Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)

Levine v USA Cycling, Inc., 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U)

Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

December 4, 2018, Decided

515257/15

Reporter

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 6063 *; 2018 NY Slip Op 33177(U) **

[**1] STEVEN LEVINE, Plaintiff(s), -against-USA CYCLING, INC. & KISSENA CYCLING CLUB, INC., Defendant(s). Index No: 515257/15

Notice: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.

Core Terms

Cycling, sanctioned, organizer, summary judgment, deposition, duty to plaintiff, participants, recreation, supervise, injuries, signs

Judges: [*1] Present: Hon. Judge Bernard J. Graham, Supreme Court Justice.

Opinion by: Bernard J. Graham

Opinion

DECISION / ORDER

Defendant, USA Cycling, Inc. (“USA Cycling”) has moved, pursuant to CPLR §3212, for an Order awarding summary judgment to the defendant and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s, Steven Levine, (“Mr. Levine”) complaint upon the grounds that the defendant was not negligent, and thus not liable for plaintiff’s injuries as they owed no duty to the plaintiff. The plaintiff opposes the relief sought by the defendant, USA Cycling, and maintains that the latter was negligent in that they had a greater involvement than just sanctioning the race in which the plaintiff was injured, and they failed to properly supervise, maintain and control the race in which the plaintiff who was not a participant in the race was seriously injured.

[**2] Background:

In the underlying matter, the plaintiff seeks to recover for personal injuries allegedly sustained while cycling in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York on June 14, 2014. At the same time the plaintiff was cycling as a recreational activity, a cycling event was taking place in the same area of Prospect Park. The plaintiff was cycling the same route as those participating in the event [*2] when he collided with another cyclist who was a participant in the bike race.

As a result of injuries sustained by the plaintiff, which included a fractured and displaced clavicle that required surgical intervention, an action was commenced on behalf of the plaintiff by the filing of a summons and complaint on or about December 21, 2015. Issue was joined by the service of a verified answer by USA Cycling on or about March 15, 2016. The plaintiff served a response to defendant’s Demand for a Verified Bill of Particulars dated March 24, 2016. Depositions of the plaintiff, as well as Todd Sowl, the chief financial officer of USA Cycling, were conducted on September 27, 2016.

In October 2016, the plaintiff moved to amend their complaint to add Kissena Cycling Club Inc., (“Kissena Cycling Club”) as an additional defendant. Kissena Cycling Club did not appear nor answer the complaint, but a default judgment had not been sought against said party.

In April 2017, plaintiff commenced a separate action against Kissena Cycling Club under index # 507066/2017. Plaintiff then filed a Note of Issue in the underlying action on July 25, 2017.

Defendant’s contention (USA Cycling, Inc.):

The defendant, in [*3] moving for summary judgment and a dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint, maintains that the relief sought herein should be granted because in the absence of a [**3] duty to the plaintiff there cannot be a breach and without a breach they cannot be liable for negligence.

The defendant maintains that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the event that was run by Kissena Cycling Club. They issued a permit to allow Kissena Cycling Club to use the name of USA Cycling during the event.

Defendant asserts that there is no evidence to support an argument as to the existence of a principal-agent relationship between USA Cycling and Kissena Cycling Club nor was there any evidence of control by USA Cycling or consent by USA Cycling to act on its behalf. In addition, there is no written agreement between the two entities.

In support of defendant’s motion, is the affidavit of Todd Sowl in which he stated that USA Cycling did not coordinate the Prospect Park event; did not control or employ any of the people organizing or managing or working the race; did not select the location of the race nor supervise the race. They did not have any employees or representatives at the race. In addition, they are not the parent [*4] company of Kissena Cycling Club nor is Kissena Cycling Club a subsidiary of USA Cycling.

Mr. Sowl testified at his deposition that while USA Cycling sanctions events in the United States they do not run cycling events. Mr. Sowl stated that while there are benefits to a third party such as Kissena Cycling Club for having an event sanctioned by USA Cycling which includes that a cyclist participating in the event can use the results for upgrading their national results and rankings and the third-party event organizers can independently obtain liability insurance for their event through USA Cycling, he nevertheless maintained that they have no involvement in the operation of the race or the design of the course.

[**4] Plaintiff’s contention:

In opposing the motion of USA Cycling for summary judgment, plaintiff maintains that USA Cycling was sufficiently involved with the cycling event that caused plaintiff’s injuries that would result in their owing a duty to the plaintiff. Plaintiff contends that USA Cycling was negligent in their failure to properly operate, supervise, maintain, manage and control the bicycle race.

The plaintiff asserts that USA Cycling by its chief operating officer, Mr. Sowl, [*5] in both his deposition and his supporting affidavit stated that his organization sanctioned the cycling event in Prospect Park. They collect some fees to compensate for sanctioning the event and provide insurance for the event.

The plaintiff maintains that the defendant did more than just sanction the race as they issued safety guidelines, rule books, post event forms, permits, an event checklist and insurance information to the Kissena Cycling Club, and even received a copy of the incident report.

The plaintiff asserts that negligence cases by their very nature do not lend themselves to summary dismissal since the issue of negligence is a question for jury determination. The plaintiff maintains that the proof submitted by USA Cycling does not satisfy their initial burden of establishing the absence of a material issue of fact.

Discussion:

This Court has considered the submissions of counsel’ for the respective parties, the arguments presented herein, as well as the applicable law, in making a determination with respect to the motion by defendant, USA Cycling, for summary judgment and a dismissal of plaintiff’s action.

[**5] At issue in this matter, is whether defendant USA Cycling owed a duty [*6] to the plaintiff and by virtue thereof is liable to the plaintiff for the injuries sustained during the bike tour.

The moving party in a motion for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating a prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by submitting sufficient evidence to demonstrate the absence of any material issue of fact (Drago v. King, 283 AD2d 603, 725 NYS2d 859 [2nd Dept. 2001]).

In support of USA Cycling’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant offers the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl, as well as Charles Issendorf, the event director of Kissena Sports Project Inc. d/b/a Kissena Cycling Club, who was deposed on June 14, 2018 in the related action, as well as case law which examined whether a party under similar circumstances would have been found to be negligent and thus liable to an injured party.

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must demonstrate (a) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach thereof, and (3) injury proximately resulting therefrom (Akins v Glens Falls City School Dist., 53 N.Y.2d 325, 333, 424 N.E.2d 531, 441 N.Y.S.2d 644 [1981]. In the absence of a duty, there is no breach and without a breach there is no liability (see Light v. Antedeminico, 259 A.D.2d 737, 687 N.Y.S.2d 422; Petito v. Verrazano Contr. Co., 283 A.D.2d 472, 724 N.Y.S.2d 463 [2nd Dept. 2001]).

In determining whether USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, this Court examined the role of USA Cycling and specifically [*7] its involvement in this race, as well as that of the Kissena Cycling Club. The Court further considered the deposition testimony of Todd Sowl as well as Charles Issendorf.

USA Cycling is the national governing body for cycling in the United States. They oversee the discipline of road, mountain bike, Cyc-cross, BMS and track cycling. Mr. Sowl testified that except for a few national championships, they do not actually run events. While [**6] they sanction events, the events are generally owned and operated by a third party (such as the Kissena Cycling Club). In sanctioning the race at Prospect Park, USA Cycling recognized the event as an official event and the results when considering national rankings. However, while they sanction events they do not sponsor them. The chief referee at the event is an independent contractor who works for the event organizer and not USA Cycling. Mr. Sowl further testified that USA Cycling does not share in any portion of the fees that are generated by the local events.

This lack of control over the event by USA Cycling and by contrast the control exhibited by the Kissena Cycling Club is further demonstrated through the deposition testimony of Charles Issendorf. [*8] Mr. Issendorf as the race director for Kissena Cycling Club has been organizing races for fourteen years. Mr. Issendorf characterized his club as more of a social club where its members race together. There are generally thirty races conducted between the months of March and September with the venues being in both Prospect Park and Floyd Bennett Field which is also situated in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Issendorf testified that he obtains the permit for the subject race directly from the representatives of Prospect Park. Mr. Issendorf is instructed to have certain safety measures implemented at all races. He sets up the course by putting out the safety measures which includes the safety signs that are needed for the race. He also organizes the race marshals, and the pace and follow motorcycles to ensure that there is a motorcycle in both the front and back of each group.1 Mr. Issendorf further testified that Prospect Park has rules in terms of the placement of safety cones and signs that are needed, as well as the race marshals. Kissena Cycling club provides what could be characterized as “lawn signs” and Mr. Issendorf personally places these signs in the grass along the bike route. There [*9] are also traffic safety cones throughout the course that contain a sign which bear the words “caution, bicycle [**7] race”, that are placed there by Mr. Issendorf. The signs are generally situated one hundred meters apart and they are placed at crosswalks, entrances to the park, as well as at high traffic areas where there is a concentration of people. As to the course, the two lanes to the right of a double white line is where the participants are allowed to race. To the left of the double white line is the location of the pedestrian or the recreation lane. There are written instructions on the website of the club which states that at all times the participants are not allowed to enter the pedestrian or recreation lane. The race organizers also make use of a portable PA system at the race in which the chief referee warns the riders to stay to the right of the white right lane, and if they were to cross into the recreation lane it would result in their disqualification.

This Court finds that while USA Cycling sanctioned the race of June 14, 2014, the plaintiff has not sufficiently refuted the assertion and proof offered by USA Cycling that the latter did not organize, direct, control, supervise [*10] or select the venue nor did they have any employees or agents at the cycling event, and thus, had no duty to the plaintiff. Courts have addressed situations that are akin to the case at bar. The Court in Chittick v. USA Cycling Inc., 54 AD3d 625, 863 NYS2d 679 [1st Dept. 2008]), in finding that an award of summary judgment and a dismissal of the action against USA Cycling was warranted, in which spectators were injured during a bicycle race when struck by the rear pace vehicle, determined that USA Cycling had no duty to prevent any negligence involved therein. The Court in Chittick determined that USA Cycling merely sanctioned the race by lending its name to the race. The fact that USA Cycling provided the rule book to the organizer of the race did not impose a duty upon them to enforce any of the rules thereon. There was also no inference drawn as to the existence of a principal-agency relationship between USA Cycling and the race organizer.

[**8] The Court in Megna v. Newsday, Inc., 245 AD2d 494, 666 NYS2d 718 [2nd Dept. 1997], in granting summary judgment to the defendant, determined that the defendant merely sponsored the race in which the injured plaintiff had participated. It was determined that the defendant owed no duty of care to the plaintiff as the defendant was not in any way involved in the design, layout, maintenance [*11] or control of the race course, and was not in a position to assume such control (see also Mongello v. Davos Ski Resort, 224 A.D.2d 502, 638 N.Y.S.2d 166 [2nd Dept. 1966]; Johnson v. Cherry Grove Island Management Inc., 175 AD2d 827, 573 NYS2d 187 [2nd Dept. 1991]).

This Court finds that the plaintiff has not established a prima facie case that the defendant USA Cycling had a duty to the plaintiff, and not having a duty was not negligent, and thus, not liable to the plaintiff. This Court finds that USA Cycling was not responsible for the layout and design of the race course, and all of the safety precautions that were in place on the day of the race were supervised by the employees and volunteers of Kissena Cycling Club. USA Cycling had no involvement in the positioning of the plaintiff, who was a recreational cyclist, and the riders in the race. The fact that USA Cycling sanctioned the race, provided safety guidelines on its website and assisted the local race organizers in obtaining insurance does not result in a finding that they are liable for an incident that occurred in a local race that is fully operated and managed by a local racing club.

Conclusion:

The motion by defendant, USA Cycling, Inc. for summary judgment and a dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint is granted.

[**9] This shall constitute the decision and order of this Court.

Dated: December 4, 2018 [*12]

Brooklyn, New York

ENTER

/s/ Bernard J. Graham

Hon. Bernard J. Graham, Justice

Supreme Court, Kings County


Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Core Terms

exculpatory clause, parties, enforceable, material fact, summary judgment, conspicuity, activities, minor child, initialed, non-moving, Trails, signing, Sports, waiver form, font, summary judgment motion, recreational activity, assumption of risk, intent of a party, genuine issue, legal right, requirements, membership, adhesion, rushed, ticket, ride, gym

Counsel: [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2] those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3] party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4] did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5] (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6] OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7] any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8] County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become ill, I agree that Lost Trails LLC, or any of its employees, volunteers or guests will not be held liable should they render medical assistance to me or my minor child.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

Despite not specifically initialing paragraph 10, Plaintiff did sign the agreement, indicating her acceptance and understanding of the exculpatory clauses. (Doc. 54-1).

II. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” only [*9] if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences “should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

A federal court should grant summary judgment “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.” Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court’s function is not to make credibility determinations, weigh evidence, or draw inferences from the facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Rather, the court must simply “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion,” and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). If the movant makes [*10] such a showing, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings with affidavits or declarations, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The non-movant must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case, which it bears the burden of proving at trial, because “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations and self-serving testimony, whether made in the complaint or a sworn statement, cannot be used to obtain or avoid summary judgment when uncorroborated and contradicted by other evidence of record. See Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990); see also Thomas v. Delaware State Univ., 626 F. App’x 384, 389 n.6 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential) (“[U]nsupported deposition testimony, which is contradicted by the record, is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.”); NLRB v. FES, 301 F.3d 83, 95 (3d Cir. 2002) (“[The plaintiff’s] testimony . . . amounts to an unsupported, conclusory assertion, which we have held is inadequate to satisfy the movant’s burden of proof on summary judgment.”).

As this jurisdiction of this Court is sounded in the diversity of the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), Pennsylvania substantive [*11] law will apply. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938).

III. Discussion

Defendant submits that it is entitled to judgment in its favor because Plaintiff executed a valid waiver of all liability prior to ever engaging in any recreational activities on Defendant’s property; because such releases and waivers are recognized under Pennsylvania law; and because within the waiver, Plaintiff specifically acknowledged that she was assuming all of the risks associated with these activities. (Doc. 52, at 2). In response, Plaintiff argues that Plaintiff did not sign a waiver on the date of the accident, and therefore did not waive any liability or assume any risk; that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety; that the waiver is unenforceable as not properly conspicuous; and finally, that because the earlier waiver signed by Plaintiff was “for all time thereafter” it should not be enforced. (Doc. 54).

A. The Exculpatory Clause is Valid

An exculpatory clause is valid if the following conditions are met: 1) the clause does not contravene public policy; 2) the contract is between parties relating entirely to their own private affairs; and 3) the contract is not one of adhesion. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016); [*12] Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993). A valid exculpatory clause is only enforceable if “the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. A waiver of liability violates public policy only if it involves “a matter of interest to the public or the state. Such matters of interest to the public or the state include the employer-employee relationship, public service, public utilities, common carriers, and hospitals.” Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 582 A.2d 1380, 1382 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1990); see also Kotovsky v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 412 Pa. Super. 442, 603 A.2d 663, 665 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992). The exculpatory clause at issue in this case does not contravene public policy because it does not affect a matter of interest to the public or the state. See Kotovsky, 603 A.2d at 665-66 (holding that releases did not violate public policy because “[t]hey were [in] contracts between private parties and pertained only to the parties’ private rights. They did not in any way affect the rights of the public.”). Thus, the exculpatory clause meets the first two prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity.

The contract meets the third prong of the Topp Copy validity standard because it is not a contract of adhesion. Agreements to participate in “voluntary sporting or recreational activities” are not contracts of adhesion because “[t]he signer is a free agent [*13] who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1190-91 (Pa. 2010). “The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.” Id. The Agreement at issue here is not a contract of adhesion because it is a contract to participate in voluntary recreational activities. The Agreement does not relate to an essential service, and Plaintiff was free to engage in the activity, or not, as she wished. She was under no compulsion to do so. See Chepkevich, supra; see also Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 PA Super 11, 133 A.3d 738, 741-2 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016) (en banc), appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016) (citing the “thorough and well-reasoned opinion” of the trial court, which held that the plaintiff’s gym membership agreement was not a contract of adhesion because exercising at a gym is a voluntary recreational activity and the plaintiff was under no compulsion to join the gym). The Agreement meets all three prongs of the Topp Copy standard for validity, and thus the exculpatory clause is facially valid.

B. The Exculpatory Clause is Enforceable

Even if an exculpatory clause is [*14] facially valid, it is enforceable only if it clearly relieves a party of liability for its own negligence. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016). The following standards guide a court’s determination of the enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

The Court now turns to Plaintiff’s arguments against the enforceability of the exculpatory clause.

1. Plaintiff’s first waiver is enforceable, including the clause “for all time thereafter.”

Plaintiff submits that the waiver she executed in October 2013 did not apply to her visit to Defendant on June 22, 2014, because “it is uncontroverted that the Defendant has a policy that dictates all [*15] riders must sign a waiver every time they ride an ATV at their park” (Doc. 54, at 4), and Plaintiff did not sign a waiver when she visited the park in June 2014. Defendant counters that Plaintiff is misconstruing the record in making this assertion. (Doc. 55, at 2). Specifically, Defendant submits that the testimony cited by Plaintiff is that of a former maintenance man who has nothing to do with policy or procedure at Defendant’s property, and further, that he neither testifying as a representative of, nor acting on behalf of, Lost Trails, LLC. (Doc. 55-1, at 4). The testimony offered by the Plaintiff on this issue is that of Matthew Anneman, who testified as follows:

Q: Everybody that goes there is supposed sign the waiver before they go out on the trails, is that fair to say?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you know if Miss Moncrieff signed a waiver before she went on the trail that day?

A: Yes. It is imperative that everybody who comes to ride on that mountain is to fill out a waiver.


Q: So every single time somebody comes to the facility, before they go out there, they go in and sign a waiver.

A: Yes.

Q: And you’re not involved in that part of it, the sign in, and the waiver.

A: No, no. Leslie or one [*16] of her employees would work the front desk.

(Doc. 54-1, at 12; Anneman Dep. at 36).

The Court finds this testimony to have little to no bearing on the validity and applicability of the October 2013 waiver. Even construing the evidence in the record in Plaintiff’s favor, Mr. Anneman’s testimony does not change the fact Plaintiff did sign a waiver in October 2013, one which indicated that it “shall remain binding for all time thereafter.” (Doc. 54-1, at 20) (emphasis added). Nothing in the record before the Court indicates that Mr. Anneman was responsible for either policy at Defendant’s facility, or in any way even involved with the waiver process. Further, the language of the waiver is clear. In interpreting the language of a contract, courts attempt to ascertain the intent of the parties and give it effect. Sycamore Rest. Grp., LLC v. Stampfi Hartke Assocs., LLC, 2017 Pa. Super. 221, 174 A.3d 651, 656 (2017); LJL Transp., Inc. v. Pilot Air Freight Corp., 599 Pa. 546, 962 A.2d 639, 648 (2009). When a writing is clear and unequivocal, its meaning must be determined by its contents alone. Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 Pa. Super. 324, 83 A.3d 242, 250-51 (2013); Murphy v. Duquesne Univ. of the Holy Ghost, 565 Pa. 571, 591, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]t is not the function of this Court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with … the accepted and plain meaning of the language used.” Id.; citing Robert F. Felte, Inc. v. White, 451 Pa. 137, 144, 302 A.2d 347, 351 (1973) (citation omitted). Here, the language of the waiver form (Doc. 54-1, [*17] at 20) is unequivocal in stating the intent that it is binding for all time thereafter. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated,

The word “all” needs no definition; it includes everything, and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence. If it had been the intention of the parties to exclude negligent acts they would have so written in the agreement. This paragraph of the lease is clear and unambiguous. No rules of construction are required to ascertain the intention of the parties.

Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 472, 626 A.2d 98, 100 (1993); citing Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 34, 160 A. 595, 596 (1932).

As such, the Court finds that the October 2013 waiver executed by Plaintiff was in effect during her June 2014 visit to Defendant’s property.1

2. Plaintiff’s argument that she was rushed and unable to read the original waiver in its entirety is without merit.

Plaintiff next argues that, should the Court find that the 2013 waiver was in effect in June 2014, she was rushed and therefore did not have time to read the waiver before signing it. “The law of Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract [*18] first.” Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016); In re Estate of Boardman, 2013 PA Super 300, 80 A.3d 820, 823 (Pa.Super.2013); citing Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D.Pa.1990) (citations omitted). In the absence of fraud, the failure to read a contract before signing it is “an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract.” Germantown Sav. Bank v. Talacki, 441 Pa.Super. 513, 657 A.2d 1285, 1289 (1995) (citing Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. American Emp. Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 469 A.2d 563, 566 note (1983)); see also Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Inc., No. CIV.A. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, 2013 WL 4504448, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (Under Pennsylvania law, the failure to read a contract does not nullify the contract’s validity.); Arce v. U-Pull-It Auto Parts, Inc., No. 06-5593, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10202, 2008 WL 375159, at *5-9 (E.D.Pa. Feb.11, 2008) (written release found to be enforceable even when the agreement was in English but the plaintiff only read and spoke Spanish, noting that the “[p]laintiff cannot argue that the release language was inconspicuous or somehow hidden from his attention…. Nor did Defendant have an obligation to verify that [p]laintiff had read and fully understood the terms of the document before he signed his name to it.”). In this case, there is no allegation or evidence of fraud, and as such, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.

3. The waiver is properly conspicuous.

Finally, Plaintiff avers that summary judgment should be denied because the waiver was not properly conspicuous, and relies on the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Beck-Hummel in making [*19] this assertion. The Beck-Hummel court addressed the enforceability of a waiver of liability printed on the back of a tubing ticket. The exculpatory language appeared in a font that was “just barely readable,” and smaller than the font used for some other portions of the ticket. Id. at 1274-75. The Beck-Hummel court looked to the conspicuousness of the waiver of liability as a means of establishing whether or not a contract existed, setting forth three factors to consider in determining conspicuousness: 1) the waiver’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the waiver’s font; and 3) whether the waiver was highlighted by being printed in all capital letters or a different font or color from the remainder of the text. Beck-Hummel, 902 A.2d at 1274. After considering these factors, the Beck-Hummel court could not conclude as a matter of law that the exculpatory clause was enforceable because the language of the ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous as to put the purchaser/user on notice of the waiver. Id.at 1275.

However, in a more recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the court held that, as in the case presently before this Court, where the exculpatory clause was part of a signed contract between the parties, the requirements of [*20] conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. In Hinkal v. Pardoe, the en banc Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined whether the Beck-Hummel conspicuity requirements for the enforcement of exculpatory clauses applies to signed valid written contracts. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 2016 Pa. Super. 11, 133 A.3d 738, 743-745, appeal denied, 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (2016). In Hinkal, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement with Gold’s Gym that contained a waiver of liability for negligence claims on the back page. Id. at 741. The Hinkal court found the plaintiff’s comparison of her case to Beck-Hummel “inapposite” because, unlike a waiver printed on the back of a tubing ticket that did not require a signature; the gym waiver was part of a signed agreement. Id. at 744-45. Further, the court noted that conspicuity is generally not required to establish the formation of a contract, but “has been resorted to as a means of proving the existence or lack of a contract,” where it is unclear whether a meeting of the minds occurred, and imposing such a requirement would allow a properly executed contract to be set aside through one party’s failure to do what the law requires – reading a contract. Id. at 745. The Hinkal court concluded that the waiver of liability was valid and enforceable because [*21] the plaintiff had signed the agreement. Similarly, in Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, the District Court determined that the exculpatory clauses contained in a fitness club’s membership agreements were valid and enforceable where the plaintiff had signed both a membership and personal training agreement, including an acknowledgement that the plaintiff had read and understood the entire agreement, including the release and waiver of liability, appears directly above the plaintiff’s signature on the first page of each agreement. Evans v. Fitness & Sports Clubs, LLC, No. CV 15-4095, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2016).

The Court finds the agreement at issue in this case to be far more in line with the waivers discussed by the Pennsylvania Superior and Eastern District of Pennsylvania courts in Hinkal and Evans. The waiver form in this case was two pages in length, and initialed and signed by Plaintiff. It was not, like the waiver in Beck-Hummel, printed in small font on the back of a tubing ticket. This was a waiver that was reviewed, initialed and signed by Plaintiff. As such, the requirements of conspicuity set forth in Beck-Hummel would not necessarily apply. Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d at 743-745.

Even if those conspicuity requirements applied, however [*22] the exculpatory clauses in the Waiver Form would still be enforceable. The document is titled, in larger font, bold, underlined, and all capital letters “LOST TRAILS ATV ADVENTURES WAIVER FORM.” The language specifically indicating release and discharge, assumption of the risk, an agreement not to sue, and indemnification, are set of in all capitals in the numbered paragraphs, and were acknowledged by Plaintiff initialing each paragraph. (Doc. 54-1, at 20). Immediately above the signature line, in all capital bold letters, the release reads:

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY, WAIVER OF LEGAL RIGHTS AND ASSUMPTIONS OF RISK AND FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS CONTENTS. I SIGN IT WILLINGLY, VOLUNTARILY AND HAVING HAD AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS THAT I MAY HAVE, I ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM PARTICIPATING VOLUNTARILY WITH KNOWLEDGE THAT DANGERS ARE INVOLVED AND I AGREE TO ASSUME ALL THE RISKS.

(Doc. 54-1, at 21).

These clauses are conspicuously set apart, appearing in capital letters, and in the case of the final paragraph, fully set apart, in all bold and all capitals. Further, the agreement itself is titled “Waiver Form” which notifies the reader of the purpose of the form. [*23] Plaintiff initialed the paragraphs setting forth the exculpatory clauses,2 and signed the agreement directly underneath the final, most prominent waiver clause. As such, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses are valid and enforceable. See Evans, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133490, 2016 WL 5404464, at n. 6.

