Wimmer v. Top Gun Guide Serv., 421 F. Supp. 3d 849, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888, 2019 WL 5558308
United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Northern Division
October 26, 2019, Decided; October 28, 2019, Filed
421 F. Supp. 3d 849 *; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888 **; 2019 WL 5558308
For Defendant Top Gun Guide Service, Inc.: Gordon H. Hansmeier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rajkowski Hansmeier Ltd., St. Cloud, MN.
[*851] MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on defendant Top Gun Guide Service, Inc.’s (“Top Gun”) motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Doc. 14.
This case arose from injuries that plaintiff Anthony Wimmer sustained while on a hunting trip hosted by defendant Top Gun near Aberdeen, South Dakota in April of 2015. Doc. 1 at 2; Doc. 6 at 1. Mr. Wimmer is a California resident and Top Gun is a Minnesota corporation. Id. On or about April 9, 2015, Mr. Wimmer arrived in Aberdeen, though he did not hunt on that day. Doc. 15 at 5; Doc. 22 at 1. At some point on April 9th, Mr. Wimmer signed a waiver purporting to release Top Gun from liability arising from the hunting trip. Doc. 15 at 5; Doc. 22 at 2. The release form provided, in pertinent part:
I acknowledge that hunting and fishing entails known and unanticipated risks which [**2] could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself; . . . I understand that such risks are essential qualities of the activity. The risks include, among other things: Accidental shootings, or falls to myself . . . trip or fall accidents to myself . . . medical problems from preexisting conditions . . . to myself . . . I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks to others and myself; I fully understand that hunting and fishing is a dangerous activity. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless [Top Gun] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of [Top Gun] equipment or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [Top gun].
Doc. 17, Ex. D. The parties agree that in his deposition Mr. Wimmer testified that he read the release before signing it and that he did not disagree with anything contained therein. Doc. 15 at 6; Doc. 22 [**3] at 2-4. Mr. Wimmer also agreed in his deposition that hunting and fishing is a dangerous activity. Anthony Wimmer Dep. at 41:7-9.
On April 10th, Mr. Wimmer arrived at the hunting site and began setting up hunting decoys. Doc. 15 at 7; Doc. 22 at 5. Shortly after having finished setting up the decoys, Mr. Wimmer was standing in the field where the hunt was to take place when he was struck from behind “by either an [all terrain vehicle (ATV)] or sled.” Id. The sled was being towed behind the ATV. Id. The ATV was being operated by a Top Gun guide.
Id. The accident [*852] occurred between 3:30 a.m. — 4:30 a.m. Doc. 15 at 4. Mr. Wimmer alleges that he sustained severe injuries. Doc. 1 at 2. •
Defendant argues that “[b]ecause Mr. Wimmer knowingly, voluntarily, and fairly signed a release that unambiguously covers the injuries that he suffered and that does not contravene public policy,” his claims should be dismissed with prejudice. Doc. 15 at 8. Defendant contends that the liability waiver Mr. Wimmer signed before participating in the hunt releases Top Gun from all liability in relation to the ATV accident. Id. In short, Top Gun’s argument relies on the liability waiver being found to encompass [**4] the harm at issue in this case. Defendant then proceeds to argue that the waiver is valid and its enforcement would not contravene South Dakota’s public policy. Id. at 9-11. Defendant argues that releases involving voluntary recreational activities have withstood attacks that they are contrary to South Dakota’s public policy many times before; only an attempted waiver of conduct rising to the level of willful negligence or intentional tort would contravene the state’s public policy. Id. at 11. Because Mr. Wimmer does not allege willful negligence or any intentional torts, defendant argues that his claims must fail. Id.
Plaintiff responds that the harm that befell him was outside the scope of the waiver. Plaintiff argues that he had no meaningful opportunity to negotiate the terms of the waiver and so it must be viewed as an “anticipatory release and contract of adhesion, which should be viewed with a skeptical and critical eye,” and any ambiguities should be construed against the drafter. Doc. 20 at 5. Plaintiff argues that the waiver, by its terms, only applies to the limited activities of hunting and fishing. Id. Plaintiff argues that his are not hunting injuries because, at the time of the accident, [**5] he had already finished setting up the decoys and was merely standing in the field waiting to be told what he should do next. Id. at 6. Plaintiff urges that such activity should not be considered hunting. Id.
Plaintiff next argues that even if he was hunting at the time of the accident, the release is contrary to South Dakota law as it purports to waive liability for acts of gross negligence and, so, enforcing it would be against South Dakota’s public policy. Id. at 7. Plaintiff also argues that provisions of South Dakota law related to motor vehicle liability preclude enforcement of the waiver as against the state’s public policy. Id. at 9.
Defendant replies that plaintiff’s reading of the waiver is too narrow, the terms of the waiver are broad enough to cover any injury “in any way connected with” the activity of hunting. Doc. 23 at 3. Thus, defendant contends, the terms of the waiver apply to plaintiff’s injury whether or not he was actively shooting or pursuing birds at the time of the injury. Id. Defendant further contends that setting up decoys is a part of pursuing birds, which is within the definition of hunting adopted in South Dakota’s laws. Id. at 4.
Defendant also argues that enforcing the release against [**6] plaintiff would not violate South Dakota public policy because plaintiff only claims ordinary negligence, liability for which may be waived. Id. at 5. Defendant argues that plaintiff has produced no evidence that defendant’s agent operated the ATV in a reckless or willfully negligent manner. Id. at 6-7. Defendant argues that there was no disparity in bargaining power that would warrant this waiver being viewed as a contract of adhesion. Id. at 7. Finally, defendant argues that the waiver does not allow Top Gun to circumvent South Dakota’s motor vehicle insurance laws, as plaintiff has claimed, and enforcing the waiver would not be [*853] contrary to the public policy those laws espouse. Id. at 8.
Summary judgment is proper where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 711 F.3d 911, 913 (8th Cir. 2013). The United States Supreme Court has held that:
The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to any material [**7] fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986) (internal quotations omitted).
“As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. at 248. That is, to make summary judgment inappropriate, there must be a factual dispute concerning facts the existence or nonexistence of which would “be outcome determinative under [the] prevailing [substantive] law.” Grey v. City of Oak Grove, Mo., 396 F.3d 1031, 1034 (8th Cir. 2005).
Thus, in accordance with Rule 56(c), the party seeking summary judgment must first identify grounds demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. Upon such a showing, the burden shifts to the non-movant to present affirmative evidence, beyond the pleadings, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256-57, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). To meet its burden, the non-movant “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Ind. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Rather, the non-movant must be able to “show there [**8] is sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict in [its] favor.” Nat’l Bank of Commerce v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602, 607 (8th Cir. 1999). After this exercise, “we view the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Northport Health Servs. of Arkansas, LLC v. Posey, 930 F.3d 1027, 1030 (8th Cir. 2019).
“Because this is a diversity action, we apply the substantive law of the forum state.” Vandewarker v. Cont’l Res., Inc., 917 F.3d 626, 629 (8th Cir. 2019), reh’g denied (Apr. 10, 2019) (citing
N. Oil & Gas, Inc. v. Moen, 808 F.3d 373, 376 (8th Cir. 2015). Under South Dakota law, a waiver of liability is contractual in nature and is governed by contract law. Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass’n, 514 N.W.2d 693, 697 (S.D. 1994). When interpreting a contract, “[t]he goal . . . is to see that the mutual intent of the parties is carried into effect.” Nelson v. Schellpfeffer, 2003 SD 7, 656 N.W.2d 740, 743 (S.D. 2003). Courts look to the language of the contract to determine the intent of the parties, Roseth v. Roseth, 2013 SD 27, 829 N.W.2d 136, 142 (S.D. 2013), and afford contractual terms their “plain and ordinary meaning,” Bunkers v. Jacobson, 2002 SD 135, 653 N.W.2d 732, 738 (S.D. 2002) (citation [*854] and quotation marks omitted). “When the meaning of contractual language is plain and unambiguous, construction is not necessary” because the “intent of the parties can be derived from within the four corners of the contract.” Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142 (citation omitted); see also
Nelson, 656 N.W.2d at 743 (“When the words of a contract are clear and explicit and lead to no absurd consequences, the search for the parties’ common intent is at an end.”).
When a contract is found to be ambiguous, however, “parol evidence [**9] is admissible to explain the contract but inadmissible to vary or add terms to the contract.” Couch v. Lyon, No. CIV. 12-3029-RAL, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160770, 2013 WL 5942607, at *4 (D.S.D. Nov. 5, 2013)
Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142.). A contract is not rendered ambiguous merely because the parties now disagree as to their intent at the time of contracting. Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142. “Instead, ‘a contract is ambiguous only when it is capable of more than one meaning when viewed objectively by a reasonably intelligent person who has examined the context of the entire integrated agreement.'” Id.
Vander Heide v. Boke Ranch, Inc., 2007 SD 69, 736 N.W.2d 824, 836 (S.D. 2007)).
The release at issue in the instant case is not ambiguous. Although it must be interpreted and read in a common sense manner. The release, by its terms, covers “all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with [plaintiffs] participation in this activity or [plaintiff’s] use of [Top Gun] equipment…” Doc. 17, Ex. D. Furthermore, plaintiff has not challenged the validity of the release or any of its terms; thus, the Court will apply the release and construe it by its terms, using common sense methods.
Defendant argues that, at the time of injury, plaintiff was in the process of pursuing birds, that is, plaintiff was on a hunting trip, in a hunting field regardless of whether [**10] he was actively shooting or preparing to shoot at the time. Because plaintiff was pursuing birds at the time he was injured, defendant argues that his injury is “connected with” the activity of hunting. Plaintiff argues that he was done setting up decoys at the time he was injured and, as a result, he was not pursuing birds at the time of the harm—he was merely a man standing in a field. As a matter of law, plaintiff could not have legally been pursuing waterfowl because the accident happened long before legal shooting time. Thus, both parties focused their arguments on what the plaintiff was doing at the time of the accident.
This accident could not, as a matter of law, have been a part of legal hunting. In South Dakota, a hunter may not shoot waterfowl until one half hour before sunrise. At the time of the accident, all preparations for hunting had been completed. The parties were in a waiting period. Instead, plaintiff was struck by a motor vehicle. The fact that plaintiff is claimed to be hunting at the time he was struck by the ATV is irrelevant because being struck by an ATV is not a harm arising out of hunting, especially long before sunrise. In addition, the release makes no [**11] mention of a motor vehicle accident.
