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Texas appellate court upholds release for claims of gross negligence in trampoline accident that left plaintiff a paraplegic.

However, the decision is not reasoned and supported in Texas by other decisions or the Texas Supreme Court.

Quiroz et. al. 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, a/n/f of Xxxx (“John Doe 3”)

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

Plaintiff Claims: 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.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Adult paralyzed in a trampoline facility sues for her injuries. The release she signed before entering stopped all of her claims, including her claim for gross negligence.

However, the reasoning behind the support for the release to stop the gross negligence claim was not in the decision, so this is a tenuous decision at best.

Facts

The plaintiff and her sixteen-year-old son went to the defendant’s business. Before entering she signed a release. While on a trampoline, the plaintiff attempted to do a back flip, landed on her head and was rendered a paraplegic from the waist down.

The plaintiff sued on her behalf and on behalf of her minor. Her claim was a simple tort claim for negligence. Her children’s claims were based on the loss of parental consortium and under Texas law bystander claims for seeing the accident or seeing their mother suffer. The plaintiff’s husband also joined in the lawsuit later for his loss of consortium claims.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The original entity named on the release was a corporation that was no longer in existence. Several successor entities now owned and controlled the defendant. The plaintiff argued the release did not protect them because the release only spoke to the one defendant.

The court did not agree, finding language in the release that stated the release applied to all “jumpstreet entities that engaged in the trampoline business.”

…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 next argument was whether the release met the requirements on Texas law for a release. The court pointed out bold and capital letters were used to point out important parts of the release. An assumption of the risk section was separate and distance from the release of liability section, and the release warned people to read the document carefully before signing.

Texas also has an express negligence rule, the requirements of which were also met by the way the release was written.

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.

Next the plaintiff argued that the release covered her and her sixteen-year-old minor son. As such the release should be void because it attempted to cover a minor and releases in Texas do not work for minors.

The court ignored this argument stating it was not the minor who was hurt and suing; it was the plaintiff who was an adult. The court then also added that the other plaintiffs were also covered under the release because all of their claims, loss of parental consortium and loss of consortium are derivative claims. Meaning they only succeed if the plaintiff s claim succeeds.

The final argument was the plaintiff plead negligence and gross negligence in her complaint. A release in Texas, like most other states, was argued by the plaintiff to not be valid.

The appellate court did not see that argument as clearly. First, the Texas Supreme Court had not reviewed that issue. Other appellate courts have held that there is no difference in Texas between a claim for negligence and a claim 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. Some appellate courts have held that negligence, and gross negligence are not separable claims and a release of liability for negligence also releases a party from liability for gross negligence.

(For other arguments like this see In Nebraska a release can defeat claims for gross negligence for health club injury.)

The court looked at the release which identified negligence and gross negligence as claims that the release would stop.

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.

Although not specifically writing in the opinion why the release stopped the gross negligence claims, the court upheld the release for all the plaintiff claims.

…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.

The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.

So Now What?

First this case is a great example of believing that once you have a release you don’t have to do anything else. If the defendant’s release would have been checked every year, someone should have noticed that the named entity to be protected no longer existed.

In this case that fact did not become a major issue, however, in other states the language might not have been broad enough to protect everyone.

Second, this case is also proof that being specific with possible risks of the activities and have an assumption of risk section pays off.

Finally, would I go out and pronounce that Texas allows a release to stop claims for gross negligence. No. Finger’s crossed until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the issue or another appellate court in Texas provides reasoning for its argument, this is thin support for that statement.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Quiroz v. Jumpstreet8, Inc., 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

2018 Tex. App. LEXIS 5107

July 9, 2018, Opinion Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] On Appeal from the 298th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 15-02671.

In re Quiroz, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 7423 (Tex. App. Dallas, Aug. 7, 2017)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-The trampoline facility owner met its burden of establishing it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because the release was enforceable when it met both the fair notice requirement for conspicuousness and the express negligence rule.

OUTCOME: Order affirmed.

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, entity, gross negligence, public policy, negligence claims, partial, matter of law, cause of action, pre-injury, consortium, waive, cross-motion, notice requirements, trampoline, bystander, specifically named, unenforceable, signing, mental anguish, signature line, conspicuousness, distinguishable, enforceable, derivative, lettering, parental, waiving, notice, void, issue of material fact

COUNSEL: For Graciela Quiroz, et al, Appellant: John T. Kirtley, Lead counsel, Ferrer, Poirot and Wansbrough, Dallas, TX.

For Jumpstreet8, Inc., Jumpstreet, Inc. and Jumpstreet Construction, Inc., Appellee: Cassie Dallas, Shelby G. Hall, Wade C. Crosnoe, Lead Counsel, Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P., Dallas, TX; Michael A. Yanof, Lenahan Law, P.L.L.C., Dallas, TX; Randy Alan Nelson, Thompson Coe, Dallas, TX.

JUDGES: Before Justices Myers, Boatright, and O’Neill.1 Opinion by Justice O’Neill.

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

OPINION BY: MICHAEL J. O’NEILL

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Opinion by Justice O’Neill

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 [*2] 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 [*3] 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 [*4] 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 [*5] 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

[HN1] 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. [*6] 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. [HN2] 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

[HN3] 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 [*7] 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); Missouri, K. & T. R. Co. v. Carter, 95 Tex. 461, 68 S.W. 159, 164 (Tex. 1902) (contract waiving responsibility for fires caused by railroad engines).

[HN4] 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 [*8] 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 [*9] 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 [*10] 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. [*11] Moreover, [HN5] 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 [*12] 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).

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.

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 [*13] 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.

/s/ Michael J. O’Neill

MICHAEL J. O’NEILL

JUSTICE, ASSIGNED

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.

Judgment entered this 9th day of July, 2018.


Federal Court in Texas upholds clause in release requiring plaintiff to pay defendants costs of defending against plaintiff’s claims.

Fitness contract included a release which included a clause stating the signor would pay the fitness companies defense costs. Court awarded those costs for defending against claims, which were dismissed by the court; Even though the plaintiff was successful in retaining two claims against the defendant.

McClure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Chase McClure, Misha McClure

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff and the Defendant

Year: 2014

This is an interesting case, obviously because it is outside the normal outdoor recreation arena and involves a fitness center with a day care. The plaintiff signed up for the defendant fitness center. She arrived one time with her two-year-old son and informed the defendant fitness center employee that it was his first there. She informed the plaintiff that she would place her son in with the younger children.

Later, the plaintiff was told that her son had been injured and that 911 had been called. The facts surrounding the injury are vague, other than the plaintiff arrived to see a defendant day care worker holding ice on the child’s ear. The child later received five stitches in his ear.

There were several issues concerning the service of process on the defendant and eventually a removal to the Federal Court who resolved the issues finding ineffective service against the defendant in the state court claims.

The defendant then moved for summary judgment based on release and its counterclaims against the plaintiff for breach of the Member Usage Agreement.

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

The court first tackled the release and how whether it was effective against the claims of the plaintiff. Under Texas law, a release must satisfy the Fair Notice requirement.

Fair notice requires (1) that a party seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it.

