Plaintiff loses snow tubing case in PA because their experts could not argue the actions of the defendant were gross negligence.

Association resource guide is used against the defendants to prove the plaintiff’s case.

Bourgeois v. Snow Time, Inc., 2018 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2938; 2018 WL 3868670

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Ray M. Bourgeois and Mary Ann I. Bourgeois

Defendant: Snow Time, Inc. and Ski Roundtop Operating Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: failure to state a claim and release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

In the instant matter, Appellant Ray Bourgeois was seriously injured while snow tubing when his tube crossed folded anti-fatigue rubber kitchen mats which Appellees had placed in the deceleration area of the snow tubing run. Appellants’ theory of the case is that Appellees acted recklessly and with gross negligence by placing the mats at the end of the tubing run to aid in tube deceleration.

Facts

This case stems from an incident that occurred while Appellant Ray Bourgeois (Bourgeois) was snow tubing at Roundtop Mountain Resort (the Resort), which is owned and operated by Appellees. As described by the trial court, Bourgeois

went down the hill on his stomach, [head first] on his tube, and proceeded to reach the run-out area at the bottom of the hill. To aid snow tubers in slowing down and stopping at the bottom of the hill, [Appellees] utilized deceleration mats. On his final run, [Bourgeois’s] snow tube came into contact with a deceleration mat, causing his tube to come to an abrupt stop. [Bourgeois’s] body continued forward in motion after his tube stopped, causing him to land [head first] into the snow. The resulting collision caused a hyperextension of [Bourgeois’s] spinal cord in his neck that has left him quadriplegic with limited mobility from his neck down.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted and the plaintiff’s appealed.

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

The first issue the appellate court reviewed was the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims for gross negligence. The appellate court held that “we find that Appellants did not establish a prima facie claim for recklessness or gross negligence

The court came to that conclusion because no one could state the standard of care needed to prove the actions of the defendant rose to the level of gross negligence.

In this case, the trial court concluded as a matter of law that Appellants could not establish a claim for recklessness or gross negligence. The trial court reasoned that since Appellants’ experts had not articulated the standard of care that Appellees failed to meet, a factfinder could not conclude that Appellees were aware of that standard of care and disregarded it and, thus, acted recklessly or with grossly negligence:

The court first looked at the definition of recklessness and gross negligence.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, citing the Restatement (Second) of Torts, found that a defendant acts recklessly, when, inter alia, he owes a duty to the plaintiff and fails to meet that duty. That is, a defendant is reckless when:

he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

The key point is the failure must be an intentional failure. The plaintiff must establish that the defendant consciously acted or failed to act. “Thus, recklessness is more closely aligned with intentional conduct than with negligence, which suggests “unconscious inadvertence.

To prove gross negligence Pennsylvania laws requires a deviation from the standard of care.

Similarly, an element of gross negligence is the deviation from a standard of care. More precisely, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant’s conduct grossly and flagrantly deviated from “the ordinary standard of care.”

Normally the trier of fact, the jury must make this decision. However, Pennsylvania courts are allowed to decide this issue if the facts are “entirely free from doubt and there is no possibility that a reasonable jury could find gross negligence.”

Normally, to prove the defendant’s duty, expert testimony is required to establish the standard of care that the defendant failed to meet and how the expert deviated from that standard of care.

The plaintiff hired to experts that provided opinions as to the actions of the defendant. The first expert opined that the actions of the defendant were beyond the standard of care, but never provided an opinion about what the standard of care was.

DiNola, however, did not cite or explain the “ordinary standards of conduct for a tubing park operator” from which Appellees’ conduct had departed. He just baldly opined that the use of the mats departs from ordinary standards of conduct.

The second expert did not set forth any standards of care.

Therefore, we are constrained to agree with the trial court that Appellants failed to articulate the appropriate standard of care for the use of deceleration mats. Without such a standard of care, Appellants, as a matter of law, cannot establish Appellees’ duty to Appellants and that Appellees knew or should have known about the standard of care. Since Appellants failed to meet this element of recklessness and gross negligence, the trial court properly granted Appellees’ Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue.

The simple negligence claims were barred by a release. The plaintiff argued on appeal that the release was void because it did not specifically name in the release one of the defendants. However, the court found that the language in the release, “and their owners” was sufficient to cover the defendant when not specifically named in the release.

There was a dissent in this case. The dissent argued the plaintiff should win because the warning on the mats used to decelerate the tubes stated that vinyl tubes were not to be decelerated by mats or other devices. The dissent also argued the opinions of the experts did provide enough information for a decision about the recklessness and gross negligence of the defendants.

In my view, Appellants have put forth enough evidence at this stage for the jury to decide the issue. I disagree with the sole focus of the Majority and trial court on the use of the folded mats, when that is but one piece of Appellants’ claims. See Appellants’ Brief at 45-47 (discussing the facts Appellees knew or should have known, including the conditions contributing to speeds as high as 30-35 miles per hour, the risk of serious injuries when a fast-traveling snow tube abruptly collides with an obstacle, the lack of sufficient run-out area, and the use of mats not designed for use in snow tubing).5 Both experts explained the ways in which Appellees’ conduct deviated from the standard of care, based upon the facts established through depositions of Appellees’ employees and officers. It is clear to me that a jury could have determined that the series of conscious decisions made by Appellees worked together to create an unreasonable risk of physical harm to Bourgeois that was substantially greater than ordinary negligence. Therefore, I would reverse the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and remand for trial.

So Now What?

The plaintiff was rendered a quadriplegic by the accident so a lot of money was at stake. The plaintiff did not hire experts correctly or did not explain what was needed from the experts. This first rule of pleading is proving your case legally on the paperwork and then prove it in the record. The plaintiff failed to do that.

The biggest hurdle was the association resource guide. The National Ski Area Association created a resource guide for tubing hills. The dissenting judge called it the standard of care. The resource guide did not contain any information on using devices to slow tubes. The resource guide said you should have a sufficient run out.

The court did not see the issue as using a mat to slow participants as a violation of the standard to use a run out.

That was the close one in this case.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Bourgeois v. Snow Time, Inc., 2018 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2938; 2018 WL 3868670

Bourgeois v. Snow Time, Inc., 2018 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2938 *; 2018 WL 3868670

Bourgeois v. Snow Time, Inc.

