Release upheld to stop claims for injuries sustained on a high rope’s course.

Plaintiff’s arguments failed because Colorado is supportive of releases.

Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

State: Colorado, US District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Jodi Sheldon

Defendant: Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene, d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center, Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC, Kent Fielden Mcilhany, an individual, and John Doe Corporations 1-10, Defendants

Plaintiff Claims: Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

The plaintiff signed a release to go to a Church retreat prior to attending the retreat. At the retreat, she was injured on a ropes or challenge course. She sued the retreat, the church and the builder of the course and lost because of the release she had signed.

Facts

The facts in this case are sparse.

On June 29, 2018, plaintiff Jodi Sheldon was seriously injured while participating in a high ropes course at the Golden Bell Ranch (“Golden Bell”).

Ms. Sheldon sued Golden Bell under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. She also brought a claim of negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany

The defendants claim the plaintiff’s claims are barred by the release she signed.

Ms. Sheldon received the Waiver from her aunt3 after having been given a list of activities offered at Golden Bell and indicating her interest in participating in the high ropes course.

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

The court started its analysis of the case by reviewing case law on releases.

Exculpatory agreements “stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts,” Thus, although such agreements are generally disfavored, and cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,” “Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence,”

The court then reviewed the four factors that affect the validity of a release under Colorado law.

Colorado courts have identified four factors which inform the decision whether to enforce an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”

If a release meets any of the four factors, then under Colorado law, the release is unenforceable. The first two factors can be ignored because the activities were recreational in nature. Colorado courts have long held that there is no public policy or necessity in recreational cases.

The same applies to the third test, because the services offered were recreational in nature, the third test does not apply.

Nor is there any argument or evidence to establish that the third factor – whether the contract was fairly entered into – is applicable here. Indeed, because recreational activities are not considered either essential services or practically necessary, “a person is not ‘at the mercy’ of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities.”

Consequently, under Colorado law only the fourth test can be used to show a release should be void in a recreational case. This test is a simple legal test, is the release written properly and does it convey to the possible plaintiff the intention of the document.

Thus, whether the Waiver is enforceable turns exclusively on the fourth factor, “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” In analyzing this factor, the court focuses on whether the parties’ intent to “extinguish liability . . . was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”

The plaintiff argued the language of the release did not cover the risks of a high rope’s course. However, the court found the language did cover the risks; the language was broad enough in scope to cover the risks and injury the plaintiff incurred.

Ms. Sheldon insists the Waiver is ambiguous as to whether the high ropes course was within the scope of the activities covered. I am not persuaded. Here, the Waiver defined the term “Activities” as “recreational activities . . . including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to participants.” (Emphasis added.) The use of the term “including” plainly signifies that some – but not all – of the Activities covered by the Waiver will be hazardous or involve a risk of physical injury. Thus, even accepting Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that a high ropes course is not a hazardous activity, her argument fails.

Colorado is extremely lenient on the language allows to prevent a claim.

Nor does the Waiver’s failure to refer specifically to the high ropes course render it ambiguous with respect to the type of activities covered. Colorado law does not require “an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter.”

The language was interpreted to be broad enough to protect the builder of the course, also.

Relatedly, the Waiver also clearly bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA. “A person not a party to an express contract may bring an action on such contract if the parties to the agreement intended to benefit the non-party, provided that the benefit claimed is a direct and not merely an incidental benefit of the contract.”

The plaintiff also argued the waiver lacked consideration because of the lapse in time between when she signed the release and when her injury occurred. The court did not agree.

The Waiver does not fail for lack of consideration. Contrary to Ms. Sheldon’s arguments, the mere lapse of time between her payment to participate in the activity and the date the waiver was delivered to Golden Bell is not fatal to its enforcement. Instead, the pertinent question is whether the release of liability was a contract modification or rather is part of the same transaction and thus enforceable without additional consideration.

Consideration is a benefit flowing from one party to the other. Every contract must have consideration. In 99% of the contracts, consideration is defined as money, an amount. The other side of the contract in consideration for money exchanges or provides services or products. In this case the exchange was a fee, money, paid by the plaintiff in exchange for a service, the ropes course, for the fee paid by the defendant.

The Plaintiff then argued the release should be void because of mutual mistake. That argument failed because the plaintiff could not show where there was any issue that was not clearly covered in the release. If a release is written with clarity and signed, their argument of mutual mistake is nearly impossible to prove.

The doctrine of mutual mistake permits a party to rescind a contract “if all parties labored under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”

The mutual mistake argument was then expanded by the plaintiff to say because the state had no licensed the high ropes course, then the release should be void by mutual mistake.

Mutual mistake in a contract means both parties to the contract made the same mistake in the contract unenforceable or such that neither party wants to enforce the contract. Normally in a mutual mistake claim, the court re-writes the contract to meet the terms needed to eliminate the mutual mistake.

The state of Colorado does not license ropes course.

For one thing, it is not clear that Ms. Sheldon’s asserted mistake – that Golden Bell’s high ropes course had been licensed by the state of Colorado – was sufficiently similar to Golden Bell’s mistake – that it did not require such a license – to warrant application of the doctrine at all. Assuming arguendo that it does, however, the doctrine of mutual mistake permits reformation of the contract “where both parties’ understanding of their agreement is contrary to the terms of a written instrument due to a drafting error[.]”(“A mutual mistake claim requires a showing that both parties were laboring under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”) (doctrine of mutual mistake applies only to mistakes going to a “basic assumption” underlying the contract)

The plaintiff claimed the mutual mistake was the ropes course was not licensed. There was a mistake that because the course was unlicensed, the contract was not correct, there was a mistake.

There could not be a mutual mistake because no term in the contract, the release, required that one party have the rope’s course licensed. Meaning, a mutual mistake is not a legal theory that brings in outside issues into the analysis of the contract. A mutual mistake is something that was not understood within the contract.

The plaintiff then argued there was a unilateral mistake that should void the release.

[A] unilateral mistake by one party to a contract can permit reformation if the evidence demonstrates that, at the time the contract was formed, the non-mistaken party was aware of the mistaken party’s mistake.” Thus, one party’s unilateral mistake may permit reformation where “the other engaged in fraud or inequitable conduct.

However, there was nothing in the contract, the release or the evidence that could be identified as one party engaging in fraud or inequitable conduct.

None of these circumstances pertains here. It cannot be unconscionable to enforce an exculpatory contract which, like this one, is enforceable under Colorado law. Moreover, there is no hint in the record that Golden Bell knew or had reason to know that Ms. Sheldon did not know its high ropes course was not licensed by the state. Nor is there evidence to suggest Golden Bell was required to make its licensing status known to participants or that it purposefully hid its licensing status from Ms. Sheldon.

The release was upheld to prevent the claims brought against all three defendants.

So Now What?

Release law is written by poor releases. My releases never go to court because they are written to cover the issues like this. The Socratic method used in law school to learn still applies when practicing law, you learn from failure not success.

Here the release squeaked through, because of the breath of the case law in Colorado supporting releases. In other states, this release would fail.

Have your release written by an attorney who understands release law and understands what you do so you do not become a learning opportunity for the rest of your industry.

The remaining arguments made by the plaintiff were without any merit, and I write about them just as additional caution and to understand what those arguments really mean.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

Sheldon v. Retreat, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69461 (D. Colo. 2020)

JODI SHELDON, Plaintiff,
v.
GOLDEN BELL RETREAT d/b/a THE COLORADO DISTRICT CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE,
d/b/a GOLDEN BELL RANCH and GOLDEN BELL CAMP and CONFERENCE CENTER,
CROSS BEARING ADVENTURES, LLC, KENT FIELDEN MCILHANY, an individual,
and JOHN DOE CORPORATIONS 1-10, Defendants.

Civil Action No. 19-cv-01371-REB-NYW

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

April 20, 2020

Judge Robert E. Blackburn

ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Blackburn, J.

The matters before me are (1) the Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Claims Against Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center [#42],1 filed January 21, 2020; and (2) Defendants Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC’s and Kent Fielden McIlhany’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#55], filed March 9, 2020. I grant both motions and dismiss plaintiff’s remaining claims with prejudice as against the named defendants and without prejudice as against the Doe defendants.

I. JURISDICTION

I have jurisdiction over this matter under 28 U.S.C. §1332 (diversity of citizenship).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if the issue could be resolved in favor of either party. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Farthing v. City of Shawnee, 39 F.3d 1131, 1135 (10th Cir. 1994). A fact is “material” if it might reasonably affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Farthing, 39 F.3d at 1134.

A party who does not have the burden of proof at trial must show the absence of a genuine factual dispute. Concrete Works, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1517 (10th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 115 S.Ct. 1315 (1995). Once the motion has been properly supported, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to show, by tendering depositions, affidavits, and other competent evidence, that summary judgment is not proper. Concrete Works, 36 F.3d at 1518. All the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Simms v. Oklahoma ex rel. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 120 S.Ct. 53 (1999).

III. ANALYSIS

On June 29, 2018, plaintiff Jodi Sheldon was seriously injured while participating in a high ropes course at the Golden Bell Ranch (“Golden Bell”). Ms. Sheldon sued Golden Bell under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (“PLA”), §13-21-115, C.R.S. She also brought a claim of negligence against Cross Bearing Adventures (“CBA”), the company which constructed and inspected the course and trained Golden Bell employees on the safety and facilitation of various aspects of the course, and its owner, Kent McIlhany.2

All three defendants claim Ms. Sheldon’s claims are barred by a Waiver, Release and Indemnification Agreement (the “Waiver”) which she signed on May 18, 2018, prior to participating in the high ropes course. The Waiver provided, in relevant part,

I wish to participate in recreational activities to be made available to participants at Golden Bell Camp including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to the participants (the”Activities”).

I expressly assume any and all risks of injury or death arising from or relating to the Activities including horseback riding, agricultural recreation and waive and release any and all actions, claims, suits or demands of any kind or nature whatsoever against Golden Bell Camp, its corporate affiliates, contractors, vendors, officer, agents, sponsors, volunteers or representatives of any kind (collectively “Releases”) arising from or relating in any way to my voluntary participation in these activities. I understand that this Waiver, Release and Indemnification agreement means, among other things, that if I am injured or die as a result of my participation in these activities, I and/or my family or heirs cannot under any circumstances sue Releases or any of them for damages relating to or caused by my injuries or death.

. . .

I agree to indemnify Releases or any of them and their subrogees, if any, in the event of any loss, damage or claim arising from or relating in any way to my participation in any of the Activities.

. . . .

I have read this Waiver, Release and Indemnification Agreement, have asked and received answers to any questions I had concerning its meaning and execute it freely, without duress, and in full complete understanding of its legal effect, and of the fact that it may affect my legal rights.

(CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 2.) Ms. Sheldon received the Waiver from her aunt3 after having been given a list of activities offered at Golden Bell and indicating her interest in participating in the high ropes course. (Id., Exh. C, Attachment 1 at 25-26.)

To begin, Ms. Sheldon does not oppose Mr. McIlhany’s motion to dismiss her claims against him personally. The uncontested evidence supports Mr. McIlhany’s assertion that all actions taken by him of which Ms. Sheldon complains were done in his capacity as a member, manager, and operator of CBA and that he never performed any services for Golden Bell in his individual capacity. Ms. Sheldon’s claims against Mr. McIlhany therefore will be dismissed with prejudice.

As for Ms. Sheldon’s claims against Golden Bell and CBA, they are precluded by the Waiver.4 Because this case implicates the court’s diversity jurisdiction, I apply Colorado law. Wade v. EMASCO Insurance Co., 483 F.3d 657, 665-66 (10th Cir. 2007). Exculpatory agreements “stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts,” Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989). Thus, although such agreements are generally disfavored, see B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998), and cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,” Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010), “Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence,” Espinoza v. Arkansas Valley Adventures, LLC, 809 F.3d 1150, 1152 (10th Cir. 2016).

Colorado courts have identified four factors which inform the decision whether to enforce an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 883 F.3d 1243, 1250 (10t Cir. 2018) (quoting Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

The first two Jones factors focus on public policy questions – asking whether the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity. Meanwhile, the latter two factors focus on more party – and contract-specific questions – asking whether the release was fairly obtained and clearly and unambiguously expressed.

Patterson v. Powder Monarch, LLC, 926 F.3d 633, 639 (10th Cir. 2019) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “[I]f an exculpatory agreement satisfies any of the four factors, it must be deemed unenforceable.” Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1250. The determination of this question is a matter of law for the court. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. See also Johnson v. Gold’s Gym Rockies, LLC, 2019 WL 1112374 at *3 (D. Colo. March 11, 2019).

The first two factors are generally inapplicable to businesses engaged in recreational activities, Patterson, 926 F.3d at 639; Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004), and the parties do not argue otherwise. See also Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1250-51, 1252-53 (citing cases). Nor is there any argument or evidence to establish that the third factor – whether the contract was fairly entered into – is applicable here. Indeed, because recreational activities are not considered either essential services or practically necessary, “a person is not ‘at the mercy’ of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities.” Brigance, 883 F.3d at 1253 (quoting Hamill v. Cheley Colorado Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 949-50 (Colo. App. 2011)).

Thus, whether the Waiver is enforceable turns exclusively on the fourth factor, “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. In analyzing this factor, the court focuses on whether the parties’ intent to “extinguish liability . . . was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785.

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [Colorado courts] have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. [They] have even taken into account an injured party’s subsequent acknowledgment that he understood the meaning of the provision.

Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (internal citations omitted).

Ms. Sheldon insists the Waiver is ambiguous as to whether the high ropes course was within the scope of the activities covered. I am not persuaded. Here, the Waiver defined the term “Activities” as “recreational activities . . . including activities that may be hazardous or otherwise involve a risk of physical injury or death to participants.” (Emphasis added.) The use of the term “including” plainly signifies that some – but not all – of the Activities covered by the Waiver will be hazardous or involve a risk of physical injury. Thus, even accepting Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that a high ropes course is not a hazardous activity,5 her argument fails.

Nor does the Waiver’s failure to refer specifically to the high ropes course render it ambiguous with respect to the type of activities covered.6 Colorado law does not require “an exculpatory agreement describe in detail each specific risk that the signor might encounter.” Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, 715 F.3d 867, 873 (10th Cir. 2013). Read in context, and considering not only its structure and language but also its purpose, the Waiver clearly and unambiguously applies to activities such as the high ropes course. See Patterson, 926 F.3d at 642. In this regard, Ms. Sheldon testified that prior to signing up for the high ropes course, she reviewed a list of activities offered by Golden Bell which, in addition to the high ropes course, also included “horseback riding,” an activity specifically referenced in and covered by the Waiver. (CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 1 at 25.) Moreover, nothing in the record suggests Ms. Sheldon would have been asked to sign a Waiver had she not requested to participate in the high ropes course. Given those circumstances, it “strains logic,” Squires, 715 F.3d at 874, to suggest Ms. Sheldon was confused or misled as to the fact that she was being asked to waive potential claims of negligence associated with the high ropes course. See also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 952 (exculpatory waiver enforceable against parent who signed on behalf of minor child where parent knew activities that were offered at camp; “An agreement with such plain and unambiguous terms will not fail because one of the parties, in hindsight, now claims to have misunderstood the scope of that agreement . . . based on ambiguities not readily apparent within the four corners of the agreement.”).7

Relatedly, the Waiver also clearly bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA. “A person not a party to an express contract may bring an action on such contract if the parties to the agreement intended to benefit the non-party, provided that the benefit claimed is a direct and not merely an incidental benefit of the contract.” E.B. Roberts Const. Co. v. Concrete Contractors, Inc., 704 P.2d 859, 865 (Colo. 1985). The Waiver specifically protects Golden Bell’s “contractors” and “vendors” from claims “arising from or relating in any way to [Ms. Sheldon’s] voluntary participation in these activities.” (CBA Motion App., Exh. C, Attachment 2.) Clearly, the Waiver was intended to cover parties like CBA in precisely the situation presented by this lawsuit. Moreover, the benefit thus conferred is directly related to its purpose – to absolve such parties from liability for claims of negligence.

Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that the Wavier is ambiguous as to whether contractors and vendors are covered for all purposes or only when they are on site is meritless. The Waiver plainly is intended to have the broadest possible scope, applying to claims “arising from or relating in any way” to Ms. Sheldon’s participation in the covered activities. Clearly, the parties intended to absolve contractors from claims they were negligent in any way in relation to the subject activities, regardless whether that negligence happened on site at the time of the event. I thus find and conclude that the Waiver clearly and unambiguously bars Ms. Sheldon’s claims against CBA as well.

Ms. Sheldon’s remaining arguments attempting to avoid the effect of the Waiver are likewise unavailing. The Waiver does not fail for lack of consideration. Contrary to Ms. Sheldon’s arguments, the mere lapse of time between her payment to participate in the activity and the date the waiver was delivered to Golden Bell is not fatal to its enforcement. Instead, the pertinent question is whether the release of liability was a contract modification or rather is part of the same transaction and thus enforceable without additional consideration. See Patterson, 926 F.3d at 638 (“[E]ven aside from the question of timing, we are persuaded based on the nature and circumstances of the transaction that the payment and exculpatory agreement here . . . are better viewed as part of the same transaction, rather than as a subsequent contract modification.”) (citing Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1109).8

I am similarly unpersuaded by Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that the Waiver fails due to either unilateral or mutual mistake. The doctrine of mutual mistake permits a party to rescind a contract “if all parties labored under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.” In re Estate of Ramstetter, 411 P.3d 1043, 1051 (Colo. App. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Ms. Sheldon has failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that such is the case here. Cabs, Inc. v. Hartford Insurance Group, 151 Fed. Appx. 604, 610 (10th Cir. Aug. 31, 2005); Maryland Casualty Co. v. Buckeye Gas Products Co., 797 P.2d 11, 13 (Colo. 1990).

For one thing, it is not clear that Ms. Sheldon’s asserted mistake – that Golden Bell’s high ropes course had been licensed by the state of Colorado – was sufficiently similar to Golden Bell’s mistake – that it did not require such a license – to warrant application of the doctrine at all.9 Assuming arguendo that it does, however, the doctrine of mutual mistake permits reformation of the contract “where both parties’ understanding of their agreement is contrary to the terms of a written instrument due to a drafting error[.]” Tatonka Capital Corp. v. Connelly, 390 F.Supp.3d 1289, 1294 (D. Colo. 2019), as modified on reconsideration, 2019 WL 5535226 (D. Colo. Oct. 25, 2019), appeal filed, 2019 WL 5535226 (10th Cir. Nov. 25, 2019) (No. 19-1450). See also Casey v. Colorado Higher Education Insurance Benefits Alliance Trust, 310 P.3d 196, 207 (Colo. App. 2012) (“A mutual mistake claim requires a showing that both parties were laboring under the same erroneous conception of the contract’s terms and conditions.”) See also Ranch O, LLC v. Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, 361 P.3d 1063, 1066-67 (Colo. App. 2015) (doctrine of mutual mistake applies only to mistakes going to a “basic assumption” underlying the contract).10

No term of the contract here addressed whether Golden Bell had, or was required to have, a state-issued license. Thus, any mistake as to that fact “did not create any ambiguity regarding the terms or substance of the [Waiver].” Shoels v. Klebold, 375 F.3d 1054, 1067 (10th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 125 S.Ct. 1302 (2005). The Colorado Supreme Court long ago warned that courts “should not sanction, under the guise of reformation, the insertion in [contracts] of a new term or provision which was never even in the minds of the parties, let alone assented to by them.” Segelke v. Kilmer, 360 P.2d 423, 427 (Colo. 1961). “To order reformation under these circumstances is to rewrite, not to reform, the instruments.” Id. Just so here. I thus find the Waiver is not infirm based on mutual mistake.

I likewise reject Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that she may avoid the waiver’s effect under the doctrine of unilateral mistake. “[A] unilateral mistake by one party to a contract can permit reformation if the evidence demonstrates that, at the time the contract was formed, the non-mistaken party was aware of the mistaken party’s mistake.” Tatonka Capital Corp., 390 F.Supp.3d at 1299. Thus, one party’s unilateral mistake may permit reformation where “the other engaged in fraud or inequitable conduct.” Poly Trucking, Inc. v. Concentra Health Service., Inc., 93 P.3d 561, 563 (Colo. App. 2004). See also RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 153 (contract may be avoided based on unilateral mistake where “(a) the effect of the mistake is such that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable, or (b) the other party had reason to know of the mistake or his fault caused the mistake”); Shoels, 375 F.3d at 1068 (quoting Powder Horn Constructors, Inc. v. City of Florence, 754 P.2d 356, 364 (Colo.1988) (“[E]quity will not allow a party to knowingly take advantage of a mistake of another.”)).

