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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaintiff Claims: wrongful death, negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

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

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

v.

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

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

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 5, 2019

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

JOHN A. MENDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

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

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

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

I. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

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

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

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

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

II. OPINION

A. Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

1. Legal Standard

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

2. Analysis

a. Choice of Law

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

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

b. Gross Negligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAC ¶ 25.[2]

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

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

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

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

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

c. Wrongful Death

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

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

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

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

B. Plaintiff’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment

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

III. ORDER

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

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

IT IS SO ORDERED.

———

Notes:

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

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


You can collect for damaged gear you rented to customers if your agreements are correct. This snowmobile outfitter recovered $27,000 for $220.11 in damages.

It helps to get that much money if the customer is a jerk and tries to get out of what they owe you. It makes the final judgment even better when one of the plaintiffs is an attorney.

Citation: Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514, 2012 WL 95208

State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne

Defendant: Leonard M. Gelman

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Fair Debt Collections Act

Defendant Defenses: They did not violate the act

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2012

Summary

The plaintiff’s in this case rented snowmobiles and brought one back damaged. The release they signed to rent the snowmobiles stated if they damaged the snowmobiles they would have to pay for the damage and any lost time the snowmobiles could not be rented (like a car rental agreement).

The plaintiffs damaged a snowmobile and agreed to pay for the damages. The Snowmobile outfitter agreed not to charge them for the lost rental income.

When the plaintiff’s got home, they denied the claim on their credit card bill. The Snowmobile outfitter sued them for the $220.11 in damages and received a judgment of $27,000.

The plaintiff then sued the attorney representing the snowmobile outfitter for violation of the federal fair debt collection’s act, which is the subject of this lawsuit. The plaintiff lost that lawsuit also.

This case shows how agreements in advance to pay for damages from rented equipment are viable and can be upheld if used.

Facts

Although this is described as a debt collection case, it is a case where an outfitter can recover for the damages done to his equipment that he rented to the plaintiffs. The facts are from this case, which took them from an underlying County Court decision in Summit County Colorado.

Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely visible to any driver. At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee and charged Mr. Henne a total of only $220.11.

…one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court. This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court does not believe that the fairing just fell off.”

Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.”

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s sig-nature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.”

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees pro-vision, the court awarded CBR $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.”

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

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

The facts set forth in the underlying damage recover case, are the important part. In this case, the attorney for the snowmobile outfitter was found not to have violated the federal fair debt collections act.

In awarding judgment to the defendant in this case, the judge also awarded him costs.

Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

Adding insult to injury. Sometimes it be better to quit while you are behind.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

January 12, 2012, Decided

January 12, 2012, Filed

CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees

COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.

For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.

JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya

OPINION

ORDER

This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1

1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.

Background

On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)

2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)

4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)

Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.

Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)

6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.

7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.

8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)

Analysis

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.

B. Request for Additional Discovery

As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]

The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)

As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.

C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector

The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).

The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.

The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).

9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.

The Act defines “debt collector” as:

[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed

Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.

Id. at 62-63.

1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group

The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.

After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.

One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)

10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11

11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.

In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.

Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.

12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)

13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.

2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology

This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)

a. Debt Collector Preface

In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.

14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.

Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).

When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.

b. Use of Form Letters

Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.

The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.

c. Pattern of Litigation Activity

Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.

d. Summary

Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.

Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.

Wherefore, it is ORDERED

1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.

3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED

Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya

Kathleen M Tafoya

United [*27] States Magistrate Judge


Negligence Per Se is the violation of a law or regulation created to protect a group of people. If you are Negligent Per Se, you have no defenses.

Defendant took plaintiffs on a guided personal watercraft tour with an employee/guide who had not been trained as required by Florida’s law.

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Plaintiff: Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva

Defendant: Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff

Third Party Defendant(s): Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence Per Se

Defendant Defenses: : (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

If there is a statute that applies to your business or activity, you must know and abide by the statute. Failure to do so can void all of your defenses and in some cases the claim may not be covered by your insurance policy.

Here the defendant rented personal watercraft to the plaintiffs without instructing the guests as required by Florida Statute. By not abiding by the statute, the defendant’s defenses were void and the defendant’s liability was decided by the court.

