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Release for a health club which had a foam pit included language specific to the injury the plaintiff suffered, which the court used to deny the plaintiff’s claim.

Argument made that the word inherent limited the risks the release covered and as such did not cover the injury the plaintiff received.

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Kamil Macias

Defendant: Naperville Gymnastics Club

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities and use of equipment in the open gym

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Plaintiff was injured jumping headfirst into a foam pit at the defendant’s gym. The plaintiff had signed a release relieving the defendant of liability, which was upheld by the trial court and the appellate court.

For the first time, the plaintiff argued the release was limited by the language in the release because it used the term inherent in describing the risks. Inherent limits the risks, to those that are part and parcel of the activity and the injury that befell the plaintiff was a freak accident.

Facts

The plaintiff went to the defendant club during open hours when the public could attend with a friend. He paid an admission fee and signed a release. The club had a foam pit. The plaintiff watched other people jump into the pit then tried it himself. He jumped off the springboard and instead of landing feet first he landed head first in the pit.

The plaintiff broke his neck requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation.

The defendant club filed a motion to dismiss based upon the release signed by the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because the release was ambiguous.

During discovery, the plaintiff admitted he did not see the rules of the gym but did understand the risks of landing in the pit head first.

Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant

After discovery, the defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment based on the additional information collected during discovery. The trial court granted that motion, and this appeal was dismissed.

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

The appellate court looked at contract law in Illinois.

The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly.

A release is a contract. For the release to be valid and enforceable, it should:

…contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution.

The court found the injury suffered by the plaintiff fell within the scope of the possible injuries of the release and contemplated by the plaintiff upon signing the release.

Two clauses in the release stated the plaintiff was in good physical health and had proper physical condition to participate. The plaintiff argued these clauses made the release ambiguous; however, the appellate court did not find that to be true.

Here is the interesting argument in the case.

I have repeatedly stated that releases that limit releases to the inherent risk are limited in their scope. The plaintiff made that argument here.

Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

The plaintiff also argued his injury was not foreseeable because:

… (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

The argument on whether the injury was foreseeable is not whether the plaintiff knew of the risk but:

The relevant inquiry is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.

The court found the injury the plaintiff received was on that was contemplated by the release.

Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because the release was presented to “opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public” when it opened its gym to the public.

The court struck down this argument because the freedom to contract was greater than the limitation on damages issues.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s granting of the summary judgment for the defendant based on the release.

So Now What?

The inherent risk argument here was made but either not effectively argued by the plaintiff or ignored by the court. However, for the first time, the argument that the word inherent is a limiting word, not a word that expands the release was made in an argument.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Macias, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, 2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

Kamil Macias, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Naperville Gymnastics Club, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 2-14-0402

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, SECOND DISTRICT

2015 IL App (2d) 140402-U; 2015 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 448

March 10, 2015, Order Filed

NOTICE: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 11-L-1418. Honorable Judges Hollis L. Webster and John T. Elsner, Judges, Presiding.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CORE TERMS: gym, pit, landing, summary judgment, foam, exculpatory clause, gymnastics, release agreement, surface, inherent risk, jumping, discovery, ambiguity, exculpatory, deposition, injury resulting, public policy, risk of injury, physical condition, releasing, ambiguous, sport, bones, supervision, de novo, springboard, encompassed, notice, undersigned, climbing

JUDGES: JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Schostok and Justice Zenoff concurred in the judgment.

OPINION BY: BURKE

OPINION

ORDER


Held: Release agreement for the gym was sufficiently clear, explicit, and unequivocal to show intent to protect facility from liability arising from use of its “foam pit”; it was proper for the gym to raise the issue it had raised in the section 2-619 motion in a summary judgment motion as it alleged new facts which were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release; affirmed.

[*P2] Plaintiff, Kamil Macias, filed a complaint against defendant, Naperville Gymnastics Club (the Club), for injuries he received after jumping off a springboard and landing head first into a “foam pit.” The trial court denied the Club’s motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2010)), but it later granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment based on a liability release agreement signed by plaintiff. Plaintiff raises several issues on appeal concerning the release and the effect of the earlier [**2] section 2-619 motion to dismiss. We affirm.

