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

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

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

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

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

Defendant: Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

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

Year: 2018

Summary

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

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

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

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

5:17-CV-05047-JLV

Reporter

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion by: VERONICA L. DUFFY

Opinion

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

INTRODUCTION

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

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

FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Notice To Parties

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

DATED November 15, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Veronica L. Duffy

VERONICA L. DUFFY

United States Magistrate Judge


NY determines that falling off a wall is a risk that is inherent in the sport. Plaintiff argued it wasn’t???

Plaintiff also argued the standards of the trade association created a legal liability on the part of the defendant. Trade association standards come back to haunt the business the standards were created to protect.

Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

State: New York: Supreme Court of New York, New York County

Plaintiff: Min-Sun Ho

Defendant: Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk (although a release was signed it was not raised as a defense)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

This case borders on the absurd because of the plaintiff’s claims and the statements of the plaintiff’s expert.

At the same time, this case borders on the scary because the standards of the trade association were used effectively to put a big dent in the defendant’s defenses.

It came down to simple logic. If you are ten to twelve feet off the ground is there an inherent risk that you could fall? Because it was to the court, the Plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries, and her case was dismissed.

Facts

The plaintiff took a climbing class as a student in high school. Over a decade later, she signed up online to go bouldering at the defendant’s bouldering facility. She also checked out the defendant’s Facebook page.

She and her roommate went to the gym. At the gym, she realized that this was different from the climbing she had done in high school. She signed an electronic release, which she did not read. She also was questioned by an employee of the gym about her previous climbing experience. When talking with the employee she did not ask any questions.

She started bouldering and understood the grade system of what she was climbing. She had climbed once or twice to the top of the route she chose and down climbed or jumped after coming half-way down.

On her third or fourth climb, she was a few feet from the top of the wall when she fell. She landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone which required surgery.

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

The decision first goes through the deposition testimony of the manager or the bouldering gym. The testimony was fairly straight forward, even talking about rules the gym had were not covered.

The next discussion was over the plaintiff’s expert witness. I’m just going to quote the decision.

After his review, Dr. Nussbaum opined that Plaintiff should have been provided with the following: a harness, a rope, or some similar safety device; a spotter; an orientation; and an introductory lesson. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the only time a harness or similar device is not required is “when the wall is low, less than 8 feet[,] and where it is angled so that a [climber] cannot fall directly down[,] but simply slides down the angled wall. Here, the wall was high and not angled, and therefore the safety devices including the harness and rope are required.”

The plaintiff probably would not have fallen off a V1 on a slanted wall, if you can call a slanted wall a V1 or V2. More importantly with holds on the wall you would have not slid off, you have bounced off the holds as you slid down.

Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the reading Steep Rock Bouldering waiver form, which Plaintiff did not, would not mean that the reader understands or assumes the risk. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.”

Judges are responsible of interpreting the law in litigation. An opinion by an expert on a contract would not be allowed into evidence. More importantly, nothing in the background of the expert indicates any training or experience in what someone like the plaintiff would understand in reading a contract.

However, then it circled back around to industry practices. The plaintiff’s expert:

…cited to the Climbing Wall Association’s (“CWA”) Industry Practices § 4.06 and opined further that Defendant’s gym should have provided “a thorough orientation to bouldering and how to mitigate the risk of predictable falls” per the CWA guidelines.

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.01, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[Plaintiff’s] ‘level of qualification or access to the climbing should [have been] checked upon entering and prior to climbing in the facility.’ In the absence of demonstrated proficiency in climbing, [Plaintiff] should have been ‘supervised by staff or a qualified climbing partner, or her access to the facility must [have] be[en] limited accordingly.’ In the case at hand, there was a cursory transition from the street into the gym and the commencement of climbing. [Plaintiff] was simply asked if she had previous climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.02, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[T]he climbing gym staff should [have] utilize[d] a screening process before allowing potential clients to access the climbing wall/facility. The purpose of the screening is to determine the ‘new client’s ability to climb in the facility’ and ‘to assess the client’s prior climbing experience, knowledge and skills (if any).’ [Plaintiff] was not asked about how long she had been climbing, whether or not she had experience at a climbing gym or facility, how often or how recently she had climbed, and/or the type of climbing she had done. She was not asked if she had knowledge of or experience bouldering. Again, she was simply asked if she had prior climbing experience, reflecting a wholly inadequate screening process.”

The Defendant’s expert did a great job of countering the claims made by the plaintiff’s expert. However, it is difficult to argue the language of a trade association is meant to mean something else when quoted by the plaintiff’s expert.

The court looked at the issue focusing on one main point. Did the plaintiff know and appreciate the risks of falling? This seems absurd to me. One of the basic fears that I think everyone has is a fear of falling. How it manifests itself may be different in different people, but everyone is afraid of falling.

The plaintiff in her testimony and the testimony of the expert witness made this the central point of the litigation and one the court had a difficult time reaching a conclusion on.

The court first looked at the assumption of risk doctrine in New York.

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a person who voluntarily participates in a sporting activity generally consents, by his or her participation, to those injury-causing events, conditions, and risks which are inherent in the activity.”

I cannot believe that when you are ten feet from the ground, there is not some form of awareness of the risk of falling.

The court then looked at the necessary elements of risk to determine what was inherent in a sport and what that means to the plaintiff and defendant.

“Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” However, “[s]ome of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field. Thus, the rule is qualified to the extent that participants do not consent to acts which are reckless or intentional.” “[I]n assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport.” In assessing whether a plaintiff had the appropriate awareness to assume the subject risk, such “awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.”

Boiled down, when you assume the risks of a sport or recreational activity:

In assuming a risk, Plaintiff has “given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do or leave undone.”

The court was then able to find that the plaintiff had assumed the risk.

The Court finds that injury from falling is a commonly appreciable risk of climbing–with or without harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear–and that Plaintiff assumed this risk when she knowingly and voluntarily climbed Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall for the third or fourth time when she fell. To hold that Defendant could be liable for Plaintiff’s injuries because it allowed her to climb its wall without a rope and harness would effectively make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state.

However, what an agonizing intense effort for the courts to come to what seems to be a fairly simple conclusion. When you are standing 10′ in the air, do you feel apprehension about falling off. If you do and you stay there you assume the risk of falling I think.

So Now What?

I’ve written before about how easy it is to write about New York decisions. They are short and quick. One or two pages. This decision is fifteen pages long, an unbelievable long decision in New York. An unbelievable long decision for what I believe to be an extremely simple and basic concept. Did the plaintiff understand she could get hurt if she fell from the wall?

Yet the plaintiff made the court work hard to decide she assumed the risk. The plaintiff made an argument that the court found compelling enough to take 15 pages to determine if are 10′ in the air are you apprehensive.

There are several take a ways from this decision.

The decision indicates the plaintiff signed a release electronically. However, it was never raised as a defense. Probably because of New York General Obligations Law § 5-326. This law states releases are not valid at places of amusement. There has been one decision in New York were a release for a climbing wall injury was upheld; however, the court specifically distinguished that issues saying the climbing wall was for educational purposes since it was at a university and not a recreational situation. Read Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003).

The industry standards came back to play a role in the decision. There are dozens of arguments in favor of an industry creating standards. There is one argument on why they should not be made. Plaintiff’s use them to attack the people the standards were meant to protect.

No matter how many reasons why it might be a good thing; it fails in all of those reasons when it is used in court to beat a defendant over the head and prove they were wrong. A piece of paper, written by members of the industry, with the industry logo and name on it is proof to any juror that this is the way it must be done. If not, why would the piece of paper be written? Why would the industry and everyone else take the time and energy to create the rule, print it and hand out if that was the way it was supposed to be done.

So, then it is left up to the defense expert to find a way to prove that the piece of paper is wrong. That is impossible in 99% of the cases. As a member of the association, as a person who helped make the piece of paper, you are now saying what you did was wrong? It is not going to fly.

Here the defendant’s expert could not. So, he did not, his opinion walked all around the issue but did not bring up the standards that the plaintiff through at the court. Granted, the plaintiff had taken the standards and twisted them and their meaning in an attempt to apply them to this case, in a way that they were not meant to be. However, it is difficult to say to a judge or juror the plaintiff’s expert twisted the standards, and they don’t mean that. Of course, that is what the judge and jury would expert.

Thankfully, the defendant’s expert was great and just refused to take on the plaintiff’s expert and the far-out statements he made.

