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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


It sucks when you lose a case and in a separate case, the decision in the first case you lost is used against you in the second case.

Blue Diamond MX Park was sued by a participant in a race for the injuries he received during a race. The release he signed an assumption of the risk did not stop his claim for recklessness.

Citation: Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), 2017 Del. Super. LEXIS 615, 2017 WL 5900949

State: Delaware, Superior Court of Delaware

Plaintiff: Scott Barth

Defendant: Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

This case is another mountain-bike race case with the same defendant as an earlier case in Delaware. Delaware allows a release to be used; however, in both of these cases, the appellate court worked hard to find a way around the release.

Facts

The only facts in the case are: “The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race.”

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

The court started its analysis looking at Primary Assumption of the Risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”

The court then looked at the release.

The plaintiff argued the release was not valid because it lacked consideration, and the release does not release the defendant from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.” Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.

The plaintiff argued the release was not valid based on lack of consideration. The lack of consideration was based on the fact he did not walk or ride the course in advance. Another case in Delaware had held the release was invalid because the riders were required to walk the course and never given the opportunity to do so.

In this case the riders were told, they could walk or ride the course. The plaintiff never did. Not taking advantage of the offer is not a case for claiming the release is invalid.

Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.” The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

The court then switched back to the issue of recklessness and held the release could not preclude a claim for recklessness. “The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.”

The court then went back to primary assumption of the risk and found that primary assumption of the risk does not bar a claim for recklessness.

Primary assumption of the risk in Delaware applies to sports-related activities that involve physical skill and pose a significant risk of injury to participants. Primary assumption of the risk in can be only with specific activities.

Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”

So far, Delaware has found that primary assumption of the risk applies to:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[

Relying on a California case, the court looked at the requirements for an activity. That analysis must cover the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.

An analysis of the nature of the activities the courts must consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.

In reviewing the relationship of the parties, the court must look at:

the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.

In Delaware, secondary assumption of the risk was incorporated into Delaware’s contributory negligence statute and is no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary Assumption of the Risk occurs when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”

The court then found that primary assumption of the risk is still a valid defense to negligence. The court then found that the release the plaintiff signed was the same as primary assumption of the risk.

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

As in other states, the defense provided by primary assumption of the risk is based on the duty of the defendants not to increase the harm beyond what is inherent in the sport.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”

The issue of recklessness came back, and the court seemed to combine that issue as one where the defendant increased the risks to the plaintiff.

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct, which increased the race’s risk of harm. Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

The case continued with an unknown final outcome.

So Now What?

Because of these two cases, I think first I would require all participants in the race to ride or walk the course. This would reinforce the assumption of risk argument. I would then write the release to point out the fact the rider had seen the course and had no problems with it.

The analysis of primary assumption of risk in this and many other cases creates a gap in the defenses of many activities that can only be covered by a release, even in Delaware. Primary Assumption of the risk covers the inherent risks of the activity. Defendants are liable for any increase in the risk to the plaintiffs. There is an ocean of risks that a court can find that are not inherent in the activities that are not really under the control or something the defendant can do to decrease and/or is something the defendant has not done that increased the risks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)

2016-04353

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

December 13, 2017, Decided

NOTICE:

THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia

COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.

JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.

The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.

[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.

“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).

Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).

The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).

[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.


Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park),

Scott Barth, Plaintiff,

v.

Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation, Defendants.

C.A. No. N15C-01-197MMJ

Superior Court of Delaware

November 29, 2017

Submitted: November 17, 2017

Motions for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Primary Assumption of Risk

Batholomew J. Dalton, Esq., Laura J. Simon, Esq., Dalton & Associates, Larry E. Coben, Esq. (Argued), Gregory S. Spizer, Esq., Anapol Weiss, Attorneys for Plaintiff Scott Barth

Michael J. Logullo, Esq. (Argued), Rawle & Henderson LLP Attorney for Defendants The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.

George T. Lees III, Esq., Logan & Petrone, LLC Attorney for Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC

OPINION

The Honorable Mary M. Johnston.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL CONTEXT

In this Opinion, the Court considers an apparent issue of first impression in Delaware. The question is whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies in certain risky or dangerous sports-related activities in the absence of an express waiver of liability. This is a personal injury case. The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race. Barth alleges that the race’s course was owned by Defendant Blue Diamond, LLC (“Blue Diamond”), co-sponsored by Defendant Delaware Enduro Riders (“DER”), and overseen by Defendant East Coast Enduro Association, Inc. (“ECEA”). Barth alleges that the Defendants’ negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries. Prior to the race, Barth signed a release of liability form.