 

 

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 14, 2018, Decided; August 14, 2018, Filed

No. 1086 MDA 2017

Reporter

2018 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2938 *; 2018 WL 3868670

RAY M. BOURGEOIS AND MARY ANN I. BOURGEOIS, Appellants v. SNOW TIME, INC. AND SKI ROUNDTOP OPERATING CORPORATION

Notice: DECISION WITHOUT PUBLISHED OPINION

Prior History:  [*1] Appeal from the Order Entered June 19, 2017. In the Court of Common Pleas of York County Civil Division at No(s): 2015-SU-001900-71.

Judges: BEFORE: OTT, J., DUBOW, J., and STRASSBURGER,* J. Judge Ott joins the memorandum. Judge Strassburger files a dissenting memorandum.

Opinion by: DUBOWS

Opinion

MEMORANDUM BY DUBOW, J.:

Appellants, Ray M. Bourgeois and Mary Ann I. Bourgeois, appeal from the Order entered in the York County Court of Common Pleas granting the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Appellees, Snow Time, Inc. and Ski Roundtop Operating Corporation.1 Appellants challenge the trial court’s finding that Appellants could not establish that Appellees acted recklessly or with gross negligence. After careful review, we agree with the trial court that Appellants failed to provide an expert report that articulated a relevant standard of care. As a result, Appellants failed to establish that Appellees had a duty to Appellants and, thus, acted recklessly or were grossly negligent in placing deceleration mats at the end of the tubing run. We affirm the Order of the trial court.

In the instant matter, Appellant Ray Bourgeois was seriously injured while snow tubing when his tube crossed folded anti-fatigue rubber kitchen [*2]  mats which Appellees had placed in the deceleration area of the snow tubing run. Appellants’ theory of the case is that Appellees acted recklessly and with gross negligence by placing the mats at the end of the tubing run to aid in tube deceleration.

Appellants filed a Complaint against Appellees on July 24, 2015, asserting claims for negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and loss of consortium.

On February 14, 2017, Appellees filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which the trial court granted on June 19, 2017.

This timely appeal followed. Appellants filed a court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal. The trial court filed a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) Opinion, incorporating its Opinion in Support of the Order granting the Motion for Summary Judgment.

Appellants raise the following issues for our review:

1. Did the trial court err in granting [Appellees’] Motion for Summary Judgment when it disregarded [Appellants’] liability expert reports, which support the conclusion that, based on the evidence of record, that in placing large rubber kitchen mats, folded in half, on the snow and in the path of its patrons who were traveling at high speeds, [Appellees] acted recklessly and/or with gross negligence? [*3] 

2. Did the trial court err in granting [Appellees’] Motion for Summary Judgment, by holding that, as a matter of law, [Appellees] were not reckless and/or grossly negligent, in that the trial court disregarded genuine issues of material fact showing recklessness and/or gross negligence, including but not limited to the following:

(a) the manufacturer of the inner tube [Appellees] provided Mr. Bourgeois specifically warned [Appellees] not to place obstacles, such as large folded rubber kitchen mats, in the path of tubing participants;

(b) [Appellees] deliberately placed obstacles-large, heavy, folded kitchen mats that [Appellees] knew were not designed for snow tubing and which would cause tubing participants to come to an abrupt stop during high-speed conditions-directly in Mr. Bourgeois’s path;

(c) [Appellees] knew that folding the large mats made them obstacles as the mats were fixed heavy masses that protruded high off the surface of the snow;

(d) [Appellees] had actual and/or constructive knowledge of similar incidents involving the folded kitchen mats prior to Mr. Bourgeois’s catastrophic accident;

(e) [Appellees] acknowledged in their written warnings that their tubing runs-including [*4]  their use of large rubber mats to stop speeding tubing patrons-posed a risk of grievous injury or death to its patrons; and

(f) the risk of grave harm posed by the folded rubber kitchen mats to [Appellees’] snow tubing patrons was obvious and readily apparent to a reasonable person?

3. Did the trial court err in granting [Appellees’] Motion for Summary Judgment, in that the trial court relied upon the testimony of [Appellees’] own employees-in contravention of the Nanty-Glo[]2 holding-to conclude as a matter of law that [Appellees] did not know or have reason to know that using folded kitchen mats to bring its fast-moving snow-tubing patrons to an abrupt stop did not pose a risk of serious bodily harm or death to its patrons?

4. Did the trial court err in granting [Appellees’] Motion for Summary Judgment as to [Appellee] Snow Time, Inc., when (a) the Release signed by Mr. Bourgeois did not name Snow Time as a signatory, and (b) there were genuine issues of fact that [Appellee] Snow Time directly participated and acted negligently with regard to Mr. Bourgeois?

Appellants’ Brief at 6-7.

Issues 1 and 2 – Summary Judgment

In their first two issues, Appellants argue that the trial court erred [*5]  in granting Appellees’ Motion for Summary Judgment by disregarding the conclusions of their experts that Appellees’ conduct was reckless and grossly negligent. Appellants’ Brief at 35, 42. In support, Appellants emphasize certain evidence and argue that the record contains genuine issues of material fact that make the grant of summary judgment inappropriate. Based on the following discussion, however, we find that Appellants did not establish a prima facie claim for recklessness or gross negligence and thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment on these issues.

Our standard of review of the grant of a Motion for Summary Judgment is as follows. We “may reverse a grant of summary judgment if there has been an error of law or an abuse of discretion.” Summers v. Certainteed Corp., 606 Pa. 294, 997 A.2d 1152, 1159 (Pa. 2010). However, when there are no genuine issues as to any material fact and the only issue on appeal is a question of law, our standard of review is de novo.” Id.

In order to survive a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party “must adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which he bears the burden of proof such that a jury could return a verdict in his favor.” Washington v. Baxter, 553 Pa. 434, 719 A.2d 733, 737 (Pa. 1998) (citation omitted). If the non-moving [*6]  party fails to establish one of the essential elements of her claim, the movant has valid grounds for summary judgment. Babb v. Ctr. Cmty. Hosp., 2012 PA Super 125, 47 A.3d 1214, 1223 (Pa. Super. 2012) (citation omitted).