Facts

The plaintiff’s, husband, wife and daughter paid for a guided personal watercraft (PWC or formerly known as jet ski) tour. During the tour, another tour participant panicked and drove his PWC at a high rated of speed into the plaintiff’s.

The plaintiff’s sued the defendant PWC tour company. The PWC tour company sued the participant who drove the PWC into the plaintiff’s as third-party plaintiffs versus third party defendants.

The defendants relied on four defenses:

(1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness;

(2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness;

(3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and

(4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

The plaintiff argued that because the defendant did not hire or require it’s guides to meet educational requirements required by state law, the defendant was negligent per se.

Negligence per se is negligence that violates a law or regulation which was created for the purpose of protecting a group of people that were injured by the plaintiff.

The Florida statutes in question were:

Florida Statute § 327.39

§ 327.39. Personal watercraft regulated.

(b) 1. It is unlawful for the owner of any leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, or any person having charge over or control of a leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, to authorize or knowingly permit the watercraft to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.

The second statute was Florida Statute § 327.54

§ 327.54. Liveries; safety regulations; penalty.

(1) A livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person:

(e) When the vessel is equipped with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater, unless the livery provides prerental or preride instruction that includes, but need not be limited to:

1. Operational characteristics of the vessel to be rented.

2. Safe vessel operation and vessel right-of-way.

3. The responsibility of the vessel operator for the safe and proper operation of the vessel.

4. Local characteristics of the waterway where the vessel will be operated.

Any person delivering the information specified in this paragraph must have successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.

The first statute required the person renting a PWC to instruct the renter on the use of the PWC. The second statute identified the instructions to be given and required the person giving the instructions to have successfully completed a boater safety course. The defendant’s employee in this case had not given the necessary instructions and had not completed a boater safety course.

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

Federal judiciary has a rule they apply to these situations called the Pennsylvania Rule. The Pennsylvania Rule states:

…when a ship at the time of an collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.

Basically, the Pennsylvania rule shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who normally has the burden to proof the defendant was at fault, to the defendant, requiring the defendant to prove, it was not at fault.

The next hurdle is the state law’s relationship to admiralty law. Admiralty law is a Federal law, in fact, a series of international laws, to control transportation of goods and people across borders and international travel. States can only make laws concerning admiralty issues if there is not federal law on the subject already. If the federal law conflicts with the state law, the federal law applies.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident.

There is no federal law concerning the rental of PWCs. So, the two Florida statutes were available to the plaintiff. Additionally, the Florida statutes were created to protect a specific group of people, and the plaintiffs were part of the group to be protected.

These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

Side note: the defendant co-owner admitted he was not familiar with Florida’s statutes that were at issue. The court’s response was the classic you learn in law school, and you should learn in kindergarten. “…ignorance of the law is not a defense.”

The defendant argued that instruction would have changed the accident or prevented the accident. The court did not buy that argument.

However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

For the defendant not to be liable, the must be completely free of fault, and the violation of the Florida statute created fault on the part of the defendant; consequently, the defendant was not free of fault.

The defendant then argued the limitation of liability under admiralty law applied. The limitation of liability states the defendant is liable to the value of the vessel after the accident. Here the defendant argued the extent of their liability was $3,000 because that was what the PWC was worth.

For the defendant to use this defense, required a two-step test:

(1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.

Since the defendants could have easily investigated whether their employee had taken a boater safety course, and they did not, they could not take advantage of the limitation of liability because the defendant should have had knowledge of the unseaworthiness of the PWC.

The next defense argued was the release signed by the plaintiff. Here the release was void because it violated public policy. The statute created a safety requirement on the part of the defendant. The statute was enacted to keep the public safe. Therefore, failing to keep the public safe was a public policy issue.

[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.”

In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgement was denied. The plaintiff had filed a motion for summary judgment as to the liability of the defendant. That motion was granted. The sole remaining issue then was the amount of the liability, how much the defendant owed the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Releases are the best defense to lawsuits in most states. However, the most effective legal argument to void a release is to claim the defendant was Negligence Per Se. Here the court found that because the statutes were created for public policy reasons, the release violated public policy and thus was void.

Most state courts just void the release stating the release cannot prevent claims based on violation of a statute.

