Massachusetts’s Supreme Court holds that wrongful-death claims are derivative.

A derivative claim can be stopped by any defense of the main claim the derivative claim is dependent on. In this Scuba fatality, a release stopped claims by the heirs.

Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., 484 Mass. 193, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134, 140 N.E.3d 394, 2020 WL 949922

State: Massachusetts, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Margaret C. Doherty, personal representative

Defendant: Diving Unlimited International, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Under Massachusetts law, a wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim. That means that the defenses available to stop a lawsuit by the deceased, also work against the survivors of the decedent. In this case, the deceased signed a release prior to his death which stopped the wrongful-death claim of his survivors.

Facts

The decedent, who was a certified open-water scuba diver, drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by DUI and held in Gloucester. At this event, where local divers tested DUI’s dry suit, Golbranson was the leader of the dive, overseeing some of the participants.

Prior to participating in the event, the decedent signed two documents. The first was a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including “effect of agreement,” “assumption of risk,” “full release,” “covenant not to sue,” “indemnity agreement,” and “arbitration.” In capital letters under the subsection titled “effect of agreement,” it said, “Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death.” It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it “unless or until you understand.” The subsection titled “full release” stated that the decedent “fully release[d] DUI from any liability whatsoever resulting from diving or associated activities,” and the subsection titled “covenant not to sue” stated that the decedent agreed “not to sue DUI for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities,” and that the decedent’s “heirs or executors may not sue DUI for death arising from scuba diving or its associated activities.”

The decedent also signed an equipment rental agreement which stated, “This agreement is a release of the [decedent’s] rights to sue for injuries or death resulting from the rental and/or use of this equipment. The [decedent] expressly assumes all risks of skin and/or scuba diving related in any way to the rental and/or use of this equipment.”

Golbranson led a group comprised of the decedent and two other divers. During their dive, one of the divers experienced a depleted air supply. Golbranson signaled for the group to surface and to swim back to shore on the surface. Only the decedent resisted, emphasizing his desire to keep diving, thus separating himself from the group that was returning to shore. Shortly thereafter, the decedent surfaced and called for help. The decedent died at the hospital from “scuba drowning after unequal weight belt distribution.”

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

A wrongful-death claim is a statutory claim, created by state legislatures to allow surviving heirs to sue over the death of a loved one who was providing value or benefits to the survivor. In most cases, since there is no duty directed to a survivor, the surviving heirs have limited rights to recover for the loss of a breadwinner in a family, until the wrongful-death statutes were enacted.

In this case, the decedent signed a release and a rental agreement to test the dive equipment. The rental agreement included additional release language.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts determined the sole issue upon review was whether the release signed by the decedent barred the claims of the plaintiff, the heir who had filed the wrongful-death claim.

The decision was simple for the court. A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim of the wrongful-death statute. That means that a derivative claim does not stand on its own, it only exists because of the main claim. As such, if the main claim, wrongful death is void because of the release, then that claim also stops the derivative claims of the survivors.

Given that the plaintiff does not contest the judge’s determinations that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement are valid and that those waivers covered Golbranson as an agent of PUI, the only issue before the court is whether the statutory beneficiaries in the action for wrongful death have a right to recover damages that is independent of the decedent’s own cause of action. See G. L. c. 229, §§ 1, 2. In GGNSC, 484 Mass. at, we have resolved that issue: our wrongful death statute creates a derivative right of recovery for the statutory beneficiaries listed in G. L. c. 229, § 1. Therefore, we hold that here, the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as his “executor or personal representative,” from bringing a lawsuit under G. L. c. 229, § 2, for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries.

A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim under Massachusetts’s law. Therefore, if the release stops the claims of the decedent, it also stops the claims of the heirs.

So Now What?

Although most states have determined that wrongful-death claims are derivative of the main action of the decedent, you want to make sure your release protects you from wrongful death and other claims that are derivative. Language in your release needs to say that the person signing the release as well as his family and heirs cannot sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., 484 Mass. 193, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134, 140 N.E.3d 394, 2020 WL 949922

Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., 484 Mass. 193, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134, 140 N.E.3d 394, 2020 WL 949922

Margaret C. Doherty, personal representative, [ 1]

v.

Diving Unlimited International, Inc., & others.[ 2]

No. SJC-12707

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Essex

February 27, 2020

Heard: October 4, 2019.

Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on May 5, 2015. The case was heard by Janice W. Howe, J., on a motion for summary judgment The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

Neil Rossman for the plaintiff.

