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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Min-Sun Ho

Defendant: Steep Rock Bouldering, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

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

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

There are several take a ways from this decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Great article about the risks of an organization creating standards for members of the industry – and I did not write it

The article exams the ways that standards can come back and be a liability for the organization that created them.

The Center for Association Leadership is the trade association for non-profit association directors. Its purpose is to provide information and education for non-profit associations, their directors and their boards. Part of that education is articles by attorneys to outline the risk areas of association.

One article was sent to me by one of my trade association clients. It is titled Certification and the Law. The title is a little misleading. The article is really about standards rather than certification. If you read the article you will see the term certification is used interchangeably with standards.

The article talks about the risks of doing so first and discusses the National Spa and Pool Institute litigation in the late 90’s that put the association in bankruptcy. The legal costs alone exceeded the insurance available to pay the claim.

Thankfully, full-scale judicial attacks are relatively rare, but as the cases involving the National Spa and Pool Institute show, such claims can be devastating. NSPI lost a jury trial in 1998 which, inter alia, alleged that NSPI had failed to exercise a duty of using “reasonable care” when it promulgated its swimming pool standards. NSPI’s legal defense costs greatly exceeded its insurance coverage. To avoid being shut down by the jury’s verdict and in order to post a bond for the appeal of the case, NSPI filed for Chapter 11 reorganization.

There are many other legal issues discussed in the article including educational programs etc. but I’ll quote sections concerning creating standards that I think are important.

Antitrust. Certification programs beg antitrust scrutiny, given that the object of standard setting is to bring competitors together to set criteria for, among other things, restricting entry into a field. Antitrust law prohibits anyone from unreasonably creating a barrier to practice in a profession. Therefore, the certification organization must make sure that all of its eligibility requirements are reasonable-that is, relevant to determining the professional’s skill level and not so high as to block the majority of professionals from being eligible to apply for certification.

The article discusses the liability requirements to hold an association liable for its standards.

Third-party reliance. If a customer, patient, or employer is injured by a certified product or professional, it is possible that the certifying organization will be held liable for negligence or negligent misrepresentation. The argument follows that the person relied on the certification as a guarantee of competence; because the certified product or professional did not perform competently, the certification should not have been granted. Thus, it is argued, the standard-setting organization should be liable to the injured person for its mistaken or negligent grant of certification.

In order to find liability, the injured party generally must prove that

    the organization should have known better than to grant certification;

    the organization should have known that its mistake could result in the injury; and

    the injured party was justified in relying on the certification as a guarantee of competence.

There are very few of these types of lawsuits. The article discusses lawsuits that have been filed.

Among those that have arisen, several have held that the organization is not liable in the case of products when it did not manufacture the product that caused the injury and did not exercise control over the manufacturer. Nevertheless, it is clear that liability may be found when certification is negligently granted or maintained. The deciding factor is the degree of control that can be shown that the standard-setting program exercised-or should have exercised-over the product or professional.

As the article points out, lawsuits against trade associations are rare, however, if they do occur, they can be devastating.

See Certification and the Law

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ANSI, ASTM, PRCA, ACCT & NSAA a mess of acronyms that are fighting each other, taking your industry down and wasting money.

 How much money could have been put into promoting the industry,educating the members and creating great opportunities? Millions I bet.

 The PRCA, (Professional Ropes Course Association) recently announced that they had received approval from ANSI (American National Standards Institute) for its ropes or challenge course standards. The ACCT (Association for Challenge Course Technology) has appealed the issuance of the approval. (See ANSI/PRCA American National Standard).Wasting more time and money, in my opinion.

 In the meantime, the NSAA (National Ski Area Association) received ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) approval for their standards. See ASTM Committee Approves Standard For Aerial Adventure Courses

 I have no horses in this race; I have nothing to gain and more to lose with these comments. However, someone has to put it out there again, because the amount of money being wasted is ridiculous. So here goes…..again. (For a prior commentary about this feud see Stop Feuding, I doubt, move forward anyway; I think you can.)


 What’s it all mean?

First the “standards” granting organizations.

 ANSI “allows” organizations that meet its requirements to become standards granting organizations. One such organization is the ASTM. However, just because ASTM is granted the “opportunity” to create standards under the ANSI banner it does not mean that ANSI standards are better, more important or more controlling than ASTM.

 ACCT was started 19 years ago to write standards. However, in my opinion, it was more of a good buddy club and the creation of the standards did not follow any known or legally acceptable way of creating them. PRCA was started in 2003 because ACCT would not let them be the “whatever name” to do something with ropes courses or something. Honestly, I’m not 100% clear on this, and I don’t really care.

NSAA is 52 years old and has been working with ANSI and ASTM for decades. The standards for operating ski lifts are ANSI standards and the standards for the rest of the ski industry such as skis, bindings, etc., are ASTM standards. NSAA has one employee who knows more about ANSI and ASTM than I would ever want to know, and consequently, they are fast efficient and done right.

I am a member of the ASTM and on the standards committee for ropes courses, but not active and have not voted for any of the NSAAASTM, standards.

Still with me or have all the acronyms done you in.

Current Status

Right now, there are two organizations that have created standards for the ropes’ course industry, PRCA and NSAAthat follow the procedures and practice’s generally accepted in court for proof of standards by an organization. NSAA has opted to write its standards through the ASTM and the PRCA through ANSI.

ACCT is left out of the mix right now, so that organization is fighting PRCA’s ANSI standards. However, what I find comical, and indicative of the reasons for much of the wasted money in the industry, the ACCT has ignored the NSAA. (PRCA also for that matter.)

Speculation here, but don’t you think that if ACCT seriously thought only its standards were acceptable they would be appealing the NSAA’s standards created under the ASTM.