It is well-established that when a trial court considers a motion for summary judgment that includes an expert report, the trial court must determine, inter alia, whether the expert sufficiently supports his conclusions in his expert report:

At the summary judgment stage, a trial court is required to take all facts of record, and all reasonable inferences therefrom, in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. This clearly includes all expert testimony and reports submitted by the non moving party or provided during discovery; and, so long as the conclusions contained within those reports are sufficiently supported, the trial judge cannot sua sponte assail them in an order and opinion granting summary judgment. Contrarily, the trial judge must defer to those conclusions, and should those conclusions be disputed, resolution of that dispute must be left to the trier of fact.

Summers, supra at 1161 (citations omitted).

In this case, the trial court concluded as a matter of law that Appellants could not establish a claim for recklessness or gross negligence. The trial [*7]  court reasoned that since Appellants’ experts had not articulated the standard of care that Appellees failed to meet, a factfinder could not conclude that Appellees were aware of that standard of care and disregarded it and, thus, acted recklessly or with grossly negligence:

[Appellants] have not produced sufficient evidence to show that an industry standard exists for placing the mats at the bottom of hills for snow tubers. . . . The absence of any standard on the record makes it difficult for the [c]ourt to find that [Appellees] knew that their conduct of using deceleration mats to stop snow tubers in the runout area would be placing [Appellant] at a higher unreasonable risk of harm than if [Appellees] had placed mats in a different manner, selected to purchase a different kind of mat, or used a different method for stopping the snow tubers.

Trial Ct. Op., 7/19/17, at 18-19. The trial court similarly found no evidence that Appellees “knew or had reason to know that folding the mats created an unreasonable risk of physical harm.” Id. Appellants challenge these conclusions.

We first turn to the definitions of recklessness and gross negligence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, citing the [*8]  Restatement (Second) of Torts, found that a defendant acts recklessly, when, inter alia, he owes a duty to the plaintiff and fails to meet that duty. That is, a defendant is reckless when:

he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1200 (Pa. 2012), citing
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (emphasis added). Therefore, an element of recklessness is the failure of the defendant to do any act that he has a duty to do for the plaintiff.

That failure, however, must be an intentional failure. In other words, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant consciously acted or failed to act. Thus, recklessness is more closely aligned with intentional conduct than with negligence, which suggests “unconscious inadvertence.” Id.

Similarly, an element of gross negligence is the deviation from a standard of care. More precisely, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant’s conduct grossly and flagrantly deviated from “the ordinary [*9]  standard of care.” Bloom v. Dubois Regional Medical Center, 409 Pa. Super. 83, 597 A.2d 671, 679 (Pa. Super. 1991).

Generally, it is for the jury to determine whether a party acted grossly negligent. Colloi v. Philadelphia Electric Co., 332 Pa. Super. 284, 481 A.2d 616, 621 (Pa. Super. 1984). However, a court may decide this question as a matter of law where the case is entirely free from doubt and there is no possibility that a reasonable jury could find gross negligence. Id.

Expert testimony is often required to opine about a defendant’s duty to the plaintiff, i.e., the standard of care that defendant failed to meet. In particular, an expert must opine about the relevant standard of care, the manner in which defendant’s actions deviated from the standard, and the manner in which that deviation caused the plaintiff’s harm. See Toogood v. Owen J. Rogal, D.D.S., P.C., 573 Pa. 245, 824 A.2d 1140, 1145 (Pa. 2003) (medical expert report must describe standard of care so as to establish duty, breach of duty, and causation). See also Zokaites Contracting Inc. v. Trant Corp., 2009 PA Super 35, 968 A.2d 1282, 1287 (Pa. Super. 2009) (in a professional negligence action, expert testimony is required to establish the “relevant standard of care applicable to the rendition of the professional services” and that the defendant’s conduct fell below that standard); Truax v. Roulhac, 2015 PA Super 217, 126 A.3d 991, 997-99 (Pa. Super. 2015) (discussing plaintiff’s use of an engineer’s expert testimony to establish the elements of negligence in a premises liability action).3 If the expert fails to provide the required information, a trial [*10]  court may conclude that the report is insufficient as a matter of law. Id.

We now turn to the theory of Appellants’ case. Appellants allege in their Complaint, inter alia, that Appellees’ use of folded deceleration mats at the base of its tubing run was reckless and grossly negligent because the use of the mats caused Appellant’s snow tube to stop suddenly and unexpectedly, resulting in the serious injuries that Appellant sustained. Appellants assert the same theory on appeal by arguing that Appellees engaged in reckless and grossly negligent conduct when they placed “large, heavy rubber mats in [Appellant’s] path … and that the mats could bring [Appellant] to an abrupt, immediate stop.”4
See Appellants’ Brief at 36.

In support of Appellants’ response to Appellees’ Motion for Summary Judgment, Appellants presented two expert reports that concluded that Appellees engaged in reckless and grossly negligent conduct. Neither expert, however, set forth a relevant standard of care and, thus, the duty that Appellees failed to meet.

Appellants’ first expert, Mark DiNola, is an expert in the field of ski and snow tubing risk management. When addressing Appellees’ standard of care, he did so generally [*11]  and failed to articulate a specific standard of care or industry standard for the use of deceleration mats in a tubing run-out area. In particular, DiNola first concluded generally that Appellees’ “decision to use deliberately deployed folded anti-fatigue rubber mats as a deceleration device constitutes an extreme departure from the ordinary standards of conduct for a tubing park operator.” DiNola Report, 3/15/17, at 40 (emphasis added). DiNola, however, did not cite or explain the “ordinary standards of conduct for a tubing park operator” from which Appellees’ conduct had departed. He just baldly opined that the use of the mats departs from ordinary standards of conduct.

In another portion of the report, however, DiNola discusses a standard of care set forth in National Ski Areas Association’s “Tubing and Operations Resource Guide.”5 That “standard of care,” however, addresses the length of a tubing run-out, not a standard of care for the use of mats as deceleration devices. Thus, this portion of the expert report does not sufficiently articulate the applicable standard of care or conduct to support Appellants’ theory of this case.

