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Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Morgan, et al., v. Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61546

Jasmine Nicole Morgan, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

Water Toy Shop, Inc., et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 16-2540 (PAD)

United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico

March 30, 2018

OPINION AND ORDER

PEDRO A. DELGADO HERNÁNDEZ, United States District Judge

This case arises out of a tragic accident, a collision between two jet skis -one ridden by plaintiffs Jasmin Nicole Morgan and Jarita Kennedy, and the other by Mark A. Castro- in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico (Docket No. 1).[1] In essence, the complaint alleges that: (1) Castro was grossly negligent in operating the jet ski, seriously injuring plaintiffs (id. at ¶ 51); and (2) Water Toy Shop, Inc., Acosta Water Sports, Inc., and Axel Acosta, who rented the jet skis, did not adequately train Castro to operate the jet ski, and as owners of the jet ski that Castro was riding are liable for the damages claimed. Id.

Before the court is defendants Water Toy Shop’s, Axel Acosta’s and Ironshore Indemnity, Inc.’s “Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law in Support Thereof” (Docket No. 52), which plaintiffs opposed (Docket No. 61). Defendants replied (Docket Nos. 69), and plaintiffs surreplied (Docket No. 73). For the reasons explained below, the motion is GRANTED and plaintiffs’ claims against the appearing defendants DISMISSED.[2]

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A 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. A fact is material if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation. Farmers Ins. Exchange v. RNK, Inc., 632 F.3d 777, 782 (1st Cir. 2011)(quoting Rodríguez-Rivera v. Federico Trilla Regional Hosp. of Carolina, 532 F.3d 28, 30 (1st Cir. 2008)).

In assessing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. Griggs-Ryan, 904 F.2d at 115 (citations omitted). There is no room for credibility determinations, no room for the measured weighing of conflicting evidence such as the trial process entails, and no room for the judge to superimpose his own ideas of probability and likelihood . Greenburg v. Puerto Rico Maritime Shipping Authority, 835 F.2d 932, 936 (1st Cir. 1987). The court may, however, safely ignore conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation. Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990) (citations omitted).

II. UNCONTESTED FACTS[3]

Plaintiffs are residents of Washington, D.C. See, Docket No. 52-1, “Statement of Uncontested Material Facts in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment” (“SUMF” at ¶ 1). While vacationing in Puerto Rico, they rented a jet ski from Archie Jet Ski Rental (SUMF ¶ 4), the name used to advertise Water Toy Shop and Acosta Water Sports, two separate corporations that operate different jet ski rental stands in the Isla Verde beach area in Carolina, Puerto Rico. See, PSUMF at ¶ 6 and defendants’ response at Docket No. 69-1 pp. 26-27.[4] Water Toy owned the jet skis involved in the accident, and operated the stand where the jet skis were rented. SUMF ¶ 5; PSUMF ¶¶ 14, 6, 36.

In order to rent the jet ski, both plaintiffs signed a “Personal Watercraft Rental Operations Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Express Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement” (“Rental Agreement”) and a “Declaration of Fitness to Operate Personal Watercraft” (“Declaration of Fitness”). SUMF ¶ 7, ¶10.[5] The Rental Agreements read as follows:

PERSONAL WATERCRAFT RENTAL OPERATIONS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS, EXPRESS ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

Please and be certain you understand the implications of signing. Express Assumption of Risk Associated with use of rental of Personal Watercraft and Related Activities I,, do hereby affirm and acknowledge that I have been fully informed of the inherent hazards and risks associated with motorized (e.g., jet ski) or non-motorized (e.g., kayak) and related water sport activities to which I am about to engage, including but not limited to:

1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes;

2) collision with any of the following:

a) other participants,

b) the watercraft,

c) other watercraft,

d) man made or natural objects,

e) shuttle boat;

3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature;

4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions;

5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning;

6) the presence of insects and marine life forms;

7) equipment failure or operator error;

8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration;

9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

I specifically acknowledge that I read, understand and agree to abide by the Personal Watercraft Operational instructions at all times and that I have been trained in the safe use of watersport equipment to my complete satisfaction, and I am physically/mentally able to participate in the water sport activities to which I am about to engage.

I specifically waive any defense insofar as this contract is concerned that may arise as a result of any state or local law and/or regulation or policy that may impact its enforceability.

RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF CLAIMS AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.

In consideration of being allowed to participate in the above-described activities, as well as the use of any of the facilities and the use of the equipment of the below listed releases, I hereby agree as follows:

1) To waive and release any and all claims based upon negligence, active or passive, with the exception of intentional, wanton, or willful misconduct that I may have in the future against all of the following named persons or entities herein referred to as releasees.

Water Toy Shop, Inc. Owner (Company and/ or Individual)

___ (Scheduled Personal Watercraft)

___ (Scheduled Shuttle Boat (if applicable)

2) To release the releasees, their officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers, and vessels from any liability and responsibility whatsoever and for any claims or causes of action that I, my estate, heirs, executors, or assigns may have for personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death arising from the above activities, whether caused by active or passive negligence of the releassees or otherwise, with the exception of gross negligence. By executing this document, I agree to hold the releases harmless and indemnify them in conjunction with any injury or loss of life that may occur as a result of engaging in the above activities.

3) By entering into this agreement, I am not relying on any oral or written representation or statements made by the releasees, other than what is set forth in this Agreement.

I hereby declare that I am of legal age and am competent to sign this Agreement or, if not, that my parent or legal guardian shall sign on my behalf and that my parent or legal guardian is in complete understanding and concurrence with this Agreement.

I have read this Agreement, understand it, and I agree to be bound by it. SUMF at ¶¶ 8, 20 (bold emphasis in the original, underlined emphasis added).[6] The Declarations of Fitness state: “by signing this form I still choose to participate in the activity with the rental property and agree to waive all responsibilities to all the above mentioned parties concerning any consequences that would result from my actions.” SUMF at ¶ 9.[7] Morgan did not read the contents of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness before signing them, or at any time before boarding the rented jet ski, despite having around one hour to spare between the time she signed the documents and when she boarded the jet ski.[8] Neither did she ask Water Toy personnel anything about the document. SUMF at ¶ 11.

Before Castro was allowed to rent the jet ski, he was asked for his I.D. in order to verify that he was old enough to rent a jet ski, which he was; he signed a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness; and was informed of the boundaries within which he could ride, the applicable speed limit and to stay clear of other people. SUMF at ¶ 13, 15.[9] To that end, Mr. Héctor Peralta informed Castro the price for the jet ski ride; explained that he could only ride between the ESJ Tower and the Water Club Hotel; warned him stay away from the swimming area; told him to go slow until he passed the buoys; cautioned him not to get close to a nearby natural reserve and to stay away from other objects or persons because jet skis don’t have breaks; described how the jet skis worked; let him know that when his time was up an employee would let him know; and provided him copy of a Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness, explaining their contents and having him sign them. SUMF at ¶ 16.[10]

Additionally, Mr. Jonathan Pérez informed Castro of the boundaries he had to observe whilst riding, by pointing out the ESJ Tower, the Water Club Hotel and the buoys; told him not to ride too far away so that help could get to him straight away in case something happened; warned him not to go over five miles per hour as he left the buoys area in front of the Water Toy stand and when he rode back to it to return his jet ski; and asked him to stay far away from people to avoid any accident. SUMF at ¶ 17.[11] Plaintiffs were taking a break in their jet ski, drifting next to the buoys in front of the Water Toy stand, when Castro’s jet ski collided with theirs at high speed, without warning. SUMF at ¶ 19.

