“Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for” in this case, the marketing eliminated the protection afforded by the warning labels

Cornell and a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used in a gym at Cornell were being sued by an injured student who used the equipment. The court definitely was leaning towards the student; however, the student had come to court prepared, (and backed by a lot of money I’m guessing.)

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Randall Duchesneau

Defendant: Cornell University and Tumbltrak

Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability, Failure to Warn, requesting punitive damages

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: No duty, Failure to state a claim, Assumption of Risk & Release?

Year: 2012

This case spent four years getting to this point, and it is obvious the court is a little tired of the litigation. Consequently, the facts are difficult to determine.

It seems the plaintiff was a beginning gymnast and injured himself on a piece of equipment at the Cornell University gym called the Tumbletrak. The extents of his injuries are never clear, but based on the number of experts the plaintiff hired and the lengthy fight; I guess his injuries were extensive.

This case was being heard in a Pennsylvania Federal Court with a Michigan and a New York Defendant. That fact alone is confusing.

The decision is based on motions for summary judgment filed by both Cornell and the manufacturer Tumbletrak.

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

The court first examines the manufacture’s motion for summary judgment. The first issue the manufacturer claimed the plaintiff failed to establish the minimum facts necessary to go to trial; the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages, and the plaintiff assumed the risk. The court first looked at what was required to establish a failure to warn case. Meaning a manufacturer has a duty to warn users of the product of the risks and failed to do so.

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage.

The burden is on the plaintiff to prove the failure to warn of the risk by the manufacturer was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded a warning had one been given. Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.”

Failure to warn can be denied both by proving the plaintiff read and heeded the risk or knew of the risk prior to using the equipment. The manufacturer argued the risk was open and obvious, which does not require proof because the plaintiff should have seen the risk.

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding

In a footnote at this point, the court states the plaintiff signed a release stating he understood the risks; however, nothing else is mentioned about the release in the rest of the decision.

One way to defend against a motion for summary judgment is to argue there are enough facts or issues that make the facts relied upon by the defendant an issue.  Meaning if enough facts are in dispute, the motion for summary judgement cannot be granted. This is what the plaintiff did through his experts.

Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA, not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. [Emphasize added]

Here the manufacturer shot his defense down before the product left the assembly plant by confusing risk management and marketing. Teddy bears doing the activities unspotted that the warning allegedly warns against eliminated the warning in the court’s eyes. (And rightfully so!) If the manufacturer shows cartoons doing the act without regard for safety, then the act must be safe, no matter what the warning says. If the warning can be located.

In a scary statement, the court held that failure to read the warnings on the product is not an issue in a failure to warn case.

However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.”

The court based this analysis on the many different statements by witnesses who seemed to go in every direction, but all stated they never saw the warning.

Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter.

A warning does not exist unless the consumer can’t miss it. Meaning the warning must be in the consumer’s face every time they go to use a product. On top of that the warning must be in the manual, in some states on the packaging and maybe on a hangtag with the product.

The failure to warn claim was sustained and would be decided at trial.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk defense brought by the defendant manufacturer. The court started this analysis looking at the requirements to prove a negligence claim in a product case.

To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.

However, assumption of the risk in a product’s case is a little more stringent then in a recreation case. “Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events.” In sporting or recreation cases, the risk is clear and understood by all involved and to be effective the risk was not altered or enhanced by the defendant. In a product’s case the requirements are slightly different.

Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. To establish assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk.

Again, the case goes back to did the plaintiff know of the risks. Where the risks open and obvious or can you prove under the law the plaintiff knew of the risk. Because no one ever saw the warning, the warning had no value. That left it up to a jury to decide if the plaintiff knew the risk of the sport or activity.

The next argument was a motion to eliminate a punitive damages claim by the manufacturer arguing the case should be tried under Michigan’s law because the manufacturer was based in Michigan. Michigan does not allow punitive damages, unless they are expressly authorized by statute.

There has been a prior argument about the jurisdiction and venue of the case decided by a prior judge. (Which is alone confusing since none of the defendants are located in Pennsylvania where the court sits, however, the court is applying New York law?) Because of the prior decision, this court followed it and ruled that New York law would be applied to the facts of the case, and punitive damages were going to be at issue.

Cornell University was then giving a shot at its motions starting with the punitive damages issue. Cornell claimed the plaintiff had not presented any evidence that could support a punitive damages claim. The plaintiff responded arguing facts that could prove a punitive damages claim against the university.

(1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.”

The court defined the requirements to prove a punitive damages claim.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.”

The court found there was sufficient evidence to support a possible punitive damages claim.

There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

Cornell next argued that the plaintiff assumed the risk and there was no evidence proving causation. Cornell was arguing a breach of a duty was not related to the injury. There was no causation between the two which is required to prove negligence.

The court found that Cornell’s case law did not apply correctly to the facts of this case. That means the case law facts were sufficiently different from the facts of this case, that the law could not be interpreted the same way. “Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here.”

On the causation issues the judge found the plaintiff had presented enough evidence that there could be an issue leading to punitive damages against the college.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

Both defendants failed in their motion for summary judgment, and the decision was to allow the case to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

I have not been able to find the outcome of this case. Meaning it probably settled. The entire issue was the warning on the product; it was not clear; it was not visible, and it could not be seen in normal use.

If you manufacture products and your product poses a risk to the user, then you need to notify the consumer as often and as many were possible that you can. User manuals, hangtags, the container or bag the product is shipped in and on the product itself. It is also not enough that you can say the label or warning is there; the user must be able to see the warning……every time.

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.

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Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Duchesneau v. Cornell University, et al., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

Randall Duchesneau, Plaintiff, v. Cornell University, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-4856

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106412

July 31, 2012, Decided

July 31, 2012, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211 (E.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2011)

CORE TERMS: warning, summary judgment, trampoline’s, assumption of risk, punitive damages, unaware, gymnasium, warn, partial, failure to warn, novice, user, assumed risk, inappropriate, punitive, flip, matter of law, warning label, recklessness, supervision, performing, gymnastic, enhanced, hazard, adduce, facie, causation, choice of law, applicable law, case of failure

COUNSEL:  [*1] For RANDALL DUCHESNEAU, Plaintiff: STEWART J. EISENBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, DANIEL JECK, DANIEL JOSEPH SHERRY, JR., DINO PRIVITERA, KENNETH MICHAEL ROTHWEILER, EISENBERG, ROTHWEILER, WINKLER, EISENBERG & JECK, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; MICHAEL CHOI, CHOI & ASSOCIATES, ELKINS PARK, PA.

For CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant, Cross Claimant: RICHARD B. WICKERSHAM, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, POST & SCHELL, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; JOE H. TUCKER, JR., THE TUCKER LAW GROUP, ONE PENN CENTER AT SUBURBAN STATION, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TUMBLTRAK, Defendant, Cross Defendant: DANIEL J. MCCARTHY, SUSAN R. ENGLE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, MINTZER, SAROWITZ, ZERIS, LEDVA & MEYERS LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

JUDGES: C. DARNELL JONES, II, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: C. DARNELL JONES, II

OPINION

Jones, II, U.S.D.J.

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendant Tumbl Trak’s (“T-Trak”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169); Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171); Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172); and extensive briefing related thereto. 1

1 This matter has been crawling along, with a stunning amount of motion practice and briefing, for years now. The parties and  [*2] this Court are well aware of the tortured factual and procedural background of this case, and setting it forth at length again here would be a waste of judicial resources. Rather, I limit the discussion herein to specific facts as may be relevant to resolution of the Motion.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is appropriate “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 a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, disputes must be both (1) material, meaning concerning facts that will affect the outcome of the issue under substantive law, and (2) genuine, meaning the evidence must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which  [*3] that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. An issue is genuine if the fact finder could reasonably return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party with respect to that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court does not make credibility determinations and “must view facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1127 (3d Cir. 1995).

T-Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

T-Trak seeks partial summary judgment on three bases: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn; (2) Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages; and (3) Plaintiff assumed the risk of serious injury when using the Tumbl Trak apparatus (“TTA”). I address these seriatim.

Failure to Warn

Under New York law, 2 to establish a prima facie case of failure to warn, a Plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant-manufacturer had a duty to warn; (2) the manufacturer breached such duty and so the product is rendered defective, i.e., reasonably certain to be dangerous; (3) the product’s defect was the proximate cause  [*4] of the injury to plaintiff; and (4) the plaintiff suffered loss or damage. Humphrey v. Diamant Boart, Inc., 556 F. Supp. 2d 167, 179 (E.D.N.Y. 2008); McCarthy v. Olin Corp., 119 F.3d 148, 156 (2d Cir. 1997). The duty to warn can be breached by either “the complete absence of warnings as to a particular hazard,” or “the inclusion of warnings which are insufficient.” Johnson v. Johnson Chem. Co., 183 A.D.2d 64, 588 N.Y.S.2d 607, 610 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992). The adequacy of a warning is normally a question of fact to be determined at trial. Nagel v. Bros. Int’l Foods, Inc., 34 A.D.3d 545, 825 N.Y.S.2d 93, 95 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).

2 On November 23, 2011, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski analyzed choice of law inquiries in this case and determined New York law applies throughout. Additionally, no party disputes the application of New York law to the failure to warn and assumption of risk claims here. Accordingly, I apply New York law to those claims.

Plaintiff has the burden of proving that T-Trak’s failure to warn was a proximate cause of his injury. See Mulhall v. Hannafin, 45 A.D.3d 55, 841 N.Y.S.2d 282, 285 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007). This burden includes adducing proof that a user of the product at issue would have read and heeded  [*5] a warning had one been given. Sosna v. Am. Home Prods., 298 A.D.2d 158, 748 N.Y.S.2d 548, 549 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Conversely, failure to warn claims can be decided as a matter of law against an injured party where the injured party was “fully aware of the hazard through general knowledge, observation, or common sense” or where the hazard is “patently dangerous.” Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 179-80 (citing Liriano v. Hobart Corp. (Liriano I), 92 N.Y.2d 232, 700 N.E.2d 303, 308, 677 N.Y.S.2d 764 (1998)).

T-Trak contends that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of failure to warn where (1) the risk of injury was open and obvious and (2) Plaintiff did not actually read the warnings that were on the TTA. First T-Trak argues that “the risk of injury while performing a back flip was open and obvious and readily discernable to Plaintiff.” Def.’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Def.’s Br.”) 21. More specifically, T-Trak opines that general knowledge dictates that “an individual might land on his head if he attempts a back flip on a rebounding [TTA].” Id. T-Trak relies on, inter alia, the following record evidence:

o “Plaintiff, educated in physics, knew that what goes up will come down.” Id. 22; see id. Ex. H, at 380-81.

o Plaintiff  [*6] signed a waiver that stated he understood the risks and dangers associated with gymnastics. Id. Ex. F.

o There was a small warning label on the TTA which stated that any activity “creates the possibility of catastrophic injury, including paralysis or even death from falling on the head or neck. Id. Ex. G.

o Plaintiff “was aware of the safety concept of spotting and had done it in high school as a member of the cheerleading squad.” Id. 23; see id. Ex. H, at 432.

 

Based on these facts, T-Trak contends that “common sense” would have informed an individual that he or she was risking landing on their head by using the TTA, and, as such, T-Trak had no legal duty to warn Plaintiff. Id. 24.

However, there are significant disputes of material fact as to which, if any, hazards associated with the TTA were open and obvious (i.e., could be objectively ascertained) by a similarly-situated novice gymnast. Notably, Plaintiff has produced the report of warnings expert Dr. William J. Vigilante Jr., which, inter alia, cited numerous deficiencies in the warnings on the TTA: the warnings on the TTA were blurred and could not be read even at a close distance; the warnings were located on either end of the TTA,  [*7] not in the middle where a user would mount it; and the warnings were located adjacent to a cartoon depicting teddy bears conducting unspotted, unsupervised backflips on the TTA. Pl.’s Resp. Def. T-Trak’s Mot. Part. Summ. J. (hereinafter “Pl.’s Resp. Br.”) Ex. D, at 8-9. Dr. Vigilante’s report clearly suggests there were conflicting messages as to (1) the dangers associated with particular uses of the TTA; (2) how novices should perform backflips off the TTA; and (3) what is the appropriate level of supervision for safety purposes while using the TTA. Dr. Vigilante’s view of the facts is obviously in conflict with that of T-Trak. Cf. Repka v. Arctic Cat, Inc., 20 A.D.3d 916, 798 N.Y.S.2d 629, 631 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (triable issue of fact concerning sufficiency of warnings raised through expert).

Apparently as a fallback position, T-Trak also asserts that because Plaintiff never sought to view the warnings prior to his accident, he cannot advance a failure to warn claim. However, failure to read the TTA’s warnings “does not necessarily sever the causal connection between the alleged inadequacy of those warnings, on the one hand, and the occurrence of the accident, on the other.” Johnson, 588 N.Y.S.2d at 611.  [*8] This fact alone is insufficient to secure summary judgment. See Humphrey, 556 F. Supp. 2d at 180-81 (holding plaintiff’s admission that he did not read the warning label or operating instructions on equipment not dispositive under New York law in connection with failure to warn claim). Indeed, there is more than just that fact here. According to the summary judgment record none of the many fact witnesses in this case (including Plaintiff) testified that they ever saw any warning on the TTA. 3 Furthermore, Plaintiff himself has submitted sworn testimony that if he had seen what Dr. Vigiliante characterized as a proper warning, Plaintiff would have heeded the proper warning and either never have attempted a backflip or done so only with the assistance of a qualified coach or spotter. 4 See Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. T.

3 This evidence is buttressed by the fact that T-Trak’s own warnings expert testified at his deposition that the warnings on the TTA were deficient, illegible, and violative of relevant industry standards pertaining to size. Pl.’s Resp. Br. Ex. S.

4 I do not find T-Trak’s argument that Plaintiff submitted a “sham affidavit” to be convincing.

In sum, this evidence of record establishes  [*9] sufficient material disputes of fact as to the level of awareness Plaintiff or any other objective, novice gymnast would have had concerning the danger of specific injuries while performing specific maneuvers on the TTA. Moreover, T-Trak has been unable to adduce undisputed evidence that Plaintiff would have disregarded a proper warning. Accordingly, summary judgment on the failure to warn claim is inappropriate.