The plaintiff admitted the release met the fair notice requirements but under Texas law, the release could not stop her gross negligence claims. The court agreed.

Texas cases holding that waivers of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including the premise’s liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence.

The court also found that the release failed to release the defendant from the plaintiff’s premises liability claims based on the Texas Recreational Use statute. Premise’s liability claims are based on ownership of the land; although the release in question seemed to cover the issue? No reasoning was given by the court for this decision.

The release did bar the plaintiff’s claims for “for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premise’s liability.”

The court next went over the issues surrounding whether a release under Texas law would stop claims of minors. The court found Texas law does not allow a release signed by a parent to stop those claims. “A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries.”

The next issue was whether there was enough evidence to support any claims of the plaintiff. Here was a case where the plaintiff was never able to determine how the child was injured. Consequently, the plaintiff could not prove or provide any evidence of any negligence claims.

The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

The defendant then asked for the remaining claims of the child to be dismissed because there was no evidence to support any allegations made by the child to support his claims.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed an un-reasonable risk of harm.

The only evidence to support this claim was the plaintiff stated that any employee of the defendant had told the plaintiff here son had been injured in the play area designated for older children. This was sufficient to support this claim at this time. “Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.”

The court then ruled on the counterclaim of the defendant. It seems like the motion was not answered by the plaintiff. The defendant then argued was a failure to deny, and they should be granted a default judgment. However, the court did not come to that same conclusion. The court then looked at the clause in the contract.

The clause in the release was entitled “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.”

This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

Although the plaintiff was successful in two of her five claims, the court felt that she had breached the release and sued, therefore, the claims that were dismissed were enough to trigger fees and costs clause.

Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability.

The court was specific in its ruling that the fees and costs to be paid by the plaintiff and awarded to the defendant were only the costs the defendant incurred in defending the three claims that were dismissed by the court.

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

So the plaintiff was left with a gross negligence claim and a premises liability claim. Her son’s claim for negligent misrepresentation also survived, but barely.

So Now What?

Do Not Rely on this decision to believe that you can recover attorney fees when defending yourself in court when a release has been signed by the plaintiff. This is only the third time I have seen a case like this and there are 25 times more decisions denying these claims.

Most of these claims are struck down because the language is poor, and the case is similar to this forcing a parent to decide whether they should risk suing on behalf of their injured child. Other than this case, courts have uniformly denied those claims.

The two other cases I have found dealt with a skydiving where the plaintiff’s allegations were at a minimum quite wild and the other the plaintiff was an attorney. In both cases, it seemed the court found enough to hit the plaintiff with fees because the court did not like them.

You do not see any of the rancor or scorn in this case. It is a factual review of the facts, the release and a simple decision. You signed the agreement promising to pay if this happened, therefore, you must pay.

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Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

Mcclure, et al., v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

C. Mcclure, et al., Plaintiffs, vs. Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-13-1794

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS, HOUSTON DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167483

December 3, 2014, Decided

December 3, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: McClure v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25810 (S.D. Tex., Feb. 28, 2014)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Chase McClure, Misha McClure, Individually and as Guardian of Chase McClure, Plaintiffs: Brennen Dunn, LEAD ATTORNEY, Citizen Legal, PLLC, Houston, TX.

For Life Time Fitness, Inc., Defendant: John G Browning, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, Dallas, TX.

JUDGES: Lee H. Rosenthal, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Lee H. Rosenthal

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND OPINION

This is a personal injury suit filed by Misha McClure for herself and on behalf of her minor son, who was injured in July 2012 in the childcare area at a Life Time Fitness center in Humble, Texas. Ms. McClure asserted negligence, gross negligence, common law and statutory premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation claims. Life Time Fitness moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims are barred by a release Ms. McClure signed when she joined the center. (Docket Entry No. 28).

Based on the pleadings, the motion and response, the parties’ submissions, and the applicable law, this court grants the motion in part and denies it in part. Specifically, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, common-law premises liability, and negligent misrepresentation, and denies [*2] the motion as to her gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims. The court grants Life Time Fitness’s summary judgment motion as to the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denies the motion. Finally, the court grants Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim for fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s claims other than for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability, and otherwise denies the motion. The reasons for these rulings are explained below.

I. Background

Ms. McClure went to the Life Time Fitness center in Humble on July 28, 2012 for a personal-training session. She left her two-year-old son at the childcare area in the center, telling a childcare employee her son’s age and explaining that it was his first time there. The employee told Ms. McClure that her son would be in an area for younger children. Thirty minutes later, a Life Time Fitness manager interrupted Ms. McClure’s training session to tell her that her son had been in an accident in the older children’s play area and that 911 had been called. Ms. McClure found her son with a Life Time Fitness childcare manager who was holding an ice [*3] pack on the child’s ear. When the ice pack was removed, Ms. McClure saw that the child was missing a piece of his ear. He received five stitches.

When Ms. McClure joined Life Time Fitness, she signed a Member Usage Agreement. The Member Usage Agreement contained sections headed “ASSUMPTION OF RISK” and “WAIVER OF LIABILITY.” The relevant parts read as follows:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK. I understand that there are inherent dangers, hazards, and risks of injury or damage in the use of Life Time’s premises, facilities, equipment, services, activities or products, whether available through membership dues or a separate fee.

I understand that the Risk and Injuries in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services (collectively, “Risks of Injury”) may be caused, in whole or in part, by the NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), Guest(s) and/or other persons. [I] FULLY UNDERSTAND, AND VOLUNTARILY AND WILLINGLY ASSUME, THE RISKS OF INJURY.

WAIVER OF LIABILITY. On behalf of myself and my spouse/partner, children/Minor Members, Other Members, Guests, parents, guardians, heirs, next of kin, personal representatives, heirs and assigns, I hereby voluntarily and forever release and discharge [*4] Life Time from, covenant and agree not to sue Life Time for, and waive, any claims, demands, actions, causes of action, debts, damages, losses, costs, fees, expenses or any other alleged liabilities or obligations of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown (collectively, “Claims”) for any Injuries to me, Minor Member(s), Other Member(s), or Guest(s) in the Use of Life Time Premises and Services which arise out of, result from, or are caused by any NEGLIGENCE OF LIFE TIME, me, any Minor Member(s), any Other Member(s), any Guest(s), and/or any other person . . . (collectively, “Negligence Claims”).

A. Negligence Claims. I understand that Negligence Claims include but are not limited to Life Time’s (1) negligent design, construction (including renovation and alteration), repair maintenance, operation, supervision, monitoring, or provision of Life Time Premises and Services; (2) negligent failure to warn of or remove a hazardous, unsafe, dangerous or defective condition; (3) negligent failure to provide or keep premises in a reasonably safe condition; (4) negligent provision or failure to provide emergency care; (5) negligent provision of services; and (6) negligent hiring, selection, [*5] training, instruction, certification, supervision or retention of employees, independent contractors or volunteers; or (7) other negligent act(s) or omission(s).

B. Life Time’s Fees and Costs. I specifically agree that, if I (on my own behalf or on behalf of another, including an estate) assert a Negligence Claim against Life Time and/or breach my agreement not to sue Life Time, I will pay all reasonable fees (including attorneys’ fees), costs and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).

