South Dakota in Federal District Court decision seems to allow a release to stop the claims for a minor.

Release was effective in stopping ordinary negligence claims; however, the gross negligence claims were allowed to continue.

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

State: South Dakota, United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

Plaintiff: Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor

Defendant: Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For both plaintiff and defendant, but proceeding to trial

Year: 2018

Summary

The minor child was injured on a tubing hill when her tube stopped in the middle of the hill, and she was hit and injured by her brother coming after her. The release the parents signed stopped the ordinary negligence claim but under South Dakota, law did not stop a claim for gross negligence.

There was no discussion in the decision as to whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child, the injured plaintiff. It just seemed to be taken for granted by the court, or at least not argued by the plaintiffs.

Facts

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants.

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately 50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope.

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

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

The plaintiff’s conceded that the release barred their claims for negligence, the first count in their complaint. That left the issue of whether the release barred their claims for gross negligence and whether they had pled enough facts to support a gross negligence claim.

Gross negligence under South Dakota law is the same as willful and wanton conduct:

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.”

The major difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence is the mental state of the defendant.

In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.”

That creates a two-step test to determine if the defendant was grossly negligent.

Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.

The court’s analysis of the chance of the harm occurring is a way of looking at the differences between ordinary and gross negligence that I have never seen before.

The court looked at the facts as presented by both sides and found both lacking the information the court felt would prove the plaintiff’s case. However, the court made this statement.

Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party, Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.

So, with the inferences created by the plaintiffs about the state of mind of the tubing hill, the court held that there was enough information plead to allow the gross negligence claim to continue.

The court then looked at the assumption of the risk argument made by the defendant. There was no case law in South Dakota stating that assumption of the risk was a defense to gross negligence, so the court held that assumption of the risk would not stop the gross negligence claim.

So Now What?

What did not arise in this case is whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child. The case was captioned as the parents suing on behalf of their minor child. In that regard, the release would bar the claims of the parents. However, this is a different way of suing on behalf of a minor, not away normally done in most states any more.

Also, this is a decision by a Federal District Court applying South Dakota law so, whether a not a release stops a minor’s claims is probably still up in the air until the South Dakota Supreme Court decides the issue.

However, it is a decision to lean on if you have participants who are minors in your program.

The other issues are classic situations where the defendant looks at a situation one way as a positive for patrons but the injured patron is able to turn the situation around and use it as a club against the defendant. Torn tubes were regarded by the defendant as good because they were slower than the other tubes. However, a torn tube is not a product that is 100%, in the condition it was received from the manufacturer. It was a defective product. So, the plaintiff was able to show the defendant was derelict in using them.

If they placed the tubes in a different location with a sign that said, slower tubes it might have been helpful.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn




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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,

tube, tubers, resort, top, slope, guests, collisions, tear, bottom, wanton, deliberate, recommends, descent, genuine, depo, reckless, station, appreciated, descended, nonmoving, slower


Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

November 15, 2018, Decided; November 15, 2018, Filed

5:17-CV-05047-JLV

Reporter

Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; Plaintiffs, vs. Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner, Defendant.

Subsequent History: Objection overruled by, Adopted by, Summary judgment granted by, in part, Summary judgment denied by, in part Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49327 (D.S.D., Mar. 25, 2019)

Counsel:  [*1] For Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Plaintiffs: Kenneth E. Barker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Barker Wilson Law Firm, LLP, Belle Fourche, SD.

For Union Resort, LLC, doing business as Mystic Miner, Defendant: Shane E. Eden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz & Smith, LLP, Sioux Falls, SD.

Judges: VERONICA L. DUFFY, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: VERONICA L. DUFFY

Opinion

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court on the amended complaint of Brad and Tara Reed as conservators of I.R., their minor daughter. See Docket No. 16. The Reeds allege claims of negligence and gross negligence against defendant Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner (defendant) arising out of a tubing accident at defendant’s ski resort. Id. This matter rests on the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 21. The Reeds oppose the motion. See Docket No. 30. The motion was referred to this magistrate judge for a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the order of referral dated November 11, 2018 (Doc. 42), and the [*2]  October 16, 2014, standing order of the Honorable Jeffrey L. Viken, Chief United States District Judge.