This leads me to believe that the appeal of the PRCA’s ANSI standards has nothing to do with the standards, just with the PRCA. (This is the third appeal of the PRCA’s ANSI standards; the ACCT lost the first two.)

By that I mean there is more bad blood here than in a blood bank with no power for a month.

So Legally what does that Mean?

Standards are the lowest acceptable level of doing something, which is presented in court to prove someone either met the standard or did not meet the standard of care. The standard of care is the measurement against which the jury determines whether you had a duty and then breached that duty to someone.

If you own a ropes course and someone is injured on the ropes course, the plaintiff now has several different ways to prove that you were negligent (breached the standard of care). Meaning your ropes course was not built correctly, or you operated the course incorrectly.)

First, there are the ACCT standards; however, those can easily be ignored at this point because they have not been approved by either the ANSI or the ASTM. The ACCT standards are getting better, I’ve been told, but basically, they were created in a way that creates credibility issues. That does not mean that they can’t be a way to prove you are negligent.

So now the plaintiff can argue that you failed to meet the PRCA or NSAA standards. If there is a conflict between the two, then the plaintiff has found the stick to beat more money out of you and your insurance company. (And the last thing this industry needs is a way to give more money away. (See: Payouts in Outdoor Recreation.)

Legal Advice (worth what you pay for it)

If you came to me and asked for advice about this situation this is what I recommend.

1.   Today, get a copy of the PRCA and NSAA (ANSI and ASTM) standards and make sure you meet those standards. Yes, both sets. If there is a conflict between the two, justify why you have adopted one over the other in writing now, prior to a problem.

2.   Every year have someone new come see your course. They don’t have to have some designation on their wall, unless it says architect or engineer (see below!). They should have experience to look at your course and your operation and make sure you are not making mistakes. Maybe trade off. You go to their course, and they come to your course.

a.   Don’t have them give you a report, which is just proof you are negligent.

b.   Don’t tell them why you do something, unless they ask.

c.   Listen, listen to everything they suggest, ask questions and then see what you need to do.

3.   Every couple of years have an engineer, architect, or contractor came out and look at your course. These are the people who know how courses should be built and have the education and experience to make sure it was built correctly and is still holding together.

a.   Someone with 12 years in the industry may be able to tell you the testing strength of a bolt and whether the bolt and whatever it is attached to are working still. However, that knowledge is defeated with a degree from a college that says engineer or architect.

Pay attention, (If nothing else for the laughs.) and make sure you know what is going on because you as a ropes course owner or manager are the person that is going to take the beatings and suffer the most when the organizations created to support you spend your money fighting each other.

Good luck.

If nothing else I should get a plug for explaining all the acronyms in the industry!

For more articles on Ropes Courses see:

 $400,000 challenge course settlement for shattered ankle     http://rec-law.us/1lk77Q7

 Architects, Engineers and Recreation, we need the first two, to be successful in the second     http://rec-law.us/1gOSNeT

 Assumption of the risk is used to defeat a claim for injuries on a ropes course       http://rec-law.us/SDZlBt

 Based on the article yes there was going to be a lawsuit         http://rec-law.us/16JD0p3

 Plaintiff raised argument in work/team building situation that they were forced to sign release  http://rec-law.us/XiKRug

 Plaintiff uses standards of ACCT to cost defendant $4.7 million       http://rec-law.us/11UdbEn

 Sad, Arizona school insurance no longer covering ropes courses.               http://rec-law.us/1m5AhAN

 The standard of care for a ropes or challenge course changes based on who is running it and who is using it (30)                                                                                       http://rec-law.us/L2tupe

 When did journalism turn from telling a good factual story to trying to place blame for an accident?            http://rec-law.us/1cNrxMv

 What do you think? Leave a comment.

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 Copyright 2014 Recreation Law (720) 334-8529





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If your organization says you do something and you are a member of the organization you better do it or be able to explain why you did not

On a fatality, it does not matter why you did not do, only what the organization says you do.

You open a business, and you decided to join the trade associationfor your industry. That is a good thing. You can learn about new trends and

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 03:  A fan rides a...

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ideas. You can stay current on what is going on. You have someone’s speaking for you with local, state and federal governments. Most times being a member of a trade association is a great thing!

You need to be aware though, when the organization creates procedures, guidelines, standards or rules that it says its members agree to abide by. Or you agree to those guidelines, standards or rules by joining.

More so, you should be super aware when you say you work according to those procedures, guidelines, standards or rules. If your marketing program includes your membership and/or adherence to the organization’s guidelines, standards or rules, then you are also going to be held to those guidelines, standards or rules.

Marketing makes promises that Risk Management has to pay for!

This is a tragic case where an employee died and another was seriously injured while re-building a zip line. The trade association was touted by the builder and subsequently by the state as the organization (standards) that had the information needed to build the zip line. However, from the report of the state, which is still being appealed, the builder failed to follow the guidelines to which he said he subscribed.

Here, the trade association had standards for the construction of the zip line. The builder touted his experience as a member of the trade association in selling himself to the owner and as a defense to the state agency. However, the state agency found the builder did not follow the trade association’s guidelines (standards) and used that to prove the builder was wrong.

Do Something

1.     Don’t allow your trade association to box you into a corner. There is always more than one way of doing everything.

2.     Don’t box yourself into a corner with a marketing program that makes promises you do not keep.

3.     Don’t box yourself into a corner by agreeing to a trade association’s rules, guidelines, standards or procedures you don’t intend to follow.

4.     If you do, you better D@#M well follow them.

5.     Don’t play contractor when you should be hiring an engineer.

See State finds violations in zip line investigation after employee fatality.

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