Martin K. DeMagistris for John Golbranson.

Jennifer A. Creedon, for Massachusetts Defense Lawyers Association, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

John J. Barter, for Professional Liability Foundation, Ltd., amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

LOWY, J.

Following a fatal scuba diving accident involving the plaintiff’s decedent in May 2014, the plaintiff, as personal representative of the decedent’s estate, brought a wrongful death action under G. L. c. 229, § 2 against the manufacturer of the “dry suit” that the decedent used on his dive, the individual who supplied the decedent his diving equipment and outfitted him, the company that owned and rented that equipment, and the dive leader, John Golbranson. After the plaintiff had settled with all defendants other than Golbranson, a judge of the Superior Court granted summary judgment in his favor based on the release from liability and covenant not to sue that the decedent signed just before his death. The plaintiff appealed, claiming that the statutory beneficiaries have an independent right to a wrongful death action that the decedent could not have waived. We transferred this case from the Appeals Court on our own motion.

As explained in our opinion in GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLCv.Schrader, 484 Mass., (2020) (GGNSC), released today, we conclude that the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action have rights that are derivative of, rather than independent from, any claim the decedent could have brought for the injuries causing his death. Therefore, the waivers the decedent signed control all claims for his wrongful death. Accordingly, we affirm the grant of summary judgment.

1. Background.

a. Facts.

“In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, we view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Meyerv.Veolia Energy N. Am., 482 Mass. 208, 209 (2019). Here, where the plaintiff does not contest on appeal the judge’s determination that the waivers were valid, or that Golbranson was acting as an agent for Diving Unlimited International, Inc. (DUI), the manufacturer of the dry suit that the decedent wore on his dive, we present only the essential facts.

The decedent, who was a certified open-water scuba diver, drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by DUI and held in Gloucester. At this event, where local divers tested DUI’s dry suit, Golbranson was the leader of the dive, overseeing some of the participants.

Prior to participating in the event, the decedent signed two documents. The first was a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including “effect of agreement,” “assumption of risk,” “full release,” “covenant not to sue,” “indemnity agreement,” and “arbitration.” In capital letters under the subsection titled “effect of agreement,” it said, “Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death.” It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it “unless or until you understand.” The subsection titled “full release” stated that the decedent “fully release[d] DUI from any liability whatsoever resulting from diving or associated activities,” and the subsection titled “covenant not to sue” stated that the decedent agreed “not to sue DUI for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities,” and that the decedent’s “heirs or executors may not sue DUI for death arising from scuba diving or its associated activities.”

The decedent also signed an equipment rental agreement which stated, “This agreement is a release of the [decedent’s] rights to sue for injuries or death resulting from the rental and/or use of this equipment. The [decedent] expressly assumes all risks of skin and/or scuba diving related in any way to the rental and/or use of this equipment.”

Golbranson led a group comprised of the decedent and two other divers. During their dive, one of the divers experienced a depleted air supply. Golbranson signaled for the group to surface and to swim back to shore on the surface. Only the decedent resisted, emphasizing his desire to keep diving, thus separating himself from the group that was returning to shore. Shortly thereafter, the decedent surfaced and called for help. The decedent died at the hospital from “scuba drowning after unequal weight belt distribution.”

b. Procedural history.

In her capacity as the decedent’s personal representative, the plaintiff sued for the benefit of the decedent’s statutory beneficiaries. The second amended complaint alleged two counts against Golbranson resulting from his negligence: (1) conscious pain and suffering; and (2) the decedent’s wrongful death under G. L. c. 229, § 2. Golbranson moved for summary judgment, claiming that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement (collectively waivers) protected him, as an agent of DUI, against any negligence suit or liability. The plaintiff opposed summary judgment, asserting that the waivers did not apply to Golbranson when he was negligent in his individual capacity and that neither waiver would prevent the decedent’s statutory beneficiaries from recovering damages for wrongful death.

The judge determined, and the plaintiff does not contest on appeal, that Golbranson acted as DUI’s agent during the dive. The judge also concluded that the two waivers that the decedent signed prohibited the plaintiff from bringing an action for negligence against Golbranson.[ 3]

As to the wrongful death claim, the judge concluded that G. L. c. 229, § 2, created a right to recovery that is derivative of the decedent’s own cause of action.[ 4] In addition, she concluded that the agreements were valid and, thus, precluded any recovery on behalf of the decedent’s statutory beneficiaries, who had no rights independent of the decedent’s cause of action, which was waived.