FACTS

Defendant filed a statement of undisputed material facts, Docket No. 22, to which the Reeds have responded, Docket No. 31. The following facts have been drawn from those pleadings with disputes or discrepancies as noted.

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants. [*3] 

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately [*4]  50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has [*5]  finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant [*6]  employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. See Docket No. 25-5 at p. 7 (depo. pp. 25-26). Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope. Id. at p. 6 (depo. pp. 22-24).2

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with [*7]  a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with [*8]  a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose [*9]  tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “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 court must view the facts, and inferences from those facts, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962)); Helton v. Southland Racing Corp., 600 F.3d 954, 957 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Summary judgment will not lie if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994).

The burden is placed on the moving party to establish both the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but [*10]  must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) (each party must properly support its own assertions of fact and properly address the opposing party’s assertions of fact, as required by Rule 56(c)).

The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are “material” for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. (citing 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice And Procedure § 2725, at 93-95 (3d ed. 1983)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 247-48.

Essentially, the availability of summary judgment turns on whether a proper jury question is presented: “The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial—whether, in other words, there are any genuine [*11]  factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.

B. Does the Release Signed by the Reeds Bar Their Claims?

Defendant’s first argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the clear and plain language of the release signed by the Reeds bars their claims and that there is no overriding public policy that serves to neutralize the release.

South Dakota law4 provides that a valid release of liability bars claims for ordinary negligence, but does not bar claims for gross or willful negligence or recklessness. Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 792-93 (S.D. 2000). The Reeds do not argue that the release was invalid in any way or that the activity I.R. was engaged in when she was injured was outside the scope of the release. In fact, the Reeds concede that their first claim in their amended complaint for ordinary negligence is barred by defendant’s release. See Docket No. 30 at p. 5. Accordingly, the court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the Reeds’ claim for ordinary negligence, count one of the amended complaint, be granted.

C. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Gross Negligence?

Defendant argues the facts alleged [*12]  by the Reeds, even if true, allege a claim for ordinary negligence only, not gross negligence. Thus, since ordinary negligence is barred by the release, defendant argues it should be granted summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim too.

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Fischer v. City of Sioux Falls, 919 N.W.2d 211, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2 (S.D., 2018). Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Id. Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Id. (citing W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 34, at 212 (5th ed. 1984)). Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. Id. 2018 SD 71, [WL] at *3. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions [*13]  of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. Id. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Id. Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” Id. There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

The evidence must show more than “mere mistake, inadvertence, or inattention . . . there need not be an affirmative wish to injure another, but, instead, a willingness to injure another.” Gabriel v. Bauman, 2014 SD 30, 847 N.W.2d 537, 541 (S.D. 2014)). Generally, whether the facts constitute gross negligence is a question of fact “if reasonable minds might differ in interpreting the facts in arriving at different conclusions on whether the defendant was willful, wanton, or reckless.” Id. at 542. “Because willfulness, wantonness, or recklessness is almost never admitted, and can be proved only by the conduct and the circumstances, an objective standard must of necessity in practice be applied. Id. at 542-43.

Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence [*14]  is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Fischer, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.

The Reeds posit three facts in support of their assertion the defendant in this case acted grossly negligent (or willfully and wantonly) with regard to I.R. First, the defendant had a practice of leaving tubes with tears in the canvas bottoms in rotation for guests to use because the torn tubes were slower and, therefore, in the eyes of defendant’s employees, safer. Second, the defendant knew the importance of staging—having [*15]  an employee at the top of the tube run to meter the guests as they descended the slope so that one guest could clear the run before the next guest began descending—but made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run on the day of I.R.’s accident. And, finally, the existence of prior collisions on the tube run put the defendant on notice of the likelihood of harm.

Neither party speaks to the magnitude of the harm which, as discussed above, is one of the two factors distinguishing ordinary negligence from gross negligence. The defendant does not cite facts or circumstances to show that the prior collisions were minor bump-and-bruise types of encounters. The Reeds do not cite facts or circumstances to show the prior collisions resulted in concussions, closed head injuries, broken bones, surgeries or hospitalizations. The Reeds have supported their assertion that I.R.’s injuries were sufficiently serious—a fractured skull–something defendant does not dispute. Because the moving party has the burden, the court makes all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Accordingly, the court infers that previous accidents were sufficiently severe in nature to [*16]  satisfy the standard required for gross negligence.

