A well-written release is not enough; you have to present it to the participant in a way that the participant knows what they are signing.

Then you have to present the information to the court, so the court clearly sees what the participant saw, same size, same way, same color.

Citation: Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

State: New York; Supreme Court of New York, Kings

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Agreement and Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

A release is not a piece of paper to be written on a whim and thrown on line. Here the court blasted the defendant because the release was presented on-line in a bad way, and it was presented in court in a worse way.

Releases, Indemnification Agreements, Arbitration Agreements, etc., must be noticed to the consumer. Meaning the consumer MUST understand they are signing a legal agreement, they have to them be used online in a way that the consumer or guest has no doubt that they are signing one, and you must be able to prove that.

Besides, New York does not allow the use of a release!

Facts

The plaintiffs were both injured in a Tough Mudder event on the salmon ladder. The plaintiff’s sued and the defendant Tough Mudder answered and filed this motion to compel arbitration. The release contained an arbitration clause.

The release signed by the participants was signed online. The participants went through a registration page, part of which was a window where the release was contained. To read the release, you had to scroll through the window separately from the rest of the page. The release was in a window in the page.

The defendant attempted to prove the release was valid by presenting an affidavit of the Manager of Customer relations and black-and-white copies of the page and a separate copy of the release. The court did not have a copy of the page as it was seen by the participants.

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR. She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action

The box that held the release did not show the entire document unless the reader scrolled through the center window. What the court received in its copy of the page, obviously only showed the small part of the release that was visible when the page was printed.

The agreement was labeled:

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS

Not identified in the heading and located several pages into the release was an arbitration provision.

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

The judge shredded the defense in an efficient point by point denial of the defendant’s defenses for two reasons. They did a lousy job of setting up the documents to be signed online, and they did a worse job of presenting that information to the court.

The court first looked at the motion to compel arbitration. To compel arbitration the party wanting arbitration must:

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate”. When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

Whether or not the online agreement was valid is based on the specific facts of the situation.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user

The court then went into an analysis of the four types of online consumer contracts: “(a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” Each type of agreement has different requirements to be valid.

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services….

The court then found, because the defendants’ document was so bad, that this agreement was a clickwrap agreement. Since the printed copy of the webpage only showed a small part of the release, the court found it could only be a clickwrap agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.

For clickwrap agreements to be valid:

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.”

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation

The court simply found the “plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case.

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ”

For the online agreement to be valid, the agreement must:

First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement. Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.”

The courts review of what was presented to the court was simple and a slam against the defendants.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period.

And then the court piled on the defense for doing a lousy job of presenting the information to the court.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process.

The court stated the important sections of the agreement needed to be identified so anyone reading the agreement would understand the importance of those sections. The court pointed out the heading identified the agreement as a release, but did not identify the agreement as containing an arbitration clause.

The court then slammed the door shut on the release itself because it violated GOL § 5-326.

§ 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

The court threw out both the release, and the arbitration clause within the release. In a footnote, the court stated it’s holding was in line with other decisions.

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

So Now What?

This was not a case where the court wanted to make sure the defendant lost. This was a case where the defendant did a lousy job.

Microsoft gets away with this type of release and online crap because they are offering contracts where damages are the contract value; what you are paying for the software.

When you are dealing with torts, where thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars are on then a simple click or shrink wrap agreement will not suffice.

Create this page in such a way you can show it to the court.

Then have a click at the bottom that states the participant understands they are giving up certain legal rights. Then have the participant click to go to the payment page. The credit card information verifies the participant is who they say they are because of the credit card agreements.

Finally, when you send the person their receipt for signing up for the event, include a paragraph stating they also signed a release and possible a link to the release.

Quit hiding legal documents and put them out there and in front of your participants, guests and customers.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

Scotti and Russo v. Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 63 Misc.3d 843

97 N.Y.S.3d 825

63 Misc.3d 843

Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo, Plaintiffs,

v.

Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated, Defendants.

No. 2019-29098

522905/17

Supreme Court of New York, Kings

March 29, 2019

[97 N.Y.S.3d 828] Plaintiffs were represented by Brandon Michael Cruz THE BONGIORNO LAW FIRM, PLLC. Address

Defendants were represented by Joshua Cash WILSON ELSER MOSKOWITZ EDELMAN & DICKER LLP Address

Opinion

Debra Silber, J.

Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated move for an order, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503(a), to compel arbitration and to stay this action pending resolution of the arbitration proceeding. For the reasons which follow, the motion is denied.

Background and Procedural History

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti (Scotti) and Joseph Russo (Russo) (collectively, plaintiffs) participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter, the TM Event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, “Tough Mudder”) are the business entities that organized the TM Event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017 against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a Verified Answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this Court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM Event when they completed an on-line internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the Manager of Customer Relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated (Affirmation of Joshua Cash, Exhibit C). Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM Event on-line registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event at issue.[1] Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the on-line registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM Event (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D). Best states that, during the on-line registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter, PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F). She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down, read as follows:

“Participant Waiver: Tough Mudder Incorporated

ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS. (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit E).

Best claims the PWCR contained the following “Mediation and Arbitration” provision:

Mediation and Arbitration: In the event of a legal issue, I agree to engage in good faith efforts to mediate any dispute that might arise. Any agreement reached will be formalized by a written contractual agreement at that time. Should the issue not be resolved by mediation, I agree that all disputes, controversies, or claims arising out of my participation in the TM event shall be submitted to binding arbitration in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The costs of such action shall be shared equally by the parties.

I further acknowledge and agree that any question, issue or dispute as to the arbitrability of any dispute, controversy, or claim arising out of my participation in the TM event, will be submitted to an arbitrator in accordance with the applicable rules of the American Arbitration Association then in effect. The Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association are available on-line at http://www.adr.org (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit F).

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM Event. According to Best, the internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR (Cash Affirmation, Exhibit D at ¶ 5). She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM Event (id at ¶ 6). Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the on-line waiver, which included the arbitration clause and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action. In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the web page where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text (Exhibit F to Cash Affirmation). Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

Plaintiffs additionally argue that the arbitration clause in the PWCR is unenforceable because it contains a conflicting provision regarding disputes. Plaintiffs point out that the PWCR contains a clause entitled “Venue and Jurisdiction” located several paragraphs before the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, which states [Exhibit F, Page 3]:

I understand that if legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction and that only the substantive laws of the State in which the TM Event is held shall apply.

Plaintiffs argue that this provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause located many lines of type below it, thereby rendering it void and unenforceable.

Finally, plaintiffs argue that the entire PWCR agreement, including the purported arbitration provision, is unenforceable because the “Waiver of Liability for Ordinary Negligence” clause (on page three of the PWCR as Exhibit F) violates General Obligations Law (GOL) § 5-326, which prohibits contracts between the owner or operator of any “place of amusement or recreation” from exempting such owner or operator from “liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment.” In this regard, plaintiffs contend that Tough Mudder’s operation of the TM Event obstacle course was clearly operated as “a place of amusement or recreation” within the meaning of GOL § 5-326. Since the plaintiffs paid a fee to use the obstacle course and were injured while engaged in that activity, they argue that GOL § 5-326 renders the entire waiver of liability clause, and all remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause, void and unenforceable.

In reply, Tough Mudder points out that the plaintiffs do not dispute that they each did in fact register for the TM Event. In addition, Tough Mudder argues that GOL § 5-326 is not applicable herein and, therefore, does not invalidate the waiver or any other PWCR provision. In this regard, Tough Mudder maintains that the TM Event is distinguishable from the “recreational” activities intended to be covered under the statute, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which Tough Mudder characterizes as being “relaxed and undemanding” activities, which “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation.” Tough Mudder argues that the TM Event is distinguishable from the foregoing activities in that it is “a rigorous and grueling athletic competition that requires proper training and dedication” (Cash Reply Affirmation, at ¶ 8). Tough Mudder further argues that TM Events are “unique to their participants,” and pose risks and challenges exclusive to obstacle courses, thereby rendering such events completely distinct from the recreational activities engaged in by the “general public” as contemplated by GOL § 5-326.

In addition, Tough Mudder points out that the PWCR contains a “Severability” provision which states, in relevant part, as follows:

“I understand and agree that this … Waiver of Liability … is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the state in which the TM Event is held and that if any provision shall be found to be … void, or for any reason unenforceable, then that provision shall be severed from this Agreement and does not affect the validity and enforceability of any remaining provisions.”

[97 N.Y.S.3d 831] In light of the foregoing provision, Tough Mudder argues that, in the event a clause is deemed unenforceable, it does not invalidate any of the remaining provisions of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

Tough Mudder also argues that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause is not contradicted by the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, as the latter clause only mandates arbitration regarding disputes “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM event …” Therefore, Tough Mudder contends that there are clearly certain circumstances when a state or federal trial court would be the appropriate venue for claims that do not arise out of one’s participation in the TM Event. However, since plaintiffs’ claims do arise out of their participation, Tough Mudder maintains that arbitration of this matter is required.

