reports) is an important factor to determine if a prior incident was substantially similar to LD’s incident.

The next table (Table 3) lists the prior incidents at issue, the defense and plaintiffs’ exhibits identifications, the age of the youth, and their skiing experience (novice or not).

[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]

Reviewing these prior incidents, the five identified by plaintiffs are not sufficiently similar to LD’s 2010 experience to admit them into evidence. These incidents each had an adult present (#2, 4, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, V, W); or were not during a ski lesson (#2, 4, 6, 7, 9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. H, J, L, M, O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Exs. S, T, U, V, W); or were not at the Creekside chairlift or the youths did not fall at a point similar to where LD fell from the Creekside chairlift [*52]  (id.). But the child in Incident #9 was a six-year-old novice who skied for two days, describing the incident as lifting the safety bar “at prescribed point” (rather than earlier), slipped forward and left the lift (#9, Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. O; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. W). Finally, LD is younger than any of the youth in the prior incidents.

One incident defendants attempt to distinguish, Incident #2, involves a fall by a seven-year-old novice skier (with two to nine days skied) at Creekside where the chairlift stopped thirty feet from the unloading ramp and the lift operator reported that the restraint bar was up (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S). The lift operator went to the child and “waited for parents” prior to ski patrol arriving (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H, at 2; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S, at 3). It is unclear where defendants got the impression that the parents were with that child on the chairlift. This incident is similar to LD’s experience and thus is admissible.

Therefore, Incident #2 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. H; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. S), and the incident conceded by defendants to be similar are admissible, but the other prior incidents identified [*53]  by defendants are not similar and are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine (Docket No. 53) as to the admission of evidence of prior incidents substantially similar to LD’s 2010 incident is granted in part, save for the conceded prior incident.

b. Subsequent Incidents

As for subsequent incidents (Docket No. 56, Defs. Exs. Q-S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X (Feb. 26, 2012, incident), Table 4 lists these incidents, with this Court continuing the incident numbering scheme the parties used for the prior incidents.

[Chart Removed because it would not format for this site]

Plaintiffs argue that one incident, #13 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X) is similar to LD’s 2010 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 35). There, a four-year-old youth was riding with his father on February 26, 2012, and was on a different chairlift, Mardi Gras, approximately 32 yards from the bull wheel (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. S; Docket No. 66, Pls. Ex. X). According to the eight-year-old sister of that youth, that child wiggled in the chairlift seat and fell from it (id.). These differences [*54]  distinguish this incident from LD’s by the later child riding with a parent and no mention of the restraint bar having a role in the incident. This incident is distinct from LD’s.

As for the other two incidents, the youths were older than LD and had more skiing experience. Incident #11 (Docket No. 56, Defs. Ex. Q) is the closest to LD’s 2010 experience; that incident had a 6 1/2 year old youth fall from the Creekside chairlift 62 feet above Tower 5. That youth claimed he “never really got on chair” and the chair stopped and he fell (id. at 1). Witnesses reported that the restraint bar was down as other skiers held the youth until losing their grip (id. at 7). But this incident is sufficiently distinct from what LD experienced to not admit that subsequent incident into evidence.

Thus, the subsequent incidents are inadmissible. Defendants’ motion in limine on this ground (Docket No. 53) is granted as discussed above.

4. Defense Supplemental Motion (Docket No. 58), Exclude Non-Disclosed Expert Testimony

In their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58), defendants next ask that undisclosed plaintiffs’ expert testimony be excluded (id., Defs. Memo. at 2-3). Plaintiffs contend that they did disclose regarding [*55]  future medical expenses; alternatively, they argue that defendants waived any objection to that disclosure by not moving to compel further disclosure (Docket No. 66, Pls. Memo. at 16-18; see also Docket No. 68, Pls. Atty. Reply Decl.¶ 3, Ex. A (supplementing plaintiffs’ discovery). Plaintiffs also argue that defendants overstate the scope of the witnesses defendants claim are plaintiffs’ experts (plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco, wife Natascha DiFrancesco, and brother Dean DiFrancesco); for example, uncle Dean DiFrancesco would not testify as an expert regarding inadequate supervision but would testify as to his expectation regarding supervision of youth (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 36). During oral argument, plaintiffs offered to supplement evidence of LD’s future medical requirements (see Docket No. 69). The parties reserved the right to file a new round of motions in limine regarding this supplementation (as well as other supplemented discovery).

