Employee of one New York climbing wall sues another NYC climbing wall for injuries when she fell and her foot went between the mats.Posted: August 13, 2018
Release thrown out because of New York’s anti-release statute and condition causing plaintiff’s injury was the risk was “un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased” eliminating assumption of the risk claim.
State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County
Plaintiff: Meghan McDonald
Defendant: Brooklyn Boulders, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: negligence,
Defendant Defenses: Release and Assumption of the Risk
Holding: for the Plaintiff
Another case where it appears, the court was more on the plaintiff’s side then neutral. However, you must play with the cards you are dealt. Here a person injured at a climbing gym survived a motion for summary judgment because the release violated New York’s release law, and she could not assume the risk of the mats separating because it was not obvious or known to her.
The plaintiff was an employee of another climbing wall business. She was the coach of the climbing team there. She was at the defendant’s climbing wall business either to coach her team or to climb personally, which were in dispute. While climbing on an overhang she fell and her foot went between the mats causing her injury.
The plaintiff did not pay to climb because the clubs had reciprocal agreements allowing employees to climb at other gyms for free. The mats were Velcroed together. The plaintiff sued. The defendant club filed a motion for summary judgment, and this is the court’s response to that motion.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The defendant argued the release should stop the plaintiff’s lawsuit, and she assumed the risk of her injury.
The plaintiff argued New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 made the release unenforceable.
The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect
New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 has been held to not apply to teaching, Lemoine v Cornell University, 2 A.D.3d 1017; 769 N.Y.S.2d 313; 2003 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 13209 (NY 2003). Because the plaintiff was there with students, the defendant argued the statute did not apply.
However, the plaintiff argued she was not teaching, just climbing with friends who were former students.
In support of her position that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work.
The other defense to New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is there was no fee paid by the plaintiff to climb at the defendant gym. She was there because of the reciprocal program in place with her employer.
The court agreed she was not teaching and found she had paid a fee to climb at the defendant’s gym. Because the program was part of her employment compensation, she had paid a fee by taking advantage of the opportunity as an employee.
In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of their employment and thus could be considered compensation.
The final defense was assumption of the risk. The plaintiff said she had never been to that area of the gym before, however, she did scan the area before climbing.
Under NY law, the assumption of risk defense is defined as:
The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation”
By engaging in the activity or sport the plaintiff gives consent to the risks and limits the duty owed by the defendant. However, the risks of the activity, according to this court must be “fully comprehended or perfectly obvious.” The court then determined “Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks.”
Furthermore, “in 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’
The Velcro connection holding the mats together was an injury for the jury to determine because the court found the condition was a concealed risk.
So Now What?
It is pretty skanky (legal word) for an employee of one gym, climbing for free, to sue another gym. I suspect the lawsuit was probably a subrogation claim where her health insurance was attempting to recover for her medical bills. However, that is just speculation.
New York General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 is read differently by ever judge that reviews it. Some simply say it does not apply and allows the release to prevail. Any court that seems to do an analysis of the law seems to rule on the side of the plaintiff lately. The late is left over from the days when consumers did not know what a release was and were caught off guard when they risked their neck in gyms.
However, the chances of it being repealed are slim, too many plaintiffs use the law so having a recreation business in New York requires more work on the part of the recreation provider to prove assumption of the risk.
Video’s, lengthy assumption of the risk agreements outlining the known and unknown risks and more in-depth classes for beginners and new people at the gym will be required in this jurisdiction.
Can you see this climbing coach being told she must take a one-hour class on climbing because she has never been to the gym before?
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[**1] Meghan Mcdonald, Plaintiff, – against – Brooklyn Boulders, LLC., Defendant. Index No. 503314/12
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, KINGS COUNTY
2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5211; 2016 NY Slip Op 32822(U)
April 12, 2016, Decided
NOTICE: THIS OPINION IS UNCORRECTED AND WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED IN THE PRINTED OFFICIAL REPORTS.
CORE TERMS: climbing, mat, climb, team, rock climbing, recreational, leave to amend, affirmative defense, risk doctrine, instructional, bouldering, void, appreciated, concealed, teaching, training, wasn’t, amend, sport’, Rock, gym, matting, reciprocal agreement, public policy, dangerous condition, unreasonably, amusement, watching, unaware, advice
JUDGES: [*1] PRESENT: HON. MARK I. PARTNOW, J.S.C.
OPINION BY: MARK I. PARTNOW
Upon the foregoing papers, defendant Brooklyn Boulders, LLC (defendant or Brooklyn Boulders) moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff Meghan McDonald’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.
Plaintiff is employed as a program director and head coach of a youth rock climbing team at The Rock Club, an indoor rock climbing gym in New Rochelle, New York and has been so employed since 2006. On September 1, 2011, plaintiff went to Brooklyn Boulders with some of the members of her youth climbing team and other adults. Brooklyn Boulders is an indoor rock climbing and bouldering facility located in Brooklyn, New York. Plaintiff testified that this trip was a treat for her team and that she would be climbing that day too. It is undisputed that plaintiff signed a waiver before she began climbing and that she did not pay an entry fee pursuant to a reciprocal agreement in place between The Rock Club and Brooklyn Boulders as well as other rock climbing facilities. After [*2] approximately one and a half hours of bouldering with her team, plaintiff went to an area of the bouldering wall known as The Beast, which is very challenging in that it becomes nearly horizontal for some distance. It was her first time on the Beast, although she had been to Brooklyn Boulders on prior occasions. Plaintiff testified that she visually inspected the area below the Beast before she began her climb. Lance Pinn, the Chief Marketing Officer, President and founder of Brooklyn Boulders testified that there was foam matting system in place, with matting wall to wall in the area of the Beast. The largest pieces available were 9 feet by 7 feet so the area where the foam pieces met when placed on the ground was covered with Velcro to keep the foam matting pieces flush together.
[**3] Plaintiff finished her upward climb and then climbed down as far as she could and then looked down below to make sure there were no shoes in her way and that her spotter was out of the way. She stated that she knew that there were mats underneath so she jumped down a distance of approximately five feet. Her right foot landed on the mat but her left foot landed on the Velcro strip where two floor mats met. [*3] She testified that her left foot went through the Velcro into a space between the two mats. Plaintiff sustained an ankle fracture as a result and required surgeries and physical therapy.
Brooklyn Boulders’ Motion
Brooklyn Boulders moves for an order: 1) pursuant to CPLR §3212 granting summary judgment and the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint against defendant; and 2) pursuant to CPLR §3025 (b) granting defendant leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include an additional affirmative defense.
Defendant argues that the liability waiver that plaintiff signed when she entered the facility releases it from liability. Defendant maintains that plaintiff was an expert climber and coach and understood the meaning of the waiver and appreciated the assumption of risk involved in the activity that she was engaged. Defendant also points out that she did not pay a fee to climb that day based upon the reciprocal program in place with other climbing facilities. Defendant claims that plaintiff was instructing her students that day as they observed her climbing and point to her testimony as follows:
[**4] Q: And were you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?
A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question [*4] they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice. (Page 30, lines 12-17).
Q. Did you ever teach any or give any instruction there?
A. Just of terms of like in my kids I probably give instruction everywhere I go. There are so many people that climb at Brooklyn Boulders that are total beginners. I’m often spotting brand new people and telling them how to spot one another. (Page 45, lines 5-12).
Defendant notes that although General Obligations Law (GOL) §5-326 renders contract clauses which release certain entities from liability void as against public policy, activities which are “instructional” as opposed to recreational are found to be outside the scope of GOL §5-326. Defendant maintains that here, plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members and thus GOL §5-326 is not applicable. Moreover, defendant argues that the waiver at issue was explicit, comprehensive and expressly provided that Brooklyn Boulders was released from liability for personal injuries arising out of or connected with plaintiff’s participation in rock climbing.
In support of its motion, defendant submits the signed waiver which states, in pertinent part:
I acknowledge [*5] that climbing on an artificial climbing wall entails known and unanticipated risks which could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself, to property, or third parties. I understand that such risks simply cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential [**5] qualities of the activity. I have examined the Climbing Wall and have full knowledge of the nature and extent of the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the Climbing Wall, including but not limited to:
a:. All manner of injury resulting from my falling off or from the Climbing Wall and hitting the floor, wall faces, people or rope projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, loose and/or damaged artificial holds, musculoskeletal injuries and/or overtraining; head injuries; or my own negligence . . . I further acknowledge that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with the Climbing Wall and related training facilities and I agree that such list in no way limits the extent or reach of this Assumption of Risk, Release and Indemnification . . .
Defendant also argues that since plaintiff did not pay a fee to climb that day that her activity was [*6] outside the scope of GOL §5-326.
Next defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine bars plaintiff’s claims because, as a general rule, a plaintiff who voluntarily participates in a sporting or recreational event is held to have consented to those commonly appreciated risks that are inherent in, and arise out of, the nature of the sport generally and flow from participation in such event.
Finally, defendant argues that it should be allowed to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense of release. Defendant contends that it was unaware of the existence of the release and waiver when it served its answer. Moreover, defendant contends that plaintiff will not be prejudiced because she was, in fact, questioned about the release that she signed during her deposition.
[**6] Plaintiff opposes defendant’s motion arguing that General Obligations Law §5-326 renders the waiver and release that she signed void. She points out that defendant is attempting to circumvent this law by asserting that the activity in which plaintiff was involved was instructional as opposed to recreational and misstates her testimony in an attempt to mislead the court. Plaintiff contends that such behavior should be sanctioned. In support of her position [*7] that she was not at Brooklyn Boulders for instructional purposes, but, rather was there for a fun day of climbing, plaintiff points to her testimony that she brought some of the older members of her team to Brooklyn Boulders to climb. She testified that they all worked at The Rock Club so this was an end of summer treat for them to go and climb somewhere else and not have to work. (Page 62, lines 5-13). She further points to the following testimony:
Q: In September of 2011 when you went there on the date in question what was your purpose of being there?
A: I went there with a handful of kids who are on my climbing team, but it wasn’t a specific training day. Usually when we go it would be for training but this was just like a fun day. I was going to climb with them.
Q: And were they climbing around you.
A: Yeah, they were.(page 29, lines 14-25).
Q: And were you supervising them?
A: I wasn’t their active supervisor. I’m a coach though so I’m always watching what they do. But this was one of the few times that I was actually going to be climbing so it was kind of a treat for them I guess to be able to climb with me.
[**7] Q: Were they watching you?
A: A few of them were watching me yeah.
Q: And were [*8] you teaching them, you know, what to do and what not to do?
A: I wasn’t teaching them, but if they had a question they would ask me hey, should I do this or do this or what do you think of this move I always give advice (page 30, lines 2-17).
Plaintiff also contends that defendant incorrectly argues that GOL §5-326 does not apply because she cannot be classified a user since she did not pay to climb that day. In this regard, plaintiff contends that she is indeed a user and the law is applicable because there was a reciprocal agreement between the gym at which she was employed and Brooklyn Boulders pursuant to which employees were not required to pay a fee to use either gym. Thus, she contends the value of the reciprocity agreement is the compensation.
Next, plaintiff argues that the assumption of risk doctrine is not applicable where the risk was un-assumed, concealed or unreasonably increased. Plaintiff argues that the question of whether the gap in the mats at Brooklyn Boulders is a commonly appreciated risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing necessitates denial of the summary judgment motion. She claims that she did not assume the risk that there would be a gap in the matting that was in [*9] place as protection from a fall. Moreover, plaintiff maintains that defendant fails to proffer any evidence demonstrating when the mats were last inspected prior to plaintiff’s accident.