[*P3] I. BACKGROUND

[*P4] On January 15, 2011, plaintiff came to the Club with his friend. The Club offers “open gym” hours where members of the Club and the general public can attend. Plaintiff, who was not a member of the Club, paid a $10 admission fee and he signed a liability release agreement.

[*P5] A foam pit was located in the gym. After seeing participants jumping into the pit, plaintiff jogged up to a springboard in front of the pit, jumped onto the board and into the pit. While attempting to jump feet first, plaintiff’s body moved in the air, causing him to land head first, striking the bottom of the pit. Plaintiff immediately lost all feeling in his body below the neck. He remained in the pit covered by pieces of foam until he was extracted by the Naperville Fire Department. At the time, plaintiff was 20 years old, about 6 feet tall, and weighed 310 pounds. As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered a broken neck, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging the Club was negligent in its failure to properly supervise the open gym, train participants, and warn participants of hazards and dangers accompanied with activities [**3] and use of equipment in the open gym.

[*P6] The Club filed a section 2-619(a)(9) motion to dismiss (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2010)), alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release agreement that contained an exculpatory clause releasing the Club from liability for any acts of negligence.

[*P7] The trial court found the release ambiguous and denied the section 2-619(a)(9) motion without prejudice. In denying the motion, the judge stated that she felt it was inappropriate to dismiss the suit at that point, that there was case law on both sides of “these exculpatory clauses,” and the judge agreed that it was something that could be developed through discovery. She further stated, “But I think it’s something that is better suited for a summary judgment motion if the facts do bear that out from the defense’s perspective.”

[*P8] During discovery, plaintiff was questioned by defense counsel and testified to the following:

“Q. Okay. That first part of the form it says, ‘To gain admission to the activity areas of [the Club], all parts of this form must be read, understood, and signed.’ Do you see that?

A. Yes.

Q. And did you understand what that means?

A. Yes.

* * *

Q. Did you understand this to be an agreement on January 15th, 2011[,] between you and [the [**4] Club]?

A. Had I read this agreement I would have understood.

* * *

Q. And you understand that [the release] means that when you sign it that you’re agreeing to not bring any lawsuit against [the Club]?

A. Correct.

Q. And if you had read it on January 15th of 2011, that’s what you would have understood it to mean?

A. Correct.

* * *

Q. And you agree that the sport of gymnastics is a risky sport?

A. Correct.

Q: And you would have felt the same on January 15th, 2011[,] before your accident?

A. Yes.”

[*P9] At the entrance to the gym was a closed door with a window pane in it. Plaintiff did not recall seeing a sign on the door entitled, “Rules of the Gym.” Plaintiff reviewed the rules at his deposition and admitted that it said to “Walk around all pits and trampolines,” and he stated that he understood what this meant. The rules also stated: “Do not play on any equipment without proper supervision,” and “Do not do any gymnastics without proper supervision,” and plaintiff stated that he understood what these meant. Plaintiff also stated that he did not see a sign painted on the wall in the gym titled, “Loose foam pit rules.” That sign stated: “Look before you leap,” “No diving or belly flops,” and “Land on [**5] feet, bottom or back only.” Plaintiff acknowledged that he understood what these meant.

[*P10] After discovery, the Club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the exculpatory clause of the release signed by plaintiff. The motion included the deposition testimony and that (1) plaintiff denied being given any verbal instructions and denied seeing the warning signs or rules posted in the gym before he was injured, and (2) plaintiff admitted that he would have understood the terms of the liability release, had he read it. Following argument, the trial court granted the Club’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal follows.