Plaintiffs do not list the DiFrancescos as expert witnesses in their pretrial submissions (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Pretrial Memo. at 14-15), only expressly identifying Penniman as their expert witness (id. at 21). Defendants’ supplemental motion [*56]  in limine (Docket No. 58) on this ground is deemed moot, but subject to renewal upon receipt of the supplemental discovery.

5. LD’s Mother Is Not Qualified as an Expert to Opine on LD’s Future Treatment

Defendants next contend that LD’s mother, Natascha DiFrancesco is not qualified as an expert to render an opinion as to LD’s need for future treatments (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3), since Mrs. DiFrancesco has degrees in sociology and physical therapy and lacks the medical qualification to opine as to LD’s physical care needs (id. at 3; id., Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. C, EBT Tr. Natascha DiFrancesco).

Plaintiffs respond that the parents would testify to medical expenses incurred but health care provider witnesses would testify to the medical necessity for future treatment of LD (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 37). They also point out Dr. Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco are both “health care professionals and have had extensive contact and conversations with the infant plaintiff’s health care providers, an understanding of immediate health care surveillance she requires and the fact that they have been informed that the infant plaintiff is a candidate for require [sic] future [*57]  medical surveillance, treatment, injections, surgery and imaging” (id.). Both parents discussed LD’s care and future medical needs with treating orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Devin Peterson (id. ¶¶ 40, 41).

Plaintiff Bryan and Natascha DiFrancesco can testify to the facts of LD’s past treatment and the recommended follow up, with health care providers testifying as to the necessity of future medical care. Plaintiffs, however, are not holding them out as “experts,” they claim that Natascha DiFrancesco would testify as to the necessity for LD having future medical care (see Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 15). Thus, they cannot invoke Dr. and Mrs. DiFrancesco’s respective experience in health care professions (according to defense moving papers, Natascha DiFrancesco has degrees in occupational therapy and sociology, Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶ 8) to bolster their factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other layperson could testify to their injured daughter or son. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.

6. Physical Therapist Emily Wray Cannot Offer an Expert Opinion on Causation or Diagnosis

Defendants caution that plaintiffs’ physical therapist, [*58]  Emily Wray, is not an expert as to the cause or diagnosis for LD’s injuries (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 3-4). Defendants produced a copy of plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco’s business website for the Active Body Clinic. This website listed among the staff of that clinic Ms. Wray (Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl., Ex. B). Plaintiffs, however, offer Ms. Wray’s testimony as to her observations in treating LD in 2015 (Docket No. 66, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 38, Ex. AA; see also Docket No. 54, Pls. Memo. at 23-24). Thus, she is being called as a treating witness rather than an expert. This Court notes that Wray’s employment with Bryan’s Active Body Clinic raises issues of bias but this goes to her ultimate credibility and not to the admissibility of her testimony. Again, as modified to restrict her testimony to her factual observations, defendants’ motion (Docket No. 58) is granted.

7. Plaintiff Father Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco Cannot Opine on Fractures, Surgical Procedures on LD

Finally, defendants move to preclude plaintiff Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco from testifying as an expert on LD’s fractures and surgical procedures (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4). Defendants contend [*59]  that plaintiff Bryan DiFrancesco is a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and physical therapist and thus lacks the expertise to render an opinion as to LD’s treatment of her fractured femur (id.; Docket No. 58, Defs. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 3, 8, Ex. B). Defendants point out that plaintiffs have not provided disclosure of the nature and extend of future treatments that LD requires (Docket No. 58, Defs. Memo. Supp’al Motion at 4).

