Ruts left in slope by snowmaking ATV did not rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence in the Pennsylvania skiing lawsuit.

Great review of gross negligence and recklessness law under Pennsylvania law in this decision.

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife

Defendant: Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., /d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Ruts left on the slope are an inherent risk of skiing and do not rise to gross negligence in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries both under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act and the release he signed for his pass.

Facts

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Plaintiff sued for his injuries, and the trial court dismissed his claim on a motion for summary judgment. This was the plaintiff’s appeal.

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

The court first looked at the issues in this appeal from the standpoint of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act. The act states that skiers voluntarily assume the risk of the sport. Unlike most other skier safety acts, the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act does not list the risks the skier assumes. That is left up to the court in each case. This leads to more litigation as each plaintiff is free to argue that the risk that caused his accident is not an inherent risk of skiing and not covered under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

When reviewing whether a risk is inherent and part of the sport of skiing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created standards to assist courts in making that decision.

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Inherent risks of skiing in Pennsylvania are those “that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.”

The court found the plaintiff was engaged in downhill skiing. Downhill skiing has a broad definition under Pennsylvania law.

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

To determine if wheel ruts in the slope were a risk in skiing the court turned to a New York decision.

Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

However, the court never found or determined if the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act prevented the claim. The court then turned to the release the plaintiff signed when he paid for his season pass.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void.

Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellants actually read the release.

The court then looked for the requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. [[O]ur supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Since the release was between the ski area and a skier, it was a private contract and did not contravene public policy. The court then looked at whether the release was enforceable. That standard required the court to:

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.”

To be valid in Pennsylvania a release must spell out with particularity the intentions of the parties.

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void because:

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.

The plaintiff then argued the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” The court referred to Pennsylvania Uniform Code, which set froth requirements for contracts and defines what a conspicuous term is:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

The court found the release valid because exculpatory language was preceded by a heading that was written in all caps equal to the size of the text in the exculpatory paragraph. The heading also contained two exclamation points to draw attention to it.

The plaintiff then argued he did not read the release. (That’s his problem no one else’s!) “Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.”

The court then reviewed the gross negligence, and reckless conduct claims the plaintiff made. A claim that the actions of the defendant were reckless would not be barred by a release. The court then reviewed the definition of gross negligence.

The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

The court then identified the definition of recklessness.

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.

Then the court reviewed recklessness as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Finally, the court summed up the definitions as:

Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others

Since the plaintiff could not prove any intentional conduct on the part of the defendant, the actions of the defendant were not reckless or gross negligence.

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

The summary judgement of the trial court dismissing the plaintiff’s claims was upheld.

So Now What?

Anytime you do anything outside of the scope of operations of your competitors you set yourself up for a claim. Using ATV’s on the ski slope rather than a snow machine created that opportunity here for the plaintiff.

The ATV was a vehicle that could be used by the defendant year round and probably saved them money. However, the amount of time their employees spent defendant this claim and responding to the allegations I would guess wiped out that savings.

If you insist and being different, which is necessary for any industry to grow and change, justify the why with thought and reasons that are more than money. In this case, simply grooming after the ATV had passed would have solved the problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

184 A.3d 974

Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife, Appellants

v.

Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation, t/d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation

No. 903 WDA 2017

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 19, 2018

Argued November 29, 2017

[184 A.3d 975] [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[184 A.3d 976]

Appeal from the Order, May 24, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County, Civil Division at No. 2015-183. TRAVIS W. LIVENGOOD, J.

Douglas V. Stoehr, Altoona, for appellants.

Anthony W. Hinkle, Blue Bell, for appellees.

BEFORE: BOWES, J., STABILE, J., AND FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

OPINION

FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

Patrick and Kathryn Kibler (collectively “appellants”[1] ) appeal from the May 24, 2017 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County granting Blue Knob Recreation, Inc. and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.’s (hereinafter, collectively “defendants”) motion for summary judgment. After careful review, we affirm.

The trial court provided the following synopsis of the facts:

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass. The bottom half of said document contains the following exculpatory language:

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING

BEFORE SIGNING!!

Snowboarding, skiing and other snow related activities, like many other sports, contain inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risk of personal injury, death or property damage, which may be caused by: variation in terrain or weather conditions, surface or subsurface, snow, ice, bare spots, thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps, forest growth, debris, other persons using the facilities, branches, trees, roots, stumps, rocks, and other natural or man made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of the facility. For the use of Blue Knob Ski Area, the holder assumes all risks of injury and releases Blue Knob Recreation from all liability THEREFORE: Not withstanding the foregoing, if I sue Blue Knob Recreation ET AL I agree that I will only sue it, whether on my own behalf or on behalf of a family member, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County or in the United States District Court for the District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and further agree that any and all disputes which might arise between Blue Knob Recreation ET AL and myself shall be litigated exclusively in one of said courts.

See Blue Knob All Seasons Resort Information/Guidelines.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Trial court opinion, 5/23/17 at 2-3.

On February 15, 2015, appellants filed a civil complaint with the trial court sounding in negligence. Following discovery, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with an accompanying memorandum of law on January 23, 2017. Appellants filed a motion for summary judgment on March 17, 2017. Oral arguments were held before the trial court on April 18, 2017. On May 24, 2017, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing appellants’ complaint with prejudice, and denied appellants’ motion for summary judgment.

On June 16, 2017, appellants filed a timely notice of appeal with this court. The trial court ordered appellants to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and appellants complied on July 18, 2017. The trial court filed an opinion on August 10, 2017, pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) in which it incorporated the content of its May 24, 2017 order and opinion granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Appellants raise the following issues for our review: [184 A.3d 978] A. Was the hazard encountered by [appellant] inherent to the dangers of downhill skiing, when [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that the hazard was out of the ordinary, not common, and [appellant] should not have expected to encounter the hazard?