[*P11] II. ANALYSIS

[*P12] A. Standard of Review

[*P13] Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2010). The motion should be denied if there are disputed facts, but also if reasonable people could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts. Wood v. National Liability & Fire Insurance Co., 324 Ill. App. 3d 583, 585, 755 N.E.2d 1044, 258 Ill. Dec. 225 (2001). We review an order granting summary judgment de novo. Pielet v. Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30, 978 N.E.2d 1000, 365 Ill. Dec. 497.

[*P14] We review the parties’ [**6] liability release agreement in accordance with well-established contract principles. Joyce v. Mastri, 371 Ill. App. 3d 64, 74, 861 N.E.2d 1102, 308 Ill. Dec. 537 (2007). The primary objective in construing a contract is to give effect to the parties’ intent, and to discover this intent the various contract provisions must be viewed as a whole. Kerton v. Lutheran Church Extension Fund, 262 Ill. App. 3d 74, 77, 634 N.E.2d 16, 199 Ill. Dec. 416 (1994). Words derive meaning from their context, and contracts must be viewed as a whole by examining each part in light of the other parts. Id. Contract language must not be rejected as meaningless or surplusage; it is presumed that the terms and provisions of a contract are purposely inserted and that the language was not employed idly. Id.

[*P15] In order for an exculpatory clause to be valid and enforceable, it should contain clear, explicit, and unequivocal language referencing the types of activities, circumstances, or situations that it encompasses and for which the plaintiff agrees to relieve the defendant from a duty of care. Calarco v. YMCA, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1040, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). In this way, the plaintiff will be put on notice of the range of dangers for which he assumes the risk of injury, enabling him to minimize the risks by exercising a greater degree of caution. Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 827, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986). The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract [**7] was entered into. Schlessman v. Henson, 83 Ill. 2d 82, 86, 413 N.E.2d 1252, 46 Ill. Dec. 139 (1980). It should only appear that the injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff. Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Further, when interpreting a contract containing an exculpatory clause, the court must interpret the scope of the exculpatory provision in the “context of the entire agreement.” Shorr Paper Products, Inc. v. Aurora Elevator, Inc., 198 Ill. App. 3d 9, 13, 555 N.E.2d 735, 144 Ill. Dec. 376 (1990). We review the interpretation of an exculpatory agreement or release of liability authorization de novo. Stratman v. Brent, 291 Ill. App. 3d 123, 137, 683 N.E.2d 951, 225 Ill. Dec. 448 (1997).

[*P16] In Garrison, a member of a health club who was injured when lifting weights on a bench press brought suit against the club and the manufacturer of the press. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the club, and the plaintiff appealed. The First District Appellate Court held that the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit, as it stated that each member bore the “sole risk” of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment, or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the “entire responsibility” of the member. The court found that the injury the plaintiff sustained clearly fell within the scope of possible dangers [**8] ordinarily accompanying the activity of weightlifting. Id. at 585. The court observed that the injury was of a type that would normally be contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was made and, therefore, the court held that it clearly fell within the parameters of the exculpatory clause. Id. See also Hussein v. L.A. Fitness International, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 121426, 987 N.E.2d 460, 369 Ill. Dec. 833; Neumann v. Gloria Marshall Figure Salon, 149 Ill. App. 3d 824, 500 N.E.2d 1011, 102 Ill. Dec. 910 (1986).

[*P17] Similar to Garrison and the cases cited above, the release agreement in the present case is clear and specific regarding the risks it covers and the release of the Club’s negligence. It specifically references the inherent risk of injury resulting from landing on landing surfaces, and plaintiff acknowledged in his deposition that this phrase includes the foam pit in which he was injured. The agreement also releases the Club from any and all claims, including those caused by its negligence. Furthermore, plaintiff’s signature certified that he recognized the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities and that he voluntarily assumed the risks.

[*P18] Nevertheless, plaintiff raises several arguments regarding the validity of the release and the effect of the earlier section 2-619 motion.