The agreement also contained a section headed “PARENT OR GUARDIAN AGREEMENT.” This section stated:

If I am the parent or legal guardian of a Minor Member, I acknowledge and represent to Life Time that I have the right and authority to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of each Minor Member, including but not limited to the right and authority to execute this MUA on the Minor Member’s behalf. By signing this MUA, I am binding each of my Minor Member(s) to its terms, including but not limited to the ASSUMPTION OF RISK [and] WAIVER OF LIABILITY . . . [*6] provisions.

The following text appeared directly above the signature line:

I HAVE READ, UNDERSTOOD, RECEIVED A COPY OF, AND AGREE TO ALL TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS MUA, INCLUDING SPECIFICALLY THE ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND DEFENSE AND INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS UNDER WHICH I AM RELINQUISHING LEGAL RIGHTS.

Ms. McClure’s state-court petition alleged that Life Time Fitness negligently allowed her son to play in an area designated for older children. The petition alleged that in addition to the ear injury, which was treated with five stitches, the incident left him unable or unwilling to participate in certain activities and afraid to be in a new childcare facility. (Docket Entry No. 1, Ex. 2 at 2). Life Time Fitness did not file an answer within the period set by the Texas rules.

In April 2013, the state-court judge granted the McClures’ motion for a no-answer default judgment against Life Time Fitness. Life Time Fitness removed the lawsuit to federal court in June 2013 and challenged the service of process and the no-answer default judgment. This court vacated the state-court default judgment in February 2014, finding that the service was defective and that entry of the [*7] no-answer default judgment was therefore void. Life Time Fitness then filed an answer and counterclaimed against Ms. McClure for breach of the Member Usage Agreement. (Docket Entry No. 21).

Life Time Fitness has moved for summary judgment, contending that the McClures’ claims are barred by the release contained in the Member Usage Agreement and are unsupported by the evidence. Life Time Fitness also moved for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Ms. McClure contends that the release does not bar her claims, that the summary-judgment evidence supports recovery for both her and her son, and that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement. Each argument and response is analyzed below.

II. The Applicable Legal Standards

A. Summary Judgment

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). [HN2] “The movant bears the burden of identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 261 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986)).

[HN3] If the burden of proof at trial lies with the nonmoving party, the movant may satisfy its initial burden by “‘showing’ [*8] — that is, pointing out to the district court — that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. While the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant’s case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). “A fact is ‘material’ if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Tex., 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant’s response.” United States v. $92,203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc)).

[HN4] When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings. The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party’s claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences [*9] in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008).

III. Analysis

A. The Timeliness of the McClures’ Response to Life Time Fitness’s Summary Judgment Motion

Life Time Fitness argues that the court should disregard the McClures’ response to the summary judgment motion because it was filed after the deadline to respond and without leave of court. (Docket Entry No. 30 at 2). The summary judgment motion was filed on September 12, 2014. (Docket Entry No. 28). The response was filed on October 13, 2014, ten days after it was due. (Docket Entry No. 29). Because the delay was not extensive, there is no prejudice to Life Time Fitness. Because [HN5] a decision on the basis of default is disfavored, the court considers the McClures’ response on the merits.

B. The Waiver and Release

The waiver and release contained in the Member Usage Agreement stated that the signer waived any claims for injuries to herself or to her minor children resulting from Life Time Fitness’s negligence. (Docket Entry No. 28). [HN6] Texas imposes a fair notice requirement on preinjury releases. See Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508-09 (Tex. 1993). A release that fails to satisfy the fair notice requirement is unenforceable as a matter of law. Storage & Processors, Inc. v. Reyes, 134 S.W.3d 190, 192 (Tex. 2004). Fair notice requires (1) that a party [*10] seeking to enforce a release provision comply with the express negligence doctrine and (2) that the provision be conspicuous. Id. The express negligence doctrine requires a party releasing potential claims against another party for its negligence to express that intent in conspicuous and unambiguous terms in the four corners of the agreement. Id. Conspicuousness requires the releasing language to be written and formatted so that a reasonable person in the position of the person against whom the release is to operate would notice it. Id.; Dresser, 853 S.W.2d at 508.

Ms. McClure agrees that the waiver and release provisions of the Member Usage Agreement meet the Texas fair notice requirements, but argues that the provisions do not cover her gross negligence claims. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 2). [HN7] Several Texas appellate courts have held that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims violate public policy. See Van Voris v. Team Chop Shop, LLC, 402 S.W.3d 915, 924-25 (Tex. App. — Dallas 2013, no pet.); Sydlik v. REEIII, Inc., 195 S.W.3d 329, 336 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2006, no writ); Smith v. Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d 574, 576 (Tex. App. — Beaumont 1986, no writ); accord Memorial Med. Ctr. of East Texas v. Keszler, M.D., 943 S.W.2d 433 (Tex. 1997) (citing Golden Triangle Raceway, 708 S.W.2d at 576). Other Texas appellate courts have held that when a preinjury waiver releases claims for “negligence,” claims for gross negligence are not waived. See Del Carmen Canas v. Centerpoint Energy Res. Corp., 418 S.W.3d 312, 326-27 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.); [*11] Akin v. Bally Total Fitness Corp., No. 10-05-00280-CV, 2007 Tex. App. LEXIS 1218, 2007 WL 475406, at *3 (Tex. App. — Waco Feb. 14, 2007, pet. denied); Rosen v. Nat’l Hot Rod Ass’n, No. 14-94-00775-CV, 1995 Tex. App. LEXIS 3225, 1995 WL 755712, at *7 n. 1 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] Dec. 21, 1995, writ denied). In Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., the Texas Court of Appeals for San Antonio held to the contrary, finding that the plaintiff’s preinjury waiver of negligence claims also barred its gross negligence claims. Newman v. Tropical Visions, Inc., 891 S.W.2d 713, 722 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1994, writ denied); see also Tesoro Petroleum Corp. v. Nabors Drilling USA, Inc., 106 S.W.3d 118, 127 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 2002, pet. denied) (finding Newman persuasive). The court noted that the plaintiff had not raised the express negligence rule in its pleadings, and the court emphasized that its opinion did not address or take a position on whether a preinjury waiver of gross negligence claims violated public policy. Id.

The Texas Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue. The guidance the Texas appellate court case law provides, however, gives a reliable basis for making an Erie prediction about how the Supreme Court would rule if faced with the question. [HN8] “When making an Erie-guess in the absence of explicit guidance from the state courts, [this court] must attempt to predict state law, not to create or modify it.” Assoc. Inter. Ins. Co. v. Blythe, 286 F.3d 780, 783 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Based on the [HN9] Texas cases holding that waivers [*12] of negligence claims do not give fair notice of an intent to waive gross negligence claims, and the cases holding that preinjury releases of gross negligence claims are contrary to public policy, this court holds that the Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed did not release Life Time Fitness from liability for her gross negligence claims, including [HN10] the premises liability claim based on the Recreational Use Statute, which requires proof of gross negligence. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 75.002(c)-(d), 101.058; State v. Shumake, 199 S.W.3d 279, 289 (Tex. 2006).