2. Discussion.

We review “a grant of summary judgment de novo … to determine whether . . . all material facts have been established and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law” (quotation and citation omitted). Boston Globe Media Partners, LLCv.Pep’t of Pub. Health, 482 Mass. 427, 431 (2019) .

Given that the plaintiff does not contest the judge’s determinations that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement are valid and that those waivers covered Golbranson as an agent of PUI, the only issue before the court is whether the statutory beneficiaries in the action for wrongful death have a right to recover damages that is independent of the decedent’s own cause of action. See G. L. c. 229, §§ 1, 2. In GGNSC, 484 Mass. at, we have resolved that issue: our wrongful death statute creates a derivative right of recovery for the statutory beneficiaries listed in G. L. c. 229, § 1. Therefore, we hold that here, the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as his “executor or personal representative,” from bringing a lawsuit under G. L. c. 229, § 2, for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries.[ 5]

3. Conclusion.

We affirm the judgment of the Superior Court granting Golbranson’s motion for summary judgment.

So ordered.

———

Notes:

[ 1] Of the estate of Gregg C. O’Brien.

[ 2] Nicholas Fazah, EC Divers, Inc., and John Golbranson.

[ 3] As to the conscious pain and suffering claim, the judge found that the waivers negated the plaintiff’s ability to recover, because the decedent clearly had the authority to waive those rights.

[ 4] In her analysis, the judge relied on a decision by a judge of the United States Pistrict Court for the Pistrict of Massachusetts that underlay our opinion in GGNSC. See GGNSC, 484 Mass. at

[ 5] Golbranson devotes much time arguing that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement negate any duty he may have had to the decedent. We note that the release from liability was limited to “claims concern[ing] ordinary negligence,” Sharonv.Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 110 n.l2 (2002), and Golbranson does not contend that the waivers would have applied to other forms of malfeasance, such as gross negligence, or willful, wanton, or reckless acts. We have “consistently recognized that there is a certain core duty — a certain irreducible minimum duty of care, owed to all persons — that as a matter of public policy cannot be abrogated: that is, the duty not to intentionally or recklessly cause harm to others.” Raffertyv.Merck & Co., 479 Mass. 141, 155 (2018). Specifically, “‘while a party may contract against liability for harm caused by its negligence, it may not do so with respect to its gross negligence’ or, for that matter, its reckless or intentional conduct.” I_d., quoting Maryland Cas. Co. v. NS_TAR Elec. Co., 471 Mass. 416, 422 (2015). Nonetheless, only the decedent’s executor or administrator has the right to bring a cause of action for gross negligence, not the statutory beneficiaries.

———


TUSA Recalls Diving Computers Due to Drowning and Injury Hazards

Hazard: The dive computer can malfunction and display an incorrect reading to the diver, posing a drowning and injury hazard due to decompression sickness.

Remedy: Replace

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled diving computers and contact TUSA to receive a free replacement diving computer.

Consumer Contact: TUSA at 800-482-2282 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or online at http://www.tusa.com/us-en and click on “Recall” for more information.

Photos available at: https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/2017/TUSA-Recalls-Diving-Computers

Units: About 175

Description: This recall involves TUSA DC Solar Link IQ1204 diving computers. The black or white and blue wrist-watch style diving computers have a digital screen. TUSA is printed on the front of the diving computer. The model number and serial number is printed on the back of the diving computer below “TUSA DC Solar Link.” Recalled diving computers have serial numbers 6TA0001 – 6TA2864. 

Incidents/Injuries: None reported

Sold at: Sporting goods stores nationwide from March 2016 through June 2016 for about $750.

Importer/Distributor: Tabata USA Inc. (TUSA), of Long Beach, Calif.

Manufactured in: Japan

Retailers: If you are a retailer of a recalled product you have a duty to notify your customers of a recall. If you can, email your clients or include the recall information in your next marketing communication to your clients. Post any Recall Poster at your stores and contact the manufacturer to determine how you will handle any recalls.

For more information on this see:

For Retailers

Recalls Call for Retailer Action

A recall leads to lawsuits because injuries are connected to the product being recalled thus a lawsuit. Plaintiff’s hope the three can be connected

Combination of a Products Liability statute, an Expert Witness Report that was just not direct enough and odd facts holds a retailer liable as manufacture for product defect.

Product Liability takes a different turn. You must pay attention, just not rely on the CPSC.