B. Is the Blue Knob All Seasons Resort 2014-2015 Season Pass Holder Information/Guidelines document a valid exculpatory release, where the top half of the document only discusses the requirements to be a season pass holder, and the lower half is ambiguous, the word “releases” is located 75% down the page, lacks conspicuity, without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person, and where no evidence exists that [appellant] read this document?

C. Is a claim for injuries caused by the grossly negligent and/or reckless acts of a ski resort barred by an alleged exculpatory sentence in Blue Knob’s season pass?

D. Did [appellant] voluntarily assume the risk of injury when he encountered a hazard at [defendants’] resort for which he was unaware, and for which [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that [appellant] had no reason to anticipate or know of the hazard’s existence? Appellant’s brief at 4-5.[2]

In reviewing an appeal from the trial court’s granting of a motion for summary judgment, we are governed by the following standard of review:

[O]ur standard of review of an order granting summary judgment requires us to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. Our scope of review is plenary. In reviewing a trial court’s grant of summary judgment, we apply the same standard as the trial court, reviewing all the evidence of record to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact. We view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered. All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact must be resolved against the moving party.

* * *

Upon appellate review, we are not bound by the trial court’s conclusions of law, but may reach our own conclusions.

Petrina v. Allied Glove Corp., 46 A.3d 795, 797-798 (Pa.Super. 2012) (internal citations omitted).

Rule of Civil Procedure 1035 governs motions for summary judgment and provides, in relevant part, as follows:

After the relevant pleadings are closed, but within such time as not to unreasonably delay trial, any party may move for summary judgment in whole or in part as a matter of law

(1) Whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of [184 A.3d 979] action or defense which could be established by additional discovery or expert report, or (2) If, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury.

Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2. This Court has explained the application of this rule as follows:

Motions for summary judgment necessarily and directly implicate the plaintiff’s proof of the elements of a cause of action. Summary judgment is proper if, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury. In other words, whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of action or defense, which could be established by additional discovery or expert report and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Thus, a record that supports summary judgment either (1) shows the material facts are undisputed or (2) contains insufficient evidence of facts to make out a prima facie cause of action or defense. Petrina, 46 A.3d at 798. Criswell v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 115 A.3d 906, 909-910 (Pa.Super. 2015).

Voluntary Assumption of the Risk

Appellants’ first and fourth issues on appeal address the voluntary assumption of the risk associated with downhill skiing. The General Assembly directly addressed this issue when it passed the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (hereinafter, “the Act”). The Act provides, in relevant part,

(c) Downhill skiing—

(1) The General Assembly finds that the sport of downhill skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of this Commonwealth and also attracts to this Commonwealth large numbers of nonresidents significantly contributing to the economy of this Commonwealth. It is recognized that as in some other sports, there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.

(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by subsections (a) and (a.1).[3]

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c).

In light of the Act, our supreme court established the following standard when reviewing grants of summary judgment in cases involving downhill skiing:

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary [184 A.3d 980] judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (2000). In the context of downhill skiing, our supreme court stated that both common law assumption of the risk doctrine and the court’s decision in Hughes “direct that inherent risks are those that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1187 n.14 (2010).

In the instant appeal, it is beyond dispute that appellant was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his injury. Indeed, as noted by the Hughes court,

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Therefore, our paramount inquiry is whether encountering wheel ruts on a ski slope created by an ATV operated by an employee of defendants is an inherent risk to downhill skiing.

Appellants make the argument that operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope is not an inherent aspect of the sport, and should therefore not be considered an inherent risk as contemplated by the Act. (See appellants’ brief at 32.) Appellants specifically cite the deposition testimony of Craig Taylor, defendants’ director of maintenance, in which Mr. Taylor stated that it would not be common or expected by a skier to encounter wheel ruts made by an ATV on the ski slope. (See notes of testimony, 10/21/15 at 28.) Defendants aver that the cause of the alleged condition is not relevant to whether the condition itself, in this case wheel ruts left by operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope, constitutes an inherent risk associated with downhill skiing.

As noted by the Chepkevich court, “Pennsylvania’s Act is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing,” especially when compared to other states in which skiing constitutes a “significant industry.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188 n.15. Of the states referenced by the Chepkevich court, the most instructive is New York.

In Schorpp v. Oak Mountain, LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296 (N.Y.App.Div. 2016), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division[4] reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment in a negligence cause of action. Id. at 1137, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296. The plaintiff in this case “skied into a ‘depression’ that was filled with snow. The skis got caught in the depression causing [the plaintiff] to flip over and fall out of his skis.” Id. The appellate court held that under New York’s assumption of the risk doctrine as it pertains to downhill skiing, “an individual ‘assumes the inherent risk of personal injury caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain.’ ” Id. , quoting Ruepp v. West Experience, 272 A.D.2d 673, 674, 706 N.Y.S.2d 787 (N.Y.App.Div. 2000) (emphasis added). Unlike its Pennsylvania counterpart, the [184 A.3d 981] New York State Legislature specifically identified ruts as an inherent risk of downhill skiing. N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

Given that our cases do not directly address an injury incurred while engaged in downhill skiing caused by wheel ruts in the terrain on the slope, we find the New York statute and case law to be the most instructive in the instant appeal. Moreover, the language of the release signed by appellant, which we further discuss infra , is nearly identical to the language of the New York statute.[5] We agree with the holding of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Validity of Release[6]

Appellants’ second issue pertains to the release appellant signed when he purchased his season pass. Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellant actually read the release. (Appellants’ brief at 33.)