None of these circumstances pertains here. It cannot be unconscionable to enforce an exculpatory contract which, like this one, is enforceable under Colorado law. Moreover, there is no hint in the record that Golden Bell knew or had reason to know that Ms. Sheldon did not know its high ropes course was not licensed by the state. Nor is there evidence to suggest Golden Bell was required to make its licensing status known to participants or that it purposefully hid its licensing status from Ms. Sheldon. At best, the evidence suggests Golden Bell’s website made it appear the camp’s activities were open to the general public, which if true would have rendered them subject to inspection and licensing by the state.11 Yet there is neither argument nor evidence that Ms. Sheldon even consulted, much less relied on, Golden Bell’s website in deciding to participate in the high ropes course or sign the Waiver.12 I thus find and conclude that the Waiver is not voidable based on unilateral mistake either.

IV. CONCLUSION

For these reasons, the named defendants are entitled to summary judgment, and Ms. Sheldon’s remaining claims against them will be dismissed with prejudice. Although the caption of this case named a number of unknown John Doe defendant corporations who may have had “ownership and control of the subject obstacle activity (Complaint ¶ 10 at 3 [#1], filed May 13, 2019), with discovery now closed, Ms. Sheldon has not identified any such entities. These defendants therefore also should be dismissed, albeit without prejudice.13
See Culp v. Williams, 2011 WL 1597686 at *3 (D. Colo. April 27, 2011) (because Doe designation is not permitted where “plaintiff’s ignorance of the defendant’s true identity is the result of willful ignorance or lack of reasonable inquiry,” Doe defendants dismissed where case had been pending for more than a year and plaintiff failed to show “good reason as to why [it] ha[d] been unable to obtain the true identity of these unnamed Defendants”).

V. ORDERS

THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED as follows:

1. That the Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s Personal Injury Claims Against Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center [#42], filed January 21, 2020, is granted;

2. That Defendants Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC’s and Kent Fielden McIlhany’s Motion for Summary Judgment [#55], filed March 9, 2020, is granted;

3. That plaintiff’s remaining claims against defendants are dismissed as follows:

a. That the remaining claims of plaintiff against defendants, Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center; Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC; Kent Fielden McIlhany, an individual, are dismissed with prejudice; and

b. That the remaining claims of plaintiff against defendants, John Doe Corporations 1 through 10 are dismissed without prejudice;

4. That judgment shall enter as follows:

a. That judgment with prejudice shall enter on behalf of defendants, Golden Bell Retreat d/b/a The Colorado District Church of the Nazarene d/b/a Golden Bell Ranch and Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center; Cross Bearing Adventures, LLC; and Kent Fielden McIlhany, an individual, and against plaintiff, Jodi Sheldon, as to all remaining claims for relief and causes of action asserted herein;

b. That judgment without prejudice shall enter on behalf of defendants, John Doe Corporations 1 through 10, and against plaintiff, Jodi Sheldon, as to all remaining claims for relief and causes of action asserted herein;

5. That judgment shall enter further in accordance with my Order Adopting Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge [#35], filed January 8, 2020;

6. That the combined Final Pretrial Conference and Trial Preparation Conference scheduled for June 11, 2020, at 10:00 a.m., is vacated;

7. That the trial scheduled to commence on June 29, 2020, is vacated;

8. That defendants are awarded their costs, to be taxed by the clerk in the time and manner required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1; and

9. That this case is closed.

Dated April 20, 2020, at Denver, Colorado.

BY THE COURT:

/s/_________
Robert E. Blackburn
United States District Judge

——–

Footnotes:

1. “[#42]” is an example of the convention I use to identify the docket number assigned to a specific paper by the court’s case management and electronic case filing system (CM/ECF). I use this convention throughout this order.

2. Ms. Sheldon’s claims of negligence and fraudulent concealment against Golden Bell were dismissed previously as preempted by the PLA. (See Order Adopting Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge [#35], filed January 8, 2020.)

3. Ms. Sheldon, who is a resident of Illinois, attended Golden Bell as part of a large family reunion.

4. I reject Ms. Sheldon’s suggestion that I should defer ruling on this motion until after Golden Bell’s Rule 30(b)(6) deposition is completed. Pursuant to Rule 56(d), to warrant such action, Ms. Sheldon must “show[] by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, [she] cannot present facts essential to justify [her] opposition.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(d). No such affidavit or declaration has been submitted in support of Ms. Sheldon’s request. The request also violates D.C.COLO.LCivR 7.1(d), which provides that “[a] motion shall not be included in a response or reply to the original motion. A motion shall be filed as a separate document.” I therefore deny this request and consider the summary judgment motions as submitted.

5. Frankly, however, this argument strains credulity. I would be hard pressed to find that it is not inherently risky to be suspended many feet above the ground, regardless of safety measures taken to mitigate the risk. Moreover, Ms. Sheldon’s subjective belief that the ropes course was not inherently dangerous is irrelevant. See Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 127 F.3d 1273, 1275 n.1 (10t Cir. 1997) (“Plaintiffs’ subjective intent is inadmissible to overcome the parties overt manifestation of intent in the releases because the language in these agreements is clear and unambiguous.”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

6. Ms. Sheldon’s reliance on the district court’s decision in Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., 132 F.Supp.3d 1310 (D. Colo. 2015), is misplaced. There, although the agreement at issue clearly and unambiguously released the defendant from claims related to the plaintiff’s participation in “the Event” (a ski race), it was not clear that it covered injuries the plaintiff sustained after she finished competing in that event. See id. at 1315. There is no such ambiguity here. Ms. Sheldon was injured while participating in the “activities” which were the subject of the Waiver.

7. I further reject Ms. Sheldon’s argument that her claim of gross negligence against Golden Bell cannot be waived. Assuming such is the case as a matter of law, as a matter of fact, Ms. Sheldon failed to plead such a claim.

8. In reaching its determination, the Mincin court relied on two state court decisions which reached similar conclusions. See Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1109 (citing Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 829 (Minn. Ct. App.2001) (“This court has held that an exculpatory agreement signed after a fee to participate in a recreational activity has been paid is part of the same transaction and is therefore enforceable without additional consideration other than permission to participate in the activity.”), and Hewitt v. Miller, 521 P.2d 244, 248 n.3 (Wash. App. 1974) (concluding that release signed by scuba diving student after payment of fee was an integrated part of the whole transaction and was thus supported by original consideration)).

9. At the time Ms. Sheldon participated in the high ropes course, the course was not licensed by the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety (“OPS”) because Golden Bell believed itself subject to a “private event” exception, as its activities were available only to persons staying at the camp or its associated RV park and not open to the general public. However, because Golden Bell charged a separate fee for participation in activities at the camp to groups making use of the RV park, OPS found Golden Bell was not entitled to the benefit of this exclusion. Golden Bell resolved the violation by changing the way in which it offers its activities to guests of the RV park. OPS waived the fine assessed and considered the matter resolved as of August 23, 2019. (See Pl. Resp. App. [#52], Exh. J, Golden Bell Motion App., Exhs. A & B.)

10. Even where the doctrine of mutual mistake is otherwise applicable, however, a party is not entitled to reformation where she was “‘aware, at the time the contract is made, that [she] ha[d] only limited knowledge with respect to the facts to which the mistake relates but treat[ed] [her] limited knowledge as sufficient.'” In re Estate of Ramstetter, 411 P.3d 1043, 1051 (Colo. App. 2016) (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 154(b)). Such is arguably the case here as well.

11.
See supra, note 6.

12. These same reasons preclude Ms. Sheldon’s belated assertion that Golden Bell engaged in fraud which would invalidate the Waiver. Otherwise, this argument is so woefully undeveloped and unsupported by citation to any legal authority that I decline to consider it. See Bird v. Regents of New Mexico State University, 619 Fed. Appx. 733, 766 (10th Cir. Aug. 6, 2015) (arguments which re “conclusory, unsupported, and undeveloped” “are insufficient to overcome summary judgment “); Center for Biological Diversity v. Pizarchik, 858 F.Supp.2d 1221, 1230 n.11 (D. Colo. 2012) (court does not consider “cursory, unsupported, or otherwise inadequately briefed arguments”). To the extent Ms. Sheldon believed she required further discovery to make this argument, she has forfeited any such argument. See supra, note 4.

13. Without knowledge as to how any such corporations may be related to or associated with Golden Bell, it is impossible to say whether they would be covered by the Waiver and thus entitled to dismissal with prejudice. Cf. Roper v. Grayson, 81 F.3d 124, 126 (10th Cir. 1996); Bustamante v. Board of County Commissioners of San Miguel County, 2009 WL 10706928 at *5 n.7 (D.N.M. Oct. 2, 2009).

——–


Minnesota Appellate court upholds a release signed by a mother for a child’s injuries

Court also upheld the settlement agreement signed by the parents was valid to prohibit a claim by the minor after turning age 18

Justice v. Marvel, LLC, 965 N.W.2d 335 (Minn. App. 2021)

State:
Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Carter Justice

Defendant: Marvel, LLC d/b/a Pump It Up Parties

Plaintiff Claims: negligently failed to cover the landing surface of the fall zone surrounding the inflatable

Defendant Defenses: Settlement and Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

The plaintiff was injured as a minor at an indoor recreation facility. The parents settled with the facility at the time of the injury. When the minor reached the age of majority in Minnesota he sued the facility. The Appellate court upheld the release signed by the parent to stop the minors claims and the settlement agreement.

Facts

In February 2007, Justice attended a friend’s birthday party at an indoor amusement facility in the city of Plymouth. The facility, known as Pump It Up, was owned and operated by Marvel, L.L.C. Upon entering the facility, Justice’s mother, Michelle Sutton, was asked to sign, and did sign, a form agreement….

During the party, while playing on an inflatable obstacle course, Justice fell approximately six feet and hit his head on the carpeted floor. He was taken to a hospital, where he received treatment.

In September 2007, Sutton and her husband, Steve Sutton, who is Justice’s step-father, entered into a written agreement with Marvel. The one-page agreement states that the Suttons had incurred unreimbursed medical expenses as a result of Justice’s head injury and that Marvel agreed to pay $1,500 of those expenses. The agreement provided that, if no new medical complications arose within six months, the Suttons would “execute a full and complete release and discharge of any and all claims” against Marvel. The Suttons did not thereafter execute such a release.

In June 2018, after Justice had turned 18 years old, he commenced this action against Marvel.

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

This is the first case I’ve found in the recreation community where a minor sued upon reaching the age of majority for an injury the minor received years before. Injured minors are the lawsuits that seem to hang on forever. In some cases, you want the parents to present a claim so you can deal with it and not possible wait tent to fifteen years for the minor to turn 18 (or 19 or 21 dependent on the state See The age that minors become adults.) to sue on their own.

The defendant had two defenses. 1. The release that the mother had signed for her son at the time of the injury (pre-injury release). 2. The release the mother and father had signed at the time of the injury to settle the claim (post injury release).

The court looked at the basic issues surrounding a parents’ right to raise a child and whether this right includes the right to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

His first argument for voiding the release is also unique. After his mother signed the release, Minnesota passed a statute to regulate amusement parks like this and in the process lost the right to have a parent sign away a minor’s right to sue.

Nonetheless, the existence of a parent’s fundamental right “to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of his or her children,” implies that a parent has authority to act on behalf of a minor child when interacting with third parties. The United States Supreme Court has recognized as much: “Most children, even in adolescence, simply are not able to make sound judgments concerning many decisions, including their need for medical care or treatment. Parents can and must make those judgments. This principle is based on “a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions.” Furthermore, the law recognizes that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children. The Supreme Court stated in Parham that a parent’s authority to make health-care decisions on behalf of a minor child is limited only in atypical situations, such as if the parent has neglected or abused the child.

(This has been adopted by all states, yet most State Supreme Courts do not believe that a parent has the right to sign away a child’s right to sue. They can provide medical care to the child that might kill them, but they can’t allow them to be injured.)

The court then reviewed all the ways that the state of Minnesota has by statute given parents the right to control the child upbringing. The court then made this statement supporting the right of a parent to sign away the right to sue.

In light of these statutes, and in the absence of any law that either forbids parents from entering into contracts on behalf of their minor children or limits their ability to do so, it is clear that a parent generally has authority, on behalf of a minor child, to enter into an agreement that includes an exculpatory clause.

The next issue was a statute posted after the release was signed would void the release.

Three years after the plaintiff’s mother signed the release, Minnesota enacted Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment. The statute had a specific provision which voided releases signed by a parent for a minor.

Subd. 5. Insurance required; waiver of liability limited.

(b) A waiver of liability signed by or on behalf of a minor for injuries arising out of the negligence of the owner or the owner’s employee or designee is void.

The plaintiff argued that this statute should be used to void a release. However, a basic tenet of the law is “No law shall be construed to be retroactive unless clearly and manifestly so intended by the legislature.” Even if the legislature intends for a law to retroactive it is very rarely upheld as valid. No business could continue if at any time in the future the law could change making the action or business illegal.

The plaintiff then argued the release was void because it was “overly broad and contrary to public policy.” Minnesota law follows the law in most other states on interpreting an overly broad release and public policy issues.

“A clause exonerating a party from liability will be strictly construed against the benefited party.” “If the clause is either ambiguous in scope or purports to release the benefited party from liability for intentional, willful or wanton acts, it will not be enforced.” Id. In addition, an exculpatory clause is unenforceable if it “contravenes public policy.”

Minnesota has a two prongs test to determine if a contract violates public policy.

The test focuses on two factors: “(1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (in terms of a compulsion to sign a contract containing an unacceptable provision and the lack of ability to negotiate elimination of the unacceptable provision)” and “(2) the types of services being offered or provided (taking into consideration whether it is a public or essential service).”

The plaintiff argued the release was a violation of public policy because his mother could not negotiate the release and as such he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if she had not signed the release. This argument might work for a real necessity, however in recreation cases it fails because the services can always be obtained elsewhere.

Justice contends that there was a disparity in bargaining power because there was no opportunity for his mother to negotiate the terms of the exculpatory clause and because he would not have been permitted to attend the birthday party if his mother had not signed the form agreement. Justice’s contention is not legally viable. “Even though a contract is on a printed form and offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, those facts alone do not cause it to be an adhesion contract.” More is required. The agreement must relate to a “necessary service,” and there also “must be a showing … that the services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

But the supreme court has recognized that “contracts relating to recreational activities do not fall within any of the categories where the public interest is involved,” on the ground that they are not “services of great importance to the public, which were a practical necessity for some members of the public.”

The release was found to not violate public policy because:

…exculpatory clause is not contrary to public policy because there was no bargaining-power disparity and because Marvel did not provide “an essential or public service.”

The next argument was the scope of the release was too broad because the language tries to stop claims for “intentional, willful or wanton acts.” However, the release itself only referred to claims for negligence. However, this was not enough of a restriction under Minnesota law the court concluded.

Marvel’s exculpatory clause does not make any reference to claims of “ordinary negligence” or simply “negligence.” Rather, it expansively refers to “any and all claims,” which means that it purports to release Marvel from claims arising from its intentional, willful or wanton acts. Thus, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is overly broad.

The court concluded the language of the release was overly broad when it did language in the release purported to release the defendant from more than simple negligence claims. The court then examined whether this issue was enough to void the release.

The court in a prior decision, repeated here found that although the language of the release may purport to cover greater than ordinary negligence, a release under Minnesota law could only release from ordinary negligence. So, no matter what the release said or was interpreted to say, it could not protect from simple negligence claims.

We reasoned that “any term in a contract which attempts to exempt a party from liability for gross negligence or wanton conduct is unenforceable, not the entire contract. ” (emphasis added) (quotation and alteration omitted). In light of Anderson, Marvel’s exculpatory clause is enforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of ordinary negligence, but it is unenforceable to the extent that Justice asserts a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.

Overly broad language, concerning the extent of the protection provided by the release, did not void the release.

Finally, the court reviewed the plaintiff’s argument that the post injury release signed by the plaintiff’s parents to settle their claims at the time of the injury was not valid. The plaintiff argued legal technical claims about the signing and validity of the release, which the court rejected.

The district court did not err by granting Marvel’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Justice’s sole claim of ordinary negligence is barred by the exculpatory clause that his mother signed on his behalf. In light of that conclusion, Justice’s argument that the district court erred by denying his motion to amend the complaint to add a request for punitive damages is moot.

So Now What?

One of the confusing points of this case is why did the amusement industry allow Minn. Stat. 184B.20 Inflatable Amusement Equipment to be passed. It provided no protection for the industry or operators, placed a mandatory insurance requirement and worst voided the use of a release for a minor in one of the few states where a minor can have a parent sign away their rights.

The two other issues, the signing of a release by a parent to stop the claims of a child, which is not moot for inflatable amusement devices, and the concept of a minor suing after his parents have settled a claim, after reaching the age of majority are rare and decided by the court in a manner that upholds the validity of a contract.

If settlement and post injury release signed by the parents had been thrown out, this would create a nightmare of litigation. No one would settle any claim of a minor until the minor reached the age of majority since any settlement might be void. No matter how badly a parent might want to pay medical bills or move on, no insurance company would offer a payment knowing they could be sued later.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

CV

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com

James H. Moss

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


New way to beat a release, lie and say you signed it not your son.

However, fraud in signing a contract is usually not enough to get the agreement thrown out. This should be appealed.

Bonnen v. Pocono Whitewater, Ltd. (M.D. Pa. 2021)

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Caroline Bonnen, et al

Defendant: Pocono Whitewater, Ltd

Plaintiff Claims: negligent, grossly negligent, and reckless

Defendant Defenses: Release which contained a forum selection clause

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

The facts are sparse in the opinion and semi speculative here. A mother allegedly signed her son up for a Whitewater raft trip. The son died on the trip after falling out of the unguided raft. The rafting company tried to dismiss the claims due to the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release but was denied because the mother signed the release, not the son.

This reads like the release was signed online, but I could not find an online release for the defendant. With a search, I did find a PDF of a release for the defendant which did have jurisdiction language matching the defendants.

Facts

This is a motion to dismiss because the lawsuit was filed in a county that was not the county identified in the release. Consequently, since it is a simple motion to dismiss the order is light on facts.

On September 1, 2019, Christopher Santana was one of nine occupants in an eight-person raft, none of whom were guides, who were Whitewater rafting on the Lehigh River in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, Pennsylvania. After the raft hit a rock, Santana was thrown from the raft into turbulent and rocky waters. His foot became lodged between rocks causing him to become submerged underwater, which resulted in his death by drowning. The plaintiff, Caroline Bonnen, individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Santana, brings this wrongful death and survival action against the defendant, Pocono Whitewater, Ltd.

In her opposition papers, the plaintiff contends that the release of liability, which includes the forum selection clause contained therein, is invalid because the decedent did not execute the release. The plaintiff maintains that it was she who signed the decedent’s name, without authority to contract on behalf of the decedent.

So, you now have as many questions as you do answers.

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

I’m not sure how an attorney can plead a lie as a defense to a claim to dismiss, but that is probably just me.

The lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The deceased or his mother had signed a release which stated any lawsuit had to be filed in Carbon County state court.

The defendant raft company filed a motion to dismiss in the court stating the lawsuit had been filed in the wrong place, based on the contract.

Normally, these are granted and the court requires the plaintiff to file within so many days or months. The only real issue always is if the statute of limitations has passed by the time the motion is filed, does the plaintiff have a case.

Here though, the mother of the deceased, the plaintiff, said the release was not valid because it was not signed by the deceased. She signed it.

The court bought this argument, which really it had no choice because there were not facts that countered the argument.

Here, the plaintiff disputes the validity of the release containing a forum selection clause because it was allegedly signed in the decedent’s name by his mother, the plaintiff, without authorization or consent by the decedent. Based on the factual allegations by the parties, we are unable to conclude that the decedent unambiguously manifested his assent to the forum selection clause, and thus we are unable to find that the forum selection clause is valid.

The case even gets wilder with the next statement by the court.

Moreover, Pennsylvania law holds that such a release agreement cannot bind non-signatories. Therefore, construing all well-pleaded facts as true, as we must, we are constrained to deny the motion to dismiss.

Sure, a contract cannot be used to hold a non-signatory to an agreement. I cannot sign a contract signing you up for the beer of the month club. However, in most cases, when there is fraud involved things change. Here the mother fraudulent signed the contract on behalf of her son.

Should she be allowed to profit from her fraud?

Yes, she lost a son, but this; I think, is not right.

So Now What?

  1. The release needed better language that stated that the person signing the document was the person identified in the document.
  2. The contract or release should have also stated that the release binds the entire family of the signor to the terms of the release.

I did a Google Search and found a PDF of a release for the defendant dated around the time of the accident. If that is the release that was used, it might not work anyhow. It was a half-page form that would have a difficult time holding up to Pennsylvania law. However, it also was a PDF so it would require an actual signature.

So here again, the plaintiff could use a release that was lacking a few issues to keep the lawsuit going. I suspect this is not the last argument over this release we will read. At least, I hope not.

