Paperwork, the death of trees and in this case the only defense the defendant had at this stage of the trial because the paperwork was not taken care of properly.

The youth camp failed to keep a good copy of the registration paperwork. What was presented to the court as a forum selection clause was illegible so the court held it was not valid.

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Ben Epps, et al.

Defendant: 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Motion to Dismiss because of improper venue

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

Lawsuits are not games; they are not invitations to parties, there is a lot of money riding on the outcome in most cases. Documents needed for the case must be given to the attorneys defending the case in the condition in which they are maintained. In this case, a document was faxed to the defense attorneys and in such a bad way the court could not read the document. Since the court could not read the document, the court assumed the original was the same, and therefore, the document was not valid.

At the same time, if you are collecting and keeping documents that may end up in court, you need to create a system that preserves these documents in perfect condition so if they do get to court the judge can read them.

Finally, you must get the documents from the people you need a signature from in a condition the court will accept.

Facts

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independent Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions.

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause.

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin.

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause.

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

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs had filed the case in the wrong court according to the agreement, the registration form signed by the parents of the injured youth. The forum selection clause as defined by the courts or agreement to hold the trial at a specific court, allegedly stated the trial was to be held in Wayne County Court, Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs filed the case in the federal district our in Pennsylvania. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss from federal court and force the case to the state court.

The jurisdiction in the case was going to be Pennsylvania law no matter what; however, the trial would not be held in the back yard of the defendant, which is normally a good thing for the defendant.

When in the federal district court system, if a forum selection clause is upheld the case is simply transferred to the proper court. However, in this case because the selection clause stated a state court the case could not be transferred. The case would be dismissed at the federal court. The case could be refiled in the state court at that time if the statute of limitations had not run.

However, here, the document that was presented to the court that was the alleged agreement by the parents to only sue in state court was not legible.

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, it’s essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

The agreement was a copy that had been faxed, was illegible and could not be read by the court.

Since the court could not read the document, the legal wording was incomplete and the entire document had sections missing the court could not find there was an agreement. The motion to change venue was dismissed.

So Now What?

I would guess the camp had received the faxed copy from the parents. There would be no need to fax the documents around the camp. The camp probably had sent the documents to the parents for their signature, and they had faxed them back. This was mistake one, because the camp accepted a badly faxed copy of the document.

  1. When you receive an email, fax, or original where you cannot make out what is going on, signature seems off, the document is unreadable, you must get a good copy. Tell the signor to do it again and make the copy legible.
  2. Set up a system to check documents when they come in.
  3. Set the system up with enough time so that is time to correct problems. Don’t place yourself in a position where you are balancing the money coming in versus proper paperwork you need.

Second, the camp seemed to not locate the original fax, but only had a copy of the faxed document.

  1. Develop a system to store and maintain the documents. Now day’s scanners are so efficient all the documents can be scanned and maintained in seconds. The original paper documents can be preserved and kept for the statue of limitations for the state, and a good electronic copy is also available.

Don’t allow a kid or adult to come to camp, attend the program, participate in the activity unless you have all the paperwork you need, signed and in a good legible condition. Then and only then cash the check and open the gates.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Epps, et al., v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93335, 2007 WL 4463588

Ben Epps, et al., Plaintiffs, v. 1.I.L., INC., d/b/a Independent Lake Camp, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 07-02314

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

December 19, 2007

ORDER

MEMORANDUM

James T. Giles J.

I. Introduction

Before the court is Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3). Plaintiffs, Bens Epps and Amy Monroe, as parents and natural guardians of Axel Epps and in their own right, bring suit based in diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, against Defendant 1.I.L. Inc. for personal injuries allegedly sustained by their son, Axel, while attending Defendant’s camp.

The primary issue raised by Defendant’s motion and determined by the court is whether the forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement at issue is valid and enforceable. The court finds that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is not enforceable because it does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court concludes that Plaintiffs have brought suit in a proper venue and denies Defendant’s motion to dismiss for the reasons that follow.

II. Factual Background

Plaintiffs allege that on June 24, 2005, their son, Axel, fell from a bike and was seriously injured while attending Defendant’s Independant Lake Camp located in Orson, Wayne County, Pennsylvania. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 6.) Plaintiffs allege that Axel’s accident was caused by Defendant’s negligence while Defendant was acting in loco parentis. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 7.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant: 1) failed to provide proper supervision and safeguards; 2) gave Axel a bike, helmet, and other equipment without properly training him to use them; 3) allowed Axel to use a bike track, which was inappropriate for his age and experience; and 4) failed to obtain parental consent for its actions. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 8.)

Plaintiffs further allege that Axel suffered serious and permanent physical injuries, including permanent cognitive and psychological damage, several fractures, lacerations resulting in scarring, cervical and lumbar sprain, and a shock to his nervous system. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 9.) Plaintiffs also claim that Axel’s injuries include severe financial losses in the form of future costs of treatment and therapy, loss of earnings, and loss of earning capacity.

Plaintiffs, citizens of New York, brought suit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania because Defendant is a citizen of Pennsylvania with offices in both Montgomery County and Wayne County. (Pls.’ Compl. ¶ 1-4; Pls.’ Br. in Supp. of Ans. to Mot. of Def. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Pls.’ Supp. Ans.”) 1; Def.’s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss for Improper Venue (“Def.’s Supp.”) 1, 5.) Plaintiffs demand damages in excess of $150,000 for each of the two counts in the complaint as well as interest and costs of the suit.

III. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on June 7, 2007. Defendant brought its motion to dismiss for improper venue alleging that the Registration Agreement, which Plaintiffs had to sign for Axel to attend camp, contained a forum selection clause. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss 2.) Defendant attached a blank, unsigned version of the Independent Lake Camp Registration 2005 (“Registration Agreement”) to its motion to dismiss. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) Defendant alleges that under the Registration Agreement, the proper forum would be a court in Wayne County, which is located in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.) The blank Registration Agreement, in which the print is small but clear and legible, provides in part:

It is agreed that any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ response to Defendant’s motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs argued that the blank Registration Agreement was unsigned and thus that Defendant failed to show that Plaintiffs had agreed to the terms in the document, including the forum selection clause. Plaintiffs averred by affidavit that they did not agree and would not have agreed to such a forum selection clause. (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2, Ex. B ¶¶ 2-3 (Ben Epps Aff.), Ex. C ¶¶ 2-3 (Amy Monroe Aff.).)

Defendant then provided a signed copy of the Registration Agreement, in which the information requested had been filled in and which was signed by Plaintiff Ben Epps. Defendant submitted an affidavit by Daniel Gould, the president of Defendant and Director of Independent Lake Camp. Mr. Gould avers that, after an exhaustive and diligent search, Defendant could only locate a photocopy of the signed Registration Agreement and was unable to locate the original. (Gould Aff. ¶¶ 5, 7-10.) He avers that the original agreement is presumed lost and/or destroyed through no bad faith or improper act on the part of Defendant. (Gould Aff. ¶ 10.) The photocopy of the agreement provided to the court also appears to be a faxed copy, as evident from a fax header across the top margin. (Gould Aff. Ex. A (Signed Registration Agreement).)

In the copy of the signed Registration Agreement submitted by Defendant, the small print containing the terms of the agreement is blurry and barely legible. As Defendant concedes, the right-side margin, toward the bottom, is cut off, truncating the forum selection clause. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.) Consequently, if the print were clearly legible, when compared with the clear, blank version of the agreement, the forum selection clause would read:

It is agree [sic] any dispute or cause of action arising between the parties, whether out of this agreement or other wise [sic], can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in V [or three-quarters of a W] County Pennsylvania [sic] and shall be construed in accordance with the laws of Pennsylvania.

(Gould Aff. Ex. A.) Thus, if legible, most or all of the letters in the word “Wayne,” as in “Wayne County Pennsylvania,” are missing. (Gould Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. A.)

In Plaintiffs’ reply to Defendant’s affidavit, Plaintiffs do not dispute that Plaintiff Ben Epps’ signature appears on the copy of the Registration Agreement. Nor do Plaintiffs argue that the entire agreement itself is invalid. (Compare Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 2-3 (arguing, before Defendant’s production of a signed agreement, that the Registration Agreement was not enforceable because there was no objective manifestation of the parties’ intention to be contractually bound), with Pls.’ Reply to Def.’s Aff. 1 (arguing, after Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, that there was no meeting of the minds as to the forum selection clause because the wording of the clause was truncated and indiscernible).) Thus, the issue determined by the court is the enforceability of the forum selection clause.

III. Discussion

Federal law applies in the determination of the effect given to a forum selection clause in diversity cases. Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873, 877 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Jones v. Weibrecht, 901 F.2d 17, 19 (2d Cir. 1990)). To evaluate the enforceability of the forum selection clause here, the court determines if the standard for dismissal or transfer is proper.[1] See id. at 877-78. If the standard for transfer applies, the court then determines if the forum selection clause is reasonable. See id. at 880 (citing M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972)).

A. Dismissal or Transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or 1406.

Although dismissal is a “permissible means of enforcing a forum selection clause that allows suit to be filed in another federal forum,” the Third Circuit cautions that “as a general matter, it makes better sense, when venue is proper but the parties have agreed upon a not- unreasonable forum selection clause that points to another federal venue, to transfer rather than dismiss.” Salovaara v. Jackson Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 246 F.3d 289, 298-99 (3d Cir. 2001); see Stewart Org., Inc. v. Ricoh Corp., 487 U.S. 22, 28-29, 32 (1988) (holding that a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction should treat a request to enforce a forum selection clause in a contract as a motion to transfer venue under applicable federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a)); 15 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (2d ed. 1986 & Supp. 2006).

Transfer, however, is not available when a forum selection clause specifies a non-federal forum. Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298. The forum selection clause in the Registration Agreement, if valid and untruncated, would provide that “any dispute . . . can only be brought in a court of competent jurisdiction located in Wayne County Pennsylvania” and does not limit jurisdiction to state court. The provision’s plain language is construed to permit the action in any court of the county, including the federal court in the federal judicial district encompassing Wayne County, Pennsylvania, regardless of whether the federal court is physically located in the county. See Jumara, 55 F.3d at 881 (construing an arbitration provision requiring the action to transpire within a particular county to mean that the action would be permitted in any court, state or federal, with jurisdiction encompassing that county). Transfer is an available remedy because the forum selection clause, if valid and untruncated, includes a federal forum. See id. at 881-83 (applying the § 1404(a) analysis for transfer where a forum selection clause permitted any state or federal forum within a particular county).

Because transfer is the appropriate remedy, the court must then consider whether 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) or § 1406 applies. “Section 1404(a) provides for the transfer of a case where both the original venue and the requested venue are proper. Section 1406, on the other hand, applies where the original venue is improper and provides for either transfer or dismissal of the case.” Id. at 878. Whether venue is proper in this district is governed by the federal venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1391. Id.

Without considering the forum selection clause, venue is proper in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Neither party disputes that Defendant is subject to personal jurisdiction in this district because Defendant transacts business here. See 28 U.S.C. § 1391(c); Jumara, 55 F.3d at 878-79; Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29 n.8 (“The parties do not dispute that the District Court properly denied the motion to dismiss the case for improper venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a) because respondent apparently does business [there].”); see also (Pls.’ Supp. Ans. 1; Def.’s Supp. 3). This court therefore concludes that the appropriate analysis is whether the case should be transferred under § 1404(a). See Salovaara, 246 F.3d at 298-99.

B. Transfer under 1404(a) Is Improper Because the Forum Selection Clause Is Unreasonable and Unenforceable.

Section 1404(a) controls the inquiry of whether to give effect to a forum selection clause and to transfer a case.[2] Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29, 32. Before considering the factors under Section 1404(a), the court first examines the validity or reasonableness of the forum selection clause through application of the test in M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1972). “Where the forum selection clause is valid, which requires that there have been no ‘fraud, influence, or overweening bargaining power,’ the plaintiffs bear the burden of demonstrating why they should not be bound by their contractual choice of forum.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80 (quoting Bremen, 407 U.S. at 12-13).

A forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid if the objecting party demonstrates that (1) the forum selection clause is the result of fraud or overreaching, (2) its enforcement would violate a strong public policy of the forum, or (3) its enforcement would result in litigation so seriously inconvenient and unreasonable that it would deprive a litigant of his or her day in court. Bremen, 407 U.S. at 15-17; In re Diaz Contracting, Inc., 817 F.2d 1047, 1051-52 (3d Cir. 1987).

To dispose of this issue, the court need only address whether the enforcement of the forum selection clause violates a strong public policy of the forum. Under Pennsylvania law, a clause in a contract must be conspicuous, so as to provide notice of its terms to a reasonable person. See, e.g., 13 Pa.C.S. § 2316 (requiring that limitation of warranties terms be conspicuous); 13 Pa.C.S. § 1201 (defining “conspicuous”); Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 2006 Pa. Super 159, P23-24 & n.12-13 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (relying on the requirement for conspicuous terms in the sale of goods context in a case involving the sale of services, and finding that disclaimer language on a ski ticket was not sufficiently conspicuous to put a purchaser on notice of its contents). Plaintiffs argue that the forum selection clause contained in the signed Registration Agreement is invalid because the wording of the clause is “truncated and indiscernible.” (Pls.’ Reply 1.)

The court agrees that the small print of the forum selection clause in the photocopied and faxed signed Registration Agreement is blurry and illegible, and does not provide reasonable notice of its terms. The court cannot assume that Mr. Epps signed a clear version of the agreement that became blurry and illegible upon subsequently being photocopied and faxed, because such evidence is not before the court. There is no evidence that Plaintiff Ben Epps signed any version of the Registration Agreement other than the document provided to the court.

Further, even if the forum selection clause were legible, its essential term, that any cause of action be brought in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, is cut off so as to be incomprehensible. Even if legible, the term “V– County Pennsylvania” in the forum selection clause gives no reasonable notice of the location of any agreed-upon forum.

The court concludes that the forum selection clause is inconspicuous and does not give notice of its terms to a reasonable person in violation of strong Pennsylvania public policy. The forum selection clause therefore is unreasonable, invalid, and unenforceable. Because the court finds that the forum selection clause is unreasonable and invalid, it does not address the private and public factors as transfer considerations under § 1404(a).

V. Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue is denied. An appropriate order follows.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 19th day of December, 2007, upon consideration of Defendant 1.I.L., Inc.’s Motion to Dismiss for Improper Venue (Doc. No. 4), Plaintiffs’ Response in opposition thereto, Defendant’s Affidavit of Daniel Gould and Exhibits (Doc. Nos. 8 & 9), and Plaintiffs’ Reply, it is hereby ORDERED that said motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth in the attached memorandum.

Notes:

[1] Prior to Defendant’s production of a signed Registration Agreement, Plaintiffs argued that the forum selection clause should not be enforced because it did not meet the standard of reasonable communicativeness, as set forth in Marek v. Marpan Two, Inc., 817 F.2d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1987), due to the agreement’s small print. Marek applies primarily in cases involving maritime law. See, e.g., Gibbs v. Carnival Cruise Lines, 314 F.3d 125, 130 (3d Cir. 2002); Hodes v. S. N.C. Achille Lauro ed Altri-Gestione, 858 F.2d 905, 906, 909-12 (3d Cir. 1988). As discussed below, the court follows more recent Third Circuit precedent on the enforceability of forum selection clauses.

[2] Section 1404(a) provides that “a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district or division where it might have been brought” for “the convenience of parties and witnesses” and “in the interest of justice.” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a); see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29. Courts must adjudicate motions to transfer based on an “individualized, case-by-case consideration of convenience and fairness,” weighing a number of factors. Id. (quoting Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 622 (1964)). A court’s review is not limited to the three enumerated factors in § 1404(a) – convenience of the parties, convenience of witnesses, or interests of justice – and courts may consider various private and public interests. Jumara, 55 F.3d at 879-80.

The parties’ agreement as to the proper forum, although not dispositive, receives “substantial consideration” in the weighing of relevant factors. Id. at 880; see Stewart, 487 U.S. at 29-30 (“The presence of a forum selection clause . . . will be a significant factor that figures centrally in the district court’s calculus. . . . The flexible and individualized analysis Congress prescribed in § 1404(a) thus encompasses consideration of the parties’ private expression of their venue preferences.”). The deference generally given to a plaintiff’s choice of forum is “inappropriate where the plaintiff has already freely chosen an appropriate venue.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 880.


Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363

Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC

Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District

June 27, 2018, Opinion Filed

C082306

Reporter

2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363 *; 2018 WL 3134581KATHLEEN WILLHIDE-MICHIULIS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN SKI AREA, LLC, Defendant and Respondent.

Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

Subsequent History: The Publication Status of this Document has been Changed by the Court from Unpublished to Published July 18, 2018 and is now reported at 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 638.

Ordered published by, Reported at Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 638 (Cal. App. 3d Dist., June 27, 2018)

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of Mono County, No. CV130105.

Judges: Robie, Acting P. J.; Murray, J., Duarte, J. concurred.

Opinion by: Robie, Acting P. J.

Opinion

Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries. She and her husband, Bruno Michiulis, appeal after the trial court granted defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area‘s (Mammoth) motion for summary judgment finding the operation of the snowcat and snow-grooming tiller on the snow run open to the public was an inherent risk of snowboarding and did not constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment and improperly excluded the expert declarations plaintiffs submitted to oppose the motion. They also assert the trial court improperly denied their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the expert declarations. Further, [*2]  although snowcats and snow-grooming tillers are capable of causing catastrophic injury, as evidenced by Willhide-Michiulis’s experience, we conclude this equipment is an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and the way in which the snowcat was operated in this case did not rise to the level of gross negligence. Because of this conclusion, the trial court properly granted Mammoth’s summary judgment motion based on the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement. With no pending trial, plaintiffs cannot show they were prejudiced by the court’s denial of their motion to transfer venue; thus we do not reach the merits of that claim. Accordingly, we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I

The Injury

Mammoth owns and operates one of the largest snowcat fleets in the United States to groom snow and maintain snow runs throughout Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. A snowcat is a large snow-grooming vehicle — 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. It has five wheels on each side of the vehicle that are enclosed in a track. In front of the snowcat is a plow extending the width of the snowcat. In back is a 20-foot wide trailer containing a tiller. A tiller “spins at a [*3]  high [speed] br[e]aking up the snow and slightly warming it and allowing it to refreeze in a firm skiable surface.” Mammoth strives not to have snowcats operating when the resort is open to the public; however, it may be necessary at times. Mammoth’s grooming guide instructs drivers that generally snowcats are operated at night or in areas closed to the public, except during: (1) emergency operations, (2) extremely heavy snow, or (3) transportation of personnel or materials. If a driver “must be on the mountain while the public is present,” however, the snowcat’s lights, safety beacon, and audible alarm must be on. The guide further directs drivers not to operate the tiller if anyone is within 50 feet or if on a snow run open to the public. In another section, the guide directs drivers not to operate the snowcat’s tiller when anyone is within 150 feet and “[n]ever . . . when the skiing public is present.”

Although the grooming guide directs drivers not to use the tiller on snow runs open to the public, there are exceptions to these rules. Snowcats use two large tracks, instead of wheels, to travel on the snow. If the tiller is not running, then the snowcat leaves behind berms and holes created by the [*4]  tracks, also known as track marks. Mammoth’s grooming guide explains that “[t]rack marks are not acceptable anywhere on the mountain and back-ups or extra passes should be used to remove them.” Track marks are not safe for the skiing public, so whenever the snowcat is justified to be on an open run, drivers commonly operate the tiller to leave behind safe conditions.

In fact, it is common for skiers and snowboarders to chase snowcats that operate on public snow runs. For example, Taylor Lester, a Mammoth season-pass holder, has seen snowcats with tillers operate on snow runs open to the public. She, her friends, and her family, commonly ride close behind these snowcats so they can take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produce. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished by other skiers.

There is a blind spot in the snowcat created by the roll cage in the cab of the vehicle. This blind spot is mitigated by the driver using the mirrors of the snowcat and turning his or her head to look out the windows. Snowcats are also equipped with turn signals.

At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence [*5]  of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also includes these warnings in trail maps. Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis further agreed to release Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death to me and/or my child arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.”

On March 25, 2011, Clifford Mann, the general manager of mountain operations, had to dig out various buildings using a snowcat during Mammoth’s hours of operation because between 27 and 44 inches of snow fell the night before. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Mann was digging out a building when a Mammoth employee [*6]  called to ask him to fill in a hole she had created with her snowmobile on Old Boneyard Road. Less than an hour before her call, the employee had been driving her snowmobile on the unmarked service road and got it stuck in the snow. She called for assistance and she and another Mammoth employee dug out the snowmobile. Once the machine had been dug out of the snow, there was too big of a hole for her and her coworker to fill in. They decided to call Mann to have him fill in the hole with the snowcat because it was near the end of the day and the hole was a safety hazard for all other snowmobiles that would use the service road at closing. Mann agreed and drove his snowcat with the tiller running to Old Boneyard Road, which branched off of the bottom of mambo snow run. Before leaving for the Old Boneyard Road location, Mann turned on the snowcat’s warning beacon, lights, and audible alarm.

Around this same time, Willhide-Michiulis, a Mammoth season-pass holder, and her brother went for their last snowboard run of the day while Willhide-Michiulis’s husband went to the car. It was a clear day and Willhide-Michiulis and her brother split up after getting off the chair lift. Willhide-Michiulis [*7]  snowboarded down mambo, while her brother took a neighboring run. While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.

Mann did not use a turn signal before initiating the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. Before the collision, Mann had constantly been checking around the snowcat for people by utilizing the snowcat’s mirrors and by looking over his shoulders and through the windows. The snowcat did not have a speedometer, but Mann thought he was going less than 10 miles an hour. When he had nearly completed the turn from lower mambo onto Old Boneyard Road, Mann saw a “black flash” in his rearview mirror. He immediately stopped the snowcat, [*8]  which also stopped the tiller.

Mann got out of the snowcat and lifted the protective flap to look under the tiller. He saw Willhide-Michiulis stuck in the tiller and called for help. When help arrived, it took 30 minutes to remove Willhide-Michiulis from the tiller. She suffered a near-complete amputation of her left leg above the knee, which doctors amputated in a subsequent surgery. Her right leg sustained multiple fractures and lacerations, and she dislocated her right hip. The tiller also struck Willhide-Michiulis’s face, leaving multiple facial fractures and lacerations.

II

Plaintiffs’ Suit

Plaintiffs initially filed suit against Mammoth and Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles, the manufacturer of the snowcat and tiller, in Los Angeles County.1 As to Mammoth, plaintiffs alleged breach of contract, gross negligence, negligence, and loss of consortium. Venue was later transferred to Mono County, where the trial court dismissed multiple causes of action pertaining to Mammoth.2 The operative complaint alleges two causes of action against Mammoth — gross negligence and loss of consortium. At the same time plaintiffs filed the operative complaint, they also filed a motion to transfer venue back [*9]  to Los Angeles County because it was more convenient for the parties and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion to transfer venue without prejudice and we denied the petition for writ of mandate plaintiffs filed challenging that ruling.

Mammoth later moved for summary judgment on the two remaining causes of action arguing that plaintiffs’ case was barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the express assumption of risk agreement Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass contract. The court agreed and granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment finding primary assumption of risk and the waiver in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement barred plaintiffs relief. It found there was no dispute over the material facts of plaintiffs’ claims and that Willhide-Michiulis was injured when “she fell and slid under a [Mammoth] operated snowcat and was caught in the operating tiller. [Willhide-Michiulis] was snowboarding on an open run as the snowcat was operating on the same run. It appears that the collision occurred as the snowcat operator was negotiating a left turn from the run to the service road.” [*10]  It also found that accepting plaintiffs’ factual allegations as true, i.e., Mann operated a snowcat and tiller on an open run, he failed to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of the run, he failed to warn skiers of his presence, and no signs marked the existence of Old Boneyard Road — plaintiffs could not show Mammoth was grossly negligent or lacked all care because Mann took several safety precautions while driving the snowcat, and warning signs were posted throughout Mammoth Mountain, on trail maps, and in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because plaintiffs could not show gross negligence, the waiver of liability they signed as part of their season-pass agreement barred recovery.

The court further found plaintiffs’ factual allegations did not support a finding that Mann’s conduct increased the inherent risks of snowboarding and, in fact, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport. Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389, the court explained snowcats are plainly visible and generally avoidable and serve as their own warning sign because they are an obvious danger. The snowcat is equally obvious when it is moving as when it is stationary. Thus, the [*11]  primary assumption of risk doctrine also barred plaintiffs from recovery.

The court also excluded the declarations of three experts plaintiffs attached to their opposition to dispute Mammoth’s claim that it did not act with gross negligence. The first expert, Michael Beckley, worked in the ski industry for 25 years and was an “expert of ski resort safety and snow cat safety.” He held multiple positions in the industry, including ski instructor, snowcat driver, and director of mountain operations. Beckley based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and snow grooming equipment, and accounts of Mann’s conduct while driving the snowcat. He opined the operation of a snowcat on an open run with its tiller running was “extremely dangerous,” “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” He believed Mann increased the risk of injury to skiers and violated industry standards by driving down the middle of a snow run and failing to signal his turn. Mammoth’s failure to close the snow run, provide spotters, or comply with its own safety rules, Beckley declared, violated industry standards and the ordinary standard [*12]  of conduct.

Plaintiffs’ second expert, Eric Deyerl, was a mechanical engineer for over 20 years, with a specialization in vehicle dynamics and accident reconstruction. In forming his opinions, Deyerl inspected the snow run and snowcat equipment and relied on photographs and various accounts of the incident. Relying on those accounts, Deyerl opined that the circumstances leading to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision were different than those related by eyewitnesses. Deyerl believed that before initiating his turn, Mann failed to activate his turn signal, monitor his surroundings, and verify that he was clear — especially in the blind spot at the back left portion of the snowcat. No signs indicated the existence of Old Boneyard Road, and skiers like Willhide-Michiulis would not know to expect a snowcat to stop and turn from the middle of the snow run. All of these circumstances in isolation and together increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. Deyerl also disputed the accounts of eyewitnesses to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision with the snowcat.

The third expert, Brad Avrit, was a civil engineer who specialized in evaluating “safety practices and safety issues.” He was [*13]  also an “avid skier for over thirty years.” He based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and equipment, and accounts of Mann’s driving. Avrit opined that operating a snowcat on an open snow run with an active tiller was “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct that reasonable persons would follow in order to avoid injury to others.” He also believed Mann’s conduct of failing to drive down the left side of the snow run, failing to monitor his surroundings, and failing to signal his left turn or verify he was clear to turn, “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Avrit also thought the risk to skiers was increased by Mammoth’s failure to either close the snow run or use spotters while operating the snowcat when open to the public, or alternatively waiting the 30 minutes until the resort was closed to fix the hole on Old Boneyard Road.

Mammoth lodged both general and specific objections to these declarations. Generally, Mammoth asserted the experts’ opinions were irrelevant to the assumption of risk and gross negligence legal determinations before the court, the opinions lacked proper foundation, and the opinions were improper [*14]  conclusions of law. Specifically, Mammoth objected to several paragraphs of material on predominantly the same grounds. Finding the experts’ opinions irrelevant and citing Towns v. Davidson (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 461, 54 Cal. Rptr. 3d 568 (Towns), the trial court sustained Mammoth’s general objections and numerous specific objections.

DISCUSSION

I

The Court Properly Granted Mammoth’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment. They first contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding their experts’ declarations, and thus improperly ruled on Mammoth’s motion without considering relevant evidence. They also contend primary assumption of risk does not apply because Mann’s negligent driving and operation of a tiller on an open run increased the inherent risks associated with snowboarding. Further, plaintiffs argue these same facts establish Mammoth’s conduct was grossly negligent and fell outside of the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding plaintiffs’ experts’ declarations. Additionally, plaintiffs cannot show Mammoth was grossly negligent and violated [*15]  the terms of the release of liability agreement found in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because the express assumption of risk in the release applies, we need not consider the implied assumption of risk argument also advanced by plaintiffs. (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 590, fn. 2, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370; Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1374-1375, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813; Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1012-1013, 54 Cal. Rptr. 2d 330.)

A

The Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When Excluding The Expert Declarations Attached To Plaintiffs’ Opposition

As part of their argument that the court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to their opposition. Specifically, plaintiffs argue expert testimony was appropriate under Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, because “the facts here certainly warrant consideration of the expert testimony on the more esoteric subject of assessing whether a negligently-driven snowcat is an inherent risk of recreational skiing.” Mammoth counters that the evidence was properly excluded because it was irrelevant and “offered opinions of legal questions of duty for the court to decide.” We agree with Mammoth.

“Generally, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may use declarations by an expert to raise a triable issue of fact on an element of the [*16]  case provided the requirements for admissibility are established as if the expert were testifying at trial. [Citations.] An expert’s opinion is admissible when it is ‘[r]elated to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact . . . .’ [Citation.] Although the expert’s testimony may embrace an ultimate factual issue [citation], it may not contain legal conclusions.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 472.)

“In the context of assumption of risk, the role of expert testimony is more limited. ‘It is for the court to decide whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.’ [Citation.] A court in its discretion could receive expert factual opinion to inform its decision on these issues, particularly on the nature of an unknown or esoteric activity, but in no event may it receive expert evidence on the ultimate legal issues of inherent risk and duty.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

In Kahn, the plaintiff was a 14-year-old member of a school swim team who broke her neck after diving in shallow water. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 998.) Her coach had previously assured her she would not have to dive [*17]  at meets and she never learned how to dive in shallow water. Minutes before a meet, however, the coach told the plaintiff she would have to dive and threatened to kick her off the team if she refused. With the help of some teammates, the plaintiff tried a few practice dives but broke her neck on the third try. She sued based on negligent supervision and training. (Ibid.)

