Release used to defend third party participants in horseback case applying Missouri’s law, not the main party to the contract.

Illinois resident sues Illinois’s resident for getting kicked by a horse in a riding area in Missouri. Area’s release included coverage for participants and protected horse owner from suit.

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District Applying Missouri law

Plaintiff: Deanna L. Perkinson

Defendant: Sarah Courson

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Animal Control Act and Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release (neither party brought up the Missouri Equine Liability Act)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The term “other participants,” was used in a release signed to access land to ride horses to defend the owner of a horse that kicked another horse owner. The term was sufficient to include the rider in the protection the release afforded. Neither party argued the Equine Liability Act of Missouri where the incident took place.

Facts

Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a warning about the risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

At some point during the trail ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

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

This is a complicated case because it was started in Illinois after the accident happened in Missouri. Consequently, the issues that support the outdoor recreation industry are woven around the other issues such as where the lawsuit should be and what law should be applied to the case.

The court was an Illinois court and the defendant, and the plaintiffs were Illinois’s residents. However, because the accident occurred in Missouri, the court applied Missouri’s law to the case.

The court first looked at Missouri’s law and the requirements to prove negligence.

To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'”

Then the assumption of the risk doctrine was reviewed as applied in Missouri.

Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.”

A document showing the plaintiff assumed the risks or explicitly accepted the risks is called an express assumption of the risk document in Missouri (and most other states).

An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.”

The Missouri law concerning releases was analyzed.

Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.’

In this case, the release was not signed because of a legal relationship between the parties, but was signed as part of accessing the land where the accident occurred. Meaning both parties signed the release to ride on the land. Consequently, the argument centered around whether that release was written to protect parties such as the defendant in this case. Whether the release signed by the plaintiff to ride on the land of the landowner provided protection to the owner of the horse that kicked her.

Additionally, [o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'”

As in most other states, to understand a contract you must determine the effect intended by the parties to be given to the contract. Each clause should be read in the context of the entire contract, not as individual issues. The information within the “four corners” of the contract is the only information that can be reviewed by a court in determining the meaning of a contract, unless the contract is ambiguous, then outside information can be brought into to define the ambiguous section.

A contract is ambiguous when “duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.”

The language of the release referred to “other participants.” The defendant argued that she was the intended beneficiary of this language. If the defendant was found to be the intended beneficiary, then the release would stop the claims of the plaintiff. The term other participants usually follows the name of the party wanting the release to be signed. In this case, the landowner would have their name as the party to be protected and the clause and other participants followed. Did the term have legal meaning and apply to the defendant or was the term just dicta, additional language in the agreement that had no meaning.

 

 

 

The plaintiff argued that she did not know what she was signing and therefore, could not have intended the release to benefit the defendant. The plaintiff also argued the phrase “other participants” was ambiguous.

However, the court disagreed and found it covered the defendant and was not a catch-all phrase. The court found the defendant was a participant within the meaning of the words and the language of the release.

The final failure of the plaintiff’s argument fell when the court brought up that in her own deposition, she characterized the defendant as another participant in the trail ride.

The next argument, is another argument that is surfacing in plaintiff’s arguments across the US. The plaintiff argued the release should not apply because it purports to relieve liability for more than simple negligence. Meaning the release was written to cover intentional torts, gross negligence and other activities of the public interest.

However, the court did not agree with that argument because the release did not refer to any additional legal theories other than negligence. The release only used the term negligence and did not sue any language that extended that term to a greater definition.

The court also quoted a Missouri Supreme Court decision that held that the plaintiff could not get a release thrown out by arguing it covered gross negligence. Missouri does not recognize gross negligence. Since it does not exist under Missouri’s law, it could not be used to void a release.

In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri’s courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

Nor does Missouri recognize a cause of action for recklessness.

The next argument was the release was not clear because it was mixed in with another form. The top part of the form was labeled a registration form, and the bottom part was a release.

The court recognized this but found the release part of the form was labeled Release of Liability – Read Before Signing and separated by a dotted line from the top of the form. The significant language in the release was also capitalized for emphasis.

The court held with the trial court and found the release signed by the parties to ride on the property protected the defendant in this case.

 

 

 

So Now What?

This is the first case I have found where a release was used to protect a third party from a lawsuit. I have long argued that this should be the case. Even though the release was signed for a land owner, any litigation is going to cost many parties money. The decision does not say, however, in cases like this many times, the landowner and other participants in the ride are deposed, and as such they lose work and possibly incur legal fees for the depositions.

Having the release be part of a registration form was an issue. Eliminate the argument by the plaintiff and make it a separate form. If you need more information than what is normally required on a release collect it a different way or at the end.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District

March 12, 2018, Filed

NO. 4-17-0364

DEANNA L. PERKINSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SARAH COURSON, Defendant-Appellee.

Prior History:  [***1] Appeal from Circuit Court of Jersey County. No. 15L31. Honorable Eric S. Pistorius, Judge Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: Timothy J. Chartrand, of Williamson, Webster, Falb & Glisson, of Alton, for appellant.

Amy L. Jackson and Samantha Dudzinski, of Rammelkamp Bradney, P.C., of Jacksonville, for appellee.

Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Opinion by: HARRIS

Opinion

 [****698]  [**580]  PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

 [*P1]  In August 2014, plaintiff, Deanna L. Perkinson, was kicked by a horse and injured. In December 2015, she filed a two-count complaint against the horse’s owner, defendant Sarah Courson, alleging a violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act (510 ILCS 5/1 to 35 (West 2014)) (count I) and negligence (count II). Although plaintiff and defendant are Illinois residents, the incident at issue occurred in Missouri and the trial court determined Missouri law controlled the conflict. Following that determination, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of plaintiff’s complaint and her motion for summary judgment as to count II. Plaintiff appeals, arguing the court erred in (1) ruling on defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of the complaint because the motion was brought pursuant to the [***2]  wrong statutory section, (2) finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ controversy, and (3) finding defendant was entitled to summary judgment on count II of the complaint. We affirm.

[*P2]  I. BACKGROUND

 [*P3]  In her December 2015 complaint, plaintiff alleged that both she and defendant were Illinois residents. On August 29, 2014, they were horseback riding alongside one another on a public trail when plaintiff was kicked by the horse defendant was riding, which defendant owned. Plaintiff maintained she sustained permanent and disfiguring injuries to her right leg as a result of being kicked. In connection with count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, plaintiff also asserted that at the time and place of her injury, she did not provoke defendant’s horse, had been conducting herself peaceably, and was in a location where she had a legal right to be. Relative to count II, alleging negligence, plaintiff asserted defendant owed her a duty of care but breached that duty by (1) failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick others, (2) failing to properly train the  [**581]   [****699]  horse, (3) riding too close to plaintiff and plaintiff’s horse when knowing that [***3]  her horse had a violent propensity to kick others, and (4) riding her horse contrary to industry and practice norms. Plaintiff further alleged that as a direct and proximate result of defendant’s negligence, she was kicked by defendant’s horse without provocation and injured.

 [*P4]  In January 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint. She first sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)). Specifically, defendant argued that the incident at issue occurred while the parties were on a horseback riding trip in Eminence, Missouri, and, as a result, Missouri law governed “the pending litigation.” She further maintained that because count I of plaintiff’s complaint was based entirely on Illinois statutory law, that count necessarily failed to state a claim upon which any relief could be granted and had to be dismissed. Defendant further sought dismissal of both count I and count II under section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). She argued plaintiff signed a “‘Release of Liability'” (Release) prior to horseback riding, which, under Missouri law, barred her claims.

 [*P5]  In February 2016, plaintiff responded to defendant’s motion, arguing Illinois [***4]  law applied to both counts of her complaint. Further, she argued the Release referenced by defendant should be disregarded because defendant failed to attach a sworn or certified copy of the Release to her motion to dismiss. Plaintiff alternatively argued the Release was against Illinois public policy, vague, ambiguous, overbroad, and could not be relied upon by defendant who was “a non-party outside of the Release.”

 [*P6]  In March 2016, the trial court conducted a hearing on defendant’s motion to dismiss. At the hearing, defendant withdrew the portion of her motion that sought dismissal pursuant to section 2-619 and proceeded only with the portion of her motion that sought dismissal of count I under section 2-615. Ultimately, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I, holding as follows:

“[I]n conflict of law cases the courts must determine which forum has the most significant contacts with the litigation. Further, there is a legal presumption that the law of the state where the injury occurred applies in determining the rights and liabilities of the parties unless Illinois has a more significant relation to the conflict. This court finds that *** plaintiff has failed to establish that Illinois has [***5]  a more significant relationship to the conflict. As such, Count I, which is based on the [Illinois] Animal Control Act, is hereby dismissed.”

 [*P7]  In April 2016, plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider the trial court’s ruling as to count I of her complaint. She argued the court erred in its application of existing law as the case authority cited by both parties heavily favored application of Illinois law rather than Missouri law. Additionally, plaintiff maintained the court erred by placing the burden on her to establish that Illinois had a more significant relationship to the matter, rather than on defendant, the moving party.

 [*P8]  In June 2016, a hearing was conducted on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In its written order, the trial court stated it had considered both plaintiff’s motion and defendant’s response and “noted, for the first time,” that the question of which state’s law to apply involved factual determinations regarding the nature of the parties’ relationship, the planning of their trip to Missouri, and the training of defendant’s horse while in Illinois. The court  [**582]   [****700]  pointed out that no affidavits or deposition testimony had been presented by the parties and elected to “keep plaintiff’s [***6]  Motion to Reconsider under advisement until the[ ] facts or issues [could] be fleshed out during the discovery process.”

 [*P9]  In September 2016, plaintiff filed a supplemental brief to her motion to reconsider, and defendant filed a supplemental response. Plaintiff attached the depositions of both parties to her filing.

 [*P10]  During her deposition, plaintiff testified she resided in Dow, Illinois, both at the time of the incident at issue and at the time of her deposition. She had known defendant since 2003. They met through mutual friends and were brought together through the activity of horseback riding. Plaintiff and her husband had also purchased defendant’s house.

 [*P11]  Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback [***7]  riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

 [*P12]  On examination by her own counsel, plaintiff testified that prior to August 2014, she considered defendant her friend. They had ridden horses together in Illinois and “hung out” at the home of a mutual friend. Also, they had each other’s telephone numbers and were Facebook friends.

 [*P13]  In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

[*P14]  On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether [***8]  defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

[*P15]  Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

[*P16]  Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a  [**583]   [****701]  warning about the risk of injury when participating [***9]  in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

[*P17]  On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

[*P18]  At some point during the trail [***10]  ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

[*P19]  Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

 [*P20]  As stated, the record also contains defendant’s deposition. Defendant testified she resided in [***11]  Farina, Illinois, with her husband. She met plaintiff in 2003 through her former sister-in-law who was friends with plaintiff. Also, in 2013, plaintiff purchased defendant’s house in Dow, Illinois. Defendant testified she advertised the sale of her house on Facebook and plaintiff “friended [her] on Facebook” and contacted her by telephone about the house. Defendant noted her phone number was in her advertisement. She was not aware of plaintiff having her phone number prior to the time she advertised the sale of her house. Defendant considered plaintiff to be an acquaintance rather than a friend, noting they only socialized through mutual friends and always went horseback riding in a group setting. She estimated that she went horseback riding with plaintiff twice a year since 2006 but did not recall whether all of those occasions were in Illinois.

 [*P21]  Defendant testified she grew up around horses and regularly went horseback riding. Since 2003, she owned 11 different horses. Defendant stated someone else would train her horses to ride and then she “worked the tweaks out.” Specifically, defendant stated she trained her horses, including Little Bit, to “neck rein,”  [**584]   [****702]  not to ride too close to [***12]  other horses, and in “ground manners.”

 [*P22]  In 2012, defendant purchased Little Bit from one of the members of her horseback riding group of friends. She kept Little Bit at her farm in Farina, Illinois. In 2013, Little Bit was trained for 30 days in Kampsville, Illinois, by an individual named Samuel Kaufman. Thereafter, defendant took over. Defendant testified her training with Little Bit included going on several trail rides with other horses. She estimated Little Bit went on six trail rides before the Cross Country trail ride in August 2014. Defendant stated that, prior to August 2014, Little Bit kicked at another horse in a pasture while she was in heat. During that incident, Little Bit made contact with defendant’s husband who “was in the way.” Defendant denied that any other kicking incidents occurred prior to August 2014.

 [*P23]  Defendant testified she had been to Cross Country eight times prior to August 2014. She always went to Cross Country with a group. Defendant recalled seeing plaintiff at Cross Country prior to 2014 but did not recall if they rode horses together. In August 2014, defendant was at Cross Country with her husband, mother, and father. During the August 29, 2014, trail [***13]  ride, defendant rode Little Bit, who had not previously been on a trail ride at Cross Country.

 [*P24]  Defendant acknowledged drinking alcohol on the trail ride but stated she did not know if she was intoxicated. She estimated she had less than six beers, the amount she typically packed in her cooler. Defendant denied noticing anything peculiar about Little Bit during the trail ride. However, she asserted she told all of the other horseback riders that she would stay toward the back of the group because Little Bit was young, she did not know whether the horse would kick, and defendant did not totally trust the horse. Defendant testified she trusted Little Bit enough to ride her with other people but “didn’t trust that she maybe wouldn’t kick.”

 [*P25]  Defendant described the incident involving plaintiff, stating they were coming down a hill side by side when Little Bit “trotted up ahead.” She then heard plaintiff yell out and observed plaintiff reaching for her leg. Defendant estimated that she and plaintiff had been a little more than arm’s distance apart and were having a conversation before the incident. She stated she did not know why Little Bit kicked. In the fall of 2014, defendant sold Little [***14]  Bit. She testified she was not comfortable with the horse, noting an occasion when Little Bit bucked her off after being “spooked” by cattle.

 [*P26]  In October 2016, the trial court entered a written order finding no reason to reconsider its previous ruling and denying plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In so holding, the court noted it reviewed its prior decision and the parties’ additional arguments. It stated the additional facts presented to it only further supported its decision to grant defendant’s motion to dismiss.

 [*P27]  In February 2017, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment as to count II of plaintiff’s complaint, alleging negligence, as well as a memorandum of law in support of her motion. She alleged that based on the deposition testimony of plaintiff and defendant, no question of material fact existed and she was entitled to judgment in her favor as a matter of law. Defendant maintained plaintiff was unable to establish that defendant owed her a duty, arguing that plaintiff both implicitly and explicitly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding. Also, she argued that plaintiff’s “testimony undermine[d] any and all proffered allegations of breach of duty.”