III. DISCUSSION

A. General Principles

Plaintiffs claim defendants are liable to them under Puerto Rico law (Docket No. 61, pp. 2-3), which defendants deny (Docket No. 51, p. 1), stating that general principles of maritime law rather than local law apply in this case, and under those principles they are not liable. Id. at p. 2. Because this case “involves a watercraft collision on navigable waters, it falls within admiralty’s domain.” Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. v. Calhoun, 516 U.S. 199, 206 (1996). With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law. Id. Federal maritime law may be supplemented by state law to the extent that it “would not disturb the uniformity of maritime law.” Kossick v. United Fruit Co., 365 U.S. 731, 738 (1961).

In maritime law, “the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests [e.g., passengers] the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632 (1959); Muratore v. M/S Scotia Prince, 845 F.2d 347, 353 (1st Cir. 1988)(under maritime law, “a carrier owes a duty of exercising reasonable care towards its passengers under the circumstances”). The degree of required care must be in proportion to the apparent risk. See, Muratone, 845 F.3d at 353 (discussing concept)(citing Prosser, Law of Torts, Section 34, at 180 (4th ed. 1971)).

Plaintiffs contend that defendants are directly and vicariously liable under Puerto Rico law because Congress allowed Puerto Rico to adopt liability standards inconsistent with maritime law (Docket No. 61 at pp. 12-20). Congress can alter, qualify, or supplement admiralty law as it sees fit, provided it neither excludes a thing that falls clearly within the admiralty and maritime law nor includes a thing that clearly falls without, as long as the statute is coextensive with and operates uniformly in the whole of the United States. See, Zych v. Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, Believed to be the Seabird, 19 F.3d 1136, 1140 (7th Cir. 1994)(examining congressional power to revise and supplement maritime law).

However, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. See, Maysonet-Robles v. Cabrero, 323 F.3d 43, 53 (1st Cir. 2003)(so describing Puerto Rico). It belongs to, but is not part of the United States, a category considered “foreign … in a domestic sense.” See, United States v. Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d 80, 88 & n.11 (D.P.R. 2016)(discussing Puerto Rico’s territorial status)(quoting Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 287, 341-342, 346-347 (1901)). Accordingly, “… Congress can, pursuant to the plenary powers conferred by the Territorial Clause [U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2], legislate as to Puerto Rico in a manner different from the rest of the United States.” U.S. v. Rivera-Torres, 826 F.2d 151, 154 (1st Cir. 1987).[12]

In 1917, Congress enacted Puerto Rico’s second organic act, commonly known as the Jones Act, 39 Stat. 951, Act of March 2, 1919.[13] Under Section 37 of the Jones Act, the legislative authority of Puerto Rico extended “to all matters of a legislative character not locally inapplicable.” In turn, Section Eight read:

The harbor areas and navigable streams and bodies of water and submerged lands underlying the same in and around the island of Puerto Rico and the adjacent islands and waters, owned by the United States on March 2, 1917, and not reserved by the United States for public purposes, are placed under the control of the government of Puerto Rico … All laws of the United States for the protection and improvement of the navigable waters of the united States and the preservation of the interests of navigation and commerce, except so far as the same may be locally inapplicable, shall apply to said island and waters to its adjacent islands and waters.

Both provisions were reenacted as part of the Federal Relations Act. See, 48 U.S.C. §§ 749 and 821.[14] Interpreting and applying them in the context of admiralty and maritime law, the First Circuit held in Guerrido v. Alcoa Steamship Co., 234 F.2d 349 (1956), that the rules of admiralty and maritime law of the United States “are presently in force in the navigable waters of the United States in and around the island of Puerto Rico to the extent that they are not locally inapplicable either because they were not designed to apply to Puerto Rican waters or because they have been rendered inapplicable to these waters by inconsistent Puerto Rican legislation, ” provided that legislation does not “supplant a rule of maritime law which Congress in the exercise of its constitutional power has made applicable to Puerto Rican waters.” Id. at p. 355 (Emphasis added).[15] In line with Garrido, plaintiffs argue that defendants authorized Castro to operate the jet ski, and as a result, are liable for the resulting damages under Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 §§ 5141-5142, and Puerto Rico Law 430 of December 21, 2000, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 §§ 1401-1411 (Docket No. 61, pp. 4-7, 15-20). Because it is undisputed that Water Toy owned and rented the jet skis, unless otherwise stated the court circumscribes the discussion of potential liability to that entity.

B. Puerto Rico Law

Article 1802 imposes liability for personal acts, not for acts of others, providing in part that “a person who by an act or omission causes damage to another through fault or negligence shall be obliged to repair the damage so done.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5141. See, Burgos-Oquendo v. Caribbean Gulf Refining Corp., 741 F.Supp. 330, 332 (D.P.R. 1990)(discussing concept). To establish liability, the plaintiff must show: (i) a duty of care requiring defendant to conform to a certain standard of conduct; (ii) breach of that duty; (iii) damages; and (iv) a causal connection between the breach and the damages. See, De-Jesús-Adorno v. Browning Ferris Industries of Puerto Rico, Inc., 160 F.3d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1995)(so explaining).

In general, the duty of care is defined by the tenet that one must act as would a prudent and reasonable person under the same circumstances. See, Vázquez-Filippetti v. Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, 504 F.3d 43, 49 (1st Cir. 2007)(so observing). This includes complying with statutes, regulations, and ordinances relevant to the action. See, Sánchez v. Seguros Triple S, Inc., 687 F.Supp.2d 6, 9 (D.P.R. 2010)(setting forth and applying formulation). The standard applies to those who operate businesses for profit, commanding them to exercise reasonable care toward business invitees. See, Calderón-Ortega v. U.S., 753 F.3d 250, 252 (2014)(recognizing obligation).

In turn, Article 1803 codifies a special type of vicarious liability, a type of liability based in part on the acts or omissions of others. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 5142. To that end, it states that the obligation imposed by Article 1802 “is demandable not only for personal acts and omissions, but also for those of the persons for whom …[the defendant is] responsible, ” including under that rubric the liability of the father or mother for damages caused by minor children; of guardians for the damage cause by the person under their authority who live with them; of employers for the damage caused by an employee acting in the course of his employment; of masters or directors of arts and trades for damage caused by their pupils or apprentices; and of the Government of Puerto Rico under certain pre-established circumstances. Id. The enumeration is taxative, not of an exemplary nature. See, Burgos-Oquendo, 741 F.Supp. at 333 (so acknowledging). Imposition of vicarious liability in other instances must be anchored in alternate precepts or legislation, like Law 430. See, id. (dismissing complaint brought against lessor under Article 1803 in absence of provision establishing responsibility in the lessor for actions of the lessee).

At common law, vicarious liability implies that by reason of some preexisting relation between two parties, one of them may be held automatically liable to a third party for the negligence of the other even if he is free from fault. See, Prosser and Keeton, The Law of Torts, West Publishing Co., 1984, p. 499 (explaining concept). The doctrine applies in admiralty unless excluded by statute. See, Thomas J. Schoenbaum, supra at p. 188 (so noting). In that context, the negligence of employees is imputed to the owner of the vessel upon a finding of master-servant relationship, but in absence of that relationship, the shipowner is not liable in personam for the negligence of persons to whom the vessel is entrusted. Id. Under Article 1803, however, liability does not attach if the defendant shows that he employed the diligence expected of a good father of family, the bonus pater familias, to prevent the damage. Id. Diligence is predicated on how a prudent and reasonable man would have acted in connection with the obligations arising from the situations enumerated in Article 1803. See, Pueblo v. Rivera Rivera, 23 P.R. Offic. Trans. 641, 1989 WK 607294, *§ V (Rebollo López, J., concurring)(analyzing standard).