The court determined the case could not be resolved on summary judgment as there was conflicting evidence whether the coach had provided any instruction or, if so, whether that instruction followed the recommended training sequence, and whether plaintiff was threatened into diving. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1012-1013.) The court concluded the trial court was not compelled to disregard the opinions of a water safety instructor about the proper training a swimmer requires before attempting a racing dive in shallow water. (Id. at pp. 999, 1017.) In so ruling, the Kahn court stated, “[c]ourts ordinarily do not consider an expert’s testimony to the extent it constitutes a conclusion of law [citation], but we do not believe that the declaration of the expert in the present case was limited to offering an opinion on a conclusion of law. We do not rely upon expert opinion testimony to [*18]  establish the legal question of duty, but ‘we perceive no reason to preclude a trial court from receiving expert testimony on the customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity for purposes of weighing whether the inherent risks of the activity were increased by the defendant’s conduct.'” (Id. at p. 1017.) Thus, while the Kahn court did not preclude the trial court from considering expert testimony about the “‘customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity,'” it did not mandate a court to consider it either.

Here, plaintiffs argue their experts’ declarations were necessary to inform the trial court of the “more esoteric subject” of whether Mann’s negligent driving of the snowcat increased the inherent risks of recreational snowboarding. The problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that the experts’ declarations did not inform the court “‘on the customary practices'” of the esoteric activity of snowcat driving. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1017.) While stating that Mann and Mammoth violated industry standards and increased the potential for collision, no expert outlined what the industry standards were for operating a snowcat and thus provided no context for the trial court to determine the legal question of duty. The [*19]  expert in Kahn provided this type of context by declaring the proper procedures for training swimmers to dive, making it so the trial court could compare the defendant’s conduct to the industry standard. (Kahn, at pp. 999.) The declarations here merely repeated the facts contained in the discovery materials and concluded the risk of injury and collision was increased because of those facts.

The conclusory statements in the expert declarations make plaintiffs’ case like Towns, where the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding an expert’s opinion. (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.) In Towns, the plaintiff sued the defendant after he collided with her on a ski run. (Id. at p. 465.) In opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted the declaration of her expert, a member of the National Ski Patrol and a ski instructor. (Id. at pp. 466, 471-472.) In his declaration, the expert opined that the defendant’s behavior was reckless and “‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport of skiing.'” (Id. at p. 472.)

The trial court excluded the declaration in its entirety and granted the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed explaining, “[t]he nature and risks of downhill skiing are commonly understood, the [*20]  demarcation of any duty owed is judicially defined, and, most significantly, the facts surrounding the particular incident here are not in dispute. Thus, the trial court was deciding the issue of recklessness as a matter of law.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

The court also noted the expert’s declaration “added nothing beyond declaring the undisputed facts in his opinion constituted recklessness. In short, he ‘was advocating, not testifying.’ [Citation.] He reached what in this case was an ultimate conclusion of law, a point on which expert testimony is not allowed. [Citation.] ‘Courts must be cautious where an expert offers legal conclusions as to ultimate facts in the guise of an expert opinion.’ [Citation.] This is particularly true in the context of assumption of risk where the facts are not in dispute.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.)

Like the expert in Towns, plaintiffs’ experts only provided ultimate conclusions of law. Although Beckley declared to be an expert in snowcat safety, he shed no light on the subject except to say Mann’s conduct was “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” Similarly, Avrit, who was an expert in evaluating safety practices, did nothing more than declare [*21]  that Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Deyerl, an expert in accident reconstruction, disputed the accounts of percipient witnesses and declared Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. In short, plaintiffs’ experts provided irrelevant opinions more akin to “‘advocating, not testifying.'” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.) Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to plaintiffs’ opposition.

B

Summary Judgment Was Proper

We review a trial court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 388-389, 46 Cal. Rptr. 3d 668, 139 P.3d 56.) “In performing our de novo review, we must view the evidence in a light favorable to [the] plaintiff as the losing party [citation], liberally construing [the plaintiff’s] evidentiary submission while strictly scrutinizing [the] defendant[‘s] own showing, and resolving any evidentiary doubts or ambiguities in [the] plaintiff’s favor.” (Saelzler v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 768-769, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 617, 23 P.3d 1143.)

Summary judgment is proper when “all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that [defendant] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) A defendant moving for summary judgment meets [*22]  its burden of showing there is no merit to a cause of action by showing one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or there is a complete defense to that cause of action. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) Once the defendant has made the required showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action or defense. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849, 853, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493.)

1

Mammoth Met Its Burden Of Showing There Was No Merit To Plaintiffs’ Claim

As described, plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” “While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is [*23]  more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696; Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227-228, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.) “‘”The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.”‘” (Eriksson, at p. 719, italics omitted.)

Generally, in cases involving an express assumption of risk there is no cause to analyze the activity the complaining party is involved in or the relationship of the parties to that activity. (Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn., supra, 46 Cal.App.4th at p. 1012; see also Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1484, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 [“With respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release“]; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 590, fn. 2 [“if the express assumption of risk in the release applies, the implied assumption of risk principles . . . would not come into play”].) However, where, as here, plaintiffs allege defendant’s conduct fell outside the scope of the agreement and a more detailed analysis of the scope of a defendant’s duty [*24]  is necessary.

“[T]he question of ‘the existence and scope’ of the defendant’s duty is one of law to be decided by the court, not by a jury, and therefore it generally is ‘amenable to resolution by summary judgment.'” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003-1004.) A release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 750-751, 776-777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095.) In Santa Barbara, our Supreme Court reasoned that “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776, quoting Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 863, 871, 118 P.2d 465.) The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs alleged in the operative complaint that Mammoth was grossly negligent in the “operation of the subject snow cat,” by operating the tiller on an open run without utilizing spotters and failing to warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run and the danger posed by its tiller. These allegations are insufficient to support a finding of gross negligence.

Ordinary negligence “consists of the failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person [*25]  under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 753-754.) “‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. [Citation.] However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘” [Citations.]’ [Citations.] ‘”‘[G]ross negligence‘ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881, 208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792.)

“[T]he nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant.” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 315.) “‘[I]n the sports setting . . . conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself.’ [Citation.] [Our Supreme Court has] explained that, as a matter of policy, it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events.” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004.) But the question of duty depends not only on the nature of the sport, but also on the [*26]  role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case. (Ibid.) “‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” (Id. at p. 1005.) Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement. (See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856, 120 Cal. Rptr. 3d 90.)

Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 591 [redesign of snowboarding jump]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 366, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265 [construction of the unmarked race start area on the ski run]; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775 [placement of signs in ski run].) It is well established that “‘”‘[e]ach person who participates in the sport of [snow] skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees and other forms of natural [*27]  growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'”‘” (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 12, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855, italics omitted; see also Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863; Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 467.)

Plaintiffs argue the above language is simply dicta and no authority has ever held that colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk in snowboarding or skiing. Because there is no authority specifically addressing the inherent risk of snow-grooming equipment, plaintiffs argue, colliding with a snowcat is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. Further, even if it were, Mammoth increased the inherent risk of snowboarding by operating a snowcat and tiller on an open run. We disagree.

The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, [*28]  did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.

Moreover, common law holds that collisions with snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding. In Connelly, the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 8.) In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, the court found this risk was inherent in the sport and the obvious danger of the tower served as its own warning. (Id. at p. 12.) In concluding that contact with the tower was an inherent risk of the sport, the Connelly court relied on Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 266 Cal. Rptr. 749. (Connelly, at p. 12.) In Danieley, a skier collided with a tree. (Danieley, at p. 113.) The Danieley court, in turn, relied on a Michigan statute that set forth certain inherent risks of skiing, including both trees and “‘collisions with ski lift towers and their components'” along with properly marked or plainly visible “‘snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan [*29]  Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the preexisting common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Danieley, at p. 123.)

Although there may not be a published case specifically addressing the inherent risk of snowcats to skiers and snowboarders, a snowcat, otherwise known as snow-grooming equipment, is one of the risks explicitly adopted as California common law by the Danieley and Connelly courts. (Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc., supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at p. 123; Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 12.) Thus, in California, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport of snowboarding.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs argue operating the tiller of the snowcat on an open snow run increased the inherent risk snowcats pose to snowboarders. We recognize assumption of the risk, either express or implied, applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at pp. 268-269.) In Souza, a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. (Id. at p. 262.) Following Connelly, we affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, finding the snowmaking hydrant was visible and a collision with it was an inherent risk of skiing. (Souza, at pp. 268-272.) The snowmaking equipment in Souza was necessary [*30]  and inherent to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Id. at p. 268.)

Here, plaintiffs claim snowcats operating on open runs are not necessary or inherent to the sport because “[p]recluding a snowcat from operating on an open run would minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport one whit.” As in Souza, we find the following quote apt: “‘”As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, . . . the doctrine of [primary] assumption of risk . . . would not apply to obvious, known conditions so long as a defendant could feasibly have provided safer conditions. Then, obviously, such risks would not be ‘necessary’ or ‘inherent’. This would effectively emasculate the doctrine, . . . changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”‘” (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269.)

Snow-grooming equipment, including the snowcat and tiller at issue here, are necessary to the sport of snowboarding because the snowcat grooms the snow needed for snowboarding into a skiable surface. Without the tiller also grooming the snow, the snowcat leaves behind an unusable and unsafe surface riddled with berms and holes. This surface is so unsafe that Mammoth’s grooming [*31]  guide prohibits snowcat drivers from leaving behind such hazards. Given the purpose of the snowcat and tiller, it cannot be said that they are not inherent and necessary to the sport of snowboarding.

The fact that the snowcat and tiller Willhide-Michiulis collided with was operating during business hours and on an open run does not affect our analysis. Willhide-Michiulis’s husband testified that, although uncommon, he had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth during business hours transporting people. Further, Taylor Lester, a witness to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision and a longtime Mammoth season-pass holder, testified that she had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth on prior occasions as well. Out of the 10 years she has been a season-pass holder, Lester had seen snowcats operating during business hours at Mammoth 20 to 40 times, half of which had been using their tillers.

In fact, Lester testified that it was common for her and her friends, and also her sister and father, to ride close behind snowcats that were tilling so that they could take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produced. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished [*32]  by other skiers. Lester’s sister also testified she liked to “sneak behind” snowcats while they groom runs to ride on the freshly-tilled snow. Even after Willhide-Michiulis’s collision, Lester’s sister still snowboarded behind snowcats to ride the freshly groomed snow.

Given this testimony, we conclude that the use of snowcats and their tillers on ski runs during business hours is inherent to the sport of snowboarding, the use of which does not unreasonably increase the risks associated with the sport. To find Mammoth liable because it operated a snowcat and tiller during business hours would inhibit the vigorous participation in the sport Lester and her sister testified about. Instead of racing to freshly tilled snow to take advantage of its unspoiled status, snowboarders and skiers alike would be prohibited from chasing snowcats and instead have to settle for inferior skiing conditions. Further, snowcats would no longer be used as modes of transportation at ski resorts, a common practice testified to by Willhide-Michiulis’s husband. Or snowcats would operate, but without their tiller, leaving behind unsafe skiing conditions that would doubtlessly interfere with full and vigorous participation [*33]  in the sport. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004 [“it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events”].)

Regardless of the fact that snowcats and tillers are inherent in the sport of snowboarding, plaintiffs also allege the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with was not obvious and Mammoth was grossly negligent because it failed to provide spotters or warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run or the dangerousness of its tiller. As described, gross negligence requires a showing of “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Here, Mammoth did warn plaintiffs of the presence of snowcats and other snow-grooming equipment at the ski resort. At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also included these warnings in its trail maps. These warnings were also apparent in plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement, which warned that “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks [*34]  posed by . . . collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis acknowledged that she saw the warning contained in her season-pass agreement.

Not only were plaintiffs warned about the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment throughout the ski resort, but Willhide-Michiulis was warned of the presence of the specific snowcat she collided with. Before going down the mambo run to fix the pothole on Old Boneyard Road, Mann turned on the safety beacon, warning lights, and audible alarm to the snowcat. This provided warning to all those around the snowcat, whether they could see it or not, to the snowcat’s presence. Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide-Michiulis. As the trial court found, [*35]  “‘the very existence of a large metal plainly-visible [snowcat] serves as its own warning.'” (Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 271.) Upon seeing such a warning, it was incumbent upon Willhide-Michiulis to avoid it — nothing was hidden from Willhide-Michiulis’s vision by accident or design.

Given these facts, we cannot conclude, as plaintiffs would have us do, that Mann’s failure to timely signal his turn or Mammoth’s failure to provide spotters or warn of the specific dangers of a tiller constituted gross negligence. Given all the other warnings provided by Mammoth and Mann, plaintiffs cannot show “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.) Accordingly, Mammoth was successful in meeting its burden to show the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint lacked merit.

2

No Triable Issue Of Fact Exists To Preclude Summary Judgment

Because Mammoth met its initial burden, plaintiffs now have the burden to show that a triable issue of fact exists. Plaintiffs argue that one does exist because the way Mann drove the snowcat at the time of the collision was grossly negligent. In addition to the allegations in the complaint — that operating a snowcat and tiller [*36]  on an open run was grossly negligent — plaintiffs alleged in their opposition that Mann was grossly negligent also for failing to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of a snow run onto an unmarked service road without warning skiers of his presence or the possibility that a snowcat would turn at the locations of Old Boneyard Road. They point to their experts’ declarations and Mann’s violations of Mammoth’s safety standards as support for this contention.

“‘Generally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence [citation] but not always.'” (Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 632, 640, 189 Cal. Rptr. 3d 449, quoting Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358, 257 Cal. Rptr. 356; see also City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 767 [“we emphasize the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, and of granting summary judgment on the basis of that distinction in appropriate circumstances”].) Where the evidence on summary judgment fails to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact, the existence of gross negligence can be resolved as a matter of law. (See Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 260, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473 [stating a mere difference of opinion regarding how a student should be instructed does not amount to gross negligence]; Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 52-53, 135 Cal. Rptr. 3d 761 [no triable issue of material fact precluding summary [*37]  judgment, even though the evidence raised conflicting inferences regarding whether measures undertaken by the defendants were effective to mitigate effects on commercial tenant of remodeling project]; Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 639, 184 Cal. Rptr. 3d 155 [no triable issue of material fact where defendant took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment, on which plaintiff was injured, was well maintained].)”

As described, Mann’s driving of the snowcat with a tiller on an open run was not grossly negligent and was, in fact, an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and conduct contemplated by the parties in the release of liability agreement. The question now is whether the additional conduct alleged in plaintiffs’ opposition — Mann’s failure to use a turn signal, making of a sharp left turn from the middle of the snow run, failure to warn skiers on mambo of his presence, and failure to warn skiers of the existence of Old Boneyard Road — elevated Mann’s conduct to gross negligence. We conclude it does not.

We have already described why plaintiffs’ claims that Mann failed to provide adequate warning of his existence on the snow run and of his turn did not rise to the level of gross negligence. His additional alleged conduct [*38]  of driving down the middle of the snow run and making a sharp left turn onto an unmarked service road also do not justify a finding of gross negligence in light of the precautions taken by both Mammoth and Mann. Mammoth warned plaintiffs of the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment in its season-pass contracts, trail maps, and throughout the ski resort. Mann also turned on the snowcat’s warning lights, beacon, and audible alarm before driving down mambo. Mann testified he constantly looked for skiers and snowboarders while driving the snowcat down mambo and that he checked through the snowcat’s mirrors and windows to make sure he was clear before making the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. He also testified he did not drive the snowcat faster than ten miles an hour while on mambo and was traveling even slower during the turn. This fact was confirmed by Lester. Given these affirmative safety precautions, Mann’s failure to use a turn signal when turning from the middle of the run onto an unmarked service road did not equate to “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (See Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Plaintiffs dispute this conclusion by [*39]  citing to their expert declarations and Mammoth’s grooming guide as support that Mann’s conduct was an extreme departure from industry standards and Mammoth’s own safety policies. Evidence of conduct that evinces an extreme departure from safety directions or an industry standard could demonstrate gross negligence. (See Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 546, 561, 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228.) Conversely, conduct demonstrating the failure to guard against, or warn of, a dangerous condition typically does not rise to the level of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 264, 272, 248 Cal. Rptr. 330.)

To illustrate this point, plaintiffs cite two cases. First, they rely on Jimenez. In Jimenez, one of the plaintiffs was injured when she fell backwards off of a moving treadmill and hit her head on an exercise machine that was approximately four feet behind the treadmill. (Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., supra, 237 Cal.App.4th at p. 549.) The plaintiffs presented evidence “indicating a possible industry standard on treadmill safety zones,” including the manufacturer’s statement in its manual that a six-foot space behind the treadmill was necessary for user safety and an expert’s statement that placing other equipment so close to the back of the treadmill greatly increased the risk of injury. (Id. at p. 556.) The court concluded, based on this evidence, a jury could reasonably find [*40]  the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care, and thus a triable issue of fact existed to preclude summary judgment. (Id. at p. 557.)

In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, also relied upon by plaintiffs, the plaintiff was riding a motorcycle when he fell near a platform in an area out of view of other riders at a motocross facility, and was struck by another cyclist. (Id. at pp. 1072, 1077.) The caution flagger, who was supposed to have staffed the platform to alert riders to the presence of fallen cyclists, was not on duty when plaintiff fell. The court found the release plaintiff signed unenforceable against a claim of gross negligence. (Id. at pp. 1077, 1081.) It noted the dangerous nature of the sport, and also found a specific duty on the part of the course operator to provide some form of warning system such as the presence of caution flaggers. (Id. at p. 1084.) Also, the course owner had a safety manual requiring flaggers to stay at their stations whenever riders were on the course, and expert testimony was presented that caution flaggers were required at all such times. (Id. at p. 1086.) Because the evidence could support a finding that the absence of a caution flagger was an extreme and egregious departure from the standard of [*41]  care given the applicable safety manual and in light of knowledge of the particular dangers posed, the claim of gross negligence should have survived summary judgment. (Id. at p. 1089.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on these cases is misplaced for two reasons. First, unlike Jimenez and Rosencrans, plaintiffs presented no expert evidence regarding the safety standards applicable to snowcat drivers. (See Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1086-1087 [triable issue of fact as to gross negligence where a safety expert’s declaration described common safety precautions for motocross and stated that the defendant’s failure to take those safety precautions constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct and showed a blatant disregard for the safety of the participants].) And second, plaintiffs did not produce evidence showing that Mammoth failed to take any safety precautions required by company safety policies.

As described, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the experts’ declarations from evidence. The declarations did nothing more than to provide conclusions that Mann’s and Mammoth’s conduct violated industry standards and constituted gross negligence. The experts did not articulate what the industry standards [*42]  for driving a snowcat or for protecting the skiing public from a snowcat actually were, let alone how Mann and Mammoth violated them. Instead, the experts merely provided their opinions that Mammoth and Mann failed to guard from or warn of the dangerous condition the snowcat and tiller posed. This is insufficient for a showing of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at p. 272.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Mammoth’s grooming guide is likewise misplaced. Plaintiffs characterize the grooming guide as containing “safety standard[s],” which Mann violated by operating the snowcat’s tiller while the public was present. The grooming guide, however, does not purport to be a safety guide or to set safety standards for Mammoth’s snowcat operators. Instead, it is a “manual” where snowcat operators “will find a basis for all training that is a part of the Slope Maintenance Department.” While “all training” may also include safety training, nothing submitted by plaintiffs indicate that the excerpts they rely on are industry or company-wide safety standards as opposed to Mammoth’s guide to “acceptable high quality” grooming.

For example, the grooming guide instructs drivers to “[n]ever operate the tiller when the skiing public is present.” But [*43]  the guide also justifies a snowcat’s presence in areas open to the public during emergencies, periods of extremely heavy snow, or for transportation of personnel or materials. Here, there was extremely heavy snow and a hazardous condition requiring Mann to drive a snowcat on public snow runs. The guide further instructs drivers that track marks left behind by a snowcat without a tiller are “not acceptable” and must be removed. It was Mann’s understanding from these guidelines that once a snowcat’s presence was justified in an area open to the public, the tiller also had to be running to leave behind safe skiing conditions.

Further, the guide instructs snowcat drivers to travel on a groomed snow run instead of on ungroomed snow on either side of the run. This is because ungroomed snow is made of unstable soft snow that cannot support the weight of a snowcat. According to the grooming guide, driving on a finished groomed run “is better than risking your cat or your life” on the ungroomed snow on the sides of the run. Thus, Mann did not violate Mammoth’s safety policy by driving down the center of a snow run when traveling to Old Boneyard Road and operating the snowcat’s tiller on a public [*44]  run. Because it is not reasonable a jury would find Mann violated safety policies contained in the grooming guide, let alone that that violation constituted more than mere negligence, plaintiffs have not shown that Mann’s or Mammoth’s conduct rose to the level of gross negligence.

II

Venue

Plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when denying their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County where they initially filed their suit. Specifically, plaintiffs argue their motion should have been granted because it was more convenient for the parties and their witnesses to have trial in Los Angeles County and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. Thus, plaintiffs argue, “upon reversal of summary judgment, the trial court should be directed to issue an order transferring this action back to Los Angeles.”

As plaintiffs acknowledge, a reversal of the court’s summary judgment order is a vital initial step to reversal of the trial court’s order regarding venue. This is because without first showing that their case is active and trial is pending, plaintiffs cannot show a miscarriage of justice resulting from the denial of their venue motion.

We are enjoined [*45]  by our Constitution not to reverse any judgment “for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 13; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 475.) Prejudice is not presumed, and “our duty to examine the entire cause arises when and only when the appellant has fulfilled his duty to tender a proper prejudice argument.” (Paterno v. State of California (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 68, 106, 87 Cal. Rptr. 2d 754.)

Plaintiffs cannot show prejudice resulting from the denial of their venue motion because we upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling and their case has been dismissed. Thus, even if the venue motion should have been granted and venue transferred to Los Angeles for trial, there is no trial to be had. Accordingly, we need not address plaintiffs’ claim of error regarding their motion to transfer venue.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Costs are awarded to defendants. (Cal. Rule of Court, rule 8.278, subd. (a)(1).)

/s/ Robie, Acting P. J.

We concur:

/s/ Murray, J.

/s/ Duarte, J.


RELEASE (Waiver) CHECKLIST: What MUST your Release contain to work

If you are getting ready for your summer recreation business it is always a good idea to make sure your paperwork is up to date and ready to go. This is a checklist to help you check your release and make sure your release is doing more than wasting paper.

Not all of these clauses mentioned in the checklist may be needed. However, some of them are critical and they may all be modified based on your activity, program, employees, and ability to undertake the risks. Some changes are always needed based on your activities, your guests and the state or local you are working in.

I’ve divided this checklist into three major parts:

  • Required for your Release to be Valid: What is absolutely required
  • Needed: What you should have for your release to be valid in most states
  • What Your Release Cannot Have: What you should never have in your document

There are some subsections also that are fairly self-explanatory. This will probably not be in all releases, but may be required in your release based on what you are trying to accomplish or what you are doing.

Required for your Release to be Valid

Contract: A release is a contract. The legal requirements required in your state for your electronic or piece of paper release to be a contract.

Notice of Legal Document: Does your release someplace on its face, give notice to the person signing it that they are signing a release or a legal document? Courts want to see that the guest knew they were giving up some legal rights.

Parties: You have to identify who is to be protected by the release and who the release applies too. That means the correct legal names as well as any business name.

Assumption of Risk Language: Does your release contain language that explains the risk of the activities the release is designed to protect litigation against. This is any area that is growing in release law.

Agreement to Assume Risks: Do your release have language that states the signor agrees to assume the risk. Assumption of the Risk is the second defense after your release in stopping a lawsuit.

Magic Word: Negligence: Does your release have the signor give up their right to sue for negligence? The required language and how it must be explained is getting more specific in all states and yet is different in most states.

Plain Language: Is the release written so that it can be understood? Is it written in plain English?

Venue: Does your release have a Venue Clause?

Jurisdiction: Does your release have a Jurisdiction Clause?

Signatures: Does your release have a place for the signor to date and sign the release. For a contract to be valid it must have a signature, or if electronic acknowledgment.

Continuing Duty to Inform: Information to complete the continuing duty to inform for manufacturers

 

Items that may be Needed Dependent upon the Purpose of the Release

Parental Release: Signature of Parent or Guardian AND correct legal language signing away a minor’s right to sue.

Statement the Signor has conveyed the necessary information to minor child

Statement the Signor will continue to convey necessary information to a minor child

Reference to any Required Statute

Signor has viewed the Website

Signor has viewed the Videos

Signor has read the additional information

Notice the Release is a Legal Document:

Notice of Legal Consequence: Does your release state there may be legal consequences to the signor upon signing?

Opening/Introduction: Does your release have an opening or introduction explaining its purpose

Assumption of Risk Language

Minor Injuries Noticed

Major Injuries Noticed

Death

Mental Trauma

Signor is Capable of Assuming Risks

Risks identified that are not normally Not Associated with Activity

Drug & Alcohol Statement

Company Right to Eject/Refuse

Signor is in Good Physical Condition

Able to Undertake the activity

Good Mental Condition

Release Protects Against

Lost Personal Property

Lost Money

Lost Time

Loss of Life

Medical Bills

Injuries

Indemnification Clause

First party costs

Third party costs

Severance Clause

Enforceability of the Release Post Activity

 

Language Dependent on How the Release is to be Used

Product Liability Language

Release of Confidential Medical Information

Demo Language

Rental Agreement Clause

SAR & Medical Issues

Permission to release medical information

Medical Evacuation

Medical Release

Medical Transportation

Waiver of medical confidentiality

Waiver of HIV status

Alternative Resolution

Arbitration

Mediation

Items I include in the releases I write

How Release is to be interpreted

Statement as to Insurance

Signor has Adequate Insurance

Incidental issues covered

Signor has Previous Experience

Signor Read and Understood the Contract

Agreement that the document has been read

Agreement that the signor agrees to the terms

What Your Release Cannot Have

Places to Initial: This just requires more effort on your staff to check and is not legally required.

Small Print: If a judge can’t read it, then it does not exist.

Attempting to Hide your Release: You attempt to hide your release; the judge will act like he or she never found it. The below are all examples of attempting to hide a release.

No heading or indication of the legal nature

Release Hidden within another document

Important sections with no heading or not bolded: No hiding your release

Multiple pages that are not associated with each other: splitting up your release is hiding it.

No indication or notice of the rights the signor is giving up: Some day the statement I did not understand it will resonate with a judge. This prevents that.

Most Importantly, had your Release Updated Recently

Has your release been reviewed by an attorney in the past year or do you work with an attorney that updates you on changes you need to make to your release? The law concerning releases is changing constantly, more now than ever before. In the past two years I’ve made a dozen tweaks to how I write a release based on those legal changes. If your release has not been updated, you may no longer have a release.

Remember: Nothing in your marketing program invalidates your release. Does your marketing not create liability not covered in your release? Is your marketing directed to the correct people that your release was written for?


Poorly written jurisdiction and venue clause places the defendant in jam when the defendant counter claims for attorney fees and costs.

This case was based on a zip-line accident. The release signed by the plaintiff had a forum selection clause, also known as a jurisdiction and venture clause. However, the clause was limited way so that when the defendant brought a counterclaim for attorney fees, it negated the forum selection clause.

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

State: Massachusetts, United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Josephine Pittman

Defendant: Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: gross negligence and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Basically, for the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

This case was based on a zip line accident at the defendant’s location. The plaintiff filed the case in state court in Massachusetts. The defendant then removed the case to Federal District Court because the parties were from two different states.

After removal, the defendant filed a counterclaim for fees and costs as per the release. The plaintiff filed a motion to dismiss the counter claim because it was filed in the wrong court. Meaning the jurisdiction and venue clause was written in such a way it only applied to the complaint and not the counterclaim.

Facts

The facts concerning the actual accident are nowhere in the decision. This decision is based solely on the issues of jurisdiction and venue.

This opinion is based upon a motion to dismiss filed by the plaintiff, to dismiss the counter claim of the defendant for attorney fees and costs for filing the complaint to begin with.

No decision on the facts was made as of the writing of this decision.

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

The court did a thorough analysis of forum selection clauses in its review of the issues.

In that jurisdiction, forum selection clauses, also known as jurisdiction and venue clauses, are valid and usually upheld. “Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'”

There are two issues the court must review to determine if the forum selection clause should be followed.

Before giving effect to a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold is-sues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it.

There are two types of forum selection clauses, mandatory and permissive. Permissive forum selection clauses allow the parties to change the jurisdiction and venue. Mandatory clauses require the court to follow the contract and change the venue and apply the jurisdiction identified in the forum selection clause.

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'”

Not only is the language in the clause used to determine if it is permissive or mandatory, but also if the forum selection clause refers to a venue. Mandatory forum selection clauses include a required venue.

The next part, whether the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to the clause was the major issue. Consequently, the language of the clause was the difference. The clause stated: “”[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement

The court interpreted the clause to only apply to the lawsuit brought by the plaintiff, as the clause states. The court found the forum selection clause did not apply to the counterclaim filed by the defendant against the plaintiff.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, here is where the decision starts to twist, and the defendant is saved, but only saved by accident.