Discussion

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” (God’s Battalion of Prayer Pentecostal Church, Inc. v. Miele Assocs., LLP, 6 N.Y.3d 371, 812 N.Y.S.2d 435, 845 N.E.2d 1265 [2006] [internal quotation marks omitted]; seeMatter of Robert Stigwood Org. [Atlantic Recording Corp.], 83 A.D.2d 123, 126, 443 N.Y.S.2d 726 [1981] ). When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement (seeHarriman Group v. Napolitano, 213 A.D.2d 159, 162, 623 N.Y.S.2d 224 [1995] ). The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (seeSeneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d 211, 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690 [2002]; Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. v. Roseboro, 247 A.D.2d 379, 380, 667 N.Y.S.2d 914 [1998] ). The court must draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. (Nicosia v. Amazon.com Inc., 834 F.3d 220, 229 [2d Cir. 2016] ).

“The creation of online contracts ‘has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract’ ” (Resorb Networks, Inc. v. YouNow.com, 51 Misc.3d 975, 981, 30 N.Y.S.3d 506 [Sup.Ct. N.Y. County 2016] quoting Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 [2d Cir. 2004] ). The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an on-line contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website (seeSchnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 120 [2d Cir. 2012] ). Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user (id. at 120; see Fteja v. Facebook, Inc., 841 F.Supp.2d 829, 833, 835 [S.D.N.Y. 2012]; Starke v. Gilt Groupe, Inc., 2014 WL 1652225, *2, *3, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58006, *6-7 [S.D.N.Y. 2014]; Jerez v. JD Closeouts, LLC, 36 Misc.3d 161, 168, 943 N.Y.S.2d 392 [Nassau Dist. Ct. 2012] ). In Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility” (id. at 35; seeStarke v. Squaretrade, Inc., No. 16-CV-7036 [NGG], 2017 WL 3328236, at *5 [E.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2017], affd 913 F.3d 279 [2d Cir. 2019] ).

In Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F.Supp.3d 359, 394-403 (E.D.N.Y. 2015), the four “general types of online consumer contracts

are identified as (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.” As explained by Judge Weinstein in Berkson:

Browsewrap exists where the online host dictates that assent is given merely by using the site. Clickwrap refers to the assent process by which a user must click “I agree,” but not necessarily view the contract to which she is assenting. Scrollwrap requires users to physically scroll through an internet agreement and click on a separate “I agree” button in order to assent to the terms and conditions of the host website. Sign-in-wrap couples assent to the terms of a website with signing up for use of the site’s services…. (Id. at 394-95). (seeApplebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d 454, 465 [S.D.N.Y. 2017] [applying New York law and denying motion to compel arbitration where notice of contract terms was insufficient to bind plaintiff] ).

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue. However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement. At oral argument, counsel for defendants claimed that it was a scrollwrap agreement, as it was not possible to click “I agree” without scrolling through the agreement, but there is nothing in the record to support this claim.[2]

A party may be bound to a click wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the … agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.” (Serrano v. Cablevision Sys. Corp., 863 F.Supp.2d 157, 164 [E.D.N.Y. 2012]; see alsoWhitt v. Prosper Funding LLC, 15— CV— 136, 2015 WL 4254062, at *4 [S.D.N.Y. July 14, 2015]; Kai Peng v. Uber Techs., Inc., 237 F.Supp.3d 36, 47-48 [E.D.N.Y. 2017]; Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 397). However, as stated by Judge Koeltl in Applebaum v. Lyft, Inc., 263 F.Supp.3d at 466,

“[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a … screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.) … The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous…. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (internal citations omitted)

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation [97 N.Y.S.3d 833] of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 28 [2d Cir. 2002] ). Therefore, issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue (seeApplebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web-based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry (id. ; seeMeyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 [2d Cir. 2017], citing Schnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 124 [2d Cir. 2012] ).

Here, plaintiffs did not have actual notice of the arbitration provision at issue in this case. However, plaintiffs can still be bound by the contractual terms if there is inquiry notice of the terms and plaintiffs “assent[ed] to [the terms] through the conduct that a reasonable person would understand to constitute assent” (Plazza v. Airbnb, Inc., 289 F.Supp.3d 537, 548 [S.D.N.Y. 2018]; see alsoNicosia, 834 F.3d at 233). A person is on inquiry notice if a “reasonably prudent offeree would be on notice of the terms at issue” (Schnabel, 697 F.3d at 120 [” ‘[I]nquiry notice’ is ‘actual notice of circumstances sufficient to put a prudent man upon inquiry’ “] quoting Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 27 n.14 [2d Cir. 2002] ).

As cited in a recent decision, Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 238 F.Supp.3d 475 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) “a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided ‘reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms’ ” (Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 [2d Cir. 2002] [Sotomayor, J.] ). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d 408, 420 [S.D.N.Y. 2016] ). In Meyer, a putative class action claiming price-fixing, the district court found that adequate notice was not given to plaintiff of mandatory arbitration when he registered to use Uber. The screen had a hyperlink to the agreement, but plaintiff did not need to click on it to register as a user. Then, after clicking on it, you needed to click further to read the Terms of Service and the arbitration provision was at the bottom of page seven. This was determined to be a “browsewrap” agreement. The Second Circuit, on appeal,[3] determined that the issue was whether the plaintiff was on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision by virtue of the hyperlink on the screen, under California Law, and determined that adequate notice was given. The panel reversed the district court, finding the motion to compel arbitration should have been granted.

The court further notes that on-line agreements may be revised from time to time, so not only must the court determine whether the party seeking to enforce such an agreement has provided the version seen by the other party at the time the contract was made, but whether the court in any seemingly on point case cited actually rendered its decision based on the same version of the agreement (seePlazza v. Airbnb, 289 F.Supp.3d 537 [S.D.N.Y. 2018] [archived computer code for 2009 sign-up screen provided to court, along with screen shots of Terms of Service] ).

In Berkson, supra, Judge Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, surveying cases from federal courts nationwide, provided a useful set of parameters to guide a court’s inquiry. First, terms of use should not be enforced if a reasonably prudent user would not have had at the very least inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement (Berkson, 97 F.Supp.3d at 401 [citingNguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] ). Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through a hyperlink. Third terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage or tucked away in obscure corners.” Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brings the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable. “When contractual terms as significant as … the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink … with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent” (Meyer v. Kalanick, 200 F.Supp.3d at 421-22 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted] ). A broad exculpatory clause waiving liability for negligence would also certainly qualify as a material term and one that alters a contracting party’s commonly-understood rights.

Here, the court finds that Tough Mudder has failed to establish that the webpage, as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM Event, provided reasonable notice of the relevant term (the arbitration provision) of the PWCR. In fact, Tough Mudder has failed to set forth sufficiently detailed evidence as to how its on-line registration webpage appeared to the plaintiffs, or other users/registrants, during the relevant time period. In this regard, the court finds that the affidavit by Ms. Best holds little evidentiary value, as she does not set forth the basis of her personal knowledge of Tough Mudder’s on-line registration process at the time the plaintiffs registered, or of her familiarity with the applicable computer generated documents (seeGogos v. Modell’s Sporting Goods, Inc., 87 A.D.3d 248, 253-254, 926 N.Y.S.2d 53 [2011] ). Additionally, absent from her affidavit is any indication that she was even employed by Tough Mudder at the relevant time period.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective on-line registration forms (screen shots) submitted by Tough Mudder (Exhibit D) are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screen shots depicting its on-line registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screen shot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms. In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screen shots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms” (Starke v. Squaretrade, Inc., 913 F.3d 279, 289-90 [2d Cir. 2019] citing Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble Inc., 763 F.3d 1171, 1177 [9th Cir. 2014] and Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 23 [2d Cir. 2002] [where court refused to enforce terms of use that “would have become visible to plaintiffs only if they had scrolled to the next screen”] ). Here, Tough Mudder’s submissions with respect to the “design and content” of its website and the relevant terms of the PWCR, especially the arbitration clause, are woefully inadequate.

The court further notes that the initially visible portion of the on-line text box containing the scrollable PWCR has an all-caps header stating: “ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.” However, while this header specifically draws the user’s attention to certain specified provisions (i.e., Assumption of Risk, Waiver of Liability and Indemnity) which appear at the beginning of the document (on pages one and three), it makes no reference to the arbitration provision, which appears on page four of the seven-page PWCR document.

Additionally, the court notes that the “Venue and Jurisdiction” clause, which appears on page three of the PWCR states that if “legal action is brought, the appropriate state or federal trial court for the state in which the TM Event is held has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction….” This provision clearly conflicts with the arbitration clause at issue, which mandates that all claims “arising out of [one’s] participation in the TM Event shall be submitted to binding arbitration….” Given that the plaintiffs would have viewed (in the scrollable text box) the “Venue and Jurisdiction” provision first, the court finds it highly unlikely that they would have been placed on inquiry notice of the arbitration provision, which appeared on a subsequent page in the agreement. As noted above, the party seeking to compel arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists (see Seneca Ins. Co. v. Secure— Southwest Brokerage, 294 A.D.2d at 212, 741 N.Y.S.2d 690), which Tough Mudder has failed to do. Under the circumstances presented here, the court finds that the arbitration provision was not sufficiently conspicuous to place the plaintiffs on inquiry or constructive notice and, therefore, is not enforceable (seeSpecht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d at 32; Applebaum, 263 F.Supp.3d at 465). Further, due to the conflicting provisions regarding litigation and arbitration, the arbitration provision is void due to ambiguity. Accordingly, Tough Mudder’s motion to stay the action and compel arbitration is denied.