By contrast, Law 430 operates much like vicarious liability does at common law, providing in part that “[t]he owner of any ship or navigation vessel shall be responsible for damages caused when operating any of these, with fault or negligence, and when it is operated or under control of any person who, with the main purpose of operating or allowing it to be operated by a third party, obtains possession of it through express or tacit authorization of the owner.” P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 12 § 1406(6)(h). By extension, it imposes liability on the principal -the vessel’s owner- for the damages caused by the wrongful operation of the vessel when that vessel has been operated with the owner’s express or tacit authorization, irrespective of whether the owner has acted -in the words of Article 1803 of the Civil Code- with the diligence of a good father of family to avoid the damage.

As enacted, the provision is preempted by the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851, as amended, 46 U.S.C. § 30501 et seq., because it conflicts with the negligence standard set in the federal statute. See, In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski, LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, *603-*604, (holding New York’s Navigation Act § 48 preempted by Limitation Act, as it imposes vicarious liability on the owners of personal watercrafts if the watercraft is operated by a person who used it with the owner’s permission, irrespective of the owner’s wrongdoing)(quoting In re Hartman, 2020 WL 1529488, *4 n.10 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(to the extent the claimant argues that the jet ski owner is strictly liable under state law, the claim is preempted because the state’s strict liability standard directly conflicts with the negligence standard of the Limitation Act)). For the same reason, so too here. And given that the Limitation Act applies in Puerto Rico, [16] its preemptive effect comports with Garrido, banning reliance on Law 430 to impose vicarious liability on the vessel owner in the absence of the owner’s negligence.

Against this background, plaintiffs argue that Water Toy Shop violated Law 430 in: (1) operating an illegal additional kiosk a quarter of a mile east of the area specified in the permit issued by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”); (2) renting a jet ski that was not expressly identified in the permit; (3) using a rental ski as a patrol boat operated by a licensed individual who nevertheless had not received the required first aid training; (4) operating a rental stand without a valid navigation license; (5) keeping defective records lacking customers’ identification, addresses, tag of the jet ski used and date and time it was returned; and (6) renting skis without informing customers of navigation rules, safety briefing and prohibited activities (Docket No. 61 at pp. 5-7), making it liable for the collision and resulting damages. But merely violating a statute or regulation is not a synonym for liability in Puerto Rico, since in order for liability to attach, there must be a causal relationship – adequate cause – between the violation and the damages. See, González v. Puerto Rico Elec. Power Authority, 1993 WL 525644, *8 (D.P.R. Nov. 23, 1993)(so holding)(citing Pacheco v. A.F.F., 12 P.R. Offic. Trans. 367 (1982)).[17]

Adequate cause is not an event in the absence of which the damage would not have occurred, but that which in general experience causes it. See, Cárdenas Mazán v. Rodríguez Rodríguez, 125 D.P.R. 702, 710 (1990) (so stating); Ganapolsky v. Boston Mut. Life Ins. Co., 138 F.3d 446, 447-448 (1st Cir. 1998)(accidental injury to plaintiff’s left foot resulting from tripping on a two-inch step at entrance to men’s room in a theater not adequate cause of gangrene requiring foot’s amputation, as the infection that lead to the gangrene normally does not arise from tripping on a step). As such, causation is a function of foreseeability, requiring plaintiff to show that the injury was reasonably foreseeable. See, Marshall v. Pérez Arzuaga, 828 F.2d 845, 847 (1st Cir. 1987)(discussing foreseeability as part of the “causal nexus” element of tort action); Vázquez-Filipetti, 504 F.3d at 49 (highlighting centrality of foreseeability to a successful tort claim).[18]

Within this framework, that violations may have occurred in connection with items (1) to (5)-an unsubstantiated assumption at best- is not causally linked to Castro’s crashing of his jet ski onto plaintiffs’, for there is no evidence in the record showing it was foreseeable for a reasonable person to anticipate that a jet-ski collision would result from those violations.[19] Foreseeability cannot be established through the simple fact that an accident occurred. Id. (so recognizing).[20]The situation is no different in admiralty. See, Poulis-Minott v. Smith, 388 F.3d 354, 363 (1st Cir. 2004)(dismissing claim in admiralty for lack of proof that under the circumstances, there was a reasonable possibility that compliance with the regulatory standard would have prevented the accident).[21]

Water Toy’s obligation to provide Castro with an oral or written orientation on the navigation rules the Commissioner of Navigation of Puerto Rico prepared in accordance with Law 430 stands on a different footing, as it directly implicates the provision of information necessary to safely operate the jet ski. See, Wills v. Amerada Hess Corp., 379 F.3d 32, 42-45 (2d Cir. 2004)(distinguishing between statutory or regulatory provisions naturally and logically linked to maritime safety and those not so linked). The uncontested facts, however, show that Water Toy did provide adequate training to Castro in connection with the operation of the jet ski as well as of the applicable navigation rules. See, SUMF at ¶ 15-17. And the Rental Agreement Castro executed additionally confirms that he: (1) was fully informed of the inherent risks associated with jet skis; (2) understood and agreed to abide by the personal watercraft operational instructions he was given; and (3) was trained in the safe use of water sport equipment to his complete satisfaction. All in all, the record does not sustain a finding of liability against Water Toy deriving from a negligent act causally connected to the damages claimed.

C. Waivers

Beyond the issue of liability, plaintiffs executed a waiver precluding liability as to Water Toy and Axel Acosta – Water Toy’s sole owner and president, representative and agent – except for gross negligence, which the complaint only imputed to Castro. Plaintiffs attack the waiver, essentially characterizing it as unenforceable (Docket No. 61, at pp. 20-31). Voluntary waivers of liability for negligence in maritime activities are enforceable provided they: (1) are consistent with public policy; (2) do not configure a contract of adhesion; and (3) are drafted in clear and unambiguous language. See, Olmo v. Atlantic City Parasail, 2016 WL 1704365, *9 (D.N.J. April 28, 2016)(articulating and applying test)(citing Olivelli v. Sappo Corp., Inc., 225 F.Supp.2d 109, 116 (D.P.R. 2002)). By these standards, the waivers that plaintiffs signed are valid and enforceable.

First, exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence in maritime recreational activities are consistent with public policy. See, Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F.Supp.2d 1295, 1299 (D. Nevada 2013)(so acknowledging); Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365, at *10 (same).[22] Thus, parties may enter into agreements to allocate risks inherent in those activities, allowing operators to contractually disclaim liability for their own negligence. See, Brozyna v. Niagara Gorge Jetboarding, Ltd., 2011 WL 4553100, *4-*5 (W.D. N.Y. Sept. 29, 2011)(explaining exculpatory waivers).[23] Relying on In the Matter of Rockaway Jet Ski LLC, 2016 WL 8861617, however, plaintiffs argue the waiver violates public policy because it has been invoked to prevent them from asserting negligence claims based on the violation of Law 430, a safety statute which, at bottom, does not contain a waiver authorization clause (Docket No. 61, at pp. 23, 27).

In Rockaway, the court evaluated whether an exculpatory clause can release negligence claims premised on the violation of a state safety statute, New York Navigation Law 73(a)(2), which (1) required businesses renting personal watercraft to provide a video or in-water demonstration of how to safely operate watercraft; and (2) prohibited those businesses from renting a personal watercraft to an individual unless that individual demonstrated ability to (i) operate the personal watercraft, and (ii) use applicable safety equipment. Id. at *595-*596. The court surveyed relevant caselaw, finding that some jurisdictions considering the same question did not permit parties to waive negligence claims premised on the violation of safety statutes, whereas other jurisdictions permitted the waivers. Id. at *598-*599. It sided with the former, noting “the apparent absence of an established admiralty rule on this question, ” (id. at *601); that statutory violations amount to negligence per se; and that waivers of a negligence per se claim violate public policy. Id. at *602.