When considering the validity of exculpatory releases, we are governed by the following standard:

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. Princeton Sportswear Corp. v. H & M Associates, 510 Pa. 189, 507 A.2d 339 (1986); Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Association, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966). In Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682 (1963), [our supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract [184 A.3d 982] language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause. Dilks, 192 A.2d at 687.

Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993), cited by Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189.

In the context of exculpatory releases used for downhill skiing, we find the rationale behind the Chepkevich court’s decision to be highly instructive to the instant appeal.[7]

As we have stated, downhill skiing … is a voluntary and hazardous activity, and that fact is acknowledged in the Act as discussed above. Moreover, an exculpatory agreement conditioning the use of a commercial facility for such activities has not been construed as a typical contract of adhesion. The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity. The signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable. Moreover, the absence of a definition or illustration of negligence does not render this Release an invalid contract of adhesion; that factor simply does not relate to the concerns implicated by adhesion contracts.

Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (internal citations omitted).

Facial Validity

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must first look to the facial validity of the release. In Chepkevich, our supreme court found that the release signed by the plaintiff did not “contravene any policy of the law. Indeed, the clear policy of this Commonwealth, as articulated by the Act, is to encourage the sport [of downhill skiing] and place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.” Id. , citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c)(2). The court also stated that, “Pennsylvania courts have upheld similar releases respecting skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting activities.” Id. (collecting cases). Finally, our supreme court held that the release the plaintiff signed was a contract between Hidden Valley and the plaintiff, “relating to their private affairs, specifically [the plaintiff’s] voluntary use of the resort’s facilities.” Id.

[184 A.3d 983] Our discussion in the instant appeal is comparable to the analysis employed by the Chepkevich court. Here, the release signed by appellant does not contravene any policy of the law. Similar to the release used by defendant Hidden Valley in Chepkevich , the release before us relates to the private affairs of appellant and defendants— namely, appellant’s voluntary use of defendants’ facilities. Accordingly, we find that the release signed by appellant is facially valid.

Enforceability

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must now look to the release’s enforceability. “[T]he Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard requires us to construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.” Id. , citing Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

In the instant appeal, appellants aver that the release was ambiguous, lacked conspicuity, and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellant’s brief at 33.) Appellants further aver that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. (Id. ) We shall address each of these claims individually.

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” (Id. at 39.) Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. (Id. at 43.) Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.” (Id. ) This argument misses the mark. To the contrary, as noted supra , one of the inherent risks explicitly referenced in the release is the presence of ruts on the ski slope. Merriam-Webster defines “rut” as “a track worn by a wheel or by habitual passage.” Merriam-Webster.com.Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. Roget’s Thesaurus identifies “trench” as a synonym of “rut.” Thesaurus.com.Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. We therefore find that defendants’ release was not ambiguous, and that it explicitly referenced the risk encountered by appellant.

We now turn to appellants’ claim that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellants’ brief at 33.) As noted above, the release appellant signed contained information regarding his season ski pass. Following the ski pass information, in a paragraph labeled “PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE SIGNING!![,]” defendants’ release contained the exculpatory language before us for review. (Id. at 34.)

The Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code[8] defines “conspicuous” as “so written, [184 A.3d 984] displayed, or presented that a reasonable person against which it is to operate ought to have noticed it.” 13 Pa.C.S.A. § 1201(b)(10). The Code specifically states that a conspicuous term includes the following:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

Id. at § 1201(b)(10)(i-ii) (emphasis added).

Here, the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant meets the definition of conspicuous as set forth by the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code. The exculpatory language of the release is preceded by a heading that is written in all capital letters in a size of text equal to the exculpatory language of the release. The heading also contains two exclamation points that call attention to the language of the heading, pursuant to the Code. Accordingly, we find that appellants’ argument that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person” is without merit, as defendants’ release is conspicuous under the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code.

Finally, we address appellants’ averment that that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.” Toro v. Fitness International LLC, 150 A.3d 968, 975 (Pa.Super. 2016), citing Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d 738, 743 (Pa.Super. 2016), appeal denied , 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016). See alsoSchillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D. Pa. 1990) (“The law in Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first”). In the instant appeal, appellant was not excused of his duty to read the Release before signing it. Therefore, appellant’s argument that there is no evidence that he read the release before signing is without merit.

Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct

Finally, appellant avers that the release does not protect defendants from liability for acts of gross negligence and/or reckless conduct. Our supreme court has held that exculpatory releases of reckless behavior are contrary to public policy, “as such releases would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1203 (2012), citing Hall v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 538 Pa. 337, 648 A.2d 755, 760 (1994). Therefore, our inquiry centers on whether the conduct alleged by appellants— operating an ATV on a ski slope and creating wheel ruts on the slope— constituted gross negligence and/or reckless conduct.

This court has observed the following pertaining to gross negligence:

In Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 758 A.2d 695 (Pa.Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001), we indicated that when courts have considered the concept of “gross negligence” in various civil contexts, [184 A.3d 985] they have concluded uniformly that there is a substantive difference between “ordinary negligence” and “gross negligence.” Id. at 703. “The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. at 704 (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. Id. at 704-705 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) ). In re Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d 464, 485-486 (Pa.Super. 2005). While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

Downey v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center, 817 A.2d 517, 525-526 (Pa.Super. 2003) (en banc ), quoting Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164-1165 (1997).

The Tayar court provided the following comparison of recklessness with ordinary negligence:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence. In Fitsko v. Gaughenbaugh, 363 Pa. 132, 69 A.2d 76 (1949), [our supreme court] cited with approval the Restatement ( [First] ) of Torts[10] definition of “reckless disregard” and its explanation of the distinction between ordinary negligence and recklessness. Specifically, the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines “reckless disregard” as follows:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. , cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct [184 A.3d 986] requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Id. , cmt. g; see also AMJUR Negligence § 274 (“Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others”). Our criminal laws similarly distinguish recklessness and negligence on the basis of the consciousness of the action or inaction. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3), (4) (providing that a person acts recklessly when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” while a person acts negligently when he “should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk”).