The second expert report, written by Gordon Moskowitz, [*12]  Ph.D., a mechanical and biomechanical engineering expert, does not set forth any standards of care for tubing operators. Thus, this report is not relevant to the determination of whether Appellees engaged in reckless or grossly negligent conduct in failing to meet a standard of care by using folded rubber mats in the deceleration area.

Therefore, we are constrained to agree with the trial court that Appellants failed to articulate the appropriate standard of care for the use of deceleration mats. Without such a standard of care, Appellants, as a matter of law, cannot establish Appellees’ duty to Appellants and that Appellees knew or should have known about the standard of care. Since Appellants failed to meet this element of recklessness and gross negligence, the trial court properly granted Appellees’ Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue.

Issue 3 – Nanty-Glo Rule

In their third issue, Appellants claim that the trial court erred in concluding, solely based on Appellees’ employees’ testimony, that Appellees were not aware of the risk of harm posed by their use of anti-fatigue mats in the deceleration areas of the tubing run. Appellants’ Brief at 55.

The Nanty-Glo Rule limits the trial [*13]  court’s use of affidavits or depositions to decide motions for summary judgment. The Rule provides that a trial court, when ruling on a motion for summary judgment, may not rely solely upon the moving party’s own testimonial affidavits or depositions, or those of its witnesses, to determine that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Dudley v. USX Corp., 414 Pa. Super. 160, 606 A.2d 916, 918 (Pa. Super. 1992) (citation and footnote omitted).

Before applying the Nanty-Glo Rule, however, the trial court must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to establish a prima facie case:

Initially, it must be determined whether the plaintiff has alleged facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case. If so, the second step is to determine whether there is any discrepancy as to any facts material to the case. Finally, it must be determined whether, in granting summary judgment, the trial court has usurped improperly the role of the fact-finder by resolving any material issues of fact. It is only when the third stage is reached that Nanty-Glo comes into play.

DeArmitt v. New York Life Ins. Co., 2013 PA Super 161, 73 A.3d 578, 594-95 (Pa. Super. 2013) (citation omitted and emphasis added).

As discussed above, the trial court properly found as a matter of law that Appellants’ experts had not opined about a relevant standard of care [*14]  and, thus, Appellants could not establish facts sufficient to make out a prima facie case of recklessness or gross negligence. Accordingly, Appellants have not demonstrated the applicability of the Nanty-Glo Rule. This third issue, thus, warrants no relief.

Issue 4 – The Release of Snow Time, Inc.

Lastly, Appellants contend that the trial court erred in dismissing the negligence claim against Snow Time, Inc. because the Release at issue did not specifically name or identify Snow Time, Inc. Appellants’ Brief at 61. We disagree.

The Release at issue states, in pertinent part, that Appellants release from negligence claims Appellee Ski Liberty Operating Corporation and its owners:

In consideration of being allowed to use the tubing area at Liberty, Whitetail or Roundtop, I HEREBY AGREE NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE, SKI LIBERTY OPERATING CORP., WHITETAIL MOUNTAIN OPERATING CORP. AND SKI ROUNDTOP OPERATING CORP., AS WELL AS THEIR OWNERS, AGENTS AND EMPLOYEES FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY RELATED TO INJURY, PROPERTY LOSS OR OTHERWISE RELATED TO MY USE OF THE TUBING FACILITY, REGARDLESS OF ANY NEGLIGENCE ON THE PART OF THE SAME. I FURTHER AGREE TO INDEMNIFY AND DEFEND THE SAME, FROM ANY CLAIM FOR LIABILITY [*15]  RELATED TO INJURY AS A RESULT OF MY OR MY CHILD’S USE OF THE FACILITIES, REGARDLESS OF ANY NEGLIGENCE, RECKLESSNESS OR IMPROPER CONDUCT.

Release (emphasis added).

It is undisputed that Appellee Snow Time, Inc. owns Appellee Ski Roundtop Operating Corporation. Although the Release does not specifically name Appellee Snow Time, Inc., the Release still covers Appellee Snow Time, Inc. because the Release clearly and unambiguously covers the owner of Ski Roundtop Operating Corporation.

Moreover, Appellants do not otherwise contend that the Release is ambiguous. They raise no claims as to the Release’s general validity, conspicuity, or enforceability. Further, Appellants cite no authority to support their implication that unless the Release specifically names an owner, the term “owner” does not apply to it.

We agree with the trial court that the Release applied to Appellee Snow Time, Inc., as the owner of Ski Roundtop Operating Corporation. Therefore, the Release applied to general negligence claims against Appellee Snow Time, Inc. and Appellants’ claim to the contrary is without merit.

Based on the foregoing, we affirm.

Order affirmed.

Judge Ott joins the memorandum.

Judge Strassburger files a [*16]  dissenting memorandum.

Date: 8/14/18

Dissent by: STRASSBURGER

Dissent

DISSENTING MEMORANDUM BY STRASSBURGER, J.:

In this case, the learned Majority holds that the trial court correctly concluded that Appellants could not establish a claim for recklessness or gross negligence as a matter of law at the summary judgment stage.1 Because I believe a reasonable jury could find that the facts constitute gross negligence and/or recklessness, I respectfully dissent. See Albright v. Abington Mem’l Hosp., 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164 (Pa. 1997) (holding that a court may only take issue of gross negligence away from jury and decide the issue as a matter of law “if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence“).

This case stems from an incident that occurred while Appellant Ray Bourgeois (Bourgeois) was snow tubing at Roundtop Mountain Resort (the Resort), which is owned and operated by Appellees. As described by the trial court, Bourgeois

went down the hill on his stomach, [head first] on his tube, and proceeded to reach the run-out area at the bottom of the hill. To aid snow tubers in slowing down and stopping at the bottom of the hill, [Appellees] utilized deceleration mats. On his final [*17]  run, [Bourgeois’s] snow tube came into contact with a deceleration mat, causing his tube to come to an abrupt stop. [Bourgeois’s] body continued forward in motion after his tube stopped, causing him to land [head first] into the snow. The resulting collision caused a hyperextension of [Bourgeois’s] spinal cord in his neck that has left him quadriplegic with limited mobility from his neck down.

Trial Court Order Granting Summary Judgment,2 6/19/2017, at 2-3.