Assumption of Risk

T-Trak contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim based on the principle of assumption of risk. 5 To prove a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must establish (1) existence of a duty of the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) breach of the duty; and (3) that the breach of the duty was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff. Martinez v Capital One, N.A.,     F. Supp. 2d    , 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42214, No. 10 Civ. 8028(RJS), 2012 WL 1027571, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2012). Assumption of risk operates to eliminate the duty of care to a plaintiff, and can therefore be a complete bar to recovery for negligence. Anderson v. Hedstrom Corp., 76 F. Supp. 2d 422, 431 (S.D.N.Y. 1999); Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 967-68, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). To establish  [*10] assumption of risk, a defendant bears the burden of establishing that the “plaintiff was aware of the defective or dangerous condition and the resultant risk.” Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 432 (citing Lamey v. Foley, 188 A.D.2d 157, 594 N.Y.S.2d 490, 495 (N.Y. App. Div. 1993)). This determination depends in part on the openness and obviousness of the risk. Id.

5 This argument applies only to Plaintiff’s negligence claim, as New York law does not favor an assumption of risk defense to strict liability claims. Auto. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12652, 2011 WL 1434672, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).

Assumption of risk is frequently applied to claims arising out of participation in sporting events. See, e.g., Goodlett v. Kalishek, 223 F.3d 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2000) (airplane racing); Rochford v. Woodloch Pines, Inc., 824 F. Supp. 2d 343, 349-51 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (golf); Ducrepin v. United States, 964 F. Supp. 659, 664-65 (E.D.N.Y. 1997) (basketball); Mc Duffie v. Watkins Glen Int’l, Inc., 833 F. Supp. 197, 201-02 (W.D.N.Y. 1993) (auto racing); Morgan v. State, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 481-82, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 (1997) (bobsledding and karate, but not tennis where facility’s negligence in failing to repair torn net unduly increased  [*11] the risk); Benitez v. N.Y.C. Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 541 N.E.2d 29, 33-34, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989) (football); Joseph v. N.Y. Racing Ass’n, 28 A.D.3d 105, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526, 529 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (horseback riding); Hawley v. Binghamton Mets Baseball Club Inc., 262 A.D.2d 729, 691 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627-28 (N.Y. App. Div. 1999) (baseball). It has even been applied in some (but not all) cases involving jumping on a trampoline. 6 However these cases have a unifying theme — clear risks that were known yet disregarded by the plaintiff, with no negligence by the defendant that enhanced the risk. In cases where the plaintiff was unaware of the risk, or where the defendant’s negligence amplified the risk, summary judgment has not been granted. See, e.g., Clarke v. Peek ‘N Peak Recreation, Inc., 551 F. Supp. 2d 159, 163 (W.D.N.Y. 2008) (ski resort owner’s alleged negligence may have enhanced assumed risk); Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (beginning trampoline user unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (assumed risk unduly increased by use of defective snowmobile without adequate warnings); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (plaintiff unaware of risk of trampoline’s defect). T-Trak argues vociferously that “Plaintiff  [*12] should have been aware of the risk of injury.” Def.’s Br. 31 (emphasis added). While it is true that Plaintiff had some experience with cheerleading and gymnastics, there is evidence he was a novice nonetheless. Additionally, as discussed supra, there is direct testimony that Plaintiff did not view any warnings and thus was not made explicitly aware of the contents thereof. There is further, disputed testimony as to the reasons why Plaintiff was unaware of the warnings, including evidence that the warnings were patently insufficient and no participant saw or became aware of their contents that day. The survey of trampoline cases herein makes it clear that the use of a trampoline has not been deemed inherently risky as a matter of New York law. All of these relevant disputes — namely, as to Plaintiff’s expertise, knowledge, the sufficiency and quality of the warnings, and the obvious nature of the risk to a casual user of the TTA — preclude this Court from absolving T-Trak on the grounds of assumption of risk. T-Trak’s duty to Plaintiff, if any, is properly an issue for trial.

6 Application of assumption of risk is a fact-specific endeavor, including in trampoline cases, which tend to  [*13] be decided depending on whether the plaintiff was aware of and appreciated the risk in using the trampoline. A plaintiff may prevail where he adduces evidence that he was unaware of the risk of using a trampoline and that he used the trampoline in an ordinary fashion. See, e.g., Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 427, 435 (finding no assumption of risk where plaintiff was a total beginner who did not see warning label and who used trampoline in a “fairly typical manner”); Kroll v. Watt, 309 A.D.2d 1265, 764 N.Y.S.2d 731, 731 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (affirming denial of summary judgment on assumption of risk where plaintiff’s awareness of risk of trampoline tipping over and thus causing plaintiff’s injury was a triable issue of fact). On the other hand, assumption of risk applies where the risk of the activity is inherent or where the injured party fully understands, appreciates, and voluntarily assumes the risk through participation. Goodlett, 223 F.3d at 36-37. New York courts have barred the recovery of plaintiffs injured while jumping on a trampoline where the plaintiff was aware of the risk or performed a particularly risky maneuver. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006)  [*14] (affirming application of assumption of risk where plaintiff failed to provide evidence that he was unaware of risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (2005) (finding assumption of risk where plaintiff was aware and appreciative of risk of using trampoline and used it nonetheless); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 728 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (holding assumption of risk applicable where plaintiff ignored sign warning against use of trampoline by two or more participants at the same time and then engaged in such activity).

Punitive Damages

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski thoroughly and cogently examined choice of law issues in this case in deciding Defendant Cornell University’s Motion to Establish Applicable Law. See Duchesneau v. Cornell Univ., No. 08-4856, 2011, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135211, WL 5902155, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 23, 2011) (order granting applicable law). T-Trak did not participate in the Motion to Establish Applicable Law. Rather, T-Trak asserts in the instant Motion that, while New York law is almost universally applicable in this case, Michigan law operates to bar recovery of punitive damages. In short, T-Trak contends that because it is domiciled  [*15] in Michigan and the alleged punitive conduct (design and labeling of the product) occurred in Michigan, Michigan law should apply to Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages. Unsurprisingly, Michigan law bars punitive damage awards unless expressly authorized by statute, which is not the case here. See Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 470 Mich. 749, 685 N.W.2d 391, 400 (2004). Plaintiff maintains that New York law properly governs all aspects of this matter, including his punitive damages claim. New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton v. Brown & Williamson Holdings, Inc., 498 F. Supp. 2d 639, 653 (S.D.N.Y. 2007).

Judge Sitarski aptly laid out the applicable conflicts of law framework and conducted a thorough analysis of asserted interests, and this Court need not repeat the legal discussion at length here. Judge Sitarski concluded that New York law applied to Plaintiff’s claims against Cornell, including with regard to punitive damages and contributory negligence. I reach the same conclusion as to T-Trak for substantially the same reasons. Here, T-Trak knew the TTA was to be delivered and used in New York, and, indeed,  [*16] the TTA was used continuously in New York for many years prior to the accident. Generally speaking, courts applying the Pennsylvania choice of law contacts analysis to product liability matters have applied the law of the state where the product was used and where the accident occurred. Shields v. Consol. Rail Corp., 810 F.2d 397, 399-400 (3d Cir. 1987); U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Elliott Equip. Co., Inc., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76043, 2008 WL 4461847 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2008). Plaintiff’s accident was non-fortuitous, and therefore great deference is given to New York as to the law which should apply. LeJeune v. Bliss-Salem, Inc., 85 F.3d 1069 (3d Cir. 1996).

Under the contacts analysis, New York has many compelling interests here: (1) the TTA is located in New York; (2) the accident occurred in New York; (3) Cornell contracted to purchase the TTA in New York; (4) Plaintiff was a student in New York; (5) Plaintiff, although a Pennsylvania resident, received treatment for his injuries in New York; and (6) the key Waiver Agreement in this case governs activities in New York and has its validity determined by New York law. The contacts with Michigan are markedly less. T-Trak’s headquarters is in Michigan. Some design and  [*17] testing of the TTA took place in Michigan. However, the TTA and its warnings were designed by a Washington resident, and the component parts of the TTA were manufactured in multiple states other than Michigan (including the pads which containing the warnings). The actual T-Trak dealer who negotiated the New York contract of sale for the TTA with Cornell was based in Georgia. Finally, the TTA was assembled in New York by Cornell from constituent pieces delivered from various locations. 7

7 These circumstances are readily distinguishable from those in Kelly v. Ford Motor Co., 933 F. Supp. 465 (E.D. Pa. 1996), upon which T-Trak heavily relies. In Kelly, much of the design, testing, assembly, and warning label placement occurred in various Michigan locales under the close coordination of Ford. As mentioned above, T-Trak did not even manufacture or assembly any parts of the TTA in Michigan. Kelly is not persuasive.

Accordingly, I conclude New York law applies to the question of punitive damages against T-Trak. Upon review of the record, I find Plaintiff has adduced sufficient evidence to allow the claim for punitive damages to proceed.

Cornell’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive [*18] Damages

Cornell claims that Plaintiff has failed to adduce any evidence that could justify punitive damages under New York law. Plaintiff responds that “Cornell’s relevant conduct is textbook-appropriate” in terms of punitive damages for multiple reasons: (1) Cornell ran its own gymnasium without rules, standards, coaching, instruction, screening, supervision, and spotting; (2) multiple experts have opined that Cornell’s conduct in that regard was, inter alia, “highly dangerous,” “indefensible,” “outrageous,” “reckless,” and “an accident waiting to happen”; and (3) Cornell violated “every applicable mainstream gymnastics safety standard, [and] systematically allowed a wholly-incompetent individual to supervise the gymnasium.” See Pl.’s Resp. Opp’n Def. Cornell’s Mot. Summ. J. Punit. Damages 2-3.

As discussed supra, New York law allows a plaintiff to recover punitive damages, so as to punish gross misbehavior for the public good. Clinton, 498 F. Supp. 2d at 653. An award of punitive damages would be proper “where the conduct of the party being held liable evidences a high degree of moral culpability, or where the conduct is so flagrant as to transcend mere carelessness, or where the conduct  [*19] constitutes willful or wanton negligence or recklessness.” Buckholz v. Maple Garden Apts., LLC, 38 A.D.3d 584, 832 N.Y.S.2d 255, 256 (N.Y. App. Div. 2007); see also Mahar v. U.S. Xpress Enters., 688 F. Supp. 2d 95, 110 (N.D.N.Y. 2010) (allowing punitive damages in rare cases of egregious and willful conduct that is morally culpable); Black v. George Weston Bakeries, Inc., No. 07-CV-853S, 2008, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 92031, WL 4911791, at *7 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 13, 2008) (permitting punitive damages where conduct constitutes conscious disregard of others); Bohannon (ex rel. Estate of Dolik) v. Action Carting Envtl. Servs., Inc., No. 06-CV-5689 (JG), 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40516, 2008 WL 2106143, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. May 20, 2008) (recognizing utter indifference to the safety of others warrants granting punitive damages).

Upon review of the record, I concur with Plaintiff that there is more than enough evidence to allow Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim to proceed. There is substantial evidence of record concerning purported behavior of Cornell that could be found to rise to the level of egregious recklessness and moral culpability necessary to trigger punitive damages. There are major disputes of fact as to whether Cornell failed to exhibit care to such a degree as would  [*20] amount to wanton behavior or recklessness. Cornell’s argument primarily rests on its self-serving conclusion that — despite evidence offered to the direct contrary — this case just does not involve one of those rare, egregious instances of recklessness that is punishable by punitive damages. That, however, is properly the jury’s decision. Summary judgment is inappropriate, and the claim for punitive damages shall remain.

III. Cornell’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Cornell moves for summary judgment on two bases: (1) Plaintiff assumed the risk of using the TTA and Cornell had no duty to supervise the use of gymnastic equipment by novices, and (2) there is no evidence as to causation concerning Cornell. There are so many material disputes of fact between Plaintiff and Cornell that a lengthy explication of them would be a waste of resources. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, Plaintiff and Cornell disagree about nearly every major fact or opinion of record that relates to the issues raised in the Motion. 8 Specific to assumption of risk (discussed supra), there are considerable disputes over whether Plaintiff knew or appreciated the risks of the TTA. Cornell’s  [*21] assertions to the contrary appear to be mostly self-serving statements. Because Plaintiff has adduced plentiful evidence (testimony, admissions, experts) in support of the position that he was not aware of the relevant risk and could not be expected to be aware of that risk, summary judgment is obviously inappropriate. 9

8 These two parties have repeatedly filed briefs of excessive length (50-100 pages each), including unnecessary bolded or italicized text for emphasis, in which they highlight disputes of fact ad infinitum.

9 This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that, as discussed supra, there are even disputes of material fact as to whether (1) the risk of harm was obvious, open, or hidden, and (2) the risk of harm was enhanced by Cornell’s own actions.

Cornell’s caselaw presents numerous, distinct factual circumstances, none of which are analogous here. See, e.g., Yedid v. Gymnastic Ctr., 33 A.D.3d 911, 824 N.Y.S.2d 299, 300 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006) (finding experienced gymnast with six years of instruction assumed known risk of performing front flip on trampoline); Koubek v. Denis, 21 A.D.3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746, 747 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005) (holding plaintiff assumed risk of using trampoline where she failed to  [*22] adduce evidence that she was unaware of the potential for injury); Palozzi v. Priest, 280 A.D.2d 986, 720 N.Y.S.2d 676, 676 (N.Y. App. Div. 2001) (affirming application of assumption of risk to teenager injured while “fake wrestling” on trampoline); Liccione v. Gearing, 252 A.D.2d 956, 675 N.Y.S.2d 728, 729 (N.Y. App. Div. 1998) (noting plaintiff assumed risk of “double jumping” despite warnings on trampoline that were deemed adequate as a matter of law); Williams v. Lombardini, 38 Misc. 2d 146, 238 N.Y.S.2d 63, 64-65 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1963) (determining plaintiff assumed risk where he admitted seeing rule that prohibited “difficult tricks” but attempted front flip on trampoline anyway). As discussed supra, summary judgment based on assumption of risk is inappropriate where there is a question as to appreciation or understanding of risk. 10 See Hedstrom, 76 F. Supp. 2d at 435-36 (recognizing no assumption of risk by beginning trampoline user who was unaware and not sufficiently warned of risks); Kroll, 764 N.Y.S.2d at 731 (deciding plaintiff did not assume risk because she was unaware of trampoline’s defect). Application of assumption of risk at summary judgment is especially inappropriate here because New York law disfavors using the  [*23] doctrine in cases where there are allegations of reckless or intentional conduct, or concealed or unreasonably increased risks. 11 Morgan, 90 N.Y.2d at 485; see, e.g., Charles v. Uniondale Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 91 A.D.3d 805, 937 N.Y.S.2d 275, 276-77 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012) (denying summary judgment where issues of fact existed as to whether defendant unreasonably increased risk by failing to provide head and face protection to plaintiff lacrosse player); Miller v. Holiday Valley, Inc., 85 A.D.3d 1706, 925 N.Y.S.2d 785, 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (rejecting summary judgment because plaintiff submitted evidence that defendant’s negligent failure to stop ski lift caused plaintiff’s injuries); Repka, 798 N.Y.S.2d at 632-33 (dismissing summary judgment motion because lack of adequate warnings may have unduly enhanced snowmobile’s concealed defect). In short, I do not find that Cornell is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on the assumption of risk doctrine.