[*P19] B. Ambiguity of the Release

[*P20] 1. First Clause

[*P21] The first clause of the release, which is typed in capital letters, states: [**9]

“BY SIGNING THIS DOCUMENT YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT UNSUPERVISED USE OF ANY AREA OF FACILITY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED AND COMPLETELY AT THE RISK OF THE PARTICIPANT AND THAT THE RULES [OF] EACH AREA BEING UTILIZED ARE UNDERSTOOD PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION!”

Plaintiff asserts that this clause is ambiguous as to whether supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition precedent to releasing defendant from liability. We agree that the first clause, standing alone, might be construed as stating that supervision and a full understanding of the rules of the Club is a condition preceding releasing the Club from liability. However, case law teaches that we must review the language of the release in its entirety in order to interpret the parties’ intent.

[*P22] The release contains a “Covenant Not to Sue for Injury or Damages,” which provides, in relevant part:

“Notice: This is a legally binding agreement. By signing this agreement, you waive your right to bring a court action to recover compensation or to obtain any other remedy for any injury to yourself *** however caused arising out of use of the facilities of [the Club].

I hereby acknowledge and agree that the sport of gymnastics [**10] and the use of the accompanying equipment has INHERENT RISKS. I have full knowledge of the nature and extent of all of the risks inherent in gymnastics and the use of the facilities of the gym, including but not limited to:

***

5. Injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces; and

6. Injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death.

[*P23] The section of the release agreement entitled “Release Indemnification Liquidation Damages and Agreement to Arbitrate” states, in relevant part:

“In consideration of my use of the GYM, I the undersigned user, agree to release on behalf of myself *** [the Club] *** including but not limited to a claim of NEGLIGENCE.”

[*P24] The clause of the release immediately preceding plaintiff’s signature provides that “the undersigned recognize[s] the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities,” and the undersigned is “assuming the hazard of this risk upon myself because I wish to participate. I realize that I am subject to injury from this activity and that no form of pre-planning can remove all of the danger to which I am exposing myself.”

[*P25] In reading the release in its entirety, it is clear that the first clause of the release cannot be construed as plaintiff argues. The [**11] release contains no such limitations as it covers a number of activities, including “[i]njuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces” (i.e. the “foam pit”), releasing the Club from negligence, and “the dangers inherent with climbing and jumping activities.”

[*P26] 2. Physical Condition Clause

[*P27] Two clauses of the release request the participant to agree that he or she is in good physical health and proper physical condition to participate. Plaintiff cites Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986), and Macek v. Schooner’s Inc., 224 Ill. App. 3d 103, 586 N.E.2d 442, 166 Ill. Dec. 484 (1991), for the proposition that these types of clauses render the release ambiguous, as it is unclear whether the release only applies to injuries resulting from a participant’s physical ailments. In other words, the release does not apply to participants without physical ailments.

[*P28] We fail to follow the logic of plaintiff’s argument. However, the cases relied on by plaintiff are readily distinguishable. In Calarco, the plaintiff had been injured when metal weights from an exercise machine fell on her hand, breaking her bones. The plaintiff had agreed “to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] *** for damages which [the plaintiff] may have or which may hereafter accrue to [the plaintiff] arising out of or connected with [the plaintiff’s] participation [**12] in any of the activities of the [defendant].” We held that the exculpatory clause in the membership application for the defendant’s facility was insufficient to protect the defendant from liability as a matter of law because the clause did not adequately describe the covered activities to clearly indicate that defendant’s negligence would be covered by the release. Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d at 1043-44. We further noted that the statement immediately following the alleged exculpatory language contained a declaration of physical health by the signer, and that the combination of the two provisions further complicated the interpretation of the release. Id.

[*P29] In Macek, the plaintiff participated in an arm wrestling contest with a machine that broke his arm. The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because the release did not specify the covered activities but rather merely indicated that damages for “all injuries suffered” are waived. The court found further that the line immediately following the exculpatory language regarding the signer’s physical condition provided additional ambiguity. Id. at 106.