 [*P28]  [**585]  [****703]  Defendant [***15]  attached the parties’ depositions to her filing, as well as copies of the Cross Country documents plaintiff acknowledged signing. The documents included forms titled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic],” which provided as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my presence [***16]  or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

5. Releasor expressly agrees that this release, waiver, and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the laws of the State of Missouri and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the valid portion shall, not withstanding, continue in full legal force and effect.”

 [*P29]  In March 2017, plaintiff filed a response to defendant’s motion, and in April 2017 defendant filed a reply. Both parties relied on Missouri [***17]  substantive law when addressing defendant’s motion for summary judgment. In April 2017, the trial court also conducted a hearing in the matter and entered a written order granting defendant’s motion. Although the court’s written order did not specify the basis for its ruling, the court’s oral comments at the hearing reflect that it relied upon the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. Specifically, it stated as follows:

“Based upon the Release and without going to what is otherwise, I think a factual question, I think the Release in and of itself is sufficient to provide a basis for [defendant’s] Motion for Summary Judgment. It identifies itself as a release. It specifically tells the person who’s signing it to sign it and [plaintiff] sign[ed] not only for herself, but for her underage children. It says ‘please read this before you sign it[.’] It specifically addresses other participants. That’s as strong of language as you can get. So based *** on that, and that alone, the  [**586]   [****704]  court’s [going to] grant the Motion for Summary Judgment.”

 [*P30]  This appeal followed.

[*P31]  II. ANALYSIS

[*P32]  A. Statutory Designation for Motion to Dismiss

 [*P33]  On appeal, plaintiff first argues the trial court erred in granting [***18]  defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, because it was brought under the wrong section of the Code. She notes defendant sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)) but argues that, because defendant’s motion “raised an affirmative, factual defense,” it should have been brought pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)).

 [*P34] 
“A section 2-615 motion to dismiss challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint based on defects apparent on its face.” Bueker v. Madison County, 2016 IL 120024, ¶ 7, 410 Ill. Dec. 883, 72 N.E.3d 269. “The only matters to be considered in ruling on such a motion are the allegations of the pleadings themselves.” Illinois Graphics Co. v. Nickum, 159 Ill. 2d 469, 485, 639 N.E.2d 1282, 1289, 203 Ill. Dec. 463 (1994). Conversely, “[a] motion to dismiss under section 2-619 [citation] admits the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff’s claim, but asserts certain defects or defenses outside the pleading that defeat the claim.” In re Scarlett Z.-D., 2015 IL 117904, ¶ 20, 390 Ill. Dec. 123, 28 N.E.3d 776. Where grounds for dismissal do not appear on the face of the complaint, the section 2-619 motion must be supported by affidavit. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a) (West 2014).

 [*P35]  As noted, defendant sought dismissal of count I of plaintiff’s complaint, arguing Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict and, as a result, plaintiff’s claim asserting liability based solely on an Illinois statute—the Animal Control Act—could [***19]  not stand. Defendant brought her motion under section 2-615 of the Code, and as stated, plaintiff argues defendant should have designated section 2-619.

 [*P36]  Here, it appears defendant labeled her motion to dismiss count I with the wrong statutory section. Section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code provides for dismissal where “the claim asserted against defendant is barred by other affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim.” 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). “[A]ffirmative matter” has been held to include “the basic issue as to which state’s law is to apply to the action.” Ingersoll v. Klein, 106 Ill. App. 2d 330, 336, 245 N.E.2d 288, 291 (1969), aff’d, 46 Ill. 2d 42, 262 N.E.2d 593 (1970); see also Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 487 (citing Ingersoll, 46 Ill. 2d at 42, for the proposition that a choice-of-law defense had “been considered ‘affirmative matter’ so as to negate completely the asserted claim”).

 [*P37]  Additionally, our supreme court has acknowledged that  the conflict-of-law methodology “may raise factual issues.” Townsend v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 227 Ill. 2d 147, 154, 879 N.E.2d 893, 898, 316 Ill. Dec. 505 (2007). Such factual issues are properly considered and addressed in the context of a section 2-619 motion to dismiss, where a trial court may consider pleadings, depositions, and affidavits when making its ruling (Zedella v. Gibson, 165 Ill. 2d 181, 185, 650 N.E.2d 1000, 1002, 209 Ill. Dec. 27 (1995)), rather than in the context of section 2-615 motion, where only the pleadings may be considered (Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 485).

 [*P38]  Nevertheless, even if defendant improperly labeled her motion to dismiss count I, no reversible error [***20]  occurred. We note plaintiff failed to object to the  [**587]   [****705]  statutory designation in defendant’s motion to dismiss. Thus, she has forfeited her challenge to that designation on appeal. American National Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 192 Ill. 2d 274, 280, 735 N.E.2d 551, 554, 248 Ill. Dec. 900 (2000). Moreover, setting plaintiff’s forfeiture aside, we note that  a defendant’s error in labeling a motion to dismiss is not fatal where the nonmoving party has suffered no prejudice. Wallace v. Smyth, 203 Ill. 2d 441, 447, 786 N.E.2d 980, 984, 272 Ill. Dec. 146 (2002). In this instance, plaintiff acknowledges that the trial court allowed the choice-of-law issue to be “fleshed out” through the discovery process. Further, the record shows the issue was given full and thorough consideration by the trial court. Thus, plaintiff had a sufficient opportunity to be heard, and we find no reversible error.

[*P39]  B. Choice-of-Law Determination

 [*P40]  Plaintiff next argues the trial court erred in finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict. She contends that a choice-of-law analysis and the facts applicable to that analysis support the conclusion that Illinois has a more significant relationship to her cause of action.

 [*P41]  Initially, we note that a de novo standard of review applies to this issue. Such a standard is applicable on review of a dismissal under either section 2-615 or 2-619 of the Code. Patrick Eng’g, Inc. v. City of Naperville, 2012 IL 113148, ¶ 31, 976 N.E.2d 318, 364 Ill. Dec. 40. Additionally, we apply a de [***21]  novo standard when reviewing a trial court’s choice-of-law determination. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 154.

 [*P42] 
“A choice-of-law determination is required only when a difference in law will make a difference in the outcome.” Id. at 155. Thus, “a choice-of-law analysis begins by isolating the issue and defining the conflict.” Id. Here, the parties agree that conflicts exist between Missouri and Illinois law. Notably, they identify Missouri’s lack of a statute that is equivalent to the Illinois Animal Control Act. If Illinois law applies, claimant can maintain the cause of action alleged in count I of her complaint, which is based on that Illinois statute; however, if Missouri law applies, count I of her complaint must be dismissed as it would state no cause of action upon which relief could be granted under Missouri law. Thus, we agree that a conflict exists that will result in a difference in outcome.

 [*P43]  Next, when making a choice-of-law determination, “the forum court applies the choice-of-law rules of its own state.” Id.  Illinois has adopted the choice-of-law analysis contained in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) (Second Restatement).Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d . at 163-64. Under the Second Restatement, a presumption exists in favor of applying the [***22]  law of the state where the injury occurred. Id. at 163. The presumption “may be overcome only by showing a more or greater significant relationship to another state.” (Emphases in original.) Id. Specifically, section 146 of the Restatement provides as follows:

“In an action for a personal injury, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in [the Second Restatement] to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 146 (1971).

 [*P44] 
Once a court chooses the presumptively applicable law, it “tests” its  [**588]   [****706]  choice against various “principles” and “contacts” as set forth in sections 6 and 145 of the Second Restatement. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 164. Section 6(2) sets forth the following relevant factors for consideration:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field [***23]  of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

 [*P45]  Additionally, section 145(2) sets forth the following “[c]ontacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of [section] 6“:

“(a) the place where the injury occurred,

(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,

(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and

(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971).

The contacts set forth in section 145(2) “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Id.

 [*P46]  Practically, it makes no difference whether a court first considers the section 145(2) contacts or the section 6(2) general principles. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 168. “In either case[,] the Second Restatement’s goal is the same—to ensure that a court is not merely ‘counting contacts,’ and that each contact is meaningful in light of the policies sought to be vindicated by the conflicting laws.” Id.

 [*P47]  Here, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse while on a trail ride in Missouri. Thus, Missouri is “the state where the injury occurred,” and a presumption exists in favor [***24]  of applying Missouri law unless, as plaintiff argues, Illinois has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties. In testing this presumption, we first consider relevant “contacts” as set forth in section 145(2) of the Restatement.

[*P48]  1. Section 145 Contacts

 [*P49]  The first contact for consideration is the place where the injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(a) (1971). As discussed, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse in Missouri, and thus, that is where her injury occurred. Plaintiff maintains this factor is of minimal importance because the location of her injury was merely fortuitous in that the incident could just as easily have occurred in Illinois. To support her argument, plaintiff cites cases with fact scenarios that involve interstate travelers and motor vehicle accidents, which courts have determined could just as easily have occurred in another state. Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 408 Ill. App. 3d 722, 727-28, 948 N.E.2d 233, 238, 350 Ill. Dec. 164 (2011); Miller v. Hayes, 233 Ill. App. 3d 847, 852, 600 N.E.2d 34, 38, 175 Ill. Dec. 411 (1992); Schulze v. Illinois Highway Transportation Co., 97 Ill. App. 3d 508, 510-11, 423 N.E.2d 278, 280, 53 Ill. Dec. 86 (1981).

 [*P50]  [****707]  [**589]  Specifically, in Murphy, 408 Ill. App. 3d at 723, the plaintiffs were Illinois residents who brought suit against an Illinois automobile dealer that sold them a vehicle after one of the plaintiffs was injured in a motor vehicle accident in Michigan. The trial court determined Michigan law applied to the liability and damages issues in the case, and the plaintiffs appealed. Id. at 724.

 [*P51]  On review, the First District [***25]  noted that, in the context of a choice-of-law analysis, “situations may exist where the place of injury is merely fortuitous and, therefore, not an important contact.” Id. at 727. In the case before it, the court found that the injured plaintiff’s presence in Michigan was not fortuitous because “[h]e was purposefully and voluntarily in Michigan, driving to his weekend home with the intention of staying there for several days.” Id. at 727. However, it also determined that a purposeful presence in Michigan did not mean that the accident “could not have happened in Michigan fortuitously.” Id. It pointed out that the cause of the accident had not been determined and “[t]he same type of accident and the same type of injuries could have just as easily happened in Illinois.” Id. at 727-28. Thus, the court concluded the place of injury was not an important consideration in the context of the case before it. Id. at 728.

 [*P52]  Defendant argues Murphy is distinguishable from the present case, and we agree. Notably, this case does not involve a motor vehicle accident that happened by chance in one state versus another. Instead, plaintiff’s injury occurred at the planned destination of both parties. The specific location, Cross Country, focused [***26]  on horseback riding activities in which both parties planned to engage. Additionally, both plaintiff and defendant had previously visited Cross Country on multiple occasions.

 [*P53]  We note comment e of section 145 provides as follows:

“In the case of personal injuries or of injuries to tangible things, the place where the injury occurred is a contact that, as to most issues, plays an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law [citation]. *** This is so for the reason among others that persons who cause injury in a state should not ordinarily escape liabilities imposed by the local law of that state on account of the injury. ***

Situations do arise, however, where the place of injury will not play an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law. This will be so, for example, when the place of injury can be said to be fortuitous or when for other reasons it bears little relation to the occurrence and the parties with respect to the particular issue ***.” (Emphasis added.) Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. e (1971).

Under the facts of this case, we cannot say that the place of injury bears little relation to the occurrence or the parties. This is particularly true in light of the underlying issues presented [***27]  in plaintiff’s complaint, which almost exclusively involve the parties’ behavior and conduct while horseback riding at Cross Country in Missouri. Therefore, we find this contact weighs in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P54]  The next contact for consideration is the place where the conduct causing the plaintiff’s injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(b) (1971). An analysis of injury-causing conduct “includes all conduct from any source contributing to the injury,” including a defendant’s affirmative defenses  [**590]   [****708]  or allegations of contributory negligence. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169.

 [*P55]  Here, plaintiff acknowledges that, relative to count I, this factor favors application of Missouri law because “the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred would be the place where the animal caused injury without provocation.” She asserts, however, that she alleged injury-causing conduct that occurred in both Illinois and Missouri in connection with count II and thus, this factor must be “deemed a wash.” We disagree.

 [*P56]  In count II, plaintiff asserted defendant was negligent for failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick, failing to properly train her horse, riding the horse too close to plaintiff, and failing to adhere to industry [***28]  and practice norms while riding her horse. All but one of these alleged actions or inactions by defendant occurred exclusively in Missouri. Additionally, defendant has argued that plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding at Cross Country and points to the Release plaintiff signed in Missouri. Given that the vast majority of relevant conduct occurred in Missouri, we find this factor weighs in favor of applying Missouri law to the parties’ conflict.

 [*P57]  The third contact for consideration is “the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(c) (1971). Here, both parties are Illinois residents and neither disputes that this factor weighs in favor of applying Illinois law.

 [*P58]  The final contact for consideration is “the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(d) (1971). In this instance, the parties’ relationship primarily arose from having a group of mutual friends in Illinois and engaging in horseback riding activities within that group. Plaintiff and defendant were riding horses together in Missouri at the time of the incident at issue but had previously ridden horses together in Illinois. [***29]  Ultimately, we find this contact favors applying Illinois law, as most of the parties’ interactions occurred within this state.

 [*P59]  Here, the section 145(2) contacts are evenly split, with two favoring application of Missouri law and two favoring Illinois law. However, as noted, the 145(2) contacts “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971). In this case, the fact that the parties interacted with one another more frequently in Illinois has little to do with the issues presented by either count I or count II of plaintiff’s complaint. Thus, we find the fourth factor set forth in section 145(2) is only minimally important to the underlying proceedings. As a result, the section 145(2) contacts, when considered alone, support rather than rebut the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law. This does not end our analysis, however, and we must also consider the principles set forth in section 6 of the Second Restatement.

[*P60] 2. Section 6 Principles

 [*P61]  As noted, section 6(2) of the Second Restatement sets forth the following principles for consideration when conducting a choice-of-law analysis:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant [***30]  policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

 [****709]  [**591]  (d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

In this case, a detailed analysis of all seven section 6 principles is unnecessary because the principles set forth in sections 6(2)(a), 6(2)(d), and 6(2)(f) are only minimally implicated in a personal injury action. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169-70 (citing Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. b, at 415-16 (1971)). Therefore, we confine our analysis to the remaining section 6 principles. Id. at 170.

