The standard of care for a ropes or challenge course changes based on who is running it and who is using it

Linthwaite v. Mount Sinai Union Free School District, 2011 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6525; 2011 NY Slip Op 33569U

A school owes a higher degree of care to students then a non-school.

English: Challenge Course Low Element, The Wall

This decision was based on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants in this matter. The court denied the motion for summary judgment because there were numerous facts at issue. If there are facts that cannot be resolved or are at dispute a motion for summary judgment cannot be granted. The basis for denial was the motion filed by the defendants was deficient on several grounds.

The plaintiff was a student of the defendant. She was participating in a rope’s course described by the court as a challenge by choice event. She was injured when she fell off a low element wall, a wall, attempting to help another student over the wall. Her complaint alleged the defendants had actual and constructive notice of the dangerous conditions which lead to her injury.

The defendant argued the plaintiff assumed the risk of the activity, that it was not negligent in its supervision, and that it did not fail to provide a safe place.

So?

Because the defendant was a school, the court reviewed the standard of care that a school owed to a student.

Schools are under a duty to adequately supervise the students in their charge and they will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision. The school’s standard of duty to a student is what a reasonable prudent parent would have done under the same circumstances. “The standard for determining whether a school was negligent in executing its supervisory responsibility is, whether a parent of ordinary prudence, placed in the identical situation and armed with the same information, would invariably have provided greater supervision”

Schools are under a duty to adequately supervise its students and can be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately caused by the failure of supervision. The standard of care for a school is higher than the standard of care for a commercial challenge course, meaning the school owes a higher degree of review and supervision to prevent injuries of students.

The plaintiff must show that the school had sufficient specific knowledge or notice of the dangerous condition or conduct and the breach of the duty to supervise was the cause of the injury.

In order to support its motion the defendants presented attorney affidavits, pleadings and a report from its expert witness. The report from the expert witness went through all the issues and said the school met the standard of care for each of those issues. However, the expert witness failed to attach or explain the standards, failed to identify any support or identify any support for his opinions, and the judge ignored the report.

The expert witness just can’t state a fact; the fact or opinion in the report must be substantiated by research, experience or other information in the field. Worse the expert kept referring to the work of a builder in the industry and then never produced any proof from the builder.

Neither the expert or either party has submitted a copy of the industry standards for Project Adventure, the number and positioning of spotters for the specific activity, the student to adult ratio, the instructions given to spotters, or the instructions to be provided to students participating in the event pursuant to the industry standard.

The next issue that the court quickly dismissed was the extension of the assumption of the risk defense labeled challenge by choice. A witness for the defense testified that the plaintiff was informed the event was a challenge by choice activity and what that meant. Meaning the plaintiff did not have to participate in any or all the activities.

However, the plaintiff came back and testified that during the activity she was told she had to undertake the wall. “However, when it came time for the wall activity, she and her friends were told they had to do it; they were not told that there would be repercussions if they did not do it.” This is enough to create a factual issue that defeats a motion for summary judgment.

This is another problem in this type of activity. The challenge by choice theory is usually repudiated by the defendant during the activity.

The court then listed all the issues the plaintiff had introduced that were still at issue.

Additional factual issues exist as to whether the supervision and spotting was adequate, whether the spotters were properly trained and instructed, and whether a parent of ordinary prudence, placed in the identical situation and armed with the same information, would have provided greater supervision to the students, including adequate placement and training of the appropriate number of spotters.

The defendant’s expert witness had covered all of these issues; however, he had failed to support his opinion in his report with the standards he constantly referred to:

Although Mr. Demas averred that the use of helmets, matting, or the belay system is not consistent with industry standards, he does not state what the industry standard is, and whether the failure to provide such safety equipment is inconsistent with industry standards.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

So Now What?

A school can rarely use a release to stop lawsuits. In New York, it may or not have worked anyway because of New York laws on releases. See States that do not Support the Use of a Release and New York Law Restricting the Use of Releases.

However, the assumption of risk defense could have been stronger if pre-activity work had been done to support the defense.

English: Zig Zag Challenge Course Low Element

Assumption of the risk usually means the person assuming the risk knows about, understands and assumes those risks. See Assumption of the Risk. Those risks can be explained in a way that can be reproduced for the court such as a video. For a great example of how this can be done see the OARSWhitewater Orientation Video Series. These videos cover 90% of the risks of whitewater. A plaintiff would be hard-pressed to argue they did not know and understand the risks if they saw the videos.