[*P30] In both Calarco and Marek, the releases did not specify the covered activities and did not specifically cover the defendants’ [**13] negligence. Both courts held that the physical condition clause simply added to the ambiguity of the release. However, contrary to Calarco and Marek, the release in this case clearly covers the activities in question and specifically releases defendant from liability for its negligence.

[*P31] 3. Inherent Risk Language

[*P32] Plaintiff argues that the use of “inherent risk” language throughout the release creates an ambiguity as to whether the language covers only dangers inherent in gymnastics and not freak accidents. We also reject this argument. As previously stated, the release specifically lists landing on landing surfaces as an inherent risk. Thus, there is no ambiguity as to whether plaintiff’s injury was covered by the release.

[*P33] C. Forseeability

[*P34] Plaintiff argues that his injury was not foreseeable because (1) he lacked specialized knowledge of gymnastics and, in particular, foam pits, to appreciate the danger and foresee the possibility of injury, and (2) his injury was not the type that would ordinarily accompany jumping into a foam pit.

[*P35] A plaintiff who expressly consents to relieve a defendant of an obligation of conduct toward the plaintiff assumes the risk of injury as a result of the [**14] defendant’s failure to adhere to the obligation. Larsen v. Vic Tanny International, 130 Ill. App. 3d 574, 576, 474 N.E.2d 729, 85 Ill. Dec. 769 (1984). The doctrine of assumption of risk presupposes, however, that the danger which causes the injury is such that it ordinarily accompanies the activities of the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff knows or should know both the danger and the possibility of injury prior to its occurrence. Id. at 576. The standard is a subjective one geared to a particular plaintiff, and the determination ordinarily will be made by a jury. Id. at 576-77.

[*P36] “The foreseeability of a specific danger defines the scope.” Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211. “The relevant inquiry *** is not whether [the] plaintiff foresaw [the] defendants’ exact act of negligence,” but “whether [the] plaintiff knew or should have known” the accident “was a risk encompassed by his [or her] release.” Hellweg v. Special Events Management, 2011 IL App (1st) 103604, ¶ 7, 956 N.E.2d 954, 353 Ill. Dec. 826.

[*P37] Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff knew or should have known that the accident was a risk encompassed by the release which he signed. As previously determined, the language of the release in this case was specific enough to put plaintiff on notice. In discussing inherent risks in the sport of gymnastics and use of the accompanying equipment, the release lists injuries resulting from landing on the landing surfaces, which includes [**15] injuries to bones, joints, tendons, or death. Plaintiff agreed that the foam pit was a landing surface and that some of the possible injuries that he could sustain at the gym from gymnastics activities included injuries to his bones, and he admitted at deposition that he had not read the release and that, had he read the release, he would have understood it to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Based on these facts, plaintiff should have known the risks of injury associated with the activity of jumping into the foam pit. Plaintiff participated in open gym, which reasonably contemplates participating in the use of the accompanying equipment. Plaintiff could have reasonably presumed that, should he jump from a springboard into the foam pit, he might land on his head. It is entirely foreseeable that, if plaintiff accidently fell on his head, he would be hurt by “landing on the landing surfaces,” a risk encompassed by the release agreement. See Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 121, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Although plaintiff suffered a serious injury, we are bound by the release agreement. Accordingly, we find the trial court properly granted summary judgment on the basis that the release barred plaintiff’s negligence [**16] claim.

[*P38] D. Public Policy

[*P39] Plaintiff next argues that it would be against public policy to enforce the release in this case because the Club opened its gym to the unskilled and inexperienced public. Plaintiff does not cite any cases in support of this argument. In fact, the only case he cites, Hamer v. City Segway Tours of Chicago, LLC, 402 Ill. App. 3d 42, 930 N.E.2d 578, 341 Ill. Dec. 368 (2010), is inapposite to his position.