 [*P62]  As stated, the parties agree that Illinois law conflicts with Missouri law based upon the existence of the Animal Control Act in Illinois and the lack of an equivalent Missouri statute. Initially, we consider this conflict in light of the relevant policies of Illinois (section 6(2)(b)), the relevant policies of Missouri and the relative interest of Missouri in the determination of the issue (section 6(2)(c)), and the basic policies underlying the particular field of law (section 6(2)(e)).

 [*P63]  Under the Animal Control Act, “[i]f a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, [***31]  or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby.” 510 ILCS 5/16 (West 2014). Our supreme court has described the history behind the Animal Control Act and interpreted its provisions as follows:

“The original version of this statute was passed in 1949 and applied only to dogs. [Citation.] The apparent purpose of the legislation was modest: to reduce the burden on dog-bite plaintiffs by eliminating the ‘one-bite rule’—the common law requirement that a plaintiff must plead and prove that a dog owner either knew or was negligent not to know that his dog had a propensity to injure people. [Citation.]

Enacting the Animal Control Act in 1973, the legislature amended this ‘dog-bite statute’ to cover ‘other animals.’ ***

*** [W]e believe that the legislature intended only to provide coverage under the statute for plaintiffs who, by virtue of their relationship to the owner of the dog or other animal or the lack of any such relationship, may not have any way of knowing or avoiding the risk that the animal [***32]  poses to them. This interpretation is consistent with the emphasis the statute places on lack of provocation and plaintiff’s peaceable conduct in a place in which he is legally entitled to be.” Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 546-47, 519 N.E.2d 917, 918-19, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988).

In Harris, the supreme court held the Animal Control Act was inapplicable to circumstances “where a person rents a horse and understands and expressly accepts the risks of using the horse.” Id. at 547-48; Johnson v. Johnson, 386 Ill. App. 3d 522, 535, 898 N.E.2d 145, 159, 325 Ill. Dec. 412 (2008) (“[T]he common law defense of assumption of the risk has been recognized as a valid affirmative defense to an action brought pursuant to the Animal Control Act.”).

 [*P64]  As indicated by the parties, Missouri does not have a comparable statute. See Mo. Ann. Stat. § 273.036 (West  [**592]   [****710]  2014) (providing for strict liability in the event of dog bites but not applying to other animals). However, it has enacted the Equine Liability Act, for the purpose of codifying “the common law assumption of risk principle in the context of a specific recreational activity.” Frank v. Mathews, 136 S.W.3d 196, 202 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004). That Act limits liability for injuries resulting from the inherent risks associated with equine activities, providing as follows:

“[A]n equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person or corporation shall not be liable for an injury to or [***33]  the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine *** activities and, *** no participant or a participant’s representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person from injury, loss, damage or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine or livestock activities.” (Emphases added.) Mo. Ann. Stat. § 537.325(2) (West 2014).

Under the Equine Liability Act, an “equine activity” includes “[r]ides *** sponsored by an equine activity sponsor.” Id. § 537.325(3)(e). Further, an “equine activity sponsor” includes a group or corporation that “sponsors, organizes[,] or provides the facilities for, an equine activity.” Id. § 537.325(4). The Equine Liability Act does not relieve covered individuals “from any duty that common law negligence principles impose upon them.” Frank, 136 S.W.3d at 203.

 [*P65]  Finally, we note that, although not significantly addressed by either party, Illinois has also adopted an Equine Activity Liability Act (Illinois Equine Act) (745 ILCS 47/1 et seq. (West 2014)). The legislature has set forth the purpose of the Illinois Equine Act as follows:

“The General Assembly recognizes that persons who participate [***34]  in equine activities may incur injuries as a result of the risks involved in those activities. The General Assembly also finds that the State and its citizens derive numerous economic and personal benefits from equine activities. Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to encourage equine activities by delineating the responsibilities of those involved in equine activities.” 745 ILCS 47/5 (West 2014).

The Fifth District of this court has noted that equine activity liability acts “have been enacted in more than 40 states since the mid-1980s” and are intended “to promote equine activities and the horse industry in general by limiting liability for some horse-related activities.” Smith v. Lane, 358 Ill. App. 3d 1126, 1128-29, 832 N.E.2d 947, 950, 295 Ill. Dec. 497 (2005).

 [*P66]  Here, plaintiff argues the policy behind the Animal Control Act “is more significant within the context of injuries by animals than the purpose of the Missouri Equine Liability Act.” We cannot agree. Clearly, Illinois has a policy, by way of the Animal Control Act, of protecting individuals who come into contact with an animal and are unable to appreciate or avoid the risks posed by the animal. However, both Missouri and Illinois have acknowledged that special circumstances exist with respect to horses and equine-related [***35]  activities. Like Missouri law, Illinois law also contemplates that certain inherent risks are associated with equine activities like the sort of activity engaged in by the parties in this case. Both states have a policy of promoting equine activities and limiting liability associated with those activities. Both states also take into account assumption of risk principles with respect to horse-related injuries, even in the context of the Animal Control Act. Given these circumstances, we fail to see how  [**593]   [****711]  Illinois policies are any “more significant” than those behind relevant Missouri law. Rather, both states appear to have similar policies and interests relative to injuries caused by horse-related activities.

 [*P67]  In addressing the relevant policies and interests of both Illinois and Missouri, plaintiff also argues that Illinois has a significant interest in providing tort remedies to its injured citizens. She cites Esser v. McIntyre, 169 Ill. 2d 292, 300, 661 N.E.2d 1138, 1142, 214 Ill. Dec. 693 (1996), wherein the supreme court held that “[h]aving provided a legal means for a plaintiff to recover for injuries caused by a defendant’s culpable conduct, Illinois has a strong interest in providing that remedy in disputes between Illinois residents.” In so holding, the court noted [***36]  that under the law of the place of injury in that case—Mexico—Illinois’s interest would be circumvented because the plaintiff had no remedy against the defendant. Id. In fact, the parties had agreed that the plaintiff had no cause of action against the defendant under Mexican law. Id. at 297. The same cannot be said in this case, as plaintiff has a potential remedy under Missouri law in the form of a negligence cause of action. Further, we note that Missouri has a competing interest in having its laws apply to equine-related activities that occur within its borders.

 [*P68]  Ultimately, we disagree with plaintiff that the policies and interests relevant to this matter weigh in favor of applying Illinois law. Therefore, plaintiff does not overcome the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P69]  On review, plaintiff also addresses the principle relating to the “ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2)(g) (1971). She maintains that because Illinois law is more advantageous to her claim, this principle weighs in favor of applying Illinois law. However, we agree with defendant that the purpose of section 6(2)(g) is to consider whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” rather [***37]  than which law is most beneficial to plaintiff. See Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6 cmt. j (1971).

 [*P70]  Relative to this principle, we note that the Illinois Equine Act may be applied to preempt the Animal Control Act in certain situations. See Carl v. Resnick, 306 Ill. App. 3d 453, 458-59, 714 N.E.2d 1, 5, 239 Ill. Dec. 443 (1999) (stating the Illinois Equine Act would bar actions in which the plaintiff was engaged in an “‘equine activity'” that would have previously been permitted under the Animal Control Act); Smith, 358 Ill. App. 3d at 1134 (stating that “had the [Illinois] Equine Act applied to the facts of the case, preemption would have barred an action for the same alleged injuries under the Animal Control Act”). However, the Illinois Equine Act has also been found to be “unclear as to whether it was meant to limit the liability of persons other than equine activity sponsors and equine professionals,” i.e., persons like defendant in this case. Kush v. Wentworth, 339 Ill. App. 3d 157, 165, 790 N.E.2d 912, 918, 274 Ill. Dec. 139 (2003). In Kush, the Second District of this court criticized the Illinois Equine Act for containing inconsistencies and “obvious drafting error,” as well as provisions that could lead to absurd results. Id. at 162-63. Given the lack of clarity of this state’s equine activity liability act, we must find that consideration of whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” also weighs in favor of applying [***38]  Missouri law.

 [*P71]  As discussed, a presumption exists in this case in favor of applying the Missouri law to the parties’ conflict. We find  [**594]   [****712]  nothing in either the parties’ arguments or our review of the Second Restatement’s relevant contacts and principles for consideration that overrides that presumption. Thus, we find no error in the trial court’s finding that Missouri law applies to the underlying controversy.

 [*P72]  In so holding, we note that plaintiff suggests it is unclear from the underlying proceedings whether the trial court’s choice-of-law ruling was as to both counts of her complaint. We disagree. The court’s order referred generally to “the litigation” or “the conflict” when holding Missouri law was applicable, and nothing in its orders indicates that its ruling was limited to only count I. Further, as plaintiff acknowledges, both parties proceeded as if Missouri law applied to count II by citing substantive law from that state in connection with filings related to defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Therefore, we find plaintiff’s assertion that the record is somehow unclear is without merit.

[*P73]  C. Motion for Summary Judgment

 [*P74]  On appeal, plaintiff next argues the trial court erred [***39]  in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to count II of her complaint. “Summary judgment is properly granted when the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits on file, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Village of Bartonville v. Lopez, 2017 IL 120643, ¶ 34, 413 Ill. Dec. 34, 77 N.E.3d 639. “If the plaintiff fails to establish any element of the cause of action, summary judgment for the defendant is proper.” Williams v. Manchester, 228 Ill. 2d 404, 417, 888 N.E.2d 1, 9, 320 Ill. Dec. 784 (2008). The trial court’s summary judgment ruling is subject to de novo review. Schweihs v. Chase Home Finance, LLC, 2016 IL 120041, ¶ 48, 412 Ill. Dec. 882, 77 N.E.3d 50.

 [*P75] 
To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'” Peters v. Wady Industries, Inc., 489 S.W.3d 784, 793 (Mo. 2016) (quoting Martin v. City of Washington, 848 S.W.2d 487, 493 (Mo. 1993)). In this case, both before the trial court and on appeal, defendant has argued that plaintiff cannot establish that defendant owed her a duty based on the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. The trial court’s oral ruling reflects that it agreed with this argument and granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor. For the reasons that follow, we [***40]  also agree that plaintiff signed a valid and enforceable release of liability and expressly assumed the risks associated with the underlying horseback riding activities.

 [*P76] 
Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk[ ] *** may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.” Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., 437 S.W.3d 184, 191 (Mo. 2014). An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” Id. An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Id. Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.” Id. at 193.

 [*P77] 
“Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual  [**595]   [****713]  from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” Alack v. Vic Tanny International of Missouri, Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 334 (Mo. 1996). “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party [***41]  claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Id. (quoting Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721 (Mo. Ct. App. 1995)). Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” Id. at 337. “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.'” Holmes v. Multimedia KSDK, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 557, 560-61 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013) (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337-38).

 [*P78]  Additionally, “[o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” Verni v. Cleveland Chiropractic College, 212 S.W.3d 150, 153 (Mo. 2007). To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. Id. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'” Id. (quoting Nitro Distributing, Inc. v. Dunn, 194 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Mo. 2006)).

 [*P79] 
In Missouri, the [***42]  primary rule of contract interpretation is to determine and give effect to the intent of the parties. State ex rel. Pinkerton v. Fahnestock, 531 S.W.3d 36, 44 (Mo. 2017). Intent is determined by considering the plain and ordinary meaning of the contract language. Id. Each clause in a contract should be read in the context of the contract as a whole, and any interpretation that would render a provision meaningless should be avoided. Id. Additionally, the parties’ intentions should be “gleaned from the four corners of the contract” unless the contract is ambiguous, in which case a court may resort to considering extrinsic evidence. Kansas City N.O. Nelson Co. v. Mid-Western. Construction Co. of Missouri, Inc., 782 S.W.2d 672, 677 (Mo. App. 1989).

 [*P80]  Additionally, whether a contract is ambiguous presents a question of law. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334. “‘An ambiguity arises when there is duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.'” Id. at 337 (quoting Rodriguez v. General Accident Insurance Co. of America, 808 S.W.2d 379, 382 (Mo. 1991)).

 [*P81]  Here, plaintiff acknowledged signing the Release at issue upon her arrival at Cross Country. In fact, she signed three such Releases—one for herself and one for each of the two minors who accompanied her. The operative language of the Release is as follows:

“4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY [***43]  TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO  [**596]   [****714]  ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphasis added.)

Defendant maintains she was an intended third-party beneficiary of the Release in that she falls within the category of “other participants” and, as a result, plaintiff agreed to release her from liability for injuries plaintiff sustained while horseback riding at Cross Country, including those that occurred due to defendant’s negligence.

 [*P82]  Initially, plaintiff argues the Release fails to clearly express the intent to benefit defendant as a third party. To support this contention, she points to her own testimony that she “did not even know what she [was] signing” and the lack of testimony from anyone associated with Cross Country regarding their intent in entering the contract. Additionally, plaintiff maintains [***44]  the phrase “other participants” is ambiguous and could be reasonably interpreted as a “catch-all term” that means “’employees, agents, servants, and/or independent contractors of [Cross Country] who perform services which further [its] business'” and not, as defendant suggests, other paying customers who are similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant. We disagree and find the Release is unambiguous and clearly expresses an intent to benefit an identifiable class, i.e., “other participants,” of which defendant is a member.

 [*P83]  Looking as we must at the four corners of the parties’ agreement, it is clear that “other participants” were included within the list of individuals or entities to whom the parties to the agreement intended the release of liability to apply. In other words, there was an express intent to benefit “other participants” in the Release. Additionally, when looking at the agreement as a whole, it is clear that the phrase “other participants” refers to those individuals at Cross Country who were similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant, i.e., paying customers or guests who were engaging in the activities provided or offered by Cross Country. Although the term “participants” [***45]  is not defined in the Release, as defendant notes, the terms “participate,” “participation,” and “participants” are used throughout the document. Their use clearly reflects that these words were intended to refer to individuals visiting Cross Country for the purpose of engaging in its recreational activities, including horseback riding. The Release provides as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply [***46]  with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my  [**597]   [****715]  presence or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphases added.)

Additionally, signature lines on the Release required the “PARTICIPANT[‘]S SIGNATURE” or the signature of a parent or guardian for “PARTICIPANTS OF MINORITY AGE.”