The plaintiff in filing their motion to dismiss the counterclaim did not also move to change the venue or send the case back to state court. The plaintiff’s claim was going to be litigated in Federal District court where it has been moved.

The court implies if the plaintiff had moved to dismiss or change venue the court might have been inclined to do so. As it was, the forum selection clause only applied to the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant. The court claim was not subject to the clause.

Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement.

However, since the majority of the lawsuit would be based on the plaintiff’s complaint, it would be jurisdictionally economical to keep both cases together. Furthermore, the plaintiff claimed in her defense to the release that she was fraudulently induced to sign the release. If she prevailed on that claim, the forum selection clause would not apply because the contract, the release would not be valid.

If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.

So, until the trial is over on the plaintiff’s complaint and the validity of the plaintiff’s defense to the release, the motion to change the venue because the forum selection, clause did not apply to the country claim was denied.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the defendant’s counterclaim.

So Now What?

Here again, not understanding the breath of a lawsuit when writing a release almost cost the defendant. Judicial economy, not wasting the court’s time and money or either of the parties’ time and money is what saved the day.

If you need your release written properly to cover the issues, you have, the people you market too and the activities you offer, please contact me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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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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I see franchises or businesses with multiple locations using the same release at all locations. You may be losing out on an opportunity, worse setting yourself up to lose 90% of the time.

If one of the states you have a location has better laws supporting the use of a release than your home state, change the jurisdiction and venture clause to that state. On top of getting better release law you’ll be less likely to have a jurisdiction and venue fight. If your jurisdiction and venue clause have no relationship to the defendant, the accident or location, you are probably going to have one anyway.

Summary

Jurisdiction and venue clauses are important in a release. Plaintiff’s are working harder at voiding the jurisdiction and venue clause in releases when they have little or no real relationship with where the accident happened.

If you are writing releases for a business with multiple locations, you might look at the jurisdiction and venue clause in each location in relation to the law of the location and the chances the plaintiff will be successful in his or her attempt to void the jurisdiction and venue clause.

Do Something

I argue, plead and write a lot about jurisdiction and venue clauses. They are the second most important clause in a release after the negligence clause. (See Jurisdiction and Venue (Forum Selection clauses) are extremely important in your releases.) A venue clause states where any lawsuit is going to be held, and the jurisdiction identifies the law to be applied. These sections or clauses have to have a relation to the location of the accident. (See Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.)

At the same time, not all states support releases the same way. Several states do not allow the use of releases. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.) Some states allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.) And every state treats releases differently. Some making it much harder to write a release correctly then others.

On top of that you want to create a barrier, if possible, to a lot of litigation by making a lawsuit difficult for the plaintiff. Making the plaintiff find an attorney and litigate in a state where they do not live makes filing a lawsuit much more difficult. Many plaintiffs will spend years trying to sue in their own state. In Moki Mac River Expeditions v. Drugg, 221 S.W.3d 569; 2007 Tex. LEXIS 188; 50 Tex. Sup. J. 498, the plaintiff’s filed a lawsuit in Texas in 2001 and six years later the Texas Supreme Court dismissed it and sent it to Arizona where the trip occurred, and the accident happened.

Jurisdiction and venture clauses are critically important in a good release.

At the same time, cookie-cutter law is not good, even in some releases. In reviewing the reports of a fatality, the other day, I found the business release on line. The release had a jurisdiction and venue clause which sent the lawsuit back to California where the company office was. The fatality occurred in Colorado. Colorado and California law on releases is similar, both are supportive of releases and both allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

The company had more than seventy facilities in North America, including several in states where releases are void. The home office is based in California, although that took some work to find, with a Utah area code for a phone number. On a hunch, I checked with the Utah Secretary of State and found several companies and corporations with the same name. Guessing, either the business started in Utah and moved to California or the business is based in Utah and using an office in California for the basis for jurisdiction and venue in its release.

If the latter is the case, the lawsuit, even with the release, it would be easy to bring suit in Utah and argue the lawsuit should be there.

Worse, the operations are franchised from a Utah or California home office, and the business is owned by a different group of entities or people within each state. Colorado has several companies with the name. Alternatively, every time the company opens a location it creates an LLC for each location.

Each of these creates the possibility of a good argument for voiding the jurisdiction and venue clause in the agreement. There is a better relationship between the parties, plaintiff and defendant, and more reasons to sue where the accident happened.

Either way, as you can see there are numerous ways to argue, successfully or not that the jurisdiction and venue clause should be ignored in a specific case.

What does this lead too? If the plaintiff’s attorney does a little investigation, they can start and make a good argument that the jurisdiction and venue clause should be in a different location, then where it says. Those arguments would be:

Whatever reason you need to write the jurisdiction and venue clause in a release, now days it has to have a greater relationship with the accident location because it will come under greater scrutiny that it did a few years ago.

Blanket cookie cutter releases will not work in the future. Plaintiffs have determined new ways to force possible defendants to come to their location to defend a lawsuit.

Make sure you understand the law of the state where you think you want the lawsuit or the law of the state where the lawsuit could be and pick the one with the greatest chance of success based on the law concerning releases and the issues of jurisdiction and venue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Pittman, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 16-30182-MGM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107839

June 9, 2017, Decided

June 9, 2017, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Adopted by, Motion denied by Pittman v. Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106873 (D. Mass., July 11, 2017)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Josephine Pittman, Plaintiff, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT; Timothy P. Wickstrom, Wickstrom Morse, LLP, Whitinsville, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Defendant, Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA; Michael W. Garland, Burns & Farrey, P.C., Worcester, MA.

For Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc., Counter Claimant: Thomas B. Farrey, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Burns & Farrey, Worcester, MA.

For Josephine Pittman, Counter Defendant: Timothy L. O’Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brittani K. Morgan, Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C., Hartford, CT.

JUDGES: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

OPINION

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTERLCLAIM FOR IMPROPER VENUE

(Dkt. No. 11)

ROBERTSON, U.S.M.J.

I. Introduction

On or around October 19, 2016, plaintiff Josephine Pittman (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint in the Trial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Superior Court Department, Franklin County (Dkt. No. 1-1). In summary, the complaint alleged that Plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a participant in a zip [*2] line canopy tour on the premises of defendant Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, Inc. (“Defendant”). Defendant removed the case to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), which provides for removal of actions where the parties are diverse (Dkt. No. 1). In this court, Defendant answered the complaint and asserted a counterclaim against Plaintiff for fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3). Presently before the court is Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss Counterclaim for Improper Venue (“Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss”), which was referred to the undersigned for Report and Recommendation by the presiding District Judge (Dkt. No. 27). For the reasons set forth below, the court recommends that Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss be denied.

II. Relevant background

Plaintiff’s initial complaint (“Complaint”) asserted claims of gross negligence (Count I) and fraudulent inducement concerning a participant agreement and waiver of liability (“Participant Agreement”) signed by Plaintiff as a condition of her participation in the zip lining activity (Count II) (Dkt. No. 1-1).1 In its response to the Complaint, Defendant asserted a counterclaim for contractual indemnification based on the contents of the Participation Agreement signed by Plaintiff. [*3] 2 Defendant attached a copy of the Participant Agreement as Exhibit A to Defendant’s Answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint, Counterclaim and Claim for Jury Trial (Dkt. No. 3).

1 With leave of court, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on June 5, 2017 (“Amended Complaint”), adding a claim of ordinary negligence and claims of loss of consortium on behalf of her husband, Ronald Pittman, and her daughter, Lillian Pittman (Dkt. No. 34).

2 The formal title of the document is “Participant Agreement, Release and Acknowledgement of Risk.”

In relevant part, the Participant Agreement provides as follows:

2. I expressly agree to and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity [expressly including zip line canopy tours]. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks.

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless Zoar from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of Zoar’s equipment, vehicles, facilities, or premises before, during, and after this activity including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of Zoar.

4. Should Zoar or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney’s fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs.

. . .

6. In the event that I file a lawsuit against Zoar, I agree the Venue of any dispute that may arise out of this agreement [*4] or otherwise between the parties to which Zoar or its agents is a party shall be either in the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts. I further agree that the substantive law of Massachusetts shall apply in that action without regard to the conflict of law rules of that state.3

(Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2).

3 The court takes judicial notice of the fact that a “town of Charlemont Justice Court” does not exist in Charlemont, Massachusetts. The parties agreed at oral argument that the Superior Court in Franklin County is the venue designated by the forum selection clause.

Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is based solely on the forum selection clause in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 11).

III. Standard of Review and Applicable Law

In this circuit, a motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause is treated “as a motion alleging the failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6).” Rivera v. Centro Medico de Turabo, Inc., 575 F.3d 10, 15 (1st Cir. 2009) (citing Silva v. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 239 F.3d 385, 387 & n.3 (1st Cir. 2001)). This court “must ‘accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint, draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the [counterclaim] plaintiff’s favor, and determine whether the [counterclaim], so read, limns facts sufficient to justify recovery on any cognizable theory.'” Id. (quoting LaChapelle v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 142 F.3d 507, 508 (1st Cir. 1998)). A court considering a motion to dismiss “may properly consider only facts and documents that are part of or incorporated into the complaint.” Trans-Spec Truck Serv., Inc. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 524 F.3d 315, 321 (1st Cir. 2008). In the present [*5] action, Defendant has attached the Participant Agreement in support of its counterclaim, and neither party disputes the authenticity of the document. Accordingly, in ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss, the court may appropriately take into account the contents of the Participant Agreement, including the choice of forum provision which is the basis of that motion. See Alternative Energy, Inc. v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 267 F.3d 30, 33 (1st Cir. 2001) (document sufficiently referred to in the complaint, the authenticity of which is not disputed, properly may be considered on a 12(b)(6) motion).

It remains an unsettled question in this circuit whether “‘forum selection clauses are to be treated as substantive or procedural for Erie purposes.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16 (quoting Lambert v. Kysar, 983 F.2d 1110, 1116 & n.10 (1st Cir. 1993)). This is a question that the court need not address. See id. The forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement provides that Massachusetts law shall apply to legal actions arising out of the agreement or otherwise between the parties (Dkt. No. 35-1 at 1, ¶ 6). This court should, therefore, look to Massachusetts law for principles bearing on interpretation of the Participant Agreement. That said, there is no conflict between federal common law and Massachusetts law regarding the enforceability and interpretation [*6] of forum selection clauses. See generally Boland v. George S. May Int’l Co., 81 Mass. App. Ct. 817, 969 N.E.2d 166, 169-74 (Mass. App. Ct. 2012) (relying on federal and Massachusetts law for purposes of interpreting a forum selection clause). Accordingly, it is also appropriate for this court to apply federal common law in ruling on the enforceability and interpretation of the Participant Agreement’s forum selection clause. See Rivera, 575 F.3d at 16-17; see also OsComp Sys., Inc. v. Bakken Express, LLC, 930 F. Supp. 2d 261, 268 n.3 (D. Mass. 2013) (relying on federal common law where the parties did so; noting that there do not appear to be material discrepancies between federal and Massachusetts law regarding the validity and interpretation of forum selection clauses); Summa Humma Enters., LLC v. Fisher Eng’g, Civil No. 12-cv-367-LM, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 856, 2013 WL 57042, at *3 (D. Me. Jan. 3, 2013) (court would apply Maine law to interpretation of forum selection clauses; because Maine law was co-extensive with federal law concerning the interpretation of a forum selection clause, the court would also apply federal common law to the interpretive task).

IV. Analysis

Notwithstanding citations to cases ruling that forum selection clauses can constitute a waiver of a defendant’s right to remove a case to federal court, Plaintiff has not moved for dismissal or remand of this case to the state court where it was filed. Rather, Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss is limited [*7] to seeking dismissal of Defendant’s counterclaim. On this point, Plaintiff contends that this court is an improper venue for a counterclaim alleging contractual indemnity because the claim is a dispute between the parties that arises out of the Participant Agreement. Plaintiff notes that, in setting forth the designated venue, the forum selection clause uses the word “shall,” which, Plaintiff argues, connotes a mandatory choice of venue which is binding on Defendant (Dkt. No. 12). Defendant opposes Plaintiff’s Motion to Dismiss on the ground that the forum selection clause was binding on Plaintiff, but by its terms, did not constrain Defendant’s choice of venue for any claims it had against Plaintiff arising from the Participant Agreement (Dkt. No. 15). In the court’s view, Defendant has the better of the arguments.

Forum selection clauses “‘are prima facie valid and should be enforced.'” Silva, 239 F.3d at 386 (quoting M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972)). “A forum selection clause ‘does not divest a court of [the] jurisdiction it otherwise retains, rather it constitutes a stipulation in which the parties join in asking the court to give effect to their agreement by declining to exercise jurisdiction.'” Provanzano v. Parker View Farm, Inc., 827 F. Supp. 2d 53, 58 (D. Mass. 2011) (quoting Silva, 239 F.3d at 389 n.6). Before giving effect to [*8] a forum selection clause, a court must address certain threshold issues, including whether: (1) the clause is mandatory or permissive; and (2) the clause governs the claims allegedly subject to it. See id.

1. The Forum Selection Clause is Mandatory as to Claims to Which it Applies

“‘Permissive forum selection clauses, often described as “consent to jurisdiction” clauses, authorize jurisdiction and venue in a designated forum, but do not prohibit litigation elsewhere. . . . In contrast, mandatory forum selection clauses contain clear language indicating that jurisdiction and venue are appropriate exclusively in the designated forum.'” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 17 (quoting 14D C.A. Wright, A.R. Miller & E.H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3803.1 (3d ed. 1998)). “The use of words such as ‘will’ or ‘shall’ demonstrate parties’ exclusive commitment to the named forum.” Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Summit Packaging Sys., Inc. v. Kenyon & Kenyon, 273 F.3d 9, 12 (1st Cir. 2001)). Moreover, “[a] crucial distinction between mandatory and permissive clauses is whether the clause only mentions jurisdiction or specifically refers to venue.” Arguss Communs. Group, Inc. v. Teletron, Inc., No. CIV. 99-257-JD, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18085, 2000 WL 36936, at *7 (D.N.H. Nov. 19, 1999). In the present case, “[b]ecause the [Participant] Agreement uses the term ‘shall’ to describe . . . the commitment to resolving . . . [certain] litigation [*9] ‘in [either the town of Charlemont, Massachusetts Justice Court or the County or State Supreme Court in Franklin County, Massachusetts,’] [and because it refers to ‘venue,’ not just ‘jurisdiction,’] it is a mandatory clause.” Xiao Wei Yang Catering Linkage in Inner Mongolia Co., LTD v. Inner Mongolia Xiao Wei Yang USA, Inc., 150 F. Supp. 3d 71, 77 (D. Mass. 2015). Indeed, the parties do not appear to dispute that the forum selection clause in the Participant Agreement is mandatory as to claims to which it applies.

2. The Forum Selection Clause Does Not Apply to Defendant’s Counterclaim

Whether to enforce a forum selection clause depends on whether the clause governs the claims asserted in the lawsuit. See Provanzano, 827 F. Supp. 2d at 60 (citing Huffington v. T.C. Grp., LLC, 637 F.3d 18, 21 (1st Cir. 2011)); see also Pacheco v. St. Luke’s Emergency Assocs., P.C., 879 F. Supp. 2d 136, 140 (D. Mass. 2012). This is a matter of interpreting the terms of the contract between the parties. “The construction of a written contract which is plain in its terms and free from ambiguity presents a question of law for the court,'” Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 173 (quoting Hiller v. Submarine Signal Co., 325 Mass. 546, 91 N.E.2d 667, 669 (Mass. 1950)), and it is “‘the language of the forum selection clause itself that determines which claims fall within its scope.'” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140 (quoting Rivera, 575 F.3d at 19).

In the present case, the plain language of the forum selection clause mandated venue in the Franklin County Superior Court, but only as to claims asserted by Plaintiff. Plaintiff’s contention that the forum selection clause is binding on Defendant ignores the qualifying introductory clause of the provision, which states [*10] that “[i]n the event [Plaintiff] file[s] a lawsuit against Zoar, [Plaintiff] agree[s]” to the venue specified in paragraph 6 of the Participant Agreement (Dkt No. 3-1 at 2). In this case, as in Rivera, the mandatory venue language “is preceded and informed by a qualifying phrase: ‘In the event that . . . [I file suit against Zoar] . . ., I . . . agree [the Venue] . . . .’ That is, the [Participant Agreement] required [Plaintiff] to assert any causes of action that [she] may have against [Defendant] in the [Franklin County Superior Court].” Rivera, 575 F.3d at 18. There is no comparable venue provision, nor is there any mandatory or restrictive language, in paragraph 4 related to an assertion by Defendant of a claim for recovery of attorney’s fees and costs (Dkt. No. 3-1 at 2). Thus, by far the most persuasive reading of the forum selection clause is that it dictated the venue where Plaintiff could file suit against Defendant but did not waive Defendant’s right of removal or dictate the forum in which Defendant could bring claims against Plaintiff arising out of the Participant Agreement. See Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 140; Boland, 969 N.E.2d at 174; cf. Xiao Wei Catering Linkage, 150 F. Supp. 3d at 77 (satisfaction of condition precedent was required to trigger application of a forum selection clause).

Furthermore, because [*11] Plaintiff has not moved for remand and intends to prosecute her claims against Defendant in this court, it would be a waste of judicial resources to require Defendant to seek recovery of fees and costs in a separate state court action. In Count II of Plaintiff’s Complaint (and her amended complaint), she has alleged that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. “It is black-letter law that an agreement . . . is voidable by a party who is fraudulently induced to enter into it.” Green v. Harvard Vanguard Med. Assocs., Inc., 79 Mass. App. Ct. 1, 944 N.E.2d 184, 193 (Mass. App. Ct. 2011); see also St. Fleur v. WPI Cable Sys./Mutron, 450 Mass. 345, 879 N.E.2d 27, 35 (Mass. 2008) (a party is not bound by a contract she was fraudulently induced to sign). To prevail on the claim of ordinary negligence alleged in the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff will be required to prove that she was fraudulently induced to sign the Participant Agreement. See Lee v. Allied Sports Assocs., 349 Mass. 544, 209 N.E.2d 329, 332-33 (Mass. 1965). If she succeeds in meeting her burden of proof on this point, she will not be bound by the terms of the Participant Agreement, which is the sole basis for Defendant’s counterclaim for fees and costs. Thus, Plaintiff’s claims and Defendant’s counterclaim “involve a common nucleus of operative fact [and] all claims should be adjudicated together in this court.” Pacheco, 879 F. Supp. 2d at 138.

V. Conclusion

For these reasons, it is this court’s RECOMMENDATION [*12] that Plaintiff’s Motion be DENIED.4

4 The parties are advised that under the provisions of Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b) or Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b), any party who objects to these findings and recommendations must file a written objection with the Clerk of this Court within fourteen (14) days of the party’s receipt of this Report and Recommendation. The written objection must specifically identify the portion of the proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and the basis for such objection. The parties are further advised that failure to comply with this rule shall preclude further appellate review by the Court of Appeals of the District Court order entered pursuant to this Report and Recommendation. See Keating v. Secretary of HHS, 848 F.2d 271, 275 (1st Cir. 1988); United States v. Valencia-Copete, 792 F.2d 4, 6 (1st Cir. 1986); Scott v. Schweiker, 702 F.2d 13, 14 (1st Cir. 1983); United States v. Vega, 678 F.2d 376, 378-79 (1st Cir. 1982); Park Motor Mart, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 616 F.2d 603, 604 (1st Cir. 1980). See also Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 154-55, 106 S. Ct. 466, 88 L. Ed. 2d 435 (1985). A party may respond to another party’s objections within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof.

/s/ Katherine A. Robertson

KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON

United States Magistrate Judge

DATED: June 9, 2017


Tennessee still does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue, but might enforce a jurisdiction and venue clause, maybe an arbitration clause.

The release was written poorly choosing California as the forum state for the lawsuit and applying California law. The accident occurred in Tennessee, and the defendant was based in Nevada so the court quickly through the venue and jurisdiction clauses out.

Blackwell, v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC. 2017 Tenn. App. LEXIS 6

State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, at Nashville

Plaintiff: Crystal Blackwell, as Next Friend to Jacob Blackwell, a Minor

Defendant: Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2017

Another trampoline case, another stretch outside the normal subject matter of these articles, however, the case is instructive on two points. (1.) The court just slammed the defendant’s release based on a jurisdiction and venue clause that had nothing to do with the place where the accident occurred and (2.) The judge stated a jurisdiction and venue clause in a release; if it met Tennessee’s law would be valid when signed by a parent to stop the claims of a child.

The minor plaintiff was injured while jumping on a trampoline at the defendant’s facility in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to his injury, his mother signed a release. The minor plaintiff visited the defendant’s facilities on numerous occasions prior to his injury. He was injured playing a game of trampoline dodgeball.

The release included a forum selection (venue) clause, which stipulated California was the site of any lawsuit applying California law. (California allows a mother to sign away a parent’s right to sue. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

The mother and the son sued the defendant. The defendant filed a motion to change parties, meaning the defendant named in the lawsuit was not the defendant who owned the facility where the accident occurred. The parties eventually stipulated to that, and the correct parties were identified and in the lawsuit. The defendant filed a motion to enforce the contract between the parties, meaning the lawsuit should be moved to California as stated in the release. The motion also stated the claims made by the mother should be dismissed because she signed the release.

The mother voluntarily dismissed her claims against the defendant. By doing so, the defendant was now arguing release law only against the minor plaintiff in a state with a long history of denying those releases. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

The trial court had a hearing on the issue of the venue and jurisdiction clauses and ruled them unenforceable.

Therein, the trial court ruled that neither the forum selection clause nor the choice of law provision were valid because their enforcement would cause a great hardship for Son to prosecute his action in California and, Tennessee, rather than California, has “a more significant relationship to the facts surrounding this case.”

The court also ruled that the release was not valid to protect against the claims of the minor, now the sole plaintiff in the case finding “The trial court also noted that Tennessee’s law included a fundamental public policy regarding the protection of children.”

The trial court eventually granted the defendant’s motion for an interlocutory appeal. An interlocutory appeal is an appeal prior to the granting of a final decision by the court. This type of appeal is rare and only done when one party can argue the issue should be decided by the appellate court prior to going to trial and has a good basis for their argument.

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

The Appellate Court found four issues to review:

1. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the forum selection clause contained in the release?

2. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the choice of law provision contained in the release?

3. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability against Son contained in the release signed by Mother?

4. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the amendment to the complaint to allow Son to recover for pre-majority medical expenses.

Starting with issue one the court looked at the exact same issues discussed in Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case. The court started with the general law concerning venue or forum selection clauses.

Generally, a forum selection clause is enforceable and binding on the parties entering into the contract. A forum selection clause will be upheld if it is fair and reasonable in light of all the circumstances surrounding its origin and application.

Forum selection clauses will be enforced unless:

(1) the plaintiff cannot secure effective relief in the other state, for reasons other than delay in bringing the action; (2) or the other state would be a substantially less convenient place for the trial of the action than this state; (3) or the agreement as to the place of the action was obtained by misrepresentation, duress, abuse of economic power, or other unconscionable means; (4) or it would for some other reason be unfair or unreasonable to enforce the agreement.

The forum selection clause is valid unless the party arguing against the clause proves it would be unfair and inequitable. “Tennessee law is clear, however, that the party challenging the enforcement of the forum selection clause “should bear a heavy burden of proof.”

The plaintiffs were from Tennessee, and the accident occurred in Tennessee. All the plaintiff’s witnesses were from Tennessee because that is where the injured minor received his medical treatment. The defendant was a Nevada corporation doing business in Nevada. However, the defendant’s release stated that California was the place for any litigation. The reason for that is California allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue. (See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue).

California was obviously a “less convenient place” to have a trial because the majority, if not all the witnesses, were based in Tennessee. However, inconvenience or annoyance is not enough to invalidate a venue clause, nor will increased cost of litigating the case.

Still, the Tennessee Supreme Court has previously held that where neither company at issue was a resident of the proposed forum and none of the witnesses were residents of the proposed forum, the party resisting a forum selection clause had met its burden to show that the proposed forum was a substantially less convenient forum.

What triggered the court in its decision is the total lack of any real relationship of the parties to the case or the facts of the case to California. Add to that California first issue, the law would allow the release to be effective. Under Tennessee’s law, California would not provide a fair forum for the plaintiff. The release was signed in Tennessee, which the court stated was the default location for the litigation. “Tennessee follows the rule of lex loci contractus. This rule provides that a contract is presumed to be governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which it was executed absent a contrary intent.”

The choice of law or jurisdiction question sunk for the same reason.

Instead, the choice of law provision fails for largely the same reason that the forum selection clause fails: no material connection exists between the transaction at issue and California. As previously discussed, the contract at issue was signed in Tennessee, between Tennessee residents and a Nevada company, concerning activities taking place in Tennessee. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “material” as “[h]aving some logical connection with the consequential facts.” The simple fact that Sky High’s parent company was founded in California over a decade ago and now operates several facilities there is simply not sufficient to show a logical connection to the transaction at issue in this case.

The choice of law provision in Tennessee and most if not all states, will be honored when there is a “material connection” to the transactions at issue. That means that a jurisdiction and venue clause must be based where the plaintiff is, where the defendant is or where the accident happened. IF the jurisdiction and venue clause is based on the defendant’s location, the courts are looking for more than just location. They want witnesses needed to be there or a real reason why the defendant’s location to be the site of the trial and the law to be applied.

After throwing out the jurisdiction and venue clauses in the release for being an attempt to get around an issue, the court then looked at the release itself. The court first looked at limitations on releases in Tennessee.

These types of agreements, however, are subject to some important exceptions, such as waivers involving gross negligence or willful conduct or those involving a public duty. These types of provisions must also be clear and unambiguous.

The plaintiff’s argument was the release violated Tennessee’s public policy.

[T]he public policy of Tennessee is to be found in its constitution, statutes, judicial decisions and applicable rules of common law.'” “Primarily, it is for the legislature to determine the public policy of the state, and if there is a statute that addresses the subject in question, the policy reflected therein must prevail.”

To determine if a contract violates public policy the court must look at the purpose of the contract, if the contract will have a detrimental effect on the public. “‘The principle that contracts in contravention of public policy are not enforceable should be applied with caution and only in cases plainly within the reasons on which that doctrine rests.’”

The court then reviewed the Childress decision in detail and found it to still be viable law in Tennessee.

Based on the foregoing, we conclude that there is no basis to depart from this Court’s well-reasoned decision in Childress. Because the law in Tennessee states that parents may not bind their minor children to pre-injury waivers of liability, releases, or indemnity agreements, the trial court did not err in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability and indemnity provisions of the release signed by Mother on behalf of Son.

This court agreed, releases signed by parents to stop claims of a minor are invalid in Tennessee. Tennessee now has two appellate court decisions prohibiting a parent from signing away a minor’s right to sue. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to review the decision, Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC, 2017 Tenn. LEXIS 305.

The court then looked at a motion filed by the plaintiff to increase the damages based on pre-majority medical expenses. These were medical bills paid by the mother prior to the injured plaintiff reaching the age of 18. Those bills under Tennessee’s law where the mother’s bills, the person who paid them, however, since she had dismissed her claims, those damages were no longer part of the suit. Now the plaintiff was trying to include them in the injured plaintiff’s claims.

The court denied that motion based on the release the mother signed, which prevented her claims and the plaintiff as a minor had no legal duty to pay those bills, only the mother could. Therefore, those damages could not be included in the lawsuit.

The release in that regard proved valuable to the defendant because the medical bills incurred right after the accident were the largest amount of claims to be paid.

So Now What?

This is a great example of a case where the local business accepted the release from above, home office, without checking to see if that release was valid. This occurs every day, with the same results, when an insured asks for a release from their insurance company or a new franchise opens up and accepts the paperwork from the franchisor as is.

Always have your release reviewed to see if it meets the needs of your business and the laws of your state.

The release was effective to stop the lawsuit for claims made by the mother of the injured minor. Those medical bills paid by the mother were probably substantial and would the largest amount of claims owed. In many cases with the reduced amount of medical bills, other damages would be significantly reduced because those damages tend to be a factor of the medical bills.

What is of note in this decision is the jurisdiction and venue clause, or choice of law and forum selection clause as defined in the decision would have been upheld if it was not so absurd. If the choice of law clause was based on the requirements that it have some relationship to the parties or the accident, it seems to have been a valid decision and upheld.

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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Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.

This is not the first decision I’ve read where the United States Ski Association (USSA) had its release laughed out of court. The court found ZERO legal arguments for the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release used.

Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

State: Vermont, United States District Court for the District of Vermont

Plaintiff: Brian J Tierney

Defendant: Okemo Limited Liability Company, d/b/a Okemo Mountain Resort, and The United States Ski and Snowboard Association,

Plaintiff Claims: alleging negligent installation of safety netting during a downhill alpine ski race

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2016

The United States Ski Association (USSA) has members sign a release online before they can participate in any USSA as a ski race. Ski areas rely on this release when holding USSA sanctioned races. The USSA release, however, is a poorly written document and time after time the ski areas, and the USSA lose a lawsuit by a plaintiff because they relied on the USSA release.

The number-one  reason why the USSA as a release is thrown out by the courts is the jurisdiction and venue clause. Jurisdiction is the law that will be applied case and venue is the actual location of where the trial will be held. The USSA release says the jurisdiction for any case is Colorado. The problem is unless the accident occurred in Colorado; no other relationship exists between Colorado and the parties to the lawsuit.