Applying the reasoning to Law 430, the only statutory item involving safety is the one requiring information to safely operate the jet ski. But renting out a jet ski without taking steps to provide for its safety operation falls within the realm of negligence regardless of whether it is statutorily required. See, In re Hartman, 2010 WL 1529488, *4 (D.N.J. Apr. 15, 2010)(no need to resort to state safety statute to establish negligence in case originating in jet ski accident, because irrespective of statute, ski owner owed plaintiff a duty of care). And as pointed out above, those actions may be waived. See, Waggoner, 141 F.3d at *8-*9 (rejecting argument that exculpatory clause in recreational boat rental contract violated public policy based in part on Restatement (Second) of Contracts’ explanation that “a party to a contract can ordinarily exempt himself from liability for harm caused by his failure to observe the standards of reasonable care imposed by the law of negligence”). Moreover, although Law 430 imposes vicarious liability, that type of liability is less about boat safety and more about ensuring compensation for injured parties. See, Rockaway, 2016 WL 8861617 at *604 (so observing in validating waiver to protect vessel owner from vicarious liability imposed by state navigation law). In the end, Law 430 does not prohibit waivers, and neither does public policy.

Second, adhesion contracts are “take it or leave it” contracts with no opportunity for negotiation between parties with unequal bargaining power. Id. at *6 (delineating elements of adhesion). The definition does not fit waivers used in connection with voluntary recreational pursuits rather than rendition of essential services such as medical care, where courts would be more likely to find that a contract of adhesion exists. See, Olmo, 2016 WL 1704365 at *10 (so recognizing). For the same reason, liability waivers for voluntary recreational activities in navigable waters are not considered adhesion contracts, as the plaintiff has the option of signing or turning around and declining to do business with the defendant. Id. (waiver in case involving parasailing and related activities). So too here, for plaintiffs were free to choose another jet ski rental company or leave the beach without ridding a jet ski at all. See Olivelli, 225 F.Supp.2d at 110-11, 118-120 (waiver of liability not considered adhesion contract in part because scuba diving is a strictly voluntary recreational pursuit and deceased was free to decline defendant’s services if she did not wish to assent to the terms of the waiver); Brozyna, 2011 WL 4553100 at *6 (same with respect to jetboating excursion, as plaintiff had to option to decline to participate in the excursion); Murley ex rel. Estate of Murley v. Deep Explorers, Inc., 281 F.Supp.2d 580, 589-590 (E.D.N.Y. 2003)(if scuba diver did not agree to or understand any of the clauses of the release, he was free to write “VOID” or decline defendant’s services).[24]

Third, the waivers are clear and unambiguous. Their language (1) identified the specific risks inherent to and associated with riding a jet ski;[25] (2) explained and highlighted the fact that, by executing the Agreement, plaintiffs waived and released any and all claims based upon negligence against Water Toy, its officers, directors, employees, representatives, agents, and volunteers and vessels; and (3) stated that plaintiffs accepted responsibility for the consequences of riding the rented jet skis. The language should have put plaintiffs on notice of its legal significance and effect. Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 580-581, 591 (validating liability release with similar characteristics in dismissing action arising out of scuba diving accident that resulted in diver’s death). Even more, both plaintiffs and Castro signed the Agreements before boarding their respective jet skis, acknowledging that they (1) were fully informed of the hazards and risks associated with the jet ski and related water sports activities, including collision with other participants or watercrafts; (2) read, understood, and agreed to abide by the “Personal Watercraft Operational” instructions at all times; (3) were trained in the safe use of watersports equipment to their complete satisfaction; and (4) were physically and mentally able to participate in the water sports activities.

Fourth, plaintiffs are college-educated U.S. citizens, who were interested in participating in a recreational, hazardous maritime activity, one conditioned upon the jet ski’s owner and renter being released from liability as set forth in the waivers, a condition plaintiffs voluntarily agreed to.[26] Plaintiffs state that Ms. Morgan signed the documents without reading them (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 11). Nonetheless, the defendant is entitled to rely in good faith upon the reasonable appearance of consent that plaintiff created. See, Chieco v. Paramarketing, Inc., 228 A.D.2d 462, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 (2d Dept. 1996)(holding release and waiver for paragliding lesson valid despite plaintiff’s allegation that he did not read or understand the document), cited in Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 591; Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, 217-218 (West 2000) (discussing defendant’s reasonable reliance on plaintiff’s acts and words to infer binding consent). Private and uncommunicated reservations to a waiver does not subject defendant to liability. See, Dan B. Dobbs, supra (so noting). Therefore, plaintiffs cannot escape the consequences of their voluntary decisions, bypassing the contracts they signed to avoid the legal consequences of their free choice, for there is no evidence of deceit, violence or intimidation exerted on plaintiffs to coerce or wrongfully induce them to sign the waivers, or that they did so by mistake, thinking they were signing something else. See, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 § 3404 (codifying elements voiding consent under Puerto Rico law, to include violence, intimidation, deceit and error); Cutchin v. Habitat Curacao-Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, Inc., 1999 WL 33232277, *3 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 8, 1999)(applying pre-accident waiver to dismiss action arising from diving accident, as there was no evidence showing that plaintiff was coerced to sign the document); Murley, 281 F.Supp.2d at 590 (dismissing suit based on scuba diver’s death in part because there was no evidence that defendants procured release by fraud or that deceased signed release under duress); .

Plaintiffs posit the waivers mention negligence but not fault, and cannot bar their action because the complaint alleges that their damages result from defendants’ “fault” or “negligence” (Docket No. 61 at p. 25). These terms have specific meanings in the civil code context of Puerto Rico law. See, CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. González-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 64 (1st Cir. 2008)(so recognizing). Fault consists in the failure to exercise due diligence, the use of which would have prevented the wrongful result, and requires the execution of a positive act causing a damage to another person different from the one who executed it. Id. Negligence supposes an omission producing the same effect as fault (id.), predicated as with fault, on the failure to exercise due diligence. See, Sánchez v. Esso Standard Oil de Puerto Rico, Inc., 2010 WL 3069551, *4 (D.P.R. Aug. 2, 2010)(discussing terms). Both concepts “have in common that the act be executed or the omission incurred without an injurious intent, ” González-Toro, 520 F.3d at 64, and for the same reason, have been described as “faces of the same coin.” Sánchez, 2010 WL 3069551 a *4 (quoting Gierbolini v. Employers Fire Ins. Co., 4 P.R. Offic. Trans. 1197, 1201 (1976).

On this reading, it is apparent that to the extent the waiver mentions negligence it necessarily contemplates the failure to exercise due diligence, the same operative feature underlying fault, reflecting the waiver’s reference to both active and passive negligence. See, Malave-Felix v. Volvo Car Corp., 946 F.2d 967, 971 (1st Cir. 1991)(“An actor is at fault, or negligent, when he fails to exercise due diligence to prevent foreseeable injury”)(emphasis added). Even more, plaintiffs’ factual allegations are couched in negligence, not fault. See, Complaint, ¶ 30 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants, … [Ms. Morgan] has suffered mental anguish, physical injuries and scars;” ¶ 43 (“As a consequence of the accident caused by the negligence of all defendants,, , [Ms. Kennedy] has suffered mental anguish, and physical injuries”).