 [*P84]  During her own deposition, plaintiff acknowledged that the Release used the phrase “other participants” and that she would characterize defendant as “another [***47]  participant” in the activities at Cross Country. We agree and find the language used in the Release is clear and that it unambiguously refers to an identifiable class of individuals that includes defendant.

 [*P85]  Plaintiff next argues the Release is deficient because it purported to relieve liability for nonreleasable claims, including “intentional torts, gross negligence, and/or activities involving the public interest.” She notes language in the Release stated it applied to “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.” Plaintiff maintains the word “otherwise” encompasses those nonreleasable claims and, thus, renders the Release duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain, and ambiguous.

 [*P86]  To support her argument, plaintiff relies on Lewis v. Snow Creek, Inc., 6 S.W.3d 388, 394 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999), involving an exculpatory clause that purported “to shield [a party] from ‘any claim based on negligence and *** any claim based upon *** other legal theory.'” There, the reviewing court noted “‘there is no question that one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.'” Id. (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337). It found that the exculpatory clause before it used general language by referencing [***48]  claims based on “‘any *** other legal theory,'” stating such language included “intentional torts, gross negligence or any other cause of action not expressly listed.” Id. Thus, because the contract at issue purported to relieve the respondent in the case of all liability but did not actually do so, it was duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain and, ultimately, ambiguous. Id.

 [*P87]  We find Lewis distinguishable from the present case. The language there was much broader than the language of the Release that plaintiff signed. Unlike in this case, the exculpatory clause in Lewis expressly referred to legal theories other than negligence. Additionally, we note other courts applying Missouri law have suggested that the same language that is at issue in this case was sufficiently clear and unambiguous. See Haines v. St. Charles Speedway, Inc., 689 F. Supp. 964, 969 (E.D. Mo. 1988) (finding a release was clear and unambiguous under Missouri law where it relieved liability for the “negligence of the Releasees or otherwise” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721  [****716]  [**598]  (Mo. Ct. App. 1995) (stating language that released claims “‘whether caused by the negligence of the releasees or otherwise'” would “clearly and unambiguously encompass[ ] the negligence of the party seeking to enforce the release” (quoting [***49]  Haines, 689 F. Supp. at 969)). In this instance, the Release plaintiff signed used the term “negligence” and did not expressly include references to any “other legal theory.” We find the Release was sufficient to notify plaintiff that she was releasing “other participants” in trail riding activities at Cross Country from claims arising from the “other participant’s” own negligence. See Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337 (“The exculpatory language must effectively notify a party that he or she is releasing the other party from claims arising from the other party’s own negligence.”).

 [*P88]  Finally, plaintiff also challenges the format of the Cross Country Release. Again, she relies on Lewis, wherein the court additionally found the exculpatory clause before it was not conspicuous and, thus, insufficient to provide notice of a release of liability for negligence claims. Lewis, 6 S.W.3d at 394-95. Specifically, the reviewing court noted the form at issue was titled as a “Rental Form” rather than a release, the form’s exculpatory clause was in approximately five-point font at the bottom of the form, and the plaintiffs “had to sign the Rental Form to receive ski equipment and had to do so while in a line.” Id.

 [*P89]  Again, the present case is distinguishable. Here, the Release documents [***50]  submitted by the parties consisted of two pages. As argued by defendant, the first page was separated into two equal parts. The top portion was labeled “Registration Form” and included several blank spaces for basic guest information. The bottom portion of the form was labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic]” and was separated from the top portion of the form by a dotted line. The titles of both documents appear to be in the same font size with the title of the Release being entirely capitalized. The release information is not relegated to only the bottom portion of the form but, instead, consists of several paragraphs and occupies half of the first page. Significant language in the Release is also capitalized for emphasis. The second page of the Release documents was similarly divided into two equal parts. However, both parts of the second page pertained to Cross Country’s Release. Plaintiff signed the Cross Country Release three times, once for herself and once for each of the minors accompanying her. Further, we note that although plaintiff claims she did not read the release, she did acknowledge that she was required to sign similar documents during previous visits [***51]  to Cross Country.

 [*P90]  Here, we find the Release at issue was unambiguous and conspicuous such that it sufficiently informed plaintiff that she was releasing other individuals participating in Cross Country’s trail riding activities—including defendant—from claims arising out of their own negligence. Plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with her horseback riding activities at Cross Country and, through the Cross Country Release she signed, relieved defendant of any duty to protect her from injury. Given the circumstances presented, the trial court committed no error in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

 [*P91]  We note plaintiff has additionally argued on appeal that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in defendant’s favor under Missouri law because defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent. She points out that, under Missouri law, “one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional  [**599]   [****717]  torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.” Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337. Further, plaintiff notes that in response to defendant’s motion for summary judgment, she made the following argument: “There is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether [***52]  Defendant acted grossly negligent in participating in a group trail ride with a sizeable group, including children, on a horse she did not trust, that had kicked one person prior, while intoxicated and riding too closely to Plaintiff.”

 [*P92]  In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., 446 S.W.3d 668, 671 (Mo. 2014), the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

 [*P93]  As plaintiff notes, Missouri does recognize a separate cause of action for recklessness. Id. at 671-72.

“Conduct is in reckless disregard of another if the actor:

‘[A]ct[s] or fails to do an act which it is [the actor’s] duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of *** harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to [the other.]’ [Citations.]” Id. at 672.

“[R]ecklessness [***53]  is a distinct cause of action from negligence.” Throneberry v. Missouri State Highway Patrol, 526 S.W.3d 198, 208 (Mo. Ct. App. 2017). “Recklessness looks to the tortfeasor’s state of mind” and “is an aggravated form of negligence which differs in quality, rather than in degree, from ordinary lack of care.” Hatch v. V.P. Fair Foundation, Inc., 990 S.W.2d 126, 139 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).

 [*P94]  Under the circumstances presented here, plaintiff cannot rely on a claim of recklessness to avoid enforceability of the Release, as she did not raise the claim before the trial court. SI Securities v. Bank of Edwardsville, 362 Ill. App. 3d 925, 933, 841 N.E.2d 995, 1002, 299 Ill. Dec. 263 (2005) (“Issues not raised in a complaint and points not argued in the trial court are waived on appeal.”).

 [*P95]  Additionally, the record reflects defendant raised plaintiff’s signing of the release and its express assumption of risk argument as an affirmative defense. In Missouri, “[t]o avoid an affirmative defense alleged in an answer, a plaintiff must plead specifically matters of affirmative avoidance.” Angoff v. Mersman, 917 S.W.2d 207, 211 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996); see also Warren v. Paragon Technologies Group, Inc., 950 S.W.2d 844, 845 (Mo. 1997) (stating that “[r]elease is an affirmative defense that must be pled in an answer” and once done requires a plaintiff to file a reply if he or she intends to assert an affirmative avoidance). “The plaintiff’s reply should distinctly allege the grounds of avoidance,” and “[m]atters of avoidance are not available to a party who does not plead them specifically.” Angoff, 917 S.W.2d at 211. “An affirmative [***54]  avoidance is waived if the party raising it has neglected to plead it.” Id.

 [*P96]  Here, plaintiff did not plead a cause of action based on “recklessness” either in her complaint or in responding to defendant’s answer and motion for summary judgment. As defendant points out, she also did not seek to amend her original pleading to include a claim of recklessness. Accordingly, we find plaintiff’s arguments  [**600]   [****718]  are forfeited and do not preclude summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

[*P97]  III. CONCLUSION

 [*P98]  For the reasons stated, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

 [*P99]  Affirmed.

End of Document


Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.

Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.

The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.

Facts

The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.

To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

[Emphasize added]

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

[Emphasize added]

If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.

Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’

[Emphasize added]

Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.

As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

[Emphasize added]

In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.

The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.

The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.

Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.

Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Grant Tuttle et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

Heavenly Valley, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

G056427

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

February 5, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2015- 00813230 Nathan R. Scott, Judge. Affirmed.

The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

DUNNING, J. [*]

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.[ 1] Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant ;unreasonably increased the risks… over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing. The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

THE RELEASE

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.[ 2] The release begins with an all-capital advisement: WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS. Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. In paragraph 2, she ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS… known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions;… variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features;… [and] collisions. Paragraph 5 advised: The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY… for… injury or loss to [her], including death. This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE…. In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was binding to the fullest extent permitted by law… on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

II.

THE ACCIDENT AND THE LAWSUIT

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.[ 3] Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

III.

THE JURY TRIAL

The jury trial spanned five weeks.[ 4] The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered yes to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel were not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the jurors’ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.[ 5] The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and-release of liability and waiver was executed-existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated. (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could end up finding that the release was not valid and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as the release in evidence releases negligence. And the questions on the verdict form go[] to gross negligence, and-this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk. Defendant’s counsel remarked the dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: Right. Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, [a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form…. [¶]… If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them-you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

THE SPECIAL VERDICT

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

Yes X No __

4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes __ No X

If you answered Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question 5. [¶] If you answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

If you answered Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number 0′ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes X No __

Because the jury answered yes to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2, 131, 831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

ENTRY OF A DEFENSE JUDGMENT

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1, 065, 915.50, plus costs and interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.[ 6]

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle. The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: [D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.’

The trial court acknowledged the structure of the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

PLAINTIFFS’ POSTJUDGMENT MOTIONS

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint. (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence, [ 7] the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ postjudgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

THE RELEASE COVERED TUTTLE’S ACCIDENT.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

OVERVIEW: ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight)[ 8] and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.[ 9] Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility. (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.’ (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

ANALYSIS

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only concern is whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.’ (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise. She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it FROM ALL LIABILITY… BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE. No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, inherent or otherwise did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, [t]he term otherwise,’ when paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’… is best understood to mean NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release bears many similarities to the release in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently and unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning (id. at p.1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.’ (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use the word negligence’ or any particular verbiage… [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee. (Id. at pp. 1488 1489.) The release in Cohen used the word negligence only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release also did not indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities. (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5that p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. [ 10] (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

ENFORCEMENT OF THE RELEASE DOES NOT VIOLATE CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC POLICY.

Plaintiffs next argue the release’s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of aggravated negligence. Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release of other forms of aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence. (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for any negligent act’ related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence. (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668, [ 11] impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence. (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to aggravated wrongs (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and aggravated misconduct (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, the distinction between ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary. (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ENTERING JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other postjudgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING SPECIAL VERDICTS

A special verdict must include conclusions of fact as established by the evidence… [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation may be disregarded as surplusage. (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703.) Additionally, where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.’ (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092.)

B.

THE TRIAL COURT’S RULING

As noted, the jury was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form…. But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer YES’ to one question and NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages. (Italics and bold omitted.)

The trial court further explained: Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶]… [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion-a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw-that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.

The trial court also correctly concluded the jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.

C.

ANALYSIS

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring a statutorily authorized post-trial motion challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine as is and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179 [because the defendant did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

PLAINTIFFS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they excepted to those errors, but then were penalized because the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley. Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431, [ 12] to which they agreed, misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options. Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which… made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs]… were… induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs]. This characterization misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or worked against plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would proceed with the verdict form as is. This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third−and significantly−plaintiffs’ counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

WE CONCUR: BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J.

———

Notes:

[*] Retired judge of the Orange Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

[ 1] We refer to Dana Tuttle as Tuttle and to her spouse and sons collectively as plaintiffs. We refer to Heavenly Valley as defendant.

Plaintiffs erroneously identified Heavenly Valley in the complaint as the Vail Corporation. There is no dispute Heavenly Valley is the correct defendant in this case.

[ 2] Tuttle purchased the ski pass online. No actual signature was required; she signed the release by clicking the appropriate box on the electronic form.

[ 3] The jury exonerated Slater from liability. He is not a party to this appeal.

[ 4] The appellate record is lengthy. Given the limited issues before this court, however, we do not recite the trial evidence in detail.

[ 5] The trial court denied defendant’s first nonsuit motion two days earlier. At that time, the trial judge announced he would be prepared to find as a matter of law that colliding with a snowboarder or colliding with a tree is an inherent risk of skiing, but the jury would decide whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk of the sport.

[ 6] Defendant also requested a statement of decision addressing the applicability of primary implied and express assumption of the risk doctrines; the trial court denied the request. The trial court’s denial of this request is not at issue in this appeal.

[ 7] Plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in this appeal.

[ 8] Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296 was a plurality decision authored by Chief Justice George that all members of the court except Justice Kennard subsequently accepted. (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 107, citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 491.)

[ 9] Whether a risk is inherent to a particular active sport presents a question of law for the court. (Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 23 (Hass).)

[ 10] So it is here. Paragraph 13 of Tuttle’s release also binds her assignees, subrogors, distributors, heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

A wrongful death action is not a derivative action. Nonetheless, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk. (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 851 852; see Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 25 [In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks’ acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action].)

[ 11] Civil Code section 1668 lists the types of contractual releases that are unenforceable as a matter of public policy (i.e., those exempting anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent). Gross negligence is not on the list.

[ 12] Plaintiffs do not challenge the modified version of CACI No. 431 in this court, either. The modified instruction read: If you find that Heavenly Valley unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, or that Heavenly Valley was grossly negligent, and also find that Heavenly Valley’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm, then Heavenly Valley is responsible for the harm. Heavenly Valley cannot avoid responsibility just because some other person, condition, or event, including but not limited to Dana Tuttle’s own negligence or the acts of Anthony Slater were also a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm.

———


Illinois upholds release stopping a claim for injury from bouldering at defendant North Wall.

However, defendant climbing wall admitted it had not followed its own procedures or Climbing Wall Association manual with the plaintiff, law in Illinois saved defendant.

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

Plaintiff: Patricia Cizek

Defendant: North Wall, Inc., d/b/a North Wall Rock Climbing Gym

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence & Willful & Wanton Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Open & Obvious & Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

Plaintiff was boulder for the first time and not given the normal or required introduction at the bouldering gym. She fell off the wall and missed a crash pad breaking her ankle. Court held the release she signed stopped her lawsuit.

Facts

On February 14, 2013, she attended respondent’s gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a “good climber, experienced.” Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because “[k]ids were doing it.” Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a “safe zone.” Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

When she first arrived, she observed “children in harnesses with ropers.” There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running “continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall.” At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondent’s staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, “What about my harness?” Kosinski said that harnesses were “more trouble than they were worth.” Plaintiff stated that she “kind of was dumbfounded.” Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing “very difficult,” explaining that “[y]ou use your core.” Plaintiff would “shimmy” down when she got “sore.” She added, “[i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down.” She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

Plaintiff was injured during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt “a little dizzy.” An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiff’s ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinski’s car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiff’s ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

The court also went through a litany of issues the defendant climbing gym did not do with the plaintiff.

Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri [gym manager] to go over “any and all safety procedures” with new climbers.

There was no manual on “how to run North Wall,” but there was an “unofficial manual” kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer [gym owner] instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an “absentee” manager.” He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

Aside from ascertaining a customer’s age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

One document stated, “If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision.” Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned “stable rules” of the Climbing Wall Association.

On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not “inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency.” They did “orientate climbers” and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer “explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy.” This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

Obviously, the defendant gym failed to follow its own rules or the rules and ideas of the CWA that the gym, in the court’s mind, had adopted.

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

The court first looked at the issue that falling was an open and obvious risk.

In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.”). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

The court moved on to review release law in Illinois. Illinois supports the use of releases, unless the contract is between parties with unequal bargaining power, violates public policy or there is a special relationship between the parties.

Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties; however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that “[a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].

When written the release must be expressed in clear, explicit an unequivocal language. The release must also be written in a way that both parties to the contract intended to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm to the plaintiff. However, the release must not be written precisely to cover the exact conduct or exact harm.

Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an “injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.” The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release.

The court found the language “…arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym, whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however, the injury or damage is caused.” w sufficient to the injury the plaintiff received based on the conduct (or lack of conduct in this case) of the defendant.

The court held “In sum, the release, here is clear, pertains to use of defendant’s climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.”

The court then reviewed the willful and wanton claims of the plaintiff. The court described willful and wanton as “”Conduct is “willful and wanton” where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. It is an “aggravated form of negligence.”

The plaintiff argued that failing to follow the defendant bouldering gym’s own policies or evaluate her abilities was proof of willful and wanton conduct. She also pointed out the defendant failed to tell her not to climb above the bouldering line.

Quickly, the court determined the plaintiff had not pled or provided any facts to support her willful and wanton claims. Even if the defendant had followed its own policies, the plaintiff could not show that would have prevented her injuries. Falling at a height above the bouldering line is an open and obvious risk so failing to tell the plaintiff not to climb high is not relevant.

The risk of falling is open and obvious and none of the arguments made by the plaintiff as to the defendants actions overcame that doctrine.

So Now What?

It is great that Illinois supports the use of releases. Even in a case where the defendant failed to follow its own policies or the “manual” of the trade association it belonged to. Even better the court did not find the CWA manual or the defendant’s failure to follow its policies as an issue that could over come the release.

However, from the court’s writing, it is obvious, that the open and obvious doctrine was the most persuasive in supporting both the release and ignoring the defendant’s actions or lack of action.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

Cizek v. North Wall, Inc., 2018 IL App (2d) 170168-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 320

Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

March 2, 2018, Order Filed

No. 2-17-0168-U

Notice: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

Prior History:
[**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 15-LA-56. Honorable Thomas A. Meyer, Judge, Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.

Opinion by: HUDSON

Opinion

PRESIDING JUSTICE HUDSON delivered the judgment of the court.

Justices Schostok and Spence concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

 [*P1] Held: Plaintiff validly waived any cause of action stemming from defendants alleged negligence and failed to identify facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred; therefore, trial courts grant of summary judgment was proper.

 [*P2]
I. INTRODUCTION

 [*P3]
Plaintiff, Patricia Cizek, appeals an order of the circuit court of McHenry County granting summary judgment in favor of defendant, North Wall, Inc. (doing business as North Wall Rock Climbing Gym). For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

 [*P4]
II. BACKGROUND

 [*P5]
Defendant operates an indoor rock climbing gym; plaintiff was a customer at the gym when she was injured. Plaintiff and a friend, Daniel Kosinski, attended the gym. Plaintiff had never been climbing before. At some point, after having been climbing for a while, plaintiff became tired and jumped down or fell from the climbing [**2]
wall. Plaintiffs right foot landed on a mat, but her left foot landed on the floor. Plaintiffs left ankle broke.

 [*P6]
In her deposition (taken December 23, 2015), plaintiff testified as follows. She stated that she had been a member of a health club for 10 years, where she primarily swam and did yoga. Prior to February 14, 2013, plaintiff had no experience rock climbing or bouldering, though she had observed people rock climbing in the past. She agreed that she understood that rock climbing involved being at a height higher than the ground.

 [*P7]
On February 14, 2013, she attended respondents gym with Kosinski, a coworker. She characterized Kosinski as a good climber, experienced. Kosinski told her climbing was one of his hobbies. She did not think climbing would involve any risk because [k]ids were doing it. Further, climbing occurred at a gym, which she viewed as a safe zone. Also, based on what she saw on television, she believed she would be using a harness. She and Kosinski did not consume any alcohol prior to arriving at North Wall, and she was not taking any medication at the time.

 [*P8]
When they arrived, Kosinski paid the fee. Plaintiff signed and returned a waiver form. Kosinski [**3]
had climbed at North Wall before. At the time, plaintiff did not know whether Kosinski was a member at North Wall, though she later learned that he had been at the time she was injured. Plaintiff acknowledged that she did, in fact, read and understand the waiver form. She did not look at the back of the form, but she recalled that she was given only one sheet of paper. She was provided with a pair of climbing shoes.

 [*P9]
When she first arrived, she observed children in harnesses with ropers. There were two large green pads that covered most of the floor. Plaintiff did not recall seeing any bulletin boards or posters. She also did not recall seeing a black line running continuously around the parameter [sic] of the climbing wall. At the time of the deposition, she was aware that such a line existed. Beyond signing the waiver when she arrived, she had no further interaction with respondents staff. Plaintiff reviewed a number of pictures of the facility and testified that it had changed since her accident. She also identified a photograph taken in October 2013 that showed where she was injured.

 [*P10]
She and Kosinski then proceeded to the climbing wall. She asked, What about my harness? Kosinski [**4]
said that harnesses were more trouble than they were worth. Plaintiff stated that she kind of was dumbfounded. Plaintiff proceeded to climb without a harness. Kosinski went first. He told her to follow some yellow markers, as they were for beginners. While she watched Kosinski, she did not see a black, horizontal line on the wall. Prior to climbing, Kosinski placed a mat below the area in which he intended to climb. Plaintiff found climbing very difficult, explaining that [y]ou use your core. Plaintiff would shimmy down when she got sore. She added, [i]ts tough work getting up there, so I need[ed] to get down. She would jump down from two to three feet off the ground. Plaintiff made three or four climbs before she was injured.

 [*P11]
Large green mats covered almost the entire floor of the gym. There were also smaller black mats that could be placed in different locations by climbers. Kosinski was not near plaintiff when she was injured. Before being injured, plaintiff had moved to a new climbing area. She placed a black mat where she planned on climbing. A green mat also abutted the wall in that area. The black mat was three to six inches away from the wall.

 [*P12]
Plaintiff was injured [**5]
during her third attempt at climbing that day, and she did not feel comfortable climbing. She explained that she was not wearing a harness, but was trying to do her best. There was a part of the floor that was not covered by a green mat in this area, which is where plaintiff landed when she was injured. Plaintiff stated she jumped off the wall and when she landed, her right foot was on a green mat, but her left foot landed on the uncovered floor. She felt pain in her left ankle and could not put weight on it. Kosinski and an employee came over to assist plaintiff. Kosinski got plaintiff some ibuprofen. Plaintiff felt a little dizzy. An employee called the paramedics. The paramedics stated that plaintiffs ankle was broken. They assisted plaintiff to Kosinskis car, and he drove her to St. Alexius hospital. At the hospital, they x-rayed plaintiffs ankle and confirmed that it was broken. She was given some sort of narcotic pain killer, and her ankle was placed in a cast. Plaintiff was discharged and told to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon.

 [*P13]
She followed up with Dr. Sean Odell. Odell performed a surgery six days after the accident. He installed eight pins and a plate. Plaintiff [**6]
had broken both leg bones where they intersect at the ankle. She took Norco for months following the surgery. She engaged in physical therapy for years, including what she did at home. The hardware was removed in December 2013. Her ankle continues to be stiff, she has trouble with many activities, and she takes ibuprofen for pain several times per week.

 [*P14]
On cross-examination, plaintiff stated that she read the wavier form before she signed it (though, she added, she did not study it). Other climbers were climbing without ropes, and the only people she saw using ropes were children. She was not offered a rope or harness. Plaintiff still takes prescription pain killers on occasion. However, she does not like to take it due to its side effects.

 [*P15]
A discovery deposition of Daniel Kosinski was also conducted. He testified that he knew plaintiff from work. She was a travel agent that did all the travel arrangements for [his] company. He and plaintiff were friends, though they do not associate outside of work.

 [*P16]
Kosinski stated that rock climbing is one of his hobbies. He started climbing in 2008. He initially climbed at Bloomingdale Lifetime Fitness. They eventually offered him a job, and [**7]
he worked there for four or five years. His title was [r]ock wall instructor. He described bouldering as climbing without a rope. He stated that it is a little more intense. Generally, one climbs at lower levels, and there are mats, as opposed to ropes, for protection. He added that [t]heres not really much instruction [to do] in terms of bouldering. He explained, bouldering, theres just—okay, this is how high you can go and thats pretty much it. There was no bouldering line at Lifetime Fitness. However, they did have a rule that you should not climb above the height of your shoulders. A spotter is not typically required when bouldering.

 [*P17]
He and plaintiff went to North Wall on February 14, 2013. He was a member and had been there multiple times previously. When he first went to North Wall, he signed a waiver and viewed a video recording that concerned safety. Due to height considerations, Kosinski characterized North Wall as pretty much a dedicated bouldering gym. North Wall offers top rope climbing, which Kosinski said was often used for childrens parties.

 [*P18]
Kosinski believed he was aware that plaintiff did not have any climbing experience prior to their trip to North [**8]
Wall. He could not recall whether there were any safety posters displayed. He and plaintiff had a conversation about the risks involved in rock climbing. He also explained to her what bouldering entailed and that a rope was not used. He noted that plaintiff was shaky or nervous on her first climb. Kosinski told plaintiff that if she was not comfortable, she should come down. He did not recall a bouldering line at North Wall and believed it was permissible to climb all the way to the top when bouldering. He did not recall whether plaintiff had been provided with climbing shoes. Plaintiff was in better than average physical condition.

 [*P19]
When plaintiff was injured, she was climbing on a wall called Devils Tower. It was toward the back, right of the facility. During the climb on which plaintiff was injured, Kosinski observed that plaintiff was stuck at one point and could not figure out what to do next. He walked over to assist her. She was four or five feet off the ground. Plaintiffs left foot and hand came off the wall, and her body swung away from the wall (counterclockwise). She then fell and landed on the edge of a mat. Kosinski stated she landed half on the mat and was rotating [**9]
when she landed. After plaintiff landed, Kosinski went over to check on her. Plaintiff said she believed she had broken her ankle. He did not know whether plaintiff had applied chalk to her hands before, nor did he recall what she was wearing. It did not appear that plaintiff had control of herself before she fell off the wall and injured herself. It also did not appear to him that plaintiff was attempting to get down from the wall or that she deliberately jumped.

 [*P20]
Kosinski told an employee of respondents to call the paramedics. Kosinski recalled an employee offering plaintiff ice. Plaintiff declined a ride to the hospital in an ambulance, and Kosinski drove her there instead.

 [*P21]
Kosinski testified that he and plaintiff had never been romantically involved. He recalled that plaintiff used crutches following the injury and took some time off from work. According to Kosinski, she used crutches for quite a while.

 [*P22]
On cross-examination, Kosinski explained that a spotter, unlike a belayer, only has limited control over a climber. A spotter just direct[s] them to fall onto a mat and not hit their head. It would have been possible for plaintiff to use a rope while climbing (assuming one was [**10]
available). Kosinski stated that use of a rope might have prevented plaintiffs injury; however, it might also have caused another injury, such as plaintiff hitting her head on something. Kosinski agreed that he climbed twice a week or about 100 times per year. He did not recall an employee ever advising him about not climbing too high when bouldering. An automatic belayer might have lessened the force with which plaintiff landed and mitigated her injury. It was about 25 to 30 feet from the front desk to the place where plaintiff fell. The safety video new customers had to watch was about two minutes long. He did not observe plaintiff watching the video.

 [*P23]
Prior to climbing, Kosinski told plaintiff that climbing was a dangerous sport and that they would be climbing without ropes. He did not recall any employee of respondent testing plaintiff with regard to her climbing abilities. After refreshing his recollection with various documents, Kosinski testified that they had been climbing for about half an hour when plaintiff was injured. He agreed that plaintiff was an inexperienced climber.

 [*P24]
On redirect-examination, he confirmed that he was not present when plaintiff first checked in at North [**11]
Wall. He had no knowledge of what transpired between plaintiff and respondents employees at that point.

 [*P25]
Jason R. Cipri also testified via discovery deposition. He testified that he had been employed by respondent as a manager for two years, from 2012 to 2014. His immediate supervisor was Randy Spencer (respondents owner). When he was hired in 2012, Cipri was trained on office procedures, logistics, how to deal with the cash register, where to put the mail, and the use of a computer system. He was also trained on dealing with customers. Cipri started climbing in 2000 and had worked for respondent for about a year around the time of plaintiffs injury.

 [*P26]
Novice climbers were supposed to sign a waiver and view a video. Spencer trained Cipri to go over any and all safety procedures with new climbers. Cipri was trained to interact with the customers to decide and figure out their climbing ability. Three types of climbing occurred at North Wall: bouldering, top-rope climbing, and lead climbing (also known as sport climbing). Plaintiff was bouldering when she was injured. Bouldering does not involve the use of ropes. Cipri estimated about 90 percent (or at least the vast majority) of [**12]
the climbing at North Wall is bouldering. Cipri received very specific training regarding how to execute waiver forms. Customers were instructed to read the waiver form.

 [*P27]
There was a bouldering line on the climbing wall. People engaged in bouldering were not supposed to bring their feet above that line. The bouldering line is described in the waiver. However, Cipri explained, having a bouldering line is not common. He added, We all kind of thought it was cute, but it didnt really serve a purpose.

