It sucks when you lose a case and in a separate case, the decision in the first case you lost is used against you in the second case.

Blue Diamond MX Park was sued by a participant in a race for the injuries he received during a race. The release he signed an assumption of the risk did not stop his claim for recklessness.

Citation: Barth v. Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), 2017 Del. Super. LEXIS 615, 2017 WL 5900949

State: Delaware, Superior Court of Delaware

Plaintiff: Scott Barth

Defendant: Blue Diamond, LLC (d/b/a Blue Diamond MX Park), a Delaware corporation, The East Coast Enduro Association, Inc., a New Jersey corporation, and Delaware Enduro Riders, Inc., a Delaware corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligent and reckless failure to properly mark the race’s course caused his injuries

Defendant Defenses: Release and Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

This case is another mountain-bike race case with the same defendant as an earlier case in Delaware. Delaware allows a release to be used; however, in both of these cases, the appellate court worked hard to find a way around the release.

Facts

The only facts in the case are: “The plaintiff, Scott Barth, suffered serious injuries during an off-road dirt-bike race.”

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

The court started its analysis looking at Primary Assumption of the Risk.

In Delaware, “primary assumption of the risk is implicated when the plaintiff expressly consents ‘to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.'”[7] When primary assumption of risk exists, “the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no legal duty, he or she cannot be charged with negligence.”

The court then looked at the release.

The plaintiff argued the release was not valid because it lacked consideration, and the release does not release the defendant from liability for recklessness.

To be enforceable under Delaware law, releases of liability “must be crystal clear and unequivocal” and “unambiguous, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.” Barth does not (and cannot) argue that the waiver form at issue does not meet this standard. In Lynam v. Blue Diamond LLC, this Court found a virtually identical release form valid.

The plaintiff argued the release was not valid based on lack of consideration. The lack of consideration was based on the fact he did not walk or ride the course in advance. Another case in Delaware had held the release was invalid because the riders were required to walk the course and never given the opportunity to do so.

In this case the riders were told, they could walk or ride the course. The plaintiff never did. Not taking advantage of the offer is not a case for claiming the release is invalid.

Barth cannot claim he was denied permission if he never asked for it. Additionally, the “failure to apprise himself of, or otherwise understand the language of a release that he is asked to sign is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate the release.” The Court finds that Barth’s own failure to perform a permissive part of the agreement does not make the waiver invalid.

The court then switched back to the issue of recklessness and held the release could not preclude a claim for recklessness. “The Court finds that the waiver form releases the defendants from their liability for negligence, but not for recklessness.”

The court then went back to primary assumption of the risk and found that primary assumption of the risk does not bar a claim for recklessness.

Primary assumption of the risk in Delaware applies to sports-related activities that involve physical skill and pose a significant risk of injury to participants. Primary assumption of the risk in can be only with specific activities.

Delaware cases have noted that primary assumption of risk commonly applies to “sports-related activities that ‘involv[e] physical skill and challenges posing significant risk of injury to participants in such activities, and as to which the absence of such a defense would chill vigorous participation in the sporting activity and have a deleterious effect on the nature of the sport as a whole.'”

So far, Delaware has found that primary assumption of the risk applies to:

(1) being a spectator at a sporting event such as a baseball or hockey game or tennis match where projectiles may be launched into the audience; (2) participating in a contact sporting event; (3) bungee jumping or bungee bouncing; (4) operating a jet-ski, or engaging in other noncompetitive water sports such as water-skiing, tubing, or white-water rafting; (5) drag racing; and (6) skydiving.[

Relying on a California case, the court looked at the requirements for an activity. That analysis must cover the nature of the activity and the relationship between the parties.

An analysis of the nature of the activities the courts must consider:

what conditions, conduct or risks that might be viewed as dangerous in other contexts are so integral to or inherent in the activity itself that imposing a duty of care would either require that an essential aspect of the sport be abandoned, or else discourage vigorous participation therein. In such cases, defendants generally do not have a duty to protect a plaintiff from the inherent risks of the sport, or to eliminate all risk from the sport.

In reviewing the relationship of the parties, the court must look at:

the general duty of due care to avoid injury to others does not apply to coparticipants in sporting activities with respect to conditions and conduct that might otherwise be viewed as dangerous but upon examination are seen to be an integral part of the sport itself.

In Delaware, secondary assumption of the risk was incorporated into Delaware’s contributory negligence statute and is no longer available as a complete defense. Secondary Assumption of the Risk occurs when “the plaintiffs conduct in encountering a known risk may itself be unreasonable, because the danger is out of proportion to the advantage which he is seeking to obtain.”

The court then found that primary assumption of the risk is still a valid defense to negligence. The court then found that the release the plaintiff signed was the same as primary assumption of the risk.

The Court finds that implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to negligence. Because Barth signed a valid release of liability for Defendants’ negligence, the remaining issue in this case is whether implied primary assumption of risk is a valid affirmative defense to allegations of recklessness as well.

As in other states, the defense provided by primary assumption of the risk is based on the duty of the defendants not to increase the harm beyond what is inherent in the sport.

Though defendants do not owe a duty to protect a plaintiff from the risks inherent in an activity to which the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk applies, “defendants do have a duty not to increase the risk of harm beyond what is inherent in the sport through intentional or reckless behavior that is completely outside the range of the ordinary activity in the sport.”

The issue of recklessness came back, and the court seemed to combine that issue as one where the defendant increased the risks to the plaintiff.

Here, the Court has ruled as a matter of law that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendants recklessly marked the course with inadequate signage. The Court finds there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Defendants committed reckless conduct, which increased the race’s risk of harm. Further, the Court holds that the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk does not insulate a tortfeasor from liability for intentional or reckless conduct.

The case continued with an unknown final outcome.

So Now What?

Because of these two cases, I think first I would require all participants in the race to ride or walk the course. This would reinforce the assumption of risk argument. I would then write the release to point out the fact the rider had seen the course and had no problems with it.

The analysis of primary assumption of risk in this and many other cases creates a gap in the defenses of many activities that can only be covered by a release, even in Delaware. Primary Assumption of the risk covers the inherent risks of the activity. Defendants are liable for any increase in the risk to the plaintiffs. There is an ocean of risks that a court can find that are not inherent in the activities that are not really under the control or something the defendant can do to decrease and/or is something the defendant has not done that increased the risks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Kang v. LA Fitness, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 179934, 2016 WL 7476354

Soon Ja Kang Plaintiff,

LA Fitness, LA Fitness of South Plainfield, John Does 1-5, et al., Defendants.

Civil No. 2:14-cv-07147 (KSH) (CLW)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 29, 2016

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

Before the Court is defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause in a fitness center membership agreement with plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the liability waiver to be valid and enforceable and defendants’ motion is granted.

I. Background

Fitness International, LLC d/b/a LA Fitness (incorrectly designated as LA Fitness of South Plainfield) (“LA Fitness”) operates a fitness facility located in Piscataway, NJ. See Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (“SOF”) (D.E. 19), at ¶ 1. On December 30, 2013, plaintiff Soon Ja Kang went to LA Fitness with her husband to sign up for membership. Id. at ¶ 2. The membership agreement she signed states in relevant part:

IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY. You hereby acknowledge and agree that use by Member and/or Member’s minor children of LA Fitness’ facilities, services, equipment or premises, involves risks of injury to persons and property, including those described below, and Member assumes full responsibility for such risks. In consideration of Member and Member’s minor children being permitted to enter any facility of LA Fitness (a “Club”) for any purpose including, but not limited to, observation, use of facilities, services or equipment, or participation in any way, Member agrees to the following: Member hereby releases and holds LA Fitness, its directors, officers, employees, and agents harmless from all liability to Member, Member’s children and Member’s personal representatives, assigns, heirs, and next of kin for any loss or damage, and forever gives up any claim or demands therefore, on account of injury to Member’s person or property, including injury leading to the death of Member, whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, to the fullest extent permitted by law, while Member or Member’s minor children are in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment. Member also hereby agrees to indemnify LA Fitness from any loss, liability, damage or cost LA Fitness may incur due to the presence of Member or Member’s children in, upon or about the LA Fitness premises or in any way observing or using any facilities or equipment of LA Fitness whether caused by the negligence of Member(s) or otherwise. You represent (a) that Member and Member’s minor children are in good physical condition and have no disability, illness, or other condition that could prevent Member(s) from exercising without injury or impairment of health, and (b) that Member has consulted a physician concerning an exercise program that will not risk injury to Member or impairment of Member’s health. Such risk of injury includes (but is not limited to): injuries arising from use by Member or others of exercise equipment and machines; injuries arising from participation by Member or others in supervised or unsupervised activities or programs at a Club; injuries and medical disorders arising from exercising at a Club such as heart attacks, strokes, heat stress, sprains, broken bones, and torn muscles and ligaments, among others; and accidental injuries occurring anywhere in Club dressing rooms, showers and other facilities. Member further expressly agrees that the foregoing release, waiver and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the law of the State of New Jersey and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full force and effect. Member has read this release and waiver of liability and indemnity clause, and agrees that no oral representations, statements or inducement apart from this Agreement has been made.

LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7).

Kang and her husband do not read or understand English, but their daughter was present to translate for them when they signed up. See SOF, at ¶¶ 4-5. Kang signed a membership agreement. She did not initial next to the waiver and liability provision in her membership agreement; however, her husband was asked to initial next to the same provision in his membership agreement, and he did so. Id. at ¶ 6.

On December 31, 2013, Kang was injured while working out on a chin/dip assist pull up machine at LA Fitness’s Piscataway location. See SOF, at ¶¶ 2, 7. She filed the instant action on September 29, 2014 in state court, and LA Fitness filed a notice of removal in this Court on November 14, 2014 on the basis of diversity jurisdiction (D.E. 1). The complaint alleges that Kang was injured as a result of negligence on the part of LA Fitness. Id. Prior to completion of expert discovery, LA Fitness moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the waiver and liability provision bars the instant action. The motion was fully briefed. (D.E. 22, 25, 26).