This conceptualization of recklessness as requiring conscious action or inaction not only distinguishes recklessness from ordinary negligence, but aligns it more closely with intentional conduct. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200-1201. ` Here, we find as a matter of law, that the record does not reflect gross negligence or reckless conduct on the part of defendants. Specifically, we agree with the trial court’s following conclusion:

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

[Footnote 7] Defendants seemingly concede the cause of the “trenches” and Defendants’ employees conceded that such actions were improper in normal slope maintenance process.

Trial court opinion, 5/24/17 at 8-9.

Accordingly, we find that defendants did not engage in grossly negligent or reckless conduct, and that the Release provided by defendants and signed by appellant is enforceable.

Order affirmed.

Bowes, J. joins this Opinion.

Stabile, J. concurs in the result.

———

Notes:

[1] For clarity, we will refer to Mr. Kibler as “appellant” throughout this memorandum.

[2] Appellants’ four issues address two overarching issues: voluntary assumption of risk and the validity of the release attached to the season pass provided by defendants. Accordingly, for the purposes of our review, we shall address issues A and D together and issues B and C together.

[3] Subsections (a) and (a.1) address contributory negligence and joint and several liability.

[4] This court is the intermediate court of appeals in New York.

[5] The New York statute provides, in relevant part:

§ 18-101. Legislative purpose

The legislature hereby finds that alpine or downhill skiing is both a major recreational sport and a major industry within the state of New York. The legislature further finds: (1) that downhill skiing, like many other sports, contains inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risks of personal injury or death or property damage, which may be caused by variations in terrain or weather conditions; surface or subsurface snow, ice, bare spots or areas of thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps; other persons using the facilities; and rocks, forest growth, debris, branches, trees, roots, stumps or other natural objects or man-made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of a ski facility in New York state ….

N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

[6] As noted by Justice Baer in his concurring opinion in Chepkevich , a review of the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant is not wholly necessary. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1198 (Baer, J., concurring). The majority stated that, “consideration of alternative holdings is subject to prudential concerns, and we believe there are prudential concerns to consider the Release here.” Id. at 1188 n.16. We will follow the lead of the majority and analyze both issues as they have both been briefed and argued before this court.

[7] The release before the Chepkevich court was printed on an 8½ by 11-inch sheet of paper entitled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” and contained the following language:

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to variations in snow and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, debris (above and below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, poles, snowmaking equipment (including pipes, hydrants, and component parts), fences and the absence of fences and other natural and manmade objects, visible or hidden, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other skiers …. All the risks of skiing and boarding present the risk of serious or fatal injury. By accepting this Season Pass I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1176.

[8] As in prior cases, we note that the Uniform Commercial Code is applicable to the sale of goods, while this case pertains to the sale of services; “nevertheless, we find the UCC’s warrant disclaimer provision in Article 2, and its interpreting caselaw, provides guidance in the instant case.” Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1274 n.12 (Pa.Super. 2006).

[9] 50 P.S. § § 7101-7503.

[10] The Restatement (Second) of Torts was published in 1965.

———


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

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

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

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

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

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

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

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

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

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

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

I. Applicable legal standard

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

II. Background

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

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

 [*586]  STOP

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

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

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

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

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

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

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

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

(Emphasis in original).

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

 [*587]  III. Analysis

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

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

A. Public policy

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

1. New Hampshire statutory law

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

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

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

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

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

Id. (emphasis added).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Injurious to the public interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

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

1. Signature

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

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

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

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

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

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

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

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

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

1. Recklessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

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

3. Potential [**48]  certification

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

IV. Conclusion

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

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

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936; 2018 WL 4110742

 

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

 

, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Counsel:  [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2]  those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3]  party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4]  did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5]  (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6]  OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7]  any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8]  County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “there is 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). A fact is “material” only [*9]  if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10]  such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11]  law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] 
Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13]  who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14]  facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15]  riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16]  of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17]  at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18]  first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19]  this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20]  conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21]  the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22]  the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23]  Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

End of Document


Stand Up Paddleboard case. Rental company not liable for death of renter who could not swim.

Release and assumption of the risk both used to defeat plaintiff’s claims.

Citation: Kabogoza v. Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al

State: California, United States District Court, E.D. California

Plaintiff: Mary Bacia Kabogoza, on behalf of herself and the Estate of Davies Khallit Kabogoza

Defendant: Blue Water Boating, Inc., Skip Abed and ten “Roe” defendants

Plaintiff Claims: wrongful death, negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Renter of a stand-up paddleboard drowned after falling off his board. He did not use the free leash and wore his inflatable PFD incorrectly so it did not work.

Court found the plaintiff assumed the risk and had signed a release preventing his survivors from suing.

Facts

In April 2017, Davies Kabogoza and his friend, Laura Tandy, rented stand-up paddleboards from Defendant Blue Water Boating. Kabogoza had rented paddleboards from this rental company before. He was familiar with the staff, but had never told them that he could not swim.

Kabogoza and Tandy signed a rental agreement before taking out the paddleboards. The one-page agreement included several general and SUP-specific safety rules, along with a release of liability. Upon signing the agreement, the rental company-per Kabogoza’s request-gave him and Tandy intermediate-level paddleboards and belt-pack flotation devices. Regular life vests were also available, but Defendants allow their customers to choose between the two options. Belt-pack flotation devices are “very popular” among paddle boarders, but customers often wear them incorrectly, with the flotation portion of the device facing backwards. Id. Plaintiff alleges that Kabogoza was wearing his incorrectly at the time of the accident.