The language in the release, “in any way connected with [plaintiffs] participation in this activity,” is so broad that it necessitates an exercise in line drawing. At some point, it would be absurd to find an activity that, while distantly connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt, is covered by a waiver of liability for a hunting trip. For example, if plaintiff had been injured when the car in which he was being transported from the hotel to the hunting grounds was involved in an accident, would any negligence from that activity be covered [*855] by the release? It is certainly an activity in some way connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt, as the party was on the way to the hunting grounds. But to say that a waiver of liability for a hunting trip covered negligence related to a car trip from the hotel to the hunting grounds would be to stretch the bounds of what general, catch-all provisions of a contract can accomplish.
That is not to say that general contract provisions are not enforceable. Indeed, South Dakota case law has upheld the efficacy of broad waivers of liability. There are generally two lines of reasoning that permeate [**12] South Dakota case law concerning releases from liability.
First, the more inherently dangerous or risky the recreational activity, the more likely that an anticipatory release will be held valid. That is, individuals who engage in activities like mountain climbing, race car driving, parachute jumping, and the like, are more likely to be held to have an understanding of the risky nature of their chosen activity.
Johnson, 514 N.W.2d at 700 (Wuest, J. concurring) (internal citations omitted). Second, releases are deemed more acceptable when they are written on a separate sheet of paper. Id. It is the first line of reasoning that is most relevant to the instant analysis. 1
The first line of reasoning recognizes that individuals who voluntarily engage in a particularly dangerous activity for recreational purposes must accept a certain amount of risk that is inherent in said activity. That is, when an individual chooses to go skydiving, signs a release with a vendor providing such services, and is injured while hurtling to the earth, he cannot then sue in contravention of that release. Hunting is likewise a dangerous activity; the hunter voluntarily exposes himself to all the dangers of the firearms enthusiast as well [**13] as those of the outdoorsman. It is agreed that the release in this case covers liability arising out plaintiff’s participation in the activity of hunting. However, plaintiff’s participation in the hunt did not cause his injury. Defendant asserts that setting up decoys is a means of pursuing birds—hunting—but, while that may be true, neither the decoys themselves, nor any part of the process of placing them, caused plaintiff’s injuries.
Each case the Supreme Court of South Dakota has considered relating to the application of a release from liability has involved harm that arose out of the activity for which liability was waived. In Johnson, the signed release concerned the plaintiff’s participation in a softball league. She subsequently “injured her right ankle sliding into third base during a softball game.” Johnson, 514 N.W.2d at 694. In Holzer, the signed release concerned the plaintiff’s presence in the “pit” area of a race track; he was subsequently hit by a tire that flew off one of the racecars and over protective barricades. Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 789-91. In Lee v. Beauchene, the signed release covered the plaintiff’s participation in an automobile race; subsequently his “car struck a hole [in the track] that he estimated was one [**14] to one and one-half feet deep. The car flipped.” Lee v. Beauchene, 337 N.W.2d 827, 828 (S.D. 1983). In each of the foregoing cases, the plaintiff’s injury was caused by his or her participation in the activity for which liability was waived. That is, the injury arose from the activity itself. If that were not the case, however, those cases might have turned out quite differently. For instance, if the plaintiff in Holzer had been accidentally shot while working in the pit area, the question of whether he had waived the track’s liability [*856] for such harm would have been a different question.
In the instant case, plaintiff’s injury did not arise from his participation in the hunt. He was not accidentally shot by a fellow hunter, he did not strain his back while placing a decoy, nor did he twist his ankle while standing around waiting to be told what to do next. Instead, plaintiff was struck from behind by a motor vehicle at a time before legal hunting could commence, something separate and apart from his participation in the hunt. Thus, while liability was effectively waived for injury arising out of the activities of hunting or fishing, there was no release for the harm that befell plaintiff. The ATV was being driven by Top Gun staff, [**15] presumably to transport the decoys from the cars to the hunting grounds. At some point in that process, the employee struck plaintiff with the ATV. While such work is in some way connected with the hunt, it is not connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt in any way beyond plaintiff’s mere presence on the hunting grounds. When plaintiff signed a release for harm arising out of hunting or fishing, he was simply not there giving up his right to sue for harm arising out of a motor vehicle accident, or any other activity when he could not have been legally hunting.
As the Court finds that the release does not apply to the harm at issue in this case, the parties’ arguments concerning South Dakota’s insurance law and public policy concerning releases of liability in claims for gross negligence, respectively, will not be addressed.
IT IS ORDERED that defendant Top Gun’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Doc. 14, is hereby DENIED.
Interesting decision only real defense was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act, which provides little if any real defense.Posted: January 22, 2019
Defendants are the company that booked the trip (Vail through Grand Teton Lodge Company) and the travel agent who booked the trip.
Plaintiff: Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Per-sonal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs
Defendant: Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Punitive damages
Defendant Defenses: Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act
Holding: Mixed, mostly for the plaintiff
Decision looks at the liability of the travel agency and the hotel that booked a rafting float trip where three people died. The only defenses of available were the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act which helped keep the lawsuit in Wyoming applying Wyoming law, but was ineffective in assisting in the defense of the lawsuit.
The rafting company is not part of this decision so probably the raft company settled with the defendants before the case was filed or this motion was heard.
Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.”
On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria Urrutia. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years.
During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first issue was a choice of laws (jurisdiction and venue) provision in the agreement with the travel agency Tauck, which stated venue was to be in Connecticut. The plaintiff was arguing that the case should be moved to Connecticut, which is odd, because the plaintiff’s filed the case to start in Wyoming. However, since they sued in Wyoming, the plaintiff is still arguing that Connecticut law should apply.
Tauck argued the choice of law provisions was for its benefit, and it had the right to waive that provision in the agreement. The court found that Tauck had the right to waive a provision in the agreement that was there for its benefit.
In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.”
The court held that the provision was for Tauck’s benefit because the living plaintiffs were residents of Georgia and Louisiana.
The court also stated, even it had not found for Tauck on this issue this way; it would have still used Wyoming law because of Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity.
Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of. The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.
Choice of law provisions are usually upheld by the courts; however, there are ways to get around them as this court explained.
The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.
The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation providers in Wyoming:
Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.
First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants.
Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act.
Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act.
The court found the first argument was already resolved in its analysis of jurisdiction above.
The second argument was the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply to the defendant Tauck, because it was a travel agent in Connecticut and not a “provider” as defined under the act. The court found that Tauck was a provider under the act because as part of its package. Provider is defined as “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.”
The final issue was the argument that the state law was pre-empted by federal law. The argument was based on the concessionaire agreement the defendant had with the NPS. Although the concession agreement with the NPS provided for visitor safety, there was nothing in the agreement showing intent to pre-empt the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act.
The court then looked to see if the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act provided a defense in this case. The court first defined Inherent Risk under Wyoming law.
‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.”
[As you can see, the definition of inherent risk is not a broad definition it narrowly defines the risks to those intrinsic or integral to the activity. That leaves out thousands of risks created by man such as steering the raft, water releases, choosing the run, etc. which are probably not protected by the act.]
Outside of the inherent risks, to thwart the act, the plaintiff only needs to argue the risk was not inherent and the case would proceed to trial because the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act does not provide a defense to any risk not inherent in the sport. Because the court could not determine what risks were inherent what were not, it held the Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act did not apply in this case.
In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park, and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. Complex braiding obscures the main channel, and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.
The court moved on to Tauck’s motion for summary judgment because as a tour agency is was not liable for the negligent acts of third parties, it dealt with. The law supports that argument. “As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control.”
However, that general rules does not apply if a contract with the travel agency or marketing state the travel agency will undertake a duty. (Always remember Marketing makes Promises Risk Management has to Pay for.)
Here the court found the promotional materials were marketing and did not rise to the level to be promises to be kept.
The plaintiff also argued Tauck took on a greater duty to the guests when it undertook the duty to have the guests sign the defendant GTLC’s acknowledgment of risk forms. That duty included duty to inform the guests of the risk associated with river rafting. However, the court could find nothing in Tauck’s action indicating it was accepting a greater duty when it handed out the assumption of the risk forms.
The plaintiff’s created a fraud argument. Under Montana’s law:
To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation
The plaintiff’s argued that the defendants made all sorts of statements and advertising that the float trip was a leisurely scenic trip. The channel the raft guide took was not leisurely but was a dangerous channel by some authorities. However, the issue was, did the defendants intentionally made the statements about the river to induce the plaintiffs to the trip.
The defendants wanted the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages dismissed. In Wyoming, punitive damages appear to be a claim much like negligence. The punitive damages claim was based on the same allegations that the fraud claim was made, that the defendants misrepresented the nature of the float trip.
Punitive damages in Wyoming are:
We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intention-al torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.”
Failing to advise the plaintiffs that the river was running higher than normal because of the spring run off did not rise to a level to be reckless and willful misconduct. The one channel of several the one guide went down was a negligent decision, not a willful one.
So Now What?
Fairly simple, use a release. It would have stopped this lawsuit sooner. If the outfitter would have used a release, it could have protected the lodge and the travel agent. I’m sure the lodge is going to use one now, which will probably just muddy the water because of multiple releases and defendants.
There are very few statutes that provide any real protection in the outdoor recreation industry. Most, in fact, make it easier for the plaintiffs to win. The exception to the rule is a few of the Ski Area Safety Statutes.
Be prepared and do more than rely on a week statute.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Rizas et. al. v. Vail Resorts, Inc.; et. al., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788
Alexis R. Rizas, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of John J. Rizas, deceased; John Friel, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Elizabeth A. Rizas, Deceased; Ronald J. Miciotto, as the Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Linda and Lewis Clark, Deceased; James Clark; Lawrence Wilson; and Joyce Wilson, Plaintiffs, vs. Vail Resorts, Inc.; Grand Teton Lodge Company; Tauck, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck World Discovery, Inc., a.k.a. Tauck Tours, Inc., Defendants.
Case No. 08-CV-139-J
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF WYOMING
2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139788
October 1, 2009, Filed
COUNSEL: [*1] For Alexis R Rizas, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of John J Rizas, John Friel, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Elizabeth A Rizas, Ronald J Miciotto, individually and as the personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries, on behalf of Linda Lewis Clark, James Clark, individually, Lawrence Wilson, individually, Joyce Wilson, individually, Plaintiffs: Mel C Orchard, III, Roy A Jacobson, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, SPENCE LAW FIRM Jackson, WY USA.