Retailer has no duty to fit or instruct on fitting bicycle helmet

Summary Judgment granted for bicycle manufacturer and retailer on a breach of warranty and product liability claim.

For Manufacturers

The legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers

A recall leads to lawsuits because injuries are connected to the product being recalled thus a lawsuit. Plaintiff’s hope the three can be connected

Combination of a Products Liability statute, an Expert Witness Report that was just not direct enough and odd facts holds a retailer liable as manufacture for product defect.

clip_image002What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Mississippi Supreme Court makes it almost impossible to write a release that is enforceable because the court does not give direction as to what it wants.

Dissent slams the majority and rightly so for ignoring the fact the plaintiff was drunk before his scuba accident and signed the release fraudulently.

Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375

State: Mississippi

Plaintiff: Michael Turnbough

Defendant: Janet Ladner

Plaintiff Claims: negligence in planning and supervising dives

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 1999

This is a simple case with disastrous results for providers of recreation activities in Mississippi.

The plaintiff was  certified as a scuba diving in the 80’s.  He wanted to start diving again so he took another scuba course from the defendant. Before taking the course the plaintiff was given a release to sign.

The plaintiff leaned over to another student in the class who was an attorney and asked the attorney if the release was enforceable. The attorney said no.

Upon learning from Ladner that all the participants would be required to execute a release in favor of her and the Gulfport Yacht Club in order to participate in the class, Turnbough questioned a fellow student who also happened to be an attorney. After Turnbough’s classmate informed him that such releases were unenforceable, Turnbough then executed the document entitled “Liability Release and Express Assumption of Risk.”

The class was over six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, there were four open water dives. The first two dives were from a beach. The plaintiff’s first beach dive was cut short because his tank was leaking. The plaintiff had no problems on the second dive.

The next day the open-water  dives were from a boat. The dives were supposed to be to a depth of 60’. However, boat had problems so the first dive was only to 48’. The second dive went to 60′, and the dive instructor calculated the dive was to last 38 minutes.

On the way home that night the plaintiff started to experience the bends. The plaintiff spent five days attempting to get in touch with the dive instructor who when reached on Friday, told him to call a dive hotline. The hotline told him to get to a dive hospital, in New Orleans. The plaintiff got to the hospital and seems to have recovered from the bends but was told he could never dive again.

The plaintiff sued. The trial court dismissed the complaint based upon a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant based upon the release. The appellate court upheld that decision, and the plaintiff appealed the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court which issued this opinion.

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

The court first looked at the law of releases in Mississippi. The first statement, laws are looked upon with disfavor in Mississippi, was actually a true statement in this case by this court. (A first.) “The law does not look with favor on contracts intended to exculpate a party from the liability of his or her own negligence, although, with some exceptions, they are enforceable.”

The court then continued and laid out the requirements for a release to be valid, which at best are lost enough to make any release difficult to determine if it might even be valid.

However, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny and are not upheld unless the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unmistakable language. “Clauses limiting liability are given rigid scrutiny by the courts, and will not be enforced unless the limitation is fairly and honestly negotiated and understandingly entered into.

The wording of an exculpatory agreement should express as clearly and precisely as possible the extent to which a party intends to be absolved from liability. Failing that, we do not sanction broad, general “waiver of negligence” provisions, and strictly construe them against the party asserting them as a defense.

Deciphering the Supreme Court statements, a release in Mississippi must:

·        The intention must be expressed in clear and unmistakable language.

·        The limitation in the release is fair and honestly negotiated.

·        The language must be clear and precisely written that absolves a party of liability.

Meaning you must use the term negligence in a release in Mississippi, and that negligence must refer specifically to the actions of the defendant that are intended to be precluded. Those actions must specifically include the actions the plaintiff is complaining of. The language stating the defendant is not liable must be clear and precisely written.

The court then muddied the waters further with this statement: “In further determining the extent of exemption from liability in releases, this Court has looked to the intention of the parties in light of the circumstances existing at the time of the instrument’s execution.

The court then justified its reasoning with this equally confusing and muddled statement.

Assuming Turnbough was aware of the inherent risks in scuba diving, it does not reasonably follow that he, a student, intended to waive his right to recover from Ladner for failing to follow even the most basic industry safety standards.

The court then went back to explain what was required in a release in Mississippi.

We have held in Quinn that contracts attempting to limit the liabilities of one of the parties would not “be enforced unless the limitation is fairly and honestly negotiated and understood by both parties.”

