Nevada Appellate court voids release because statements made between the riders & the mechanical bull operator creates a requirement to maneuver the bull in an easy fashion which voided the release. Plaintiff also claimed battery from the actions of the defendant.

A strong and well written dissent argued to enforce the release on general contract principals.

Kuchta v. Opco, 2020 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 549, 2020 WL 3868434

State:
Nevada, Court of Appeals of Nevada

Plaintiff: Joseph Kuchta

Defendant: Sheltie Opco, LLC, a Nevada Limited Liability Company, d/b/a John Ascuaga’s Nugget, d/b/a Gilley’s Nightclub; and Wolfhound Holdings, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Negligence Per Se, Negligent Hiring and Respondent Superior, Negligent Supervision, Negligent Entrustment, and Battery

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Bar patrons wanted to ride the mechanical bull. Before doing so they made the bull operator agree to an easy ride. After one of the riders was thrown and suffered an injury, they sued saying the agreement between the operator and the riders for an easy ride voids the release. The Nevada Court of Appeals agreed.

Facts

While socializing with friends at Gilley’s Nightclub in Sparks, Nevada, a bar owned by respondent Sheltie Opco, Kuchta and his friends observed an employee riding a mechanical bull. As the employee was riding the bull, another employee used a joystick to control the bull’s movements. After the employee demonstrated how easy and non-challenging it was to engage safely in a slow ride, she stepped off the bull.

Sometime later that night, Kuchta and his friends were considering riding the bull. Kuchta’s group approached the same employee, who they had watched ride the bull earlier, and who was now operating the joystick and controlling the ride. Two different people within the group that Kuchta was part of conversed with the employee about riding the mechanical bull.

Viewing all factual allegations in a light most favorable to Kuchta, his friends told the employee that each person in their group wanted an easy ride, which based on a difficulty scale of one to ten, they described as a two (with one meaning not moving at all), which the employee said she could provide. The friends indicated that everyone in the group was a novice and wanted a ride similar to the ride the employee had demonstrated. Furthermore, they told the employee that everyone should be able to step off the bull once the ride concluded, just as the employee had been able to do earlier that night after her ride. The employee agreed to provide the type of a ride Kuchta’s group requested. Thus, Kuchta’s and the employee’s understandings and expectations regarding Kuchta’s ride were that it would be easy, at a level two or at a low speed, and that Kuchta would be able to dismount after the ride was finished.

Before any person could ride the mechanical bull, however, Gilley’s required each patron to sign a previously prepared Assumption of Risk, Release, Indemnity, and Medical Treatment Authorization Agreement (Agreement), also known as a written waiver. The Agreement listed potential risks and possible injuries involved in riding the bull, including broken bones, and also released Sheltie Opco from any and all liability for injuries or negligence that occur from all risks, both known and unknown. Kuchta signed the Agreement, although the record does not reveal when it was signed in relation to the conversations described above.

According to Kuchta, once on the bull, the ride was initially slow, as had been requested. However, after approximately 20 seconds, the operator significantly increased the speed and violence of the bull’s movements. Kuchta was thrown from the bull and suffered a fractured pelvis.

Kuchta sued Sheltie Opco alleging: negligence, negligence per se, negligent hiring and respondent superior, negligent supervision, negligent entrustment, and battery. Sheltie Opco moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing there was no genuine issue of fact because Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of the ride and consented to the battery when he signed the Agreement before riding the bull. The district court granted Sheltie Opco’s motion for summary judgment finding that Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of riding the bull by signing the Agreement, including consenting to the touching that was the basis for his battery claim.

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

The basic issue that pops up in this case is the conversation between the operator of the mechanical bull and the plaintiff who set the conditions for the plaintiff to ride the bull. Normally, verbal agreements are void and only the paper agreements are valid when a contract is signed. This is called the Parol Evidence rule. Oral statements made prior to the signing of the written agreement are of no value in interpreting the contract. Only the information contained in the four corners of the paperwork are reviewed.

This is a scary issue because any statement made by your staff could be used to defeat a release.

Kuchta argues that he did not expressly assume the risk because the operator specifically agreed to provide the requested slow ride (i.e., an intensity of two out of ten) and the operator instead ultimately conducted a wild ride exceeding his expectations.

Does a conversation between a customer and an employee, (or staff member) change a release? More importantly, does it create a modification of the experience so that the release does not cover the risk. Normally no, but in this case, Yes.

The court then looked at the requirements for a valid release under Nevada’s law.

(1) Contracts providing for immunity for liability for negligence must be construed strictly since they are not favorite[s] of the law . . . (2) such contracts must spell out the intention of the party with the greatest particularity . . . and show the intent to release from liability beyond doubt by express stipulation and no inference from the words of general import can establish it . . . (3) such contracts must be construed with every intendment against the party who seeks immunity from liability . . . (4) the burden to establish immunity from liability is upon the party who asserts such immunity . . . .

Taken as a whole, the requirements are not different in most states. However, the Nevada Appellate court looked further at the requirements to determine whether the plaintiff did assume the risk. Where the risks identified in the release or known by the plaintiff.

However, our inquiry does not stop here as it pertains to the waiver’s validity; we must determine whether Kuchta expressly assumed the risks contemplated by the waiver.

In Nevada, releases are looked at as proof, the plaintiff assumed the risk. These are one-way courts look at releases; however, it is a minority view. The release must then contain the necessary language for the defendant to prove the plaintiff knew and assumed the risk that caused his or her injury.

The court has combined, under Nevada’s law, the relationship of contract, the release, and the risks outlined or assumed by contract in the release. Meaning, not only must you agree not to sue, the risks you assume must be specific in the release.

“Express assumption of risk[‘s] . . . vitality stems from a contractual undertaking that expressly relieves a putative defendant from any duty of care to the injured party; such a party has consented to bear the consequences of a voluntary exposure to a known risk.”

A release under Nevada’s law is an express assumption of risk agreement. Express meaning written.

Generally, “[a]ssumption of the risk is based on a theory of consent.” For a party to assume the risk there are two requirements. “First, there must have been voluntary exposure to the danger. Second, there must have been actual knowledge of the risk assumed.” Actual knowledge of the danger by the party alleged to have assumed the risk is the essence of the express assumption of risk doctrine.

The plaintiff in this case did not consent to the ride he was given, even though he signed away his right to sue. The failure of the defendant to prove the plaintiff assented to the ride he received, which was not in the written release, was cause for the release to fail, possibly.

To determine whether the party signing had actual knowledge of the risks assumed, courts must consider “[(1)] the nature and extent of the injuries, [(2)] the haste or lack thereof with which the release was obtained, and [(3)] the understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing.”

The first two requirements were met in this case. However, the third requirement was not met. The plaintiff did not have an understanding or expectations of the parties at the time the release was signed.

These conflicting allegations create a genuine dispute of material fact as to the expectations of the parties and as to whether the bull operator’s conduct failed to meet those expectations. Because Kuchta and Sheltie Opco each presented consistent and conflicting facts regarding both parties’ expectations of the ride, and knowledge of the risks involved in a level two-of-ten or easy ride, a trier of fact should have resolved this issue. Thus, the district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco as to Kuchta’s negligence claims.

No party, who signs a release, expects to be injured or killed. So, this third requirement is different. No guest signs the release with an understanding they can’t sue. They sign the release because it is part of the paperwork needed to engage in the activity. If you made the effort to make sure the person signing the release understood the expectations of them from you when signing the release, many might not.

So, this decision in Nevada does not void releases. It does, however, create an additional requirement in the relationship between your guests and your operations. The risks the client is undertaking must be known and assumed by the plaintiff prior to undertaking the activity. That risk must be expressed in the release.

The second argument the plaintiff made that the court undertook was the battery claim. Most people understand the TV term assault and battery as a criminal charge. However, battery has been an intentional tort for centuries. “A battery is an intentional and offensive touching of a person who has not consented to the touching.”

In this case, the touching is not an actual contact between the plaintiff and the defendant but causing the plaintiff to be “touched” by the landing surface which caused his injury.

The court looked at this intentional tort as greater than normal negligence.

“[G]eneral clauses exempting the defendant from all liability for negligence will not be construed to include intentional or reckless misconduct, or extreme and unusual kinds of negligence, unless such intention clearly appears.”

This phrase is quite interesting. Like all other states, a release does not cover intentional, reckless, or extreme conduct on the part of the defendant. At the same time, the court seemed to open the idea that a release under Nevada’s law could stop a claim for intentional, reckless, or extreme conduct if it was intentional and clear in the release.

Because there was a conflict between the plaintiff and the defendant as to the facts surrounding the battery, the Appellate court found the motion for summary judgment should not have been granted.

The dissent in this case would have upheld the release based on basic contract law. The dissent sets out a thorough review of contract law in Nevada.

Summing up, what 500 years of contract law tell us is this:

(1) a contract means what its words say and an unambiguous contract “will be enforced as written”;

(2) what the contractual words say is what they objectively convey in their ordinary sense regardless of what the parties might have personally thought or intended in their heads;

(3) the final contract supersedes all earlier verbal negotiations;

(4) parol evidence may only be used to clarify a term that is ambiguous, and an ambiguity does not arise merely because the parties disagree on what they think the contract means;

(5) parol evidence may never be used to contradict an express term of a contract, whether the contract is integrated or not;

(6) parol evidence may never consist of earlier negotiations inconsistent with the final contract, whether the final document is integrated or not;

(7) when there is no dispute regarding what the words of the contract consist of (and there is no dispute regarding what any parol evidence admitted to clarify an ambiguity actually is), and the only remaining dispute is over what those undisputed words and parol evidence mean, then all that remains is a pure question of law for the court.

The dissent specifically focused on the Parol Evidence Rule which in most cases have prevented the conversation between the patrons and the mechanical bull operator from being offered into evidence.

The court voided the release and allowed the intentional tort of battery to proceed.

So Now What?

This upends release law in Nevada. Your release must be able to prove the guest understood the risks they may encounter, All of the risks.

Any statements made by your staff, could alter your release, worse, alter the understanding of the release or the risks, creating an issue that will have to go to trial to determine.

Bringing an intentional tort into a lawsuit is another game changer. Raft guides that intentional hit a rock, bump a boat, or even flip a boat will create liability in Nevada for any injury their customers receive.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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The interaction between a release and worker’s compensation laws for an employee

If you are injured at work and covered by worker’s compensation you cannot sue your employer. However, you might be able to sue a third party who may be liable for injury.

However, the employer of the plaintiff had the plaintiff sign a release that prevented the employee from suing the place where he was injured, which was upheld by the court.

Merlien v. JM Family Enters, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 10525

State: Florida, Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District

Plaintiff: Diveston Merlien, Appellant

Defendant: JM Family Enterprises, Inc., Sheridan 441, LLC and Bendles Rentals, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: premises liability

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

The defendant security firm provided onsite security personnel to its clients. The security firm required its employees to sign a release that limited their recovery for an injury to their worker’s compensation benefits. The release would not be effective necessarily against the employer. However, it was effective in keeping the employee from suing the customer of the security firm.

Facts

The plaintiff was employed by AlliedBarton, a firm that provides security services for various clients. He was assigned to work as a security guard for one of those clients. The plaintiff was allegedly injured due to a slip and fall on stairs at the JM facility where he was assigned to work. He subsequently filed a premises liability suit against JM, alleging that his slip and fall was proximately caused by JM’s negligent maintenance of the stairs.

The primary focus of this appeal is the enforceability of a waiver which the plaintiff signed as a condition of employment that prohibits suit against any customer of AlliedBarton for injuries covered by the workers’ compensation statutes.

Two years after the plaintiff filed his complaint, JM filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff waived his right to bring suit by executing the above waiver at the commencement of his employment. After hearing argument from both parties, the trial court granted JM’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

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

Worker’s compensation is an insurance system created to take care of the medical bills and lost wages of workers who are injured on the job. Before the creation of the worker’s compensation system, an injured worker had to sue an employer to recover their damages from the injury.

In return for receiving the benefits of worker’s compensation, you give up your right to sue the employer. You can waive those benefits, pay back any benefits or money paid and sue the employer, but that is usually an unwise investment in time and money.

In this case, the employer requested the employees to sign a release, so they could not sue third party customers of the employer. In this case, the security company that employed the plaintiff had their employees, such as the plaintiff, on the property of the customers. The release provided if the employee was injured in a claim that was covered by worker’s compensation, that was the extent of the recovery they could receive. They could not sue the customer of the employer for damages.

This is a smart move on the part of the employer. The employer would lose a customer every time an employee was hurt on the job if the employee sued the customer.

It is important to understand the release did not stop lawsuits against the employer, only customers of the employer. Worker’s compensation statutes stop lawsuits against the employer.

The plaintiff first argued the release was ambiguous and unenforceable. In Florida for a release was enforceable when the release could be read by an ordinary and knowledgeable person who understood what they were contracting away.

Florida courts have upheld the enforceability of exculpatory provisions in contracts only when the language of the provision clearly and unambiguously communicates the scope and nature of the disclaimer.

The law also required a clear an understandable intent.

…provisions are deemed to be unambiguous and enforceable when the language unequivocally demonstrates a clear and understandable intention for the defendant to be relieved from liability such that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.

The court found the release was easily read, understood and had no confusing language or made any promises to the signor.

The next argument the plaintiff made was the release was void because it violated Florida’s public policy.

Public policy disfavors exculpatory contracts because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care. . . . Nevertheless, because of a countervailing policy that favors the enforcement of contracts, as a general proposition, unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy.”

A release violates Florida’s public policy “it is injurious to the interests of the public or contravenes some established interest of society.” The plaintiff argued that Florida’s law allowed employees who received worker’s compensation payments to sue third parties and recover those benefits if the third parties were negligent.

The appellate court held that the law allowing those third-party lawsuits were not a mandatory law but a permissive law. It allowed the lawsuits but did not require them.

The court did open up one area that it might have sided with the plaintiff. If the release was mandatory for employment, the court stated the plaintiff could have rejected the release.

The court concluded by noting that the plaintiff voluntarily entered into the agreement and declined to invalidate the contract on the basis that it was offered on a “take it or leave it” basis.

However, the plaintiff did not plead that in this case or argue it at the time of his employment; Therefore, it was moot. The court also, in one effect closed the loop hole.

…the plaintiff here was not coerced into signing the agreement and voluntarily agreed, as a condition of employment, to limit his avenues for recovery with respect to any future injuries to the State’s workers’ compensation program. The disclaimer was limited in both scope and application and did not prevent the “the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.”

The court held the release was valid and prevented the lawsuits against the customer of his employer.

So Now What?

This is a very interesting and carefully thought-out use of a release. The purpose is to keep the clients of the firm happy at the expense of its own employees.

However, it shows another way a release can be used to stop litigation.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

If you like this let your friends know or post it on FB, Twitter or LinkedIn




If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

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

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #SkiLaw,

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Kuchta v. Opco, 2020 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 549, 2020 WL 3868434

Kuchta v. Opco, 2020 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 549, 2020 WL 3868434

Court of Appeals of Nevada

July 8, 2020, Filed

No. 76566-COA

Reporter

2020 Nev. App. Unpub. LEXIS 549 *; 2020 WL 3868434

Joseph Kuchta, an Individual, Appellant, vs. Sheltie Opco, LLC, A Nevada Limited Liability Company, d/b/a John Ascuaga’s Nugget, d/b/a Gilley’s Nightclub; and Wolfhound Holdings, Llc, A Delaware Limited Liability Company, Respondents.

Notice: NOT DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION. PLEASE CONSULT THE NEVADA RULES OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE FOR CITATION OF UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS.

Judges:  [*1] Gibbons, C.J., Bulla, J. TAO, J., dissenting.

Opinion by: Gibbons

Opinion

ORDER OF REVERSAL AND REMAND

Joseph Kuchta appeals a district court order granting Sheltie Opco, LLC’s (Sheltie Opco) motion for summary judgment in a tort action. Second Judicial District Court, Washoe County; Scott N. Freeman, Judge.

While socializing with friends at Gilley’s Nightclub in Sparks, Nevada, a bar owned by respondent Sheltie Opco, Kuchta and his friends observed an employee riding a mechanical bull. As the employee was riding the bull, another employee used a joystick to control the bull’s movements. After the employee demonstrated how easy and non-challenging it was to engage safely in a slow ride, she stepped off the bull.

Sometime later that night, Kuchta and his friends were considering riding the bull. Kuchta’s group approached the same employee, who they had watched ride the bull earlier, and who was now operating the joystick and controlling the ride. Two different people within the group that Kuchta was part of conversed with the employee about riding the mechanical bull.

Viewing all factual allegations in a light most favorable to Kuchta, his friends told the employee that each person in their group wanted an easy [*2]  ride, which based on a difficulty scale of one to ten, they described as a two (with one meaning not moving at all), which the employee said she could provide. The friends indicated that everyone in the group was a novice and wanted a ride similar to the ride the employee had demonstrated. Furthermore, they told the employee that everyone should be able to step off the bull once the ride concluded, just as the employee had been able to do earlier that night after her ride. The employee agreed to provide the type of a ride Kuchta’s group requested. Thus, Kuchta’s and the employee’s understandings and expectations regarding Kuchta’s ride were that it would be easy, at a level two or at a low speed, and that Kuchta would be able to dismount after the ride was finished.