Defendants also gave its customers the option of using a paddleboard leash. Defendant Skip Abed, the owner of Blue Water Boating, told an investigator that 9 out of 10 times, customers do not want a leash. Neither Kabogoza nor Tandy used a leash while paddleboarding.

Shortly after Kabogoza and Tandy began using their paddleboards in the Santa Barbara Harbor, the wind increased, and the water became choppy. Tandy was in front of Kabogoza when she heard a splash behind her. When she turned around, she saw that Kabogoza had fallen off his board, and was struggling to keep his head above water. Tandy was unable to reach Kabogoza and prevent him from drowning. A dive team later found his body at the bottom of the ocean in about 30 feet of water. Id. When the divers found him, Kabogoza’s flotation device was attached to his waist, but in the backwards position. An inspection revealed that the device was in “good working order.”

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted by the district court.

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

The court first looked at the gross negligence claim of the plaintiffs. Under California law, gross negligence is defined as “the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” The court then went on to reiterate the California Supreme Court issue of disposing of gross negligence claims that do not meet the definition.

The court then looked at the defense of assumption of the risk. The plaintiff’s plead admiralty and state law claims in this lawsuit. Each has different types of claims and different defenses and defenses to state law claims do not work in admiralty cases and vice versa. The court waded through the differences in each of the defenses presented by the defendant.

Assumption of the risk is not a defense to an admiralty law claim. Assumption of the risk is a defense to state law claims. The court then went back to the gross negligence claim and found the facts plead by the plaintiff did not rise to the level of gross negligence.

The next claim of the plaintiff’s was a wrongful-death claim. A wrongful-death claim is a claim of the survivors of the deceased. However, any defense to a claim by the deceased is a bar to a wrongful-death claim.

Because the rental agreement signed by the deceased included release language, it was a bar to the wrongful-death claim of the deceased survivors.

So Now What?

First, this is a stand up paddleboard rental; however, the court did not treat it any differently then the rental of any other boat.

Knowledge that renters might wear they PFD incorrectly is disconcerting. I would counsel clients to at least post a sign or something showing people the proper way to wear their PFD’s.

I also think a leash would be required to make sure the boards come back. Fall off your board and the currents will send it away faster than you can swim and the rental company has lost another SUP.

However, tragic accident, legally the result was correct I believe.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Kabogoza v. Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al.,

Kabogoza v. Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al.,

Mary Bacia Kabogoza, on behalf of herself and the Estate of Davies Khallit Kabogoza, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Water Boating, Inc., et al., Defendants.

No. 2:18-cv-02722-JAM-KJN

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 5, 2019

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS AND DECLARING PLAINTIFFS’ CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOOT

JOHN A. MENDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

On October 9, 2018, Mary Kabogoza (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint against Blue Water Boating, Inc., Skip Abed, and ten “Roe” defendants (“Defendants”). Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim on her own behalf, and a survival action for negligence on behalf of her deceased husband, Davies Kabogoza. Compl. ¶¶ 8-17. She amended the complaint a month later to replace the negligence claim with a claim for gross negligence. See First Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 22-29, ECF No. 4. Plaintiff properly invokes the Court’s diversity jurisdiction and admiralty jurisdiction. FAC ¶ 1 (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1333).[1]

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss both of Plaintiff’s claims. Mot. to Dismiss (“Mot.”), ECF No. 6. Plaintiff opposed Defendants’ motion, and filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. Opp’n to Mot. to Dismiss and Cross-Mot. for Partial Summ. J. (“Cross-Mot.”), ECF No. 8. Defendants opposed Plaintiff’s motion. Opp’n to Cross-Mot. and Reply (“Opp’n”), ECF No. 9. Plaintiff, however, never filed a reply to Defendants’ opposition.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The Court denies Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

In April 2017, Davies Kabogoza and his friend, Laura Tandy, rented stand-up paddleboards from Defendant Blue Water Boating. FAC ¶ 6. Kabogoza had rented paddleboards from this rental company before. FAC ¶ 7. He was familiar with the staff, but had never told them that he could not swim. FAC ¶ 14.

Kabogoza and Tandy signed a rental agreement before taking out the paddleboards. FAC ¶ 18. The one-page agreement included several general and SUP-specific safety rules, along with a release of liability. FAC, Ex. A. Upon signing the agreement, the rental company-per Kabogoza’s request-gave him and Tandy intermediate-level paddleboards and belt-pack flotation devices. FAC ¶¶ 7, 10, 15. Regular life vests were also available, but Defendants allow their customers to choose between the two options. FAC ¶ 14. Belt-pack flotation devices are “very popular” among paddle boarders, but customers often wear them incorrectly, with the flotation portion of the device facing backwards. Id. Plaintiff alleges that Kabogoza was wearing his incorrectly at the time of the accident. FAC. ¶ 13.

Defendants also gave its customers the option of using a paddleboard leash. FAC ¶ 16. Defendant Skip Abed, the owner of Blue Water Boating, told an investigator that 9 out of 10 times, customers do not want a leash. Id. Neither Kabogoza nor Tandy used a leash while paddleboarding. FAC ¶ 19.

Shortly after Kabogoza and Tandy began using their paddleboards in the Santa Barbara Harbor, the wind increased, and the water became choppy. FAC ¶ 9. Tandy was in front of Kabogoza when she heard a splash behind her. Id. When she turned around, she saw that Kabogoza had fallen off his board, and was struggling to keep his head above water. Id. Tandy was unable to reach Kabogoza and prevent him from drowning. Id. A dive team later found his body at the bottom of the ocean in about 30 feet of water. Id. When the divers found him, Kabogoza’s flotation device was attached to his waist, but in the backwards position. FAC ¶ 12. An inspection revealed that the device was in “good working order.” Id.