As we saw in Oregon (See Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.) the requirements for negotiation are almost fatal. The guest must have the opportunity to change the terms or the release or negotiate a way to avoid the release by paying more money or other such opportunity.

Then the court reinforced the requirements that the release be negotiated.

In this case, Turnbough signed a pre-printed contract, the terms of which were not negotiated. Since the contract was not negotiated and contained a broad waiver of negligence provision, the terms of the contract should be strictly construed against the party seeking to enforce such a provision.

The court concluded:

Although waivers are commonly used and necessary for some activities and the attendant risks and hazards associated with them, those who wish to relieve themselves from responsibility associated with a lack of due care or negligence should do so in specific and unmistakable terms. The agreement in this case fails to do that.

There was a dissent in this case, which brought out several factual issues seemingly ignored by the rest of the Supreme Court and looked at the legal issues in a different way.

The first was a brilliant analysis of the facts from the stand point of contract law. The plaintiff signed a contract with no intention of fulfilling the contract.

Turnbough then proceeded to sign the release but he now seeks to have the release invalidated on the basis that such releases are unenforceable. Turnbough’s conduct in this matter shows that he entered into a binding contract with no intention of honoring it and every intention of breaking it at a later time should it become convenient.

Signing a contract without the intention of fulfilling the contract is fraud and subjects the fraudulent party with being forced to uphold the contract and in some cases pay damages for the fraudulent acts.

The dissent then went through the release and pointed out the places in the release that the requirements the majority insist upon were in the release.

The final issue was the plaintiff had consumed several alcoholic beverages right before his dive contrary to the instruction of the dive instructor.

Finally, the record in this case indicates that Turnbough, after signing a release he did not intend to honor, admittedly consumed several alcoholic beverages at a local cabaret just hours before his dive in violation of clear warnings given to him by Ladner.

Finally, the dissent sort of let the majority have it.

Today’s majority opinion favors those who recklessly ignore sober warnings, intentionally sign agreements that they have no intention of fulfilling and then throw themselves upon the mercy of the Courts to reward their dishonest and reckless behavior. This Court should not reward such conduct. I would therefore affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Ladner.

So Now What?

As much as you may want to cheer the dissent in this opinion both for the clarity of the decision and the truthfulness that he brings to the opinion, the majority rules and releases, if at all possible, to write in Mississippi will be difficult to enforce.

First releases in Mississippi must have a long list of the risks which the release might cover to be valid. The release must contain more than the legalese needed in most other states. The injuries the plaintiff might complain of, must be something the plaintiff read about in the release.

The secret handshake that basically removes Mississippi from a state supporting release law is the “fair and honest negotiation” clause. That means the parties must negotiate for the release to be valid. Explained another way, the plaintiff must be presented with the opportunity to take the class or do the activity without signing a release.

So if you offer the opportunity to take the scuba class in this case for $500 by signing a release, you can take the class without signing a release for $1000.00.

However, most insurance policies for outdoor recreation activities and all for scuba lessons require the scuba instructor to use a release. So in Scuba and most other recreational activities the defendant is caught between a rock and a hard place. Make the release valid under Mississippi law and do so without insurance or maintain insurance, temporarily until your insurer finds out your release is invalid.

This requirement is almost doomed to stop releases in Mississippi.

One option, which probably won’t work in Mississippi, that you could write into a release, which I have used for several years, is a breach of contract clause. If you sign the contract and then attempt to breach the contract you are subject to greater damages. However, this is a tricky clause. Doing so without it appearing to be indemnification, which is not allowed by most states, and enforceable requires understanding the law and the language.

However, that still pales in front of the requirement to negotiate the release.

Another issue in this case that the dissent argued that in other cases might go differently is signing the release having no intention of fulfilling the contract. Meaning signing the release and intending to sue if you were injured. Although the dissent felt this was a fraudulent act which should void the release. In many other states, this might be ignored unless the language of the release was specific in stating that the parties or signor intended to fulfill the contract and understood that failure to enforce the agreement would create damages.

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Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375

Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375

Michael Turnbough v. Janet Ladner

NO. 97-CT-01179-SCT

SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI

754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375

December 9, 1999, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HARRISON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 09/04/1997. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. KOSTA N. VLAHOS.

Original Opinion of December 18, 1998, Reported at: 1998 Miss. App. LEXIS 1011.

DISPOSITION: REVERSED AND REMANDED.