Here the plaintiff used the industry standards in an attempt to prove the defendant had breached its duty of care to the plaintiff. Here the name had been changed by the association over the years to lessen their impact and damage in a courtroom from standards to practices. However, they were still used to bludgeon the defendant who had probably paid to help create them.

Standards do not create value in a courtroom for defendants. You cannot say we did everything right, see read this and throw the standards at the judge and jury. However, we all need to learn from our mistakes, and we need ideas on how to get better. Besides there is always more than one way to do everything.

Create ideas, best practices, anything that allows different ways of doing things so the plaintiff cannot nail you down to one thing you did wrong. The simple example is there is no one way to belay. Yet standards for various industries have superficially set forth various ways over the years you “must” belay. Body belays went out decades ago with the introduction of belay devices. Yet when your lead is on a precarious move, and the piece below him might not be able to take the full weight of a fall, a body belay works because it helps absorb the energy and spread the belay over time putting less pressure on the pro.

There is no magic solution to everything and spending hours and dollars trying to tell the world, there is, will only come back to haunt you.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

Ho v Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

[**1] Min-Sun Ho, Plaintiff, – v – Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC, Defendant. INDEX NO. 150074/2016

150074/2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK COUNTY

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 32; 2018 NY Slip Op 30006(U)

January 2, 2018, Decided

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

CORE TERMS: climbing, bouldering, rock, gym’s, rope, harness, spotter, opined, climb, climber, falling, affirmation, feet, mat, climbed, sport, orientation, roommate, height, summary judgment, top, spotting, assumption of risk, instructor, padding, false sense of security, indoor, reply, quotation, skill

JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: Hon. Robert D. KALISH, Justice.

OPINION BY: Robert D. KALISH

OPINION

Motion by Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted.

BACKGROUND

I. Overview

Plaintiff brought this action seeking damages for injuries she sustained on October 12, 2015, while at Defendant’s bouldering gym, Steep Rock Bouldering. Plaintiff alleges, in sum and substance, that, due to the negligence of Defendant, she fell from Defendant’s gym’s indoor climbing wall and landed on her right arm, tearing ligaments and breaking a bone in the arm and elbow area, which required surgery. Defendant argues, in sum and substance, that Plaintiff assumed the risk of injury from a fall at its gym and that its gym provided an appropriate level of safety and protection for boulderers through warnings, notices, an orientation, equipment, and the nature of the climbing wall itself. As such, Defendant argues it had no further duty to Plaintiff. Plaintiff argues, in sum and substance, that she did not assume the risk of an injury from falling off of the climbing wall.

[**2] II. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced the instant action against Defendant on January 5, 2016, [*2] by e-filing a summons and a complaint alleging a negligence cause of action. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit A.) Defendant answered on March 28, 2016, denying all the allegations in the complaint and asserting 21 affirmative defenses, including Plaintiff’s assumption of the risk. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit B.)

The examination before trial (“EBT”) of Plaintiff was held on February 14, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit E [Ho EBT].) The EBT of Defendant, taken of witness Vivian Kalea (“Kalea”), was held on February 23, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit F [Kalea EBT].) Plaintiff provided Defendant with her liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about March 27, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit G.) Plaintiff filed the note of issue in this action on May 4, 2017. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit J.)

On or about May 25, 2017, Defendant moved to strike Plaintiff’s note of issue. On or about May 30, 2017, Plaintiff cross-moved to preclude certain expert and medical testimony from Defendant at trial due to Defendant’s alleged failure to provide timely disclosures. Defendant provided Plaintiff with its liability expert’s disclosure pursuant to CPLR 3101 (d) on or about June 16, 2017. [*3] (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit H.) On June 29, 2017, Defendant noticed the instant motion On July 14, 2017, this Court ordered Defendant’s motion to strike and Plaintiff’s cross motion to preclude withdrawn per the parties’ stipulation, dated July 6, 2017.

Defendant now moves for an order pursuant to CPLR 3212 granting it summary judgment and dismissing this action with prejudice.

III. Plaintiff’s EBT

Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho stated that she and her roommate intended to climb the indoor wall at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Ho EBT at 12, lines 17-23.) Plaintiff further stated that her roommate had joined Defendant’s gym several weeks prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 13, lines 12-13; at 14, lines 2-3, 13-25.) Plaintiff further stated that, prior to October 12, 2015, in high school, she took a rock climbing class once a week for a semester. (Id. at 15, lines 16-25.) Now in her thirties, Plaintiff stated that she was able to recall the class, the basic commands for climbing, and the techniques for climbing. (Id. at 20, lines 5-2.1; at 22, lines 17-21.)

[**3] Plaintiff stated that, on October 12, 2015, she looked up Defendant’s gym’s Facebook page and observed people climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering without ropes or harnesses. [*4] (Id. at 27, lines 7-11; at 29, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then signed up online for a one-month membership at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 28, lines 15-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she had also heard from her roommate, before October 12, 2015, that there were no harnesses or ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 30, lines 6-13.) Plaintiff further stated that, on October 12, 2015, Plaintiff’s roommate again explained that Defendant’s gym does not have harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 29, line 25; at 30, lines 2-5.) Plaintiff stated she was not aware, prior to October 12, 2015, that the term “bouldering” refers to a form of rock climbing without harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 85, lines 2-7.)

Plaintiff stated that, upon arriving at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015, she observed a reception desk and a climbing wall to her left where she saw more than three people climbing. (Id. at 31, lines 17-23; at 32, line 25; at 33, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that she believed the climbing wall was about 15 feet tall. (Id. at 32, lines 4-20.) Plaintiff further stated that the receptionist asked if Plaintiff had rock climbed before and that she answered that she had, a long time ago. (Id. at 47, lines 2-8.) Plaintiff stated she signed [*5] an electronic waiver form at the reception desk. Plaintiff, at the time of the EBT, stated she did not recall having read any of the waiver except for the signature line. (Id. at 43, lines 11-19.)

Plaintiff stated that, after signing the waiver, she waited while the receptionist called a man over to Plaintiff and her roommate. Plaintiff stated she herself believed the man who came over was another Steep Rock Bouldering employee. (Id. at 45, lines 10-25; at 46, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff stated’ that the man told Plaintiff “something along the lines of that’s the wall as you can see, it’s self-explanatory.'” (Id. at 46, lines 11-12.) Plaintiff further stated that the man also told her “[t]hose are the bathrooms.” (Id. at 49, lines 2-3.) Plaintiff further stated that the man asked her if she had rock climbed before and that she answered “yeah, a while ago.” (Id. at 49, lines 7-10.) Plaintiff stated that the man did not say he was an instructor or take Plaintiff anywhere and that neither the man nor the receptionist said anything about an instructor. Plaintiff further stated that she did not have an orientation or an instructor at Defendant’s gym. (Id. at 47, lines 15-23; at 48, lines 21-25.) Plaintiff further stated she that did not see any instructional [*6] videos. (Id. at 80, lines 19-22.) Plaintiff further stated that she had felt comfortable not having an instructor and climbing the walls without any harnesses or ropes. (Id. at 81, lines 17-22.)

[**4] Plaintiff stated that, after speaking with the man, she changed into climbing shoes which she stated she recalled borrowing from Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 48, lines 5-20.) Plaintiff further stated that she then put her and her roommate’s belongings away in a cubby and started getting ready to climb. (Id. at 49, lines 13-18.) Plaintiff stated that she had observed mats in front of the climbing wall on the floor. (Id. at 49, lines 19-24.) Plaintiff stated that she had further observed “quite a few” people who she thought were other climbers and their friends climbing the wall or watching and giving tips on holds. (Id. at 50, lines 5-21; at 55, lines 6-10.)

Plaintiff stated she was told before she started climbing that the holds on the climbing wall are tagged according to their difficulty and that the levels of difficulty marked “V0 or V1” are the “easiest.” (Id. at 54, lines 2-20.) Plaintiff further stated that, after waiting a few minutes, she herself climbed to the top of the climbing wall on level V1 on her first attempt. (Id. at 55, lines 16-19, 24-25; at [*7] 56, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further stated that she did not think it took very long to make the climb. (Id. at 56, lines 10-11.) Plaintiff stated she and her roommate took turns climbing the wall. (Id. at 63, lines 12-16.) Plaintiff further stated that, while she herself was climbing, her roommate was on the mat watching her climb. (Id. at 63, lines 17- 22.) Plaintiff stated that she herself climbed again once or twice without incident. (Id. at 56, lines 16-19; at 57, lines 18-21.) Plaintiff stated that, on her third or fourth climb, she herself had made it about a couple of feet from the top of the wall before she fell. (Id. at 57, lines 3-10, 15-25; at 58, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff stated that her roommate was watching her when she fell. (Id. at 63, line 22.)