 [*P28]
Cipri was working as a manager on the day plaintiff was injured. He recalled that an employee named Miranda, whom he called a coach, came and told him that someone had been injured. He called the paramedics, as that was what plaintiff wanted. He brought plaintiff some ice. He described Kosinski (whom he initially called Eric) as a pretty novice climber. Cipri did not know whether plaintiff was above the bouldering line when she fell. Plaintiff did not appear intoxicated or smell of alcohol. She did not appear to have any injuries besides the one to her ankle. Plaintiff would not have been allowed to use a rope because you have to be certified and taken through a lesson to use the [**13]
ropes.

 [*P29]
To the left side of the customer-service counter, there were posters addressing safety and such. Cipri filled out an accident report concerning plaintiffs injury. Cipri denied that he was terminated by respondent and that the owner ever accused him of using drugs on the job. There was no manual on how to run North Wall, but there was an unofficial manual kept on the front desk. This was comprised of a couple of binders that concerned how to teach climbing, use of the telephone, memberships, employee conduct, and various rules. He did not recall anything specific relating to dealing with novice climbers. There was a copy of the Climbing Wall Association manual in a file-cabinet drawer; however, he never used it for anything. Cipri did not recall Spencer instructing him to use this manual. Spencer did train employees on climbing, particularly new hires. Cipri described Spencer as an absentee manager. He would come in early in the day, and Cipri typically would not see him.

 [*P30]
Aside from ascertaining a customers age and climbing experience, they did nothing else to assess his or her proficiency. They would show new climbers a video and explain the rules of the gym to them. [**14]
Cipri could not say whether a copy of a manual shown to him was the manual they were actually using when he worked for respondent. However, he stated various forms shown to him, including one concerning bouldering orientation, were not used when he was there. Spencer never told Cipri to get rid of any document; rather, he was adamant about keeping such material. Weekly inspections of the premises were conducted, but no records documenting them were maintained.

 [*P31]
On cross-examination, Cipri stated that his sister had been hired to rewrite the operations manual. One document stated, If the facility allows bouldering, the staff provides an orientation before novice climbers are allowed to boulder without assistance or direct supervision. Cipri testified that this was not generated by respondent, but they followed it. Employees working the counter were trained to have new customers watch a video, instruct them on safety procedures, and assess their abilities. To the left of the front door, posters from the Climbing Wall Association were displayed. There was also one near the back door. Cipri did not remember what they were about beyond that they concerned stable rules of the Climbing [**15]
Wall Association.

 [*P32]
Cipri did not witness plaintiffs accident, and he did not recall being present when she was checked in. He never had rejected a customer previously, but he had the authority to do so. He never encountered a situation where he felt it was necessary.

 [*P33]
On redirect-examination, Cipri agreed that beyond verbal questioning, they did not test new customers. They did not inspect or observe climbers while they were actually climbing to determine competency. They did orientate climbers and show them the video. Further, new climbers read the waiver forms. Climbers were instructed on general and bouldering safety rules. Cipri was aware of an earlier incident where a young boy cut his head while climbing. Cipri stated that it was arguable that climbing with a rope was more dangerous than bouldering because a person could get tangled in the rope. Cipri did not give plaintiff an orientation, and he had no recollection of anyone giving her one.

 [*P34]
Randall Spencer, respondents owner, also testified via discovery deposition. Spencer testified that North Wall is pretty much run by employees and he does not have much of a role anymore. The business is run by a manager, Eric Paul. [**16]
Spencer did not have an independent recollection of plaintiffs accident. Cipri was the manager at the time. There was another manager as well named Chuck Kapayo, who Spencer described as co-managing with Cipri. Anything Spencer knew about plaintiffs accident he learned from Cipri or another employee named Terri Krallitsch. Usually, two people worked at any given time, although, sometimes, only one would be present.

 [*P35]
Spencer identified the waiver form signed by plaintiff. However, he acknowledged that it was not the original. The purpose of the waiver was to inform a customer about the danger involved in rock climbing. Further, employees were trained to talk about the rules and safety items when [customers] first come into the gym. In addition, there were posters, four of which were visible at the entrance. The posters were produced by the Climbing Wall Association as part of their Climb Smart Program. Spencer added that they say [c]limbing is [d]angerous. One says Bouldering is Dangerous Climb Smart. These were the only ways customers were informed of the dangers of rock climbing. Customers are not tested as to their climbing proficiency, and they are not trained unless they [**17]
sign up for a class. Customers were told not to climb above the bouldering line when bouldering.

 [*P36]
Employees were instructed to follow the policies of the Climbing Wall Association. If an employee did not spend time with a new customer explaining the policies and procedures of bouldering, that would be a violation of company policy. This is true even if the new customer is accompanied by a more experienced climber.

 [*P37]
Spencer explained that bouldering is climbing without a rope. The bouldering line is a little bit over three feet from the floor. Climbers were to keep their feet below the bouldering line. The accident report prepared by Cipri states plaintiffs feet were six feet off the floor when she fell. The only equipment provided by respondent to plaintiff was climbing shoes. Respondent could have provided a harness, and plaintiff could have been belayed. They did not provide chalk to plaintiff.

 [*P38]
Spencer testified that the waiver form states that it is not intended to provide a description of all risks and hazards. He explained that this means it is possible to get hurt in a manner not described in the waiver. There was no formal training program for employees. Managers trained [**18]
new employees, and managers themselves came to respondent already having climbing experience. In 2013, respondent had no auto-belay system in place. Spencer testified that he fired Cipri because of suspected drug use.

 [*P39]
The released signed by plaintiff states, in pertinent part, as follows. Initially, it states that plaintiff is giving up any right of actions arising out of use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc. Plaintiff then acknowledged that the sport of rock climbing and the use of the facilities of North Wall, Inc., has inherent risks. It then states that plaintiff has full knowledge of the nature and extent of all the risks associated with rock climbing and the use of the climbing gym, including but not limited to the following:

1. All manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym and hitting rock faces and/or projections, whether permanently or temporarily in place, or on the floor or loose. 2. Rope abrasions, entanglement and other injuries ***. 3. Injuries resulting from falling climbers or dropped items ***. 4. Cuts and abrasions resulting from skin contact with the climbing gym and/or the gyms devices and/or hardware. 5. Failure of ropes, slings, [**19]
harnesses, climbing hardware, anchor points, or any part of the climbing gym structure.

Plaintiff then waived any cause of action arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused.

 [*P40]
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant. It noted that case law indicates that a competent adult recognizes the danger of falling from a height. It next observed that the waiver plaintiff signed stated that she was releasing defendant from all manner of injury resulting from falling off the climbing gym. The trial court then rejected plaintiffs argument that this language was too general to be enforced. It further found that plaintiff had set forth no facts from which willful and wanton conduct could be inferred. This appeal followed.

 [*P41]
III. ANALYSIS

 [*P42]
We are confronted with two main issues. First is the effect of the waiver form signed by plaintiff. Second, we must consider whether plaintiffs count alleging willful and wanton conduct survives regardless of the waiver (an exculpatory agreement exempting liability for willful and wanton conduct would violate public policy (Falkner v. Hinckley Parachute Center, Inc., 178 Ill. App. 3d 597, 604, 533 N.E.2d 941, 127 Ill. Dec. 859 (1989))). [**20]
Plaintiffs brief also contains a section addressing proximate cause; however, as we conclude that the waiver bars plaintiffs cause of action, we need not address this argument.

 [*P43]
A. THE WAIVER

 [*P44]
The trial court granted summary judgment on all but the willful and wanton count of plaintiffs complaint based on plaintiffs execution of a waiver. As this case comes to us following a grant of summary judgment, our review is de novo. Bier v. Leanna Lakeside Property Assn, 305 Ill. App. 3d 45, 50, 711 N.E.2d 773, 238 Ill. Dec. 386 (1999). Under the de novo standard of review, we owe no deference to the trial courts decision and may freely substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. Miller v. Hecox, 2012 IL App (2d) 110546, ¶ 29, 969 N.E.2d 914, 360 Ill. Dec. 869. Summary judgment is a drastic method of resolving litigation, so it should be granted only if the movants entitlement to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Bier, 305 Ill. App. 3d at 50. It is appropriate only where the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, and admissions on file, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.
Id. Finally, it is axiomatic that we review the result to which the trial court arrived at, rather than its reasoning. In re Marriage of Ackerley, 333 Ill. App. 3d 382, 392, 775 N.E.2d 1045, 266 Ill. Dec. 973 (2002).

 [*P45]
Though we are not bound by the trial courts reasoning, [**21]
we nevertheless find ourselves in agreement with it. Like the trial court, we find great significance in the proposition that the danger of falling from a height is open and obvious to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford v. Narin, 307 Ill. App. 3d 296, 302, 717 N.E.2d 525, 240 Ill. Dec. 432 (1999); see also Bucheleres v. Chicago Park District, 171 Ill. 2d 435, 448, 665 N.E.2d 826, 216 Ill. Dec. 568 (1996); Mount Zion Bank & Trust v. Consolidated Communications, Inc., 169 Ill. 2d 110, 118, 660 N.E.2d 863, 214 Ill. Dec. 156 (1995) (In Illinois, obvious dangers include fire, drowning in water, or falling from a height.). Thus, for the purpose of resolving this appeal and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will presume that plaintiff was aware that falling off the climbing wall presented certain obvious dangers.

 [*P46]
We also note that, in Illinois, parties may contract to limit the liability for negligence. Oelze v. Score Sports Venture, LLC, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 117, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596 (2010). Absent fraud or willful and wanton negligence, exculpatory agreements of this sort are generally valid. Id. An agreement may be also vitiated by unequal bargaining power, public policy considerations, or some special relationship between the parties (Id.); however, such issues are not present here. This court has previously explained that [a]n exculpatory agreement constitutes an express assumption of risk insofar as the plaintiff has expressly consented to relieve the defendant of an obligation of conduct toward him [or her].
Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 602.

 [*P47]
Agreements of this nature must be expressed in clear, explicit [**22]
and unequivocal language showing that such was the intent of the parties.
Calarco v. YMCA of Greater Metropolitan Chicago, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 1043, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247 (1986). That is, it must
appear that its terms were intended by both parties to apply to the conduct of the defendant which caused the harm.
Id., (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, Explanatory Notes
496B, comment d, at 567 (1965)). Nevertheless, “The precise occurrence which results in injury need not have been contemplated by the parties at the time the contract was entered into.
Garrison v. Combined Fitness Centre, Ltd., 201 Ill. App. 3d 581, 585, 559 N.E.2d 187, 147 Ill. Dec. 187 (1990). Thus, an exculpatory agreement will excuse a defendant from liability only where an
injury falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity and, thus, reasonably contemplated by the plaintiff.
Id. The foreseeability of the danger defines the scope of the release. Cox v. U.S. Fitness, LLC, 2013 IL App (1st) 122442, ¶ 14, 377 Ill. Dec. 930, 2 N.E.3d 1211.

 [*P48]
Numerous cases illustrate the degree of specificity required in an exculpatory agreement necessary to limit a defendants liability for negligence. In Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 583, the plaintiff was injured when a weighted bar rolled off a grooved rest on a bench press and landed on his neck. The plaintiff alleged that the bench press was improperly designed and that the defendant-gym was negligent in providing it when it was not safe for its intended use. Id. [**23]
The plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement, which stated, inter alia:

It is further agreed that all exercises including the use of weights, number of repetitions, and use of any and all machinery, equipment, and apparatus designed for exercising shall be at the Members sole risk. Notwithstanding any consultation on exercise programs which may be provided by Center employees it is hereby understood that the selection of exercise programs, methods and types of equipment shall be Members entire responsibility, and COMBINED FITNESS CENTER [sic] shall not be liable to Member for any claims, demands, injuries, damages, or actions arising due to injury to Members person or property arising out of or in connection with the use by Member of the services and facilities of the Center or the premises where the same is located and Member hereby holds the Center, its employees and agents, harmless from all claims which may be brought against them by Member or on Members behalf for any such injuries or claims aforesaid.
Id. at 584.

The plaintiff argued that the agreement did not contemplate a release of liability for the provision of defective equipment. The trial court granted the defendants motion [**24]
for summary judgment based on the exculpatory agreement.

 [*P49]
The reviewing court affirmed. Id. at 586. It explained as follows:

Furthermore, the exculpatory clause could not have been more clear or explicit. It stated that each member bore the sole risk; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member.
Id. at 585.

It further noted that the defendant was aware of the attendant dangers in the activity and, despite the fact that plaintiff now alleges that the bench press he used was unreasonably unsafe because it lacked a certain safety feature, the injury he sustained clearly falls within the scope of possible dangers ordinarily accompanying the activity of weight-lifting.
Id.

 [*P50]
Similarly, in Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603, the court found the following exculpatory clause exempted the defendant from liability following a parachute accident: The Student exempts and releases the [defendant] *** from any and all liability claims *** whatsoever arising out of any damage, loss or injury to the Student or the Students property while upon the premises or aircraft of the [defendant] or while [**25]
participating in any of the activities contemplated by this agreement. The plaintiffs decedent died during a parachute jump. The court placed some significance on the fact that the decedent had been a pilot in the Army Air Corp. Id.

 [*P51]
Another case that provides us with some guidance is Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d 110, 927 N.E.2d 137, 339 Ill. Dec. 596. There, the plaintiff had signed an exculpatory agreement stating, I hereby release SCORE Tennis & Fitness and its owners and employees from any and all liability for any damage or injury, which I may receive while utilizing the equipment and facilities and assume all risk for claims arising from the use of said equipment and facilities.
Id. at 118. The plaintiff, who was playing tennis, was injured when she tripped on a piece of equipment that was stored behind a curtain near the tennis court she was using while she was trying to return a lob. Id. at 113. The plaintiff argued that this risk was
unrelated to the game of tennis and thus outside the scope of the release. Id. at 120. However, the court found that the broad language of the release encompassed the risk, relying on the plaintiffs agreement to assume the risk for her use of the clubs equipment and facilities.‘”
Id.

 [*P52]
Finally, we will examine Calarco, 149 Ill. App. 3d 1037, 501 N.E.2d 268, 103 Ill. Dec. 247. In that case, the plaintiff [**26]
was injured when weights from a Universal gym machine fell on her hand. Id. at 1038. The trial court granted summary judgment based on an exculpatory clause. Id. at 1038-39. The clause read:

“‘In consideration of my participation in the activities of the Young Mens Christian Association of Metropolitan Chicago, I do hereby agree to hold free from any and all liability the [defendant] and do hereby for myself, *** waive, release and forever discharge any and all rights and claims for damages which I may have or which may hereafter accrue to me arising out of or connected with my participation in any of the activities of the [defendant].