For Grand Teton Lodge Company, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant: Joe M Teig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Susan Combs, HOLLAND & HART, Jackson, WY USA; Maryjo C Falcone, Peter W Rietz, LEAD ATTORNEY, RIETZ LAW FIRM, Dillon, CO USA.
For Tauck Inc, a New Jersey corporation doing business in the state of Connecticut, also known as Tauck Tours Inc, also known as Tauck World Discovery Inc, Defendant: William M McKellar, LEAD ATTORNEY, McKELLAR TIEDEKEN & SCOGGIN, Cheyenne, WY USA.
JUDGES: ALAN B. JOHNSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
OPINION BY: ALAN B. JOHNSON
ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ [*2] motions for summary judgment. Tauck, Inc. filed five motions and Grand Teton Lodge Company (“GTLC”) filed one, all on July 22, 2009. After careful consideration of the arguments and evidence supplied by both Plaintiffs and Defendants, for the reasons discussed in detail below, the Court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the inherent risk of the river float activity. In all other respects, the Court will grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.
The Court relates the following facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are opposing Defendants’ motions for summary judgment.
Tauck is a corporation formed under the laws of New Jersey and primarily doing business in Connecticut. Stipulated Facts, Docket Entry 108, ¶ 9. Tauck is in the business of selling tour packages to its clients, one of which in 2006 was a tour called the “Yellowstone & Grand Teton – North.” Id. ¶ 24. This tour began in Salt Lake City, Utah and ended in Rapid City, South Dakota. Id. The tour included a two-night stay at the Jackson Lake Lodge in the Grand Teton National Park, and the Lodge was operated by GTLC. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. GTLC is organized under the laws of Wyoming [*3] and operates within the Grand Teton National Park pursuant to a concessionaire agreement with the National Park Service. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. Among the services that GTLC offered its guests is a 10-mile float trip along the Snake River from Deadman’s Bar to the Moose Landing. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Tauck’s 2006 promotional materials contains the following sentence: “Take a scenic ten-mile raft trip on the Snake River as it meanders through spectacular mountain scenery alive with wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, and many species of birds.” Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Fraud, Ex. 5.
On June 2, 2006, a tour group gathered at the Lodge at approximately 8:00 a.m. Stipulated Facts ¶ 27. They traveled via several vans to the rafting launch site at Deadman’s Bar. Id. The trip took approximately one hour. There the larger group was split into four smaller groups, one for each raft provided. Id. ¶ 28. Raft No. 1 was guided by Wayne Johnson, an employee of GTLC. The raft at issue, Raft No. 2, had 11 passengers: John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, Patricia Rizas, Linda Clark, James Clark, Lawrence “Bubba” Wilson, Joyce Wilson, Tom Rizas, Ruth Rizas, Jon Shaw, and Maria [*4] Urrutia. Id. ¶ 29. The raft guide was Daniel Hobbs, who was also a GTLC employee and had been for four years. Id. ¶ 30.
During the float trip, Raft No. 2 struck a log jam. Id. ¶ 32. The collision occurred in the Funnelcake channel, which was one of several braided channels of the river. The raft upended as a result and all passengers were thrown into the river. John Rizas, Elizabeth Rizas, and Linda Clark died as a result. Further facts will be discussed as necessary to resolve each legal issue.
This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiffs and defendants. Vail Resorts was dismissed from this case for lack of jurisdiction on June 16, 2009. Plaintiffs are citizens of Maryland, Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia. GTLC is incorporated in Wyoming, which is also its principal place of business. Tauk is incorporated in New Jersey, and its principal place of business is Connecticut.
Summary judgment is appropriate “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” [*5] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); e.g., Kerber v. Qwest Pension Plan, 572 F.3d 1135, 1144 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court must view all facts and make inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. E.g., Utah Animal Rights Coalition v. Salt Lake County, 566 F.3d 1236, 1242 (10th Cir. 2009). The Court may consider only admissible evidence. Wright-Simmons v. City of Oklahoma City, 155 F.3d 1264, 1268 (10th Cir. 1998). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(1).
Choice of Law
Because the Court is sitting in diversity, it would normally apply Wyoming law. See Butt v. Bank of America, N.A., 477 F.3d 1171, 1179 (10th Cir. 2007). In this case, however, Plaintiffs have raised a choice-of-law issue by urging this Court to apply Connecticut law. A federal court sitting in diversity applies the choice-of-law principles of the state in which it sits. Morrison Knudson Corp. v. Ground Improvement Techniques, Inc., 532 F.3d 1063, 1077 n.12 (10th Cir. 2008). Accordingly, this Court will apply Wyoming choice-of-law principles.
Plaintiffs first contend that Connecticut law applies because Tauck and its clients signed a contract to that effect. Specifically, the contract states the following:
It is agreed by Tauck World Discovery and the Tour Member that all legal claims, actions and proceedings against Tauck World Discovery under, in connection with, resulting from or incident to a tour may be instituted, if at all, only in a state or federal court within the State of Connecticut, USA, to the exclusion of the courts of or in any other state or jurisdiction. It is further agreed that all such claims, actions and proceedings shall [*6] be governed by and decided in accordance with the laws of the State of Connecticut.
Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims for Fraud, Ex. 2. Tauck counters by claiming that the choice-of-law provision was intended for its benefit, and therefore it can waive that provision. Furthermore, it points out that, if the contract is to be enforced, there are a number of other provisions that would benefit Tauck, such as the choice-of-forum provision in the excerpt above.
In Wyoming, a contract must be construed according to the law of the place where it was made. J.W. Denio Milling Co. v. Malin, 25 Wyo. 143, 165 P. 1113, 1116 (Wyo. 1917). There is no evidence indicating where the contract at issue was formed, but that makes little difference because the law of waiver of contract provisions is widespread and well accepted. “A party to a contract may waive a provision of the contract that was included for his benefit.” E.g., Lanna v. Greene, 399 A.2d 837, 841 (Conn. 1978). See Takahashi v. Pepper Tank & Contracting Co., 58 Wyo. 330, 131 P.2d 339, 354 (Wyo. 1942). The question in this case is whether the choice-of-law provision was included for Tauck’s benefit.
The Court finds that it was. As far as the evidence indicates, none of the tour members or their survivors who are involved in this action are residents of Connecticut. [*7] The three plaintiffs who were also tour members, Mr. Clark and the Wilsons, are residents of Louisiana and Georgia, respectively. The residence of the three deceased tour members is not clear from the evidence submitted to the Court. Even if one of the three decedents were residents of Connecticut, that does not necessarily mean that the provision existed for that person’s benefit. Tauck drafted the provision at issue. The provision benefits Tauck by ensuring that any claims will be litigated in the forum most convenient to it, and under the law with which it is most familiar. Meanwhile, there is little or no benefit to any tour member who is not a resident of Connecticut. Even then, the choice-of-law provision would benefit the tour member by happenstance rather than by intention. Accordingly, Tauck may waive the choice of law provision, and has affirmatively stated that it has done so. Its waiver is further supported by the fact that it has never contended that suit is improper in this Court as a result of the choice-of-forum provision in the same contract.
Even if Tauck had not waived its right to enforce the choice-of-law provision, this Court would not enforce this provision due [*8] to Wyoming’s strong public policy of recreational immunity. Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law largely to avoid the effects of Wyoming’s Recreational Safety Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through -123 (LexisNexis 2009). The Court will discuss the Act in detail below; it is sufficient here to note that the Act provides a near-total elimination liability of a recreation provider where a person is injured because of an “inherent risk” of a recreational activity. River floating is specifically named as a qualifying recreational activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(iii). Consequently, Plaintiffs seek application of Connecticut law because Connecticut is not so protective of its recreational providers as Wyoming.
It is this very policy of protecting these providers that renders the contractual choice-of-law provision invalid. The Wyoming Supreme Court has not answered the question of whether the Act represents so strong a Wyoming policy as to render invalid a contractual choice-of-law provision that would eliminate the Act’s application. This Court believes that Wyoming, like other states, would look to general contract principles to resolve this question. The Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 187 (1971) states:
(1) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern [*9] their contractual rights and duties will be applied if the particular issue is one which the parties could have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue.
(2) The law of the state chosen by the parties to govern their contractual rights and duties will be applied, even if the particular issue is one which the parties could not have resolved by an explicit provision in their agreement directed to that issue, unless either
(a) the chosen state has no substantial relationship to the parties or the transaction and there is no other reasonable basis for the parties choice, or
(b) application of the law of the chosen state would be contrary to a fundamental policy of a state which has a materially greater interest than the chosen state in the determination of the particular issue and which, under the rule of § 188, would be the state of the applicable law in the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties.
(3) In the absence of a contrary indication of intention, the reference is to the local law of the state of the chosen law.
The tour members and Tauck agreed that Connecticut law would apply, and Connecticut has a significant connection to the contract [*10] because of Tauck’s operation there. Nevertheless, Wyoming’s interest in the resolution of this issue is significantly greater because important Wyoming policy concerns are involved in the question of whether a provider of recreation opportunities should be subject to liability for injury from inherent risks. Absent a Connecticut plaintiff, Connecticut has no interest in whether a Wyoming corporation is held liable. Indeed, Connecticut’s interest in this case, if any, is probably more closely aligned with Tauck, which operates in that state.
The Court’s analysis is further informed by the fact that that Wyoming’s public policy in this matter is a strong one. Initially, the Act was less protective of recreation service providers, defining an “inherent risk” as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i) (LexisNexis 1989). In 1996, the Wyoming Legislature eliminated the clause, “and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” 1996 Wyo. Sess. Laws ch. 78, § 1. Subsequent to the amendment, this Court recognized the extraordinary protection offered to recreation [*11] providers in Wyoming:
The Court recognizes that its reading of the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act provides enormous protection to those in the business of providing recreational activities. . . . Consumers in Wyoming are now faced with an entire industry whose economic and consequent legislative power enables them to conduct business with only a passing thought to the safety of those who utilize their services. Despite this frightening prospect, the Court recognizes its place in our nation’s federal system of government. A court should not decimate the purpose of a legislative act, no matter how distasteful, when that purpose is clearly incorporated in the language of the act.