General Obligations Law § 5-326

As to plaintiffs’ argument that the waiver and release provision set forth in the PWCR [Exhibit F Page 3] is invalid pursuant to GOL § 5-326, the court agrees. That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid (GOL § 5-326; seeRogowicki v. Troser Mgt., 212 A.D.2d 1035, 623 N.Y.S.2d 47 [1995]; Blanc v. Windham Mtn. Club, 115 Misc.2d 404, 454 N.Y.S.2d 383 [1982], affd 92 A.D.2d 529, 459 N.Y.S.2d 447 [1983] ). The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation (seeLeftow v. Kutsher’s Country Club Corp., 270 A.D.2d 233, 234, 705 N.Y.S.2d 380 [2000] ). Indeed, the nature of the TM Event as described by Tough Mudder — a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training — is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by GOL § 5-326. Furthermore, Tough Mudder’s assertion that, unlike the TM Event, such activities are “relaxed and undemanding” and “do not necessitate any research or physical preparation” is an inaccurate and absurd distinction. Thus, the PWCR’s waiver provision, waiving defendants’ liability for “ordinary negligence” violates GOL § 5-236 and is therefore void (seeGarnett v. Strike Holdings LLC, 64 A.D.3d 419, 882 N.Y.S.2d 115 [2009] [applying § 5— 326 where plaintiff paid a fee to use the recreational facility]; Alibey v. Tough Mudder Inc., 2018 WL 5298473, at *2 [Sup.Ct., Kings County, Oct. 24, 2018]; Hansen v. Tough Mudder, Inc., [Sup Ct Kings Co. 2018, Ind. 515072/15] ).

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, “the court may sever the illegal aspect and enforce the legal one, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.” (Mark Hotel LLC v. Madison Seventy-Seventh LLC, 61 A.D.3d 140, 143, 872 N.Y.S.2d 111 [2009] ). “[W]hether the provisions of a contract are severable depends largely upon the intent of the parties as reflected in the language they employ and the particular circumstantial milieu in which the agreement came into being.” (Matter of Wilson’s Estate, 50 N.Y.2d 59, 65, 427 N.Y.S.2d 977, 405 N.E.2d 220 [1980] ).

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

Conclusion

For the reasons state above, Tough Mudder’s motion to compel arbitration and stay the action is denied.

The parties are directed to appear on May 1, 2019 in the Intake Part for a Preliminary Conference.

The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.

Notes:

[1] It seems defendants conduct similar events all over the United States. There are two other actions pending in Kings County Supreme Court against defendants, and in both actions, defendants motions to compel arbitration were denied, albeit on different grounds.

[2] In any event, as the court states in Meyer v. Uber Tech., Inc., 868 F.3d 66, 76 (2d Cir. 2017).: Classification of web-based contracts alone, however, does not resolve the notice inquiry. See Juliet M. Moringiello and William L. Reynolds, From Lord Coke to Internet Privacy: The Past, Present, and Future of the Law of Electronic Contracting, 72 Md. L.Rev. 452, 466 (2013) (“Whether terms are classified as clickwrap says little about whether the offeree had notice of them.”). Insofar as it turns on the reasonableness of notice, the enforceability of a web based agreement is clearly a fact-intensive inquiry. SeeSchnabel, 697 F.3d at 124.

[3] Meyer v. Uber Techs., Inc., 868 F.3d 66 (2017)


Each state had its landmines on how releases are to be written

In several states, New York as in this case, the land mines might be too many and other options should be explored.

A Tough Mudder event used a release in NY that required arbitration. The Release was thrown out by the court, consequently the requirement for arbitration was thrown out.

Arbitration works to reduce damages; however, you should only use an arbitration clause when you can’t win because you don’t have a release. In every other state other than NY, the arbitration clause might have been a worse decision.

Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

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

Plaintiff: Isha

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Contract

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2018

Facts

The plaintiff was injured in an Urban Mudder event, which appears to be something like a Tough Mudder but in a city? Other than that, there are no facts in the decision.

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

The defendant motioned to have the dispute arbitrated because the contract, the release, required arbitration.

Defendant contends that this dispute should be arbitrated pursuant to the contract be-tween the parties. Typically, arbitration clauses in contracts are regularly enforced and encouraged as a matter of public policy

The plaintiff argued that arbitration was invalid because a NY statute prohibits arbitration of consumer contracts.

Plaintiff further argues that the contract cannot be admitted into evidence pursuant to CPLR 4544 because it involves a consumer transaction and the text of the contract is less than 8-point font. In support of this argument, plaintiff submits the affidavit of Vadim Shtulboym, a paralegal in plaintiff counsel’s office. Mr. Shtulboym states that, based on his work experience, he has determined, with the aid of a scanner and Abobe Acrobat Reader DC, that the contract between the parties is 7-point font. Mr. Shtulboym explains that he came to this conclusion by typing words in 8-point font and 6-point font, and comparing them to the text of the contract, the size of which appeared to be in between the two fonts.

Plaintiff also argued the contract was void because it violated NY Gen. Oblig Law § 5-326.

§ 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

The court found contract violated NY Gen. Oblig Law § 5-326 and was thrown out by the court. Once the agreement was thrown out in its entirety, the arbitration clause was also thrown out.

Two different statutes took the only defenses outside of assumption of the risk and through them out the door.

The court found because there was a dispute, a triable issue of fact, the motion to dismiss failed and the parties would proceed to trial on this fact alone. The size of the type font on the agreement was enough to throw the defendant into the courtroom.

So Now What?

When you have a release, in a state where releases are valid, arbitration clauses usually create a better position for the plaintiff. Most arbitrations do not allow the award of punitive damages or any special damages unless specifically allowed in a statute. However, most arbitrations split the middle and award damages to the plaintiff.

A well written release in a state where releases are upheld the plaintiff gets nothing, or less.

However, in a state like New York or the other states that do not support the use of a release, (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release), you must use an assumption of risk clause. Assumption of the risk is a defense in most states, again, for sporting and recreational activities. An assumption of the risk agreement does not run afoul of any statute that I have discovered or been made aware of and also works for minors who can understand the agreement and the risk.

Assumption of risk clauses can also contain arbitration clauses. When faced with a situation where you do not have the option of using a release, an assumption of the risk clause with an arbitration clause is your best defense position.

Typeface? If the judge can’t read it, your typeface is too small. Always use typeface in your release that is at least 10 pt. and may be larger. Small type face has been a joke for decades in dealing with the fine print in contracts. It is not a reality.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

Isha v. Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

[**1] Isha, Plaintiff, against Tough Mudder Incorporated d/b/a/ Urban Mudder, Defendant. Index Number 512947/2016

512947/2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY

2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4883; 2018 NY Slip Op 32743(U)

September 21, 2018, Decided

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

JUDGES: [*1] DEVIN P. COHEN, Acting Justice, Supreme Court.

OPINION BY: DEVIN P. COHEN

OPINION

DECISION/ORDER

Upon the foregoing papers, defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and plaintiff’s cross-motion for an order denying defendant’s motion and invalidating the Waiver Agreement between the parties, is decided as follows:

Plaintiff brings this action against defendant seeking damages for injuries she sustained when she participated in defendant’s “Urban Mudder” event. Defendant contends that this dispute should be arbitrated pursuant to the contract between the parties. Typically, arbitration clauses in contracts are regularly enforced and encouraged as a matter of public policy (159 MP Corp. v Redbridge Bedford, LLC, 160 AD3d 176, 205, 71 N.Y.S.3d 87 [2d Dept 2018]). Defendant provides a copy of the contract, which states that all disputes between the parties shall be submitted to binding arbitration with the American Arbitration Association.

Plaintiff argues the arbitration contract is invalid pursuant to GBL § 399-c, which prohibits mandatory arbitration in consumer contracts. Defendant contends that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts GBL § 399-c because defendant’s business is involved in interstate commerce (Marino v Salzman, 51 Misc 3d 131[A], 36 N.Y.S.3d 48, 2016 NY Slip Op 50410[U], *1 [App Term, 2d Dept 2016] [**2] ; Ayzenberg v Bronx House Emanuel Campus, Inc. (93 AD3d 607, 608, 941 N.Y.S.2d 106 [1st Dept 2012]). However, defendant provides no evidence from someone with personal knowledge [*2] of this factual claim (cf Marino, 51 Misc 3d 131[A], 36 N.Y.S.3d 48, 2016 NY Slip Op 50410[U], *1 [holding that the FAA preempted GBL § 399-c in that case because an employee of defendant submitted an affidavit wherein he stated that defendant was a multi-state company with business in several states]). Accordingly, defendant has not established that the FAA applies and, as a result, whether the arbitration provision is enforceable here.

Plaintiff further argues that the contract cannot be admitted into evidence pursuant to CPLR 4544 because it involves a consumer transaction and the text of the contract is less than 8-point font. In support of this argument, plaintiff submits the affidavit of Vadim Shtulboym, a paralegal in plaintiff counsel’s office. Mr. Shtulboym states that, based on his work experience, he has determined, with the aid of a scanner and Abobe Acrobat Reader DC, that the contract between the parties is 7-point font. Mr. Shtulboym explains that he came to this conclusion by typing words in 8-point font and 6-point font, and comparing them to the text of the contract, the size of which appeared to be in between the two fonts.