DER and ECEA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to Barth’s allegations of recklessness, which Blue Diamond adopted. DER and ECEA also jointly filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, while Blue Diamond separately filed its own. At the hearing on the motions, this Court denied the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, holding that genuine issues of material fact exist regarding recklessness, particularly as to, among others things, “the adequacy of signage” and “the adequacy of warnings on the course.”[1] The Court declined to rule from the bench as to the Motions for Summary Judgment, instead instructing the parties to make additional submissions limited to the issue of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, the central grounds for the three defendants’ motions.

DER and ECEA argue they are entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Barth signed a waiver releasing them from liability. Second, Barth assumed the risk inherent in an off-road dirt-bike race. In its separate motion, Blue Diamond makes the same two arguments and adds a third-Barth was a member of the Blue Diamond Riding Club, and Blue Diamond did not owe Barth the same duty it would owe a common law business invitee, MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment is granted only if the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute and judgment may be granted as a matter of law.[2] All facts are viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.[3] Summary judgment may not be granted if the record indicates that a material fact is in dispute, or if there is a need to clarify the application of law to the specific circumstances.[4] When the facts permit a reasonable person to draw only one inference, the question becomes one for decision as a matter of law.[5] If the non- moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, yet “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, ” then summary judgment may be granted against that party.[6]

ANALYSIS

Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Barth signed a release of liability and, separately, because Barth assumed the risk of participating in the race. Both of these arguments are properly analyzed within the framework of the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”[8]

The Waiver Form Released the Defendants from Liability for Negligence, not Recklessness

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under a theory of express primary assumption of risk. Before participating in the race, Barth signed a release titled, “RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT.” It states that Barth:

HEREBY RELEASES, WAIVES, DISCHARGES, AND COVENANTS NOT TO SUE . . . racing associations, sanctioning organizations … track operators, track owners … herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO THE UNDERSIGNED . . . FOR ANY AND ALL LOSS OR DAMAGE . . . ARISING OUT OF OR RELATED TO THE EVENT(S), WHETHER CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.

Barth asserts that the entire waiver agreement is unenforceable as an invalid contract due to lack of consideration. He further contends that even if the agreement is enforceable, it does not release Defendants from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.”[9] Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.[10]

Barth instead argues that the form is unenforceable due to lack of consideration. Barth bases his argument on this Court’s finding in Devecchio v. Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc.[11] In Devecchio, this Court deemed a waiver of liability unenforceable due to lack of consideration when the form stated that riders agreed to inspect the course, but the defendants admitted that, under the race’s sanctioning body’s rules, the riders were not allowed to inspect the course before the race. [12]

As in Devecchio, the release here contains an agreement that the race participants “have or will immediately upon entering any of such RESTRICTED AREAS, and will continuously thereafter, inspect the RESTRICTED AREAS . . ., “[13] Unlike in Devecchio, however, no sanctioning body’s rule barred Defendants from performing an inspection of the course.

Instead, the rule in this case stated: “Participants are allowed to walk or bicycle the course prior to the event-with the club’s permission.” Barth argues that, despite this distinction, Devecchio should apply because Barth was never given permission or made aware of his responsibility to inspect the course. Notably, however, Barth never asked for permission to inspect the course. That Barth hypothetically may not have received permission to perform the inspection is not dispositive. Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.”[14] The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

Pursuant to Lynam, however, the form exculpates the Defendants’ negligence, not recklessness. As in Lynam, the form here provides for a release of liability caused by “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE ‘RELEASEES’ OR OTHERWISE.” As this Court determined in Lynam, “such [exculpatory] agreements [that expressly exempt defendants from liability for their negligent conduct] generally are not construed to cover the more extreme forms of negligence, described as willful, wanton, reckless or gross, and to any conduct which constitutes an intentional tort.”[15]

The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.

Implied Primary Assumption of Risk Does Not Bar a Claim of Recklessness

It is undisputed that primary assumption of risk applies when the plaintiff signs a valid release of liability form.[16] But because Defendants argue that primary assumption of risk exists in addition to and independent of the waiver form, the Court must determine whether-and if so, how-to apply the defense beyond an express written agreement to waive liability.