The website states there will be professional raft guides, the allegations claim no guides were in the boat.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

CV

Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

To Purchase Go Here:

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

Email: Jim@Rec-Law.US

By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com

James H. Moss

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


A Parent cannot sign away a minor’s right to sue in New Jersey, however, a parent can agree to arbitrate the minor’s claims.

Another trampoline park case where the plaintiffs are required to arbitrate their claim even though the release which included the arbitration clause was not enforceable in New Jersey.

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

State: New Jersey

Plaintiff: David Johnson, an infant by his guardian ad litem, Shalonda Johnson, and Shalonda Johnson, individually

Defendant: Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield, Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC, and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release required arbitration of the claims

Holding: For the defendants, claims must be arbitrated

Year: 2021

Summary

The New Jersey Supreme Court held Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006), that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue. See However, in Hojnowski the court stated a parent could agree to arbitrate a minor’s claims. This decision of the injuries received at a trampoline park held the same decision. When signing the release, the mother agreed to arbitration of any claims.

Facts

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg. The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.”

The mother filed a lawsuit for herself and her son. The defendant argued the arbitration clause in the release should apply. That would remove the litigation from the state court system and have a neutral arbitrator decide the case. Normally arbitrators do not hand out damages to the extend a jury would. The court agreed, leading to this appeal.

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

The argument was quite simple. The plaintiff argued that since the New Jersey Supreme Court had decided that a parent could not sign away a minor’s right to sue, that the release, including the arbitration clause should be thrown out.

The plaintiff first argued there was no real notice because the plaintiff had checked a box on the electronic form and that was not enough notice required to alert the plaintiff that she was going to have to arbitrate any claim. The defense countered that the plaintiff has completed the form giving the defendant a lot of contact information.

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification.

The plaintiff then argued the arbitration clause was ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law.

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.

The statement that the arbitration clause is only valid if the parties intended to arbitrate is good for arbitration clauses and contracts. The court also found the language requiring arbitration was not ambiguous or unenforceable.

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced.

The court went further to state:

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable.

The plaintiff then argued that forcing her to sign an exculpatory contract of adhesion right before a birthday party was a violation of the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent.

In New Jersey there is a four-part test to determine if an agreement is a contract of adhesion.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract.

The court’s response was they could not find anything in the agreement that rose to the level that the contract was a contract of adhesion under New Jersey law.

Although the case is not over, any damages will probably significantly reduce by requiring arbitration.

So Now What?

This is the second decision that is almost identical to this one. Can a release in New Jersey at a trampoline park require the parent to arbitrate the minor’s claim. See New Jersey does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue so a binding arbitration agreement is a good idea, if it is written correctly. This decision does not mention the decision is Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC., 2018 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 410, 2018 WL 1004206 which is almost identical in the facts.

There are two ways to limit damages in a state that does not allow a parent to sign a release giving up a minor’s right to sue. Assumption of the risk agreements and the defense of assumption of the risk. Did the parent AND the minor knowingly and voluntarily enter into the risk that caused the injury. This is only valid if you can prove the minor knew or you provided the minor with the education or knowledge to knowingly and voluntarily assume the risk. Voluntary is the easy part proving the minor knew of the risk is difficult.

Arbitration then is the next defense in this ladder to reduce damages. Most states do not allow an arbitrator to award more than the basic damages. Punitive damages cannot be awarded by arbitrators. Also, arbitrators are not over come by emotion or other factors that would influence them into awarding large damages.

Before putting an arbitration clause in your agreement, you need to determine two things.

  1. Is arbitration better than the court system in your state. If your state supports the use of a release, a release gets you out of a case without any damages. Even though arbitration will generally not give the plaintiff large awards, they usually award something.
  2. Are there benefits to arbitration in your state that outweigh other means of resolving the dispute.

In those states that do not support a parent signing away a minor’s right to sue, arbitration is probably a good result. See States that allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jim Moss

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Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

Johnson v. Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park in Springfield (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2021)

DAVID JOHNSON, an infant by his guardian ad litem, SHALONDA JOHNSON, and SHALONDA JOHNSON, individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
SKY ZONE INDOOR TRAMPOLINE PARK IN SPRINGFIELD, SKY ZONE, LLC, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC, and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, Defendants-Respondents.

No. A-2489-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 6, 2021

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 10, 2021

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-5446-20.

Edward M. Colligan argued the cause for appellants (Colligan & Colligan attorneys; Edward M. Colligan, on the brief).

Kelly A. Waters argued the cause for respondents (Wood Smith Henning & Berman, attorneys; Kelly A. Waters, of counsel and on the brief; Jill A. Mucerino and Sean P. Shoolbraid, on the brief).

Before Judges Fuentes, Gilson, and Gooden Brown.

PER CURIAM

David Johnson, a child under the age of eighteen, was injured while visiting a trampoline park owned and operated by Sky Zone, LLC, Sky Zone Franchise Group, LLC and Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC (collectively, Park or defendants). Shalonda Johnson, individually and as guardian ad litem of her minor son (collectively, plaintiffs), [1] filed a civil action against defendants in the Superior Court, Law Division, in Union County, seeking compensatory damages. In lieu of filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved before the Law Division to enforce an arbitration clause contained in an electronic document Johnson signed as a condition of being permitted to enter the Park. After considering the arguments of counsel and the exhibits submitted, the Law Division judge assigned to the case granted defendants’ motion to enforce the arbitration clause and dismissed the case with prejudice in an order entered on March 24, 2021.

In this appeal, plaintiffs argue the arbitration clause contained in this electronic general liability release contract is unenforceable. After reviewing the record presented to the Law Division judge, we affirm the part of the order enforcing the arbitration clause, vacate the dismissal of plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice, and remand for the court to stay judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration.[2]

I.

A.

On July 14, 2018, ten-year-old David and his mother visited the Park. Before they were permitted entry, however, a Park employee apprised Johnson she was required to sign a “Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk” (the Agreement) on an electronic tablet. On August 15, 2018, plaintiffs again visited the Park and, while jumping on a trampoline, David seriously injured his leg.[3] The appellate record did not include evidence of whether Johnson executed a second waiver.

The Agreement contains a general release provision “intended to release and provide other benefits, legal protections and consideration” to defendants. For example, it contains an “acknowledgement of potential injuries” provision, which places patrons on notice that “participating in trampoline and other activities is inherently and obviously dangerous.” The Agreement also includes a “voluntary assumption of risk acknowledgment” provision, which informs patrons that they “are participating voluntarily at [their] own risk” and could suffer “significant bodily injuries” or “die or become paralyzed, partially or fully, through their use of the Sky Zone facility and participation in Sky Zone activities.”

Finally, the Agreement contains a “release of liability” section, which requires patrons to “forever, irrevocably and unconditionally release, waive, relinquish, discharge from liability and covenant not to sue [Sky Zone]” for

any and all claims . . . of whatever kind or nature, in law, equity or otherwise, . . . related to or arising, directly or indirectly, from [their] access to and/or use of the Sky Zone [f]acility, . . . including, without limitation, any claim for negligence, failure to warn or other omission, . . . personal injury, . . . [or] bodily harm . . . .

The enforceability of these exculpatory provisions are not part of this appeal. We express no opinion as to whether these exculpatory provisions are enforceable under our State’s common law, as expressed by our Supreme Court in Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286 (2010), and Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323 (2006).

The dispositive issue in this appeal concerns the enforceability of the section in the Agreement entitled, in part, “arbitration of disputes.” The Agreement is presented to the patrons at a kiosk in the form of an electronic document. The patrons are expected to read it and acknowledge their consent to be bound by the terms contained therein by placing an electronic “checkmark” and entering certain personally identifying information. Defendants argue David’s mother placed an electronic checkmark where indicated, and thus acknowledged she understood and agreed “to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and waived “[her] right, and the right(s) of [her] minor child(ren) . . . to maintain a lawsuit against [defendants] . . . for any and all claims covered by this Agreement.” This section also provides the following recitation of the rights plaintiffs agreed to waive as a precondition to enter the Park and participate in the activities available therein:

By agreeing to arbitrate, I understand that I will NOT have the right to have my claim determined by a jury, and the minor child(ren) above will NOT have the right to have claim(s) determined by a jury. Reciprocally, [the Sky Zone defendants] waive their right to maintain a lawsuit against [plaintiff] . . . for any and all claims covered by this [a]greement, and they will not have the right to have their claim(s) determined by a jury. ANY DISPUTE, CLAIM OR CONTROVERSY ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO MY OR THE CHILD’S ACCESS TO AND/OR USE OF THE SKY ZONE PREMISES AND/OR ITS EQUIPMENT, INCLUDING THE DETERMINATION OF THE SCOPE OR APPLICABILITY OF THIS AGREEMENT TO ARBITRATE, SHALL BE BROUGHT WITHIN ONE YEAR OF ITS ACCRUAL (i.e., the date of the alleged injury) FOR AN ADULT AND WITHIN THE APPLICABLE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR A MINOR AND BE DETERMINED BY ARBITRATION IN THE COUNTY OF THE SKY ZONE FACILITY . . . BEFORE ONE ARBITRATOR. THE ARBITRATION SHALL BE ADMINISTERED BY [JUDICIAL ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION SERVICES (JAMS)] PURSUANT TO ITS RULE 16.1 EXPEDITED ARBITRATION RULES AND PROCEDURES. JUDGMENT ON THE AWARD MAY BE ENTERED IN ANY COURT HAVING JURISDICTION. THIS CLAUSE SHALL NOT PRECLUDE PARTIES FROM SEEKING PROVISIONAL REMEDIES IN AID OF ARBITRATION FROM A COURT OF APPROPRIATE JURISDICTION. This [a]greement shall be governed by, construed and interpreted in accordance with the laws of the State of New Jersey, without regard to choice of law principles. Notwithstanding the provision with respect to the applicable substantive law, any arbitration conducted pursuant to the terms of this [a]greement shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C., Sec. 1-16). I understand and acknowledge that the JAMS Arbitration Rules to which I agree are available online for my review at jamsadr.com, and include JAMS Comprehensive Arbitration Rules & Procedures; Rule 16.1 Expedited Procedures; and, Policy On Consumer Minimum Standards Of Procedural Fairness.

[(Emphasis in original).]

The Agreement also contained a merger and a severability clause, in which Johnson acknowledged: “I have had sufficient opportunity to read this entire document. I have read and understood and voluntarily agree to be bound by its terms.” The clause further provided:

This [a]greement constitutes and contains the entire agreement between [Sky Zone] and [plaintiffs] relating to the . . . use of the Sky Zone Facility. There are no other agreements, oral, written, or implied, with respect to such matters. . . . If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby. B.

Plaintiffs filed their personal injury complaint against defendants on August 13, 2020. The Law Division entered default against defendants on December 28, 2020, for failure to file a timely responsive pleading. On January 8, 2021, defendants’ counsel notified plaintiffs’ counsel he intended to file a motion to dismiss the complaint in lieu of an answer pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), based on plaintiffs’ failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The attorneys thereafter entered into a Consent Agreement, stating in relevant part:

This matter having come before the [c]ourt upon the Consent of the parties, whereby the parties consent, stipulate, and agree that the default entered against Defendants, SKY ZONE FRANCHISE GROUP, LLC and GO AHEAD AND JUMP 4, LLC, be vacated and the time for Defendant to Answer or Otherwise Plead be extended until January 30, 2021 . . . .

[(Strikethrough in original).]

Plaintiff’s counsel unilaterally struck “or Otherwise Plead” from the Consent Order. On February 2, 2021, the Law Division accepted the Consent Agreement and vacated the default. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and compel arbitration on January 30, 2021. Defendants’ motion came for oral argument before the Law Division on March 24, 2021. Plaintiffs’ counsel argued the arbitration clause presented to Johnson was unenforceable based on both the obscure, technical language used in the document, and by presenting it as part of an electronic document in a kiosk located outside the Park’s entrance. Plaintiff’s counsel also emphasized the circumstances under which Johnson allegedly waived her son’s constitutional right to a jury trial: “[M]y client went in July [2018] to be a guest at a birthday party. The . . . defense . . . alleges that she signed this Agreement at that time and at that time, they’re saying that she signed an agreement that was good forever.”

In response, defense counsel argued Johnson did a great deal more than merely place a checkmark on a section of an electronic document. “We don’t just have the electronic signatures. We have her name, her address, her phone number, her date of birth . . . it’s not merely that you have [Janay’s] certification. You have identifiers that Skyzone would not have gotten without the plaintiff.” The reference made by defense counsel to “Janay’s certification” relates to Michael Janay, the Managing Member of defendant Go Ahead and Jump 4, LLC., who averred:

As a matter of business practice, all patrons who enter the Park for the first time are required to electronically sign a Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk . . . at a kiosk, or online, as a pre-condition to entry. Patrons are not permitted entry into the Park unless a Participation Agreement has been executed on their behalf and there are signs throughout the Park indicating the same. . . . [A]ll patrons who enter the Park are required to provide a valid email address when electronically signing the Participation Agreement.

. . . [O]nce the Participation Agreement is electronically signed, a copy of the executed Participation Agreement is sent to the email address provided by the patron.

. . . .

Based on the information provided, a copy of this Participation Agreement was sent to Shalonda Johnson’s email following Shalonda Johnson’s execution of the Participation Agreement at the Park on July 14, 2018. As indicated, Shalonda Johnson listed her son David Johnson[, ] who is the Minor[-]Plaintiff, and another minor Kevin Johnson. On that basis, Shalonda Johnson, David Johnson, and Kevin Johnson were permitted entry into the Park on July 14, 2018.

After considering the arguments of counsel, the motion judge granted defendants’ motion on March 24, 2021. The judge explained the basis of his decision in a Statement of Reasons attached to the order.

II.

Against this factual backdrop, plaintiffs argue the arbitration agreement is ambiguous and unenforceable as a matter of law. We reject these arguments and affirm the part of the Law Division’s Order upholding the enforceability of the arbitration clause. Because the Law Division’s decision to enforce this arbitration provision is purely a question of law, our standard of review is de novo. Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 244 N.J. 119, 131 (2020); see also Kernahan v. Home Warranty Adm’r of Fla., Inc., 236 N.J. 301, 316 (2019) (“Whether a contractual arbitration provision is enforceable is a question of law, and we need not defer to the interpretative analysis of the trial . . . court[] unless we find it persuasive.”).

As a matter of public policy, our Supreme Court has upheld arbitration as a “favored means of dispute resolution.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. The Court has consistently endorsed a “strong preference to enforce arbitration agreements, both at the state and federal level.” Hirsch v. Amper Fin. Servs., LLC, 215 N.J. 174, 186 (2013). In determining whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, we will apply “state contract-law principles.” Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 342. Guided by these principles, “[a]n arbitration agreement is valid only if the parties intended to arbitrate because parties are not required ‘to arbitrate when they have not agreed to do so.'” Kernahan, 236 N.J. at 317 (quoting Volt Info. Scis., Inc. v. Bd. of Trs. of Leland Stanford Junior Univ., 489 U.S. 468, 478 (1989)).

Mutuality of assent is the hallmark of an enforceable contract. Thus, the initial inquiry is whether the parties actually and knowingly agreed to arbitrate their dispute. To reflect mutual assent to arbitrate, the terms of an arbitration provision must be “sufficiently clear to place a consumer on notice that he or she is waiving a constitutional or statutory right . . . .” Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 443 (2014). “No particular form of words is necessary to accomplish a clear and unambiguous waiver of rights.” Id. at 444. If, “at least in some general and sufficiently broad way,” the language of the clause conveys arbitration is a waiver of the right to bring suit in a judicial forum, the clause will be enforced. Id. at 447. “The key . . . is clarity.” Barr v. Bishop Rosen & Co., 442 N.J.Super. 599, 607 (App. Div. 2015).

Here, plaintiffs claim the arbitration clause is ambiguous and therefore unenforceable because it contains “void, inaccurate, misleading and ambiguous language . . . .” and “confusing lower[-]case passages and all upper[-]case bold passages.” Plaintiffs argue Hojnowski, 187 N.J. at 327, “prohibits a parent of a minor child from releasing the child’s potential tort claims arising out of the use of a commercial recreational facility.” According to plaintiffs, JAMS, the named forum in the arbitration provision, is “not permitted to conduct arbitration in New Jersey” and thus the agreement should fail. We disagree.

The language in the arbitration clause states plaintiffs were “agreeing to arbitrate any dispute as set forth in this section” and were “waiving [their] right . . . to maintain a lawsuit.” It sets forth, “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate, [plaintiffs] understand that [they] will NOT have the right to have [their] claim[s] determined by a jury.” This language clearly and unambiguously puts plaintiffs on notice that they are waiving the right to a jury trial and the right to pursue their claims in a court of law. This part of the Agreement is therefore enforceable. See Flanzman, 244 N.J. at 137-38 (citing Atalese, 219 N.J. at 444-45).

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Hojnowski is misplaced. Writing for a unanimous Court, then Justice Zazzali[4] made clear “permitting arbitration of a minor’s claims is consistent with New Jersey case law discussing the enforceability of arbitration agreements that affect the rights of children.” 187 N.J. at 343. Here, plaintiff’s mother signed the Agreement that included an arbitration clause.

The unavailability of JAMS does not render the arbitration clause unenforceable. Although the parties agree JAMS is not available to arbitrate this case, the Agreement contains a severability clause that states: “If any term or provision of this [agreement] shall be held illegal, unenforceable, or in conflict with any law governing this [agreement] the validity of the remaining portions shall not be affected thereby.” Severability clauses “are indicative of the parties’ intent that the agreement as a whole survives the excision of an unenforceable provision.” Arafa v. Health Express Corp., 243 N.J. 147, 169 n.2 (2020). As the Supreme Court explained in Flanzman:

No New Jersey statutory provision or prior decision has elevated the selection of an “arbitral institution” or the designation of a “general process for selecting an arbitration mechanism or setting” to the status of essential contract terms, without which an arbitration agreement must fail.

To the contrary, the [New Jersey Arbitration Act (NJAA)] makes clear that its default provision for the selection of an arbitrator may operate in the absence of contractual terms prescribing such procedures. See N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-11(a). The NJAA reflects the Legislature’s intent that the parties’ omission of an arbitrator or arbitral organization, or their failure to set forth the method by which they will choose an arbitrator in the event of a dispute, will not preclude the enforcement of their agreement. Ibid.

[244 N.J. at 139.]

The arbitration clause at issue here must be interpreted in accordance with New Jersey law and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The FAA and the NJAA provide for a court-appointed arbitrator if the designated arbitrator is unavailable. Id. at 141. The arbitration clause enables the parties to seek from a court “provisional remedies in aid of arbitration.” The language in the Agreement does not show the parties intended to forego arbitration if JAMS is unavailable. The designation of JAMS was not integral to the enforcement of the arbitration clause. Thus, the unavailability of JAMS does not invalidate the arbitration clause.

We next address plaintiffs’ arguments attacking the enforcement of the arbitration clause based on the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability. In essence, plaintiffs argue requiring Johnson to read and sign an ambiguous contract of adhesion immediately before a birthday party left her with no other choice but to assent. Our Supreme Court has described the factors that constitute the doctrines of procedural and substantive unconscionability:

The defense of unconscionability, specifically, calls for a fact-sensitive analysis in each case, even when a contract of adhesion is involved. [The] Court has recognized that contracts of adhesion necessarily involve indicia of procedural unconscionability. [The Court has] identified, therefore, four factors as deserving of attention when a court is asked to declare a contract of adhesion unenforceable.

[I]n determining whether to enforce the terms of a contract of adhesion, [a court] look[s] not only to the take-it-or-leave-it nature or the standardized form of the document but also to [(1)] the subject matter of the contract, [(2)] the parties’ relative bargaining positions, [(3)] the degree of economic compulsion motivating the “adhering” party, and [(4)] the public interests affected by the contract. [Delta Funding Corp. v. Harris, 189 N.J. 28, 39-40 (2006) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 356 (1992)).]

Here, plaintiffs merely recycle their arguments relying on the Agreement’s alleged ambiguity without applying or analyzing the factors established by the Court in Delta Funding. We discern no basis, in fact or in law, to conclude this arbitration provision is substantively unconscionable. Finally, plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants acted intentionally and recklessly have no basis in fact and are not worthy of further comment by this court. Plaintiffs’ remaining argument lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written decision. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

The order of the Law Division upholding the enforceability of defendants’ arbitration clause is affirmed. However, we vacate the part of the order that dismisses plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice and remand the matter to the Law Division to stay any judicial proceedings related to this case pending the outcome of the arbitration. GMAC, 205 N.J. at 584 n.7; N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g).

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction. ———

Notes:

[1] In the interest of clarity, we will occasionally also refer to plaintiffs by their names; we will refer to the child by his first name and his mother by her last name. No disrespect is intended.