IV. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, the undisputed material facts in the record establish that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Viewing the record in light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Court finds that the exculpatory clauses at issue are valid and enforceable. As such, Defendant’s motion will be granted, and judgment will be entered in favor of Defendant.

An appropriate Order follows.

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, this 29th day of August, 2018, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that for the reasons set forth in the memorandum filed concurrently with this Order, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) is GRANTED, and judgment is entered in favor of Defendant. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this matter.

BY THE COURT:

Dated: August 29, 2018

/s/ Karoline Mehalchick

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

United States Magistrate Judge


Lawsuit because a ski helmet failed to protect a plaintiff from concussion.

Is this, the beginning of an avalanche of lawsuits for concussions from people wearing helmets?

Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEIS 217233

State: Wisconsin: United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin

Plaintiff: Steven Scott Rogers, by his guardian, Tracy Rogers, Tracy Rogers, Samba Health Benefit Plan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, and State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Defendant: K2 Sports, LLC, Lexington Insurance Company, and AIG Europe Limited

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, strict product liability, and breach of warranty

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: Mostly for the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Summary

This appears to be the first lawsuit over a ski helmet not protecting the skier from a brain injury. This is just a motion hearing. However, it provides some insight into the claims and defenses that will spring up in the future if people continue to believe that human-powered recreation helmets are going to protect against concussions and fatal head injuries.

Facts

Scott wore a K2 Phase 08 helmet while skiing with his stepson Coby at the Afton Alps Ski Area in Washington County, Minnesota, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Around 8:40 p.m., Scott and Coby skied down a beginner’s run called Nancy’s Nursery. Scott fell about halfway down the hill near some small mounds called “rollers.” Coby was in front of Scott and did not witness the fall. Another skier did witness the fall, but he was not able to recall any details about it, except that the fall did not seem unusual.

The fall left Scott unconscious and bleeding from his left ear. Scott was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors conducted tests including a CT scan of Scott’s head. The accident caused brain hemorrhages and fractured Scott’s skull, left clavicle, and numerous ribs along Scott’s left side. As a result of permanent brain damage caused by the accident, Scott now lives at a VA hospital where he receives round-the-clock care.

The K2 helmet was certified as compliant with the standards of ASTM International, which is an organization that develops and [*4] publishes technical standards for a wide range of products.2 Compliance with ASTM standards is voluntary. The K2 helmet has three layers. The exterior layer is a hard-plastic shell. The shell is lined with an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) energy-attenuating layer, which is supposed to absorb and dissipate shock from a blow to the head. The third layer is a comfort liner that can be adjusted to fit on the user’s head. After Scott’s accident, the lower left rear of the exterior shell was cracked. And, in the same area, the shock-absorbing EPS layer was flattened, and chunks of the EPS were missing.

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

This was a motion’s decision. A Motion for summary judgment was filed by the defendant who was denied and motions to exclude witnesses, expert witness testimony, etc., which were denied in part and granted in part for both parties.

The main issue is, it is a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a human-powered recreation helmet manufacturer for a concussion.

The motions covered a broad range of topics; this discussion will look at the important points from an outdoor recreation perspective.

The court started by looking at the Wisconsin Product Liability statute.

Wisconsin product liability law is codified under Wisconsin Statute § 895.047.5 A product liability claim has five elements: (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous; (3) the defect existed when the product left the control of the manufacturer; (4) the product reached the consumer without substantial change; and (5) the defect caused the claimant’s damages.

The substantial change requirement is interesting. That reasoning provides a defense for the manufacturer if the retailer makes modifications to the helmet for a sale. At the same time, it is how all people in the chain of custody of a product are held liable for a product liability claim. Any of the people in the chain of custody, manufacture, distributor, retailers could have identified the defect and prevented the defective product from reaching the consumer.

Generally, product liability claims are one of three types: “design defects, manufacturing defects, and warning defects.”

Design defects are levied when the product is designed badly from the beginning. Although there are a lot of design defect claims, there are rarely judgments based on design because most manufacturers understand safety issues.

One area that does pop up in design defects is when a product is used differently from what it was originally designed. If the manufacturer leans about the misuse of the product, then the manufacturer may be held liable for injuries due to the misuse of the product.

Manufacturing defects are simply a failure of quality control. Although in this day, you would think, manufacturing defects would be rare, they occur constantly. A manufacturing defect is usually the reason for a recall of a product.

The final defect, warning defects, are the easiest and toughest at the same time. Making sure the information on how to use a product and any warnings on how not to use the product are critical. At the same time, it is difficult for manufacture to envision how their product could be used and all the risks from those different uses.

As an example, when I’m design manuals and warnings, I want the product. After I have examined it thoroughly and tried every possible way to use it improperly, I ask someone who has no understanding of the product to use it. A sixteen-year-old kid can do amazing things that no one ever envisioned with some products.

Many times, a product liability lawsuit will include a negligence claim. Here the court compared the issues of proving a product negligence claim and a product liability claim.

Plaintiffs also bring a claim for negligence. To sustain this claim, plaintiffs must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant, (2) a breach of that duty of care, (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the injury. In Wisconsin, a manufacturer’s duty of care includes the duty to safely design the product so it is fit for its intended purpose, and the duty to conduct adequate inspections and tests to determine the extent of defects.

The bold issue is another point you rarely know about. Your duty to design is just step one. Step two is you must test your product to make sure that it meets the intended purpose and the limits of your design. You design a product to do something. Once manufactured you must test the product initially and sometimes ongoing to make sure it still does what you say it will within the parameters you say it will operate.

This duty to test is increased if the duty arises from labeling or marketing. If you say the product contains X ounces of Sample or only breaks under loads greater than XX pounds you have to make sure each of your products meets that test.

The issue in ski helmets is not what the manufacturer says it can or cannot do. The issue is what the consumer believes the product will do. The consumer/plaintiff believes the ski helmet is designed to protect against a concussion, where, in reality; the design is just to slightly minimize the injury potential.

In this case, the plaintiff was claiming the helmet was defective. The plaintiff had to prove:

…a product is defective in design if the “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer, and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”

The helmet manufacturer, K2 brought up the fact that the helmet met the ASTM standards for ski helmets. That standard required the helmet to “keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.” If you look at that standard, it is minimal.

However, the ASTM helmet is not a 100% defense to a claim. It only shifts the burden to the plaintiff to prove the helmet was defective, more so since all helmet standards are voluntary.

The ASTM standards may be relevant, but they are not dispositive. If the ASTM standards were adopted by federal or state law, then K2 would be entitled to a rebuttable presumption that the helmet was not defective. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(3)(c). But the ASTM standards are only voluntary. Compliance with voluntary standards at the time of manufacturing may be evidence that K2 behaved reasonably, in defense of plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

Voluntary standards, which most standards are identified as, are really only a sword and not a shield. If you don’t meet a standard, then it is proof you don’t care, and you had a cheap product. Failing to meet a standard is better in the plaintiff’s hands to proof you were bad, rather than in the defendant’s hands as a shield.

Under Wisconsin law, the court set forth the issues needed to prove a defect based on inadequate warnings on the product or provided to the consumer.

Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings if “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the manufacturer and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a). Plaintiffs do not need to show that Scott actually read the instructions to prove causation. When a product is missing an adequate warning, the missing warning is a substantial factor in causing injury if a reasonable person would have heeded the warning and as a result avoided injury. There is a presumption that any missing instructions would have been read, and therefore a presumption of causation.

Here again, warnings are another weak shield for the defendant and a better sword for the plaintiff in litigation. Warnings show you tried to inform the consumer, or you told the consumer not to do something and they consumer did it anyway. The lack of a warning is a major sword to the plaintiff who can show the jury the lack of care and concern on the part of the manufacturer that should have and could have warned the consumer of the risk.

You can see the difference in the value of some arguments between the plaintiff and the defendant. If the defendant had the warning, it really does not matter except to hope you can argue it was written in a way that the consumer had to have seen it. If the manufacturer fails to have a warning, then the presumption is the consumer would have read the warning and not been hurt. But for the failure to have a warning, there would be no injury. If you are a manufacturer believing that since you have met the standards you are safe, you are soon to be renamed “Defendant.”

Even the voluntary part of the term “voluntary standard” can come back to haunt a manufacturer. If the manufacturer decides not to meet the standard, it is easy for the plaintiff’s attorney to argue the manufacturer did not meet the standard to save money, or because they did not care about their customers. Consequently, once a standard is created, voluntary or not, every manufacturer must meet the standard.

Worse, any standard then restricts research and development because of the fear of not meeting the standard and looking bad in court.

The motion did not look at the issues, we would like some clarification or the facts. What happened to cause the head injury that turned the plaintiff into a vegetable and more importantly, what did the plaintiff believe when they purchased the helmet.

So Now What?

The decision had a few interesting points. However, the greatest issue is the floodgates are now probably open for head injuries that occur to skiers and other recreationists while wearing a helmet. It will be interesting to see how this decision progresses through the courts and whether the issues of the amount of protections afforded versus the expectations of the consumer becomes an issue.

As the decision states. Ski helmets have limited ability to protect. The ASTM standard quoted in the decision requires the helmet to meet a simple test.

Under the ASTM standards, a helmet must keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less.

Human-powered recreation helmets, ski, bike, rollerblading, scooters, etc., only protect against minor scalp injuries, nothing more. If the NFL cannot protect football players with helmets costing thousands of dollars why to you think the piece of plastic you paid $100 is going to protect you from a concussion.

More articles about helmets

A helmet manufacture understands the issues (Uvex, Mouthguards)    http://rec-law.us/xpxX6n

A new idea that makes sense in helmets: the Bern Hard Hat    http://rec-law.us/yPerOd

Are we using safety as an excuse not to spend time with people? Is here, “wear your helmet” taking the place of let me show you how to ride a bike?    http://rec-law.us/1fqwlpV

Do you really want to sell helmets this way? Does this article promote the industry?    http://rec-law.us/NfoMTs

Does being safe make us stupid? Studies say yes.    http://rec-law.us/Ao5BBD

Great article on why helmet laws are stupid    http://rec-law.us/zeOaNH

Great editorial questioning why we need laws to “protect” us from ourselves.    http://rec-law.us/Ayswbo

Helmets do not increase risk of a neck injury when skiing    http://rec-law.us/wPOUiM

Helmets: why cycling, skiing, skateboarding helmets don’t work    http://rec-law.us/RVsgkV

Law requires helmets, injuries down fatalities up?    http://rec-law.us/YwLcea

Mixed emotions, but a lot of I told you so.    http://rec-law.us/ysnWY2

More information over the debate about ski helmets: Ski Helmets ineffective crashes were the wear is going faster than 12 miles per hour    http://rec-law.us/z4CLkE

The helmet issue is so contentious people will say the stupidest things    http://rec-law.us/zhare9

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Langlois v. Nova River Runners, Inc., 2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

Vanessa L. Langlois, Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen J. Morton, Appellant, v. Nova River Runners, Inc., Appellee.

Supreme Court No. S-16422, No. 1669

Supreme Court of Alaska

2018 Alas. LEXIS 31

March 21, 2018, Decided

NOTICE: MEMORANDUM DECISIONS OF THIS COURT DO NOT CREATE LEGAL PRECEDENT. SEE ALASKA APPELLATE GUIDELINES FOR PUBLICATION OF SUPREME COURT DECISIONS. ACCORDINGLY, THIS MEMORANDUM DECISION MAY NOT BE CITED FOR ANY PROPOSITION OF LAW, NOR AS AN EXAMPLE OF THE PROPER RESOLUTION OF ANY ISSUE.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Pamela Scott Washington, Judge pro tem. Superior Court No. 3AN-15-06866 CI.

CASE SUMMARY

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-A release entitled defendant rafting company to wrongful

COUNSEL: Mara E. Michaletz and David K. Gross, Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot, Anchorage, for Appellant.

Howard A. Lazar, Scott J. Gerlach, and Luba K. Bartnitskaia, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. Winfree, Justice, with whom Carney, Justice, joins, dissenting.

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT*

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Entered under Alaska Appellate Rule 214.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I. INTRODUCTION

The estate of a man who drowned on a rafting trip challenged the validity of the pre-trip liability release. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the rafting company. Because there were no genuine issues of material fact and the release was effective under our precedent, we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

In May 2013 Stephen Morton took part in a whitewater rafting trip on Six Mile Creek near Hope. The trip was conducted by NOVA River Runners (NOVA). This case arises out of Morton’s tragic death by drowning after his raft capsized.

A. The Release

Before embarking on a rafting trip, participants typically receive and sign [*2] NOVA’s liability release (the Release). The Release is provided as a single two-sided document. One side is entitled “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” and begins with a definition of activities: “any adventure, sport or activity associated with the outdoors and/or wilderness and the use or presence of watercraft, including but not limited to kayaks, rafts, oar boats and glacier hiking and ice climbing equipment, including crampons, ski poles, climbing harnesses and associated ice climbing hardware.” The Release then states:

Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, we wish to remind you this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.