Cooperman v. David, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1315, 1321 (D. Wyo. 1998). Given this extraordinary protection, this Court must conclude that the Wyoming Legislature views immunity for recreation providers to be an important state interest. Wyoming law should apply in this case.
The Court’s decision is consistent with precedent set by the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In Electrical Distributers, Inc. v. SFR, Inc., one issue considered by the court was whether the trial court properly applied Colorado law where a covenant not to compete named Colorado as the applicable law, [*12] but was to be performed exclusively in Utah. 166 F.3d 1074, 1083-84 (10th Cir. 1999). Using the analysis that this Court has adopted above, the Court of Appeals determined that Utah’s strong interest in careful scrutiny of covenants not to compete controlled over any interest Colorado had in enforcement of a contract made within its boundaries, but to be performed outside them. Id.
Recreation Safety Act
Defendants rely on Wyoming’s Recreation Safety Act and claim that, pursuant to the Act, they owed no duty of care to any of the tour members. In response, Plaintiffs provide three reasons that the Act does not apply. First, they contend that Connecticut law applies–an argument that the Court has already resolved in favor of Defendants. Second, Plaintiffs argue that Tauck is not a “provider” as defined in the Act. Third, they assert that federal law preempts the Act. The Court will now address Plaintiffs second and third arguments in turn.
Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(ii) defines “provider” as follows: “[A]ny person or governmental entity which for profit or otherwise offers or conducts a sport or recreational opportunity.” Plaintiffs claim that Tauck is not a provider because of its position that it did not conduct the activity itself, but rather was a travel agent [*13] that procured the raft trip on behalf of its tour members. In doing so, however, Plaintiffs overlook the undisputed fact that Tauck offered the float trip as part of its tour package. Given that the Act includes offering a recreational opportunity in its definition of “provider,” it is obvious that Tauck is, in fact, a provider.
Plaintiffs’ preemption argument requires significantly more discussion. State law may be preempted by federal law in three ways. First, Congress may expressly preempt state law. Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25, 31, 116 S. Ct. 1103, 134 L. Ed. 2d 237 (1996). Second, Congress may preempt an entire field by regulating that field so comprehensively that there is no room for state regulation. Id. at 31. Third, federal and state law may be in irreconcilable conflict, preempting state law even though Congress has not explicitly stated its intent to do so. Id. None of these three types of preemption occurred in this case.
The specific federal “law” that Plaintiffs believe preempt the Act is the concession contract between GTLC and the National Park Service. In particular, Plaintiffs point to the following language in the concession contract:
The Concessioner is responsible for providing a safe and healthful environment for its employees and clients as outlined [*14] in the Contract. The Concessioner will develop a Risk Management Program that will be approved by the Service in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Service Guidelines. The Risk Management Program will be reviewed annually by the Service.
Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion For Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 3. Plaintiffs claim that the concession contract “change[s] the character of the state law provisions encompassed by” the Act, and therefore results in an actual conflict between state and federal law. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, at 12. Plaintiffs also point to the National Park Service Management Policies 2006, which provides for visitor safety emergency response and emergency preparedness. That document refers several times to the safety of visitors to the park. Plaintiffs’ Resp. Motion to Dismiss on Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 4.
Plaintiffs make an argument similar to that raised by the plaintiff in Carden v. Kelly, 175 F. Supp. 2d 1318 (D. Wyo. 2001). In Carden, this Court summarized the plaintiffs’ arguments as follows:
1) Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, the Bridger-Teton National Forest; 2) Defendants, in order to operate [*15] their business in the Bridger-Teton National Forest had to obtain a special-use permit from the Forest Service; 3) because Plaintiff’s injuries occurred on federal land, federal law, namely Forest Service regulations and the Defendants’ special-use permit apply; 4) the special-use permit contains provisions concerning negligence and injury to patrons of Forest Service permit holders, which Plaintiff claims requires the permit holders to inform their guests of the risks and have them sign a risk acknowledgment form; and 5) provisions in the Forest Service regulations requiring patrons of the Forest Service concessionaires to assume “usual” risks of activities within the National Forest conflicts with, and thus preempts, the Wyoming Recreation Statute.
Carden, 175 F. Supp. 2d at 1322. The Court determined that, although Congress had the authority to pre-empt the Recreation Safety Act on federal lands, it did not do so. Id. at 1322-26.
In the current case, the Court will follow Carden‘s sound reasoning. The Management Policies and the concession contract cited by Plaintiffs do broadly emphasize the Park Service’s interest in public safety, but does not indicate any intent to preempt Wyoming tort law. “Courts do not ‘lightly attribute [*16] to Congress or to a federal agency the intent to preempt state or local laws.'” Ramsey Winch Inc. v. Henry, 555 F.3d 1199, 1204 (10th Cir. 2009) quoting Nat’l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass’n v. Killian, 918 F.2d 671, 676 (7th Cir. 1990).
Plaintiffs in the case at bar attempt to distinguish Carden by noting that the requirements in Carden were imposed by the Forest Service, while this case involves the Park Service. Plaintiffs do not point out how this fact is relevant, and the Court does not discern any. The Park Service was created to
promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
16 U.S.C. § 1. Its mission is therefore one of conservation, and the Court does not perceive any intent to impact state tort law. The Court finds that federal law has not preempted the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act.
It is now incumbent upon the Court to determine if the Act applies to the circumstances of this case and insulates the defendants from liability. The Act states, in relevant part,
(a) Any person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport [*17] or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for any and all damage, injury or death to himself or other persons or property that results from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.
(b) A provider of any sport or recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity.
(c) Actions based upon negligence of the provider wherein the damage, injury or death is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity shall be preserved pursuant to W.S. 1-1-109.
Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123.
Past disputes regarding the Act’s application involve, as does this case, questions about what constitutes an “inherent risk.” “‘Inherent risk’ with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangerous conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Id. § 1-1-122(a)(i). The Wyoming Supreme Court has had few occasions to address the determination of what is an inherent risk of a particular activity. One of the more recent cases arose as a certified question from this Court. Jackson Hole Mount. Resort Corp. v. Rohrman, 2006 WY 156, 150 P.3d 167 (Wyo. 2006). The [*18] question certified was: “When faced with motions for summary judgment in which there are no genuine issues of material fact, how should a court differentiate, as a matter of law, between ‘inherent risks’ . . . and non-inherent risks . . . ?” Id. at 168.
[The] general answer is that if such a motion is filed, the trial court must scrutinized the facts brought forward by the parties with great care. If the court can say that, given the evidence, this is an “inherent risk” and reasonable minds cannot differ about that, then summary judgment is appropriate. If the risk is an inherent one, then the provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control it. On the other hand, if reasonable minds could differ as to whether or not the risk was one inherent to the recreational activity, then summary judgment is not appropriate and the answer to the question must be assigned to the jury (or other fact finder).
Id. This formulation, of course, depends on properly characterizing the activity and risk. For example, in the current case, the activity may be characterized as a “scenic float trip”–as Plaintiffs do throughout their memorandum in opposition to summary judgment–or as “river rafting.” The particular [*19] risk may be described generically as falling out of the boat or, more specifically, as colliding with a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft.
Governing precedent demands that the activity and risk be described as particularly as possible. In Cooperman v. David, for example, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated that, “[w]hen attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the [injured person] was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record.” 214 F.3d 1162, 1167 (10th Cir. 2000). In this case, the activity is best described as river floating under the water conditions that were apparent when the tour members embarked. The risk is best described as the risk that the raft would encounter a log jam, ejecting one or more tour members into the river.
Applying the law from this point forward is somewhat more problematic because the precedent in this area is not entirely clear. In Cooperman, the court affirmed this Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant because a loose saddle cinch was an inherent risk of the activity of horseback [*20] riding. Id. at 1169. The trial court received expert testimony that a slipping saddle was a risk inherent to horseback riding. Id. at 1168. There was also testimony that the particular saddle at issue was cinched too loosely, and an inference that the loose cinching caused the saddle to slip. Id. The Cooperman court said that, even with this evidence, the risk was inherent because a person cinching a saddle had to balance between doing so too tightly and too loosely. “This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ of and therefore ‘inherent in’ the sport of horseback riding.” Id. Critically, the court stated,
As part of the Coopermans’ burden of showing that [the provider] owed Dr. Cooperman a duty of care, the Coopermans must provide some evidence to explain why the saddle fell, which explanation is not inherent to the sport. . . . Thus, stating only that the cinch was not tight enough does not show that the risk was no longer inherent to the sport. The Coopermans have the burden of presenting some evidence on summary judgment that would raise a question of fact that the loosely cinched saddle was caused, not by an inherent risk, but rather by a risk that was atypical, uncharacteristic, [*21] not intrinsic to, and thus not inherent in, the recreational activity of horseback riding. The Coopermans have not met this burden.
Id. at 1168-69.
The current case presents certain parallels. It is undisputed based on the evidence before the Court that being ejected or otherwise falling out of a raft is generally an inherent risk of river floating. For example, Sheri Griffith, an outfitter and river guide, testified that it is an inherent risk that a person might “become a swimmer” during a float trip. Griffith Depo. 152. There is no testimony that contradicts her opinion. It is also undisputed that the rafting guide instructed the tour members that, if they were to end up in the river, the proper procedure was to float on their back until they could be recovered. L. Wilson Depo. 318; Hobbs Depo. 136. This is similar to the expert testimony in Cooperman that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding: it describes the risk in general terms without looking at the specific cause. Also like Cooperman, Plaintiffs in this case have not submitted admissible evidence that describes a specific cause of the injury, and shown that the particular cause falls outside of the realm of being an inherent [*22] risk. Following the Cooperman analysis, then, the Court would conclude that Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether encountering a log jam resulting in ejection from the raft is an inherent risk of river floating.