Plaintiff argues that issues as to whether dangerous or defective conditions exist on property and whether the condition is foreseeable can only be answered by a jury. Thus, she [**8] contends that whether the condition of the mats was dangerous and/or defective is an issue of fact and that defendant has failed to proffer any evidence that the mats were in a reasonably safe condition.
Finally, plaintiff opposes defendant’s request to amend its answer to add the affirmative defense of waiver. Plaintiff argues that the existence of the waiver was known and that it is disingenuous at best to assert otherwise. Plaintiff contends that this request, post note of issue, is highly prejudicial to plaintiff.
In reply, defendant argues that plaintiff’s demand for sanctions lacks merit and that plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was in fact, instructing her students when her accident occurred. Defendant contends that the waiver applies. Next defendant claims that as far as inspection of its equipment it had a [*10] route setting department that checked its walls and mats and that bouldering climbers were responsible for enuring their own safety when climbing. Finally, defendant argues that the assumption of risk doctrine applies and that plaintiff visually inspected the area before the accident and that the Velcro covers were visible and moreover, she had the option to use additional mats underneath her while climbing. Defendant further contends that the mats did not constitute a dangerous condition. Finally, Brooklyn Boulders reiterates its request for leave to amend its answer to assert the affirmative defense.
Leave to Amend
Generally, in the absence of prejudice or surprise to the opposing party, leave to amend pleadings should be freely granted unless the proposed amendment is palpably insufficient or patently devoid of merit (Yong Soon Oh v Hua Jin, 124 AD3d 639, 640, 1 N.Y.S.3d 307 ; see Jones v LeFrance Leasing Ltd. Partnership, 127 AD3d 819, 821, 7 N.Y.S.3d 352 ; Rodgers v New York City Tr. Auth., 109 AD3d 535, 537, 970 N.Y.S.2d 572 ; Schwartz v Sayah, 83 AD3d 926, 926, 920 N.Y.S.2d 714 ). A motion for leave to amend is committed to the broad discretion of the court (see Ravnikar v Skyline Credit-Ride, Inc., 79 AD3d 1118, 1119, 913 N.Y.S.2d 339 ). However, where amendment is sought after the pleader has filed a note of issue, “a trial court’s discretion to grant a motion to amend should be exercised with caution” (Harris v Jim’s Proclean Serv., Inc., 34 AD3d 1009,1010, 825 N.Y.S.2d 291 [3d Dept 2006]).
Here, while the court is not satisfied with counsel’s explanation that he was unaware of the [*11] existence of the release and waiver signed by plaintiff at the time that the original answer was served, the court notes that plaintiff was questioned about the release and waiver during her May 6, 2014 deposition so the court finds that there is no surprise of prejudice in allowing defendant leave to serve its amended answer and assert the affirmative defense of release and waiver. Accordingly, that branch of defendant’s motion seeking leave to amend its answer to the complaint to include this affirmative defense is granted.
[**10] General Obligations Law §5-326
GOL §5-326 states that:
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 [*12] be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.
Such contracts or agreements are void as against public policy unless the entity can show that its facility is used for instructional purposes as opposed to recreational purposes. “The legislative intent of the statute is to prevent amusement parks and recreational facilities from enforcing exculpatory clauses printed on admission tickets or membership applications because the public is either unaware of them or not cognizant of their effect (see Lux v Cox, 32 F.Supp.2d 92, 99 ; McDuffie v Watkins Glen Int’l, 833 F. Supp. 197, 202  ). Facilities that are places of instruction and training (see e.g. Millan v Brown, 295 AD2d 409, 411, 743 N.Y.S.2d 539 ; Chieco v Paramarketing, Inc., 228 AD2d 462, 463, 643 N.Y.S.2d 668 ; Baschuk v Diver’s Way Scuba, 209 AD2d 369, 370, 618 N.Y.S.2d 428  ), rather than “amusement or recreation” (see e.g. Meier v Ma-Do Bars, 106 AD2d 143, 145, 484 N.Y.S.2d 719  ), have been found to be outside the scope of the statute. “In assessing whether a facility is instructional or recreational, courts have [**11] examined, inter alia, the organization’s name, its certificate of incorporation, its statement of purpose and whether the money it charges is tuition or a fee for use of the facility” (Lemoine v Cornell Univ., 2 AD3d 1017, 1019, 769 N.Y.S.2d 313 , lv denied 2 NY3d 701, 810 N.E.2d 912, 778 N.Y.S.2d 459 ). In cases involving a mixed use facility, courts have focused less on a facility’s ostensible purpose and more on whether the person was at the facility for the purpose of receiving instruction (Id. At 1019; see Scrivener v Sky’s the Limit, 68 F Supp 2d 277, 281 ; Lux v Cox, 32 F Supp 2d at 99). Where [*13] a facility “promotes . . . a recreational pursuit, to which instruction is provided as an ancillary service,” General Obligations Law § 5-326 applies even if the injury occurs while receiving instruction (Debell v Wellbridge Club Mgt., Inc., 40 AD3d 248, 249, 835 N.Y.S.2d 170 ; Bacchiocchi v Ranch Parachute Club, 273 AD2d 173, 175, 710 N.Y.S.2d 54 ).
Here, defendant asserts that GOL §5-326 is not applicable because plaintiff was at Brooklyn Boulders to instruct her team members. The court disagrees. Plaintiff’s testimony establishes that she was at Brooklyn Boulders with her team for a day of fun and not to teach them how to climb. Her testimony that she would give advice to the students if they asked does not rise to the level of providing rock climbing instruction on that day. Moreover, the court notes that the cases invloving the exemption for instrctional activities generally involve the person being instructed sustaining an injury and not the person who was providing the instruction. In addition, the court finds defendants’s argument that the fact that plaintiff did not pay a fee that day renders GOL §5-326 not applicable is equally unavailing. The reciprocal agreement that was in place between Brooklyn Boulders and The Rock Club, [**12] where plaintiff was employed, which allowed such employees to use other bouldering facilities without being charged a fee was a benefit of [*14] their employment and thus could be considered compensation. Accordingly, the court finds that the release and waiver signed by plaintiff is void pursuant to GOL §5-326.
Assumption of Risk
The assumption of the risk defense is based on the proposition that “by engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 N.E.2d 202, 662 N.Y.S.2d 421 ; Paone v County of Suffolk, 251 AD2d 563, 674 N.Y.S.2d 761 [2d Dept 1998]), including the injury-causing events which are the known, apparent, or reasonably foreseeable risks of the participation (see Rosenbaum v Bayis Ne’Emon Inc., 32 AD3d 534, 820 N.Y.S.2d 326 [2d Dept 2006]; Colucci v Nansen Park, Inc., 226 AD2d 336, 640 N.Y.S.2d 578 [2d Dept 1996]). A plaintiff is deemed to have given consent limiting the duty of the defendant who is the proprietor of the sporting facility “to exercise care to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 ). Stated otherwise, the duty of the defendant is to protect the plaintiff from injuries arising out of unassumed, concealed, or unreasonably increased risks (see Manoly v City of New York, 29 AD3d 649, 816 N.Y.S.2d 499 [2d Dept 2006]; Pascucci v Town of Oyster Bay, 186 AD2d 725, 588 N.Y.S.2d 663 [2d Dept 1992]). It is well settled that “awareness of [**13] risk is not to be determined in a vacuum. It is, rather, to [*15] be assessed against the background of the skill and experience of the particular plaintiff” (Maddox v City of New York, 66 NY2d 270, 278, 487 N.E.2d 553, 496 N.Y.S.2d 726 ; see also Benitez v New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 NY2d 650, 657-658, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 ; Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d 432, 440, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 ; Latimer v City of New York, 118 AD3d 420, 421, 987 N.Y.S.2d 58 ). When applicable, the assumption of risk doctrine “is not an absolute defense but a measure of the defendant’s duty of care” (Turcotte v Fell, 68 NY2d at 439). Thus, “a gym or athletic facility cannot evade responsibility for negligent behavior ‘by invoking a generalized assumption of risk doctrine as though it was some sort of amulet that confers automatic immunity’ (Jafri v Equinox Holdings, Inc., 2014 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5330, 4-5 [Sup. Ct, New York County quoting Mellon v Crunch & At Crunch Acquisition, LLC, 32 Misc 3d 1214[A], 934 N.Y.S.2d 35, 2011 NY Slip Op 51289[U] [Sup Ct, Kings County 2011]; Livshitz v United States Tennis Assn. Natl. Tennis Ctr., 196 Misc 2d 460, 466, 761 N.Y.S.2d 825 [Sup Ct, Queens County 2003]).
Furthermore, “in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care within the genre of tort-sports activities and their inherent risks, the applicable standard should include whether the conditions caused by the defendants’ negligence are unique and created a dangerous condition over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport’ (Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485. quoting Owen v R.J.S. Safety Equip., 79 NY2d 967, 970, 591 N.E.2d 1184, 582 N.Y.S.2d 998 ; Georgiades v Nassau Equestrian Ctr. at Old Mill, Inc., 134 AD3d 887, 889, 22 N.Y.S.3d 467 [2d Dept 2015]; Weinberger v Solomon Schechter Sch. of Westchester, 102 AD3d 675, 678, 961 N.Y.S.2d 178 [2d Dept 2013]). Participants, however, do not assume risks which have been unreasonably increased or [**14] concealed over and above the usual dangers inherent in the activity (see Morgan, 90 NY2d at 485; Benitez, 73 NY2d at 657-658; Muniz v Warwick School Dist., 293 AD2d 724, 743 N.Y.S.2d 113 ).
In this regard, the court finds that plaintiff has raised a question of fact regarding whether the condition of the mats, with the Velcro connection, increased the risk in the danger [*16] of the activity and caused a concealed dangerous condition. Thus it cannot be said that plaintiff assumed the particular risk that was present and caused her injuries.
Based upon the foregoing, that branch of Brooklyn Boulders motion seeking summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint is denied.
The foregoing constitutes the decision and order of the court.
/s/ Mark I Partnow
J. S. C.
HON. MARK I PARTNOW
SUPREME COURT JUSTICE
Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.
In an effort to sell services and promote their organization, many trade associations accredit, certify or anoint its members, with various titles, quasi degrees and paper to put on their wall and website. There is always a charge for the program and in many cases; the trade association’s budget is based on selling this program. Many times, these new programs are sold as a cure-all or at least help in risk management or litigation defense.
They are neither. At best, these are training programs; generally, they have little value other than for marketing. Worse, an accreditation can help you lose a lawsuit.
Several trade associations offer this marketing program as a way to show your future clients that you uphold the standards, or whatever of the trade association. (Ignoring the issue that people want to know if you meet their standards, not those of a trade association.) If you pay for the program you will be inspected/reviewed by “trained” members of the association who, then say you have a qualifying program or not. A trade organization will offer the idea that accreditation can provide risk management or better defenses to litigation. Because the program is up to speed on the latest and greatest or at least the tried and true for its industry.
These generally fail for several reasons.
- Because no trade association represents a large segment of the industry and in most cases, they represent less than half of the trade. Granted, the better programs are usually members of the trade association, but that still does give them the clout or numbers needed to dictate how a member should run its business.
- There are dozens of instances where a different way is being used, successfully by other members or non-members of the association. Consequently, the association’s way is proved ineffective or just not the only way.
- State laws and prior litigation have changed the standards, and the trade association has not caught up making their standards look dated.
On top of that, trade associates move by their members. A new idea developed and used by one member needs to float t the surface and be discovered by the group writing the standards. By the time that happens, the standard is written, vetted, reviewed and published several years have passed. You need to react immediately to changes in your industry, not wait for someone to write it down.
Worse no new ideas are created because of fear that the idea will not qualify under the accreditation program creating liability for the member. If you develop a new way to run a program, that is safer but requires less people, you will be liable if you run the program without the required number of people because the association standard requires it. Even if your new idea has that extra person just standing around.