Plaintiff stated that she had not fallen from a climbing wall prior to October 12, 2015. (Id. at 59, lines 2-7.) Plaintiff further stated she did not think she could fall, nor did she think about falling, when she bought her membership, when she first saw the wall when she entered the building, or when she first started climbing. (Id. at 59, lines 13-25; at 60, lines 2-8, 17-19.) Plaintiff further stated that did not see anyone else fall at Steep Rock Bouldering prior to her own fall, but did see people [*8] jumping down from “[s]omewhere above the middle” and “closer to the top” of the climbing wall instead of climbing down. (Id. at 60, lines 9-16.)

Plaintiff stated she herself climbed down the wall after her first climb, but then became more “confident” and climbed down halfway and then jumped in subsequent successful climbs. (Id. at 60, lines 22-25; at 61, lines 2-6.) Plaintiff further stated that, immediately before she fell, she was climbing up the wall and reaching to the side. (Id. at 61, lines 7-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she then grabbed onto a knob, looked down, and saw a man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, [**5] lines 2-7.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[w]hen you looked down, did you think about falling or if you could fall?” In reply, Plaintiff stated “I was a little scared. When I looked down, I was a lot higher than I thought I was.” (Id. at 62, lines 12-15.) Plaintiff stated that she had wanted to come back down at this time. (Id. at 62, lines 24-25; at 63, lines 2-4.) Plaintiff further stated that she fell after she saw the man looking up at her. (Id. at 62, line 8.) Plaintiff was asked at the EBT “[d]o you know why you fell?” and answered, “I don’t know exactly.” (Id. at 62, lines 5-6.)

IV. Defendant’s EBT

Vivian Kalea stated that, at the [*9] time of her EBT, she was the general manager of Steep Rock Bouldering. (Kalea EBT at 6, lines 4-7.) Kalea further stated that, on October 12, 2015, she was a closing manager and youth team coach at Steep Rock Bouldering. (Id. at 6, lines 8-12.)

Kalea stated that she was at Steep Rock Bouldering when Plaintiff was injured and filled out the related injury report form. (Id. at 13, lines 19-21.) Kalea stated that the injury report indicated that Plaintiff was a member of Steep Rock Bouldering and had paid a fee to use the gym prior to her injury. (Id. at 16, lines 12-13.) Kalea stated that the injury report further indicated that Plaintiff fell from a yellow V1 level of difficulty, about three moves from the top, and landed on her right side. (Id. at 19, lines 6-9; at 31, lines 15-21; at 34, line 25.)

Kalea stated that V1 is a beginner’s level of difficulty. (Id. at 34, lines 13-15.) Kalea further stated that, the higher the number is after the “V,” the greater the level of difficulty. Kalea stated that the “V” designation is not a description of a specific height or location. (Id. at 33, lines 9-14.) Kalea further stated that V2 is also a beginner’s level. (Id. at 33, lines 23-25, at 34, lines 2-4.) Kalea further stated that the wall Plaintiff was on had a “slight incline” but was “mostly [*10] vertical” and “[c]lose to 90 degrees. (Id. at 41, lines 11-25; at 42, lines 2-4.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering offered climbing shoe rentals and chalk for climbers on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 9, lines 20-21; at 10, line 14.) Kalea further stated that the climbing shoes provide support for climbing activities by improving friction and power to the big toe and that the chalk gives the climbers a better grip on whatever it is they are holding onto. (Id. at 21, lines 18-25; at 22, lines 2-25; at 23, lines 2-A.) Kalea further stated that the padded area in front of the climbing wall was over a foot thick on October 12, 2015, and was there to help absorb the shock from a fall. (Id. at 23, lines 5-18.) Kalea further stated that a [**6] spotter, “somebody who guides a climber to fall down,” was not required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 49, lines 19-25.)

Kalea stated that the climbing walls at Steep Rock Bouldering are 14 feet high and that the holds do not all go to the top. (Id. at 24, lines 17-19.) Kalea further stated that the holds are of different textures, sizes, and appearances and that their locations can be changed to create varying paths up the wall and establish the difficulty of a given level. (Id. at 24, lines [*11] 16-25; at 25, lines 2-17; at 29, lines 2-5.) Kalea further stated that climbers at Steep Rock Bouldering do not climb with ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 40, line 25; at 41, line 2.)

Kalea stated that Steep Rock Bouldering employees ask whether it is a new member’s first time bouldering “to clarify that they understand the risk of bouldering.” (Id. at 21, lines 13-17.) Kalea further stated that every climber is supposed to receive an oral safety orientation from Steep Rock Bouldering staff prior to climbing that consists of the following:

“It consists of understanding the person’s climbing experience, their experience bouldering. That they understand that bouldering is a dangerous sport. How every fall in a bouldering environment is a ground fall. It goes over how the climbs are kind of situated, so everything is by color and numbers. It goes over that we do encourage down climbing in the facility. So that means when you reach the top of the problem, which is not necessarily the top of the wall, but the finishing hold, you climb down about halfway before you jump, if you do want to jump. It goes over how to best fall.”

(Id. at 46, lines 2-24; at 47, lines 3-16.) Kalea stated that the giving such an orientation is [*12] standard in the climbing industry and was required at Steep Rock Bouldering on October 12, 2015. (Id. at 48, lines 3-10.) Kalea further stated that “[i]t is made clear to everyone who walks in the door that they are going to receive a safety orientation” and that staffs failure to do so would be breaking Steep Rock Bouldering’s rules. (Id. at 48, lines 17-21.) Kalea was asked at the EBT to assume that Plaintiff was told “essentially . . . there is the wall, it’s self explanatory [sic] and that’s all the person did” and was then asked “[i]f that is all that was said, is that a proper safety instruction orientation?” (Id. at 49, lines 3-17.) Kalea replied, “[i]t is not.”

[**7] V. Plaintiff’s Liability Expert

Plaintiff retained Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum as its liability expert. Dr. Nussbaum has a Masters of Education and an Education Doctorate in Recreation and Leisure Studies from Temple University. Dr. Nussbaum has 45 years of experience in the adventure education, recreation, and climbing field with a variety of teaching credentials related specifically to climbing. In forming his opinion, Dr. Nussbaum reviewed photographs of the climbing wall used by Plaintiff on the date of her injury, the injury report, the waiver form, [*13] and the EBT transcripts.

After his review, Dr. Nussbaum opined that Plaintiff should have been provided with the following: a harness, a rope, or some similar safety device; a spotter; an orientation; and an introductory lesson. Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the only time a harness or similar device is not required is “when the wall is low, less than 8 feet[,] and where it is angled so that a [climber] cannot fall directly down[,] but simply slides down the angled wall. Here, the wall was high and not angled, and therefore the safety devices including the harness and rope are required.” (Broome affirmation, exhibit 1 [aff of Nussbaum], at 3.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that a person of Plaintiff’s skill level was a novice and needed to be taught “how to climb, how to come down, and even how to fall safely. None of this was done or provided.” (Id. at 4.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that “[a]s a new climber, [Plaintiff] did not appreciate the risk” involved with bouldering. (Id.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the reading Steep Rock Bouldering waiver form, which Plaintiff did not, would not mean that the reader understands or assumes the risk. (Id.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that the padding “likely” [*14] gave Plaintiff a “false sense of security” and “no appreciation of the risk here.” (Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that, because Steep Rock Bouldering does not offer rope climbing, its climbing wall requires that the climber “climb down, climb partway down and jump the remainder, fall down in a controlled manner, or simply fall down if he or she loses control.” (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum cited to the Climbing Wall Association’s (“CWA”) Industry Practices § 4.06 and opined further that Defendant’s gym should have provided “a thorough orientation to bouldering and how to mitigate the risk of predictable falls” per the CWA guidelines. (Id.)

[**8] Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.01, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[Plaintiff’s] ‘level of qualification or access to the climbing should [have been] checked upon entering and prior to climbing in the facility.’ In the absence of demonstrated proficiency in climbing, [Plaintiff] should have been ‘supervised by staff or a qualified climbing partner, or her access to the facility must [have] be[en] limited accordingly.’ In the case at hand, there was a cursory transition from the street into the gym and the commencement of climbing. [Plaintiff] was simply asked if she had previous [*15] climbing-experience and essentially told ‘here’s the wall, have at it.'”