Likewise, with regard to the number of prior incidents, neither party has placed into the record what the total number of tubers was during the period of time covered by the incidents. This fact goes to the likelihood of a collision—for gross negligence, there must be a greater probability of harm occurring than is the case with ordinary negligence. If 17 collisions occurred between fall of 2010 and March 15, 2015, and there were 5,000 tubers during that time, the number of prior accidents takes on one type of significance. But the significance of the number of prior accidents is different if the total number of tubers during that time frame is 100, 300, or even 500. There is a significantly bigger risk of harm the smaller the total number of tubers. Although the defendant alleges there were “thousands” of tubers, it has not supported that assertion with citation to an affidavit, deposition, or authenticated document. Again, there is a lack of evidence.

Also, neither party describes the scope of defendant’s incident reports. Do they encompass all kinds of incidents—those attributable to conditions on the slopes within defendant’s control [*17]  as well as incidents attributable to factors not within defendant’s control? Do they encompass heart attacks and strokes as well as collisions? Do the reports include drunken brawls between guests as well as injuries inflicted when a tow bar snaps?

Furthermore, is there any evidence suggesting that not all collisions at defendant’s resort are documented in incident reports? Are the incident reports the tip of the iceberg—or are they truly representative of all injuries occurring at defendant’s resort?

Finally, defendant does not dispute that no employee was stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident. The Reeds assert that defendant was “chronically understaffed” and that defendant made a “deliberate decision” not to place an employee at the top of the tube run that day. The Reeds have amply supported their assertion that defendant was chronically understaffed, with the result that positions that should have been filled by employees were left unattended. See Docket Nos. 33-4, 33-5, & 33-8. The Reeds also supplied testimony that, when there were not enough employees, the defendant prioritized putting an employee at the bottom of the tube slope rather than at the [*18]  top of the slope. See Docket No. 33-4 at p. 5 (depo p. 20). From these two facts, the Reeds infer that defendant made a “deliberate decision” the day of the accident not to place an employee at the top of the tube slope to stage the tubers.

Defendant disputes that it made a “deliberate decision” not to have an employee staging the tubers that day. Defendant’s disagreement with the Reeds’ assertion is based solely on the fact that they do not have testimony from any witness stating outright that a calculated decision was made. Defendant seems to assert that the Reeds may not rely upon an inference, but must have affirmative evidence of the fact a “deliberate decision” was made.

The court makes two observations. Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542-43. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Co., 475 U.S. at 587-88. Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did [*19]  not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant attempts to eliminate a genuine issue of fact as to the presence of a staging employee by asserting that there was in fact an employee at the top of the tube hill with a radio. See Docket No. 34 at p. 6. In support of this assertion of fact, defendant cites Mr. and Mrs. Reeds’ depositions and argues they cannot claim a version of facts more favorable than their own testimony, an old chestnut of South Dakota Law.

Reading the Reeds’ depositions, however, leads one to conclude defendant’s assertion is, if not outright untrue, certainly misleading. Both Mr. and Mrs. Reed testified no one was at the top of the hill staging the tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. p. 30); Docket No. 27-5 at p. 7 (depo. p. 25). Prior to the accident, both the Reeds had observed a young man with a radio they assumed was defendant’s employee at the top of the hill during one or two of the Reed party’s previous 15-20 tube runs. However, the young man never provided instruction to the tubers about when to go down the slope—he was not staging the tubers. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. [*20]  pp. 39-40). Thus, the Reeds have sustained their assertion of fact that defendant had no employee stationed at the top of the tube hill to stage tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant’s motion is decided with resort to two veins of law. First, the law applicable to summary judgment. As the movant, defendant has the burden to show that there are no genuine disputes of material fact and that, based upon those undisputed facts, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. All of the absences of crucial fact detailed by the court above cut against defendant as the moving party. Furthermore, all of the inferences from the facts that are present in the record must be drawn in favor of the Reeds. Applying those standards to the issue before the court, the conclusion is inescapable that there are genuine issues of material fact existing which prevent summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

The second vein of law which comes into play is the dictate of South Dakota law that, ordinarily, questions of whether a defendant acted with gross negligence are questions of fact for the jury if reasonable minds could differ as to the inferences to draw from the known facts. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542. That is the situation [*21]  here. The court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim be denied.

D. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Assumption of the Risk?

Defendant’s final argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the Reeds assumed the risk of their daughter’s accident as a matter of law, thereby relieving defendant of any liability. The court addresses the first question apparent by defendant’s argument: whether assumption of the risk is even a defense to a claim of gross negligence. As legal authority for its position, defendant cites only the Restatement (Second) of Torts 496A, cmt. d (1965), and a dissenting opinion in Barger for Wares v. Cox, 372 N.W.2d 161, 170-71 (S.D. 1985) (Wuest, J., dissenting). See Defendant’s Brief, Docket No. 23 at pp. 29-30. Neither of these authorities represent binding South Dakota law.

The Reeds in their brief do not address the issue of whether assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence. They argue only that assumption of the risk is a quintessential issue of fact for the jury. See Docket No. 30 at pp. 13-14.

In the Holzer case discussed previously, the plaintiff signed defendant’s release of liability form which defendant called an “assumption of the risk” form. Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 790. The court held [*22]  in that case that liability releases only serve to protect defendants from claims of ordinary negligence, not from claims of gross negligence. Id. at 793. However, the title the defendant chose to give its release form is not dispositive of the question in this case.

The South Dakota Supreme Court has said that when a defendant’s actions are merely negligent, the defense of contributory negligence applies. But when the defendant’s conduct is willful and wanton, the defense of contributory negligence does not apply. Carlson v. Johnke, 57 S.D. 544, 234 N.W. 25, 27-28 (S.D. 1931), overruled on other grounds Wittstruck v. Lee, 62 S.D. 290, 252 N.W. 874, 877 (S.D. 1934) (clarifying that it did not adopt the doctrine of comparative negligence in Johnke).

In a dissenting opinion in another case, Justice Henderson stated that while assumption of the risk was a defense to ordinary negligence, the plaintiff would nonetheless have recourse for willful or wanton acts of a defendant. Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass’n. , 514 N.W.2d 693, 703 (S.D. 1994) (Henderson, J., dissenting). See Rantapaa v. Black Hills Chair Lift Co., 2001 SD 111, 633 N.W.2d 196, 204 (S.D. 2001) (assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to an ordinary negligence claim).

The court has found no South Dakota case directly on point addressing whether the defense of assumption of the risk applies to grossly negligent or willful and wanton conduct. Defendant cites § 496A, comment d, of the Restatement (Second) of Torts for the proposition that the defense is [*23]  available here. The section cited stands for the proposition that assumption of the risk is a defense to both ordinary negligence and to reckless conduct. The section does not address gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct. However, it is true that the South Dakota Supreme Court has, at times, used the word “reckless” interchangeably with “gross negligence” and “willful and wanton.”

If assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence, it is a subjective standard. Duda v. Phatty McGees, Inc., 2008 SD 115, 758 N.W.2d 754, 758 (S.D. 2008). Defendant has the burden to prove that “the particular plaintiff in fact sees, knows, understands and appreciates” the specific risk that caused the injury. Id. The defendant must prove three elements: (1) the plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge of the risk; (2) the plaintiff appreciated its character; and (3) the plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk, with the time, knowledge, and experience to make an intelligent choice. Id. “A person is deemed to have appreciated the risk if it is the type of risk that no adult of average intelligence can deny.” Id. (quoting Westover v. East River Elec. Power Coop., Inc., 488 N.W.2d 892, 901 (S.D. 1992)) (cleaned up).

The Restatement states that a plaintiff who knows generally of a danger does not necessarily assume the risk if [*24]  the danger appears to be slight or negligible. See
Restatement (Second) Torts §496D, cmt. b. The Restatement also echoes what South Dakota law establishes: because the standard for assumption of the risk is a subjective one based on whether the plaintiff knows of the existence of the risk as well as understands its magnitude and unreasonable character, the question of assumption of the risk is almost always a question of fact for the jury to decide. Id.; Ray v. Downes, 1998 SD 40, 576 N.W.2d 896, 900 (S.D. 1998).