Marketing is not a defense against a lawsuit.
As much as we may wish, showing that an organization may hold itself to a higher standard to prevent litigation or help win a lawsuit, does not work. Standards of care or levels of doing something are not created by trade associations. The issue at trial is whether or not the defendant in litigation is determined by the jury to have met the standard of care proposed by the Expert Witnesses in the trial. Trying does not change that; trying to be good, trying to stay on top of things, trying to be educated does not cause a change.
In reality, it is a minimum two-step process that keeps one from losing in court. The first step is staying current. The second step is staying above the minimum required level of care a jury will accept. However, even these two steps may not be enough with the volume of information that flows today, and the speed which things change. Again the definition of the problem with trade associations and accreditation. The process to create the process is always behind the time curve. As such, the program that received the blessings of the trade association is probably out of date in a courtroom.
Marketing is simply an attempt to influence the decision making of someone. If that person believes that you are a better organization or offer a better program than your competitor, then your marketing was successful. Factors too numerous to discuss and of little relevance to this article go into marketing and how it influences a person’s decision. If you believe the seal on the door or the diploma on the wall going to influence someone to try your program, then take that route, just make sure you understand what you are buying and why.
On a side note, when I had an office, I had art on the walls, Not a single degree or diploma. In twenty years, only one person asked me where my diplomas were. I did not care to look at diplomas; I wanted to look at wildlife and nature scenes. I was spending more time in the office than anyone. Twenty years and only one person cared what diploma I had.
Someone who arrives at your business is going to have higher expectations. The person who sees the promises your marketing makes is going to expect that level or greater service. That expectation will apply, even if the accreditation has nothing to do with the program or the issues of your guests. You are accredited; therefore, I should not have been hurt.
That does not mean you should not tell the world how great you are. It means you must meet the marketing you are promoting.
Marketing also affects and to some extent, shows the world how you think of yourself. A current example is zip lines. For fifty years zip lines were used by the military to train recruits and by movies about the military to thrill viewers. The next twenty years zip lines were used in team building programs as part of a ropes or challenge course. Now zip lines have been used purely as an amusement device. People go out for a day of zip lining like they used to rent go karts or play a round of golf. Your marketing efforts to steer your possible clients back to the idea of team building are going to interfere and have to overcome the general expectations that zip lines are just fun.
Accreditation meets that same issue in the minds of the people coming to your program. Is the certificate on the wall to show me how good you are or on the wall to convince me not to sue? Alternatively, is the certificate proof that you did not take the proper care of me causing my injury. Marketing to cross purposes or marketing to reverse community beliefs is difficult.
Marketing makes Promises that Risk Management has to Pay For.
As stated earlier, the expectations of someone who has researched your diplomas, seals and other marketing accomplishments are going to have a higher expectation that you are not going to injure them. Your commitment to staying current, your efforts to obtain the seal of approval and the paper on the wall are proof, in your guest’s minds, that you are better than your competitors. Better may mean to provide a better program or service. It better definitely means your participants will not be injured.
The American Camp Association (ACA) has an accreditation program that the ACA recognizes for what it is, a marketing program. “ACA Accreditation: Valuable Marketing Tools.” The web page even makes that known. (http://www.acacamps.org/accreditation/marketing). Numerous other instances can be found where accreditation is synonymous with marketing.
- Private Duty Service Expansion through Accreditation and Marketing Excellence
- Importance of Accreditation as a Marketing Strategy
- Use CLE Accreditation as a Marketing Tool
Marketing is not risk management and not good at providing a defense to litigation. The two are opposite in purpose. Marketing is trying to bring people to the program by telling people the program is great and to some extent, safe. If someone is injured, then the program was not safe and the marketing was not true. Having your marketing turn on you while you are a defendant is one of the worst situations to find yourself when involved in litigation. Having your marketing prove that you were a bad operator is the worst.
That does not mean you should not get the best training you can receive in running your business, no matter what the name of the certificate you receive at the end.
Accreditation does have a legal definition and support.
Accreditation from a legal standpoint is defined by Federal Statutes. The Department of Education oversees accreditation of colleges and universities in the United States. A list of accredited college and universities and the agencies that can accredit a college or university can be found at the Department’s website. (There is also a list of those colleges that are no longer recognized.) The department of education also has a statutory scheme for determining how an educational organization will be accredited, which can be found at USC § 1099b. Recognition of accrediting agency or association.
From a legal standpoint, an accredited educational intuition is on that list. It is eligible for federal and state assistance and students of those colleges are eligible for federal financial aid.
Accreditation from any other organization for any other purpose is done to enhance or market the organization seeking the approval and the agency granting the approval. Let’s first look at what this means.
If you are not seeking to offer federal financial aid to your students or receive federal aid, then accreditation can be anything you want. If you want to be accredited, send me $10.00, and I will accredit you. (You have been accredited by James H. Moss) My accreditation has the same legal value and possibly the same marketing value as any other accreditation you can receive. The issues are not. What was done, but what can you hang on your wall and advertise to prospective clients who make you look good? (The $10 will get you a cheap diploma you have to print yourself.)
A good attorney will always look behind the diploma to see what is being covered up. Throw rugs hide spots on carpets, and pictures hide holes on the wall. Attorneys know that paperwork on the wall may be covering up something that the program felt they lacked. In some cases, he or she may only find a hole in the wall. In many cases, he will see that the accreditation is just marketing. Even without an injury that can be associated with a violation of the accreditation requirements, the attorney will use the accreditation against the organization. As the owner proudly runs through his accomplishments on the witness stand, mentioning that his organization is accredited by XYZ trade association the plaintiffs’ attorney will be prepared.
The plaintiff’s attorney will have gone through each of the accreditation requirements that the organization no longer meets or violated and have the owner admit to the problems. If the accreditation is not really based on any real requirements, (like mine), then that will also be pointed out. Either the organization manager or owner will come away looking like they bought the paper to impress guests, or they earned it and then ignored it. A marketing program gone awry.
In many cases, this “accreditation mills” type of accreditation may be probably safer from a legal perspective. There is no list of items or requirements that can be used to show you violated that as an accredited organization, you should not have broken.
You are, in fact, buying marketing when you seek accreditation. This purchase works both ways providing the accrediting agency with value because they can list the organizations that have received accreditation, thus promoting themselves. The organizations that receive accreditation have come to the trade association for its seal of approval boosting the association’s standings the eyes of the industry.
However, accreditation can have a negative side also. Accreditation usually is accompanied by a list of the requirements that must be met. The more the accrediting organization wants to promote itself the longer the list. For an agency that has been accredited, this list then becomes a set of rules which they have agreed to meet. Any failure to meet these rules or regulations cannot be violated. Example:
If the accreditation says you will have one guide per five guests any variation from this at the time of an injury, and the plaintiffs (injured person) attorney has proof that you violated your own rules or standards of operation. In effect, you have provided the plaintiffs with a list of rules which you have agreed not to violate at risk of losing your accreditation.
If accreditation was a true accreditation, it would be removed when an accredited organization fails to continue to meet accreditation. Remember the Department of Education has that list of colleges that no longer are accredited. I’ve never seen a trade association do this (doesn’t mean they don’t).
By providing the plaintiff’s attorney with a list of requirements for accreditation you have also provided the plaintiff’s attorney with the standards that you have breached. The standard is what a reasonable man or organization would do in your situation. Instead of having to dig and hire expects to achieve that information, the plaintiff only has to look up the requirements for accreditation. If the injured guest, the plaintiff’s attorney’s client, was injured when something on that list was not met, then the attorney has proof of a breach of a standard.
It is irritating to see an expert witness report from the plaintiff that goes through each of the points the defendant missed for the diploma hanging on the wall. Most times the plaintiff’s expert witness was trained by the trade association that created the accreditation.
How do you think the Defendant feels watching someone trained by an association he paid money to join and more money to receive their marketing program testify against them?
In the above case, if the accreditation required one guide per five guests and there were twenty guests than the program needs four guides. If one guide stops to look at a flower or slows to tie his shoe, the program now has one guide per 6 or seven guests. If a guest is injured at that moment, the plaintiff’s attorney will argue that the injury could have been prevented with more guides, the standard required a specific number of guides, the defendant organization knew it needed more guides, (it was accredited) and if failed to provide the necessary number of guides.
Accreditation, like any outside review can cost you.
Whenever you have someone come into a program and provide you with a review of your program, that review may come back to haunt you. It is subject to discovery in litigation. Discovery means any document or witness that may have information that may lead to information about the case must be provided to the opposing side. Any document, such as an accreditation review, whether you passed it or not, must be given to the opposing side. Consequently, you want to make sure that any outside review is done in a professional manner and that negative comments and issues are either handled correctly, fixed immediately, or are not part of the written review.
Accreditation has greater value, greater weight for the plaintiff when you have failed to meet the requirements you paid to have reviewed. If the accreditation was so valuable to you, it cost you time and money to receive, how could you, then ignore it without violating the rules?
An example of this that went wrong is the case of Adam Dzialo. (See Marketing is marketing and Risk Management is not marketing, http://rec-law.us/1bPWl1c; Money is important in some lawsuits, but the emotions that start a lawsuit., http://rec-law.us/xbSs4M; Serious Disconnect: Why people sue., http://rec-law.us/wm2cBn, Wow, someone apologized, http://rec-law.us/xEIujw) Adam was enrolled in a summer camp run by Greenfield Community College. The college had just undergone a review to achieve accreditation. The accreditation report stated the number of instructors for the whitewater class was insufficient. Adam suffered a leg entrapment during a whitewater class suffering permanent brain injuries. The number of instructors for the class was below the number required to achieve accreditation, and this became a major issue during the litigation. The review provided in the accreditation process was used by the plaintiff to argue the defendant was negligent.
The defendant was told their program was insufficient, and they ignored that notice. Is the defendant liable?!
Accreditation from the perspective of an advanced degree
If you do not want your program to be marketed as an amusement but something that provides greater benefits, you might align yourself with educational organizations. As such, an “accreditation” may add that aura of validity as an educational organization rather than a summer camp. No matter that most kids would rather go to a fun summer camp than an educational one. (Not that those concepts are totally separate.)
In a courtroom, however, the marketing will be stripped bare and what you are will be laid out in the courtroom. No matter how much money you spend on marketing, if the jury sees you as an amusement park, you are an amusement park, and your marketing program will be exposed as a ruse.
It is easy to strip away an accreditation program. A plaintiff’s lawyer simply goes to the list of developed by the US Department of Education of accreditation agencies and looks for the association that accredited you. As the defendant, you are then in a position of trying to prove the value of your accreditation or diploma on the wall. What did you pay for it and why? What value does it really have? If it is not recognized, isn’t it no more than a marketing program or worse a scam.
The department of education has a statutory scheme for determining how an educational organization will be accredited. USC § 1099b. Recognition of accrediting agency or association. The department of education itself does not accredit educational institutions.
Many times an accrediting association believes that by creating a list of objectives, rules and items to meet the accrediting goals, they have done a good job. In essence, the more rules and paper the better the accreditation. However, as the Department of Education and as most people already know, more does not mean better. The accreditation is based on the “the institution’s mission, goals and objectives, resources and resource allocation, student admission requirements, student support services and the quality of the faculty and educational offerings.” The accreditation is based on the college’s goals as well as the accrediting organizations’ goals.
More may mean very bad.
One of the basic tenets of education is teaching. Helping the student understand, comprehend and be able to use the knowledge gained. One of the tenets of accreditation is the educational organization employs instructors who know the subject matter of what they are teaching but also employs people who have been trained to teach. Very few association accreditation checklists look at whether the instructors have degrees in teaching.