10 Cornell argues that the warning notice on the TTA itself establishes total assumption of risk. However, a vast portion of the evidence in this case (almost all of it disputed) is about whether the TTA’s warnings were seen, sufficient, or effective. In  [*24] other words, Cornell relies on a highly disputed factual conclusion concerning the adequacy of the warning to justify summary judgment on assumption of risk grounds. This Court cannot follow.

11 I am completely unpersuaded by Cornell’s argument concerning its total lack of a duty of care to a novice student using equipment in the Teagle Gymnasium. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 1976) (voiding gymnasium waivers); Eddy v. Syracuse Univ., 78 A.D.2d 989, 433 N.Y.S.2d 923 (App. Div. 1980) (concluding questions of negligence, foreseeability of injury, and duty to protect gym users are all proper issues for a jury); Lorenzo v. Monroe Comm. Coll., 72 A.D.2d 945, 422 N.Y.S.2d 230 (1979) (finding questions of fact existed as to whether defendant provided adequate supervision in gymnasium). Much of Cornell’s arguments are bootstrapped onto a conclusion of assumption of risk — i.e., because a student assumed the risk, the defendant college owes no duty with respect to the dangers inherent in the activity. As discussed, this Court cannot conclude at this stage that there was any assumption of risk. In addition, this Court will not revisit its previous rulings as to the issue of the prior academic year waiver despite Cornell’s  [*25] apparent invitation.

Nor can I conclude that Cornell is entitled to summary judgment based upon causation. There is extensive, often-conflicting evidence concerning causation. Plaintiff has adduced significant amounts of evidence concerning Cornell’s systemic negligent conduct leading up to the accident. In addition, Plaintiff has offered evidence from multiple experts that goes directly to duty of care and causation (e.g., that the lack of spotting equipment and spotters proximately caused Plaintiff’s injuries; that the lack of warnings failed to notify Plaintiff of the risks associated with the TTA; that Cornell’s “outrageous” conduct in organizing and supervising Plaintiff’s use of the gymnasium directly contributed to Plaintiff’s accident). 12 Cornell may strongly disagree with these experts, but it is not entitled to have them ignored in favor of summary judgment.

12 Cornell spends considerable time “debunking” these experts in briefs, often by reference to the testimony of others. By doing so, Cornell highlights some of the very disputes that preclude summary judgment.

Conclusion

Tumbl Trak maintains that Plaintiff cannot prove it inadequately warned him against use of its product.  [*26] Cornell suggests that this case involves nothing more than a “luckless accident” that resulted from Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in vigorous athletic activity. Plaintiff disagrees. He believes that he was harmed by (1) a device with grossly inadequate warnings, and (2) an institution which engaged in a course of conduct of gymnasium operation and supervision which was reprehensible and reckless. Based on the record before me, Plaintiff is entitled to put these questions to a jury.

An appropriate Order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 31st day of July, 2012, it is hereby ORDERED that:

  1. Defendant Tumbl Trak’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 169) is DENIED.
  2. Cornell University’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 171) is DENIED.
  3. Cornell University’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 172) is DENIED.
  4. The Case Management Order dated April 20, 2012 remains in force.

In addition, this Court has briefly reviewed the initial pre-trial filings in this matter and noticed that they do not conform with the Chambers Policies and Procedures, available at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov. The rules contained therein are not optional, and are to be followed  [*27] to the letter. No party has ever represented to this Court that they cannot work with their colleagues to fulfill their responsibilities under these procedures. Here, it appears the parties have, at least, failed to properly prepare their joint proposed jury instructions and joint proposed voir dire. Instead, three different versions of each document were separately filed by three different parties — a situation that the Chambers Policies obviously sought to preclude. The parties are specifically directed to review the Chambers Policies and Procedures, Civil Cases, Subsection E, which provide two pages of instructions as to the proper preparation and presentation of these and other pre-trial submissions. 13 It is ORDERED that the parties promptly withdraw any non-conforming filings and submit appropriately-prepared ones by August 31, 2012.

13 Parties are expected to be familiar with all Policies and Procedures by the time of the final pre-trial conference, especially the items concerning exhibits, courtroom operation, and attorney conduct during a trial.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ C. Darnell Jones, II

  1. DARNELL JONES, II, U.S.D.J.

 


No sign so the 13-year-old girl did not know the park was only for kids under age 12. (Like kids read signs anyway.)

A broken slide in a park injures the plaintiff. The defendant city says they are not liable because the 13-year-old should have seen the hole, and the park was only for kids under age 12 anyway.

How can a sign warn a kid when the law created the attractive nuisance claim for kids? A kid sees a sign and is going to stop and read the signs? Signs are for adults.

Bowman v. The Chicago Park District, 2014 IL App (1st) 132122; 2014 Ill. App. LEXIS 648

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, First District Fifth Division

Plaintiff: Artenia Bowman, Individually and as Mother and Next Friend of Cheneka Ross

Defendant: The Chicago Park District

Plaintiff Claims: (1) that defendant failed to establish as a matter of law that CPD (Chicago Park District) had designated the park and the slide for only children under 12 years old; (2) that the danger created by the hole at the bottom of the curved slide was not open and obvious; and (3) that CPD’s failure to repair the slide, after being informed almost a year earlier of the danger, constituted willful and wanton conduct

Defendant Defenses: (1) that it did not owe any duty to plaintiff because she was not an intended user of the slide (2) that the hole at the bottom of the curved slide was an open and obvious risk

Holding: for Plaintiff, sent back for trial

Year: 2014

The case is written a little differently. The decision only references all the affidavits and depositions of the witnesses and draws its facts and conclusions that way.

The case is pretty simple. A slide in a Chicago city park had a hole in the bottom. The 13-year-old plaintiff slid down the slide catching her foot in the hole and fractured her ankle. Her mother sued on her behalf.

The trial court dismissed the case on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court found the park was only for 12 year olds and younger kids and since the plaintiff was 13, she could not sue.  The plaintiff appealed the decision.

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

The decision at the appellate level found the following facts:

There was no sign posted at the park indicating the park was only for a specific set of patrons. The park district (Chicago Park District or CPD) had passed an ordinance that restricted the park to only kids 12 and younger. The park district had been notified numerous times for over 18 months by several different people that the slide was in need of repair. The CPD knew that the slide was in need of repair. The plaintiff had gone to the park with other kids who were younger, and this was her first time at the park.

Although the CPD had passed an ordinance on the use of the park, the CPD had never promulgated the ordinance (so that anyone knew about the rule). The CPD owes a duty of care to intended and permitted users of park property. The ordinance limiting the use of the park has the same force as a municipal ordinance. Accordingly, the CPD argued that they were immune from liability because the park was designed for kids younger than the plaintiff.

The issue revolved around the failure of the park to let the public know about the rules.

It is a long-established principle that members of the public must have a reasonable opportunity to be informed of an ordinance so that they may conform their conduct accordingly and avoid liability under the ordinance.

Nor was there anything in any CPD code stating that the park in question was designated for children under age 12. There were no signs at the playground stating the park was only for children under the age of 12. Which the court interpreted as: “Playgrounds are designed for children. What would prompt a 13-year-old child to observe a slide and think, “am I really the intended user of this slide?

Because no one knew and because the park had no sign, there was no way the plaintiff could know that she was not supposed to use the slide. The court ruled.

We must reverse the trial court’s grant of summary judgment which was granted solely on the basis that a 13-year-old was not an intended user of the slide.

First, the defendant does not cite a case where a child was charged with the responsibility of knowing municipal ordinances, without a sign or other notice, nor can we find such a case.

Second, defendant failed to inform park users of any age, by any means, that this park and the slide were intended for children younger than age 12.

The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court.

So Now What?

If you have the ability to make rules, then follow the rules when you make rules, to make sure your rules are correctly in place. Under the law post your rules at the places, the rules were created to apply to so everyone knows the rules.

Realistically, if you want kids not to get hurt, rules and signs are not going to do it. The rules are there to protect the park, not the kids. How many kids read signs?

Are we going to have a new way of warning children? “Mom I’m going to out to play.” “OK dear, but be back before dark and make sure you read all the signs that may apply to you.”

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Lotz et al., v. The Claremont Club et al., 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5748

Lotz et al., v. The Claremont Club et al., 2013 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5748

Nicholas, a Minor, etc., Plaintiffs and Appellants, Defendants and Respondents.

B242399

COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT, DIVISION TWO

August 15, 2013, Opinion Filed

NOTICE: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. KC061412, Peter J. Meeka, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS: dodgeball, triable, membership, ball, summary judgment, issues of fact, gross negligence, sport, playing, racquetball, played, inherent risk, hit, childcare, assumption of risk, ambiguity, risk of injury, risk of harm, rubber ball, matter of law, participating, aggressively, supervised, training, thrown, riding, player, risk doctrine, risk doctrine, evidence showed

COUNSEL: Magaña, Cathcart & McCarthy and Charles M. Finkel for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, Anthony J. Ellrod and David J. Wilson for Defendants and Respondents.

JUDGES: FERNS, J. *; ASHMANN-GERST, Acting P. J., CHAVEZ, J. concurred.

* Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

OPINION BY: FERNS, J.

OPINION

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and respondents The Claremont Club (Club) and Adam Qasem (Qasem) on the complaint brought by minor Nicholas Lotz (Nicholas) by and through his guardian ad litem Deborah Lotz (Deborah) and Deborah individually (sometimes collectively appellants). 1 Nicholas was injured in a dodgeball game that took place while he was in the Club’s childcare program. The trial court ruled that a release signed by Nicholas’s father barred appellants’ claims and there was no evidence showing the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence beyond the scope of the release. It further ruled the primary assumption of risk doctrine [*2] barred appellants’ claims.

1 We use first names for convenience only; no disrespect is intended.

We reverse. The evidence offered by appellants showed there were triable issues of material fact regarding the scope and application of multiple releases, whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct constituted gross negligence and whether their conduct increased the risk of harm inherent in the game of dodgeball.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Club Membership.

In 2001, Thomas Lotz (Thomas) signed The Claremont Club Membership Agreement (Membership Agreement) and completed a membership information form indicating that he was seeking a family membership for himself, Deborah and their two children. On the information form, Thomas put a check mark by some of the specified sports and activities in which he and his family were interested in participating. Dodgeball was not included among the list of activities.

The Membership Agreement included a section entitled “Waiver of Liability” that provided in relevant part: “IT IS EXPRESSLY AGREED THAT USE OF THE CLUB FACILITIES, PARTICIPATION IN CLUB-SPONSORED OUTSIDE ACTIVITIES OR EVENTS AND TRANSPORTATION PROVIDED BY THE CLUB SHALL BE UNDERTAKEN BY A MEMBER [*3] OR GUEST AT HIS/HER SOLE RISK AND THE CLUB SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY INJURIES OR ANY DAMAGE TO ANY MEMBER OR GUEST . . . .” The provision further stated that the member voluntarily assumed the risk of personal injury and released the Club and its employees from every demand, claim or liability on account of any personal injury.

On the same day he signed the Membership Agreement, Thomas signed a separate document captioned Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement (Waiver) that contained a provision stating: “This Agreement constitutes my sole and only agreement respecting release, waiver of liability, assumption of the risk, and indemnity concerning my involvement in The Claremont Club.” The Waiver further provided in part: “I, for myself, my spouse, if any, my heirs, personal representative or assigns, and anyone claiming through or under me do hereby release, waive, discharge, and covenant not to sue The Claremont Club . . . for liability from any and all claims including the negligence of the Claremont Club, resulting in damages or personal injury . . . .” The Waiver further identified certain activities provided at the Club–again excluding dodgeball–together [*4] with the risks arising therefrom, and required Thomas to assert that his participation was voluntary and “that I knowingly assume all such risks.” The Waiver’s concluding paragraph provided for Thomas’s understanding “THAT I AM GIVING UP SUBSTANTIAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING MY RIGHT TO SUE.”

Together with a Club attorney, Club president and chief executive officer Mike Alpert helped prepare the Waiver. According to Alpert, only the Waiver–not the waiver of liability contained in the Membership Agreement–was in full force and effect at the time Thomas signed both documents. None of the documents that Thomas and Deborah signed in connection with their Club membership informed them that dodgeball would be played on Club premises.

Nicholas Is Injured in a Dodgeball Game at the Club.

The “InZone” was part of the Club’s childcare department; it provided a clubhouse environment for older children that included ping pong, foosball and video games. In-house sports and a specialized fitness room were also available as part of the InZone. A document provided to parents describing InZone activities identified a number of sports in which a child might participate; it did not mention dodgeball.

On April 13, [*5] 2005, Deborah checked 10-year-old Nicholas into the InZone between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. No one advised Deborah or Thomas that Nicholas might be playing dodgeball as part of the InZone activities. That day, Club employee Qasem was scheduled to work at the front desk. Eighteen-year-old Qasem had worked part-time at the Club for approximately one year as a lifeguard, weight room attendant and at the front desk. He had never worked in the InZone and the Club had not provided him with any training to work with children.

At some point during his shift, Qasem left the front desk to work in the children’s fitness room. He was the only individual supervising approximately eight to 15 children, including Nicholas. One of the children suggested the group play dodgeball, and Qasem agreed. He took the children to the Club’s racquetball court because he had observed dodgeball being played there once or twice. The Club’s written policies, however, stated “[o]nly racquetball, handball, squash and Wally ball may be played on the racquetball courts.” Qasem had never played dodgeball at the Club, nor had he ever seen any written rules concerning dodgeball.

Though Qasem was uncertain whether he provided the [*6] children with any rules before they began playing the game, he may have told them to throw the ball below their waists. During the game, anywhere from three to six balls were being thrown at one time; each rubber ball was filled with air and was about the size of a soccer ball. About 20 minutes into the game, Qasem threw a ball using a sidearm motion hard and fast toward Nicholas. The ball hit Nicholas’s face and slammed his head into the wall behind him, leaving tooth marks on the wall. Nicholas suffered multiple dental injuries as a result of being hit by the ball.