Before any person could ride the mechanical bull, however, Gilley’s required each patron to sign a previously prepared Assumption of Risk, Release, Indemnity, and Medical Treatment Authorization Agreement (Agreement), also known as a written waiver. The Agreement listed potential risks and possible injuries involved in riding the bull, including broken bones, and also released Sheltie Opco from any and all liability for [*3]  injuries or negligence that occur from all risks, both known and unknown. Kuchta signed the Agreement, although the record does not reveal when it was signed in relation to the conversations described above.

According to Kuchta, once on the bull, the ride was initially slow, as had been requested. However, after approximately 20 seconds, the operator significantly increased the speed and violence of the bull’s movements. Kuchta was thrown from the bull and suffered a fractured pelvis.

Kuchta sued Sheltie Opco alleging: negligence, negligence per se, negligent hiring and respondent superior, negligent supervision, negligent entrustment, and battery. Sheltie Opco moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing there was no genuine issue of fact because Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of the ride and consented to the battery when he signed the Agreement before riding the bull. The district court granted Sheltie Opco’s motion for summary judgment finding that Kuchta expressly assumed the risks of riding the bull by signing the Agreement, including consenting to the touching that was the basis for his battery claim.

On appeal, Kuchta argues that the district court erred in granting summary [*4]  judgment because even though he signed the Agreement, under the doctrine of express assumption of risk, there are genuine issues of fact. He further contends that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Sheltie Opco on his battery claim because battery is not covered by the Agreement. We agree that under the facts of this case, genuine issues of material fact remain as to Kuchta’s negligence and battery claims, and therefore, we reverse and remand.

Standard of review

We review a district court order granting summary judgment de novo. Wood v. Safeway, Inc., 121 Nev. 724, 729, 121 P.3d 1026, 1029 (2005). Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings and all other evidence on file, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. “A factual dispute is genuine when the evidence is such that a rational trier of fact could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 731, 121 P.3d at 1031.

The district court erred by granting summary judgment to Sheltie Opco on the negligence claims

Kuchta argues that he did not expressly assume the risk because the operator specifically agreed to provide the requested slow ride (i.e., an intensity [*5]  of two out of ten) and the operator instead ultimately conducted a wild ride exceeding his expectations. Sheltie Opco argues that the Agreement was a valid written waiver and that Kuchta understood the risks when he got on the bull. Specifically, he understood that the bull could “jerk[ ] and spin[ ] violently and unexpectedly” resulting in “broken bones.” And, as counsel for Sheltie Opco pointed out at oral argument, Kuchta could have declined to ride the bull if he had any concerns about the possibility of injury as fully explained in the Agreement. Moreover, no one forced Kuchta to sign the Agreement and ride the bull.

In Nevada, an exculpatory agreement is a “valid exercise of the freedom of contract.” Miller v. A&R Joint Venture, 97 Nev. 580, 582, 636 P.2d 277, 278 (1981). Though generally enforceable, exculpatory clauses in a contract must meet four standards before a party seeking to enforce the clause can be absolved of liability:

(1) Contracts providing for immunity for liability for negligence must be construed strictly since they are not favorite[s] of the law . . . (2) such contracts must spell out the intention of the party with the greatest particularity . . . and show the intent to release from liability beyond doubt by express stipulation [*6]  and no inference from the words of general import can establish it . . . (3) such contracts must be construed with every intendment against the party who seeks immunity from liability . . . (4) the burden to establish immunity from liability is upon the party who asserts such immunity . . . .

Agric. Aviation Eng’g Co. v. Bd. of Clark Cty. Comm’rs, 106 Nev. 396, 399-400, 794 P.2d 710, 712-13 (1990) (quoting Richard’s 5 & 10, Inc. v. Brooks Harvey Realty Inv’rs, 264 Pa. Super. 384, 399 A.2d 1103, 1105 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1979)).

Looking to the Agreement’s exculpatory clause, it warns that any ride participant will:

FULLY RELEASE FROM ALL LIABILITY ARISING FROM MY PARTICIPATION IN THE MECHANCIAL BULL RIDING PROGRAM the Nugget Hotel and Casino, Gilley’s, and their respective owners . . . . I AGREE NEVER TO SUE ANY RELEASEE . . . for any cause of action arising from my participation in the MECHANICAL BULL RIDING PROGRAM . . . . ALL PROVISIONS OF THIS AGREEMENT APPLY IRRESPECTIVE OF AND EVEN IN THE CASE OF [ ] NEGLIGENCE. . . .

Even when strictly construed, the language in the Agreement expressly states, with particularity, Sheltie Opco’s intent to release itself and others designated from any and all liability. The Agreement also specifically states that Sheltie Opco would be released from liability for any negligence on its part that may occur while a person rides the mechanical bull, Further, [*7]  the parties concede that Kuchta voluntarily signed the Agreement, which included the exculpatory clause.

However, our inquiry does not stop here as it pertains to the waiver‘s validity; we must determine whether Kuchta expressly assumed the risks contemplated by the waiver. Renaud v. 200 Convention Ctr. Ltd., 102 Nev. 500, 501,102 Nev. 500, 728 P.2d 445, 446 (1986) (analyzing an exculpatory waiver under the doctrine of express assumption of the risk).1 “Assumption of the risk is based on a theory of consent.” Id.

Next, reviewing the Agreement’s express waiver, it warns in relevant part:

There is a significant risk that I will be seriously injured as a result of my participating in the MECHANICAL BULL RIDING PROGRAM, including permanent paralysis, head injury, broken neck, other broken bones and death, whether or not I am thrown from or fall from the MECHANICAL BULL . . . . I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL RISKS ARISING FROM MY PARTICIPATION IN THE MECHANICAL BULL RIDING PROGRAM, including all risks to my life, health, safety and property, both known and unknown.

“Express assumption of risk[‘s] . . . vitality stems from a contractual undertaking that expressly relieves a putative defendant [*8]  from any duty of care to the injured party; such a party has consented to bear the consequences of a voluntary exposure to a known risk.” Mizushima v. Sunset Ranch, Inc., 103 Nev. 259, 262, 737 P.2d 1158, 1159 (1987), overruled on other grounds by Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm’t, LLC, 124 Nev. 213, 180 P.3d 1172 (2008). Generally, “[a]ssumption of the risk is based on a theory of consent.” Renaud, 102 Nev. at 501, 728 P.2d at 446. For a party to assume the risk there are two requirements. “First, there must have been voluntary exposure to the danger. Second, there must have been actual knowledge of the risk assumed.” Id. Actual knowledge of the danger by the party alleged to have assumed the risk is the essence of the express assumption of risk doctrine. Id. To determine whether the party signing had actual knowledge of the risks assumed, courts must consider “[(1)] the nature and extent of the injuries, [(2)] the haste or lack thereof with which the release was obtained, and [(3)] the understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing.” Id. at 502, 728 P.2d at 446 (emphasis added).

Here, Kuchta’s injuries were severe, but were injuries a person would associate with being thrown from a bull. Furthermore, there is nothing in the record to suggest that Kuchta was rushed into signing the exculpatory agreement. However, the third factor weighs heavily in Kuchta’s favor. According [*9]  to Kuchta’s responses to Sheltie Opco’s interrogatories,2 the bull operator was told that they all wanted a slow ride, similar to the ride the operator had while demonstrating the use of the bull.3 Kuchta and former co-plaintiff Rebecca Bodnar both alleged in their responses to Sheltie Opco’s interrogatories that their rides on the bull started gently before the bull operator significantly increased the intensity, leading them to suffer injury. The bull ride operator, in an affidavit, states that she did not “operate the bull in a fashion that was intended to exceed Plaintiffs’ expectations of how intense the bull’s motions would be,” thereby suggesting that expectations had been set for Kuchta’s ride that may have been different than those described in the waiver.4

These conflicting allegations create a genuine dispute of material fact as to the expectations of the parties and as to whether the bull operator’s conduct failed to meet those expectations.5 Because Kuchta and Sheltie Opco each presented consistent and conflicting facts regarding [*10]  both parties’ expectations of the ride, and knowledge of the risks involved in a level two-of-ten or easy ride, a trier of fact should have resolved this issue.6 Thus, the district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco as to Kuchta’s negligence claims.7

The district court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco on Kuchta’s battery claim

Kuchta argues that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco on his battery claim because the Agreement did not contemplate gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Sheltie Opco contends that uncontroverted facts show that Kuchta consented to any conduct resulting from the bull ride, and thus, summary judgment was appropriate on his battery claim.

“A battery is an intentional and offensive touching of a person who has not consented to the touching . . . .” Humboldt Gen. Hosp. v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court, 132 Nev. 544, 549, 376 P.3d 167, 171 (2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[G]eneral clauses exempting the defendant from all liability for negligence will not be construed to include intentional or reckless misconduct, or extreme and unusual kinds of negligence, unless such intention [*11]  clearly appears.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B cmt. d (1965).

Here, Kuchta consented to a bull ride, but he claims he only consented to a mild ride, and therefore, any contact associated with a mild ride was allowed and could not be a battery. However, if the ride went beyond a mild ride, then there is a material question of fact as to the nature of the ride and to whether Kuchta consented to the resulting physical contact as the result of the unexpectedly rough ride. Further, Kuchta presented facts from two interrogatory responses that the bull rider intentionally increased the intensity of the bull machine, possibly attempting to throw him from the bull despite his understanding that the ride would be of mild intensity.8 Sheltie Opco provided an affidavit from the bull ride operator that stated that she did not intentionally increase the intensity of the bull ride beyond Kuchta’s expectations (which could also imply that she did in fact increase the intensity and understood his expectations). Viewing these assertions in a light most favorable to Kuchta, the nonmoving party, a rational trier of fact could find that the bull operator committed a battery by intentionally increasing the speed of the ride thereby deliberately [*12]  failing to meet the agreed upon expectations.9

Based on the parties’ conflicting factual assertions, it was inappropriate for the district court to grant summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco, as the trier of fact should resolve the conflict. Thus, the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Sheltie Opco as to Kuchta’s battery claim. Accordingly, we

ORDER the judgment of the district court REVERSED AND REMAND this matter to the district court for proceedings consistent with this order.10

/s/ Gibbons, C.J.

Gibbons

/s/ Bulla, J.

Bulla

Dissent by: TAO

Dissent

TAO, J., dissenting:

Although ostensibly arising from a personal injury suit, the only question at issue in this appeal is whether Kuchta’s tort claims were contractually waived, which presents a question of contract law. The majority reverses by concluding that a genuine issue of fact exists under NRCP 56. But this can only be true if the scope of the waiver contract isn’t limited to its express words, but rather depends upon Kuchta’s verbal testimony, proffered during a deposition many months after the fact, regarding his intentions — even though those supposed intentions are contained nowhere in the contractual words and actually [*13]  contradict those words. Respectfully, I dissent.

I.

Liability waivers must mean something in Nevada, even if they might be allowed to mean less in other states. What Nevada has always represented is the opportunity to try things that aren’t available anywhere else. One hundred fifty years ago, it was the chance to strike gold and silver ore in the desert. Then it became the chance to strike it rich on a roulette wheel or a slot machine. But more and more nowadays, it’s the chance to experience an adventure that you simply can’t have anywhere else. With an economy now driven largely by tourism, what Nevada offers are things that other states and cities do not. Gambling, of course. Concerts, shows, and world-class restaurants also. Convention space, surely. Quick marriages and no-fault divorces too. But, also, the chance, for some, to engage in derring-do — to fly a fighter plane in aerial combat; to ride a zipline over city streets and steep canyons; to engage in gun battles armed with simunition; to skydive 30,000 feet to the desert; to swim with dolphins in their habitat; to fire a real machine gun or ride in an armored tank; to bungee jump from a tower; to ride a roller-coaster suspended [*14]  500 feet in the air; to race luxury cars around a track at breakneck speed. One could argue that mining and gaming aren’t our real stock in trade, but rather novelty.

But with some novel experiences comes some level of danger. Jumping out of an airplane is an activity fraught with risk no matter how carefully the parachute was packed. There’s no way to entirely eliminate all of the risk from ziplines, bungee jumps, and rafting through whitewater rapids. If Nevada intends to remain the premier tourist destination in a fast-evolving and competitive world, then our law must permit some proprietors to operate businesses that are, at least at some level, inherently risky and dangerous. If we ever lose our reputation for remaining on the cutting edge, then there’ll be no more reason for millions of tourists to visit. And if that day ever comes, Nevada will no longer be what it always has been.

Liability waivers thus serve an important role in a state like ours: they allow proprietors to stay on the cutting edge by allowing them to operate with some level of risk, so long as they take the time to apprise their customers of those risks. Here, Kuchta signed a written liability waiver whose terms [*15]  unambiguously cover the precise injuries he suffered (broken bones) and the precise way he incurred them (being thrown) using the precise apparatus (a mechanical bull) that the waiver precisely addressed. The district court granted summary judgment, concluding that this waiver barred his tort claims.

Let’s briefly summarize the facts and the arguments that Kuchta makes in appealing from the district court’s order. I’ll return to analyze these arguments later in more detail, so for now just a synopsis will do. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Kuchta, he contends that he and his friends arrived at Gilley’s, watched a demonstration of the mechanical bull, and then spoke with the ride operator who verbally agreed to provide him with a ride that equated to a difficulty level of 2 out of 10. The majority describes Kuchta’s testimony as follows:

Viewing all factual allegations in a light most favorable to Kuchta, his friends told the employee that each person in their group wanted an easy ride, which based on a difficulty scale of one to ten, they described as a two (with one meaning not moving at all), which the employee said she could provide. The friends indicated that everyone [*16]  in the group was a novice and wanted a ride similar to the ride the employee had demonstrated. Furthermore, they told the employee that everyone should be able to step off the bull once the ride concluded, just as the employee had been able to do earlier that night after her ride. The employee agreed to provide the type of a ride Kuchta’s group requested. (Order, page 2).

Kuchta and his friends then ate dinner. After dinner, they decided to get a ride, and Kuchta signed a written waiver stating as follows:

I AM FULLY INFORMED OF ALL RISKS ARISING FROM MY PARTICIPATION IN THE MECHANICAL BULL RIDING PROGRAM, including the risks described in this paragraph. The mechanical bull jerks and spins violently and unexpectedly. There is a significant risk that I will be seriously injured . . . [i]ncluding permanent paralysis, head injury, broken neck, other broken bones, and death, whether or not I am thrown from or fall.

Note that, by signing this, Kuchta acknowledged that the mechanical bull “jerks and spins violently and unexpectedly” and that riding it created a “significant risk” of injury from being “thrown,” including “broken bones.” Note also that this isn’t a generic catch-all waiver that [*17]  purports to cover the entire panoply of any kind of negligence that could conceivably occur on the premises, such as wet floors, rotten food, or debris falling from the roof. Quite to the contrary, it’s a narrow waiver that specifically covers one thing and one thing only, the mechanical bull and nothing else. After signing the waiver and mounting the bull, Kuchta was thrown from the bull in the very way that the waiver warned might happen, suffering one of the very injuries (broken bones) that the waiver warned might result. The district court granted summary judgment, concluding that the waiver covered Kuchta’s injuries.

On appeal, Kuchta argues that the words of the written waiver do not mean what they seem to so plainly say, not because any words of the waiver actually agree with him, but rather because when the ride operator verbally agreed to provide a level 2 ride, he changed Kuchta’s understanding and expectations” regarding the meaning of the waiver. But as the cliche goes, apples are not oranges, and here the verbal conversation had nothing to do with the waiver. Note what’s omitted from even the majority’s summary of the verbal conversation: any mention of the waiver whatsoever. [*18]  Just because the ride operator verbally agreed to try to provide a level 2 ride does not mean that he legally changed the waiver so that it only covered a level 2 ride and nothing more. Indeed, the truth at the heart of this case is that nobody (not even Kuchta) contends that the verbal discussion between Kuchta and the ride operator constituted a negotiation of the waiver; everyone agrees that it was only a conversation about the kind of ride Kuchta wanted. What Kuchta requested was a particular kind of ride, not a particular kind of waiver.

Kuchta tries to bootstrap the conversation about the ride into the contract about the waiver by arguing that it’s “parol evidence” regarding his “understanding and expectations” of what the contract covered. But a verbal conversation about the kind of ride Kuchta requested isn’t “parol evidence” for two reasons: first, the verbal conversation occurred before Kuchta signed the waiver, which means that the written contract supersedes any and all earlier alleged negotiations. Second, the kind of ride he requested isn’t a term of the waiver contract. The kind of ride he wanted, and the kind of ride he agreed to waive, are two very different things, [*19]  only one of which was ever the subject of the written waiver contract. Kuchta argues that merely because the ride he got was not the ride he requested, it fell outside of the scope of the waiver. But the waiver says nothing remotely like that.