The USSA is based, located, in Utah. In this case, the defendant ski area was located in Vermont. There were zero relationships between the USSA in Utah the ski area in Vermont and the injured plaintiff who was from New York, and the state of Colorado.

Consequently, the court throughout the jurisdiction and venue clause and found as 99% of most courts would that the location of the lawsuit should be Vermont, the place where the accident happened.

Vermont, however, does not recognize releases. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.).

The plaintiff argued the release was invalid because a copy with his signature could not be produced. The plaintiff signed and agreed to the documentation, including the release when he became a member of the USSA. The plaintiff argued in court that he did not remember signing or agreeing to the release. However, the USSA could  show through their IT expert the only way that the plaintiff could have become a member of the USSA was by signing the release. You either had to click on and accept the release, or you could go no further in signing up to be a member of the USSA.

The plaintiff was injured while competing in amateur downhill ski race at the defendant ski area at Okemo Mountain resort. The USSA sanctioned the race. To be eligible to participate in the race a person had to be a USSA member, had to have conducted a visual inspection of course, and had to have taken at least two official training runs prior to the race.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release. This ruling denied the motion for summary judgment.

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

The court first commented on the jurisdiction and venue issue.

The release also contained a choice-of-law provision, which stated that it would be “construed in accordance with, and governed by the substantive laws of the State of Colorado, without reference to principles governing choice or conflict of laws.”

The court then went through the various arguments of the plaintiff and defendant concerning the motion to dismiss, first off, with the plaintiff’s argument that he never remembered signing the release could not have signed release. The court termed the online release as a clip wrap release. This means that the release could not have been rejected by the plaintiff because the website only allows you to go forward after clicking yes to the release.

Because the click-wrap technology does not permit the customer to continue to use the website, unless he or she clicks on the required box on the screen, courts have accepted proof of use at the site as evidence of the customer’s agreement.

The court stated that generally clip wrap releases are upheld. The court went through several different decisions where clip-wrap releases had been decided. The court concluded that the plaintiff had to have signed the release because the plaintiff admitted that he had been charged for his USSA membership on his credit card and received an email about his membership from the USSA. “Plaintiff admits that he received a confirmation email from USSA and that his credit card statement reflects a payment for his USSA membership.

The court then went into the choice of law clause. That means the jurisdiction and venue clause. A choice of law clause is not a clause that is controlled strictly by the contract.

Whenever there is a decision based on what law shall apply the law where the accident happened or where the court is sitting is the law that is applied to determine what law will apply. In many cases, such as this one, the choice of law decision leans toward granting the choice of law to the place where the test is being determined.

“The validity of a contractual choice-of-law clause is a threshold question that must be decided not under the law specified in the clause, but under the relevant forum’s choice-of-law rules governing the effectiveness of such clauses.” As this is a diversity action, the court looks to Vermont’s choice-of-law rules to determine which law applies.

A jurisdiction and venue clause is also not solely determined based on the four corners of the document. Meaning, just because you have a jurisdiction and venue clause in the document does not mean that is what is going to be upheld by the court. Here the court applied the choice of laws test as set forth in Vermont to determine what law should apply in governing where the suit in the law to be applied is suit to take place.

Simply put the court found there was no relationship between the choice of law clause in the release and the parties or where the accident occurred. The test for what choice of law applies a substantial relationship test. That means that the law that should be applied should be the one that has the greatest relationship to the parties and or the location of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit. In this case the court found, there was no relationship to the parties of the transaction. Plaintiff was a resident of New York the USSA was a Utah corporation, and the defendant ski area was a defendant was a Vermont location.

The arguments made by the USSA as an aid to justify Colorado’s choice of law clause were just plain weak. They argued that the majority of their races occurred in Colorado and that there was a good chance that the plaintiff would race in Colorado. The court found neither of those arguments to be persuasive.

The chosen state of Colorado has no “substantial relationship” to the parties or the transaction. Plaintiff is a resident of New York. USSA is a Utah corporation and Okemo is a Vermont entity. The incident in question did not occur in Colorado. The only facts Defendants have offered in sup-port of applying Colorado law to this case are: (1) Colorado is home to more USSA member clubs than any other state and hosts the majority of USSA’s major events, and (2) there was a possibility that Plaintiff could have competed in Colorado at some point during the relevant ski season. The court finds that such a tenuous and hypothetical connection does not vest in the state of Colorado a substantial relationship to the parties or specific transaction at issue in this case.

The court did find that Vermont had a substantial and significant interest in the transaction. The defendant was based in Vermont. The accident occurred in Vermont. The plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by the defendant ski area that required all disputes to be litigated in Vermont. The plaintiff participated in the inspection and training runs as well as the race in Vermont.

In contrast, Vermont’s relationship to the parties and transaction is significant. Okemo is a Vermont corporation, the competition was held in Vermont, Plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by Okemo requiring all disputes to be litigated in Vermont, Plaintiff participated in inspection and training runs in Vermont, and Plaintiff’s injury occurred in Vermont.

(Of note is the fact the court looked at the writing on the lift ticket as a quasi-contract. Rarely are lift tickets anything more than simple “signs” providing warnings rather than contracts or quasi contracts. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states.)

The court then took apart the choice of law provision in the USSA release. It found no substantial relationship of the parties to the transaction in Colorado. The minimal facts offered by the USSA to support Colorado did not establish a reasonable basis for choosing Colorado.

The court also reasoned that finding Colorado as the applicable choice of law would violate a fundamental policy of Vermont law, which is releases for skiing or void under Vermont law.

First, applying Colorado law would undoubtedly produce a result contrary to a fundamental policy of Vermont. Whereas exculpatory clauses in ski contracts have been held to be enforceable under Colorado law, courts applying Vermont law consistently hold such re-leases to be void as contrary to important public policies of the state.

The court also found the Vermont had a materially greater interest in case then Colorado. Colorado’s interest in the case is minimal. Vermont had a great interest in applying Vermont law to issues, transactions and accidents that occur in Vermont. Skiing is a significant and important recreational activity in Vermont, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that they have a significant interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety in Vermont.

Second, Vermont has a “materially greater interest” than Colorado in the determination of this issue.4 Colorado’s interest in this case is minimal. The fact that Plaintiff may have competed there in the course of the relevant ski season and that USSA hosts many events in that state does not create a significant interest in a case concerning a Vermont ski race. Conversely, Vermont’s interest is plain. Vermont has a general interest in having its laws apply to contracts governing transactions taking place within the state. Vermont also has a significant interest in the conduct at issue here. Skiing is an important recreational activity for Vermonters and those visiting the state, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly noted its interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety.

The court then held the choice of law provision in the USSA release did not control, and the Vermont law would apply to this case.

Under Vermont law releases for skiing activities are unenforceable. (See Federal court voids release in Vermont based on Vermont’s unique view of release law). The Vermont Supreme Court had determined that it was a violation of public policy under Vermont law to allow ski area to use a release to avoid liability for its own negligence. The court used a totality of the circumstances test to make the determination that the ski areas had the greater responsibility and the greater ability to keep its patrons out of harm’s way.

The Court concluded that “ultimately the 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.” It then went on to make its public policy determination largely on the basis of two factors derived from the seminal case of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963): (1) ski areas are open to the general public without regard to special training or ability, and (2) the longstanding rule that premises owners are in the best position to assure for the safety of their visitors.

(Using Tunkl to void a release seems to be an extremely odd reading of Tunkl. The Tunkl decision is a California case setting forth requirements for Assumption of the Risk.)

The court also looked at the difference between skiing in Vermont participating in a ski race. Here too though, the Vermont Supreme Court already ruled. The Vermont Supreme Court found that there was really no difference between ski racing and skiing in Vermont, and the releases would be void in both cases.

There had been Vermont decisions upholding release law based on restricted access to the race or because total control for the majority the control for the welfare of the racers was in the racer’s hands. These decisions concerned motorcycle racing.

The defendant argued that ski racing was much like motorcycle racing in Vermont. However, the court found that although membership in the motorcycle racing was restricted, it was not restricted in the ski racing case. Any person could become a member of the USSA, and any person could race, as long as they inspected the course and made two runs and. That effectively was not a bar to anyone participating in the race.

The Court saw “no salient distinctions between [its case] and making clear that, under Vermont law, ski areas and sport event organizers will not be absolved from liability by virtue of an exculpatory clause even in the context of amateur racing.

The court in evaluating the release law and ski areas in Vermont determined that the cases were based on a premise’s liability argument. Premise’s liability says that the owner of the land has a duty to inform guests of the risks on the land. This responsibility included eliminating any known risks or risk the by the landowner should discover. It did not find in the motorcycle cases that a premise’s liability relationship existed because the risk was largely in control of the racer on the motorcycle.

Consequently, the court ruled that the release was invalid under Vermont law, and dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

I suspect that USSA wanted to take advantage of the Colorado Statute that allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue: Colorado Revised Statutes 13-22-107. Colorado’s release law is clearer and there is no issue with a release stopping suits by ski areas. Utah has mixed issues with releases and ski areas. However, to use Colorado as the site of the lawsuit, there must be a nexus to the state of Colorado, not just one created on paper.

Not only must the language stating the jurisdiction and venue be correct; the clause must also contain the reasoning why the jurisdiction and venue should be in a location other than location where the accident happened. In this case that would mean that there was an agreement between the parties that outlined all the reasons why the lawsuit should be brought back to Utah would be the only state, based on the contractual law of Utah.

I doubt there is any way that you could really write a release based on the law of a state that had no relationship, no nexus, to the accident or the parties in the case.

Vermont was the obvious answer, and that is what the court found. They might’ve been able also argued New York law, which would’ve been better than Vermont law. However, that would require them to litigate a case wherever the people who are racing in their events are located.

To be effective the jurisdiction and venue claw must have a nexus to either the parties in the case of the place of the accident occurred. USSA could move to Colorado, and that would provide a much better argument that Colorado law could apply. The USSA could argue that since they’re facing litigation from across the United States that they need to have one law apply to their releases and lawsuits, and that law should be the law where the located.

Whenever you’re stretching the jurisdiction and venue clause, you need to make sure that you incorporate in the clause all the legal reasons for picking the venue where the clause says the accident or location will occur. You just can’t state venue, and jurisdiction will be here.

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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Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

Read the rest of this entry »


The dissent in this case argues because the release was not presented to the plaintiff until he had traveled to the resort it should be void.

Case was moved from plaintiff’s town to the ski area home town based on the venue selection clause in equipment rental release. However the dissent would void venue selection clause because it was only presented to the plaintiff after the plaintiff traveled to the skis area. The dissenting judge had federal decisions that supported him.

Karlsberg v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., 131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department

Plaintiff: David Karlsberg

Defendant: Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., doing business as Hunter Mountain

Plaintiff Claims: failed to provide him with proper instruction, causing him to sustain injuries while snowboarding at the defendant’s facility

Defendant Defenses: Release changes the venue

Holding: For the Defendant, venue changed

Year: 2015

This is a simple case. The plaintiff traveled to Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, in upper New York. Upon arrival the plaintiff signed an equipment release. He rented a snowboard and took a snowboarding lesson. How he was injured was not in the decision.

The plaintiff filed suit in Suffolk County New York (Long Island). The equipment release the plaintiff signed had a jurisdiction clause that stated any lawsuits had to “be litigated exclusively in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Greene, or in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.”

The trial court transferred the case and the plaintiff appealed.

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

The decision, a New York Appellate court decision was short. It simply said the trial court was correct. The decision reviewed the claims of the plaintiff for the reasons why the release should be voided.

Contrary to the plaintiff’s contentions, the “Equipment Rental Form and Release of Liability” was not an unenforceable contract of adhesion, and enforcement of the forum selection clause contained therein does not contravene public policy  Contrary to the plaintiff’s additional contention, the defendant’s motion was timely, inasmuch as it was made within a reasonable time after the commencement of the action

However, no reasons were given why the claims were denied.

The dissenting opinion was longer. The dissent basically argued “the better rule is one where forum selection clauses are not to be enforced if they are shown to consumers for the first time upon their arrival at a resort.”

The dissent then went through New York Law and case law from the federal courts in New York. The federal courts have upheld claims like the plaintiff’s that the release should be void because it was presented after the plaintiff had traveled and arrived at the destination.

However there was one prior case, almost identical to this one where the release was upheld even through claims of voiding the release because the plaintiff had traveled without knowing he or she would sign a jurisdiction and venue clause were denied. As such, the decisions from the state courts were controlling and basically “overruled” the federal court decisions because the decisions involved an interpretation of state law.

So Now What?

Avoid making the courts wonder about your relationship with the plaintiff and whether you attempted to hide information from the plaintiff or mislead the plaintiff. On your website and in your brochure tell prospective clients that they have to sign a release when they arrive.

Better, please the release online so they can review the release and see what they are signing. Releases are signed every day for all sorts of activities should it should be no shock that your clients will be signing one. Consequently don’t be afraid to be honest and tell them in advance.

If, upon arrival, a guest decides they don’t want to sign your release what are you going to do? The guest will have a valid claim for you to repay all of their money for the travel they incurred. Are you prepared to refund all of the money the guest spent with you and possibly repay what the guest spent to get to your destination?

Easier to post your release online and tell your clients in advance they have to sign it then to write a check when they find out and are upset about it.

clip_image002What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Karlsberg v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., 131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746

Karlsberg v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., 131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746

David Karlsberg, appellant, v Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, Inc., doing business as Hunter Mountain, respondent. (Index No. 38816/11)

2014-05431

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

131 A.D.3d 1121; 2015 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6806; 2015 NY Slip Op 06890; 16 N.Y.S.3d 746

September 23, 2015, Decided

COUNSEL: [*1] The Berkman Law Office, LLC, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Robert J. Tolchin and Meir Katz of counsel), for appellant.

Carol A. Schrager, New York, N.Y. (Beth A. Willensky of counsel), for respondent.

JUDGES: JOHN M. LEVENTHAL, J.P., THOMAS A. DICKERSON, SHERI S. ROMAN, SYLVIA O. HINDS-RADIX, JJ. LEVENTHAL, J.P., ROMAN, and HINDS-RADIX, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[***746] DECISION & ORDER

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries, the plaintiff appeals, as limited by his brief, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Pastoressa, J.), entered March 24, 2014, as, upon reargument, adhered to a prior determination in an order of the same court dated December 3, 2012, granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.

ORDERED that the order entered March 24, 2014, is affirmed insofar as appealed from, with costs.

On March 19, 2011, the plaintiff sought beginner snowboarding lessons at the defendant’s facility, and signed an “Equipment Rental Form and Release of Liability” that provided, among other things, that

“all disputes arising under this contract and/or the use of this equipment and/or the use of the facilities [*2] at Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, shall be litigated exclusively in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Greene, or in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.”

In December 2011, the plaintiff commenced this action in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, alleging that an instructor employed by the defendant failed to provide him with proper instruction, causing him to sustain injuries while snowboarding at the defendant’s facility. In September 2012, the defendant moved, inter alia, pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.

Upon reargument, the Supreme Court properly adhered to its original determination [***747] granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County. Contrary to the plaintiff’s contentions, the “Equipment Rental Form and Release of Liability” was not an unenforceable contract of adhesion, and enforcement of the forum selection clause contained therein does not [**2] contravene public policy (see Molino v Sagamore, 105 AD3d 922, 923, 963 N.Y.S.2d 355; KMK Safety Consulting, LLC v Jeffrey M. Brown Assoc., Inc., 72 AD3d 650, 651, 897 N.Y.S.2d 649; LSPA Enter., Inc. v Jani-King of N.Y., Inc., 31 AD3d 394, 395, 817 N.Y.S.2d 657). Contrary to the plaintiff’s additional contention, the defendant’s motion was timely, inasmuch as it was [*3] made within a reasonable time after the commencement of the action (see CPLR 511[a]; Medina v Gold Crest Care Ctr., Inc., 117 AD3d 633, 634, 988 N.Y.S.2d 578; Bonilla v Tishman Interiors Corp., 100 AD3d 673, 953 N.Y.S.2d 870).

LEVENTHAL, J.P., ROMAN, and HINDS-RADIX, JJ., concur.

CONCUR BY: DICKERSON

CONCUR

DICKERSON, J., concurs in the result, on constraint of Molino v Sagamore (105 AD3d 922, 963 N.Y.S.2d 355), with the following memorandum:

I vote with the majority on constraint of this Court’s precedent, but I write separately to express my view that the better rule is one where forum selection clauses are not to be enforced if they are shown to consumers for the first time upon their arrival at a resort.

In Molino, the injured plaintiff made a reservation to stay as a guest at a resort in Warren County (see id.). Upon arrival, and while registering for the stay, the injured plaintiff signed a document, entitled “Rental Agreement,” containing a provision stating that “if there is a claim or dispute that arises out of the use of the facilities that results in legal action, all issues will be settled by the courts of the State of New York, Warren County” (id.). After the injured plaintiff allegedly tripped and fell on the resort’s property, she, and her husband suing derivatively, commenced an action against the resort in the Supreme Court, Queens County (see id.). This Court held that the Supreme [*4] Court should have granted the defendant’s motion pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Queens County to Warren County, concluding that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that: (1) enforcement of the forum selection clause would be unreasonable, unjust, or would contravene public policy; (2) the clause was invalid because of fraud or overreaching; or (3) a trial in the selected forum of Warren County would, for all practical purposes, deprive them of their day in court (see id. at 923).

In so holding, the Molino Court cited Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v Shute (499 U.S. 585, 111 S. Ct. 1522, 113 L. Ed. 2d 622) for the proposition that “the fact that the Rental Agreement containing the forum selection clause was presented to the plaintiffs at registration and was not the product of negotiation does not render it unenforceable” (Molino v Sagamore, 105 AD3d at 923). In Carnival Cruise Lines, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit erred in refusing to enforce a forum selection clause contained on the face of cruise tickets issued to the plaintiffs in that case. However, the United States Supreme Court noted that it did not “address the question of whether [the plaintiffs] [***748] had sufficient notice of the forum selection clause before [*5] entering the contract for passage” (Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v Shute, 499 US at 590) because the plaintiffs had essentially conceded that they had notice of the forum selection provision and the Ninth Circuit had evaluated the enforceability of the forum clause under the assumption, although ” doubtful,'” that the passengers could be deemed to have knowledge of the clause (id., quoting Shute v Carnival Cruise Lines, 897 F2d 377, 389 n 11 [9th Cir]).

In Sun Trust Bank v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd. (184 F Supp 2d 1246 [SD Fla]) and Foster v Sun Intl. Hotels, Ltd. (2002 WL 34576251, 2002 US Dist LEXIS 28475 [SD Fla, No. 01-1290-CIV]), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida concluded that forum selection clauses set forth in reservation forms that were not shown to consumers until they arrived at a resort were unenforceable because the consumers were not given an adequate opportunity to consider the clause and reject their contracts with the resort (see Foster v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd., 2002 WL 34576251, *1, 2002 US Dist LEXIS 28475 *3-4; Sun Trust Bank v Sun Intl. Hotels Ltd., 184 F Supp 2d at 1261-1262). Similarly, in Ward v Cross Sound Ferry (273 F3d 520 [2d Cir]), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a contractual statute of limitations clause set forth in a ticket issued to a cruise passenger just minutes before she boarded a ship, and then collected at boarding, was not enforceable because the circumstances did not permit the passenger to become meaningfully informed of the contractual terms at stake (see id. at 523-526). By contrast, where forum selection clauses have been sent [*6] to consumers or travel agents prior to the [**3] consumer’s arrival at the subject resort, or where consumers had visited the subject resort on previous occasions and signed forms containing similar forum selection clauses, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has found that the clauses were reasonably communicated to the consumers and, thus, enforceable (see McArthur v Kerzner Intl. Bahamas Ltd., 607 Fed. Appx. 845, 2015 WL 1404409, *1-2, 2015 US App LEXIS 5058, *6-7 [11th Cir, No. 14-138897]; Pappas v Kerzner Intl. Bahamas Ltd., 585 Fed Appx 962, 965-966 [11th Cir]; Estate of Myhra v Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 695 F3d 1233, 1246 [11th Cir]; Krenkel v Kerzner Intl. Hotels Ltd., 579 F3d 1279, 1282 [11th Cir]).

While I believe that the federal cases discussed above set forth the better rule, the doctrine of stare decisis dictates that we follow our prior decision in Molino, which is factually indistinguishable from this case in all relevant respects (see Matter of State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v Fitzgerald, 25 NY3d 799, 2015 NY Slip Op 05626 [2015]; Eastern Consol. Props. v Adelaide Realty Corp., 95 NY2d 785, 788, 732 N.E.2d 948, 710 N.Y.S.2d 840). Accordingly, I agree with the majority that the subject forum selection clause was enforceable, notwithstanding the fact that it was shown to the plaintiff for the first time upon his arrival at the defendant’s facility. I also agree with the majority’s other conclusions, and that, upon reargument, the Supreme Court properly adhered to its prior determination granting that branch of the defendant’s motion which was pursuant to CPLR 501 and 511 to change the venue of the action from Suffolk County to Greene County.


Poorly written release and allegation of duress push whitewater rafting ligation to Pennsylvania Appellate court.

Release probably not written by an attorney, signed in one state for rafting in another state and probably one where the economics suggest an insurance company is playing plaintiff.

Mcdonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., 2015 PA Super 104; 116 A.3d 99; 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 232

State: Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Erin Mcdonald

Defendant: Whitewater Challengers, Inc., and Whitewater Challengers Outdoor Adventure Center, T/D/B/A Whitewater Challengers, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: a. Failing to provide a river guide / instructor in plaintiff’s boat;

b. Failing to provide a properly inflated raft;

c. Failing to advise Plaintiff on the grade and / or class of the whitewater rapids;

d. Failing to properly instruct Plaintiff on how to safely and effectively maneuver fast and difficult rapids; and

e. Allowing an unsafe number of inexperienced rafters to operate a raft.

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For Defendants

Year: 2015

The plaintiff was a teacher at a school that brought 72 kids whitewater rafting with the defendant on the Lehigh River. The school was located, and the plaintiff lived in New York. The defendant was located and the Lehigh River, where the rafting occurred, was in Pennsylvania.

While still at work two days before the trip her supervisor handed a release which she signed. The release had a venue clause which means any lawsuit must be in Pennsylvania but not a jurisdiction clause.

While rafting the plaintiff’s boat struck a rock ejecting the plaintiff from the raft which injured her.

The plaintiff and defendant filed various motions prior to trial. The plaintiff wanted New York law to apply because she had signed the release in New York and was from New York. (The plaintiff wanted the suit brought under New York law because New York does not recognize releases. See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.) The defendant wanted Pennsylvania law to apply, which generally upholds releases.

The court ruled against both parties and denied the release because the plaintiff made an allegation that she was forced to sign the release (duress) therefore, the release should be void. The trial court approved a motion to appeal these issues prior to trial and the appellate court accepted the appeal.

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

The plaintiff started her argument with three theories on the location where the release was signed was the proper jurisdiction for interpreting the law, New York.  

The plaintiff also argued that because the defendant did not have a jurisdiction clause in its release, then obviously the defendant wanted New York law to apply.

Finally, she argued that because her medical bills and treatment would be generated and done in New York that law should apply.

She maintains that because she signed the release in New York, the contract was formed in New York. As a New York resident, McDonald asserts she is entitled to the benefit of New York law. McDonald claims that if Whitewater intended for Pennsylvania law to apply, then it should have included such a clause in its release. She points out that most of her medical treatment occurred in New York and that the New York State Insurance Fund has an interest in recouping her lost wages and medical expenses.

The court started its examination of the law to be applied by first looking at whether tort law or contract law applied. Tort law is the law of injuries and has different requirements to prove jurisdictional issues than contract law, which is what a release is. The court found that contract law applied without much analysis on how it came to that decision.

The court then looked at how a conflict of law’s decision was to be made by the courts when deciding in a contract basis where the contract is silent on the issue of jurisdiction.

…the first step in a choice of law analysis under Pennsylvania law is to determine whether [an actual] conflict exists between the laws of the competing states. If no [actual] conflict exists, further analysis is unnecessary. An actual conflict exists if “there are relevant differences between the laws.

The analysis of what law applies; New York or Pennsylvania is extensive. If only one state would be harmed (the interests of the party from that state), then the issue is a false conflict. If the interests of both states would be harmed (the residents of both states would be harmed) by the decision, then the issue is a true conflict issue. “In such a situation, the court must apply the law of the state whose interests would be harmed if its law were not applied.”

A third situation would exist if the parties of neither state would be harmed. This is called a “neither jurisdiction” issue. This occurs when the law of both states is identical.

In sum, in Pennsylvania, a conflict-of-law analysis not involving a statutory or contractual choice of law clause, first requires determining whether the laws in question actually conflict. If relevant differences between the laws exist, then we next classify the actual conflict as a “true conflict,” “false conflict,” or “unprovided-for conflict.”

Instantly, a New York statute voids clauses immunizing recreational facilities from liability for negligence because they violate New York’s public policy. Pennsylvania, however, recognizes the validity of such exculpatory clauses when they govern voluntary and hazardous recreational activities.

The court determined that this is a true conflict case where both parties would be harmed, based on their desire for the jurisdiction to be applied in their state.

The next issue once a true conflict has been determined is for the court to determine who (what state) would be harmed the most by a decision. “We thus ascertain whether New York “or Pennsylvania has the greater interest in the application of its law to the question now before us.

The actual analysis came down to how the court looked at the issues.

But, comparable to the insurance policy in Walter, the instant release was executed for the purpose of protecting Whitewater, a Pennsylvania business that “had the right to expect that [the release] conformed to [Pennsylvania] law and that the laws of [Pennsylvania] would apply in interpreting the [release].” “[I]t seems only fair to permit” Whitewater to rely on Pennsylvania law when it acted within Pennsylvania. Whitewater should not be placed in jeopardy of liability exceeding that created by Pennsylvania law just because McDonald is a visitor from New York, a state offering higher protection.

The court decided that the law of Pennsylvania would apply. Because the activity where the accident occurred giving rise to the litigation occurred in Pennsylvania the court determined Pennsylvania law would control.

After carefully weighing the sovereign interests at stake, which include contacts establishing the significant relationships with each sovereign, we hold that Pennsylvania has the greater interest in the application of its law to this case.

The court then went into the analysis of the plaintiff’s claim the release should be thrown out because it was signed under duress.

[McDonald] had testified in her deposition that on May 17, 2006, the Headmaster of the School of the Holy Child handed the Release form to [McDonald], while she was between classes and walking through the school hallway and told her to sign it, since she would be one of the chaperones for the students on the rafting trip.

[McDonald] alleges she signed the Release form without reading it.

The plaintiff stated she did not read the release; however, because she had been on a previous whitewater trip.

The plaintiff next argued that she had no choice but to sign the release because it was required by her job. The court then looked at the issues the plaintiff faced in her annual performance evaluations and found that she would not suffer financially if she had not gone on the trip, therefore, she could not claim she was forced to sign the release.

The defendant argued that it did not compel or force the plaintiff to sign the release. If anyone did, her employer did. Since her employer was not a party to the contract, the release, then there could not be any duress.

To constitute duress or business compulsion there must be more than a mere threat which might possibly result in injury at some future time, such as a threat of injury to credit in the indefinite future. It must be such a threat that, in conjunction with other circumstances and business necessity, the party so coerced fears a loss of business unless he does so enter into the contract as demanded.

Because the defendant was not the party “forcing” the plaintiff to sign she could walk away from the release.

Instantly, we frame Whitewater’s question as whether one party to a contract can invoke duress when that duress was allegedly imposed by a non-party and not by the other party to the contract. More precisely, we examine whether McDonald can void the release by claiming the School of the Holy Child economically compelled her to sign the release with Whitewater. McDonald’s presumption is that economic compulsion, i.e., duress, by a non-party to a contract can be “transferred.”

Because the plaintiff was free to walk away from the rafting trip and consequently, the release, the court agreed with the defendant and found there was no duress. “It follows that the School of the Holy Child could not elicit the assent of McDonald by duress.”

Nor did the plaintiff ever claim that the defendant compelled her to sign the release, the only party that a claim of duress against whom the claim could be found. The defendant provided recreational services, which are not something that a claim of duress can be used.

Because a release is not a contract of adhesion, the plaintiff was not forced to sign it.

Thus, an exculpatory clause is not typically analyzed within the framework of whether it is a contract of adhesion. (“The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”).

The court found that the plaintiff could not be compelled by anyone and was not compelled by the defendant to sign the release.

The court then looked at whether the release was viable under Pennsylvania law.

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.

If the release is found to be valid, it must still be examined under Pennsylvania to see if it meets four more tests.

…unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

The court looked at Pennsylvania law and found releases were valid for inherently dangerous sporting activities.

Regarding the first element needed for a valid exculpatory clause, Pennsylvania courts have affirmed exculpatory releases for “skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting activities,” such as snowtubing and motorcycle racing. Other activities include automobile racing, paintballing, and whitewater rafting. Thus, Pennsylvania courts have held exculpatory clauses pertaining to inherently dangerous sporting activities do not “contravene any policy of the law.”

The court also found the release would be valid if it was between two parties for their own private affairs.

With respect to the second element, our Supreme Court held “[t]he validity of a contractual provision which exculpates a person from liability for his own acts of negligence is well settled if the contract is between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs.”

The court then examined the release and found it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shoes the intent of the parties to release the defendant from liability.