Plaintiffs allege the waiver does not mention Axel Acosta, the insurance company, or Acosta Water Sports (Docket No. 61, pp. 27-28). Nonetheless, the waiver expressly releases Water Toy Shop’s officers, directors, and agents, and Axel Acosta is Water Sports’ president and resident agent (Docket No. 61-1 at ¶ 23). In addition, the insurance company’s exposure is linked to that of its insured. If the action fails as to Water Toy Shop and Axel Acosta, there is no viable claim against their insurer. Acosta Water Sports would not benefit from the waiver, though, as it is not one of the releases. Only one conclusion follows: the waivers and releases are valid, and must be enforced except as to Acosta Water Sports.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated, the motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 52) is GRANTED and the claims against Water Toy, Axel Acosta and Ironshore Indemnity DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Since it is uncontested that Acosta Water Sports is not the owner of the jet skis at issue, and did not seem to have incurred in any wrongdoing related to the accident, plaintiffs shall show cause, by April 20, 2018 as to why their claims against Acosta Water Sports should not be dismissed as well. In their motion, plaintiffs shall include relevant caselaw arising out of analogous facts and procedural settings in support of their position.

SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

[1] Collisions have been described as “the most feared catastrophe of every mariner.” Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law, Vol. 2, 103 (West 5th ed. 2011).

[2] Castro was sued and served with process, but failed to appear and the Clerk entered default against him (Docket No. 77).

[3] Except otherwise noted, the facts included in this section are drawn from the parties’ Local Rule 56 submissions (Docket No. 52-1, Docket No. 61-1, Docket No. 69-1). Local Rule 56 is designed to “relieve the district court of any responsibility to ferret through the record to discern whether any material fact is genuinely in dispute.” CMI Capital Market Investment, LLC v. Gonzalez-Toro, 520 F.3d 58, 62 (1st Cir. 2008). It requires a party moving for summary judgment to accompany its motion with a brief statement of facts, set forth in numbered paragraphs and supported by citations to the record, that the movant contends are uncontested and material. Local Rule 56(b) and (e). The opposing party must admit, deny, or qualify those facts, with record support, paragraph by paragraph. Id. 56(c), (e). The opposing party may also present, in a separate section, additional facts, set forth in separate numbered paragraphs. Id. 56(c). While the district court may “forgive” a violation of Local Rule 56, litigants who ignore the rule do it “at their peril.” Mariani-Colón v. Department of Homeland Sec. ex rel. Chertoff, 511 F.3d 216, 219 (1st Cir. 2007).

[4] At his deposition, Axel Acosta explained that these corporations operate separately, with their own permit and insurance. Their personnel, however, is interchangeably used. See, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 3 at p. 84, lines: 6-20. Water Toy Shop owns the stand adjacent to the San Juan Hotel, whereas Acosta Water Sports owns the stand adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel. See, PSUMF ¶¶ 6, 36.

[5] Plaintiffs stated they were rushed into signing the documents. However, that do not contest the fact that both of them signed the documents. Moreover, the deposition testimony submitted in support of their contention does not prove that they were rushed to sign documents, but that they “were rushing” (Defendants’ Exh. 2 at p. 94). At any rate, in their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs seem to have abandoned the “rushing” characterization of the events, focusing instead on the alleged invalidity of the releases (Docket No. 61 at pp. 20-29).

[6] Plaintiffs’ explanation as to who gave them the documents does not controvert the language of the Rental Agreements that each plaintiff signed. Their undeveloped and unsupported contention as to the “content and admissibility of the documents” – without any analysis, case law or support whatsoever – does not contest the statement either.

[7] The “disputed” and generalized statement made by plaintiffs “as to the content and admissibility of the documents” does not contest the language of the Rental Agreement and Declaration of Fitness.

[8] Plaintiff testified during her deposition that “thirty to forty five maybe an hour” elapsed (Docket No. 52-3 at p. 100, lines 14-17).

[9] Plaintiffs “disputed” this statement as follows: “Disputed as to hearsay and admissibility of the documents. With the exception of the witness testimonies, Defendants have not yet produced a single piece of evidence that can confirm the identity, address or telephone number of the person who caused the collision, someone allegedly named Mark Castro.” See, Docket No. 61-1. But in addition to the general language disputing this statement, plaintiffs provided no discussion or authority in support of the argument. As such, the statement is deemed admitted. See, U.S. v. Zannino, 895 F.2d 1, 17 (1st Cir. 1990)(“It is not enough merely to mention a possible argument in the most skeletal way, leaving the court to do counsel’s work, create the ossature for the argument, and put flesh on its bones”). Moreover, their “dispute” language does not comply with Local Rule 56 either. See also, Natal-Pérez v. Oriental Bank & Trust, —F.3d.—-, 2018 WL 618598, *1-*2 (D.P.R. January 30, 2018)(explaining what constitutes a proper denial or qualification under Local Rule 56).

[10] Plaintiffs’ denial does not comply with Local Rule 56. This time, they refer the court’s attention to certain portions of plaintiffs’ Exhibit 6. But nothing in those pages serve to properly controvert defendants’ SUMF ¶ 16. Therefore, the statement is deemed admitted.

[11] Plaintiffs did not admit, deny or qualify this statement as required by Local Rule 56. Moreover, their explanation does not contest this statement.

[12] The Territorial Clause gives Congress authority to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” As a territorial entity subject to congressional authority under the Territorial Clause, Puerto Rico nevertheless boasts “a relationship to the United States that has no parallel in … [United States’] history.” Puerto Rico v. Sánchez-Valle, —U.S.—-, 136 S.Ct. 1863, 1876 (2016). In a well-documented and comprehensive commentary, “Why Puerto Rico Does Not Need Further Experimentation With Its Future: A Reply To The Notion of ‘Territorial Federalism’, ” 131-3 Harvard Law Review Forum (January 2018), Juan R. Torruella examines the different phases of Puerto Rico’s territorial relationship with the United States, divided into what the author has labeled “the four ‘experiments’ in the colonial governance of Puerto Rico by the United States.” Id. at pp. 65-66.

[13] For a description of the main features of the Jones Act, see, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 92. Juan R. Torruella, supra, focuses on the historical context of the statutory enactment. The first organic act, known as the Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 77-86, had been enacted in 1900, two years after the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Hispanic American War. It established a civilian government in the territory, replacing the military government that had exerted control over Puerto Rico from October 1898. See, Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.3d at 91-92 & n.17 (sketching statute); Juan R. Torruella, supra (surveying historical setting).

[14] Lebrón-Cáceres, 157 F.Supp.2d at 92-93, 99-101, and Juan R. Torruella, supra, provide useful information about this statute.

[15] Gustavo A. Gelpí, “Maritime Law in Puerto Rico, An Anomaly in a Sea of Federal Uniformity, ” published as part of The Constitutional Evolution of Puerto Rico and Other U.S. Territories (1898-Present), Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Metropolitan Campus (2017), p. 57, discusses Garrido and other judicial decisions in light of the interplay between Federal maritime law and Puerto Rico.

[16] See, Aponte v. Caribbean Petroleum, 141 F.Supp.3d 166, 171 (D.P.R. 2015)(applying Limitation Act in Puerto Rico).

[17] The term “adequate cause” is similar to “proximate cause.” See, Rodríguez v. Puerto Rico, 825 F.Supp.2d 341, 347 (D.P.R. 2011)(so noting)(citing Tokyo Marine and Fire Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Pérez &Cia. de Puerto Rico, Inc., 142 F.3d 1, 7 &n. 5 (1st Cir. 1998)(referring to Puerto Rico decisions explaining adequate cause)).