The proper analysis here is to compare the ride he got to the plain words of the waiver. The very question in this case (not the answer, but the question) is whether the ride that Kuchta actually got was encompassed within the scope of the waiver that he signed. Kuchta tries to mix up the question with its answer, and make it all a circularity, by arguing that the waiver must only cover the ride he asked for. But nothing in the written waiver (and nothing in the verbal conversation either) indicates that the scope of waiver was supposed to be a moving target that ratcheted up or down to whatever kind of ride Kuchta personally wanted and, likewise, ratchets up or down for every other customer who requests a different level of ride. Reading the contract that way means that it lacks any fixed or objective meaning whatsoever but instead changes its meaning for each different customer even though the words themselves remain exactly the same, reducing [*20]  the contract to nothing more than a Rorshach ink blot having no intrinsic meaning apart from what any reader wants to see in it.

But this isn’t how contract law tells us to read a contract. The district court interpreted the contract correctly as a matter of law according to the objective meaning of its words – and I would affirm.

II.

Here’s how contract law actually works and how this appeal should have been analyzed.

To start with, it’s well-settled that interpreting the meaning of a contract is a question of law, not a question of fact. Redrock Valley Ranch, LLC v. Washoe County, 127 Nev. 451, 460, 254 P.3d 641, 647 (2011). Disputes regarding the scope and meaning of a contract do not preclude summary judgment because such disputes present pure questions of law for the court, not the jury, to resolve. “[I]n the absence of ambiguity or other factual complexities, contract interpretation presents a question of law that the district court may decide on summary judgment.” Galardi v. Naples Polaris LLC, 129 Nev. 306, 309, 301 P.3d 364, 366 (2013) (internal quotation marks omitted).

So, if there is no dispute over what the words of a contract consist of, and the only dispute is over what those words mean, the court is presented with a question of law that it may dispose of on summary judgment. Here, there are no factual disputes that a jury must sort [*21]  out. The parties do not dispute what words the written waiver consists of; Kuchta does not, for example, contend that any pages are missing or any clauses are blurry or incomplete. The parties also do not dispute what the words of the verbal conversation between Kuchta and the ride operator consist of; accept what Kuchta says to be true and agree with him that the operator agreed to try to provide a level 2 ride. There may exist some disagreement over what legal effect those words may have, if any; but there is no dispute regarding what the words of the conversation were. There are thus no factual disputes, only legal ones. The only thing left in dispute is what those words (both the undisputed words of the document and the undisputed words of the verbal conversation) mean about the scope of the waiver, which is a pure question of law that we must answer ourselves in this appeal de novo. May v. Anderson, 121 Nev. 668, 672, 119 P.3d 1254, 1257 (2005).

To answer that purely legal question, we start with the words of the contract. Bielar v. Washoe Health Sys., Inc., 129 Nev. 459, 465, 306 P.3d 360, 364 (2013). “A basic rule of contract interpretation is that ‘[e]very word must be given effect if at all possible.’ Id., 306 P.3d at 364. (quoting Musser v. Bank of Am., 114 Nev. 945, 949, 964 P.2d 51, 54 (1998) (alteration in original). Those words will either be unambiguous, or they will be ambiguous. Am. First Fed. Credit Union v. Soro, 131 Nev. 737, 739, 359 P.3d 105, 106 (2015). If the [*22]  words are unambiguous, then we look no farther than the four corners of the written document for its meaning. Id., 359 P.3d at 106. The court “has no authority to alter the terms of an unambiguous contract.” Canfora v. Coast Hotels and Casinos, Inc., 121 Nev. 771, 776, 121 P.3d 599, 603 (2005). Rather, an unambiguous contract “will be enforced as written.” Am. First Fed. Credit Union, 131 Nev. at 739, 359 P.3d at 106. “[T]he words of the contract must be taken in their usual and ordinary signification.” Traffic Control Svcs., Inc. v. United Rentals Northwest, Inc., 120 Nev. 168, 174, 87 P.3d 1054., 120 Nev. 168, 87 P.3d 1054, 1058 (2004). Only if the words are ambiguous do we venture outside of the document itself to examine such extrinsic things as parol evidence and settled rules of construction in order to determine the intent of the parties. M.C. Multi-Family Dev., LLC v. Crestdale Assocs., Ltd., 124 Nev. 901, 913-14, 193 P.3d 536, 544-45 (2008). An ambiguity must be inherent within the contractual term itself, and “does not arise simply because the parties disagree on how to interpret their contract.” Galardi, 129 Nev. at 309, 301 P.3d at 366.

Kuchta contends that the conversation regarding the level 2 ride must be considered “parol evidence” of contractual meaning. But “parol evidence” is only admissible when some contractual term is facially ambiguous. “The parol evidence rule does not permit the admission of evidence that would change the contract terms when the terms of a written agreement are clear, definite, and unambiguous.” Ringle v. Bruton, 120 Nev. 82, 91, 86 P.3d 1032, 1037 (2004). Further, even when such an ambiguity exists, courts can utilize parol evidence to [*23]  clear up what those ambiguous words mean but they cannot use parol evidence “to add to, subtract from, vary, or contradict” the words of the contract itself. M.C. Multi-Family Dev., LLC,124 Nev. at 913-14, 193 P.3d at 544-45. “[P]arol evidence may not be used to contradict [express] terms.” Galardi, 129 Nev. at 309, 301 P.3d at 366 (Quoting Kaldi v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 117 Nev. 273, 281, 21 P.3d 16, 21 (2001)). Thus, even when admissible (i.e., only when there’s an ambiguity), parol evidence is only meaningful to the extent that it clarifies and does not contradict or re-write the plain words of the contract itself. Id. And this is true whether the final document is integrated or not: if a contract is integrated then it may neither be supplemented nor contradicted by any additional evidence of any kind. If a contract is not integrated, then it may be supplemented by “consistent additional terms” but it still may never be contradicted by any extrinsic evidence. John D. Calamari & Joseph M. Perillo, Contracts § 3-2, “The Parol Evidence Rule”, 135-36 (3d ed. 1987) (text cited as authority in Matter of Kern, 107 Nev. 988. 991, 107 Nev. 988, 823 P.2d 275, 277 (1991).

Here, no term of the written waiver is facially ambiguous. Rather than identify some particular term that might be inherently ambiguous, Kuchta (and the majority) seem to contend instead that the entire contract was effectively re-written through the verbal conversation. [*24]  But that’s using “parol evidence” beyond its permissible purpose: not to clarify the meaning of an ambiguous term, but to change the scope and meaning of the entire contract. The majority uses the supposed “parol evidence” not to clarify the written words of the contract, but to make the entire contract mean only what the parol evidence says it means regardless of what the written words actually say. Not to illuminate the written words, but to replace them; not to make the written words clear, but to make them meaningless.

That isn’t how “parol evidence” works. There are several layers of problems here. First, parol evidence can never be used to contradict a writing, whether or not the writing was integrated. Galardi, 129 Nev. at 309, 301 P.3d at 366. Yet that’s exactly what Kuchta proposes. The written words, taken in their “usual and ordinary signification,” are clear. Traffic control Svcs., Inc. v. United Rentals Northwest, inc., 120 Nev. 168, 174, 87 P.3d 1054., 120 Nev. 168, 87 P.3d 1054, 1058 (2004). They expressly inform Kuchta that the ride will be violent with “unexpected” movements that may cause injury, and Kuchta’s signature acknowledges that he understood this. But Kuchta now says that he misunderstood this and the verbal conversation led him to “expect” a less-violent ride that [*25]  couldn’t cause injury. This isn’t using extrinsic evidence to clarify the words of a contract; it’s abusing extrinsic evidence to re-write the words of a contract to mean their exact opposite.

Second, the sequence of events matters. As the majority itself notes, the conversation between Kuchta and the rider operator occurred first. Only well after the conversation ended did Kuchta later sign the written waiver. And the law is clear that a written contract supersedes and obliterates all prior negotiations:

“an earlier tentative agreement will be rejected in favor of a later expression. More simply stated, the final agreement made by the parties supersedes tentative terms discussed in earlier negotiations. Consequently, in determining the content of the contract, earlier tentative agreements and negotiations are inoperative.”

Calamari & Perillo, supra at 135. So the verbal conversation isn’t “parol evidence” at all, but rather was nothing more than an early negotiation that never found its way into the written contract and now has no legal importance to what the parties signed later. (This, by the way, is the problem with footnote 2 of the majority’s order, which concludes that the verbal conversation constituted its [*26]  own separate contract: if the alleged verbal agreement covered the same subject matter as the signed contract (i.e., it was a negotiation over the waiver rather than the ride), then the earlier unsigned agreement was legally superseded by the later signed writing. If it covered some other subject matter (i.e., it was not a negotiation of the waiver but only covered the ride), then it was not superseded, but it has no relevance to the signed contract. Beyond that, if indeed there existed a contract requiring the operator to provide a level 2 ride, then the failure to do so was a breach of contract, not a tort, and the majority order now thoroughly confuses the standard of care by violating the “fundamental boundary between contract law, which is designed to enforce the expectancy interests of the parties, and tort law, which imposes a duty of reasonable care and thereby [generally] encourages citizens to avoid causing physical harm to others.” Terracon Consultants W., Inc. v. Mandalay Resort Grp., 125 Nev. 66, 206 P.3d 81. 72-73, 125 Nev. 66, 206 P.3d 81, 86 (2009). On remand, should the defendant be held to the words of the alleged oral contract, or the standard of a reasonable person, when only tort claims and no contract claims have been asserted? Good luck sorting that out.).

Third, even assuming [*27]  that the verbal conversation is “parol evidence” at all (which it isn’t, but let’s skip past that hurdle), it proves nothing relevant to the waiver contract. Kuchta acknowledged during oral argument that the conversation did not overtly represent a negotiation of the waiver; indeed, the words of the conversation never reference the waiver at all, only the kind of ride Kuchta wanted. Rather, Kuchta only alleges that the conversation affected his “understanding and expectation” of what the waiver contract was supposed to mean. See Renaud v. 200 Convention Cor. Ltd., 102 Nev. 500, 501, 102 Nev. 500, 728 P.2d 445, 446 (1986). What he’s saying is this: the contract must be read to mean not what the words of the document say, but only what he intended them to mean in his mind. But under principles of contract law, whether we read the four corners of an unambiguous contract or whether we look at parol evidence outside of an ambiguous one, what we’re looking for is not “intent” in the sense of the subjective intention of the parties (i.e., what the parties may have thought in their minds), but only the objective meaning conveyed by the words they used in the agreement. “[T]he making of a contract depends not on the agreement of [*28]  two minds in one intention, but on the agreement of two sets of external signs, not on the parties’ having meant the same thing but on their having said the same thing.” Hotel Riviera, Inc. v. Torres, 97 Nev. 399, 401, 632 P.2d 1155, 1157 (1981) (alteration in original, internal quotation marks omitted). In the oft-cited words of Holmes, “we ask, not what this man meant, but what those words would mean in the mouth of a normal speaker of English, using them in the circumstances in which they were used.” Oliver W. Holmes, The Theory of Legal Interpretation, 12 Harv. L. Rev. 417, 417-18 (1899). “[T]he words of the contract must be taken in their usual and ordinary signification,” not twisted around to mean some personal peculiarity at odds with accepted English usage. Traffic Control Svcs., Inc. v. United Rentals Northwest, Inc., 120 Nev. 168, 174, 87 P.3d 1054, 1058 (2004). That the words of a contract are interpreted objectively according to normal rules of grammar, rather than subjectively according to the parties’ personal thoughts, has been the law for centuries. See Calamari & Perillo, supra, § 2-2, “Offer and Acceptance” at 26. “Objective manifestations of intent of the party should be viewed from the vantage point of a reasonable man in the position of the other party,” not the party alleging that his own words meant something else. Id. Thus, if one party offers to sell his car for $500 and the other says, “I accept,” [*29]  a contract is formed because of what they said, not what they thought; once they uttered the objective words of offer, acceptance, and consideration, a contract was created by operation of law. This is true even if one party later claims that he was only kidding. Id. at 27. The inquiry is not into what the parties may have intended in their minds to convey but rather the most reasonable meaning to be given to the words they utilized in the contract itself. The issue is not what Kuchta claims he meant, but what his words objectively conveyed to the other party, and the agreement must be “ascertained from the writing alone” (unless the writing is ambiguous). Oakland-Alameda Cty. Coliseum, Inc. v. Oakland Raiders, Lid., 197 Cal. App. 3d 1049, 243 Cal. Rptr. 300, 304 (Ct. App. 1988). But here, Kuchta proposes the opposite: that we ignore the words of the written document and instead make the contract only mean what was in his mind rather than what everyone signed on paper.

Finally, even if we skip past all of that and assume that parol evidence could be used the way that Kuchta proposes (even though it can’t be, but let’s ignore that for a moment), the content of both the document and the alleged “parol evidence” is wholly undisputed: nobody contests what words were written in the document or spoken during the conversation. [*30]  So what we’re left with is only a question of law regarding what those words mean, something that appellate courts are supposed to answer themselves as a matter of law and not leave to the jury. Thus, even if parol evidence was supposedly useable this way (again, ignoring settled principles of contract law), then the appropriate disposition is for us to just say, as a matter of law, whether the waiver contract covers the incident or not, without remanding a pure question of law back to the district court to grapple with during a jury trial. “[I]n the absence of ambiguity or other factual complexities, contract interpretation presents a question of law [appropriate for] summary judgment.” Galardi, 129 Nev. at 309, 301 P.3d at 366 (internal quotation marks omitted).

III.

Summing up, what 500 years of contract law tell us is this:

(1) a contract means what its words say and an unambiguous contract “will be enforced as written”;

(2) what the contractual words say is what they objectively convey in their ordinary sense regardless of what the parties might have personally thought or intended in their heads;

(3) the final contract supersedes all earlier verbal negotiations;

(4) parol evidence may only be used to clarify a term that is [*31]  ambiguous, and an ambiguity does not arise merely because the parties disagree on what they think the contract means;

(5) parol evidence may never be used to contradict an express term of a contract, whether the contract is integrated or not;

(6) parol evidence may never consist of earlier negotiations inconsistent with the final contract, whether the final document is integrated or not;

(7) when there is no dispute regarding what the words of the contract consist of (and there is no dispute regarding what any parol evidence admitted to clarify an ambiguity actually is), and the only remaining dispute is over what those undisputed words and parol evidence mean, then all that remains is a pure question of law for the court.

Applying these seven principles leads to an obvious and straightforward outcome. Here, nobody disputes what the words of the written waiver are; there’s not even any dispute about what the words of the “parol evidence” were, only what legal effect those words have or do not have. There’s no dispute that the alleged verbal agreement was never intended to be final, never mentioned the waiver in any way, and occurred before the signing of the written waiver contract. There [*32]  is no factual question left to work out. The only question before us is what all of the undisputed evidence means. That’s a pure question of law that we, not the jury, are supposed to answer.

IV.

With no dispute about what words the contract consisted of, what remains is solely a question of contractual interpretation. Redrock Valley Ranch., LLC v. Washoe County, 127 Nev. 451, 460, 254 P.3d 641, 647 (2011).

Here, the written words say that Kuchta waived the right to pursue any liability arising from broken bones that may result from being thrown from the “violent and unexpected” jerking of the mechanical bull. The parol evidence (assuming that the verbal conversation was any such thing) is that Kuchta asked for a level 2 ride and the operator agreed to try to provide one. None of this is in dispute. What does this all mean as a matter of law?

In the context of liability waivers, there are a couple of additional rules of construction to follow. In Nevada, an exculpatory agreement is a “valid exercise of the freedom of contract.” Miller v. A&R Joint Venture, 97 Nev. 580, 582, 636 P.2d 277, 278 (1981). Though generally enforceable, exculpatory clauses in a contract must meet four standards before a party seeking to enforce the clause can be absolved of liability:

(1) Contracts providing for immunity for liability for negligence must be construed [*33]  strictly since they are not favorite[s] of the law . . . ; (2) such contracts must spell out the intention of the party with the greatest particularity . . . and show the intent to release from liability beyond doubt by express stipulation and no inference from the words of general import can establish it . . . (3) such contracts must be construed with every intendment against the party who seeks immunity from liability . . . (4) the burden to establish immunity from liability is upon the party who asserts such immunity . .

Agric. Aviation Eng’g Co. v. Bd. of Clark Cty. Comm’rs,, 106 Nev. 396, 399400, 794 P.2d 710, 712-13 (1990) (quoting Richard’s 5 & 10, Inc. v. Brooks Harvey Realty Inv’rs, 264 Pa. Super. 384, 399 A.2d 1103, 1105 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1979)).

Here, all four requirements are met. Indeed, the majority seems to fully agree, as it does not conclude that the waiver contract is invalid or illegal, only that some dispute of facts exists regarding its meaning. So everyone agrees that the contract is valid; the only disagreement is over what it covers or does not cover.

It seems pretty clear to me that, whatever else this agreement covers, it covers what happened to Kuchta. Kuchta alleges in his lawsuit that, due to the unexpected and violent jerking of the bull, he was thrown and suffered broken bones. In other words, the appellant alleges that he suffered the exact injury (broken [*34]  bones) from the exact outcome (being thrown from the bull) caused by the exact movement (unexpected and violent jerking) expressly warned about in the waiver. Kuchta’s “parol evidence” (assuming it is any such thing) only shows that he asked for a level 2 ride, not that he asked for the waiver to only encompass a level 2 ride, so it tells us nothing about what the terms of the waiver contract were. The legal answer seems clear to me: Kuchta waived the right to sue for his injuries.