The court held the release was enforceable.

So Now What?

This case is long but brings up some interesting arguments to void releases and does a good job of explaining Pennsylvania law on releases.

First the argument that by leaving a specific clause out of a release is proof the person offering the release agrees to the lack of the clause is very scary. Most releases out there leave out a lot. I signed one the other day for an activity that left out both a jurisdiction and venue clause. I signed the release in Nevada where activity occurred. If injured, I would be allowed to sue the California Corporation in Nevada because by not putting the clause in the release it agreed to jurisdiction different from the venue clause.

Thankfully, this argument did not fly. However, it will be picked up in the future and used more often. You cannot tell when a judge or appellate panel will adopt it.

The duress argument is also valid. Duress cannot occur for recreational activities because like the public policy argument, the guest is free to walk away and loses nothing necessary for life. The duress argument is another one that might be brought when the person on the trip is therefore, more than their own enjoyment.

If they are an employee or volunteer of a church or other youth group, if they are required to do public service if they have an employer who wants them to participate, the argument is valid for duress; however, the wrong defendant is being sued. The duress must be brought by the person you are suing to void the release, not the person who made you sign it.

At the same time, it brings up the argument that this might be a subrogation claim brought by the plaintiff’s health insurance carrier or possibly worker’s compensation carrier. If the plaintiff was successful in arguing that the whitewater rafting, trip was part of her employment her injuries, lost wages, and other expenses would be covered by worker’s compensation. Her worker’s compensation insurance carrier then using the subrogation clause in the policy would have the right to sue any party that was the cause for the injuries.

A defense available to the plaintiff also bars any claims made by the insurer when applying the subrogation clause to sue. So a release signed by the plaintiff stops her lawsuit and also here insurer’s lawsuit.

Not having an enforceable jurisdiction clause in a release sent this litigation from the trial court to the appellate court and back again. In this case, it took nine years from the date of the accident, May 2006, and seven years from the start of the lawsuit, July 2008, for the case to be settled. The addition of “and jurisdiction” to the release would have probably ended the case before it got started.

Think about the stress of dealing with a lawsuit against you for seven years.

If you think, the analysis is painful to read, it is. The decision is 27 pages long. There is an entire semester of class on this one subject in law school called “Choice of Laws.” The analysis each time one party claims the lawsuit should be somewhere else or the law applied to the case should be other states not the state where the lawsuit is, is extensive. These cases also take forever.

A case where a person died on a river trip in Arizona was brought in Texas. Six years after the death the Texas Supreme Court sent the case to Arizona where it started all over again. Moki Mac River Expeditions, v. Drugg, 221 S.W.3d 569; 2007 Tex. LEXIS 188; 50 Tex. Sup. J. 498

Of note in the decision but not brought out in the decision was the fact the defendant does not put a guide in every boat on this section of the Lehigh River. One of the claims made by the plaintiff was “a. Failing to provide a river guide / instructor in [McDonald’s] boat;…

For more articles on Jurisdiction and Venue see:

A Recent Colorado Supreme Court Decision lowers the requirements to be brought into the state to defend a lawsuit.                                                                                                     http://rec-law.us/zfpK8Z

Buy something online and you may not have any recourse if it breaks or you are hurt    http://rec-law.us/1rOEUQP

Four releases signed and all of them thrown out because they lacked one simple sentence!     http://rec-law.us/vZoa7x

Jurisdiction and Venue (Forum Selection clauses) are extremely important in your releases.    http://rec-law.us/1ggLMWR

Jurisdiction in Massachusetts allows a plaintiff to bring in Salomon France to the local court.   http://rec-law.us/zdE1uk

Shark Feeding Death triggers debate                                                                  http://rec-law.us/A1BmMF

The legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers http://rec-law.us/tiyChu

This case is a summer camp lawsuit and the decision looks at venue and jurisdiction; however the complaint alleges medical malpractice against a camp!                                   http://rec-law.us/yCRj3U

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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#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, Whitewater Rafting, Rafting, Jurisdiction, Venue, Lehigh River, Guide, Guided River Trip, Contract of Adhesion, Economic Compulsion. Duress,

 


Mcdonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., 2015 PA Super 104; 116 A.3d 99; 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 232

Mcdonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., 2015 PA Super 104; 116 A.3d 99; 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 232

Erin Mcdonald, Appellee v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., and Whitewater Challengers Outdoor Adventure Center, T/D/B/A Whitewater Challengers, Inc., Appellants; Erin Mcdonald, Appellant v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., and Whitewater Challengers Outdoor Adventure Center, T/D/B/A Whitewater Challengers, Inc., Appellees

No. 1221 MDA 2013, No. 1400 MDA 2013

SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2015 PA Super 104; 116 A.3d 99; 2015 Pa. Super. LEXIS 232

April 29, 2015, Decided

April 29, 2015, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the Order Entered March 28, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County. Civil Division No(s).: 6750-CV-2008. Appeal from the Order Entered March 28, 2013. In the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County. Civil Division No(s).: 6750-CV-2008.

JUDGES: BEFORE: PANELLA, SHOGAN, and FITZGERALD,1 JJ. OPINION BY FITZGERALD, J.

1 Former Justice specially assigned to the Superior Court.

OPINION BY: FITZGERALD

OPINION

[*101] OPINION BY FITZGERALD, J.:

Appellant/Cross-Appellee, Erin McDonald, appeals from the order entered in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas denying her motion for partial summary [*102] judgment adverse to Appellees/Cross-Appellants, Whitewater Challengers, Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation, and Whitewater Challengers Outdoor Adventure Center, trading or doing business as Whitewater Challengers, Inc. (collectively, “Whitewater”). McDonald, a New York resident, suggests the trial court erred by holding Pennsylvania law–and not New York law–applies to this case. Whitewater also appeals from the order denying their motion for summary judgment. Whitewater contends the trial court erred by concluding material issues of fact existed regarding whether McDonald was economically compelled to sign the contract [**2] at issue. We hold that when a New York resident signs an exculpatory release with a Pennsylvania corporation engaged in the business of whitewater rafting in Pennsylvania and is injured while whitewater rafting, Pennsylvania law applies. We further hold that McDonald cannot invoke economic compulsion against Whitewater and that judgment should be entered in Whitewater’s favor on liability. Thus, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

We state the facts as set forth by the trial court:

[McDonald] filed a complaint on [July] 24, 2008[,] alleging that on May 19, 2006, she was a school teacher employed by [t]he School of [the] Holy Child in Rye, New York.

She alleges that on [May 19, 2006], she and other School faculty members chaperoned seventy-two (72) seventh and eighth grade school children on a whitewater rafting “field trip” down a portion of the Lehigh River conducted by [Whitewater].

[McDonald’s] raft struck a large rock situated in the river bed, ejecting [her] from the raft onto the rock, allegedly causing her the injuries alleged in her complaint.

[McDonald’s] allegations of negligence, in paragraph 40 of her complaint, are as follows:

40. [Whitewater’s] negligence consisted of but was [**3] not limited to the following:

a. Failing to provide a river guide / instructor in [McDonald’s] boat;

b. Failing to provide a properly inflated raft;

c. Failing to advise [McDonald] on the grade and / or class of the whitewater rapids;

d. Failing to properly instruct [McDonald] on how to safely and effectively maneuver fast and difficult rapids; and

e. Allowing an unsafe number of inexperienced rafters to operate a raft.

[McDonald’s Compl., 7/24/08, at 9-10.]

At her place of employment, two (2) days before the excursion, [McDonald] signed [Whitewater’s] form “RELEASE OF LIABILITY” . . . .

Trial Ct. Op., 9/15/10, at 1-2.

We reproduce the release in pertinent part:

RELEASE OF LIABILITY — READ BEFORE SIGNING

In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way in the Whitewater Challengers program, its related events and activities, I (print name) Erin L. McDonald the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree, that:

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce [*103] this risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. [**4] I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and I assume full responsibility for my participation; and

* * *

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

6. Any claims or disputes arising from my participation in this program shall be venued in the Luzerne County Court in the town of Wilkes-Barre, PA, or in the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania.

I HAVE READ THIS RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK AGREEMENT. I FULLY UNDERSTAND ITS TERMS AND UNDERSTAND THAT I HAVE GIVEN UP SUBSTANTIAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT, AND SIGN [**5] IT FREELY AND VOLUNTARILY WITHOUT ANY INDUCEMENT.

Ex. D to Whitewater’s Mot. for Summ. J., 12/14/12.

On June 6, 2010, Whitewater filed a motion for summary judgment, which the court denied on September 15, 2010. Further discovery ensued, and a few years later, McDonald filed her motion for partial summary judgment and Whitewater filed a second motion for summary judgment. McDonald requested that the court void the release based on New York law. Whitewater asked the court to hold the release was valid under Pennsylvania law and to enforce the release, thus absolving it of liability.

On April 3, 2013,1 the trial court denied McDonald’s motion for partial summary judgment and Whitewater’s motion for summary judgment. Order, 4/3/13. With respect to its holding that Pennsylvania law applied, the court reasoned that our Supreme Court affirmed the validity of such exculpatory releases in inherently dangerous recreational activities, such as downhill skiing. Trial Ct. Op., 4/3/14, at 2-3.2 The trial court also refused to permit out-of-state customers of Pennsylvania recreational facilities “to bring their law with them,” because of the increased “financial/liability uncertainty.” Id. at 3. The court, however, [**6] refused to enforce the release against McDonald, finding material issues of fact existed regarding whether she was economically compelled to sign the release by the School of the Holy Child. Trial Ct. Op., 9/15/10, at 5.

1 The order was served on this date pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 236; the order was time-stamped on March 28, 2013.

2 On March 13, 2014, this Court ordered the trial court to file a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) decision explaining the basis for its ruling. Order, 3/13/14. The trial court complied, and this matter is now ripe for disposition.

On April 18, 2013, Whitewater filed a brief in support of their motion for reconsideration [*104] or appellate certification.3 On April 25, 2013, McDonald filed a motion for reconsideration or appellate certification. The court granted Whitewater’s motion on May 2, 2013,4 and granted McDonald’s motion on May 28, 2013.5

3 The docket and certified record do not reflect the actual motion, although Whitewater’s certificate of service avers they filed it. The certificate of service, which did not include a date of service, was time-stamped on April 18, 2013.

4 The order was time-stamped on April 30, 2013, but the trial court did not serve notice until May 2, 2013.

5 The order was time-stamped on May 23, 2013, [**7] and the trial court served notice on May 28, 2013.

On May 28, 2013, Whitewater filed a petition for permission to file an interlocutory appeal per Pa.R.A.P. 1311. McDonald, on June 21, 2013, filed a petition to file an interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s May 28, 2013 order. This Court granted Whitewater’s petition on July 11, 2013, and McDonald’s petition on August 5, 2013.6

6 This Court consolidated both appeals sua sponte on March 12, 2014. Further, because the parties filed numerous briefs in both appeals, for ease of comprehension, we denote the parties’ briefs by docket number.

We address McDonald’s appeal first, which raises one issue:

Whether New York law should be applied to the facts of this case thereby rendering Whitewater’s Release as void and unenforceable under New York’s statutory and decisional law, where this case poses a legitimate conflict-of-law question, and New York has a more significant relationship to this controversy and the outcome of this case?

McDonald’s Brief, 1400 MDA 2013, at 6.

In support of her sole issue, McDonald argues the trial court erred by incorrectly applying the standard set forth in Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1, 203 A.2d 796 (1964). She maintains that because she signed the release in New York, the contract was formed in New York. As a New [**8] York resident, McDonald asserts she is entitled to the benefit of New York law. McDonald claims that if Whitewater intended for Pennsylvania law to apply, then it should have included such a clause in its release. She points out that most of her medical treatment occurred in New York and that the New York State Insurance Fund has an interest in recouping her lost wages and medical expenses. We hold McDonald has not established entitlement to relief.

Initially, an order denying summary judgment is ordinarily a non-appealable interlocutory order. See Stewart v. Precision Airmotive, LLC, 2010 PA Super 168, 7 A.3d 266, 272 (Pa. Super. 2010). As noted above, however, the parties requested, and this Court granted, permission to file interlocutory appeals.7 Order, 3/12/14.

7 We acknowledge that [HN1] generally, when the issue is a question of law, an appellant may be entitled to review of an order denying summary judgment. Pridgen v. Parker Hannifin Corp., 588 Pa. 405, 421-22, 905 A.2d 422, 432-33 (2006) (holding collateral order doctrine applied to order denying summary judgment because party raised defense of statutory immunity). When the issue is a question of fact, appellate jurisdiction is lacking. See Stewart, 7 A.3d at 272. Thus, if an appellate court grants permission to appeal an order denying summary judgment, see 42 Pa.C.S. § 702, but later determines that the underlying issue is a question of [**9] fact, appellate jurisdiction is arguably lacking. See generally id.

The standard and scope of review is well-settled:

[HN2] Pennsylvania law provides that summary judgment may be granted only in [*105] those cases in which the record clearly shows that no genuine issues of material fact exist and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The moving party has the burden of proving that no genuine issues of material fact exist. In determining whether to grant summary judgment, the trial court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must resolve all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against the moving party. Thus, summary judgment is proper only when the uncontroverted allegations in the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions of record, and submitted affidavits demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact exists, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In sum, only when the facts are so clear that reasonable minds cannot differ, may a trial court properly enter summary judgment. With regard to questions of law, an appellate court’s scope of review is plenary. [**10] The Superior Court will reverse a grant of summary judgment only if the trial court has committed an error of law or abused its discretion.

Charlie v. Erie Ins. Exchange, 2014 PA Super 188, 100 A.3d 244, 250 (Pa. Super. 2014) (punctuation and citation omitted).

As a prefatory matter, we must ascertain whether to apply a tort or contract choice of law framework.8 Two cases are instructive: McCabe v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 356 Pa. Super. 223, 514 A.2d 582 (1986), and Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Walter, 290 Pa. Super. 129, 434 A.2d 164 (1981). In Walter, this Court addressed an exclusionary provision in an insurance policy issued to a New Jersey resident for a car involved in a Pennsylvania accident. Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 133-34, 434 A.2d at 166. The car’s driver and passenger were both Pennsylvania residents. Id. at 137, 434 A.2d at 168. The exclusionary provision was invalid under New Jersey law and valid under Pennsylvania law. Id. at 135-36, 434 A.2d at 167. The Walter Court rejected the appellant’s argument that Pennsylvania law should apply because the accident occurred in Pennsylvania and the injured occupants of the car were Pennsylvania residents:

[The a]ppellant argues that Pennsylvania had the most significant contacts as the car was located in Pennsylvania when the accident occurred having been previously delivered to Bucks County Imports by [the insured], the accident occurred in Pennsylvania, and both occupants of the car at the time of the accident were Pennsylvania residents. [The a]ppellant overlooks [**11] the fact that these points of contact with Pennsylvania pertained to the alleged tort involved. We are concerned with the contract of insurance and as to the insurance policy New Jersey had the most significant contacts.

Id. at 137-38, 434 A.2d at 168.

8 A statutory choice of law analysis does not apply to this case.

In McCabe, this Court similarly addressed which state’s law applied in construing a Connecticut automobile insurance policy issued to a Connecticut resident. McCabe, 356 Pa. Super. at 225, 514 A.2d at 582. While in Pennsylvania, the Connecticut resident was involved in a car accident that injured a Pennsylvania resident. Id. The McCabe appellees argued that Pennsylvania law applied because, inter alia, the “victim is a resident of Pennsylvania, and the accident occurred there. Both [insurers] are licensed to do business in Pennsylvania.” Id. at 232, 514 A.2d at 586. The McCabe Court rejected that argument [*106] based upon the Walter Court’s reasoning. Id. Both Walter and McCabe stand for the proposition that [HN3] in a contract action involving an underlying tort and in which an insurance policy is at issue, the court will apply a contract law–and not a tort law–choice of law framework. Id.; Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 137-38, 434 A.2d at 168; see also Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 394, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (2012) (applying contract law to interpret clause exculpating defendant ski resort from liability [**12] in negligence action); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 26, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (2010) (same). Neither Chepkevich nor Tayar engaged in a choice of law analysis, but neither case looked beyond contract law in construing the clause. Thus, in the instant tort action involving a contractual exculpatory clause, but not involving an automobile insurance policy, we apply a contract choice of law framework. See Tayar, 616 Pa. at 394, 47 A.3d at 1196; Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 26, 2 A.3d at 1189; McCabe, 356 Pa. Super. at 232, 514 A.2d at 586; Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 137-38, 434 A.2d at 168; cf. Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (construing exculpatory agreement as barring plaintiff’s negligence claims for injuries that occurred while whitewater rafting); Bauer v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 788 F. Supp. 472, 474 (D. Colo. 1992) (invoking contractual standard of review in ascertaining whether exculpatory clause barred negligence claims).9

9 In Budtel Assocs., LP v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 2006 PA Super 370, 915 A.2d 640 (Pa. Super. 2006), our Court held that the Griffith rule applies to contract cases. Id. at 643-44. Budtel, however, did not involve a negligence claim.

Having ascertained a contract choice of law framework applies, we set forth the following as background10 with respect to choice of law principles applicable to cases not involving an explicit statutory11 or a contractual choice of law provision:12 [HN4] “the first step in a choice of law analysis under Pennsylvania law is to determine whether [an actual] conflict exists between the laws of the competing states. If no [actual] conflict exists, further analysis is unnecessary.” Budtel, 915 A.2d at 643 (citation [**13] omitted). An actual conflict exists if “there are relevant differences between the laws.” Hammersmith v. TIG Ins. Co., 480 F.3d 220, 230 (3d Cir. 2007).13

10 See Gregory E. Smith, Choice of Law in the United States, 38 Hastings L.J. 1041, 1131 (1987) (“No state has a more convoluted, eclectic approach to choice of law than Pennsylvania. On various occasions, its courts have applied the First and Second Restatements, the center of gravity approach, interest analysis and Professor Cavers’ ‘principles of preference.'”); accord Melville v. Am. Home Assurance Co., 443 F. Supp. 1064, 1076 (E.D. Pa. 1977) (“The opinions of the Pennsylvania courts both state and federal have left Pennsylvania’s choice of law rules and methodology with respect to contract cases in utter disarray; indeed, the courts have used facially inconsistent legal standards without acknowledging apparently conflicting precedent.”), rev’d, 584 F.2d 1306, 1313 (3d Cir. 1978) (predicting Pennsylvania would apply the Griffith choice of law framework to contract actions).

11 See, e.g., 42 Pa.C.S. § 5521(b) (“The period of limitation applicable to a claim accruing outside this Commonwealth shall be either that provided or prescribed by the law of the place where the claim accrued or by the law of this Commonwealth, whichever first bars the claim.”).

12 Synthes USA Sales, LLC v. Harrison, 2013 PA Super 324, 83 A.3d 242, 252 (Pa. Super. 2013) (“Choice of law provisions in contracts will generally be given effect.” (citation omitted)); Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. West, 2002 PA Super 282, 807 A.2d 916, 920 (Pa. Super. 2002) (same).

13 With [**14] respect to federal decisions, we acknowledge the following:

[F]ederal court decisions do not control the determinations of the Superior Court. Our law clearly states that, absent a United States Supreme Court pronouncement, the decisions of federal courts are not binding on Pennsylvania state courts, even when a federal question is involved. . . . Whenever possible, Pennsylvania state courts follow the Third Circuit so that litigants do not improperly “walk across the street” to achieve a different result in federal court than would be obtained in state court.

NASDAQ OMX PHLX, Inc. v. PennMont Secs., 2012 PA Super 145, 52 A.3d 296, 303 (Pa. Super. 2012) (citations omitted); accord Parr v. Ford Motor Co., 2014 PA Super 281, 109 A.3d 682, 693 n.8 (Pa. Super. 2014) (en banc) (citations and punctuation omitted).

[*107] If an actual conflict exists, then we classify it as “true,” “false,” or “unprovided-for.” Cipolla v. Shaposka, 439 Pa. 563, 565, 267 A.2d 854, 855-56 (1970); Miller v. Gay, 323 Pa. Super. 466, 470, 470 A.2d 1353, 1355 (1983). A “true conflict” occurs “when the governmental interests of both jurisdictions would be impaired if their law were not applied.” Garcia v. Plaza Oldsmobile, Ltd., 421 F.3d 216, 220 (3d Cir. 2005). “A ‘false conflict’ exists if only one jurisdiction’s governmental interests would be impaired by the application of the other jurisdiction’s law. In such a situation, the court must apply the law of the state whose interests would be harmed if its law were not applied.”14 Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 932 F.2d 170, 187 (3d Cir. 1991) (footnote omitted); Kuchinic v. McCrory, 422 Pa. 620, 624, 222 A.2d 897, 899 (1966). In “unprovided-for” cases, “neither jurisdiction’s [**15] interests would be impaired if its laws are not applied.”15 Garcia, 421 F.3d at 220 (footnote omitted). If a true conflict is found, then we must determine “which state has the greater interest in the application of its law.”16 Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 566, 267 A.2d at 856.

14 We are aware that Pennsylvania federal and state courts have defined “false conflict” inconsistently. Upon reflection, we agree with the rationale advanced by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Hammersmith:

We think it is incorrect to use the term “false conflict” to describe the situation where the laws of two states do not differ. If two jurisdictions’ laws are the same, then there is no conflict at all, and a choice of law analysis is unnecessary. Thus, the first part of the choice of law inquiry is best understood as determining if there is an actual or real conflict between the potentially applicable laws. See, e.g., [Air Prods. & Chems., Inc. v. Eaton Metal Prods. Co., 272 F. Supp. 2d 482, 490 n.9 (E.D. Pa. 2003)] (“Before we even reach the ‘false conflict’ question, we must determine whether, for lack of better terminology, a ‘real conflict’ as opposed to ‘no conflict’ exists; that is, we must determine whether these states would actually treat this issue any differently.”).

Hammersmith, 480 F.3d at 230.

15 We leave for another day a determination of which state’s law applies in an [**16] “unprovided-for conflict” in contract cases. In tort cases, generally, the law of the state where the injury occurred is applied. See Miller, 323 Pa. Super. at 470-72, 470 A.2d at 1355-56.

16 If there is more than one issue, then Pennsylvania applies dépeçage, i.e., “different states’ laws may apply to different issues in a single case . . . .” Berg Chilling Sys., Inc. v. Hull Corp., 435 F.3d 455, 462 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted); Broome v. Antlers’ Hunting Club, 595 F.2d 921, 924 (3d Cir. 1979) (predicting Pennsylvania Supreme Court would apply law of different states to separate issues). Although no court in this Commonwealth has explicitly held that Pennsylvania applies dépeçage, Pennsylvania federal courts have consistently applied the doctrine. Furthermore, the doctrine is arguably suggested by, if not harmonious with, the Griffith Court’s flexible choice of law framework. See Griffith, 416 Pa. at 21, 203 A.2d at 805. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit observed that dépeçage was implicit in Professor Cavers’ choice of law analysis, which our Supreme Court approvingly quoted in Cipolla. See Reyno v. Piper Aircraft Co., 630 F.2d 149, 167 n.73 (3d Cir. 1980) (holding dépeçage is “implicit in the analysis of Professor Cavers” (citing David Cavers, The Choice-of-Law Process 40-43 (1965))), rev’d on other grounds, 454 U.S. 235, 102 S. Ct. 252, 70 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1981); Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 567, 267 A.2d at 856-57 (quoting Cavers’ treatise, supra, extensively).

[*108] In Cipolla, our Supreme Court examined whether a true conflict existed between the tort [**17] laws of Delaware and Pennsylvania. Id. at 564, 267 A.2d at 855. The defendant was a Delaware resident and the plaintiff was a Pennsylvania resident. Id. The defendant, who was driving a car registered in Delaware, was driving the plaintiff home to Pennsylvania when they collided with another vehicle in Delaware. Id. The plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence only, and our Supreme Court examined which state’s law applied. Id. If Delaware law applied, then the plaintiff could not recover under a Delaware statute preventing a guest from recovering for the negligence of the host. Id. If Pennsylvania law applied, then the plaintiff could recover if he could establish the defendant’s negligence. Id. at 564-65, 267 A.2d at 855. The Cipolla Court reasoned that a true conflict existed because the plaintiff “is a resident of Pennsylvania which has adopted a plaintiff-protecting rule and [the defendant] is a resident of Delaware which has adopted a defendant-protecting rule” and thus a “deeper analysis” was required to determine “which state has the greater interest in the application of its law.” Id. at 565-66, 267 A.2d at 856.

Similarly, in Rosen v. Tesoro Petroleum Corp., 399 Pa. Super. 226, 582 A.2d 27 (1990), the Superior Court ascertained whether a true conflict existed between the laws of Pennsylvania and Texas regarding a malicious prosecution [**18] claim. Id. at 231, 582 A.2d at 30. In Pennsylvania, seizure of the plaintiff’s person or property is not a necessary element for malicious prosecution. Id. Texas, however, requires that a party alleging malicious prosecution suffer physical detention of the claimant’s person or property. Id. The Rosen Court held there was a true conflict because Texas wished “to assure every potential litigant free and open access to the judicial system without fear of a countersuit for malicious prosecution.” Id. at 232, 582 A.2d at 30. Pennsylvania, in contrast, provided “greater protection to those individuals and entities who may be forced to defend a baseless suit.” Id. at 233, 582 A.2d at 31. Thus, having concluded a true conflict existed, the Rosen Court then determined which state had “the greater interest in the application of its law on malicious prosecution to the instant matter.” Id. at 233, 582 A.2d at 31.

In sum, [HN5] in Pennsylvania, a conflict-of-law analysis not involving a statutory or contractual choice of law clause, first requires determining whether the laws in question actually conflict. E.g., Budtel, 915 A.2d at 643. If relevant differences between the laws exist, then we next classify the actual conflict as a “true conflict,” “false conflict,” or “unprovided-for conflict.” Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 565, 267 A.2d at 855-56; Miller, 323 Pa. Super. at 470, 470 A.2d at 1355.

Instantly, a New York statute [**19] voids clauses immunizing recreational facilities from liability for negligence because they violate New York’s public policy.17 N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-326 (McKinney 2014). Pennsylvania, however, recognizes the validity of such exculpatory clauses when they govern voluntary and hazardous recreational activities. See, e.g., Chepkevich, [*109] 607 Pa. at 36, 2 A.3d at 1195. Because relevant differences exist between New York and Pennsylvania jurisprudence, see Hammersmith, 480 F.3d at 230, there is an actual conflict that we must classify as a “true conflict,” “false conflict,” or “unprovided-for conflict.”

17 No party has suggested the statute applies outside of New York. Cf. Garcia, 421 F.3d at 220 (noting, “In our conflicts-of-law analysis[,] the first issue that we must address is whether New York’s . . . [l]aw with respect to the issue at hand has extraterritorial application, and, accordingly, whether that law by its terms can be applied to determine liability for the Pennsylvania accident underlying this appeal.”)

Akin to Rosen, which identified a true conflict because of Pennsylvania’s and Texas’s diametrically opposing views on malicious prosecution, Pennsylvania provides greater protection to recreational facilities, unlike New York, which favors protecting participants injured at such facilities. See Rosen, 399 Pa. Super. at 232-33, 582 A.2d at 30-32. To paraphrase [**20] our Supreme Court in Cipolla, the fact that McDonald is a resident of New York, which has adopted a plaintiff-protecting rule, and Whitewater is a resident of Pennsylvania, which has adopted a defendant-protecting rule, demonstrates a true conflict. See Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 565-66, 267 A.2d at 856.

We thus ascertain whether New York “or Pennsylvania has the greater interest in the application of its law to the question now before us.” See id. at 565, 267 A.2d at 855.

[HN6] In determining which state has the greater interest in the application of its law, one method is to see what contacts each state has with the accident, the contacts being relevant only if they relate to the “policies and interest underlying the particular issue before the court.” [Griffith, 416 Pa. at 21, 203 A.2d at 805]. When doing this it must be remembered that a mere counting of contacts is not what is involved. The weight of a particular state’s contacts must be measured on a qualitative rather than quantitative scale.

* * *

Also, it seems only fair to permit a defendant to rely on his home state law when he is acting within that state.

Consider the response that would be accorded a proposal that was the opposite of this principle if it were advanced against a person living in the state of injury on behalf of a person coming there [**21] from a state having a higher standard of care or of financial protection. The proposal thus advanced would require the community the visitor entered to step up its standard of behavior for his greater safety or lift its financial protection to the level to which he was accustomed. Such a proposal would be rejected as unfair. By entering the state or nation, the visitor has exposed himself to the risk of the territory and should not subject persons living there to a financial hazard that their law had not created.

Inhabitants of a state should not be put in jeopardy of liability exceeding that created by their state’s laws just because a visitor from a state offering higher protection decides to visit there.