The Court makes its decision on the paper.

II. Discussion

A. Standard

Summary judgment is warranted where the moving party demonstrates that “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), (c). The parties have conducted discovery on the circumstances surrounding the formation of Kang’s membership agreement and, as set forth in the analysis below, all facts relevant to the enforceability of the waiver provision are essentially undisputed as set forth in the Final Pretrial Order Stipulation of Facts (D.E. 19). In determining whether the waiver provision is enforceable as a matter of law, the Court “view[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to [Kang] and draw[s] all justifiable, reasonable inferences in [her] favor.” Sgro v. Bloomberg L.P., 331 F.Appx. 932, 937 (3d Cir. 2009).

B. Analysis

Pursuant to the release and waiver of liability provision in her membership agreement, Kang released and held LA Fitness harmless for all injuries she might suffer “whether caused by the active or passive negligence of LA Fitness or otherwise, ” while she was “in, upon, or about LA Fitness’ premises or using any LA Fitness facilities, services or equipment.” LA Fitness Moving Br., Exh. E (D.E. 22-7). As her negligence claim for an injury allegedly sustained while using a piece of workout equipment at an LA Fitness facility clearly falls within the ambit of the liability waiver, the issue becomes whether the waiver itself is enforceable against Kang on the facts of this case.

In Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 408 N.J.Super. 435, 454 (App. Div. 2009), aff’d, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the enforceability of exculpatory releases in fitness center membership agreements:

Such a release is enforceable only if: (1) it does not adversely affect the public interest; (2) the exculpated party is not under a legal duty to perform; (3) it does not involve a public utility or common carrier; or (4) the contract does not grow out of unequal bargaining power or is otherwise unconscionable.

Id. The third factor is inapplicable here, because LA Fitness is not a public utility or common carrier. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 6. The Court analyzes the remaining Stelluti factors in turn.

1. Does the Exculpatory Clause Adversely Affect the Public Interest?

LA Fitness argues that the exculpatory clause in this case does not adversely affect the public interest because it is “a facility that encourages New Jersey’s public policy promoting physical fitness.” LA Fitness Moving Br., at p. 6. Noting the important policy objective of promoting public health, the Stelutti court held:

[W]e are satisfied that, at least with respect to equipment being used at the club in the course of an exercise class or other athletic activity, the exculpatory agreement’s disclaimer of liability for ordinary negligence is reasonable and not offensive to public policy.

Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court agrees with the analysis in Stelluti and finds that the exculpatory clause here does not adversely affect the public interest, at least to the extent that it purports to exculpate LA Fitness with respect to acts or omissions amounting to ordinary negligence.

Kang argues that public policy promoting physical fitness “cannot counteract the other public policy reasons that are in place to protect against improper liability waivers.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 7. To that end, she argues that the release in this case violates the New Jersey Plain Language Act, which states that “[a] consumer contract entered into on or after the effective date of this amendatory and supplementary act shall be written in a simple, clear, understandable and easily readable way.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-2. Specifically, Kang argues that the small font size and margins in the contract are such that “[s]omeone who can read and understand English would be substantially confused by this agreement[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8.

To determine whether the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act, the Court turns to the plain language of the act itself. Section 56:12-10 provides:

To insure that a consumer contract shall be simple, clear, understandable and easily readable, the following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether a consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Cross references that are confusing;

(2) Sentences that are of greater length than necessary;

(3) Sentences that contain double negatives and exceptions to exceptions;

(4) Sentences and sections that are in a confusing or illogical order;

(5) The use of words with obsolete meanings or words that differ in their legal meaning from their common ordinary meaning;

(6) Frequent use of Old English and Middle English words and Latin and French phrases.

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10. Section 56:12-10 further provides:

The following are examples of guidelines that a court . . . may consider in determining whether the consumer contract as a whole complies with this act:

(1) Sections shall be logically divided and captioned;

(2) A table of contents or alphabetical index shall be used for all contracts with more than 3, 000 words;

(3) Conditions and exceptions to the main promise of the agreement shall be given equal prominence with the main promise, and shall be in at least 10 point type.

Id. A Court has discretion as to how much consideration should be given to the above-listed statutory guidelines in finding a violation of the act. See Boddy v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Companies, 334 N.J.Super. 649, 655 (App. Div. 2000).

Reviewing Kang’s membership agreement in light of the above guidelines, the Court finds that the waiver provision does not violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act. The waiver provision does not contain any cross references, nor does it contain any double negatives or exceptions to exceptions. It does not contain words with obsolete meanings, nor is it clouded by the use of Old English, Middle English, Latin or French phrases. And Kang does not argue-nor does the Court find-that the sentences of the waiver provision are set forth in a confusing or illogical order.

Instead, Kang argues that the waiver provision violates the Plain Language Act because “[t]he size of the font (print) is about size 8, whereas the standard size used in everyday documents is size 12[, ]” and because “[t]he margins on the sides of the pages are about 0.5 inch . . . reflecting the intentions of the drafter to squeeze in additional words.” Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, applying the above guidelines, the Court does not find that the waiver provision in this case is any less prominent that the remainder of the agreement. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:12-10b(3). To the contrary, the waiver and liability provision is the only clause in the membership agreement preceded by a title in all caps (“IMPORTANT: RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY”), and it is the only clause that is fully enclosed by a border, creating a visual separation between the waiver and the rest of the agreement.

The Court finds that the waiver provision in this case does not offend public policy under Stelluti and does not otherwise violate the New Jersey Plain Language Act.

2. Is LA Fitness Under a Legal Duty To Perform?

LA Fitness argues that its relationship with Kang does not create any duties prescribed by statute or regulation. See LA Fitness Moving Br., at pp. 6-8. New Jersey courts have found liability waivers to be invalid as against public policy where they conflict with legislatively imposed duties. For example, in Hy-Grade Oil Co. v. New Jersey Bank, 138 N.J.Super. 112, 118 (App. Div. 1975), the court found it against public policy for a bank to exculpate itself from liability or responsibility for negligence in the performance of its function as a night depository service, in part due to the “extensive statutory regulations covering every phase of the banking business[.]” Id. at 118. Similarly, in McCarthy v. Nat’l Ass’n for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., 48 N.J. 539, 543 (1967), the New Jersey Supreme Court held a liability waiver invalid as against public policy because it purported to contract away safety requirements prescribed by statute dealing with motor vehicle racing. See id. at 543 (“[t]he prescribed safety requirements may not be contracted away, for if they could be the salient protective purposes of the legislation would largely be nullified”).

Kang argues that “although there are no statutes specific to fitness centers, there are several national associations that have established standards that apply to the fitness industry[.]” Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 8-9. However, there is no indication that these national standards apply with the force of law in New Jersey so as to constitute public policy of the state. Kang further argues that the Stelluti court acknowledged the well-established duties of care that New Jersey business owners owe to patrons that enter their premises. See Kang Opp. Br., at p. 8. However, as noted above in Part B.1. supra, Stelluti expressly held that fitness center liability waivers such as the one at issue here do not violate public policy at least to the extent that they exculpate for ordinary negligence. Stelluti, 408 N.J.Super. at 459. The Court finds that LA Fitness is not under any legal duty that precludes its reliance on the liability waiver in this case.

3. Does the Contract Grow Out of Unequal Bargaining Power or is it Otherwise Unconscionable?

With respect to the final Stelluti factor, Kang argues that the waiver: (1) was not the product of mutual assent; and (2) is unconscionable as a term in a contract of adhesion. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-14. The Court addresses both arguments in turn.

a. Mutual Assent

Kang argues that the waiver was invalid for lack of mutual assent, based upon the following assertions: (1) Neither Kang nor her husband speaks English; (2) LA Fitness knew as much, as the Kangs’ daughter was present to translate; (3) an LA Fitness employee explained the contract duration and payment terms to the Kangs’ daughter, but did not explain the liability waiver to her; (4) only Kang’s husband was asked to initial next to the waiver provision in his membership agreement, but no one explained to him what he was initialing; and (5) no employee went over the waiver provision with Kang or her daughter. See Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 10-11. Accordingly, Kang argues that she did not “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively surrender[ ] her rights” as is required for a valid waiver. Id. at p. 11.

The Court finds these arguments unavailing. As an initial matter, Kang’s inability to speak English does not bar her from becoming contractually bound. Notwithstanding the fact that her daughter was present to translate, New Jersey courts have unequivocally held that in the absence of fraud, one who signs an agreement is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect:

In the absence of fraud or imposition, when one fails to read a contract before signing it, the provisions are nevertheless binding, and the party is conclusively presumed to understand and assent to its terms and legal effect . . . . Even illiterate individuals have been held bound by a signed contract in the absence of misrepresentation. One who signs a document in those circumstances should know its contents or have it read (or otherwise have the contents made known) to him or her.

Statewide Realty Co. v. Fid. Mgmt. & Research Co., 259 N.J.Super. 59, 73 (Law. Div. 1992) (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also Herrera v. Twp. of S. Orange Vill., 270 N.J.Super. 417, 423, 637 (App. Div. 1993) (enforcing release agreement in the absence of fraud, notwithstanding testimony by plaintiff that she did not understand the release because she could not read English).

Under the New Jersey case law cited above, absent allegations of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation which Kang does not make here, she is conclusively presumed to have understood and assented to the membership agreement’s terms-including the waiver-and legal effect. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 305 (2010) (“Although Stelluti argues that she did not know what she was signing, she does not claim that she signed the waiver form as the result of fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Therefore, the trial court was well within reason to presume that she understood the terms of the agreement . . . and the finding to that effect is unassailable.”)

Nor does the fact that LA Fitness may not have explained the waiver to her or her daughter preclude enforcement. See Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301- 02 (2010) (enforcing exculpatory clause while giving plaintiff benefit of inference that “Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability”).