Accreditation at best is just one of many ways an organization can show they strive to be as good as they can and to maintain good practices. It is among a list of things that an organization can do. That other equally important, if not more important items include constant training of employees, maintain professional relationships with trade associations and attending conferences, staying current in the industry. However, the paper on the wall or the seal of approval on the front door, do not prove that this was either effective or provides any protection. The issue is and always has been doing the defendant organization breach a duty of care to the injured plaintiff.
So, what does it mean when you do not meet the standards or accreditation of the trade association when someone was injured?
A legal duty is the duty owed to the plaintiff or what would a reasonable person do in the defendant’s situation. Duty is the first of four steps that the plaintiff must prove to prove negligence. Those steps are:
- Breach of a duty
- Injury proximately caused by the breach of duty.
- Damages from the injury
For the plaintiff to win his or her lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove all four elements of negligence. As you can see, nothing in the definition of negligence is based on the diplomas on the wall or the certificates in a file.
The hardest part of any negligence suit to prove for the plaintiff is, was there a duty and a breach of the duty. Duty is defined as the standard of care of a reasonable person or organization in the same position as the defendant. Normally, the plaintiff and his or her attorney would hire expert witnesses to determine if the duty was breached. However, if there is a written document which the defendant has agreed to abide by in running his or her organization, the written document will be substituted by the plaintiff as the standard of care. Those requirements that you met to be accredited are then transposed by the plaintiff as the standards of care that you agreed to meet. Your agreement to meet those requirements is evidence by you proclaiming them to the guests.
By agreeing to them or by calling them standards, it is a foregone conclusion, almost, that, that is the standard of care you breached.
In effect, once accreditation is obtained, it becomes the level of operation that the organization can never fall below. It becomes a list of requirements the organization must always meet every day.
Accreditation or lack thereof, can also come back to haunt you in another way. Like any misrepresentation, if you claim you have a level of training or skill, and you don’t. That is misrepresentation or fraud. Even if the accreditation has no value as a defense and is only a marketing ploy, failure to have what you claim is fraud, and you are liable for any injury your misrepresentation caused.
A good example of that is you are accredited by XYZ Association on January 1, 2012 for a three-year term. Your accreditation says you have your staff trained in current CPR. In January of 2014, the American Red Cross changes how CPR is taught, and none of your staff are current. In fact, 99% of the people trained in CPR are no longer current. If on January 2, 2014, you have someone have a heart attack on your property who dies, are you liable because you stated and held yourself out as being accredited and yet you were not?
Professional relationships, membership in trade associations, employee training and staying current rarely have the possible kick back that the certificate on the wall may have. Those ways of maintaining professionalism do not come with a list of ways that you have failed to be professional.
Another way that any type of training can come back to haunt an industry is in raising the expectation of the guests of the industry above the normal level of care.
Any value of accreditation that once existed has been diluted by its adoption by numerous other industries. Once the sole domain of higher education, as stated earlier anyone and everyone are now offering accreditation for anything and everything. As such, the term has lost any significance in its value to the public. And that value has always been as a marketing tool rather than a legal defense.
Accreditation to be valuable must occur regularly and be current.
Another major issue is once a program receives accreditation. The program ceases to stay current. The program rests on its laurels on in this case the accreditation. The accreditation provides a false sense of accomplishment and finality, when just the opposite is true.
Staying current in an industry is the only way to stay in the winning column in litigation.
Major Organizations do not offer Accreditation.
Very few trade associations offer accreditation. They know that the cost of keeping the accreditation up to the level it should be along with the risk it subjects its membership too, do not justify the time and expense. Some of the organizations that do not offer accreditation in the outdoor recreation industry are the National Ski Area Association, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America and America Outdoors. All of these organizations represent large groups of people. Commercial or business ventures that are serious about their business and represent a large segment of their industry.
Is Accreditation bad?
No accreditation is not a bad thing, unless you are sold on the idea and achieve the accreditation on a mistaken theory that it will assist in either staying out of court or winning in court.
However, like all programs you must know what you are buying. No longer are the days of caveat emptor the rule of the day. That legal pronouncement was created when determining the age of your transportation consisted of looking at the horse’s teeth and walking around the animal. Now days you can look at a car engine for hours and never know if it will run for a day or a lifetime.
The plaintiff is opening your program’s hood and looking forward to seeing if your program runs. You are saying it will because of the paper on the wall or the seal on your website. The trade association went through a checklist of items and issues to hand you a piece of paper. None of those items can guaranty the safety of the guest. All of those items can be used by the guest to prove the program liable and hold you and the trade association accountable.
As it applies to you when you are looking at marketing your program as well as when your clients are looking at your program. If you believe that a marketing program will protect you, you are not studying the program hard enough. Neither will accreditation guaranty the safety of your guests.
- Make sure you know what you are accomplishing before you start.
- Justify why you are going down that route.
- Make sure if your path can be interpreted two ways, that you cover both options to make them good ideas.
- If you find problems fix them immediately.
- You understand the difference between risk management and marketing.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include.Posted: January 22, 2018
In addition, incorrect name on the release gave plaintiff an additional argument. The LLC registered by the Indiana Secretary of State was named differently than the named party to be protected by the release.
Luck saved the defendant in this case.
State: Indiana: United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division
Plaintiff: Alexis Wiemer
Defendant: Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC,
Plaintiff Claims: Negligent Hiring and Instruction
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: For the Defendant
Release was written broadly enough it covered negligence claims outside the normal injuries or claims from using a climbing wall. On top of that the mistakes in the release were covered by the letterhead.
Injury occurred because belayer did not know how to use the braking device.
A lot of things could have gone wrong because the climbing wall was not paying attention, but got lucky.
The plaintiff was a beginner in climbing and using climbing walls. Before climbing he signed a release and attended a facility orientation which covered training “on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.” The training received by the plaintiff was taught by an employee with little experience and mostly went over the defendant’s instructional books on rock climbing.
On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to climb with a co-worker. While climbing the co-worker failed to use the belay device properly.
Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations. [emphasize added]
The plaintiff sued for his injuries.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The plaintiff’s first argument was the name of the parties to be released was not the legal name of the facility where the accident occurred. The facility was owned by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) registered with the state of Indiana as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” On the release, the name of the party to be protected was “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility.” The release name had an extra word, “rock.”
The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State, although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy created ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.
However, the name and logo on the top of the release identified the company correctly, Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.
Since the release was a contract, the court was required to determine if the name issue made the contract ambiguous. Ambiguous means the language of the contract could be interpreted in more than one way. The name issue was not enough to find the contract was unambiguous so that the release was not void. The name issue was minor, and the correct name was at the top of the contract.
Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.
The second argument the plaintiff made was the release did not cover the claimed negligence of the defendant for negligent instruction, and negligent training. Those claims are generally not defined as an inherent risk of indoor rock climbing.
The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.
Inherent is a restrictive word. See 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release? and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release, and is interpreted differently by various courts. Consequently, the use of the word inherent can be dangerous in that it limits the breadth of the release.
Under Indiana’s law a release must be “specific and explicitly refer to the waiving [of] that the party’s negligence.” However, that explicit reference is not necessary for a claim that is inherent in the activity.
Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.”
The plaintiff’s argument was:
Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume. Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing.
The court could work around this explicit necessity because it found within the release language that covered the negligent training and instruction.
…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…
It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.
By reviewing the exact language of the release, the court was able to find language that warned of the specific issues the plaintiff claimed.
Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver.
The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.
As such the court found that both claims were prevented by the release the plaintiff had signed and dismissed the case.
So Now What?
This case was won by the defendant not because of proper legal planning but by luck.
If they had not used the correct letterhead for the release, the release might have been void because it named the wrong party to be protected by the release. When writing a release, you need to include the legal name of the party to be protected as well as any marketing or doing business as names.
Indiana’s requirement that the language of the release cover the exact injury the plaintiff is claiming is not new in most states. It is also a requirement that seems to be growing by the courts to favor a contract that covers the complaint.
In the past, judges would specifically point out when a claimed injury was covered in the release. Not so much as a legal requirement but to point out to the plaintiff the release covered their complaint. That prior identification seems to be growing among the states to a requirement.
In this case the release was written broadly so that the restrictions the term inherent placed in the release were covered. But for that broad language, the climbing gym might now have survived the claim.
More important writing the release wrong protecting the wrong party would have been fatal in most states.
Finally, this is another example of a belay system that is perfect, and the user failed. There are belay systems out there that don’t require user involvement, they work as long as they are corrected properly. This accident could have been avoided if the belay system worked.
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Alexis Wiemer, Plaintiff, v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, Defendant.
Case No. 1:16-cv-01383-TWP-MJD
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA, INDIANAPOLIS DIVISION
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663
September 15, 2017, Decided
September 15, 2017, Filed
COUNSEL: [*1] For ALEXIS WIEMER, Plaintiff: Mary Beth Ramey, Richard D. Hailey, RAMEY – HAILEY, Indianapolis, IN.
For HOOSIER HEIGHTS INDOOR CLIMBING FACILITY LLC, Defendant: Jessica Whelan, Phil L. Isenbarger, BINGHAM GREENEBAUM DOLL LLP, Indianapolis, IN.
JUDGES: TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: TANYA WALTON PRATT
ENTRY ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT
This matter is before the Court on Defendant Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC’s (“Hoosier Heights”) Motion for Summary Judgment filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 (Filing No. 29). Plaintiff Alexis Wiemer (“Wiemer”) brought this action against Hoosier Heights for personal injuries sustained when he fell during a rock climbing activity. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment.
The material facts are not in dispute and are viewed in a light most favorable to Wiemer as the non-moving party. See Luster v. Ill. Dep’t of Corr., 652 F.3d 726, 728 (7th Cir. 2011).
Hoosier Heights, located in Carmel, Indiana, is a limited liability company which owns and operates an indoor rock climbing facility. The facility is open to the public and is available for individuals of all skill levels in recreational climbing. In order to use the facilities, Hoosier Heights requires all patrons [*2] to sign and acknowledge having read and understood a “Waiver & Release of Liability” form (“Waiver”). (Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver contains: general gym rules, exculpatory clauses relieving Hoosier Heights of liability, a medical authorization clause, an acknowledgement that the participant understands there are inherent risks to rock climbing with some risks listed, authorization to allow the Hoosier Heights’ staff to use any photographs taken during the patron’s visit for promotional materials, and a signature line for the participant. (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) At the top of the Waiver is Hoosier Heights’ logo, address, and the name Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing.
The Waiver states, in relevant part:
RELEASE AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK: In consideration of being permitted to use the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C., and mindful of the significant risks involved with the activities incidental thereto, I, for myself, my heirs, my estate and personal representative, do hereby release and discharge Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. (hereinafter referred to as “Hoosier Heights”) from any and all liability for injury that may result from my [*3] use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing, and I do hereby waive and relinquish any and all actions or causes of action for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death occurring to myself arising as a result of the use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights or any activities incidental thereto, wherever or however such personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death may occur, whether foreseen or unforeseen, and for whatever period said activities may continue. I agree that under no circumstances will I, my heirs, my estate or my personal representative present any claim for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death against Hoosier Heights or its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns for any of said causes of actions, whether said causes of action shall arise by the negligence of any said person or otherwise.
It is the intention of the undersigned individual to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns from liability for any personal injury, property damage or wrongful death caused by negligence.
(Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver also contained a provision enumerating the risks [*4] inherent in the sport of rock climbing:
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: I, the undersigned, acknowledge that I understand that there are significant elements of risk associated with the sport of rock climbing, including those activities that take place indoors. In addition, I realize those risks also pertain to related activities such as bouldering, incidental weight training, team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights. I realize that those risks may include, but are not limited to, injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facilities. I acknowledge and understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing or the use of the Hoosier Heights facilities and that other unknown and unanticipated risks may result in injury, illness, paralysis, or death.