But the Court must also consider Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096 (10th Cir. 2002). In that case, a six-year-old girl was injured when her horse bolted. Sapone, 308 F.3d at 1098. The plaintiffs presented evidence from an expert that “(1) the instructions were inadequate, (2) the horse was too large, (3) headgear should have been provided, (4) the trail ride may have been too dangerous, and (5) her parents were not notified of the accident.” Id. at 1104. It is not entirely clear why these facts would affect the nature of the risk. The court concluded “that a reasonable jury might conclude that [the girl’s] injuries were the result of negligence that is not characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part [of] horseback riding.” Id. at 1105. Two possible interpretations of this passage are that negligence is never an integral part of horseback riding, or that some negligence is an integral part, but not the negligent acts complained of in that case. The former interpretation would render the statute futile [*23] as a way to safeguard recreation providers against liability, so it is unlikely that the Court of Appeals intended that meaning. The latter interpretation is more plausible, but raises the difficult question of what types of negligence are inherent to a particular activity and which are not. In either case, a trial court or fact finder is confronted with the difficult task of determining whether negligence occurred in order to determine whether the defendant owed a duty.
In any case, this Court is bound to apply Sapone. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence that tends to show that the river, on the day of the river float trip, was running higher and faster so as to result in an activity with some greater risk to the participants. In addition, Plaintiffs submitted evidence suggesting that this stretch of river was generally believed to be a dangerous one. Rutter Depo. Ex. 1. Specifically, a National Park Service publication entitled “Floating the Snake River” states that the area from Deadman’s Bar to Moose Landing “is the most challenging stretch of river in the park and most accidents occur here. The river drops more steeply, with faster water than in other sections south of Pacific Creek. [*24] Complex braiding obscures the main channel and strong currents can sweep boaters into side channels blocked by logjams.” Id. This evidence is not uncontested, of course, but it is sufficient to preclude summary judgment on this issue. The Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether colliding with the log jam was an inherent risk of the river float trip undertaken by the tour members on June 2, 2006.
Tauck moved for summary judgment in its favor on Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. Tauck’s argument boils down to an assertion that it is essentially a travel agency, and therefore is not liable for any negligence committed by GTLC. Plaintiffs contend that Tauck is a common carrier, and therefore subject to a heightened duty of care. They also assert that Tauck assumed a duty to warn of dangerous conditions when it distributed a form entitled “Acknowledgment of Risk” on the way to the river.
As a general rule, a tour operator is not liable for injuries caused by the negligence of third parties over which the tour operator did not exercise ownership or control. E.g., Sova v. Apple Vacations, 984 F. Supp. 1136, 1140 (S.D. Ohio 1997).1 The general rule may not apply, however, in the face of contractual language to the [*25] contrary. In this case, Plaintiffs contend that Tauck’s promotional materials contained promises that Tauck would assume a certain duty. For example, they point to language in which Tauck states tour members will “enjoy VIP attention from our experienced Tauck Directors who are dedicated to making your trip the best it can be” and that “[o]nce you arrive at your Tauck Bridges destination, leave the day-to-day details to us–all you need to do is have fun with your family.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5-6. They compare this language to that relied upon by the court in Stevenson v. Four Winds Travel, Inc. to find that the plaintiff had a right to expect a warning of a slippery condition while on a tour. 462 F.2d 899, 906-07 (5th Cir. 1972).
1 The Wyoming Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question, but it would likely follow this general rule.
Stevenson, however, is distinguishable from the current case. First, the language in the promotional materials in Stevenson is considerably stronger than those distributed by Tauck. For example, the materials stated that guests would be “cared for by a carefully selected Four Winds Tour escort” and that the tour directors “know precisely what you will be seeing and doing every day.” Id. In contrast, Tauck’s materials state that trips “are enhanced by [*26] our experienced directors,” and that Tauck will “take care of all [arrangements] for you, so you can indulge in the joys of travel without any of the day-to-day hassles.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 5. To the extent that these vague statements mean anything at all, it falls far short of a promise to assume a duty. In addition, there is no indication in Stevenson that there was a separate contract. In this case, however, Tauck’s “Conditions of Tour”–relied upon by Plaintiffs in its argument that Connecticut law is applicable–contains a provision in which Tauck disclaims liability for “any Damages, or any problems concerning any . . . supplier providing tour services [or] programs, . . . including but not limited to . . . negligence by any . . . other supplier providing tour services [or] programs.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Recreation Safety Act, Ex. 1. Courts have relied on similar disclaimers to bar liability for acts of third parties that are beyond the control of the tour operator because the disclaimers are evidence that the operator did not intend to assume a guarantee of safety, even if the disclaimer is not itself [*27] contractually binding. E.g., Sova, 984 F. Supp. at 1139-40 (collecting illustrative cases). Accordingly, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, Tauck had no duty, either by virtue of its position as a tour operator or assumed through its promotional materials.
Plaintiffs next contend that Tauck is a common carrier pursuant to the common law and Article 10, Section 7 of the Wyoming Constitution. That provision states: “All corporations engaged in the transportation of persons, property, mineral oils, and minerals products, news or intelligence, including railroads, telegraphs, express companies, pipe lines and telephones, are declared to be common carriers.” Plaintiffs then rely upon section 314A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states that a common carrier has a duty to its passengers to take reasonable action “to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm,” and to render aid if they are harmed. Tauck contends that it is not a common carrier because it does not actually transport tour members during the river floating trip.
Tauck’s position has merit, and there is authority for the proposition that a tour operator is not a common carrier. E.g., Stafford v. Intrav, Inc., 841 F. Supp. 284, 287 (E.D. Mo. 1993). The Court need not resolve the question of whether Tauck is a common carrier, however, because even if it is in general, it was not transporting [*28] tour members at the time of the raft collision. The undisputed evidence is that the tour members, during the rafting trip, were being transported by GTLC, not Tauck. In short, the tour members were no longer subject to Tauck’s custody or control, and therefore Tauck owed no duty. See Id. (tour operator had no duty to warn of dangerous condition on premises not under its control).
This leaves the question of whether distribution of “Acknowledgment of Risk” forms resulted in an imposition of a duty on Tauck. Plaintiffs cite section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which states:
One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if
(a) his failure to exercise reasonable care increases the risk of such harm, or
(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or
(c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person upon the undertaking.
The Wyoming Supreme Court adopted this provision as reflected in subsection (a) in Ellsworth Bros., Inc. v. Crook, 406 P.2d 520, 524 (Wyo. 1965). Relying [*29] on the Restatement, Plaintiffs claim that “by requiring its Tour Directors to get guests to sign GTLC’s Acknowledgment of Risk form well in advance of arriving at the Lodge, Tauck undertook the duty to inform guests about risks associated with the raft trip.” Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Negligence, 7.
This statement, however, assumes that by undertaking to distribute the “Acknowledgment of Risk” form, Tauck was undertaking the broader task of informing guests about risks associated with the raft trip. There is no evidence before the Court to support this assumption. The only evidence that Tauck undertook to do anything for GTLC is testimony that GTLC asked Tauck to present the form to those tour members who were to participate in the rafting trip. Rice Depo. 47.2 There is no testimony that suggests Tauck was asked, or agreed, to inform guests of all risks involved in the rafting trip.
2 There is some conflict in the record regarding precisely when the tour members were given the form, but that is not material for resolution of this issue.
The Court finds as a matter of law that Tauck did not owe a duty to the tour members to warn them of the conditions of the river or otherwise act to prevent their injuries. Tauck may not be found negligent on a theory of direct liability.
The Court must next address Tauck’s [*30] contention that it may not be held vicariously liable for GTLC’s negligence because the two companies did not form a joint venture. Tauck argues that GTLC was simply a supplier, and that the two businesses did not jointly embark on a business venture. In Wyoming, a person alleging the existence of a joint venture has the burden to prove four elements:
(1) an agreement, express or implied, among the members of the group; (2) a common purpose to be carried out by the group; (3) a community of pecuniary interest in that purpose, among the members; and (4) an equal right to a voice in the direction of the enterprise, which gives an equal right of control.
Popejoy v. Steinle, 820 P.2d 545, 549 (Wyo. 1991) quoting Holliday v. Bannister, 741 P.2d 89, 93 n.1 (Wyo. 1987).
Considering the first element, that of an agreement, the Court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Tauck and GTLC agreed to provide services. Plaintiffs have submitted a document entitled “Tour Operator Contract,” which governs the terms of the sale of room blocks and river float trips to Tauck. Plaintiff’s Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Joint Venture, Ex. 5. Several witnesses, officials of Tauck, testified that they viewed GTLC as a supplier, not as a partner. Nevertheless, viewing [*31] the contract in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it is not unreasonable to characterize it as an agreement for the purposes of this joint venture analysis.
The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could find that Tauck and GTLC had a common purpose. This purpose was to sell tour members lodging and river float trips. Tauck’s purpose was somewhat broader, generally, because it sold lager tours of which the interaction with GTLC was a small part, but this does not remove the fact that GTLC and Tauck were united in purpose during this portion of the tour. Similarly, they both had a pecuniary interest in the enterprise. Tauck points out that GTLC received the same amount for its float tours whether its guests were members of a Tauck tour or individuals. But the arrangement nonetheless furthered GTLC’s financial goals by bringing significant numbers of guests to GTLC. Similarly, Tauck benefitted financially by featuring GTLC lodging and the float trip as part of its tour.
The Court does not find, however, that Tauck and GTLC had an equal right of control. Plaintiffs rely heavily on the fact that both business had the capability to cancel the float trip at their discretion, but that [*32] does not suggest an equal voice in the activity in question. For example, the evidence submitted to the Court indicates that the Tauck tour director brought the residents to the lodge and interacted with GTLC staff, but there is no indication that any Tauck official had the authority to direct any day-to-day activities. It had no input into the decision to hire Mr. Hobbs, the guide of Raft No. 2, or to direct the manner in which he conducted the rafting trip. Tauck could not have directed that the river guide take the group down a different part of the river, or terminated the guide’s employment. If GTLC had decided to terminate its river floating operations, Tauck would have been powerless to prevent it, aside from the scope of any service contract that was currently in place. Tauck and GTLC were two separate operations, and there is no evidence submitted to the Court that suggests otherwise. The Court finds, as a matter of law, that Tauck and GTLC did not have a joint venture.
The Court notes that, with no direct liability and no joint venture resulting in vicarious liability, Tauck is not liable for any claims of negligence.