Here, the Reeds have established that neither they nor their children had ever been tubing before the day they visited defendant’s resort. See Docket No. 27-1 at p.3 (depo. p. 12). They anticipated that tubing at defendant’s resort would be safe, fun and would build family memories. See Docket No. 33-1 at p. 103. Furthermore, there is no evidence produced by defendant showing that the Reeds anticipated, understood, and accepted the risk that defendant would provide no employee at the top of the tube run to stage the tubers—contrary to defendant’s own policy and its prominent signage at the resort (i.e. follow attendant’s instructions when going down the tube run).

The defense of assumption of the risk is a subjective one. There are material issues of fact as to what the [*25]  Reeds knew and appreciated in terms of the risk they and I.R. would encounter when tubing at defendant’s resort. Assuming that the defense applies at all to a claim of gross negligence, the court concludes summary judgment is inappropriate on this record.

Conclusion

Based on the foregoing facts, law and analysis, this magistrate judge respectfully recommends granting in part and denying in part defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Docket No. 21. Specifically, the court recommends defendant’s motion should be granted as to plaintiff’s claim for ordinary negligence, but recommends defendant’s motion should be denied as to plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence.

Notice To Parties

The parties have fourteen (14) days after service of this Report and Recommendation to file written objections pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), unless an extension of time for good cause is obtained. Failure to file timely objections will result in the waiver of the right to appeal questions of fact. Objections must be timely and specific in order to require de novo review by the District Court. Thompson v. Nix, 897 F.2d 356 (8th Cir. 1990); Nash v. Black, 781 F.2d 665 (8th Cir. 1986).

DATED November 15, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Veronica L. Duffy

VERONICA L. DUFFY

United States Magistrate Judge


Collecting accident reports without doing something with the reports guarantees you will lose a lawsuit and in this case possibly for gross negligence.

Climbing gym had a collection of accident reports that were based on the same set of facts. Failure to act on the reports and solve the problem was enough proof for the Utah appellate court to hold the actions of the defendant gym were possibly grossly negligent.

Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996

State: Utah; Court of Appeals of Utah

Plaintiff: Scott Howe

Defendant: Momentum LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area

Defendant Defenses: the actions of the defendant did not rise to the level of gross negligence.

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Incident and Accident reports that have not been acted on and the issues that caused the accidents which had not been fixed, were proof that the defendant climbing gym possibly acted in a grossly negligent way.

Facts

Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.

But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping, so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.

Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.

In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.

Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”

The defendant Momentum filed a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the gross negligence claims of the plaintiff. The trial court judge ruled the plaintiff had shown enough action and inaction on the part of the gym that the plaintiff could proceed to trial on a claim of gross negligence. The defendant appealed this ruling.

The decision also looks at the qualifications of the plaintiff’s expert witness. However, there is nothing in the decision that warrants review here.

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

The court’s analysis of the law was quite good and balanced. It’s application of the law to the facts was clear cut. The court defined gross negligence under Utah’s law as “…the failure to observe even slight care….

A broader definition was defined as:

“…the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff….

The court concluded its review of gross negligence with this statement about the actions of the defendant. “…Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent….

The court then followed with this statement.

It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence,….

At this point, in the opinion it is clear the court looked at Momentum’s failure to act after collecting more than 13 incident reports as gross negligence.

It is also clear that the court believes that failure to act on the defendant’s own incident reports is a major failure of the defendant. Why have accident and incident reports if you do nothing about them.

These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding.

The court gave the climbing gym some benefit because after the first five accidents, they placed additional padding over the torn spots. However, having eight additional incidents, with the torn padding was more than the court would allow.

The court then summed up the accident reports that the defendant compiled.

…onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.

The court found that collecting injury reports, which almost identical fact situations and not doing anything about it were proof of gross negligence. The appellate court held the trial court was correct in denying the defendant climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the gross negligence claims.

So Now What?

Incident reports are legal explosives just waiting to go off when a plaintiff’s attorney gets them. If you collect them, then you MUST do something with them.

Each report MUST be analyzed. It must be compared with all other reports to see trends or to determine what the cause or problem is. Then something must be done to correct the problem.

If you decided the report is a rate instance or something outside of your ability to control it, then you must indicate that in your notes or on your response to the report. If a second accident occurs with the same fact situation, then it is not longer a rare case, it is something you must act on.