By contrast, Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees fall within the scope of the waiver and release. Summary judgment is granted on these claims but denied as to Ms. McClure’s gross negligence and statutory premises liability claims.

Life Time Fitness also argued that the child’s claims were barred by the waiver and release Ms. McClure signed. [HN11] A preinjury release executed by a minor child’s parent is not enforceable to release claims against a commercial enterprise for the minor child’s injuries. See Paz v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 757 F. Supp. 2d 658 (S.D. Tex. 2010) (making an Erie prediction); Munoz v. II Jaz Inc., 863 S.W.2d 207 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 1993, no writ). The child’s claims are not barred on this [*13] basis.

B. The Sufficiency of the Evidence

Life Time Fitness also moves for summary judgment on the basis that there is no evidence to support either Ms. McClure’s or her child’s claims.

Life Time Fitness contends that the child, who was two years old at the time, was too young to rely on any statement made by Life Time Fitness and therefore cannot prevail on a negligent misrepresentation claim. (Docket Entry No. 23). In response, Ms. McClure argues that her own reliance should be imputed to her son. (Docket Entry No. 29 at 4-5). [HN12] Although one party’s knowledge of a misrepresentation may be imputed to another under certain circumstances, none of which are present here, Texas courts do not recognize a theory of imputed or vicarious reliance. Grant Thornton LLP v. Prospect High Income Fund, 314 S.W.3d 913, 924 (Tex. 2010) (in the context of an agency relationship). The McClures have not identified any evidence of a misrepresentation Life Time Fitness made to the child on which he did or could have reasonably relied. Summary judgment is granted on the child’s negligent misrepresentation claim.

Life Time Fitness also seeks summary judgment on the child’s remaining claims, contending that it breached no duty owed to him and that no condition at the childcare facility posed [*14] an unreasonable risk of harm. The McClures did not specifically respond to the motion for summary judgment on these claims. (Docket Entry No. 29). In their pleadings, the McClures alleged that Life Time Fitness failed to provide a safe childcare area. (Docket Entry No. 23). The summary judgment evidence in the record is Ms. McClure’s affidavit and the Member Usage Agreement she signed. In her affidavit, Ms. McClure states that there was an injury involving her son and she was told by an unnamed employee that he was injured in a play area designated for children above his age. (Docket Entry No. 29, Ex. 2). Although the record is scant, it is sufficient to withstand summary judgment as to the child’s claims other than for negligent misrepresentation.

C. Life Time Fitness’s Counterclaims

Life Time Fitness moves for summary judgment on its breach-of-contract counterclaim against Ms. McClure. Life Time Fitness first argues that because Ms. McClure answered with only a general denial, the counterclaim allegations should be deemed admitted. (Docket Entry No. 28 at 8). [HN13] “General denials are uncommon in federal court because ‘situations in which the complaint can be completely controverted are [*15] quite rare.'” Mary Kay, Inc. v. Dunlap, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86499, 2012 WL 2358082, at *7 (N.D. Tex. June 21, 2012) (quoting 5 Wright & Miller § 1265, at 549). Life Time Fitness argues that by filing a general denial, Ms. McClure was “admitting the operative facts” of the counterclaim. Life Time Fitness seeks summary judgment on this basis.

[HN14] “As directed by Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], the answer should contain only two things: (1) a response (admitting, denying, or claiming insufficient knowledge) to the averments in the complaint; and (2) a statement of all affirmative defenses.” Software Publishers Ass’n v. Scott & Scott, LLP, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59814, 2007 WL 2325585, at *2 n. 4 (N.D. Tex. Aug.15, 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)-(c)). “A party that intends in good faith to deny all the allegations of a pleadings — including the jurisdictional grounds — may do so by a general denial.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(b)(3). “A party that does not intend to deny all the allegations must either specifically deny designated allegations or generally deny all except those specifically admitted.” Id.

[HN15] “Granting summary judgment when a party fails to respond to the opposing party’s summary judgment motion is comparable to granting a default judgment.” Tolliver v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., No. 2:06-0904, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18839, 2008 WL 545018, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 25, 2008). “‘A party is not entitled to a default judgment as a matter of right, even where the defendant is technically [*16] in default.'” McCarty v. Zapata County, 243 F. App’x 792, 794 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Lewis v. Lynn, 236 F.3d 766, 767 (5th Cir. 2001)). Default judgment is a drastic remedy that should be granted only in extreme situations. Warren v. Johnson, 244 F. App’x 570, 571 (5th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (citing Lewis, 236 F.3d at 767). Life Time Fitness has not shown such an extreme situation. Life Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim will be considered on the merits.

The Member Usage Agreement Ms. McClure signed when she joined Life Time Fitness contained a clause headed “Life Time’s Fees and Costs.” This clause stated that if Ms. McClure asserted a negligence claim against Life Time Fitness, she would pay “all reasonable fees (including attorney’s fees), costs, and expenses incurred by Life Time (“Life Time’s Fees and Costs”) to defend (1) the Negligence Claim(s) and (2) all other Claims based on the same facts as the Negligence Claim(s).” Ms. McClure argues that she did not breach the Member Usage Agreement because she asserted claims for gross negligence.

As discussed above, although Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute are not barred by the waiver and release, her remaining claims are barred. Ms. McClure asserted claims against Life Time Fitness for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, [*17] and common law premises liability to invitees, despite agreeing that she would not do so. Life Time Fitness is entitled to the damages provided for in the Member Usage Agreement: the fees it reasonably incurred in defending solely against Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common-law premises liability. Life Time Fitness is not entitled to any fees incurred in defending against the child’s claims, which were not waived by the Member Use Agreement. Nor is Life Time Fitness entitled to any fees incurred to defend against Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for statutory premises liability. The only fees at issue are those that Life Time Fitness would have incurred had Ms. McClure asserted only the claims waived by the release.

IV. Conclusion

Summary judgment is granted to Life Time Fitness on Ms. McClure’s claims for negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability to invitees. Summary judgment is denied on Ms. McClure’s claims for gross negligence and for premises liability under the Recreational Use Statute. Summary judgment is granted on the minor child’s negligent misrepresentation claim and otherwise denied. Life [*18] Time Fitness’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim is granted only for reasonable fees incurred in defending against Ms. McClure’s negligence, negligent misrepresentation, and common law premises liability claims, and is otherwise denied.

SIGNED on December 3, 2014, at Houston, Texas.

/s/ Lee H. Rosenthal

Lee H. Rosenthal

United States District Judge


Suit against a city for construction retaining wall in City Park identifies defenses to be employed to protect park patrons.

Remember each state (and sometimes city) has different state immunity acts. This analysis only applies to Dallas Texas. What is interesting is city could be held liable for gross negligence.

Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

State: Texas

Plaintiff: Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris

Defendant: City of Dallas

Plaintiff Claims: City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area

Defendant Defenses: Texas Tort Claims Act

Holding: Reversed and remanded for trial

Year: 1993

State tort claims acts very greatly from state to state. In many states, it is impossible to sue the state and in others, it is quite easy. Some states limit the amount of recovery and the type of claims, in others not so much. If you work for a city, county or state as part of the parks, recreation or open space program, it will be beneficial to learn your state’s tort claim act and your requirements under it.