[18] Foreseeability allows courts to reconcile physical or natural cause and effect relationships with the causation necessary to establish civil liability. See, González, 1993 WL 525644 at *4 (so explaining). If that were not so, “damages following a breach … [would] be linked to each other in an endless chain of events.” Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation v. Arrillaga-Torrens, 212 F.Supp.3d 312, 353 (D.P.R. 2016).

[19] At the most, those alleged violations would warrant administrative sanctions under Section 1407 of Law 430. Yet there is no evidence that the DRN sanctioned, fined, suspended or revoked Water Toy’s permit for those reasons.

[20] See also, Marshall, 828 F.2d at 848 (comparing Negrón v. Orozco, 113 D.P.R. 921 (1983)(finding Puerto Rico Police liable for a shooting death in a police station because intervening act, though criminal and intentional, was reasonably foreseeable) with Rivera v. Cruz, 87 J.T.S. 51(1987)(no liability since defendant had no reason to anticipate the criminal act)).

[21] Poulis-Minott measured liability against the so-called Pennsylvania Rule, pursuant to which if a plaintiff in admiralty establishes both that the defendant breached a statutory duty and the breach is relevant to the causal question, the defendant assumes the burden of proving that its breach could not have caused plaintiff’s damages. See, Poulis-Minott, 388 F.3d at 363 (describing Pennsylvania Rule). The Rule aims to enforce strict compliance with maritime regulations pertaining to the safe operation of ships. Id. So to invoke it, the plaintiff must show a relationship between the regulatory violation and the injury. Id. Plaintiffs never invoked the Pennsylvania Rule, but assuming they had done so, there is no evidence linking a safety-related statutory violation with the accident.

[22] Public policy does prohibit a party to a maritime contract to shield itself contractually from liability for gross negligence. See, Royal Ins. Co. of America v. Southwest Marine, 194 F.3d 1009, 1016 (9th Cir. 1999)(discussing issue). The prohibition does not apply here, because as pointed out in the text, the complaint only raised gross negligence allegations as to Castro.

[23] Congress could block the enforceability of these waivers like it did in 46 U.S.C. § 183(c), which prohibits a vessel owner from limiting its liability for its own negligence when carrying passengers between ports of the United States or from a port of the United States to a foreign port. But that provision applies only to common carriers. See, Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., 141 F.3d 1162, *5-*6 (4th Cir. 1998)(unpublished)(so holding). No common carrier was involved in the case sub judice.

[24] Still and all, “adhesion does not imply nullity of contract” in Puerto Rico. Nieves v. Intercontinental Life Ins. Co. of Puerto Rico, 964 F.2d 60, 63 (1st Cir. 1992). If the wording of the contract is explicit and its language clear, its terms and conditions are binding on the parties. Id. As will be discussed, the waivers here satisfy this requirement.

[25] Those risks included (1) changing water flow, tides, currents, wave action, and ship’s wakes; (2) collision with any of the following: a) other participants, b) the watercraft, c) other watercraft, d) man made or natural objects, e) shuttle boat; (3) wind shear, inclement weather, lightning, variances and extremes of wind, weather and temperature; (4) my sense of balance, physical condition, ability to operate equipment, swim and/or follow directions; (5) collision, capsizing, sinking, or other hazard that may result in wetness, injury, exposure to the elements, hypothermia, impact of the body upon the water, injection of water into my body orifices, and/or drowning; (6) the presence of insects and marine life forms; (7) equipment failure or operator error; (8) heat or sun related injuries or illnesses, including sunburn, sun stroke or dehydration; (9) fatigue, chill and/or reaction time and increased risk of accident.

[26] Morgan had signed similar documents in order to rent jet skis before the accident. At the time of the accident, she had a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, and Kennedy had a High School diploma with one year of nursing school. SUMF at ¶ 2.

———


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A well-written release is not enough; you have to present it to the participant in a way that the participant knows what they are signing.

Then you have to present the information to the court, so the court clearly sees what the participant saw, same size, same way, same color.

Citation: Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

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

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Agreement and Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

A release is not a piece of paper to be written on a whim and thrown on line. Here the court blasted the defendant because the release was presented on-line in a bad way, and it was presented in court in a worse way.

Releases, Indemnification Agreements, Arbitration Agreements, etc., must be noticed to the consumer. Meaning the consumer MUST understand they are signing a legal agreement, they have to them be used online in a way that the consumer or guest has no doubt that they are signing one, and you must be able to prove that.

Besides, New York does not allow the use of a release!

Facts

The plaintiffs were both injured in a Tough Mudder event on the salmon ladder. The plaintiff’s sued and the defendant Tough Mudder answered and filed this motion to compel arbitration. The release contained an arbitration clause.

The release signed by the participants was signed online. The participants went through a registration page, part of which was a window where the release was contained. To read the release, you had to scroll through the window separately from the rest of the page. The release was in a window in the page.

The defendant attempted to prove the release was valid by presenting an affidavit of the Manager of Customer relations and black-and-white copies of the page and a separate copy of the release. The court did not have a copy of the page as it was seen by the participants.

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR. She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action

The box that held the release did not show the entire document unless the reader scrolled through the center window. What the court received in its copy of the page, obviously only showed the small part of the release that was visible when the page was printed.

The agreement was labeled:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS

Not identified in the heading and located several pages into the release was an arbitration provision.

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

The judge shredded the defense in an efficient point by point denial of the defendant’s defenses for two reasons. They did a lousy job of setting up the documents to be signed online, and they did a worse job of presenting that information to the court.

The court first looked at the motion to compel arbitration. To compel arbitration the party wanting arbitration must:

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate”. When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

Whether or not the online agreement was valid is based on the specific facts of the situation.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user

The court then went into an analysis of the four types of online consumer contracts: “(a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” Each type of agreement has different requirements to be valid.

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services….

The court then found, because the defendants’ document was so bad, that this agreement was a clickwrap agreement. Since the printed copy of the webpage only showed a small part of the release, the court found it could only be a clickwrap agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.

For clickwrap agreements to be valid:

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.”

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation

The court simply found the “plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case.

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ”

For the online agreement to be valid, the agreement must:

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement. Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.”

The courts review of what was presented to the court was simple and a slam against the defendants.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period.

And then the court piled on the defense for doing a lousy job of presenting the information to the court.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process.

The court stated the important sections of the agreement needed to be identified so anyone reading the agreement would understand the importance of those sections. The court pointed out the heading identified the agreement as a release, but did not identify the agreement as containing an arbitration clause.

The court then slammed the door shut on the release itself because it violated GOL § 5-326.

§ 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

The court threw out both the release, and the arbitration clause within the release. In a footnote, the court stated it’s holding was in line with other decisions.

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

So Now What?

This was not a case where the court wanted to make sure the defendant lost. This was a case where the defendant did a lousy job.

Microsoft gets away with this type of release and online crap because they are offering contracts where damages are the contract value; what you are paying for the software.

When you are dealing with torts, where thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars are on then a simple click or shrink wrap agreement will not suffice.

Create this page in such a way you can show it to the court.

Then have a click at the bottom that states the participant understands they are giving up certain legal rights. Then have the participant click to go to the payment page. The credit card information verifies the participant is who they say they are because of the credit card agreements.

Finally, when you send the person their receipt for signing up for the event, include a paragraph stating they also signed a release and possible a link to the release.

Quit hiding legal documents and put them out there and in front of your participants, guests and customers.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

97 N.Y.S.3d 825

63 Misc.3d 843

Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo, Plaintiffs,

v.

Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, Defendants.