[2] Although an order entered by the Law Division compelling or denying arbitration is appealable to this court as of right, pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(3), the trial court must stay any judicial proceeding pending the outcome of the arbitration. The court may also limit the stay to arbitrable claims if other claims are severable. GMAC v. Pittella, 205 N.J. 572, 584 n.7 (2011) (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-7(g)).

[3] In a certification submitted to the motion judge, Johnson averred the injury damaged “the growth plate in my son’s leg . . . and his leg did not continue to grow properly. He has undergone surgery to shorten the opposite leg and may need additional treatment in the future.”

[4] In October 2006, Governor Jon Corzine appointed Justice Zazzali to succeed Deborah T. Poritz as Chief Justice. Chief Justice Zazzali served in this capacity until June 17, 2007, when he reached the mandatory retirement age for all members of the New Jersey Judiciary.

———


One paragraph would have eliminated this lawsuit.

Badly written release and a bad attempt to tie two documents together almost cost outfitter

Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc

State: Colorado, United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Alicia Hamric, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor

Defendant: Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

Badly written release and medical form with release language in them give the plaintiff the opportunity to win a lawsuit. However, a lawsuit where Colorado law is applied is going to support the release.

Facts

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

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

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is an appellate court that sits in Denver. The Tenth Circuit hears cases from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. The court, consequently, hears a few appeals of recreation cases.

This appealed covered four different legal issues. Three of the issues were procedural and won’t be reviewed. The fourth was the dismissal of the case by the lower-court magistrate on a motion for summary judgement because of the release.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read using Texas law because the release was read and signed in Texas.

There was no Jurisdiction and Venue Clause in the Release!

The defendant had the deceased sign two forms. One was a release, and the second was a medical form. Having a medical information formed signed is a quick give away that the defendant does not understand the legal issues involved. The defendant wrote both forms, so they conflicted with each other in some cases and attempted to tie the forms together. Neither really worked.

The plaintiff argued the forms were one because they conflicts would have made both forms basically invalid.

Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise, the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.

The plaintiff’s argument in many jurisdictions might have prevailed. However, the 10th circuit covers the outdoor recreation center of the universe, and state laws protect outdoor recreation, and outdoor recreation is a major source of income for these states. Consequently, any issues are going to lean towards protecting recreation.

After a lengthy review, the court found the forms were two different documents and ignored the medical form and the release like language in it.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI.

The next issue is what law should apply to determine the validity of the release. Choice of laws is a complete course you can take in law school. I still have my Choice of Laws’ textbook after all these years because it is a complicated subject that hinges on minutia in some cases to determine what court will hear a case and what law will be applied.

The case was filed in the Federal Court covering Colorado. Since the defendant was not a Texas business or doing business in Texas, the lawsuit needed to be in the defendant’s state. Federal Court was chosen because disputes between citizens of two states should be held in a neutral court, which are the federal courts. A Texan might not feel they are getting a fair deal if they have to sue in a Colorado state court. That is called the venue. What court sitting where, will hear the case.

So, the decision on what court to sue in was somewhat limited. However, that is not the end. Once the court is picked the next argument is what law will be applied to the situation. The plaintiff argued Texas Law. Texas has stringent requirements on releases. The defendant argued Colorado law, which has much fewer requirements for releases.

Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas.

Here is the court’s analysis on what states laws should apply.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (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 domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

It is not a slam dunk for Colorado law. In this case, the plaintiff made a very good argument that Texas law should apply. The deceased was a Texas resident recruited in Texas by the defendant. The release had been given to the deceased in Texas, and he signed it in Texas. If the analysis ended there, Texas law would have applied.

There was more to the investigation the court is required to do.

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado.

This argument switched the discussion from applying Texas law to Colorado law.

Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

It is significant to note that the court looked at the issue of waiting until customers arrive in the state of Colorado to have them sign the release. The court intimated that doing so would put pressure on them to sign after already traveling to Colorado. Legally, that could be argued as duress, which voids a release or contract.

It is important to remember this point. If you are marketing out of state and book travel from out of state, you need to get your release in the hands of your out of state clients when they book the travel.

In a rare statement, the court also commented on the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado and the need for releases.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado.

So Now What?

This was a badly written set of documents. Probably the attempt was made to cover as many legal issues as possible as many was as possible. Writing to documents that both contained release language. However, as written here and in Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.
Write too many documents with release language in them and you can void all the releases.

The second major disaster is not having a venue and jurisdiction clause. The only real attempt to win the plaintiff had, was the release did not have a venue and jurisdiction clause. Never sign any contract without one, or if signing a contract written by someone else, find out where you have to sue and what law is applied to the contract. It makes a major difference.

Sad, so much time, energy and money were wasted on poorly written contracts (Yes, a release is a contract).

Sadder yet the plaintiff died.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Who am I

Jim Moss

I’m an attorney specializing in the legal issues of the Outdoor Recreation Industry

I represent Manufactures, Outfitters, Guides, Reps, College & University’s, Camps, Youth Programs, Adventure Programs and Businesses

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Copyright 2022 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Hamric v. Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.,

ALICIA HAMRIC, individually, as representative of the Estate of Robert Gerald Hamric, and as next friend of Ava Hamric, a minor, Plaintiff – Appellant,

v.

WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS, INC., Defendant-Appellee.

No. 20-1250

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 26, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:19-CV-01442-NYW)

William J. Dunleavy, Law Offices of William J. Dunleavy, Allen, Texas (Stephen A. Justino, Boesen Law, Denver, Colorado, on the briefs), for Plaintiff – Appellant.

Malcolm S. Mead (Peter C. Middleton and Jacob R. Woods with him on the brief), Hall & Evans, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant – Appellee.

Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, HOLMES, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

McHUGH, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Gerald Hamric, a Texas resident, joined a church group on an outdoor recreation trip to Colorado. The church group employed the services of Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. (“WEI”) to arrange outdoor activities. Before the outdoor adventure commenced, WEI required each participant, including Mr. Hamric, to complete a “Registration Form” and a “Medical Form.” On the first day, WEI led the church group on a rappelling course. In attempting to complete a section of the course that required participants to rappel down an overhang, Mr. Hamric became inverted. Attempts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died.

Alicia Hamric, Mr. Hamric’s wife, sued WEI for negligence. WEI moved for summary judgment, asserting the Registration Form and the Medical Form contained a release of its liability for negligence. Ms. Hamric resisted WEI’s motion for summary judgment in four ways. First, Ms. Hamric moved for additional time to conduct discovery under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d). Second, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages based on willful and wanton conduct. Third, Ms. Hamric filed a motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time. Fourth, Ms. Hamric argued Texas law controlled the validity of the purported liability release in the Registration Form and the Medical Form, and additionally that the release was not conspicuous as required by Texas law.

In a single order, a magistrate judge addressed each of the pending motions. The magistrate judge first declined to grant leave to amend the complaint due to Ms. Hamric’s failure to (1) sustain her burden under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) because the deadline for amendments had passed; and (2) make out a prima facie case of willful and wanton conduct as required by Colorado law to plead a claim seeking exemplary damages. Next, the magistrate judge concluded WEI was entitled to summary judgment, holding the liability release was valid under both Colorado law and Texas law. Finally, the magistrate judge denied as moot Ms. Hamric’s motions for additional discovery and to disclose an expert out of time.

We affirm the magistrate judge’s rulings. As to Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, a party seeking to amend a pleading after the deadline in a scheduling order for amendment must satisfy the standard set out by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b). But Ms. Hamric concedes she has never sought to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Turning to the discovery motions, where this case hinges on the validity of the liability release and all facts necessary to this primarily legal issue appear in the record, we reject Ms. Hamric’s contentions that further discovery or leave to belatedly disclose an expert were warranted. Finally, while the magistrate judge’s summary judgment analysis was not free of error, we apply de novo review to that ruling. And, under de novo review, we conclude (1) relying on contract law to resolve the choice-of-law issue, as argued for by the parties, Colorado law, rather than Texas law, controls whether the Registration Form and the Medical Form contain a valid liability release; and (2) the forms contain a valid release for negligence by WEI, barring Ms. Hamric’s action.

I. BACKGROUND

A. The Rappelling Excursion, Mr. Hamric’s Death, and the Liability Release

Members of the Keller Church of Christ in Keller, Texas, scheduled an outdoor excursion to Colorado, contracting with WEI for adventure planning and guide services. WEI is incorporated in Colorado and has its headquarters in Salida, Colorado. Jamie Garner served as the coordinator for the church group and the point-of-contact between the church members and WEI. The experience WEI provided included guides taking participants rappelling. WEI required all participants, before going on the outdoor excursion, to complete and initial a “Registration Form” and complete and sign a “Medical Form.”[ 1]

The Registration Form has three sections. The first section requires the participant to provide personally identifiable information and contact information. The second section is entitled “Release of Liability & User Indemnity Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” App. Vol. I at 57, 83.[ 2] The text under this bold and underlined header reads, in full: I hereby acknowledge that I, or my child, have voluntarily agreed to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I understand that the activities and all other hazards and exposures connected with the activities conducted in the outdoors do involve risk and I am cognizant of the risks and dangers inherent with the activities. I (or my child) and (is) fully capable of participating in the activities contracted for and willingly assume the risk of injury as my responsibility whether it is obvious or not. I understand and agree that any bodily injury, death, or loss of personal property and expenses thereof as a result of any, or my child’s, negligence in any scheduled or unscheduled activities associated with Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. are my responsibilities. I understand that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities, physicians, or surgeons, and be exposed to temperature extremes or inclement weather. I further agree and understand that any route or activity chosen may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge. I agree to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions. Inc., the USDA Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Recreation Department, and any and all state or government agencies whose property the activities may be conducted on, and all of their officers, members, affiliated organizations, agents, or employees for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities, scheduled and unscheduled, whether or not such injury or death was caused by my, or their, negligence or from any other cause. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id.[ 3] Immediately after this paragraph, the form reads, “Adult participant or parent/guardian initial here:(Initials).” Id. The third and final section of the form is entitled: “Adult Agreement or Parent’s/Guardian Agreement for Wilderness Expeditions, Inc.” Id. The text of this provision states: I understand the nature of the activities may involve the physical demands of hiking over rough terrain, backpacking personal and crew gear, and voluntarily climbing mountains to 14, 433 feet in elevation. Having the assurance of my, or my child’s, good health through a current physical examination by a medical doctor, I hereby give consent for me, or my child, to participate in the activities outfitted by Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. I have included in this form all necessary medical information about myself, or my child, that should be known by the leadership of the program. I assure my, or my child’s, cooperation and assume responsibility for my, or my child’s, actions. I understand that I am responsible for any medical expenses incurred in the event of needed medical attention for myself, or my child. I further agree that I will be financially responsible to repair or replace all items lost or abused by myself or my child. In the event of an emergency, I authorize my consent to any X-ray examination, medica1, dental, or surgical diagnosis, treatment, and/or hospital care advised and supervised by a physician, surgeon, or dentist licensed to practice. I understand that the designated next of kin will be contacted as soon as possible. By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.

Id. And, as with the second section, the form then provides a line for the participant or the parent or guardian of the participant to initial.

The Medical Form has four sections. The first section seeks information about the participant. The second section is entitled “Medical History.” Initially, this section asks the participant if he suffers from a list of medical conditions, including allergies, asthma, and heart trouble. If the participant does suffer from any medical conditions, the form requests that the participant explain the affirmative answer. Thereafter, the section includes the following language: Note: The staff will not administer any medications, including aspirin, Tums, Tylenol, etc. If you need any over the counter medications, you must provide them. Be sure to tell your staff members what medications you are taking. List any medications that you will have with you: Note about food: Trail food is by necessity a high carbohydrate, high caloric diet. It is high in wheat, milk products, sugar, com syrup, and artificial coloring/flavoring. If these food products cause a problem to your diet, you will be responsible for providing any appropriate substitutions and advise the staff upon arrival. * Doctor’s signature is required to participate. No other form can be substituted. By signing below a physician is verifying the medical history given above and approving this individual to participate.

Id. at 58, 84. The form then includes a section titled “Physician’s Evaluation.” Id. This section seeks certification of the participant’s medical capability to partake in the outdoor activities and asks the physician for contact information. It reads: The applicant will be taking part in strenuous outdoor activities that may include: backpacking, rappelling, hiking at 8-12, 000 feet elevation, and an all day summit climb up to 14, 433 feet elevation. This will include high altitude, extreme weather, cold water, exposure, fatigue, and remote conditions where medical care cannot be assured. The applicant is approved for participation. Physician Signature: ___ Date: ___ Physician Name: ___ Phone Number: ___ Office Address: ___ City: ___ State: ___ Zip: ___

Id. The final section of the form is entitled “Participant or Parent/Guardian Signature – All sections of these forms must be initialed or signed.” Id. The text of the section reads: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document[.] I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

Id.

WEI made the forms available to Mr. Garner for downloading and completion by the individual church members several months prior to the booked trip. Mr. Hamric initialed both blanks on the Registration Form and signed the Medical Form, dating it April 5, 2017. Andrew Sadousky, FNP-C, completed and signed the “Physician’s Evaluation” section of the Medical Form, certifying that Mr. Hamric was medically capable of participating in the outdoor activities listed on the form, including rappelling. Mr. Hamric’s signed forms were delivered to WEI upon the church group’s arrival in Colorado in July 2017.

After spending a night on WEI property, WEI guides took the church group, including Mr. Hamric, to a rappelling site known as “Quarry High.” Because the rappelling course had a section that WEI guides considered “scary,” the guides did not describe a particular overhang at the Quarry High site during the orientation session or before taking the church group on the rappelling course. Id. at 203.

Several members of the church group successfully descended Quarry High before Mr. Hamric attempted the rappel. As Mr. Hamric worked his way down the overhang portion of the course, he became inverted and was unable to right himself. Efforts to rescue Mr. Hamric proved unsuccessful, and he died of positional asphyxiation.

B. Procedural History

In the District of Colorado, Ms. Hamric commenced a negligence action against WEI, sounding in diversity jurisdiction. As a matter of right, Ms. Hamric amended her complaint shortly thereafter. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(A) (permitting plaintiff to file amended complaint “as a matter of course” within twenty-one days of serving original complaint). The parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), consented to a magistrate judge presiding over the case. WEI answered Ms. Hamric’s First Amended Complaint, in part raising the following affirmative defense: “Decedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation form which Defendant relied upon. The execution of these document [sic] bars or reduces [Ms. Hamric’s] potential recovery.” Id. at 31-32.

The magistrate judge entered a Scheduling Order adopting several deadlines: (1) August 31, 2019, for amendments to the pleadings; (2) January 31, 2020, for Ms. Hamric to designate her expert witnesses; and (3) April 10, 2020, for the close of all discovery. The Scheduling Order also noted WEI’s defense based on the purported liability release, stating “[t]he parties anticipate that mediation . . . may be useful to settle or resolve the case after meaningful discovery and summary judgment briefing on the issue of the validity and enforceability of the liability release.” Id. at 38 (emphasis added). Finally, the Scheduling Order concluded with language reminding the parties that the deadlines adopted by the order “may be altered or amended only upon a showing of good cause.” Id. at 42 (italicized emphasis added).

In November 2019, after the deadline for amendments to the pleadings but before the discovery deadlines, WEI moved for summary judgment based on its affirmative defense that both the Registration Form and Medical Form contained a liability release that barred Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. In support of its motion, WEI contended Colorado law controlled the interpretation and validity of the liability release. Ms. Hamric opposed summary judgment, arguing that because Mr. Hamric completed the forms in Texas, a Colorado court would apply Texas law and that, under Texas law, the liability release was not adequately conspicuous to be valid.

Ms. Hamric also sought to avoid disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of her action by filing three motions of her own. First, Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) for additional time to conduct discovery, contending further discovery would, among other things, reveal details about Mr. Hamric’s completion of the forms and whether Colorado or Texas law should control the interpretation and validity of the purported liability release. Second, in February 2020, Ms. Hamric moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), for leave to file a second amended complaint to seek exemplary damages under § 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes based on new allegations of WEI’s willful and wanton conduct.[ 4] Ms. Hamric’s motion to amend, however, did not cite Federal Rule Civil Procedure 16(b) or seek leave to amend the August 31, 2019, Scheduling Order deadline for amendments to the pleadings. Third, in March 2020, Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose out of time a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert.” App. Vol. II at 37. Ms. Hamric contended the expert’s opinions about the training, knowledge, and rescue efforts of the WEI guides supported her contention in her proposed second amended complaint that WEI acted in a willful and wanton manner.

The magistrate judge disposed of the four pending motions in a single order. Starting with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint, the magistrate judge concluded Ms. Hamric (1) “failed to meet her burden under Rule 16(b) of establishing good cause to generally amend the operative pleading” and (2) had not made out a prima facie case of wanton and willful conduct. Id. at 94. The magistrate judge then turned to WEI’s motion for summary judgment. The magistrate judge concluded WEI’s affirmative defense raised an issue sounding in contract law such that principles of contract law controlled the choice-of-law analysis. Applying contract principles, the magistrate judge determined that although Texas law imposed a slightly more rigorous standard for enforcing a liability release, the difference between Texas law and Colorado law was not outcome-determinative and the court could, therefore, apply Colorado law. The magistrate judge read Colorado law as holding that a liability release is valid and enforceable “so long as the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Id. at 106 (citing Heil Valley Ranch v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989)). Applying this standard, the magistrate judge held the liability release used clear and simple terms such that, even though Mr. Hamric was inexperienced at rappelling, the release was valid and foreclosed Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, the magistrate judge granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment. And, having denied Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend and granted WEI’s motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge denied both of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions as moot.

Ms. Hamric moved for reconsideration, which the magistrate judge denied. Ms. Hamric timely appealed.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal, Ms. Hamric contests the denial of her motion for leave to amend and the grant of summary judgment to WEI. Ms. Hamric also tacitly challenges the magistrate judge’s denial of her discovery motions. We commence our analysis with Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion in denying the motion where the motion was filed after the Scheduling Order’s deadline for amendments to pleadings and Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b)’s standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order. Next, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s two discovery motions, concluding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by denying the motions because (1) WEI’s motion for summary judgment presented a largely legal issue on which all facts necessary for resolution already appeared in the record; and (2) consideration of the proposed expert’s opinions potentially capable of supporting allegations of willful and wanton conduct was mooted upon Ms. Hamric failing to satisfy Rule 16(b)’s standard for amending her complaint to allege such conduct. Finally, we analyze WEI’s motion for summary judgment. Although the magistrate judge’s decision was not free of error, the errors are not outcome determinative on appeal given our de novo standard of review. Exercising de novo review, we conclude Colorado law governs the validity of the liability release. And considering the entirety of both the Registration Form and the Medical Form, we conclude the liability release satisfies the factors in Colorado law for enforceability. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

A. Ms. Hamric’s Motion for Leave to Amend

1. Standard of Review

“We review for abuse of discretion a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint after the scheduling order’s deadline for amendments has passed.” Birch v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 812 F.3d 1238, 1247 (10th Cir. 2015). “An abuse of discretion occurs where the district court clearly erred or ventured beyond the limits of permissible choice under the circumstances.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “A district court also abuses its discretion when it issues an arbitrary, capricious, whimsical or manifestly unreasonable judgment.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

“A party seeking leave to amend after a scheduling order deadline must satisfy both the [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 16(b) and Rule 15(a) standards.” Tesone v. Empire Mktg. Strategies, 942 F.3d 979, 989 (10th Cir. 2019). Under the former of those two rules, “[a] schedule may be modified only for good cause and with the judge’s consent.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4). To satisfy this standard a movant must show that “the scheduling deadlines cannot be met despite the movant’s diligent efforts.” Gorsuch, Ltd., B.C. v. Wells Fargo Nat’l Bank Ass’n, 771 F.3d 1230, 1240 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). We have observed the “good cause” standard for amending deadlines in a scheduling order is “arguably [a] more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15.” Bylin v. Billings, 568 F.3d 1224, 1231 (10th Cir. 2009).

In moving for leave to file a second amended complaint, Ms. Hamric discussed Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15 and how Colorado law did not permit a plaintiff to seek exemplary damages until after commencement of discovery. But Ms. Hamric did not advance an argument for amending the Scheduling Order as required by Rule 16(b). Nor does Ms. Hamric cite Rule 16(b) in her briefs on appeal, much less explain how she satisfied, in her papers before the magistrate judge, the Rule 16(b) standard. In fact, Ms. Hamric conceded at oral argument that, before the magistrate judge, she sought only to amend her complaint and “did not seek to amend the scheduling order.” Oral Argument at 7:42-7:46; see also id. at 7:31-9:10. Ms. Hamric also conceded at oral argument that she had not advanced an argument on appeal regarding satisfying Rule 16(b).