What the trial court refers to as “deceleration mats” are actually rubber anti-fatigue mats commonly used as a walking surface in commercial kitchens. Spahr Deposition, 7/14/2016, at 25; Weeden Deposition, 7/20/2016, at 64-65; Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 95-96. The Resort inherited some of the mats from another resort. Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 96. When the Resort needed additional mats, Matt Weeden, the manager of the tubing park at the Resort, testified that he attempted to match the mats in use and “asked [the Resort’s] food and beverage guy where he got his and basically shopped around and compared the mats and figured out exactly what they were and ordered them.” Weeden Deposition, 7/20/2016, at 65. The mats are [*18]  not specifically designed for snow tubing. Id. Appellees used the mats to assist the snow tube rider to slow down at the bottom of the hill and to minimize collisions between a snow tube and people walking around at the bottom of the hill. Reichert Deposition, 7/13/2016, at 34-35; Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 81, 89.

The vinyl snow tubes used by the Resort have a written warning stating that the product is designed to be used on hills with no obstacles with adequate room to stop. Appellants’ Brief in Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment, 3/16/2017, at Exhibit E. Appellees never conducted any studies as to the effect of a vinyl tube encountering a rubber mat. Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 96. In 2004, Appellees added elevation to the snow-tubing hill in order to create a more fun experience for their customers. Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 53-54. When they did so, they extended the runout “a little bit,” because making the hill higher resulted in the riders traveling faster down the hill and a farther distance at the bottom. Id. at 54-56.

Two of the safeties3 testified that they are aware that the speed that riders travel depends on various factors, including weather conditions, [*19]  the time of day, and the number of people going down a slope at a time. For example, riders went faster when it was colder. Spahr Deposition, 7/14/2016, at 34; Reichert Deposition, 7/13/2016, at 35-37. Nevertheless, the Resort did not measure speed other than by observation. The safeties and tubing supervisors determined when and how to use the mats depending on their observations of how the lanes were running, the speed riders were moving, and where the tubes were stopping, but there were no formal policies or procedures about when and how to use the mats. Reichert Deposition, 7/13/2016, at 35-38, 45; Whitcomb Deposition, 9/1/2016, at 98. The mats sometimes lay flat; sometimes they were folded. One of the tubing safeties observed that folded mats usually slowed down the rider more than flat mats due to an increase in friction. Reichert Deposition, 7/13/2016, at 36.

Appellants obtained the opinions of two experts. The first, Mark A. Di Nola, is an expert in ski and snow tubing risk management. The second, Gordon Moskowitz, Ph.D., is a an expert in mechanical and biomechanical engineering.

Di Nola opined that Bourgeois was severely injured as a direct result of Appellees’ deliberate actions, [*20]  which include the following:

[1.] [Appellees’] conscious decision to employ an operationally reckless company policy mandating the deployment of deliberately placed folded anti-fatigue rubber mats at the bottom of the tubing hill as deceleration devices with explicit knowledge that the deliberately deployed folded anti-fatigue rubber mats were not designed or tested for use as deceleration devices[.]

[2.] [Appellees’] conscious decision to attempt to transfer the increased risks to their guests rather than make the tubing experience safer for consumers by eliminating the increased risk as they did only after [Bourgeois’s] tragic incident, placing their corporate financial needs over the needs of their guests.

[3.] [Appellees] consciously deployed snow tubes and provided them to their patrons in a manner that directly violated the manufacturer’s warning label by using the tubes on hill with deliberately placed obstacles that were set out in an attempt to offset the fact that the hill did not provide adequate room to stop.

[4.] [Appellees’] conscious decisions described above increased the risk of serious bodily injury to riders over and above those inherent in the activity of snow tubing [*21]  in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

[5.] [Appellees’] conscious decisions increased the risk of serious injury to riders over and above those inherent in the activity of snow tubing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and constitute an extreme departure from the ordinary standards of conduct for a ski area in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

[6.] [Appellees’] conscious decisions increased the risk of serious injury to riders over and above those inherent in the activity of snow tubing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and are a proximate cause of [Bourgeois’s] injuries.

Di Nola Report, 3/15/2017, at 41-42.

Moskowitz opined, inter alia, that

***

2. The use of folded anti-fatigue mats as a deceleration device would expose tube riders to the likelihood of their tube encountering a sudden abrupt stop, particularly when the mats were folded with the ‘nubs’ exposed to the surface of the tube.

3. The stopping effect of a tube encountering a folded anti-fatigue mat with nubs exposed should have been readily apparent to [Appellees] well before [Bourgeois’s] accident of February 17, 2013.

4. Tube riders who travelled head [] first (on their stomachs) on ‘fast’ days would be subject to a greater [*22]  risk of suffering injuries similar to those experienced by [] Bourgeois.

***

6. Arranging the mats in a folded position enhances the risk of a sudden tube stop.

7. The variations in weather … would have resulted in [Bourgeois’s] tubing experience being significantly faster at or around 3:00 p.m. when his accident occurred than [on Bourgeois’s previous runs down the hill].

Moskowitz Report, 3/14/2017, at 20. Moskowitz also opined that Appellees

knew or should have known that tubers traveling at a high rate of speed would find their tube brought to an abrupt stop when it encountered a folded mat, with that risk increasing further when the mat was folded with the nubs exposed to the bottom of the tube. Analysis indicates that a tube and rider in the prone position with [Bourgeois’s] physical measurements, facing forward and traveling at approximately 15 mph would enter into a flipping motion upon contact with a folded mat due to the resulting friction and the fold. [B]ased upon the known weather conditions and [Bourgeois’s] weight, his speed at the point of encountering the folded mat was well in excess of this speed.

Id. at 16.

After discovery closed, Appellees moved for summary judgment, arguing, [*23] 
inter alia, that Appellants failed to support claims for reckless conduct, because Appellants used the mats in a matter customary to the industry without incident up until the incident. Appellees’ Motion for Summary Judgment, 2/14/2017, at ¶¶ 28-41; Appellees’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, 2/14/2017, at 17-20 (pagination supplied). Appellees later argued that the record also did not support a claim of gross negligence. Appellees’ Reply Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, 3/31/2017, at 24. Appellees contended that Appellants’ expert, Moskowitz, attributed Bourgeois’s injuries to a “confluence of … interlinked events” and thus, Appellees would have no way of knowing or any reason to have known such events could have arisen to cause harm. Id. Appellants opposed Appellees’ motion for summary judgment by presenting the evidence referenced supra.