At the time of the game, Qasem was six feet tall and weighed approximately 145 pounds. According to Nicholas, Qasem had been playing aggressively throughout the game. By playing in the game, Qasem had also violated the Club’s then unwritten policy that supervisors not participate in dodgeball games with the children. No one had previously been injured in a dodgeball game at the Club. After that game, Qasem was disciplined for failing to follow childcare policies and procedures, and one of his superiors instructed him not to play dodgeball at the Club.

Nicholas had previously played dodgeball at school. Though the players [*7] were instructed to not throw the ball at other players’ heads, he understood there was some risk of being hit in the head with the ball. The balls used at school, however, were similar to a Nerf ball and softer than those used at the InZone. Had Thomas and Deborah been advised that Nicholas would be playing dodgeball on a racquetball court with rubber balls, they would not have given their permission for him to do so.

The Intramural Rules of Dodgeball provide the game is one in which players try to hit others with a ball and avoid being hit themselves. “The main objective is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by hitting them with thrown balls, catching a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team, or forcing them outside of the court boundaries.” The National Dodgeball League Rules and Regulations of Play specify that a player committing a “headshot”–hitting another player in the head by a high thrown ball–will be deemed out of the game.

The Pleadings and Summary Judgment.

In June 2011, appellants filed their complaint alleging negligence and gross negligence and seeking general and special damages. They alleged that Nicholas was injured as a result of the Club’s negligently [*8] and recklessly “a. hiring, employing, training, entrusting, instructing, and supervising defendant ADAM QASEM; [¶] b. failing to adequately [] protect children under the care of defendant ADAM QASEM; [¶] c. participating in a game of dodge ball in an unreasonably forceful and dangerous manner so as to endanger the health, safety and welfare of children placed by their parents into the care of defendants.”

In December 2011, the Club and Qasem moved for summary judgment. They argued that appellants’ negligence claims were barred by Thomas’s execution of a release and express assumption of risk, and according to the assumption of risk doctrine. They further argued their actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence. In support of their motion, they submitted the Membership agreement, appellants’ discovery responses, deposition excerpts and Qasem’s declaration. They also sought judicial notice of several principles related to dodgeball rules and manner of play.

Appellants opposed the motion and filed evidentiary objections. They argued that triable issues of material fact existed concerning the scope of the Waiver, whether the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence and whether [*9] Nicholas’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of the game of dodgeball. They offered deposition excerpts, Club policies, medical records and several declarations in support of their arguments. Sports and Recreational Consultants president Steve Bernheim opined that the Club “did not take the proper measures to protect the children who were in its care, custody and control during the dodgeball game in which Nicholas Lotz was injured.” More specifically, the children were not provided with game-appropriate rules, the racquetball court was an insufficient space, use of the rubber balls was inappropriate and an adult should not have been playing with the children. He further opined that Qasem acted recklessly and that his conduct, coupled with the other conditions of the game, increased the risks inherent in the game of dodgeball and were outside the range of ordinary activity associated with the sport.

The Club replied and also filed evidentiary objections. At a March 2012 hearing, the trial court granted the motion. Though the trial court edited the proposed judgment to eliminate any reasons for its ruling, at the hearing the trial court first referred to childhood dodgeball experience [*10] as the basis for its decision: “When I went to school, we called it Warball, and we didn’t use Nerf balls because there weren’t any. It was a ball. When it hit you, it stung. And we all knew that. Everybody knew it. And it was just one of those games you played in school, and high school for that matter.” Turning to the evidence, the trial court construed the Waiver to apply to Thomas’s family members as well as Thomas, reasoning that the Club would have expected Thomas to be executing a release on behalf of all family members when he joined. The trial court further explained that even if it were to ignore the Waiver, appellants’ claims would be barred by the assumption of risk doctrine. It further found that the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct did not rise to the level of gross negligence as a matter of law, reasoning there was no evidence that Qasem was trying to injure Nicholas and that such an injury could have occurred in the context of any type of sport. It did not rule on any of the evidentiary objections.

Judgment was entered in June 2012, and this appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

Appellants maintain that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment and assert they offered evidence [*11] sufficient to create triable issues of fact concerning the scope and application of the Waiver, the existence of gross negligence and the application of the assumption of risk defense. We agree that triable issues of fact preclude the granting of summary judgment.

I. Standard of Review.

We review a grant of summary judgment de novo and independently determine whether the facts not subject to triable dispute warrant judgment for the moving party as a matter of law. (Intel Corp. v. Hamidi (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1342, 1348; Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849-850.) To secure summary judgment, the moving defendant must show that one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to the cause of action, and that it “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, at p. 850.) Once that burden is met, the burden “shifts to the [other party] to show that a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2); Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, at p. 850.)

We assume the role of the trial court and redetermine the [*12] merits of the motion. (Barber v. Marina Sailing, Inc. (1995) 36 Cal.App.4th 558, 562.) “In doing so, we must strictly scrutinize the moving party’s papers. [Citation.] The declarations of the party opposing summary judgment, however, are liberally construed to determine the existence of triable issues of fact. [Citation.] All doubts as to whether any material, triable issues of fact exist are to be resolved in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. [Citation.]” (Ibid.; accord, Hamburg v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2004) 116 Cal.App.4th 497, 502.) “Because a summary judgment denies the adversary party a trial, it should be granted with caution. [Citation.]” (Acosta v. Glenfed Development Corp. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1278, 1292.) The court’s role is to focus “on issue finding; it does not resolve issues of fact. The court seeks to find contradictions in the evidence, or inferences reasonably deducible from the evidence, which raise a triable issue of material fact.” (Ibid.)

II. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact as to Whether the Waiver Applied to Release Their Claims.

At the hearing on the motion, the trial court indicated that one basis for its ruling was the application of [*13] a written release. It stated: “Here, dad is signing the release on behalf of the family. Mom could have signed the release on behalf of the family and had a check and paid for the membership. And even though there are some slight twists and turns here, I guess nothing is ever completely crystal clear. I think the release really hurts the plaintiff or plaintiffs here.” Though the trial court’s comments fail to demonstrate whether it relied on the Membership Agreement or the Waiver as providing the operative release, the Club argues on appeal that the release contained in the Membership Agreement was clear and unambiguous, and applied to release appellants’ claims.

“California courts require a high degree of clarity and specificity in a [r]elease in order to find that it relieves a party from liability for its own negligence.” (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1488 (Cohen).) Thus, “to be effective, an agreement which purports to release, indemnify or exculpate the party who prepared it from liability for that party’s own negligence or tortious conduct must be clear, explicit and comprehensible in each of its essential details. Such an agreement, read as a whole, [*14] must clearly notify the prospective releaser or indemnitor of the effect of signing the agreement.” (Ferrell v. Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd. (1983) 147 Cal.App.3d 309, 318.) Waiver and release forms are strictly construed against the defendant. (Lund v. Bally’s Aerobic Plus, Inc. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 733, 738.) But “a release need not achieve perfection” to be effective. (National & Internat. Brotherhood of Street Racers, Inc. v. Superior Court (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 934, 938.) A release is sufficient if it “‘constitutes a clear and unequivocal waiver with specific reference to a defendant’s negligence.'” (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 755.)

Here, Thomas represented in his membership application that he sought Club membership on behalf of his family. The release contained in the Membership Agreement provided that the member and guests assumed the risk of Club activities and released the Club from liability for participation in Club activities. A contract in which a party expressly assumes a risk of injury is, if applicable, a complete defense to a negligence action. (See Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4 (Knight); Sweat v. Big Time Auto Racing, Inc. (2004) 117 Cal.App.4th 1301, 1304.) [*15] Moreover, it is well settled a parent may execute a release on behalf of his or her child. (Aaris v. Las Virgenes Unified School Dist. (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 1112, 1120 (Aaris); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist. (1990) 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 1565.) By offering evidence of the Membership Agreement, the Club met its threshold burden to demonstrate a complete defense to appellants’ negligence claims.

In contrast to the trial court, however, we conclude the evidence offered by appellants showing that the release was not “crystal clear” satisfied their burden to demonstrate triable issues of material fact. As summarized in Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357: “The determination of whether a release contains ambiguities is a matter of contractual construction. [Citation.] ‘An ambiguity exists when a party can identify an alternative, semantically reasonable, candidate of meaning of a writing. [Citations.] An ambiguity can be patent, arising from the face of the writing, or latent, based on extrinsic evidence.’ [Citation.] The circumstances under which a release is executed can give rise to an ambiguity that is not apparent on the face of the release. [Citation.] [*16] If an ambiguity as to the scope of the release exists, it should normally be construed against the drafter. [Citations.]”

Here, appellants demonstrated an ambiguity by offering evidence that the Waiver–not the Membership Agreement–contained the operative release. The Waiver contained language effectively negating any other release, providing: “This Agreement constitutes my sole and only agreement respecting release, waiver of liability, assumption of the risk, and indemnity concerning my involvement in The Claremont Club. Any prior written or oral agreements, promises, representations concerning the subject matter contained in this Agreement and not expressly set forth in this Agreement have no force or effect.” Club president Alpert testified that only the Waiver was the operative agreement at the time Thomas joined the Club. The Waiver, however, inconsistently provided in one paragraph that Thomas was giving up his right to sue on behalf of his spouse and heirs, and in another paragraph that he was relinquishing only his personal right to sue. Other language in the Waiver that “I hereby assert that my participation is voluntary and that I knowingly assume all such risks” likewise [*17] suggested that the Waiver was intended to be personal only. Given appellants’ identification of an “alternative, semantically reasonable” construction of the Waiver, the evidence created a triable issue of fact concerning whether and to what extent the Waiver applied to appellants’ claims. (See Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 360.)

Beyond the issue of whether the Waiver or the Membership Agreement contained the operative release, appellants demonstrated a triable issue of fact as to whether the language of either document contemplated the type of injuries suffered by Nicholas. Both the Membership Agreement and the Waiver released the Club from liability for personal injury from Club activities. “‘Where a participant in an activity has expressly released the defendant from responsibility for the consequences of any act of negligence, “the law imposes no requirement that [the participant] have had a specific knowledge of the particular risk which resulted in his death [or injury.]” . . . Not every possible specific act of negligence by the defendant must be spelled out in the agreement or discussed by the parties. . . . Where a release of all liability for any [*18] act of negligence is given, the release applies to any such negligent act, whatever it may have been. . . . “It is only necessary that the act of negligence, which results in injury to the releasor, be reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.“‘ [Citation.]” (Leon v. Family Fitness Center (#107), Inc. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1227, 1234-1235 (Leon).) 2

2 The Leon court separately evaluated an assumption of risk provision and a general release in a health club membership agreement. (Leon, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1234, 1235.) It reasoned that for an assumption of the risk provision to be effective, “‘it must also appear that its terms were intended by both parties to apply to the particular conduct of the defendant which has caused the harm.'” (Id. at p. 1234.) We find this analysis sufficiently similar to that required for a general release to engage in a single evaluation.

Appellants offered evidence creating a triable issue of fact as to whether an injury from a child playing dodgeball was sufficiently related to the purpose of the release. Neither Thomas nor Deborah were ever informed that Nicholas would be playing dodgeball at the Club. Dodgeball [*19] was not identified as a Club activity in any of the Club materials. It was not listed as an activity in either the Membership Agreement or the Waiver. It did not appear on the list of Club activities in the membership information form. According to the Club’s written policies, it was not among the activities permitted to be played on the Club’s racquetball courts. Likewise, the Club maintained a policy to preclude supervisors from engaging in dodgeball games with children.

These circumstances are analogous to those in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476. There, the plaintiff was injured during a horseback ride when the guide unexpectedly caused his horse to gallop, knowing that it would cause the horses following to do the same, and the plaintiff was unable to control her galloping horse. (Id. at p. 1480.) Before riding, the plaintiff had signed a release that described some but not all of the risks inherent in horseback riding and provided that she agreed “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.‘ (Italics added.)” (Id. at p. 1486.) Finding this language unambiguous, the trial court granted summary judgment. (Id. at pp. 1482-1483.) [*20] The appellate court reversed, reasoning the exculpatory provision was problematic, as “[t]he ‘risks not specifically identified’ could refer to the risks inherent in horseback riding left unidentified by the phrase ‘some, but not all,’ which seems to us the most reasonable assumption, but it might also refer to risks arising out of respondent’s negligence that increase[] the inherent risks.” (Id. at p. 1486.) Stated another way, the court explained that “[t]he Release presented to appellant clearly does not unambiguously, let alone explicitly, release respondent from liability for injuries caused by its negligence or that of its agents and employees which increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Id. at p. 1488.)

At a minimum, appellants’ evidence that dodgeball was an undisclosed risk and an activity contrary to the Club’s written policies raised a triable issue of fact as to whether it was a risk that was reasonably related to the purpose for which any release was given. Evidence of Qasem’s conduct likewise raised a triable issue of fact as to whether such a risk was encompassed by the Waiver. (See Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1489 [“Nothing in the Release clearly, unambiguously, [*21] and explicitly indicates that it applies to risks and dangers attributable to respondent’s negligence or that of an employee that may not be inherent in supervised recreational trail riding,” italics omitted]; see also Sweat v. Big Time Auto Racing, Inc., supra, 117 Cal.App.4th at p. 1308 [release in favor of racetrack owner for injuries suffered while in a racetrack’s restricted area did not apply to injuries sustained after defectively constructed bleachers collapsed]; Leon, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at p. 1235 [release that allowed the plaintiff to engage in fitness activities at a health club did not apply to injuries from a collapsed sauna bench].)

On the other hand, the circumstances here bear no similarity to those in Aaris, supra, 64 Cal.App.4th 1112, a case on which the Club relies. There, the court found that a high school cheerleader and her family assumed the risk of injuries resulting from cheerleading activities. On the basis of that finding, the court also affirmed summary judgment on the ground that a release of liability for school activities barred any claim for injuries. The court reasoned that the assumption of risk doctrine “embodies the legal conclusion that defendant [*22] owed no duty to protect appellant from the risk of harm inherent in the athletic activity. [Citation.] There being no duty, there was no negligence.” (Id. at p. 1120.) Ignoring that the Aaris court’s holding was based on a finding of no negligence rather than any application of the release, the Club emphasizes that the release applied notwithstanding its failure to specify “cheerleading,” and argues that the Membership Agreement’s and Waiver’s references to Club activities must therefore similarly be construed to encompass dodgeball. But in Aaris, the only reasonable inference to be drawn from the evidence was that the sole purpose of the release was to address injuries resulting from cheerleading. Here, Thomas and Deborah did not even know that Nicholas would be participating in a dodgeball game. Moreover, the trial court in Aaris ruled that the undisputed evidence showed “‘that the instructor did not increase the risk of harm inherent in the activity, the participants received adequate and proper[] training in technique and safety, and they were properly and reasonably supervised.'” (Id. at p. 1117.) In sharp contrast, appellants’ evidence showed that Qasem should not have been playing [*23] dodgeball and played aggressively, he violated the Club’s written policy concerning use of the racquetball court and no one else was supervising the game.