Id. In addition to executing the Waiver, Hoosier Heights requires that all patrons attend and acknowledge undergoing orientation and training.
Wiemer visited Hoosier Heights in October 2014. On that date, he attended [*5] a facility orientation, which is an employee-guided training on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.1 (Filing No. 30-7.) If a customer intends to use the “top rope” climbing area of the facility, they must first complete the “top rope” orientation and initial and sign the facility orientation form in the appropriate locations. Following his orientation and training, Wiemer signed a Waiver form.
1 Top rope climbing is a style of climbing in which a rope runs from a belayer at the foot of the climbing wall which is connected to an anchor system at the top of the wall and back down to the climber. Both climber and the belayer are attached to the rope through a harness and carabiner. The belayer is responsible for pulling the slack in the rope, which results in the climber moving up the wall. The belayer must keep the rope tight so that, in the event the climber releases from the wall, the climber remains suspended in the air and does not fall.
Kayli Mellencamp (“Mellencamp”), a part-time Hoosier Heights employee with very little rock climbing experience, provided Wiemer’s orientation and training. (Filing No. 30-6.) Mellencamp’s employee training consisted solely of reviewing company provided instructional books on rock climbing and witnessing other employee orientations. (Filing No. 67-2 at 10-11 and 13-14.) Mellencamp had no other professional rock climbing experience.
On January 14, 2015, Wiemer, along with several co-workers, including Robert Magnus (“Magnus”), traveled to Hoosier Heights for recreational rock climbing. Magnus had also previously visited Hoosier Heights, and Wiemer’s and Magnus’ Waivers were already on file and under the terms of their agreements remained in effect (Filing No. 30-6; Filing No. 30-7). Wiemer [*6] was top rope climbing while Magnus belayed below (Filing No. 30-4). Unfortunately, Wiemer fell while he was climbing. Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. (Filing No. 30-4 at 1-4.) As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
The purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.Com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489-90 (7th Cir. 2007). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews “the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw[s] all reasonable [*7] inferences in that party’s favor.” Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). However, “[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial.” Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 490 (citation omitted). “In much the same way that a court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat the motion for summary judgment, nor is it permitted to conduct a paper trial on the merits of a claim.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotations omitted). “[N]either the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties . . . nor the existence of some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts . . . is sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Grp., Inc., 129 F.3d 391, 395 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “It is equally well settled, however, that where no factual disputes are present or where the undisputed facts demonstrate that one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment in favor of that party is entirely appropriate. Collins v. American Optometric Ass’n, 693 F.2d 636, 639 (7th Cir. 1982).
Hoosier Heights contends that Wiemer’s signing of the Waiver, which contained an explicit reference waiving liability [*8] for Hoosier Heights’ own negligence, absolves it of any liability and Wiemer expressly acknowledged that falling was a risk inherent in indoor rock climbing. Wiemer responds with two arguments in the alternative. First, he argues that the Waiver misidentifies the released party as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility” because the Defendant’s name, as alleged in the Complaint and as evidenced by the Indiana Secretary of State Certificate of Assumed Business Name, is “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” (Filing No. 67-4.) Second, Wiemer argues that Hoosier Heights negligence in the hiring and training of Mellencamp, was not an included “inherent risk” and this significantly contributed to his fall and injury.
A. Hoosier Heights’ Business Name
The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C.’ (Filing No. 30-1 at 1). Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material [*9] fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy creates ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.
The Court is not persuaded by Wiemer’s argument. “Release documents shall be interpreted in the same manner as any other contract document, with the intention of the parties regarding the purpose of the document governing.” Huffman v. Monroe County Community School Corp., 588 N.E.2d 1264, 1267 (Ind. 1992). “The meaning of a contract is to be determined from an examination of all of its provisions, not from a consideration of individual words, phrases, or even paragraphs read alone.” Huffman, 588 N.E.2d at 1267. In addition, when a contract is unambiguous, Indiana courts look to the four corners of the document to determine the intentions of the parties. Evan v. Poe & Associates, Inc., 873 N.E.2d 92, 98 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). This analysis of contract interpretation is a question of law. Evans v. Med. & Prof’l Collection Servs., Inc., 741 N.E.2d 795, 797 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).
In Evans, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that a contract was unambiguous that misidentified a business name in the agreement but included the relevant address as that of the business. Evans, 741 N.E.2d at 798. The Evans court found that the plaintiff could not recover payment from the owner, “Evans Ford,” in his personal capacity, even though that was the name indicated in the contract and the actual business [*10] was organized as a corporation under the name of “Evans Lincoln Mercury Ford, Inc.” Id. at 796-98. The court did not resort to extrinsic evidence because the contract unambiguously identified the parties despite the misidentification. See id. at 798.
In this case, the Waiver is unambiguous as to identifying the parties to the agreement. Although the language of the Release and Assumption of Risk paragraph identifies “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility,” the document’s letterhead at the top displays “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing,” and includes the relevant business address of Hoosier Heights where Wiemer visited. Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.
B. Negligent Training
Hoosier Heights contends that summary judgment is appropriate because the Waiver’s explicit references to the “inherent risks” of rock climbing creates a binding exculpatory clause which releases Hoosier Heights from liability. Wiemer argues that a genuine issue of material fact exists [*11] regarding whether improper instruction and inadequate training, is an “inherent risk” of indoor rock climbing.
Under Indiana law, waivers containing exculpatory clauses absolving parties of liability for their own negligence must be specific and explicitly refer to waiving that party’s negligence. Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center, 852 N.E.2d 576, 584 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006). Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.” Id. (citing Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998, 1000 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999)).
Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume (Filing No. 67 at 10). Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing. Id. Hoosier Heights responds that falls, as indicated by the Waiver, are a specific risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing and that Wiemer specifically waived any claims to injuries from falls by signing the Waiver (Filing No. 68 at 14). Hoosier Heights also contends that Wiemer waived any claims for improper training and instruction [*12] by its’ employees as the Waiver contains an explicit release of Hoosier Heights’ employees for any negligence. Id. at 12.
Hoosier Heights acknowledges that negligence is generally a fact-intensive question; however, it responds that it is entitled to summary judgment because Wiemer waived any claims for liability on the basis of negligence. Id. at 11. Hoosier Heights points the Court to Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center. In Anderson, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the defendant, an equine center, was entitled to summary judgment even though the waiver at issue did not contain a specific and explicit release of the equine center due to its own negligence because the plaintiff’s injury of falling while mounting her horse was a risk inherent in the nature of the activity of horse riding. Anderson, 852 N.E.2d at 581. The plaintiff argued that her injury was due to the equine center’s negligence in caring for, conditioning, and training her horse. The court found that the plaintiff’s injury and resulting damages, including her characterization of the cause of those damages (i.e. conditioning and training of her horse), were risks that were inherent in the nature of horse riding and were exactly those for [*13] which she granted the equine center a release of liability by signing the waiver. Id. at 585.
In the present case, Wiemer signed a specific and explicit Waiver, which released Hoosier Heights from liability due to its own negligence. The Waiver explained that “rock climbing activity” at Hoosier Heights included, among other things,
…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…. I understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing.
(Filing No. 30-6 at 1). In addition, a very similarly worded reference to liability from their own negligence is contained in the second paragraph of the ‘Release and Assumption of Risk’ section which states, “It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.” (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) The direct mentions [*14] of Hoosier Heights’ own negligence adheres to the holding set in Powell that an exculpatory clause needs to be specific and explicit in referencing an absolving party’s liability from negligence.
Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is appropriate.
For the reasons stated above, the Court determines that, based on the undisputed material facts, Hoosier Heights is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Filing No. 29) is GRANTED, and Wiemer’s Complaint is DISMISSED. Final Judgment will issue under a separate order.
/s/ Tanya Walton Pratt
TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, and Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs, v. United States of America, Defendant.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTHERN DIVISION
2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135289
September 25, 2014, Decided
September 25, 2014, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89741 (E.D.N.C., 2011)
CORE TERMS: orientation, training, summary judgment, public interest, guardian, non-commercial, attend, cadet, attendance, signature, daughter’s, public policy, enforceable, genuine, waive, obstacle, quasi-estoppel, participating, recreational, undersigned, pre-injury, parental, affirmative defense, genuine issue, transportation, municipalities, educational, unambiguous, discovery, workshop
COUNSEL: [*1] For Morgan Kelly, Pamela Kelly, Terry Kelly, Plaintiffs: Steven Michael Stancliff, LEAD ATTORNEY, James L. Chapman , IV, Crenshaw, Ware and Martin, P.L.C., Norfolk, VA.
For United States of America, Defendant: Matthew Lee Fesak, R. A. Renfer , Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Raleigh, NC.
JUDGES: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: LOUISE W. FLANAGAN
This matter comes before the court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (DE 93). This matter has been fully briefed, and the issues raised are ripe for review. For the following reasons, the court grants defendant’s motion.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
The court refers to and incorporates the case history provided in previous orders, including its recent order on defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for gross negligence. Kelly v. United States, No. 7:10-CV-172, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114376, 2014 WL 4098943 (E.D.N.C. Aug. 18, 2014) (“August 2014 Order”). Pertinent to the instant motion, plaintiffs commenced this action on September 2, 2010, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671, et seq., seeking damages in excess of ten million dollars ($10,000,000.00) for injuries allegedly suffered by plaintiff Morgan Kelly, daughter of plaintiffs Terry and Pamela Kelly. The [*2] court previously issued an order August 11, 2011, granting in part and denying in part plaintiffs’ motion to strike, in particular allowing defendant to raise the affirmative defense that plaintiff Pamela Kelly had waived plaintiffs’ claims. Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 437-38 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (“August 2011 Order”).
On November 25, 2013, defendant filed the instant motion for summary judgment, which also included the motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ gross negligence claim. Plaintiffs responded in opposition on February 27, 2014, and defendant replied on March 13, 2014.
Plaintiffs’ memorandum in opposition included a motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) for additional discovery regarding the use, allocation and disposition of monies received from Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (“NJROTC”) cadets in exchange for the cadets’ attendance in the July 2007 orientation visit at issue in this case. The court granted plaintiff’s motion on March 31, 2014, and subsequently issued an order on scheduling directing the parties to complete the additional discovery by May 30, 2014. Plaintiffs were given until June 13, 2014, to file a supplemental brief in opposition to the government’s motion. However, the deadline passed without such brief being filed.
On August [*3] 18, 2014, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss. The order noted that it did not address the motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs’ remaining claims. August 2014 Order, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114376, 2014 WL 4098943, at *1, n. 1. This motion comes now before the court.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
The facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, may be summarized as follows:
In July 2007, plaintiff Morgan Kelly, then fifteen (15) years of age, was a cadet in the NJROTC program at her high school. Plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s twin sister, Magan Kelly, also was a NJROTC cadet. The NJROTC program included an orientation visit to United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (“Camp Lejeune”).
Prior to the orientation visit, plaintiffs received a “Waiver of Liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement.” (“Liability Waiver”) (DE 94-3). The Liability Waiver included the following language:
In consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and further recognizing the voluntary nature of my participation in this event, I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, [*4] administrators, legal representatives and any other persons on my behalf, any and all rights and claims for damages, demands, and any other actions whatsoever, including those attributable to simple negligence, which I may have against any of the following persons or entities: the United States of America . . . which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me. I FURTHER VERIFY THAT I HAVE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ATTENDING THIS EVENT. I EXPRESSLY, KNOWINGLY, AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISKS INVOLVED IN THE PLANNED ACTIVITIES INCLUDING TRANSPORTATION TO AND FROM THE EVENT, AND AGREE TO HOLD THE UNITED STATES HARMLESS FOR ANY RESULTING INJURY. I understand that this assumption of risk agreement shall remain in effect until notice of cancellation is received by the Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized [*5] event.