In opposition, defendant submits the affidavit of Johnny Little, the Director of Course and Construction with defendant, who states [*3] that the font used in the contract was 8-point, Times New Roman. Mr. Rosen further states that defendant forwarded a draft of the contract, in Microsoft Word format, to be professionally printed for the event, without any reduction in font size. Accordingly, there is a triable issue of fact as to whether the document is 8-point font.

Finally, plaintiff argues that the waiver of liability clause in her contract with defendant is void because violates N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326, which prohibits contracts between the “owner or operator of [**3] any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” from exempting such owner or operator from “liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment”. Plaintiff does not object to the substance of any other portion of the contract.

Defendant contends that the Urban Mudder event is not a place of amusement or recreation. While the statute does not define these terms, courts have applied them to a range of activities, such as rock climbing (Lee v Brooklyn Boulders, LLC, 156 AD3d 689, 690, 67 N.Y.S.3d 67 [2d Dept 2017]), motocross (Sisino v Is. Motocross of New York, Inc., 41 AD3d 462, 463, 841 N.Y.S.2d 308 [2d Dept 2007]), automobile racing (Knight v Holland, 148 AD3d 1726, 1727, 51 N.Y.S.3d 749 [4th Dept 2017]), sky diving (Nutley v SkyDive the Ranch, 65 AD3d 443, 444, 883 N.Y.S.2d 530 [1st Dept 2009]), spa activities (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 250, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 [1st Dept 2007]), and horseback riding (Filson v Cold Riv. Trail Rides Inc., 242 AD2d 775, 776, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 [3d Dept 1997]).

Defendant’s attempt [*4] to distinguish the Urban Mudder event from these activities is unavailing. As an initial matter, defendant counsel’s description of the event holds no evidentiary value, as counsel does not establish his personal knowledge of these events. Secondly, even if this court were to accept counsel’s description, the event’s “rigorous” and “athletic” nature is no different than the other activities listed above. Furthermore, counsel’s assertion that these other applicable activities did not require “physical preparation” is simply baseless. Accordingly, this court finds that the contract’s waiver of negligence liability violates N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326.

[**4] For the foregoing reasons, defendant’s motion to compel arbitration is denied and plaintiff’s cross-motion is granted to the extent that the contract’s waiver of negligence liability is deemed void.

This constitutes the decision and order of the court.

September 21, 2018

DATE

/s/ Devin P. Cohen

DEVIN P. COHEN

Acting Justice, Supreme Court


Have you ever read your insurance policy? You should! The one at issue in this case specifically excluded the risks the policy was bought to cover.

An event organizer of a 5K Extreme Rampage purchased an insurance policy that specifically excluded coverage for a 5K run with obstacles, mud runs and tough-guy races.

Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp., 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447

State: Kentucky, Court of Appeals of Kentucky

Plaintiff: Chris Johnson D/B/A Extreme Rampage, and Chris Johnson, and Christopher Johnson, Rampage LLC, Christopher Johnson D/B/A Rampage, LLC, and/or Extreme Rampage, Casey Arnold, Individually and as Administratrix Of the Estate of Chad Arnold, and as Next Friend and Guardian/ Conservator for Miles Arnold, and as Assignee for All Claims Held By “The Johnson Parties

Defendant: Capitol Specialty Insurance Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence; violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act; fraud; and breach of contract

Defendant Defenses:

Holding:

Year: 2018

Summary

Insurance litigation about a claim for an event, service, trip or liability is much costlier and time-consuming than any litigation concerning an injury.

In this case, the event owner and organizer of a mud run obstacle course in Kentucky purchased insurance for the event, which excluded all coverage needed for the event. Effectively, the plaintiff in this case paid for paper that had no value.

The trial courts and the appellate court agreed with the insurance company because the exclusions were in the policy that was available to the insured prior to the event.

Facts

The plaintiff in this appeal created an owned a mud run obstacle course the Extreme Rampage. Johnson the individual created Extreme Rampage LLC, which then organized and ran the event.

The event was a 3K obstacle race, similar if not identical to mud runs, death races, etc., The race was to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park. The horse park required a $1 million-dollar policy covering them.

Johnson contacted an insurance agent over the phone who completed an application and sent it off. A quote was received and accepted. The cost was $477.00, which should have been the first clue; it was too cheap. The only part of the application or proposal that Johnson saw was the “subjectivities page” which stated the policy was to be issued after a list of things were verified. The items to be verified list things as rallies, cattle drives, etc., but did not list obstacle course, running events or the like.

When the policy was issued it contained two exclusions. The first was labeled the sponsor exclusion by the court and stated:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY

EXCLUSION — ATHLETIC OR SPORTS PARTICIPANTS

This endorsement modifies insurance provided under the following:

COMMERCIAL GENERAL LIABILITY COVERAGE PART.

SCHEDULE

Description of Operations:

Special event — 5K run with obstacles.

. . .

With respect to any operations shown in the Schedule, this insurance does not apply to “bodily injury” to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.

And the second exclusion labeled by the court as the participant exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY EXCLUSION — PARTICIPANTS

(SPECIFIED ACTIVITIES/OPERATIONS)

SCHEDULE

Descriptions of Activity/Operations

Mud Runs and Tough Guy Races

This insurance does not apply to “bodily injury,” “property damage,” “personal or advertising injury” or medical expense arising out of any preparation for or participation in any of the activities or operations shown in the schedule above.

During the race, one of the participants collapsed and died. His wife sued. The insurance company denied coverage. That means the insurance company was not only not going to pay the claim, they were not going to pay for attorneys to defend the case.

The Insurance Company filed a declaratory action. This lawsuit was between Johnson, the policyholder and the insurance company where the insurance company was looking for a ruling stating it had no duty to provide coverage. This is a request for immediate decision from the court on the interpretation of the policy.

Johnson, the insured and Arnold the family of the deceased participant both filed suit against the insurance company. The trial court combined the two lawsuits into one. Both filed motions for summary judgment and the insurance company filed its motion for summary judgment.

After reading the exclusions, the policy only covered spectators at the event. The spectators had to be 100′ from the event so any spectator injured that was closer than 100′ to the event could sue, and Johnson would have no coverage for that claim either. Basically, the policy was a worthless piece of paper for the event.

The trial court granted the insurance companies motion for summary judgment, and this appeal ensued. Both Johnson and the Arnold family appealed.

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

Insurance policies have their own set of laws. Even though they are contracts, after the contract is formed, new ways of interpreting a policy are created.

One such rule is any ambiguity in the policy will be ruled or interpreted against the insurance company. Since policies are presented as a take it or leave it contract, any mistakes in the contract are ruled so the policy holder wins.

The first claim is a quasi-fraud claim based on the lack of information concerning the exclusions. The court looked at this more as a situation where the event organizer did not read the policy.

Johnson cannot avoid the terms of the insurance contract by pleading ignorance of its contents. It is axiomatic that “insured persons are charged with knowledge of their policy’s contents.

Because Johnson signed the policy (? Application not the policy, in reality) Johnson was held to the terms of the policy.

Although Johnson claims, based on his interaction with Delre, that the terms of the policy were not what he had anticipated, no genuine issue of material fact exists that Johnson signed the policy and, as a matter of law, was presumed to know its contents.

The next argument was the insurance agent the event organizer worked with was an agent of the insurance company Capitol. As such, the agents could be liable and the agents could create liability for Capitol. An agency is created when the principal, the insurance company, grants specific authority to the agent.

“Actual authority arises from a direct, intentional granting of specific authority from a principal to an agent.” The Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.02(1) (2006) provides that “[a]n agent has actual authority to take action designated or implied in the principal’s manifestations to the agent and acts necessary or incidental to achieving the principal’s objectives, as the agent reasonably understands the principal’s manifestations and objectives when the agent determines how to act.”

However, there was no evidence in the record to show any agency between the insurance sales person and the insurance company, even though the sales person is called an agent.

The next argument was over the language in the policy. The event organizer argued the exclusion should not apply because the term “sponsor” was ambiguous.

Exclusions in insurance contracts are to be narrowly interpreted, and all questions resolved in favor of the insured. Exceptions and exclusions are to be strictly construed so as to render the insurance effective. Any doubt as to the coverage or terms of a policy should be resolved in favor of the insured. And since the policy is drafted in all details by the insurance company, it must be held strictly accountable for the language used.

After narrowly interpreting the policy, any ambiguity in the language of the policy must be interpreted in favor of the policy holder and against the insurance company.

…[t]he rule of strict construction against an insurance company certainly does not mean that every doubt must be resolved against it and does not interfere with the rule that the policy must receive a reasonable interpretation consistent with the parties’ object and intent or narrowly expressed in the plain meaning and/or language of the contract. Neither should a nonexistent ambiguity be utilized to resolve a policy against the company. We consider that courts should not rewrite an insurance contract to enlarge the risk to the insurer.

However, the court found the term in this case, was not ambiguous.

The event organizer then argued that the Concurrent Proximate Cause Doctrine should apply in this case. The concurrent proximate cause doctrine holds that when an insured event flows from an insured event, the protection afforded by the insurance policy flows with to the new event.

Where the loss is essentially caused by an insured peril with the contribution of an excluded peril merely as part of the chain of events leading to the loss, there is coverage under the policy. Stated alternately, coverage will exist where a covered and noncovered peril join to cause the loss provided that the covered peril is the efficient and dominant cause.

The court found that there was no insured event to begin with so nothing could “flow” to the uninsured event.