[*P40] Several cases have rejected plaintiff’s argument in the fitness club setting. See, e.g., Kubisen v. Chicago Health Clubs, 69 Ill. App. 3d 463, 388 N.E.2d 44, 26 Ill. Dec. 420 (1979); Owen v. Vic Tanny’s Enterprises, 48 Ill. App. 2d 344, 199 N.E.2d 280 (1964). Had plaintiff, an adult, read the release and disagreed with it, he could have simply refused to participate in open gym. “While exculpatory or limitation of damages clauses are not favored and must be strictly construed against a benefitting party [citation] the basis for their enforcement is the strong public policy favoring freedom of contract.” Rayner Covering Systems, Inc. v. Danvers Farmers Elevator Co., 226 Ill. App. 3d 507, 512, 589 N.E.2d 1034, 168 Ill. Dec. 634 (1992). There does not seem to be any reason in this case to depart from the strong public policy of allowing parties to freely enter into contracts.

[*P41] E. Section 2-619 Motion to Dismiss

[*P42] The Club filed a section 2-619 motion, alleging that plaintiff signed a two-page liability release that contained an exculpatory clause, which released the Club from liability for any acts of negligence. The trial court found the release was ambiguous and denied the motion. However, [**17] the court recognized that disputed facts might affect the validity of the release and indicated that the Club was free to raise the issue again in a summary judgment motion after facts surrounding the execution of the release were developed in discovery.

[*P43] Citing Makowski v. City of Naperville, 249 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117-18, 617 N.E.2d 1251, 187 Ill. Dec. 530 (1993), plaintiff acknowledges that a trial court may allow a party to reassert a defense after previously ruling on the merits only when new evidence is presented. Plaintiff claims that the summary judgment motion did not allege new facts but simply relied on the language of the release as it did in the Club’s section 2-619 motion. We disagree.

[*P44] The Club did allege additional facts in its summary judgment motion that were developed during discovery that affected the validity of the release. Those facts included plaintiff’s acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the terms of the release, that he understood the inherent risks, and that he understood that the risk of “landing on landing surfaces” would include the foam pit where he was injured. He also testified that had he read the release he would have understood its language to mean that he could not sue the gym for any injuries he sustained. Since we review a summary judgment motion [**18] de novo (Pielet, 2012 IL 112064, ¶ 30), this evidence tends to defeat plaintiff’s ambiguity arguments.

[*P45] III. CONCLUSION

[*P46] For the reasons stated, we affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court of Du Page County granting the Club’s motion for summary judgment.

[*P47] Affirmed.


A season pass release for a Pennsylvania ski are was limited to the inherent risks of skiing. Consequently, the plaintiff was able to argue his injury was not due to an inherent risk.

The defendant one because the court was able to interpret the risk as one that was inherent in skiing. The defendant also, laid out the risks of skiing quite broadly in its information to the plaintiff.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

State: Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Adams County, Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for failing to properly maintain its ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning an icy area

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding:

Year: 2006

Summary

Plaintiff was injured when he skied over an icy spot and fell at the defendant’s ski area. However, this case was quickly dismissed because he had signed a release and the risk of ice at a ski area was an inherent risk of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

Facts

The plaintiff purchased a season pass to ski at the defendant’s ski area. He purchased his season pass on-line and signed a release at that time, online. When he went to pick up his season pass, he signed another written release. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.)

While skiing one day the plaintiff fell on an icy section. He claimed he was unaware of the ice. He severely injured is face, back, ribs and left hand. He sued the defendants for his injuries.

The defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is an argument that the pleadings do not make a legal case to continue the litigation.

A motion for judgment on the pleadings is in the nature of a demurrer as it provides the means to test the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. All of the [P]laintiffs’ allegations must be taken as true for the purposes of judgment on the pleadings. Unlike a motion for summary judgment, the power of the court to enter a judgment on the pleadings is limited by the requirement that the court consider only the pleadings themselves and any documents properly attached thereto. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only where the pleadings demonstrate that no genuine issue of fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court looked at Pennsylvania law. Like most states in Pennsylvania “exculpatory agreements, or releases, are valid provided, they comply with the safeguards enunciated by our Superior Court.”