Finally, appellants offered evidence to show that the InZone was part of the Club’s childcare department. On the day of the dodgeball game, Deborah signed Nicholas in to the Club’s InZone program. Club wellness director Denise Johnson testified that she was aware children played dodgeball on the racquetball courts while being supervised under the childcare department. To the extent that the Club’s Membership Agreement or Waiver purported to release it from liability for injuries occurring in its childcare program, appellants raised a triable issue of fact as to whether such an agreement would be void against public policy. (Gavin W. v. YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2003) 106 Cal.App.4th 662, 676 [“we hold that exculpatory agreements that purport to relieve child care providers of liability for their own negligence are void as against public policy”].)

In sum, the evidence offered on summary judgment demonstrated that the Membership Agreement and/or the Waiver did not clearly and explicitly release the Club from liability for Nicholas’s [*24] injuries. In view of the ambiguities concerning whether the Membership Agreement or the Waiver applied, whether the language in either document was sufficient to cover the Club’s conduct and whether any release violated public policy, a trier of fact could find that the Club was not released from liability. (See Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1288 [“if a release is ambiguous, and it is not clear the parties contemplated redistributing the risk causing the plaintiff’s injury, then the contractual ambiguity should be construed against the drafter, voiding the purported release”].) The undisputed evidence failed to show the Club and Qasem were absolved from liability as a matter of law according to the Membership Agreement or the Waiver.

III. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact Whether the Club Was Liable for Gross Negligence.

In City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 751 (Santa Barbara), our State’s highest court held “that an agreement made in the context of sports or recreational programs or services, purporting to release liability for future gross negligence, generally is unenforceable as a matter of public policy.” Relying on Santa [*25] Barbara, appellants opposed the Club’s summary judgment motion on the alternative ground that, even if the Club’s most comprehensive release language was unambiguous, there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. The trial court ruled: “It is not gross negligence. He wasn’t trying to injure the child on purpose, any more than a child would be injured playing hockey or soccer, or anything like that.” Again, we disagree.

California courts define “‘gross negligence'” “as either a ‘”‘want of even scant care'”‘ or ‘”‘an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.'”‘ [Citations.]” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 754; accord, Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 857.) Gross negligence “connotes such a lack of care as may be presumed to indicate a passive and indifferent attitude toward results.” (Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery (1998) 19 Cal.4th 714, 729, disapproved on other grounds in Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co., supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 853, fn. 19.) In contrast to willful misconduct, gross negligence does not require an intent to do harm or to act with absolute disregard of the consequences. (Meek v. Fowler (1935) 3 Cal.2d 420, 425; [*26] see also Hawaiian Pineapple Co. v. Ind. Acc. Com. (1953) 40 Cal.2d 656, 662 [“While gross negligence may involve an intent to perform the act or omission, wilful misconduct involves the further intent that the performance be harmful or that it be done with a positive, active and absolute disregard of the consequences”].) Though not always, “[g]enerally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence. [Citations.]” (Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358; accord, Santa Barbara, supra, at pp. 767, 781.)

Appellants offered sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct amounted to gross negligence. According to the undisputed evidence, while the Club’s policies prohibited dodgeball being played on the racquetball courts, Club employees–including the childcare director–knew the courts were used for children’s dodgeball games. Nonetheless, none of the Club’s materials identified dodgeball as an available activity. Consistent with the Club’s failure to acknowledge dodgeball as an ongoing activity, it failed to promulgate rules to insure the game was played [*27] safely. When Nicholas was dropped off at the InZone program, no one advised his parents that he might play dodgeball. In this particular instance, children initiated a dodgeball game while being supervised by an 18-year-old front desk clerk who had no childcare training. Qasem selected inflated rubber balls for the game and participated aggressively in the game with the children, even though the Club’s policy was that supervisors not play dodgeball. Nicholas was injured after Qasem threw the ball extremely hard and extremely fast, using a sidearm motion.

On the basis of this evidence, appellants offered Bernheim’s expert opinion that “the injury to Nicholas Lotz occurred during an extreme departure from what must be considered as the ordinary standard of conduct when children are playing dodgeball and are supposed to be . . . supervised.” We agree that appellants’ evidence was sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct was an extreme departure from ordinary care or, at a minimum, demonstrated passivity and indifference toward results. A trier of fact could find gross negligence on the basis of the Club’s failure to address the repeated violation [*28] of its own policy prohibiting dodgeball play on the racquetball courts, failure to implement rules or policies designed to protect those playing dodgeball and failure to provide any training to individuals assigned to supervise the children in its childcare program. Triable issues existed as to whether the Club’s and Qasem’s conduct was grossly negligent and therefore outside the scope of any release in either the Membership Agreement or the Waiver.

IV. Appellants Raised Triable Issues of Fact Whether the Assumption of Risk Doctrine Barred Liability.

As a further basis for granting summary judgment, the trial court determined that the Club met its burden to show the primary assumption of risk doctrine was a viable defense and that appellants failed to offer any effective rebuttal. It analogized the circumstances here to those in a previous case in which it found the doctrine barred recovery to a high school student injured during a soccer game. We fail to see the analogy.

“Primary assumption of risk occurs where a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sporting event or activity involving certain inherent risks. For example, an errantly thrown ball in baseball or a carelessly extended [*29] elbow in basketball are considered inherent risks of those respective sports. [Citation.] Primary assumption of risk is a complete bar to recovery. [Citation.] [¶] Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature. [Citation.]” (Wattenbarger v. Cincinnati Reds, Inc. (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 746, 751-752, citing Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296.) “Knight however does not grant unbridled legal immunity to all defendants participating in sporting activity. The Supreme Court has stated that ‘. . . it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport.‘ ([Knight, supra,] 3 Cal.4th at pp. 315-316, italics added.) Thus, even though ‘defendants generally have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself,’ they may not increase the likelihood of injury above that which is [*30] inherent. (Id. at p. 315.)” (Campbell v. Derylo (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 823, 827.) Thus, “when the plaintiff claims the defendant’s conduct increased the inherent risks of a sport, summary judgment on primary assumption of risk grounds is unavailable unless the defendant disproves the theory or establishes a lack of causation. [Citations.]” (Huff v. Wilkins (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 732, 740.)

Much of appellants’ evidence that we deemed sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact on the question of gross negligence likewise created a triable issue as to whether the Club and Qasem increased the risk of harm inherent in the game of dodgeball. 3 Certainly, being hit by a ball is one of the objectives of and hence an inherent risk in the game of dodgeball. But appellants’ evidence tended to show that the Club and Qasem increased that risk in a number of ways, including by playing on an enclosed racquetball court which was neither intended nor permitted to be used for dodgeball; by selecting rubber balls for the game; by allowing an adult untrained in childcare not only to participate in the game with the children but also to abdicate any supervisory role over them during the game; and by enabling [*31] that adult to play aggressively with the children. Given the totality of the circumstances, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that Nicholas assumed the risk of being hit in the head with a ball.

3 We acknowledge that the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine is a question of law. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 313.) But where a defendant engages in conduct that is not an inherent risk of the sport and the imposition of a duty of care will neither alter the nature of nor chill participation in the sport, the question becomes one of ordinary negligence, with the remaining elements beyond duty to be determined by a trier of fact. (Yancey v. Superior Court (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 558, 565-567.)

Other courts have similarly reversed a grant of summary judgment where the plaintiff’s evidence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendant’s conduct increased the inherent risks in a sport or other recreational activity. Lowe v. California League of Prof. Baseball (1997) 56 Cal.App.4th 112 is particularly instructive. There, the plaintiff filed suit after he was injured by a foul ball while watching a baseball game, and the trial court granted summary judgment, finding [*32] the doctrine of primary assumption of risk barred his claims. (Id. at p. 120.) In reversing, the appellate court relied on evidence showing the plaintiff was hit when he turned toward a team mascot who had repeatedly tapped his shoulder. (Id. at pp. 117-118, 123.) The court explained that while foul balls represent an inherent risk to spectators attending a baseball game, “we hold that the antics of the mascot are not an essential or integral part of the playing of a baseball game. In short, the game can be played in the absence of such antics. Moreover, whether such antics increased the inherent risk to plaintiff is an issue of fact to be resolved at trial.” (Id. at p. 123; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 591 [though skiers assume the risk of injury from the sport, triable issue of fact existed whether ski resort’s jump design increased the risk of harm]; Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127, 134 [while a golfer assumes the risk of being hit by a golf ball, golf course owner owes a duty to minimize that risk, and the plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact as to whether that duty was breached where evidence showed the design [*33] of certain holes may have increased that risk].)

We find no merit to the Club’s and Qasem’s argument that appellants’ evidence demonstrated merely that their conduct may have increased the severity of Nicholas’s injuries as opposed to increasing the risk of injury. In Calhoon v. Lewis (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 108, the plaintiff suffered injury when he fell off his skateboard and hit a metal pipe protruding from a planter in the defendants’ driveway. Finding the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred his claims, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the concealed metal pipe increased his risk of harm: “[The plaintiff] was injured because he fell. As [he] concedes, falling is an inherent risk of skateboarding, and the presence of the pipe or the planter had nothing to do with his falling down. The fact that [his] injuries were more severe than they would have been if the pipe had not been in the planter does not make the assumption of risk doctrine inapplicable. The Knight exception applies when the defendant increased the risk of injury beyond that inherent in the sport, not when the defendant’s conduct may have increased the severity of the injury suffered.” (Id. at p. 116.) [*34] Here, in contrast, appellants’ evidence showed that the Club and Qasem increased the risk of injury by initiating the dodgeball game in which Nicholas participated. This was not the type of situation where Nicholas would have been playing dodgeball absent the Club’s and Qasem’s involvement. Moreover, the evidence raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the Club and Qasem increased the risk of injury by permitting dodgeball play on the racquetball court, by failing to adopt rules for safe play, by Qasem’s failing to act as a supervisor during the game, by his selecting rubber balls for the game and by his participating aggressively in the game. The Club and Qasem were not entitled to summary judgment on the ground the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred appellants’ claims.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is reversed and the matter is remanded with directions for the trial court to vacate its order granting summary judgment and to enter a new order denying summary judgment. Appellants are entitled to their costs on appeal.

, J. *

* Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

FERNS

We concur:

, Acting [*35] P. J. ASHMANN-GERST , J. CHAVEZ


Berry v. Greater Park City Company, 2007 UT 87; 171 P.3d 442; 590 Utah Adv. Rep. 3; 2007 Utah LEXIS 192

Berry v. Greater Park City Company, 2007 UT 87; 171 P.3d 442; 590 Utah Adv. Rep. 3; 2007 Utah LEXIS 192

James Gordon Berry V, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Greater Park City Company dba Park City Mountain Resort, a Utah corporation; CRE Management, Inc., dba Milosport; and International Ski Federation, Defendants and Appellee.

No. 20051057

SUPREME COURT OF UTAH

2007 UT 87; 171 P.3d 442; 590 Utah Adv. Rep. 3; 2007 Utah LEXIS 192

October 30, 2007, Filed

December 6, 2007, Released for Publication

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1]

Third District, Salt Lake. The Honorable J. Dennis Frederick. No. 030904411.

COUNSEL: Harold G. Christensen, Richard A. Van Wagoner, Julianne Blanch, Ryan B. Bell, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Gordon Strachan, Kevin J. Simon, Park City, for appellee.

JUDGES: NEHRING, Justice. Chief Justice Durham, Associate Chief Justice Wilkins, Justice Durrant, and Justice Parrish concur in Justice Nehring’s opinion.

OPINION BY: NEHRING

OPINION

[**444] NEHRING, Justice:

[*P1] James Gordon “V.J.” Berry was seriously injured while competing in a ski race. He sued the parties connected with the event, including Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR), the site where the race was held. The district court granted PCMR’s motions for summary judgment and dismissed Mr. Berry’s claims for ordinary negligence, gross negligence, and common law strict liability. We affirm in part and hold that Mr. Berry’s preinjury release of PCMR is enforceable and that the district court properly determined that Mr. Berry’s strict liability claim fails as a matter of law. We further hold that the district court improperly awarded PCMR summary judgment on Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim and therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

[*P2] In February [***2] 2001, Mr. Berry, an expert skier then twenty-six years of age, entered a skiercross race promoted as the King of the Wasatch, which was constructed on one of PCMR’s ski runs. In the skiercross race format, four racers simultaneously descend a course that features difficult turns and tabletop jumps. The racers compete against each other as they ski down the mountain to complete the course first. A series of elimination heats determines the race winner. On Mr. Berry’s fourth trip over the course, he attempted to negotiate the course’s first tabletop jump. Upon landing from the jump, Mr. Berry fell and fractured his neck, an injury that resulted in permanent paralysis.

[*P3] Before being allowed to participate in the contest, competitors like Mr. Berry were required to sign a Release of Liability and Indemnity Agreement. Although Mr. Berry did not read the agreement, he signed it twelve days before the race. The agreement purported to release PCMR from claims arising from its negligence, stating:

In consideration for being permitted to participate in the Event, I agree to release from any legal liability, agree not to sue and further agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Park City Mountain [***3] Resort . . . the race organizers, sponsors and all of their officers, agents and employees for injury or death resulting from participation in the Event, regardless of the cause, including the negligence of the above referenced parties and their employees or agents.

[*P4] PCMR introduced several measures aimed at enhancing the safety of contest participants like Mr. Berry. Blue paint marked the take-off point of the tabletop jumps. The course was built with speed gates and berms uphill of the jump in order to slow and control the speed of racers on their approach. Safety barriers enclosed the racecourse and closed it to noncompetitors. Racers were required to wear helmets and familiarize themselves with the course by inspecting its features while twice “slipping” its length. Competitors were also permitted to take practice runs of the course on the day of the race.

[*P5] Naturally occurring conditions compromised these measures on the day of the race. The light was “flat,” which hindered depth perception and made it difficult for participants to make out aspects of the course. The snow-covered surface of the course was packed particularly hard.