As the Majority recounts, the trial court stated the following regarding its determination that Appellants failed to set forth evidence support their claims of gross negligence and recklessness:

[Appellants] have not produced sufficient evidence to show that an industry standard exists for placing the [*24]  mats at the bottom of hills for snow tubers. … The absence of any standard on the record makes it difficult for the [c]ourt to find that [Appellees] knew that their conduct of using deceleration mats to stop snow tubers in the runout area would be placing [Bourgeois] at a higher unreasonable risk of harm than if [Appellees] had placed mats in a different manner, selected to purchase a different kind of mat, or used a different method for stopping the snow tubers.

Trial Court Order Granting Summary Judgment, 6/19/17, at 18-19.

The trial court further found no evidence that Appellees “knew or had reason to know that folding the mats created an unreasonable risk of physical harm.” Id. at 19. See also id. at 22-23 (discussing gross negligence).

Noticeably absent from the trial court’s discussion is any mention of Appellants’ expert reports. “At the summary judgment stage, a trial court is required to take all facts of record, and all reasonable inferences therefrom, in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Greely v. W. Penn Power Co., 2017 PA Super 33, 156 A.3d 276, 282-84 (Pa. Super. 2017). This includes all expert reports. In fact, this Court has held that when a trial court’s opinion does not reflect consideration of the non-moving party’s expert reports, this is error as it signals [*25]  a failure to consider all evidence of record in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id.

The Majority simply ignores the trial court’s failure to consider Appellants’ expert reports and undergoes its own analysis of the reports. It concludes that neither expert set forth a relevant standard of care and thus, the duty that Appellees failed to meet. Majority Memorandum at 8-10. The Majority dismisses the Moskowitz report entirely as irrelevant, and rejects the Di Nola report as conclusory. Id.

However, in my view, both experts satisfactorily assisted Appellants in establishing gross negligence and recklessness. Woven throughout the reports are detailed references to the way that Appellees grossly deviated from the standard of care. One cannot seriously dispute that Appellees owe their patrons, who are riding on a vinyl tube without a steering or stopping mechanism down a steep snow-covered hill on a course that Appellees designed, a duty to ensure that the patrons are able to stop safely without serious injury at the bottom. One hardly needs an expert to establish that placing a stationary object, which is designed for an entirely different use, in the path of a fast-travelling [*26]  snow tube rider in the hopes of slowing down the rider could instead, under certain foreseeable conditions, cause the rider to stop abruptly and eject the rider in a manner resulting in serious injury. This is particularly the case when Appellees have not conducted or reviewed studies to determine the effect of placing the mat in the rider’s path under various conditions. Further, a jury could find that risk of serious injury was substantially increased without a standardized method to measure riders’ specific speeds, assess conditions, or arrange the mats. Moreover, not only were the mats used by Appellees not designed for the purpose for which Appellees used them, they used the snow tubes in a manner that was contradicted expressly by the warning on the label – a label, by the way, which was illegible on Appellant’s tube.

The trial court states “[t]here is no evidence that [Appellants] were made aware of the risks of folding the deceleration mats and no evidence that any other incidents happened on the day Plaintiff suffered his injury[,] which would have put [Appellants] on notice that the mats were a problem. Trial Court Order Granting Summary Judgment, 6/19/2017, at 20 (emphasis [*27]  added). However, Appellants need not prove that Appellees actually were aware of the risks, just that Appellants had reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable person to realize that the person’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the person’s conduct negligent. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200-01.4

In my view, Appellants have put forth enough evidence at this [*29]  stage for the jury to decide the issue. I disagree with the sole focus of the Majority and trial court on the use of the folded mats, when that is but one piece of Appellants’ claims. See Appellants’ Brief at 45-47 (discussing the facts Appellees knew or should have known, including the conditions contributing to speeds as high as 30-35 miles per hour, the risk of serious injuries when a fast-traveling snow tube abruptly collides with an obstacle, the lack of sufficient run-out area, and the use of mats not designed for use in snow tubing).5 Both experts explained the ways in which Appellees’ conduct deviated from the standard of care, based upon the facts established through depositions of Appellees’ employees and officers. It is clear to me that a jury could have determined that the series of conscious decisions made by Appellees worked together to create an unreasonable risk of physical harm to Bourgeois that was substantially greater than ordinary negligence. Therefore, I would reverse the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and remand for trial.

End of Document


Expert testimony is needed when the activity is beyond the scope of the general knowledge of a juror in Connecticut.

In this case, the plaintiff’s claim failed because they needed any expert witness and the one they had hired was disqualified. Without an expert in horseback riding lessons, the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed.

Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

State: Connecticut, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Plaintiff: Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis

Defendant: YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

Summary

Your expert witness must have the experience, education or background to be able to testify as to their findings. In states where an expert opinion is needed, like Connecticut, not having an expert means not have a case.

Here the expert witness hired by the plaintiff did not have the necessary qualifications, and the court would not allow his testimony. Because horseback riding and equine issues were outside of the scope of the normal juror in Connecticut, an expert witness was needed by the plaintiff. Without an expert, the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

Facts

On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony.

The plaintiff’s hired an expert witness to provide expert testimony on why the defendant was negligent. The court found the plaintiff’s expert was not qualified to render an expert opinion on the matter.

… Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case because they could not prove their case.

The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.

The plaintiffs appealed.

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

Although the case was brought in the federal district court because the parties were from different states, the law of the state where the accident happened was the law used in the case. Since the accident occurred in Connecticut, Connecticut law was applied to the case.

Under Connecticut law, horseback riding was outside the general knowledge of jurors and thus required expert testimony for the jurors to make their decisions.

Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard.

An expert witness is needed to show both the standard of care in the case and whether the defendant breached that standard of care.

The plaintiff hired Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic.

Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.

The district court excluded “Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding.”

The district stated, and the appellate court agreed that:

Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.