To prove the client saw the videos, you can have the client prove it in writing. A written (express) assumption of the risk document is a great way to prove the plaintiff assumed the risk. The document can list the major risks and the ones that occur frequently. A jurisdiction and venue clause can be included as well as a statement saying the client has seen and understood the videos.

Plaintiffs will always argue that they were told incorrectly, did not understand, or as in this case, were told conflicting, things that lead to their injury. If your only defense is assumption of the risk, you must be prepared to prove that your version of what happened as well as well, the plaintiff knew and assumed is the only version.

You also need to make sure your expert witness report will meet the scrutiny of the court.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3

McPhail v. Bismarck Park District, 2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3
Scott Kondrad, a minor, by and through Shari McPhail as next friend, Plaintiff and Appellant v. Bismarck Park District, Defendant and Appellee
No. 20020196
Supreme Court of North Dakota
2003 ND 4; 655 N.W.2d 411; 2003 N.D. LEXIS 3
January 17, 2003, Filed
Prior History:      [***1] Appeal from the District Court of Burleigh County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Bruce A. Romanick, Judge.
Disposition:    AFFIRMED.
Counsel: Michael Ray Hoffman, Bismarck, N.D., for plaintiff and appellant.
Randall J. Bakke, Smith Bakke Oppegard Porsborg Wolf, Bismarck, N.D., for defendant and appellee.
Judges: Opinion of the Court by Maring, Justice. Mary Muehlen Maring, William A.
Neumann, Dale V. Sandstrom, Carol Ronning Kapsner, Gerald W. VandeWalle, C.J.
Opinion By: Mary Muehlen Maring

Opinion

[**412] Maring, Justice.
[*P1] Scott Kondrad, a minor, by and through his mother, Shari McPhail, as next friend, appealed from a summary judgment dismissing his action for damages against the Bismarck Park District for injuries suffered in a bicycle accident.
We hold a waiver and release signed by McPhail exonerates the Park District for its alleged negligence in this case, and we affirm.

I

[*P2] The bicycle accident occurred on September 9, 1999, at the Pioneer Elementary School while Kondrad was [***2] participating in BLAST, an after-school care program operated by the Park District. Kondrad fell on the school grounds while riding a bicycle owned by a child who was not part of the BLAST program. Kondrad injured his arm in the fall, and McPhail subsequently sued the Park District for damages on Kondrad’s behalf, asserting Kondrad’s injuries were the result of the Park District’s negligent supervision of the children in the BLAST program. The Park District moved for a summary judgment, claiming McPhail had released the Park District from liability for the accident.
The district court construed the waiver and release signed by McPhail, determined it exonerated the Park District from liability, and granted the Park District’s motion for dismissal of the case.