The appellate court upheld the motion in the declaratory action by the trial court stating the insurance company Capitol had no duty to defend the event organizer Johnson and thus any liability to the Arnold family.

So Now What?

This is simple. You MUST do the following things if you are the owners, sponsor, organizer or insured with an insurance policy.

  1. Read it
  2. Understand it
  3. Make sure it covers what you need it to cover.
  4. Find an agent who understands what you need and can communicate that to all the insurance companies he may be working with.
    1. If that means getting the insurance company out from behind their desk and down the river, to an event, or in your factory do that.
  5. Always confirm in writing or electronically that the coverage you requested and need is covered in the policy you are purchasing.
  6. Ask to see the policy and any exclusions, prerequisites or other requirements before paying for it. Once you open your wallet, you won’t get your money back.
  7. If the price of the policy is too good to be true, start investigating. On average a policy should cost $5 to $10 per person per day for outdoor recreation coverage. That amount is the bottom line and can go beyond that. If you are purchasing a policy at 1980 prices $2.00 per person per day, you are buying worthless paper.

You cannot be in business without an insurance policy. Contrary to popular believe, insurance policies do not attract lawsuits. How do people know if you are insured? If they do not know you are insured, how can someone decided to sue just because you have money.

If for no other reason, you need a policy that will pay to prove you are right. The attorney fees, court costs, exhibits, witness fees alone on a small case will exceed $50K. That means with no policy or a bad policy, you are out $50 to $100K before you even begin to pay a claim.

Insurance policies are difficult. I spent six years, three before and three after working for Nationwide Insurance. Reading a policy, let alone understanding it is mind numbing and hard. But you better or you will be standing in the cold, because someone took your house.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp., 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447

Johnson v. Capitol Specialty Ins. Corp.

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

June 22, 2018, Rendered

NO. 2017-CA-000171-MR, NO. 2017-CA-000172-MR

Reporter

2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447 *; 2018 WL 3090503CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE (COLLECTIVELY KNOWN AS “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”) BY AND THROUGH ASSIGNEE CASEY ARNOLD, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE;CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE

Notice: THIS OPINION IS DESIGNATED “NOT TO BE PUBLISHED.” PURSUANT TO THE RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE PROMULGATED BY THE SUPREME COURT, CR 76.28(4)(C), THIS OPINION IS NOT TO BE PUBLISHED AND SHALL NOT BE CITED OR USED AS BINDING PRECEDENT IN ANY OTHER CASE IN ANY COURT OF THIS STATE; HOWEVER, UNPUBLISHED KENTUCKY APPELLATE DECISIONS, RENDERED AFTER JANUARY 1, 2003, MAY BE CITED FOR CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT IF THERE IS NO PUBLISHED OPINION THAT WOULD ADEQUATELY ADDRESS THE ISSUE BEFORE THE COURT. OPINIONS CITED FOR CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT SHALL BE SET OUT AS AN UNPUBLISHED DECISION IN THE FILED DOCUMENT AND A COPY OF THE ENTIRE DECISION SHALL BE TENDERED ALONG WITH THE DOCUMENT TO THE COURT AND ALL PARTIES TO THE ACTION.

Prior History:  [*1] APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT. HONORABLE KIMBERLY N. BUNNELL, JUDGE. ACTION NOS. 14-CI-00948 & 15-CI-00777. APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT. HONORABLE KIMBERLY N. BUNNELL, JUDGE. ACTION NOS. 14-CI-00948 & 15-CI-00777.

Counsel: BRIEFS FOR APPELLANTS, CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE: Don A. Pisacano, Lexington, Kentucky.

BRIEFS FOR APPELLANTS, CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”: A. Neal Herrington, Christopher H. Morris, Louisville, Kentucky.

BRIEFS FOR APPELLEE, CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION: Richard J. Rinear, Zachary D. Bahorik, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Judges: BEFORE: CLAYTON, CHIEF JUDGE; MAZE AND THOMPSON, JUDGES. MAZE, JUDGE, CONCURS. THOMPSON, JUDGE, CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY.

Opinion by: CLAYTON

Opinion

AFFIRMING

CLAYTON, CHIEF JUDGE: These consolidated appeals1 are taken from a Fayette Circuit Court order entering declaratory summary judgment in favor of Capitol Specialty Insurance Corporation. The primary issue is whether a [*2]  general commercial liability insurance policy issued by Capitol covers potential damages stemming from the death of a participant in an obstacle race, or whether exclusions in the policy bar recovery.

The obstacle race, known as “Extreme Rampage,” was organized and presented by Chris Johnson, the owner of Rampage, LLC. The 5K race, which included a climbing wall and mud pits, was held at the Kentucky Horse Park on March 2, 2013. Under the terms of his contract with the Horse Park, Johnson was required to “provide public liability insurance issued by a reputable company, which shall cover both participants and spectators with policy coverage of one million dollars ($1,000,000.00) minimum for each bodily injury[.]”

Johnson purchased the policy from Stephen Delre, an insurance agent employed at the Tim Hamilton Insurance Agency (“THIA”). Delre filled out an application for insurance on Johnson’s behalf and submitted it to Insurance Intermediaries, Inc. (“III”). III submitted the application to Capitol. Capitol prepared a proposal for coverage which III gave to THIA. Johnson accepted the proposal and III produced the policy based upon the terms offered by Capitol.

The policy contained two [*3]  provisions excluding bodily injury to the event participants from its coverage. For purposes of this opinion, the exclusions will be referred to as the “sponsor” exclusion and the “arising out of” exclusion.

The sponsor exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY

EXCLUSION — ATHLETIC OR SPORTS PARTICIPANTS

This endorsement modifies insurance provided under the following:

COMMERCIAL GENERAL LIABILITY COVERAGE PART.

SCHEDULE

Description of Operations:

Special event — 5K run with obstacles.

. . .

With respect to any operations shown in the Schedule, this insurance does not apply to “bodily injury” to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.

The participant exclusion provided as follows:

THIS ENDORSEMENT CHANGES THE POLICY. PLEASE READ IT CAREFULLY EXCLUSION — PARTICIPANTS

(SPECIFIED ACTIVITIES/OPERATIONS)

SCHEDULE

Descriptions of Activity/Operations

Mud Runs and Tough Guy Races

This insurance does not apply to “bodily injury,” “property damage,” “personal or advertising injury” or medical expense arising out of any preparation for or participation in any of the activities or operations [*4]  shown in the schedule above.

During the course of the Extreme Rampage race, one of the participants, Chad Arnold, collapsed and died. His wife, Casey Arnold, acting individually, as the administratrix of his estate and as guardian/conservator for their minor son Miles (“Arnold”), filed a wrongful death suit naming numerous defendants, including Johnson. Johnson sought defense and indemnity under the Capitol policy. Capitol denied coverage and filed a declaratory judgment complaint in Fayette Circuit Court on March 17, 2014, asserting it had no duty to defend or indemnify Johnson because the policy expressly excluded coverage for event participants.

Johnson and Arnold subsequently filed a complaint in a different division of Fayette Circuit Court against Capitol, THIA, Delre, and III, asserting claims of negligence; violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act and the Unfair Claims Settlement Practices Act; fraud; and breach of contract. On April 15, 2015, the two actions were consolidated by court order. Johnson and Arnold filed a motion for summary judgment; Capitol filed a motion for summary declaratory judgment. The trial court held extensive hearings on the motions and thereafter [*5]  entered an order granting Capitol’s motion and dismissing with prejudice all claims asserted against Capitol by Johnson and Arnold. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary later in this opinion.

In granting summary declaratory judgment to Capitol, the trial court held that that the policy issued by Capitol to Johnson excluded coverage to the Johnson defendants for the underlying claims of the Arnold defendants because the sponsor exclusion was clear and unambiguous and the Johnson defendants are a “sponsor” within the plain meaning of the word as used in the exclusion. The trial court further held that, as a matter of law, neither the concurrent proximate cause doctrine nor the efficient proximate cause doctrine applies to afford coverage under the policy to the Johnson defendants for the claims of the Arnold defendants; that neither Delre nor THIA is an agent of any kind of Capitol; and finally, that no other oral or written contract modified and/or superseded the policy to afford coverage by Capitol.

These appeals by Johnson and Arnold followed.

In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, our inquiry focuses on “whether the trial court correctly found that there were no genuine [*6]  issues as to any material fact and that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Scifres v. Kraft, 916 S.W.2d 779, 781, 43 1 Ky. L. Summary 17 (Ky. App. 1996) (citing Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (CR) 56.03). Summary judgment may be granted when “as a matter of law, it appears that it would be impossible for the respondent to produce evidence at the trial warranting a judgment in his favor and against the movant.” Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Serv. Ctr., Inc., 807 S.W.2d 476, 483 (Ky. 1991) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The record must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment and all doubts are to be resolved in his favor.” Id. at 480. On the other hand, “a party opposing a properly supported summary judgment motion cannot defeat it without presenting at least some affirmative evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial.” Id. at 482. “An appellate court need not defer to the trial court’s decision on summary judgment and will review the issue de novo because only legal questions and no factual findings are involved.” Hallahan v. The Courier-Journal, 138 S.W.3d 699, 705 (Ky. App. 2004).