Finally, the Court is not aware of, nor has Kang cited, any requirement that she must have initialed the waiver provision for that clause to be enforceable against her. While she did not initial the waiver provision, she did sign the membership agreement containing it. In the absence of fraud, that is enough to bind her to its terms. See Statewide, 259 N.J.Super. at 73.

b. Unconscionability

Kang also argues that even if the waiver is found to be enforceable, the Court should invalidate it as a contract of adhesion. “[T]he essential nature of a contract of adhesion is that it is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without the opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353, 605 A.2d 681, 685 (1992). Kang’s unconscionability argument is essentially an amalgamation of all of her arguments summarized above: that as someone who does not speak English she lacked the sophistication to understand the terms to which she was agreeing, LA Fitness knew that she was in no position to understand those terms, she did not initial next to the waiver provision, the waiver is one-sided and printed on a standard form agreement, and she was not in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement. Kang Opp. Br., at pp. 12-14.

Notably, not all contracts of adhesion are unenforceable. In Stelluti, the New Jersey Supreme Court held:

Here, Powerhouse’s agreement was a standard pre-printed form presented to Stelluti and other prospective members on a typical ‘take-it-or-leave-it basis.’ No doubt, this agreement was one of adhesion. As for the relative bargaining positions of the parties, . . . we assume that Stelluti was a layperson without any specialized knowledge about contracts generally or exculpatory ones specifically. Giving her the benefit of all inferences from the record, including that Powerhouse may not have explained to Stelluti the legal effect of the contract that released Powerhouse from liability, we nevertheless do not regard her in a classic ‘position of unequal bargaining power’ such that the contract must be voided. As the Appellate Division decision noted, Stelluti could have taken her business to another fitness club, could have found another means of exercise aside from joining a private gym, or could have thought about it and even sought advice before signing up and using the facility’s equipment. No time limitation was imposed on her ability to review and consider whether to sign the agreement. In sum, although the terms of the agreement were presented ‘as is’ to Stelluti, rendering this a fairly typical adhesion contract in its procedural aspects, we hold that the agreement was not void based on any notion of procedural unconscionability.

Stelluti v. Casapenn Enterprises, LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301-02 (2010).

Like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was a layperson without any specialized knowledge of exculpatory contracts, and the Court gives her the benefit of the inference that LA Fitness did not explain the legal effect of the waiver provision to her. However, also like the defendant in Stelluti, Kang was not under any undue pressure to execute the agreement and she could have sought advice before signing. Indeed, her daughter was present to translate. As noted above, the fact that Kang does not speak English does have any legal effect on the contract’s enforceability. Thus, in accordance with Stelluti, the Court finds that although the LA Fitness membership agreement may have been offered on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis, it is not void on the basis of unconscionability.

Because the exculpatory clause does not offend public policy, the Court finds it to be valid and enforceable. Accordingly, LA Fitness’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

III. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted, and the clerk of the court is direct to close this case. An accompanying Order will be filed.


Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Lee, et al., v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

Jennifer Lee, et al., respondents-appellants, v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, appellant-respondent. (Index No. 503080/13)

2016-04353

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

156 A.D.3d 689; 67 N.Y.S.3d 67; 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 8723; 2017 NY Slip Op 08660

December 13, 2017, Decided

NOTICE:

THE LEXIS PAGINATION OF THIS DOCUMENT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE PENDING RELEASE OF THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION. THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND SUBJECT TO REVISION BEFORE PUBLICATION IN THE OFFICIAL REPORTS.

CORE TERMS: leave to amend, punitive damages, sport, gap, recover damages, personal injuries, summary judgment, rock climbing, inherent risks, prima facie, cross-appeal, recreational, engaging, mats, inter alia

COUNSEL: [***1] Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP, New York, NY (Nicholas P. Hurzeler of counsel), for appellant-respondent.

Carman, Callahan & Ingham, LLP, Farmingdale, NY (James M. Carman and Anne P. O’Brien of counsel), for respondents-appellants.

JUDGES: WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., CHERYL E. CHAMBERS, HECTOR D. LASALLE, VALERIE BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ. MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[**68] [*689] DECISION & ORDER

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the defendant appeals, as limited by its brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Kings County (Toussaint, J.), dated April 20, 2016, as denied its motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs cross-appeal, as limited by their brief, from so much of the same order as denied their cross motion pursuant to CPLR 3025(b) for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed insofar as appealed and cross-appealed from, without costs or disbursements.

The plaintiff Jennifer Lee (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) allegedly was injured at the defendant’s rock climbing facility when she dropped down from a climbing wall and her foot landed in a gap [***2] between two mats. According to the injured plaintiff, the gap was covered by a piece of velcro.

[**69] [*690] The plaintiffs commenced this action to recover damages for personal injuries, etc. The defendant moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the plaintiffs, inter alia, cross-moved for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages. The Supreme Court, inter alia, denied the motion and the cross motion. The defendant appeals and the plaintiffs cross-appeal.

Contrary to the defendant’s contention, the release of liability that the injured plaintiff signed is void under General Obligations Law § 5-326 because the defendant’s facility is recreational in nature (see Serin v Soulcycle Holdings, LLC, 145 AD3d 468, 469, 41 N.Y.S.3d 714; Vanderbrook v Emerald Springs Ranch, 109 AD3d 1113, 1115, 971 N.Y.S.2d 754; Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 558, 515 N.Y.S.2d 291). Therefore, the release does not bar the plaintiffs’ claims.

“Relieving an owner or operator of a sporting venue from liability for inherent risks of engaging in a sport is justified when a consenting participant is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; see Koubek v Denis, 21 AD3d 453, 799 N.Y.S.2d 746). “If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49; see Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; Joseph v New York Racing Assn., 28 AD3d 105, 108, 809 N.Y.S.2d 526). Moreover, “by engaging in a sport or recreational [***3] activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 484; see Simone v Doscas, 142 AD3d 494, 494, 35 N.Y.S.3d 720).

Here, the defendant failed to establish, prima facie, that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies. The defendant submitted the injured plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which reveals triable issues of fact as to whether the gap in the mats constituted a concealed risk and whether the injured plaintiff’s accident involved an inherent risk of rock climbing (see Siegel v City of New York, 90 N.Y.2d 471, 488, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467; Dann v Family Sports Complex, Inc., 123 AD3d 1177, 1178, 997 N.Y.S.2d 836; Segal v St. John’s Univ., 69 AD3d 702, 704, 893 N.Y.S.2d 221; Demelio v Playmakers, Inc., 63 AD3d 777, 778, 880 N.Y.S.2d 710). Since the defendant failed to establish its prima facie entitlement to judgment as a matter of law, its motion was properly denied, [*691] regardless of the sufficiency of the opposition papers (see Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853, 476 N.E.2d 642, 487 N.Y.S.2d 316).

The Supreme Court providently exercised its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ cross motion for leave to amend the complaint to add a demand for punitive damages (see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352; Hylan Elec. Contr., Inc. v MasTec N. Am., Inc., 74 AD3d 1148, 903 N.Y.S.2d 528; Kinzer v Bederman, 59 AD3d 496, 873 N.Y.S.2d 692).

[**70] MASTRO, J.P., CHAMBERS, LASALLE and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.


Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Hightower-Henne v. Gelman, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, and Thomas Henne, Plaintiffs, v. Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01114-KMT-BNB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4514

January 12, 2012, Decided

January 12, 2012, Filed

CORE TERMS: collection, collector, snowmobile, summary judgment, discovery, credit card, rental, Mountain Law Group, demand letters, email, entity, law firm, preface, missing, nonmoving party, principal purpose, regularity, regularly, disputed, opposing, genuine, rental agreement, signature, machine, ride, admissible, engaging, owed, practice of law, attorney’s fees

COUNSEL: [*1] For Tracy L. Hightower-Henne, Thomas J. Henne, Plaintiffs: Daniel Teodoru, Erin Colleen Hunter, West Brown Huntley & Hunter, P.C., Breckenridge, CO.

For Leonard M. Gelman, Defendant: Rusty David Miller, Thomas Neville Alfrey, Treece Alfrey Musat, P.C., Denver, CO.

JUDGES: Kathleen M. Tafoya, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: Kathleen M. Tafoya

OPINION

ORDER

This matter is before the court on Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] (“Mot.”) filed August 12, 2011. Plaintiffs, Tracy Hightower-Henne and Thomas Henne (collectively “the Hennes”), responded on September 14, 2011 [Doc. No. 23] (“Resp.”) and the defendant filed a Reply on October 3, 2011 [Doc. No. 25]. Also considered is Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply” [Doc. No. 26], which is denied.1

1 Neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor the Local Rules of Practice in the District of Colorado provide for the filing of a surreply. Additionally, the court’s review of the proposed surreply reveals it is nothing more than an attempted unauthorized additional bite at the proverbial apple and adds nothing of merit to the summary judgment analysis.