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JOE SAM OWEN, ROBERT P. MYERS, JR.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: ROBERT M. FREY, MICHAEL E. McWILLIAMS.

JUDGES: McRAE, JUSTICE. SULLIVAN AND PITTMAN, P.JJ., BANKS AND WALLER, JJ., CONCUR. MILLS, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY PRATHER, C.J., SMITH AND COBB, JJ.

OPINION BY: MCRAE

OPINION

[*468] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL – PERSONAL INJURY

EN BANC.

McRAE, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

P1. Michael Turnbough suffered decompression sickness after participating in a certification scuba dive led by Janet Ladner. Turnbough subsequently filed suit against Ladner alleging she was negligent in planning and supervising the dive. Ladner filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Circuit Court of Harrison County granted based on an anticipatory release that Turnbough had signed in favor of Ladner. Turnbough appealed, the Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted certiorari. We [**2] reverse the Court of Appeals, as well as the trial court, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We hold that the release executed by Turnbough did not exclude from liability the type of negligence which forms the basis for Turnbough’s complaint; and therefore, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was error.

FACTS

P2. Michael Turnbough decided in 1994 that he wanted to obtain his open-water certification as a scuba diver. He had previously been certified as a scuba diver, but his certification had expired back in the 1980’s. Turnbough enrolled in a scuba diving class offered by Gulfport Yacht Club and taught by Janet Ladner. Upon learning from Ladner that all of the participants would be required to execute a release in favor of her and the Gulfport Yacht Club in order to participate in the class, Turnbough questioned a fellow student who also happened to be an attorney. After Turnbough’s classmate informed him that such releases were unenforceable, Turnbough then executed the document entitled “Liability Release and Express Assumption of Risk.” The release, in pertinent part, stated

Further, I understand that diving with compressed [**3] air involves certain inherent risks: decompression sickness [and others]. . . .

P3. At the conclusion of the six- week course, the class convened in Panama City, Florida to perform the first of their “check-out dives” in order to receive certification. On Saturday, July 23, 1994, the class performed two dives from the beach. However, Turnbough’s participation in the first dive was cut short by a leaking tank. He completed the second dive with no apparent problems. The next morning, Sunday, July 24, 1994, the class performed two dives from a dive boat. Two dives of sixty feet each were scheduled, but because the dive boat had engine problems, the first dive site was only forty-six to forty-eight feet deep. The second dive descended to sixty feet, and Ladner calculated the maximum time allowable for the second dive as thirty-eight minutes.

P4. Turnbough began to feel the first effects of decompression sickness, commonly known as “the bends,” on his way back to Gulfport that evening. The next day Turnbough began experiencing a pain that he described as “arthritic” in his joints. On Tuesday, Turnbough began attempting to contact Ladner to inform her of his symptoms. He continued [**4] to make attempts to contact her throughout the week, finally reaching her on Friday. Ladner advised Turnbough to call a diver’s hotline, which in turn instructed him to seek medical attention at a dive hospital. Turnbough received treatment for decompression sickness at the Jo Ellen Smith Hospital in New Orleans. Turnbough states that he was told by the doctors at the hospital who ran the dive profile that the dive was too long, and there should have been a decompression stop before the [*469] divers surfaced. He further states that he was told that he could never dive again. Tom Ebro, an expert in water safety and scuba diving, opined that Ladner was negligent in planning the depths of the dives as well as in failing to make safety stops and that these errors significantly increased the risk that her students might suffer decompression illness.

P5. On February 10, 1995, Turnbough filed suit against Ladner. In his complaint, Turnbough alleged that Ladner was negligent in her supervision of the dive and in exposing him to decompression injury. Ladner filed a motion for summary judgment on October 27, 1995, based on the release Turnbough had signed. The circuit court granted the motion, [**5] and dismissed the case.

P6. Turnbough appealed, asserting that the release should be declared void as against public policy, and the case was assigned to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals found that the release was a contract of a purely personal nature and did not violate Mississippi public policy because scuba diving does not implicate a public concern. We subsequently granted certiorari.