Plaintiffs have alleged that GTLC and Tauck committed [*33] fraud by enacting a scheme whereby the tour members were lured into taking a dangerous rafting trip as a result of GTLC and Tauck’s material misrepresentations regarding the level of danger. “To prove fraud, the plaintiff must show by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the defendant made a false representation intended to induce action by the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff reasonably believed the representation to be true; and (3) the plaintiff suffered damages in relying upon the false representation.” Garrison v. CC Builders, Inc., 2008 WY 34, 179 P.3d 867, 877 (Wyo. 2008). The false representation must be made knowingly: “One cannot be guilty of fraudulently or intentionally concealing or misrepresenting facts of which he is not aware.” Meeker v. Lanham, 604 P.2d 556, 559 (Wyo. 1979). Plaintiffs’ fraud claim fails because they have failed to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that Defendants knowingly made a false representation of a material fact.
Plaintiffs first cite statements made in Tauck’s travel brochure discussing the rafting trip. “[T]he record shows that Tauck’s 2006 Brochure described the Snake River as a ‘meandering float trip,’ when in actuality, the Plaintiffs’ [sic] ended up on a whitewater raft trip with Class IV rapids.”
[*34] Plaintiffs’ Resp. to Motion for Summary Judgment on Fraud Claim, 8. Plaintiffs also cite statements in Tauck’s promotional materials stating that its tour directors are “knowledgeable professionals, with a wealth of information,” and that Tauck “does it all for you,” and that tour members can “leave all day-to-day details” to Tauck. Id.
For the most part, these promotional statements are “mere puffery” E.g., Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1106 (10th Cir. 2009). The one arguable exception is the description of the activity as a “meandering float trip,” which may be sufficiently definite that a sensible person may be justified in relying on it to some degree. Even in that case, however, there is no indication that Tauck was aware that the river floating trip would be anything other than as described.
The key problem with Plaintiffs’ case is that there is no indication that this particular stretch of the Snake River was inherently dangerous on the day of the collision. Instead, the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, indicates that the guide of the raft that collided with the log jam took the raft into an unsafe channel. For example, the deposition of Wayne Johnson, one of the river guides on June 2, 2006, indicates [*35] that he viewed the “Funnelcake” channel as dangerous on that date. Johnson Depo. 184. Mr. Reed Finlay, a river guide with a different company, testified at some length about the “Funnelcake” channel, specifically that it was dangerous on the date of the collision. Finlay Depo. 126-32. Indeed, it is undisputed that the float trip on the day of the collision was peaceful and uneventful until Raft No. 2 entered the channel and struck the log jam. J. Wilson Depo. 76-77; R. Rizas Depo. 102, 209, 219. In short, there is no indication that Tauck made a misrepresentation when the rafting trip was marketed as a “meandering float trip.”
Plaintiffs also rely on several statements made by employees of Tauck and GTLC before the raft trip. First, Mr. Wilson saw saw people white water rafting while on the bus trip into Jackson on June 1, 2006. When the he asked the tour director, Mr. Rice, if that was what their rafting trip would be like, Mr. Rice replied that the rafting trip would be a “leisurely, scenic float down the Snake River,” and not to worry. Mr. Rice also stated that Tauck had “never lost anybody.” L. Wilson Depo. 61-62. Second, while the groups were in the GTLC vans on the way to the [*36] river, Ms. Elizabeth Rizas asked the van driver about the safety of the float trip. The van driver responded by telling her that she was more likely to be in an accident in the van traveling to the river than on the float trip. J. Wilson Depo 39-40. There is also some evidence that the van driver also stated that they had “never lost anybody yet.” Id. 60.
Again, there is no evidence indicating that these statements are deliberately false. Much like Tauck’s advertising, there was no reason for Tauck or GTLC to believe that the rafting trip would be anything other than a leisurely, scenic float trip. Although Plaintiffs repeatedly rely on the fact that the river was flowing stronger and faster than usual because of the spring thaw, there is no evidence suggesting that this change in conditions precluded GTLC from being able to provide the safe and relaxing experience that the tour members were expecting. The additional fact that the float trip resulted in a devastating collision instead is not relevant when considering what Tauck and GTLC knew at the time they made the statements at issue.
Lastly, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants committed fraud by failing to inform them of the full nature [*37] of the risks on this particular float trips. The Court finds that any failure to inform the guest of these dangers is not actionable as a matter of law. First, there can be no fraud because there is no statement involved. The Court also relies on the Wyoming Supreme Court’s explicit refusal to adopt the tort of nondisclosure in Pittard v. Great Lakes Aviation, 2007 WY 64, 156 P.3d 964, 976 (Wyo. 2007). Plaintiffs have failed to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment in Defendants’ favor on the fraud issue.
GTLC has moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claim for punitive damages.3 Plaintiffs’ response is similar to their fraud argument, that is, that GTLC deliberately misrepresented the float trip as safe and leisurely.
3 Tauck has also moved for summary judgment in its favor on the punitive damages issue. The Court, however, has already determined that Tauck is not liable, either directly or vicariously. Accordingly, the Court’s discussion addresses only Plaintiffs’ claim as it applies to GTLC.
The Wyoming Supreme Court has set out the following standard regarding punitive damages:
We have explained that punitive damages “are to be awarded only for conduct involving some element of outrage, similar to that usually found in crime. . . . We have approved punitive damages in circumstances involving outrageous conduct, such as intentional torts, torts involving malice and torts involving willful and wanton misconduct.” Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1369-70 (Wyo. 1986). Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing, [*38] or failing to do, an act in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another. Mayflower Rest. Co. v. Griego, 741 P.2d 1106, 1115 (Wyo. 1987). “The aggravating factor which distinguishes willful misconduct from ordinary negligence is the actor’s state of mind. In order to prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Bryant v. Hornbuckle, 728 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 1986) (internal citation omitted).
Cramer v. Powder R. Coal Co., 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979-80 (Wyo. 2009).
Plaintiffs reason as follows:
Defendants here should have communicated the true Snake River conditions to the Plaintiffs rather than misrepresent the conditions and intentionally take the guests who had signed up for a scenic float trip into something knowingly quite different. Defendant’s failure to communicate the details indicates “reckless disregard of the consequences, and under such circumstances and conditions that a reasonable man would know, or have reason to know, that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in substantial harm to another.” Danculovich [v. Brown], 593 P.2d [187,] 191.
Plaintiffs’ Response to Motion for Summary Judgment on Punitive Damages [*39]
Plaintiffs’ contention that GTLC was aware that the float trip was materially more dangerous than previously represented to the tour members is not, as the Court has discussed, reflected in the record. Although it is undisputed that the level and flow of water was increased, and that this increase may heighten the risk of log jams or hide obstructions in the river, there is no evidence suggesting that the character of the river was altered to such an extent that it was willfully reckless to take passengers on the float trip.
The facts of this case are in stark contrast to those cases relied on by the Plaintiffs in which the Wyoming Supreme Court overturned trial courts’ grants of summary judgment in defendants’ favor on punitive damages. For example, the conduct alleged in Danculovich was drunk driving and speeding resulting in the driver losing control of the vehicle and killing the decedent. 593 P.2d at 190. The evidence in that case indicated that the defendant, who was driving the vehicle, had a blood alcohol content of 0.12%. Id. The court described the evidence of speeding as follows:
Radar clock of vehicle at 56 m.p.h. was made at north edge of business district. A witness estimated speed [*40] at 75 m.p.h. at city limits. Another witness estimated speed at 85 m.p.h. when vehicle passed him at point about .4 of mile before place of accident. Accident reconstruction expert estimated speed at place of accident to be minimum of 75 m.p.h. The speed limit within the city limits was 30 m.p.h. and beyond the city limits, 55 m.p.h.
Id. n.3. In Errington v. Zolessi, a treating physician conducted several cystograms of a patient following a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy. 9 P.3d 966, 968 (Wyo. 2000). The cystograms initially indicated the presence of a fistula, and later confirmed it, but the doctor told the patient that she was healing normally, albeit slowly. Id. The Wyoming Supreme Court held that there was sufficient evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the physician acted with reckless disregard for the patient’s safety. In either case, it is apparent that simply failing to advise the tour group members of the increased flow of the river does not rise to the level of reckless and willful misconduct. There is no question that the consequences of any negligence committed were devastating. But this Court must evaluate the question of outrageous conduct based on what was known [*41] at the time of the allegedly negligent act, not looking back at events with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say that this conduct may not constitute simple negligence, but it does not warrant punitive damages.
IT IS ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, Docket No. 87, is DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim of Negligence, Docket No. 81, is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Joint Venture, Docket No. 84, is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims of Fraud, Docket No. 90, is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Tauck’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Punitive and Exemplary Damages, Docket No. 93, is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Grant Teton Lodge Company’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Claims, Docket No. 96, is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the motion is DENIED as it relates to application of the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and is in all other respects GRANTED.
Dated this day of October, 2009.
/s/ Alan B. [*42] Johnson
ALAN B. JOHNSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989)
William Todd Childress, By and Through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, and Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Madison County, Tennessee, The Madison County Board of Education, and the Young Men’s Christian Association, Jackson, Tennessee, a/k/a Y.M.C.A., Defendants-Appellees
[NO NUMBER IN ORIGINAL]
Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Western Section
777 S.W.2d 1; 1989 Tenn. App. LEXIS 48
January 24, 1989, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Application for Permission to Appeal Denied August 7, 1989.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] From the Circuit Court of Madison County, Tennessee, MADISON LAW NO. 5, The Honorable Andrew T. Taylor, Judge
DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART AND REMANDED.
COUNSEL: David Hardee, Linda L. Moore, Jackson, Attorneys for Plaintiffs-Appellants.
J. Tim Edwards, Memphis, Glassman, Jeter & Edwards, Attorney for Defendants-Appellees.
JUDGES: Highers, J. Nearn, Sp. J., concurs. Tomlin, P.J., W.S., concurs separately.
OPINION BY: HIGHERS
[*2] The plaintiffs, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, brought this action individually and on behalf of their son, William Todd Childress, against Madison County and the Madison County Board of Education, alleging negligence which proximately caused personal injury to their son, a mentally handicapped student in Special Education at South Side High School. After a bench trial, the court found that the evidence did not preponderate in favor of the contentions of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are appealing from a judgment for the defendants.
At the time of the accident, William Todd Childress was a twenty-year old, nonverbal, severely retarded student. He traveled regularly with his class to the Y.M.C.A. to use recreational facilities, including a swimming pool. 1 [**2] The trips were supervised by a teacher and an aide, both employees of Madison County, and while at the pool, by a lifeguard employed by the Y.M.C.A.