Background

On February 8, 2010, Nebraska residents Tracy L. Hightower-Henne [*2] and her husband Thomas Henne joined a small group of friends and family for a snowmobile ride in Vail, Colorado. Mrs. Hightower-Henne, a Nebraska attorney, rented two snowmobiles from Colorado Backcountry Rentals (“CBR”) for herself and her husband, signing the rental agreement for the two machines and declining the offered insurance to cover loss or damage to the machines while in their possession. (Mot., Ex. H, Judgment Order of County Court Judge Wayne Patton, April 21, 2011, hereinafter “Judgment Order” at 1.)2 While at the CBR’s office, the Hennes were shown a video depicting proper operation of snowmobiles in general and were also verbally advised on snowmobile use by an employee of CBR. (Id.) Plaintiffs, a short while thereafter, met another employee of CBR, Mr. Weber, at Vail Pass and were given possession of the snowmobiles after an opportunity to inspect the machines. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs utilized their entire allotted time on the snowmobiles and brought them back to Mr. Weber as planned. Mr. Weber immediately noticed that the snowmobile ridden by Mr. Henne was missing its air box cover and faring, described as a large blue shield on the front of the snowmobile, entirely [*3] visible to any driver. (Id. at 3.) At the he returned the snowmobile, Mr. Henne told Mr. Weber that the parts had fallen off approximately two hours into the ride and that he had tried to carry the faring back, but, as he was unable to do so, he left the part on the trail.3 (Id. at 2.) Mr. Henne signed a form acknowledging the missing part(s) and produced his driver’s license and a credit card with full intent that charges to fix the snowmobile would be levied against that card. Mr. Henne signed a blank credit card slip, which the parties all understood would be filled-in once the damage could be definitively ascertained.4 (Id.) Although CBR, pursuant to the rental agreement signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne, was entitled to charge the Hennes for loss of rentals for the snowmobile while it was being repaired, CBR waived that fee5 and charged Mr. Henne oa total of only $220.11. (Mot., Ex. B.)

2 As will be discussed in more detail herein, one of the rented snowmobiles suffered damage while in the possession of Mr. Henne. Although agreeing to pay for the damage initially, Mr. Henne later disputed the charges levied by CBR against his credit card, resulting in a collection lawsuit brought by [*4] CBR against Mr. and Mrs. Henne in Summit County Court, Case Number 10 C 255 ). (See Mot., Ex. G; hereinafter, the “Summit County case.”) This court takes the underlying facts from the Judgment Order of Hon. Wayne Patton in the Summit County Case as Judge Patton presided over a trial and therefore had the best opportunity to assess the witnesses, including their credibility and analyze the exhibits. The defendant in this case, Leonard M. Gelman, was the attorney for CBR in the Summit County case.

3 This story changed at trial in the Summit County case, where Mr. Henne reported that the parts fell off the machine about 5-10 minutes into the ride. Mr. Henne also testified that he did not know he was missing a part – he claimed a group of strangers told him that his snowmobile was missing a part and he thereafter retraced his route to try to find the piece but could not find it. Judge Patton found that “Mr. Henne’s testimony does not make sense to the court.” (Judgment Order at 3.) The court found that the evidence indicated the parts came off during the ride and that since the clips that held the part on were broken and the “intake silencer” was cracked, Judge Patton indicated, “The court [*5] does not believe that the fairing just fell off.” (Id.)

4 Mr. Henne’s proffered credit card was for a different account that Mrs. Hightower-Henne had used to rent the snowmobiles.

5 CBR’s notation on the Estimated Damages form states, “Will not charge customer for the 2 days loss rents as good will.” (Mot., Ex. B.)

Upon their return to Nebraska, however, Mr. and Mrs. Henne apparently decided they did not want to pay for the damage to the snowmobile, even with the waiver of the rental loss, and contested the charge to Mr. Henne’s credit card resulting in a reversal of the charge by the credit card issuer. Further, the Hennes leveled criminal forgery accusations against CBR’s employee with the Frisco, Colorado Police Department (id. at 4), alleging that the acknowledgment of damage form and the credit card slip were not signed by Mr. Henne. The police department investigated, but no charges were filed.

Mr. Henne’s ultimate cancellation of his former acquiescence to payment caused CBR to contact their corporate lawyer, Defendant Gelman, and ask that he attempt to obtain payment from the Hennes, authorizing a law suit if initial requests for payment failed. Obviously, CBR was no longer willing [*6] to waive the fee for loss of rental which was part of the contract Mrs. Hightower-Henne signed. (Id. at 2.)

At trial in the Summit County case, Mr. and Mrs. Henne maintained that Mr. Henne’s signature on the damage estimate and the credit card slip were forgeries. (Id. at 4.) The court found that Mr. Weber, CBR’s employee who witnessed Mr. Henne sign the documents, was a credible witness and found Mr. Henne’s claim that he had not signed the documents was not credible. (Id.) The court also found that there was no incentive whatsoever for anyone to have forged Mr. Henne’s signature on anything since “[CBR] already had Ms. Hightower-Henne’s credit card information and authorization so even if Mr. Henne had refused to sign the disputed documents it had recourse without having to resort to subterfuge.” (Id.)

After deciding in favor of CBR on the liability of Mr. and Mrs. Henne for the damage to the snowmobile in the total amount of $653.60, Judge Patton considered the issue of attorney’s fees and costs incurred in that proceeding. Finding that the original rental documents signed by Mrs. Hightower-Henne contained a prevailing party award of attorney fees provision, the court awarded CBR [*7] $25,052.50 in attorney’s fees against Mrs. Hightower-Henne plus $1,737.92 in costs.6 The court stated that even though the attorney fee award was substantial considering the amount of the original debt, the time expended by CBR’s counsel was greatly exacerbated by Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s “motions and threats” and that it was the Hennes who “created the need for [considerable] hours by their actions in filing baseless criminal complaints, filing motions to continue the trial and by seeking to have phone testimony of several witnesses who had no knowledge of what took place while Defendant’s (sic) had possession of the snowmobiles.” (Mot., Ex. I, June 22, 2011 Order of Hon. Wayne Patton, hereinafter “Atty. Fee Order” at 3.) The court also found that “although this was a case akin to a small claims case, Mrs. Hightower-Henne defended the case as if it were complex litigation.”7 (Id. at 1.) Judge Patton stated, with respect to the counterclaim filed by the Hennes, that “[a]lthough Mrs. Hightower-Henne did not pursue that claim at trial it shows the lengths she was willing to go to avoid payment of what was a fairly small claim.” (Id. at 1.)

6 Costs were awarded against both Mr. and Mrs. Henne [*8] jointly and severally.

7 In December 2010, the Hennes hired outside counsel to defend them in the county court action. (Id. at 4.)

As a result of groundless criminal claims, baseless counterclaims, perjured testimony and over-zealous defense, instead of owing $220.11 for the snowmobile’s missing part, after the dust settled on the Summit County case, the Hennes became responsible for a judgment in excess of $27,000.00.

In a prodigiously perfect example of throwing good money after bad, the Hennes now continue to prosecute this federal action against the lawyer representing CBR in the Summit County case, alleging violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).8 Unfortunately, even though the issue was raised at some point in the county court case, (see id. at 3, “Mrs. Hightower-Henne also made allegations that Plaintiff was violating fair debt collection laws”), these particular allegations were not resolved by the county court. Therefore, this court is now compelled to reluctantly follow the Hennes down this white rabbit’s hole to resolve the federal case.

8 This case was originally filed against CBR’s lawyer by the Hennes in Summit County on March 31, 2011, suspiciously [*9] a mere one week before commencing trial on the underlying case before Judge Patton. Defendant Gelman removed the case to federal court post-trial on April 27, 2011, one week subsequent to Judge Patton’s ruling against the Hennes. Between April 27, 2011 and August 12, 2011, the Hennes could have revisited the wisdom of continuing with this case had they been so inclined. However, the Hennes have not sought to even amend their Complaint in this matter, even though the findings call into question many of the arguments embodied in the federal complaint. (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 26.)

Analysis

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows that 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). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994) (citing [*10] Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but must instead designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A disputed fact is “material” if “under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir.1998) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Thomas v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 631 F.3d 1153, 1160 (10th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court may consider only admissible evidence. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d 1202, 1209-10 (10th Cir. 2010). The factual record and reasonable inferences therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1517. At the summary judgment stage of litigation, a plaintiff’s version of the facts must find support in the record. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cnty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). [*11] “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007); Thomson, 584 F.3d at 1312.

B. Request for Additional Discovery

As an initial matter, Plaintiffs request the court grant them further discovery in order to fully explore the matters raised by Defendant Gelman’s affidavit, attached to the Motion. [Doc. No. 17-1, hereinafter “Gelman Affidavit.”]

The party opposing summary judgment and who requests additional discovery must specify by affidavit the reasons why it cannot present facts essential to its opposition to a motion for summary judgment by demonstrating (1) the probable facts are not available, (2) why those facts cannot be presented currently, (3) what steps have been taken to obtain these facts, and (4) how additional time will enable the party to obtain those facts and rebut the motion for summary judgment. Valley Forge Ins. Co. v. Healthcare Mgmt. Partners, Ltd., 616 F.3d 1086, 1096 (10th Cir. 2010)(internal quotations omitted); Been v. O.K. Indust., Inc., 495 F.3d 1217, 1235 (10th Cir. 2007)(The [*12] protection under Rule 56(d) “arises only if the nonmoving party files an affidavit explaining why he or she cannot present facts to oppose the motion.”)

As noted above, the instant motion and the Gelman Affidavit were filed on August 12, 2011. The discovery cut-off date in this case was not until October 3, 2011. (Scheduling Order, [Doc. No. 10] at 6.) Therefore, written discovery could have been timely served any time prior to August 31, 2011. When Defendant filed his motion and the affidavit, Plaintiffs still had nineteen days to compose and serve interrogatories and requests for production of documents in order to obtain substantiation – or lack thereof – of the matters contained in the Gelman Affidavit. Additionally, Plaintiffs had 49 days remaining within which to notice and schedule the deposition of Mr. Gelman, or any other person. Apparently, Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of these opportunities, or, for that matter, any other attempt to obtain discovery during the entirety of the discovery period. There is no reason for the court to now accredit Plaintiffs’ professed need for discovery at this late date when they did not undertake any discovery within the appropriate time [*13] frame even though the issues were then squarely before them. The request for further discovery is denied.