This all seems obvious under settled principles of contract law. So how does the majority come to a different conclusion? By reading Renaud v. 200 Convention Ctr. Ltd., 102 Nev. 500, 501, 102 Nev. 500, 728 P.2d 445, 446 (1986) in an astonishingly broad way that demolishes and re-writes much of existing contract law in Nevada.

V.

Based upon Renaud, Kuchta argues (and the majority agrees) that summary judgment was inappropriate. But I don’t read Renaud the way that either Kuchta or the majority do. There are two ways to read what Renaud supposedly says. The first is to read it broadly to overrule virtually the entirety of Nevada contract law in a way that requires reversal of this appeal. The second is to read it narrowly in a way that fits in quite [*35]  nicely with existing principles of Nevada contract law, but requires affirmance of this appeal. The majority chooses the former, but I think it’s the latter.

Before we get to the larger questions, here are some preliminary observations about Renaud. First, it’s a 1986 case decided under the old summary judgment standard that was expressly overruled in Wood v. Safeway, Inc., 121 Nev. 724, 731, 121 P.3d 1026, 1029 (2005), under which summary judgment could only be granted if no reasonable doubt exists that the plaintiff must lose and the “truth” is “clear.” See In re Hilton Hotel, 101 Nev. 489, 492, 706 P.2d 137, 138 (1985) (overruled by Wood). Indeed, the opinion hinges on the overruled pre-Wood language: “summary judgment is appropriate only when it is quite clear what the truth is.” Renaud, 728 P.2d at 446. It seems pretty clear to me that, just because summary judgment was improper in Renaud under the old standard — a standard that made summary judgment pretty much impossible to obtain, which is exactly why it was overruled, see Wood, 121 Nev. at 729-32, 121 P.3d at 1029-31 — that says nothing about whether we should follow its reasoning under the very different standard that exists today.

Second, the facts of Renaud are quite different than the facts of this case in a way that seriously undermines its relevance. The liability waiver at issue in Renaud was a blanket one that “purported [*36]  to exculpate Flyaway of any liability for negligence that might occur while [plaintiff] was on its premises.” 102 Nev. at 501, 728 P.2d at 446. The plaintiff contended that this release failed to apprise her of any specific risk associated with the free-fall simulator that injured her, a contention that was obviously quite true as the waiver failed to identify any particular risk of injury or even mention the simulator at all. Indeed, the waiver in Renaud consisted of the very “words of general import” that the Nevada Supreme Court disapproved in the four-prong test articulated in Agric. Aviation Eng’g Co., 106 Nev. at 399-400, 794 P.2d at 712-13. Consequently, summary judgment was inappropriate (especially under the old pre-Wood standard) because a serious question existed whether the waiver apprised the plaintiff of the particular risks specifically associated with the free-fall simulator when it never even mentioned the simulator or any risks at all. There’s no other way the case could have come out (which is probably why Renaud was so unimportant that it was issued as an unsigned per curiam opinion). If a waiver fails to even mention the apparatus that caused the injury, then there exists a dispute right on the face of the waiver itself as to what risks it identifies when the [*37]  waiver itself says barely anything at all one way or the other. Under principles of contract law alone, let alone tort law, such a waiver contains a facial ambiguity necessitating the evaluation of parol evidence to determine what the contract was supposed to cover or not cover. See M.C. Multi-Family Dei, 124 Nev. at 913-14, 193 P.3d at 544-45. Thus, under either contract law or tort law, whenever a waiver is facially vague and unclear, summary judgment was inappropriate because the waiver clearly failed to apprise the plaintiff of any risks in particular.

But that’s not anything like the case at hand. In stark contrast to Renaud, the release at issue here was far from a blanket one purporting to absolve the landowner from “all” unspecified and unnamed potential liability in some vague and incredibly generic way without bothering to identify what those risks were. Rather, the release here was narrowly and specifically targeted to the mechanical bull that described its operation and listed its particular hazards in detail, including the very injuries (broken bones from being thrown) that the plaintiff actually suffered. Indeed, the waiver covered nothing but the mechanical bull, and only people wishing to ride the mechanical bull were required [*38]  to sign it; patrons wishing only to have a drink at the bar weren’t required to sign it and weren’t asked to waive anything.

So there exist very different sets of facts between Renaud and this appeal. But the question becomes what that means: does Renaud apply only to vague blanket waivers that fail to identify any particular risks, or does it articulate a standard that broadly applies to all waivers including the narrow targeted one at issue here?

VI.

Renaud observes that two things are required for a plaintiff to have assumed the risk of an injury: “First, there must have been voluntary exposure to the danger. Second, there must have been actual knowledge of the risk assumed.” Renaud, 102 Nev. at 501, 728 P.2d at 446. To determine whether the party signing a liability waiver had actual knowledge of the risks assumed, courts must consider “the nature and extent of the injuries, the haste or lack thereof with which the release was obtained, and the understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing.” Id. at 502, 728 P.2d at 446.

The majority agrees that the first two factors strongly favor affirmance, but concludes that summary judgment is not warranted as to the third because factual disputes exist. In other words, the majority interprets [*39]  this language as a standalone three-part test that must be satisfied regardless of how detailed the language of the waiver happens to be. It becomes a test that exists apart from and outside of the contract itself, under which the words of the contract itself have no independent legal significance but are reduced to merely being one small piece of evidence among other evidence tending to prove the three prongs of the test. In addition to making it a standalone test, the majority interprets the three-part test as fundamentally factual. It becomes an inquiry focused upon what was said between the Kuchta and the ride operator regardless of what the waiver itself said or didn’t say within its four corners; and when those understandings and expectations are disputed, summary judgment cannot be granted.

Indeed, that’s how the majority order is structured: it recites the written words of the waiver on page 6, but then after launching into Renaud, it never cites those words again — they just disappear from the analysis for the rest of the order — instead only concluding that the third prong of the three-part test was factually disputed in a way having nothing to do with those words.

Well, that’s [*40]  one way to read Renaud. But it’s not how I read it, and here’s why: it deeply conflicts with long-settled principles of contract law.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. If Renaud sets forth the standalone fact-based test that the majority proposes, then it requires the court to always, every single time, look outside of the four corners of the waiver to investigate the parties’ understandings and expectations, whether the words of the contract are ambiguous or not. And that judicial investigation must include superseded earlier negotiations that would otherwise be evidence of nothing under contract law. Maybe summary judgment could still sometimes still be granted if no dispute exists regarding that evidence; but the evidence must always be admitted and at least considered in some way whether there was any textual ambiguity in the contract or not. That’s a major re-writing of contract law, which starts with the fundamental proposition that contracts are enforced as written based upon the words contained within their four corners, and going outside of them is the exception, not the rule, an exception that only arises in the event of an ambiguity.

And there’s more. If Renaud is indeed the [*41]  standalone factual test that Kuchta proposes, then courts must always admit extrinsic evidence whether or not it qualifies as admissible “parol evidence” in contract law. Beyond that, here’s what the court would use that extrinsic evidence to do: not to clear up the meaning of an ambiguity in the text (because under this test no such ambiguity would be required as a trigger anyway), but to determine what the parties thought and expected the waiver contract to mean in the first place regardless of the words used. But this violates the idea that “[t]he making of a contract depends not on the agreement of two minds in one intention, but on the agreement of two sets of external signs, not on the parties’ having meant the same thing but on their having said the same thing.” Hotel Riviera, 97 Nev. at 401, 632 P.2d at 1157 (alteration in original, internal quotation marks omitted). Here, Kuchta reads Renaud as requiring the exact opposite: courts must read contracts not according to their words, but rather according to the personal “understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing.” It replaces the objective test of contract law with an entirely subjective approach that focuses not upon the plain and ordinary meaning [*42]  of the words of the document that everyone signed but, instead, upon what everyone thought regardless of the written words that they agreed upon. The old rule has long been that “we ask, not what this man meant, but what those words would mean in the mouth of a normal speaker of English, using them in the circumstances in which they were used,” Oliver W. Holmes, The Theory of Legal interpretation, 12 Harv. L. Rev. 417, 417-18 (1899), and “the words of the contract must be taken in their usual and ordinary signification,” Traffic Control Svcs., 120 Nev. at 174, 87 P.3d at 1058. But the majority’s new rule is that we ask not what words were used, but only what the parties imagined in their heads.

This is revolutionary. Make no mistake about how far-reaching this is. But it’s the only way to reverse summary judgment here, because all of the factual disputes that Kuchta (and the majority) point to lie entirely outside of the four corners of the written contract and consist entirely of a prior, superseded verbal conversation that nobody even asserts was a negotiation of the waiver contract itself. And those supposed factual disputes serve not to clarify a term of the contract, but to contradict those terms.

In short, Kuchta and the majority read Renaud as supplanting (or at least [*43]  creating an unprecedented major exception to) settled law: when it comes to liability waivers, courts do something entirely different than they’ve done with every other contract since the time of Blackstone.

That’s an incredibly broad reading of Renaud. But accepting it is the only way to reverse summary judgment in this case, because if we apply traditional contract law and stay within the four corners of the waiver itself — or, alternatively, even if we concede some kind of ambiguity but limit ourselves to parol evidence consistent with the written words in order to clarify the written words — Kuchta must lose. For what Kuchta now claims he believed about the waiver comes very close to representing the exact opposite of what its written words actually say: the written waiver says that the movements of the bull are “violent” and “unexpected” and may cause injury, but Kuchta now asserts that he had a specific expectation that the ride would be non-violent and could not cause injury.

VII.

Let’s ask a practical question: under this standard, what kind of trial will this be? The answer is: not one in which the jury will be instructed to honor the written words of the waiver contract even [*44]  if the words are clear and unambiguous. If any parol evidence is deemed admissible in the event of ambiguity, not one in which the jury will be instructed to consider only parol evidence that doesn’t flatly contradict the written words or re-write the entire contract. In sum, not one in which the words of the contract matter much at all.

Instead, the trial will consist (as the interrogatory responses and deposition testimony before us currently do) of dueling, uncorroborated, and self-serving testimony regarding a single verbal conversation that occurred years ago that was never memorialized and never referenced in any way in the final writing, one that Kuchta himself agrees was not a negotiation of the terms of the waiver. In weighing that conversation, the jury will be asked to determine not what contractual terms Kuchta agreed to and signed, but only what inner thoughts he secretly harbored at the time.

VIII.

I don’t read Renaud that way. It’s a two-page unsigned per curiam opinion, and nothing in it suggests that it was meant to broadly overrule so much clear and established law. It’s axiomatic that we do not read statutes as if Legislatures decided to “hide elephants in mouseholes.” [*45]  Whitman v. American Trucking Association, 531 U.S. 457, 468, 121 S. Ct. 903, 149 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2001). I doubt that we ought to read Renaud as if the Nevada Supreme Court intended to do exactly that.

Instead, I read Renaud as saying something much simpler that overrules nothing and fits very happily within existing tenets of contract law. Courts must determine whether a waiver warns of the risk and injury at issue, just as Renaud says they must; but they do so within the context of settled law by examining the terms of the waiver itself. If the words of the waiver contain a sufficient warning, then no extrinsic evidence is needed and the inquiry stops there because the contract must be interpreted according to the four corners of its text as a matter of law. Only if the waiver is ambiguous as to what is covered can the court go outside of the four corners of the document to examine parol evidence to clear up the ambiguity.

Renaud itself was a straightforward application of this simple idea. In it, the waiver at stake was so generically written that it fails to mention the free-fall simulator at all, much less describe any particular injuries that could occur from using it. Thus, the written contract itself was silent on whether it covered either the plaintiffs particular injury or the [*46]  risk that inflicted that injury. In that event, established principles of contract law dictate that the written waiver could either be read as ambiguous regarding whether it covered the free-fall simulator, or it could also be read, as a matter of law, as not covering the free-fall simulator. In the first instance, parol evidence must be considered to resolve the ambiguity and, in the second instance, any evidence of a waiver, if there was one, must exist entirely outside of the written contract in the form of an oral contract. Either way, and especially under the old pre-Wood standard for granting summary judgment, summary judgment was not warranted because no such evidence had been presented or considered.

So I read Renaud not as some sweeping and revolutionary holding inconsistent with contract law in any way, but as a simple and straightforward application of clearly established law. If a waiver is so poorly worded or generic as to be ambiguous, then summary judgment cannot be granted absent consideration of parol evidence. On the other hand, if the written waiver is sufficiently clear and precise that its terms convey that there was “voluntary exposure to the danger as well as [*47]  actual knowledge of the risk assumed” — including that “the nature and extent of the injuries” were of the kind warned about in the waiver, and the ‘understandings and expectations of the parties at the time of signing” are clearly conveyed in the document — then the only question presented is one of contract interpretation (a question of law). If the written words meet all of these tests, then as a matter of law the waiver operates to bar any claim arising from any injury specifically warned of in the waiver. Renaud, 102 Nev. at 501, 728 P.2d at 446.

Consequently, summary judgment was properly granted in this case. The waiver is specific and precise, there are no ambiguities in it, and it covered the very injuries suffered by the very means warned about in the waiver. I would conclude as a matter of law that summary judgment was properly granted as the only question before us is one of contract interpretation, which presents a pure question of law. The only factual “disputes” that appellant cites relate to inadmissible extrinsic evidence lying outside of the contract that both pre-dates and contradicts the writing, and therefore are neither “genuine” nor “material.” See Wood, 121 Nev. at 731, 121 P.3d at 1029 (“A factual dispute is genuine when the evidence is [*48]  such that a rational trier of fact could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”). See
NRCP 56 (summary judgment warranted when plaintiff not “entitled to judgment as a matter of law”). I would affirm and respectfully dissent.

/s/ Tao, J.

Tao


Merlien v. JM Family Enters, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 10525

Merlien v. JM Family Enters, 2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 10525

Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District

July 22, 2020, Decided

No. 4D19-2911

Reporter

2020 Fla. App. LEXIS 10525 *

DIVESTON MERLIEN, Appellant, v. JM FAMILY ENTERPRISES, INC., SHERIDAN 441, LLC and BENDLES RENTALS, LLC, Appellees.

Notice: NOT FINAL UNTIL DISPOSITION OF TIMELY FILED MOTION FOR REHEARING.

Prior History: [*1] Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Raag Singhal, Judge; L.T. Case No. CACE17-007427 21.

Counsel: Neil Rose, Esq., Hollywood, and Morgan Weinstein of Weinstein Law, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for appellant.

Kansas R. Gooden of Boyd & Jenerette, P.A., Miami, and Ian E. Waldick of Boyd & Jenerette, P.A., Jacksonville, for appellee JM Family Enterprises, Inc.

Judges: FORST, J. LEVINE, C.J., and DAMOORGIAN, J., concur.

Opinion by: FORST

Opinion

Forst, J.

Appellant Diveston Merlien (“the plaintiff”) appeals from the trial court’s final summary judgment entered in favor of JM Family Enterprises (“JM”). The trial court found that the plaintiff’s negligence lawsuit was precluded by an exculpatory clause in his employment agreement. On appeal, the plaintiff argues that the disclaimer at issue was void for ambiguity and, even if the disclaimer was properly considered and not void for ambiguity, it was nevertheless unenforceable because it contravenes Florida public policy. We disagree and affirm.1

Background

The plaintiff was employed by AlliedBarton, a firm that provides security services for various clients. He was assigned to work as a security guard for one of those clients, JM The plaintiff [*2] was allegedly injured due to a slip and fall on stairs at the JM facility where he was assigned to work. He subsequently filed a premises liability suit against JM, alleging that his slip and fall was proximately caused by JM’s negligent maintenance of the stairs.

The primary focus of this appeal is the enforceability of a waiver which the plaintiff signed as a condition of employment that prohibits suit against any customer of AlliedBarton for injuries covered by the workers’ compensation statutes. The waiver provides:

WORKER’S COMPENSATION DISCLAIMER Payment on Work-Related Injuries

I understand that state Workers’ Compensation statues [sic] cover work-related injuries that may be sustained by me. If I am injured on the job, I understand that I am required to notify my manager immediately. The manager will inform me of my state’s Workers’ Compensation law as it pertains to seeking medical treatment. This is to assure that reasonable medical treatment for an injury will be paid for by Alliedbarton’s [sic] Workers’ Compensation insurance.

As a result, and in consideration of AlliedBarton Security Services offering me employment, I hereby waive and forever release any and all rights I may [*3] have to:

– make a claim, or

– commence a lawsuit, or

– recover damages or losses

from or against any customer (and the employees of any customer) of AlliedBarton Security Services to which I may be assigned, arising from or relating to injuries which are covered under the Workers’ Compensation statues [sic].

Two years after the plaintiff filed his complaint, JM filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff waived his right to bring suit by executing the above waiver at the commencement of his employment. After hearing argument from both parties, the trial court granted JM’s motion for summary judgment. This timely appeal followed.

Analysis

HN1[] “The standard of review of an order granting summary judgment is de novo.” Fini v. Glascoe, 936 So. 2d 52, 54 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006). When “the enforceability of [a] pre-injury release is a question of law arising from undisputed facts, the standard of review is de novo.” Kirton v. Fields, 997 So. 2d 349, 352 (Fla. 2008).