(Id. at 6.)

Citing to CWA’s Industry Practices § 4.02, Dr. Nussbaum opined further:

“[T]he climbing gym staff should [have] utilize[d] a screening process before allowing potential clients to access the climbing wall/facility. The purpose of the screening is to determine the ‘new client’s ability to climb in the facility’ and ‘to assess the client’s prior climbing experience, knowledge and skills (if any).’ [Plaintiff] was not asked about how long she had been climbing, whether or not she had experience at a climbing gym or facility, how often or how recently she had climbed, and/or the type of climbing she had done. She was not asked if she had knowledge of or experience bouldering. Again, she was simply asked if she had prior climbing experience, reflecting a wholly inadequate screening process.”

(Id.)

Dr. Nussbaum opined that spotting is an advanced skill requiring training for the spotter to spot effectively and safely. As such, Dr. Nussbaum stated, Plaintiff’s roommate “was not a spotter and had no skill and no training to be one.” (Id. at 3.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that Steep Rock Bouldering was required to enforce its spotter [*16] requirement by providing an adequately skilled spotter or ensuring that an intended spotter has the requisite skill set. (Id. at 5.) Dr. Nussbaum opined further that, if Steep Rock Bouldering chooses not to require spotting, it is then required to “emphasize, encourage and instruct in the safest ways to descend, including falling [**9] techniques. . . . [It] did not enforce its spotting requirement nor [sic] provide proper instruction in falling techniques.” (Id. at 7.)

VI. Defendant’s Liability Expert

Defendant retained Dr. Robert W. Richards as its liability expert. Dr. Richards is a founding member of the CWA and is currently affiliated with CWA as an expert in risk management. Dr. Richards has been involved in the climbing wall industry since 1992. Dr. Richards stated that, as there are no set regulations for climbing facilities, the CWA intends to assist the industry in defining, understanding, and implementing a set of responsible management, operational, training, and climbing practices. (Goldstein affirmation, exhibit I [aff of Richards], ¶ 2.) Dr. Richards further stated that the CWA’s Industry Practices is a sourcebook for the operation of manufactured climbing walls. (Id. ¶ 3.)

In forming his opinion, [*17] Dr. Richards performed a site inspection of Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall on June 22, 2017. (Id. ¶ 20.) Dr. Richards observed at the site inspection that Defendant’s gym had “Climb Smart” posters, indicating the risks of bouldering, displayed in multiple locations. Dr. Richards stated that these signs were also present on October 12, 2015. (Id.) Dr. Richards observed further that the climbing wall is approximately thirteen feet, six inches tall when measured from the top of the padded area around the wall. (Id. ¶ 30:) Dr. Richards stated that this was also the height of the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id.)

Dr. Richards describes the sport of bouldering as follows:

“Bouldering is the form of climbing that is performed without the use of safety ropes and typically on a climbing surface that is low enough in height that a fall from the wall will not be fatal. Bouldering walls in climbing gyms may range from ten to twenty feet in height. The [CWA] states that average bouldering wall heights in the climbing wall industry are between twelve and fifteen feet. Climbers who boulder are referred to as boulderers . . . .”

(Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Dr. Richards stated “[a] specific climb is referred [*18] to as a . . . ‘problem’ and is usually marked with colored tape or colored holds which are attached to the artificial climbing wall.” (Id. ¶ 7 [punctuation omitted].)

[**10] Dr. Richards opined that bouldering entails an inherent risk of injury from falls. (Id. ¶ 4.) Dr. Richards opined further that it is not possible to eliminate this risk “without altering the very essence of the sport.” (Id.) Dr. Richards opined further that the most common injuries in climbing gyms are to the extremities which can result from falls of any height. (Id. ¶ 15.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the risk inherent to bouldering was communicated to Plaintiff by means of a written liability release and an orientation. (Id. ¶ 17.) Dr. Richards stated that Plaintiff signed a liability release form and completed an orientation. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 31.) Dr. Richards stated further that the liability release form included the following language: “I have examined the climbing wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing wall, including but not limited to: [injuries] resulting from falling off or coming down from the climbing wall . . . .” (Id. ¶ [*19] 17.)

Dr. Richards opined further that, having visited approximately “200 gyms” since 1992, he has never been to a gym that requires climbers to have spotters and strictly enforces that requirement. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 22-23.) Dr. Richards stated that spotting was developed for outdoor bouldering to guide the fall of boulderers in an environment where there are typically little or no padded surfaces to protect the head. (Id. ¶ 24.) Dr. Richards stated that the CWA does not require spotters when bouldering on artificial climbing walls and that it is not a common practice in the industry to require such spotters. (Id. ¶ 25.) Dr. Richards further stated that the padded landing surfaces in gyms reduce many of those dangers that a spotter would help to mitigate outdoors. (Id.) Dr. Richards opined that, as such, use of a spotter in an indoor climbing gym is of “limited benefit” and “may cause injury to the boulderer and spotter if the climber were to fall directly on the spotter.” (Id.)

Dr. Richards opined further that the purpose of Defendant gym’s padded landing surface around its climbing wall is “to mitigate potential injuries to the head and neck.” (Id. ¶ 26.) Dr. Richards opined further that, [*20] while the padding may “provide some cushioning for falls,” per Annex E to the CWA’s Industry Practices, “[p]ads are not designed to mitigate or limit extremity injuries, although they may do so.” (Id.) Dr. Richards stated that, while there was no industry standard regarding the type, amount, or use of such padding in October 2015, a typical surface in October 2015 would have “consisted of four to six inches of foam padding or other impact attenuation [**11] material with a top layer of gymnastic carpet or vinyl that covers the underlying padding.” (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) Dr. Richards further stated that Defendant’s gym used foam pads of a twelve-inch depth that ran continuously along the climbing wall and extended twelve feet out from the wall on October 12, 2015. (Id. ¶ 29.)

ARGUMENT

I. Defendant’s Affirmation in Support

Defendant alleges in its papers that it has a place of business that includes a bouldering climbing gym in New York City on Lexington Avenue. (Affirmation of Goldstein ¶ 14.) Defendant further alleges that its gym has a continuous climbing wall that is approximately 30 to 40 feet wide and 14 feet tall and has climbing holds which are textured objects bolted into the wall which climbers [*21] can grab onto with their hands and stand upon with their feet. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 16.)

Defendant argues, in the main, that Plaintiff assumed the inherent risk associated with climbing an indoor wall and with bouldering when she chose to climb Defendant’s gym’s bouldering wall. (Memorandum of law of Goldstein, at 1.) Defendant argues Plaintiff was able to make an informed estimate of the risks involved in bouldering and that she willingly undertook them. (Id. at 3-4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the potential for injury from a fall because she is an intelligent adult familiar with the laws of gravity and had prior wall climbing experience in an indoor setting (albeit with ropes). (Id. at 4.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of the risks associated with climbing because, before she was injured, Plaintiff watched other climbers ascend and descend its climbing wall and climbed up and down the wall herself without incident several times, even feeling comfortable enough to jump from halfway down the wall as opposed to climbing all the way down. (Id. at 8-9.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly engaged in the bouldering activity and that her fall was a common, albeit [*22] unfortunate, occurrence. (Id. at 10.)

Defendant argues that falling is inherent to the sport of climbing, that falling cannot be eliminated without destroying the sport, and that injuries resulting from falling from a climbing wall are foreseeable consequences inherent to bouldering. (Id.) Defendant further argues that the risk of falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall was open and obvious to Plaintiff. (Id. at 5.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff did not request further instruction beyond what Steep Rock [**12] Bouldering provided on October 12, 2015, and that Plaintiff was comfortable climbing without ropes or a harness. (Id. at 5-6.) Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s allegation that she did not receive proper instruction is pure conjecture and will only invite the jury to speculate about what further instruction Plaintiff would have received had she sought it out. (Id. at 6.)

Defendant argues that there was no unique risk or dangerous condition in Defendant’s gym on October 12, 2015, over and above the usual dangers inherent to bouldering. Defendant further argues that Defendant has the right to own and operate a gym that offers bouldering, only, and not rope climbing. (Id. at 7.) Defendant further argues that the height [*23] of its gym’s climbing wall and the depth of its surrounding padding were well within what was typical of other climbing facilities in October 2015. (Id.) Defendant further argues that it had no duty to provide a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing. (Id. at 7-8.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s expert has not cited to any standards or rules that would have required that Defendant provide Plaintiff with a spotter or supervise Plaintiff’s climbing or that would justify an opinion that negligence on the part of Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s accident. (Id. at 8, 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert fails to acknowledge that Plaintiff engaged in a rope climbing class every week for a semester. (Id. at 10.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s expert has never visited Steep Rock Bouldering and that therefore any assertions that Plaintiff’s expert will make are conclusory and insufficient to demonstrate Defendant’s negligence.