C. Defendant Gelman’s Status as Debt Collector

The court has been presented with the following: the testimony through affidavit of Leonard M. Gelman; the testimony through affidavit of Tracy Hightower (Resp., Ex. 3 [Doc. No. 23-3] “Hightower Affidavit”); the Judgment Order and the Atty. Fee Order of Judge Wayne Patton referenced infra; the Complaint filed in the Summit County case – case number 10 C 255 (Mot., Ex. G); a letter from Lee Gelman to Thomas Henne dated April 1, 2010 (Mot., Ex. D; Resp., Ex. 1, “Demand Letter”); a letter to Lee Gelman from Tracy L. Hightower-Henne dated April 5, 2010 (Mot., Ex. E); an email exchange between Lee Gelman and Tracy Hightower dated April 13, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 4); an undated internet home page of Mountain Law Group (Mot., Ex. F); a document purporting to be a “Colorado Court Database” listing seven cases involving as plaintiff either Summit Interests Inc., Back Country Rentals, or Colorado Backcountry Rentals for the time period March 25, 2009 through November 18, 2010 (Resp., Ex. 7); three letters signed by “Lee Gelman, Esq.” drafted on letterhead [*14] of a law firm named Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell with origination dates of March 10, 2008, March 19, 2009 and December 19, 2008 (Resp., Ex. 8); and, the snowmobile rental agreements and other documents relevant to the Summit County case (Mot., Exs. A – C).

The FDCPA regulates the practices of “debt collectors.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692(e). If a person or entity is not a debt collector, the Act does not provide any cause of action against them. Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleges only violations of the FDCPA (See Compl. [Doc. No. 2]) by Defendant Gelman; therefore, if Defendant is not a debt collector, Plaintiffs’ action must fail.

The FDCPA contains both a definition of “debt collector” and language describing certain categories of persons and entities excluded from the definition.9 Thus, an alleged debt collector may escape liability either by failing to qualify as a “debt collector” under the initial definitional language, or by falling within one of the exclusions. The plaintiff in an FDCPA claim bears the burden of proving the defendant’s debt collector status. See Zimmerman v. The CIT Group, Inc., Case No. 08-cv-00246-ZLW-KMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108473, 2008 WL 5786438, at *9 (D. Colo. October 6, 2008) (citing Goldstein v. Hutton, Ingram, Yuzek, Gainen, Carroll & Bertolotti, 374 F.3d 56, 60 (2d. Cir.2004).

9 None [*15] of these enumerated exceptions are alleged to be applicable in this case.

The Act defines “debt collector” as:

[A]ny person who uses any instrumentality of interstate commerce or the mails in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts owed or due or asserted to be owed or due another.

15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). See Allen v. Nelnet, Inc., Case No. 06-cv-00586-REB-PAC, 2007 WL 2786432, at *8-9 (D. Colo. Sept. 24, 2007). The Supreme Court has made it clear that the FDCPA applies to attorneys “regularly” engaging in debt collection activity, including such activity in the nature of litigation. Heintz v. Jenkins, 514 U.S. 291, 299, 115 S. Ct. 1489, 131 L. Ed. 2d 395 (1995). The FDCPA establishes two alternative predicates for “debt collector” status – engaging in such activity as the “principal purpose” of an entity’s business and/or “regularly” engaging in such collection activity. 15 U.S.C. § 1692a(6). It is clear from the evidence that debt collection is not Defendant Gelman’s or his law firm’s principal purpose, nor is debt collection the principal purpose of non-defendant CBR. Goldstein, 374 F.3d at 60-61. Therefore [*16] the court must examine the issue from the regularity perspective. The Goldstein court directed

Most important in the analysis is the assessment of facts closely relating to ordinary concepts of regularity, including (1) the absolute number of debt collection communications issued, and/or collection-related litigation matters pursued, over the relevant period(s), (2) the frequency of such communications and/or litigation activity, including whether any patterns of such activity are discernable, (3) whether the entity has personnel specifically assigned to work on debt collection activity, (4) whether the entity has systems or contractors in place to facilitate such activity, and (5) whether the activity is undertaken in connection with ongoing client relationships with entities that have retained the lawyer or firm to assist in the collection of outstanding consumer debt obligations. Facts relating to the role debt collection work plays in the practice as a whole should also be considered to the extent they bear on the question of regularity of debt collection activity . . . . Whether the law practice seeks debt collection business by marketing itself as having debt collection expertise [*17] may also be an indicator of the regularity of collection as a part of the practice.

Id. at 62-63.

1. Defendant Gelman’s Practice of Law at Mountain Law Group

The testimony of Mr. Gelman provided through his affidavit is considered by the court to be unrefuted since Plaintiffs failed to avail themselves of any discovery which might have provided grounds for contest.

After recounting his background as an environmental lawyer for the Department of Justice, Mr. Gelman describes his practice of law with the Mountain Law Group as an attorney and through the Colorado Office of Dispute Resolution as a mediator. (Gelman Aff. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Mr. Gelman also acts as the manager of his wife’s medical practice. (Id. ¶ 5.) Because of his responsibilities as a mediator and an administrator, Mr. Gelman only spends approximately 25% of his working time engaged in the practice of law through Mountain Law Group. (Id. ¶ 8.) If one considers a normal business day to be nine hours, Mr. Gelman then spends approximately 2.25 hours a day practicing law at the Mountain Law Group. Of that time at the law firm, Mr. Gelman devotes approximately 30% to “Business/Contracts,” the only area of his practice which generates any [*18] debt collection activity. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 22.) Extrapolating, then, Mr. Gelman spends approximately .67 of an hour, or approximately 45 minutes, out of each day pursuing business matters of all kinds for his clients.

One of Mr. Gelman’s business clients is CBR to which he provides legal assistance “with all of CBR’s corporate needs . . . [including] a) contract drafting and consultation on rental agreements, waivers, and other forms; and b) representation concerning regulatory and enforcement matters between the U.S. Forest Service and CBR.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Of all the clients of the Mountain Law Group’s seven lawyers, CBR is the only one who generates any debt collection work at all. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 22, 23.) Additionally, of the seven lawyers, Mr. Gelman, through his client CBR, is the only lawyer to have ever worked on, in any capacity, any debt collection matter.10 (Id.)

10 As noted in the Hightower Affidavit, it is not disputed that, as part of CBR’s employment of Mr. Gelman as their corporate attorney, they requested that he attempt to collect the Henne’s debt.. (Id. ¶ 2.)

Over a forty (40) month period, Mr. Gelman states that he sent only 18 demand letters on behalf of CBR to renters of snowmobiles [*19] who did not pay for damages they caused to CBR’s equipment. (Id. ¶ 20.) This averages out to one demand letter every 2.5 months.11

11 Of course, this does not mean that the demand letters are actually sent on such a regular basis.

In connection with Mr. Gelman’s practice of law with the Mountain Law Group, the court reviewed what is purportedly the law firm’s internet home page. (Mot., Ex. F.) This submission contains no date or retrieval or publication. Therefore, the court can give it little weight. However, as part of the analysis, the court notes that at the time of the internet display – whenever that was – the Mountain Law Group’s home page did not include any advertisement suggesting they provided debt collection services or as had any expertise in the collection of debt.

Mr. Gelman otherwise states that the Mountain Law Group neither owns nor uses any specialized computer software designed to facilitate debt collection activity. (Gelman Aff. ¶ 12.) Further, his unrefuted testimony is that the firm employs no paralegal or other staff to assist in debt collection for the firm. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Plaintiffs, however, assert that Mr. Gelman regularly and frequently pursues debt collection matters [*20] on behalf of CBR, pointing the court’s attention to a document entitled “Colorado Court Database” (“CCD”). The CCD may indicate that CBR or Summit Interests, Inc.12 was involved in seven13 case filings in 2009 and 2010. (Resp., Ex. 7.) None of the cases contained on the CCD indicate whether or not Defendant Gelman represented the named entity, nor do any of the cases identify the other parties. The CCD is in the form of a table with columnar headings, “Name,” “Case,” “Filed,” “Status,” “Party” and “County.” Under the column “Party,” six of the cases indicate “Money” and one indicates “Breach of Contract”; both of these terms are undefined. The court does not begin to understand how “Breach of Contract” for instance, can be a “party ” to a lawsuit. The court is completely unable to ascertain the relevance of this document or what bearing it has on whether or not Mr. Gelman is a debt collector since it does not reference Mr. Gelman or debt collection. The CCD, unintelligible as it stands, is therefore inadmissible and will not be considered for any purpose in the summary judgment proceeding. See Johnson v. Weld County, Colo., 594 F.3d at 1209-10.

12 In the April 1, 2010 demand letter from [*21] Mr. Gelman to Mr. Henne, Mr. Gelman professes to represent “Summit Interests, Inc., d/b/a/ Colorado Backcountry Rentals.” (Resp, [Doc. No. 23-1].)

13 The documents references more than ten items, but several have the same case number.

2. Mr. Gelman’s Debt Collection Methodology

This case involves essentially two communications from Mr. Gelman: the April 1, 2010 letter to Mr. Henne and the April 13, 2010 email from Mr. Gelman to Mrs. Hightower-Henne following her letter professing to represent Mr. Henne. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-23, 25, re: Demand Letterl and id. ¶ 24, re: April 13, 2010 email.)

a. Debt Collector Preface

In the April 1, 2010 letter, Mr. Gelman represented that “[t]his firm14 is a debt collector” and in the April 13, 2010 email, under his signature block, was the notation, “This is from a debt collector . . .” The court notes that the warning on the bottom of the April 13, 2010 email does not appear to be part of the normal signature block of Mr. Gelman, because it does not appear on the short transmission at the beginning of the email string wherein Mr. Gelman advised “Tracy,” that he just left her a voice mail as well. (Resp. at Doc. No. 23-4.) This email warning, therefore, appears [*22] to have been specifically typed in for inclusion in the lengthy portion of the email.