Again, plaintiffs are not holding Dr. Bryan out as an “expert,” his anticipated testimony is regarding LD’s condition before and after the accident, including the necessity for future treatment (Docket No. 54, Pls. Trial Memo. at 14); thus, they cannot invoke his expertise in health care professions as a chiropractor, acupuncturist and physical therapist to bolster factual testimony as to LD’s care that any other parent not in a health care profession could testify for their injured daughter or son. It is unclear in this record the extend of Dr. Bryan DiFrancesco’s medical training that he received in obtaining his chiropractic and physical therapy degrees in Canada. As refined, defendants’ supplemental motion (Docket No. 58) is granted in part.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated [*60]  above, plaintiffs’ motion in limine (Docket No. 56) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above. Plaintiffs’ motion to exclude evidence of infant LD’s assumption of the risk is denied, as well as evidence of the release (as being contrary to New York State public policy) is denied but on different grounds; their motion to preclude evidence of LD’s 2015 clavicle injury at Holimont is granted in part with medical records first subject to this Court’s in camera review.

Defendants’ first motion in limine (Docket No. 53) is granted in part, denied in part as provided in detail above. Their supplemental motion in limine (Docket No. 58) is granted in part, denied in part as specified above.

Jury selection and trial is set for Monday, July 17, 2017, commencing at 9:30 am (Docket Nos. 69, 71), with a Final Pretrial Conference to be scheduled and a further Pretrial Order to be separately issued. The Interim Pretrial Conference (Docket Nos. 71, 63), remains set for Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 10:30 am (Docket No. 72).

So Ordered.

/s/ Hugh B. Scott

Hon. Hugh B. Scott

United States Magistrate Judge

Dated: Buffalo, New York

March 20, 2017

 


Pennsylvania wrongful death statute is written in a way that a split court determined the deceased release prevented the surviving family members from suing.

Plaintiff argued that because she did not sign the release, the release did not apply to her. However, the court found that the release was written broadly enough that it covered the plaintiff’s suit as well as finding that the release included enough assumption of risk language that the deceased knowingly assume the risk.

Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, 2016 PA Super 248; 2016 Pa. Super. LEXIS 663

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Michele Valentino, as Administratrix of the Estate of Derek Valentino, Deceased, and Michele Valentino, in her Own Right,

Defendant: Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees, outrageous acts, gross negligence, recklessness, and punitive damages.

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2016

This is an interesting case, because the Pennsylvania, wrongful death statute is written in a way that almost prevented a release from stopping a claim by a widow. The decision was also in front of the entire court of appeals and was a split decision.

This case centers on the Philadelphia triathlon. The deceased signed up for the triathlon electronically in January. While signing up for the triathlon, he signed a release to enter the race electronically.

At the start of the triathlon the deceased entered the water and never finished the swim part of the race. His body was found the following day by divers.

On June 26, 2010, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Mr. Valentino entered the Schuylkill River to begin the first part of the Triathlon. He never completed the swimming portion of the competition or any other part of the race. The following day, on June 27, 2010, divers retrieved his body from the Schuylkill River.

The widow of the deceased, the plaintiff, filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. Most states have a wrongful-death  statute. The wrongful-death  statute is the specific ways that the survivors can sue the person who caused the death of a loved one.

After filing the original complaint the plaintiff then filed an amended complaint. The defendant filed objections which the trial court upheld arguing that the complaint failed to state facts, which would allow the court or jury to reach a claim of outrageous acts, gross negligence or recklessness and thus award punitive damages.

The defendant filed an additional motion for summary judgment which the court granted dismissing all the claims of the plaintiff. The plaintiff then appealed the dismissal of her claims.

Most appellate courts may have anywhere from 3 to 15 or more judges sitting on the appellate court. When appeals are filed, judges are then assigned to these cases. Not all judges are assigned to every case. The majority the time a case is heard by three Appellate Ct. judges.

The decision in this case was split. Three judges affirmed the trial court’s order concerning some motions. However, two of the members of the appellate court concluded that the release executed by the deceased did not apply to his widow, the plaintiff, because she was not a sign release.

…however, two of the three members of the petite panel concluded that the liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino did not apply to Appellant because she was not a signatory to the agreement.

The defendant then petitioned the court for hearing en banc. En banc means in front of the entire panel of the appellate court. The entire panel agreed to hear the case again specifically looking at five specific issues set forth below. In this case en banc meant in front of nine judges.