Because the plaintiff’s expert witness was excluded and could not testify, the plaintiffs could not prove their case.

Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.

So Now What?

The courts have been given broader discretion to determine who can and cannot testify as an expert witness. The courts can also determine, even if the expert is qualified to testify, that the testimony they are going to give is not based on science.

In states where expert testimony is required or any state where you want to win, you need to hire expert witnesses who are going to qualify as an expert in their field and provide an opinion based on science, history, experience and real life.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

Ellis v. YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., 615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

Louisa R. Ellis, ppa Elizabeth Ellis, Elizabeth Ellis, Plaintiff-Appellant, -v.- YMCA Camp Mohawk, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

14-3460

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

615 Fed. Appx. 697; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 16057

September 10, 2015, Decided

NOTICE: PLEASE REFER TO FEDERAL RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE RULE 32.1 GOVERNING THE CITATION TO UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.).

Ellis v. Y.M.C.A. Camp Mohawk, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 110403 (D. Conn., Aug. 11, 2014)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A claim that a summer camp operator was negligent in offering horseback riding instruction required the support of expert testimony, as the intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship were no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors; [2]-The proffered expert witness was not qualified under Fed. R. Evid. 702, as he claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education but had practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship.

OUTCOME: Judgment affirmed.

CORE TERMS: expert testimony, summary judgment, state law, standard of care, specialized knowledge, horsemanship, expertise, juror, horseback riding, expert witness, issues of material fact, qualification, familiarity, membership, diversity, resume, equestrian, pony

COUNSEL: FOR APPELLANT: Megan L. Piltz, Sabatini and Associates, LLC, Newington, Connecticut.

FOR APPELLEES: Renee W. Dwyer and Katherine L. Matthews, Gordon, Muir and Foley, LLP, Hartford, Connecticut.

JUDGES: PRESENT: RALPH K. WINTER, JOHN M. WALKER, JR., DENNIS JACOBS, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

[*697] SUMMARY ORDER

UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the judgment of the district court be AFFIRMED.

Louisa Ellis and Elizabeth Ellis (“Appellants”) appeal from the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Thompson, J.), dismissing [*698] on summary judgment their diversity action alleging negligence against YCMA Camp Mohawk, Inc. (“YMCA”). Appellants argue that the district court abused its discretion in determining that their expert, Corey Andres, was not qualified to render an expert opinion regarding the standard of care for an equestrian course at the YMCA camp at which twelve-year-old Louisa was injured. Appellants also argue that the district court erred in determining that all of the issues presented require expert testimony. We assume the parties’ [**2] familiarity with the underlying facts, the procedural history, and the issues presented for review.

On July 18, 2011, Louisa Ellis fell from a pony while taking horseback riding lessons at YMCA Camp Mohawk. Ellis sustained injuries to her hand and elbow that required surgery and therapy. Appellants identified Andres, an employee of Robson Forensic, to investigate the claims and to provide expert testimony. Andres claimed his expertise based on his membership in the American Camp Association (“ACA”) and his study of therapeutic education at Ohio State, University of Toledo, including a study pertaining to equestrian matters. Andres’s investigation concluded that YMCA was negligent in failing to provide complete and proper instruction as to how to fall from a horse in a way that minimizes injury.

The district court excluded Andres’s expert testimony on the ground that he had limited experience in the field of horseback riding. Therefore, appellants’ failure to produce an expert where expert testimony was required led the district court to grant summary judgment.

[HN1] A grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo to determine whether any genuine issues of material fact would bar summary judgment. [**3] Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. ABM Indus., Inc., 397 F.3d 158, 164 (2d Cir. 2005). [HN2] We review the district court’s evidentiary ruling under an abuse-of-discretion standard. See id. at 171-72. “Either an error of law or a clear error of fact may constitute an abuse of discretion.” Schering Corp. v. Pfizer, Inc., 189 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). [HN3] A district court’s qualification of an expert witness will only be overturned if it is manifestly erroneous. United States v. Barrow, 400 F.3d 109, 123 (2d Cir. 2005).

[HN4] In a diversity action, whether expert testimony is required is a matter of state law, whereas the admissibility of a given expert witness is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. See 29 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 6263; see also Beaudette v. Louisville Ladder Inc., 462 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2006). [HN5] Under Connecticut state law, expert testimony is required when a matter goes “beyond the ordinary knowledge and experience of judges or jurors.” LePage v. Horne, 262 Conn. 116, 809 A.2d 505, 511 (Conn. 2002). Connecticut courts have held, on similar facts, that the general public is no longer as familiar with horsemanship as it arguably was at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that expert testimony is necessary to establish a standard of care and a breach of that standard. Keeney v. Mystic Valley Hunt Club, Inc., 93 Conn. App. 368, 889 A.2d 829, 833-34 (Conn. App. Ct. 2006).

As the district court held, Appellants’ claims required the support of expert testimony. The intricacies of horseback riding technique and horsemanship [**4] are no longer within the bounds of ordinary knowledge or experience of judges and jurors. Questions [*699] such as whether the stirrups were improperly installed and whether the pony was of sufficient size to carry the rider are not questions that the average juror can decide based on past knowledge or experience. We therefore agree that Ellis needed expert testimony to show both a standard of care and a breach of that standard.

Andres claimed a generalized familiarity with camp education. However, [HN6] Federal Rule of Evidence 702 requires expertise based on specialized knowledge and experience, not a mere understanding derived from others’ publications. “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Fed. R. Evid. 702(a); see also Marvel Characters, Inc. v. Kirby, 726 F.3d 119, 135 (2d Cir. 2013). Andres does not rise to the level of expertise required to opine on the matters at hand. Andres has practically no knowledge or experience relating to horsemanship — his resume makes no reference to any such knowledge, and his investigation merely points to three publications [**5] that he relied on when preparing his report. Andres’s resume instead highlights a wide array of fields and organizations in which he has obtained certifications or is a member. Appellants argue that Andres’s membership in the ACA broadly reaches all camp recreations. This broad qualification falls well short of the specialized knowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 demands. The district court therefore did not abuse its discretion in its decision to exclude Andres’s testimony.