This omission by Ms. Hamric is fatal to her argument. Specifically, when a party seeking to amend her complaint fails, after the deadline for amendment in a scheduling order, to present a good cause argument under Rule 16(b), a lower court does not abuse its discretion by denying leave to amend. Husky Ventures, Inc. v. B55 Invs. Ltd., 911 F.3d 1000, 1019-20 (10th Cir. 2018). Even if a party who belatedly moves for leave to amend a pleading satisfies Rule 15(a)’s standard, the party must also obtain leave to amend the scheduling order. But Rule 16(b) imposes a higher standard for amending a deadline in a scheduling order than Rule 15(a) imposes for obtaining leave to amend a complaint. Thus, as Husky Ventures suggests, a party’s ability to satisfy the Rule 15(a) standard does not necessitate the conclusion that the party could also satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard. Id. at 1020; see also Bylin, 568 F.3d at 1231 (observing that Rule 16(b) imposes “an arguably more stringent standard than the standards for amending a pleading under Rule 15”). Accordingly, where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Rule 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order, we affirm the district court’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend.

B. Ms. Hamric’s Discovery Motions

After WEI moved for summary judgment, Ms. Hamric filed a pair of discovery-related motions-a motion for additional discovery before disposition of WEI’s motion for summary judgment and a motion to disclose an expert out of time. The magistrate judge denied both motions as moot. After stating the applicable standard of review, we consider each motion, affirming the magistrate judge’s rulings.

1. Standard of Review

We review the denial of a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) motion for additional discovery for an abuse of discretion. Ellis v. J.R.’s Country Stores, Inc., 779 F.3d 1184, 1192 (10th Cir. 2015). Likewise, we review the denial of a motion to revisit a scheduling order and allow the disclosure of an expert out of time for an abuse of discretion. Rimbert v. Eli Lilly & Co., 647 F.3d 1247, 1253-54 (10th Cir. 2011). “We will find an abuse of discretion when the district court bases its ruling on an erroneous conclusion of law or relies on clearly erroneous fact findings.” Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1192 (internal quotation marks omitted). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is without factual support in the record or if, after reviewing all of the evidence, we are left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

2. Analysis

a. Motion for additional discovery

Before the April 10, 2020, deadline for discovery, WEI filed its motion for summary judgment based on the liability release. Ms. Hamric moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d) to delay resolution of WEI’s motion for summary judgment, asserting additional discovery would allow her to learn further information about the liability release. The magistrate judge denied the motion as moot, concluding further discovery was not needed to assess the validity of the liability release.

Under Rule 56(d), a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may seek additional time for discovery. To do so, a party must “submit an affidavit (1) identifying the probable facts that are unavailable, (2) stating why these facts cannot be presented without additional time, (3) identifying past steps to obtain evidence of these facts, and (4) stating how additional time would allow for rebuttal of the adversary’s argument for summary judgment.” Cerveny v. Aventis, Inc., 855 F.3d 1091, 1110 (10th Cir. 2017). “[S]ummary judgment [should] be refused where the nonmoving party has not had the opportunity to discover information that is essential to his opposition.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 n.5 (1986). “Requests for further discovery should ordinarily be treated liberally.” Cerveny, 855 F.3d at 1110. “But relief under Rule 56(d) is not automatic.” Id. And Rule 56’s provision allowing a non-moving party to seek additional discovery before disposition on a motion for summary judgment “is not a license for a fishing expedition.” Lewis v. City of Ft. Collins, 903 F.2d 752, 759 (10th Cir. 1990); see also Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08 (affirming denial of Rule 56(d) motion where party “required no further discovery to respond to the . . . summary-judgment motion” and additional discovery sought was speculative).

Through the affidavit supporting her Rule 56(d) motion, Ms. Hamric sought four areas of additional discovery. First, she sought discovery on “the drafting of the purported liability release forms” and the meaning of language on the forms. App. Vol. I at 94. Regardless of whether Colorado or Texas law applies, the four corners of the Registration Form and Medical Form, not WEI’s thought process when drafting the forms, controls the validity of the liability release. See B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 138 (Colo. 1998) (requiring that intent of parties to extinguish liability be “clearly and unambiguously expressed” (quoting Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785)); Dresser Indus., Inc. v. Page Petroleum, Inc., 853 S.W.2d 505, 508 (Tex. 1993) (“[A] party seeking indemnity from the consequences of that party’s own negligence must express that intent in specific terms within the four corners of the contract.”). Therefore, the drafting process employed by WEI and its understanding of the language of the forms is not relevant to whether the forms included sufficiently specific language to foreclose a claim for negligence.

Second, Ms. Hamric sought to discover information about WEI’s process for distributing the forms and how the church group members, including Mr. Hamric, completed and submitted the forms. Ms. Hamric also requested time to discover matters related to the choice-of-law issue, including the “place of contracting,” “the place of performance,” and “the domicile, residence nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” App. Vol. I at 95. Information on these matters, however, was known to Ms. Hamric prior to the magistrate judge’s summary judgment ruling. For instance, the record shows Mr. Hamric received and completed the forms in Texas a few months before the WEI-led excursion and that the church group provided WEI the completed forms upon its arrival at WEI’s location in Colorado. Accordingly, there was no need to delay summary judgment proceedings to discover matters already known to the parties. See Ellis, 779 F.3d at 1207-08.

Third, Ms. Hamric, as part of a challenge to the authenticity of the forms, initially sought to discover information regarding anomalies and alterations on the forms attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, as well as evidence of fraud by WEI. Subsequent to Ms. Hamric filing her motion for additional discovery, WEI provided her the original forms signed by Mr. Hamric, and she withdrew her challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Accordingly, by the time the district court ruled on WEI’s motion for summary judgment and Ms. Hamric’s motion for additional discovery, the requests for discovery regarding the authenticity of the forms was moot.

Fourth, Ms. Hamric sought time to discover “evidence of willful and wanton conduct by Defendant WEI and/or by its agents, servants and/or employees.” Id. Discovery on this matter, however, became moot with the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to seek exemplary damages and add allegations of willful and wanton conduct, a ruling we affirm. See supra at 12-14, Section II(A).

Having considered each additional discovery request advanced by Ms. Hamric, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion by ruling on WEI’s motion for summary judgment without permitting Ms. Hamric additional time for discovery. Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s Rule 56(d) motion.

b. Motion for leave to disclose expert out of time

Ms. Hamric moved for leave to disclose a “‘Rappelling/Recreational Activities Safety’ expert” out of time. App. Vol. II at 37. Attached to the motion was a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2) expert disclosure, offering opinions about the alleged negligent and/or willful and wanton conduct of WEI and its employees. The magistrate judge denied this motion as moot. Considering the magistrate judge’s other rulings and our holdings on appeal, we conclude the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion. Any opinion offered by the expert as to willful and wanton conduct lost relevance with the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint to add allegations of willful and wanton conduct and to seek exemplary damages-a ruling we affirmed supra at 12-14, Section II(A). And the expert’s opinion about WEI acting in a negligent manner lost relevance upon the magistrate judge concluding the liability release was valid and barred Ms. Hamric from proceeding on her negligence claim-a ruling we affirm infra at 19-37, Section II(C). Accordingly, we affirm the magistrate judge’s denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to disclose an expert out of time.

C. WEI’s Motion for Summary Judgment

After stating our standard of review, we discuss Ms. Hamric’s contentions that the magistrate judge (1) applied the wrong standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense based on the liability release and (2) resolved issues of disputed fact in favor of WEI. Although we conclude the magistrate judge’s ruling is not free of error, the errors do not bind us because we need not repeat them when conducting our de novo review of the grant of summary judgment. Thus, we proceed to consider the validity of the liability release. In conducting our analysis, we hold that, where the parties contend contract principles provide the framework for our choice-of-law analysis, Colorado law governs the validity of the release.[ 5] And we conclude that, under Colorado law, the liability release is valid and enforceable so as to foreclose Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment.

1. Standard of Review

We review the district court’s rulings on summary judgment de novo. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Winton, 818 F.3d 1103, 1105 (10th Cir. 2016). Summary judgment is appropriate if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. “In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” Lincoln v. BNSF Ry. Co., 900 F.3d 1166, 1180 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted). For purposes of summary judgment, “[t]he nonmoving party is entitled to all reasonable inferences from the record.” Water Pik, Inc. v. Med-Sys., Inc., 726 F.3d 1136, 1143 (10th Cir. 2013). Finally, “we can affirm on any ground supported by the record, so long as the appellant has had a fair opportunity to address that ground.” Alpine Bank v. Hubbell, 555 F.3d 1097, 1108 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

2. Alleged Errors by the Magistrate Judge

Ms. Hamric argues the magistrate judge (1) applied the incorrect standard when considering WEI’s affirmative defense and (2) resolved disputed issues of material fact in favor of WEI. We consider each contention in turn.

a. Standard applicable to affirmative defenses

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge announced an incorrect standard of review and impermissibly shifted evidentiary burdens onto her, as the non-moving party. The disputed language in the magistrate judge’s opinion states: When, as here, a defendant moves for summary judgment to test an affirmative defense, it is the defendant’s burden to demonstrate the absence of any disputed fact as to the affirmative defense asserted. See Helm v. Kansas, 656 F.3d 1277, 1284 (10th Cir. 2011). Once the defendant meets its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to put forth sufficient evidence to demonstrate the essential elements of her claim(s), see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Simms v. Okla. ex rel. Dep’t of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Servs., 165 F.3d 1321, 1326 (10th Cir. 1999), and to “demonstrate with specificity the existence of a disputed fact” as to the defendant’s affirmative defense, see Hutchinson v. Pfeil, 105 F.3d 562, 564 (10th Cir. 1997).

App. Vol. II at 100 (emphasis added). Ms. Hamric takes issue with the emphasized phrase.

Nothing on the pages the magistrate judge cited from Anderson and Simms requires a plaintiff responding to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to identify evidence supporting each element of her claim. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (requiring nonmoving party in face of “properly supported motion for summary judgment” to “‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial'” (quoting First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288 (1968))); Simms, 165 F.3d at 1326, 1328 (discussing summary judgment standard in context of employment discrimination claim and burden-shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)). In fact, the standard announced by the magistrate judge would unnecessarily require a plaintiff, in response to a motion for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense, to identify evidence supporting elements of her claim never drawn into question by the defendant. Placing such a burden on a plaintiff is all the more problematic where, as here, the parties contemplated a bifurcated summary judgment process initially focused on the validity of the liability release, and WEI filed its motion for summary judgment before the close of discovery.

We have previously stated that a district court errs by requiring a party opposing summary judgment based on an affirmative defense to “establish at least an inference of the existence of each element essential to the case.” Johnson v. Riddle, 443 F.3d 723, 724 n.1 (10th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted). We reaffirm that conclusion today. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff, upon the defendant raising and supporting an affirmative defense, need only identify a disputed material fact relative to the affirmative defense. Id.; Hutchinson, 105 F.3d at 564; see also Leone v. Owsley, 810 F.3d 1149, 1153-54 (10th Cir. 2015) (discussing defendant’s burden for obtaining summary judgment based on an affirmative defense). Only if the defendant also challenges an element of the plaintiff’s claim does the plaintiff bear the burden of coming forward with some evidence in support of that element. See Tesone, 942 F.3d at 994 (“The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing an absence of any issues of material fact. Where . . . the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the nonmoving party, the movant may carry its initial burden by providing ‘affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim’ or by ‘demonstrating to the Court that the nonmoving party’s evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.’ If the movant makes this showing, the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” (first quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 330, then quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250)); Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670-71 (10th Cir. 1998) (if summary judgment movant carries its initial burden of showing a lack of evidence in support of an essential element of plaintiff’s claim, “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts” supporting the essential element (internal quotation marks omitted)).

The magistrate judge’s erroneous statement regarding Ms. Hamric’s burden, however, does not foreclose our ability to further review the grant of summary judgment. Rather, in accord with the applicable de novo standard of review, we review WEI’s motion for summary judgment under the standard that “should have been applied by the [magistrate judge].”[ 6] Nance v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Can., 294 F.3d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir. 2002) (quotation marks omitted).

b. Resolution of disputed issues of material fact

Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge impermissibly resolved two issues of disputed fact in WEI’s favor. We discuss each asserted factual issue in turn, concluding factual disputes existed and the magistrate judge incorrectly resolved one of the disputes against Ms. Hamric. However, even if this factual dispute were material, we may proceed to analyze the validity of the liability release after resolving the dispute in Ms. Hamric’s favor. See Lincoln, 900 F.3d at 1180 (“In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we need not defer to factual findings rendered by the district court.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

i. Language of Registration Form and Medical Form

In moving for summary judgment, WEI’s brief contained edited versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form that focused the reader’s attention on the language most pertinent to Mr. Hamric’s participation in the outdoor excursion and the release of liability. For instance, the version of the forms in WEI’s brief left out phrases such as “(or my child)” and the accompanying properly-tensed-and-conjugated verb that would apply if the forms were completed by a parent or guardian of the participant, rather than by the participant himself. Compare App. Vol. I at 46, with id. at 57, 83.

Although WEI and Ms. Hamric attached full versions of the forms to their papers on the motion for summary judgment, the magistrate judge’s quotation of the language in the forms mirrored that which appeared in WEI’s brief. Ms. Hamric contends the magistrate judge, in not quoting the full forms, resolved a dispute of fact regarding the language of the forms in WEI’s favor. It is not uncommon for a court to focus on the pertinent language of a contract or liability release when putting forth its analysis. In this case, Ms. Hamric claims the forms should be reviewed on the whole. Although there is no indication the magistrate judge did not review the forms in their entirety, despite her use of incomplete quotations, we attach full versions of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric as an appendix to this opinion. And we consider all the language on the forms when assessing whether the forms contain a valid liability release.

ii. Registration Form and Medical Form as single form

The magistrate judge viewed the Registration Form and the Medical Form as a single, “two-page agreement.” App. Vol. II at 103; see also id. at 101 (“Adult customers are required to execute a two-page agreement with WEI before they are permitted to participate in WEI-sponsored activities. The first page of the agreement is a ‘Registration Form’, followed by a ‘Medical Form’ on page two.”). Ms. Hamric contends the two forms are separate agreements, not a single agreement. While a jury could have concluded that the Registration Form and Medical Form were separate agreements, this dispute of fact is not material given applicable law regarding the construction of agreements that are related and simultaneously executed.

It is clear from the record that a participant needed to complete both forms before partaking in the WEI-lead excursion. Further, while the Medical Form required a signature and a date, the Registration Form required only that a participant place his initials on certain lines, suggesting the forms were part of a single agreement. However, the forms do not contain page numbers to indicate they are part of a single agreement. Further, language on the Medical Form is conflicting and ambiguous as to whether the two forms comprise a single agreement: Individuals who have not completed these forms will not be allowed to participate. I have carefully read all the sections of this agreement, understand its contents, and have initialed all sections of page 1 of this document. I have examined all the information given by myself, or my child. By the signature below, I certify that it is true and correct. Should this form and/or any wording be altered, it will not be accepted and the participant will not be allowed to participate.

App., Vol. I at 58, 84 (emphases added). Both the italicized language and the use of “forms” in the plural to describe the agreement support the conclusion that the Registration Form and the Medical Form are a single agreement. But the underlined language, using “form” in the singular, suggests the forms might constitute separate agreements. Otherwise the singular use of “form” would suggest the unlikely result that a participant could not alter the wording of the Medical Form but could alter the wording of the Registration Form.[ 7] Accord Navajo Nation v. Dalley, 896 F.3d 1196, 1213 (10th Cir. 2018) (describing the cannon of expressio unius est exclusio alterius as providing “that the ‘expression of one item of an associated group or series excludes another left unmentioned'” and that “the enumeration of certain things in a statute suggests that the legislature had no intent of including things not listed or embraced.” (quoting NLRB v. SW Gen., Inc., 137 S.Ct. 929, 940 (2017))). Thus, a reasonable jury could have found the Registration Form and the Medical Form were separate agreements.

We conclude, however, that this dispute of fact is not material to resolution of the primarily legal question regarding whether Mr. Hamric entered into a valid liability release with WEI. Under Colorado law, it is well established that a court may, and often must, construe two related agreements pertaining to the same subject matter as a single agreement. See Bledsoe v. Hill, 747 P.2d 10, 12 (Colo.App. 1987) (“If a simultaneously executed agreement between the same parties, relating to the same subject matter, is contained in more than one instrument, the documents must be construed together to determine intent as though the entire agreement were contained in a single document. Although it is desirable for the documents to refer to each other, there is no requirement that they do so.” (citing In re Application for Water Rights v. N. Colo. Water Conservancy Dist., 677 P.2d 320 (Colo. 1984); Harty v. Hoerner, 463 P.2d 313 (Colo. 1969); Westminster v. Skyline Vista Dev. Co., 431 P.2d 26 (Colo. 1967))).[ 8] Thus, although a jury could conclude the Registration Form and Medical Form technically constitute separate agreements, we consider the agreements together when determining if Mr. Hamric released WEI for its negligent acts.

3. Choice-of-Law Analysis

At the heart of WEI’s motion for summary judgment was whether Colorado or Texas law controls and whether the release is valid under the appropriate law. On appeal, Ms. Hamric contends “contract principles” control the choice-of-law analysis because WEI’s affirmative defense “was a contract issue on a purported agreement to release liability.” Opening Br. at 26-27. Ms. Hamric further contends that under contract principles in the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Laws, Texas law applies because Mr. Hamric was a Texas resident who completed the Registration Form and the Medical Form while in Texas. WEI agrees that if contract principles govern the choice-of-law issue, the Restatement (Second) on Conflict of Laws provides the appropriate factors for this court to consider. But WEI contends (1) the liability release is valid under both Colorado and Texas law and (2) the relevant factors in §§ 6 and 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law if this court is inclined to resolve the conflict-of-law issue.

Outdoor recreation and tourism is a growing industry in Colorado, as well as several other states within our circuit. And many outdoor tourism outfitters, like WEI, require participants to complete forms containing liability releases. See Redden v. Clear Creek Skiing Corp., ___ P.3d ___, 2020 WL 7776149, at *2 (Colo.App. Dec. 31, 2020); Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 947-48 (Colo.App. 2011); see also Dimick v. Hopkinson, 422 P.3d 512, 515-16 (Wyo. 2018); Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 301 P.3d 984, 986 (Utah 2013); Beckwith v. Weber, 277 P.3d 713, 716-17 (Wyo. 2012). With the prevalence and recurrence of questions regarding the validity of liability releases in mind, and viewing the choice-of-law issue as sounding in contract law as urged by the parties, we consider whether the law of the state where the outdoor recreation company is based and the outdoor excursion occurs controls or whether the law of the state of residence of the participant controls.

a. Framework for choice-of-law analysis

“In a diversity action we apply the conflict-of-laws rules of the forum state.” Kipling v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 774 F.3d 1306, 1310 (10th Cir. 2014). “This is true even when choice of law determinations involve the interpretation of contract provisions.” Shearson Lehman Brothers, Inc. v. M & L Invs., 10 F.3d 1510, 1514 (10th Cir. 1993). Accordingly, this court must look to Colorado choice-of-law rules to determine if Colorado or Texas law applies.

“Colorado follows the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) . . . for both contract and tort actions,” Kipling, 774 F.3d at 1310 (citing Wood Brothers Homes, Inc. v. Walker Adjustment Bureau, 601 P.2d 1369, 1372 (Colo. 1979); First Nat’l Bank v. Rostek, 514 P.2d 314, 319-20 (Colo. 1973)). Absent a forum-state “statutory directive,” the Restatement advises a court to consider seven factors: (a) the needs of the interstate and international systems, (b) the relevant policies of the forum, (c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue (d) the protection of justified expectations, (e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law, (f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and (g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Choice-of-Law Principles § 6 (Am. L. Inst. 1971). The commentary to § 6 identifies the first factor as “[p]robably the most important function of choice-of-law rules” because choice-of-law rules are designed “to further harmonious relations between states and to facilitate commercial intercourse between them.” Id. § 6 cmt. d. Meanwhile, the second factor takes into account any special interests, beyond serving as the forum for the action, that the forum state has in the litigation. Id. § 6 cmt. e. As to the fourth factor-“the protection of justified expectations, “- the comments to § 6 note: This is an important value in all fields of the law, including choice of law. Generally speaking, it would be unfair and improper to hold a person liable under the local law of one state when he had justifiably molded his conduct to conform to the requirements of another state.

Id. § 6 cmt. g.