Under Pennsylvania law, a release to be valid must:

The contract must not contravene any policy of the law. It must be a contract between individuals relating to their private affairs. Each party must be a free bargaining agent, not simply one drawn into an adhesion contract, with no recourse but to reject the entire transaction…[T]o be enforceable, several additional standards must be met. First, we must construe the agreement strictly and against the party asserting it. Finally, the agreement must spell out the intent of the parties with the utmost particularity.

The court then went through the facts in this case to see if the requirements under the law were met.

The plaintiff was not forced to sign the release but did so freely. The release was signed based on a personal choice of the plaintiff to ski at the defendant’s facilities. “Clearly, this activity is not essential to Cahill’s personal or economic well-being but, rather, was a purely recreational activity.”

The release does not violate public policy because the agreement was private in nature and “in no way affect the rights of the public.”

The court found the release was unambiguous. The release spelled out the intent of the parties and gave notice to the plaintiff of what he was signing.

The releases executed by Cahill are unambiguous in both their language and intent. The language spells out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise patrons of the contents and purpose of the document as both a notice of risk and a release of liability. The waiver uses plain language informing the skier that downhill skiing is a dangerous sport with inherent risks including ice and icy conditions as well as other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, the condition of which vary constantly due to weather changes and use. Importantly, after advising a patron of these dangers, the documents unequivocally, in both bold and capital letters, releases Ski Liberty from liability for any injuries suffered while using the ski facilities regardless of any negligence on the part of Ski Liberty, its employees, or agents. The application of the releases to use of Ski Liberty facilities is not only spelled out specifically in the document but is reinforced by other references to the releases throughout the body of the document.

The plaintiff had ample opportunity to read and review the release before paying for it. The court found the release was clear and spelled out in detail in plain language the intent of the parties.

The plaintiff argued the icy condition was a hazardous condition created by the defendant and is not an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. Because the condition was hazardous, the plaintiff argued you could not assume the risk of the icy area, and the release should be void.

The court found that icy conditions were an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

Cahill is an experienced skier who obviously has personal knowledge of the inherent dangers involved in the sport. His experience undoubtedly has taught him that the sport of skiing is not conducted in the pristine and controlled atmosphere of a laboratory but rather occurs in the often hostile and fickle atmosphere of a south central Pennsylvania winter. Those familiar with skiing, such as Cahill, are aware that nature’s snow is regularly supplemented with a man made variety utilizing water and a complex system of sprayers, hydrants, and pipes. Human experience also teaches us that water equipment frequently leaves puddles which, in freezing temperatures, will rapidly turn to ice. The risks caused by this variety of ever-changing factors are not only inherent in downhill skiing but, perhaps, are the very nature of the sport. The self-apparent risks were accepted by Cahill when he voluntarily entered into a business relationship with Ski Liberty. He chose to purchase a ski ticket in exchange for the opportunity to experience the thrill of downhill skiing. In doing so, he voluntarily assumed the risks that not only accompany the sport but may very well add to its attractiveness.

The court upheld the release and granted the defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings. This effectively ended the lawsuit.

So Now What?

It is rare that a Judgment on the Pleadings works, normally; the plaintiff can make an argument that the court finds requires more investigation, so the case can continue.

Here though, the release was well-written and the plaintiff’s argument was thrown out as a risk covered in the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

In this case, the plaintiff was dealt a double blow, with only one being necessary for the defendant to win. He signed a valid release and the risk he undertook was an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

Case No. 15-cv-100-SM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

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

October 31, 2016, Decided

October 31, 2016, Filed

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

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

 

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

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

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

OPINION BY: Steven J. McAuliffe

OPINION

ORDER

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

Standard of Review

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

Background

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

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

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

Snow Machine Tour

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF RISKS AND HAZARDS

COVENANT NOT TO SUE

WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion

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

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

A. The Scope of the Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Release encompasses the negligence claims against OBK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D. The Release does not violate public policy.

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

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

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

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

The Release does not violate public policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Steven J. McAuliffe

Steven J. McAuliffe

United States District Judge

October 31, 2016