The Release then provides a list of “some, but not all” of the “inherent risks,” including “[m]y . . . ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” and “[l]oss of control of the craft, collision, capsizing, and sinking of the craft, which can result in wetness, injury, . . . and/or drowning.” The Release next asks participants to [*3] affirm that they possess certain qualifications, including physical capability and safety awareness. The last section of the first side purports to waive liability for the negligent acts of NOVA and its employees. There is no designated space for signatures or initials on this side.

At the top of the other side, participants are asked to acknowledge that “[They] have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein” and that the agreement “shall be binding upon [the participant] . . . and [their] estate.” No terms or conditions appear on this side. There are then three signature blocks where up to three participants can sign, with space to include an emergency contact, allergies, and medications.

Brad Cosgrove, NOVA’s “river manager” for this trip, did not recall whether Morton read the Release before signing it, but stated that “[n]obody was rushed into signing” and that he “physically showed each participant” both sides of the Release. Bernd Horsman, who rafted with Morton that day, stated that he recalled “sign[ing] a document that briefly stated that you waive any liability in case something happens” but thought the document only had one side. He did not recall [*4] “someone physically show[ing]” the Release to him, but he wasn’t rushed into signing it. Both Horsman’s and Morton’s signatures appear on the Release.

B. The Rafting Trip

The rafting trip consisted of three canyons. NOVA would routinely give participants the opportunity to disembark after the second canyon, because the third canyon is the most difficult. Morton did not choose to disembark after the second canyon, and his raft capsized in the third canyon. Cosgrove was able to pull him from the river and attempted to resuscitate him. NOVA contacted emergency services and delivered Morton for further care, but he died shortly thereafter.

C. Legal Proceedings

Morton’s widow, Vanessa Langlois, brought suit as the personal representative of Morton’s estate (the Estate) in May 2015 under AS 09.55.580 (wrongful death) and AS 09.55.570 (survival), requesting compensatory damages, plus costs, fees, and interest. The Estate alleged that NOVA was negligent and listed multiple theories primarily based on the employees’ actions or omissions.

NOVA moved for summary judgment in November 2015, arguing that the Release barred the Estate’s claims. NOVA supported its position with the signed Release and affidavits from NOVA’s owner [*5] and Cosgrove. The Estate opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment to preclude NOVA from relying on the Release. The parties then stipulated to stay formal discovery until the court had ruled on these motions but agreed on procedures for conducting discovery in the interim if needed. Pursuant to the stipulation, the parties deposed Horsman and filed supplemental briefing.

In June 2016 the superior court granted NOVA’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Estate’s, reasoning that the Release was valid under our precedent. This appeal followed. The Estate argues that the superior court erred in granting summary judgment because the Release did not satisfy the six elements of our test for a valid waiver.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

“We review grants of summary judgment de novo, determining whether the record presents any genuine issues of material fact.”1 “If the record fails to reveal a genuine factual dispute and the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment must be affirmed.”2 “Questions of contract interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo . . . .”3

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1 Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 346 (Alaska 2014) (citing Hill v. Giani, 296 P.3d 14, 20 (Alaska 2013)).2 Id. (citing Kelly v. Municipality of Anchorage, 270 P.3d 801, 803 (Alaska 2012)).3 Sengul v. CMS Franklin, Inc., 265 P.3d 320, 324 (Alaska 2011) (citing Norville v. Carr-Gottstein Foods Co., 84 P.3d 996, 1000 n.1 (Alaska 2004)).

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IV. DISCUSSION

Alaska Statute 09.65.290 provides that “[a] person who [*6] participates in a sports or recreational activity assumes the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity and is legally responsible for . . . death to the person . . . that results from the inherent risks in that sports or recreational activity.” The statute does not apply, however, to “a civil action based on the . . . negligence of a provider if the negligence was the proximate cause of the . . . death.”4 Thus, in order to avoid liability for negligence, recreational companies must supplement the statutory scheme by having participants release them from liability through waivers.

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4 AS 09.65.290(c).

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Extrapolating from principles articulated in three earlier cases,5 we recently adopted, in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., a six-element test for finding effective waiver:

(1) the risk being waived must be specifically and clearly set forth (e.g. death, bodily injury, and property damage); (2) a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word “negligence”; (3) these factors must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language . . . ; (4) the release must not violate public policy; (5) if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated [*7] to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so; and (6) the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.6

The Estate argues that NOVA’s release does not satisfy this test. We analyze these six elements in turn and conclude that NOVA’s Release is effective.7

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5 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 346-48 (discussing Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004); Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628 (Alaska 2001); and Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188 (Alaska 1991)).6 Id. at 348. In Donahue, a woman sued a rock climbing gym after she broke her tibia by falling a few feet onto a mat at the instruction of an employee, and we concluded that the release barred her negligence claim. Id. at 344-45.7 Our review of the record reveals no genuine issues of material fact with respect to the existence and terms of the Release.

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A. The Release Specifically And Clearly Sets Forth The Risk Being Waived.

The Estate first argues that the Release was not a “conspicuous and unequivocal statement of the risk waived” because the Release was two-sided and the sides did not appear to incorporate each other.8 For support, the Estate cites an “analogous” Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) case from Florida for the proposition that “a disclaimer is likely inconspicuous where ‘there is nothing on the face of the writing to call attention to the back of the instrument.'”9 The Estate points out that the release in Donahue had two separate pages, and the participant initialed the first page and signed the second.10 The Estate also identifies Horsman’s confusion about whether the Release had one or two sides as evidence that the Release was not conspicuous, raising possible issues of material fact about whether Morton [*8] would have been aware of the other side or whether Cosgrove actually showed each participant both sides.11

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8 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.9 The Estate quotes Rudy’s Glass Constr. Co. v. E. F. Johnson Co., 404 So. 2d 1087, 1089 (Fla. Dist. App. 1981) (citing Massey-Ferguson, Inc. v. Utley, 439 S.W.2d 57 (Ky. 1969); Hunt v. Perkins Mach. Co., 352 Mass. 535, 226 N.E.2d 228 (Mass. 1967)).10 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.11 The Estate raises these arguments outside the context of Donahue, but we address them here.

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We note that Participants in a recreational activity need not read a release for it to be binding if the language of the release is available to them.12 We conclude that NOVA’s Release was sufficiently clear, even without an initial block on the first side. The signature page stated, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein,” but no terms and conditions appeared on this side. A reasonable person, after reading the word “herein,” would be on notice that the document had another side.

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12 See Donahue, 331 P.3d at 349 (citing Lauvetz v. Alaska Sales & Serv., 828 P.2d 162, 164-65 (Alaska 1991)).

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The Estate also argues that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised, or that they may give inadequate warning or instructions.” But NOVA’s Release, like the release in Donahue, “clearly and repeatedly disclosed the risk of the specific injury at issue”13 — here, death by drowning. Like the plaintiff in Donahue, the Estate, “[r]ather than focusing on [the] injury[,] . . . focuses on its alleged cause,”14 i.e., negligent training or instruction. But the [*9] Release covers this risk as well; it indemnifies the “Releasees” in capital letters from liability for injury or death, “whether arising from negligence of the Releasees or otherwise,” and specifically defines “Releasees” to include “employees.” In Donahue, we also observed that “[i]t would not be reasonable to conclude that [the defendant] sought a release only of those claims against it that did not involve the acts or omissions of any of its employees.”15 Thus, the Estate’s argument that NOVA’s Release “does not specifically and clearly set forth the risk that the NOVA instructors may have been negligently trained or supervised” is not persuasive.

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13 Id. at 348.14 Id. at 349.15 Id.

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B. The Release Uses The Word “Negligence.”

Donahue provides that “a waiver of negligence must be specifically set forth using the word ‘negligence.'”16 The Estate argues that the Release’s “references to negligence are inconsistent,” and therefore it does not fulfill our requirement that a release be “clear, explicit[,] and comprehensible in each of its essential details.”17 But we concluded in Donahue that similar language satisfied this element.

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16 Id. at 348.17 Kissick v. Schmierer, 816 P.2d 188, 191 (Alaska 1991) (quoting Ferrell v. S. Nev. Off-Road Enthusiasts, Ltd., 147 Cal. App. 3d 309, 195 Cal. Rptr. 90, 95 (Cal. App. 1983)).

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The release in Donahue provided: “I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to [*10] indemnify and hold harmless the [defendant] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, . . . including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [the defendant].”18 We emphasized that “[t]he phrase ‘any and all claims’ is thus expressly defined to include claims for negligence.”19

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18 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 345.19 Id. at 349.

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Here, the Release reads, in relevant part:

I . . . HEREBY RELEASE NOVA . . . WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss, or damage to persons or property incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, WHETHER ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

I . . . HEREBY INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS all the above Releasees from any and all liabilities incident to my involvement or participation in these programs, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THEIR NEGLIGENCE to the fullest extent permitted by law.

NOVA’s Release uses the word “negligence” twice, and there is no material difference between the “any and all claims” language used in Donahue and the “any and all liabilities” language used here. We therefore conclude that the Release specifically set forth a waiver of negligence.

C. The Release Uses Simple Language And [*11] Emphasized Text.

Donahue provides that The intent of a release to waive liability for negligence “must be brought home to the releasor in clear, emphasized language.”20 The Estate argues that the Release fails to use clear language or adequately define the “activity” it covered and thus does not waive liability for negligence. This argument does not withstand the application of Donahue.

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20 Id. at 348.

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In Donahue, the clauses addressing negligence “[did] not appear to be ‘calculated to conceal'” and were “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release.”21 Here, the Release uses capital letters to highlight the clauses waiving negligence. Though the clauses fall near the bottom of the page, they were certainly “in a logical place where they [could not] be missed by someone who reads the release” from start to finish, and thus under Donahue they were not “calculated to conceal.” And though these clauses contain some legalese, ” releases should be read ‘as a whole’ in order to decide whether they ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor . . . of the effect of signing the agreement.'”22 The list of inherent risks uses very simple language: “cold weather,” “[m]y sense of balance,” [*12] “drowning,” “[a]ccidents or illnesses,” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness.”

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21 Id. at 350.22 Id. at 351 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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The Release extends to other activities such as “glacier hiking and ice climbing,” but any ambiguity is cleared up by the explicit list of inherent risks relating to whitewater rafting. We therefore conclude that the Release brings home to the reader its intent to waive liability for negligence using simple language and emphasized text.

D. The Release Does Not Violate Public Policy.

Donahue requires that “the release must not violate public policy.”23 Citing no legal authority, the Estate asserts that NOVA’s waiver “unquestionably violates public policy due to its vast scope.”

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23 Id. at 348.

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“Alaska recognizes that recreational releases from liability for negligence are not void as a matter of public policy, because to hold otherwise would impose unreasonable burdens on businesses whose patrons want to engage in high-risk physical activities.”24 In evaluating public policy arguments in the context of liability waivers, we have previously considered “[o]f particular relevance . . . the type of service performed and whether the party seeking exculpation has a decisive advantage in bargaining strength because of the essential nature [*13] of the service.”25 The type of service likely to inspire additional scrutiny on public policy grounds is “a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public.'”26 Using this analysis, we deemed an all-terrain vehicle safety course “not an essential service,” meaning that “the class providers did not have a ‘decisive advantage of bargaining strength’ in requiring the release for participation in the class.”27

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24 Id. at 348 n.34 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).25 Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., 36 P.3d 628, 631 (Alaska 2001) (citing Municipality of Anchorage v. Locker, 723 P.2d 1261, 1265 (Alaska 1986)).26 Id. (quoting Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).27 Id. at 631-32 (citing Locker, 723 P.2d at 1265).

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Similarly, here, whitewater rafting, far from being a matter of practical necessity, is an optional activity, meaning that under Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc., NOVA did not have an advantage in bargaining strength. We therefore conclude that the Release does not violate public policy.

E. The Release Suggests An Intent To Exculpate NOVA From Liability For Employee Negligence.

Donahue provides that “if a release seeks to exculpate a defendant from liability for acts of negligence unrelated to inherent risks, the release must suggest an intent to do so.”28 But regardless of whether acts of negligence are related to inherent risks, this requirement is met when “the injury and its alleged causes are all expressly covered [*14] in the release.”29 The Estate argues that the Release does not suggest an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for employee negligence. We disagree.

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28 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348.29 Id. at 352.

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As we have explained, the Release specifically covered employee negligence by including “employees” in the clause releasing NOVA from liability for negligence. Because the injury — death by drowning — and its alleged cause — employee negligence — are expressly included in the Release, it satisfies this Donahue element.30

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30 We further observe that the Release’s list of inherent risks tracks some of the Estate’s allegations about employee negligence. For example, the Estate alleged that NOVA “fail[ed] to preclude those participants who were not qualified to handle the rafting trip,” but the Release discloses that a participant’s “ability to swim . . . and/or follow instructions” was an inherent risk of the trip.