II. Plaintiff’s Affirmation in Opposition

Plaintiff argues in her papers that the affidavit of her liability expert, Dr. Gary G. Nussbaum, establishes Defendant’s negligence and Plaintiff’s lack of appreciation and understanding of the risk. (Affirmation of Broome, at 1.) Plaintiff further [*24] argues that she had a false sense of security because of the thick mats around the climbing wall and that she therefore did not appreciate the risk. (Id. at 1-2.) Plaintiff further argues that her climbing experience at Steep Rock Bouldering was very different from her prior experience with climbing, which was limited to one semester of indoor climbing class 12-13 years prior to the incident, in high school, involving a rope, harness, spotter, and instructor. (Id. at 2; aff of Ho, at 2.) At the time of the incident, Plaintiff was age 30 and had never done any rock climbing again after the high school class. (Aff of Ho, at 2.)

[**13] Plaintiff argues that she believed the padding beneath the climbing wall would prevent “any injury whatsoever.” (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff further argues that this was her belief even though she signed a release of liability because she did not read it. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that she was given no orientation or instructor on October 12, 2015, but was only told where the wall was and that it was “self-explanatory.” (Id.) Plaintiff further argues that the release she signed is void and unenforceable because she paid a fee to use Defendant’s gym. (Affirmation of Broome, at 2.)

Plaintiff argues that Defendant was negligent in failing to [*25] provide Plaintiff with a rope, a harness, instruction, an orientation, and a spotter. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff further argues that the assertions of Defendant’s liability expert, Dr. Robert W. Richards, regarding posters on the wall at Steep Rock Bouldering are irrelevant and erroneous because he visited the facility 1.75 years after Plaintiff’s accident and claims the posters were in place on the date of the accident. (Id.)

III. Defendant’s Reply Affirmation in Support

Defendant argues in its reply papers that Plaintiff did not have a false sense of security because Plaintiff: (1) was aware that Defendant’s gym only supplied climbing shoes and climbing chalk; (2) observed that none of the other climbers were asking for a rope or a harness; (3) testified that she felt comfortable climbing without harness, a rope, or an instructor; (4) knew prior to her injury that the climbing paths have different difficulty levels and that she was at a beginner level; and (5) had already, prior to her injury, climbed the wall two to three times without incident, reached the top of the wall, and jumped from the wall to the floor from halfway up the wall. (Reply affirmation of Goldstein, at 1-2; reply memorandum of law of Goldstein [*26] ¶ 3.) Defendant further argues that Plaintiff’s claim of having a false sense of security is disingenuous because she plainly observed the conditions of the climbing wall and the padded mats, was able to approximate the height of the wall, and, at age 30, was fully aware of, paid to engage in, and voluntarily undertook a form of climbing that involves neither ropes nor harnesses. (Reply memorandum of law of Goldstein ¶ 4.)

Defendant argues that Plaintiff has overlooked Dr. Richards’ explanation that a spotter has limited benefit and may cause injury to the climber and spotter if the climber were to fall directly onto the spotter. (Id. ¶ 5.) Defendant further argues that climbers utilizing a rope and harness may also sustain injury from falls when climbing. (Id. ¶ 6.)

[**14] Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury because Plaintiff herself testified that she does not know why she fell, and mere speculation regarding causation is inadequate to sustain a cause of action. (Id. ¶ 5.)

Defendant further argues that Plaintiff was aware of and assumed the risk that, in climbing a wall without ropes and harnesses–or [*27] a spotter–she could sustain an immediate physical injury from a fall. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5, 9.)

IV. Oral Argument

On November 13, 2017, counsel for the parties in the instant action appeared before this Court for oral argument on Defendant’s instant motion for summary judgment. Stephanie L. Goldstein, Esq. argued on behalf of Defendant and Alvin H. Broome, Esq. argued on behalf of Plaintiff.

Defendant argued that this is an assumption of the risk case in which Plaintiff fell during participation in a sport–bouldering–which, by definition, is rock climbing without ropes or harnesses. (Tr at 2, lines 23-25; at 3, lines 8-18.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff had no reasonable expectation there would be ropes or harnesses at Steep Rock bouldering. Plaintiff stated that her roommate told her that climbing at Steep Rock Bouldering would involve no ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 5-13.) Plaintiff further stated that she observed photographs of people using the gym on Facebook at parties–prior to going to Defendant’s gym–without ropes or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 15-19.) Plaintiff further stated that she saw people climbing at the gym in person before she climbed and that none of them were using ropes [*28] or harnesses. (Id. at 4, lines 20-24.)

Defendant argued that Plaintiff was additionally noticed as to the dangers inherent to bouldering by the electronic waiver, which she signed. (Id. at 5, lines 3-18.) Defendant clarified that it is not moving to dismiss the instant action on waiver grounds and acknowledged that Plaintiff’s signing the waiver did not absolve Defendant of liability. (Id. at 5, lines 13-14.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by an individual, an employee of Defendant, who explained to Plaintiff prior to her climbing about the wall and the climbing paths. (Id. at 5, lines 19-23.) Defendant argued that Plaintiff was further noticed by her own experience of climbing up and down the wall two to three times without any [**15] incident and with jumping off of the wall prior to her fall. (Id. at 5, line 26; at 6, line 2; at 7, lines 11-16.) Defendant was comfortable climbing without equipment or an instructor. (Id. at 7, lines 6-10.)

Defendant argued that it cannot enforce a statement on its waiver that a climber is not to climb without a spotter. Defendant argued that this is for four reasons: because spotting does not prevent injury, because spotting was developed when bouldering was outside, because spotting [*29] can only act to attempt to protect the head and neck outdoors–and indoors the padding provides this function–and because spotting may endanger the spotter. Defendant stated that spotting is not enforced at its gym. Defendant further stated that its liability expert has not seen this requirement enforced at any of the 200 gyms he has traveled to which do have this requirement on paper. (Id. at 6, lines 7-26; at 7, lines 2-5.)

Defendant argued that falling when climbing a wall is a common, foreseeable occurrence at a climbing facility. (Id. at 8, lines 3-5.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff is an intelligent woman, 30 years old at the time of her injury, with a degree in biology. As such, Defendant argued that Plaintiff knew the laws of gravity: what goes up, must come down. (Id. at 8, lines 6-9.) Defendant further argued that a person is said to have assumed the risk if he or she participates in an activity such as climbing where falling is an anticipated and known possibility. (Id. at 9, lines 9-13.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff testified that she does not know what caused her to fall. (Id. at 7, lines 21-23.)

Plaintiff argued in opposition that Defendant’s own rules required a spotter for climbers and that [*30] Defendant broke its rule and therefore proximately caused Plaintiff’s injury. (Id. at 9, lines 24-26; at 10, lines 2-6; at 11, lines 11-16, 24-25; at 12, lines 15-21.) Plaintiff further argued that “in every kind of climbing you are required to have a rope, a harness, something to prevent an injury and a fall.” (Id. at 12, lines 11-13.) Plaintiff further argued that a spotter “will say lift your arms, turn to the side” as a person begins to fall. (Id. at 11, lines 24-25.)

Plaintiff further argued that proximate cause has been established and the real question for the Court is whether Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 12, lines 22-25.) Plaintiff argued that “unusually thick” mats around the climbing wall gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 13, line 8.) Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff saw people fall onto the soft matted floor without getting hurt, and therefore assumes this is a safe sport, but it is not. Plaintiff argued that assumption of risk is a subjective standard and that Plaintiff was a novice who had only [**16] climbed with ropes and harnesses prior to the day of her injury and thus did not assume the risk of “falling on a soft mat and breaking an elbow.” (Id. at 10, lines 7-10; at 14, lines 13-16.)

Plaintiff [*31] argued that there is a distinction between assuming the risk that one could fall from a climbing wall and assuming the risk that one could be injured from the fall. Plaintiff further argued that Plaintiff assumed the former, not the latter, in part because of a false sense of security due to the mats and not having a spotter. (Id. at 14, lines 23-26; at 15, lines 2-23; at 16, lines 2-9.) Plaintiff further argued that the mats that are placed by the climbing wall are “extremely substantial,” “for the sole purpose of preventing injury,” and “designed supposedly to prevent injury from a fall, and . . . didn’t.” (Id. at 16, lines 16-20.)