If not, like in this case, the reports prove foreseeability and in this case, prove that failing to act when the defendant knew a problem existed, was enough to support a claim of gross negligence.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn




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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,


Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996

Howe v. Momentum LLC, 2020 UT App 5, 2020 Utah App. LEXIS 1, 2020 WL 34996

Howe v. Momentum LLC

Court of Appeals of Utah

January 3, 2020, Filed

No. 20190187-CA

Opinion

APPLEBY, Judge:

[*P1]  Scott Howe sued Momentum LLC under a theory of gross negligence1 for injuries he sustained while “bouldering.”2 Momentum moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied because the disputed facts were sufficient to raise a jury question. The district court also ruled that Howe’s expert (Expert) was qualified to testify on the industry standard of care. The matter is before this court on an interlocutory appeal challenging the court’s denial of the summary judgment motion and its decision to permit Expert to testify. We affirm and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND3

[*P2]  Momentum is an indoor-climbing facility with a separate area for bouldering. The bouldering area’s concrete floor is covered by approximately twelve inches of foam padding overlain by thick vinyl, known as an “impact attenuation surface.” In the years after Momentum’s 2007 opening, some of the vinyl [**2]  began to tear and separate. In late September 2011, Momentum had “[a]t least one” tear repaired with a welded vinyl patch.

[*P3]  But Momentum’s management team deemed these tear patches a hazard for tripping,4 so it placed modular one-inch-thick mats over certain areas of the bouldering area floor that were showing signs of wear or damage. The mats are not designed to be anchored to the underlying pad and they would sometimes move when people landed on them. Because the mats tended to move, Momentum staff “monitored the floor regularly to try to keep the [mats] in place.” In addition to this action, a Momentum employee altered the routes above those areas by reconfiguring and reducing the number of foot-and hand-holds to reduce customer use of the areas with worn and damaged padding.

[*P4]  Over the years—and prior to Howe’s injury—Momentum’s patrons had reported incidents, some of which involved injuries, which alerted Momentum to the fact that the padding in the bouldering area was worn and damaged in some places. Before Howe was injured, five incidents were reported before Momentum began using the mats and another eight were reported thereafter. Each of these injuries involved a climber dropping [**3]  from the bouldering wall or “slab area” to the floor below and, upon landing, pushing a foot through the floor padding, making contact with the concrete floor below, either rolling or twisting an ankle in the process.

[*P5]  In March 2012, Howe was bouldering at Momentum. After finishing his bouldering route, Howe dropped off the wall to the floor below. As he made contact with the floor, his “left foot impacted the mat on top of the padded floor, causing the mat to move. As the mat moved, it exposed the padded floor beneath. Concealed under the mat, the cover of the pad was split in a straight line, exposing the abutting edges of pads below.” When Howe’s “right foot impacted the top of the two abutting pads, [his] foot passed between the two abutting pads to the floor beneath.” As a result of the contact with the concrete, Howe broke his right ankle.

[*P6]  Howe sued, asserting—among other things—that Momentum was grossly negligent. He alleged that Momentum, “with a knowing and reckless indifference and disregard for the safety of [Howe] and other members of [Momentum], concealed, or caused to be concealed, the defects in their floor padding by placing mats over the defective area.”

[*P7]  Howe designated [**4]  a liability Expert. Expert has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and petroleum refining, as well as a master’s degree in metallurgical and materials engineering. His professional experience includes research and development engineering as well as forensic engineering. Expert owns a forensic engineering company that specializes in “metallurgical, materials, and mechanical failure analysis”; “materials evaluation and testing”; “product liability and analysis”; “fire and explosion cause and origin”; “industrial, recreational, and construction accident analysis”; and “chemical and mechanical systems failure analysis.” Expert has been an expert witness in numerous cases, one of which involved a mechanical failure that caused an indoor climbing accident. He has also had professional experience with evaluating impact attenuation surfaces in the ski industry.

[*P8]  Expert opined that Momentum did not take appropriate steps to protect climbers in the bouldering area. Indeed, Expert concluded that

Momentum significantly elevated the risk of injury to climbers in the bouldering area by (1) failing to repair, restrict access, clearly mark, cordon off, close walls, or close areas around and [**5]  near the areas where the vinyl padding cover was damaged, and by (2) placing the [mats] over the damaged areas of the padding cover, thus concealing the hazard created by the damage.