(DE 94-3 at 1). (See attached as Addendum A hereto.)
Below this language, the form provided lines for the signature and printed name of the minor participant, along with lines for the signature of a parent or guardian, “on behalf of” the minor. Morgan and Magan’s mother, plaintiff Pamela Kelly, signed the form, believing that she was signing it for Magan. She left the blanks which required Magan’s name for Magan to complete. However, plaintiff Pamela Kelly did not sign a form for her other daughter because plaintiff Morgan Kelly originally planned to attend a sailing trip in Florida at the time of the orientation.
Subsequently, plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s sailing trip was cancelled, and she joined the orientation visit. She signed and printed her name onto the Liability Waiver in the spaces that her mother had left for Magan Kelly. The Liability Waiver, in its unredacted format, includes Magan Kelly’s social security number, but it is unclear how this number appeared on the form or who wrote it. The Liability Waiver does not otherwise mention Magan Kelly. It is unclear whether a separate form was submitted for Magan Kelly or whether she attended the orientation.
While planning the [*6] orientation visit, Operations Specialist Frank Acevedo (“Acevedo”) sent a packet of information to plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s high school, including a list of training activities and a brief description of an obstacle course challenge known as the “Confidence Course.” However, neither plaintiff Pamela Kelly nor plaintiff Terry Kelly received a copy of this information packet prior to the orientation visit, and neither parent otherwise communicated with Acevedo or any other government representative from Camp Lejeune before the orientation visit.
The orientation visit began on July 23, 2007. During the visit, the cadets were allowed to use government facilities at Camp Lejeune at no expense, and were not charged for the instruction they received. Cadets were responsible only for paying for meals eaten at a Camp Lejeune dining facility at a Discount Meal Rate, and for personal purchases made at a Post Exchange.1
1 Although plaintiffs’ memorandum in opposition questioned defendant’s characterization of how the money received from students was used, plaintiffs failed to renew any challenge or provide any support for such a challenge after the court granted their request for additional discovery [*7] on the matter. As such, the court finds that plaintiffs do not object to the government’s description of the collection and use of money from the NJROTC cadets.
On July 27, 2007, plaintiff Morgan Kelly, along with the other cadets, completed two obstacle courses prior to undertaking the series of obstacles known as the “Confidence Course.” Before the cadets completed the Confidence Course, two Marine instructors from the School of Infantry provided preliminary instructions, the content of which is disputed.2 The final obstacle of the Confidence Course, called the “Slide for Life,” was a climbing apparatus. Defendant knew that the Slide for Life posed a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury if it were not successfully negotiated. However, defendant did not assess plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s physical capabilities before she climbed the Slide for Life. Nor did defendant provide any safety harnesses, restraints, or other protection systems that would prevent her from falling. While attempting to climb the Slide for Life, plaintiff Morgan Kelly fell and suffered injuries.
2 Defendant asserts that the instructors “provided a safety brief and a demonstration of how to navigate each obstacle,” [*8] (Def.’s Mem. in Supp. at 1-2) (DE 94), while plaintiffs assert that Marine instructors provided only a “walk-through” of the course, without safety warnings. (Pls.’s Mem. in Opp. at 4) (DE 101).
A. Standard of Review 3
3 Plaintiffs’ arguments in opposition to the motion for summary judgment raise several issues addressed by the court in its August 2011 Order on motion to strike. The court considers anew plaintiffs’ arguments under the standard applicable to the instant motion for summary judgment.
Summary judgment is appropriate where an examination of the pleadings, affidavits, and other discovery materials properly before the court demonstrates “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (holding that a factual dispute is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the suit and “genuine” only if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party).
The party seeking summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate [*9] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must then “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). There is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. In making this determination, the court must view the inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962).
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment rests on its argument that the Liability Waiver bars plaintiffs’ claims. As detailed in the court’s August 2011 Order on plaintiffs’ motion to strike, liability waivers are generally enforceable under North Carolina law.4 See Kelly v. United States, 809 F. Supp. 2d 429, 433 (E.D.N.C. 2011) (citing Hall v. Sinclair Refining Co., 242 N.C. 707, 709, 89 S.E.2d 396 (1955)). Moreover, because plaintiff Morgan Kelly is a minor and has disaffirmed her waiver by filing complaint, her own waiver is unenforceable under North Carolina law. See id. at 434 (citing Baker v. Adidas Am., Inc., 335 F. App’x 356, 359 (4th Cir. 2009); Creech v. Melnik, 147 N.C. App. 471, 475, 556 S.E.2d 587 (2001); Freeman v. Bridger, 49 N.C. 1 (1856)).
4 In actions under the FTCA, “federal courts apply the substantive law of the state in which the act or omission giving rise to the action occurred.” Myrick v. United States, 723 F.2d 1158, 1159 (4th Cir. 1983). Because the alleged act or omission giving rise to the action occurred in North Carolina, [*10] North Carolina law governs the nature and extent of the government’s liability for plaintiffs’ injuries.
It does not appear that North Carolina courts have ruled on whether a liability waiver signed by a parent on behalf of a minor child is enforceable, yet numerous courts in other jurisdictions have upheld pre-injury liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of minors in the context of litigation filed against schools, municipalities, and clubs providing activities for children. See, e.g., Gonzalez v. City of Coral Gables, 871 So. 2d 1067, 1067-68 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2004); Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 106-12, 769 N.E.2d 738 (2002); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 374, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201 (1998); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1564-65, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647 (1990). In its August 2011 Order the court held that North Carolina would similarly uphold a pre-injury waiver executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child in the context of the facts alleged here. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 437. Now on plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, the court continues to find that these cases are analogous to the circumstances here, where the facilities and instruction of the NJROTC program were provided at no expense and students were charged only for personal purchases from the Post Exchange and for meals at discount rate.
Plaintiffs nevertheless argue that the Liability Waiver is contrary to public policy. For support, they point to the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in McMurray v. United States, 551 F. App’x 651 (4th Cir. 2014). Although contracts [*11] seeking to release a party from liability for negligence generally are enforceable in North Carolina, the public policy exception prohibits a person from contracting to protect himself from “liability for negligence in the performance of a duty of public service, or where a public duty is owed, or public interest is involved, or where public interest requires the performance of a private duty.” McMurray, 551 F. App’x at 653-54 (quoting Hall, 242 N.C. at 710).5
5 Exculpatory clauses or contracts are also not enforceable when the provisions violate a statute, or are gained through inequality of bargaining power. McMurray, 551 F. App’x at 653; Hall, 242 N.C. at 709-10. The August 2011 Order rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that these two factors applied to the Liability Waiver. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 434, n. 6. Plaintiffs have not raised those arguments again here.
In McMurray, the plaintiff, a high school guidance counselor, completed a release of liability form in order to attend a workshop for educational professionals hosted by the Marine Corps at its facility on Parris Island, South Carolina. Id. at 652. The document released the government from any injuries arising out of participation in the workshop, including “riding in government-provided transportation (to include transportation to and from the Educator’s Workshop.)” Id. The [*12] plaintiff subsequently was injured when the Marine recruiter who drove her to the workshop ran a red light and collided with another car. Id. Noting the numerous statutes, regulations and cases governing public roads in North Carolina, the court determined that the state had a “strong public-safety interest in careful driving and the observance of all traffic-related rules and regulations.” Id. at 654. The court concluded that allowing the government to be released from the duty to use reasonable care when driving would violate that policy, and accordingly held the release unenforceable under North Carolina law. Id. at 656.
Plaintiffs argue that the Liability Waiver is contrary to an “equally compelling interest,” in this case being, “the obligation of the government to exercise reasonable care for the safety of minor school children participating in a congressionally-sanctioned (and funded) JROTC program.” (Pls.’s Mem. in Opp. at 20). Protecting the safety of minor school children in programs like JROTC (and NJROTC) is undoubtedly a matter of public interest. However, this case also involves a countervailing public interest in facilitating JROTC’s provision of non-commercial services to children on a [*13] voluntary basis without the risks and overwhelming costs of litigation.
The public’s interest in the benefits provided by JROTC programs is embodied in federal statutes and regulations governing these programs’ purpose and administration, which set forth such objectives as instilling in students “the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment,” 10 U.S.C. § 2031(a)(2), along with imparting other benefits such as good communication skills, an appreciation of physical fitness, and a knowledge of basic military skills. 32 C.F.R. § 542.4. Moreover, North Carolina has demonstrated a public interest in the non-commercial provision of educational or recreational activities, by enacting statutes such as the recreational use statute, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 38A-4, which encourages landowners to allow public use of their land without charge for educational or recreational purposes by limiting their duty of care to that of refraining from willful or wanton infliction of injury.
The cases from other jurisdictions which have upheld liability waivers such as the one at issue here have concluded that the public is best served when risks or costs of litigation regarding such programs are minimized. [*14] See Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 372 (“[W]e conclude that although [plaintiff], like many children before him, gave up his right to sue for the negligent acts of others, the public as a whole received the benefit of these exculpatory agreements. Because of this agreement, the Club was able to offer affordable recreation and to continue to do so without the risks and overwhelming costs of litigation.”); Hohe, 224 Cal. App. 3d at 1564 (“The public as a whole receives the benefit of such waivers so that groups such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Little League, and parent-teacher associations are able to continue without the risks and sometimes overwhelming costs of litigation. Thousands of children benefit from the availability of recreational and sports activities.”).
Courts have also found that such releases serve the public interest by respecting the realm of parental authority to weigh the risks and costs of physical injury to their children against the benefits of the child’s participation in an activity. Sharon, 437 Mass. at 109; Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 374. Likewise, North Carolina has recognized a public interest in respecting parents’ authority over certain life decisions for their children. See Doe v. Holt, 332 N.C. 90, 97, 418 S.E.2d 511 (1992) (“[R]easonable parental decisions concerning children should [not] be reviewed in the courts of this state. Such decisions [*15] make up the essence of parental discretion, discretion which allows parents to shape the views, beliefs and values their children carry with them into adulthood. These decisions are for the parents to make, and will be protected as such.”).
The court remains persuaded by the analysis of those courts upholding liability waivers signed by parents in the context of litigation against schools, municipalities and clubs, which either implicitly or explicitly found the risk presented by such waivers to be outweighed by interests in providing non-commercial activities and respecting parental authority. See Sharon, 437 Mass. at 105 (“In weighing and analyzing [plaintiff’s] public policy arguments, we must also consider other important public policies of the Commonwealth implicated in the resolution of this issue . . . .); Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 370-71 (“[T]he proper focus is not whether the release violates public policy but rather that public policy itself justifies the enforcement of this agreement.”).
Plaintiffs’ reliance on McMurray is misplaced. The public interest considered in that case, careful driving and observance of traffic rules and regulations, is not at issue here. Nor did that case address whether any contrary public interest was at [*16] stake which might justify the waiver.
Plaintiffs argue that other cases upholding liability waivers signed by parents on behalf of their children are not applicable in this case, because the claims here are directed against the United States and because the JROTC is not a community-based or volunteer-run activity. They note that the officials conducting the orientation visit acted as paid servants of the United States. They argue that the economic considerations at issue in cases from other jurisdictions are not applicable here, where the United States government is self-insured and has waived its immunity. However, none of these arguments are persuasive.