II

[*P3] On appeal, Kondrad asserts the district court erred in granting the summary judgment dismissal and in concluding that the waiver and release signed by McPhail exonerated the Park District from liability for its alleged negligence.
[*P4] Summary judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 56 is a procedural device for properly disposing of a lawsuit without trial if, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [***3] the nonmoving party, there are no genuine issues of material fact or conflicting inferences which can reasonably be drawn from undisputed facts, or if the only issues to be resolved are questions of law. Jose v. Norwest Bank, 1999 ND 175, P7, 599 N.W.2d 293. Whether the district court properly granted summary judgment is a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Garofalo v. St. Joseph’s Hosp., 2000 ND 149, P6, 615 N.W.2d 160. On appeal, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment, giving that party the benefit of all favorable inferences that reasonably can be drawn from the evidence. Olander [**413] Contracting Co. v. Gail Wachter Invs., 2002 ND 65, P9, 643 N.W.2d 29.
[*P5] Resolution of this appeal requires us to interpret the “Parent Agreement” signed by McPhail when she enrolled Kondrad in the BLAST program, which included the following waiver and release language:
I recognize and acknowledge that there are certain risks of physical injury to participant in this program and I agree to assume the full risk of any such injuries, damages or loss regardless of [***4] severity which I or my child/ward may sustain as a result of participating in any activities associated with this program. I waive and relinquish all claims that I, my insurer, or my child/ward may have against the Park District and its officers, servants, and employees from any and all claims from injuries, damages or loss which I or my child/ward may have or which may accrue to me or my child/ward on account of my participation of my child/ward in this program.
Kondrad argues this language must be interpreted as exonerating the Park District from liability for damages only as to injuries sustained during “activities associated with” the BLAST program. The Park District has conceded that riding a bicycle was not an activity associated with the program. Kondrad asserts the release does not, therefore, exonerate the Park District from liability if its negligence resulted in Kondrad incurring injuries while riding the bicycle. The Park District asserts the waiver is unambiguous and released the Park District from liability for any and all injuries sustained by Kondrad while participating in the BLAST program. The Park District argues the waiver and release exonerated it from [***5] liability for negligence resulting in injury or damages to Kondrad while participating in the program irrespective of whether, at the time of the injury, Kondrad was involved in a planned activity associated with the program.
[*P6] Generally, the law does not favor contracts exonerating parties from liability for their conduct. Reed v. Univ. of North Dakota, 1999 ND 25, P22, 589 N.W.2d 880. However, the parties are bound by clear and unambiguous language evidencing an intent to extinguish liability, even though exculpatory clauses are construed against the benefitted party. Id. When a contract is reduced to writing, the intention of the parties is to be ascertained from the writing alone, if possible. N.D.C.C. § 9-07-04; Meide v. Stenehjem ex rel. State, 2002 ND 128, P7, 649 N.W.2d 532. The construction of a written contract to determine its legal effect is a question of law for the court to decide, and, on appeal, this Court will independently examine and construe the contract to determine if the trial court erred in its interpretation of it. Egeland v. Continental Res., Inc., 2000 ND 169, P10, 616 N.W.2d 861. [***6] The issue whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law. Lenthe Invs., Inc. v. Serv. Oil, Inc., 2001 ND 187, P14, 636 N.W.2d 189. An unambiguous contract is particularly amenable to summary judgment. Meide, 2002 ND 128, P7, 649 N.W.2d 532.
[*P7] We conclude the language of waiver and release under the agreement signed by McPhail is clear and unambiguous. We construe all provisions of a contract together to give meaning to every sentence, phrase, and word. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Koenig, 2002 ND 137, P9, 650 N.W.2d 820. The assumption of risk and waiver clauses are separate and distinct. Each contains a clearly expressed meaning and consequence. Under the assumption of risk clause, McPhail agreed to assume the full risk of injury and damages resulting from Kondrad participating in [**414] any activities associated with the BLAST program. In addition, under the waiver and release clause, McPhail waived and relinquished all claims against the Park District for injuries or damages incurred on account of Kondrad’s participation in the BLAST program. The language of waiver and release is not limited to only those injuries incurred [***7] while participating in activities associated with the program, but to all injuries incurred by the child on account of his participation in the program.
[*P8] It is undisputed that Kondrad’s bicycle accident occurred on the school grounds while Kondrad was participating in the BLAST program. This is the very type of situation for which the Park District, under the release language, insulated itself from liability for alleged negligence while operating the after-school care program. Under the unambiguous language of the agreement, McPhail exonerated the Park District from liability for injury and damages incurred by Kondrad while participating in the program and caused by the alleged negligence of the Park District. 1
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -1
Under N.D.C.C. § 9-08-02 a party is precluded from contractually exonerating itself from liability for willful acts. See Reed v. Univ. of North Dakota, 1999 ND 25, P22 n.4, 589 N.W.2d 880. The release in this case is not specifically limited to exonerating the Park District from liability for only negligent conduct.
However, Kondrad’s claim against the Park District is based on negligence, and he has not argued the release is invalid because it purports to exonerate the Park District from liability for intentional or willful acts. We do not, therefore, address that issue in this opinion.
– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –
[***8] III
[*P9] We hold the Parent Agreement signed by McPhail clearly and unambiguously exonerates the Park District for injuries sustained by Kondrad while participating in the BLAST program and which were allegedly caused by the negligent conduct of the Park District. We further hold, therefore, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment dismissing Kondrad’s action against the Park District, and we affirm.
[*P10] Mary Muehlen Maring
William A. Neumann
Dale V. Sandstrom
Carol Ronning Kapsner
Gerald W. VandeWalle, C.J.