More importantly, any time a statute is created that applies to your business or activity, you must understand and follow the statute. Both statutes argued above had criminal penalties for violation of the statutes. Not only was the defendant liable in a lawsuit for violating the statutes, the defendants could be fined by the state.

Don’t get into business without knowing the law.

More articles on Negligence Per Se

Motion for Summary Judgment failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case.

Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability

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Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs, vs. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff, vs. Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant.

Case No. 06-10116-CIV-MOORE/GARBER

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA

2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

June 27, 2007, Decided

June 27, 2007, Entered

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Judgment entered by, Motion denied by Tassinari v. Key W. Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80872 (S.D. Fla., Oct. 31, 2007)

PRIOR HISTORY: Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43858 (S.D. Fla., June 18, 2007)

CORE TERMS: watercraft, maritime law’s, collision, boater, fault, summary judgment, boating, unseaworthiness, admiralty, maritime, handling, genuine, rental, vessel, safe, statutory rule, tour guide, public policy, per se, exoneration, privity, renters, ship, panicked, State Boating Law Administrators Betz Depo, liability arising, negligence per se, negligence cases, statutes enacted, standard of care

COUNSEL: [*1] For Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, an individual and next best friend of Ashley Silva, Ashley Silva, a minor, Plaintiffs: Domingo Carlos Rodriguez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez Aronson & Essington, Miami, FL; Patricia Leigh McMillan Minoux, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rodriguez, Aronson & Essington, P.A., Coral Gables, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, Defendant: Bruce Michael Trybus, Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

For Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida Corporation, ThirdParty Plaintiff: Joshua William Brankamp, Cooney Mattson Lance Blackburn Richards & O’Connor, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

JUDGES: K. MICHAEL MOORE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: K. MICHAEL MOORE

OPINION

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO DEFENDANT’S LIABILITY

THIS CAUSE came before the Court upon Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) and Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46).

UPON CONSIDERATION of the Motions, the pertinent portions of the record, and being otherwise fully advised in the premises, the Court enters the following Order.

I. Background

Plaintiffs are residents [*2] of Massachusetts. Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C. (“Defendant” or “Water Tours”) is a Florida corporation doing business in Monroe County, Florida, as a personal watercraft (jet skis and/or waverunners) rental agency and provider of guided personal watercraft tours to the public. On or about July 9, 2004, Defendant rented personal watercraft to Plaintiffs at or near Key West, Monroe County, Florida. Defendant then took a group of personal watercraft renters, including Plaintiffs and Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson, on a guided tour from its marina out to the area’s surrounding waters.

During the tour, the watercraft operated by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson collided with the watercraft operated by Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva, injuring Plaintiffs Ronald Tassinari and Ashley Silva.

Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on the following issues: (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence [*3] or unseaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement. Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Defendant violated certain Florida State statutes making Defendant negligent per se. Plaintiffs further argue that if Defendant is negligent per se, then Defendant is not entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft.

II. Standard of Review

The applicable standard for reviewing a summary judgment motion is unambiguously stated in Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Summary judgment may be entered only where there is no genuine issue of material fact. Twiss v. Kury, 25 F.3d 1551, 1554 (11th Cir. 1994). The moving party has the burden of meeting this exacting standard. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970). [*4] An issue of fact is “material” if it is a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case. Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997). It is “genuine” if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Id.

In applying this standard, the district court must view the evidence and all factual inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Id. However, the nonmoving party:

may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party’s pleading, but the adverse party’s response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant’s] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

III. Discussion

A. The Pennsylvania Rule and Florida Statutory Law

Plaintiffs argue that Defendant is negligent per se because Defendant violated [*5] Florida State statutes enacted to protect the safety of personal watercraft renters. Pl. Mot. at 9-14. Federal maritime law’s unique version of negligence per se is embodied in what is called the “Pennsylvania Rule.” In re Superior Constr. Co., 445 F.3d 1334, 1340 (11th Cir. 2006). “Under the Pennsylvania Rule, when a ship at the time of an allision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent allisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.” Id. (citing The Pennsylvania, 86 U.S. 125, 136, 22 L. Ed. 148 (1873)).