Brooks v. Paul, 219 So. 3d 886, 887 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017); see also Sanislo v. Give Kids the World, Inc., 157 So. 3d 256, 260 (Fla. 2015) (“The enforceability of a pre-injury exculpatory clause arising from undisputed facts is reviewed de novo.”).

I. Whether the disclaimer was ambiguous and unenforceable.

HN2[] “Public policy disfavors exculpatory contracts because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care. . . . Nevertheless, because of a [*4] countervailing policy that favors the enforcement of contracts, as a general proposition, unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy.” Sanislo, 157 So. 3d at 260 (internal citations omitted).

HN3[] Florida courts have upheld the enforceability of exculpatory provisions in contracts only when the language of the provision clearly and unambiguously communicates the scope and nature of the disclaimer. See id. at 260-61; Fresnedo v. Porky’s Gym III, Inc., 271 So. 3d 1185, 1186 (Fla. 3d DCA 2019); Brooks, 219 So. 3d at 888. “Such provisions are deemed to be unambiguous and enforceable when the language unequivocally demonstrates a clear and understandable intention for the defendant to be relieved from liability such that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he or she is contracting away.” Pillay v. Pub. Storage, Inc., 284 So. 3d 566, 569 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019) (citing Sanislo, 157 So. 3d at 260-61).

In addressing the trial court’s determination that the AlliedBarton release was clear and unambiguous, the plaintiff cites to UCF Athletics Ass’n Inc. v. Plancher, 121 So. 3d 1097 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013), quashed in part on other grounds, 175 So. 3d 724 (Fla. 2015), and argues that the waiver at issue in that case is analogous to AlliedBarton’s current disclaimer. We disagree and find the case to be distinguishable.

In Plancher, the parents of a University of Central Florida football player brought a negligence action against the university after their son collapsed and died during [*5] conditioning drills during practice. Id. at 1099. In affirming the decision of the trial court, the Fifth District found the exculpatory clause contained in “the agreement to participate clause of the Medical Examination and Authorization Waiver” to be ambiguous and unenforceable. Id. at 1099, 1103.

In pertinent part, the exculpatory clause at issue in Plancher contained the following language:

I recognize the importance of following all instructions of the coaching staff, strength and conditioning staff, and/or Sports Medicine Department. Furthermore, I understand that the possibility of injury, including catastrophic injury, does exist even though proper rules and techniques are followed to the fullest. . . .

In consideration of the University of Central Florida Athletic Association, Inc. permitting me to participate in intercollegiate athletics and to engage in all activities and travel related to my sport, I hereby voluntarily assume all risks associated with participation and agree to exonerate, save harmless and release the University of Central Florida Athletic Association, Inc., its agents, servants, trustees, and employees from any and all liability, any medical expenses not covered by the University of [*6] Central Florida Athletic Association’s athletics medical insurance coverage, and all claims, causes of action or demands of any kind and nature whatsoever which may arise by or in connection with my participation in any activities related to intercollegiate athletics.

The terms hereof shall serve as release and assumption of risk for my heirs, estate, executor, administrator, assignees, and all members of my family.

Id. at 1100-01. The Fifth District explained its determination that the release language was ambiguous, and the release was thus unenforceable:

This preamble, when coupled with a clause that does not expressly state that [the decedent] would be waiving a negligence action, could have easily led [the decedent] to believe that UCFAA would be supervising his training and instructing him properly (non-negligently), and that he was only being asked to sign the exculpatory clause to cover injuries inherent in the sport-that could occur “even though proper rules and techniques are followed to the fullest.”

Id. at 1102.

The ruling in Plancher is similar to the rulings of two other cases cited in the plaintiff’s initial brief. In Brooks, we invalidated an exculpatory clause in an agreement between a surgeon [*7] and patient because the language was unclear and ambiguous. 219 So. 3d at 891. In so holding, we explained that the release was unenforceable because the disclaimer was “qualified” by the statement that the surgeon would “do the very best to take care of [the patient] according to community medical standards”; this rendered the “purported release” contradictory and ambiguous. Id. We compared the release to the waiver in Goyings v. Jack & Ruth Eckerd Foundation, 403 So. 2d 1144 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981), disapproved of on other grounds by Sanislo, 157 So. 3d 256, which also included “additional language” that “create[d] ambiguity about exactly what type of claims are being released.” Brooks, 219 So. 3d at 891. In Goyings, ambiguity arose in a children’s camp contract in which the camp agreed to take reasonable precautions to assure the safety of the children, yet also sought to disclaim all liability. Goyings, 403 So. 2d at 1145-46. The court held this language to be ambiguous and contradictory because the camp “[b]y their own choice of language . . . agreed to take reasonable precautions to assure [the child’s] safety.” Id. at 1146.

The instant case is clearly distinguishable from Plancher, Brooks, and Goyings, as the disclaimer at issue here does not contain a misleading preamble or otherwise suggest that either AlliedBarton or its clients will take responsibility for [*8] an employee’s safety when working at client facilities. The disclaimer is limited to injuries which are covered under the workers’ compensation statutes and makes no promises or representations other than “state Workers’ Compensation statu[t]es cover work-related injuries that may be sustained by [the employee],” and that “reasonable medical treatment for an injury will be paid for by [AlliedBarton’s] Workers’ Compensation insurance.”

One other case cited by the plaintiff to support his ambiguity argument is Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, Inc., 27 So. 3d 108 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009). In that case, there was some ambiguity as to whether the disclaimer released claims for injuries caused by one dog to another dog and/or to a person. Id. at 110-11. The court faulted the waiver agreement for its failure to “define whose injuries are covered in a circumstance, even though there are multiple possibilities.” Id.

No such ambiguity exists here, as the disclaimer specifically explains the rights released (“all rights . . . to make a claim, or commence a lawsuit, or recover damages or losses”); the beneficiaries of that release (“any customer (and the employees of any customer) of AlliedBarton Security Services to which I may be assigned”); and the situations in which this release [*9] applies (“arising from or relating to injuries which are covered under the Workers’ Compensation statu[t]es”). As in Sanislo, the exculpatory clause here is “unambiguous and enforceable [because] the intention to be relieved from liability was made clear and unequivocal and the wording was so clear and understandable that an ordinary and knowledgeable person w[ould] know what he or she is contracting away.” 157 So. 3d at 260-61.

II. Whether the disclaimer violates Florida public policy.

HN4[] Even waivers that are clear and unambiguous may nevertheless be unenforceable if they contravene Florida public policy. See id. at 260. However, “[a] contract is not void, as against public policy, unless it is injurious to the interests of the public or contravenes some established interest of society.” Griffin v. ARX Holding Corp., 208 So. 3d 164, 170 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) (quoting Atl. Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Beazley, 54 Fla. 311, 45 So. 761, 785 (Fla. 1907)) (alteration omitted).

The plaintiff argues that even if AlliedBarton’s disclaimer is not void for ambiguity, it should be found unenforceable based on public policy considerations. Specifically, the plaintiff argues that “part of the purpose of the workers’ compensation statute is to permit negligence claims against a third-party tortfeasor—in this case the customers of AlliedBarton.”

In making this argument, the plaintiff [*10] references section 440.39, Florida Statutes (2017), which provides that an employee injured in the course of his or her employment by the negligent actions of a third-party tortfeasor “may accept compensation benefits under the provisions of this law, and at the same time such injured employee . . . may pursue his or her remedy by action at law or otherwise against such third-party tortfeasor.” § 440.39, Fla. Stat. (2017) (emphasis added).

HN5[] The plain language of this section establishes a permissive rather than mandatory option on the part of the employee to pursue an action at law. Agile Assurance Grp. Ltd. v. Palmer, 147 So. 3d 1017, 1018 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014) (“Generally, use of the word may deems relevant language permissive.”). Here, the plaintiff contracted away his right under section 440.39 to assert a claim against a third-party tortfeasor. HN6[] “[B]ecause of a . . . policy that favors the enforcement of contracts, as a general proposition, unambiguous exculpatory contracts are enforceable unless they contravene public policy.” Sanislo, 157 So. 3d at 260.

The disclaimer did not “contravene public policy.” It conforms to public policy. Section 440.015, Florida Statutes (2017), states:

It is the intent of the Legislature that the Workers’ Compensation Law be interpreted so as to assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate [*11] the worker’s return to gainful reemployment at a reasonable cost to the employer. . . . The workers’ compensation system in Florida is based on a mutual renunciation of common-law rights and defenses by employers and employees alike.

§ 440.015, Fla. Stat. (2017). HN7[] Our Supreme Court offered a similar view:

Fundamentally, the workers’ compensation system establishes a system of exchange between employees and employers, as well as employees and insurance carriers, that is designed to promote efficiency and fairness. Our governing precedent, as well as that of our district courts, has recognized that under this no-fault system, the employee relinquishes certain common-law rights with regard to negligence in the workplace and workplace injuries in exchange for strict liability and the rapid recovery of benefits.

Aguilera v. Inservices, Inc., 905 So. 2d 84, 90 (Fla. 2005).

Here, it is undisputed that the plaintiff’s injury fell under the scope of the workers’ compensation statutes and that he received payment for his injuries under AlliedBarton’s policy. HN8[] This result places the plaintiff in the same position as any AlliedBarton employee who may be injured while working directly for the employer on the employer’s premises. See Suarez v. Transmontaigne Servs., Inc., 127 So. 3d 845, 847 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013) (“Where an employee covered by the workers’ compensation [*12] act is injured on the job, the employee’s sole remedy against his employer is through the provisions of the act. His employer is immune from negligence claims arising out of the same injury.” (citing § 440.11(1), Fla. Stat. (2012)). AlliedBarton’s disclaimer does not subvert the workers’ compensation scheme, but rather, fully utilizes the statutory scheme as the plaintiff’s sole means of recovery. In no way does the disclaimer interfere with “the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.” See § 440.015, Fla. Stat. (2017).

We also note that this waiver extends only to negligent conduct and does not infringe on the public policy prohibition of waiving liability for intentional torts, as the waiver only extends to injuries covered by workers’ compensation. See Aguilera, 905 So. 2d at 90 (“Functionally, the worker’s compensation system limits liability only for negligent workplace conduct which produces workplace injury, but does not extend to immunize intentional tortious conduct.”); Turner v. PCR, Inc., 754 So. 2d 683, 687 (Fla. 2000) (“Today we reaffirm our prior decisions recognizing, as have our district courts and many jurisdictions around the country, that workers’ compensation law does not protect an employer from liability for an intentional tort against [*13] an employee.”), superseded by statute on other grounds, § 440.11(1)(b), Fla. Stat. (2003), as noted in R.L. Haines Constr., LLC v. Santamaria, 161 So. 3d 528, 530-31 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014); see also § 440.11(1)(b), Fla. Stat. (2017) (the intentional tort exception).

At least two courts from other states have considered this same AlliedBarton disclaimer and found that it did not contravene public policy. See Bowman v. Sunoco, Inc., 620 Pa. 28, 65 A.3d 901 (Pa. 2013); Brown v. 1301 K Street Ltd. P’ship, 31 A.3d 902 (D.C. 2011).2

In Bowman, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction to determine whether AlliedBarton’s disclaimer contravened Pennsylvania public policy. 65 A.3d at 908. The court ruled that the waiver did not violate the text of section 204(a) of Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act—a statutory provision prohibiting agreements that waive a claim for damages prior to an injury. Id. The court explained that the workers’ compensation statute was intended to apply to agreements barring a claim against an employer, rather than to claims against a third party. Id. After examining the history of the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation statute, the court determined that the legislature provided two alternative tracks by which an employee could recover for a workplace injury. Id. The employee could recover under a statutory scheme or through a traditional action at law. Id. The court held:

 [*14] [B]ecause the Act once provided for a dual system of recovery, which made it a violation of public policy for an employer to avoid both recovery tracks, and continues to provide for an action at law when the employer is uninsured, we conclude public policy is not violated where, as here, the employee is absolutely covered under one of those two tracks, namely, the compensation scheme provided by Article III.

Id. The court concluded by noting the similar decisions of other courts and stated:

Appellant was not forced to sign the release, and the release did not in any way prevent her from receiving compensation for her work-related injuries as provided by the Act. As the Appeals Court of Massachusetts found in Horner v. Boston Edison Company, 45 Mass. App. Ct. 139, 695 N.E.2d 1093 (1998), the disclaimer here “extinguishes only the employee’s right to recover additional amounts as a result of a work-related injury for which the employee has already received workers’ compensation benefits.” Id. at 1095. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Arkansas found, with facts nearly identical to the present case, a similar disclaimer did not violate public policy because it did not indicate the employer was “attempting to escape liability entirely, but [was] instead, attempting to shield its [*15] clients from separate tort liability for those injuries that are covered by workers’ compensation . . . .” Edgin v. Entergy Operations, Inc., 331 Ark. 162, 961 S.W.2d 724, 727 (1998).

Id. at 910 (alteration in original) (footnote omitted).

Similar to the Pennsylvania decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals found that the exculpatory clause at issue here did not violate public policy. See Brown, 31 A.3d at 906-07. The court explained that it had invalidated exculpatory clauses disclaiming liability for self-dealing by a personal representative of a will and in the housing context with landlords trying to contract around the implied warranty of habitability. Id. The court continued, however, by explaining: “[i]n this case . . . we find nothing violative of public policy in an employer’s choice to protect its customers from liability for workplace injuries, choosing instead to compensate its employees itself exclusively through workers’ compensation.” Id. at 907. The court concluded by noting that the plaintiff voluntarily entered into the agreement and declined to invalidate the contract on the basis that it was offered on a “take it or leave it” basis. See id. at 907, n.4 (quoting Moore v. Waller, 930 A.2d 176, 182 (D.C. 2007)).

Here, as in Bowman and Brown, the plaintiff here was not coerced into signing the agreement and voluntarily agreed, as a condition [*16] of employment, to limit his avenues for recovery with respect to any future injuries to the State’s workers’ compensation program. The disclaimer was limited in both scope and application and did not prevent the “the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker.” See § 440.015, Fla. Stat. (2017). As such, we hold that AlliedBarton’s disclaimer is not void based on public policy considerations.

Conclusion

We agree with the trial court that the disclaimer signed by the plaintiff is unambiguous, not in violation of Florida public policy and, thus, enforceable. Accordingly, the trial court’s final summary judgment is affirmed.

Affirmed.

Levine, C.J., and Damoorgian, J., concur.


Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include.

In addition, incorrect name on the release gave plaintiff an additional argument. The LLC registered by the Indiana Secretary of State was named differently than the named party to be protected by the release.

Luck saved the defendant in this case.

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

State: Indiana: United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

Plaintiff: Alexis Wiemer

Defendant: Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC,

Plaintiff Claims: Negligent Hiring and Instruction

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Release was written broadly enough it covered negligence claims outside the normal injuries or claims from using a climbing wall. On top of that the mistakes in the release were covered by the letterhead.

Injury occurred because belayer did not know how to use the braking device.

A lot of things could have gone wrong because the climbing wall was not paying attention, but got lucky.

Facts

The plaintiff was a beginner in climbing and using climbing walls. Before climbing he signed a release and attended a facility orientation which covered training “on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.” The training received by the plaintiff was taught by an employee with little experience and mostly went over the defendant’s instructional books on rock climbing.

On the day of the accident, the plaintiff went to climb with a co-worker. While climbing the co-worker failed to use the belay device properly.

Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations. [emphasize added]

The plaintiff sued for his injuries.

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

The plaintiff’s first argument was the name of the parties to be released was not the legal name of the facility where the accident occurred. The facility was owned by a Limited Liability Company (LLC) registered with the state of Indiana as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” On the release, the name of the party to be protected was “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility.” The release name had an extra word, “rock.”

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State, although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy created ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

However, the name and logo on the top of the release identified the company correctly, Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.

Since the release was a contract, the court was required to determine if the name issue made the contract ambiguous. Ambiguous means the language of the contract could be interpreted in more than one way. The name issue was not enough to find the contract was unambiguous so that the release was not void. The name issue was minor, and the correct name was at the top of the contract.

Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

The second argument the plaintiff made was the release did not cover the claimed negligence of the defendant for negligent instruction, and negligent training. Those claims are generally not defined as an inherent risk of indoor rock climbing.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

Inherent is a restrictive word. See 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release? and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release, and is interpreted differently by various courts. Consequently, the use of the word inherent can be dangerous in that it limits the breadth of the release.

Under Indiana’s law a release must be “specific and explicitly refer to the waiving [of] that the party’s negligence.” However, that explicit reference is not necessary for a claim that is inherent in the activity.

Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.”

The plaintiff’s argument was:

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume. Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing.

The court could work around this explicit necessity because it found within the release language that covered the negligent training and instruction.

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…

It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.

By reviewing the exact language of the release, the court was able to find language that warned of the specific issues the plaintiff claimed.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver.

The negligent training and negligent instruction claims were not based at the defendant or the belayer. Those claims were based on the employee who instructed the belayer.

As such the court found that both claims were prevented by the release the plaintiff had signed and dismissed the case.

So Now What?

This case was won by the defendant not because of proper legal planning but by luck.

If they had not used the correct letterhead for the release, the release might have been void because it named the wrong party to be protected by the release. When writing a release, you need to include the legal name of the party to be protected as well as any marketing or doing business as names.