In Expert’s opinion, appropriate steps to remedy the problem could have included using “warning signs, closing the sections of the floor or wall near damaged areas,” removing the hand-and foot-holds above the damaged padding, making inaccessible the damaged padding areas, or repairing the damaged padding. During deposition testimony, Expert explained that “those are ways to prevent the public from interacting with the obvious hazard created by the opening in the pads.” This approach was based on his “engineering background and experience in dealing with hazards.” In short, his opinion is that “gluing and adhering . . . a large patch of vinyl over the tear” would have been safer than using the mats.

[*P9]  Momentum moved for summary judgment, arguing the undisputed facts established that it exercised at least slight care to protect climbers using its facility, which meant Howe could not demonstrate gross negligence. Momentum also moved to exclude Expert, claiming he was unqualified to opine upon the standard of [**6]  care in the indoor-climbing industry. The district court denied these motions, and Momentum successfully petitioned this court for an interlocutory appeal.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

[*P10]  Momentum raises two issues on appeal. First, it claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment. HN1[] Denials of summary judgment are questions of law reviewed for correctness. Glenn v. Reese, 2009 UT 80, ¶ 6, 225 P.3d 185.

[*P11]  Second, Momentum claims the district court erred when it denied Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. HN2[] A district court’s determination regarding the admissibility of expert testimony is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 16, 269 P.3d 980.

ANALYSIS

I. Summary Judgment

[*P12]  HN3[] Summary judgment shall be granted “if the moving party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(a). In this case, the district court denied Momentum’s motion for summary judgment on Howe’s claim for gross negligence, based on its finding that there were “numerous genuine issues of disputed material fact.”

[*P13] 
HN4[] In reviewing a district court’s summary judgment decision, appellate courts “must evaluate all the evidence and all reasonable inferences fairly drawn from the evidence [**7]  in a light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment to determine whether there is a material issue of fact to be tried.” Horgan v. Industrial Design Corp., 657 P.2d 751, 752 (Utah 1982). “Gross negligence is the failure to observe even slight care; it is carelessness or recklessness to a degree that shows utter indifference to the consequences that may result. Summary judgment is proper where reasonable minds could reach only one conclusion based on the applicable material facts.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified).

[*P14]  Citing Penunuri and Blaisdell v. Dentrix Dental Systems, Inc., 2012 UT 37, 284 P.3d 616, Momentum argues that “the undisputed material facts of this case show that [it] exercised care, far more than even slight care, and was not careless or reckless, let alone to a degree that shows utter indifference,” and that therefore “the district court erred in denying Momentum’s motion for summary judgment.” (Quotation simplified.) Momentum points out that it “[u]ndisputedly . . . took steps to protect climbers from being injured by the wear and tear damage that had developed in its primary padding,” including using welded patches, “thinn[ing] out” the climbing routes, and, “[a]fter determining that the . . . patches created tripping hazards,” using the mats and monitoring their positioning. In Momentum’s view, these steps [**8]  demonstrate that it took at least slight care and was not utterly indifferent to the consequences that could result from a failure to take care.

[*P15]  Howe acknowledges that Momentum took these steps, but argues they were inadequate. He further asserts that Momentum’s use of the pads to cover the defective flooring concealed the risk and rendered the climbers “defenseless against the dangerous conditions known to Momentum,” and claims that his “inability to see the dangerous flooring over which he was climbing contributed to his injuries.” At oral argument before this court, Howe argued this concealment “dramatically magnified” the risk of harm.

[*P16]  We note the tension between our supreme court’s recent articulation of the elements of gross negligence as “the failure to observe even slight care,” Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶ 35, 423 P.3d 1150 (quotation simplified), and the language of a subsequent paragraph suggesting that “the essential evidence needed to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on a gross negligence claim” is “evidence that the defendant’s conduct dramatically magnified the risk of harm to the plaintiff,” id. ¶ 37. We can envision situations in which the straightforward application of the elements identified [**9]  in paragraph 35 might dictate a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant while the application of the elements identified in paragraph 37 might dictate the denial of summary judgment. But we need not explore this tension further here because Momentum’s failure to take further action in the face of eight additional incidents creates questions of fact about whether it was grossly negligent, even assuming that paragraph 35 sets forth the correct formulation of the elements of gross negligence.