II. OPINION

A. Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

1. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A court will dismiss a suit if the plaintiff fails to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court “must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). It is not, however, “bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Id. A court may consider documents whose contents are alleged in or attached to the complaint if no party questions the documents’ authenticity. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005).

2. Analysis

a. Choice of Law

Plaintiff’s claims arise out of this Court’s admiralty jurisdiction as well as its diversity jurisdiction. A claim arising in admiralty is governed by federal admiralty law. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996). Ordinarily, a court may not supplement maritime law with state law when the state’s law “will not work material prejudice to the characteristic features of the general maritime law, nor interfere with the proper harmony and uniformity of that law.” Id. at 207 (quoting Western Fuel Co. v. Garcia, 257 U.S. 233, 242 (1921)). However, admiralty law does not provide a cause of action for wrongful death or survival suits independent of the remedies provided by state law. Id. at 206. Thus, in admiralty, “state statutes provide the standard of liability as well as the remedial regime” for wrongful death and survival actions. Id. To the extent that Plaintiff’s claims arise under the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, California law applies.

When a claim arises out of the court’s diversity jurisdiction, the court applies the substantive law of the forum state. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78 (1938). But if the dispute is covered by a valid choice-of-law clause, the laws of the contractually-designated state applies. PAE Government Services, Inc. v. MPRI, Inc., 514 F.3d 856, 860 (9th Cir. 2007). Here, the law of the forum and the law designated by the rental agreement’s choice-of-law clause are the same. See FAC, Ex. A. California law applies to the claims arising out of this Court’s diversity jurisdiction.

b. Gross Negligence

Plaintiff has not stated a claim for gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined as “the want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” Id. (quoting Kearl v. Board of Med. Quality Assurance, Cal.App.3d 1040, 1052-53 (1986). The California Supreme Court has emphasized “the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, ” and disposing of cases on that bases “in appropriate circumstances.” City of Santa Barbara, 41 Cal.4th at 766.

Defendants first argue that Plaintiff’s claim should be dismissed because it is barred by the assumption-of-risk doctrine. Mot. at 9-11. The Court disagrees. To the extent that the claim is arising out of the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, maritime tort law does not adopt California’s approach to this doctrine. Barber v. Marina Sailing, Inc., 36 Cal.App.4th 558, 568-69 (1995). Assumption of risk, be it express or implied, may not serve as a bar to claims that arise under admiralty law. Id. at 568 (“Numerous federal cases have held in a variety of contexts that assumption of [] risk is not permitted as an affirmative defense in admiralty law.”). While true that California law governs the standard of liability and the remedial regime for survival actions, Defendants do not identify any cases to suggest that Yamaha likewise intended state law to modify the defenses available in admiralty. To the extent that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arises under the Court’s admiralty jurisdiction, assumption of risk does not bar the action.

Assumption of risk likewise does not preclude Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arising under the Court’s diversity jurisdiction. Although California law recognizes assumption of risk as a bar to recovery under some circumstances, it does not allow a party to release itself from liability for gross negligence. City of Santa Barbara v. Super. Ct., 41 Cal.4th 747, 779 (2007). To the extent that Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim arises under the Court’s diversity jurisdiction, assumption of risk, again, does not bar the action. For the same reason, the exculpatory clause in Defendants’ rental agreement does not bar Plaintiff’s survival action for gross negligence. So long as the allegations in the complaint support a plausible claim for relief, Plaintiff’s claim must survive Defendant’s motion to dismiss.

But even when accepted as true, Plaintiff’s allegations do not state a plausible gross negligence claim. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants’ gross negligence is reflected in the following omissions:

• Failing to ask Kabogoza about his swimming abilities before renting him a paddleboard;

• Failing to warn Kabogoza of the danger of using and/or misusing the paddleboard and belt-pack flotation device;

• Failing to ensure that Kabogoza was leashed to the paddleboard while using it; and

• Failing to ensure that Kabogoza knew how to use the paddleboard and belt-pack flotation device.

FAC ¶ 25.[2]

These omissions, when viewed in light of the circumstances surrounding this incident, might give rise to a colorable negligence claim had Kabogoza not released Defendants of liability. But they do not rise to the level of culpability found in the cases Plaintiff cites where gross negligence claims survived motions to dismiss. See Cross-Mot. at 10-11. In City of Santa Barbara, the court found that the plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence properly fell outside the defendant’s exculpatory clause when a young girl with epilepsy drowned at defendant’s camp for developmentally-disabled children. 41 Cal.4th at 751-52. The girl’s parents had told the city that their daughter was prone to seizures while in the water and required constant supervision. Id. at 752. Even so, a camp supervisor- knowing the girl had suffered from a seizure less than an hour earlier-diverted her attention while the child was swimming. Id. The girl had a seizure and drowned. Id.Mayall v. USA Water Polo,Inc., 909 F.3d 1055 (9th Cir. 2018) and Lewis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, No. 1:07-cv-00497-OWW-GSA, 2009 WL 426595 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 20, 2009) involved similarly culpable omissions.

The defendants here differ from the defendants in City of Santa Barbara, Mayall, and Lewis in several important respects. First, Defendants knew that Kabogoza had safely engaged in paddleboarding before. FAC ¶ 9. Unlike in City of Santa Barbara, where defendant knew the decedent had a history of having seizures in the water; Mayall, where defendant knew water-polo players were dangerously returning to play after suffering concussions; and Lewis, where the employee knew he was leading beginner snowmobilers, Defendants had no reason to know that Kabogoza was at an increased risk of harm. In fact, Defendants knew that he had a history of safely participating in this activity. FAC ¶ 9. Kabogoza rented paddleboards from Blue Water Boating on up to three previous occasions. Id.