A more specific section of the Restatement addressing contracts lacking a choice-of-law provision provides additional guidance: (1) The rights and duties of the parties with respect to an issue in contract are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to that issue, has the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties under the principles stated in § 6. (2) In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties . . ., the contacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of § 6 to determine the law applicable to an issue include: (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 domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties. These contacts are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws: Law Governing in Absence of Effective Choice by the Parties § 188.

b. Colorado law controls

We conclude that, under the Restatement, a Colorado court would apply Colorado law to determine the validity and enforceability of the liability release relied upon by WEI. First looking at § 6 of the Restatement, the liability release was drafted by a Colorado corporation to cover services provided exclusively in Colorado. Applying out-of-state law to interpret the liability release would hinder commerce, as it would require WEI and other outdoor-recreation companies to know the law of the state in which a given participant lives. Such a rule would place a significant burden on outdoor-recreation companies who depend on out-of-state tourists for revenue because it would require a company like WEI to match the various requirements of the other forty-nine states. This approach would not give WEI the benefit of having logically molded its liability release to comply with Colorado law, the law of the state where WEI does business. Furthermore, Ms. Hamric’s primary argument for applying Texas law is that Mr. Hamric signed the forms in Texas. But a rule applying out-of-state law on that basis is likely to deter WEI from furnishing the liability release until a participant enters Colorado. And, while not providing participants the forms until arrival in Colorado might lessen WEI’s liability exposure under out-of-state law, such a practice would not benefit participants because it would pressure participants into a last-minute decision regarding whether to sign the liability release after having already traveled to Colorado for the outdoor excursion.

Colorado also has a strong interest in this matter. Colorado has a booming outdoor-recreation industry, in the form of skiing, hiking, climbing, camping, horseback riding, and rafting excursions. Colorado relies on tax receipts from the outdoor-recreation industry. And while many out-of-state individuals partake in these activities within Colorado, they often purchase their tickets or book excursion reservations before entering Colorado. If we applied Texas law because it is the state where Mr. Hamric signed the liability release, we would essentially allow the other forty-nine states to regulate a key industry within Colorado. Such an approach is impractical and illogical.

Further, the considerations and contacts listed in § 188 of the Restatement favor application of Colorado law. As to the first contact, in accord with the commentary, a contract is formed in “the place where occurred the last act necessary to give the contract binding effect.” Id. § 188 cmt. e. Here, that act occurred when the church group provided the forms to WEI in Colorado; for, before the forms were provided to WEI, Mr. Hamric had not conveyed his acceptance to WEI and WEI did not know whether Mr. Hamric would complete the forms and agree to the liability release. See Scoular Co. v. Denney, 151 P.3d 615, 619 (Colo.App. 2006) (discussing means of accepting an offer and stating “general rule that communication is required of the acceptance of the offer for a bilateral contract”). The second contact consideration is not applicable because the terms of the Medical Form precluded alteration, and there is no suggestion in the record Mr. Hamric attempted to negotiate the terms of the liability release before signing the forms. The third and fourth factors heavily favor application of Colorado law because WEI provides outdoor excursion services in Colorado, not Texas, and Mr. Hamric knew such when he signed the forms. Finally, the fifth factor is neutral because Mr. Hamric was a resident of Texas and WEI has its place of business in Colorado. With three factors favoring Colorado law, one factor inapplicable, and one factor neutral, the overall weight of the § 188 factors favors application of Colorado law.

Concluding that both § 6 and § 188 of the Restatement strongly support application of Colorado law, we hold that a Colorado court would choose to apply Colorado law, not Texas law, when determining whether the Registration Form and Medical Form contain a valid liability release. We, therefore, proceed to that analysis.

4. The Liability Release Is Valid under Colorado Law

Under Colorado law, “[a]greements attempting to exculpate a party from that party’s own negligence have long been disfavored.” Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 783.But, such “[e]xculpatory agreements are not necessarily void,” as courts recognize that “[t]hey stand at the crossroads of two competing principles: freedom of contract and responsibility for damages caused by one’s own negligent acts.” Id. at 784.In assessing the validity of a release, “a court must consider: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981); see also Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004) (a release agreement “must be closely scrutinized to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language and that the circumstances and the nature of the service involved indicate that the contract was fairly entered into”).

Ms. Hamric challenges only WEI’s ability to show “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.”[ 9] “To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, [the Colorado Supreme Court has] examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.” Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. In general accord with this statement, federal district courts in Colorado have discerned five factors from Colorado Supreme Court decisions to determine if a release is unambiguous: (1) “whether the agreement is written in simple and clear terms that are free from legal jargon”; (2) “whether the agreement is inordinately long or complicated”; (3) “whether the release specifically addresses the risk that caused the plaintiff’s injury”; (4) “whether the contract contains any emphasis to highlight the importance of the information it contains”; and (5) “whether the plaintiff was experienced in the activity making risk of that particular injury reasonably foreseeable.” Salazar v. On the Trail Rentals, Inc., Civil Action No. 11-cv-00320-CMA-KMT, 2012 WL 934240, at *4 (D. Colo. Mar. 20, 2012) (deriving factors from Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467); see also Eburn v. Capitol Peak Outfitters, Inc., 882 F.Supp.2d 1248, 1253 (D. Colo. 2012) (citing factors set forth in Salazar). Each and every factor, however, need not be satisfied for a court to uphold the validity of a liability release, as the Colorado Supreme Court has upheld the validity of a release where the signor was a novice at the outdoor activity in question. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138 (upholding liability release without finding every factor favored validity); id. at 139-40 (Hobbs, J., dissenting) (discussing signor’s inexperience riding horses).

The first four factors taken from Heil Valley Ranch and Chadwick support the validity of the liability release in the Registration Form and Medical Form. The forms span a mere two pages, with language pertinent to the liability release in only four sections of the forms. And those four sections are generally free of legal jargon. For instance, in detailing the scope of the release, the Registration Form required the participant/signor to “hold harmless Wilderness Expeditions, Inc. . . . for any injury or death caused by or resulting from my or my child’s participation in the activities.”[ 10] App. Vol. I at 57, 83. And this language comes after the form describes several of the risks associated with the activities, including “that accidents or illness can occur in remote places without medical facilities” and that “any route or activity chosen [by WEI] may not be of minimum risk, but may have been chosen for its interest and challenge.” Id. The Registration Form also twice places bolded emphasis on the fact that a participant was releasing WEI from liability: “By signing my initials below, I certify this is a release of liability.”Id. Finally, although not explicitly a factor identified by Colorado courts, we observe WEI provided the church group with the forms, and Mr. Hamric completed the forms, months before the booked excursion. Thus, if Mr. Hamric personally had difficulty understanding any of the language on the forms, he had ample time to contact WEI for an explanation or consult legal counsel.

The sole factor clearly cutting against enforcement of the liability release is Mr. Hamric’s lack of rappelling experience. However, as noted above, the Colorado Supreme Court has not found this consideration to be dispositive against the enforcement of a liability waiver. See B & B Livery, Inc., 960 P.2d at 138-39. And, where the liability release between Mr. Hamric and WEI is otherwise clear, specific, and uncomplicated, Mr. Hamric’s lack of experience rappelling is insufficient to defeat the release as a whole.

Accordingly, applying Colorado law, we hold the liability release is valid and its enforcement bars Ms. Hamric’s negligence claim. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment in favor of WEI.

III. CONCLUSION

We affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s motion for leave to amend her complaint because the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where Ms. Hamric did not attempt to satisfy the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(b) standard for amending the Scheduling Order. We also affirm the denial of Ms. Hamric’s discovery motions, holding the magistrate judge did not abuse her discretion where the items Ms. Hamric sought to discover were either already in the record, were not necessary to determine the validity of the liability release, or went to Ms. Hamric’s effort to obtain exemplary damages, which she could not pursue given the denial of her motion for leave to amend her complaint. Finally, applying de novo review to the choice-of-law issue and the issue regarding the validity of the liability release, we conclude Colorado law applies and the release is valid and enforceable under that law. Therefore, we affirm the magistrate judge’s grant of summary judgment to WEI.

———

Notes:

[ 1]Here, we summarize the Registration Form and the Medical Form. Copies of the full forms, taken from the Appendix submitted by Ms. Hamric, are attached to this opinion. We rely on the full forms, and all of the language thereon, when conducting our analysis. Further, as discussed infra at 25-27, Section II(C)(2)(b)(ii), while the Registration Form and Medical Form could be viewed as separate forms, Colorado law requires us to consider both forms together when conducting our analysis.

[ 2]Throughout our opinion, we cite simultaneously to the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, App. Vol. I at 57- 58, and the Registration Form or Medical Form attached to Ms. Hamric’s response to WEI’s motion for summary judgment, id. at 83-84. Although the language of the two sets of forms are identical, the clarity of the text varies somewhat, seemingly based on the proficiency of the respective copy machines used by the parties.

[ 3]In quoting the forms, we seek to replicate the font size, spacing, and bolding of the text of the Registration Form and Medical Form completed by Mr. Hamric.

[ 4] Under Colorado law: A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by [§ 13-21-102 of the Colorado Revised Statutes] may not be included in any initial claim for relief. A claim for exemplary damages in an action governed by this section may be allowed by amendment to the pleadings only after the exchange of initial disclosures . . . and the plaintiff establishes prima facie proof of a triable issue.

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-102(1.5)(a).

[ 5]Although Ms. Hamric’s action sounds in tort law, on appeal, the parties do not contend that tort principles provide the framework for the choice-of-law analysis regarding the liability release. Thus, we reach no conclusion as to whether Colorado law or Texas law would govern if tort principles played a role in the choice-of-law analysis.

[ 6]While the magistrate judge incorrectly stated the standard governing WEI’s motion for summary judgment, it is not apparent the magistrate judge’s analysis and conclusion that WEI was entitled to summary judgment hinged on Ms. Hamric’s failure to identify evidence supporting each element of her negligence claim. Rather, the magistrate judge correctly granted WEI summary judgment based on the liability release and WEI’s affirmative defense.

[ 7]WEI has advanced inconsistent positions on whether the Registration Form and Medical Form comprised a single agreement. Although on appeal WEI argues the forms constitute a single agreement releasing liability, WEI’s Answer to Ms. Hamric’s Complaint treats the two forms as separate agreements, stating that “[d]ecedent Gerald Hamric executed a valid and enforceable liability release. Decedent Gerald Hamric also executed a medical evaluation.” App. Vol. I at 32 (emphasis added).

[ 8]Although we conclude that Colorado law, not Texas law, controls the validity of the liability release, infra at 28-33, Section II(C)(3), Texas law likewise permits a court to read separate but related documents together when determining the intent of the parties, see Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist. v. City of Fort Worth, 22 S.W.3d 831, 840 (Tex. 2000) (“The City’s argument ignores well-established law that instruments pertaining to the same transaction may be read together to ascertain the parties’ intent, even if the parties executed the instruments at different times and the instruments do not expressly refer to each other, and that a court may determine, as a matter of law, that multiple documents comprise a written contract. In appropriate instances, courts may construe all the documents as if they were part of a single, unified instrument.” (footnotes omitted)).

[ 9]Ms. Hamric also argues that the question of whether Mr. Hamric and WEI entered into a liability release was a question of fact for a jury. But Ms. Hamric withdrew her fact-based challenge to the authenticity of the forms. Further, under Colorado law, “[t]he determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court to determine.” Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). And, where a liability release has force only if it is “clear and unambiguous,” id., the question of the existence of a liability release and its validity are one in the same because if the language relied on by a defendant does not form a valid release, then no liability release exists.

[ 10] The omitted language marked by the ellipses also required a signor/participant to hold federal and state agencies harmless for injuries or death that might occur as a result of WEI-led activities on federal or state land. Like the rest of the release, this language is plain and clear such that any reasonably educated individual would understand the nature of the release as to these third parties.


Washington Appellate court reviews release law in 2021 and the requirements on when a release is ambiguous and/or conspicuous.

Like most other states, if you signed the release, you read and agree to the release. However, that is about the only similarity to release law in other states as pointed out in this decision.

McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

State: Washington, Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

Plaintiff: Carol J. McCoy

Defendant: PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2021

Summary

The release used by the health club stopped the lawsuit filed by the plaintiff for her injuries. However, this decision points out two very different requirements Washington’s law requires for a release to be valid. No release will work in all 43 states that allow the use of a release.

Facts

On February 1, 2016, McCoy entered into a membership agreement at Planet Fitness in Lacey. The first page of the two-page membership agreement begins with a section covering personal information, membership rate, and financial terms of the membership. The final sentence of this section states, “Cancellation & Billing Policies: I have read and understand the cancellation rights and billing policies on the front and back of this agreement,” followed by McCoy’s signature/initials. Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 25. Below McCoy’s signature/initials is a large box marked “PAYMENT AUTHORIZATION” with McCoy’s bank account information, and her signature after the paragraph authorizing a monthly membership fee payment.

In July 2016, McCoy fell from a stair stepper machine at Planet Fitness. She alleged that the emergency stop button failed to stop the machine, causing her injury. In January 2019, McCoy filed an amended complaint, naming Planet Fitness and the manufacturer of the machine, the Brunswick Corporation, [ 2] as defendants. She alleged claims of negligence and failure to provide a safe product.

Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that McCoy had signed an enforceable liability waiver. In support of its motion, it provided a copy of the membership agreement as well as excerpts from a transcript of McCoy’s deposition testimony. In her deposition, when shown the membership agreement, McCoy stated that she did not remember seeing the membership agreement before and that she did not remember signing it.

McCoy responded to the motion, arguing that the waiver provision in the membership agreement was inconspicuous and ambiguous, and because McCoy was not given an opportunity to read or review the agreement, it was unwittingly signed. In a supporting declaration, McCoy recalled the day she signed the membership agreement: 3.I was there for a short time, and I spoke to a person who appeared to be the manager, or at least was working behind the desk, who presented me with some documents to sign. He identified these documents as mere formalities and that I had to sign them in order to join the club. He showed me where to sign on a couple documents and I signed them, but I was not given an opportunity to read all the language, and when I mentioned that, he told me he would send me copies of these documents in the mail to my home address. He never did. 4.What little I could see of the documents was in very fine, small print which I could not read, at least on one of the documents, and the first time I saw the documents was at my deposition. I did not have time to read them at my deposition and I would have had difficulty anyway because the print was so small. . . . . As I said, the only direction I got from the person who was working behind the counter was to “sign here” and I did. He immediately took the documents back and told me that he would mail them to me, but I never received copies in the mail so I never really had an opportunity to review them before the incident occurred, or any time afterwards.

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

Washington’s law since 1988 has allowed the use of releases to allow parties to stop litigation.

The Washington Supreme Court has recognized the right of parties “‘expressly to agree in advance that the defendant is under no obligation of care for the benefit of the plaintiff, and shall not be liable for the consequences of conduct which would otherwise be negligent.'”

Washington has three ways to void releases, one that is found in most states and two slightly different ways. The first, a release fails if it violates public policy. This means the release is void based on who the release is attempting to protect or the services being offered that are to be covered by the release. However, in Washington, the state has adopted six factors to define public policy.

Six factors are considered in determining whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy. The court considers whether (1) the agreement concerns an endeavor of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation; (2) the party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public; (3) such party holds itself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established; (4) because of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks the services; (5) in exercising a superior bargaining power, the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence; and (6) the person or property of members of the public seeking such services must be placed under the control of the furnisher of the services, subject to the risk of carelessness on the part of the furnisher, its employees or agents. Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist. 105-157-166J, 110 Wash.2d 845, 851-55, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (citing Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal.2d 92, 32 Cal.Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 446 (1963)).

The second and third ways are very different from other states. If the negligent act falls below the standard of protection for others, it is void. This phrase is not defined in Washington’s law that I can find, even though it is quoted in several cases. I am guessing it is similar to a gross negligence argument. The act or omission of the defendant was so great as to far exceed negligence. However, I’m not sure.

Generally, a liability waiver or exculpatory clause in a contract is “enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.” The first two exceptions are not at issue here. A liability waiver provision is not enforceable if the releasing language is “‘so inconspicuous that reasonable persons could reach different conclusions as to whether the document was unwittingly signed.’

The inconspicuous argument was the main argument made by the defendant in this case and discussed by the court. Washington has six factors to determine if the language in a contract is inconspicuous.

Courts look to several factors in deciding whether a liability waiver provision is conspicuous, including: (1) whether the waiver provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, (2) whether the heading or caption of the provision is clear, (3) whether the waiver provision is set off in capital letters or in bold type, (4) whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, (5) what the language says above the signature line, and (6) whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver provision.

The is far more requirements than most states, in fact; most states only require the waiver or release provisions be set apart or not hidden within the contract. Washington also requires that there be a heading or caption providing notice of the importance of the release or waiver section. That language of the exculpatory provisions must be in capital letters or bold type. The signature on the document must be below the exculpatory provisions. That means if your contract has a signature on the front of the document but references release language on the back, the release will be void.

The language above the signature line must indicate the person is giving up their legal rights or the signature line must be specifically below the release provisions, and the signature must clearly relate to the release provisions.

This six-part analysis of conspicuous is not done individually but looking at the agreement as a whole. Yet the analysis the court made was of each point of the test and reviewed individually, not as a whole.

We do not look to whether the plaintiff unwittingly signed the form from her subjective viewpoint, but whether, “objectively, the waiver provision was so inconspicuous that it is unenforceable.” Essentially, if the waiver provision is hidden, i.e. inconspicuous, it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, even if the waiver provision is conspicuous, and a person signs without reading it, the provision is enforceable unless the signor was not given an opportunity to read it. (“[A] person who signs an agreement without reading it is bound by its terms as long as there was ‘ample opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as he cared, and he failed to do so for his own personal reasons.'”)

The following two pages of analysis in the decision by the court looked at the release in detail to determine if the six factors had been met. The court found the waiver language in the contract was conspicuous and thus valid.

The next argument made by the plaintiff was the plaintiff did not have time to read the release.

McCoy admits that she did not read the agreement. Even though she did not read the agreement, she would be bound by its terms only if there was opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as she cared, and she failed to do so for her own personal reasons. (“Where a party has signed a contract without reading it, that party cannot successfully argue that mutual assent was lacking as long as the party was not deprived of the opportunity to read the contract.”).

Basically, if you signed the agreement, you have read and understood the agreement.

So Now What?

No release or waiver can be written to satisfy the laws of all 50 states or the 43 states that allow the use of a release or waiver. Even though Washington’s law is similar to the law in most states, it is very different in several aspects, enough so that if you operate in or are based in Washington your release must be written to meet Washington’s law.

No other state has the requirements for conspicuous that are required for a waiver or release to be valid like Washington’s law. It is specific and as stated by the court, if all six parts of the requirements are not met the release is void.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

McCoy v. PFWA Lacey, LLC, dba Planet Fitness,

Carol J. McCoy, a single person, Respondent,

PFWA Lacey, LLC, a Washington limited company, dba Planet Fitness, Petitioner,

and

BRUNSWICK CORPORATION, a foreign corporation, Defendant.

No. 54400-8-II

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

May 11, 2021

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Veljacic, J.

Carol McCoy brought suit against Planet Fitness-Lacey for negligence after she was injured using a fitness machine. Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that McCoy was precluded from bringing suit because she signed a membership agreement that contained a liability waiver provision.[ 1] McCoy argued that the waiver was inconspicuous and that she was not given an opportunity to read the membership agreement.

The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion, determining that material issues of fact remained regarding whether McCoy unwittingly signed the waiver provision because it was inconspicuous. Planet Fitness appeals. We reverse the order denying summary judgment because the waiver provision was conspicuous and McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of material fact bearing on whether she was provided an opportunity to read the membership agreement.

FACTS

On February 1, 2016, McCoy entered into a membership agreement at Planet Fitness in Lacey. The first page of the two-page membership agreement begins with a section covering personal information, membership rate, and financial terms of the membership. The final sentence of this section states, “Cancellation & Billing Policies: I have read and understand the cancellation rights and billing policies on the front and back of this agreement,” followed by McCoy’s signature/initials. Clerk’s Papers (CP) at 25. Below McCoy’s signature/initials is a large box marked “PAYMENT AUTHORIZATION” with McCoy’s bank account information, and her signature after the paragraph authorizing a monthly membership fee payment.

The waiver provision is found below the payment authorization box, a little more than halfway down the first page of the agreement. Image Omitted

CPat25.

Below a dark line is a banner containing the bolded, capitalized words “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Directly below that banner is a paragraph in the same small sized font as the majority of the agreement that enumerates the waiver of legal rights. The waiver provision states that certain risks are inherent in physical activity and that the signer understands and voluntarily accepts responsibility for risk of injury or loss arising from the use of Planet Fitness facilities. It goes on to state twice that the member agrees that Planet Fitness is not liable for injury resulting from negligent conduct or omission of Planet Fitness or anyone acting on its behalf. The second paragraph of the waiver provision reads: I understand that I am not obligated to sign this agreement and should not do so if there are any unfilled blanks. I understand my right of cancellation and the billing and refund policies. I understand my release of liability, assumption of risk and agreement to indemnify, defend and hold harmless and I have been given the opportunity to review and ask questions related to my use of facilities . . . and other equipment. . . . I agree to comply with Planet Fitness’ membership policies and club rules. . . . Planet fitness may, in its sole discretion, modify any policy or club rule at any time and from time to time without advance notice. Planet Fitness reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to refund the pro-rated cost of unused services. . . . By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.