We have grouped the Appellants’ arguments into the following six categories: first, that the terms of the policy do not reflect what Johnson requested from Delre; second, that Delre and THIA were actual or apparent agents of Capitol whose alleged misrepresentations [*7]  or omissions to Johnson about the policy bound their principal; third, that neither the “sponsor” exclusion nor the “arising out of” exclusion in the policy was applicable; fourth, that the exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy when read with the coverage endorsements; fifth, that the concurrent proximate cause doctrine provides coverage under the policy; and sixth, that the trial court erred in dismissing all claims against Capitol.

1. The purchase of the policy

Johnson denies that the insurance policy attached to Capitol’s declaratory judgment complaint is a true and accurate copy of the policy he purchased and admits only that the document attached to the complaint is the document he received in the mail after he had paid for the policy.

According to deposition testimony, Johnson first spoke with Delre about obtaining insurance coverage for the Extreme Rampage event in a telephone conversation in December 2012. Johnson had purchased an insurance policy for a similar race event from Delre approximately six months earlier. Delre questioned Johnson about the type of coverage he was seeking. Johnson was unaware that Delre was simultaneously filling out a “special event” insurance [*8]  application. According to Johnson, he told Delre he needed participant coverage and Delre specifically asked him how many participants would be involved in the event. Delre nonetheless left blank on the “special event” application form whether athletic participant coverage was requested. Delre signed Johnson’s name to the application for insurance without Johnson reviewing the document. After the insurance application was submitted, Delre sent a proposal to Johnson which he claims he never received.

On February 8, 2013, Johnson visited Delre and THIA’s office to pay for the policy in the amount of $477. He signed a “subjectivities page” which stated that the policy quote was subject to verification of the following:

No events involving the following: abortion rights, pro choice or right-to-life rallies/parades or gatherings, air shows or ballooning events, auto racing regardless of vehicle size (including go-karts, motorcycles and snowmobiles), cattle drives, events involving inherently dangerous or stunting activities, events with water rides/slides etc., political demonstrations or protest rallies by groups with a history of violent incidents, [n]o events with fireworks displays. AND [*9]  — Spectators must be a safe distance (100 feet minimum) from the obstacle course.

Johnson was not shown the actual policy, nor was he informed of the participation exclusions in the insurance proposal.

A copy of the complete policy containing the “sponsor” exclusion and the “arising out of” exclusion was mailed to Johnson on February 27, 2013. Johnson asserts that the policy did not conform to what he agreed to in his conversation with Delre and that he was never informed that participants would be excluded from coverage. He points out that the policy was also later unilaterally modified by Delre after the Horse Park requested a certificate of insurance indicating that it was an “additional insured” on the policy.

Johnson cannot avoid the terms of the insurance contract by pleading ignorance of its contents. It is axiomatic that “insured persons are charged with knowledge of their policy’s contents[.]” Bidwell v. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co., 367 S.W.3d 585, 592 (Ky. 2012) (citing National Life & Accident Ins. Co. v. Ransdell, 259 Ky. 559, 82 S.W.2d 820, 823 (1935)). “In Midwest Mutual Insurance Company v. Wireman, 54 S.W.3d 177 (Ky. App. 2001), the Court of Appeals held an insured can waive UM coverage by signing the application for liability coverage, even if the insured alleges the agent never explained the meaning of UM coverage to him.” Moore v. Globe Am. Cas. Co., 208 S.W.3d 868, 870 (Ky. 2006). “All persons are presumed to know the law and the mere lack of knowledge [*10]  of the contents of a written contract for insurance cannot serve as a legal basis for avoiding its provisions.” Id. (internal quotation and citation omitted).

Although Johnson claims, based on his interaction with Delre, that the terms of the policy were not what he had anticipated, no genuine issue of material fact exists that Johnson signed the policy and, as a matter of law, was presumed to know its contents. The trial court did not err in ruling that there was no genuine issue of material fact concerning the policy and that no other oral or written contract modified or superseded the policy to afford coverage to Johnson for Arnold’s claims.

2. Were Delre and THIA agents of Capitol

Arnold seeks to hold Capitol liable for any omissions or misrepresentations of Delre and THIA by arguing that they were Capitol’s actual or apparent agents. “Under common law principles of agency, a principal is vicariously liable for damages caused by torts of commission or omission of an agent or subagent, . . . acting on behalf of and pursuant to the authority of the principal.” Williams v. Kentucky Dep’t of Educ., 113 S.W.3d 145, 151 (Ky. 2003), as modified (Sept. 23, 2003) (internal citations omitted).

“Actual authority arises from a direct, intentional granting of [*11]  specific authority from a principal to an agent.” Kindred Healthcare, Inc. v. Henson, 481 S.W.3d 825, 830 (Ky. App. 2014). The Restatement (Third) of Agency § 2.02(1) (2006) provides that “[a]n agent has actual authority to take action designated or implied in the principal’s manifestations to the agent and acts necessary or incidental to achieving the principal’s objectives, as the agent reasonably understands the principal’s manifestations and objectives when the agent determines how to act.” Kentucky’s Insurance Code provides that “[a]ny insurer shall be liable for the acts of its agents when the agents are acting in their capacity as representatives of the insurer and are acting within the scope of their authority.” Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 304.9-035.

There is no evidence in the record that Capitol made a direct, intentional grant of authority to THIA and Delre to act as its agents or representatives; nor is there evidence that Capitol made any manifestations of its objectives to THIA or Delre with the expectation that they would act to achieve those objectives. Furthermore, as elicited in the hearing before the trial court, Capitol does not have a written agreement with THIA or Delre establishing them as its agents nor is there a registration or filing with the Kentucky Department of Insurance designating them as licensed [*12]  agents of Capitol. By contrast, Delre and THIA are registered, authorized agents of Nationwide Insurance in Kentucky and Johnson actually believed he would be purchasing a Nationwide policy from Delre.

As evidence of an actual agency relationship, Arnold points to the fact that THIA and Capitol both have contracts with III, the intermediary brokerage company which sent Johnson’s application for insurance to Capitol, seeking a policy proposal. The existence of contracts with the same third party was not sufficient in itself to create an actual agency relationship between THIA and Delre and Capitol. Capitol prepared the insurance proposal in reliance on the information contained in the application submitted by III; Capitol had no contact with or control over Delre or THIA. Consequently, Capitol could not be bound by what Johnson believed Delre had promised.

Similarly, there is no evidence that THIA and Delre were apparent agents of Capitol. “Apparent authority . . . is not actual authority but is the authority the agent is held out by the principal as possessing. It is a matter of appearances on which third parties come to rely.” Mark D. Dean, P.S.C. v. Commonwealth Bank & Tr. Co., 434 S.W.3d 489, 499 (Ky. 2014) (quoting Mill St. Church of Christ v. Hogan, 785 S.W.2d 263, 267 (Ky. App. 1990)). “One who represents that another is his servant [*13]  or other agent and thereby causes a third person justifiably to rely upon the care or skill of such apparent agent is subject to liability to the third person for harm caused by the lack of care or skill of the one appearing to be a servant or other agent as if he were such.” Paintsville Hosp. Co. v. Rose, 683 S.W.2d 255, 257 (Ky. 1985) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Agency § 267 (1958)).

The only representations made to Johnson by Capitol were in the form of the proposal and written policy he signed. Capitol never held out Delre and THIA as its agents. Johnson admitted he had no contact with Capitol whatsoever and did not even know the policy he purchased was provided by Capitol until after the Extreme Rampage event.

The trial court did not err in holding that no agency relationship, actual or apparent, existed between Capitol and Delre and THIA.

3. Applicability of the policy exclusions

The trial court ruled that the “sponsor” exclusion was clear and unambiguous and the Johnson defendants were a “sponsor” within the plain meaning of the word as it was used in the exclusion. The Appellants disagree, arguing that the multiple definitions of the term “sponsor,” which is not defined in the policy, render it ambiguous.

“Interpretation and construction of an insurance contract is a matter [*14]  of law for the court.” Kemper Nat’l Ins. Companies v. Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., 82 S.W.3d 869, 871 (Ky. 2002). Exclusions in insurance contracts

are to be narrowly interpreted and all questions resolved in favor of the insured. Exceptions and exclusions are to be strictly construed so as to render the insurance effective. Any doubt as to the coverage or terms of a policy should be resolved in favor of the insured. And since the policy is drafted in all details by the insurance company, it must be held strictly accountable for the language used.

Eyler v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 824 S.W.2d 855, 859-60 (Ky. 1992) (internal citations omitted).

On the other hand,

[t]he rule of strict construction against an insurance company certainly does not mean that every doubt must be resolved against it and does not interfere with the rule that the policy must receive a reasonable interpretation consistent with the parties’ object and intent or narrowly expressed in the plain meaning and/or language of the contract. Neither should a nonexistent ambiguity be utilized to resolve a policy against the company. We consider that courts should not rewrite an insurance contract to enlarge the risk to the insurer.

St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Powell-Walton-Milward, Inc., 870 S.W.2d 223, 226-27 (Ky. 1994).

The Appellants rely on an opinion of the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Sciolla v. West Bend Mut. Ins. Co., 987 F. Supp. 2d 594 (E.D. Pa. 2013) which held an identical insurance exclusion [*15]  to be inapplicable after concluding the term “sponsor” is ambiguous due to the lack of a universally accepted definition of the term by dictionaries and the courts. Sciolla, 987 F. Supp. 2d at 603. The Sciolla court assembled the following dictionary definitions of “sponsor:”

The full definition given by Merriam-Webster is: “a person or an organization that pays for or plans and carries out a project or activity; especially: one that pays the cost of a radio or television program usually in return for advertising time during its course.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1140 (9th ed. 1983). . . .