[*P6] Mr. Berry offered expert opinion that pointed to [***4] significant design flaws in the tabletop jump that was the site of his fall. For example, the left side of the jump, from which Mr. Berry was forced to ascend due to his competitors’ positioning in the heat, was built in a manner to launch skiers at a dangerously steep angle, causing them to be propelled beyond the landing area. Expert opinion also faulted the landing area as being too small and not steep enough to accommodate safe landings.

[*P7] Relevant to our purposes, Mr. Berry brought suit against PCMR and alleged claims of ordinary negligence, gross negligence, and common law strict liability. The district court granted PCMR’s motions to summarily dismiss each of Mr. Berry’s claims. The district court concluded that Mr. Berry was bound by the “clear and unequivocal” language of the agreement and could not therefore pursue a claim against [**445] PCMR based on the resort’s alleged negligence. The district court held that Mr. Berry’s strict liability claim was invalid because the King of the Wasatch race was not as a matter of law an abnormally dangerous activity. Finally, the district court concluded that as a matter of law Mr. Berry failed to present evidence sufficient to place in dispute [***5] the issue of whether PCMR had designed and built the skiercross course with “utter indifference to the consequences that may result” or gross negligence. This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[*P8] [HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Utah R. Civ. P. 56(c). [HN2] Because a grant of summary judgment by definition involves conclusions of law, we afford no deference to the district court’s decision and review it for correctness. See Peterson v. Sunrider Corp., 2002 UT 43, P 13, 48 P.3d 918.

ANALYSIS

I. MR. BERRY’S AGREEMENT TO RELEASE PCMR FROM LIABILITY FOR ITS NEGLIGENT ACTS IS ENFORCEABLE

[*P9] [HN3] Preinjury exculpatory releases turn against one another the freedom of persons to regulate their affairs by contract and the social bargain at the heart of tort law that persons who fail to exercise reasonable care should be accountable in damages to those injured by negligent acts. We have not previously had occasion to consider whether the sponsor of a competitive ski race may shield itself from negligence by obtaining prospective exculpatory agreements from participants. This appeal is not, however, [***6] our introduction to preinjury releases.

[*P10] In our most recent encounter, we held that a preinjury release could not foreclose claims of negligence brought by the parent of a minor child who was injured during a guided equestrian trail ride. Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062. Mr. Berry interprets Hawkins as a case containing sufficient kinetic energy to move it beyond its facts to guide the outcome of this appeal. According to Mr. Berry, Hawkins signaled that we had found common cause with a “growing consensus” of jurisdictions that rejected as contrary to public policy preinjury releases generally and those releasing ski areas particularly. To support his interpretation, Mr. Berry drew on our statement in Hawkins that

[a]n exculpatory clause that relieves a party from future liability may remove an important incentive to act with reasonable care. These clauses are also routinely imposed in a unilateral manner without any genuine bargaining or opportunity to pay a fee for insurance. The party demanding adherence to an exculpatory clause simply evades the necessity of liability coverage and then shifts the full burden of risk of harm to the other party.

Id. P 13.

[*P11] We made observations [***7] critical of preinjury releases in the context of the point that sound reasons exist for the law to treat preinjury releases with greater suspicion than postinjury releases. Regardless of the context in which they appear, we readily acknowledge that the shortcomings of exculpatory clauses cited in Hawkins provide ample cause to approach preinjury releases with caution. Indeed, the reasoning used by courts to reject as contrary to public policy preinjury releases is persuasive. See Hiett v. Lake Barcroft Cmty. Ass’n, 244 Va. 191, 418 S.E.2d 894, 8 Va. Law Rep. 3381 (Va. 1992); see also Jaffe v. Pallotta TeamWorks, 362 U.S. App. D.C. 398, 374 F.3d 1223, 1226 (D.C. Cir. 2004); Coughlin v. T.M.H. Int’l Attractions Inc., 895 F. Supp. 159 (W.D. Ky. 1995); Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795, 799 (Vt. 1995); cf. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. §§ 5-321 to -326 (2007). In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, public policy forbids exculpatory agreements because “‘to hold that it was competent for one party to put the other parties to the contract at the mercy of its own misconduct . . . can never be lawfully done where an enlightened system of jurisprudence prevails.'” Hiett, 418 S.E.2d at 896 (quoting Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond & Danville R.R. Co., 11 S.E. 829, 829, 86 Va. 975 (Va. 1890)). [***8] This approach is certainly defensible both as a statement of legal and social philosophy–the right to con [**446] tract is always subordinate to the obligation to stand accountable for one’s negligent acts–and on an operational level inasmuch as such a clear statement eliminates any ambiguity over whether a court would later deem a particular preinjury release enforceable. Our recognition of the undesirable features of preinjury releases and of the merits of arguments that we should brand all preinjury releases unenforceable falls short of convincing us that freedom to contract should always yield to the right to recover damages on the basis of another’s fault. See, e.g., Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981); Porubiansky v. Emory Univ., 156 Ga. App. 602, 275 S.E.2d 163, 167-68 (Ga. Ct. App. 1980); Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977); Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist., 110 Wn.2d 845, 758 P.2d 968 (Wash. 1988); Kyriazis v. Univ. of W. Va., 192 W. Va. 60, 450 S.E.2d 649 (W. Va. 1994).

[*P12] Our analysis in Hawkins disclosed both our conviction that [HN4] a person should retain the power to contract away the right to recover damages for the negligence of another and our understanding that the authority to exercise the right was subject [***9] to many conditions and limitations. 1 We began that analysis by acknowledging, uncritically, the “general principle of common law” that [HN5] “‘those who are not engaged in public service may properly bargain against liability for harm caused by their ordinary negligence in performance of contractual duty.'” Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, P 9, 37 P.3d 1062 (quoting 6A Arthur Linton Corbin, Corbin on Contracts § 1472 (1962)). After canvassing the legal landscape for perspective on how courts have received and interpreted the Corbin principle, we noted that most of the cases from jurisdictions that were not among the minority rejecting all preinjury releases focused their analytical energy on ascertaining how to know who is and who is not “engaged in public service.” Id. P 9. Because it was not necessary to do so, we did not delve into this question in Hawkins and instead limited ourselves to the observation that most jurisdictions that permit prospective releases draw the line at attempts to limit liability for activities in which there is a strong public interest. These cases did not, however, aid us in making progress toward a proper outcome because Hawkins concerned the unique circumstance of the release of a [***10] minor’s prospective claim for negligence and did not implicate the public service exception. Our analysis in Hawkins relied, then, on a public policy exception to the Corbin principle “specifically relating to releases of a minor’s claims.” Id. P 10.

1 For example, parents in many jurisdictions lack the authority to release a minor’s claims against a negligent party. E.g., Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, P 10, 37 P.3d 1062. When Hawkins was decided, Utah was such a jurisdiction; the state afforded parents no “general unilateral right to compromise or release a child’s existing causes of action without court approval or appointment to that effect.” Id. P 11. Although Hawkins involved a mother’s preinjury release of her minor daughter’s claims, we reasoned that it would be inconsistent for the court to allow parents to do preinjury what they were prohibited from doing postinjury. Id.

[*P13] The lesson of Hawkins is that all of the analytical approaches we discussed were exceptions to the general principle that preinjury releases are enforceable. The viability of the principle itself was never challenged. We assumed its controlling force then and make explicit our adoption of the principle now.

[*P14] Had we intended our observations [***11] concerning the deleterious effects of preinjury releases to be our final expression of views on the proper place of such releases in our law, little reason would have existed for us to have refrained from using Hawkins to declare categorically that such releases offend public policy and are unenforceable. The proper inference to draw from Hawkins is that this general rule is well embedded in our common law despite its flaws. Our position on this matter can coexist with our endorsement of the prevailing view that [HN6] the law disfavors preinjury exculpatory agreements. See Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, 739 (Conn. 2005).

[*P15] Having determined that our public policy does not foreclose the opportunity of parties to bargain for the waiver of tort claims based on ordinary negligence, we confront the issues we stopped short of resolving in Hawkins: selecting and applying a standard [**447] relating to the public interest exception to the general rule recognizing the enforceability of preinjury releases. 2 2001 UT 94, P 10, 37 P.3d 1062. This is an inquiry that directs our attention to the nature of the activity seeking to be shielded from liability for its negligence and away from Hawkins’ focus on the [***12] status of the person from whom the release is sought. 3 In Hawkins, we stated that many states had come to rely on the guidelines for evaluating the applicability of the public interest exception to preinjury releases set out in Tunkl v. Regents of The University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (Cal. 1963). The Tunkl guidelines have retained their vitality over the years since Utah, through Hawkins, became one of many jurisdictions to permit preinjury releases. See, e.g., Omni Corp. v. Sonitrol Corp., 476 F. Supp. 2d 125, 128 (D. Conn. 2007); Am. Structural Composites, Inc. v. Int’l Conference of Bldg. Officials, 325 F. Supp. 2d 1148, 1151 (D. Nev. 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001); Brown v. Soh, 280 Conn. 494, 909 A.2d 43, 48-51 (Conn. 2006); Courbat v. Dahana Ranch, Inc., 111 Haw. 254, 141 P.3d 427, 437-39 (Haw. 2006); Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corp., 2003 NMSC 24, 134 N.M. 341, 76 P.3d 1098, 1109-10 (N.M. 2003). [HN7] The Tunkl standard, which identifies the traits of an activity in which an exculpatory provision may be invalid, is as follows:

“[1] [The transaction] concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. [2] The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing [***13] a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. [3] The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. [4] As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. [5] In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. [6] Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.”

Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, P 9 n.3, 37 P.3d 1062 (quoting Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46).

2 [HN8] The law’s wariness of preinjury releases is reflected in the requirement that to be enforceable, such agreements must be communicated in a clear [***14] and unequivocal manner. See Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court, 23 Cal. App. 4th 748, 29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177, 180 (Ct. App. 1993); Cain v. Banka, 932 So. 2d 575, 578 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2006); Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, P 5, 37 P.3d 1062. Mr. Berry has not claimed that PCMR’s release failed to meet this standard. We therefore limit our discussion of the public interest exception to the general rule that exculpatory agreements are enforceable.

3 Of course, the status of the person giving a preinjury release is an omnipresent consideration insofar as status relates to the relative bargaining power of the parties to the release.

[*P16] [HN9] Consideration of these traits is a flexible endeavor; the activity at issue need exhibit only a sufficient number of Tunkl characteristics such that one may be convinced of the activity’s affinity to the public interest. When a preinjury release is contrary to the public interest, it is invalid. Applying this approach, we test the King of the Wasatch race against each of the six Tunkl guidelines.

[*P17] First, while as an academic matter it may be debatable whether the sport of skiing is of a type generally thought to be suitable for public regulation, in Utah there can be no debate. [HN10] In Utah, skiing is regulated [***15] by the Inherent Risk of Skiing Act, Utah Code Ann. §§ 78-27-51 to -54 (2002 & Supp. 2007). Although the parties assume that the Act applies to skiercross events like the King of the Wasatch race, it is less clear that the applicability of the Act to skiercross racing would qualify the competition as suitable for public regulation. The Act was animated by a legislative finding that “the sport of skiing is practiced by a large number of residents of [**448] Utah and attracts a large number of nonresidents.” Id. § 78-27-51. The same cannot be said for skiercross racing. This form of competition has simply not generated sufficient public interest either through its popularity or because of hazards associated with it to generate a call for intervention of state regulatory authority. Skiercross racing is but one of an almost countless number of competitive sporting events occurring at any particular time in Utah. Among these, Utah law regulates only competitive boxing and equestrian events. See id. §§ 63C-11-301 to -318; id. §§ 63C-11-320 to -325; id. §§ 78-27b-101 to -102 (Supp. 2007).

[*P18] Thus, [HN11] while the reach of the Act may extend to ski-related activities that fall outside the public policy considerations [***16] underlying the adoption of the Act, those activities, like skiercross racing, are nevertheless subject to a separate analysis for the purpose of evaluating the enforceability of preinjury releases. Put another way, while the services provided by a business operating a recreational ski area and the services provided by a business sponsoring a competitive ski race may be covered by the provisions of the Act, the differences between recreational and competitive skiing are substantial enough to warrant the application of a separate analysis concerning their suitability for public regulation. In our view, skiercross racing is not generally thought suitable for public regulation.

[*P19] Second, for all the benefits that the King of the Wasatch race may have bestowed on its competitors, sponsors, and spectators, the race sponsors were in no way performing a service of great importance to the public, nor was race participation a matter of practical necessity for anyone.

[*P20] Third, the record suggests that PCMR made race participation available to anyone who sought to enter. Based on the description of the King of the Wasatch race in the record, a clear inference exists that competitors came from a limited [***17] group of expert, competitive skiers.

[*P21] The fourth Tunkl guideline diminishes the likelihood that we might find a preinjury release enforceable considering that the essential nature of the activity or service results in endowing the party seeking exculpation with a decisive advantage of bargaining strength. We have little doubt that Mr. Berry possessed no bargaining strength whatsoever. If he wanted to compete in the King of the Wasatch race, he was required to sign the preprinted release form. In this setting, however, PCMR’s decisive advantage in bargaining strength was of little consequence since the race was a nonessential activity.

[*P22] Fifth, PCMR’s superior bargaining power, its use of a contract of adhesion, and its failure to provide Mr. Berry an option to purchase protection against PCMR’s negligence is similarly of little consequence because of the nonessential nature of the race.

[*P23] The final Tunkl factor, that Mr. Berry was placed under PCMR’s control as a result of signing the release and made subject to the risk of PCMR’s carelessness, is of questionable application. PCMR appears to have been capable of exercising a negligible degree of control over the manner in which Mr. Berry [***18] traversed the racecourse or whether he elected to complete the course at all after inspecting its features.

[*P24] After considering the facts of Mr. Berry’s case with the Tunkl guidelines in mind, we are convinced that the release Mr. Berry executed in favor of PCMR is enforceable.

II. THE DISTRICT COURT ERRED WHEN IT AWARDED PCMR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON MR. BERRY’S GROSS NEGLIGENCE CLAIM

[*P25] PCMR does not claim that its release insulates it from liability for gross negligence. It argues instead that the precautions the sponsors of the King of the Wasatch race took, designed to minimize the risk of injury to participants without unduly compromising the competitive challenges, without which the contest would have little allure, were sufficient to overcome Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim as a matter of law. Without guidance anywhere in the record as to the applicable standard of care, we cannot conclude that PCMR was not grossly negligent as a matter of law.