In this case, the City of Dallas, Texas, the defendant constructed a 15’ to 25’ retaining wall to stop erosion next to a creek. The top of the wall was next to a sidewalk and a restroom. The plaintiff minor was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk when he fell off and over the wall.

The plaintiff through his mother and father sued the city for his injuries. At the trial court level the city filed a motion for summary judgment and won. The plaintiff’s appealed.

Several issues in the decision dealing with the intricacies of the Texas Tort Claims Act will be skipped in this review because it applies solely to Texas.

Summary of the case

The first interesting issue was whether the claims of the plaintiff were governed by common law or statute. Meaning did the Texas law on land owners apply or did the law that existed prior to the statute concerning landowners apply. Said another way, did the ability to establish and create city parks occur because it was a proprietary function of a city. State statutes state that “operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function.”

The difference between a proprietary function and a governmental function will define the different claims and possible recoveries that are available. In this case, the appellate court held that the park was covered by the statute and the creation, care; maintenance of the park was governmental. As such, claims had to come under the Texas Tort Claims Act.

The next issue was the standard of care owed by the city to park users. The plaintiff claimed they were invitees, and as such, owed a higher standard of care than a trespasser. An invitee is a person the landowner invites to the land and receives a benefit from the invites’ presence on the land. The plaintiff argued that because they paid taxes, they were invitees.

There are three definitions of people coming upon the land; Trespassers, Licensees and Invitees. A landowner owes little duty to a trespasser, only owes a licensee a duty to refrain from wilful, wanton or gross negligence, and owes an invite the highest degree of care.

However, the payment of taxes argument did not fly with the court. Under the statute, the standard of care owed by a city to park users was that of a licensee.

The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, and the licensee does not.   

Under the law of Texas the city, to be liable, must be grossly negligent.

Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.

In a motion for summary judgment, the party opposing the motion must only create a question about how the law applies to the facts to have the motion denied rather than prove any issues. The city to win on a motion for summary judgment must conclusively negate at least one of the essential elements of the plaintiff’s case to win. Here, the plaintiff’s created a question as to whether the construction of the wall was done in a wilful, wanton or grossly negligent manner.

The next issue was whether the city had notice of the defective condition. The city presented three affidavits from officials saying they had never heard of problems with the wall. However, the court found that knowledge was more than affirmatively not knowing about problems.

The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of premises  created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge.

Knowledge can be anyone in the employee of the city.

In conclusion, the court stated:

The establishment and maintenance of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.

We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.

5  The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

6  The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.

So Now What?

The most important thing to take away from this decision is the vast differences between state tort claims act. In some states, this same fact situation would not create liability and in some states very few of the state tort claims defenses would work.

Of interest was the issue that the city to be found liable had to be found wilful, wanton or grossly negligent. The decision does not state whether if a jury finds the city was wilful, wanton or grossly negligent if increased damages are available to the plaintiff. Most state tort claims acts specifically deny additional damages.

Also not discussed whether the Texas Recreational Use Statute applied to parks. Since parks are free, many states include state, county and city land in the definition of land protected by recreational use statutes. In most states, this is the first and best defense to claims arising from parks and open space.

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Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

Mitchell v. City of Dallas, 855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell, Individually and as Next Friends of Ashley J. Harris, Appellants v. City of Dallas, Appellee

No. 05-91-01416-CV

COURT OF APPEALS OF TEXAS, FIFTH DISTRICT, DALLAS

855 S.W.2d 741; 1993 Tex. App. LEXIS 1714

March 31, 1993, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] On Appeal from the 68th District Court. Dallas County, Texas. Trial Court Cause No. 89-13400-C

COUNSEL: For Appellants: KRISTINA BLINE DIAL.

For Appellee: PATRCIA MEDRANO.

JUDGES: Before Justices Lagarde, Kinkeade, and Barber 1

1 Justice Will Barber succeeds Justice Jeff Kaplan, a member of the original panel. Justice Barber has reviewed the briefs and record in this case.

OPINION BY: WILL BARBER

OPINION

[*743] OPINION

Opinion By Justice Barber

This is a premises liability case. Saundra Harris Mitchell and Jan P. Mitchell sued the City of Dallas for damages sustained by their minor son when he fell from his bicycle at a municipal park. The City moved for summary judgment. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the City. We reverse and remand.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ashley Harris suffered serious injuries when he fell from his bicycle into a creek bed at Hamilton Park. The park is owned [*744] and maintained by the City of Dallas. The accident occurred at a part of the creek where there is a fifteen to twenty-five foot drop-off. This condition was created by a gabion wall constructed by the City for erosion control. [**2] The wall consists of rocks wired together. Ashley fell over the edge of the drop-off onto the rocks below.

The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They also allege that the City failed to warn park users of the steep drop-off and failed to construct a fence or other barrier around this dangerous area.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

The Mitchells attack the trial court’s summary judgment on two broad grounds. First, they contend that this case is governed by common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions. Alternatively, the Mitchells argue that their claims against the City are within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They assert that fact issues exist concerning gross negligence in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall and the City’s negligent failure to warn of or correct this dangerous condition.

LIABILITY UNDER COMMON LAW

In their fourth point of error, the Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act does not apply to this case. Rather, the Mitchells argue that the City [**3] is liable under common-law principles because the establishment and maintenance of public parks are proprietary functions.

Under common law, the establishment and maintenance of public parks were deemed proprietary functions. See Dancer v. City of Houston, 384 S.W.2d 340, 342 (Tex. 1964); City of Waco v. Branch, 117 Tex. 394, 5 S.W.2d 498, 499 (1928). These common-law classifications have been redefined under the Texas Tort Claims Act. [HN1] Section 101.0215 of the Act now provides that the operation of parks and zoos is a governmental function. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(a)(13) (Vernon Supp. 1993).

The Mitchells argue that section 101.0215(a) does not reclassify all actions taken by a city regarding public parks. We refuse to adopt such a restrictive interpretation of the statute. To the contrary, the legislature specifically provided that [HN2] the proprietary functions of a municipality do not include those governmental activities listed in section 101.0215(a). See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.0215(c) (Vernon Supp. 1993).

We conclude that the claims against the City made the basis of this suit involve governmental functions. [**4] The Mitchells do not have any common-law cause of action against the City. We overrule the fourth point of error.

LIABILITY UNDER THE TEXAS TORT CLAIMS ACT

The Mitchells next contend that the trial court erred in granting summary Judgment because they stated a cause of action within the waiver provisions of governmental immunity under the Texas Tort Claims Act. They allege that the City is not immune from liability for negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall along the creek bank. See, e.g., City of Watauga v. Taylor, 752 S.W.2d 199, 202 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1988, no writ); Stanford v. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp., 635 S.W.2d 581, 582 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

The City argues that these allegations involve the design, upgrading, and placement of an erosion control deuce. The City contends that it is immune from liability because these activities involve discretionary functions. See, e.g., City of El Paso v. Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d 553, 554 (Tex. App.–El Paso 1990, writ denied); Tarrant County Water Control & Improvement Dist. No. 1 v. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d 427, 433 (Tex. App.–Fort Worth 1989, writ denied). [**5]

1. Governmental Immunity

[HN3] A municipality performing a governmental function is afforded sovereign immunity [*745] unless immunity has been waived under the Texas Tort Claims Act. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. §§ 101.001-.109 (Vernon 1986 & Supp. 1993). A governmental unit is liable for personal injuries proximately caused “by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.021 (Vernon 1986).