14 The letterhead on the communication is “Mountain Law Group.” Mountain Law Group is not a defendant in this action.

Mr. Gelman states he has mediated a large number of debt collection disputes and is therefore “relatively familiar with the collection industry.” (Gelman Aff. ¶ 11.) While the court considers the language used by Mr. Gelman – commonly referred to as a “mini-Miranda” or the “debt collector preface” – as “some” evidence to be considered in the debt collector determination, it is not particularly persuasive standing alone. First, setting forth such a debt collector preface does not create any kind of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel requires a showing of a misleading representation on which the opposing party justifiably relied which would result in material harm if the actor is later permitted to assert a claim inconsistent with the prior representation. Plaintiffs have offered no evidence to support a claim that they detrimentally relied upon the debt collector preface. See In re Pullen, 451 B.R. 206, 210 (Bkrtcy. N. D. Ga. 2011).

When attempting to collect a debt, the court applauds [*23] a practice whereby the sender recognizes itself as a debt collector in a mini-Miranda warning regardless of any legal requirement and considers such an advisement prudent and in the spirit of the FDCPA. This course of action would be expected of an attorney such as Mr. Gelman who frequently is in a position to mediate debt collection disputes. However, calling oneself a rose, does not necessarily arouse the same olfactory response as would a true rose.

b. Use of Form Letters

Plaintiffs argue that Mr. Gelman communicates as a debt collector through the use of form letters. For this proposition, they attach Exhibit 8, three letters apparently authored by Mr. Gelman when he was associated with the law firm of Dunn Keyes Gelman & Pummell, LLC. Each of the three letters appear to be what is commonly known as a demand letter – an attempt to collect money from persons who allegedly owed CBR as a result of damage done to a snowmobile. Each letter begins with a one line salutation introducing the lawyer as representing Colorado Backcountry Rentals, Inc. Thereafter, each letter proceeds for several paragraphs to outline specific and unique facts concerning the alleged debtor’s obligation for damages [*24] to CBR. (Id.) Each letter then contains a paragraph, in bold typeface, stating that the debtor can submit a sum certain in settlement of the matter in bold typeface. Each of the three letters contain a summary paragraph at the end which states the letter is a settlement offer and that court proceedings may be instituted if payment is not made. This general format is consistent with the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne. Two of the letters in Exhibit 8 contain the debt collector preface at both the beginning and end of the letter; one of the letters contains the legend only at the beginning, similar to the format of the April 1, 2010 demand letter sent to Mr. Henne by Mr. Gelman.

The court finds that these letters are not “form” collection letters such as those which would be utilized by a business engaged primarily in the business of debt collection. Although there is some boilerplate language common to all, each letter is personally authored and the main body of the text is a unique recitation of the facts and circumstances peculiar to that case. These three letters, viewed against the April 1, 2010 letter Mr. Gelman sent to Mr. Henne, are similar only in the boilerplate [*25] language at the beginning and end of the letter and do not persuade the court that they are form letters indicating that Mr. Gelman is in the regular business of collecting debts.

c. Pattern of Litigation Activity

Mrs. Hightower-Henne states, without any evidentiary foundation, that Defendant has filed “several suits for collections for CBR” which indicate “a pattern of escalating fees for nominal claims.” (Hightower Affidavit ¶ 4.) She does not further describe or attach any of the cases to which she refers, although one might assume they may be among those cases sketchily mentioned in rejected Exhibit 7 to the Plaintiffs’ Response. Mrs. Hightower-Henne blithely asserts that she has spoken to several persons who were “parties in these suits” but does not state what significance anything they may have told her was, or for that matter, what they even said. (Id.) Although the court will recognize this testimony as admissible, it is wholly unpersuasive as to the issue to which it is apparently directed.

d. Summary

Considering the undisputed testimony of Mr. Gelman and Mrs. Hightower-Henne together with the admissible documentary evidence submitted by the parties, this court finds that there [*26] are no material facts in dispute relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Gelman is a debt collector as defined in the FDCPA. For all the reasons set forth above, the court finds that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector pursuant to the FDCPA and therefore, summary judgment in his favor is appropriate.

Given that the determination that Mr. Gelman is not a debt collector is dispositive of the case, the court declines to address further Mrs. Hightower-Henne’s standing to sue or whether any of the actions undertaken by Mr. Gelman would have violated the FDCPA had he been found to be a debt collector under the Act.

Wherefore, it is ORDERED

1. Defendant Leonard M. Gelman’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 17] is GRANTED and this case is dismissed with prejudice. Defendant may have his cost by filing a bill of costs pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1 and the Clerk of Court shall enter final judgment in favor of Defendant Gelman in accordance with this Order.

2. Plaintiffs’ “Motion to File Sur-Reply,” [Doc. No. 26] is DENIED.

3. The Final Pretrial Conference set for January 19, 2012 at 10:45 a.m. is VACATED

Dated this 12th day of January, 2012.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Kathleen M Tafoya

Kathleen M Tafoya

United [*27] States Magistrate Judge


Texas appellate court allows a release to stop a gross negligence claim.

If you have a clause in your release that says, “except gross negligence” or something like that get rid of it. Why teach the plaintiff’s how to beat you, besides, you may win, which is what happened in this case.

Citation: Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

State: Texas: Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

Plaintiff: Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F of XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) and XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually

Defendant: Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff injured her back attempting to do a back flip on a trampoline at the defendant’s facility rendering her a paraplegic. She sued for her injuries claiming negligence and gross negligence. The court found the release stopped the plaintiff’s claims for negligence and gross negligence.

Facts

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the release and denied the plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.

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

The issue for the appellate court was whether or not the motion for summary judgment granted for the defendant, and the cross motion for the plaintiff that was denied were done so correctly. Should a release bar a claim for negligence and gross negligence under Texas law.

Release law in Texas appears to be quite specific.

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action.

To win Jumpstreet only had to show the fair notice requirement of the law was met.

Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice.

The fair notice requirement under Texas law requires the release language to be clear, unambiguous and within the four corners of the contract.

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract.

The issue the court focused on was the claim the plaintiff originally made that the defendant identified in the release was not the defendant who owned and operated the facility where she was injured. The original defendant was an LLC and had been dissolved, and a new LLC had taken its’ place. The release was not updated to show these changes.

In many states, this would have been a fatal flaw for the defendant.

The court found the defendants were owned and run by the same brothers and were the same for the purposes of this lawsuit. The new LLC replaced the old LLC and was covered by the release.

The court then looked at the release and pointed out the reasons why the release was going to be supported.

As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries, including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Furthermore, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because a release under Texas law cannot waive the claims of a minor when signed by a parent. The court agreed. However, since the child was not the injured plaintiff, it did not matter.

The court did look at the issue of whether or not a parent could sign away a minor’s right to sue. The court held the minor could still sue; however, a release signed by the parent would bar all the derivative claims based on the claims of the minor child. That means all claims by the parents, loss of consortium, etc., would be barred by the release. Only the claims of the minor child would survive.

The court then looked at whether a release could stop a claim for gross negligence. The court found that the decision had not been reviewed by the Texas Supreme Court and there was a mix of decisions in Texas regarding that issue.

The Texas courts that have allowed a release to top a gross negligence claim have held there is no difference between negligence and gross negligence under Texas law. The court went on to read the release and found the release in question had language that prevented claims for negligence and gross negligence. Therefore, the gross negligence claim was waived.

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

The release said it stopped claims for Gross Negligence and the Court agreed.

The defendant one because they had a well-written release that was easy to see and understand and said you can’t sue the defendant for negligence or gross negligence.

So Now What?

This is a first. A release was used to stop a gross negligence claim that was not based on a failure of the plaintiff to allege facts that were gross negligence. The release said it was effective against claims for negligence and gross negligence, and the court agreed.

Unless your state has specific statements were putting gross negligence in a release may void your release, or your supreme Court has specifically said a release cannot protect against gross negligence claims, you may want to add that phrase to your release.

No matter what, GET RID of clauses in your release that state the release is valid against all claims EXCEPT gross negligence. It is just stupid to put that in a release unless you have a legal system that requires it.

Putting that information into your release just tells the plaintiff and/or their attorney how to beat you. Don’t help the person trying to sue you!

Second, you never know; it may work. It did in this case in Texas.

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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gross negligence, entities, public policy, waive, summary judgment motion, summary judgment, partial summary judgment, trial court, cause of action, matter of law, fair notice, pet, negligence rule, conspicuousness, cross-motion, consortium, pre-injury, assumption of risk, trampoline, bystander, lettering, argues


Assumption of the Risk is a defense to negligence and gross negligence claims in this case against a college offering for credit tour abroad study.

Student died swimming in the Pacific Ocean and his parents sued the college for his death. College was dismissed because student was an adult and assumed the risk that killed him.

Downes et al. v. Oglethorpe University, Inc., 342 Ga.App. 250 (Ga.App. 2017)

State: Georgia, Court of Appeals of Georgia

Plaintiff: Elvis Downes and Myrna Lintner (parents of the deceased)

Defendant: Oglethorpe University, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

There are some risks that the courts say you understand and accept the risks because we know of them. Examples are cliffs and water. Here, the family of a student who died on a study abroad trip while swimming in the ocean could not sue because the student assumed the risks of swimming.

What is interesting is the assumption of the risk defense was used to defeat a claim of negligence and Gross Negligence.

Facts

During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oglethorpe offered to their students a 12-day study-abroad trip to Costa Rica. The students were charged a fee for the trip to pay for expenses such as airfare, lodging, and food. The students were also required to pay the ” per credit tuition rate” and were to receive four credits toward their degree for academic work associated with the trip. Oglethorpe retained Horizontes, a Costa Rican tour operator, to coordinate the trip and to provide transportation and an English-speaking guide.

Dr. Jeffrey Collins was then the director of Oglethorpe’s study-abroad program. According to Collins, Oglethorpe tried to follow ” best practices,” which is ” defined as those protocols, procedures that as best and as far as possible ensure[ ] the safety of students.” He acknowledged that students would swim on the trips. Collins was not aware of any potential dangers in Costa Rica and did no investigation to ascertain if there were potential dangers in Costa Rica.