Defendant argues that State law does not apply in a case brought under federal maritime law; therefore, the Pennsylvania rule does not apply to violations of Florida statutes. Def. Resp. at 6-8. However, the Seventh Circuit recognized that “[s]everal courts have applied the Pennsylvania rule to the violation of state statutes or local ordinances.” Complaint of Wasson, 495 F.2d 571, 583 (7th Cir. 1974) [*6] (citations omitted); see also Protectus Alpha Nav. Co., Ltd. v. North Pacific Grain Growers, Inc., 767 F.2d 1379, 1382-83 (9th Cir. 1985) (violation of Washington State statute would support negligence per se).

Further, State law has been applied in admiralty cases where there is no direct conflict with established federal maritime law. Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Insur. Co., 348 U.S. 310, 75 S. Ct. 368, 99 L. Ed. 337 (1955); 1 T. Schoenbaum, Admiralty and Maritime Law § 4-2 (4th ed.); see also Smith v. Haggerty, 169 F. Supp. 2d 376 (E.D. Pa. 2001) (applying State law regulations to negligence claims arising from a boating accident) (vacated on other grounds). The Supreme Court has recognized that “[i]n the field of maritime contracts, as in that of maritime torts, the National Government has left much regulatory power in the States.” Wilburn Boat, 348 U.S. at 313 (the Supreme Court ultimately declined to adopt a federal admiralty rule governing insurance policy provisions and decided to leave that area up to State regulation).

In the present case, Plaintiffs cite to several Florida statutes that were enacted, in part, in response to an act of Congress intended to “encourage greater State participation and [*7] uniformity in boating safety efforts, and particularly to permit the States to assume the greater share of boating safety education, assistance, and enforcement activities.” 46 U.S.C. § 13102 (2007). The Court is not persuaded that statutes enacted in response to Congress’s stated purpose of permitting the states to assume more responsibility in regulation of recreational boat safety are inapplicable merely because they were enacted by a state government.

Further, Defendant has not pointed to any established federal maritime law directly conflicting with and preempting these State statutes. In cases where a State statute conflicts with established federal maritime law or would materially frustrate a tenant of admiralty law, the State statutes should generally not be applied. Steelmet, Inc. v. Caribe Towing Corp., 779 F.2d 1485, 1488 (11th Cir. 1986); Branch v. Schumann, 445 F.2d 175 (5th Cir. 1971); Miami Valley Broadcasting Corp. v. Lang, 429 So. 2d 1333 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983). Defendant overstates the holdings in Branch and Lang, arguing that State law can never be used in maritime negligence cases. Branch and Lang merely stand for the principle that State law cannot change established [*8] substantive maritime law. In Branch and Lang, the State law would have imposed a stricter burden than that established by federal maritime law; because it conflicted with federal maritime law and would have effectively changed the accepted maritime standard of care, the State law could not be applied. The Florida statutes at issue were not designed to circumvent federal maritime law or substitute a stricter standard of care in negligence cases; rather, they were designed to help regulate recreational boating safety. The Pennsylvania rule is an established principle of federal maritime law, which may be applied to violations of Florida State statutes; this application does not, in and of itself, conflict with federal maritime law.

Florida Statute § 327.39 makes it unlawful for the owner of a personal watercraft to “authorize or knowingly permit the [watercraft] to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.” Florida Statute § 327.54 requires that the instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater be delivered by a person [*9] who has “successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.” These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