[*P17]  Although Momentum took certain steps to remedy the problem created by the deterioration of the foam padding, injury incidents continued to occur even after implementation of Momentum’s injury-avoidance strategy. HN5[] It is beyond question that a plaintiff who can demonstrate that a defendant has taken no action in response to injury incidents will have likely made out at least a prima facie case of gross negligence, one sufficient to withstand summary judgment. See id. ¶ 16 (“Summary judgment dismissing a gross negligence claim is appropriate where reasonable minds could only conclude that the defendant was not grossly negligent under the circumstances . . . .”). We cannot see much of a distinction [**10]  between that situation and the case Howe brings here: a defendant takes some action in response to injury incidents, and therefore arguably demonstrates slight care in the beginning, but takes no additional action after injury incidents continue to occur following implementation of its original strategy. Stated another way, we are not persuaded that a defendant who simply relies on a repeatedly-failed strategy to avert injury from a known risk is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the “slight care” question.

[*P18]  In this case, five incidents, some of which involved injuries, motivated Momentum to take steps to address the problem and ultimately to place mats over the cracked foam padding. These acts arguably show that Momentum exercised slight care in the beginning and was therefore not completely indifferent to the consequences of allowing climbers to use the bouldering area given the condition of the padding. But by the time Howe was injured, eight more injuries had been reported to Momentum, even after it had thinned the routes and put down the extra pads. These eight additional climbers were injured in roughly the same manner as Howe: when they dropped from the bouldering wall [**11]  onto the floor below, the mat moved, their feet were caught in the crack in the foam padding, and their ankles were injured. Under these circumstances, the question of whether Momentum’s continued use of the mats constituted gross negligence presents a disputed issue of material fact.

[*P19]  Because a reasonable finder of fact could determine, on this record, that Momentum was grossly negligent, the district court’s denial of summary judgment was appropriate.

II. Expert Testimony

[*P20]  HN6[] The Utah Rules of Evidence allow “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to “testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Furthermore, “[s]cientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying in the testimony (1) are reliable, (2) are based upon sufficient facts or data, and (3) have been reliably applied to the facts.” Id. R. 702(b).

[*P21]  Momentum argues the district court [**12]  abused its discretion in denying its motion to exclude Expert. First, it contends Expert’s experience as an engineer did not qualify him to testify as to the applicable standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry. Second, Momentum contends that, because Expert did not evaluate or test vinyl floor padding or the mats used to cover the damaged areas, Expert’s opinions did not meet the reliability standard imposed by rule 702 of the Utah Rules of Evidence.

[*P22]  But as Howe points out, Expert’s training as a professional engineer with experience in “forensic engineering and accident analysis in recreational settings,” “slip and fall accident analysis,” and “warnings, design, and standard of care issues” qualifies him to assist the finder of fact in making a determination of the standard of care in the indoor-climbing industry.

[*P23]  Expert’s proposed testimony is that Momentum acted with indifference toward the safety of its members when it placed mats over the damaged padding; Expert opines that Momentum could have and should have taken alternative steps to mitigate the effects of the worn padding. As Howe points out, and the district court agreed, this testimony “will be helpful to the jury to understand the options Momentum had [**13]  in addressing the damaged vinyl” and to avoid speculation regarding its options.

[*P24] 
HN7[] Further, as to reliability, Expert’s opinion is based “upon [his] engineering education, experience, and training” and “knowledge . . . gained from being a forensic engineer . . . and studying padding and other types of accidents.” In determining whether to allow an expert to offer an opinion, the district court’s role is that of a “gatekeeper,” meant “to screen out unreliable expert testimony.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 28, 269 P.3d 980 (quotation simplified). The court is afforded “broad discretion” when making this determination, and we “will reverse its decision only when it exceeds the bounds of reasonability.” Id. ¶ 31 (quotation simplified). Here, the court’s determination that Expert’s opinion was sufficiently reliable does not “exceed[] the bounds of reasonability,” and we decline to reverse it. See id. (quotation simplified). Expert’s opinion meets the threshold showing of reliability and “will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Utah R. Evid. 702(a). Therefore the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude his testimony.

CONCLUSION

[*P25]  Because there are material facts in [**14]  dispute, the district court properly denied Momentum’s summary judgment motion. Furthermore, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying Momentum’s motion to exclude Expert. We affirm the district court’s rulings on these points and remand for further proceedings.