I hereby do declare myself to be physically sound, having medical approval to participate in the activities of the [defendant].‘”
Id. at 1039.

The reviewing court reversed, finding that the language of the release was not sufficiently explicit to relieve the defendant from liability. Id. at 1043. It explained, The form does not contain a clear and adequate description of covered activities, such as use of the said gymnasium or the facilities and equipment thereof, to clearly indicate that injuries resulting from negligence in maintaining the facilities or equipment would be covered by the release [**27] .” (Emphasis added.) Id.

 [*P53]
In the present case, plaintiff waived any cause of action arising out of or in any way related to [her] use of the climbing gym whether that use is supervised or unsupervised, however the injury or damage is caused. (Emphasis added.) This is remarkably similar to the language, set forth above, that the Calarco court stated would have been sufficient to shield the defendant in that case. Id. Likewise, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 585, the language that was found sufficient to protect the defendant stated that each member bore the sole risk; of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member. Again, identifying the activity involved along with an expressed intent to absolve the defendant from any liability prevailed. Here, the activity was clearly defined and plaintiffs intent to waive any cause related to that activity was clear. Furthermore, plaintiffs injury was of the sort that a participant in that activity could reasonably expect. As Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 120, indicates, language encompassing assumption of the risk for her use of the clubs equipment and [**28]
facilities‘” is broad and sufficient to cover accidents of the sort that are related to the primary activity. See also Falkner, 178 Ill. App. 3d at 603. Here, falling or jumping off the climbing wall are things a climber can clearly expect to encounter.

 [*P54]
Plaintiff cites Locke v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 20 F. Supp. 3d 669 (N.D. Ill. 2014), a case from the local federal district court. Such cases merely constitute persuasive authority (Morris v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 2015 IL App (5th) 140622, ¶ 25, 396 Ill. Dec. 330, 39 N.E.3d 1156); nevertheless, we will comment on it briefly. In that case, the plaintiff suffered a heart attack and died during a basketball game at a gym operated by the defendant. Id. at 671. There was an automatic defibrillator on site, but no employee retrieved it or attempted to use it. Id. The plaintiff had signed a waiver, which included the risk of a heart attack. Id. at 672. However, the waiver did not mention the defendants failure to train its employees in the use of the defibrillator. Id. The Locke court held that by advancing this claim as a failure to train by the defendant, the plaintiff could avoid the effect of the waiver. Id. at 674-75.

 [*P55]
We find Locke unpersuasive. Following the reasoning of Locke, virtually any claim can be recast as a failure to train, supervise, or, in some circumstances, inspect. Allowing such a proposition to defeat an otherwise valid exculpatory agreement [**29]
would effectively write such agreements out of most contracts. See Putnam v. Village of Bensenville, 337 Ill. App. 3d 197, 209, 786 N.E.2d 203, 271 Ill. Dec. 945 (2003) (Limiting the disclaimer in the manner suggested by the plaintiffs would effectively write it out of the contract. Virtually every error in construction by a subcontractor could be recast and advanced against [the defendant] as a failure to supervise or inspect the project.). Here, plaintiff promised to release defendant from any liability resulting from her use of the climbing wall. Moreover, we fail to see how providing additional training to employees would have impacted on plaintiffs perception of an obvious risk. Allowing her to avoid this promise in this manner would be an elevation of form over substance.

 [*P56]
At oral argument, plaintiff relied heavily on the allegation that the spot where she landed was uneven due to the placement of mats in the area. As noted, one of plaintiffs feet landed on a mat and the other landed directly on the floor. According to plaintiff, the risk of landing on an uneven surface was not within the scope of the waiver she executed. This argument is foreclosed by two cases which we cite above. First, in Oelze, 401 Ill. App. 3d at 113, the plaintiff was injured while, during a game of tennis, she tripped on a piece [**30]
of equipment stored behind a curtain near the tennis court. This arguably dangerous condition was found to be within the scope of her waiver. Id. at 121-22. Furthermore, in Garrison, 201 Ill. App. 3d at 584, the plaintiff argued that an alleged defect in gym equipment rendered ineffective an exculpatory agreement which stated that the plaintiff bore the sole risk of injury that might result from the use of weights, equipment or other apparatus provided and that the selection of the type of equipment to be used would be the entire responsibility of the member.
Id. at 585. In this case, assuming arguendo, there was some unevenness in the floor due to the placement of the floor mats, in keeping with Oelze and Garrison, such a defect would not vitiate plaintiff
s waiver.

 [*P57]
In sum, the release here is clear, pertains to use of defendants climbing gym, and is broad enough to encompass falling or jumping from the climbing wall.

 [*P58]
B. WILLFUL AND WANTON CONDUCT

 [*P59]
In an attempt to avoid the effect of the exculpatory agreement, plaintiff also contends that defendant engaged in willful and wanton conduct. Conduct is willful and wanton where it involves a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. In re Estate of Stewart, 2016 IL App (2d),151117 ¶ 72, 406 Ill. Dec. 345, 60 N.E.3d 896. It is an aggravated [**31]
form of negligence.
Id. Plaintiff contends that defendant should have followed its own policies and evaluated her abilities. However, plaintiff does not explain what such an evaluation would have shown or what sort of action it would have prompted one of defendant
s employees to take that would have protected plaintiff from the injury she suffered. Plaintiff also points to defendants failure to advise her not to climb above the bouldering line. As the trial court observed, the risk of falling from a height is open and obvious to an adult. Ford ex rel. Ford, 307 Ill. App. 3d at 302. Plaintiff cites nothing to substantiate the proposition that failing to warn plaintiff of a risk of which she was presumptively already aware rises to the level of willful and wanton conduct. Indeed, how a defendant could consciously disregard the risk of not advising plaintiff of the dangers of heights when she was presumptively aware of this risk is unclear (plaintiff provides no facts from which an intent to harm could be inferred).

 [*P60]
In short, the conduct identified by plaintiff simply does not show a willful and wanton disregard for her safety.

 [*P61]
IV. CONCLUSION

 [*P62]
In light of the foregoing, the judgment of the circuit court of McHenry County [**32]
is affirmed.

 [*P63]
Affirmed.


Grosch v. Anderson, 2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529

Grosch v. Anderson, 2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529

Grosch v. Anderson

Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District

September 12, 2018, Order Filed

No. 2-17-0707

Reporter

2018 IL App (2d) 170707-U *; 2018 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1529 **

TRACEY GROSCH, Individually and as Mother and Next Friend of Riley Grosch, a Minor, Plaintiff and Counterdefendant-Appellant, v. BRIAN ANDERSON, JO ANDERSON, CARY-GROVE EVANGELICAL FREE CHURCH, d/b/a Living Grace Community Church of Cary, Defendants and Counterplaintiffs-Appellees.

Notice: THIS ORDER WAS FILED UNDER SUPREME COURT RULE 23 AND MAY NOT BE CITED AS PRECEDENT BY ANY PARTY EXCEPT IN THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOWED UNDER RULE 23(e)(1).

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 14-L-619. Honorable James R. Murphy, Judge, Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Judges: JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court. Justices McLaren and Burke concurred in the judgment.

Opinion by: BIRKETT

Opinion

JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court.

Justices McLaren and Burke concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

 [*P1] 
Held: The trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of defendants because the fire pole was an open and obvious condition and no exception existed, and there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment.

 [*P2]  Plaintiff, Tracey Grosch, individually and as mother and next friend of Riley Grosch, a minor, appeals the judgment of the circuit court of Kane County, granting summary judgment in favor of defendants, Brian Anderson, Jo Anderson, and the Cary-Grove Evangelical Free Church d/b/a Living Grace Community Church on plaintiff’s claims of negligence related to Riley’s fall as he was attempting to slide down a fire pole in the Andersons’s back yard during an event sponsored by the Church’s youth ministry. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in relying on the open-and-obvious doctrine and in concluding [**2]  that there were no genuine issues of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment. We affirm.

 [*P3]  I. BACKGROUND

 [*P4]  We summarize the pertinent facts. On November 14, 2016, the Andersons were members of the Church; plaintiff’s family attended the Church, but were not members. According to Pastor Cory Shreve, quite a few more people attended the Church than were members. Shreve was the youth pastor and was responsible for running and administering the Church’s youth ministry. He was in charge of the Radiate program which provided for fellowship and religious mentoring of youths beginning in seventh grade and ending upon high school graduation. Radiate was open to members and attendees, and it incorporated youths from other churches and even the “unchurched” as well. Radiate had contacted the Andersons seeking to hold a bonfire at their home; the group had held a bonfire there previously.

 [*P5]  In the Andersons’ back yard, Brian had constructed a platform in a tree from which he had removed the upper branches and foliage. The platform was about 25 feet above the ground. The platform was reached by a ladder tied to the tree. The platform had a rail around it, but no other fall protection. The [**3]  platform had a triangular hole in it, and through the hole, was a metal “fire pole.” The pole was made out of sprinkler pipe, was affixed in concrete at the base, and was 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The surface of the pole had oxidized. The ground around the pole was grass covered, and no force-absorbing material, such as sand or wood chips, had been placed around the bottom of the pole.

 [*P6]  Brian explained that he built the platform and fire pole for his children. Both Brian and Jo testified in deposition that between 150 to 200 people had used the pole, all without injury. Brian testified that he was a construction contractor and was familiar with fall protection for working above the ground and had employed it in his work; no fall protection was installed or available on the platform. Brian testified that he did not research or follow any building codes for the platform and fire pole.

 [*P7]  On the day of the Radiate event, Shreve arrived 15-30 minutes before the announced start of the event. Some of the parents stayed to socialize, others dropped their children off. Plaintiff dropped off Riley and then went shopping nearby, intending to finish shopping and then return for the balance of the [**4]  event. Jo was inside the house for the event, and she monitored the food and drinks, making sure that there was plenty for all of the guests. She also socialized with the other parents. Brian was also inside socializing. Shreve was monitoring the bonfire. At one point, he intercepted one of the youths who tried to jump over the bonfire and explained to the youth why that was not a wise decision. At the time of Riley’s accident, Shreve had gone inside.

 [*P8]  Riley, the Andersons, and Shreve all testified that it was a cool or cold evening, estimating the temperature was anywhere from the 20s to the 40s. According to Shreve and Brian, the point of the event was the bonfire and indoor fellowship; the youths attending were not expected to play in the back yard, but were expected to roast marshmallows in the bonfire and to play in the basement, where pool, basketball, and board games were available. After about an hour outside, Shreve went inside, planning to steer the event towards worship. One of the youths came inside and alerted Shreve and the adults that Riley was hurt.

 [*P9]  Riley testified that he climbed up the ladder. The ladder had metal rungs, so his hands became cold. At the top, on the [**5]  platform while waiting for his turn, he put on gloves. Riley testified that the gloves were like ski gloves, and believed they were slick, possibly made of nylon. Riley testified that he awaited his turn along with several other youths. On that day, Riley was 13 years of age. He grabbed the pole with his hands, but he did not wrap his arms or legs around the pole. As Riley began his descent, he lost control, grabbed for the edge of the platform but could not hang on, and he plummeted the rest of the way to the ground. Riley suffered a comminuted fracture of his left femur and broke several long bones in his right foot. Riley’s femur was repaired surgically, and he had a rod emplaced in the bone. There is a possibility that the rod may have to be removed at a future date. Riley also developed a foot drop following his fall from the platform.

 [*P10]  The adults came out to investigate after they were notified. One of the youths, an Eagle Scout, obtained a rigid table top, and after they had ascertained that Riley had no apparent head or spinal injuries, placed him on the table top and moved him inside. Their purpose was to get him off of the cold ground; Riley apparently was complaining of resting [**6]  on the cold ground. Plaintiff was informed and told to return to the Andersons’ house. According to Brian, she arrived in minutes; plaintiff and other deponents testified that it was closer to 20 minutes. Eventually, an ambulance was called. It appears that plaintiff made the call for an ambulance as the other adults wanted to defer to her wishes. The ambulance took Riley to the hospital where he was treated for his injuries.

 [*P11]  Shreve and the Andersons testified that, when the plans were made to use the Anderson property for the Radiate bonfire, they did not conduct an inspection of the property to determine if there were any unsafe conditions. Rather, Brian testified that he had a safe house, including the fire pole, because nobody had been injured using it up to that time.

 [*P12]  Plaintiff’s expert, Alan Caskey, a park and recreation planner and consultant, testified that the fire pole was too wide, too high, and the landing area was too hard. Caskey opined that the width of the pole, being almost twice the diameter that industry standards allowed in playground equipment, contributed to Riley’s injury, because the excessive width of the pole decreased the strength of the user’s grip of the [**7]  pole. Caskey did not, however, offer any opinion about the effect of Riley’s gloves on his ability to grip the pole, but noted that any effect would depend on the type of glove, which he could not recall. Caskey also specifically noted that the fall height was much greater than industry standards allowed (five feet is the norm), and the landing area did not contain any force-mitigating substances, and these circumstances caused or contributed to the likelihood and severity of injury. Caskey also opined that the darkness could have contributed to Riley losing his grip on the pole because it obscured the size of the pole and its texture. However, Caskey admitted that these were assumptions on his part, and he conceded that there was no testimony specifically addressing these issues.

 [*P13]  As to the procedural posture of this case, on December 15, 2014, plaintiff timely filed her initial complaint; on February 19, 2015, plaintiff filed the first amended complaint at issue in this case. On April 28, 2016, the Andersons filed their motion for summary judgment followed on June 29, 2016, with the Church’s motion for summary judgment. The motions were stayed while plaintiff procured her expert testimony. [**8]  In November 2016, defendants filed their counterclaims against plaintiff.

 [*P14]  On March 16, 2017, plaintiff filed a motion for leave to file a second amended complaint, which the trial court granted. On March 31, 2017, the Church, joined by the Andersons, filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s grant of leave to file the second amended complaint. On April 6, 2017, the trial court vacated its order granting leave to file the second amended complaint and reinstated the briefing schedule on defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

 [*P15]  On May 15, 2017, the trial court apparently heard the parties’ arguments regarding defendants’ motions for summary judgment. On that date, the trial court continued the cause until June 2, 2017, for ruling. On June 2, 2017, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of defendants and against plaintiff. The court specifically held that:

“defendants owed no duty to plaintiff based on the open and obvious nature of the subject condition [(the platform and fire pole)] on the property; there being no proximate cause between the condition on the property and the injury to [Riley]; and there being no question of material fact raised by plaintiff.”