Appellants’ failure to provide necessary expert testimony precludes them from presenting these claims under Connecticut state law. See LePage, 809 A.2d at 511. Thus, there are no issues of material fact raised to challenge the district court’s entry of summary judgment.

For the foregoing reasons, and finding no merit in Appellant’s other arguments, we hereby AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.


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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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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


Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.

The Federal District Court in this case used the language of the lift ticket to support the defendant ski area’s motion for summary judgment. The decision  also says the release is valid for lift accidents in Colorado closing one of the last gaps in suits against ski areas in Colorado.

Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

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

Plaintiff: Sally Rumpf & Louis Rumpf

Defendant: Sunlight, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligence per se, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: (1) they are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket; (2) they fail for a lack of expert testimony; and (3) that Sally Rumpf
was negligent per se under the Ski Safety Act. 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

The plaintiff traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit family and ski. She rented equipment from the
defendant ski area, Ski Sunlight and purchased a lift ticket. As required to rent the ski equipment, the plaintiff signed a release. 

While attempting to board a chair lift, the plaintiff injured her shoulder. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted with this decision. 

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

In the statement of the facts, the court quoted from the language on the lift ticket.

Holder understands that he/she is responsible for using the ski area safely and for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. Holder agrees to read and understand all signage and instructions and agrees to comply with them. Holder understands that he/she must control his/her speed and course at all times and maintain a proper lookout. Holder understands that snowmobiles, snowcats, and snowmaking may be encountered at any time. In consideration of using the premises, Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property. Holder agrees that any and all disputes between Holder and the Ski Area regarding an alleged incident shall be governed by COLORADO LAW  and EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION shall be in the State or Federal Courts of the State of Colorado.

What is interesting is the Colorado Skier Safety Act, C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107(8)(b) requires specific language to be on the lift ticket.

WARNING

Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from any ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

It is unclear from the decision, and I do not have a copy of the Ski Sunlight lift ticket, to know if the required language is on the lift ticket. However, the language that was on the lift ticket was important and used by the court to make its decision.

The language required by the Colorado Skier Safety Act speaks to the risks assumed by a skier while skiing and does not speak to any risks of a chair lift. This creates an obvious conflict in the law for a ski area. Do you use the language required by the statute or use different language that a federal judge has said was  instructive in stopping the claims of a plaintiff. 

The court found the plaintiff had read and understood the release and knew she was bound by it. The plaintiff’s argument centered on the theory that the release did not cover lift accidents based on a prior case, Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70 (1998). That case held that a ski area owes the highest degree of care to skiers on the lift. 

Plaintiffs further argue that the exculpatory language at issue is “only applicable to ski cases when the accident or injury occurs while the plaintiff is skiing or snowboarding on the slopes,” and not when loading the ski lift. 

The Bayer decision changed the liability issues for Colorado Ski Areas. It also created the only gap in  protection for Colorado Ski Areas between the Colorado Skier Safety Act and release law. However, this was significantly modified by Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, reviewed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

The court then reviewed the requirements under Colorado law for releases to be valid. 

Exculpatory agreements, which attempt to insulate a party from liability for its own negligence, are generally recognized under Colorado law, but are construed narrowly and “closely scrutinized” to ensure that the agreement was fairly entered into and that the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Additionally, the  terms of exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed against the drafter. 

The court reiterated several times that it was the intent of the parties within the language of the release that was the important aspect of the release, more than the specific language of the release. This intent was  supported by the language on the lift ticket. Colorado has a 4 factor test to determine the validity of a release. 

…in determining the validity of an exculpatory agreement, the Court must consider the following factors: (1) whether the service provided involves a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service provided; (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 

Skiing in Colorado is recreational and not a service, so there is no public duty that would void a release. Because it is a service, and the plaintiff is free to go ski else where there is no adhesion so the agreement was entered into by the parties fairly. 

Adhesion was defined by the court in Colorado as:

…Colorado defines an adhesion contract as “generally not bargained for, but imposed on the public for a necessary  service on a take it or leave it basis.” However, printed form contracts offered on a take it or leave it basis, alone, do not render the agreement an adhesion contract.

For the plaintiff to win her argument, the plaintiff must show “, “that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation, or that [the] services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

The court then applied contract law to determine if the agreement was ambiguous.

“Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.” Under Colorado law, I must examine the actual language of the agreements for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

The court in reviewing the release found the release to clearly and unambiguously set forth the party’s intent to release the ski area from liability.

The court again backed up its decision by referring to the language on the lift ticket. 

Furthermore, the ski lift ticket specifically references safely loading, riding and unloading Sunlight’s ski lifts and provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property.” 

As such the release was valid and stopped the claims of the plaintiff and her spouse.

So Now What?

Although the basics of the decision are familiar under Colorado law, the court’s reference to the language on the lift ticket is a departure from Colorado law and the law of most other states. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states

Whether or not a lift ticket standing by itself is enough to stop a claim is still in the air and probably will be. The language on this lift ticket may have been different than the language required by law, which basically states the skier assumes the risk of skiing. The required statutory language does not cover any issues with loading, unloading or riding chair lifts. 

This creates a major conflict for ski areas. What do you put on the lift ticket. The statute requires specific language; however, there are no penalties for failing to put the language on the lift ticket. However, it is negligence to violate any part of the statute, if that negligence caused an injury. 

C.R.S. §§ 33-44-104. Negligence – civil actions.

(1) A violation of any requirement of this article shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of the person violating such requirement.

(2) A violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of this article or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board pursuant to section 25-5-704 (1) (a), C.R.S., shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of such operator.

Failing to put the language on the lift ticket by itself could not cause an injury. The language required on the lift ticket is the same language required to be posted where ever lift tickets are sold and posted at the bottom of all base area lifts. Base area lifts are the lifts used to get up the mountain. Lifts that start further up the mountain, which require a lift right to reach don’t need the warning signs. 

My advice is to include the statutory language and much of the language of this decision on lift tickets. You just don’t want to walk into a courtroom and be accused of failing to follow the law. You might be right, but you will look bad and looking bad is the first step in writing a check. The biggest limitation is going to be the size of the lift ticket and print size.

This case, although decided before Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard? and was quoted in this decision, it adds another block into what is now an almost impregnable wall against claims from skiers in Colorado.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com 

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

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