Furthermore, Defendants equipped all of their customers with safety information and safety equipment regardless of their skill level. FAC ¶¶ 6, 16. Defendants made sure that each renter signed a rental agreement that included clear safety instructions about the products it rented. FAC, Ex. A. Defendants gave each of their customers flotation devices to protect against the inherent and inevitable risk of falling into the ocean. FAC ¶ 6. They also made paddleboard leashes available to all their customers even though nine out of ten renters opted not to use them. FAC ¶ 16.

Plaintiff makes much of the fact that Defendants did not ask about each customer’s swimming abilities or require each customer to have use a leash. FAC ¶ 25; Cross-Mot. at 11. Nor did Defendants specifically work with its customers to ensure they were correctly using the flotation devices. FAC ¶ 25; Cross-Mot. at 11. Rental companies can, of course, always do more to ensure that their customers have the safest possible experience. And when those companies’ rentals involve the level of risk that gives way to this sort of tragedy, they likely should. But the law does not task the Court with answering that question today. Here, the question is whether Defendants acted with “a ‘want of even scant care’ or ‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.’ ” Based on Plaintiff’s pleadings, the Court cannot find that they did.

The Court dismisses Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim without prejudice.

c. Wrongful Death

Plaintiff has not stated a wrongful death claim. Nor did she meaningfully oppose Defendants’ motion to dismiss this claim. California law governs wrongful death claims regardless of whether the claim arises under the court’s diversity or admiralty jurisdiction. Yamaha Motor Corp., 516 U.S. At 206-07. To support a claim of negligent wrongful death under California law, “a plaintiff must establish the standard elements of negligence: defendants owed a duty of care; defendants breached their duty; and defendants’ breach caused plaintiff’s injury.” Hayes v. Cnty.of San Diego, 736 F.3d 1223, 1231 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Wright v. City of Los Angeles, 219 Cal.App.3d 318, 344 (1990)).

A wrongful death action-unlike claims brought under the state’s survival statute-belong to the decedent’s heirs, not to the decedent. Madison v. Super. Ct., 203 Cal.App.3d 589, 596 (1988). All the same, “a plaintiff in a wrongful death action is subject to any defenses which could have been asserted against the decedent.” Id. at 597. These defenses include a decedent’s decision “to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks.” Id.

Here, Kabogoza signed a rental agreement where he expressly assumed the risks of paddleboarding and released Defendants of liability. FAC, Ex. A. To the extent that the assumption-of-risk and exculpatory clauses purport to release Defendants from liability for ordinary negligence, they are valid. See FAC, Ex. A. See also City of Santa Barbara, 41 Cal.4th at 755-58; Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal.4th 296, 319-21 (1992). And as already discussed, Plaintiff does not make a showing of gross negligence that would bring her wrongful death action outside the rental agreement’s scope.

The rental agreement precludes Plaintiff from making out a claim of ordinary negligence. To the extent that her wrongful death claim is predicated on Defendants’ ordinary negligence, the Court dismisses it with prejudice.

B. Plaintiff’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment

The Court has dismissed the gross negligence claim covered by Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The arguments raised in Plaintiff’s motion are, therefore, moot.

III. ORDER

For the reasons set forth above, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. If Plaintiffs elect to amend their complaint with respect to these claims, they shall file a Second Amended Complaint within twenty (20) days of this Order. Defendants’ responsive pleading is due twenty (20) days thereafter. Plaintiff’s wrongful death claim is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE to the extent that it is based on Defendants’ ordinary negligence.

The Court DENIES AS MOOT Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on her gross negligence claim.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] This motion was determined to be suitable for decision without oral argument. E.D. Cal. L.R. 230(g). The hearing was scheduled for February 19, 2019.

[2] Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants breached a duty to Kabogoza by failing to safely manufacture the paddleboard and flotation device, and by failing to timely issue recalls of the defective products. FAC ¶ 25. But to date, Plaintiff has not joined any manufacturers or distributors as defendants.


Hawaii Supreme Court agrees that finding out a release is required to be signed upon arrival at the activity and after the activity has been paid for may be a deceptive trade practice.

However, the court does uphold the use of a release as a defense to a horseback riding claim.

Citation: Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 141 P.3d 427 (Hawai’i 2006)

State: Hawaii, Supreme Court of Hawai’i

Plaintiff: Lisa Courbat and Steven Courbat

Defendant: Dahana Ranch, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence and the actions of the defendant were a deceptive trade practice

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the plaintiffs on the deceptive trade practices claim and sent back for review. However, if not a deceptive trade practice then for the defendant because of the signed release.

Year: 2006

Summary

The plaintiff’s signed up with a third-party booking agent to take a horseback ride while in Hawaii. Upon arrival, they were presented with a release to sign which they were not told about when the booked the ride. Both the plaintiff and her husband signed the release.

During the ride the plaintiff road her horse to close to another hose that kicker her in the leg.

Facts

The present matter arises out of personal injuries sustained by Lisa on February 1, 1999, while she and Steven were on a horseback riding tour on the Dahana Ranch on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The Courbats had booked the tour and prepaid the fee several months earlier through Island Incentives, Inc., an internet-based tour organizer. When they checked in at the Ranch, the Courbats were presented with a document to review and to sign which laid out the rules for the horseback tour and included a waiver “releas[ing] and hold[ing] harmless . . . [the] Ranch . . . from . . . injury to myself . . . resulting from my . . . being a spectator or participant or while engaged in any such activity in the event[-]related facilities” and stating that the undersigned “acknowledge[s] that there are significant elements of risk in any adventure, sport, or activity associated with horses.” [3] According to admissions by the Courbats in subsequent depositions, Lisa read over the waiver and, having no questions regarding the rules and regulations it contained, signed it before passing it to her husband to sign. Steven evidently did not read it, but recognized that it was “some kind of release of some sort” and signed it. In fact, no guest of the Ranch had ever refused to sign a waiver. Steven was familiar with the concept of such waivers, having participated with his wife in a snorkeling activity earlier during the vacation, at which time they both signed similar forms.