No. 2019-29098

522905/17

Supreme Court of New York, Kings

March 29, 2019

[97 N.Y.S.3d 828] Plaintiffs were represented by Brandon Michael Cruz THE BONGIORNO LAW FIRM, PLLC. Address

Defendants were represented by Joshua Cash WILSON ELSER MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER LLP Address

Opinion

Debra Silber, J.

Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated move for an order, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503(a), to compel arbitration and to stay this action pending resolution of the arbitration proceeding. For the reasons which follow, the motion is denied.

Background and Procedural History

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti (Scotti) and Joseph Russo (Russo) (collectively, plaintiffs) participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter, the TM Event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, “Tough Mudder”) are the business entities that organized the TM Event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017 against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a Verified Answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this Court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM Event when they completed an on-line internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the Manager of Customer Relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated (Affirmation of Joshua Cash, Exhibit C). Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM Event on-line registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event at issue.[1] Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the on-line registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM Event (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D). Best states that, during the on-line registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter, PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F). She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down, read as follows:

“Participant Waiver: Tough Mudder Incorporated

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS. (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit E).

Best claims the PWCR contained the following “Mediation and Arbitration” provision:

Mediation and Arbitration: In the event of a legal issue, I agree to engage in good faith efforts to mediate any dispute that might arise. Any agreement reached will be formalized by a written contractual agreement at that time. Should the issue not be resolved by mediation, I agree that all disputes, controversies, or claims arising out of my participation in the TM event shall be submitted to binding arbitration in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The costs of such action shall be shared equally by the parties.

I further acknowledge and agree that any question, issue or dispute as to the arbitrability of any dispute, controversy, or claim arising out of my participation in the TM event, will be submitted to an arbitrator in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association are available on-line at http://www.adr.org (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F).

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D at ¶ 5). She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event (id at ¶ 6). Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action. In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the web page where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text (Exhibit F to Cash Affirmation). Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

Plaintiffs additionally argue that the arbitration clause in the PWCR is unenforceable because it contains a conflicting provision regarding disputes. Plaintiffs point out that the PWCR contains a clause entitled “Venue and Jurisdiction” located several paragraphs before the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, which states [Exhibit F, Page 3]:

I understand that if legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction and that only the substantive laws of the State in which the TM Event is held shall apply.

Plaintiffs argue that this provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause located many lines of type below it, thereby rendering it void and unenforceable.

Finally, plaintiffs argue that the entire PWCR agreement, including the purported arbitration provision, is unenforceable because the “Waiver of Liability for Ordinary Negligence” clause (on page three of the PWCR as Exhibit F) violates General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-326, which prohibits contracts between the owner or operator of any “place of amusement or recreation” from exempting such owner or operator from “liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment.” In this regard, plaintiffs contend that Tough Mudder’s operation of the TM Event obstacle course was clearly operated as “a place of amusement or recreation” within the meaning of GOL § 5-326. Since the plaintiffs paid a fee to use the obstacle course and were injured while engaged in that activity, they argue that GOL § 5-326 renders the entire waiver of liability clause, and all remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause, void and unenforceable.

In reply, Tough Mudder points out that the plaintiffs do not dispute that they each did in fact register for the TM Event. In addition, Tough Mudder argues that GOL § 5-326 is not applicable herein and, therefore, does not invalidate the waiver or any other PWCR provision. In this regard, Tough Mudder maintains that the TM Event is distinguishable from the “recreational” activities intended to be covered under the statute, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which Tough Mudder characterizes as being “relaxed and undemanding” activities, which “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation.” Tough Mudder argues that the TM Event is distinguishable from the foregoing activities in that it is “a rigorous and grueling athletic competition that requires proper training and dedication” (Cash Reply Affirmation, at ¶ 8). Tough Mudder further argues that TM Events are “unique to their participants,” and pose risks and challenges exclusive to obstacle courses, thereby rendering such events completely distinct from the recreational activities engaged in by the “general public” as contemplated by GOL § 5-326.

In addition, Tough Mudder points out that the PWCR contains a “Severability” provision which states, in relevant part, as follows:

“I understand and agree that this … Waiver of Liability … is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the state in which the TM Event is held and that if any provision shall be found to be … void, or for any reason unenforceable, then that provision shall be severed from this Agreement and does not affect the validity and enforceability of any remaining provisions.”

[97 N.Y.S.3d 831] In light of the foregoing provision, Tough Mudder argues that, in the event a clause is deemed unenforceable, it does not invalidate any of the remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

Tough Mudder also argues that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause is not contradicted by the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, as the latter clause only mandates arbitration regarding disputes “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM event …” Therefore, Tough Mudder contends that there are clearly certain circumstances when a state or federal trial court would be the appropriate venue for claims that do not arise out of one’s participation in the TM Event. However, since plaintiffs’ claims do arise out of their participation, Tough Mudder maintains that arbitration of this matter is required.

Discussion

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” (God’s Battalion of Prayer Pentecostal Church, Inc. v. Miele Assocs., LLP, 6 N.Y.3d 371, 812 N.Y.S.2d 435, 845 N.E.2d 1265 [2006] [internal quotation marks omitted]; seeMatter of Robert Stigwood Org. [Atlantic Recording Corp.], 83 A.D.2d 123, 126, 443 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1981] ). When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement (seeHarriman Group v. Napolitano, 213 A.D.2d 159, 162, 623 N.Y.S.2d 224 [1995] ). The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (seeSeneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d 211, 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690 [2002]; Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. v. Roseboro, 247 A.D.2d 379, 380, 667 N.Y.S.2d 914 [1998] ). The court must draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. (Nicosia v. Amazon.com Inc., 834 F.3d 220, 229 [2d Cir. 2016] ).

“The creation of online contracts ‘has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract’ ” (Resorb Networks, Inc. v. YouNow.com, 51 Misc.3d 975, 981, 30 N.Y.S.3d 506 [Sup.Ct. N.Y. County 2016] quoting Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 [2d Cir. 2004] ). The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website (seeSchnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 120 [2d Cir. 2012] ). Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user (id. at 120; see Fteja v. Facebook, Inc., 841 F.Supp.2d 829, 833, 835 [S.D.N.Y. 2012]; Starke v. Gilt Groupe, Inc., 2014 WL 1652225, *2, *3, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58006, *6-7 [S.D.N.Y. 2014]; Jerez v. JD Closeouts, LLC, 36 Misc.3d 161, 168, 943 N.Y.S.2d 392 [Nassau Dist. Ct. 2012] ). In Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility” (id. at 35; seeStarke v. Squaretrade, Inc., No. 16-CV-7036 [NGG], 2017 WL 3328236, at *5 [E.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2017], affd 913 F.3d 279 [2d Cir. 2019] ).

In Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F.Supp.3d 359, 394-403 (E.D.N.Y. 2015), the four “general types of online consumer contracts

are identified as (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” As explained by Judge Weinstein in Berkson:

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services…. (Id. at 394-95). (seeApplebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d 454, 465 [S.D.N.Y. 2017] [applying New York law and denying motion to compel arbitration where notice of contract terms was insufficient to bind plaintiff] ).

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.[2]

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.” (Serrano v. Cablevision Sys. Corp., 863 F.Supp.2d 157, 164 [E.D.N.Y. 2012]; see alsoWhitt v. Prosper Funding LLC, 15— CV— 136, 2015 WL 4254062, at *4 [S.D.N.Y. July 14, 2015]; Kai Peng v. Uber Techs., Inc., 237 F.Supp.3d 36, 47-48 [E.D.N.Y. 2017]; Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 397). However, as stated by Judge Koeltl in Applebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d at 466,

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (internal citations omitted)

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation [97 N.Y.S.3d 833] of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 28 [2d Cir. 2002] ). Therefore, issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue (seeApplebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web-based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry (id. ; seeMeyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 [2d Cir. 2017], citing Schnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 124 [2d Cir. 2012] ).