First, neither the defendant’s status as a government body, nor the volunteer status of a program’s personnel, are controlling factors in the analysis. In Sharon, the court upheld a liability waiver in the context of a suit against the city government for a cheerleading program coached by a public school employee, not a volunteer. Sharon, 437 Mass. at 100. Furthermore, the JROTC program is community-based, in that schools must apply for a unit, 10 U.S.C. § 2031(a)(1), and may decide to eliminate the program from their curriculum. See Esquivel v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 630 F. Supp. 2d 1055 (N.D. Cal. 2008). In this way, JROTC programs are run in cooperation [*17] with the community, and rely on the community for support. In turn, JROTC programs promote the community welfare by instilling the values and benefits noted above in the community’s children. Finally, the mere fact that the United States has waived its sovereign immunity through the FTCA does not mean that it should be denied the use of a waiver that other non-governmental volunteer or non-profit organizations could employ. On the contrary, the FTCA only makes the United States liable “in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.” 28 U.S.C. § 2674.
It is clear that the July 2007 NJROTC orientation program was offered with a noncommercial purpose, and that students attended voluntarily. Because a liability waiver signed by a parent would be enforceable by a private person offering a non-commercial, voluntary activity of this nature, the United States should also be able to use a parent-signed liability waiver for the noncommercial, voluntary NJROTC orientation visit. See Sharon, 437 Mass. at 111-12 (holding that Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”) would not prevent municipalities from using liability waivers as a precondition for participation in voluntary activities that they [*18] sponsored, because the MTCA gave such municipalities the same defenses as private parties in tort claims).
Aside from their public policy argument, plaintiffs contend that advance court approval is necessary for a parent to extinguish a minor’s personal injury claim. However, their argument is little more than an abbreviated version of their previous argument supporting their motion to strike. The cases they cite do not address the specific circumstances here, of a pre-injury liability waiver in the context of a non-commercial activity provided to children on a voluntary basis. For instance, plaintiffs quote from Justice White’s concurring opinion in International Union v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 111 S. Ct. 1196, 113 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1991), which recognized that “the general rule is that parents cannot waive causes of action on behalf of their children . . . .” (Pls’. Mem. in Opp. at 21) (quoting Int’l Union, 499 U.S. at 213-14.). The context of this quote was the concurring opinion’s speculation as to a potential justification for an employer’s fetal-protection policy, as a means of avoiding claims brought by children for injuries caused by torts committed prior to conception. Int’l Union, 499 U.S. at 212-14. This is far different than a pre-injury waiver for a non-commercial activity provided to children on a voluntary basis, where [*19] the activity does not generate its own profits and the benefits of the waiver extend to the entire community. Moreover, as the quote itself shows, the rule against parental waivers is only “general.” Id. at 213.
Plaintiffs also cite to the North Carolina cases of Sell v. Hotchkiss, 264 N.C. 185, 191, 141 S.E.2d 259 (N.C. 1965) and Creech, 147 N.C. App. at 475, neither of which involved non-commercial, voluntary activities like the NJROTC program. Moreover, both of these cases involved post-injury liability waivers. Concerns underlying courts’ reluctance to allow parents to dispose of childrens’ existing claims, such as the concern that the hardships posed by caring for an injured child will lead the parents to act for their own financial interest, or that the parents will be more vulnerable to fraud or coercion in such circumstances, are mitigated in the pre-injury release context. See Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 373. The cases from other jurisdictions noted above, where liability waivers signed by parents were upheld, did not require prior court approval for those waivers. E.g. Gonzalez, 871 So. 2d at 1067-68; Sharon, 437 Mass. at 106-12; Zivich, 82 Ohio St. 3d at 374; Hohe, 224 Cal. App. 3d at 1564-65. Further, as a practical matter, requiring prior court approval would seriously encumber the process for participation in non-commercial, educational activities such as the NJROTC program. Such prior approval is not required.
Having [*20] affirmed that a liability waiver is not unenforceable in the abstract, analysis turns to the particular agreement itself. First, plaintiffs argue that this Liability Waiver should not be enforced because the parties did not reach a “meeting of the minds,” alleging that plaintiff Pamela Kelly believed she was signing the form for plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s twin sister, Magan. A release from liability is subject to avoidance by showing that its execution resulted from mutual mistake. George v. McClure, 266 F. Supp. 2d 413, 418 (M.D.N.C. 2001); see also Marriott Fin. Servs., Inc. v. Capitol Funds, Inc., 288 N.C. 122, 136, 217 S.E.2d 551 (1975). However, a unilateral mistake, unaccompanied by fraud, imposition, undue influence or like circumstances is insufficient to avoid a contract. Marriott Fin. Servs., 288 N.C. at 136. Plaintiffs do not argue that defendant mistakenly believed that the Liability Waiver, to which plaintiff Morgan Kelly admittedly signed her own name, was intended to cover Magan Kelly. Nor do they argue that the government acted in a fraudulent manner or that other like circumstances were present. They have shown no more than a unilateral mistake.
In addition, plaintiff Pamela Kelly cannot avoid the contract because she subsequently allowed plaintiff Morgan Kelly to attend the orientation session, knowing that a liability waiver was required. See (DE 94-3 [*21] at 1) (noting that those who failed to sign the waiver would “not be permitted to attend the organized event”). North Carolina courts have held that, when a release is originally invalid or voidable, it may be ratified and affirmed by subsequent acts accepting the benefits. Presnell v. Liner, 218 N.C. 152, 154, 10 S.E.2d 639 (1940); see also VF Jeanswear Ltd. P’ship v. Molina, 320 F. Supp. 2d 412, 422 (M.D.N.C. 2004). Similarly, under the North Carolina theory of quasi-estoppel, also known as “estoppel by benefit,” a party who “accepts a transaction or instrument and then accepts benefits under it may be estopped to take a later position inconsistent with the prior acceptance of that same transaction or instrument.” Whitacre P’ship v. Biosignia, Inc., 358 N.C. 1, 18, 591 S.E.2d 870 (2004). The doctrine is grounded “upon a party’s acquiescence or acceptance of payment or benefits, by virtue of which that party is thereafter prevented from maintaining a position inconsistent with those acts.” Godley v. Pitt Cnty., 306 N.C. 357, 361-62, 293 S.E.2d 167 (1982).6
6 The court notes that defendant did not raise the defense of estoppel in its answer. Generally, estoppel is an affirmative defense that should be raised in the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c). Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(c); Simmons v. Justice, 196 F.R.D. 296, 298 (W.D.N.C. 2000). However, “[I]f an affirmative defense is raised in a manner that does not result in unfair surprise to the opposing party, failure to comply with Rule 8(c) will not result in waiver of the defense.” Simmons, 196 F.R.D. at 298 (quoting United States v. Cook, No. 94-1938, 1995 U.S. App. LEXIS 24342, 1995 WL 508888 (4th Cir. Aug. 29, 1995)). The requirement of pleading [*22] an affirmative defense may be waived if evidence of the defense is admitted into the record without objection. Caterpillar Overseas, S.A. v. Marine Transp. Inc., 900 F.2d 714, 725, n. 7 (4th Cir. 1990). “Courts have been more lenient in the context of motions for summary judgment.” Grunley Walsh U.S., LLC v. Raap, No. 1:08-CV-446, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38609, 2009 WL 1298244, at *5 (E.D. Va. May 6, 2009). The defense of quasi-estoppel was raised in defendant’s memorandum supporting summary judgment, and plaintiffs did not object to the defense in their memorandum in opposition. In this instance, no unfair surprise exists and defendant may assert this defense.
Zivich provides a helpful illustration of what constitutes “acceptance” of the benefits of a liability waiver in the context of non-commercial, voluntary recreational activities. Zivich, 82 Ohio St.3d at 375. There, the court held that a mother’s execution of a release would bar the claims of her husband for their son’s soccer practice injury. Id. The court noted that the father “was the parent who was at the practice field” on the evening of that the injury occurred. It held that his “conduct convey[ed] an intention to enjoy the benefits of his wife’s agreement and be bound by it.” Id.
Here, the benefits of the Liability Waiver for plaintiff Pamela Kelly consisted of her daughter’s participation in the NJROTC orientation program, [*23] with the attendant benefits of introducing her to the culture, skills, and values that the NJROTC seeks to impart. By accepting the benefit of her child’s attendance at the orientation session, knowing that a liability waiver was required for attendance, plaintiff Pamela Kelly cannot now disavow the effect of the instrument she signed that allowed her child to attend.
As an alternative ground for denying summary judgment, plaintiffs argue that the Liability Waiver cannot be enforced because the government did not identify the risks that the form covered. Plaintiffs Pamela and Terry Kelly both allege that they never received any information concerning the risks of injury associated with plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s use of the obstacle course. (P. Kelly Decl. ¶¶ 6-11; T. Kelly Decl. ¶¶ 6-11). Consequently, they state they anticipated that plaintiff Morgan Kelly would only be visiting Camp Lejeune to observe equipment and other military activities, and that she would only be performing the same activities that she had performed in the past, such as marching in formations, drills, and “ground-based physical fitness training.” (P. Kelly Decl., ¶ 10; T. Kelly Decl., ¶ 10.)
As a contract, the Liability [*24] Waiver is subject to the recognized rules of contract construction. Adder v. Holman & Moody, 288 N.C. 484, 492, 219 S.E.2d 190 (1975). “The heart of a contract is the intention of the parties,” which “must be determined from the language of the contract, the purposes of the contract, the subject matter and the situation of the parties at the time the contract is executed.” Id. Liability waivers are disfavored under North Carolina law, and strictly construed against the parties seeking to enforce them. Hall, 242 N.C. at 709. However, when the language is clear and unambiguous, construction of the agreement is a matter of law for the court, and the court cannot look beyond the terms of the contract to determine the parties’ intent. Root v. Allstate Ins. Co., 272 N.C. 580, 583, 158 S.E.2d 829 (1968).
In an analogous case, Waggoner v. Nags Head Water Sports, Inc., No. 97-1394, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811 (4th Cir. April 6, 1998), the plaintiff rented a jet ski from the defendant, signing a rental agreement in which she “assume[d] all risk of accident or damages to my person . . . which may be incurred from or be connected in any manner with my use, operation or rental of the craft checked above.” 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, [WL] at *1. Plaintiff alleged that she did not understand that the form allowed defendant to escape liability for negligence. Id. Nevertheless, the court held that the clear and unambiguous language of the clause would bar her claim. 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, [WL] at *3-4.
Here, the Liability Waiver states [*25] in clear and unambiguous language that it is made “[i]n consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune,” and that it serves to waive “any and all rights and claims . . . including those attributable to simple negligence . . . which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me.” (DE 94-3).
As such, the waiver provides ample notice to plaintiffs of the potential for a wide range of activities at the event, not limited in any way to marching, drills, or “ground-based physical fitness training.” Plaintiffs do not allege that they were affirmatively misled as to the nature of the activities that would comprise the event, or that they were prevented from inquiring into the activities or the associated risks. They have not provided any reason for the court to look beyond the language clearly and unambiguously covering the circumstances of plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s injury. See Root, 272 N.C. at 583; Waggoner, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811 at *3-4; see also Kondrad v. Bismarck Park Dist., 2003 ND 4, 655 N.W. 2d 411, 413-14 (N.D. 2003) (Waiver language relinquishing [*26] all claims for injuries that would occur “on account of my participation of [sic] my child/ward in this program” exonerated park district from liability, even though child’s accident occurred during activity that was not “associated with the program;” language of waiver and release was “clear and unambiguous,” and “not limited only to injuries incurred while participating in activities associated with the program, but to all injuries incurred by the child on account of his participation in the program.”).
Plaintiffs also argue that summary judgment should be denied because plaintiff Morgan Kelly has disaffirmed it (by filing complaint) and because the Liability Waiver does not include express language waiving plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s claims on behalf of herself and her child. As noted above, the Liability Waiver refers to “my participation” in the “organized event” and states “I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized event.” (DE 94-3, at 1). This issue, too, was addressed in the court’s order on plaintiffs’ motion to strike. Kelly, 809 F. Supp. 2d at 434-37. There, the court held that, despite plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s disaffirmation of the Liability [*27] Waiver, the document was nevertheless enforceable as signed by her parent. Id. Although the language of the Liability Waiver was written from plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s perspective, its plain language nevertheless stated that “I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, administrators, legal representatives and any other persons on my behalf . . . .” Id. at 438, n. 8.