[**449] [*P26] We must initially return to the topic of the standard of review because its proper form and application largely determine the outcome of Mr. Berry’s challenge to the district court’s summary dismissal of his gross negligence claim. [HN12] In securing [***19] recovery, the task confronting a plaintiff who claims injury due to a defendant’s gross negligence is markedly greater than that of a plaintiff who traces his injury to ordinary negligence. Gross negligence requires proof of conduct substantially more distant from the appropriate standard of care than does ordinary negligence. We have characterized gross negligence as “‘the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result.'” Atkin Wright & Miles v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 709 P.2d 330, 335 (Utah 1985) (quoting Robinson Ins. & Real Estate, Inc. v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 366 F. Supp. 307, 311 (W.D. Ark. 1973)).

[*P27] [HN13] When reviewing appeals from grants of summary judgment in cases of ordinary negligence, we have consistently followed the principle that “summary judgment is generally inappropriate to resolve negligence claims and should be employed ‘only in the most clear-cut case.'” White v. Deseelhorst, 879 P.2d 1371, 1374 (Utah 1994) (quoting Ingram v. Salt Lake City, 733 P.2d 126, 126 (Utah 1987) (per curiam)). Moreover, summary judgment is “‘inappropriate unless the applicable standard [***20] of care is fixed by law, and reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion as to the defendant’s negligence under the circumstances.'” White, 879 P.2d at 1374 (quoting Wycalis v. Guardian Title of Utah, 780 P.2d 821, 825 (Utah Ct. App. 1989) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

[*P28] Were we evaluating this case as one of ordinary negligence, we would have little difficulty discerning the presence of genuine issues of material fact sufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Mr. Berry presented testimony of an experienced ski racer, coach, and jumper who witnessed Mr. Berry’s accident and faulted the jump’s design. A second expert in ski racecourse design and safety was likewise critical of the configuration of the accident site.

[*P29] According to PCMR, this testimony is insufficient to overcome summary dismissal of Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim because evidence that would be adequate to take an ordinary negligence case to a jury cannot withstand uncontroverted evidence that PCMR exercised enough care to avoid a finding of gross negligence. PCMR urges that its production of evidence indicating that it used “even slight care” or displayed something more than “complete and absolute [***21] indifference” to the consequences that might have resulted from an improper design or construction of the tabletop jump and landing area is sufficient to remove Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim from the jury. We disagree.

[*P30] The parties have not directed us to, nor have we been able to discover, a location in the record where the appropriate standard of care applicable to the design and construction of skiercross courses appears. We have held that [HN14] where a standard of care is not “fixed by law,” the determination of the appropriate standard is a factual issue to be resolved by the finder of fact. Wycalis, 780 P.2d at 825. Identification of the proper standard of care is a necessary precondition to assessing the degree to which conduct deviates, if at all, from the standard of care–the core test in any claim of gross negligence. Absent the presence of an identified, applicable standard of care to ground the analysis, we hold that the district court improperly granted PCMR summary judgment and dismissed Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim.

III. THE DISTRICT COURT’S SUMMARY DISMISSAL OF MR. BERRY’S STRICT LIABILITY CLAIM WAS PROPER

[*P31] Mr. Berry contends that the district court erred when it [***22] summarily dismissed his claim that PCMR was strictly liable for damages for his injuries because skiercross racing is an abnormally dangerous activity as defined by the factors set out in section 520 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. In aid of his argument, Mr. Berry points to numerous [**450] articles in popular ski publications, describing in dramatic terms the injuries sustained, seemingly as a matter of routine, by racers in skiercross competitions. These aspects of the record may indeed advance Mr. Berry’s cause regarding the degree of peril that skiercross races pose. To us, they establish convincingly alternative grounds upon which to affirm the district court’s rejection of Mr. Berry’s strict liability claim. See, e.g., State v. Robison, 2006 UT 65, P 19, 147 P.3d 448 (allowing affirmance of the judgment appealed from based “‘on any legal ground or theory apparent on the record'” (quoting Bailey v. Bayles, 2002 UT 58, P 10, 52 P.3d 1158)).

[*P32] [HN15] Assuming the skiercross racing is an abnormally dangerous activity, Mr. Berry’s role as a participant excludes him from eligibility to recover under a theory of strict liability. See, e.g., Pullen v. West, 278 Kan. 183, 92 P.3d 584 (Kan. 2004) (holding that [***23] an individual who lit fireworks while a guest at an Independence Day party was a participant in an abnormally dangerous activity and therefore barred from recovery on a strict liability theory). As a general principle, the Restatement’s protections extend to those individuals who are injured as the result of an activity that carries “the existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land or chattels of others.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 520 (1977). Like the Pullen court and others, we agree that the scope of section 520 excludes participants, like Mr. Berry, who engage in the very activity for which they seek to recover damages based on strict liability. See, e.g., Whitlock v. Duke Univ., 637 F. Supp. 1463, 1475 (M.D.N.C. 1986); Gaston v. Hunter, 121 Ariz. 33, 588 P.2d 326, 341 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1978); Trull v. Carolina-Virginia Well Co., 264 N.C. 687, 142 S.E.2d 622, 622-26 (N.C. 1965). This conclusion is not undermined by the principles upon which Mr. Berry rests his claim to strict liability recovery.

[*P33] Section 520 generally states that [HN16] a court should consider the following factors in determining whether an activity is abnormally dangerous:

(a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm [***24] to the person, land or chattels of others;

(b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great;

(c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care;

(d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage;

(e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and

(f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.

Mr. Berry argues the eligibility of skiercross racing under several of these. Although we fully recognize that all of these factors may aid a court in evaluating whether an activity is abnormally dangerous, we view the first factor as qualitatively different than the rest and therefore worthy of separate consideration. See, e.g., Restatement (Second) of Torts § 520 cmt. f (“Any one of them is not necessarily sufficient of itself . . . for strict liability. On the other hand, it is not necessary that each of them be present, especially if others weigh heavily.”). Unlike its five colleagues, the first factor targets the very nature of the strict liability protection–who is eligible. Section 520 exposes landowners who conduct abnormally dangerous activities on their land–harboring [***25] dangerous animals has of particular concern to the drafters of the Restatement–to strict liability for injury suffered by those who come onto the land under color of privilege, but not for injury suffered by those who participated in the abnormally dangerous activity. We accordingly affirm the district court’s dismissal of Mr. Berry’s strict liability claim.

CONCLUSION

[*P34] Because our public policy does not foreclose Mr. Berry from waiving PCMR’s liability, we hold that Mr. Berry’s preinjury release is enforceable. We further hold that Mr. Berry’s strict liability claim fails as a matter of law considering his participation in the skiercross race. Finally, we hold that the district court erred in awarding summary judgment on Mr. Berry’s gross negligence claim without reference to the applicable [**451] standard of care. We therefore reverse and remand to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

[*P35] Chief Justice Durham, Associate Chief Justice Wilkins, Justice Durrant, and Justice Parrish concur in Justice Nehring’s opinion.


Andia, M.D., v. Full Service Travel, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247

Andia, M.D., v. Full Service Travel, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247

Ana Maria Andia, M.D., Plaintiff, vs. Full Service Travel, a California corporation, Celebrity Cruises, Inc., a foreign corporation, and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures, a Hawaiian business of unknown structure, Defendants.

CASE NO. 06cv0437 WQH (JMA)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA

2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247

November 29, 2007, Decided

November 29, 2007, Filed

CORE TERMS: hike, lava, station, terrain, falling, rock, summary judgment, hiking, slipping, uneven, duty of care, assumption of risk, cruise, inherent risk, trail, ship, warn, surface, viewing, passenger, excursion, admits, hiker, duty to warn, failure to warn, negating, minutes, causes of action, totally outside, gross negligence

COUNSEL: [*1] For Ana Maria Andia, an individual, Plaintiff: Harold M Hewell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Hewell Law Firm APC, San Diego, CA; Howard M Rubinstein, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Howard Rubinstein, Aspen, CO.

For Celebrity Cruises Inc, a foreign corporation, Arnotts Lodge and Hike Adventures, a Hawaiian business of unknown structure Defendants: Gregory Dean Hagen, Tammara N Tukloff, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Drath Clifford Murphy and Hagen, San Diego, CA.

JUDGES: WILLIAM Q. HAYES, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: WILLIAM Q. HAYES

OPINION

ORDER

HAYES, Judge:

The matter before the Court is Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Celebrity Cruises, Inc. and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures. (Doc. # 40).

Background

Defendant Celebrity Cruises, Inc. (“Celebrity”) is engaged in the business of providing passenger cruises to various destinations. 1 UMF 1. Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures (“Arnott’s”) guides transport cruise ship passengers to Volcanoes National Park (“the Park”), and provide knowledge about where the lava flow is each day. UMF 3. In order to view the active lava flow, individuals must hike over cooled lava. This terrain is rugged and natural, consisting of uneven surfaces. Id. at 4; DMF 4. The Hawaii Volcanoes [*2] National Park Rangers (“Rangers”) place reflective markers and cones on the lava to be used by hikers as reference points. UMF 7.

1 The parties each submitted a statement of facts with their submissions in support of and in opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court relies upon the facts from Defendants’ Alleged Undisputed Material Facts (“UMF”), which are undisputed by Plaintiff and supported by the cited evidence, and the facts from Plaintiff s Disputed Material Facts (“DMF”), which are undisputed by Defendants and supported by the cited evidence.

In November, 2005, Plaintiff Ana Maria Andia, M.D. was a passenger on Defendant Celebrity Cruises, Inc.’s (“Celebrity”) passenger cruise ship. Plaintiff is an experienced hiker. Andia Depo, 35: 23-25. On November 27, 2005, Plaintiff signed up to participate in a shore expedition known as the HL 15, the Kilauea Lava Viewing Hike, guided by Arnott’s. UMF 8. On November 27, 2005, there was total visibility for many miles in every direction. Id. at 5.

Prior to beginning the hike, Plaintiff read the description of the hike that states: “This tour involves approximately two to six miles of hiking over very sharp and uneven surfaces.” [*3] Id. at 10. Plaintiff also read, understood and executed the “Lava Hike Participant, Release and Acknowledgment of Risk” (“Agreement”), which provides, in relevant part:

I agree not to hold Arnott’s liable for any accident or injury beyond its control. The hike to the Lava is conducted at a brisk pace and requires physically fit participants in good health who can readily hike on varied surfaces and elevation changes for extended periods. I, as a participant, acknowledge that I am taking this activity of my own free will and that I will not hold Arnott’s responsible for any injury incurred while . . . I am hiking on the paved or natural surfaces of the National Park. . . . I understand by reading this waiver that Arnott’s guides will provide only broad direction and safety guidelines and that I remain responsible for the actual path hiked and whether I choose to take the risks with possibly still hot Lava Flows.

Id. at 11. Plaintiff also received and read a document entitled “Arnotts Adventures proudly presents: The Kilauea Lava Hike Adventure” (“Brochure”), which informed Plaintiff that she may need to turn around and head back to the Rangers station alone, and that she did not need [*4] a trail to return safely. Id. at 14.

Prior to beginning the hike, Arnott’s informed Plaintiff that the lava flow had changed and that the hike was going to be longer than anticipated for that day. Id. at 13. Arnott’s also informed all participants in the hike, including Plaintiff, that they had the option of staying at the Rangers station and not going on the hike, and that there would be four decision points during the hike at which hikers could turn around and head back to the Rangers station. Id. at 13, 18.

Prior to beginning the hike, Plaintiff understood that the marked trail was merely a preferred route, and that the trail was not necessary to safely return to the Rangers station. UMF 15; Andia Depo, 63:1-15. Plaintiff also understood that guides would not stay with her during the hike and that she might be returning to the Rangers station unaccompanied. UMF 15, 16; Andia Depo, 63: 1-15, 64:22-24. Plaintiff understood that the hike would be difficult and strenuous. Andia Depo, 52: 17-19

For the first 30 minutes of the hike, and through the first two decision points, the hike proceeded on paved surfaces. UMF 20. During this period, Plaintiff recalls seeing reflective tabs on the [*5] paved surface. Id. Plaintiff’s companion recalls seeing reflective tabs stuck to the rocks for 10-15 minutes of the hike after leaving the paved road. Plaintiff does not recall whether or not the reflective tabs were stuck to the rocks. Id. at 21. Approximately 45 minutes into the hike, and after approximately 15 minutes of walking on unpaved terrain, Plaintiff decided to return, unaccompanied by a guide, to the Rangers station. Id. at 22. About 15 minutes into her return, Plaintiff slipped on one of the rocks. When Plaintiff slipped, she twisted her ankle. Plaintiff then lifted her foot up, and hit the top of her foot on the lava rock. As a result of these events, Plaintiff fractured her foot. Id. at 23. Plaintiff testified that she then proceeded back to the Rangers station. Andia Depo, 86:22-87:14. The fall itself could have caused the fracture to become displaced and surgery may have been required regardless of whether Plaintiff attempted to walk out of the lava fields. UMF 25. Plaintiff was given the option of going to the ship’s doctor or the Hilo emergency room for treatment, and Plaintiff elected to receive treatment with the ship’s doctor. Id. at 24; Andia Depo, 89:15-25; [*6] 90:1-10. Plaintiff testified that, as a result of the fracture, she was confined to a wheel chair for a period of months, had to take time off of work, and suffers impaired balance. Id. 15:13-14.

On February 24, 2006, Plaintiff filed the First Amendment Complaint (“FAC”) against Defendants Full Service Travel, 2 Celebrity and Arnott’s. (Doc. # 3). The FAC alleges causes of action against Arnott’s for (1) negligence, on grounds that Arnott’s breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to ensure the safety of participants in their excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that Arnott’s failed to warn Plaintiff of the known dangers and risks associated with the lava hike. The FAC alleges causes of action against Celebrity for (1) negligence, on grounds that Celebrity breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to to offer reasonably reliable and safe excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that Celebrity failed to warn Plaintiff of the dangers and risks associated with the lava hike.

2 On October 5, 2006, Defendant Full Service Travel was dismissed from the case, with prejudice.

On August 18, 2007, Defendants filed the Motion for Summary Judgment, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [*7] Defendants claim they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because (1) Arnott’s owed Plaintiff no duty to protect Plaintiff against the assumed risk of slipping and falling on the lava rock, (2) Arnott’s owed Plaintiff no duty to warn Plaintiff of the obvious risk of injury of slipping and falling on the lava rock, (3) Celebrity did not owe Plaintiff a duty to warn of the obvious risk of slipping and falling on lava rock, (4) the alleged negligence of Defendants did not cause Plaintiff’s injuries, and (5) the claim for punitive damages against Arnott’s is not warranted. After receiving evidence and briefing from the parties, the Court heard oral argument on November 9, 2007.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). A fact is material when, under the governing substantive law, it could affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute over a material [*8] fact is genuine if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)).