Plaintiff argued that, as a matter of law, because the mats were there, Plaintiff cannot be held to the belief that she was going to get hurt when she went up the climbing wall. (Id. at 16, lines 22-24.) Plaintiff clarified that she is not claiming the mat was inadequate. (Id. at 16, line 21.) Plaintiff argued that there was no assumption of injury from climbing or falling normally from the Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall. (Id. at 17, lines 13-14.) Plaintiff argued further that Plaintiff “did not assume the risk of being injured by a fall, period.” (Id. at 18, line 20.)

Defendant argued in reply that Plaintiff [*32] was bouldering, which by definition involves no ropes or harnesses, and did so voluntarily. (Id. at 23, lines 11-12.) Defendant further argued that Plaintiff’s liability expert cites to no regulations, standards, or rules that would quantify his reasoning why there should have been ropes, harnesses, or a spotter, or why the mat gave Plaintiff a false sense of security. (Id. at 23, lines 17-22.) Defendant further argued that the law says that when someone assumes the risk, they are assuming the risk inherent to the activity, and that assumption of injury specifically is not required. (Id. at 23, line 26; at 24, lines 2-5.) Defendant further argued that, in the instant case, the risk inherent to bouldering is falling, and that falling from a height may result in injury. As such, Defendant argued, Plaintiff assumed the risk. (Id. at 24, lines 4-18.)

Defendant further argued that there was no negligent hidden condition and nothing wrong with the wall or the mats. (Id. at 24, lines 20-21, 24-25.) Defendant argued that a climbing wall of 13 to 14 feet and mats of 12-inch thickness, as here, are typical. (Id. at 24, lines 25-26; at 25, lines 2-3.) Defendant further argued that stating that Plaintiff fell because she did not have a rope or harness [*33] is speculation insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. (Id. at 25, lines 4-6.)

[**17] DISCUSSION

I. The Summary Judgment Standard

“To obtain summary judgment it is necessary that the movant establish his cause of action or defense sufficiently to warrant the court as a matter of law in directing judgment in his favor, and he must do so by tender of evidentiary proof in admissible form.” (Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 N.Y.2d 557, 562, 404 N.E.2d 718, 427 N.Y.S.2d 595 [1980] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) “Once this showing has been made, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to establish the existence of material issues of fact that require a trial for resolution.” (Giuffrida v Citibank Corp., 100 N.Y.2d 72, 81, 790 N.E.2d 772, 760 N.Y.S.2d 397 [2003].) “On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” (Vega v Restani Constr. Corp., 18 N.Y.3d 499, 503, 965 N.E.2d 240, 942 N.Y.S.2d 13 [2012] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted].) In the presence of a genuine issue of material fact, a motion for summary judgment must be denied. (See Rotuba Extruders v Ceppos, 46 N.Y.2d 223, 231, 385 N.E.2d 1068, 413 N.Y.S.2d 141 [1978]; Grossman v Amalgamated Hous. Corp., 298 A.D.2d 224, 226, 750 N.Y.S.2d 1 [1st Dept 2002].)

II. The Assumption of Risk Doctrine

“Under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, a person who voluntarily participates in a sporting activity generally consents, by his or her participation, to those injury-causing events, conditions, and risks which are inherent [*34] in the activity.” (Cruz v Longwood Cent. School Dist., 110 AD3d 757, 758, 973 N.Y.S.2d 260 [2d Dept 2013].) “Risks inherent in a sporting activity are those which are known, apparent, natural, or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation.” (Id.) However, “[s]ome of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field. Thus, the rule is qualified to the extent that participants do not consent to acts which are reckless or intentional.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986].) “[I]n assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport.” (Morgan v State, 90 NY2d 471, 485, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 [1997] [internal quotation marks omitted].) In assessing whether a plaintiff had the appropriate awareness to assume the subject risk, such “awareness of risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff.” (Id. at 485-486.)

[**18] In 1975, the state legislature codified New York’s comparative fault law when it passed what is now CPLR 1411, “Damages recoverable when contributory negligence [*35] or assumption of risk is established.” CPLR 1411 provides:

“In any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death, the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or to the decedent, including contributory negligence or assumption of risk, shall not bar recovery, but the amount of damages otherwise recoverable shall be diminished in the proportion which the culpable conduct attributable to the claimant or decedent bears to the culpable conduct which caused the damages.”

Notwithstanding the text of CPLR 1411, the Court of Appeals has held that, in certain circumstances, a plaintiff’s assumption of a known risk can operate as a complete bar to recovery. The Court of Appeals refers to this affirmative defense as “primary assumption of risk” and states that “[u]nder this theory, a plaintiff who freely accepts a known risk commensurately negates any duty on the part of the defendant to safeguard him or her from the risk.” (Custodi v Town of Amherst, 20 NY3d 83, 87, 980 N.E.2d 933, 957 N.Y.S.2d 268 [2012] [internal quotation marks omitted].) In assuming a risk, Plaintiff has “given his consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him, and to take his chances of injury from a known risk arising from what the defendant is to do [*36] or leave undone.” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 438, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 [1986], quoting Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 68, at 480-481 [5th ed].)

Nonetheless, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk has often been at odds with this state’s legislative adoption of comparative fault, and as such has largely been limited in application to “cases involving certain types of athletic or recreational activities.” (Custodi, 20 NY3d at 87.) In Trupia ex rel. Trupia v Lake George Cent. School Dist., Chief Judge Lippman discussed the uneasy coexistence of the two doctrines:

“The doctrine of assumption of risk does not, and cannot, sit comfortably with comparative causation. In the end, its retention is most persuasively justified not on the ground of doctrinal or practical compatibility, but simply for its utility in facilitating free and vigorous participation in athletic activities. We have recognized that athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and have employed the notion that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these [**19] beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise. We have not applied the doctrine outside of this limited context [*37] and it is clear that its application must be closely circumscribed if it is not seriously to undermine and displace the principles of comparative causation that the Legislature has deemed applicable to any action to recover damages for personal injury, injury to property, or wrongful death.”

(14 NY3d 392, 395-96, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 [2010] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].) Writing two years later, Chief Judge Lippman further explained the scope of primary assumption of risk in Bukowski v Clarkson University:

“The assumption of risk doctrine applies where a consenting participant in sporting and amusement activities s aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks. An educational institution organizing a team sporting activity must exercise ordinary reasonable care to protect student athletes voluntarily participating in organized athletics from unassumed, concealed, or enhanced risks. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty. Relatedly, risks which are commonly encountered or ‘inherent’ in a sport, such as being struck by a ball or bat in baseball, are risks [*38] for which various participants are legally deemed to have accepted personal responsibility. The primary assumption of risk doctrine also encompasses risks involving less than optimal conditions.”

(19 NY3d 353, 356, 971 N.E.2d 849, 948 N.Y.S.2d 568 [2012] [internal quotation marks and emendation omitted].)

III. Defendant Has Shown Prima Facie that Plaintiff Assumed the Risk of Injury from Falling from Defendant’s Gym’s Climbing Wall, and Plaintiff Has Failed to Raise a Genuine Issue of Material Fact in Response

Based upon the Court’s reading of the submitted papers and the parties’ oral argument before it, the Court finds that Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff assumed the risks associated with falling from Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall, including injury. Defendant has shown prima facie that Plaintiff voluntarily participated in the sporting activity of bouldering at Steep Rock Bouldering and assumed the risks inherent therein. Specifically, Defendant has [**20] referred to Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, which was sufficient to establish that Plaintiff: (1) had experience with rock climbing; (2) was aware of the conditions of the climbing wall from observations both at a distance–from looking online at Facebook and watching others–and [*39] up close on her two or three successful climbs prior to her injury; and (3) was aware that a person could drop down from the wall, as Plaintiff had herself already jumped down from the wall of her own accord.

In response, Plaintiff fails to raise a genuine issue of material fact. Steep Rock Bouldering’s climbing wall is of an average height for bouldering walls according to Dr. Richards. Dr. Nussbaum’s assertion that climbing on any wall of a height of eight feet or more requires a harness or similar device is conclusory, unsupported by citation, and, ultimately, unavailing.