Here, plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case. However, plaintiffs can still be bound by the contractual terms if there is inquiry notice of the terms and plaintiffs “assent[ed] to [the terms] through the conduct that a reasonable person would understand to constitute assent” (Plazza v. Airbnb, Inc., 289 F.Supp.3d 537, 548 [S.D.N.Y. 2018]; see alsoNicosia, 834 F.3d at 233). A person is on inquiry notice if a “reasonably prudent offeree would be on notice of the terms at issue” (Schnabel, 697 F.3d at 120 [” ‘[I]nquiry notice’ is ‘actual notice of circumstances sufficient to put a prudent man upon inquiry’ “] quoting Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 27 n.14 [2d Cir. 2002] ).

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ” (Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 [2d Cir. 2002] [Sotomayor, J.] ). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d 408, 420 [S.D.N.Y. 2016] ). In Meyer, a putative class action claiming price-fixing, the district court found that adequate notice was not given to plaintiff of mandatory arbitration when he registered to use Uber. The screen had a hyperlink to the agreement, but plaintiff did not need to click on it to register as a user. Then, after clicking on it, you needed to click further to read the Terms of Service and the arbitration provision was at the bottom of page seven. This was determined to be a “browsewrap” agreement. The Second Circuit, on appeal,[3] determined that the issue was whether the plaintiff was on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision by virtue of the hyperlink on the screen, under California Law, and determined that adequate notice was given. The panel reversed the district court, finding the motion to compel arbitration should have been granted.

The court further notes that on-line agreements may be revised from time to time, so not only must the court determine whether the party seeking to enforce such an agreement has provided the version seen by the other party at the time the contract was made, but whether the court in any seemingly on point case cited actually rendered its decision based on the same version of the agreement (seePlazza v. Airbnb, 289 F.Supp.3d 537 [S.D.N.Y. 2018] [archived computer code for 2009 sign-up screen provided to court, along with screen shots of Terms of Service] ).

In Berkson, supra, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide a court’s inquiry. First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement (Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 401 [citingNguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] ). Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.” Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brings the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable. “When contractual terms as significant as … the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink … with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent” (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d at 421-22 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted] ). A broad exculpatory clause waiving liability for negligence would also certainly qualify as a material term and one that alters a contracting party’s commonly-understood rights.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period. In this regard, the court finds that the affidavit by Ms. Best holds little evidentiary value, as she does not set forth the basis of her personal knowledge of Tough Mudder’s on-line registration process at the time the plaintiffs registered, or of her familiarity with the applicable computer generated documents (seeGogos v. Modell’s Sporting Goods, Inc., 87 A.D.3d 248, 253-254, 926 N.Y.S.2d 53 [2011] ). Additionally, absent from her affidavit is any indication that she was even employed by Tough Mudder at the relevant time period.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screen shot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms. In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screen shots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms” (Starke v. Squaretrade, Inc., 913 F.3d 279, 289-90 [2d Cir. 2019] citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] and Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 23 [2d Cir. 2002] [where court refused to enforce terms of use that “would have become visible to plaintiffs only if they had scrolled to the next screen”] ). Here, Tough Mudder’s submissions with respect to the “design and content” of its website and the relevant terms of the PWCR, especially the arbitration clause, are woefully inadequate.

The court further notes that the initially visible portion of the on-line text box containing the scrollable PWCR has an all-caps header stating: “ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.” However, while this header specifically draws the user’s attention to certain specified provisions (i.e., Assumption of Risk, Waiver of Liability and Indemnity) which appear at the beginning of the document (on pages one and three), it makes no reference to the arbitration provision, which appears on page four of the seven-page PWCR document.

Additionally, the court notes that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause, which appears on page three of the PWCR states that if “legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction….” This provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause at issue, which mandates that all claims “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM Event shall be submitted to binding arbitration….” Given that the plaintiffs would have viewed (in the scrollable text box) the “Venue and Jurisdiction” provision first, the court finds it highly unlikely that they would have been placed on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision, which appeared on a subsequent page in the agreement. As noted above, the party seeking to compel arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (see Seneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d at 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690), which Tough Mudder has failed to do. Under the circumstances presented here, the court finds that the arbitration provision was not sufficiently conspicuous to place the plaintiffs on inquiry or constructive notice and, therefore, is not enforceable (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d at 32; Applebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Further, due to the conflicting provisions regarding litigation and arbitration, the arbitration provision is void due to ambiguity. Accordingly, Tough Mudder’s motion to stay the action and compel arbitration is denied.

General Obligations Law § 5-326

As to plaintiffs’ argument that the waiver and release provision set forth in the PWCR [Exhibit F Page 3] is invalid pursuant to GOL § 5-326, the court agrees. That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid (GOL § 5-326; seeRogowicki v. Troser Mgt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 [1995]; Blanc v. Windham Mtn. Club, 115 Misc.2d 404, 454 N.Y.S.2d 383 [1982], affd 92 A.D.2d 529, 459 N.Y.S.2d 447 [1983] ). The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation (seeLeftow v. Kutsher’s Country Club Corp., 270 A.D.2d 233, 234, 705 N.Y.S.2d 380 [2000] ). Indeed, the nature of the TM Event as described by Tough Mudder — a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training — is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by GOL § 5-326. Furthermore, Tough Mudder’s assertion that, unlike the TM Event, such activities are “relaxed and undemanding” and “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation” is an inaccurate and absurd distinction. Thus, the PWCR’s waiver provision, waiving defendants’ liability for “ordinary negligence” violates GOL § 5-236 and is therefore void (seeGarnett v. Strike Holdings LLC, 64 A.D.3d 419, 882 N.Y.S.2d 115 [2009] [applying § 5— 326 where plaintiff paid a fee to use the recreational facility]; Alibey v. Tough Mudder Inc., 2018 WL 5298473, at *2 [Sup.Ct., Kings County, Oct. 24, 2018]; Hansen v. Tough Mudder, Inc., [Sup Ct Kings Co. 2018, Ind. 515072/15] ).

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, “the court may sever the illegal aspect and enforce the legal one, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.” (Mark Hotel LLC v. Madison Seventy-Seventh LLC, 61 A.D.3d 140, 143, 872 N.Y.S.2d 111 [2009] ). “[W]hether the provisions of a contract are severable depends largely upon the intent of the parties as reflected in the language they employ and the particular circumstantial milieu in which the agreement came into being.” (Matter of Wilson’s Estate, 50 N.Y.2d 59, 65, 427 N.Y.S.2d 977, 405 N.E.2d 220 [1980] ).

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

Conclusion

For the reasons state above, Tough Mudder’s motion to compel arbitration and stay the action is denied.

The parties are directed to appear on May 1, 2019 in the Intake Part for a Preliminary Conference.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.

Notes:

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

[2] In any event, as the court states in Meyer v. Uber Tech., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 (2d Cir. 2017).: Classification of web-based contracts alone, however, does not resolve the notice inquiry. See Juliet M. Moringiello and William L. Reynolds, From Lord Coke to Internet Privacy: The Past, Present, and Future of the Law of Electronic Contracting, 72 Md. L.Rev. 452, 466 (2013) (“Whether terms are classified as clickwrap says little about whether the offeree had notice of them.”). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry. SeeSchnabel, 697 F.3d at 124.

[3] Meyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2017)