DISCUSSION

P7. [HN1] The law does not look with favor on contracts intended to exculpate a party from the liability of his or her own negligence although, with some exceptions, they are enforceable. However, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny and are not upheld unless the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unmistakable language. 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 65, at 124 (1989); see also Willard Van Dyke Prods., Inc. v. Eastman Kodak Co., 12 N.Y.2d 301, 189 N.E.2d 693, 695, 239 N.Y.S.2d 337 (N.Y. 1963) (“clear and unequivocal terms”). “Clauses [HN2] limiting liability are given rigid scrutiny by the courts, and will not be enforced unless the limitation is fairly and honestly negotiated and understandingly entered into. [**6] ” Farragut v. Massey, 612 So. 2d 325, 330 (Miss. 1992) (quoting 17 Am. Jur. 2d Contracts § 297, at 298 n.74 (1991).

P8. [HN3] The wording of an exculpatory agreement should express as clearly and precisely as possible the extent to which a party intends to be absolved from liability. Bradley Realty Corp. v. New York, 54 A.D.2d 1104, 389 N.Y.S.2d 198, 199-200 (N.Y. App. Div. 1976); Hertzog v. Harrison Island Shores, Inc., 21 A.D.2d 859, 251 N.Y.S.2d 164, 165 (N.Y. App. Div. 1964). Failing that, we do not sanction broad, general “waiver of negligence” provisions, and strictly construe them against the party asserting them as a defense. See Leach v. Tingle, 586 So. 2d 799, 801 (Miss. 1991); State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Scitzs, 394 So. 2d 1371, 1372 (Miss. 1981).

P9. [HN4] In further determining the extent of exemption from liability in releases, this Court has looked to the intention of the parties in light of the circumstances existing at the time of the instrument’s execution. Farragut, 612 So. 2d at 330. The affidavit of [**7] Tom Ebro, an expert in water safety and scuba diving, shows that the alleged negligent acts on which Turnbough’s claim is based could not have been contemplated by the parties. Ebro stated that Ladner’s instruction fell “woefully short” of minimally acceptable standards of scuba instruction. Specifically, he averred that Ladner negligently planned the depths of the dives and failed to make safety stops which significantly increased the risk of decompression illness, especially with a student class. Assuming Turnbough was aware of the inherent risks in scuba diving, it does not reasonably follow that he, a student, intended to waive his right to recover from Ladner for failing to follow even the most basic industry safety standards. This is especially true since Ladner, who held herself out as an expert scuba instructor and is presumed to have superior knowledge, is the very one on whom Turnbough depended for safety. In this case it appears that Ladner may have miscalculated the amount of time for the dive or may have failed to take into account [*470] previous dives. This is important because nitrogen builds up in the body while underwater and, with too much nitrogen, the “bends” and permanent [**8] damage including loss of life may occur. Surely it cannot be said from the language of the agreement that Turnbough intended to accept any heightened exposure to injury caused by the malfeasance of an expert instructor. Turnbough, by executing the release, did not knowingly waive his right to seek recovery for injuries caused by Ladner’s failure to follow basic safety guidelines that should be common knowledge to any instructor of novice students.

P10. We have held in Quinn that [HN5] contracts attempting to limit the liabilities of one of the parties would not “be enforced unless the limitation is fairly and honestly negotiated and understood by both parties.” Quinn v. Mississippi State Univ., 720 So. 2d 843, 851 (Miss. 1998) (citation omitted). In this case, Turnbough signed a pre-printed contract, the terms of which were not negotiated. Since the contract was not negotiated and contained a broad waiver of negligence provision, the terms of the contract should be strictly construed against the party seeking to enforce such a provision. See Leach v. Tingle, 586 So. 2d at 801; State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Scitzs, 394 So. 2d at 1372. [**9]

P11. Although waivers are commonly used and necessary for some activities and the attendant risks and hazards associated with them, those who wish to relieve themselves from responsibility associated with a lack of due care or negligence should do so in specific and unmistakable terms. The agreement in this case fails to do that.

CONCLUSION

P12. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and the trial court’s summary judgment and we remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

P13. REVERSED AND REMANDED FOR PROCEEDINGS CONSISTENT WITH THIS OPINION.

SULLIVAN AND PITTMAN, P.JJ., BANKS AND WALLER, JJ., CONCUR. MILLS, J., DISSENTS WITH SEPARATE WRITTEN OPINION JOINED BY PRATHER, C.J., SMITH AND COBB, JJ.

DISSENT BY: MILLS

DISSENT

MILLS, JUSTICE, DISSENTING:

P14. The majority finds that summary judgment was not appropriate in this case, and therefore reverses and remands for a trial. Because the trial court was correct in granting summary judgment, I respectfully dissent.