During pre-trip meetings with Downes and the five other students who had registered for the program, Dr. Roark Donnelly and Dr. Cassandra Copeland, the two professors who accompanied the students on the trip, asked the students if everyone was a good swimmer, and the students agreed that they were. The group also discussed swimming in the ocean, including ” that there are going to be currents.” One of the professors told the students that, during a previous study-abroad trip to another location, a student had recognized that he was a weak swimmer and was required to wear a life jacket during all water activities. After hearing this, the students continued to express that they were good swimmers. Before leaving on the trip, the students were required to sign a release agreement which included an exculpatory clause pertaining to Oglethorpe.

The students and professors flew to Costa Rica on December 28, 2010. During the course of the trip, on the afternoon of January 4, 2011, the group arrived at a hotel on the Pacific coast. The six students, two professors, the guide, and the driver got into their bus and drove to a nearby beach, Playa Ventanas, which had been recommended by the hotel. Upon their arrival, there were other people on the beach and in the water. There were no warning signs posted on the beach, nor any lifeguards or safety equipment present.

The students swam in the ocean, staying mostly together, and eventually ventured out into deeper water. After about 20 minutes, Dr. Donnelly yelled for the students to move closer to shore. Shortly thereafter, student Robert Cairns, a former lifeguard, heard a female student screaming. Cairns swam toward the screams, and the student informed him that Downes needed help. Cairns realized that ” some kind of current … had pulled us out.” Cairns swam to within ten feet of Downes and told him to get on his back and try to float. Downes could not get on his back, and Cairns kept telling him he had to try. After some time, Downes was struck by a wave, went under the water, and disappeared from Cairns’s view. Downes’s body was recovered from the ocean three days later.

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

The deceased student signed a release in this case, however the trial court and the appellate court made their decisions based on assumption of the risk.

Under Georgia law, assumption of the risk is a complete bra to a recovery.

The affirmative defense of assumption of the risk bars a plaintiff from recovering on a negligence claim if it is established that he[,] without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not.

Absent a showing by the plaintiff of coercion or a lack of free choice assumption of the risk prevents the plaintiff from recovery any damages for negligence from the defendant.

To prove the deceased assumed the risk the college must show:

A defendant asserting an assumption of the risk defense must establish that the plaintiff (i) had knowledge of the danger; (ii) understood and appreciated the risks associated with such danger; and (iii) voluntarily exposed himself to those risks.

The plaintiff does not have to know and understand every aspect and facet of the risk. The knowledge can be that there are inherent risks in an activity even if the specifics of those risks are not known.

The knowledge requirement does not refer to a comprehension of general, non-specific risks. Rather, the knowledge that a plaintiff who assumes the risk must subjectively possess is that of the specific, particular risk of harm associated with the activity or condition that proximately causes injury.

Assumption of the risk is usually a jury decision because the jury must weigh whether or not the plaintiff truly understood the risks. However, if the risk is such that there is undisputed evidence that it exists and the plaintiff knew or should have known about it, the court can act.

As a general rule, whether a party assumed the risk of his injury is an issue for the jury that should not be decided by summary judgment unless the defense is conclusively established by plain, palpable and undisputed evidence.

Drowning is a known and understood risk under Georgia law of being in the water.

It is well established under Georgia law that ” [t]he danger of drowning in water is a palpable and manifest peril, the knowledge of which is chargeable to [persons] in the absence of a showing of want of ordinary capacity.

Because the deceased student was a competent adult, meaning over the age of 18 and not mentally informed or hampered, the risk was known to him. “As Downes was a competent adult, he was necessarily aware of the risk of drowning when he voluntarily entered the Pacific Ocean.”

The plaintiff’s argued the college created the risk because they did not investigate the beach, have an emergency preparedness plan, ensure the professors had adequate training and did not supply safety equipment. However, the court did not buy this because there was nothing in the record to show the College created or agreed to these steps to create an additional duty on the colleges part.

Assuming that Oglethorpe, having undertaken a study-abroad program, was under a duty to act with reasonable care, and that there is evidence of record that Oglethorpe failed to do so, assumption of risk is nevertheless a defense to negligence.

The college was under not statutory or common law duty to provide any of the issues the plaintiff argued. Nor did the college create a duty by becoming an insurer of the students.

Appellants do not show, however, that Oglethorpe was under a statutory or common law duty to provide safety equipment to its students during an excursion to the beach, or that the ocean is analogous to a nonresidential swimming pool. Nor can we conclude that Oglethorpe became an insurer for the safety of its students by undertaking a study-abroad program, or that it was responsible for the peril encountered by Downes in that it transported him to the beach.

Even then the assumption of the risk defense would apply because assuming the risk relieves the defendant of any negligence.

Even if a defendant is negligent, a determination that a plaintiff assumed the risk or failed to exercise ordinary care for [his] own safety bars recovery for the resulting injury suffered by the plaintiff, unless the injury was wilfully and wantonly inflicted.

The defendant was not liable because the student, as an adult would have appreciated the risks of drowning in the Pacific Ocean.

Because he was a competent adult, Downes would have appreciated the specific risk of drowning posed by entering a body of water so inherently dangerous as the Pacific Ocean. As Downes voluntarily did so, Oglethorpe established that he assumed that risk. Although Downes’s death was undeniably tragic, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court correctly granted Oglethorpe’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

There are two important points in this decision.

First, although not discussed, the court allowed assumption of the risk to stop a claim for gross negligence. Normally, like assumption of the risk, whether or not a defendant was grossly negligent requires a review by the jury to determine if the facts alleged meet the definition of gross negligence in the state.

Second is the issue that the less you do the less liability you create. In the pre-trip briefing with the students the risks of swimming in the ocean were discussed. The students all stated they were strong swimmers and nothing more was done.

If the college had made them take a swim test, further questioned their swimming skills by requiring more information or making sure a professor who was a lifeguard was on the trip, the college would have created an additional duty owed to the students.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., et. al., 2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

Graciela Quiroz, individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 1”) AND XXXX (“JOHN DOE 2”), Minors, and Robert Sullivan, Individually, A/N/F OF XXXX (“JOHN DOE 3”), Appellants v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellees

No. 05-17-00948-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

July 9, 2018

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671

Before Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill Justices. [1]

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL J. O’NEILL JUSTICE, ASSIGNED

Appellant Graciela Quiroz brought a negligence suit against appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc., and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. (collectively Jumpstreet) for injuries she sustained while jumping on a trampoline at a Jumpstreet facility. Jumpstreet moved for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by Quiroz. Quiroz responded and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment, denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and dismissed all of Quiroz’s claims. In one issue, Quiroz contends the trial court erred in granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her motion for partial summary judgment. We affirm the trial court’s order.

Background

On November 29, 2014, Quiroz and her sixteen-year-old son went to Jumpstreet. Prior to using the facility, Quiroz was given a pre-injury release form that was titled “Jumpstreet, LLC Release and Parent/Guardian Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk.” The Release recited the following statements under the title: “PLEASE READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY. BY SIGNING IT, YOU ARE GIVING UP LEGAL RIGHTS.” After signing the Release, Quiroz and her son jumped on a trampoline. When Quiroz attempted to do a flip, she injured her neck. Quiroz is now paralyzed from the waist down. Quiroz brought suit, individually, against Jumpstreet for negligence and gross negligence and as next friend of two minor children for their loss of parental consortium and their bystander claims for mental anguish. Robert Sullivan (Quiroz’s spouse) joined the suit for loss of consortium and as next friend of a third minor child for loss of parental consortium and a bystander claim for mental anguish.

Jumpstreet filed a “Traditional Motion for Summary Judgment” alleging summary judgment was proper because Quiroz had signed a Release. In the motion, Jumpstreet stated that because Quiroz alleged negligence and gross negligence claims against Jumpstreet arising from her utilizing a Jumpstreet facility, the Release signed by Quiroz expressly released any negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet asserted the Release was valid and enforceable because it specifically named the party to be released, it met the fair notice requirements of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule, and it met the contractual elements of mutual intent and valid consideration.

Quiroz filed a response to Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and a cross-motion for partial summary judgment that alleged summary judgment for Jumpstreet was improper because there was an issue of material fact regarding the Release. Quiroz alleged she was entitled to a partial summary judgment because the Release was “void, voidable and unenforceable” because the named entity did not exist at the time of her injury, the Release was ambiguous, a parent could not waive claims of minors, and the Release could not waive gross negligence claims because it would be against public policy to do so. The trial court granted Jumpstreet’s traditional motion for summary judgment and denied Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz timely filed this appeal.

Issue Presented

In her sole issue on appeal, Quiroz contends the trial court erred by granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying her cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, no contract existed between her and Jumpstreet, LLC, the entity named in the Release. Quiroz argues there was no “meeting of the minds on the contract’s essential terms” between her and Jumpstreet, LLC because Jumpstreet, LLC had been dissolved in June 2011 and did not exist at the time of her injury in November 2014. Quiroz contends that because a nonexistent entity cannot form or enter into a contract, the Release is void and unenforceable as a matter of law.

Quiroz further contends the Release did not meet the “fair notice requirement” because none of the Jumpstreet defendants are named in the Release; only the nonexistent entity “Jumpstreet, LLC” is specifically named in the Release. Quiroz argues the Release also never specifically identified or released a claim for an injury due to paralysis. Further, Quiroz asserts that as a matter of law, a parent cannot waive a minor’s claims, and a Release cannot waive any claims for gross negligence because that is against public policy.

Jumpstreet responds that the trial court properly granted summary judgment in their favor because Quiroz signed a valid, enforceable Release before using its facility. The Release satisfied both the fair notice requirement and the express negligence rule as to both negligence and gross negligence claims. Jumpstreet also argues the Release meets the general requirements of a valid contract because it shows a “meeting of the minds” and valid consideration. Jumpstreet further responds that because the consortium and bystander claims are derivative claims, they are barred as a matter of law.