In this case, Defendant owned or had control over the personal watercraft involved in the collision. At the time of the collision, Defendant employed Chris Betz (“Betz”) as a personal watercraft tour guide and allowed Betz to provide the safety instruction to persons operating the personal watercraft on the tour, including Jeffrey Wilkerson. Def. Mot. at 4-6. Betz admitted in his deposition that he had never completed a boater’s safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Betz Depo. at 12. Co-owner Gerald Grogan admitted that Key West Water Tours does not require its tour guides to have passed a safe boating course. Grogan Depo. at 19. Therefore, Defendant violated Florida [*10] statutes designed to protect boater safety and prevent collisions, by entrusting personal watercraft to persons who were not instructed in the safe handling of the personal watercraft as the law requires. Co-owner Jeremy Ray indicated that he was not very familiar with the Florida statutes at issue. Ray Depo. at 9, 20-21. However, ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident. Defendant argues that “[t]he sole cause of the subject accident was the negligent operation of a personal watercraft by Third-Party Defendant Jeffrey Wilkerson.” Def. Mot. at 11. Defendant asserts that “[t]here is not a single additional instruction that would have prevented the subject accident.” Id. Betz gave safety instructions. Betz Depo. at 32-33. According to Betz, Jeffrey Wilkerson “was coming in way too fast . . . just like an old lady in a car, panicked, eyes wide open, completely wide open, staring straight at the group and a panic in his face [*11] because he’s going too fast, and never let off the throttle until he hit.” Def. Mot. at 7. Defendant further asserts that Defendant had never had an accident previously and that Jeffrey Wilkerson had operated the watercraft without problem for about two hours before the accident. It is undisputed that Jeffrey Wilkerson panicked and that the watercraft was at full throttle until impact. However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

C. Exoneration From Liability

“An owner will be exonerated from liability when he, his vessel, and crew are found to be completely free of fault.” In re Complaint of Caribbean Sea Transport, 748 F.2d 622, 626 (11th Cir. 1984) (citing Tittle v. Aldacosta, 544 F.2d 752, 755 (5th Cir. 1977)). As discussed above, Defendant cannot be said to be completely free of fault; therefore, Defendant is not entitled to exoneration.

D. Limitation of Liability Under Limitation [*12] Act

The Eleventh Circuit has held that the determination of whether the owner of a vessel is entitled to limitation of liability requires a two-step analysis: (1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.” Keys Jet Ski, Inc. v. Kays, 893 F.2d 1225, 1230 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976)). “Privity and knowledge are deemed to exist where the owner had the means of knowledge or, as otherwise stated, where knowledge would have been obtained from reasonable inspection.” China Union Lines, Ltd. v. A.O. Andersen & Co., 364 F.2d 769, 792-93 (5th Cir. 1966). Under the Pennsylvania rule, as discussed above, Defendant’s violation of Florida statutes regarding proper instruction in safely operating the personal watercraft is presumed to have caused the collision. The owners of Key West Water Tours, L.C. knew, should have known, and could have discovered upon minimal investigation whether its tour guides, who they hired, had completed [*13] approved boater safety courses and whether the requirements of Florida law regarding proper safety and instruction were being met. Therefore, Defendant is not entitled to limitation of liability to the value of the watercraft.

E. Waiver and Hold Harmless Provisions of the Rental Agreement

“[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.” Johnson v. New River Scenic Whitewater Tours, Inc., 313 F. Supp. 2d 621, 631 (S.D.W. Va 2004) (citations omitted); Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195 comment a (1981) (“If, for example, a statute imposes a standard of conduct, a court may decide on the basis of an analysis of the statute, that a term exempting a party from liability for failure to conform to that standard is unenforceable.”). In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on [*14] owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

IV. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, it is

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant Key West Water Tours, L.C.’s Motion for Summary Judgment (DE # 44) is DENIED. It is further

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment as to Defendant’s Liability (DE # 46) is GRANTED. The pretrial conference to discuss remaining issues will be held as scheduled, on June 28, 2007.

DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers at Miami, Florida, this 27th day of June, 2007.

K. MICHAEL MOORE

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


To prove gross negligence under Washington State law you have to show intentional or reckless misconduct. Assumption of the risk prevents river tuber for suing for his injuries hitting a strainer.

Washington defines assumption of the risk the same way most other courts do. However, the names they sue to describe assumption of the risk are different in some cases and confusing in others.

Here, assumption of the risk stopped claims both for negligence and gross negligence for this tubing case.

Summary

Assumption of the risk is growing again as a defense to different types of claims by plaintiffs. In this case, the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries for a tubing accident which barred his negligence claim and his gross negligence claim. The standard of proof needed to prove a claim that cannot be defeated by assumption of the risk in Washington is a much higher level of action on the part of the defendant.

Here the plaintiff failed to plead or allege that level of acts by the defendant.

Washington also uses different names for the types of assumption of the risk that are applied to cases, which can lead to greater confusion.

If you are a defendant, instead of attempting to understand what is or is not assumption of the risk. Spend your time educating your customers, so they know and assume the risk they may be facing.