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The Estate correctly notes that the Donahue release specifically covered the risk of “inadequate warnings or instructions” from employees, unlike the general reference to employee negligence here.31 Ideally NOVA’s Release would include a more detailed description of the types of negligence it covers, such as “employee negligence” and “negligent training.” But doing so is not a requirement under Donahue. We therefore conclude that the Release suggests an intent to exculpate NOVA from liability for acts of employee negligence.32

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31 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 352.32 We therefore do not reach the question whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting. See id. at 348.

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F. The Release Does Not Represent Or Insinuate Standards Of Safety Or Maintenance.

Donahue provides that “the release agreement must not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.”33 The [*15] Estate argues that the Release violates this element with the following statement: “the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled.” But this statement is introduced by the word “[a]lthough” and falls within the same sentence as the disclosure that “this activity is not without risk.” This sentence is immediately followed by a sentence indicating that “[c]ertain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the Release goes on to list 11 risks inherent in whitewater rafting. Reading the Release as a whole, we cannot conclude that it represented or insinuated standards of safety or maintenance.

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33 Id.

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We noted that the release in Donahue “highlight[ed] the fallibility of [the defendant’s] employees, equipment, and facilities.”34 Here, though the Release does not — and was not required to under the Donahue elements — go that far, it does list as inherent risks “[l]oss of control of the craft” and “sinking of the craft,” raising the possibility of human error, fallible equipment, and adverse forces of nature. The Release also [*16] makes various references to the isolated, outdoor nature of the activity — listing “[c]hanging water flow,” “inclement weather,” and the “remote” location as inherent risks.

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34 Id. at 352.

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The Estate cites Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr35 in support of its argument that the Release impermissibly both represents a standard of maintenance and tries to disclaim liability for failing to adhere to it. In Kerr, we concluded that a release that contained statements such as “[w]hile we try to make the [premises] safe” and “[w]hile we strive to provide appropriate equipment for people of all abilities and to keep the equipment in good condition” was invalid because, read as a whole, it did “not conspicuously and unequivocally alert” participants of its scope.36 We went on to hold that “[t]he representations in the release regarding the [defendant]’s own efforts toward safety suggest that the release was predicated on a presumption that the [defendant] would strive to meet the standards of maintenance and safety mentioned in the release.”37

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35 91 P.3d 960 (Alaska 2004). Like Donahue, Kerr also arose out of an injury at an indoor rock climbing gym. Id. at 961.36 Id. at 963-64.37 Id. at 963.

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But the Release in question here is dissimilar in key ways. Compared to the release in Kerr, which contained language representing safety standards throughout,38 NOVA’s Release [*17] contains only a single half-sentence to that effect, adequately disclaimed: “Although the concessionaire has taken reasonable steps to provide you with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so you can enjoy an activity for which you may not be skilled, this activity is not without risk. Certain risks cannot be eliminated without destroying the unique character of the activity.” And the release in Kerr was much broader — promising to “try to make the [premises] safe” — than NOVA’s Release, which promises merely that the company takes “reasonable steps to provide . . . appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides” while acknowledging in context that these precautions could not mitigate all the risks posed by a whitewater rafting trip. The Estate’s reliance on Kerr is thus misplaced, and we conclude that the Release does not represent or insinuate standards of safety or maintenance.

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38 Id. at 963-64.

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Because it satisfies the six Donahue elements, the Release effectively waived NOVA’s liability for negligence.

V. CONCLUSION

For the reasons explained above, we AFFIRM the superior court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of NOVA.

DISSENT BY: WINFREE

DISSENT

WINFREE, Justice, with whom CARNEY, Justice, joins, dissenting.

I respectfully [*18] dissent from the court’s decision affirming summary judgment in this case. I cannot agree with the court’s conclusions that the self-titled “Participant’s Acknowledgement [sic] of Risks”1 form actually is something other than what it calls itself — i.e., a “Release” form — and that it constitutes a valid release barring the Morton estate’s claims against NOVA River Runners.2 I would reverse the superior court’s decision, hold that the purported release is not valid under our precedent, and remand for further proceedings.

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1 The document is referred to by its title throughout, but the spelling has been changed to conform to our preferred style.2 The Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks form signed by Stephen Morton is Appendix A to this dissent.

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The court’s application of the six factors we approved in Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc.3 ignores our prior case law from which these factors derived. Most salient to the factual situation and document at issue here is Ledgends, Inc. v. Kerr, affirming a superior court decision denying summary judgment based on a release document — titled “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims” — that was far clearer, and certainly not less clear, than the purported release in this case.4 And although our prior cases about recreational releases have not focused on a document’s title, a title alerts a reader to the document’s purpose. In each case from which the Donahue factors derived, the [*19] document’s title clearly told the signer that the document was a release or that the signer was waiving legal claims. The release in Donahue was titled “Participant Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks, and Indemnity Agreement — Alaska Rock Gym.”5 In Kerr the form was a “Release of Liability — Waiver of Claims.”6 The rider-safety school in Moore v. Hartley Motors, Inc. presented the participant a form that instructed “You Must Read and Sign This Consent Form and Release.”7 Only in Kissick v. Schmierer did the title of the document not contain the word “release,” but that form, provided by the U.S. Air Force, was a “Covenant Not to Sue and Indemnity Agreement”8 — a title giving notice that the signer was surrendering legal rights before participating in the activity. In contrast, an “Acknowledgment of Risks” in no way alerts a reader of the possibility of waiving all negligence related to an activity. A title indicating that a document will release or waive legal liability surely is a useful starting point for evaluating the validity of a recreational release.

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3 331 P.3d 342, 348 (Alaska 2014).4 91 P.3d 960, 961 (Alaska 2004). The release language in Kerr was included as an appendix to our opinion. Id. at 963-64. The rejected release from Kerr is Appendix B to this dissent for ease of comparison with the purported release in this case.5 331 P.3d at 344.6 91 P.3d at 961.7 36 P.3d 628, 632 (Alaska 2001).8 816 P.2d 188, 190 (Alaska 1991).

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Consistent with the principle that the purpose of contract interpretation is to give effect to the [*20] parties’ reasonable expectations,9 our prior cases require us to consider the agreement as a whole10 and to resolve “any ambiguities in pre-recreational exculpatory clauses . . . against the party seeking exculpation.”11 The agreement as a whole “must ‘clearly notify the prospective releasor or indemnitor of the effect of signing the release.'”12 Applying these directives to the Acknowledgment of Risks form, I conclude the document does not clearly apprise participants that they are surrendering all claims for negligence by NOVA, particularly claims based on inadequate training.

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9 See Peterson v. Wirum, 625 P.2d 866, 872 n.10 (Alaska 1981). A release is a type of contract. See Moore, 36 P.3d at 630-31.10 Kerr, 91 P.3d at 962.11 Id. at 961 (citing Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).12 Id. at 962 (quoting Kissick, 816 P.2d at 191).

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As can be seen in Appendix A, the Acknowledgment of Risks form’s first indication that it might be anything more than what its title suggests appears approximately three-fourths of the way down a densely printed page that, up to that point, has mentioned only “inherent risks.” There the form asks participants for a self-evaluation of their abilities. After a line break, the form asks participants to certify that they are “fully capable of participating in these activities” and will “assume full responsibility for [themselves].” Then, without another line break or any heading to signify that the form is transitioning [*21] into a liability release rather than an acknowledgment of risks, the document sets out “release” language. While parts of this section are in capital letters, they are not in bold or otherwise set off from the dense text surrounding them. In short, considering the document as a whole, the apparent intent is to hide the release language at the very bottom of a dense, one-page document with a title completely unrelated to release of liability.

Additionally, the signature page in no way alerts the reader that operative release language is contained on another page, presumably the back side of that page. The short paragraph at the top, which the court relies on to hold that the form gave participants adequate notice of the release language, says only, “I have read, understood, and accepted the terms and conditions stated herein and acknowledge that this agreement shall be binding upon myself . . . .” While the court concludes that a reasonable person “would be on notice that the document had another side” solely because of the word “herein,” the court fails to explain its conclusion. In fact, Morton’s companion who was an experienced adventure traveler as well, Horsman, remembered the document [*22] consisting of only one page. As he put it, “[T]he way I read it is ‘conditions herein.’ Well, there’s not much herein . . . .”

In addition to the document’s overall structure, the Acknowledgment of Risks form fails to comply with several standards we previously have applied to recreational activity releases. Specifically, the mere inclusion of the word “negligence” in the release language is insufficient to make the Acknowledgment of Risks form a full release of all claims. The release we held invalid in Kerr also used the word “negligence,” but we agreed with the superior court that “[w]hen read as a whole” the purported release did “not clearly and unequivocally express an intent to release the Gym for liability for its own future negligence” with respect to all matters referenced in the release.13

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13 Id. at 963.

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The superior court’s Kerr decision, which we adopted and published as expressing our own view, highlighted the ineffectiveness of a release that did not “clearly alert climbers that they [were] giving up any claims that the Gym failed to meet the standards of maintenance and safety that the Gym specifically indicate[d] in the release that it [would] strive to achieve and upon which the release [*23] [might] have been predicated.”14 This is precisely what the Morton estate agues here: the Acknowledgment of Risks form promised participants that NOVA would provide adequately skilled guides but did not alert participants that they were giving up claims based on NOVA’s negligent failure to provide adequately skilled guides.

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14 Id.

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NOVA indicated in its Acknowledgment of Risks form that it had “taken reasonable steps to provide [a participant] with appropriate equipment and/or skilled guides so [the participant] can enjoy an activity for which [he] may not be skilled.” This is a representation that NOVA’s guides were adequately skilled to provide participants an enjoyable trip — not one fraught with danger.15 The Morton estate alleged in its complaint that NOVA’s guides were inadequately trained and did not properly screen participants to preclude those who were unable “to handle the rafting trip” from participating. Both specific allegations related to negligent training or failure to provide guides who were adequately skilled to assist unskilled participants to safely complete the trip. The Acknowledgment of Risks form, like the defective release in Kerr, can hardly be said to give a participants [*24] notice that the participants were surrendering claims related to negligent training or supervision.16

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

15 The release could be read as requiring NOVA to provide either “appropriate equipment” or “skilled guides” but not both. But a reasonable person with no skill in rafting would almost certainly infer that NOVA intended to provide both appropriate equipment and skilled guides on a trip with Class V rapids.16 See Kerr, 91 P.3d at 963 (holding that release did not bar negligent maintenance claim because release promised to “strive to achieve” safety standards).

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The court concludes otherwise because the express statement that NOVA would provide skilled guides is in a sentence that also says rafting “is not without risk” and the Acknowledgment of Risks form then lists several inherent risks of rafting. But none of the listed risks is in any way related to unskilled guides or negligence in screening other participants.17 To the contrary, the enumerated risks focus on environmental and personal factors and include natural conditions, such as “[c]hanging water flow,” “presence of marine life,” and adverse weather; personal characteristics of the participant like “sense of balance, physical coordination, ability to swim, walk and/or follow instructions” and “[f]atigue, chill and/or dizziness, which may diminish [the participant’s] reaction time and increase the risk of accident”; and the risk of an accident “occurring in remote places where there are no available medical facilities.” The Acknowledgment of Risks form does not include — as the release in Donahue did — risks related to other participants’ “limits”18 or to employees’ “inadequate warnings [*25] or instructions” that might lead to injury.19 In other words, the Acknowledgment of Risks form did not meet the fourth characteristic of a valid release — it did not suggest an intent to release NOVA from liability for negligent acts unrelated to inherent risks.20

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

17 In contrast, the valid release we discussed in Donahue explicitly listed in the inherent risks of climbing several types of possible negligence: “improperly maintained equipment,” “displaced pads or safety equipment, belay or anchor or harness failure,” “the negligence of other climbers or spotters or visitors or participants who may be present,” “participants giving or following inappropriate ‘Beta’ or climbing advice or move sequences,” and “others’ failure to follow the rules of the [Rock Gym] . . . .” Donahue v. Ledgends, Inc., 331 P.3d 342, 350 n.46 (Alaska 2014) (alteration in original).18 Id.19 See id. at 352 (holding that release at issue “expressly covered” both the type of injury “and its alleged causes,” namely “‘inadequate warnings or instructions’ from Rock Gym instructors”).20 The court states that it “do[es] not reach the question of whether employee negligence is unrelated to inherent risks of guided whitewater rafting.” It is hard to see how negligent training or providing inadequately skilled guides would ever be related to an inherent risk of guided whitewater rafting.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I also disagree with the court’s holding that a release is necessarily valid when it sets out the risk of a specific injury — death by drowning in this case — but not its specific cause — negligent training and the provision of unskilled guides. In Donahue we rejected the participant’s argument that the release did not specifically and clearly set out the risks being waived because the release not only warned of a risk of falling but also cautioned that instructors and other employees could, through their negligence, cause falls or other types of injury.21 Here the only mention of employee negligence, buried at the bottom of a densely written, single-spaced document, is a description only in the most general terms. This type of general waiver simply does not specifically and clearly set out a waiver of the risk on which the Morton estate’s claim is based. The Morton estate alleges that [*26] Morton’s death by drowning was not due solely to the inherent risks of whitewater rafting the release listed, but rather to the provision of unskilled guides who did not adequately screen other participants. The document’s general language fails to specifically and clearly set out the risk of negligence alleged here.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

21 Donahue, 331 P.3d at 348-49.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Today’s decision allows intentionally disguised pre-recreational activity exculpatory releases and effectively lowers the bar for their validity. Because the release does not meet the standards adopted in the precedent Donahue relied on — and because if the “Release” in Kerr was an invalid release, the “Participant’s Acknowledgment of Risks” Morton signed must be an invalid release — I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion concluding otherwise.


Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217233

 Rogers v. K2 Sports, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 217233

United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin

December 28, 2018, Decided; December 28, 2018, Filed

17-CV-534-JDP

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEIS 217233 *

STEVEN SCOTT ROGERS, by his guardian, Tracy Rogers, TRACY ROGERS, SAMBA HEALTH BENEFIT PLAN, BLUE CROSS BLUE SHIELD OF WISONSIN, and STATE OF WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES, Plaintiffs, v. K2 SPORTS, LLC, LEXINGTON INSURANCE COMPANY, and AIG EUROPE LIMITED, Defendants.

Core Terms

helmet, summary judgment, testing, injuries, plaintiffs’, ASTM, instructions, contends, expert testimony, warning, ski, drop, product liability, move to strike, design defect, manufacturing, time of an accident, measured, opined, centimeters, parties, loss of consortium, admissibility, inadmissible, speculation, simulation, chinstrap, requires, warranty, exposed

Counsel: [*1] For Steven Scott Rogers, By his Guardian Tracy Rogers, Tracy Rogers, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, doing business as Athem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Lexington Insurance Company, Plaintiffs, Counter Claimant, Counter Defendants: Charles M. Bye, Robert A. Parsons, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brian F. Laule, Bye, Goff, & Rohde, Ltd, River Falls, WI.

For Samba Health Benefit Plan, Plaintiff, Cross Claimant: Matthew Robert Falk, LEAD ATTORNEY, Falk Legal Group, Milwaukee, WI.

For State of Wisconsin – Department of Health Services, Involuntary Plaintiff, Plaintiff: Jesus Gabriel Garza, State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Madison, WI.

For K2 Sports, LLC, f/k/a K-2 Corporation, Defendant, Cross Defendant: Anne Marie Ellis, Gary A Wolensky, Michael Preciado, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Buchalter Nemer, Irvine, CA; Eric J. Meier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Husch Blackwell, LLP, Milwaukee, WI; Leslie Gutierrez, LEAD ATTORNEY, Milwaukee, WI; Christopher Hossellman, Buchalter, APC, Irvine, CA.

For AIG Europe Limited, Defendant, Cross Defendant: Charles W. Browning, Sara D. Corbello, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Plunkett Cooney, Bloomfield Hills, MI; Eric J. Meier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Husch Blackwell, LLP, Milwaukee, WI.

Judges: JAMES D. PETERSON, [*2] District Judge.

Opinion by: JAMES D. PETERSON

Opinion

OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiff Steven Scott Rogers fell while skiing and suffered a serious brain injury. Scott and his wife, plaintiff Tracy Rogers, contend that Scott’s helmet, made by defendant K2 Sports, was defectively designed and that the defect was a cause of his injury. They have sued K2 for negligence, strict product liability, and breach of warranty. Dkt. 32. Tracy also claims loss of consortium as a result of her husband’s injuries.1 K2 denies that the helmet was defective, contending instead that the helmet was the wrong size and that Scott had not properly fastened it, and that he was injured by direct contact with the ground.

K2 moves for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs’ claims. Dkt. 102. Plaintiffs oppose, and they move to strike defendant’s experts’ opinions that the helmet moved out of position when Scott fell. Dkt. 139.

At the heart of this case is a straightforward dispute about the role of the helmet in Scott’s injury. The court will limit the testimony of K2’s experts about how the injury occurred because some of those opinions are too speculative. But that still leaves genuine disputes about the fit of the helmet and whether it was [*3] properly designed, so K2’s motion for summary judgment will be denied.

UNDISPUTED FACTS

The following facts are undisputed except where noted.

Scott wore a K2 Phase 08 helmet while skiing with his stepson Coby at the Afton Alps Ski Area in Washington County, Minnesota, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Around 8:40 p.m., Scott and Coby skied down a beginner’s run called Nancy’s Nursery. Scott fell about halfway down the hill near some small mounds called “rollers.” Coby was in front of Scott and did not witness the fall. Another skier did witness the fall, but he was not able to recall any details about it, except that the fall did not seem unusual.

The fall left Scott unconscious and bleeding from his left ear. Scott was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors conducted tests including a CT scan of Scott’s head. The accident caused brain hemorrhages and fractured Scott’s skull, left clavicle, and numerous ribs along Scott’s left side. As a result of permanent brain damage caused by the accident, Scott now lives at a VA hospital where he receives round-the-clock care.

The K2 helmet was certified as compliant with the standards of ASTM International, which is an organization that develops and [*4] publishes technical standards for a wide range of products.2 Compliance with ASTM standards is voluntary. The K2 helmet has three layers. The exterior layer is a hard-plastic shell. The shell is lined with an Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) energy-attenuating layer, which is supposed to absorb and dissipate shock from a blow to the head. The third layer is a comfort liner that can be adjusted to fit on the user’s head. After Scott’s accident, the lower left rear of the exterior shell was cracked. And, in the same area, the shock-absorbing EPS layer was flattened, and chunks of the EPS were missing.

The parties sharply dispute what happened to the helmet when Scott fell. K2 contends that the helmet was improperly fit and not properly fastened. K2’s theory is that as Scott fell, his helmet shifted out of place and the left posterior region of his head was exposed and directly hit the ground. Dkt. 144, ¶ 38. K2 contends that the helmet only partially protected Scott’s head, and that the point of impact on the helmet was below the “test line,” which is the lower limit of the area that is supposed to be protected under ASTM standards. K2 also contends that pictures from the [*5] day of the accident show that Scott failed to tighten the helmet’s chinstrap. Id., ¶ 39.

Plaintiffs contend that the helmet did not actually meet ASTM standards. Plaintiffs’ theory is that the bottom rear of the helmet was excessively tapered at the test line. As a result of the tapering, the helmet did not afford sufficient protection against a blow such as the one Scott suffered. Plaintiffs also contend that the helmet was the right size for Scott.

ANALYSIS

K2 moves for summary judgment on the grounds that plaintiffs cannot prove that Scott’s K2 helmet was defective or that it caused Scott’s injuries. In connection with their opposition to K2’s motion, plaintiffs move to strike parts of K2’s expert evidence. The court begins with plaintiffs’ challenge to the expert evidence.

A. Plaintiffs’ motion to exclude expert evidence

Under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L. Ed. 2d 469 (1993), and Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147, 119 S. Ct. 1167, 143 L. Ed. 2d 238 (1999), the court must serve as a gatekeeper to ensure that proffered expert testimony meets the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Essentially, the gatekeeping function consists of a three-part test: the court must ensure that the expert is qualified, that the expert’s opinions are based on reliable methods and reasoning, and that the expert’s opinions will assist the jury in [*6] deciding a relevant issue. Myers v. Ill. Cent. R. R. Co., 629 F.3d 639, 644 (7th Cir. 2010). The proponent of expert evidence bears the burden of establishing that the expert’s testimony is admissible. Lewis v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., 561 F.3d 698, 705 (7th Cir. 2009).

Plaintiffs move to strike aspects of the expert reports of P. David Halstead and Irving Scher. Although plaintiffs dispute Halstead’s qualifications, the main question is whether Halstead and Scher used reliable methodologies and reasoning. The admissibility inquiry undertaken by the court “must be ‘tied to the facts’ of a particular case.” Kumho, 526 U.S. at 150 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591). The “critical inquiry” for admissibility is whether the opinion is rationally connected to the underlying data or “connected to the existing data ‘only by the ipse dixit of the expert.'” Gopalratnam v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 877 F.3d 771, 781, 732 Fed. Appx. 484 (7th Cir. 2017). Expert testimony that merely asserts a “bottom line” or provides testimony based on subjective belief or speculation is inadmissible. Metavante Corp. v. Emigrant Sav. Bank, 619 F.3d 748, 761 (7th Cir. 2010).

1. P. David Halstead

P. David Halstead is the Technical Director of Southern Impact Research Center. Halstead conducted a series of drop tests to try to replicate the damage on Scott’s helmet, and thereby to determine the amount of force that the helmet and Scott experienced at the time of Scott’s fall. Dkt. 110, at 6. Halstead offers two main opinions: (1) [*7] that the helmet was not defective, and (2) that the helmet was out of place at the time of the accident. Plaintiffs move to strike three aspects of Halstead’s report. Dkt. 137, at 6-7.

First, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion that the helmet was out of position at the time of the accident. Halstead expresses that opinion in various forms:

• “It is my opinion that Mr. Rogers’ injuries were caused by complex fall kinematics that resulted while his helmet was out of position (rotated slightly to the left and possibly higher on the right) exposing his temporal bone in the area he sustained the mastoid fracture.” Dkt. 110, at 7.

• “Mr. Rogers sustained his injuries when his partially helmeted head, with the mastoid area of the temporal bone exposed, made contact with a somewhat compliant surface such as snow substantially similar to the snow measured at Afton Alps.” Id. at 9.

• “The skull fracture is a result of functionally direct contact with the impact surface to the mastoid area.” Id.

• “Given the test results had the helmet been in position the skull fracture almost certainly would not have occurred.” Id.

The court agrees with plaintiff that Halstead has not shown that this opinion is [*8] rationally connected to underlying data.

Halstead conducted a series of drop tests using K2 Phase 08 helmets, the same model as Scott’s helmet. Id. at 6. Under the ASTM standards, a helmet must keep the user’s head from accelerating more than 300 g, meaning that the force of impact on the skull is equivalent to 300 times the force of gravity or less. Dkt. 124-13, at 3. Although these drop tests were not testing for ASTM compliance, Halstead used 300 g as a threshold for the helmet’s effectiveness. Halstead conducted eleven tests by dropping helmets on to a modular elastomer programmer (MEP), a rubber pad that is somewhat harder than packed snow. Dkt. 110, at 6. None of the drops resulted in an acceleration of more than 181 g or damaged the helmet in a way that resembled the damage to Scott’s helmet. So Halstead conducted three more tests using a harder, steel anvil. Id. at 6. One of these drops did crack the helmet, but the damage was still not as severe as Scott’s helmet.

Halstead opined that because his tests could not replicate the damage to Scott’s helmet, Scott’s helmet must not have been in place on Scott’s head at the time of the accident. Id. at 8-9. Halstead did not conduct any follow-up testing; he [*9] did not, for example, try dropping the helmet while it was out of place on the headform or try dropping the helmet without using a full-sized headform. Instead, Halstead scanned both the accident helmet and the most severely damaged test helmet with a laser. Id. After eyeballing the results of the laser scan, Halstead again concluded that the damage did not match and that therefore the helmet was not in place at the time of the accident. He opined specifically that the helmet rotated to the left, exposing the area where Scott’s skull was fractured.

Two factors that a court may consider regarding the admissibility of expert testimony are whether the expert “unjustifiably extrapolated from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion” and whether “the expert has adequately accounted for obvious alternative explanations.” Gopalratnam, 877 F.3d at 788 (quoting Fuesting v. Zimmer, Inc., 421 F.3d 528, 534-35 (7th Cir. 2005)). Both factors support striking Halstead’s opinion here. When Halstead’s test results failed to re-create the damage to Scott’s helmet, Halstead had a basis for concluding that Scott’s fall was in some way atypical. But he had no foundation to then extrapolate from these results that the helmet was therefore out of position. And he was even less justified [*10] in hypothesizing on the helmet’s exact orientation during the accident. Halstead did not confirm his hypothesis through additional testing, nor did he address alternative explanations for the damage to Scott’s helmet, such as the existence of a manufacturing defect or a weakening of the helmet through multiple impacts. And his use of laser scanning provided no additional details to support his hypothesis. Halstead simply picked one possible explanation for the test results and then assumed it was true. Halstead concedes that he is not an expert in the “full body kinematics” that are critical to understanding how Scott was injured. Dkt. 110, at 7.

Second, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion regarding the speed and force of impact on Scott’s head at the time of the accident:

Based on biomechanical testing the likely impact speed of his head to the surface was 13-14 mph or higher, head accelerations were in the range of 170 g — 220 g with angular acceleration between 7000-8000 rad/sec2.

Dkt. 110, at 7. The court will strike this opinion. Rule 702 places the responsibility on the expert to explain how his methodologies support his opinions. Metavante, 619 F.3d at 761. Although not explicitly stated, Halstead appears [*11] to have adopted these numbers from the results of his tests on the MEP pad. Dkt. 110, at 6. But as Halstead emphasized in his report, the tests on the MEP pad were unable to replicate Scott’s accident. It is not clear why the speeds and forces of impact must nonetheless be correct, and Halstead does not provide an explanation.