Applicable Law

We review a trial court’s summary judgment order de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Dallas v. Dallas Morning News, LP, 281 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2009, no pet.); see also Tex. R. Civ. P. 166A(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we take as true all evidence favorable to the nonmovant, and we indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubts in the nonmovant’s favor. Valence Operating Co. v. Dorsett, 164 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tex. 2005). When both sides move for summary judgment, however, each party bears the burden of establishing it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 356 (Tex. 2000). When the trial court grants one motion and denies the other, we review the summary judgment evidence presented by both parties and determine all the questions presented. S. Crushed Concrete, LLC v. City of Houston, 398 S.W.3d 676, 678 (Tex. 2013).

The Release signed by Quiroz was a prospective release of future claims, including claims based on Jumpstreet’s own negligence. A release is an absolute bar to the released matter and extinguishes a claim or cause of action. Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 509 (Tex. 1993). Jumpstreet had to show that the Release’s language met the fair notice requirement of conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. See id. “Conspicuous” means the terms must be presented in a manner that a reasonable person against whom it is to operate ought to have notice. Quintana v. CrossFit Dallas, L.L.C., 347 S.W.3d 445, 450 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2011, no pet, ).

The express negligence rule is not an affirmative defense, but it is a rule of contract interpretation. See Fisk Elec. Co. v. Constructors & Assocs., Inc., 888 S.W.2d 813, 814 (Tex. 1994). This rule states that if a party intends to be released from its own future negligence, it must express that intent in clear, unambiguous terms within the four corners of the contract. Atl. Richfield Co. v. Petroleum Pers., Inc., 768 S.W.2d 724, 726 (Tex. 1989); Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Discussion

Parties have the right to contract as they see fit as long as their agreement does not violate the law or public policy. In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 148 S.W.3d 124, 129 & n.11 (Tex. 2004). Texas law recognizes and protects a broad freedom of contract. Fairfield Ins. Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP, 246 S.W.3d 653, 671 (Tex. 2008). Under Texas law, a release is a contract and is subject to avoidance just like any other contract. Williams v. Glash, 789 S.W.2d 261, 264 (Tex. 1990). When construing a contract, the court’s primary concern is to give effect to the written expression of the parties’ intent. Forbau v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 876 S.W.2d 132, 133 (Tex. 1994). Public policy dictates that courts are not to interfere lightly with this freedom of contract. See, e.g., Gym-N-I Playgrounds, Inc. v. Snider, 220 S.W.3d 905, 912 (Tex. 2007) (commercial lease expressly waiving warranties); In re Prudential, 148 S.W.3d at 129 & n.11 (contractual jury waiver); BMG Direct Mktg., Inc. v. Peake, 178 S.W.3d 763, 767 (Tex. 2005) (liquidated damages clause); Mo., Kan. & Tex. Ry. Co. of Tex. v. Carter, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).

A tortfeasor can claim the protection of a release only if the release refers to him by name or with such descriptive particularity that his identity or his connection with the tortious event is not in doubt. Duncan v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 665 S.W.2d 414, 420 (Tex. 1984); see also Frazer v. Tex. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 4 S.W.3d 819, 823-24 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.) (with use of “and its affiliated companies,” release sufficiently identified Texas Farm Bureau Underwriters such that its identity is not in doubt.). Here, the Release clearly and unambiguously stated it applied to all Jumpstreet entities that are engaged in the trampoline business. Although the Release specifically named “Jumpstreet, LLC,” it also stated the Release equally applied to “its parent, subsidiaries, affiliates, other related entities, successors, owners, members, directors, officers, shareholders, agents, employees, servants, assigns, investors, legal representatives and all individuals and entities involved in the operation of Jumpstreet.”

The record shows the entity named “Jumpstreet, LLC” was dissolved in June, 2011. The record also contains a deposition transcript from Martin L. Brooks who testified he and Tim Crawford were cousins and the sole owners of all the Jumpstreet entities, all the Jumpstreet entities were engaged in the trampoline business, and the entity named “Jumpstreet, Inc.” was the parent company. The record shows that in her original petition, Quiroz named seventeen different Jumpstreet entities, including “Jumpstreet, Inc.,” the parent company. In her “fourth amended petition” that was in effect at the time of the summary judgment hearing, however, she named only three of the Jumpstreet entities, including the parent company. The Jumpstreet appellees in this case are all engaged in the trampoline business and described with such particularity that their identity was never in doubt. Duncan, 665 S.W.2d at 420; Frazer, 4 S.W.3d at 823-24.

Although the Release in this case contains two pages, it conspicuously contains several paragraphs with bolded headings and capitalized font. On page one, an “assumption of risk” section is separate from a “release of liability” section. The Release warns prospective patrons to “please read this document carefully” and “by signing it, you are giving up legal rights.” This warning appears directly under the title of the Release and is written in all capital letters. On page two, the Release has an “assumption of the risk” paragraph in all capital letters and surrounded by a box, calling specific attention to it. On both pages, there are several references to the risks and dangers of participating in Jumpstreet services throughout the Release. The “waiver and release” language is repeated a final time, in capital lettering, immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452 (concluding a two-page contract titled “Health Assessment Waiver and Goals Work Sheet” that included word “release” in larger and bold print near top of second page and initialed by party was “sufficiently conspicuous to provide fair notice”).

The Release also does not run afoul of the express negligence rule. As noted above, the waiver and release language is in capital lettering immediately above the signature line where Quiroz printed her name, date of birth, age, address, and telephone number. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. Further, on page one in the assumption of risk paragraphs, the person signing the Release acknowledges the “potentially hazardous activity,” and the Release lists possible injuries including “but not limited to” sprains, heart attack, and even death. Although paralysis is not specifically named as an injury, it is certainly less than death and thus would be included within the “but not limited to” language. Also, the release of liability paragraph above Quiroz’s signature expressly lists the types of claims and causes of action she is waiving, including “negligence claims, gross negligence claims, personal injury claims, and mental anguish claims.” Id.

Quiroz next argues that a parent cannot waive a minor child’s claims. Quiroz asserts Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1993), is the leading Texas case. In Munoz, the parents sued an amusement park for damages after their child was injured on a ride. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment based upon a pre-injury release signed by the parents. The appellate court reversed, holding that the Family Code did not give parents the power to waive a child’s cause of action for personal injuries. Munoz is distinguishable from Quiroz’s claims in that Quiroz sustained the injury and not her children. Moreover, the cause of action for loss of parental consortium, like the cause of action for loss of spousal consortium, is a derivative cause of action. As such, the defenses that bar all or part of the injured parent’s recovery have the same effect on the child’s recovery. Reagan v. Vaughn, 804 S.W.2d 463, 468 (Tex. 1990), on reh’g in part (Mar. 6, 1991). And although bystander claims are considered independent and not derivative, it is also true that the bystander plaintiff cannot recover unless the injured person can recover. Estate of Barrera v. Rosamond Vill. Ltd. P’ship, 983 S.W.2d 795, 799- 800 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1998, no pet.).

Quiroz lastly argues a pre-injury release cannot apply to gross negligence claims because that is against public policy. Generally, a contract provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 195(1 (1981). Quiroz cites our case in Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, 402 S.W.3d 915 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2013, no pet.), for this proposition. There is disagreement among the courts of appeals as to whether a party may validly release claims for gross negligence. The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a pre-injury release as to gross negligence is against public policy when there is no assertion that intentional, deliberate, or reckless acts cause injury.[2] Some appellate courts have held that negligence and gross negligence are not separable claims and that therefore a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence. See Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling U.S., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1994, writ denied).

In contrast, we recently held that a plaintiff’s execution of a contract specifically releasing a defendant from liability for negligence did not release the defendant from liability for gross negligence. Van Voris, 402 S.W.3d at 926. We reasoned that the public policy requiring an express release from negligence also requires an express release from gross negligence. See id. We specifically pointed out that “our conclusion is limited to the context presented by this case.” See id. Other courts have held that pre-accident waivers of gross negligence are invalid as against public policy. See Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no pet.); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App.-Beaumont 1986, no writ).

Van Voris is distinguishable from the case here in that Quiroz’s Release specifically stated that both negligence and gross negligence claims were waived. The assumption of risk paragraph that lists the specific types of claims/causes of actions that were included in the Release was encased in a box, had all capital lettering, and appeared above the signature line. As noted above, Quiroz received fair notice regarding the claims being waived. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 450.

Conclusion

The Release met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule. It was, thus, enforceable. See Quintana, 347 S.W.3d at 452. As a result, Jumpstreet met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See City of Garland, 22 S.W.3d at 356. We conclude the trial court properly granted Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment. See Travelers Ins. Co., 315 S.W.3d at 862.

We affirm the trial court’s order granting Jumpstreet’s motion for summary judgment and denying Quiroz’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.

On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671. Opinion delivered by Justice O’Neill. Justices Myers and Boatright participating.

In accordance with this Court’s opinion of this date, the judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.

It is ORDERED that appellees Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc. recover their costs of this appeal from appellants Graciela Quiroz and Robert Sullivan.

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Notes:

[1] The Hon. Michael J. O’Neill, Justice, Assigned

[2] We note that Quiroz cited Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority Of Harris County., 449 S.W.3d 98 (Tex. 2014), in her “First Supplemental Brief,” for the proposition that “a pre-injury release of future liability for gross negligence is void as against public policy.” In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court had to decide, in a breach of contract case, whether a no-damages-for-delay provision shielded the owner from liability for deliberately and wrongfully interfering with the contractor’s work. In Zachry, the Texas Supreme Court held the no-damages-for-delay provision at issue was unenforceable as against public policy. Zachry, however, is distinguishable because that case concerned how a no-delay-for-damages provision could be enforced if the Port’s intentional misconduct caused the delay. Here, Quiroz has not asserted that Jumpstreet’s alleged negligence was intentional, deliberate, or reckless.

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