2. Discretionary Functions

The Texas Tort Claims Act creates certain exceptions to the waiver of governmental immunity. [HN4] Section 101.056 provides that the waiver provisions of the Act do not apply to claims based on:

(1) the failure of a governmental unit to perform an act that the unit is not required by law to perform; or

(2) a governmental unit’s decision not to perform an act or on its failure to make a decision on the performance or nonperformance of an act if the law leaves the performance or nonperformance of the act to the discretion of the governmental unit.

TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE [**6] ANN. § 101.056 (Vernon 1986); see generally Lee M. Larkin, Comment, The “Policy Decision” Exemption of the Texas Tort Claims Act: State v. Terrell, 32 BAYLOR L. REV. 403 (1980) [hereinafter Larkin]. 2

2 The Larkin comment and several cases cited in this opinion involve the interpretation of the original Tort Claims Act contained in the Revised Civil Statutes. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19 (Vernon 1970) (repealed 1985). The codification of the prior statute in the Civil Practice and Remedies Code did not effect any substantive change, and the language of the current version of the Texas Tort Claims Act is virtually identical to the prior statute. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 1.001 (Vernon Supp. 1993).

[HN5] The discretionary function exception to the waiver of sovereign immunity is designed to avoid judicial review of governmental policy decisions. State v. Terrell, 588 S.W.2d 784, 787 (Tex. 1979); McKinney v. City of Gainesville, 814 S.W.2d 862, 866 (Tex. [**7] App.–Fort Worth 1991, no writ). Thus, a governmental entity is immune from liability if an injury results from the formulation of policy. However, a governmental unit is not immune if an injury is caused by the negligent implementation of that policy. See Terrell, 588 S.W.2d at 787-88; Christilles v. Southwest Tex. State Univ., 639 S.W.2d 38, 42 (Tex. App.–Austin 1982, writ ref’d n.r.e.); Larkin at 409. This distinction is often stated in terms of actions taken at the planning or policy-making level, which are immune, and actions taken at the subordinate or operational level, which are not immune. See McKinney, 814 S.W.2d at 866; Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Larkin at 410.

Design decisions made by the City are discretionary and therefore immune from liability. See Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Stanford, 635 S.W.2d at 582. Maintenance activities undertaken at the operational level are not discretionary functions and are not immune from liability. See City of Round Rock v. Smith, 687 S.W.2d 300, 303 (Tex. 1985); Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202; Hamric v. Kansas City S. Ry., 718 S.W.2d 916, 919 (Tex. App.–Beaumont [**8] 1986, writ ref’d n.r.e.). There is some conflict in the case law regarding the characterization of construction activities. Compare Smith, 687 S.W.2d at 303, and Ayoub, 787 S.W.2d at 554 (indicating that city is not immune from liability for construction and maintenance activities), with Taylor, 752 S.W.2d at 202 (indicating that planning and construction are immune activities).

We hold that construction activities are not discretionary functions. These activities involve the implementation of planning or policy-making decisions at the operational level. Therefore, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the negligent construction and maintenance of the gabion wall.

STANDARD OF CARE

We next determine the standard of care owed by the City to park users. The City argues that it only owes the duty owed to a trespasser. The Mitchells contend that the City owes the same duty as [*746] owed to an invitee because they paid for use of the premises through the payment of taxes and because of the nature of the premises defect.

1. Statutes

[HN6] Section 101.022 of the Texas Tort Claims Act provides:

(a) If a claim arises from a premises [**9] defect, the governmental unit owes to the claimant only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property, unless the claimant pays for the use of the premises.

(b) The limitation of duty in this section does not apply to the duty to warn of special defects such as excavations or obstructions on highways, roads, or streets.

TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).

Section 75.002 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides:

If an owner, lessee, or occupant of real property other than agricultural land gives permission to another to enter the premises for recreation, the owner, lessee, or occupant, by giving the permission, does not:

. . . .

(2) owe to the person to whom permission is granted a greater degree of care than is owed to a trespasser on the premises.

TEX. CIV PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 75.002 (Vernon 1986) (emphasis added).

These two statutes are in apparent conflict in cases where the owner or occupier of the premises is a governmental unit that gives implied permission to persons to enter the property for recreational purposes. We must resolve this conflict by examining the [**10] case law and implementing well-settled rules of statutory construction.

2. Case Law

One court has held that the statutory predecessor to section 75.002, article 1b of the Revised Civil Statutes, should apply only if the injured party was a trespasser. It held the statute did not apply in a governmental tort liability context by simply stating that the persons who used the premises were not trespassers. Trinity River Auth. v. Williams, 659 S.W.2d 714, 720 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 1983), aff’d in part a rev’d in part on other grounds, 689 S.W.2d 883 (Tex. 1985); see TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § l (Vernon 1969). It should be noted that the statute did not declare that recreational users are trespassers but merely provided that the duty owed to such users is the same as that owed to trespassers. Another court has held that section 75.002 did apply to governmental units. Noting that section 101.022(a) provides that the governmental entity owes “only the duty that a private person owes to a licensee on private property,” the court held that the section 75.002 duty standard applied to the State. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 547. Although the Crossland court [**11] purported to rely on section 101.022(a) in reaching its result, it ignored the fact that such provision states the governmental unit owes the duty that a private person owes to a licensee.

3. Statutory Analysis

We are not persuaded by the reasoning of either Williams or Crossland. Instead, we look to the legislative history of sections 75.002 and 101.022(a).

Article 1b of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes preceded section 75.002. See Act of May 29, 1965, 59th Leg., R.S., ch. 677, 1965 Tex. Gen. Laws 1551, 1551-52. Until this statute was codified in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, it was contained in the “General Provisions” of Title 1. See TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 1b, § 1 (Vernon 1969). The statutory predecessor to section 101.022(a) of the Texas Tort Claims Act was article 6252-19, section 18(b) of the Texas Revised Civil Statutes. Article 6252-19 was first enacted in 1969, four years after the enactment of article 1b. See Texas Tort Claims Act, 61st Leg., R.S., ch. 292, 1969 Tex. Gen. Laws 874, 878-79; TEX. REV. CIV. STAT. ANN. art. 6252-19, § 18(b) (Vernon 1970).