CP at 25.

McCoy’s signature appears immediately below this paragraph, next to a Planet Fitness authorized signature.

Bold, capital letters at the bottom of the first page and underneath the signature line discuss the nonrefundable initiation fee, then an acknowledgement of receipt of a written description of the health studio services and equipment and a complete copy of the rules on separate lines, followed by lines for initials. Finally, the page details, again in bold capital letters, the process for cancellation of the membership agreement. The second page of the agreement has a large bold heading that reads “PLEASE READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS AGREEMENT BEFORE SIGNING.” CP at 26. The remaining language of the contract is immaterial to this appeal.

In July 2016, McCoy fell from a stair stepper machine at Planet Fitness. She alleged that the emergency stop button failed to stop the machine, causing her injury. In January 2019, McCoy filed an amended complaint, naming Planet Fitness and the manufacturer of the machine, the Brunswick Corporation, [ 2] as defendants. She alleged claims of negligence and failure to provide a safe product.

Planet Fitness filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing in part that McCoy had signed an enforceable liability waiver. In support of its motion, it provided a copy of the membership agreement as well as excerpts from a transcript of McCoy’s deposition testimony. In her deposition, when shown the membership agreement, McCoy stated that she did not remember seeing the membership agreement before and that she did not remember signing it.

McCoy responded to the motion, arguing that the waiver provision in the membership agreement was inconspicuous and ambiguous, and because McCoy was not given an opportunity to read or review the agreement, it was unwittingly signed. In a supporting declaration, McCoy recalled the day she signed the membership agreement: 3.I was there for a short time, and I spoke to a person who appeared to be the manager, or at least was working behind the desk, who presented me with some documents to sign. He identified these documents as mere formalities and that I had to sign them in order to join the club. He showed me where to sign on a couple documents and I signed them, but I was not given an opportunity to read all the language, and when I mentioned that, he told me he would send me copies of these documents in the mail to my home address. He never did. 4.What little I could see of the documents was in very fine, small print which I could not read, at least on one of the documents, and the first time I saw the documents was at my deposition. I did not have time to read them at my deposition and I would have had difficulty anyway because the print was so small. . . . . As I said, the only direction I got from the person who was working behind the counter was to “sign here” and I did. He immediately took the documents back and told me that he would mail them to me, but I never received copies in the mail so I never really had an opportunity to review them before the incident occurred, or any time afterwards.

CP at 140-41.

In reply, Planet Fitness argued that the waiver provision was conspicuous under Washington law, and provided a screen shot of an undated e-mail from Planet Fitness to McCoy with a copy of McCoy’s signed membership agreement attached.

The court denied Planet Fitness’s motion for summary judgment. Planet Fitness filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court also denied. We granted Planet Fitness’s motion for discretionary review.

ANALYSIS

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Chauvlier v. Booth Creek Ski Holdings, Inc., 109 Wn.App. 334, 338, 35 P.3d 383 (2001). On a motion for summary judgment, we view all evidence and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 338-39. Where different competing inferences may be drawn from the evidence, the issue must be resolved by the trier of fact. Kuyper v. Dep’t. of Wildlife, 79 Wn.App. 732, 739, 904 P.2d 793 (1995). On appeal, we review an order denying summary judgement de novo. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 339.

On appeal, Planet Fitness argues that the court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment, because McCoy signed an enforceable liability waiver provision. Planet Fitness contends that the liability waiver provision was so conspicuous that it could not have been unwittingly signed and is therefore enforceable. McCoy argues that a genuine issue of material fact remains as to whether the waiver provision was conspicuous and whether she was given adequate opportunity to read the membership agreement.

II. Legal Principles

The Washington Supreme Court has recognized the right of parties “‘expressly to agree in advance that the defendant is under no obligation of care for the benefit of the plaintiff, and shall not be liable for the consequences of conduct which would otherwise be negligent.'” Wagenblast v. Odessa Sch. Dist., 110 Wn.2d 845, 848, 758 P.2d 968 (1988) (quoting W. Page Keeton, et al, Prosser and Keeton on Torts § 68, at 482 (5th ed. 1984)).

Generally, a liability waiver or exculpatory clause in a contract is “enforceable unless (1) it violates public policy, (2) the negligent act falls greatly below the legal standard for protection of others, or (3) it is inconspicuous.” Johnson v. Spokane to Sandpoint, LLC, 176 Wn.App. 453, 458, 309 P.3d 528 (2013). The first two exceptions are not at issue here. A liability waiver provision is not enforceable if the releasing language is “‘so inconspicuous that reasonable persons could reach different conclusions as to whether the document was unwittingly signed.'” Johnson v. UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. 533, 538, 210 P.3d 1021 (2009) (quoting McCorkle v. Hall, 56 Wn.App. 80, 83, 782 P.2d 574 (1989)).[ 3]

Courts look to several factors in deciding whether a liability waiver provision is conspicuous including: (1) whether the waiver provision is set apart or hidden within other provisions, (2) whether the heading or caption of the provision is clear, (3) whether the waiver provision is set off in capital letters or in bold type, (4) whether there is a signature line below the waiver provision, (5) what the language says above the signature line, and (6) whether it is clear that the signature is related to the waiver provision. See Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 202, 484 P.2d 405 (1971); McCorkle, 56 Wn.App. at 83-84; Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002).

We do not look to whether the plaintiff unwittingly signed the form from her subjective viewpoint, but whether, “objectively, the waiver provision was so inconspicuous that it is unenforceable.” Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Essentially, if the waiver provision is hidden, i.e. inconspicuous, it is unenforceable. Nevertheless, even if the waiver provision is conspicuous, and a person signs without reading it, the provision is enforceable unless the signor was not given an opportunity to read it. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 341 (“[A] person who signs an agreement without reading it is bound by its terms as long as there was ‘ample opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as he cared, and he failed to do so for his own personal reasons.'”) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Nat’l Bank of Wash. v. Equity Inv’rs, 81 Wn.2d 886, 913, 506 P.2d 20 (1973)).

III. Analysis

A. Conspicuousness of the Waiver Provision

We first consider whether the waiver provision is inconspicuous so as to invalidate the agreement. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 446. Here, the waiver provision contains some, but not all of the elements that we have found significant in determining the conspicuousness of waiver provisions.

1. The Waiver Provision is Set Apart from Other Provisions

To determine if the waiver provision is conspicuous, we first look at whether it is set apart or hidden within other provisions. In Baker, our Supreme Court held that the waiver provision was unenforceable because it was set in the middle of the agreement without anything to distinguish it from the rest of the terms of the agreement. 79 Wn.2d at 202. Here, the waiver provision is set off by a shaded banner or header with a title indicating that the subject of the following section is a “RELEASE OF LIABILITY” and “ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” CP at 25. The waiver language is not hidden within other provisions. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.

2. The Heading of the Waiver Provision is Clear

We also look to whether the heading or caption of the waiver provision is clear. For example, the plaintiff in McCorkle argued that the title “Liability Statement” in the agreement did not allow him to “conclude [that] future negligent conduct was being released.” 56 Wn.App. at 83. This court contrasted the title “Liability Statement” with the release provisions in two earlier cases that were deemed conspicuous because their titles clearly and unambiguously indicated that they dealt with a waiver of liability. Id. In contrast, in Chauvlier, this court found clear and enforceable a waiver provision entitled “LIABILITY RELEASE & PROMISE NOT TO SUE. PLEASE READ CAREFULLY!” 109 Wn.App. at 342.

Here, the shaded header reads: “RELEASE OF LIABILITY,” “ASSUMPTION OF RISK,” “CLUB RULES,” and “BUYER’S NOTICE & RIGHT TO CANCEL.” CP at 25. Although the header indicates that release of liability and assumption of the risk are not the only topics of the following paragraphs, it is clear from the header what the following provision contains-namely, a release of liability and an assumption of the risk. The inclusion of the other two subjects does not make the heading of the provision unclear or the reader ignorant of what is contained below the shaded header. This factor supports a finding of conspicuousness.

3. The Appearance of the Waiver Provision Language is Not Emphasized We then look to the appearance or attributes of the waiver provision itself, like whether the words are emphasized in capital letters or in bold type. For example, in Stokes and Chauvlier, the words indicating release of liability appear in bold or capital letters throughout the provisions. 113 Wn.App. at 448; 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the body of the waiver provision is in the same size and type of text as the remainder of the form and has no bold or capital letters. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.

4. The Signature Line

We next consider the signature line and its relation to the waiver provision. Specifically, whether it is located below the waiver provision, what the language above the signature line indicates, and whether it is clear that the required signature is related to the release of liability. Chauvlier, 109 Wn.App. at 342; Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448; UBAR, LLC, 150 Wn.App. at 538.

a. The Signature Line is Below the Waiver Provision

Here, the signature line is below the waiver provision. This supports a finding of conspicuousness.

b. The Language Immediately Above the Signature Line does Not Relate only to the Waiver Provision

Here, although the signature line is located below the waiver provision, the signature and waiver are separated by an intervening paragraph. The first paragraph underneath the header relates to the waiver of liability. The second paragraph, situated directly above the signature line relates to the club rules and the right to cancel. This second paragraph also states: “By signing below, I acknowledge and agree to all of the terms contained on the front and back of this agreement.” CP at 25.

In Stokes, this court held that reasonable minds could not differ regarding the conspicuousness of a waiver provision contained in a retail installment contract. 113 Wn.App. at 448. This court’s determination relied in part on the fact that a statement immediately below the signature line said that the contract contained a waiver and release to which the signatory would be bound. Stokes, 113 Wn.App. at 448. In Chauvlier, this court relied in part on a statement directly above the signature line reading: “I have read, understood, and accepted the conditions of the Liability Release printed above” in making its determination that the waiver provision at issue was conspicuous and enforceable. 109 Wn.App. at 342. Here, the statement above the signature line is unlike those contained in the contracts held to be enforceable in Stokes and Chauvlier, because it relates to all provisions of the membership agreement, rather than only the waiver provision. This factor does not support a finding of conspicuousness.

c. The Required Signature Relates to the Waiver Provision

Although separated by a paragraph, the signature line clearly relates to the waiver provision because it is spatially oriented near the waiver provision. It is within the area set off by the large banner described above and by its own language relates to the “all of the terms contained” in the agreement. CP at 25. This factor also favors a finding of conspicuousness.

In summary, although the signature line does not correspond solely to the waiver provision, the provision is set apart from the other provisions of the contract by a banner, the caption heading within the banner clearly identifies the contents of the waiver, the signature line is below the waiver provision and it clearly relates to the waiver provision. We conclude that the waiver provision is conspicuous.

B. Opportunity to Examine the Agreement

McCoy admits that she did not read the agreement. Even though she did not read the agreement, she would be bound by its terms only if there was opportunity to examine the contract in as great a detail as she cared, and she failed to do so for her own personal reasons. Yakima County ( W.Valley) Fire Prot. Dist. No. 12 v. City of Yakima, 122 Wn.2d 371, 389, 858 P.2d 245 (1993) (“Where a party has signed a contract without reading it, that party cannot successfully argue that mutual assent was lacking as long as the party was not deprived of the opportunity to read the contract.”).

McCoy asserts that the Planet Fitness employee identified the agreement as a “mere formalit[y]” that she had to sign in order to join the club. CP at 140. The employee “showed [her] where to sign on a couple documents and [she] signed them, but [she] was not given an opportunity to read all the language” because he immediately took the papers back. CP at 140-41. When McCoy mentioned that she had not been able to read them, he told her that he would mail them to her home address. McCoy was apparently satisfied with not reading it before signing. Although McCoy asserts that she was not given the opportunity to read the membership agreement, there is no indication that she could not have read the contract either before or after she signed it if she had asked. Additionally, McCoy sought out the membership and there is no evidence that she was coerced. The waiver was conspicuous as a matter of law, McCoy has not shown that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. In any case, even if she felt rushed to sign the document, the waiver language was, as a matter of law, conspicuous enough for her to notice it.

CONCLUSION

The liability waiver was conspicuous. McCoy did not demonstrate an issue of fact regarding her opportunity to read the membership agreement. Accordingly, we reverse.[ 4]

A majority of the panel having determined that this opinion will not be printed in the Washington Appellate Reports, but will be filed for public record in accordance with RCW 2.06.040, it is so ordered.

We concur: Worswick, J. Lee, C.J.

Notes:

[ 1] Alternatively, the parties and witnesses refer to the “membership agreement” as “the documents” and “the contract.” We will refer to it as the “membership agreement” throughout this opinion. The liability waiver provision is contained within the membership agreement. Throughout the remainder of this opinion, we will refer to this provision simply as the “waiver provision.”

[ 2] The claims against Brunswick are not at issue in this appeal.

[ 3] Although the inconspicuousness of a waiver provision appears to be a factual inquiry, the Supreme Court in Baker v. City of Seattle, 79 Wn.2d 198, 484 P.2d 405 (1971), determined that a liability waiver provision hidden in the middle of an agreement was so inconspicuous that, as a matter of public policy, it would be unconscionable to enforce it. Subsequent courts of appeal have treated the issue of conspicuousness, as the Baker holding implies, as a matter of law determined by the court. See e.g. Stokes v. Bally’s Pacwest, Inc., 113 Wn.App. 442, 448, 54 P.3d 161 (2002)(“The language is conspicuous, as a matter of law, and it was not unwittingly signed.”).

[ 4] Because we reverse the denial of summary judgment, we do not reach the issue of whether the court abused its discretion in denying the motion for reconsideration.


Putting a saddle on a horse does not turn a livery into a saddle manufacturer. Release stops negligence claims and law stops product liability claims.

A woman who fell off a horse while on a horseback ride. She sued for negligence, which the release stopped, product liability which the law stopped and willful and wanton conduct, which will proceed to trial.

Messer v. Hi Country Stables Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2675, 2013 WL 93183

State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Alva Messer

Defendant: Hi Country Stables Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: negligence; product liability; and, willful and wanton conduct

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: Mostly for defendant, however plaintiff could continue on willful and wanton claims

Year: 2013

Summary

A woman purchased a trail ride from the defendant. On the ride, her saddle slipped, and she fell off the horse. She sued for negligence which the release stopped, product’s liability, which failed because the stable is not a manufacturer and willful and wanton conduct. The court allowed the willful and wanton claim to proceed.

Facts

On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff Alva Messer purchased a guided horseback ride from Hi County Stables. Defendant HCS operates commercial horse-back riding at Glacier Creek Stables in Rocky Mountain National Park (“RMNP”). HCS is one of two equestrian companies owned by Rex Walker. The other equestrian company is Sombrero Ranches, Inc. (“SRI”). Before beginning any guided horseback ride, both companies require customers to sign an exculpatory contract, titled “Release” (hereafter “the Release” or “Release Forms”). The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are identical, except for the name of the company being released from liability. The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are printed in tablets containing 100 tear-away forms per tablet. Once printed, the printing company delivers the tablets to the offices of HCS and SRI.

At the start of the 2009 riding season, one tablet of Release Forms labeled SRI was placed in a box of office supplies for delivery to HCS. For reasons that are unexplained by Defendant, those same Release Forms—which Released SRI from liability—were used by HCS at Glacier Creek Stables on July 16, 2009.

Typically, when customers arrive at HCS, they are informed that they must sign a Release. Amongst other employees at HCS, Dallas Marshall informs customers that they are required to sign the Release and “mark their riding ability.”

When the Messers arrived at HCS on July 16, 2009, Marshall followed her normal practice and informed the Messers of the Release. She also requested that they indicate their riding ability, which Plaintiff did. Following this, and before commencing the guided horseback ride, Plaintiff signed the Release. The Release expressly provides that the customer “understands. . .the specific risks. . .arising from riding a horse. . .and that the [customer] nevertheless intentionally agree[s] to assume these risks.”

After signing the Release, Plaintiff entered the corral where she was assigned her horse before commencing the trail ride. The wrangler who led the guests on Plaintiff’s trail ride was Terry Humphrey.

Plaintiff encountered problems with her saddle during the trail ride which required adjustment by Plaintiff and Humphrey.

At the midway point, the Messer group stopped to take a rest break. Plaintiff encountered further problems with her saddle—including slippage of the saddle to the horse’s right.

Sometime later, as Plaintiff’s horse was stepping down a “rock stair” in the trail, Plaintiff fell off the right side of the horse (the “Incident.”) Plaintiff allegedly sustained serious injuries and economic loss resulting from the Incident.

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

The first issue was the fact the release that was signed did not name the proper defendant. Two stables were owned by the same person, each with different names. Each had a release that named it as the entity being protected. Somehow, a pad of the wrong releases ended up at the defendant, and the release signed by the plaintiff had the name of a different stable on it then where she was riding.

To make changes in a contract like this is called reformation. The court can reform a contract if the party’s intention when signing the contract is the same, and the language does not express the correct intention of the parties.

Reformation of a written instrument is appropriate only when the instrument does not represent the true agreement of the parties and the purpose of reformation is to give effect to the parties’ actual intentions.” Mutual mistake of a contract provides grounds for reformation if the written instrument “does not express the true intent or agreement of the parties.”

A mutual mistake must have occurred for a reformation to be effective.

An “essential prerequisite to a court’s power to reform a contract on the ground of mutual mistake is the existence of a prior agreement that represents the actual expectations of the parties and provides the basis upon which a court orders reformation.”

Because it was obvious that the plaintiff intended to go on a horseback ride with the defendant, where she signed the release, where she paid her money and where she took the ride, the court had no problems correcting the mutual mistake and placing the correct language in the release. This meant placing the name of the defendant in the position of the person to be protected by the release.

Accordingly, the Court finds that there was a mutual mistake at the time the Release was entered into. Mutual intent of the parties was to enter into an agreement whereby HCS would be released from certain claims. This provides the equitable basis to grant the relief. The Court orders that the name “Sombrero Ranches, Inc.” (SRI) be deleted and substituted with “Hi Country Stables” (HCS) in the Release.

The next issue was the validity of the release itself. Under Colorado law, there is a four-part test that a release must pass to be valid.

To determine whether the Release bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim, the Court must consider four factors: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The first three parts of the test the court quickly covered. Prior Colorado Supreme Court cases held that a recreational activity owes no duty to the public; horseback riding is not an essential service that would bar the release under part two of the test and there was no evidence the release was entered into unfairly.

The fourth test the court also found was valid with this release.

With respect to the fourth factor, the Court looks to the language of the Release to elicit its intent. The Court must determine “whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”

It was obvious that the intent of the parties was to decide in advance who would pay for the injuries of any patron of the ride. The release in this case repeatedly used the word negligence throughout the document so the plaintiff knew the purpose of the release. The release also pointed out specific risks of horseback riding that the signor could suffer.

The release was valid to stop the negligence claims.

The next issue was the product liability claim. The plaintiff argued that since the defendant had placed the saddle in the stream of commerce, by placing it on the horse, it was liable for any injuries caused by the defectiveness of the saddle.

The defendant argued that the release stopped this claim also. However, the law in Colorado is that a release cannot stop a product liability claim.

That case held that an agreement releasing “a manufacturer from strict products liability for personal injury, in exchange for nothing more than an individual consumer’s right to have or use the product, necessarily violates the public policy of this jurisdiction and is void.”

The court found the product liability claim was not barred by the release. However, the court did hold that just placing a saddle on a horse for a trail ride does not create a product liability claim for defective equipment in Colorado. Horseback riding is a service; it is not a manufacturing process. Placing a saddle on the horse does not change that. The horse-riding service could not exist (for 99.9% of the people) without the saddle.

Plaintiff entered into a contract for a guided five-hour horseback ride through RMNP. This service primarily relied upon a horse (which is not a product) and a saddle (which incidental to that service). Without a product, the product liability claims cannot succeed.

The saddle was not an item manufactured by the defendant; it was incidental to the service being offered by the defendant and so the product liability claim failed. Finally, the defendant was not a manufacturer of saddles.

The final issues were the claims for willful and wanton conduct. A release cannot bar claims that are greater than negligence, willful and wanton conduct or gross negligence.

Willful and wanton conduct claims are mental state claims. Meaning the claim goes to the actions, the mental state of the defendant in ignoring or creating the issue. This require conscious thought, not simple failure. “…willful and wanton conduct requires a mental state “consonant with purpose, intent and voluntary choice.”

The court then allowed the plaintiffs claims based on willful and wanton conduct of the defendant to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

First, there is a need to look at the product liability claim. Not in the fact that most recreation businesses are manufacturing items, but because they are repairing them. Although you can find outfitter made items such as old raft frames, most items used now days are manufactured by a third party. However, many outfitters and recreation businesses do repair items.