Consequently, this Court vacated summary judgment in favor of Appellee as to Appellant’s wrongful death claims.5 Thereafter, both Appellant and Appellee requested reargument en banc. By order filed on March 11, 2016, this Court granted en banc reargument and withdrew our opinions of December 30, 2015. We now address the following questions:

1. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] where, when the material facts set forth in the [a]mended [c]omplaint, as well as all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom, are accepted as true, it cannot be said with certainty that [Appellee’s] actions were not sufficiently reckless, outrageous and/or egregious to warrant an award of punitive damages?

2. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred [*8]  in sustaining the [p]reliminary [o]bjections [] and striking para-graph[s] 22(a), (c), (e), and (m) of the [a]mended [c]omplaint where these averments, and the [a]mended [c]omplaint in general, were sufficiently specific to enable [Appellee] to respond and prepare a defense?

3. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] second [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the issue of waiver and release was previously decided in the [o]rder of January 29, 2013 that denied [Appellee’s] first [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment, and the [c]ourt was precluded by the coordinate jurisdiction rule from revisiting the question?

4. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where, when the record is viewed in the light most favorable to [Appellant], questions of fact remain as to whether the purported release in question was effectively executed by the decedent and, if it was, whether it was enforceable?

5. Whether the [trial c]ourt erred in granting [Appellee’s] [m]otion for [s]ummary [j]udgment where the report issued by Mark Mico fully and adequately addressed the questions of duty, breach of duty and causation and, in addition, he was fully qualified to render opinions in these regards?

Only the fourth and fifth issues that the court identified, are relevant to us. The first is whether or not the decedent effectively executed an electric agreement and whether not the case should be dismissed because of the release.

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

The court first looked at the issue punitive damages and defined punitive damages were under Pennsylvania law. Pennsylvania like most of the states, defines punitive damages for acts that are outrageous because of an evil motive or recklessness or an indifference towards the rights of others.

In Pennsylvania, “[p]unitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant’s evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others.” As the name suggests, punitive damages are penal in nature and are proper only in cases where the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk. “Ordinary negligence, involving inadvertence, mistake or error of judgment will not support an award of punitive damages.”

The plaintiff argued in her amended complaint that the defendant was inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect and maintain the course, failed to warn or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards and failed to properly train and supervise its employees.

…inattentive to the needs of the contestants, failed to inspect or maintain the event course, failed to warn of or remove dangerous conditions, failed to properly plan or organize the event, failed to follow safety standards, and failed to properly train and supervise its employees

The court looked at these allegations and held that they simply argued simple negligence, and none of the allegations rose to the level to be outrageous, evil or showing an indifference the welfare of others. The court sustained, upheld, dismissal of the gross negligence claims against the defendant.

These allegations, however, averred nothing more than ordinary negligence arising from inadvertence, mistake, or error in judgment; they do not support a claim involving outrageous behavior or a conscious disregard for risks confronted by Triathlon participants. Hence, the trial court correctly dismissed

The next issue important to us, is whether or not the plaintiff can contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct.

Appellant next maintains that a plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, the liability waiver executed in this case is incapable of extinguishing such claims. Appellant also asserts that, pursuant to our prior decision in Pisano, a decedent’s liability waiver is ineffective as to non-signatory third-party wrongful death claimants. Lastly, Appellant claims that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because she offered the testimony of a qualified expert to address lingering questions of Appellee’s duty, breach of duty, and injury causation.

The first major argument made by the plaintiff was there were two different releases presented to the court in different motions filed by the defendant. One was two pages long I will was 2 ½ pages long.

Appellant draws our attention to differences between the version of the liability waiver introduced in support of Appellee’s first motion for summary judgment and the version submitted in support of its second motion. Appellant notes that the second version was two and one-half pages in length while the first version was only two pages. Appellant also notes that the second version bore the date “2011” while the event occurred in 2010. Lastly, the second version included the words “Yes, I agree to the above waivers” above the signature line while the first version did not.