The trial court [**9]  entered judgment for defendants and dismissed plaintiff’s case. No transcripts of either the argument or the pronouncement of judgment were included in the record.

 [*P16]  On June 30, 2017, plaintiff filed her motion to reconsider. On August 11, 2017, the trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to reconsider, and plaintiff timely appeals.

 [*P17]  II. ANALYSIS

 [*P18]  On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in holding that the platform and fire pole presented open and obvious conditions precluding the imposition of a duty. Plaintiff specifically contends that the design flaws in the construction of the platform and the fire pole and the lack of lighting rendered the dangers hidden rather than open and obvious; alternatively, plaintiff argues that the distraction doctrine should apply. Plaintiff also contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding “the true cause” of Riley’s fall. We consider the arguments in turn.

 [*P19]  A. General Principles

 [*P20]  This case comes before us following the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits in the record [**10]  show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2016). The purpose of summary judgment is not to try a factual issue but to determine if a factual issue exists. Monson v. City of Danville, 2018 IL 122486, ¶ 12. While summary judgment provides an expeditious means to resolve a lawsuit, it is also a drastic means of disposing of litigation. Id. Because of this, the court must construe the record strictly against the moving party and favorably towards the nonmoving party, and the court should grant summary judgment only if the moving party’s right to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Id. We review de novo the trial court’s judgment on a motion for summary judgment. Id.

 [*P21]  Here, plaintiff alleged that defendants were negligent regarding the platform and fire pole. In a negligence action, the plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, that the defendant breached the duty owed, and that an injury proximately resulted from the breach. Bujnowski v. Birchland, Inc., 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 12, 394 Ill. Dec. 906, 37 N.E.3d 385. The existence of a duty is a question of law and may properly be decided by summary judgment. Id. If the plaintiff cannot demonstrate the existence of a duty, no recovery by the plaintiff [**11]  is possible, and summary judgment in favor of the defendant must be granted. Wade v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2015 IL App (4th) 141067, ¶ 12, 396 Ill. Dec. 315, 39 N.E.3d 1141. With these general principles in mind, we turn to plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P22]  B. Open and Obvious

 [*P23]  Plaintiff argues the trial court erred in determining that the platform and the fire pole were open and obvious conditions precluding the finding of a duty on the part of defendants. As a general matter, the owner or possessor of land owes a visiting child the duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and to warn the visitor of dangerous nonobvious conditions, but if the conditions are open and obvious, the owner or possessor has no duty. Friedman v. Park District of Highland Park, 151 Ill. App. 3d 374, 384, 502 N.E.2d 826, 104 Ill. Dec. 329 (1986). The analysis of duty with respect to children follows the customary rules of negligence. Id. This means that a dangerous condition on the premises is deemed one that is likely to cause injury to a general class of children, who, by reason of their immaturity, might be unable to appreciate the risk posed by the condition. Id. However, the open-and-obvious doctrine may preclude the imposition of a duty. Id.

 [*P24]  Recently, this court gave a thoroughgoing analysis of the open-and-obvious doctrine, how exceptions to that doctrine are accounted for, and, ultimately, how duty is imposed [**12]  in these types of cases. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶¶ 13-46.1 We concluded that, in cases in which the open-and-obvious doctrine applies, the court will consider whether any exception to the doctrine applies, such as the distraction exception (id. ¶ 18 (discussing Ward v. K Mart Corp., 136 Ill. 2d 132, 149-50, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288 (1990) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff’s attention might be distracted so that the plaintiff will not discover or will forget what is obvious)) or the deliberate-encounter exception (id. ¶ 32 (discussing LaFever v. Kemlite Co., 185 Ill. 2d 380, 391, 706 N.E.2d 441, 235 Ill. Dec. 886 (1998) (it is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant that the plaintiff, generally out of some compulsion, will recognize the risk but nevertheless proceed to encounter it because, to a reasonable person in the same position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk)). When no exception applies, the court proceeds to the general four-factor test for imposing liability: (1) whether an injury was reasonably foreseeable; (2) the likelihood of injury; (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury; and (4) the consequences of placing that burden on the defendant. Id. ¶ 19 (quoting Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 151).

 [*P25]  We held that the case law had developed into two approaches in applying the four-factor [**13]  duty test. In one approach, the first two factors will favor the defendant (because the danger is open and obvious), and the court must consider the third and fourth factors which could, at least theoretically, counterbalance the first two factors. Id. ¶ 46. Under the second approach, which we deemed to be more consistent with section 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343A (1965)) on which our supreme court had relied, the last two factors could never outweigh the first two factors, so even if the burden and consequences were minimal, the defendant necessarily would not have any duty to the plaintiff. Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140478, ¶ 46.

 [*P26]  Generally, falling from a height is among the dangers deemed to be open and obvious and appreciable even by very young children. Qureshi v. Ahmed, 394 Ill. App. 3d 883, 885, 916 N.E.2d 1153, 334 Ill. Dec. 265 (2009). The risk that confronted Riley as he clambered up to the platform and attempted to use the fire pole was simply a fall from a height, and thus, was an open and obvious risk. We next turn to whether there is an available exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine.

 [*P27]  Plaintiff first argues that the distraction exception applies here. The distraction exception had its genesis in Ward, 136 Ill. 2d 132, 554 N.E.2d 223, 143 Ill. Dec. 288. In that case, a shopper exited the store carrying large mirror he had just purchased and was injured when he walked into a [**14]  concrete post. Id. at 135. The court explained that, even though the post was an open and obvious condition, harm was nevertheless reasonably foreseeable because the store had reason to expect that its customer’s attention may have been distracted so that the customer would not have discovered what is obvious, or would have forgotten what was discovered, or would have failed to protect himself. Id. at 149-50.

 [*P28]  In support of her argument that the distraction exception should apply, plaintiff cites only Ward and Sollami v. Eaton, 201 Ill. 2d 1, 15-16, 772 N.E.2d 215, 265 Ill. Dec. 177 (2002). Ward gave several examples of circumstances in which the distraction exception could apply. As an example, stairs are generally not unreasonably dangerous, but they may be so if, under the circumstances, the plaintiff may fail to see the stairs. Ward, 136 Ill. 2d at 152. Additionally, an open and obvious condition may nevertheless be unreasonably dangerous if it exists in an environment in which the plaintiff is attending to his or her assigned workplace duties and encounters the condition. Id. at 153. For example, a builder carrying roof trusses steps into an open hole in the floor, or a dock worker unloading a truck steps off of a lowered dockplate while unloading a truck, or a customer falls when he or she misses the step off of the stoop [**15]  at the entrance to the store, are all instances in which the defendant should have foreseen the risk of harm caused by the otherwise open and obvious condition.

 [*P29] 
Sollami, by contrast, involved a child “rocket jumping” on a trampoline with several other children when she injured her knee after being “rocketed” to a greater-than-usual height and landing on the surface of the trampoline. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 4. After briefly discussing the parameters of the distraction exception (id. at 15-16), the court held that there was no evidence to show that the child was distracted while jumping on the trampoline (id. at 16). In other words, the child was using the trampoline as she intended to, and she was fully aware of the danger jumping on it may have presented.

 [*P30]  Considering the evidence in the record, we conclude that there was no evidence of distraction presented in the record. Riley climbed up the ladder to the platform, some 25 feet above the ground. Once there, he waited in a line for the fire pole. He did not testify that any of the other persons in the line bothered or distracted him as he prepared to slide down the fire pole. Instead, he put on slick nylon gloves and attempted to slide down the pole by grasping the pole with [**16]  only his hands. As he began his descent, he lost control, attempted to arrest his descent by grabbing the deck of the platform, failed, and fell from a height onto the ground. There is nothing in the evidence in the record to support a conclusion that Riley was distracted. He was not going about his profession or avocation as in the examples in Ward when he encountered the condition. Rather, he was participating in using the fire pole as he intended, as in Sollami. Indeed, Riley attributed his fall to losing his grip when he attempted to slide down the pole using only his hands and not wrapping his arms and legs around the pole. Accordingly, we hold the distraction exception does not apply here.

 [*P31]  Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening distracted Riley from perceiving the width of the fire pole and the height of the drop from the platform. We disagree. Riley had to have been acutely aware of the height of the platform, having climbed every inch of the 25-foot height up the ladder. As to the width of the pole, Riley would have perceived it as he grasped it. Brian Anderson testified that everyone he had observed use the pole had instinctually wrapped their arms and legs around [**17]  it. Riley testified that he attempted to use only his hands to grip the pole for his descent, despite the fact that a number of other children had used the pole before him and he apparently had the opportunity to observe them while waiting his turn.

 [*P32]  We also note that there is no evidence that Riley stepped through the opening while trying to use the fire pole, which would, perhaps, have brought the circumstances within the examples in Ward in which workers encountered a condition that was otherwise open and obvious while performing work-related tasks. Instead, Riley testified that he was able to negotiate his way to the pole and grasp it to begin his descent. Thus, there is no evidence that he simply stepped into the opening which went unperceived due to the darkness of the evening. Likewise, there is no evidence that one of the persons waiting for a turn distracted him so he stepped into the opening and fell. There is no evidence of distraction evident, so we reject plaintiff’s contention that Riley was distracted by the darkness and the other children, or that the presence of darkness and other children were sufficient to demonstrate a factual issue in the absence of any evidence [**18]  that these purported distracting circumstances contributed in Riley’s fall.

 [*P33]  The deliberate-encounter exception is usually raised in cases in which an economic compulsion (such as employment) causes the plaintiff to encounter the dangerous condition because, to a reasonable person in that position, the advantages of doing so outweigh the apparent risk. Sollami, 201 Ill. 2d at 15-16. Plaintiff does not contend that the deliberate-encounter exception is applicable to the circumstances. While the deliberate-encounter exception may not be limited to circumstances of economic compulsion, there is no evidence that Riley was under any compulsion, such as peer pressure, to attempt to slide down the fire pole. Because there is no evidence, we hold the deliberate-encounter exception does not apply.

 [*P34]  In the Bujnowski analytical framework, we now turn to the four-factor duty test. Because the condition was open and obvious, namely falling from a height, Riley’s injury was not reasonably foreseeable, because falling from a height is among the risks that even very young children (and Riley was not a very young child but 13 years of age) are capable of appreciating and avoiding that risk. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. Likewise, the likelihood of injury is [**19]  small because the risk was apparent. Thus, the first two factors strongly favor defendants.

 [*P35]  The remaining factors appear to be split between plaintiff and defendant. The burden of guarding against the injury appears relatively slight. Defendants could have forbidden the children to use the platform and fire pole. The consequences of placing the burden on defendants are perhaps greater. The Andersons testified that they erected the structure for the amusement of their children. They also testified that of hundreds of users and uses, no one had ever been injured, from young children to older adults. (Plaintiff testified that one of the Andersons told her that one of their children had been injured using the fire pole; the Andersons denied making this statement and denied that any of their children had been injured using the fire pole.) The consequences of forbidding the structure’s use that evening would have been miniscule; the consequences of forbidding access altogether would have been much greater. Even if this calculus on the final two factors favors plaintiff, we cannot say that, in light of the open and obvious nature of the hazard, that they outweigh the first two factors. See [**20] 
Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55 (no published case has held both that the open-and-obvious doctrine applied without any exception being present and the defendant still owed a duty to the plaintiff). Accordingly, we hold that defendants did not owe Riley any duty in this case.

 [*P36]  Plaintiff argues that the hazard in this case was not open and obvious. Plaintiff argues first that the fire pole, being almost twice the diameter recommended in the industry, was a hidden and dangerous condition. We disagree. The risk posed by the structure was a fall from a height, and the evidence shows that Riley made the climb up to the platform and fell when he had donned slick nylon-shelled ski gloves and did not wrap his arms and legs around the pole.

 [*P37]  Plaintiff argues that the darkness of the evening concealed the width of the pole from Riley. Riley did not testify that he fell through the opening because it was too dark to see. Rather, he testified that he fell when he tried to slide down without wrapping his arms and legs around the pole and when his slick gloves caused his grip to fail. We reject plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P38]  Plaintiff contends that, due to the construction of the structure and the darkness of the evening, the dangers [**21]  associated with it were not obvious to Riley. We disagree. Riley climbed up to the platform, so he knew that he was very high above the ground. The risk of a fall from a height was therefore clearly apparent, as even very young children are deemed to appreciate the risk of a fall from a height. Qureshi, 394 Ill. App. 3d at 885. We therefore reject plaintiff’s contention and persist in holding that the risk was open and obvious.

 [*P39]  As plaintiff has neither convinced us that the risk was not open and obvious nor that any exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine was applicable, we affirm the judgment of the trial court on this point.

 [*P40]  C. Factual Issues

 [*P41]  Plaintiff argues there is a factual issue whether Riley’s slick gloves or the 3 1/2-inch diameter of the pole caused Riley’s fall. Plaintiff contends that Caskey testified that the pole was so wide that Riley had inadequate grip strength to descend safely (perhaps implying the converse that, if the pole were narrower, Riley’s grip strength would have been adequate). Plaintiff concludes that there is a factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall, and this issue should have precluded summary judgment.

 [*P42]  We disagree. Even conceding a factual issue in the mechanism [**22]  of Riley’s fall, defendants did not owe Riley any duty because the risk of a fall from a height was open and obvious, no exception to the open-and-obvious doctrine applied, and the final two factors of the four-factor duty test did not outweigh the first two factors. Thus, the factual issue regarding the mechanism of Riley’s fall was not material in the absence of a duty.

 [*P43]  Plaintiff also contends that defendants owed a duty to instruct Riley on the use of the pole. While this contention is perhaps structurally misplaced in plaintiff’s argument, it is unavailing. The danger of the structure to Riley was open and obvious: a fall from a height. If, as plaintiff appears to contend, Riley did not know how to descend a fire pole, the risk of a fall from a height was still something he could appreciate. Under the law, then, Riley is deemed to be able to appreciate and avoid that risk, including his own limitations on using the fire pole to descend from the height. Accordingly, we reject plaintiff’s contentions.

 [*P44]  We close with the following observation from Bujnowski: “[t]ragic as the facts of this case are, they are not extraordinary in a legal sense and do not call for a result that would [**23]  appear to be without precedent.” Bujnowski, 2015 IL App (2d) 140578, ¶ 55.

 [*P45]  III. CONCLUSION

 [*P46]  For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Kane County.

 [*P47]  Affirmed.

End of Document