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). “Credibility determinations [and] the weighing of evidence . . . are jury functions, not those of a judge, [when] he is ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

Choice of Law

The Court has jurisdiction over this action through diversity of citizenship, 28 U.S.C. section 1331. Federal courts exercising diversity jurisdiction must [*9] apply the substantive law of the state in which they are located, except on matters governed by the United States Constitution or federal statutes, or on procedural issues. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 78, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). The Complaint alleges causes of action in negligence for breach of due care and for failure to warn. The elements of the tort of negligence are essentially identical under California and Hawaii law. See White v. Sabatino, 415 F. Supp. 2d 1163, 1173 (USDC Haw. 2006); Ladd v. County of San Mateo, 12 Cal. 4th 913, 917, 50 Cal. Rptr. 2d 309, 911 P.2d 496 (1996). Furthermore, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is a measure of a defendant’s duty of care, and is essentially identical under both Hawaii and California law. Yoneda v. Andrew Tom, 110 Haw. 367, 379, 133 P.3d 796 (2006); Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 314-15, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992).

Discussion

I. Plaintiff’s Claims Against Arnott’s

Arnott’s contends that the risk of slipping, falling and injuring oneself on uneven, natural terrain is an inherent risk of lava hiking. Arnott’s contends that without this risk, the means of viewing this natural phenomenon would be severely limited to the general public. Arnott’s also contends that the evidence is uncontroverted that [*10] Arnott’s provided Plaintiff with written disclosures concerning the condition of the terrain, that guides would only give broad direction on the actual hike, that Plaintiff may need to turn around and head to the Rangers station alone, and that Plaintiff did not need a trail to return safely. Arnott’s contends that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s is liable for breach of its duty of care because the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating any duty of Arnott’s to protect Plaintiff against the inherent risk of slipping and falling while lava hiking. Arnott’s contends that Plaintiff has failed to assert facts or introduce any evidence that demonstrates that the conduct of Arnott’s was totally outside the range of ordinary activity or that the conduct of Arnott’s increased Plaintiff’s risk of slipping and falling on the lava rock. Arnott’s also contends that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s is liable to Plaintiff for breach of the duty of Arnott’s to warn because the risk of slipping and falling on the natural terrain was equally obvious to Plaintiff and Arnott’s.

Plaintiff responds that the conduct of Arnott’s constituted [*11] gross negligence for the following reasons: Arnott’s did nothing to provide for Plaintiff’s safety on the lava hike once she determined she could not go forward; Arnott’s did nothing to warn Plaintiff of the dangers of approaching too closely to the coastline; Arnott’s did not ensure Plaintiff had sufficient water for her trip back to the Rangers station; Arnott’s was understaffed; Arnott’s failed to follow protocol by pressuring Plaintiff to return to the ship rather than obtain treatment at the Hilo emergency room; Arnott’s offered misleading information about the trail markings; Arnott’s provided Plaintiff with falsely reassuring directions back to the Rangers station; and Arnott’s permitted Plaintiff to hike in sneakers instead of boots. Plaintiff contends that this conduct constituted gross negligence, making the Agreement, which purports to exculpate Arnott’s of liability, unenforceable. Plaintiff also contends that the Agreement is an unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion because it is a pre-printed form, contained multiple signatures and there was no alternative for Plaintiff but to sign it or wait at the Rangers station while the others hiked, losing a day [*12] of her cruise vacation. 3

3 Plaintiff does not dispute that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating Arnott’s’ duty to prevent Plaintiff from slipping and falling on lava rock. Instead, Plaintiff relies solely on her contention that the Agreement itself is either an unenforceable exculpatory agreement or an unenforceable contract of adhesion. Defendants, however, do “not contend, nor have they even asserted, that the [Agreement] relieves them from liability for any alleged negligence, nor gross negligence.” Reply, p. 1-2.

A. Duty of Care

As a general rule, persons have a duty to use due care and avoid injury to others, and may be held liable if their careless conduct injures another person. Cal. Civ. Code § 1714. The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is an exception to this general rule. Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (1992). The doctrine arises where “by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties’ relationship to the activity, the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” Id. at 315. Whether the doctrine of assumption of risk applies, thereby negating a duty of care, turns on [*13] the “nature of the activity or sport in which the defendant is engaged and the relationship of the defendant and the plaintiff to that activity or sport.” Id. at 309. In reviewing the nature of the activity, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where “conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part” of the activity itself. Id. at 315. “The overriding consideration in the application of primary assumption of risk is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the implicated activity and thereby alter its fundamental nature.” Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, 32 Cal. App. 4th 248, 253, 38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65 (1995).

If the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries if the defendant “engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity” or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity. Saville v. Sierra College, 133 Cal. App. 4th 857, 866, 36 Cal. Rptr. 3d 515 (4th Dist. 2005); Kane v. National Ski Patrol, 88 Cal. App. 4th 204, 209, 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 600 (4th Dist. 2001). The relationship between an instructor and student is instructive [*14] on the issue of whether the Arnott’s guides engaged in reckless conduct or increased the inherent risk involved in lava hiking. Kane, for example, involved candidates for a voluntary ski patrol who participated in a skills clinic instructed by Larry Stone, a National Ski Patrol System (“NSPS”) instructor. 88 Cal. App. 4th at 207. Stone led the clinic participants to the most difficult terrain at the resort. When the participants were reluctant to proceed through a portion of the trail, which was icy and spotted with trees, rocks and stumps, Stone asked the clinic participants what they would do “if there was a skier over the side?” Id. at 208. Although both plaintiffs felt uncomfortable with continuing down the terrain, they carried on, following Stone’s direction. Id. One plaintiff ultimately caught an “edge” with his ski, causing him to fall to his death, and the other plaintiff fell and suffered a broken leg. Id. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applied, negating the defendant’s duty of care. The court reasoned that “an instructor’s assessment errors – either in making the necessarily subjective [*15] judgment of skill level or the equally subjective judgment about the difficulty of the conditions – are in no way ‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.” Id. at 214.

Plaintiff admits that she is an experienced hiker. Andia Depo, 35:23-25. Plaintiff admits that falling is always a risk when engaging in any kind of strenuous hike on steep and uneven terrain. Id. at 153:8-14. Plaintiff admits that prior to starting the hike she was aware that she would be hiking over “very sharp and uneven surfaces.” Id. at 51:8-13. Plaintiff does not introduce any evidence to refute that hiking across uneven and challenging natural terrain is an inherent risk of hiking to active lava flow, without which the general public would be substantially deprived of viewing this natural phenomenon. The Court concludes that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating Arnott’s general duty to prevent Plaintiff from slipping and falling on lava rock, an inherent risk of the activity of lava hiking.

Plaintiff admits that, prior to the hike, Arnott’s provided the following written disclosures, which she understood: that the natural terrain was uneven and challenging; that [*16] during the hike she would be responsible for the path she traveled; that the guides would give only broad direction; that she may have to return to the Rangers station alone; and that the trail was merely a preferred route, and not necessary to safely get back to the Rangers station. Despite these disclosures, Plaintiff asserts that the decision to allow Plaintiff to return to the Rangers station alone and subsequent conduct on the part of the Arnott’s guides constituted gross negligence. The Court finds that the decision to allow Plaintiff to return alone and subsequent conduct on the part of Arnott’s guides at most constituted “assessment errors,” but these “subjective judgment[s] about the difficulty of the condition[s],” were “in no way so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved” in the activity of lava hiking. See Kane, 88 Cal. App. 4th at 214. Plaintiff emphasizes that Arnott’s’ conduct, such as permitting her to participate in the hike wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, was grossly negligent. However, the Court finds that there is no evidence in the record to support Plaintiff’s conclusion that Arnott’s conduct, including permitting [*17] Plaintiff to wear improper footwear, hike over thin lava crust, return to the Rangers station alone and without sufficient water, or return to the ship instead of going to the Hilo emergency room, increased the risk of Plaintiff’s injury. The Court concludes that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether Arnott’s conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity or otherwise increased the inherent risk involved in the activity of lava hiking.

The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Arnott’s for breach of duty of care.

B. Duty to Warn

“It is established law, at least in the exercise of ordinary care, that one is under no duty to warn another of a danger equally obvious to both.” Marshall v. United Airlines, 35 Cal. App. 3d 84, 90, 110 Cal. Rptr. 416 (1973).

Plaintiff admits she is an experienced hiker, that she was aware that falling is always a risk involved in any kind of hike on steep and uneven terrain, that she knew that the terrain she would cover during the lava hike was rugged and uneven, and that she read the Agreement and the Brochure, which both emphasize the strenuous nature of the hike, the possibility that Plaintiff would [*18] have to return to the Rangers station alone and nature of the terrain. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to offer any evidence to demonstrate that the risk of slipping and falling on lava rock was any less obvious to Plaintiff than it was to Arnott’s. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Arnott’s for failure to warn.

II. Plaintiff’s Claims Against Celebrity

Celebrity contends that although Plaintiff alleges separate causes of action in negligence for breach of due care and for failure to warn, both of these claims allege only failure to warn. Celebrity contends that it had no duty to warn Plaintiff of the risk of slipping and falling on lava rock during a hike through a lava field because the risk was patently obvious and equally apparent to Plaintiff and Celebrity.

Plaintiff’s Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Plaintiff’s claims against Celebrity states in full:

[P]laintiff relied on Celebrity to provide her with reasonably safe shore excursions. The dangers of the lava hike with Arnott’s were not readily apparent to her or anyone else who had not [*19] taken the hike. Celebrity’s reliance on Deroche is misplaced.

This was not a scooter ride, which a reasonable person knows poses obvious dangers. It was a hike to a uniquely dangerous place. [Plaintiff] reasonably relied on Celebrity to exercise due care in providing her with a safe guide service, and in offering a potentially life-threatening venture. Celebrity had a duty to ensure that Arnott’ s was a reasonable safe and reliable service. Celebrity is liable for breach of that duty.

Opposition, p. 19-20.

A. Duty of Care

The duty of care of the owner of an excursion ship is a matter of federal maritime law. DeRoche v. Commodore Cruise Line, Ltd., 31 Cal. App. 4th 802, 807, 46 Cal. Rptr. 2d 468 (1994). “That duty is to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.” Id. at 807-8.

Plaintiff fails to introduce any evidence to support her claim that Celebrity did not exercise due care when it enrolled Plaintiff in “excursion HL 15, the Kilauea Lava Viewing Hike, an unreasonably dangerous and poorly run and operated excursion.” See FAC, P 35-36. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed introduce any evidence demonstrating Celebrity breached its duty [*20] of due care to Plaintiff. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Celebrity for breach of duty of care.

B. Duty to Warn

“[I]t is generally accepted that where a carrier . . . has a continuing obligation for the care of its passengers, its duty is to warn of dangers known to the carrier in places where the passenger is invited to, or may reasonably be expected to visit.” DeRoche, 31 Cal. App. 4th at 809. However, “there is no duty to warn of a danger that is as obvious to the injured party as to the defendant.” Id. at 810.

As previously discussed, Plaintiff admits she is an experienced hiker, that she was aware that falling is a risk involved in any kind of hike on steep and uneven terrain, that she knew that the terrain she would cover for the lava hike was rugged and uneven, and that she read the Agreement and the Brochure, which both emphasize the strenuous nature of the hike, the challenging nature of the terrain and the possibility that Plaintiff would have to return to the Rangers station alone. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed offer any evidence that demonstrates the risk of falling [*21] on lava rock was any less obvious to her than it was to Celebrity. The Court grants summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim against Celebrity for failure to warn.

Conclusion

Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment, filed by Celebrity Cruises, Inc. and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures (Doc. # 40) is GRANTED. The Court directs the Clerk of the Court to enter JUDGMENT for Defendants and against Plaintiff.

DATED: November 29, 2007

/s/ William Q. Hayes

WILLIAM Q. HAYES

United States District Judge


Zip line put away for the season still found and plaintiff gets injured on rigged system.

4H Camp not liable for group of people who rig a zip line and borrow a ladder to get to the platform.

(Permanent URL)

Herberchuk v. Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc. et al., 1999 Mass. Super. LEXIS 99

Date of the Decision: 1999

Plaintiff: Alicia Herberchuk

Defendant: Essex County 4H Club Camp, Inc and Teleglobe Communications, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no duty owed

Holding: for the defendants

The plaintiff attended an event with other employees at a 4H camp that had been rented for the event. The event was not sponsored by the defendant employer Teleglobe but was an event for employees of Teleglobe.

The camp had a zip wire which had been closed for the season. The ladder leading up to the platform for the launch of the zip line had been removed and there was no pulley, harness or other equipment at the zip wire. The plaintiff had noticed upon her arrival that there was no ladder leading up to the platform.

A ladder had been found, and other people at the event were using the zip wire by holding on to a green nylon rope to ride down the wire. The plaintiff decided she wanted to ride the wire. She climbed up the ladder. The ladder that had been found did not reach the platform, and the plaintiff had to pull herself up to the platform.

The plaintiff grabbed the nylon roped and leaped off the platform where she fell injuring herself. The plaintiff sued the 4H camp and her employer. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court. The plaintiff appealed.

Summary of the case

The first issue presented was the duty of the landowner, the 4H camp to the attendees.

A property owner has a duty to maintain its property “in a reasonably safe condition in view of all the circumstances, including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding the risk.” A defendant is not required to “supply a place of maximum safety, but only one, which would be safe to a person who exercises such minimum care as the circumstances reasonably indicate.” “A landowner has no duty to protect lawful visitors on his property from risks that would be obvious to persons of average intelligence.”

The court took notice that the camp had removed all the equipment to operate the zip wire, including the ladder. The plaintiff still decided to use the zip wire knowing this. The 4H camp did not have a duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers of the zip wire because the dangers were obvious with no safety equipment or instruction on how to use it. “There is no duty to warn of dangers obvious to persons of average intelligence.”

The appellate court agreed with the trial court and dismissed the claims against the landowner, the 4H camp.

The next claim was against the employer of the plaintiff. This claim was thrown out even faster. The event was not sponsored by Teleglobe; the money for the event came from employees through a raffle. Finally, the plaintiff was not required to attend the event as part of her employment and was not paid to be there.

So Now What?

As we all know, if there is a way to have more fun or get injured humans can find it and do it.  About the only thing you could do in this case is taking the platform down or hiding all ladders at the camp.

As a landowner always understand your obligations to people on your land, whether they pay to be there or not.

If your employees want to do something like this, understand your corporate responsibilities in assisting or not assisting in the event.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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