Pellham, v. Let’s Go Tubing, Inc., et al., 199 Wn. App. 399; 2017 Wash. App. LEXIS 1525

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division Three

Plaintiff: Brian Pellham

Defendant: Let’s Go Tubing, Inc., et al.

Plaintiff Claims: presented sufficient evidence of gross negligence because Let’s Go Tubing chose the excursion lo-cation, knew of the existence of a hazard, and failed to warn Pellham of the hazard. He argues that the rental company’s gross negligence supersedes any release of liability and assumption of the risk contained in the form he signed.

Defendant Defenses: that summary judgment was appropriate because Pellham failed to establish a duty, the liability release disposes of the claim, and Pelham’s evidence does not create [**7] a genuine issue as to any fact material to establishing gross negligence.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Facts

The plaintiff rented an inner tube from the defendant. The rental included delivery to the put in by the defendant. This is commonly described as a livery operation as compared to a pure rental where the renter takes the inner tube and goes wherever.

Upon arrival, the plaintiff signed a release and rented an inner tube. The plaintiff uses releases in his business, although what type of business was never discussed by the court.

The bus driver for the defendant told most of the tubers that upon entry they should push off to the far side of the river to avoid a tree that had fallen into the river immediately downriver but out of sight of the put in.

The plaintiff did not hear this warning. The plaintiff and four friends tied their inner tubes together. The current was swift and they quickly rounded the bend where they saw the tree across the river. The rental company gave each renter a Frisbee to use as a paddle. Everyone used the Frisbee to paddle away from the tree, but the plaintiff hit the tree. Falling into the river the plaintiff broke his ear drum. He went under the tree and upon resurfacing; he struck a large branch which gave him a whiplash.

The plaintiff swam to shore and ended his tubing trip. The plaintiff eventually underwent a neck fusion surgery.

The defendant was legally not allowed to remove the strainer from the river.

The plaintiff sued the defendant. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed.

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

Washington has defined four types of assumption of the risk and has identified them slightly differently than most other states.

Washington law and most other states’ jurisprudence recognize four taxonomies of the assumption of risk doctrine: (1) express, (2) implied primary, (3) implied unreasonable, and (4) implied reasonable.

The first two, Express Assumption of the Risk and Implied Assumption of the Risk are still complete bars to a claim of negligence. The second two, Implied Unreasonable and Implied Reasonable have merged into contributory negligence and simply reduce the plaintiff’s damages.

Washington defines the types of assumption of the risk the same way most other states do.

Express assumption of risk arises when a plaintiff explicitly consents to relieve the defendant of a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff regarding specific known risks.

Implied primary assumption of risk follows from the plaintiff engaging in risky conduct, from which the law implies consent.

Implied unreasonable assumption of risk, by contrast, focuses not so much on the duty and negligence of the defendant as on the further issue of the objective unreasonableness of the plaintiff’s conduct in assuming the risk.

Implied reasonable assumption of risk is roughly the counterpart to implied unreasonable assumption of risk in that the plaintiff assumed a risk but acted reasonably in doing so.

Washington also names Implied Primary Assumption of the Risk as Inherent Peril Assumption of the Risk.

Inherent peril assumption bars a claim resulting from specific known and appreciated risks impliedly assumed often in advance of any negligence of the defendant. Plaintiff’s consent to relieve the defendant of any duty is implied based on the plaintiff’s decision to engage in an activity that involves those known risks. One who participates in sports impliedly assumes the risks inherent in the sport.

How the plaintiff was injured defines whether or not Inherent Peril Assumption of the Risk applies. The court went on to define the inherent peril assumption of the risk as:

One who engages in sports assumes the risks that are inherent in the sport. To the extent a risk inherent in the sport injures a plaintiff, the defendant has no duty and there is no negligence. A defendant simply does not have a duty to protect a sports participant from dangers that are an inherent and normal part of a sport.

Inherent peril assumption of the risk extends to water sports. One who plays in the water assumes the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity. Water sports include inner tubing and canoe rentals. Inherent risk applies because “Bodies of water often undergo change, and changing conditions in the water do not alter the assumption of risk. There is no duty to warn of the presence of natural transitory conditions.”