To require harnesses and ropes at Steep Rock Bouldering would fundamentally change the nature of the sport. Bouldering is a type of climbing that does not require ropes or harnesses. The Court finds that injury from falling is a commonly appreciable risk of climbing–with or without harnesses, ropes, or other safety gear–and that Plaintiff assumed this risk when she knowingly and voluntarily climbed Defendant’s gym’s climbing wall for the third or fourth time when she fell. To hold that Defendant could be liable for Plaintiff’s injuries because it allowed her to climb its wall without a rope and harness would effectively [*40] make the sport of bouldering illegal in this state. To do so would fly in the face of the reasoning in Trupia that such “athletic and recreative activities possess enormous social value, even while they involve significantly heightened risks, and . . . that these risks may be voluntarily assumed to preserve these beneficial pursuits as against the prohibitive liability to which they would otherwise give rise.” (14 NY3d at 395-96.)

In dismissing the instant case, the Court notes that the facts here are distinguishable from those in Lee v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC ( NYS3d , 2017 NY Slip Op 08660, 2017 WL 6347269, *1 [2d Dept, Dec. 13, 2017, index No. 503080/2013]) and McDonald v. Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211, 2016 WL 1597764, at *6 [Sup Ct, Kings County Apr. 12, 2016]). Both cases involved plaintiffs who were injured when they jumped down from the climbing wall–at the same defendant’s bouldering facility–and each plaintiff’s foot landed in a gap between the matting. In both cases, summary judgment was denied because there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the gap in the matting presented a concealed risk. Here, Plaintiff does not contend that she was injured by such a concealed risk, but essentially argues she should not have been allowed to [**21] voluntarily engage in the sport of bouldering. For the reasons previously stated, this Court finds such an argument to be [*41] unavailing.

CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that Defendant Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC’s motion pursuant to CPLR 3212 for an order granting Defendant summary judgment against Plaintiff Min-Sun Ho is granted; and it is further

ORDERED that the action is dismissed; and it is further

ORDERED that the Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of Defendant; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for movant shall serve a copy of this order with notice of entry upon Plaintiff and upon the County Clerk (Room 141B) and the Clerk of the Trial Support Office (Room 158M), who are directed to mark the court’s records to reflect the dismissal of this action.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the Court.

Dated: January 2, 2018

New York, New York

/s/ Robert D. Kalish, J.S.C.

HON. ROBERT D. KALISH


Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include.

In addition, incorrect name on the release gave plaintiff an additional argument. The LLC registered by the Indiana Secretary of State was named differently than the named party to be protected by the release.

Luck saved the defendant in this case.

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

State: Indiana: United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

Plaintiff: Alexis Wiemer

Defendant: Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligent Hiring and Instruction

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Release was written broadly enough it covered negligence claims outside the normal injuries or claims from using a climbing wall. On top of that the mistakes in the release were covered by the letterhead.

Injury occurred because belayer did not know how to use the braking device.

A lot of things could have gone wrong because the climbing wall was not paying attention, but got lucky.

Facts

The plaintiff was a beginner in climbing and using climbing walls. Before climbing he signed a release and attended a facility orientation which covered training “on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.” The training received by the plaintiff was taught by an employee with little experience and mostly went over the defendant’s instructional books on rock climbing.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to climb with a co-worker. While climbing the co-worker failed to use the belay device properly.

Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations. [emphasize added]

The plaintiff sued for his injuries.

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

The plaintiff’s first argument was the name of the parties to be released was not the legal name of the facility where the accident occurred. The facility was owned by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) registered with the state of Indiana as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” On the release, the name of the party to be protected was “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility.” The release name had an extra word, “rock.”

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State, although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy created ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

However, the name and logo on the top of the release identified the company correctly, Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.

Since the release was a contract, the court was required to determine if the name issue made the contract ambiguous. Ambiguous means the language of the contract could be interpreted in more than one way. The name issue was not enough to find the contract was unambiguous so that the release was not void. The name issue was minor, and the correct name was at the top of the contract.

Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

The second argument the plaintiff made was the release did not cover the claimed negligence of the defendant for negligent instruction, and negligent training. Those claims are generally not defined as an inherent risk of indoor rock climbing.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

Inherent is a restrictive word. See 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release? and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release, and is interpreted differently by various courts. Consequently, the use of the word inherent can be dangerous in that it limits the breadth of the release.

Under Indiana’s law a release must be “specific and explicitly refer to the waiving [of] that the party’s negligence.” However, that explicit reference is not necessary for a claim that is inherent in the activity.

Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.”

The plaintiff’s argument was:

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume. Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing.

The court could work around this explicit necessity because it found within the release language that covered the negligent training and instruction.

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…

It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.

By reviewing the exact language of the release, the court was able to find language that warned of the specific issues the plaintiff claimed.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

As such the court found that both claims were prevented by the release the plaintiff had signed and dismissed the case.

So Now What?

This case was won by the defendant not because of proper legal planning but by luck.

If they had not used the correct letterhead for the release, the release might have been void because it named the wrong party to be protected by the release. When writing a release, you need to include the legal name of the party to be protected as well as any marketing or doing business as names.

Indiana’s requirement that the language of the release cover the exact injury the plaintiff is claiming is not new in most states. It is also a requirement that seems to be growing by the courts to favor a contract that covers the complaint.

In the past, judges would specifically point out when a claimed injury was covered in the release. Not so much as a legal requirement but to point out to the plaintiff the release covered their complaint. That prior identification seems to be growing among the states to a requirement.

In this case the release was written broadly so that the restrictions the term inherent placed in the release were covered. But for that broad language, the climbing gym might now have survived the claim.

More important writing the release wrong protecting the wrong party would have been fatal in most states.

Finally, this is another example of a belay system that is perfect, and the user failed. There are belay systems out there that don’t require user involvement, they work as long as they are corrected properly. This accident could have been avoided if the belay system worked.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

Alexis Wiemer, Plaintiff, v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, Defendant.

Case No. 1:16-cv-01383-TWP-MJD

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA, INDIANAPOLIS DIVISION

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

September 15, 2017, Decided

September 15, 2017, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For ALEXIS WIEMER, Plaintiff: Mary Beth Ramey, Richard D. Hailey, RAMEY – HAILEY, Indianapolis, IN.

For HOOSIER HEIGHTS INDOOR CLIMBING FACILITY LLC, Defendant: Jessica Whelan, Phil L. Isenbarger, BINGHAM GREENEBAUM DOLL LLP, Indianapolis, IN.

JUDGES: TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: TANYA WALTON PRATT

OPINION

ENTRY ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter is before the Court on Defendant Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC’s (“Hoosier Heights”) Motion for Summary Judgment filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 (Filing No. 29). Plaintiff Alexis Wiemer (“Wiemer”) brought this action against Hoosier Heights for personal injuries sustained when he fell during a rock climbing activity. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

The material facts are not in dispute and are viewed in a light most favorable to Wiemer as the non-moving party. See Luster v. Ill. Dep’t of Corr., 652 F.3d 726, 728 (7th Cir. 2011).

Hoosier Heights, located in Carmel, Indiana, is a limited liability company which owns and operates an indoor rock climbing facility. The facility is open to the public and is available for individuals of all skill levels in recreational climbing. In order to use the facilities, Hoosier Heights requires all patrons [*2] to sign and acknowledge having read and understood a “Waiver & Release of Liability” form (“Waiver”). (Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver contains: general gym rules, exculpatory clauses relieving Hoosier Heights of liability, a medical authorization clause, an acknowledgement that the participant understands there are inherent risks to rock climbing with some risks listed, authorization to allow the Hoosier Heights’ staff to use any photographs taken during the patron’s visit for promotional materials, and a signature line for the participant. (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) At the top of the Waiver is Hoosier Heights’ logo, address, and the name Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing.

The Waiver states, in relevant part:

RELEASE AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK: In consideration of being permitted to use the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C., and mindful of the significant risks involved with the activities incidental thereto, I, for myself, my heirs, my estate and personal representative, do hereby release and discharge Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. (hereinafter referred to as “Hoosier Heights”) from any and all liability for injury that may result from my [*3] use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing, and I do hereby waive and relinquish any and all actions or causes of action for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death occurring to myself arising as a result of the use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights or any activities incidental thereto, wherever or however such personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death may occur, whether foreseen or unforeseen, and for whatever period said activities may continue. I agree that under no circumstances will I, my heirs, my estate or my personal representative present any claim for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death against Hoosier Heights or its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns for any of said causes of actions, whether said causes of action shall arise by the negligence of any said person or otherwise.