Indiana’s requirement that the language of the release cover the exact injury the plaintiff is claiming is not new in most states. It is also a requirement that seems to be growing by the courts to favor a contract that covers the complaint.

In the past, judges would specifically point out when a claimed injury was covered in the release. Not so much as a legal requirement but to point out to the plaintiff the release covered their complaint. That prior identification seems to be growing among the states to a requirement.

In this case the release was written broadly so that the restrictions the term inherent placed in the release were covered. But for that broad language, the climbing gym might now have survived the claim.

More important writing the release wrong protecting the wrong party would have been fatal in most states.

Finally, this is another example of a belay system that is perfect, and the user failed. There are belay systems out there that don’t require user involvement, they work as long as they are corrected properly. This accident could have been avoided if the belay system worked.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Marcf v. Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. et. Al. 57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

Murat Marcf, Plaintiff(s), against Middle Country Center School District, LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL, INC., Defendant(s).

3015-2016

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, SUFFOLK COUNTY

57 Misc. 3d 1225(A); 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4717; 2017 NY Slip Op 51678(U)

December 11, 2017, Decided

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

CORE TERMS: league, football, flag, void, documentary evidence, signing, public policy, establishment, unambiguous, supporting papers, recreational facilities, unenforceable, participating, conclusively, recreation, amusement, playing, binding, matter of law, causes of action, entitlement, enforceable, illegality, gymnasium, producing, dispose, duress, mutual, exempt, facie

HEADNOTES

Release–Scope of Release–General Obligations Law § 5-326 did not void unambiguous waiver and release of liability where plaintiff paid fee to league to play flag football on field on which he was injured since no part of fee went to field owner. General Obligations Law § 5-326 (Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable).

COUNSEL: [*1] For Plaintiff: Siben & Siben, LLP, Bay Shore, New York.

For Defendants: Havkins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, New York, New York.

JUDGES: PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.

OPINION BY: PETER H. MAYER

OPINION

Peter H. Mayer, J.

Upon the reading and filing of the following papers in this matter: (1) Notice of Motion by the defendants, dated June 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (2) Affirmation in Opposition by the plaintiff, dated August 22, 2016, and supporting papers; (3) Reply Affirmation by the defendants, dated September 15, 2016, and supporting papers; (4) Sur Reply by the plaintiff, dated September 21, 2016, and supporting papers; and now

UPON DUE DELIBERATION AND CONSIDERATION BY THE COURT of the foregoing papers, the motion is decided as follows: it is

ORDERED that the motion (seq. # 001) by defendants, Middle Country Central School District (“School District”) and Long Island Flag Football, Inc., s/h/a Long Island Flag Football League, Inc. and Long Island Flag Football, Inc. (“the League”), which seeks an Order dismissing the plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5), is hereby granted; and it is further

ORDERED that counsel for defendants shall promptly serve a copy of this Order upon counsel for all parties by First Class [*2] Mail, and shall promptly thereafter file the affidavit(s) of such service with the Suffolk County Clerk.

In this action, plaintiff alleges that on October 4, 2015 he injured his left foot while playing in a League flag football game, when he jumped to catch a pass and landed on a concealed sprinkler head. The game was being played on a field located on the grounds of Newfield High School, which is operated by the defendant School District. Prior to playing in the football game, plaintiff and his teammates signed a Waiver and Release of Liability (“Release”), which states:

In return for my being allowed to participate in any way in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., I release and agree not to sue the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., its employees directors and non-employees such as referees, coaches, agents, sponsors, and owners of fields used, from all present and future claims made by me or my family, estate, heirs or assigns for property damage, personal injury, or wrongful death arising as a result of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and caused by the ordinary negligence of the parties above, wherever, whenever, or however the same may [*3] occur. I understand and agree that those listed above are not responsible for any injury or property damage arising out of my participation out of my participation (sic) in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC., even if caused by their ordinary negligence. I understand that participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. involves certain risks including, but not limited to, serious injury, severe economic losses, permanent disability, and even death. I am voluntarily participating in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. with knowledge of the danger involved and agree to accept all risks of such participation. I certify that I am in excellent physical health, and may participate [**2] in strenuous and hazardous physical activities, including the flag football to be played in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. I agree that prior to participating, I will inspect the facilities and equipment to be used, and if I believe anything unsafe, I will immediately advise my coach of said condition(s) and refuse to participate. Permission is granted for me to receive medical treatment, if needed. I also agree to indemnify and hold harmless those listed above for all claims [*4] arising out of my participation in the LONG ISLAND FLAG FOOTBALL LEAGUE, INC. and all related activities. I understand that this document is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the State of New York and agree that if any portion of this agreement is invalid, the remainder will continue in full legal force and effect. I further agree that any legal proceedings related to this waiver will take place in Suffolk County, New York. I am of legal age and am freely signing this agreement.

We have read this agreement and understand that by signing this form, we are giving up legal rights and remedies and that the terms of this release are binding on each one of us.

The defendants contend in their dismissal motion that the plaintiff assumed the risk of injury while playing in the game, and that by signing the Release, the plaintiff effectively released the defendants from liability for any injuries plaintiff allegedly sustained during the game. Defendants conclude, therefore, that they are entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (5).

Generally, on a CPLR 3211 motion to dismiss, the court will accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true, accord plaintiffs the [*5] benefit of every possible favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see Walton v New York State Dept. of Corr. Services, 13 NY3d 475, 484, 921 N.E.2d 145, 893 NYS2d 453 [2009], quoting Nonnon v City of New York, 9 NY3d 825, 827, 874 N.E.2d 720, 842 NYS2d 756 [2007]). Pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1), a party may move for dismissal of one or more causes of action on the ground that “a defense is founded upon documentary evidence.” Likewise, a party may move for dismissal pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) on the ground that “the cause of action may not be maintained because of … [a] release” of liability.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) on the ground that the action is barred by documentary evidence may be appropriately granted where the documentary evidence utterly refutes the plaintiff’s factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law (see AG Capital Funding Partners, L.P. v State Street Bank and Trust Co., 5 NY3d 582, 842 N.E.2d 471, 808 NYS2d 573 [2005]; Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of New York, 98 NY2d 314, 774 N.E.2d 1190, 746 NYS2d 858 [2002]; Leon v Martinez, 84 NY2d 83, 638 N.E.2d 511, 614 NYS2d 972 [1994]; Thompsen v Baier, 84 AD3d 1062, 923 NYS2d 607 [2d Dept 2011]; Rietschel v Maimonides Medical Center, 83 AD3d 810, 921 NYS2d 290 [2d Dept 2011]). In other words, the documentary evidence must resolve all factual issues as a matter of law and conclusively dispose of the plaintiff’s claim (see Palmetto Partners, L.P. v AJW Qualified Partners, LLC, 83 AD3d 804, 921 NYS2d 260 [2d Dept 2011]; Paramount Transp. Sys., Inc. v Lasertone Corp., 76 AD3d 519, 520, 907 NYS2d 498 [2d Dept 2010]).

When a defendant moves for CPLR 3211(a)(1) dismissal based on documentary evidence that the plaintiff signed a release of liability in favor of the defendant, dismissal may be granted where the terms of the release are clear, unambiguous and conclusively dispose of the matter (see Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 AD3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015]). In effect, a release is a contract and its construction [*6] is governed by contract law (see Outdoors Clothing Corp. v Schneider, 153 AD3d 717, 60 NYS3d 302 [2d Dept 2017]; Kaminsky v Gamache, 298 AD2d 361, 751 NYS2d 254 [2d Dept 2002]). Absent a statute or public policy to the contrary, a contractual provision absolving a party from its own negligence will be enforced (see Sommer v Federal Signal Corp., 79 NY2d 540, 593 N.E.2d 1365, 583 NYS2d 957 [1992]; Deutsch v Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 AD3d 776, 985 NYS2d 716 [2d Dept 2014]; Princetel, LLC v Buckley, 95 AD3d 855, 944 NYS2d 191 [2d Dept 2012]). A defendant establishes its prima facie entitlement to dismissal by producing the waiver and release signed by the plaintiff (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

If the language of a release is clear and unambiguous, the signing of a release is a “jural act” binding on the parties (see Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]; Mangini v McClurg, 24 NY2d 556, 249 N.E.2d 386, 301 NYS2d 508 [1969]). The Court finds that the language of the subject Release is clear and unambiguous and is, therefore, valid, enforceable and binding on the parties (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Booth v 3669 Delaware, Inc., 92 NY2d 934, 703 N.E.2d 757, 680 NYS2d 899 [2d Dept 1998]). A release will not be treated lightly, and will not be set aside by a court without a showing of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake (see Liotti v Galasso, Langione and Botter, 128 AD3d 912, 8 NYS3d 578 [2d Dept 2015]; Seff v Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Schlissel, P.C., 55 AD3d 592, 865 NYS2d 323 [2d Dept 2008]; Shklovskiy v Khan, 273 AD2d 371, 709 NYS2d 208 [2d Dept 2000]; Delaney v County of Westchester, 90 AD2d 819, 455 NYS2d 839 [2d Dept 1982], appeal dismissed 59 NY2d 763 [1983]; Thives v Holmes Ambulance Service Corp., 78 AD2d 651, 432 NYS2d 235 [2d Dept 1980]). Plaintiff in this matter makes no claim of duress, illegality, fraud, or mutual mistake in the signing of the subject Release. Instead, plaintiff alleges in opposition to the motion that the Release is void as against pubic policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326, and that defendant is, therefore, barred from relying on the Release in seeking dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint. GOL § 5-326 renders void and unenforceable agreements that exempt certain [*7] places of public amusement, recreation and similar establishments from liability. In this regard GOL § 5-326 states:

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to [**3] be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

In general, when a participant pays a fee to use recreational facilities, or pays league fees and the league pays for use of those facilities, a waiver and release of liability signed by the participant is void pursuant to GOL § 5-326 (see Falzone v City of New York, 128 AD3d 889, 9 NYS3d 165 [2d Dept 2015]). To void a release of liability executed by a user of a recreational facility pursuant to GOL § 5-326, there must be an evidentiary showing that the [*8] individual paid a fee for use of the facility (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Miranda v Hampton Auto Raceway, 130 AD2d 558, 515 NYS2d 291 [2d Dept 1987]).

A plaintiff’s complaint will be properly dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(5) where the plaintiff claims that the Release is void pursuant to GOL §5-326, but fails to establish that he or she paid a fee directly to the owner or operator of the recreational facility for use of the facility where the alleged injury occurred (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). When a plaintiff fails to produce any evidence that he or she paid a fee for admission to, or use of, a municipality’s field, GOL § 5-326 will not void a release of liability executed by the plaintiff prior to participating in a sporting event (see Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]). Under such circumstances, the plaintiff’s waiver of liability is enforceable and not void as against public policy in violation of GOL § 5-326 (see Lago v Krollage, 78 NY2d 95, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 NYS2d 689 [1991]; Lee v Boro Realty, LLC, 39 AD3d 715, 832 NYS2d 453 [2d Dept 2007]; Castellanos v Nassau/Suffolk Dek Hockey, 232 AD2d 354, 648 NYS2d 143 [2d Dept 1996]; Stuhlweissenburg v Town of Orangetown, 223 AD2d 633, 636 NYS2d 853 [2d Dept 1996]; Stone v Bridgehampton Race Circuit, 217 AD2d 541, 629 NYS2d 80 [2d Dept 1995]; Koster v Ketchum Communications, 204 AD2d 280, 611 NYS2d 298 [2d Dept 1994]).

Here, by producing the Waiver and Release signed by the plaintiff, the defendants established prima facie entitlement to dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint (see Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 A.D.2d 359, 707 N.Y.S.2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]). In opposition, plaintiff has failed to show he paid to use the field where he was allegedly injured, or that any portion of his League fee was paid to the School District for the use of the field. In fact, the affidavit of the defendant League’s President, George Hignell, shows [*9] that the School District “did not require a fee for the use of its fields” and that “[n]either the plaintiff nor the [L]eague paid a fee for use of Newfield High School athletic field” where the plaintiff is alleged to have been injured. Therefore, the Release is not void as against public policy pursuant to GOL § 5-326.

Based upon the foregoing, the plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (a)(5) (see CPLR 3211[a][1]; CPLR 3211[a][5]; Burgos v New York Presbyterian Hosp., 155 AD3d 598, 2017 NY Slip Op 07585 [2d Dept 2017]; Rudovic v Rudovic, 131 A.D.3d 1225, 16 NYS3d 856 [2d Dept 2015] [**4] ; Brookner v New York Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 AD3d 841, 858 NYS2d 348 [2d Dept 2008]; Bufano v National Inline Roller Hockey Ass’n, 272 AD2d 359, 707 NYS2d 223 [2d Dept 2000]).

This constitutes the Decision and Order of the Court.

Dated: December 11, 2017

PETER H. MAYER, J.S.C.


Connecticut court rejects motion for summary judgment because plaintiff claimed he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it

Plaintiff successfully argued he did not have enough time to read the release before he signed it. The court bought it.

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven

Plaintiff: Guy DeWitt, Jr.

Defendant: Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC 

Plaintiff Claims: no time to read the release, not told he needed to sign a release

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff 

Year: 2017 

Summary

This case looks at demoing a bike in Connecticut. The rider/plaintiff argued that he did not have enough time to read the release, and the bike shop was chaotic creating confusing for him. He was injured when the handlebars broke causing him to fall. 

Facts

The plaintiff participated in the Wednesday night right put on by Pedal Power, LLC, one of the defendants. That night Pedal Power made arrangements for people to demo Felt Bicycles. Most people did so and sent their information to Felt Racing so the bikes were fit and ready to go when they arrived.

The plaintiff arrived with his own bike. However, once he got there he decided to demo a felt bicycle. While the bike was being fitted for him, he was handed a release to sign. The plaintiff stated the place was chaotic, and he did not have time to read the release

During the ride, the handlebar failed or cracked causing the plaintiff to fall and hit a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride. to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

 The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, and this was the analysis of the motion by the court. 

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

Each state has its own requirements for when a court can grant a motion for summary judgment. The court in this case set forth those requirements before starting an analysis of the facts as they applied to the law.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.”

Most states apply similar standards to deciding motions for summary judgment. The major point is there is no genuine issue of fact’s material to the case. Meaning no matter how you look at the facts, the motion is going to win because the law is clear.

Additional statements in the case indicated the court was not inclined to grant any motion for summary judgment.

“Summary judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .”

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no  obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.”

The court then analyzed the entire issue of why summary judgments are rarely granted in this judge’s opinion.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’

The writing on the wall, or in the opinion, makes it pretty clear this judge was not inclined to grant motions for summary judgment in tort cases when the risk of the injury would transfer to the plaintiff.

The court then reviewed the requirements of what is required in a release under Connecticut law. 

…requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. 

Nowhere in the requirements does it state a requirement that the plaintiff have enough time to read the release, even if did go ahead and sign the release. 

The language quoted sounds like similar language found in other decisions in other states regarding releases. 

Connecticut also requires “that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” 

In this release, the term negligence is only found once. 

The plaintiff argued that he did not have time to sign the release, and the place was chaotic. This was enough for the court to say there were material facts at issue in this case. “If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.”

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

The motion for summary judgment was denied. 

So Now What? 

This is the first time I have read a decision where the claim there was not enough time to read the release was upheld by a court. Normally, the court states if the release is signed the signor read and agreed to the terms.

This is one more argument that will eliminate releases in Connecticut. There have been several already, and although there are several decisions that support releases, there is a growing list of decisions that are providing opportunities for the courts to throw them out. 

The final issue to be aware of is the language in this case is identical to language in most other release cases. However, here that language was used to throw out a release rather than support it.

Other Connecticut Decisions Involving Releases

Connecticut court works hard to void a release for a cycling event

Poorly written release failing to follow prior state Supreme Court decisions, employee statement, no padding and  spinning hold send climbing wall gym back to trial in Connecticut.

Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al., 2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

Guy DeWitt, Jr. v. Felt Racing, LLC et al.

CV136040482

SUPERIOR COURT OF CONNECTICUT, JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF NEW HAVEN AT NEW HAVEN

2017 Conn. Super. LEXIS 235

February 6, 2017, Decided

February 6, 2017, Filed

NOTICE: THIS DECISION IS UNREPORTED AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO FURTHER APPELLATE REVIEW. COUNSEL IS CAUTIONED TO MAKE AN INDEPENDENT DETERMINATION OF THE STATUS OF THIS CASE.

CORE TERMS: bike, ride, summary judgment, public policy, relieve, bicycle, quotation marks omitted, disputed, participating, chaotic, riding, custom, rider, tort law, moving party, entitled to judgment, nonmoving party, question of fact, primary function, exculpatory, unambiguous, genuine, movant, entities, sufficient time, sponsored, pre-sized, arranged, sponsors, borrow

JUDGES: [*1] Angela C. Robinson, J.

OPINION BY: Angela C. Robinson

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENTS #149 AND #150

Guy DeWitt, Jr., the plaintiff, claims that on June 18, 2013, he was injured as a direct result of the negligence and/or actions of the defendants, Felt Racing, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, in violation of the products liability statute. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was participating in a group ride of bicyclists that was sponsored by Pedal Power. During the ride, at the time he was injured, the plaintiff was riding a bike he borrowed from Felt Racing. Prior to participating in the ride, and before he was allowed to borrow the Felt bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver and Release.