P15. We must determine the validity of an unambiguous release dealing with admittedly hazardous activities signed [**10] with full awareness of all the risks and dangers by Turnbough in favor of Ladner. The record shows that Turnbough consulted a fellow classmate who also happened to be an attorney. Turnbough’s classmate gratuitously informed him that such releases were unenforceable. Turnbough then proceeded to sign the release but he now seeks to have the release invalidated on the basis that such releases are unenforceable. Turnbough’s conduct in this matter shows that he entered into a binding contract with no intention of honoring it and every intention of breaking it at a later time should it become convenient.

P16. Directly addressing the facts of this case, the release in question states in pertinent part:

I, Michael Turnbough, hereby affirm that I have been advised and thoroughly informed of the inherent dangers of skin diving and scuba diving.

Further, I understand that diving with compressed air involves certain inherent risks: decompression sickness [and others]. . . .

I understand and agree that neither my instructor(s) Janet Ladner [nor the Yacht Cub or other participants] may [*471] be held liable or responsible in any way for any injury, death, or other damages to me or my family, [**11] heirs, or assigns that may occur as a result of my participation in this diving class or as a result of the negligence of any party, including the Released Parties, whether passive or active.

P17. In my opinion such unambiguous releases comport with the public policy of the State of Mississippi and should be enforced. The failure to enforce such releases when dealing with obviously risky activities, such as scuba diving, will have a chilling effect on the numerous sporting activities and other events of obvious danger. We should allow reasonable adults to assume such risks when they choose to engage in activities of greater than usual danger.

P18. Releases are not only meant to save the party in whose favor it is executed from being held ultimately liable, but are also intended to allow such a party to avoid the costs and anxiety of having to fully litigate the matter. Summary judgment is the appropriate mechanism to do just that. Summary judgment may be granted “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 [**12] to a judgment as a matter of law.” M.R.C.P. 56(c). “A ‘material’ fact tends to resolve any of the issues, properly raised by the parties.” Mississippi Road Supply Company, Inc. v. Zurich-American Insurance Company, 501 So. 2d 412, 414 (Miss. 1987) (quoting Pearl River County Board of Supervisors v. South East Collections Agency, Inc., 459 So. 2d 783, 785 (Miss.1984)).

P19. Finally, the record in this case indicates that Turnbough, after signing a release he did not intend to honor, admittedly consumed several alcoholic beverages at a local cabaret just hours before his dive in violation of clear warnings given to him by Ladner. Today’s majority opinion favors those who recklessly ignore sober warnings, intentionally sign agreements that they have no intention of fulfilling and then throw themselves upon the mercy of the Courts to reward their dishonest and reckless behavior. This Court should not reward such conduct. I would therefore affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Ladner.

P20. I respectfully dissent.

PRATHER, C.J., SMITH AND COBB, JJ., JOIN THIS OPINION.


Lawsuit filed against a scuba diving center for failing to properly rescue distressed diver and failing to follow rescue procedures.

Issue is going to be whose procedures. Dive shops own procedures or association? This is going to be interesting.

You need to read the entire article and remember these facts probably came from the plaintiff’s position. How do you know this; the plaintiff’s attorney is quoted in the article saying the dive center’s attorneys declined to comment. Now that is investigative journalism. Woodward and Bernstein would be proud.

The deceased died on a recreational scuba diving trip. Allegedly, the deceased surfaced in distress and was not rescued properly: “…dive instructors of negligence and failing to throw Kevin Jerome Kraemer a flotation device and follow emergency procedures.”

Allegedly, the dive staff “…the dive crew tried to rescue and later resuscitate him; they made key errors in the heat of the moment.”

Failing to rescue has never been successful and is very rare. Failing to follow procedures is common. The biggest question from our point of view is whose procedures. If the procedures are the associations, ASTM, etc., nothing like your own group sinking your ship.

See Va. Beach dive center faces lawsuit for failed rescue

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You cannot answer a question by filing a lawsuit.

Man suing for answers on how his wife died.

Here is the quote from the article: “Grieving husband Colin Cross is taking legal action in his quest for answers as to how his wife died in Mexico

Arch of Cabo San Lucas

Arch of Cabo San Lucas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

earlier this month.”

A San Diego attorney suing a Mexican company for a Canadian. That set of circumstances alone will probably prevent any real resolution. On top of that, how are you going to collect from a Mexican defendant.

Finally, lawsuits don’t answer questions. Lawsuits move money around.

See Man takes legal action in wife’s Mexico scuba death

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