1 The Y.M.C.A. was originally a party defendant, but was dismissed before trial and is not involved in this appeal.
Some of the trips were to allow students to train for the Special Olympics. Childress’ event consisted of walking the width of the shallow end of the swimming pool and handing a floating ball to an attendant.
On April 11, 1984, near the end of one of these training excursions to the Y.M.C.A., Childress was found on the floor of the pool at the point where the pool slopes from the shallow to the deep end. He was retrieved by the lifeguard and, after resuscitation began to breathe. He expelled water, vomited, and coughed, but otherwise appeared normal. An ambulance was called and Childress was taken to the hospital and admitted. Childress sustained injuries and incurred medical expenses as a result of this incident.
[*3] The teacher testified that there were three people who were responsible for observing the class — the teacher, the aide, and the lifeguard. The teacher testified that she was at the shallow end of the [**3] pool, the aide was on the other side of the pool, and the lifeguard was in and out of the pool at various points while offering instruction to students.
On this occasion the teacher stated that she was working with Childress. She described the events leading to the accident as follows:
Q. And toward the end of that hour what specifically were you doing with the children?
A. Well, the last thing that I did before I got out of the pool was work with Todd going back and forth across the pool.
Q. He would be walking back and forth across the pool?
Q. And when you ceased that activity, what did you do?
A. I told Todd to get out of the water and told all of the other children to get out of the water.
Q. Did Todd get out of the water?
A. I did not see Todd get out of the water. As the children were exiting the pool another student jumped in at the shallow end, who was a swimmer, to swim a lap and I walked along the edge of the pool as he swam to the deep end.
Q. Did you ever again see Todd after you told him to get out of the pool until he was found underwater?
* * * *
Q. Do you know who was watching Todd?
Q. Do you know if anybody was watching [**4] Todd?
A. We all had joint responsibility for watching the students.
Q. Do you know if anyone was watching Todd as he was getting out of the pool?
A. I would have no way of knowing.
In light of the testimony, we are of the opinion that the evidence preponderates against a finding of no negligence. [HN1] In non-jury matters the findings of fact of the trial court come to this court with a presumption of correctness and are reviewed de novo. Unless the evidence preponderates against the findings, we must affirm. T.R.A.P. 13(d). The trial court’s judgment in this case indicates that he found no negligence on the part of Madison County or the Madison County Board of Education. The proof shows, however, that the teacher and the aide were responsible for watching the students; that the teacher ordered students out of the pool, but did not actually see Childress exit; that she became involved in observing another student, and did not know whether Childress left the pool; and that she did not know whether anyone was watching Childress during the crucial period when he apparently went into water that was over his head, thereby sustaining the injuries and damages which gave rise to the complaint. [**5] It further appears that each of the attendants was involved in small group instruction and that no one actually scanned the pool in order to see whether the group as a whole had obeyed the instructions to leave the area. But for the fact that no one watched the pool without the distractions of other instruction, Childress would not have been injured.
Under these circumstances, we cannot say that plaintiffs have failed to make out a case by the greater weight or preponderance of the evidence.
The defendants have raised a further issue in this case, however, that the mother executed a release of all liability of these defendants. It is their contention that even if they were guilty of negligence the action is barred by the release of claims executed by the mother individually and on behalf of her son.
[HN2] It is well settled in this state that parties may contract that one shall not be liable for his negligence to another but that such other shall assume the risk incident to such negligence. Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 340 S.W.2d 902 (1960). This [*4] rule is subject to exception. A party cannot contract away his liability for willful or gross negligence. [**6] Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co. v. Jones, 39 Tenn. (2 Head) 517 (1859). Neither can a party contract away liability if the duty under which he acts is a public one. Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway Co. v. Saulsbury, 115 Tenn. 402, 90 S.W. 624, 626 (1905); Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway Co. v. Unaka Springs Lumber Co., 130 Tenn. 354, 170 S.W. 591, 594 (1914); Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co., 175 U.S. 91, 20 S. Ct. 33, 44 L. Ed. 84 (1899).
[HN3] The existence of a public duty which would disallow giving effect to an exculpatory provision is determined by looking at several factors. If the service provided is the type which may generally be subject to public regulation then the duty probably exists. Smith v. Southern Bell, 364 S.W.2d at 958. Other factors include the degree to which the service is of practical necessity for some members of the public, whether the service is offered to any member of the public who seeks it or qualifies for it, whether one party has greater bargaining power than [**7] members of the general public, whether in exercising that bargaining power, the party presents a standardized “adhesion” contract making no provision whereby protection against negligence may be obtained, or whether the person or property of one party is placed under the control of the other. Olson v. Molzen, 558 S.W.2d 429, 431 (Tenn. 1977) (adopting the rule of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (1963)). [HN4] Particularly offensive in Tennessee are exculpation contracts executed by persons in professional vocations. Olson, 558 S.W.2d at 432.
[HN5] Persons and businesses which normally operate under a public duty are not bound by the exception and can execute valid exculpation contracts when the transaction in question is not under that public duty. Thus it has been held that a telephone company can execute such a contract as to its advertising services, Smith v. Southern Bell, 51 Tenn. App. 146, 364 S.W.2d 952, 957-958, citing Mitchell v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 298 S.W.2d 520 (Mo. App. 1957), and a common carrier may contract [**8] against liability when executing a lease agreement, Cincinnati, N.O. & T.P.R.Co. v. Saulsbury, 90 S.W. at 626.
Analyzing the facts of this case under the foregoing rules, we find that the Special Olympics generally, and the services provided in this case specifically, are governed by the general rule and do not fall under the exception prohibiting exculpatory clauses. Although there are a number of circumstances which would otherwise bring the Special Olympics under the exceptions related to professional or public services, our analysis of all the cases cited reveals that the rule was intended to operate primarily in the marketplace. The Olson opinion in analyzing the public duty exception refers to “business,” “bargaining strength” in “economic settings,” “purchasers,” and payment of “additional fees to obtain protection against negligence” implying that there were fees in the first place. We are not here saying that the touchstone of the analysis is the existence or absence of business motivations, or pecuniary exchange. But when those considerations which are tied to economic factors are eliminated from the analysis, in this case by the absence [**9] of any business motivations, the remaining factors are insufficient to bring this case under the exception. Having determined that the [HN6] exculpatory clauses are generally valid as to the Special Olympics, we look now to the provisions of the clause used in this case.
The exculpatory language in this case is a part of a form document entitled “Tennessee Special Olympics Parental/Medical Release Form.” It is printed on an 8 1/2″ X 11″ sheet divided into three sections, the right half of the page being a medical release to be completed by a physician or registered nurse. The left half of the page is divided into two sections, the top being for completion by parents or teachers requiring statistical date such as age, clothing sizes, and addresses of the participant. [*5] The bottom section is entitled “Parent/Guardian Release.” As completed in the case at bar, the release is as follows:
I hereby give permission for the entrant named above to participate in the Special Olympics program — a sports-training, recreation, and competitive athletic program for mentally retarded children and adults.
I represent and warrant to you that [**10] the entrant is physically and mentally able to participate in Special Olympics, and I submit herewith a subscribed medical certificate.
Consent to Treatment:
You are authorized on my behalf and at my account to take such measures and arrange for such medical and hospital treatment as you may deem advisable for the health and well-being of the entrant without the need for further consent or permission.
Release of Claim:
I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant, acknowledge that the entrant will be using facilities at his/her own risk. I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify Special Olympics, its directors, officers, employees, physicians, agents, and all volunteer personnel from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event. (Emphasis Supplied)
Permission to Publish:
Permission is hereby granted to use the name, likeness, voice and words of the entrant in television, radio, films, newspapers, magazines and other media, and in any form not heretofore described for the purposes and activities of Special Olympics [**11] and in appealing for funds to support such activities.
Mrs. Ira Childress (subscribed)
Relationship to Entrant
The emphasized language is at issue. The trial judge was of the opinion that Mrs. Childress “had executed a document releasing these defendants from liabilities as a result of any injuries that might occur in connection with the Special Olympics program.” This conclusion is in part correct.
[HN7] Exculpatory clauses purporting to contract against liability for intentional conduct, recklessness or gross negligence are unenforceable. See Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73 (Tenn. 1985) Memphis & Charleston Railroad Co., supra. We find that the defendants in this case have not exceeded the bounds of simple negligence, even in light of the higher standard of care under which they operate due to the students’ mental disability. See 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 141 (1966).
The parties in this case are the plaintiffs, Todd Childress, by his parents, and his mother, Joyce Childress, and his father, Ira Childress, individually; and the defendants, Madison [**12] County, and the Madison County Board of Education. The defendants were at the time of the incident in question acting through the teacher and her aide as agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics. The incident occurred during a Special Olympics training session, which the evidence shows was a “Special Olympics event” within the meaning of that phrase as used in the release form. While the evidence did show that there had been trips to the Y.M.C.A. pool which were independent of Special Olympics training, it is clear that the objective of this particular trip was to train for the Special Olympics and during this trip the teachers acted within the purview of duties they assumed as agents and/or volunteers of Special Olympics. Therefore, any liability for any actions taken must be analyzed as the actions of agents or volunteers of the Special Olympics as governed by the release form.
[*6] The plaintiffs assert on appeal that the evidence established that Mrs. Childress had signed a number of “permission slips” and that in executing the release form, Mrs. Childress thought that she was merely signing another permission slip. We find this assertion unsupportable by the evidence. [**13] The evidence shows that the permission slips which Mrs. Childress signed were mimeographed copies of a handwritten form. The release form was not mimeographed and was copied from a printed document not handwritten, not even typed. Besides the difference facially, the content of the release is very different from the content of the permission slips. Mrs. Childress signed the document, and cannot, under these circumstances assert she thought she was signing a permission slip and not a release. Even if that were a valid assertion, it would make no difference in the outcome of the case. [HN8] Although notice of an exculpatory clause is a prerequisite to its validity, Dodge v. Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway Co., 142 Tenn. 20, 215 S.W. 274 (1919), a party’s failure to read does not constitute a lack of notice to that party, Dixon v. Manier, 545 S.W.2d 948, 949 (Tenn. App. 1976).
Of the plaintiffs, only Mrs. Childress, Todd’s mother signed the release form. The language, quoted above, is clear and unambiguous. Mrs. Childress acknowledged that Todd would be participating at his own risk. She further agreed to “release, discharge and [**14] indemnify Special Olympics, its . . . agents, and all volunteer personnel.” Therefore, the trial judge was correct in dismissing this case as to Mrs. Childress individually.