. . . [T]he American Heritage Dictionary defines sponsor, in relevant part, as “[o]ne that finances a project or an event carried out by another person or group, especially a business enterprise that pays for radio or television programming in return for advertising time.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1679, (4th ed., 2009). Other dictionaries defines sponsor as “[o]ne that finances a project or an event carried out by another,” The American Heritage College Dictionary, 1315 (3d ed. 1993), or, as a verb, “to pay or contribute towards the expenses of a radio or television program, a performance, [*16]  or other event or work in return for advertising space or rights.” Oxford English Dictionary, 306 (2d ed. 1989).

Id. at 602.

The Sciolla court grouped the definitions into two categories: “The first concept is that of a person or an organization that pays for a project or activity. . . . The second concept is of a person or an organization that plans and carries out a project or activity.” Id. (italics in original).

As recognized by the Sciolla court, in order to be found ambiguous, a term with multiple definitions must be subject to more than one interpretation when applied to the facts of the case before it. Id. at 603. “Because a word has more than one meaning does not mean it is ambiguous. The sense of a word depends on how it is being used; only if more than one meaning applies within that context does ambiguity arise.” Board of Regents of Univ. of Minnesota v. Royal Ins. Co. of Am., 517 N.W.2d 888, 892 (Minn. 1994). As the United States Supreme Court has observed in the context of statutory interpretation, “[a]mbiguity is a creature not of definitional possibilities but of statutory context[.]” Brown v. Gardner, 513 U.S. 115, 118, 115 S. Ct. 552, 555, 130 L. Ed. 2d 462 (1994).

It is the Appellants’ position that Johnson did not “sponsor” the Extreme Rampage but actually organized, promoted, and ran the event. In his deposition, Johnson stated that he was not a “sponsor” of the [*17]  Extreme Rampage event but that he “owned” the event, and that he actually discovered Delre and THIA while seeking sponsorships for Rampage events. Delre in his deposition confirmed that Johnson asked him to be a sponsor. When he was asked how he got started funding Rampage, LLC, Johnson replied “Sponsorships and my own pocket.” Thus, the evidence indicates that Johnson helped to fund Extreme Rampage and also planned and carried it out. There is no evidence that he financed a project carried out by another or that he paid for the project in exchange for advertising space.

The fact that Johnson’s actions do not meet each and every one of the multiple definitions of “sponsor” does not render the term ambiguous, however, when the term is viewed in the context of the language of the exclusion, which applies to “bodily injury to any person while practicing for or participating in any sports or athletic contest or exhibition that you sponsor.” (Emphasis added.)

The policy provides the following definition of “you”: “Throughout this policy the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ refer to the Named Insured shown in the declarations, and any other person or organization qualifying as a Named Insured under [*18]  this policy. The words ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ refer to the company providing this insurance.” Thus, Johnson, the Named Insured, is “you.” When the term “sponsor” is viewed within the context of an insurance policy covering one discrete event sponsored by the Named Insured, Johnson, it was plainly intended to refer to Johnson and to the specific Extreme Rampage event he was sponsoring.

The Appellants argue that the trial court did not have the right to choose which of the multiple competing definitions of sponsor applied. When viewed in the context of the exclusion, however, the definition is plainly limited to the sponsorship activities of the Name Insured, Johnson.

Because the trial court did not err in holding that the “sponsor” exclusion is applicable, we need not address the validity of the “arising out of” exclusion.

4. The applicability of the concurrent proximate cause doctrine

Johnson argues that even if the policy exclusions apply, the concurrent proximate cause doctrine provides coverage under the policy. Johnson contends that the doctrine was adopted by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Travelers Indem. Co. of Am., 233 S.W.3d 197, 203 (Ky. App. 2007). Reynolds is an opinion of the Court of Appeals, and it did not officially adopt the doctrine; [*19]  it approved of the reasoning in a case from our sister state in Bowers v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 99 Wash. App. 41, 991 P.2d 734 (2000), which applied the “efficient proximate cause doctrine.” Reynolds, 233 S.W.3d at 203.

The doctrine holds that

Where the loss is essentially caused by an insured peril with the contribution of an excluded peril merely as part of the chain of events leading to the loss, there is coverage under the policy. Stated alternately, coverage will exist where a covered and noncovered peril join to cause the loss provided that the covered peril is the efficient and dominant cause.

10A Couch on Insurance 3d § 148:61 (2005).

Applying the doctrine, Johnson argues that even if Chad Arnold’s participation in the race was an excluded peril, the loss was essentially caused by a peril that was insured. He contends that the allegations of Arnold’s complaint, such as failure to provide reasonable medical treatment; failure to plan and have proper policies and procedures; and failure to train, instruct, and supervise are not predicated upon a cause of action or risk that is excluded under the policy. He points to the affidavit of a doctor who reviewed Chad Arnold’s medical records and post-mortem examination and concluded that he died of a pre-existing heart condition unconnected [*20]  with his participation in the race.

This argument ignores the fact that the “sponsor” exclusion does not reference causation or a specific “peril”; it merely excludes participants in the covered event from recovery for bodily injury, whatever the cause. It does not require a finding that the bodily injury was caused by participation in the event.

We agree with the reasoning of the federal district court for the Western District of Kentucky, which addressed a factually-similar situation involving a student who collapsed and died while practicing for his college lacrosse team. Underwriters Safety & Claims, Inc. v. Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of Am., 152 F. Supp. 3d 933 (W.D. Ky. 2016), aff’d on other grounds, 661 F. App’x 325 (6th Cir. 2016). The college’s insurance policy contained an exclusion for athletic participants. The plaintiffs argued that the allegations of their complaint were focused on the college’s failure to provide pre-participation medical forms to physicians who examined the student and on the college’s failure to render proper medical treatment. The district court described these arguments as “red herrings” that attempted “to re-contextualize the fatal injury as a result of medical malpractice or concurrently caused by medical malpractice and engagement in athletic activity.” Underwriters, 152 F. Supp. 3d at 937. The complaint filed by the [*21]  student’s estate “did not seek redress for a bodily injury that occurred during pre-participation athletic medical screenings. The policy specifically excludes bodily injury while engaged in athletic or sports activities. Passfield [the student] was engaged in such an activity at the time of the injury. While the Court liberally construes insurance policies in favor of the insured, the Court also strictly construes exclusions. This is an instance of the latter.” Id. Similarly, in the case before us, the exclusion applies specifically to bodily injury while participating in the Extreme Rampage. The exclusion does not require a causal link between the participation and the injury to apply. There is no genuine issue of fact that Chad Arnold was a participant in the race and that, as the complaint alleges, “during the course of the event, the decedent collapsed, consciously suffered for an undetermined amount of time, and died.”

5. Do the two exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy

Johnson further argues that the two exclusions create an ambiguity in the policy when read in conjunction with two coverage endorsements. Johnson claims that the “Combination Endorsement-Special Events” and [*22]  the “Limitation-Classification Endorsement” provide unfettered coverage while the two exclusions limit coverage, thus creating an ambiguity. Johnson’s brief gives no reference to the record to show where the endorsements are found, nor does it indicate when or how the trial court addressed this issue. CR 76.12(4)(c)(v) requires an appellate brief to contain “ample supportive references to the record and . . . a statement with reference to the record showing whether the issue was properly preserved for review and, if so, in what manner.” The purpose of this requirement “is so that we, the reviewing Court, can be confident the issue was properly presented to the trial court and therefore, is appropriate for our consideration.” Oakley v. Oakley, 391 S.W.3d 377, 380 (Ky. App. 2012). “[E]rrors to be considered for appellate review must be precisely preserved and identified in the lower court.” Skaggs v. Assad, 712 S.W.2d 947, 950 (Ky. 1986). We are simply “without authority to review issues not raised in or decided by the trial court.” Regional Jail Authority v. Tackett, 770 S.W.2d 225, 228 (Ky. 1989). Nor is it the task of the appellate court to search the record for pertinent evidence “not pointed out by the parties in their briefs.” Baker v. Weinberg, 266 S.W.3d 827, 834 (Ky. App. 2008).

We recognize that the hearing on August 25, 2016, at which this issue may have been argued before the trial court, was not recorded. [*23]  Nonetheless, “when the complete record is not before the appellate court, that court must assume that the omitted record supports the decision of the trial court.” Commonwealth v. Thompson, 697 S.W.2d 143, 145 (Ky. 1985).

6. Dismissal of all claims against Capitol.

Finally, Arnold argues that the trial court erred in dismissing all causes of action against Capitol. Arnold contends that the arguments before the trial court only concerned the applicability of the insurance policy, but never addressed the additional allegations in the complaint of negligence, consumer protection, unfair claims settlement practices, and fraud. Arnold does not explain what the grounds for Capitol’s liability on these claims would be if, as the trial court ruled, the “sponsor” exclusion is valid and Delre and THIA were not acting as Capitol’s agents. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not err in dismissing all claims against Capitol.

For the foregoing reasons, the order of the Fayette Circuit Court granting summary declaratory judgment to Capitol is affirmed.