Plaintiffs cite cases from other jurisdictions enforcing liability waivers signed by parents in which the waiver was tailored from the perspective of the signing parent. Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P. 3d 945, 948 (Colo. App. 2011) (“I, on behalf of myself and my child, hereby release . . .”); Sharon, 437 Mass. at 100-01 (“[I] the undersigned [father of] . . . a minor, do hereby consent to [her] participation in voluntary athletic programs and do forever RELEASE . . . all claims or right of action for damages which said minor has or hereafter may acquire.”). Yet plaintiffs have not cited any case holding that a form such as that used here, which expressly waives both the claims of the child and her guardians, and which is signed by one of those guardians, cannot be enforced against the guardian who signed it. The court again holds that the Liability [*28] Waiver is enforceable to bar the claims of both Morgan and Pamela Kelly.
The question remains whether the Liability Waiver is effective against the claims of plaintiff Terry Kelly, who did not sign the document, and denies ever seeing it prior to plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s orientation visit. (T. Kelly Decl. ¶ 14). Defendant nevertheless argues that plaintiff Terry Kelly’s claims should also be barred, asserting the doctrine of quasi-estoppel described above. As noted above, quasi-estoppel is applied when a party “accepts a transaction or instrument and then accepts benefits under it may be estopped to take a later position inconsistent with the prior acceptance of that same transaction or instrument.” Whitacre P’ship, 358 N.C. at 18. The doctrine faces problems in application to the Liability Waiver, however, where defendant has not directed the court to evidence that plaintiff Terry Kelly knew of the Liability Waiver or its terms.
However, it is not necessary to decide whether plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s signature could bind her husband under these circumstances, because defendant produced a document referred to as the “Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) Standard Release Form.” (DE 94-4) (“Release Form”) [*29] (See Attached as Addendum B hereto). Page 2 of the Release Form, dated July 13, 2007, provides the following:
I, Terry A Kelly, being the legal parent/guardian of Morgan Kelly, a member of the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, in consideration of the continuance of his/her membership in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps training, do hereby release from any and all claims, demands, actions, or causes of action, due to death, injury, or illness, the government of the United States and all its officers, representatives, and agents acting officially and also the local, regional, and national Navy Officials of the United States.
(DE 94-4 at 2).
In the paragraph quoted above, the names of plaintiffs Terry and Morgan Kelly are written by hand. Plaintiff Terry Kelly’s declaration provides that page 2 “appears to contains [sic] my handwriting, but I would have to see the original to be certain.” (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16).
Plaintiffs Terry and Pamela Kelly have attempted to challenge the Release Form, stating that they “do not believe that Document No. 94-4 is a genuine document.” In particular, they note that the front page, referenced as page 2 (the certification is appended [*30] as the first page of this filing), is identified as standard form “CNET 5800-4 (Rev. 1-00)” while the final page of the document, which includes a privacy act notification under which plaintiff Pamela Kelly’s name is signed, is identified as “CNET – General 5800/4 (REV. 1-95).” (DE 94-4 at 3; T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16; P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16). Like her husband, plaintiff Pamela Kelly declares that the writing on page 3 “looks like my signature, but I would need to see the original to be certain.” (P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 16). She states that she does “not know when Page 3 of 3 was signed or for what purpose.” (Id.).
On April 27, 2011, the court amended its case management order to permit plaintiffs
to have until May 1, 2011, at their option, to visually inspect any original release and/or waiver document or documents relied upon by defendant at defendant’s counsel’s office. This deadline is without prejudice to plaintiffs’ right to have such document or documents examined by experts at a later date, if they deem necessary.
(April 27, 2011, order, p.1, DE 19).
It appears plaintiffs reviewed the Liability Waiver at defendant’s counsel’s office, but not the Release Form. (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 15; [*31] P. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 15). No separate request to review was made.
Plaintiffs’ arguments are insufficient to create a genuine issue concerning the Release Form, which is accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity executed by the Compliance Officer of plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s school district, and notarized by a notary public. (DE 94-4 at 1). “Unsupported speculation . . . is not sufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ash v. UPS, 800 F.2d 409, 411-12 (4th Cir. 1986)). Plaintiffs had opportunity to review the original Release Form, and to have it assessed by an expert if deemed necessary. An opponent of summary judgment “must produce more than frivolous assertions, unsupported statements, illusory issues and mere suspicions.” Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Rodenberg, 571 F. Supp. 455, 457 (D. Md. 1983); see also 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Fed. Practice and Procedure: Civil 3d § 2727 at 510-12 (1998) (“Neither frivolous assertions nor mere suspicions will suffice to justify a denial of summary judgment.”). It is little more than speculation to argue that the Release Form is not genuine, based merely on minor distinctions in form designations between pages. Similarly, plaintiffs’ allegations that they would “have to see the original” to be sure of their signatures amount to nothing more than mere suspicions, [*32] and they had this opportunity. Furthermore, neither Terry nor Pamela Kelly expressly denies seeing or writing on the pages where their names appear. This cannot create a genuine issue for summary judgment.7
7 To the extent plaintiffs’ challenge is an attack on the document’s authentication under Federal Rules of Evidence 901 and 902, it still fails to create a genuine issue of material fact. A party may show the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact by objecting “that the material cited to support or dispute a fact cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). However, the Certificate of Authenticity signed by the school district’s Compliance Officer satisfies the court that this document could be made admissible in evidence at trial.
The document therefore shows plaintiff Terry Kelly’s acceptance of a transaction whereby his claims were released “in consideration of” plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s continued participation in NJROTC training activities. The Release Form refers to “any and all claims.” In Waggoner, the court held that “the term ‘all claims’ must doubtless include a claim for negligence.” Waggoner, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 6792, 1998 WL 163811, at *4. See also Young v. Prancing Horse, Inc., No. COA04-727, 2005 N.C. App. LEXIS 1108, 2005 WL 1331065, at *2 (N.C. App. June 7, 2005) (“[W]e cannot agree with plaintiff [*33] that the absence of the word ‘negligence’ makes the release inoperable to bar this claim . . . . With all due regard to the severity of the injuries suffered by plaintiff, they are of the type contemplated and intended by this release.”).
Even if the Release Form failed to refer to the orientation visit in sufficiently specific terms, quasi-estoppel must operate to bar plaintiff Terry Kelly’s claims, because the record shows that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted the benefits of the Release Form as it applied to the orientation visit. By detailing the kind of activities that he “understood” and “anticipated” his child would be involved in when she arrived at the orientation visit, plaintiff Terry Kelly’s declaration discloses that he knew plaintiff Morgan Kelly would be visiting Camp Lejeune. (T. Kelly Decl. at ¶ 10). He also alleges that “[a] monetary payment was required as a condition of Morgan’s attendance at the orientation visit,” indicating that he consented to payment for the visit. Id. at ¶ 5. He does not allege any objection to his daughters’ attendance or participation. He does not allege that he was estranged from his family, or that he was kept unaware of the upcoming activity. [*34]
“[A] party will not be allowed to accept benefits which arise from certain terms of a contract and at the same time deny the effect of other terms of the same agreement.” Brooks v. Hackney, 329 N.C. 166, 173, 404 S.E.2d 854 (1991). In Brooks, the court determined that even though an agreement to convey real property was invalid because its terms were not sufficiently definite, the plaintiff was estopped from denying its validity because he had made regular payments on the agreement, and therefore that the defendants reasonably relied on the writing. Id. at 171-73.
The same principle operates here, where plaintiff Terry Kelly signed a Release Form surrendering claims related to his daughter’s participation in NJROTC training, then allowed his daughter to attend a NJROTC training orientation visit. On the evidence, there is no genuine issue that plaintiff Terry Kelly accepted that plaintiff Morgan Kelly’s “membership in the Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps training,” included the orientation visit. In consideration of this training, including the orientation visit, he released “claims, demands, actions, or causes of action, due to . . . injury.” Defendant reasonably relied on plaintiff Terry Kelly’s writing, in addition to his acquiescence to his [*35] daughter’s attendance at the orientation visit. Plaintiff Terry Kelly cannot be allowed to accept the benefits of the Release Form through his daughter’s attendance, while at the same time denying the release that was required as a condition of that attendance.
With all of plaintiffs’ claims disposed by waiver and release, summary judgment must be granted.
For the reasons set forth above, the court GRANTS defendant’s motion for summary judgment. (DE 93). The clerk is DIRECTED to close this case.
SO ORDERED, this the 25th day of September, 2014.
/s/ Louise W. Flanagan
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN
United States District Judge
Waiver of liability and Assumption of Risk Agreement United States Marine Corps
Dated: July 20, 2007
WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK AGREEMENT UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
In consideration of the privilege of participating in an organized event in a training area at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and further recognizing the voluntary nature of my participation in this event, I, the undersigned person, intending to be legally bound, hereby promise to waive for myself, my guardians, heirs, executor, administrators, legal representatives and any other [*36] persons on my behalf, any and all rights and claims for damages, demands, and any other actions whatsoever, including those attributable to simple negligence, which I may have against any of the following persons or entities: the United States of America; the Depart of Defense; the Department of the Navy; the United States Marine Corps; Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; any and all individuals assigned to or employed by the United States, including but not limited to the Secretary of Defense; the Secretary of the Navy; the Commandant of the Marine Corps; Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; in both their official and personal capacities; any medical support personnel assigned thereto; and these, persons’ or entities’ representatives, successors, and assigns; which said injuries arise out of my participation in the activities comprising the aforesaid event; as well as any use by me of any Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, or government equipment, or facilities in conjunction with and furtherance of such participation by me. I FURTHER VERIFY THAT I HAVE FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ATTENDING THIS EVENT. I EXPRESSLY, [*37] KNOWINGLY, AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISKS INVOLVED IN THE PLANNED ACTIVITIES INCLUDING TRANSPORTATION TO AND FROM THE EVENT, AND AGREE TO HOLD THE UNITED STATES HARMLESS FOR ANY RESULTING INJURY. I understand that this assumption of risk agreement shall remain in effect until notice of cancellation is received by the Commanding General, Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I understand that, should I decline to execute this agreement, I will not be permitted to attend the organized event.
(Signature of Witness)
[TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
/s/ Morgan E. Kelly 7/19/07
Morgan E. Kelly
/s/ Pamela D. Kelly
(Signature of Parent/Guardian)
on behalf of Morgan
(Name of Minor)
Participants Information/POC Page
FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
(Please Print Legibly)
Participant Last Name, First Name, Initial: Kelly Pamela D
Parent/Guardian Name: Pam Kelly
Home Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
Work Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
Cellular Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
Alternative Adult to be Contacted in Case of Emergency and Relation to Participant: Terry Kelly
Home Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
Work Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE [*38] COURT]
Cellular Phone: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT]
Does the Participant have Any Allergies or Special Medical Conditions? None
Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC)
Standard Release Form With Certificate of Authenticity
Dated: July 13, 2007
CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY
The undersigned certifies that I am the person responsible for keeping of school and\or student records in behalf of the Henry County Board of Education and that the within and attached is a true and accurate copy of certain school system records of
Morgan Kelly (DOB: [TEXT REDACTED BY THE COURT])
thereof kept in the normal course of business of the Henry County School System. This Certificate of Authenticity may be used in lieu of the personal appearance of the person certifying hereto.
/s/ Archie Preston Malcom
Archie Preston Malcom, Bd.D
Compliance Officer (Contracted)
Sworn to and subscribed before me on this 14th day of November 2013
/s/ Slyvia S/ Burch
My Commission Expires: 07/21/16