However, the court found that this was not an issue, and both pieces of evidence were the same release. The defendant hired  a third-party firm to administer the sign up for the event and the execution of the release by the participants. The principle of the third-party firm testified that once the release is signed it is stored electronically and in storing the document it is shrunk so that when it is presented a second time it is actually a different size but the identical document.

The record shows that Appellee retained the services of ACTIVE Network (ACTIVE) to implement the online registration process for the Triathlon. ACTIVE implemented the required specifications for online registration, including guidelines for specific waiver and assumption of the risk language, supplied by Appellee and USA Triathlon (USAT), the national governing body of the sport of triathlon. USAT sanctioned the Triathlon because Appellee followed USAT registration guidelines.

According to Mr. McCue’s affidavit, “ACTIVE’s computer system condenses older registration and waiver documents for storage purposes, making any printed version of the older retained registration and waiver documents appear smaller than when they were viewed online by the reader/registrant.”

The third-party also demonstrated that there was no way the participant could’ve entered the race without a bib. The only way to get a bib was to sign the release.

Appellee also demonstrated that no one could participate in the Triathlon without registering online, a process that could not be completed without the execution of a liability waiver.

The plaintiff next argued that the release is unenforceable against claims of reckless or intentional conduct. However, the court quickly dismissed this, by referring to its earlier ruling that the complaint did not allege facts to support a claim of reckless or intentional conduct.

The next issue centered on the definition and wording of the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute. To be successful in the plaintiff’s Pennsylvania wrongful death claim, the plaintiff must show that the actions of the defendant were tortious. Because the release was validly executed by the deceased, and it showed that he knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk of taking part in the competition, the deceased assumed of the risk and eliminated the tortuous act of the defendant.

Here, Mr. Valentino, in registering online for the Triathlon, executed a detailed liability waiver under which he expressly assumed the risk of participating in the Triathlon and agreed to indemnify Appellee for liability stemming from his involvement in the event. The valid liability waiver executed by Mr. Valentino was available to support Appellee’s claim that Mr. Valentino knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk of taking part in the competition and that, therefore, Appellee’s actions were not tortious. Since Appellant’s wrongful death claims required her to establish that Appellee’s conduct was tortious, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee.

The plaintiff argued that a prior decision by the court had invalidated releases for wrongful-death  claims. The court distinguished that prior decision from this one because the prior decision required arbitration of the claims and that the decedent in that case had not signed the actual agreement. In that case the husband of the deceased when putting her in a nursing home signed  all the paperwork. The deceased did not sign a release or arbitration agreement.

A liability waiver, however, operates quite differently from an arbitration clause. By executing a liability waiver, the decedent signatory acknowledges and assumes identified risks and pledges that the defendant will not be held liable for resulting harms. If the decedent executes the waiver in a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary manner (as here), the waiver is deemed valid and it shifts the risk of loss away from the defendant and onto the decedent. In effect, an enforceable waiver under which the decedent assumes specified risks transforms the nature of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the decedent from tortious to non-tortious.

The court held that a release stops a claim under the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute when it is signed by the deceased.

Our conclusion that Appellee may rely on a liability waiver signed only by the decedent to defeat Appellant’s wrongful death claims is undiminished by Pennsylvania case law holding that a settlement and release agreement does not bind non-signatories.

Consequently, the court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the plaintiff based upon the release.

So Now What?

Wrongful-death  statutes are quite specific in how they must operate and how they are to be interpreted by the courts. You should look at your wrongful-death  statute or have your attorney look at the wrongful-death  statute for the state where your release will be argued to make sure that it passes or succeeds in stopping a wrongful-death  claim. It would be extremely rare to find a release that did not stop the claims, absent proof of misrepresentation or fraud.

The second thing you need to do you always make sure you that your release covers not only all the defendants if you want to protect from any lawsuit but also includes all the possible plaintiffs who might sue you. This includes the deceased obviously but also a spouse and any children of the deceased. If the deceased is single, you want to make sure it includes any siblings or parents who may have a legal claim upon the deceased death.

The outcome would be pretty forgone in most states. However, nothing is ever set in stone in the law.

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

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