We conclude that section 75.002 and its predecessor, article [**12] 1b, were intended [*747] to be laws of general application. Section 101.022(a) and its predecessor, section 18(b) of article 6252-19, were specific laws applicable to governmental owners and occupiers of real property. [HN7] When two statutes conflict, the specific controls over the general. Sam Bassett Lumber Co. v. City of Houston, 145 Tex. 492, 496, 198 S.W.2d 879, 881 (1947); see also TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.026(b) (Vernon 1988); Carr v. Hunt, 651 S.W.2d 875, 882 (Tex. App.–Dallas 1983, writ ref’d n.r.e). Further, a more recent statutory enactment prevails over an earlier one. TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.025(a) (Vernon 1988); State v. McKinney, 803 S.W.2d 374, 376 (Tex. App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1990, no pet.); Commercial Standard Fire & Marine Co. v. Commissioner of Ins., 429 S.W.2d 930, 933 (Tex. Civ. App.–Austin 1968, no writ).

4. Conclusion

We hold that section 101.022(a) controls over section 75.002. The duty owed by the City to park users under the Texas Tort Claims Act is the duty that a private person owes to a licensee. [HN8] An owner or occupier of land must refrain from injuring a licensee by willful, wanton, or gross negligence. An [**13] owner or occupant must also warn a licensee of any dangerous condition, or make the condition reasonably safe, if the land owner has actual knowledge of the dangerous condition and the licensee does not. State v. Tennison, 509 S.W.2d 560, 562 (Tex. 1974).

EXCEPTIONS TO THE STANDARD OF CARE UNDER THE TORT CLAIMS ACT

The Mitchells argue that the duty owed by the City in this case is the same duty owed to an invitee. The Mitchells contend that the Texas Tort Claims Act creates a higher standard of care because: (1) they paid for use of the park through the payment of taxes; and (2) the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.

1. Taxpayer Status

The Mitchells first contend that their son was an invitee because they paid for use of the park through the payment of city taxes.

A similar argument was recently rejected by the San Antonio Court of Appeals in Garcia v. State, 817 S.W.2d 741 (Tex. App.–San Antonio 1991, writ denied). The plaintiff in Garcia sued the State of Texas under the Texas Tort Claims Act for damages sustained in a highway accident. He claimed invitee status because he paid for use of the highway through [**14] driver’s license fees and fuel taxes. The court held that the payment of fees and taxes does not confer invitee status for several reasons: (1) invitee status requires payment of a specific fee for entry onto and use of public premises; (2) the plaintiff’s contention would result in a lesser duty owed to nonresident users who did not pay taxes; and (3) the legislature did not intend such a broad grant of invitee status under section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act. See Garcia, 817 S.W.2d at 743.

We adopt the reasoning of Garcia. We hold that [HN9] section 101.022(a) of the Tort Claims Act does not confer invitee status on park users based on the payment of taxes alone.

2. Special Defect

The Mitchells next contend that the City owed a higher standard of care because the steep drop-off created by the gabion wall constituted a special defect.

[HN10] A governmental unit has a duty to warn of or protect against special defects. TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 101.022(b) (Vernon 1986); see City of Houston v. Jean, 517 S.W.2d 596, 599 (Tex. Civ. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 1974, writ ref’d n.r.e.). The duty to warn of a special defect is the same duty owed to an invitee. [**15] County of Harris v. Eaton, 573 S.W.2d 177, 180 (Tex. 1978). A special defect must be distinguished by some unusual quality outside the ordinary course of events. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433; Sutton v. State Highway Dep’t, 549 S.W.2d 59, 61 (Tex. Civ. App.–Waco 1977, writ ref’d [*748] n.r.e.). A condition is a special defect only if it presents an unexpected and unusual danger to ordinary users of a roadway. State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Kitchen, 1993 Tex. LEXIS 26, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 678, 679 (March 24, 1993); State Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp. v. Payne, 838 S.W.2d 235, 238-39 n.3 (Tex. 1992) (op. on mot. for reh’g). A longstanding, routine, or permanent condition is not a special defect. Crossland, 781 S.W.2d at 433.

The Mitchells do not argue that the condition created by the gabion wall was unusual or outside the ordinary course of events. The summary judgment evidence establishes that the drop-off near the creek bank was longstanding and permanent. We hold that the premises defect made the basis of this claim was not a special defect.

MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

We now consider the summary judgment rendered in favor [**16] of the City in light of our holding that (1) construction and maintenance activities are not discretionary functions, and (2) the duty owed to park users is the same duty owed to a licensee.

1. Standard of Review

[HN11] Summary judgment may be rendered only if the record shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. TEX. R. Civ. P 166a(c); Rodriguez v. Naylor Indus., Inc., 763 S.W.2d 411, 413 (Tex. 1989). A summary judgment seeks to eliminate patently unmeritorious claims and defenses, not to deny a party its right to a full hearing on the merits of any real fact issue. Gulbenkian v. Penn, 151 Tex. 412, 416, 252 S.W.2d 929, 931 (1952).

[HN12] A defendant who moves for summary judgment must show that the plaintiff has no cause of action. Citizens First Nat’l Bank v. Cinco Exploration Co., 540 S.W.2d 292, 294 (Tex. 1976). A defendant may meet this burden by either (1) disproving at least one essential element of each theory of recovery, Anderson v. Snider, 808 S.W.2d 54, 55 (Tex. 1991), or (2) conclusively proving all elements of an affirmative defense. Swilley v. Hughes, 488 S.W.2d 64, 67 (Tex. [**17] 1972).

[HN13] In reviewing a summary judgment, we must take all evidence favorable to the nonmovant as true in deciding whether a fact issue exists. Nixon v. Mr. Property Management Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548-49 (Tex. 1985). We must indulge every reasonable inference and resolve any doubt in favor of the nonmovant. Id.

2. Application of Law to the Facts

a. Negligent Construction and Maintenance

The Mitchells allege that the City was negligent and grossly negligent in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall. They specifically pleaded that the City was negligent in constructing the wall for erosion control “in such a manner so as to result in a dangerous condition by creating a 15 to 25 foot steep cliff drop-off . . . when the City should have built the creek bank in a non-cliff manner.” The Mitchells also alleged that “construction and maintenance of a 15 to 25 foot drop-off behind a public restroom in a public park without a fence and Warning signs demonstrates a lack of due care and conscious indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of those affected by it.” 3

3 Gross negligence is defined as “such an entire want of care as to establish that the act or omission was the result of actual conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of the person affected.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 41.001(5) (Vernon Supp. 1993). Absent a special exception, the allegation of “lack of due care and conscious indifference” contained in the Mitchell’s petition is sufficient to plead the duty owed by the City to park users.

[**18] The City characterizes these allegations as defective design claims. It correctly notes that design claims are discretionary functions for which governmental entities are immune from liability. However, the City has failed to conclusively demonstrate that design defect is the sole basis for the Mitchells’ claim.

[*749] The City argues it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there is no specific pleading or proof that the premises were unreasonably dangerous or that it breached any duty owed to park users. The City misconstrues the burden of proof in a summary judgment proceeding. It is incumbent upon a defendant as movant to conclusively negate at least one essential element of the plaintiff’s case. Citizens First Nat’l Bank, 540 S.W.2d at 294. [HN14] A plaintiff as nonmovant is not required to establish his right to prevail. Ramirez v. Bagley Produce Co., 614 S.W.2d 582, 584 (Tex. Civ. App.–Corpus Christi 1981, no writ). A nonmovant has no duty or burden whatsoever in a summary judgment case until the movant establishes its right to a judgment as a matter of law. Bankers Commercial Life Ins. Co. v. Scott, 631 S.W.2d 228, 232 (Tex. App.–Tyler 1982, [**19] writ ref’d n.r.e.).