Third, plaintiffs move to strike Halstead’s opinion regarding the helmet’s ability to protect against high-speed impact:

“As the biomechanical testing shows the helmet, at its thinnest, well below the test line is able to take an impact at nearly 14 miles per hour with a hemi anvil and still remain under 300g.”

Id. at 7. The court will not strike this opinion, which is based on the test results. Plaintiffs suggest that Halstead is not qualified to provide “biomechanical engineering opinions,” but in their reply brief, plaintiffs concede that Halstead is an experienced technician who is qualified to conduct the type of drop testing he performed. Dkt. 151, at 2.

The bottom line is that the court will consider Halstead’s drop testing analysis, but it will not consider his testimony that the helmet was out of place at the time of the accident.

2. Irving Scher, Ph.D., P.E

Irving [*12] Scher is a biomechanical engineer at Guidance Engineering and Applied Research. Scher’s report includes two separate sets of conclusions that are relevant to summary judgment. First, Scher used computer models to determine the fit and looseness of the helmet that Scott wore. Second, Scher conducted a biomechanical engineering analysis to determine the “kinematics” of the accident—the movement of Scott’s body and ski equipment according to the laws of physics. Plaintiffs move to strike both sets of conclusions. Dkt. 137, at 7-8.

a. Helmet fit

Scher opines that the helmet was poorly fit and that it was loose enough to move out of place:

• “Mr. Roger’s head circumference at the hat line is approximately 57 centimeters. Because the head size recommended for the subject helmet ranges from 59 to 62, Mr. Rogers’ head was at or below the lower end of the subject helmet’s size.” Dkt. 107, ¶¶ 10-12.

• “At the level of the helmet brim there was at least 2 to 4 centimeters of free space between Mr. Rogers’ head and the helmet in the anterior-posterior direction, and the helmet had space to rotate 20 degrees clockwise and counter-clockwise.” Id. ¶ 13.

• “The subject helmet was not snugly fitted to Mr. [*13] Rogers’ head.” Id. ¶ 14.

These opinions are rationally connected to the reasonably reliable data that Scher considered; the court will not strike them.

Scher created a 3D computer model of Scott’s head from the CT scans on the night of Scott’s accident. Dkt. 112, at 15. Using this model, Scher calculated circumference of Scott’s head as 57 centimeters. Because the helmet that Scott purchased was recommended for head circumferences of 59 to 62 centimeters, Scher opined that Scott’s helmet was one size too large. Scher scanned an exemplar K2 helmet of the same size as Scott’s helmet. Within his computer modeling software, Scher placed the 3D model of the helmet on the 3D model of Scott’s head. Scher determined that there was at least 2.25 centimeters of free space between Scott’s head and the interior of the helmet, and that with this extra space the helmet could freely rotate 20 degrees clockwise and counterclockwise. Finally, Scher viewed photographs of Scott on the day of the accident and determined that Scott’s chin strap was “loose.” Id. at 16. Scher’s analysis of the helmet’s fit led Scher to conclude that it was possible for the helmet to move out of position and expose a portion of the [*14] posterior region of Scott’s head.

Plaintiffs contend that Scher’s analysis is unreliable because Scott’s head actually has a circumference of 60 centimeters, not 57 centimeters. Plaintiffs’ measurement comes from Tracy’s declaration that she measured Scott’s head with a tape measure. Dkt. 123, ¶¶ 7-8.3 Neither party adduces evidence showing that the other party’s measurement is manifestly incorrect, so the size of Scott’s head is a matter of genuine dispute.4 Such a dispute does not render Scher’s opinion inadmissible.

b. Kinematics analysis

Scher also offered opinions about how Scott fell and how he was injured, which Scher refers to as a “kinematics” analysis. He expresses those opinions as follows:

• “Mr. Rogers likely caught his ski edge, fell forward and leftward while rotating clockwise and continuing downhill, and contacted the left, posterior region of his helmeted head on his acromioclavicular joint and proximal humerus, a very rigid area of hard-packed snow, or both.” Dkt. 112, at 36.

• “Because the helmet was not snug on Mr. Rogers’s head and he did not adjust appropriately the chin strap, the subject helmet was able to (and did) move out of position during Mr. Rogers’s fall [*15] and subsequent head impact.” Id.

• “No snowsport helmet would be able to prevent the injuries sustained by Mr. Rogers in the subject accident.” Id.

• “The subject helmet rotated axially counterclockwise and rightwards on Mr. Rogers’ head during his fall such that his helmet was out of place and exposed a portion of the left posterior region of his head just prior to impact.” Dkt. 107, ¶ 9.

• “Mr. Rogers failed to properly tighten the subject helmet’s chin strap, which allowed the subject helmet to move out of position as he fell.” Id. ¶ 15.

• “Immediately before Mr. Rogers’ head contacted the ground, the subject helmet moved out of position, causing the point of impact to be below the helmet’s test line.” Id. ¶ 18.

• “In my professional opinion, any snow sport helmet with a similar fit and loose chin strap on Mr. Rogers’ head would have similarly moved relative to his head in the subject fall.” Id. ¶ 20.

The court will not consider these opinions because they are too speculative: there is simply not enough information about how Scott fell to support this analysis.

Based on the assumption that “catching an edge” is a common occurrence among skiers, and the location and severity of Scott’s [*16] injuries, Scher created a computer simulation using the computer program MADYMO. Scher ran several simulations in MADYMO, using different estimates for Scott’s speed and the conditions on the ski slope. Id. at 29. He tweaked the variables in the simulation until he was able to create a simulation that could result in injuries similar to Scott’s injuries. Then based on that simulation, he opined on Scott’s body movements as he fell, and the forces that Scott experienced when he hit the ground. Scher opines both that Scott’s helmet hit the ground below the test line, and that Scott hit the ground with such force that no helmet could have prevented Scott’s injuries.

Scher’s simulation, and the opinions based on it, are inadmissible because they are based on guesswork rather than the facts of Scott’s accident. An expert must show that he has sufficient data to use the methodology employed. See Gopalratnam, 877 F.3d at 781 (Rule 702 requires the underlying data to be both qualitatively and quantitatively sufficient to conduct the analysis). Opinions that are based on speculation are inadmissible. Metavante, 619 F.3d at 761. Here, there was no witness who could describe the moments leading up to the fall, no measurement or even estimate of Scott’s speed at the [*17] time of the fall, and no reliable evidence of Scott’s skiing abilities or style. The court will exclude the opinions expressed on pages 21 through 31 of Scher’s report. Dkt. 112.

Scher is free to testify that the helmet was loose and that it might have moved out of position. And he can testify that based on Halstead’s testing, and based on the literature regarding head injuries and ski accidents, it seems unlikely that a typical fall could have caused the injuries that occurred. But Scher cannot speculate that the helmet actually moved or opine on the exact location of the helmet at the time of impact.

B. K2’s motion for summary judgment

Plaintiffs bring claims under theories of strict product liability, negligence, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. K2 moves for summary judgment on all of plaintiffs’ claims. The court will grant summary judgment on only the breach of warranty claims, which plaintiffs waive. Genuine disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment on the other claims.

1. Summary judgment standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court views all facts [*18] and draws all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment will not be granted unless “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Sarver v. Experian Info. Sols., 390 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2004) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986)).

2. Strict Product liability claim

Wisconsin product liability law is codified under Wisconsin Statute § 895.047.5 A product liability claim has five elements: (1) the product was defective; (2) the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous; (3) the defect existed when the product left the control of the manufacturer; (4) the product reached the consumer without substantial change; and (5) the defect caused the claimant’s damages. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1). K2 contends that they are entitled to summary judgment because plaintiffs cannot show that the helmet had a defect that rendered it unreasonably dangerous and because plaintiffs cannot show that the alleged defect caused Scott’s injuries.

There are three different categories of defects under the statute: design defects, manufacturing defects, and warning defects. Plaintiffs concede that they do not have evidence of a manufacturing defect, but they bring alternative claims for defective design if the helmet was in place during the accident and [*19] defective warning if the helmet fell out of place before the impact. Under the first theory, plaintiffs must show that the helmet had a design defect that caused Scott’s injuries to be worse than they would have been without the defect. Under the second theory, plaintiffs must show that the helmet’s instructions did not warn users to tighten the chinstrap. K2 seeks summary judgment as to both theories.

a. Defective design

Defendants contend that plaintiffs cannot adduce evidence of a design defect and that, even if a defect exists, plaintiffs cannot show that it caused Scott’s injuries. The court will address each element in turn.

i. Unreasonably dangerous defect

Summary judgment is inappropriate when resolution of a claim requires the court to choose between opposing expert testimony. See Wipf v. Kowalski, 519 F.3d 380, 385 (7th Cir. 2008) (explaining that “in a case of dueling experts . . . it is left to the trier of fact . . . to decide how to weigh the competing expert testimony”). That is the case here. Both parties hired experts to test K2 helmets according to ASTM standards, but the experts disagree on the testing procedures and achieved different results.6

Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective in design [*20] if the “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the manufacturer and the omission of the alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a).

K2 contends that plaintiffs have not shown any evidence of a design defect. But plaintiffs’ expert, Mariusz Ziejewski, provides evidence sufficient to support a reasonable jury verdict that a foreseeable risk of harm could have been reduced by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design. Ziejewski’s report states that due to tapering at the edge, the K2 helmet does not provide the protection required by ASTM standards when struck in the lower back. Dkt. 116; Dkt. 124-7. Ziejewski further states that other helmets without this tapering do provide the protection required by ASTM. This makes the K2 helmet more dangerous than helmets from K2’s competitors.

K2 argues that Ziejewski’s report is insufficient to establish a design defect because the report does not specifically opine that the design of the K2 helmet rendered it “not reasonably safe” or “unreasonably dangerous.” Dkt. 103, at 12. But an expert does not need to parrot the exact language [*21] used in the statute. See In re Zimmer NexGen Knee Implant Prods. Liab. Litig., 218 F. Supp. 3d 700, 725 (N.D. Ill. 2016), aff’d sub nom. In re Zimmer, NexGen Knee Implant Prods. Liab. Litig., 884 F.3d 746 (7th Cir. 2018) (“Plaintiffs are not required to put forth an expert to say the magic words . . . But Plaintiffs must provide sufficient evidence to allow a jury to reach that conclusion without resorting to speculation”) (applying Wisconsin law). A jury could use the evidence in the report to find that the increased danger posed by the K2 helmet’s tapering is unreasonable.

K2 also contends that to establish a design defect, plaintiffs must show that the K2 helmet failed the ASTM standards that were in effect at the time of manufacturing. K2 argues that Ziejewski instead tested the K2 helmet according to current ASTM testing procedures. Ziejewski concedes that he used the updated procedures, but he argues that it is more accurate than the old testing standard. Dkt. 124, ¶¶ 22-23. Plaintiffs need to show only that a reasonable alternative design would have eliminated the risk of harm. Ziejewski tested multiple helmets using the same test methods and concluded the K2 helmet failed where alternative designs did not.

The ASTM standards may be relevant, but they are not dispositive. If the ASTM standards were adopted by federal or state law, then K2 would be entitled [*22] to a rebuttable presumption that the helmet was not defective. Wis. Stat. § 895.047(3)(c). But the ASTM standards are only voluntary. Compliance with voluntary standards at the time of manufacturing may be evidence that K2 behaved reasonably, in defense of plaintiffs’ negligence claim. See Michaels v. Mr. Heater, Inc., 411 F. Supp. 2d 992, 997 (W.D. Wis. 2006) (citing Getty Petroleum Marketing, Inc. v. Capital Terminal Co., 391 F.3d 312, 326 (1st Cir. 2004)). So, at trial, K2 can raise this defense in response to plaintiffs’ negligence claim. But it is only a piece of evidence that the jury may weigh when deciding whether defendants met their duty to exercise reasonable care. Id.

ii. Causation

K2 also contends that it is entitled to summary judgment because the helmet was out of place at the time of impact, so plaintiffs cannot show that any alleged defect caused Scott’s injuries. The location of the helmet at the time of the accident is sharply and genuinely disputed, so that theory provides no basis for granting summary judgment to K2.

Nevertheless, K2 contends that even if the helmet was in place, it is still entitled to summary judgment because no helmet could have prevented Scott’s injury because preexisting injuries made him particularly vulnerable. This theory provides no basis for granting summary judgment to K2 either.

K2 adduces some evidence that Scott had suffered [*23] previous head injuries. Dkt. 144, ¶¶ 45-50. But K2 has scant evidence that the prior injuries were serious ones. More important, K2 does not adduce any evidence to support the outlandish statement in its brief that “no helmet would have been able to prevent the injuries he sustained on December 31, 2015.” Dkt. 103, at 10. K2’s own proposed findings of fact undermine this idea:

Had Mr. Rogers not been wearing a helmet, his brain injury would have been at least as severe if not more severe than it was on December 331, 2015, leaving him with worse permanent residuals or traumatic brain injury, or could have even adversely impacted his survival.