The Ranch’s guide, Daniel Nakoa, briefed the Courbats on how to handle a horse and general rules of the trail, including the importance of not riding single-file or allowing the horses to bunch up end to end. Out on the ride, Lisa was injured when she rode up behind Nakoa’s horse while Nakoa was speaking with another guest who had approached Nakoa with a question. According to later statements by both Nakoa and Lisa, Lisa approached Nakoa’s horse from the rear while the three horses were in motion, and, when her horse neared Nakoa’s horse, Nakoa’s horse struck out at her horse, hitting Lisa in the left shin.

It was interesting the court went on for 2 more pages, including the deposition testimony of the plaintiff and the wrangler on how this occurred. It seems like the defendant missed the defense of assumption of the risk, and the court was pointing it out to them.

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

The first argument of the plaintiff’s the court reviewed was whether the practice of booking a ride and having the release signed after the people arrive for the ride was a deceptive trade practice. The Plaintiffs argued.

… that the Ranch’s practice of booking ride reservations through an activity company, receiving payment prior to the arrival of the guest, and then, upon the guest’s arrival at the Ranch, requiring the guest to sign a liability waiver as a precondition to horseback riding is an unfair and deceptive business practice to which the remedies of HRS ch. 480 apply.

Hawaii Revised Statute ch. 480 is the Hawaiian deceptive trade practices act.

The plaintiff’s argued that not telling guests that they had to sign a release until after they arrived was misleading, and the release should be thrown out of that reason. A prior court of appeal’s decision held that the act was not available to plaintiff’s for personal injury claims. The plaintiff’s argued the act did apply because they were injured economically because of the cost of the ride.

The court held that a three-prong test must be applied to the facts to determine if the actions of the defendant violated the statute. The court also held that a determination that the actions violated the statute must be determined by the trier of fact, (the jury) and could not be determined by a motion for summary judgment.

This set up two possible outcomes. The first the non-disclosure of the waiver was a deceptive trade practice, then the release would be void. Also, the court held that the protections and rebutable presumption the Hawaii Equine Liability act provided would be void.

If the trier of fact determines that the failure to inform the Courbats of the waiver requirement was a deceptive trade practice, then the negligence waiver, along with the underlying contract, will be rendered void, and the Courbats’ negligence claims will be revived.

If the trier of fact held that the non-disclosure of the release was not deceptive, then the release is valid and the defendant’s win.

“The general rule of contract law is that one who assents to a contract is bound by it and cannot complain that he has not read it or did not know what it contained. “Furthermore, ” ‘[p]arties are permitted to make exculpatory contracts so long as they are knowingly and willingly made and free from fraud. No public policy exists to prevent such contracts.’

“[S]uch bargains are not favored, however, and, if possible, bargains are construed not to confer this immunity.” Therefore, as a general rule, ” ‘[e]xculpatory clauses will be held void if the agreement is (1) violative of a statute, (2) contrary to a substantial public interest, or (3) gained through inequality of bargaining power.’ ”

The Courbats have not alleged that any of the terms of the waiver, or the use of a waiver by the Ranch, violates a statute; on the contrary, the Courbats concede that waivers are an acceptable method by which tour operators may seek to limit their liability in response to rising insurance and litigation costs.

The court never really specified what the reasoning for its conclusion that the Hawaii Equine Liability Act did not apply except the one statement.

…. we hold that HRS ch. 663B, entitled “Equine activities,” see supra note 2, setting forth a rebuttable presumption of non-negligence on the part of the tour operator, does not apply to the present matter.

The plaintiff argued the release was void because of public policy grounds which the court denied.

….we determine that the public interest here is not at stake: recreational activity tours are not generally suitable to public regulation, in the manner of common carriers, nor of great importance to the public, nor of an essential nature, in the manner of medical care, such that the provider’s bargaining power is greatly enhanced over any member of the public seeking their services.

….in considering negligence waivers in the context of recreational activity, while such waivers may be contracts of adhesion, in that they are presented on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, they are not unconscionable, but “are of a sort commonly used in recreational settings” and “are generally held to be valid.” “[C]ontracts [of adhesion] are ‘unenforceable if two conditions are present: (1) the contract is the result of coercive bargaining between parties of unequal bargaining strength; and (2) the contract unfairly limits the obligations and liabilities of, or otherwise unfairly advantages, the stronger party.’ (“[A]dhesion contracts are fully enforceable provided that they are not unconscionable and do not fall outside the reasonable expectations of the weaker or adhering party.”). Unequal bargaining strength “involves the absence of alternatives; specifically whether the plaintiffs were ‘free to use or not to use’ [the] defendant’s . . . services.”

The court tied up any lose ends by reiterating the plaintiff’s deposition testimony concerning the release.

In the present matter, Lisa read through and responded to queries contained in the waiver form and had no further questions or concerns regarding the contents before she signed it. Steven conceded that he routinely relied on his wife to review documents before signing them and that he knew he was waiving rights when he signed the form. The record demonstrates that the Courbats were given adequate time and opportunity to fully review the waiver presented to them before they signed it and that both knew that by signing it, they were waiving legal rights in return for being allowed to participate in the ride.

The final issue was the gross negligence claim the plaintiff’s plead. The court stated the release did not protect against gross negligence or willful misconduct.

So Now What?

The good news is, if properly written and presented in advance of the arrival or the guests, a release in Hawaii is valid. If the release is void, big check. If the release is valid, still the issue of gross negligence to determine.

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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