The City presented no evidence of the original design of the gabion wall. The City did not show that the gabion wall was constructed and maintained pursuant to its original design and that the design of the wall was not otherwise modified. The City, therefore, failed to show that the Mitchells’ allegations were defective design claims and, thereby, failed to meet its burden of negating an essential element of the Mitchells’ case.

The Mitchells alleged that Ashley was injured when he fell from his bicycle down a steep cliff drop-off. The area was unfenced and located adjacent to the sidewalk. The Mitchells contend that this constitutes a dangerous condition. Ashley’s deposition testimony reflects that there was erosion of the ground underneath the sidewalk where he fell. 4 The City did not conclusively negate these allegations. The pleadings and deposition testimony are sufficient to create a fact issue regarding negligent and grossly negligent maintenance and construction.

4 Ashley’s testimony on this point is not very clear, but it is susceptible to the interpretation advanced by the Mitchells. In a summary judgment case, all inferences and doubts must he resolved in favor of the nonmovant. See Nixon, 690 S.W.2d at 548-49.

[**20] b. Failure to Warn or Make Safe

The Mitchells alleged that the City failed to warn of a dangerous condition in the area of the restrooms and sidewalk adjacent to the creek. They also claimed that the City failed to construct a fence or other barrier in the area or otherwise correct the dangerous condition.

The City relies on affidavits from three park officials to show that it lacked actual knowledge of any dangerous condition. The affidavits state that the City had no prior notice of a defect, dangerous condition, or similar accident. However, lack of notice from third parties does not conclusively negate actual knowledge. The fact that the owner or occupier of a premises created a condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm may support an inference of knowledge. The question of knowledge is a fact issue. See Keetch v. Kroger Co., 845 S.W.2d 262, 36 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 273, 275 (December 2, 1992). An affidavit from a civil engineer states the drop-off should have been fenced off from the public area of the park. The engineer’s affidavit concludes that in failing to fence off or otherwise obstruct public movement into the area, “the City has failed to protect the [**21] public or give adequate warning to the public of a defect which created a dangerous condition.”

The City argues that Ashley must be charged with knowledge of any dangerous condition because the alleged premises defect was open and obvious. [HN15] The duty to warn or make safe applies when the licensee lacks actual knowledge. Payne v. State, 838 S.W.2d at 237; Tennison, 509 S.W.2d at 562. The City contends that the Mitchells have conceded that Ashley had actual knowledge of the condition of the premises. The response to the summary judgment motion recites that Ashley was aware of the existence of the creek. The response recites that Ashley, “being unaware . . . that the ground had eroded under the sidewalk next to this drop-off . . . fell over the edge and onto the rocks below.” [*750] The Mitchells never stated that Ashley was aware of the drop-off next to the sidewalk. The record does not conclusively establish that Ashley had actual knowledge of a dangerous condition. The lack of knowledge is an element of appellant’s claim that when disputed should be submitted to the fact finder. See Payne, 838 S.W.2d at 241.

SUMMARY

The establishment and maintenance [**22] of municipal parks are governmental functions under the Texas Tort Claims Act. The City is immune from liability for any claims involving the design of the gabion wall at Hamilton Park. However, the City is not immune from liability for claims based on the construction or maintenance of the wall. The duty owed by the City to park users is the same duty owed by a private person to a licensee.

We hold that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. There are genuine fact issues concerning (1) gross negligence 5 in the construction and maintenance of the gabion wall, and (2) the failure to warn of or correct a dangerous condition. 6 We sustain the Mitchell’s second and third points of error.

5 The duty owed to a licensees being a duty to refrain from injuring by willful, wanton, or gross negligence.

6 The licensor must also warn of a dangerous condition, or make it reasonably safe, if the licensor has actual knowledge of the condition and the licensee does not have such knowledge.

We reverse [**23] the trial court’s judgment and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

WILL BARBER

JUSTICE


Minors and Releases

Where can a parent sign away a minor’s right to sue and where that will not work.

Audience:                   Sport and Recreation Law Association

Location:                    San Antonio, Texas

Date:                         2009

Presentation:                       Minors and Releases          http://rec-law.us/ZjzUK9

 

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This presentation was given to highlight why minors cannot sign a release and why only a few states have allowed a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

For other articles about this subject or for the latest information about the topic see:

States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue                         http://rec-law.us/z5kFan

 

$5 Million because a church took a kid skiing and allowed him to……..skihttp://rec-law.us/wCXYBH

A Parent (or Guardian) is still in control of a child, no matter what the volunteer may want.         http://rec-law.us/zN0jcl

Adult volunteer responsibility ends when the minor is delivered back to his parents.       http://rec-law.us/wynrnO

Alabama follows the majority of states and does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.                                                                                                                                    http://rec-law.us/Aegeo3

Courtney Love in Outdoor Recreation Law                                                        http://rec-law.us/yEpdBR

Delaware decision upholds a release signed by a parent against a minor’s claims           http://rec-law.us/MWKMmt

Delaware holds that mothers signature on contract forces change of venue for minors claims.http://rec-law.us/JMvEMv

Iowa does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.                  http://rec-law.us/AaLwBF

Maine decision on minor injured in ski school conforms how most states will interpret the facts.            http://rec-law.us/yxZN2M

Maine follows the majority and does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.        http://rec-law.us/zPfJ9V

Minnesota decision upholds parent’s right to sign away a minor’s right to sue.      http://rec-law.us/xyeuOH

New Florida law allows a parent to sign away a child’s right to sue for injuries.     http://rec-law.us/Au1dGE

North Carolina may allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue for injuries when the minor is engaged in non-profit activities sponsored by schools, volunteers, or community organizations            http://rec-law.us/ACYg0m

North Dakota decision allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.http://rec-law.us/SDYQHG

Ohio Appellate decision upholds the use of a release for a minor for a commercial activity.        http://rec-law.us/LuYZbv

Release stops suit for falling off horse at Colorado summer Camp.              http://rec-law.us/wtRyK5

Releases are legal documents and need to be written by an attorney that understands the law and the risks of your program/business/activity and your guests/members/clientele.           http://rec-law.us/yVPR8S

States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue                         http://rec-law.us/z5kFan

Statutes and prospective language to allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.            http://rec-law.us/zkGtcW

Texas follows majority with appellate court decision holding a parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue.    http://rec-law.us/MCh75O

Texas makes it easier to write a release because the law is clear.                 http://rec-law.us/yBjZBb

Wrong release for the activity almost sinks YMCA                                            http://rec-law.us/A9AW0P

You’ve got to be kidding: Chaperone liable for the death of girl on a trip     http://rec-law.us/zqxJTf

Remember the law changes constantly, this presentation may be out of date. Check back at www.recreation-law.com and with your attorney to make sure the information is still valid.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Copyright 2013 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

Email: Rec-law@recreation-law.com

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Mobile Site: http://m.recreation-law.com

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

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