Dkt. 144, ¶ 51. K2 also says that plaintiffs’ expert Ziejewski “concedes that an alternative design would not have prevented Mr. Rogers from suffering a traumatic brain injury or a subdural hematoma in the subject incident.” Dkt. 103, at 11 (citing Dkt. 144, ¶ 28). As plaintiffs point out, K2 has grossly misstated the substance of Ziejewski’s deposition testimony in this proposed fact. Ziejewski testified that a properly designed helmet would have prevented a subdural hematoma, a level 4 injury. Ziejewski acknowledged that even with a properly designed [*24] helmet, “mild traumatic brain injury” was still a possible or likely outcome. Dkt. 122, at 28:21-29:25.

b. Defective Instructions

Plaintiffs’ alternative theory is that if the helmet slipped out of place before impact, it slipped because of defective instructions. Under Wisconsin’s product liability statute, a product is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings if “foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the manufacturer and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.” Wis. Stat. § 895.047(1)(a). Plaintiffs do not need to show that Scott actually read the instructions to prove causation. When a product is missing an adequate warning, the missing warning is a substantial factor in causing injury if a reasonable person would have heeded the warning and as a result avoided injury. Michaels, 411 F. Supp. 2d at 1006 (citing Tanner v. Shoupe, 228 Wis. 2d 357, 596 N.W.2d 805, 817-18 (Ct. App. 1999)). There is a presumption that any missing instructions would have been read, and therefore a presumption of causation. Id.

Throughout its briefing, K2 contends that the looseness of Scott’s chinstrap was a factor that caused the helmet to slip out of place. Plaintiffs contend [*25] that any mistake by Scott in tightening his chinstrap was caused by the fitting instructions included with the helmet. The helmet’s instructions state that the helmet should be snug and that after adjusting the straps and pads, “the skin on your forehead should move with the helmet.” Dkt. 145, ¶ 10. The instructions do not include specific directions on the tightness of the chinstrap. A reasonable jury could find that this instruction does not warn consumers that they need to tighten the chinstrap in addition to adjusting the pads and comfort liner.

K2 contends that plaintiffs are required to adduce expert testimony regarding the effectiveness of product warnings. Dkt. 103, at 15. But K2 cites no case in which expert testimony was required to show that a warning was defective. Under Wisconsin law, expert testimony is required only if the court finds that “the underlying issue is not within the realm of the ordinary experience of mankind.” State v. Kandutsch, 2011 WI 78, ¶ 28, 336 Wis. 2d 478, 799 N.W.2d 865 (internal quotations omitted). And Wisconsin courts have declined to require expert testimony in cases involving much more complex issues than these fitting instructions. See Lindeman v. Mt. Olympus Enterprises, Inc., No. 14-cv-435, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105756, 2015 WL 4772925, at *3 (W.D. Wis. Aug. 12, 2015) (collecting cases). [*26] Here, the instructions are written in plain language, and the act of reading and following instructions is well within the ordinary experience of mankind.

The court denies K2’s motion for summary judgment on the defective instructions claim.

3. Negligence claim

Plaintiffs also bring a claim for negligence. To sustain this claim, plaintiffs must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care on the part of the defendant, (2) a breach of that duty of care, (3) a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) actual loss or damage resulting from the injury. Smaxwell v. Bayard, 2004 WI 101, ¶ 32, 274 Wis. 2d 278, 682 N.W.2d 923. In Wisconsin, a manufacturer’s duty of care includes the duty to safely design the product so it is fit for its intended purpose, and the duty to conduct adequate inspections and tests to determine the extent of defects. Wis. Civil Jury Instructions § 3200(2).

K2 contends that plaintiffs have not adduced evidence of “specific acts of negligence.” Dkt. 103, at 17. But plaintiffs can rely on the same evidence used to establish their product liability claims. Although negligence and product liability are alternative theories of liability, there is significant overlap between the two. See Krien v. Harsco Corp., 745 F.3d 313, 317 (7th Cir. 2014) (“[A] [*27] claim of strict products liability is much like a negligence claim because it requires proof either that the product was unreasonably dangerous or, what amounts to the same thing, that it was defective”). Plaintiffs’ expert testimony from Ziejewski is sufficient to create a material dispute regarding whether K2 breached its duty to design a product that was safe for skiers.

4. Breach of warranty claim

K2 moves for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty on two grounds. Dkt. 103, at 17-18. First, K2 contends that under Austin v. Ford Motor Co., claims for breach of warranty cannot be brought when the plaintiff has a tort claim. See 86 Wis.2d 628, 273 N.W.2d 233, 240 (1979) (“[I]t is inappropriate to bring an action for breach of warranty where a tort remedy is sought”). Second, K2 contends that there is no privity of contract between plaintiffs and K2. See St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. v. Viking Corp., 539 F.3d 623, 626 (7th Cir. 2008) (Wisconsin law requires privity of contract between parties before liability can be founded on breach of express or implied warranty).

Plaintiffs have not substantively responded to either of these arguments. Dkt. 137, at 52-53. Failure to respond to an argument can result in waiver or forfeit of a claim. Nichols v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 509 F. Supp. 2d 752, 760 (W.D. Wis. 2007) (collecting cases). Because plaintiffs did not [*28] respond to K2’s arguments regarding privity or the ability to bring warranty claims in a tort case, the court will grant summary judgment for K2 on plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty.

5. Loss of consortium claim

K2 moves for summary judgment on Tracy’s loss of consortium claim because it is derivative of Scott’s injuries. Because the court denies summary judgment on Scott’s product liability and negligence claims, it will also deny summary judgment on Tracy’s claim for loss of consortium.

K2 also moves to dismiss Tracy’s claim on the ground that plaintiffs have not properly pleaded loss of consortium in their amended complaint. Plaintiffs’ amended complaint does not include “loss of consortium” as an independent cause of action, but it does include allegations that “Plaintiff Tracy Rogers . . . has been deprived of the services, society, companionship and consortium of Scott Rogers as a proximate result of his enhanced injuries.” Dkt. 32, ¶ 23. K2 contends that this is insufficient under the plausible pleading standard of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).

Plaintiffs’ allegations are sufficient to state a claim. Even post-Iqbal, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only “adequate notice of the scope of, and basis for” the asserted claims. [*29] Avila v. CitiMortgage, Inc., 801 F.3d 777, 783 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing Vincent v. City Colleges of Chi., 485 F.3d 919, 923 (7th Cir.2007)). Here, K2 had adequate notice that Tracy was seeking relief for loss of consortium as a result of the enhanced injuries caused by the K2 helmet.

C. Additional motions and requests for relief

As a final matter, plaintiffs ask the court to deny certain requests by K2 that plaintiffs contend were improperly included in K2’s summary judgment reply. Dkt. 149. Some of the “motions” to which plaintiffs refer are objections to allegedly inadmissible evidence—objections that K2 is allowed to raise during summary judgment. For example, K2 objects that the declarations from Tracy and Ziejewski, first produced with plaintiffs’ summary judgment opposition, are untimely expert testimony. Dkt. 143, at 3-10. There is nothing improper about K2 making these objections in its summary judgment reply. (The court has overruled the objection to Tracy’s declaration, and it has not considered the Ziejewski declaration. Whether the Ziejewski evidence will be allowed at trial will be addressed later at the final pretrial conference.)

But K2 requests two additional forms of relief in its reply brief. First, K2 contends that plaintiffs should be sanctioned for spoliation because Tracy adjusted the helmet’s [*30] comfort liner and therefore altered it from its condition at the time of the accident. Dkt. 143, at 7-8 fn. 7. Second, K2 contends that plaintiffs did not disclose the existence of Scott’s ski goggles and must be ordered to turn them over. Id. at 8.

A party may not raise new issues in a reply brief. See Casna v. City of Loves Park, 574 F.3d 420, 427 (7th Cir. 2009). In any event, both of K2’s requests for additional relief are undeveloped. The spoliation arguments are relegated to a footnote. And both requests misconstrue the history of this case. K2’s own experts previously removed the helmet’s comfort lining at issue. Dkt. 112, at 10-11. And K2 was already aware of Scott’s goggles, Dkt. 130 (Tracy dep. 33:9-17), and Halstead included a pair of goggles as a factor in his testing. Dkt. 110, at 4. The court will deny K2’s requests for additional relief, thus granting plaintiffs’ request.

ORDER

IT IS ORDERED that:

1. Plaintiffs motion to exclude the opinion testimony of K2’s experts, Dkt. 139, is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, as provided in this opinion.

2. Defendant K2’s motion for summary judgment, Dkt. 102, is DENIED for the most part. The motion is GRANTED only with respect to plaintiffs’ claims for breach of warranty.

3. Plaintiffs Scott Rogers and [*31] Tracy Rogers’ motion, Dkt. 149, for summary denial of K2’s motions is GRANTED in part. The court denies defendant K2’s motions to produce ski goggles and to sanction plaintiffs for spoliation.

4. Pursuant to the parties’ stipulation, Dkt. 250, all claims as to defendants Lexington Insurance Company and AIG Europe Limited are DISMISSED without prejudice.

Entered December 28, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ JAMES D. PETERSON

District Judge


Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.

Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.

Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788

State: Wyoming

Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs

Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages

Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act

Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff

Year: 2009

Summary

Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.

The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.

Facts

Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”

On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.

During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.

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

The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.

Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.

In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”

The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.

The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.

Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.

Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.

The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.

The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:

Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.

The court then reviewed the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act. The plaintiff’s argued the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply for three reasons.

First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.

Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.

Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.

The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.

The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”

The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.

The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.

‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”

[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]

Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.

In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.

The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”

However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)

Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.

The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.

The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:

To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation

The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.

The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.

Punitive damages in Wyoming are:

We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”

Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.

So Now What?

Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.

There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.

Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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A fly-fishing lawsuit, a first.

Montana Federal Court covers a lot of interesting legal issues for the OR industry in this decision. However, defendant is in a tough position because the statutes provide no help, he can’t use a release and probably like most fly-fishing guides; he believes he won’t be sued.

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

State: Montana

Plaintiff: Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, and Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin

Defendant: James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Holding: Split, mostly for the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

At the end of a float fly fishing trip, the boat hit a rock throwing the deceased into the river. While attempting to get the deceased back in the boat the deceased partner fell in. The deceased yelled to grab her because she could not swim. The defendant grabbed the girlfriend and maneuvered the boat through rapids.

The deceased drowned, (supposedly). Neither were wearing PFDs.

Facts

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

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

Only the legal issues affecting fly fishing or the outdoor industry will be reviewed. This decision is a result of both parties filing motions for summary judgment, so there is no chronological hierarchy of how the decision is written. Each motion is tackled by the judge in the order to make the following arguments more manageable.

A few things to remember. Montana does not allow an outfitter or guide to use a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

Both parties filed motions concerning the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (MRRA). The MRRA is similar to the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, both of which are solely assumption of the risk statutes and weak overall. The plaintiff argued the MRRA was unconstitutional on several grounds, all of which were denied. The defendant argued the MRRA should bar the plaintiff’s claims which were also denied.

The first issue was inherent risks under the MRRA are not defined per activity or in general.

Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

This leaves a monstrous gap in the protection it affords, in fact, does not afford outfitters and guides in Montana any real protection.

The court did not agree that the MRRA was broad enough to protect the defendant in this case.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Because there was a genuine issue of material fact (a mix of plausible opinions) the MRRA was not broad or strong enough to stop the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s motion failed.

The plaintiff argued the MRRA was void because it was vague, it did not define inherent risk.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.”

The plaintiff also argued that because the MRRA did not define risk that it was void.

A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning.

The plaintiff argued they should be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”).

To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” The question of whether the threshold level of emotional dis-tress can be found is for the Court to determine. (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plain-tiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional dis-tress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event.

The plaintiff also argued they should be able to sue for loss of consortium.

Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.”

In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.”

The court then looked at the issue of abnormally dangerous. A finding of that an activity is abnormally dangerous brings more damages and fewer requirements to prove part of the negligence of the defendant.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

So Now What?

A statute that protects defendants based on assumption of the risk does so because it identifies specific risk and broadens the definitions of what an inherent risk is. An example would be the Colorado Skier Safety Act. That act describes the inherent risk of skiing and then adds dozens of more risk, which are beyond the normal scope of inherent.

Both the MRRA and the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act statutorily defines the common law but does nothing to broaden or strengthen the common law. They could better be defined as politically pandering, an attempt by a politician to make constituents feel better by giving them something, which, in reality, has no value.

The fly-fishing outfitter was caught in Montana’s lack of available defenses, no statutory protection and no availability of a release. He might be able to strengthen his defenses by having his clients sign an Assumption of the Risk Document. He also might offer them PFDs.

Furthermore, remember in most whitewater or cold-water deaths drowning is not the cause of the death. Most people die of a heart attack. risk or Wikipedia: Cold Shock Response.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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