For the plaintiff to assume the risk, three elements must be found.

Inherent peril assumption, like express assumption of risk, demands the presence of three elements. The evidence must show (1) the plaintiff possessed full subjective understanding (2) of the presence and nature of the specific risk and (3) voluntarily chose to encounter the risk.

Washington also requires the plaintiff to understand the risk. “The rule of both express and inherent peril assumptions of risk requires a finding that the plaintiff had full subjective understanding of the presence and nature of the specific risk.”

However, that does not require knowledge of the specific issues that caused the injury, just knowledge that the injury could occur. Meaning, if the injured party knows that trees fall into rivers, would be enough. There is no requirement that the injured plaintiff knew that a tree fell into the river.

…Brian Pellham assumed the risks involved in river tubing, including the fallen tree. Pellham may not have precisely and subjectively known how the combination of a swift current, a bend in the river, and a fallen tree would produce his injury. Nevertheless, he knew of the potential of all factors. He may not have known of the location of any fallen tree in the river, but he knew of the potential of a fallen tree somewhere in the river.

However, even if the plaintiff assumed the risks, a plaintiff cannot assume the risk where the defendant unduly enhanced the risk.

While participants in sports are generally held to have impliedly assumed the risks inherent in the sport, such assumption of risk does not preclude a recovery for negligent acts that unduly enhance such risks.

This difference places a burden on the plaintiff, in what he or she has to prove to win their claim and a burden on the courts to define what is an increase in the level of danger.

Courts have struggled to properly distinguish between inherent peril assumption of risk (implied primary assumption of risk), which bars the plaintiff’s claim, and increased danger assumption of risk (implied unreasonable assumption of risk), which simply reduces the plaintiff’s damages.

However, here any negligence upon the part of the defendant did not increase the risk. The negligence occurred prior to the plaintiff entering the water. The danger was the tree in the river which the defendant could not do anything about.

When he noticed the risk, he lacked time to avoid the hazard. Pellham did not voluntarily proceed after knowing of the alleged negligence of Let’s Go Tubing. Any alleged negligence of Let’s Go Tubing occurred before Pellham entered the river. Therefore, increased danger assumption of risk does not apply.

The plaintiff also argued in this complaint, that the actions of the defendant were grossly negligent. Gross negligence in Washington is defined as failure to exercise slight care.

Gross negligence claims survive when a release has been signed. The issue before the court was whether gross negligence claims can be stopped if the plaintiff assumed the risk.

At the same time, gross negligence claims survive a release against liability. A sporting participant’s assumption of inherent risks effectively acts as a release from liability. Since gross negligence claims survive a release, gross negligence maybe should survive inherent peril assumption of risk.

The court then redefined how gross negligence was going to be reviewed in Washington applying an intentional reckless standard as the level required proving gross negligence when a plaintiff assumes the risk.

We join the other jurisdictions in imposing an intentional and reckless standard, rather than a gross negligence standard, when the plaintiff assumes the risks of inherent perils in a sporting or outdoor activity.

There is a difference between gross negligence and reckless misconduct under Washington’s law.

Gross negligence consists of the failure to exercise slight care. Reckless misconduct denotes a more serious level of misconduct than gross negligence. An actor’s conduct is in “reckless disregard” of the safety of another if he or she intentionally does an act or fails to do an act that it is his or her duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts that would lead a reasonable person to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to him or her.

Because reckless conduct is a higher burden to meet, assumption of the risk becomes a defense that can beat a gross negligence claim in some situations in Washington. The plaintiff never pleaded reckless conduct on the part of the defendant so the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim was also denied.

Brian Pellham does not allege that Let’s Go Tubing engaged in reckless conduct. No evidence supports a conclusion that the inner tube rental company bus driver purposely omitted a warning to Pellham with knowledge that Pellham would suffer substantial harm.

So Now What?

Understanding the different slight subtlest between the various forms of assumption of the risk is difficult. Comparing them between states does nothing but create a confusing group of definitions that cross one another and at best confuse one another.

Better, set up a system to educate your guests or clients on the risks they may encounter. That time spent educating the guests can pay dividends both in keeping you out of court and keeping your guests happy and coming back.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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