Id. at 566-67, 267 A.2d at 856-57 (citations, punctuation, and footnote omitted); accord Myers v. Commercial Union Assurance Cos., 506 Pa. 492, 496, 485 A.2d 1113, 1115-16 (1984).18

18 We acknowledge that other Pennsylvania state and federal courts have construed the Griffith interest analysis differently. In Gillan v. Gillan, 236 Pa. Super. 147, 345 A.2d 742 (1975), and Knauer v. Knauer, 323 Pa. Super. 206, 470 A.2d 553 (1983), the Superior Court interpreted Griffith as adopting the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Law § 188, and applied the Restatement to the contracts at issue. Knauer, 323 Pa. Super. at 215, 470 A.2d at 558; Gillan, 236 Pa. Super. at 150, 345 A.2d at 744. Our Commonwealth Court in Ario v. Underwriting Members of Lloyd’s of London Syndicates 33, 205 & 506, 996 A.2d 588 (Pa. Commw. 2010), similarly opined in an insurance contract case that Griffith “adopted the [**22] approach of the Restatement of Conflict of Laws, Second to resolving choice of law questions.” Id. at 595 (citations omitted). “We of course recognize that a decision of the Commonwealth Court is not binding precedent upon this Court; however, it may be considered for its persuasive value.” Holland v. Marcy, 2002 PA Super 381, 817 A.2d 1082, 1083 n.1 (Pa. Super. 2002) (en banc) (citation and punctuation omitted). Section 188 identifies several factors in resolving choice of law:

(a) the place of contracting,

(b) the place of negotiation of the contract,

(c) the place of performance,

(d) the location of the subject matter of the contract, and

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

Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 188 (1971). In contrast, the Third Circuit has consistently opined that Griffith combined “the ‘approaches of both the Restatement II (contacts establishing significant relationships) and interests analysis (qualitative appraisal of the relevant States’ policies with respect to the controversy).'” Hammersmith, 480 F.3d at 231 (punctuation omitted) (quoting Melville, 584 F.2d at 1311).

[*110] For example, the Walter Court ascertained whether Pennsylvania or New Jersey law should apply to an automobile insurance policy. Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 136, 434 A.2d at 167. The Walter Court reviewed each state’s contacts with the contract:

In this contract case, [**23] the state having the most vital contacts with the policy of insurance involved was New Jersey. The policy was issued in New Jersey by the appellant in June, 1972, to Mr. Walter, a resident of New Jersey. It was issued for the twofold purpose of giving insurance protection to Mr. Walter and others as set forth in the policy, and to comply with the requirements set forth in the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Security Responsibility Statute . . . . No matter where [Mr. Walter’s agent] drove [Mr. Walter’s] car or gave consent to others to operate his vehicle, [Mr. Walter] had the right to expect that his policy conformed to New Jersey law and that the laws of New Jersey would apply in interpreting the policy. Pennsylvania had no contact with the transaction involving the insurance policy. It was by mere happenstance that the automobile was involved in an accident while located in Pennsylvania. As noted in Griffith v. United Air Lines, Inc., 416 Pa. 1, 203 A.2d 796: “(T)he site of the accident purely fortuitous.”

Id. at 137, 434 A.2d at 167-68. Because, inter alia, the appellant “issued an insurance policy to [Mr. Walter] to cover an automobile located in New Jersey,” and he obtained the policy to comply with New Jersey laws, the Walter Court held New Jersey law applied. Id. at 138, 434 A.2d at 168.

In McCabe [**24] , this Court likewise examined each state’s contacts to a Connecticut insurance contract:

In the instant case, [the insurer] argues that Connecticut law would apply since [the insured] lived in Connecticut, and the . . . policy of Insurance was executed there. It also contends that “underlying these contacts are Connecticut’s sovereign interests that the rights of its residents and those who do business in its state are governed by Connecticut law and that its insurance law, as applied to the insurance policy, will be given full faith and credit by a sister state.” Finally, [the insurer] alleges that Connecticut has an interest in minimizing insurance premiums for its residents. . . .

Pennsylvania had no contact with the transaction involving the insurance policy. It was by mere happenstance that [*111] the Connecticut automobile owned and operated by [the insured] was involved in an accident while located in Pennsylvania. . . . At this time, we are concerned with contract of insurance, and, as to the insurance policy, Connecticut had the most significant contacts.

McCabe, 356 Pa. Super. at 232, 514 A.2d at 586.

Instantly, similar to McCabe and Walter, whose contracts were executed outside of Pennsylvania, the exculpatory clause was executed [**25] in New York by McDonald, a New York resident. See id.; Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 137, 434 A.2d at 167-68. New York certainly has a sovereign interest in protecting McDonald and may wish, as she averred, to recoup the costs of her medical treatment. See McCabe, 356 Pa. Super. at 232, 514 A.2d at 586. But, comparable to the insurance policy in Walter, the instant release was executed for the purpose of protecting Whitewater, a Pennsylvania business that “had the right to expect that [the release] conformed to [Pennsylvania] law and that the laws of [Pennsylvania] would apply in interpreting the [release].” See Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 137, 434 A.2d at 167-68. “[I]t seems only fair to permit” Whitewater to rely on Pennsylvania law when it acted within Pennsylvania. See Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 567, 267 A.2d at 856. Whitewater should not be placed in jeopardy of liability exceeding that created by Pennsylvania law just because McDonald is a visitor from New York, a state offering higher protection. See id. Unlike McCabe and Walter, the site of the accident was not fortuitous, as the underlying accident occurred at Whitewater’s place of business in Pennsylvania on a preplanned outing for which McDonald signed a contract. Cf. McCabe, 356 Pa. Super. at 232, 514 A.2d at 586; Walter, 290 Pa. Super. at 137, 434 A.2d at 167-68. After carefully weighing the sovereign interests at stake, which include contacts establishing the significant relationships with each sovereign, we [**26] hold that Pennsylvania has the greater interest in the application of its law to this case. See Cipolla, 439 Pa. at 566, 267 A.2d at 856. Accordingly, we discern no basis for reversing the trial court’s order on this point. See Charlie, 100 A.3d at 250.

We next address Whitewater’s appeal, which raised the following issues:

Whether the trial court erred by denying summary judgment on the basis of [McDonald’s] alleged, and mere belief, that she was “economically compelled” to sign the release by her employer?

Whether [Whitewater] was entitled to summary judgment because the “Release of Liability” is a valid and enforceable exculpatory clause involving a recreational activity as a matter of well-established Pennsylvania law?

Whether [McDonald’s] claims against Whitewater are barred by the valid and enforceable Release, which [McDonald] signed knowingly and fully conscious of its meaning, and which contains clear and unambiguous language expressly releasing [Whitewater] from any liability for negligent conduct and shows [McDonald’s] express waiver of her right to bring any such negligence claims?

Whitewater’s Brief, 1221 MDA 2013, at 5 (reordered to facilitate resolution).

We set forth the following as background.

[McDonald] had testified in her deposition that on May 17, 2006, the Headmaster [**27] of the School of the Holy Child handed the Release form to [McDonald], while she was between classes and walking through the school hallway and told her to sign it, since she would be one of the chaperones for the students on the rafting trip.

[McDonald] alleges she [*112] signed the Release form without reading it.

Trial Ct. Op., 9/15/10, at 2. McDonald explained “that she did not read the Release because she had previously been on a whitewater trip in 2004.” McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., 1/14/13, at 6 (citation omitted).

At her deposition, McDonald testified about the circumstances of her departure from the School of the Holy Child:

[Whitewater’s counsel]. Why did you leave School of the Holy Child to go [elsewhere]?

A. Well, due to the accident, I was only able to work parttime and after–

* * *

A. And when [teaching] contracts were renewed [in February 2007], I was given a contract, but I only received a one percent increase and–

* * *

A. . . . despite the fact that I had, you know, superior evaluation and the fact that I had been hurt on the job, I was insulted by the one percent increase.

Q. Were you told by one of your supervisors that the reason you [**28] got a one percent increase was because of your reduced work and the fact that you were injured on the job?

A. No.

Q. Did anyone tell you that?

A. No.

Q. That’s something that you surmised–

A. Yes.

Q. –based on the circumstances?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Well, it carried [sic] $5,000. I can’t do the math very quickly, but.

A. Okay, all right, and this one percent raise turned out to be what?

A. Approximately $610.

Q. Okay, and your raises, while you were at School of the Holy Child, were they always consistent with approximately the $5,000 increase?

A. Three years previous to that, I’d gotten a $20,000 boost because I was seen as being a master teacher.

Q. Okay, all right. And this $600 . . . you didn’t expect another $20,000 bump, but you thought you might get something closer to the 5 grand that you had gotten the previous year.

A. Yes.

Q. And when you didn’t, you surmised it was because of your injury.

A. Yes, and I wasn’t going to be able to do all the extras that are pretty much inherent in working in an independent school.

Q. Extras, such as what?

A. Chaperoning trips to Europe, did that. Attending trustees, board of trustees and faculty dinners. Participating in faulty/student games. All the extras that [**29] are just read into our contract.

Q. Okay, and those are things that you did prior to the accident.

A. Yeah.

Q. And you did not do them after the accident.

A. No.

Q. Okay, so when you got your one percent raise, is that when you quit, you resigned?

A. No, I looked for a job first.

Ex. C to McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., at 11-14.

We reproduce the following exchange from the deposition testimony of Ann Sullivan, [*113] the head of the School of the Holy Child, regarding its annual job evaluations:

[McDonald’s counsel]. And in terms of conducting evaluations of employees, and in particular teachers, was participation in afterschool extracurriculars or school trips, was that a factor looked at in terms of doing the evaluation?

A. I think it’s discussed during the evaluation. If you look at the evaluation forms, which are very idiosyncratic, there are four buckets. One is professional competence, one is commitment–

Q. I’m going to ask you–

A. Let me give you the background–one is commitment to the community, the third is leadership, and the fourth is congruence with the mission. There was a lot of discussion as to what percent each of those buckets was taken into [**30] consideration, and, frankly, it varies, and there was no answer to that. And I have to say it was all of those ways, but to varying degrees. Some people are great community people and not so great in the classroom, some people are great in the classroom and not so great in the community life. So, you know, it wasn’t meant to be punitive. It was to recognize different contributions.

Q. All right, I understand. But I just want to make sure I understand correctly. Even though there were different ways–you indicated there were different wings [sic] attached to different factors, you are saying, if I understand correctly–I’m not trying to put words in your mouth–that participation in school trips and extracurricular activities was at least a factor?

A. I’m going to go back to that that it is a broader discussion of community than going on school trips. Sometimes it is class trips, sometimes it is attending events. You know, it’s broader than that. It’s not a quid pro quo. You don’t get an extra $500 added to your salary because you are a chaperon [sic].

Q. Right, I understand there wasn’t a specific dollar amount that was attached for any particular factor indicated on the evaluation form, [**31] but it was at least a factor that was put into the overall mix in conducting evaluations of faculty, is that fair to say?

A. But it could be something quite different. It could be being the moderator of the yearbook or the Model UN. You are a making this assumption that going on extracurricular trips was part of your evaluation. It’s only one of many, many possible factors. I want you to know many people did not go on trips. There are a lot of young parents in the school and they are not able to go away overnight because–

[Sullivan’s counsel]: Parents or teachers?

A. Parents who are teachers. There are teachers who are young parents, have infants and toddlers and couldn’t do those trips, and certainly it was great if they would go to a concert and they would show up at field hockey games.

[McDonald’s counsel]. I understand. No one was compelled to go on any particular trip, but participation in things was at least a factor identified in her evaluation, is that correct?

A. I read [in McDonald’s employment file] that her supervisor thanked her for going on trips and going to athletic events.

Q. Hum-hum.

A. But, you know, I could say that there were wonderful people who declined to go on the [**32] trips and there were no financial repercussions.

Q. Okay. No one was ever terminated for not going on any extracurricular trips?

[*114] A. Never. And they were not–their salaries were not reduced for not going on trips.

Q. And there was never an employee who was penalized in his or her paycheck for not going on a school extracurricular or participating in afterschool projects.

A. Right.

Ex. I to McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., at 38-41.

In support of their first issue, Whitewater contends that economic compulsion does not apply because McDonald’s employer–and not Whitewater–compelled McDonald to sign the release. Regardless, Whitewater argues that McDonald failed to present evidence establishing her employer compelled her to sign. Whitewater asserts that the undisputed record demonstrated McDonald would have suffered no repercussions by not participating in rafting.19 We hold Whitewater is entitled to relief.

19 Whitewater also contends McDonald waived her defense of duress by failing to raise it in her answer to Whitewater’s new matter invoking the release as a defense. Whitewater’s Brief, 1221 MDA 2013, at 28 (citing only Tri-State Roofing Co. of Uniontown v. Simon, 187 Pa. Super. 17, 19, 142 A.2d 333, 334 (1958) [hereinafter “Tri-State“]). The Tri-State Court did not hold that when the [**33] defendant invokes a contract as a defense in a new matter, the plaintiff is bound to raise all affirmative defenses in its reply to the new matter. Rather, the Court was merely summarizing the procedural posture in which the defendant filed a reply alleging duress in response to the plaintiff’s new matter. See id. at 19, 142 A.2d at 335. Whitewater did not articulate any other basis for waiver, and it is well-settled that [HN7] we may not reverse on an argument not raised. See generally Pa.R.A.P. 302. Accordingly, we decline to hold McDonald waived her defense.

It is well-settled that [HN8] the standard of review for an order resolving summary judgment is abuse of discretion or error of law. Charlie, 100 A.3d at 250. Our Supreme Court defined duress as follows:

[HN9] The formation of a valid contract requires the mutual assent of the contracting parties. Mutual assent to a contract does not exist, however, when one of the contracting parties elicits the assent of the other contracting party by means of duress. Duress has been defined as:

That degree of restraint or danger, either actually inflicted or threatened and impending, which is sufficient in severity or apprehension to overcome the mind of a person of ordinary firmness . . . . The quality of firmness is assumed [**34] to exist in every person competent to contract, unless it appears that by reason of old age or other sufficient cause he is weak or infirm . . . . Where persons deal with each other on equal terms and at arm’s length, there is a presumption that the person alleging duress possesses ordinary firmness . . . . Moreover, in the absence of threats of actual bodily harm there can be no duress where the contracting party is free to consult with counsel . . . .

Degenhardt v. Dillon Co., 543 Pa. 146, 153-54, 669 A.2d 946, 950 (1996) (citations and punctuation omitted).

[HN10] Economic duress, i.e., business or economic compulsion, is a form of duress. Tri-State, 187 Pa. Super. at 20, 142 A.2d at 335. The Tri-State Court defined economic duress as follows:

To constitute duress or business compulsion there must be more than a mere threat which might possibly result in injury at some future time, such as a threat of injury to credit in the indefinite future. It must be such a threat that, in conjunction with other circumstances [*115] and business necessity, the party so coerced fears a loss of business unless he does so enter into the contract as demanded.

Id. at 20-21, 142 A.2d at 335 (citation and punctuation omitted). The Court applied the above principles in ascertaining “whether [the] plaintiff’s threat to breach its contract with the defendant, if defendant [**35] did not sign the release . . . , constituted duress.” Id. at 18, 142 A.2d at 334.

In Litten v. Jonathan Logan, Inc., 220 Pa. Super. 274, 286 A.2d 913 (1971), this Court addressed whether a prior, favorable oral contract or a subsequent, unfavorable written contract controlled. Id. at 276-77, 286 A.2d at 914. “Plaintiffs contend they were compelled under the duress and coercion of the defendant to enter into the written contract because defendant had maneuvered plaintiffs into an untenable economic crisis from which they could extricate themselves only by signing the agreement prepared by defendant.” Id. at 277, 286 A.2d at 914-15. The jury agreed with the plaintiffs, and the defendant appealed, arguing, inter alia, the court failed to instruct the jury properly regarding duress. Id. at 277, 286 A.2d at 915. This Court affirmed, holding the defendant economically compelled the plaintiff to execute the subsequent written contract. Id. at 281-82, 286 A.2d at 917. In affirming the jury verdict, this Court approvingly quoted the trial court’s jury charge, which identified the elements of economic duress:

(1) there exists such pressure of circumstances which compels the injured party to involuntarily or against his will execute an agreement which results in economic loss, and (2) the injured party does not have an immediate legal remedy. The cases cited by defendant on this point . . . are inapplicable [**36] because in those cases the defendants did not bring about the state of financial distress in which plaintiffs found themselves at the time of signing. In the instant case, the final and potentially fatal blow was prepared by defendant, which by its actions created the situation which left plaintiffs with no alternative but to sign the contract as written.

* * *

Business compulsion is not establish[ed] merely by proof that consent was secured by the pressure of financial circumstances, but a threat of serious financial loss may be sufficient to constitute duress and to be ground for relief where an ordinary suit at law or equity might not be an adequate remedy. . . .

Id. at 282-83, 286 A.2d at 917 (citations, punctuation, and footnote omitted).

In Chepkevich, our Supreme Court adverted to economic duress in resolving whether an exculpatory agreement should be construed as a contract of adhesion:

[D]ownhill skiing–like auto racing–is a voluntary and hazardous activity . . . . Moreover, an exculpatory agreement conditioning use of a commercial facility for such activities has not been construed as a typical contract of adhesion. The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, [**37] because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity. See [Schillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F. Supp. 1169 (E.D. Pa. 1990)] (exculpatory clause valid under Pennsylvania law where activity is purely recreational); Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., 521 F. Supp. 1351, 1355 (W.D. Pa. 1981), aff’d, 688 F.2d 215 (3d Cir. 1982) (exculpatory clause releasing stock car racing company from liability for death arising out of recreational race not invalid contract of adhesion [*116] under Pennsylvania law). The signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable. . . .

It is also apparent that the Release here is valid under the other elements of the [standard governing validity of exculpatory provisions set forth in Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98 (1993), and Emp’rs Liab. Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Bus. Men’s Ass’n, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966) (referred to as the Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard)], aside from adhesion contract concerns. First, the Release cannot be said to contravene any policy of the law. Indeed, the clear policy of this Commonwealth, as embodied by the [Skier’s Responsibility] Act, is to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier. 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102(c)(2). Furthermore, Pennsylvania courts have upheld similar releases respecting skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting [**38] activities. See, e.g., Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110 (Pa. Super. 2007) (citing Superior Court panel’s decision in instant case, but upholding release as applied to snow tubing accident); [Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887 (Pa. Super. 2006)] (upholding exculpatory agreement that released defendant motorcycle club from “all liability”); [Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 253 Pa. Super. 474, 385 A.2d 437 (1978)] (upholding exculpatory clause releasing ski rental shop from liability for injury suffered when skier’s bindings failed to release during fall). And, finally, the Release [the appellee] signed is a contract between the ski resort and [the appellee] relating to their private affairs, specifically [the appellee’s] voluntary use of the resort’s facilities.

Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 28-30, 2 A.3d at 1190-91. Thus, an exculpatory clause is not typically analyzed within the framework of whether it is an contract of adhesion. Id. at 29, 2 A.3d at 1191 (“The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”).

The case of Gillingham v. Consol Energy, Inc., 2012 PA Super 133, 51 A.3d 841 (Pa. Super. 2012), appeal denied, 621 Pa. 679, 75 A.3d 1282 (2013), is also instructive. Technical Solutions contractually employed Gillingham to work full-time on a software development project located at one of Consol Energy’s properties; Gillingham was considered an independent contractor of [**39] Consol. Id. at 853-54. A few weeks later, Consol asked Gillingham to sign “a stack of documents,” which included

a waiver of his right to sue Consol in the event he was injured due to its negligence. He felt that he had to sign the pages in question since he was contractually obligated to provide his services on the project through Technical Solutions. Mr. Gillingham believed that he was not in a position to refuse to sign the documents presented to him by Consol, and he stated, “If I would have not signed them, I would have to leave the site . . . because it’s like saying, No, I’m not going to honor your agreement and protect this technology.” He also would have violated his contract with Technical Solutions.

Id. at 854 (citation omitted). While exiting a Consol building via an exterior metal stairway, Gillingham was injured when the stairway collapsed. Id. at 847.

[*117] Gillingham successfully sued Consol. Id. On appeal, Consol contended the trial court should have granted its request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because of the release Gillingham signed. Id. at 852. Gillingham countered that he felt compelled to sign the Consol release because (1) “he was contractually obligated to provide his services on the [**40] project through Technical Solutions,” and (2) he would have violated his employment contract with Technical Solutions, i.e., his employer. Id. at 854. The Gillingham Court held the record was sufficient to have a jury ascertain whether “Gillingham, who was under contract to provide services on the project, was compelled to execute the documents due to Consol’s superior bargaining position.” Id. The Court thus affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of Gillingham. Id.

Instantly, we frame Whitewater’s question as whether one party to a contract can invoke duress when that duress was allegedly imposed by a non-party and not by the other party to the contract. More precisely, we examine whether McDonald can void the release by claiming the School of the Holy Child economically compelled her to sign the release with Whitewater. McDonald’s presumption is that economic compulsion, i.e., duress, by a non-party to a contract can be “transferred.”

Under these unique facts, we decline McDonald’s apparent invitation to expand a doctrine traditionally invoked between contracting parties. Our Supreme Court held that [HN11] mutual assent is a prerequisite to contract formation and that such mutual assent is absent [**41] “when one of the contracting parties elicits the assent of the other contracting party by means of duress.” See Degenhardt, 543 Pa. at 153, 669 A.2d at 950. McDonald and Whitewater are the contracting parties to the release; the School of the Holy Child is not a contracting party. It follows that the School of the Holy Child could not elicit the assent of McDonald by duress. See id.

Further, McDonald does not claim Whitewater economically compelled her to sign the release. Unlike the plaintiff in Litten, McDonald has not alleged that Whitewater–a contracting party–maneuvered her into economic distress and compelled her to sign the contract. Cf. Litten, 220 Pa. Super. at 281-82, 286 A.2d at 917; Tri-State, 187 Pa. Super. at 18, 142 A.2d at 334 (resolving allegation of duress between contracting parties). Whitewater, which provided recreational services similar to the ski resort in Chepkevich, did not compel McDonald to participate, “much less . . . sign the exculpatory agreement.” See Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 29, 2 A.3d at 1191. In contrast to Gillingham, in which the plaintiff was contractually obligated to work for Consol, the other contracting party, McDonald was not contractually obligated to participate in recreational activities at Whitewater. Cf. Gillingham, 51 A.3d at 854. Nor did she allege that she would have violated her contract with the School of the Holy Child if she did not [**42] sign the Whitewater release. Cf. id. (stating plaintiff would have violated his employment contract with Technical Solutions, his direct employer, if he did not sign Consol release). In sum, given the predicate condition of a threat by one contracting party against another contracting party, economic duress by a non-party to a contract does not appear easily amenable to concepts of “transference” in this case.20

20 We do not foreclose the possibility, however, in other cases.

Assuming, however, duress by a non-contracting party could be invoked to negate mutual assent between contracting parties, and assuming that the possibility of not receiving a raise greater than 1% is [*118] a cognizable economic loss, McDonald’s suggestion that unless she signed the release, she could potentially not receive such a raise is, on this record, too conjectural. See Litten, 220 Pa. Super. at 282, 286 A.2d at 917; Tri-State, 187 Pa. Super. at 20-21, 142 A.2d at 335 (holding duress is “more than a mere threat” of possible economic injury in indefinite future). McDonald notes she received only a 1% raise in February of 2007. See Ex. C to McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., at 13. But a minimal raise, after the fact, does not alone demonstrate that when McDonald signed the [**43] release in May 2006, she did so because she feared economic injury, i.e., not receiving a raise greater than 1%.

Having resolved that economic compulsion is not available to McDonald, we address Whitewater’s last two issues together: whether the release is valid and enforceable and thus bars McDonald’s claims. Whitewater asserts the release met all the elements of the Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard governing the validity of exculpatory clauses. Whitewater thus contends the trial court erred by denying summary judgment on liability. Whitewater, we hold, is entitled to relief.

In Chepkevich, our Supreme Court resolved “whether a skier may maintain a negligence action against a ski resort for injuries sustained while skiing or whether suit is barred by statute and/or a release signed by the skier.” Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 3, 2 A.3d at 1175.

The Release, printed on a single page and titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY,” stated:

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to variations in snow and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, debris (above and below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, poles, snowmaking [**44] equipment (including pipes, hydrants, and component parts), fences and the absence of fences and other natural and manmade objects, visible or hidden, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other skiers. . . . All the risks of skiing and boarding present the risk of serious or fatal injury. By accepting this Season Pass I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.

Id. at 5, 2 A.3d at 1176.

The Chepkevich Court set forth the three elements of the Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard for determining the validity and enforceability of an exculpatory clause:

[HN12] It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. In Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682 (1963), we noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear [**45] that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention [*119] of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 26, 2 A.3d at 1189 (citations omitted). Our Supreme Court held the release was valid and enforceable, and concluded the release barred the skier’s negligence lawsuit.21 Id. at 3, 31, 35, 2 A.3d at 1175, 1192, 1195.

21 The Chepkevich Court also held that the skier’s lawsuit was alternatively barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102. See Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 25, 2 A.3d at 1188.

In Tayar, the plaintiff was injured while snow tubing at a ski resort. Tayar, 616 Pa. at 390, 47 A.3d at 1193. She raised claims of negligence and reckless conduct against the ski resort and one of its employees. Id. at 391, 47 A.3d at 1194 (summarizing trial court’s decision). In response, the defendants [**46] asserted the plaintiff’s claims were barred because she signed the following release:

CAMELBACK SNOW TUBING

ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RISKS AND AGREEMENT NOT TO SUE

THIS IS A CONTRACT–READ IT

I understand and acknowledge that snow tubing, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous, risk sport and that there are inherent and other risks associated with the sport and that all of these risks can cause serious and even fatal injuries. I understand that part of the thrill, excitement and risk of snow tubing is that the snow tubes all end up in a common, runout area and counter slope at various times and speeds and that it is my responsibility to try to avoid hitting another snowtuber and it is my responsibility to try to avoid being hit by another snowtuber, but that, notwithstanding these efforts by myself and other snowtubers, there is a risk of collisions.

* * *

IN CONSIDERATION OF THE ABOVE AND OF BEING ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE SPORT OF SNOWTUBING, I AGREE THAT I WILL NOT SUE AND WILL RELEASE FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY CAMELBACK SKI CORPORATION IF I OR ANY MEMBER OF MY FAMILY IS INJURED WHILE USING ANY OF THE SNOWTUBING FACILITIES OR WHILE BEING PRESENT AT THE FACILITIES, EVEN IF I CONTEND THAT [**47] SUCH INJURIES ARE THE RESULT OF NEGLIGENCE OR ANY OTHER IMPROPER CONDUCT ON THE PART OF THE SNOWTUBING FACILITY.

Id. at 388-89, 47 A.3d at 1192-93. The trial court agreed with the defendants that the release absolved them of liability. Id. at 390-91, 47 A.3d at 1194. The plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court on, inter alia, whether the release exculpated defendants from reckless conduct. Id. at 391, 47 A.3d at 1194. The Superior Court, in an en banc decision, held that the release was limited to negligent conduct only. Id. (summarizing Superior Court’s holding).

The Tayar Court granted allowance of appeal to address, among other issues, whether the release barred the plaintiff’s claim for reckless conduct. Id. at 392, 47 A.3d at 1194. Our Supreme Court initially [*120] observed that “exculpatory clauses releasing a party from negligence generally are not against public policy.” Id. at 401, 47 A.3d at 1200. The Tayar Court held that the above release did not exculpate the defendants from reckless conduct because of the fundamental differences between negligence and recklessness. Id. at 403, 47 A.3d at 1201. Thus, our Supreme Court held that the plaintiff’s claim for reckless conduct could proceed. Id. at 406, 47 A.3d at 1203.

Regarding the first element needed for a valid exculpatory clause, Pennsylvania courts have affirmed exculpatory releases for “skiing and other inherently dangerous [**48] sporting activities,” such as snowtubing and motorcycle racing. See Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 30, 2 A.3d at 1191 (citing Wang, supra, and Nissley, supra). Other activities include automobile racing,22 paintballing,23 and whitewater rafting.24 Thus, [HN13] Pennsylvania courts have held exculpatory clauses pertaining to inherently dangerous sporting activities do not “contravene any policy of the law.”25 Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 29, 2 A.3d at 1191.

22 Seaton v. E. Windsor Speedway, Inc., 400 Pa. Super. 134, 140, 582 A.2d 1380, 1383 (1990) (affirming summary judgment in favor of defendant based on valid and enforceable exculpatory agreement signed by plaintiff).

23 Martinez v. Skirmish, U.S.A., Inc., Civ. No. 07-5003, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51628, *34, 2009 WL 1676144, *12 (E.D. Pa. June 15, 2009) (holding release was valid and enforceable against plaintiff’s negligence claim).

24 Wroblewski v. Ohiopyle Trading Post, Civ. No. 12-0780, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, at *30, 2013 WL 4504448, at *9 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2013) (concluding release signed by plaintiff exculpated whitewater rafting company for plaintiff’s negligence claim).

25 Courts have held invalid exculpatory clauses involving bailees, banks, and common carriers. Dilks, 411 Pa. at 434 n.9, 192 A.2d at 687 n.9 (citing cases).

With respect to the second element, our Supreme Court held [HN14] “[t]he validity of a contractual provision which exculpates a person from liability for his own acts of negligence is well settled if the contract is between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs.” Dilks, 411 Pa. at 433, 192 A.2d at 687. Lastly, the third element’s reference to “contracts of adhesion” may be problematic given different facts, as the Chepkevich Court acknowledged. Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 28 n.18, 2 A.3d at 1190 n.18. The Chepkevich [**49] Court conceded that if the plaintiff “could not dicker over the terms of the form contract,” the release could have been a contract of adhesion. Id. But our Supreme Court emphasized, “such contracts executed in the course of voluntary participation in recreational activities have not been declared unenforceable on these grounds, presumably because we recognize an inherent policy-based distinction between ‘essential’ activities (such as signing a residential lease) and voluntary, nonessential ones (such as engaging in dangerous sports).” Id. Finally, [HN15] absent fraud, “failure to read [the contract] is an unavailing excuse or defense and cannot justify an avoidance, modification or nullification of the contract or any provision thereof.” Standard Venetian Blind Co. v. Am. Empire Ins. Co., 503 Pa. 300, 305, 469 A.2d 563, 566 (1983) (citations omitted and alteration in original).