MAZE, JUDGE, CONCURS.

THOMPSON, JUDGE, CONCURS IN RESULT ONLY.

Bibliography

CHRIS JOHNSON D/B/A EXTREME RAMPAGE, AND CHRIS JOHNSON, AND CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, RAMPAGE LLC, CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON D/B/A RAMPAGE, LLC, AND/OR EXTREME RAMPAGE (COLLECTIVELY KNOWN AS “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”) BY AND THROUGH ASSIGNEE CASEY ARNOLD, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE;CASEY ARNOLD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHAD ARNOLD, AND AS NEXT FRIEND AND GUARDIAN/ CONSERVATOR FOR MILES ARNOLD, AND AS ASSIGNEE FOR ALL CLAIMS HELD BY “THE JOHNSON PARTIES”, APPELLANTS v. CAPITOL SPECIALTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, APPELLEE, 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 447, 2018 WL 3090503, (Court of Appeals of Kentucky June 22, 2018, Rendered).


Making statements contrary to release can be barred by a release, maybe, but may be gross, wilful and wanton negligence which the release does not stop.

Plaintiff signed a release to participate in the Warrior Dash race. An employee of the race was encouraging participants to dive into a mud pit. Plaintiff dove into the mud pit rendering himself a quadriplegic.

Sa v. Red Frog Events, LLC, 979 F. Supp. 2d 767; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151355

State: Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Plaintiff: James Sa

Defendant: Red Frog Events, LLC, an Illinois corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct

Defendant Defenses: release and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted

Holding: for the defendant on the negligence claim because of the release, for the plaintiff on the gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct claims

Year: 2013

This case is possible still ongoing. How the final decision will evolve is unknown. However, the federal district court did arrive at some great analysis of the case.

This case comes out of the new fad, extreme obstacle racing. In these races participants run through live electrical wires, jump through fire and here, crawl through a mud pit. These races are known by various names, Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder are the most well-known.

In this case, the plaintiff signed up for a Warrior Dash 5K race and signed a release. The release specifically warned against diving into the mud pit. The mud pit was right in front of the bleachers and the last obstacle on the course.

At the mud, pit was an employee of the defendant with a microphone, and loudspeaker “acting as an emcee” for the event.

Over the course of the event, this individual continually enticed, encouraged, and specifically told participants to dive into the mud pit. It was common knowledge among participants that diving into the mud pit was not only permitted, but encouraged.

So many people were diving into the mud pit that people were blogging about it and posting photos online.

The plaintiff followed the emcee’s “encouragement” and dove into the mud pit resulting in paralysis from the chest down. The plaintiff sued, and the defendant filed a motion to dismiss.

A motion to dismiss is usually filed by the defendant prior to filing an answer. The basis is the pleadings are so lacking in any facts or there is no law to support a claim. In reviewing the motion, the court must accept the allegations and facts in the complaint as true. It is unclear in reading this case when the motion to dismiss was filed. This opinion is the court’s response to the motion to dismiss.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at whether the release acted to stop the negligence claims of the plaintiff. Releases are valid in Michigan. Under Michigan law a release’s validity:

…turns on the intent of the parties. A release must be fairly and knowingly made to be valid. If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is ascertained from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language.

Whether the release is valid is a question of law. The plaintiff did not argue that he signed the release. The court pointed out possible ways the plaintiff could void the release which the plaintiff did not use.

He does not argue, for example, that (1) he “was “dazed, in shock, or under the influence” when he signed the Waiver; (2) “the nature of the instrument was misrepresented, or (3) there was other fraudulent or overreaching conduct.

Ninety-nine percent of the time plaintiff’s attack the validity of the release based on their competence or understanding of the release. In not doing so, I would guess the plaintiff shocked the judge so he put in this language. The plaintiff’s first argued the release was invalid because:

…that “Red Frog fails to indemnify itself from its own negligent acts” because it “did not use the term ‘negligent’ and/or ‘negligence’ anywhere within the four corners of it’s (sic) Waiver & Release Agreement.

(This argument has been used endlessly and is so easily avoided. Use the word negligence in your release.)

Here the language used by the defendant met the requirements to put the plaintiff on notice that he was giving up his rights to sue for negligence. “…although an indemnity provision does not expressly state that the indemnitee will be shielded from its own negligence, such language is not mandatory to provide such indemnification.”

The release language under Michigan’s law is called the indemnity provision or clause. That translation of the phrase is different from most other states. Here, it is like saying, by signing the release the plaintiff agrees to indemnify himself for his injuries.

…the Waiver, titled as a “Waiver and Release of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Warning of Risk,” informed Plaintiff that he was relinquishing his right to sue Defendant for claims resulting from his participation in the Warrior Dash.

The next argument of the plaintiff’s is brilliant and if successful would bring down hundreds of releases across the United States. Releases written by attorneys or non-attorneys in an attempt to soften the blow will put statements in the release about how safe the activity is, how well run the operation is or that accidents rarely happen.

The plaintiff argued that other statements in the release gave the plaintiff the impression that the defendant would not be negligent in the operation of the race.

For support, Plaintiff points to the disclaimer portion of the Waiver stating that Red Frog: (1) “is committed to conducting its race and activities in a safe manner and holds the safety of participants in high regard;” and (2) “continually strives to reduce such risks and insists that all participants follow safety rules and instructions that are designed to protect the participants’ safety.

The court did not accept this argument because the paragraph this language was in went on stating there was a risk of injury entering the race.

The final argument by the plaintiff was also unique and if accepted would invalidate dozens of releases. The plaintiff argued that the statements by the employee of the defendant, the emcee, invalidated the release. In legal language, the statements of the emcee “constituted a waiver and modification of the release of liability.”

In sum, Plaintiff argues, “[t]his conduct led James [the plaintiff] to believe a waiver had occurred and it was okay and safe to dive into the mud pit. Red Frog failed to correct the actions of participants who dove into the mud pit or further instruct through the speaker system that this type of behavior was not permitted.”

Under Michigan’s law, any waiver of a written contract must be in writing unless the waiver language is consistent with the strict compliance language of the contract. Meaning the waiver language must be of the same type and of the same legal tone as the original contract.

Even assuming that Michigan law permits parties to orally modify a waiver and release, the most Plaintiff has alleged is that Defendant’s actions modified the provision prohibiting Plaintiff from diving into the mud pit head first. Defendant’s actions cannot be interpreted, as pled by Plaintiff, as an agreement to modify the Waiver such that Plaintiff could hold Defendant liable for negligence due to injuries arising out of his participation in the Warrior Dash. Therefore, the Waiver bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim.

The court upheld the validity of the release and held the release stopped the simple negligence claims of the plaintiff.

On the second and third claims, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct, a release under Michigan’s law does not work. The issue then becomes are there enough allegations to the facts in the complaint and documents filed with the court to this point to support the plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct.

Under Michigan’s law:

Gross negligence is “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results.” M.C.L. § 600.2945(d); Xu, 257 Mich. App. at 269. “Evidence of ordinary negligence does not create a question of fact regarding gross negligence.”

Under Michigan’s law, a release does not stop claims for gross negligence. So the gross negligence claim survives the defense of release. The issue then is whether the plaintiff as plead enough facts that a jury may find give rise to gross negligence.

…it is plausible that the act of encouraging Plaintiff — and other participants — to dive into the mud pit head first was so reckless to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury would result.

The court, based upon the statements of the emcee at the mud pit encouraging people to dive into the pit were enough to possibly support a claim for gross negligence.

Under Michigan’s law, Wilful and Want misconduct is different and distinct from gross negligence.

“[W]ilful and wanton misconduct . . . [is] qualitatively different from and more blameworthy than ordinary, or even gross, negligence.”). The elements of a willful and wanton misconduct claim are: “(1) knowledge of a situation requiring the exercise of ordinary care and diligence to avert injury to an-other, (2) ability to avoid the resulting harm by ordinary care and diligence in the use of the means at hand, and (3) the omission to use such care and diligence to avert the threatened danger, when to the ordinary mind it must be apparent that the result is likely to prove disastrous to another.”

…willful and wanton misconduct is made out only if the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalent of a willingness that it does. Willful and wanton misconduct is not . . . a high degree of carelessness.

Here again, the court found the actions of the emcee in encouraging participants to dive into the mud pit might be found to be an intent to harm or an indifference.

Here, a reasonable jury might conclude that the act of encouraging participants to jump head-first into the mud pit despite knowing the risks, to the contrary — at the end of a grueling physical endurance challenge when participants are likely to be physically and mentally exhausted — could be interpreted as such “indifferen[ce] to the likelihood that catastrophe would come to a [race participant.]”

Consequently, the court granted the motion to dismiss on the negligence claims and denied the motion to dismiss on the claims of gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct.

Again, this case probably is not over yet.

So Now What? 

Don’t give an injured participant the opportunity to sue you. Don’t dance with the possibility that your language you use instead of the word negligence will meet the requirements of the law.

JUST USE THE WORD NEGLIGENCE IN YOUR RELEASE!

Second, don’t allow anyone who is an employee or may appear to participants to be an employee to encourage people to take actions that might injure them or is contrary to the rules of your activity.

It seems to be common sense; however, in the heat of the activity or an unfounded belief the release is ironclad, people get excited and might encourage a participant to take risks they are not expected or ready for.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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