The defendants both now move for summary judgment based upon the Waiver and Release, which they argue releases them from all liability. The plaintiff objects to the defendants’ motion claiming that the language of the Release and Waiver does not sufficiently relieve the defendants of liability; and that it violates public policy.

Most of the facts pertinent to the resolution of the motion are not in dispute. Pedal Power sponsored a group ride in Middletown, Connecticut. Felt Racing arranged [*2] to have a Felt bicycle demonstration at the Pedal Power store, and brought 35 Felt bikes to loan out for the ride. The plaintiff had brought his own bike to ride during the activity, but decided to try a Felt bike. The plaintiff was provided with a Felt AR2, which was selected and custom fit to him by a Felt employee. He had not arranged to ride the bike ahead of time. According to Mr. Rudzinsky, Certified USA Cycling Professional Mechanic and agent of Felt Racing, the plaintiff was not one of “the guys that was pre-sized . . .” Rather, “he showed up late.” (Rudzinsky Depo p. 57.) In order to borrow the bike, the plaintiff signed a Waiver, provided a copy of his driver’s license and left his personal bike as collateral. As the plaintiff was riding the Felt AR2 eastbound on Livingston Street in Middletown, Connecticut the right side of the handle bars failed and/or cracked, ejecting him off the bike and causing him to violently hit the ground and collide with a tree.

What is disputed is whether the plaintiff was given sufficient time to read and consider the Release and Waiver. The plaintiff claims that he did not read it because there wasn’t time to do so. “Everything was very chaotic [*3] and rushed there to make the ride. I just did not have the time to read that . . .” (Deposition of Plaintiff attached to Plaintiff’s Objection.) Further, the plaintiff claims that there was no mention of it until his bike was taken, and the Felt employees had begun custom fitting the Felt bike to him. The defendants, on the other hand, denied during oral argument that the scene was “chaotic” or that the plaintiff was coerced into riding the Felt bike because he had his own personal bike that he could ride.

The defendants request that judgment enter in their favor on the plaintiff’s complaint based upon the Release and Waiver.

“A motion for summary judgment is designed to eliminate the delay and expense of litigating an issue when there is no real issue to be tried. Wilson v. New Haven, 213 Conn. 277, 279, 567 A.2d 829 (1989). Practice Book section 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Webster Bank v. Oakley, 265 Conn. 539, 545, 830 A.2d 139 (2003).

“Summary [*4] judgment is particularly ‘ill-adapted to negligence cases, where . . . the ultimate issue in contention involves a mixed question of fact and law . . . [T]he conclusion of negligence is necessarily one of fact . . .” Michaud v Gurney, 168 Conn. 431, 434, 362 A.2d 857 (1975).

“The courts hold the movant to a strict standard. To satisfy [their] burden the movant[s] must make a showing that it is clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party has no obligation to submit documents establishing the existence of such an issue . . . Once the moving party has met its burden, however, the opposing party must present evidence that demonstrates the existence of some disputed factual issue.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Zielinski v Kotsoris, 279 Conn. 312, 318-9, 901 A.2d 1207 (2006).

The defendants claim to be entitled to judgment because the Waiver contains language transferring all the risks of participating in the group ride from Felt Bicycles, and sponsors of the ride to the participant rider borrowing the Felt bike. Specifically, the Waiver provides:

I HEREBY WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, AND COVENANT NOT TO SUE Felt Bicycles, Felt Racing, or its . . . agents . . . members, volunteers and employees, and/or other participants, sponsors [*5] . . . and/or where applicable, owners and lessors or (Sic) premises on which the Event takes place . . . from liability, claims, demands, losses or damages.

Though term “negligence” appears only once in the waiver, in paragraph 1, the defendants maintain that this is not determinative of their motion regarding the negligence claims. Further, the defendants argue that the language of the waiver sufficiently covers the actions of the agents and/or employees of Felt, LLC and Pedal Power, LLC, as well as the legal entities, themselves.

To support their arguments, both the defendants and the plaintiff rely primarily upon Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734, (2005). The plaintiff also cites and relies upon Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Connecticut, 265 Conn. 636, 829 A.2d 827 (2003); Lewis v. Habitat for Humanity of Greater New Haven, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, docket no. CV 095030268 (January 9, 2012, Frechette, J.) [53 Conn. L. Rptr. 512, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 146]; Kelly v. Deere & Co, 627 F.Sup. 564 (D.C. 1986).

In Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant, Corp, the Supreme Court held that because exculpatory agreements relieve a party of liability, they undermine public policy considerations governing our tort system, and should be enforced judiciously, only when certain factors are present. First and foremost, the agreement should be enforced only when “an ordinary person of reasonable intelligence would understand that [*6] by signing the agreement, he or she was releasing the defendants from liability from their future negligence.” Id. at 324-5. But, even if it is clear and unambiguous, it should not be enforced if it violates the principles that undergird Tort Law.

“[T]he fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system [are] compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct . . . It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law . . . [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when tort system is the prophylactic factor of preventing future harm . . . The courts are concerned not only with compensation of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lodge v. Arett Sales Corp., 246 Conn. 563, 578-79, 717 A.2d 215 (1998). “Thus, it is consistent with public policy ‘to posit the risk of negligence upon the actor’ and, if this policy is to be abandoned, ‘it has generally been to allow or require that the risk shift to another party better or equally able to bear it, not shift the risk to the weak bargainer.’ Tunkl v. Regents of the Univ. Of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 101, 383 P.2d 441, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33 (1963).” Hanks v. Powder Ridge Rest. Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 327, 885 A.2d 734.

Hanks sets forth the [*7] requirements for an enforceable agreement as well as the elements which demonstrate that an agreement violates public policy and renders the agreement unenforceable: the agreement concerns a business of a type suitable for regulation; the party seeking to enforce the agreement is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public; the party holds itself out as willing to perform a service for any member of the public; there is an economic component to the transaction; the agreement is an adhesive contract; and as a result of the transaction, the plaintiff is placed under the control of the seller. These are not the exclusive elements to consider. The “ultimate determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Id. at 330.

Also, the Hyson v. Whitewater Mountain Resorts court required that in order for an exculpatory clause to validly release the defendant, it must be clear and contain specific reference to the term “negligence.” Id. at 643.

The plaintiff argues that the language of the release is not clear; and that there are insufficient references to the [*8] word “negligence.” Also, the plaintiff asserts that the circumstances under which he was required to sign the release prevented him from reading it or considering the ramifications of it. Defense counsel disputed the characterization of the transaction as “chaotic.”

Because of this factual dispute, the court concludes that the motions should be denied. It is irrelevant to the court’s consideration whether the transaction was commercial or not; whether the language was sufficiently clear and unambiguous; or whether the plaintiff could have ridden his own bike during the ride. If the plaintiff was not afforded the opportunity to read and consider the Waiver and Release, then the agreement cannot be enforced. It is for the trier of fact to determine this.

There is no dispute that Felt Racing brought the bikes to the ride for the specific purpose of demonstrating and loaning them to interested riders and potential future customers. They were prepared for and anticipated last minute requests for bikes. Additionally, they custom fitted the bikes to the riders, regardless of whether the bikes had been pre-sized for them or not.

There are certainly instances in which it may be appropriate and [*9] in line of public policy to enforce contractual agreements which relieve one party of liability to another for injuries. However, Connecticut has a long history of requiring courts to carefully scrutinize such contracts. See e.g., Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006) (“[T]he law does not favor contract provisions which relieve a person from his own negligence . . . Hyson v. White Water Mountain Resorts of Conn., Inc. . . .”).

The defendants created the conditions under which the plaintiff could participate in the ride on a Felt bicycle. Enforcement of an agreement requiring the plaintiff to assume the risk of the defendants’ actions when there is a question of fact regarding whether the plaintiff had been given sufficient time to read and consider the Waiver and Release, would violate public policy, even if the language of the agreement was explicit and clear. For this reason, this court denies the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Robinson, A., J.


Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

Wiemer v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

Alexis Wiemer, Plaintiff, v. Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC, Defendant.

Case No. 1:16-cv-01383-TWP-MJD

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA, INDIANAPOLIS DIVISION

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149663

September 15, 2017, Decided

September 15, 2017, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For ALEXIS WIEMER, Plaintiff: Mary Beth Ramey, Richard D. Hailey, RAMEY – HAILEY, Indianapolis, IN.

For HOOSIER HEIGHTS INDOOR CLIMBING FACILITY LLC, Defendant: Jessica Whelan, Phil L. Isenbarger, BINGHAM GREENEBAUM DOLL LLP, Indianapolis, IN.

JUDGES: TANYA WALTON PRATT, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: TANYA WALTON PRATT

OPINION

ENTRY ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter is before the Court on Defendant Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC’s (“Hoosier Heights”) Motion for Summary Judgment filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 (Filing No. 29). Plaintiff Alexis Wiemer (“Wiemer”) brought this action against Hoosier Heights for personal injuries sustained when he fell during a rock climbing activity. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

The material facts are not in dispute and are viewed in a light most favorable to Wiemer as the non-moving party. See Luster v. Ill. Dep’t of Corr., 652 F.3d 726, 728 (7th Cir. 2011).

Hoosier Heights, located in Carmel, Indiana, is a limited liability company which owns and operates an indoor rock climbing facility. The facility is open to the public and is available for individuals of all skill levels in recreational climbing. In order to use the facilities, Hoosier Heights requires all patrons [*2] to sign and acknowledge having read and understood a “Waiver & Release of Liability” form (“Waiver”). (Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver contains: general gym rules, exculpatory clauses relieving Hoosier Heights of liability, a medical authorization clause, an acknowledgement that the participant understands there are inherent risks to rock climbing with some risks listed, authorization to allow the Hoosier Heights’ staff to use any photographs taken during the patron’s visit for promotional materials, and a signature line for the participant. (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) At the top of the Waiver is Hoosier Heights’ logo, address, and the name Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing.

The Waiver states, in relevant part:

RELEASE AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK: In consideration of being permitted to use the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C., and mindful of the significant risks involved with the activities incidental thereto, I, for myself, my heirs, my estate and personal representative, do hereby release and discharge Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C. (hereinafter referred to as “Hoosier Heights”) from any and all liability for injury that may result from my [*3] use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing, and I do hereby waive and relinquish any and all actions or causes of action for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death occurring to myself arising as a result of the use of the facilities of Hoosier Heights or any activities incidental thereto, wherever or however such personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death may occur, whether foreseen or unforeseen, and for whatever period said activities may continue. I agree that under no circumstances will I, my heirs, my estate or my personal representative present any claim for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death against Hoosier Heights or its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns for any of said causes of actions, whether said causes of action shall arise by the negligence of any said person or otherwise.

It is the intention of the undersigned individual to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, members, directors, officers, agents and assigns from liability for any personal injury, property damage or wrongful death caused by negligence.

(Filing No. 30-1.) The Waiver also contained a provision enumerating the risks [*4] inherent in the sport of rock climbing:

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: I, the undersigned, acknowledge that I understand that there are significant elements of risk associated with the sport of rock climbing, including those activities that take place indoors. In addition, I realize those risks also pertain to related activities such as bouldering, incidental weight training, team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights. I realize that those risks may include, but are not limited to, injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facilities. I acknowledge and understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing or the use of the Hoosier Heights facilities and that other unknown and unanticipated risks may result in injury, illness, paralysis, or death.

Id. In addition to executing the Waiver, Hoosier Heights requires that all patrons attend and acknowledge undergoing orientation and training.

Wiemer visited Hoosier Heights in October 2014. On that date, he attended [*5] a facility orientation, which is an employee-guided training on how to boulder, belay, and top rope climb.1 (Filing No. 30-7.) If a customer intends to use the “top rope” climbing area of the facility, they must first complete the “top rope” orientation and initial and sign the facility orientation form in the appropriate locations. Following his orientation and training, Wiemer signed a Waiver form.

1 Top rope climbing is a style of climbing in which a rope runs from a belayer at the foot of the climbing wall which is connected to an anchor system at the top of the wall and back down to the climber. Both climber and the belayer are attached to the rope through a harness and carabiner. The belayer is responsible for pulling the slack in the rope, which results in the climber moving up the wall. The belayer must keep the rope tight so that, in the event the climber releases from the wall, the climber remains suspended in the air and does not fall.

Kayli Mellencamp (“Mellencamp”), a part-time Hoosier Heights employee with very little rock climbing experience, provided Wiemer’s orientation and training. (Filing No. 30-6.) Mellencamp’s employee training consisted solely of reviewing company provided instructional books on rock climbing and witnessing other employee orientations. (Filing No. 67-2 at 10-11 and 13-14.) Mellencamp had no other professional rock climbing experience.

On January 14, 2015, Wiemer, along with several co-workers, including Robert Magnus (“Magnus”), traveled to Hoosier Heights for recreational rock climbing. Magnus had also previously visited Hoosier Heights, and Wiemer’s and Magnus’ Waivers were already on file and under the terms of their agreements remained in effect (Filing No. 30-6; Filing No. 30-7). Wiemer [*6] was top rope climbing while Magnus belayed below (Filing No. 30-4). Unfortunately, Wiemer fell while he was climbing. Incident reports indicate that Wiemer fell approximately thirty-five feet to the ground in a sitting position due to Magnus releasing a gate lever while he was belaying for Wiemer, which caused Wiemer to accelerate to the floor very quickly. (Filing No. 30-4 at 1-4.) As a result of the fall, he sustained severe and permanent injuries to his back, as well as impaired bladder and bowel control. Wiemer filed this action alleging Hoosier Heights was negligent in its operations.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.Com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489-90 (7th Cir. 2007). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews “the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw[s] all reasonable [*7] inferences in that party’s favor.” Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). However, “[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial.” Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 490 (citation omitted). “In much the same way that a court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat the motion for summary judgment, nor is it permitted to conduct a paper trial on the merits of a claim.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal quotations omitted). “[N]either the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties . . . nor the existence of some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts . . . is sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Grp., Inc., 129 F.3d 391, 395 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “It is equally well settled, however, that where no factual disputes are present or where the undisputed facts demonstrate that one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment in favor of that party is entirely appropriate. Collins v. American Optometric Ass’n, 693 F.2d 636, 639 (7th Cir. 1982).

III. DISCUSSION

Hoosier Heights contends that Wiemer’s signing of the Waiver, which contained an explicit reference waiving liability [*8] for Hoosier Heights’ own negligence, absolves it of any liability and Wiemer expressly acknowledged that falling was a risk inherent in indoor rock climbing. Wiemer responds with two arguments in the alternative. First, he argues that the Waiver misidentifies the released party as “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility” because the Defendant’s name, as alleged in the Complaint and as evidenced by the Indiana Secretary of State Certificate of Assumed Business Name, is “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility.” (Filing No. 67-4.) Second, Wiemer argues that Hoosier Heights negligence in the hiring and training of Mellencamp, was not an included “inherent risk” and this significantly contributed to his fall and injury.

A. Hoosier Heights’ Business Name

The waiver signed by Wiemer incorrectly lists the business name as ‘Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility L.L.C.’ (Filing No. 30-1 at 1). Hoosier Heights acknowledges that its official name is Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing Facility LLC and that the word “Rock” does not appear in its corporate filings with the Indiana Secretary of State although it appears on the Waiver at issue. Wiemer contends that a genuine issue of material [*9] fact exists regarding the validity of the Waiver, because the Waiver that he signed failed to name the correct entity and this inaccuracy creates ambiguity as to who Wiemer contracted with.

The Court is not persuaded by Wiemer’s argument. “Release documents shall be interpreted in the same manner as any other contract document, with the intention of the parties regarding the purpose of the document governing.” Huffman v. Monroe County Community School Corp., 588 N.E.2d 1264, 1267 (Ind. 1992). “The meaning of a contract is to be determined from an examination of all of its provisions, not from a consideration of individual words, phrases, or even paragraphs read alone.” Huffman, 588 N.E.2d at 1267. In addition, when a contract is unambiguous, Indiana courts look to the four corners of the document to determine the intentions of the parties. Evan v. Poe & Associates, Inc., 873 N.E.2d 92, 98 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007). This analysis of contract interpretation is a question of law. Evans v. Med. & Prof’l Collection Servs., Inc., 741 N.E.2d 795, 797 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).

In Evans, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that a contract was unambiguous that misidentified a business name in the agreement but included the relevant address as that of the business. Evans, 741 N.E.2d at 798. The Evans court found that the plaintiff could not recover payment from the owner, “Evans Ford,” in his personal capacity, even though that was the name indicated in the contract and the actual business [*10] was organized as a corporation under the name of “Evans Lincoln Mercury Ford, Inc.” Id. at 796-98. The court did not resort to extrinsic evidence because the contract unambiguously identified the parties despite the misidentification. See id. at 798.