Instantly, Whitewater’s exculpatory clause addressing negligence does not contravene Pennsylvania’s public policy. See Tayar, 616 Pa. at 401, 47 A.3d at 1200; Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 29, 2 A.3d at 1191. Pennsylvania state and federal courts have affirmed substantively identical clauses in other dangerous sporting activities, including whitewater rafting. See Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 30, 2 A.3d at 1191 (collecting [*121] cases); see also Wroblewski, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119206, at *30, 2013 WL 4504448, at *9. Second, the release between McDonald and Whitewater related entirely to her participation in a hazardous [**50] recreational activity. See Dilks, 411 Pa. at 433, 192 A.2d at 687. We acknowledge that McDonald chaperoned this trip and that, in general, chaperoning field trips, among other duties, was an “extra” duty inherent to working at the School of the Holy Child. See Ex. C to McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., at 14. But McDonald did not identify any materials issues of fact contradicting Sullivan’s deposition testimony that no teacher was compelled to chaperone any particular trip. See Ex. I to McDonald’s Mem. of Law in Opp’n to Whitewater’s Second Mot. for Summ. J., at 40-41. Indeed, McDonald did not dispute that an employee was not required to participate in extracurricular trips to demonstrate commitment to the community–one of four areas employees are evaluated in each year. See id. Lastly, identical to the plaintiff in Chepkevich, McDonald voluntarily engaged in a non-essential activity. See Chepkevich, 607 Pa. at 28 n.18, 2 A.3d at 1190 n.18. Accordingly, we hold Whitewater’s exculpatory clause is valid. See id. at 26, 2 A.3d at 1189.

As for the clause’s enforceability, we examine whether the clause “spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows the intent to release [Whitewater] from liability by express stipulation.” See id. at 30, 2 A.3d at 1191. The instant [**51] clause was titled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY — READ BEFORE SIGNING” “in capital letters in large font at the top,” identical to the Chepkevich release. See id. at 31, 2 A.3d at 1192. The language releasing Whitewater from liability was written in the same size font as the body of the release and required McDonald’s signature. See id.

Whether or not [McDonald] availed herself of the opportunity to read the Release she signed, we cannot agree that a full-page, detailed agreement, written in normal font and titled “RELEASE [OF] LIABILITY” constitutes an insufficient effort on the part of [Whitewater] to inform [McDonald] of the fact that, by signing [the release], she was giving up any right she might have to sue for damages arising from injuries caused even by negligence.

See id. Further, McDonald voluntarily engaged in whitewater rafting and Whitewater did not compel her to sign the release. See id. McDonald admittedly did not attempt to negotiate the terms of the release. See id. Accordingly, we conclude the release is enforceable. See id. Because the release is valid and enforceable, the trial court erred by denying Whitewater’s motion for summary judgment on liability and thus, Whitewater is due relief. See Charlie, 100 A.3d at 250. The [**52] order below is affirmed with respect to its holding that Pennsylvania law applies and reversed to the extent it held material issues of fact existed regarding Whitewater’s liability.

Order affirmed in part and reversed in part. Case remanded with instructions to grant judgment in favor of Whitewater and adverse to McDonald and for further proceedings, as deemed necessary. Jurisdiction relinquished.

Judgment Entered.

Date: 4/29/2015


If you fall down in a foreign country, and you have paid money to be there, you probably have to sue there.

The exception is cheap vacations where the hotels and resorts won’t have you sign a forum selection clause when you arrive.

Mcarthur v. Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5058

State: Kansas, United States Court of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit

Plaintiff: John C. Mcarthur, Sandra S. Mcarthur

Defendant: Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, Kerzner International Limited, Island Hotel Company Limited, Paradise Island Limited

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Forum Selection Clause

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

The plaintiffs, husband and wife, went to the Bahamas to watch a college basketball tournament. While at a resort, the husband slipped and fell near the pool injuring his back. The plaintiff’s filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Kansas. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on the forum selection clause the plaintiff’s had signed.

A forum selection clause is the same as a jurisdiction and venue clause. It identifies the place and the law that will be applied to the case.

The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims and the plaintiff’s, husband and wife, appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. This is the decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

The plaintiff’s booked their travel through a travel agent who was hired by the university or done in conjunction with the university. The travel agent upon booking the rooms received a contract from the hotel which required the travel agent to inform the guests of the rules and contract provisions.

The relationship between a travel agent and the hotel is different from most contracts. First whether or not a contract exists is based on the relationship. If a contract exists it is to pay a commission a specific way to the travel agent and/or be based on a relationship. However, in every situation there is a third party beneficiary to the contract or third parties that are part of the contract, the travelers. Either way the travelers have an interest in the contract. The travel agent usually has requirements as part of the contract to communicate parts or the entire contract to their customers, the travelers.

Sometimes the travel agent is the agent of the travelers. In cases where the travel agent is an agent, then the travel agent must communicate all things known or required by the hotel to the traveler.

Those terms and provisions, which were to be communicated in this case included:

…two provisions in which the travel agent agrees to notify their clients that when they book their reservation through the travel agent, they are subject to certain terms and conditions governing their stay at Atlantis.

A section of the contract indicates that the additional terms and conditions are available on the Atlantis website.

The terms and conditions provide that the guest will be asked to sign a form agreeing to certain terms related to any claims the guest may have as a result of the guest’s stay at the Atlantis Resort. It specifically states that “I agree that any claim I may have against [several named defendants and others], along with their parent, related and affiliated companies at every tier, . . . resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever.”

Because the travel agent is an “agent” of the plaintiff the plaintiff had constructive notice of the terms of the agreement before they arrived in the Bahamas. Constructive notice means you legally had notice of the facts or pleadings at issue even if you did not have actual notice.

When the plaintiff’s arrived at the resort, they signed a registration card titled Acknowledgement, Agreement and Release. This too had a choice of forums clause requiring all suits to be brought in the Bahamas.

The court first reviewed the law surrounding forum selection clauses.

A forum selection clause will be invalidated where “(1) its formation was induced by fraud or overreaching; (2) the plaintiff would be deprived of its day in court because of inconvenience or unfairness; (3) the chosen law would deprive the plaintiff of a remedy; or (4) enforcement of the clause would contravene public policy.”

The test on whether a forum selection clause goes too far or overreaches is:

To determine whether there was fraud or overreaching in a non-negotiated forum selection clause, the court looks to “whether the clause was reasonably communicated to the consumer. A useful two-part test of ‘reasonable communicativeness’ takes into account the clause’s physical characteristics and whether the plaintiffs had the ability to become meaningfully informed of the clause and to reject its terms.”

The court found “The Bahamas is an adequate alternative forum, and the public interest factors weigh in favor of transfer.” The court then looked at the arguments raised by the plaintiffs as to why the forum selection clause should be invalidated. However, the plaintiff’s did not argue any of the four factors necessary to overcome the selection in the clause.

Consequently, the court upheld the District Court’s dismissal of the claim. The plaintiffs were free to go to the Bahamas and file their claim again.

So Now What?

The legal term for deciding the case should be dismissed is forum non conveniens. Latin for the forum is not convenient, meaning the right one based on the contract.

There are two keys here that were critical for the court to rule this way. The first was the forum selected was reasonable for the situation. Normally, you have to choose the forum of the defendant, where the defendant is served or where you may catch the defendant temporarily. (There are classic “stories” of serving defendants in airplanes as they flew over a particular state.)  

There must be a reasonable reason for the selection you choose. If you are based in one state and the plaintiff’s come from others, you cannot just choose any state with the best law or the hardest courts to find. You must choose a state where the accident happens if you are fixed, what the accident may happen if you are running trips in other states or the state where you are legally based.

The second is the plaintiff’s had the opportunity, whether or not they took it, to see the forum selection clause, and the other contractual terms, prior to leaving their homes. This might have resolved with a different result if the forum selection clause and other contracts, such as a release, had been handed to the plaintiff’s upon the arrival without any notice they would be required to sign it.

If the client had not signed the agreement at the time of check in, and if they claimed they had not read or received the contract, the plaintiff’s might still have been held to the contract because they took advantage of the benefits the contract offered.

Get your release, with its forum selection clause, in front of the plaintiff as soon as possible. Now days it can be part of the sign up process online or posted on your website or emailed to the guest when their credit card is run.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Mcarthur v. Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5058

Mcarthur v. Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5058

John C. Mcarthur, Sandra S. Mcarthur, his wife, Plaintiffs – Appellants, versus Kerzner International Bahamas Limited, a Bahamian company, Kerzner International Limited, a Bahamian company, Island Hotel Company Limited, a Bahamian company, Paradise Island Limited, a Bahamian company, Defendants – Appellees.

No. 14-13889 Non-Argument Calendar

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 5058

March 30, 2015, Decided

COUNSEL: For JOHN C. MCARTHUR, SANDRA S. MCARTHUR, Plaintiffs – Appellants: Jeffrey Bradford Maltzman, Rafaela Castells, Steve Holman, Maltzman & Partners, PA, CORAL GABLES, FL; Robert L. Parks, Gabriel A. Garay, The Law Offices of Robert L. Parks, PL, MIAMI, FL.

JUDGES: Before JULIE CARNES, FAY and DUBINA, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

PER CURIAM:

Appellants John C. McArthur and his wife, Sandra S. McArthur, appeal the district court’s order dismissing their civil action under forum non conveniens. After reviewing the record and reading the parties’ briefs, we affirm the order dismissing appellants’ complaint.

I. BACKGROUND

The McArthurs were part of a group of guests who traveled to the Atlantis Resort in The Bahamas with the University of Kansas (“KU”) for a basketball tournament. Travel agent Cate and Mason Travel Partners (“travel agent”) made KU’s reservations and contracted with Atlantis. The contract includes two provisions in which the travel agent agrees to notify their clients that when they book their reservation through the travel agent, they are subject to certain terms and conditions governing [*2] their stay at Atlantis. A section of the contract indicates that the additional terms and conditions are available on the Atlantis website. [Doc. DE-16-1, Ex. 1 ¶ 5, ¶ 8.] The terms and conditions provide that the guest will be asked to sign a form agreeing to certain terms related to any claims the guest may have as a result of the guest’s stay at the Atlantis Resort. It specifically states that “I agree that any claim I may have against [several named defendants and others], along with their parent, related and affiliated companies at every tier, . . . resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for any such proceedings whatsoever.” [Id. ¶ 8.]

Upon their arrival at Atlantis, the McArthurs signed a written registration card entitled “Acknowledgement, Agreement and Release” that includes a choice of law provision and forum selection clause:

I agree that any claims I may have against the Resort Parties resulting from any events occurring in The Bahamas shall be governed by and constructed in [*3] accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, and further, I irrevocably agree to the Supreme Court of The Bahamas as the exclusive venue for such proceedings whatsoever. . . .

[Id. ¶ 10 & Exh. 4.]

During his stay at the Atlantis Resort, John McArthur slipped and fell on a sidewalk adjacent to the water park attraction known as the Rapid River. In March 2014, the McArthurs filed an amended complaint in federal district court, alleging negligence in connection with John McArthur’s fall. The amended complaint also alleged that as a result of John McArthur’s injuries, his wife suffered the diminishment of her husband’s companionship and consortium. The amended complaint invoked the district court’s diversity based subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. It alleged that the McArthurs were domiciled in Kansas, defendant Kerzner International was a Bahamian company with its principal place of business in Florida, defendant Kerzner Bahamas was a Bahamian company with its principal place of business in Florida, defendant Island Hotel was a Bahamian company and a subsidiary of Kerzner International and Kerzner Bahamas, and defendant Paradise Island was a Bahamian company and a subsidiary [*4] of Kerzner International and Kerzner Bahamas.

The defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint on the basis of forum non conveniens. The district court granted the motion. The McArthurs then perfected this appeal.1

1 This court issued a jurisdictional question asking the parties to address whether the pleadings sufficiently alleged the citizenship of the parties, in particular, Island Hotel and Paradise Island, to establish the district court’s subject-matter jurisdiction over the case. See Mallory & Evans Contractors & Eng’rs, LLC v. Tuskegee Univ., 663 F.3d 1304, 1304-05 (11th Cir. 2011) (stating that the court must sua sponte raise its concerns regarding subject-matter jurisdiction). The McArthurs concede that the amended complaint failed to allege sufficiently the citizenship of Island Hotel and Paradise Island, but move to amend the amended complaint to add the allegations that both defendants were Bahamian Companies with their principal places of business in the Bahamas. [HN1] The party invoking the court’s jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing federal jurisdiction, and when the pleadings’ allegations of citizenship and jurisdiction are insufficient, a party may amend them in this court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1653; Mallory, 663 F.3d at 1305. The McArthurs’ allegations cure the pleading deficiencies [*5] as to Island Hotel and Paradise Island, and the amended complaint sufficiently alleges that the other defendants are Bahamian companies with their principal places of business in Florida. Because the proposed amendments show that no defendant is a citizen of Kansas, where the McArthurs are domiciled, the district court’s subject-matter jurisdiction is satisfied. Thus, we grant the McArthur’s motion to amend the amended complaint and entertain the instant appeal.

II. DISCUSSION

[HN2] This court reviews a district court’s order of dismissal based on forum non conveniens for an abuse of discretion. Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., 578 F.3d 1283, 1288 (11th Cir. 2009). [HN3] In addition, we review de novo a district court’s construction of a contractual forum selection clause. Global Satellite Commc’n Co. v. Starmill U.K. Ltd., 378 F.3d 1269, 1271 (11th Cir. 2004).

As a preliminary matter, forum selection clauses “are presumptively valid and enforceable unless the plaintiff makes a ‘strong showing’ that enforcement would be unfair or unreasonable under the circumstances.” Pappas v. Kerzner Int’l Bahamas Ltd., 585 F. App’x 962, 965 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Krenkel v. Kerzner Int’l Hotels Ltd., 579 F.3d 1279, 1281 (11th Cir. 2009)). The party seeking to avoid the forum selection clause bears the burden of showing exceptional circumstances, predicated on public interest considerations to justify disturbing the forum selection clause. Atl. Marine Const. v. U.S. Dist. Court, U.S. , , 134 S. Ct. 568, 581, 187 L. Ed. 2d 487 (2013).

A forum selection clause will be invalidated where “(1) its formation [*6] was induced by fraud or overreaching; (2) the plaintiff would be deprived of its day in court because of inconvenience or unfairness; (3) the chosen law would deprive the plaintiff of a remedy; or (4) enforcement of the clause would contravene public policy.” Krenkel v. Kerzner Int’l Hotels Ltd., 579 F.3d 1279, 1281 (11th Cir. 2009). To determine whether there was fraud or overreaching in a non-negotiated forum selection clause, the court looks to “whether the clause was reasonably communicated to the consumer. A useful two-part test of ‘reasonable communicativeness’ takes into account the clause’s physical characteristics and whether the plaintiffs had the ability to become meaningfully informed of the clause and to reject its terms.” Id.

The McArthurs contend that the forum selection clause is invalid because the contents of the forum selection clause were not reasonably communicated to them, and the travel agent never informed them about the forum selection clause. However, as the district court found, the McArthurs had constructive notice of the Atlantis Resort’s terms and conditions that the travel agent received. The travel agent, via its contract with the resort, knew that the attendees at the resort were subject to certain additional terms and conditions, [*7] agreed to notify their clients regarding the terms and conditions, and knew where to obtain the specific terms and conditions. Thus, because the McArthurs’ trip involved travel arrangements made by the travel agent, they are charged with constructive notice of the terms and conditions in the contract the travel agent had with the Atlantis Resort.

Moreover, upon their arrival at the resort, the McArthurs signed a written registration form that read, in part, that the guest agrees that any claims he may have against the resort shall be governed by the laws of The Bahamas and that the Supreme Court of The Bahamas is the exclusive venue. [R. DE 16-5.] By signing this form, the McArthurs agreed to the forum selection clause. Hence, we conclude that the forum selection clause is valid.2

2 The McArthurs also argue that the forum selection clause is invalid because it was obtained through fraud. Their argument centers on their claim that the defendants have a policy that allows guests to delete portions of the guest registration card but they do not inform the guests of that right, and therefore, the defendants obtain the signatures on the cards through fraud. This contention is meritless because [*8] they cannot show that the forum selection clause itself was included in the contract due to fraud. See Rucker v. Oasis Legal Fin., L.L.C., 632 F.3d 1231, 1236 (11th Cir. 2011 ) (noting that in order for a forum selection clause to be invalidated on the basis of fraud or overreaching, a plaintiff must specifically allege that the clause was included in the contract because of fraud).

In addition, The Bahamas is an adequate alternative forum, and the public interest factors weigh in favor of transfer. See Atl. Marine, U.S. at , 134 S. Ct. at 582 (discussing forum selection clauses in the 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) transfer context). First, the McArthurs do not contest that The Bahamas provides an adequate alternative forum, and they do not assert that they could not reinstate their lawsuit in The Bahamas without undue inconvenience or prejudice. Second, the McArthurs fail to meet their burden to show that this case is exceptional and that the forum selection clause should not apply. Their brief is devoid of any claims as to court congestion, the burden of jury duty, or the difficulties in resolving conflict of law problems and applying foreign law. Third, the McArthurs fail to challenge the substantial interests of The Bahamas. In sum, the McArthurs cannot show that enforcement of the forum selection clause “would be unfair [*9] or unreasonable under the circumstances.” Krenkel, 579 F.3d at 1281. Accordingly, we conclude that the district court properly gave effect to the forum selection clause and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.3

3 The McArthurs also take issue with the district court’s order denying their motion for leave to amend the complaint to add Brookfield Asset Management, Inc., the new owner of the Atlantis Resort, as a defendant. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion because the language of the forum selection clause applies equally to any entity that has owned, operated, or marketed the Atlantis Resort. [R. DE 16-1, Ex. 4 & 16-3.] See Garfield v. NDC Health Corp., 466 F.3d 1255, 1270 (11th Cir. 2006) (stating that [HN4] court reviews for abuse of discretion a district court’s decision to grant or deny leave to amend a pleading).

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the district court’s order granting defendants’ motion to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. We also grant the McArthurs’ motion for leave to amend the amended complaint to cure the deficiency in the pleadings.

AFFIRMED and Motion for leave to amend GRANTED.


LaFond v. Salomon North America, Inc. et al., 2011 Mass. Super. LEXIS 344

Gary LaFond v. Salomon North America, Inc. et al.1

1 Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Company, and Salomon S.A.

Opinion No.: 118812, Docket Number: SUCV2008-01383

SUPERIOR COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, AT SUFFOLK

2011 Mass. Super. LEXIS 344

December 19, 2011, Decided

December 20, 2011, File

JUDGES: [*1] Elizabeth M. Fahey, Justice of the Superior Court.

OPINION BY: Elizabeth M. Fahey

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT SALOMON S.A.’S MOTION TO DISMISS FOR LACK OF PERSONAL JURISDICTION

The plaintiff, Gary LaFond (“LaFond”), was injured when one of his ski bindings broke while he was skiing in Utah. LaFond brought this action against Salomon North America, Inc., Amer Sports Winter & Outdoor Company (“ASWO”), and Salomon S.A., asserting claims of negligence, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, and violation of G.L.c. 93A. The action is now before the court on Salomon, SA’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. For the following reasons, the motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

The following relevant jurisdictional facts are taken from the materials before the court. LaFond is a resident of Massachusetts. Salomon S.A. is a French corporation with its principal place of business in Annecy, France.2 According to the declaration of the senior legal counsel for Salomon S.A.’s European legal department, Laurence Grollier (“Grollier”), Salomon S.A. does not maintain an office, employees, agents, or real property in Massachusetts. It distributes its Salomon-branded products in the [*2] United States through a single entity, ASWO, which submits orders to Salomon S.A. in France. Salomon S.A. then ships the products to AWSO in Ogden, Utah, but it has no further involvement or control over the resale and distribution of the shipped products. Salomon S.A. has not entered into any contracts to perform services in Massachusetts.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

2 The corporation states that LaFond has mistakenly referred to it as Salomon S.A., whereas its title should be Salomon S.A.S. Given that the corporation has been entered into the court’s docket as Salomon S.A., the court will use that title.

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Salomon S.A. has not visited Massachusetts to market, promote, or solicit sales of its products, including the binding that allegedly caused LaFond’s injury. Salomon S.A. does maintain a website, http://www.salomon.com (“Website”), which is accessible (presumably all the time) in Massachusetts. The Website includes information on Salomon products, but U.S. consumers may not purchase such products directly through the Website. If a consumer wishes to purchase a Salomon product, however, the Website includes a search function whereby said consumer can locate area retail stores that sell Salomon-branded products. Counsel [*3] for LaFond avers in an affidavit that she conducted such a search on the website and located fifty-six Massachusetts retailers that sell Salomon products.

In June 2004, LaFond accessed the Website and researched different Salomon alpine ski bindings. Based in part on the information the Website provided, LaFond decided to buy Salomon 912Ti alpine ski bindings. Knowing that Bob Smith’s Wilderness House (“Wilderness House”) sold Salomon products at its Boston location, he visited that store to buy the Salomon 912Ti bindings, doing so in June 2004.

LaFond alleges that he was skiing in Alta, Utah on January 20, 2007, when the heel plate of his left ski binding broke, causing him to fall and injure himself seriously. Upon returning to Massachusetts, LaFond brought the defective binding back to Wilderness House, reported his January 20, 2007 accident to the store, and requested that the defective binding be replaced with a new Salomon binding. The materials before the court indicate that a new binding was shipped to Wilderness House, but it is not clear who shipped the binding.

DISCUSSION

HN1Go to this Headnote in the case.In order for a Massachusetts court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant, the [*4] defendant’s conduct must fall within the limits of the Massachusetts long-arm statute, G.L.c. 223A, §3(a)-(h). See Good Hope Indus., Inc. v. Ryder Scott Co., 378 Mass. 1, 5-6, 389 N.E.2d 76 (1979). In addition, the exercise of personal jurisdiction must comply with the due process requirements of the U.S. Constitution. See id. at 5-6. These two parts often converge into a single inquiry, because G.L.c. 223A “functions as ‘an assertion of jurisdiction over the person to the limits allowed by the Constitution of the United States.'” Id. at 6, quoting “Automatic” Sprinkler Corp. of Am. v. Seneca Foods Corp., 361 Mass. 441, 443, 280 N.E.2d 423 (1972).

HN2Go to this Headnote in the case.When confronted with a motion to dismiss under Mass.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2), the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing facts sufficient to show that the Massachusetts’ court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant. See Droukas v. Divers Training Academy, Inc., 375 Mass. 149, 151, 376 N.E.2d 548 (1978). The court views the jurisdictional facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Cepeda v. Kass, 62 Mass.App.Ct. 732, 738, 819 N.E.2d 979 (2004). Nevertheless, the court does not have to “credit conclusory allegations or draw farfetched inferences.” Workgroup Tech. Corp. v. MGM Grand Hotel, LLC, 246 F.Sup.2d 102, 108 (D.Mass. 2003) [*5] (citations omitted).

I. Long-Arm Statute

LaFond argues that this court may exercise personal jurisdiction over Salomon S.A. based on three provisions of the long-arm statute, G.L.c. 223A, §3(a), (b), and (f). Because this court finds that jurisdiction is appropriate under G.L.c. 223A, §3(a), it will not address the other provisions.

A. G.L.c. 223A, §3(a

HN3Go to this Headnote in the case.”A court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a person, who acts directly or by an agent, as to a cause of action in law or equity arising from the person’s (a) transacting any business in this commonwealth . . .” G.L.c. 223A, §3(a). The “transacting any business” language is construed broadly. See Tatro v. Manor Care, Inc., 416 Mass. 763, 767, 625 N.E.2d 549 (1994). “Although an isolated (and minor) transaction with a Massachusetts resident may be insufficient, generally the purposeful and successful solicitation of business from residents of the Commonwealth, by a defendant or its agent, will suffice to satisfy this requirement.” Id.

This court concludes that Salomon S.A. has engaged in such purposeful and successful solicitation of business from Massachusetts residents via the Website.3 The Website is not merely a passive instrument that only presents [*6] information about Salomon products. See McBee v. Delica Co., 417 F.3d 107, 124 (1st Cir. 2005) (“[T]he mere existence of a website that is visible in a forum and that gives information about a company and its products is not enough, by itself, to subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction in that forum”); Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F.Sup. 1119, 1124 (W.D.Pa. 1997) (“A passive Web site that does little more than make information available to those who are interested in it is not grounds for the exercise of personal jurisdiction”). Rather, it explicitly solicits business from Massachusetts residents by directing them to Massachusetts’ retailers that sell Salomon products.

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3 It appears that the question of whether a website may confer specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant pursuant to G.L.c. 223A, §3(a) is one of first impression in Massachusetts state courts. The parties did not cite, and this court could not find any Supreme Judicial Court or Appeals Court case addressing the question. This court considered reporting to the Appeals Court the correctness of its decision regarding personal jurisdiction over Salomon S.A., but, after thoroughly examining the relevant [*7] facts and law, ultimately decided not to do so

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By thus soliciting business, Salomon S.A. purposefully targets Massachusetts’ residents through the Website. Compare Comer v. Comer, 295 F. Supp. 2d 201, 209-10 (D.Mass. 2003) (no personal jurisdiction over defendant pursuant to G.L.c. 223A, §3(a) where “website is ‘passive’—i.e., it only posts information for those who are interested and, admittedly, makes no mention of any ties to Massachusetts”); Berry v. Cook, 2011 WL 5841768 at *4 (Mass.Super. 2011) [29 Mass. L. Rptr. 97] (advertisement of vacation home through website does not confer personal jurisdiction pursuant to G.L.c. 223A, §3(a) where no evidence that website specifically targeted Massachusetts residents). Cf. Roberts v. Legendary Marine Sales, 447 Mass. 860, 864-65, 857 N.E.2d 1089 (2006) (no personal jurisdiction over defendant pursuant to G.L.c. 223A, §3(d) where website only provided information and did not solicit business in Massachusetts). Accordingly, Salomon S.A. transacts business in Massachusetts.

Further, LaFond’s claims against Salomon S.A. arise out of this business where he stated in an affidavit that he purchased the binding at issue in part based on research he conducted on the [*8] Website. See Tatro, 416 Mass. at 771 (construing §3(a)’s “arising from” language as broadly as “transacting business” language, and holding that “a claim arises from a defendant’s transaction of business in the forum State if the claim was made possible by, or lies in the wake of, the transaction of business in the forum State” (citation omitted)).

The literal requirements of the long-arm statute have therefore been satisfied.

II. Due Process

HN4Go to this Headnote in the case.In addition to fulfilling the statutory requirement of G.L.c. 223A, §3, an assertion of personal jurisdiction over the defendant must also comply with the due process requirements of the United States Constitution. See Good Hope Indus., Inc., 378 Mass. at 5-6. Due process requires that the non-resident defendant have “some minimum contact with the Commonwealth which resulted from an affirmative, intentional act of the defendant, such that it is fair and reasonable to require the defendant to come into the State to defend the action.” Id. at 7. In determining whether the exercise of specific jurisdiction comports with due process, the court must first examine whether “the defendant purposely avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities [*9] in the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.” Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253, 78 S. Ct. 1228, 2 L. Ed. 2d 1283 (1958). The lawsuit must also arise from or relate to the defendant’s specific conduct in the forum state. Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472-73, 105 S. Ct. 2174, 85 L. Ed. 2d 528 (1985). Finally, the court may not exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant under circumstances “that would offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'” Asahi Metal Indus. Co. v. Superior Court, 480 U.S. 102, 113, 107 S. Ct. 1026, 94 L. Ed. 2d 92 (1987), quoting International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S. Ct. 154, 90 L. Ed. 95 (1945).

A. Purposeful Availment

As discussed above, via the website, Salomon specifically targets Massachusetts’ residents and solicits their business. The evidence before this court also indicates that Salomon S.A. fulfills orders it receives from ASWO, the sole distributor of Salomon products in the United States, which then distributes those products to retailers in various states, including Massachusetts. Salomon S.A. lists fifty-six Massachusetts retailers on the Website, and it has clearly not instructed ASWO to refrain from distributing Salomon products to Massachusetts. As such, viewing the facts [*10] in the light most favorable to LaFond, Salomon S.A. purposefully avails itself of the benefits of doing business in Massachusetts by placing its products in the stream of commerce with the intention of reaching consumers, including consumers in Massachusetts.

As the United States District Court in Massachusetts has stated, HN5Go to this Headnote in the case.the purposeful availment “requirement goes beyond simple ‘foreseeability’ to ensure that only those defendants that willingly and purposefully avail themselves of the benefits of a state will be brought to court there.” Hasbro, Inc. v. Clue Computing, Inc., 994 F.Sup. 34, 44-45 (D.Mass. 1997) (personal jurisdiction over defendant complied with due process where it directed its advertising website to all states, doing nothing to avoid Massachusetts); see also Gather, Inc. v. Gatheroo, LLC, 443 F.Sup.2d 108, 117-18 (D.Mass. 2006) (distinguishing case where defendant prohibited sales in forum state and noting that “[n]o such limitation is found in Gatheroo’s [web]site”). Compare Accutest Corp. v. Accu Test Sys., Inc., 532 F.Sup. 416, 420 (D.Mass. 1982) (no personal jurisdiction where, “by instructing its underwriters not to sell stock in Massachusetts, defendant seems [*11] to have purposefully sought to avoid activity in this forum”). Salomon S.A.’s contacts with Massachusetts comply with this requirement.