It is the intention of the undersigned individual to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns from liability for any personal injury, property damage or wrongful death caused by negligence.

(Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver also contained a provision enumerating the risks [*4] inherent in the sport of rock climbing:

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: I, the undersigned, acknowledge that I understand that there are significant elements of risk associated with the sport of rock climbing, including those activities that take place indoors. In addition, I realize those risks also pertain to related activities such as bouldering, incidental weight training, team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights. I realize that those risks may include, but are not limited to, injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facilities. I acknowledge and understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing or the use of the Hoosier Heights facilities and that other unknown and unanticipated risks may result in injury, illness, paralysis, or death.

Id. In addition to executing the Waiver, Hoosier Heights requires that all patrons attend and acknowledge undergoing orientation and training.

Wiemer visited Hoosier Heights in October 2014. On that date, he attended [*5] a facility orientation, which is an employee-guided training on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.1 (Filing No. 30-7.) If a customer intends to use the “top rope” climbing area of the facility, they must first complete the “top rope” orientation and initial and sign the facility orientation form in the appropriate locations. Following his orientation and training, Wiemer signed a Waiver form.

1 Top rope climbing is a style of climbing in which a rope runs from a belayer at the foot of the climbing wall which is connected to an anchor system at the top of the wall and back down to the climber. Both climber and the belayer are attached to the rope through a harness and carabiner. The belayer is responsible for pulling the slack in the rope, which results in the climber moving up the wall. The belayer must keep the rope tight so that, in the event the climber releases from the wall, the climber remains suspended in the air and does not fall.

Kayli Mellencamp (“Mellencamp”), a part-time Hoosier Heights employee with very little rock climbing experience, provided Wiemer’s orientation and training. (Filing No. 30-6.) Mellencamp’s employee training consisted solely of reviewing company provided instructional books on rock climbing and witnessing other employee orientations. (Filing No. 67-2 at 10-11 and 13-14.) Mellencamp had no other professional rock climbing experience.

On January 14, 2015, Wiemer, along with several co-workers, including Robert Magnus (“Magnus”), traveled to Hoosier Heights for recreational rock climbing. Magnus had also previously visited Hoosier Heights, and Wiemer’s and Magnus’ Waivers were already on file and under the terms of their agreements remained in effect (Filing No. 30-6; Filing No. 30-7). Wiemer [*6] was top rope climbing while Magnus belayed below (Filing No. 30-4). Unfortunately, Wiemer fell while he was climbing. Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. (Filing No. 30-4 at 1-4.) As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.Com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489-90 (7th Cir. 2007). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews “the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw[s] all reasonable [*7] inferences in that party’s favor.” Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). However, “[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial.” Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 490 (citation omitted). “In much the same way that a court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat the motion for summary judgment, nor is it permitted to conduct a paper trial on the merits of a claim.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotations omitted). “[N]either the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties . . . nor the existence of some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts . . . is sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Grp., Inc., 129 F.3d 391, 395 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “It is equally well settled, however, that where no factual disputes are present or where the undisputed facts demonstrate that one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment in favor of that party is entirely appropriate. Collins v. American Optometric Ass’n, 693 F.2d 636, 639 (7th Cir. 1982).

III. DISCUSSION

Hoosier Heights contends that Wiemer’s signing of the Waiver, which contained an explicit reference waiving liability [*8] for Hoosier Heights’ own negligence, absolves it of any liability and Wiemer expressly acknowledged that falling was a risk inherent in indoor rock climbing. Wiemer responds with two arguments in the alternative. First, he argues that the Waiver misidentifies the released party as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility” because the Defendant’s name, as alleged in the Complaint and as evidenced by the Indiana Secretary of State Certificate of Assumed Business Name, is “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” (Filing No. 67-4.) Second, Wiemer argues that Hoosier Heights negligence in the hiring and training of Mellencamp, was not an included “inherent risk” and this significantly contributed to his fall and injury.

A. Hoosier Heights’ Business Name

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C.’ (Filing No. 30-1 at 1). Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material [*9] fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy creates ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

The Court is not persuaded by Wiemer’s argument. “Release documents shall be interpreted in the same manner as any other contract document, with the intention of the parties regarding the purpose of the document governing.” Huffman v. Monroe County Community School Corp., 588 N.E.2d 1264, 1267 (Ind. 1992). “The meaning of a contract is to be determined from an examination of all of its provisions, not from a consideration of individual words, phrases, or even paragraphs read alone.” Huffman, 588 N.E.2d at 1267. In addition, when a contract is unambiguous, Indiana courts look to the four corners of the document to determine the intentions of the parties. Evan v. Poe & Associates, Inc., 873 N.E.2d 92, 98 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). This analysis of contract interpretation is a question of law. Evans v. Med. & Prof’l Collection Servs., Inc., 741 N.E.2d 795, 797 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).

In Evans, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that a contract was unambiguous that misidentified a business name in the agreement but included the relevant address as that of the business. Evans, 741 N.E.2d at 798. The Evans court found that the plaintiff could not recover payment from the owner, “Evans Ford,” in his personal capacity, even though that was the name indicated in the contract and the actual business [*10] was organized as a corporation under the name of “Evans Lincoln Mercury Ford, Inc.” Id. at 796-98. The court did not resort to extrinsic evidence because the contract unambiguously identified the parties despite the misidentification. See id. at 798.

In this case, the Waiver is unambiguous as to identifying the parties to the agreement. Although the language of the Release and Assumption of Risk paragraph identifies “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility,” the document’s letterhead at the top displays “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing,” and includes the relevant business address of Hoosier Heights where Wiemer visited. Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

B. Negligent Training

Hoosier Heights contends that summary judgment is appropriate because the Waiver’s explicit references to the “inherent risks” of rock climbing creates a binding exculpatory clause which releases Hoosier Heights from liability. Wiemer argues that a genuine issue of material fact exists [*11] regarding whether improper instruction and inadequate training, is an “inherent risk” of indoor rock climbing.

Under Indiana law, waivers containing exculpatory clauses absolving parties of liability for their own negligence must be specific and explicitly refer to waiving that party’s negligence. Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center, 852 N.E.2d 576, 584 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006). Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.” Id. (citing Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998, 1000 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999)).

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume (Filing No. 67 at 10). Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing. Id. Hoosier Heights responds that falls, as indicated by the Waiver, are a specific risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing and that Wiemer specifically waived any claims to injuries from falls by signing the Waiver (Filing No. 68 at 14). Hoosier Heights also contends that Wiemer waived any claims for improper training and instruction [*12] by its’ employees as the Waiver contains an explicit release of Hoosier Heights’ employees for any negligence. Id. at 12.

Hoosier Heights acknowledges that negligence is generally a fact-intensive question; however, it responds that it is entitled to summary judgment because Wiemer waived any claims for liability on the basis of negligence. Id. at 11. Hoosier Heights points the Court to Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center. In Anderson, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the defendant, an equine center, was entitled to summary judgment even though the waiver at issue did not contain a specific and explicit release of the equine center due to its own negligence because the plaintiff’s injury of falling while mounting her horse was a risk inherent in the nature of the activity of horse riding. Anderson, 852 N.E.2d at 581. The plaintiff argued that her injury was due to the equine center’s negligence in caring for, conditioning, and training her horse. The court found that the plaintiff’s injury and resulting damages, including her characterization of the cause of those damages (i.e. conditioning and training of her horse), were risks that were inherent in the nature of horse riding and were exactly those for [*13] which she granted the equine center a release of liability by signing the waiver. Id. at 585.

In the present case, Wiemer signed a specific and explicit Waiver, which released Hoosier Heights from liability due to its own negligence. The Waiver explained that “rock climbing activity” at Hoosier Heights included, among other things,

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…. I understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing.

(Filing No. 30-6 at 1). In addition, a very similarly worded reference to liability from their own negligence is contained in the second paragraph of the ‘Release and Assumption of Risk’ section which states, “It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.” (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) The direct mentions [*14] of Hoosier Heights’ own negligence adheres to the holding set in Powell that an exculpatory clause needs to be specific and explicit in referencing an absolving party’s liability from negligence.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is appropriate.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the Court determines that, based on the undisputed material facts, Hoosier Heights is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Filing No. 29) is GRANTED, and Wiemer’s Complaint is DISMISSED. Final Judgment will issue under a separate order.

SO ORDERED.

Date: 9/15/2017

/s/ Tanya Walton Pratt

TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

United States District Court

Southern District of Indiana