In this case, the Waiver is unambiguous as to identifying the parties to the agreement. Although the language of the Release and Assumption of Risk paragraph identifies “Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Facility,” the document’s letterhead at the top displays “Hoosier Heights Indoor Climbing,” and includes the relevant business address of Hoosier Heights where Wiemer visited. Under these circumstances, the misidentification of Hoosier Heights does not operate to void the Waiver. Because the Waiver is unambiguous, the Court need not examine extrinsic evidence to determine the proper parties to the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is denied on this basis.

B. Negligent Training

Hoosier Heights contends that summary judgment is appropriate because the Waiver’s explicit references to the “inherent risks” of rock climbing creates a binding exculpatory clause which releases Hoosier Heights from liability. Wiemer argues that a genuine issue of material fact exists [*11] regarding whether improper instruction and inadequate training, is an “inherent risk” of indoor rock climbing.

Under Indiana law, waivers containing exculpatory clauses absolving parties of liability for their own negligence must be specific and explicitly refer to waiving that party’s negligence. Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center, 852 N.E.2d 576, 584 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006). Nevertheless, “an exculpatory clause’s lack of a specific reference to the negligence of a defendant will not always preclude the defendant from being released from liability–such as when a plaintiff has incurred damages that are inherent in the nature of the activity.” Id. (citing Marsh v. Dixon, 707 N.E.2d 998, 1000 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999)).

Wiemer contends that his fall was due to Mellencamp’s improper training and instruction and this was not a risk that he agreed to assume (Filing No. 67 at 10). Further, he argues that improper training and instruction are not risks that are inherent in the nature of rock climbing. Id. Hoosier Heights responds that falls, as indicated by the Waiver, are a specific risk inherent in the nature of rock climbing and that Wiemer specifically waived any claims to injuries from falls by signing the Waiver (Filing No. 68 at 14). Hoosier Heights also contends that Wiemer waived any claims for improper training and instruction [*12] by its’ employees as the Waiver contains an explicit release of Hoosier Heights’ employees for any negligence. Id. at 12.

Hoosier Heights acknowledges that negligence is generally a fact-intensive question; however, it responds that it is entitled to summary judgment because Wiemer waived any claims for liability on the basis of negligence. Id. at 11. Hoosier Heights points the Court to Anderson v. Four Seasons Equestrian Center. In Anderson, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the defendant, an equine center, was entitled to summary judgment even though the waiver at issue did not contain a specific and explicit release of the equine center due to its own negligence because the plaintiff’s injury of falling while mounting her horse was a risk inherent in the nature of the activity of horse riding. Anderson, 852 N.E.2d at 581. The plaintiff argued that her injury was due to the equine center’s negligence in caring for, conditioning, and training her horse. The court found that the plaintiff’s injury and resulting damages, including her characterization of the cause of those damages (i.e. conditioning and training of her horse), were risks that were inherent in the nature of horse riding and were exactly those for [*13] which she granted the equine center a release of liability by signing the waiver. Id. at 585.

In the present case, Wiemer signed a specific and explicit Waiver, which released Hoosier Heights from liability due to its own negligence. The Waiver explained that “rock climbing activity” at Hoosier Heights included, among other things,

…team building, fitness training regimens and equipment purchased or rented at Hoosier Heights[,]…injuries resulting from falls, equipment failures, entanglements, falling or dropped items, or the negligence of other climbers, participants, belayers, spotters, employees, or other users of the facility…. I understand that the above list is not inclusive of all possible risks associated with rock climbing.

(Filing No. 30-6 at 1). In addition, a very similarly worded reference to liability from their own negligence is contained in the second paragraph of the ‘Release and Assumption of Risk’ section which states, “It is the intention of the undersigned individually to exempt and relieve Hoosier Heights and its employees, … from liability for any personal injury, property damage, or wrongful death caused by negligence.” (Filing No. 30-1 at 1.) The direct mentions [*14] of Hoosier Heights’ own negligence adheres to the holding set in Powell that an exculpatory clause needs to be specific and explicit in referencing an absolving party’s liability from negligence.

Similar to the result in Anderson, by signing the Waiver, Wiemer released Hoosier Heights from any liability resulting from its own negligence, including improper training and instruction. Further, Wiemer’s injury from falling was a risk that was inherent in the activity of rock climbing and explicitly noted in the Waiver. Accordingly, summary judgment is appropriate.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the Court determines that, based on the undisputed material facts, Hoosier Heights is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Hoosier Heights’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Filing No. 29) is GRANTED, and Wiemer’s Complaint is DISMISSED. Final Judgment will issue under a separate order.

SO ORDERED.

Date: 9/15/2017

/s/ Tanya Walton Pratt

TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

United States District Court

Southern District of Indiana


What happens if you fail to follow the requirements of your insurance policy and do not get a release signed? In New Hampshire, you have no coverage.

You either have to create an absolutely fool proof system or take your release
online. If they don’t sign they don’t climb!

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d
399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Colony Insurance Company

Defendant: Dover Indoor Climbing Gym& a.

Plaintiff Claims: There was no insurance coverage because the insured did not get a release signed by the injured claimant

Defendant Defenses: The insurance policy endorsement requiring a release to be signed was ambiguous

Holding: For the Plaintiff Insurance Company

Year: 2009

This is a scary case, yet the outcome is correct. The plaintiff insurance company issued a policy to the defendant climbing gym. An endorsement (an added amendment to the contract) to the policy said there would only be coverage if the gym all customers sign a release.

 An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in
your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ “It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

A climber came to the gym with a group of friends. The gym asked everyone if they had a release on file, and no one said no. (Yes really stupid procedures!) Bigelow was part of the group and did not have a release on file and had not signed a release. While climbing Bigelow fell and was injured.

Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed; however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries.

The defendant climbing gym put the plaintiff insurance company on notice of the claim. When the insurance company found out no release was signed, the insurance company filed a declaratory judgment motion. A declaratory judgment is a way to go into a court and say there is no coverage under this policy because there was no release. It is an attempt to be a quick interpretation of the contract so the bigger issue can be resolved quickly.

The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the climbing gym’s motion for summary judgment saying the endorsement requiring the signed release was ambiguous. The ambiguity was created because the insurance company had not provided the gym with a sample waiver to use.

The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion for summary judgment. 

This analysis by the court was absurd. Releases need to be written for the gym, for the gym’s clients and for the state law of the state where it is to be used. A “sample” release is a guaranteed loser in most cases. However, I suspect the court was looking for anyway it could find to provide coverage for the gym.

The trial court’s ruling meant the plaintiff insurance company had to provide coverage to the defendant for any claims made by the injured climber Bigelow.

The insurance company appealed the decision. New Hampshire does not have an intermediary appellate court system so the appeal went to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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

Insurance policies are contracts and are interpreted as such. However, because have been written in a specific way and are always offered on a take it or leave it basis, as well as the fact the insurance company has all the cards (money) insurance policies have additional legal interpretations in addition to contract law.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court started its analysis by looking at how insurance policies are interpreted. That means the policy is read as a whole objectively. Terms are given their natural meaning, meaning there is no special interpretation of any term, and if the policy is clear and unambiguous is it enforced. No special reading of the policy is allowed based on any party to the policy’s expectations.

We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists as defined by the policy rests on the insurance company. That means coverage exists under the policy unless the insurance company can prove no coverage was written.

If an insurance company wants to limit its coverage, it is allowed to do so. However, that limitation must be clear and unambiguous. An ambiguity exists if a reasonable disagreement exists between the insurance company and the policyholder and that disagreement could lead to two or more, interpretations.

Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. 

Ambiguities will be examined in the appropriate context and the words construed in their plain, ordinary and popular meaning. If the interpretation of the ambiguity favors the policyholder, then the coverage will favor the insured.

In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. 

If, however, the language in the policy is clear, the court will not bend over backward or as written in this case “perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics” to find an ambiguity and create coverage.

Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. 

The court then looked at the determination of the trial court which found an ambiguity because the insurance company did not provide a sample insurance policy. The Supreme Court found that was an incorrect interpretation of the policy. Even the defendant climbing gym agreed with the court on this
issue.

Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  

The court then applied to the law of New Hampshire in interpreting insurance policies to the facts of this case. The court found the language requiring a release was clear and that a reasonable person could only read it.

The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous.

Simply put the policy requires the defendant climbing gym to have everyone sign a release. If no release is signed, there was no coverage for the gym. The trial court was overturned, and the climbing gym faced the claims of the injured climber without insurance coverage.

So Now What?

One of the first cases I was involved with was very similar. A Montana stable was insured by an insurance company with an endorsement just as this one; all riders were required to sign a release. In Montana all guides, including horseback guides had to be licensed by the state. A state employee was checking out the
stable and found the releases. In Montana, you cannot use a release. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release andMontana Statute Prohibits Use of a Release)

The state employee had the stable quit using the release, or they would lose their license to operate in Montana. A rider was injured and sued the stable, and the insurance company denied coverage. I was contacted by the law firm representing the insurance company and was floored by the facts and how the insurance company could deny coverage when it violated state regulations.

However, in that situation as well as this one, there is not much you can do to get around the situation if the policy clearly states you must have a release signed. In the Montana case, the stable owner should have immediately contacted his insurance company when he was told he could not use a release and pay to have the endorsement removed or found another insurance company to write him a policy.

In this case, a proper procedure should have been put in place to confirm signed releases rather than relying on the honesty of someone walking through the doors to the gym.

When you purchase insurance make sure you and your insurance agent are speaking clearly to each other, and you both understand what you are looking for. When the policy arrives, read the policy or pay a professional to read the policy for you looking for the coverage’s you need as well as looking for problems with the coverage.

If you ask the agent or broker to clarify the coverage you are wanting, to make sure you get that clarification in writing (or an email), so you can take that to court if necessary.

Most importantly create a system to make sure that everyone who comes to your facility, activity or business when you use a release, signs a release.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym, 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a., 158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

Colony Insurance Company v. Dover Indoor Climbing Gym & a.

No. 2008-759

SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

158 N.H. 628; 974 A.2d 399; 2009 N.H. LEXIS 51

March 18, 2009, Argued

April 24, 2009, Opinion Issued

HEADNOTES NEW HAMPSHIRE OFFICIAL REPORTS HEADNOTES

1. Insurance–Policies–Construction The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for the court to decide. The court construes the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading of the policy as a whole. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, the court accords the language its natural and ordinary meaning. The court need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, the court’s search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy.

2. Insurance–Proceedings–Burden of Proof The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer.

3. Insurance–Policies–Ambiguities Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so through clear and unambiguous policy language. Ambiguity exists if reasonable disagreement between contracting parties leads to at least two interpretations of the language. In determining whether an ambiguity exists, the court will look to the claimed ambiguity, consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Where, however, the policy language is clear, the court will not perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended.

4. Insurance–Policies–Construction When a climbing gym’s insurance policy stated, “All participants shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any climbing activity,” the clear meaning of the policy language was that the gym was required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation that a reasonable person would believe that coverage existed so long as the gym had a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. Because the policy required the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of an injured climber rendered coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims.

COUNSEL: Wiggin & Nourie, P.A., of Manchester (Doreen F. Connor on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.

Mallory & Friedman, PLLC, of Concord (Mark L. Mallory on the brief and orally), for defendant, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., of Dover, for defendant, Richard Bigelow, filed no brief.

JUDGES: DUGGAN, J. BRODERICK, C.J., and DALIANIS, J., concurred.

OPINION BY: DUGGAN

OPINION

[**400]   [*629]  Duggan, J. The plaintiff, Colony Insurance Company (Colony), appeals an order of the Superior Court (McHugh, J.) denying its motion for summary judgment and granting that of the defendants, Dover Indoor Climbing Gym (the gym) and Richard Bigelow. We reverse and remand.

The trial court found, or the record supports, the following facts. Colony issued a commercial general liability insurance policy to the gym, which was in effect from January 5, 2007, to January 5, 2008. An endorsement to the policy stated: “All ‘participants’ shall be required to sign a waiver or release of liability in your favor prior to engaging in any ‘climbing activity.’ ” It further stated: “Failure to conform to this warranty will render this policy null and void as [sic] those claims brought against you.”

On August 14, 2007,  [***2] Bigelow accompanied friends to the climbing gym, but did not sign a waiver. He testified that he was never asked to sign a waiver; the gym owner’s affidavit stated that the owner asked the group of climbers if they had waivers on file and received no negative answers. It is undisputed, however, that Bigelow did not sign a waiver or release. While climbing, Bigelow fell and sustained serious injuries. The gym then put Colony on notice to defend and pay any verdict obtained by Bigelow. In response, Colony filed a petition for declaratory judgment, arguing that the gym’s failure to obtain a release from Bigelow absolved Colony of any duty to defend or indemnify the gym.

Both Colony and the defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which the trial court addressed in a written order. The trial court found that Colony’s failure to provide the gym with a sample waiver rendered the endorsement provision ambiguous. The trial court therefore denied Colony’s motion for summary judgment, and granted the defendants’ cross-motion  [**401]  for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

[*630]  On appeal, Colony argues that the trial court erred in finding that the endorsement was ambiguous, and contends that the  [***3] gym’s failure to obtain a waiver from Bigelow renders the policy inapplicable as to his claims. Alternatively, Colony argues that even if the endorsement is ambiguous, the gym is not entitled to coverage because it had actual knowledge of the policy’s waiver requirement.

[HN1] In reviewing the trial court’s grant or denial of summary judgment, we consider the evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co., 156 N.H. 202, 208, 932 A.2d 831 (2007); Sintros v. Hamon, 148 N.H. 478, 480, 810 A.2d 553 (2002). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the grant of summary judgment is proper. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480. We review the trial court’s application of the law to the facts de novo. Everitt, 156 N.H. at 209; Sintros, 148 N.H. at 480.

[1]  [HN2] The interpretation of insurance policy language is a question of law for this court to decide. Godbout v. Lloyd’s Ins. Syndicates, 150 N.H. 103, 105, 834 A.2d 360 (2003). We construe the language of an insurance policy as would a reasonable person in the position of the insured based upon a more than casual reading  [***4] of the policy as a whole. Id. Policy terms are construed objectively, and where the terms of a policy are clear and unambiguous, we accord the language its natural and ordinary meaning. Id. We need not examine the parties’ reasonable expectations of coverage when a policy is clear and unambiguous; absent ambiguity, our search for the parties’ intent is limited to the words of the policy. Id.

[2, 3] In this case, the gym argues that the policy is ambiguous and Colony maintains that it is not.  [HN3] The burden of proving that no insurance coverage exists rests squarely with the insurer. Curtis v. Guaranty Trust Life Ins. Co., 132 N.H. 337, 340, 566 A.2d 176 (1989); see RSA 491:22-a (1997).  [HN4] Although an insurer has a right to contractually limit the extent of its liability, it must do so “through clear and unambiguous policy language.” Id. (quotation omitted). Ambiguity exists if “reasonable disagreement between contracting parties” leads to at least two interpretations of the language. Int’l Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Mfgs. & Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 140 N.H. 15, 20, 661 A.2d 1192 (1995); Trombly v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield, 120 N.H. 764, 771, 423 A.2d 980 (1980). In determining whether an ambiguity exists, we will look to the claimed ambiguity,  [***5] consider it in its appropriate context, and construe the words used according to their plain, ordinary, and popular definitions. Int’l Surplus, 140 N.H. at 20. If one of the reasonable meanings of the language favors the policyholder, the ambiguity will be construed against the insurer. Id. Where, however, the policy language is clear, this court “will not  [*631]  perform amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics to find a purported ambiguity” simply to construe the policy against the insurer and create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. Hudson v. Farm Family Mut. Ins. Co., 142 N.H. 144, 147, 697 A.2d 501 (1997); Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342.

The trial court found that the endorsement requiring waivers is ambiguous because Colony did not provide the gym with a sample waiver. Even the gym, however, contends that the trial court “reached the  [**402]  correct result for the wrong reasons.” Thus, the gym does not argue that the endorsement creates an ambiguity by its failure to provide the insured with a sample waiver form, but, rather, that the exclusionary language is ambiguous because it states that participants shall “be required” to sign waivers as opposed to mandating that the gym obtain signed waivers.  [***6] Under this interpretation, the gym argues, a reasonable person would believe that coverage exists so long as the gym has a policy of requiring waivers regardless of whether it actually obtained waivers from climbing participants. Colony argues that the policy language is unambiguous. We agree with Colony.

[4] The clear meaning of the policy language is that the gym is required to actually obtain waivers from climbing participants. The gym’s interpretation would lead to the absurd result of requiring coverage even if the gym never actually enforced its waiver policy. A reasonable person reading the policy would not understand that coverage existed in such circumstances. The gym’s interpretation is unreasonably narrow, and is therefore not the type of alternative interpretation that renders policy language ambiguous. See Curtis, 132 N.H. at 342 ( [HN5] refusing to find ambiguity when alternate interpretations would “inevitably lead to absurd results”). To construe the exclusion against the insurer here would create coverage where it is clear that none was intended. We therefore conclude that the policy language is unambiguous and that a reasonable insured would understand that the exclusion would  [***7] apply in this case.

Because the policy requires the gym to obtain waivers from all participants, the failure to do so in the case of Bigelow renders coverage under the policy inapplicable to his claims. In light of our holding, we need not address Colony’s remaining argument. We therefore reverse the order of the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, and hold that Colony is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Reversed and remanded.

Broderick, C.J., and Dalianis, J., concurred.