B. Relatedness

This court has already concluded that LaFond’s claims against Salomon S.A. arise from the latter’s contacts with Massachusetts, so this due process requirement is fulfilled. See Back Bay Farm, LLC v. Collucio, 230 F.Sup.2d 176, 186 (D.Mass. 2002) (“Here, as the court has already determined, Plaintiff’s claim arises from Defendant’s Massachusetts activity. The relatedness element has thus been met”).

C. Fair Play and Substantial Justice

HN6Go to this Headnote in the case.In determining whether its exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant constitutes fair play and substantial justice, a court examines the following factors: “(1) the burden on the defendant in appearing; (2) the interest of the forum state in adjudicating the dispute; (3) the interest of the plaintiff in obtaining convenient and effective relief: (4) the interest of the judicial system in obtaining the most effective resolution of the controversy; and (5) the interests common to all sovereigns in promoting substantive social policies.” Back Bay Farm, LLC, 230 F.Sup.2d at 187.

HN7Go to this Headnote in the case.As for the first factor, [*12] it “is only meaningful where a party can demonstrate some kind of special or unusual burden.” Hasbro, Inc., 994 F.Sup. at 45, quoting Pritzker v. Yari, 42 F.3d 53, 64 (1st Cir. 1994). While Salomon S.A. claims that because it is a French company with no office or personnel located in Massachusetts, having to defend itself in Massachusetts would put it at a severe disadvantage, it does not differentiate itself from any other alien corporation with no presence in the forum state.4 As such, Salomon S.A. has not shown any special or unusual burden, and the first factor holds no significance.

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4 Additionally, the case Salomon S.A. cites to support its assertion that its status as a French company with no Massachusetts presence provides a basis to deny personal jurisdiction is not a personal jurisdiction case. Rather, the case, The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972), deals with a forum selection clause in a contract between the parties.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The court finds that the next four factors weigh in favor of this court asserting personal jurisdiction over Salomon S.A. First, Massachusetts clearly has an interest in adjudicating the claims of one of its residents injured by a product sold [*13] in Massachusetts and provided by a company that specifically solicits Massachusetts business. Second, as the United States District Court in Massachusetts has recognized, “[t]he average consumer who is injured by a defective product generally lacks the resources necessary to enable him to prosecute his claim effectively against the manufacturer who is situated in a distant jurisdiction.” Mark v. Obear & Sons, Inc., 313 F.Sup. 373, 376 (D.Mass. 1970). This is especially true here where Salomon S.A. is located in a distant foreign country. Third, because witnesses, medical records, documents, and other evidence in this case are likely scattered among Utah (where LaFond’s accident occurred), Massachusetts (where LaFond resides and where the binding was sold), and France (presumably where Salomon S.A. designed and manufactured the binding), Massachusetts is as effective a forum location as Utah or France. Similarly, while Massachusetts and France both have an interest in promoting substantive social policies, Massachusetts’ interest is stronger here given the facts of this case.

Finally, this court notes that failing to assert personal jurisdiction over Salomon S.A. in this case would in [*14] fact not comply with traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. This court declines to permit “a manufacturer such as [Salomon S.A.] whose plant is a great distance from the State where it causes its products to be marketed . . . as a practical matter [to] insulate itself against suits by injured consumers by the simple expedient of [providing] its products through an independent distributor.” Mark, 313 F.Sup. at 376.

ORDER

Based on the foregoing, it is hereby ORDERED that Salomon S.A.’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction is DENIED.

Elizabeth M. Fahey

Justice of the Superior Court

Dated: December 19, 2011

 


Bonne, et al., v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

Bonne, et al., v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

Matthew R. Bonne, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Premier Athletics, LLC, et al., Defendants.

No. 3:04-CV-440

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee

2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77802

October 23, 2006, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by, in part, Motion denied by, in part Bonne v. Premier Ath., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79956 (E.D. Tenn., Oct. 29, 2007)

CORE TERMS: gymnastic, summary judgment, sanctioned, wrongful death, membership, athlete, guardian, trampoline, booster, choice of law, significant relationship, decedent’s, sibling, place of business, moving party, non-moving, competed, death action, reckless conduct, exculpatory clause, gross negligence, surviving spouse, superior right, deceased, spotters, matting, registration form, paralysis, sponsor, host

COUNSEL: [*1] For Matthew R Bonne, Individually next friend Jordan T Bonne, Shirley K Bonne, Individually, next friend, Jordan T Bonne, next friend, Aaron Bonne, next friend, Brooke Bonne, next friend Trey Bonne, next friend, Andrew Bonne, Plaintiff: Stephen E Yeager, Lowe & Yeager, Knoxville, TN.

For Premier Athletics, LLC, doing business as, Premier Gymnastics and Tumbling Center, Defendant: John W Baker, Jr, Baker, O’Kane, Atkins & Thompson, Knoxville, TN.

For USA Gymnastics, United States Gymnastics Federation, Defendant: Samuel W Rutherford, Stokes & Rutherford, Knoxville, TN.

JUDGES: Thomas W. Phillips, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Thomas W. Phillips

OPINION

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This a wrongful death case involving parties with diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Defendants, Premier Athletics, LLC, USA Gymnastics and United States Gymnastics Federation, have moved for summary judgment as to plaintiffs’ claims. The parties have filed extensive briefs pertaining to the motion for summary judgment in which they have fully briefed all of the issues and submitted record evidence in support of the parties’ positions. The court has reviewed the briefs and [*2] evidence submitted, and does not feel that oral argument is necessary. For the reasons which follow, the motion will be granted as to the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne. In all other respects, the motion will be denied.

Background

This case involves a tragic accident that occurred on January 17, 2004, during the John Macready Flip Fest Invitational in Knoxville, Tennessee. The plaintiffs’ son, Jordan Bonne, was competing in a trampoline event when he fell off the trampoline, hitting his head on the concrete floor. Jordan died from his injuries two days later.

Defendant, Premier Athletics, was the host organization, sponsor and facilitator of the event, which was sanctioned by USA Gymnastics (USAG). Defendants USAG and the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) are the national governing bodies for the sport of gymnastics in the United States. Their principal place of business is in Indiana but they sanction gymnastic events all over the United States. At the time of the accident, Jordan was classified as a junior elite trampolinist according to USAG. Junior elite is the second highest classification in USAG sanctioned competition. [*3] Jordan had competed in numerous local, state and national competitions, and had recently competed internationally in his age group. Jordan competed in both the synchronized and individual trampoline events. The day before the accident, Jordan had competed in synchronized trampoline competition at Flip Fest.

Jordan was a member of the Top Flight Gymnastics Team. Jordan was also a member of USAG. In order for a gymnast to compete in a USAG sanctioned event, USAG requires all participants to be a member of USAG. For membership, USAG requires athletes to complete an “Athlete Member Application” every year. Membership is required to compete in USAG sanctioned events. Section Five of the membership application directs parents to read the reverse side of the application. Paragraph 3 of Section 5 includes the following language:

WAIVER AND RELEASE. I am fully aware of and appreciate the risks, including the risk of catastrophic injury, paralysis, and even death, as well as other damages and losses associated with participation in a gymnastics event. I further agree that USA Gymnastics, the host organization, and sponsor(s) of any USA Gymnastics sanctioned event, along with the [*4] employees, agents, officers and directors of the organization, shall not be liable for any losses or damages occurred as a result of my participation in the event, except for such loss or damage as the result of the intentional or reckless conduct of one of the organizations or individuals identified above.

Section 6 of the Athlete Member Application provides as follows:

All signatures required for acceptance of membership . . .

Required for any athlete who is not yet eighteen years old: As legal parent or guardian of this athlete, I hereby verify by my signature below, that I fully understand and accept each of the conditions listed in the Athlete Membership Agreement as described in Section Five for permitting my child to participate in any USA Gymnastics sanctioned event.

This 2004 membership application was signed by Jordan’s mother, Shirley Bonne in December 2003. Mrs. Bonne stated that she most likely signed the document in Kentucky as it was her habit to do so. In previous years, Shirley Bonne had signed similar forms containing the same waiver and release language. Jordan had also signed forms with identical waiver and release language in the past.

[*5] Top Flight Gymnastics had a similar waiver and release in its registration form. The Top Flight Gymnastics registration form provided:

As legal guardian of Jordan Bonne, I hereby consent to the above person’s participation in Top Flight Gymnastics’ programs, I recognize that potentially severe injuries, including permanent paralysis or death can occur in any activity involving height or motion, including gymnastics and related activities, including tumbling and trampoline.

I understand that it is the express intent of Top Flight Gymnastics to provide for the safety and protection of my child, and, in consideration for allowing my child to use these facilities, I hereby forever release Top Flight Gymnastics, its officers, employees, teachers, and coaches, from all liability for any and all damages and injuries suffered by my child while under the instruction, supervision, or control of Top Flight Gymnastics or its employees.

. . .

This acknowledgment of risk and waiver of liability, having been read thoroughly and understood completely, is signed voluntarily as to its content and intent.

This waiver and release was signed by Shirley Bonne on January 7, 1999.

[*6] Top Flight T&T, a booster club that supported Top Flight Gymnastics required a similar waiver and release for athletes who participated in its programs. This waiver and release stated:

As legal guardian of Jordan Bonne, I hereby consent to the above person’s participation in Top Flight’s T&T Boosters programs. I recognize that potentially severe injuries, including permanent paralysis or death can occur in any activity involving height or motion, including tumbling and trampoline.

I understand that it is the express intent of Top Flight T&T Boosters to provide for the safety and protection of my child, and, in consideration for allowing my child to use these facilities, I hereby forever release the Top Flight T&T Boosters, its officers, employees, teachers and coaches from all liability for any and all damages and injuries sustained by my child while under the instruction, supervision, or control of Top Flight T&T Boosters or its employees.

. . .

This acknowledgment of risk and waiver of liability, having been read thoroughly and understood completely, is signed voluntarily as to its content and intent.

Matthew Bonne, Jordan’s father, had also signed similar [*7] waiver and release forms for Jordan. He testified via deposition that he “probably” signed the Top Flight Registration Form. He acknowledged that he signed the booster club form. In the case of both these forms, he stated that he did not recall whether he read them before signing. Matthew Bonne traveled with his son on several occasions to different gymnastics events, including one that was held in Russia. He also attended several of Jordan’s practices.

As a result of the accident at Flip Fest on January 19, 2004, plaintiffs filed the instant action for the wrongful death of Jordan. The plaintiffs are residents of Ohio. In their complaint, Matthew and Shirley Bonne, individually and as next friends, parents and natural guardians of Jordan, sued Premier, USAG and USGF. Further, the Bonnes, as next friends, parents and guardians of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne and Andrew Bonne (Jordan’s siblings) sued defendants contending that USAG and USGF were negligent in that they sanctioned an event which failed to provide a safe environment, utilized untrained spotters, failed to ensure sufficient floor matting, failed to require experienced and trained spotters, and failed to require [*8] sufficient safety matting. As a result of defendants’ alleged negligence, plaintiffs seek damages including parental and sibling consortium, expenses, and the pecuniary value of Jordan’s life.

Defendants USAG and USGF have moved for summary judgment asserting that the releases signed by Shirley and Matthew Bonne bar all claims against defendants. The releases exclude USAG and USGF from any liability resulting from injuries occurring in sanctioned events. As the host organization, sponsor and facilitator of the Flip Fest event, Premier is also expressly excluded from liability.

Analysis

Rule 56(c), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provides that summary judgment will be granted by the court only when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The burden is on the moving party to conclusively show that no genuine issue of material fact exists. The court must view the facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); Morris to Crete Carrier Corp., 105 F.3d 279, 280-81 (6th Cir. 1987); [*9] White v. Turfway Park Racing Ass’n, Inc., 909 F.2d 941, 943 (6th Cir. 1990); 60 lvy Street Corp. v. Alexander, 822 F.2d 1432, 1435 (6th Cir. 1987). Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the non-moving party is not entitled to a trial simply on the basis of allegations. The non-moving party is required to come forward with some significant probative evidence which makes it necessary to resolve the factual dispute at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986); White, 909 F.2d at 943-44. The moving party is entitled to summary judgment if the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Collyer v. Darling, 98 F.3d 211, 220 (6th Cir. 1996).

Choice of Law

Defendants argue that Ohio law should apply to the interpretation of the USAG membership application which contains an exculpatory clause. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that Tennessee [*10] law is the correct choice of law to apply to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties. Plaintiffs further argue that Tennessee public policy prohibits the enforcement of exculpatory clauses by parents on behalf of their minor children and thus, the USAG waiver is void in this case.

The plaintiffs reside in Ohio. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment states that Mrs. Bonne completed and signed Jordan’s USAG member application in Ohio. However, Mrs. Bonne stated in her affidavit, that she most likely signed the application in Kentucky, where the Top Flight gym is located. The application was sent to and received by USAG in Indiana.

A federal court in a diversity case applies the law of the state in which the court sits, including the state’s choice of law rules. Davis v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 873 F.2d 888, 892 (6th cir. 1989)(citing Erie R.R.Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938). It is not clear from the defendants’ motion whether they dispute that plaintiffs’ tort claims are to be analyzed under applicable Tennessee law. However, they do dispute whether Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee law governs the analysis of the release and [*11] waiver provisions at issue. Defendants assert in their motion that this is a contract dispute which should be analyzed under Tennessee’s choice of law rules related to contract claims. The court disagrees. This is a wrongful death action based upon tort, not contract. As regards the effect of the waiver and release between the parties, it will be determined by the law that governs the substantive tort rights of the parties.

The Tennessee Supreme Court in Hataway v. McKinley, 830 S.W.2d 53 (Tenn. 1992), adopted the “most significant relationship” approach of the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, § 175, to determine the rights and liabilities of the parties in a wrongful death case. Section 175 provides:

In an action for wrongful death, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in § 6 to the occurrence and the parties, to which event the local law of the other state will be applied.

The accident causing Jordan’s [*12] death occurred at the Flip Fest in Knoxville, Tennessee. Thus, under the “most significant relationship” test, Tennessee law applies unless another state has a more significant relationship. To determine if another state has a more significant relationship, § 145 of the Restatement provides factors to be weighed and balanced. Those factors are (1) the place where the injury occurred, (2) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred, (3) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and (4) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.

Applying this test to the instant case, as stated above, Tennessee is where the injury and death occurred. Second, Tennessee is the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred. Third, the plaintiffs are residents of Ohio, USAG and USGF have their principal place of business in Indiana, but they sanction gymnastic events all over the United States. Premier is a Tennessee limited liability company with its principal place of business in Knoxville, Tennessee. Last, the relationship between the parties was centered in Tennessee because Jordan’s death occurred [*13] while he was participating in Flip Fest in Knoxville. The Flip Fest competition in Knoxville was the only mutual and central contact these parties had with one another. Therefore, it is clear that Tennessee is the state that has the “most significant relationship” with the parties in this case. Thus, Tennessee choice of law rules dictate that Tennessee tort law applies.

In a tort action, the effect of a release between the parties is determined by the law that governs the substantive tort rights of the parties. Mackey v. Judy’s Foods, Inc., 867 F.2d 325, 328 (6th Cir. 1989)(citing to Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, § 170, Comment b). As Tennessee law governs the rights and liabilities of the parties in the tort action, Tennessee law will also be applied to interpret the effect of the release and waiver provisions in the USAG application.

Effect of Waiver & Release

In Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn.App. 1989), the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that “[t]he general rule is that a guardian may not waive the rights of an infant or an incompetent.” Id. at 6 [*14] (citing 39 Am.Jur.2d Guardian & Ward, § 102 (1968); 42 Am.Jur.2d Infants § 152 (1969)). As in Childress, Jordan’s rights could not be contracted away by his mother in the State of Tennessee. It is Tennessee’s stated public policy to protect minors and prohibit exculpatory releases for them. Mrs. Bonne could not execute a valid release or exculpatory clause as to the rights of her son against USAG, or anyone else, and to the extent the parties to the release attempted and intended to so do, the release is void.

Moreover, exculpatory clauses purporting to contract against liability for intentional conduct, recklessness or gross negligence are unenforceable. See Childress, 777 S.W.2d at 5; Adams v. Roark, 686 S.W.2d 73 (Tenn. 1985). Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges defendants’ failure to provide a safe environment, failure to utilize trained spotters, and failure to ensure sufficient safety matting, all constitute gross negligence and reckless conduct. Defendants have not challenged these allegations in their motion for summary judgment. Thus, accepting plaintiffs’ allegations [*15] as true, the release at issue here would not shield defendants for liability for their gross negligence and reckless conduct. Accordingly, defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the waiver and release will be denied.

Claims of Jordan’s Siblings

Defendants assert that since both Jordan’s parents are living and are named , as plaintiffs in this actions, no right to sue on Jordan’s behalf has passed to his siblings. Thus, the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne and Andrew Bonne, should be dismissed as a matter of law.

The statutes permitting an action for the wrongful death of another create “no right of action existing independently of that which the deceased would have had, had he survived.” Rogers v. Donelson Hermitage Chamber of Commerce, 807 S.W.2d 242, 245 (Tenn.App. 1990); Memphis St. Ry. Co., v. Cooper, 313 S.W.2d 444, 447, 203 Tenn. 425 (1958). Although living beneficiaries of the deceased may seek a limited recovery for their own losses in addition to those of the decedent, see Hill v. City of Germantown, 31 S.W.3d 234, 239 (Tenn. 2000); Jordan v. Baptist Three Rivers Hosp., 984 S.W.2d 593, 598 (Tenn. 1999), [*16] the right of action itself remains one that is “single, entire and indivisible.” See Wheeler v. Burley, 1997 Tenn. App. LEXIS 578, No. 01A01-9701-CV-00006 (Tenn.App. Aug. 27, 1997). Therefore, “there can be but one cause of action for the wrongful death of another.” Matthews v. Mitchell, 705 S.W.2d 657, 660 (Tenn.App. 1985).

Because multiple actions may not be brought to resolve a single wrongful death claim, the statutes carefully prescribe the priority of those who may assert the action on behalf of the decedent and any other beneficiaries. In a dispute between the surviving spouse and the children of the decedent as to who may maintain the action, the surviving spouse clearly has “the prior and superior right above all others.” Foster v. Jeffers, 813 S.W.2d 449, 451 (Tenn.App. 1991); see also Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107. In fact, the children of a deceased may maintain an action only if the decedent is not survived by a spouse or if the surviving spouse has waived his or her right of priority. Id. Applying Tennessee law to the instant case, the court finds that Jordan’s parents have a superior right, as opposed to Jordan’s siblings, [*17] to maintain this cause of action against defendants for the wrongful death of Jordan.

Recognizing that a claim for loss of consortium does not represent a claim for damages separate from the wrongful death action itself, but rather embodies one component of the decedent’s pecuniary value of life, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a trial court should dismiss any other pending wrongful death actions upon proper filing of an action by party holding a superior right. See Kline v. Eyrich, 69 S.W.3d 197, 208 (Tenn. 2002). Accordingly, because Jordan’s parents have the superior right to maintain this action, the court will dismiss the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne.

Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment [Doc. 16] is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. The motion is GRANTED as to the claims of Aaron Bonne, Brooke Bonne, Trey Bonne, and Andrew Bonne. In all other respects, the motion is DENIED. The parties will prepare the case for trial.

The parties motions for oral argument on the summary judgment motion [Docs. 28, 33] are DENIED.

ENTER:

[*18] s/ Thomas W. Phillips

United States District Judge

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The legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers

An Overview of the legal relationship created between manufactures and US consumers.

This is a quick memo to simply outline the legal issues encountered by foreign corporations selling in the US Market. This memo will touch on the following issues:

Agency

An agent legally represents the manufacture. From a legal standpoint the agent stands in the shoes of the manufacture. An agent speaks and acts for the principal, the manufacture. As such the manufacture is liable for anything the agent says or does while representing the manufacture until the agency is terminated and that termination is communicated to interested third party consumers.

An agency relationship exists when a principal (in this case the manufacture or distributor) creates a legal relationship with a third party for the third party to represent the principal. In this case the third party is a retailer of products or an independent contractor sales representative. This relationship can be by contract (oral or written) or by actions on the part of either party (I’ll pay you if you do that).

An agency can be created without a legal relationship. Agency by Estoppel is created when third parties or consumers believe that one party has vested rights or an agency in another based on the actions of the principal. If a sales rep says he works for a manufacture and the manufacture does nothing to terminate the relationship or refine the relationship in the minds of the consumer or the shop then the agency does in fact exist. The parameters of the relationship are as defined by the consumer as reasonably interpreted from the actions of the agent. Failure to stop or disclaim the agency confirms the agency.

This places a tremendous burden on manufactures to create a relationship with agents that is within the parameters and/or restrictions the manufacture wants and then to insist the agent work within those parameters. However, if the manufacture does nothing to enforce the parameters or knows the agent is working outside of the parameters the manufacture will be held liable for the acts of the agent.

A good contract outlining the relationship is necessary for most independent contractor’s representative and required by seventeen (17) states.

Agency by law is another type of agency that is created. These are actions that the courts have interpreted over time to be agency relationships. A specific example in this case is again the manufacture and the distributor or the manufacture and the rep. Courts have determined that for the distributor or rep to do their jobs there is an agency relationship for the agent to act for the manufacture. Agency by law then is interpreted to mean the agent has the basic responsibility to act on behalf of the manufacture.

This places a burden on manufactures to do two things. (1) Hire agents who will understand and respect the agency relationship as defined by the manufacture. That then requires a well written contract that gives the agent freedom to do their job and at the same time reserves the rights and powers that the manufacture wishes to retain. (2) To act quickly when the manufacture sees someone acting outside of the defined relationship or a third party who is acting like an agent.

These place tremendous burdens on the manufacture. However the burdens were created to prevent the consumer, who has little or no way of checking on the relationship from getting ripped off.

Specifically a sales rep is the same as a bike shop, both are selling for the manufacture and the public can rely on both in the same way.

Warranties

A warranty is created every time there is a sale. Most warranties in the US are defined in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and in a few cases state and federal laws. Specific Federal laws may affect the sale of certain items such as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act which covers warranties on automobiles.

In every sale the UCC states that there is a Warranty of Fitness and a Warranty for a Particular Purpose (UCC – ARTICLE 2 -§2-314 & 315).

§ 2-314. Implied Warranty: Merchantability; Usage of Trade.

(1) Unless excluded or modified (Section 2-316), a warranty that the goods shall be merchantable is implied in a contract for their sale if the seller is a merchant with respect to goods of that kind. Under this section the serving for value of food or drink to be consumed either on the premises or elsewhere is a sale.

(2) Goods to be merchantable must be at least such as

(a) pass without objection in the trade under the contract description; and

(b) in the case of fungible goods, are of fair average quality within the description; and

(c) are fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used; and

(d) run, within the variations permitted by the agreement, of even kind, quality and quantity within each unit and among all units involved; and

(e) are adequately contained, packaged, and labeled as the agreement may require; and

(f) conform to the promise or affirmations of fact made on the container or label if any.

§ 2-315. Implied Warranty: Fitness for Particular Purpose.

Where the seller at the time of contracting has reason to know any particular purpose for which the goods are required and that the buyer is relying on the seller’s skill or judgment to select or furnish suitable goods, there is unless excluded or modified under the next section an implied warranty that the goods shall be fit for such purpose.

As innocent as these warranties appear, they are the basis for product liability lawsuits and can be used to void more limiting warranties. However both of these warranties can be voided.

An example of the problem would be a camming device. The salesman states the camming device will work “no matter what.” The user drags the device through the mud so it is just caked and won’t work properly. The consumer uses the device, it fails because of the mud and the consumer is injured. The consumer could sue for their injuries under a breach of warranty theory because the device did not live up to the reason why it was purchased. This is a breach of the fitness for a particular purpose warranty.

Another example of the problem would be selling a bicycle. The salesman states the bicycle will be easy to ride. The new owner has never used a derailleur shifted gears on a bicycle and constantly has trouble shifting the gears. During one attempt to change gears the consumer hits a sewer grate suffering serious injuries. The consumer could sue for their injuries under a breach of warranty theory because the device did not live up to the reason why it was purchased. This is a breach of the fitness for a particular purpose warranty.

There is an out in the law that allows a manufacture to argue that the statements were salesman’s “puffing.” That means the statements that a salesman makes to sell a product that may be over the top. However because the warranty was not properly disclaimed the salesman’s puffing is not a valid defense. This may be in addition to any claim for basic product liability issues.

State Consumer Protection Laws

Each state has enacted a serious of Consumer Protection Laws. These laws are designed to “level the playing field” between consumers and large manufactures. Although the specifics may vary for each state in general the laws lower the threshold needed to prove a case against the manufacture and increase the damages for the consumer. In some cases damages are trebled, with interest costs and attorney fees being added to the damages.

Another disadvantage for manufactures is the manufacture can be forced to defend the action in the consumer’s state if products are sold in that state.

Colorado’s Consumer Protection Act, C.R.S. §§ 6-1-105 et seq has the following sections that would be of interest.

(1) A person engages in a deceptive trade practice when, in the course of such person’s business, vocation, or occupation, such person:

(d) Uses deceptive representations or designations of geographic origin in connection with goods or services;

(r) Advertises or otherwise represents that goods or services are guaranteed without clearly and conspicuously disclosing the nature and extent of the guarantee, any material conditions or limitations in the guarantee which are imposed by the guarantor, the manner in which the guarantor will perform, and the identity of such guarantor. Any representation that goods or services are “guaranteed for life” or have a “lifetime guarantee” shall contain, in addition to the other requirements of this paragraph (r), a conspicuous disclosure of the meaning of “life” or “lifetime” as used in such representation (whether that of the purchaser, the goods or services, or otherwise). Guarantees shall not be used which under normal conditions could not be practically fulfilled or which are for such a period of time or are otherwise of such a nature as to have the capacity and tendency of misleading purchasers or prospective purchasers into believing that the goods or services so guaranteed have a greater degree of serviceability, durability, or performance capability in actual use than is true in fact. The provisions of this paragraph (r) apply not only to guarantees but also to warranties, to disclaimer of warranties, to purported guarantees and warranties, and to any promise or representation in the nature of a guarantee or warranty; however, such provisions do not apply to any reference to a guarantee in a slogan or advertisement so long as there is no guarantee or warranty of specific merchandise or other property.

(3) The deceptive trade practices listed in this section are in addition to and do not limit the types of unfair trade practices actionable at common law or under other statutes of this state.

Colorado’s statute allows the judge to award treble damages, interest and attorney fees if the consumer is successful in the suit. C.R.S. 6-1-113. §§ Damages

Here again the warranties come into play. If the consumer can prove the warranties are not disclaimed and the claim falls within the deceptive trade practices act or a common claim for deceptive trade practices, the damages for the warranty claim are increased.

European Union certifications & the US

Many manufactures from Europe or Asia believe that meeting standards for manufacturing products in Europe is all that is needed to sell in the US. That is correct. However those standards provide no defense in a US Court against product liability claims.

Product liability lawsuits are lawsuits against the manufacture and all entities in the chain of the sale. A product liability action can be brought against the bicycle shop, the distributor and the manufacture of a product. There are three basic product liability claims.

  • Defective manufacture
  • Defective Design
  • Failure to warn

Defective manufacture claims are usually brought when only one product fails because there was a flaw in the manufacturing process for that product. The flaw caused an injury to the consumer using the product.

Defective design is usually the claim made when all of a type of product fails causing injury. A defective design claim can be brought at any time during the useful life of a product. This claim is brought when all of the products of a design fail for the same reason. The design flaw can either be based on the product breaking causing injury or the design preventing the product from working as advertised or as used by consumers.

The most difficult claim to defend is a failure to warn. This claim has two parts. Failure to warn at the time of the purchase and failure to warn of new issues the manufacture learns about. Failure to warn claims are the basics for information and warning labels that are not written in a manner to adequately inform the consumer of the risks of using the product.

Failure to warn claims that arise after time are usually a result of several Defective manufacture claims. Once a manufacture knows of problems in the way a product is being used OR that a product is being used incorrectly, the manufacture MUST warn all users of the problem. This type of claim in practice is similar to a product recall. However a product recall is done before an injury occurs. A failure to warn claim is the lawsuit brought after a recall.

The running of a warranty period does not end product liability claims.

Jurisdiction and Venue

Foreign manufacture believe that by setting up a US distributor, any lawsuit can only be brought against the US distributor and not the parent company in Europe. That is not true. US law allows a lawsuit against the end manufacture, wherever that manufacture is located if the manufacture entered the product in the stream of commerce in the state where the injury occurred or where the consumer lives. Proof of entering into the stream of commerce is a combination of factors: employees or agents living or working in the state; advertising in the state; contracting with retailers to sell the product in the state; advertising at events in the state are a few examples used to prove the manufacture entered the stream of commerce in a particular state.

In some cases, a manufacture can limit suits to just a few states with proper venue and jurisdiction clauses in their information to the consumer; however this is not always successful and will not work in all states. Either way, a foreign manufacture will be brought into the US to defend a product liability claim.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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