Delaware courts have noted, paradoxically, that “depending upon the situation at hand, express consent may be manifested by circumstantial words or conduct.”[17]The illogic of “express consent” being “manifested by circumstantial words or conduct” can be resolved with the conclusion that Delaware recognizes an implied primary assumption of risk doctrine.[18]

Case law suggests that courts should find an implied primary assumption of risk only with respect to certain activities. Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”[19] Examples of such sports-related activities include:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[20]

The nature of the activity is pertinent to an analysis of primary assumption of risk. Otherwise, in the absence of a waiver of liability, the dangerousness of the activity would be irrelevant. The case law therefore suggests that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies to certain sports-related activities, even in the absence of an express waiver form. However, though Delaware seems to allow for the application of implied assumption of risk in certain sporting events, no Delaware case has provided a framework for applying the doctrine. This precise issue appears to be one of first impression.

The California case Peart v. Ferro, [21] which this Court cited in support of its observations on the prevalence of primary assumption of risk in dangerous sporting events, [22] provides a means of analysis. Under the Peart framework, courts must examine two things to determine whether an implied primary assumption of risk exists: the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.[23]

When examining the nature of the activity, courts consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.[24]

In examining the relationship of the parties, the court bears in mind that “the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.”[25]

When analyzed within this framework, implied primary assumption of risk remains distinct from secondary assumption of risk. Secondary assumption of risk has been subsumed by Delaware’s contributory negligence statute.[26] It is therefore no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary assumption of risk exists when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”[27] In contrast, the focus for implied primary assumption of risk remains on the nature of the activity the plaintiff has consented to participate in and the actions of the defendants-not how the conduct of the plaintiff may have contributed to his injuries. Commentators also have noted that implied primary assumption of risk is distinct from secondary assumption of risk.[28]

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”[29]

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct which increased the race’s risk of harm.[30] Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct. The Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment on this issue are denied.

Barth was a Business Invitee for the Race Despite his Blue Diamond Membership

Because Barth’s primary express and implied assumption of risk bar his claims of negligence, the Court need not reach this issue. However, for the sake of completeness, the Court finds that because Barth paid a fee to participate in the race, his relationship with Blue Diamond for the purposes of that event was that of a business invitee. His membership with the Blue Diamond Riding Club had no bearing on his participation in the race.

This fact distinguishes this case from Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, [31] upon which Blue Diamond relies. There, the plaintiff was a member of a fitness center and was injured while using a rowing machine. Because the fitness center was a “private-membership based business, ” the Court found the fitness center did not owe the plaintiff the same duty it “would owe to a common law business invitee or to the public at large.”[32]

In this case, participation in the race was not restricted to members of the Blue Diamond Riding Club. The race was open to any “American Motorcyclist Association Member.” Unlike the fitness center, Blue Diamond invited non-members to the race, and therefore owed participants the duties owed to business invitees.

CONCLUSION

The doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate tortfeasors from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

DER and ECEA’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against these defendants are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against these defendants, Blue Diamond’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Court finds that the allegations of negligence against this defendant are barred under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to the allegations of recklessness against this defendant. With the dismissal of the negligence allegations, the question of Blue Diamond’s status as a business invitee is moot.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

Notes:

[1] October 3, 2017 Tr. of Motions, 71:12-16.

[2] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[3] Burkhart v. Davies, 602 A.2d 56, 58-59 (Del. 1991).

[4] Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

[5] Wooten v. Kiger, 226 A.2d 238, 239 (Del. 1967).

[6] Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

[7] Helm v. 206 Massachusetts Avenue, LLC, 107 A.3d 1074, 1080 (Del. 2014) (quoting Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 267-68 (Del. Super. 1989)).

[8] Id.

[9] Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, 2016 WL 5793725, at *3 (Del. Super.).

[10] See id. The release in Lynam read:

I HEREBY RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE the . . . track owners, [and] owners and lessees of premises used to conduct the Event(s). . . all for the purposes herein referred to as “Releasees, ” FROM ALL LIABILITY TO ME, THE MINOR, [and] my and the minor’s personal representatives . .. FOR ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, LOSSES, OR DAMAGES ON ACCOUNT OF INJRY, including, but not limited to, death or damage to property, CAUSED… BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE “RELEASEES” OR OTHERWISE.

[11] 2004 LEXIS 444 (Del. Super.).

[12] Id.

[13] The corresponding clause in Devecchio read:

EACH OF THE UNDERSIGNED . . . acknowledges, agrees and represents that he has, or will immediately upon entering any of such restricted areas, and will continuously thereafter, inspect such restricted areas and all portions thereof which he enters and with which he come in contact, and he does further warrant that his entry upon such restricted area or areas and his participation, if any, in the event constitutes an acknowledgment that he has inspected such restricted area and that he finds and accepts the same as being safe and reasonably suited for the purposes of his use ….