Mr. Childress did not himself sign the release form and there is no indication in the language of the form or in the manner in which Mrs. Childress signed that she did in fact, or was even authorized to, release or discharge the Special Olympics on Mr. Childress’ behalf. However, Mrs. Childress did clearly agree to indemnify the Special Olympics “from all liabilities for damage, injury or illness to the entrant or his/her property during his/her participation in or travel to or from any Special Olympics event.” Therefore, to the extent the defendants are liable to Mr. Childress, Mrs. Childress, as indemnitor, must compensate him.
Neither did the remaining plaintiff, Todd Childress, sign the release form himself. Had he done so, being an incompetent, incapable of understanding the nature of his action, the execution could not be given effect. See 44 C.J.S. Insane Persons § 49 (1945). But, according to the language of the release, Mrs. Childress, as his mother and natural parent, acknowledged on Todd’s behalf [**15] that he would be participating at his own risk.
[HN9] The status of guardians of incompetent persons is similar to that of guardians of infants, especially in view of courts of equity. Id. The general rule is that a guardian may not waive the rights of an infant or an incompetent. 39 Am. Jur.2d, Guardian & Ward § 102 (1968); 42 Am. Jur.2d, Infants § 152 (1969). Specifically, [HN10] the Supreme Court of Tennessee long ago stated that a guardian cannot settle an existing claim apart from court approval or statutory authority. Miles v. Kaigler, 18 Tenn. (10 Yerg.) 10 (1836). Spitzer v. Knoxville Iron, Co., 133 Tenn. 217, 180 S.W. 163 (1915). Tune v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 223 F. Supp. 928 (MD Tenn. 1963). It has also been held that [HN11] a guardian may not waive the statutory requirements for service of process on an infant or incompetent by accepting service of process on himself alone. Winchester v. Winchester, 38 Tenn. (1 Head) 460 (1858).
The courts of other states have recognized this general rule in a number of circumstances including those cited above. See e.g. Gibson v. Anderson, 265 Ala. 553, 92 So.2d 692, 695 (1956) [**16] (legal guardian’s acts do not estop ward from asserting rights in property); Ortman v. Kane, 389 Ill. 613, 60 N.E.2d 93, 98 (1945) (guardian cannot waive tender requirements of land sale contract entered into by ward prior to incompetency); Stockman v. City of South Portland, 147 Me 376, 87 A.2d 679 (1952) (guardian cannot waive ward’s property tax exemption); Sharp v. State, 240 Miss. 629, 127 So.2d 865, 90 A.L.R.2d 284 (1961) [*7] (guardian cannot waive statutory requirements for service of process on ward); Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981) (ratification by parent of contract executed by child does not bind child); Whitcomb v. Dancer, 140 Vt. 580, 443 A.2d 458 (1982) (guardian cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval); Natural Father v. United Methodist Children’s Home, 418 So.2d 807 (Miss. 1982) (infant not bound by evidentiary admissions of parent); Colfer v. Royal Globe Ins. Co., 214 N.J. Super. 374, 519 A.2d 893 (1986) (guardian [**17] cannot settle personal injury claim for ward without court approval).
In Mississippi, the rule was expressed in broad terms by the Supreme Court in Khoury v. Saik, 203 Miss. 155, 33 So.2d 616, 618 (1948): “Minors can waive nothing. In the law they are helpless, so much so that their representatives can waive nothing for them.” See also Parker v. Smith, 150 Miss. 849, 117 So. 249, 250 (1928).
The Supreme Court of Connecticut has specifically held that [HN12] an agreement, signed by one of the parents of a minor as a condition to his being allowed to attend a camp, waiving the minor’s claims against a camp for damages in the event of an injury was ineffective to waive the rights of the minor against the defendant camp. Fedor v. Mauwehu Council, Boy Scouts of America, Inc., 21 Conn. Sup. 38, 143 A.2d 466, 468 (1958). The Supreme Court of Maine reached the same conclusion in Doyle v. Bowdoin College, 403 A.2d 1206, 1208 n.3 (Me. 1979). In Doyle, the court held that if the agreement in question were a release, it would be ineffective because a parent cannot release the child’s [**18] action.
We believe the rule stated above is in keeping with the protection which Tennessee has afforded to the rights of infants and minors in other situations. We, therefore, hold that Mrs. Childress could not execute a valid release or exculpatory clause as to the rights of her son against the Special Olympics or anyone else, and to the extent the parties to the release attempted and intended to do so, the release is void.
The indemnity provisions of the release are on a similar footing. [HN13] Indemnification agreements executed by a parent or guardian in favor of tort feasors, actual or potential, committing torts against an infant or incompetent, are invalid as they place the interests of the child or incompetent against those of the parent or guardian. See Valdimer v. Mt. Vernon Hebrew Camps, Inc., 9 N.Y.2d 21, 210 N.Y.S.2d 520, 172 N.E.2d 283, 285 (1961). “Clearly, a parent who has placed himself in the position of indemnitor will be a dubious champion of his infant child’s rights.” Id. See also Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. v. Mallison, 223 Or 406, 354 P.2d 800, 802-803 (1960). We are aware that the indemnity [**19] agreements in the two cases just cited were executed after the cause of action had arisen. This fact does not change the rule, and [HN14] indemnity provisions executed by the parent prior to a cause of action in favor of a child cannot be given effect. Were the rule otherwise, it would circumvent the rule regarding exculpatory clauses and the policy of affording protection in the law to the rights of those who are unable effectively to protect those rights themselves.
We do not deny that there are good and logical reasons for giving effect to exculpatory and indemnification clauses executed by parents and guardians on behalf of infants and incompetents. Risk is inherent in many activities that make the lives of children richer. A world without risk would be an impoverished world indeed. As Helen Keller well said, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Partnow, Quotable Woman, 173 (1977). Ultimately, this case is a determination of who must bear the burden of the risk of injury to infants and minors.
[**20] It is not our intention, nor do we feel the result of this case will be, to put a chill on activities such as the Special Olympics. [HN15] The law is clear that a guardian cannot on behalf of an infant or incompetent, exculpate or indemnify against liability those [*8] organizations which sponsor activities for children and the mentally disabled. If this rule of law is other than as it should be, we feel the remedy is with the Supreme Court or the legislature.
The judgment of the trial court is affirmed as to Joyce Childress individually, and her case is dismissed. As to Ira Childress individually, and William Todd, by and through his parents, Ira Childress and Joyce Childress, this case is reversed and remanded for such further proceedings as may be required. Costs on appeal are assessed against appellees.
CONCUR BY: TOMLIN
SEPARATE CONCURRING OPINION
TOMLIN, P.J., W.S.
I readily concur in the excellent opinion written by my colleague. In addition, I would hold that even if the law in this state was to the effect that Mrs. [**21] Childress could execute a valid release as to the rights of her son, the release, as executed, as I interpret it, attempts to release only the mother’s rights and not those of her son. For instance, the first sentence, acknowledging that young Childress was using the facilities at his own risk, begins with the language: “I, the undersigned, individually and on behalf of the above-named entrant . . . .” [emphasis added] However, the language purporting to release the Special Olympics and others reads as follows: “I, on my own behalf, hereby release, discharge and indemnify . . . .” [emphasis added] It is obvious that the language last used purports only to release the rights of the “undersigned,” i.e., Mrs. Childress, and not those of her handicapped son.
Whitman et al., v. Zeidman, 16 A.D.3d 197; 791 N.Y.S.2d 54; 2005 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2505
Harrison Whitman et al., Appellants, v. Michael Zeidman, an Infant, by Sarit Zeidman, His Parent and Legal Guardian, et al., Respondents.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, FIRST DEPARTMENT
16 A.D.3d 197; 791 N.Y.S.2d 54; 2005 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 2505
March 15, 2005, Decided
March 15, 2005, Entered
CORE TERMS: lessons, snowboarding, risk of injury, summary judgment, failed to raise, issue of fact, reasonable care, risk-enhancing, supervising, instructing, interrupted, sponsored, arranging, downhill, reckless, canceled, skiing, novices, causal, skier, bunny, slope, sport, trip
COUNSEL: Law Offices of Renee Simon Lesser, P.C., New York (W. Matthew Sakkas of counsel), for appellants.
Acito, Klein & Candiloros, New York (Francesca A. Sabbatino of counsel), for Zeidman respondents.
Carol R. Finocchio, New York (Mary Ellen O’Brien of counsel), for National Council of Young Israel, respondent.
JUDGES: Concur–Buckley, P.J., Andrias, Friedman, Gonzalez, Sweeny, JJ.
[*197] [**55] Order, Supreme Court, New York County (Shirley Werner Kornreich, J.), entered January 9, 2004, which granted defendants’ motion and cross motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, unanimously affirmed, without costs.
Plaintiff Harrison Whitman was injured in a collision with defendant Michael Zeidman while snowboarding. By “engaging in a sport or recreational activity, a participant consents to those commonly appreciated risks which are inherent in and arise out of the nature of the sport generally and flow from such participation” ( [***2] Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d 471, 484, 685 NE2d 202, 662 NYS.2d 421 ). The risk of injury caused by another skier is inherent in downhill skiing (General Obligations Law § 18-101). Defendant submitted proof that he did not engage in instances of reckless, intentional or other risk-enhancing conduct not inherent in snowboarding that might have caused the accident, and plaintiff failed to raise an issue of fact (see Kaufman v Hunter Mtn. Ski Bowl, 240 AD2d 371, 657 NYS2d 773 , lv denied 91 NY2d 805, 668 NYS2d 560, 691 NE2d 632 ).
Although defendant National Council of Young Israel sponsored the trip, it exercised reasonable care in supervising the participants by arranging for lessons to be provided, and once the lessons were canceled, instructing those who were novices to stay on the “bunny” slope (see generally Fintzi v New Jersey YMHA-YWHA Camps, 97 NY2d 669, 765 NE2d 288, 739 NYS2d 85 ). Furthermore, the actions of the participants interrupted the causal link between National Council’s alleged negligence and plaintiff’s injury (see [***3] Boltax v Joy Day Camp, 67 NY2d 617, 490 NE2d 527, 499 NYS2d 660 ). Concur–Buckley, P.J., Andrias, Friedman, Gonzalez and Sweeny, JJ.