[14] Id. This principle also dispenses with the argument that Barth did not have sufficient time to understand the release that he chose to sign.

[15] Id. (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on Torts, § 68 at 483-84 (5th ed. 1984)).

[16] See Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074 (Del. Super.) (analyzing whether a signed waiver constitutes primary assumption of risk).

[17] Storm v. NSL Rockland Place, LLC, 898 A.2d 874, 882 (Del. Super. 2005) (citing Croom v. Pressley, 1994 WL 466013, at *5 (Del. Super. 1994)).

[18] See id. at 882 n.30 (‘”Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent… .'” (quoting 57B Am. Jur. 2d. Negligence § 1010)). Storm also quoted the Restatement (Second) of Torts at length to explain assumption of risk generally. Id. at 881. That passage described a form of assumption of risk “closely related to” that acquired through “express consent” as one in which:

the plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances. Thus a spectator entering a baseball park may be regarded as consenting that the players may proceed with the game without taking precautions to protect him from being hit by the ball. Again the legal result is that the defendant is relieved of his duty to the plaintiff.

Id.; see also McCormick v. Hoddinott, 865 A.2d 523, 529 (Del. Super. 2004) (“In the instant case there appears to be no evidence to support a claim that minor Plaintiff expressly or impliedly assumed any risk; therefore, an affirmative defense of assumption of risk based on primary assumption of risk cannot stand.”) (emphasis added).

[19] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (quoting Storm, 898 A.2d at 883).

[20] Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citations omitted). Storm noted, however, that a “common theme” of these activities is that they frequently involve the signing of consent forms, suggesting the Court may have only meant to invoke them as another example of where express consent may apply. Id. However, a “common theme” is not a “common requirement”-spectators at sporting events do not sign releases of liability to view an event. Moreover, courts have found waiver of liability forms enforceable in contexts dissimilar to those listed above. See, e.g., Ketler v. PFPA, LLC, 2015 WL 3540187, at *2 (Del. Super. 2015) (finding a waiver form sufficient to invoke primary assumption of risk when the plaintiff snapped a cable on a rowing machine at the defendant’s gym). The Storm Court would have had no occasion to comment on the nature of the activity if it were not independently meaningful in the analysis.

[21] 13 Cal.Rptr.3d 885, 894 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2004).

[22] See Storm, 898 A.2d at 883 (citing Peart to define the sort of sports-related activities that typically raise the issue of primary assumption of risk).

[23] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894 (citations omitted).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 894-95.

[26] Helm, 107 A.3d at 1080 (“[I]t is now accepted in Delaware that the concept of secondary assumption of risk is completely subsumed by the principles of comparative negligence.”).

[27] Fell v. Zimath, 575 A.2d 267, 268 (Del. Super. 1989).

[28] See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496A (1979) (distinguishing a description of implied primary assumption of risk from a secondary assumption of risk, “in which the plaintiffs conduct in voluntarily encountering a known risk is itself unreasonable, and amounts to contributory negligence”); 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1010 (“Primary assumption of risk is akin to express or implied consent, and relieves the defendant of any obligation to exercise care for the injured person’s protection, including situations where an injured person, having knowledge of a hazard, continued voluntarily to encounter it. Secondary assumption of risk is akin to contributory negligence . . . .”).

[29] Peart, 13 Cal.Rptr.3d at 894.

[30] This conclusion is in line with Delaware decisions that applied similar logic under framework of a different name. See Farrell v. University of Delaware, 2009 WL 3309288, at *3 (Del. Super.) (finding persuasive the New York Supreme Court’s rationale that “[a]lthough [a] rink could not be liable for harms caused by the inherent dangers of skating or by unpreventable events, the court considered assumption of risk inapplicable to injuries resulting from ‘the reckless actions of another skater which the defendant, by adequate supervision, could have prevented.'”(quoting Shorten v. City of White Plains, 637 N.Y.S.2d 791, 796 (N.Y.App.Div.1996)); Lafate v. New Castle Cty., 1999 WL 1241074, at *4 (Del. Super. 1999) (denying summary judgment, in part because “it would not be within the normal expectation of the health risk of playing basketball that a supervising employee would place a metal bar within normal head range between two basketball courts” in spite of an express release of liability).

[31] 2015 WL 3540187 (Del. Super 2015).

[32] Id. at*l.