Repairing an item may bring the outfitter into the trial under a product liability claim in many states. The outfitter by making repairs has entered into the stream of commerce between the manufacturer and the end user. The outfitter is no longer a user of the product, but a manufacturer of the product.

Remember there are some items you should never repair or that may be illegal to repair.

PFD’s cannot be repaired by law. Climbing harnesses or any other item where the failure would result in catastrophic injury or death or where the manufacturing process is protected by statute or standard should never be repaired.

The reformation issue was stupid. The cost of printing one set of releases on tan paper and the other on white would have eliminated this problem. Other examples would be putting the page numbers on the bottom right of one release and the center or top of the other. Locating the logo of the defendant in a different location on each release would have worked. Anything to that any employee can recognize that they are using the wrong release.

Some day there will be a horseback riding case that does not involve a slipping saddle. Why there still are, is a mystery to me, and I grew up with horses.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 225856, 2018 WL 8332583

United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division

November 15, 2018, Decided; November 15, 2018, Filed

5:17-CV-05047-JLV

Reporter

Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; Plaintiffs, vs. Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner, Defendant.

Subsequent History: Objection overruled by, Adopted by, Summary judgment granted by, in part, Summary judgment denied by, in part Reed v. Union Resort, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49327 (D.S.D., Mar. 25, 2019)

Counsel:  [*1] For Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a minor, other, I.R., Plaintiffs: Kenneth E. Barker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Barker Wilson Law Firm, LLP, Belle Fourche, SD.

For Union Resort, LLC, doing business as Mystic Miner, Defendant: Shane E. Eden, LEAD ATTORNEY, Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz & Smith, LLP, Sioux Falls, SD.

Judges: VERONICA L. DUFFY, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: VERONICA L. DUFFY

Opinion

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the court on the amended complaint of Brad and Tara Reed as conservators of I.R., their minor daughter. See Docket No. 16. The Reeds allege claims of negligence and gross negligence against defendant Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner (defendant) arising out of a tubing accident at defendant’s ski resort. Id. This matter rests on the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

Defendant has now filed a motion for summary judgment. See Docket No. 21. The Reeds oppose the motion. See Docket No. 30. The motion was referred to this magistrate judge for a recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), the order of referral dated November 11, 2018 (Doc. 42), and the [*2]  October 16, 2014, standing order of the Honorable Jeffrey L. Viken, Chief United States District Judge.

FACTS

Defendant filed a statement of undisputed material facts, Docket No. 22, to which the Reeds have responded, Docket No. 31. The following facts have been drawn from those pleadings with disputes or discrepancies as noted.

On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.

Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants. [*3] 

The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.

After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.

At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.

The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately [*4]  50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.

During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).

On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has [*5]  finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”

At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.

Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant [*6]  employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.

From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. See Docket No. 25-5 at p. 7 (depo. pp. 25-26). Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope. Id. at p. 6 (depo. pp. 22-24).2

After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.

If a lightweight child descended the slope with [*7]  a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.

No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.

The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with [*8]  a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.

From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.

Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose [*9]  tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.

The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.

DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

The court must view the facts, and inferences from those facts, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S. Ct. 993, 8 L. Ed. 2d 176 (1962)); Helton v. Southland Racing Corp., 600 F.3d 954, 957 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Summary judgment will not lie if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994).

The burden is placed on the moving party to establish both the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Once the movant has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not simply rest on the allegations in the pleadings, but [*10]  must set forth specific facts, by affidavit or other evidence, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256; Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) (each party must properly support its own assertions of fact and properly address the opposing party’s assertions of fact, as required by Rule 56(c)).

The underlying substantive law identifies which facts are “material” for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. (citing 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice And Procedure § 2725, at 93-95 (3d ed. 1983)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 247-48.

Essentially, the availability of summary judgment turns on whether a proper jury question is presented: “The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial—whether, in other words, there are any genuine [*11]  factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.

B. Does the Release Signed by the Reeds Bar Their Claims?

Defendant’s first argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the clear and plain language of the release signed by the Reeds bars their claims and that there is no overriding public policy that serves to neutralize the release.

South Dakota law4 provides that a valid release of liability bars claims for ordinary negligence, but does not bar claims for gross or willful negligence or recklessness. Holzer v. Dakota Speedway, Inc., 2000 SD 65, 610 N.W.2d 787, 792-93 (S.D. 2000). The Reeds do not argue that the release was invalid in any way or that the activity I.R. was engaged in when she was injured was outside the scope of the release. In fact, the Reeds concede that their first claim in their amended complaint for ordinary negligence is barred by defendant’s release. See Docket No. 30 at p. 5. Accordingly, the court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to the Reeds’ claim for ordinary negligence, count one of the amended complaint, be granted.

C. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Gross Negligence?

Defendant argues the facts alleged [*12]  by the Reeds, even if true, allege a claim for ordinary negligence only, not gross negligence. Thus, since ordinary negligence is barred by the release, defendant argues it should be granted summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim too.

Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Fischer v. City of Sioux Falls, 919 N.W.2d 211, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2 (S.D., 2018). Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Id. Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Id. (citing W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 34, at 212 (5th ed. 1984)). Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. Id. 2018 SD 71, [WL] at *3. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions [*13]  of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. Id. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Id. Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” Id. There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.” Id. (all quotes from Fischer cleaned up).

The evidence must show more than “mere mistake, inadvertence, or inattention . . . there need not be an affirmative wish to injure another, but, instead, a willingness to injure another.” Gabriel v. Bauman, 2014 SD 30, 847 N.W.2d 537, 541 (S.D. 2014)). Generally, whether the facts constitute gross negligence is a question of fact “if reasonable minds might differ in interpreting the facts in arriving at different conclusions on whether the defendant was willful, wanton, or reckless.” Id. at 542. “Because willfulness, wantonness, or recklessness is almost never admitted, and can be proved only by the conduct and the circumstances, an objective standard must of necessity in practice be applied. Id. at 542-43.

Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence [*14]  is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Fischer, 2018 SD 71, 2018 WL 4779267 at *2. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.

The Reeds posit three facts in support of their assertion the defendant in this case acted grossly negligent (or willfully and wantonly) with regard to I.R. First, the defendant had a practice of leaving tubes with tears in the canvas bottoms in rotation for guests to use because the torn tubes were slower and, therefore, in the eyes of defendant’s employees, safer. Second, the defendant knew the importance of staging—having [*15]  an employee at the top of the tube run to meter the guests as they descended the slope so that one guest could clear the run before the next guest began descending—but made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run on the day of I.R.’s accident. And, finally, the existence of prior collisions on the tube run put the defendant on notice of the likelihood of harm.

Neither party speaks to the magnitude of the harm which, as discussed above, is one of the two factors distinguishing ordinary negligence from gross negligence. The defendant does not cite facts or circumstances to show that the prior collisions were minor bump-and-bruise types of encounters. The Reeds do not cite facts or circumstances to show the prior collisions resulted in concussions, closed head injuries, broken bones, surgeries or hospitalizations. The Reeds have supported their assertion that I.R.’s injuries were sufficiently serious—a fractured skull–something defendant does not dispute. Because the moving party has the burden, the court makes all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Accordingly, the court infers that previous accidents were sufficiently severe in nature to [*16]  satisfy the standard required for gross negligence.

Likewise, with regard to the number of prior incidents, neither party has placed into the record what the total number of tubers was during the period of time covered by the incidents. This fact goes to the likelihood of a collision—for gross negligence, there must be a greater probability of harm occurring than is the case with ordinary negligence. If 17 collisions occurred between fall of 2010 and March 15, 2015, and there were 5,000 tubers during that time, the number of prior accidents takes on one type of significance. But the significance of the number of prior accidents is different if the total number of tubers during that time frame is 100, 300, or even 500. There is a significantly bigger risk of harm the smaller the total number of tubers. Although the defendant alleges there were “thousands” of tubers, it has not supported that assertion with citation to an affidavit, deposition, or authenticated document. Again, there is a lack of evidence.

Also, neither party describes the scope of defendant’s incident reports. Do they encompass all kinds of incidents—those attributable to conditions on the slopes within defendant’s control [*17]  as well as incidents attributable to factors not within defendant’s control? Do they encompass heart attacks and strokes as well as collisions? Do the reports include drunken brawls between guests as well as injuries inflicted when a tow bar snaps?

Furthermore, is there any evidence suggesting that not all collisions at defendant’s resort are documented in incident reports? Are the incident reports the tip of the iceberg—or are they truly representative of all injuries occurring at defendant’s resort?

Finally, defendant does not dispute that no employee was stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident. The Reeds assert that defendant was “chronically understaffed” and that defendant made a “deliberate decision” not to place an employee at the top of the tube run that day. The Reeds have amply supported their assertion that defendant was chronically understaffed, with the result that positions that should have been filled by employees were left unattended. See Docket Nos. 33-4, 33-5, & 33-8. The Reeds also supplied testimony that, when there were not enough employees, the defendant prioritized putting an employee at the bottom of the tube slope rather than at the [*18]  top of the slope. See Docket No. 33-4 at p. 5 (depo p. 20). From these two facts, the Reeds infer that defendant made a “deliberate decision” the day of the accident not to place an employee at the top of the tube slope to stage the tubers.

Defendant disputes that it made a “deliberate decision” not to have an employee staging the tubers that day. Defendant’s disagreement with the Reeds’ assertion is based solely on the fact that they do not have testimony from any witness stating outright that a calculated decision was made. Defendant seems to assert that the Reeds may not rely upon an inference, but must have affirmative evidence of the fact a “deliberate decision” was made.

The court makes two observations. Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542-43. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Co., 475 U.S. at 587-88. Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did [*19]  not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant attempts to eliminate a genuine issue of fact as to the presence of a staging employee by asserting that there was in fact an employee at the top of the tube hill with a radio. See Docket No. 34 at p. 6. In support of this assertion of fact, defendant cites Mr. and Mrs. Reeds’ depositions and argues they cannot claim a version of facts more favorable than their own testimony, an old chestnut of South Dakota Law.

Reading the Reeds’ depositions, however, leads one to conclude defendant’s assertion is, if not outright untrue, certainly misleading. Both Mr. and Mrs. Reed testified no one was at the top of the hill staging the tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. p. 30); Docket No. 27-5 at p. 7 (depo. p. 25). Prior to the accident, both the Reeds had observed a young man with a radio they assumed was defendant’s employee at the top of the hill during one or two of the Reed party’s previous 15-20 tube runs. However, the young man never provided instruction to the tubers about when to go down the slope—he was not staging the tubers. Docket No. 27-1 at p. 10 (depo. [*20]  pp. 39-40). Thus, the Reeds have sustained their assertion of fact that defendant had no employee stationed at the top of the tube hill to stage tubers at the time of I.R.’s accident.

Defendant’s motion is decided with resort to two veins of law. First, the law applicable to summary judgment. As the movant, defendant has the burden to show that there are no genuine disputes of material fact and that, based upon those undisputed facts, it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. All of the absences of crucial fact detailed by the court above cut against defendant as the moving party. Furthermore, all of the inferences from the facts that are present in the record must be drawn in favor of the Reeds. Applying those standards to the issue before the court, the conclusion is inescapable that there are genuine issues of material fact existing which prevent summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

The second vein of law which comes into play is the dictate of South Dakota law that, ordinarily, questions of whether a defendant acted with gross negligence are questions of fact for the jury if reasonable minds could differ as to the inferences to draw from the known facts. Gabriel, 847 N.W.2d at 542. That is the situation [*21]  here. The court recommends that defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the Reeds’ gross negligence claim be denied.

D. Are There Material Factual Disputes as to Assumption of the Risk?

Defendant’s final argument in favor of its summary judgment motion is that the Reeds assumed the risk of their daughter’s accident as a matter of law, thereby relieving defendant of any liability. The court addresses the first question apparent by defendant’s argument: whether assumption of the risk is even a defense to a claim of gross negligence. As legal authority for its position, defendant cites only the Restatement (Second) of Torts 496A, cmt. d (1965), and a dissenting opinion in Barger for Wares v. Cox, 372 N.W.2d 161, 170-71 (S.D. 1985) (Wuest, J., dissenting). See Defendant’s Brief, Docket No. 23 at pp. 29-30. Neither of these authorities represent binding South Dakota law.

The Reeds in their brief do not address the issue of whether assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence. They argue only that assumption of the risk is a quintessential issue of fact for the jury. See Docket No. 30 at pp. 13-14.

In the Holzer case discussed previously, the plaintiff signed defendant’s release of liability form which defendant called an “assumption of the risk” form. Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 790. The court held [*22]  in that case that liability releases only serve to protect defendants from claims of ordinary negligence, not from claims of gross negligence. Id. at 793. However, the title the defendant chose to give its release form is not dispositive of the question in this case.

The South Dakota Supreme Court has said that when a defendant’s actions are merely negligent, the defense of contributory negligence applies. But when the defendant’s conduct is willful and wanton, the defense of contributory negligence does not apply. Carlson v. Johnke, 57 S.D. 544, 234 N.W. 25, 27-28 (S.D. 1931), overruled on other grounds Wittstruck v. Lee, 62 S.D. 290, 252 N.W. 874, 877 (S.D. 1934) (clarifying that it did not adopt the doctrine of comparative negligence in Johnke).

In a dissenting opinion in another case, Justice Henderson stated that while assumption of the risk was a defense to ordinary negligence, the plaintiff would nonetheless have recourse for willful or wanton acts of a defendant. Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass’n. , 514 N.W.2d 693, 703 (S.D. 1994) (Henderson, J., dissenting). See Rantapaa v. Black Hills Chair Lift Co., 2001 SD 111, 633 N.W.2d 196, 204 (S.D. 2001) (assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense to an ordinary negligence claim).

The court has found no South Dakota case directly on point addressing whether the defense of assumption of the risk applies to grossly negligent or willful and wanton conduct. Defendant cites § 496A, comment d, of the Restatement (Second) of Torts for the proposition that the defense is [*23]  available here. The section cited stands for the proposition that assumption of the risk is a defense to both ordinary negligence and to reckless conduct. The section does not address gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct. However, it is true that the South Dakota Supreme Court has, at times, used the word “reckless” interchangeably with “gross negligence” and “willful and wanton.”

If assumption of the risk is a defense to a claim of gross negligence, it is a subjective standard. Duda v. Phatty McGees, Inc., 2008 SD 115, 758 N.W.2d 754, 758 (S.D. 2008). Defendant has the burden to prove that “the particular plaintiff in fact sees, knows, understands and appreciates” the specific risk that caused the injury. Id. The defendant must prove three elements: (1) the plaintiff had actual or constructive knowledge of the risk; (2) the plaintiff appreciated its character; and (3) the plaintiff voluntarily accepted the risk, with the time, knowledge, and experience to make an intelligent choice. Id. “A person is deemed to have appreciated the risk if it is the type of risk that no adult of average intelligence can deny.” Id. (quoting Westover v. East River Elec. Power Coop., Inc., 488 N.W.2d 892, 901 (S.D. 1992)) (cleaned up).

The Restatement states that a plaintiff who knows generally of a danger does not necessarily assume the risk if [*24]  the danger appears to be slight or negligible. See
Restatement (Second) Torts §496D, cmt. b. The Restatement also echoes what South Dakota law establishes: because the standard for assumption of the risk is a subjective one based on whether the plaintiff knows of the existence of the risk as well as understands its magnitude and unreasonable character, the question of assumption of the risk is almost always a question of fact for the jury to decide. Id.; Ray v. Downes, 1998 SD 40, 576 N.W.2d 896, 900 (S.D. 1998).

Here, the Reeds have established that neither they nor their children had ever been tubing before the day they visited defendant’s resort. See Docket No. 27-1 at p.3 (depo. p. 12). They anticipated that tubing at defendant’s resort would be safe, fun and would build family memories. See Docket No. 33-1 at p. 103. Furthermore, there is no evidence produced by defendant showing that the Reeds anticipated, understood, and accepted the risk that defendant would provide no employee at the top of the tube run to stage the tubers—contrary to defendant’s own policy and its prominent signage at the resort (i.e. follow attendant’s instructions when going down the tube run).

The defense of assumption of the risk is a subjective one. There are material issues of fact as to what the [*25]  Reeds knew and appreciated in terms of the risk they and I.R. would encounter when tubing at defendant’s resort. Assuming that the defense applies at all to a claim of gross negligence, the court concludes summary judgment is inappropriate on this record.

Conclusion

Based on the foregoing facts, law and analysis, this magistrate judge respectfully recommends granting in part and denying in part defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Docket No. 21. Specifically, the court recommends defendant’s motion should be granted as to plaintiff’s claim for ordinary negligence, but recommends defendant’s motion should be denied as to plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence.

Notice To Parties

The parties have fourteen (14) days after service of this Report and Recommendation to file written objections pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), unless an extension of time for good cause is obtained. Failure to file timely objections will result in the waiver of the right to appeal questions of fact. Objections must be timely and specific in order to require de novo review by the District Court. Thompson v. Nix, 897 F.2d 356 (8th Cir. 1990); Nash v. Black, 781 F.2d 665 (8th Cir. 1986).

DATED November 15, 2018.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Veronica L. Duffy

VERONICA L. DUFFY

United States Magistrate Judge


Federal District Court applying South Dakota law finds release was ineffective in stopping claims for injury that did not occur because of the risk the plaintiff was anticipating.

The plaintiff in this case signed a release to hunt, but was injured by an ATV waiting to hunt. As such the release did not apply.

Wimmer v. Top Gun Guide Serv., 421 F. Supp. 3d 849, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888, 2019 WL 5558308

State: South Dakota

Plaintiff: Anthony Wimmer

Defendant: Top Gun Guide Service, Inc., John Does 1-5

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

A release must be written to cover all the risks your guests could suffer. Here the release covered hunting and did not cover being hit by an ATV when the plaintiff was not hunting. Write your release to inform your participants and to provide protection for you from all fronts.

Facts

This case arose from injuries that plaintiff Anthony Wimmer sustained while on a hunting trip hosted by defendant Top Gun near Aberdeen, South Dakota in April of 2015. Mr. Wimmer is a California resident and Top Gun is a Minnesota corporation. Id. On or about April 9, 2015, Mr. Wimmer arrived in Aberdeen, though he did not hunt on that day. At some point on April 9th, Mr. Wimmer signed a waiver purporting to release Top Gun from liability arising from the hunting trip.

The parties agree that in his deposition Mr. Wimmer testified that he read the release before signing it and that he did not disagree with anything contained therein. Mr. Wimmer also agreed in his deposition that hunting and fishing is a dangerous activity.

On April 10th, Mr. Wimmer arrived at the hunting site and began setting up hunting decoys. Shortly after having finished setting up the decoys, Mr. Wimmer was standing in the field where the hunt was to take place when he was struck from behind “by either an [all terrain vehicle (ATV)] or sled.” The sled was being towed behind the ATV. Id. The ATV was being operated by a Top Gun guide.

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

The plaintiff argued the normal arguments on why the release should fail. The main one was the release was written specific for the activity of and the risks created by hunting and fishing and at the time of the accident the plaintiff was doing neither of those things. Therefore, the release did not apply, his injuries were outside of the scope of the language of the release.

Plaintiff argues that he had no meaningful opportunity to negotiate the terms of the waiver and so it must be viewed as an “anticipatory release and contract of adhesion, which should be viewed with a skeptical and critical eye,” and any ambiguities should be construed against the drafter. Plaintiff argues that the waiver, by its terms, only applies to the limited activities of hunting and fishing. Plaintiff argues that his are not hunting injuries because, at the time of the accident, he had already finished setting up the decoys and was merely standing in the field waiting to be told what he should do next. Plaintiff urges that such activity should not be considered hunting.

The defendant argued the release was broad and covered the injury the plaintiff sustained and countered the plaintiff’s arguments.

Top Gun’s argument relies on the liability waiver being found to encompass the harm at issue in this case. Defendant then proceeds to argue that the waiver is valid and its enforcement would not contravene South Dakota’s public policy. Defendant argues that releases involving voluntary recreational activities have withstood attacks that they are contrary to South Dakota’s public policy many times before; only an attempted waiver of conduct rising to the level of willful negligence or intentional tort would contravene the state’s public policy. Because Mr. Wimmer does not allege willful negligence or any intentional torts, defendant argues that his claims must fail.

The court then looked at the law of South Dakota where the accident happened and, which law was to be applied, South Dakota law.

Under South Dakota law, a waiver of liability is contractual in nature and is governed by contract law. When interpreting a contract, “[t]he goal . . . is to see that the mutual intent of the parties is carried into effect.” Courts look to the language of the contract to determine the intent of the parties, and afford contractual terms their “plain and ordinary meaning,” “When the meaning of contractual language is plain and unambiguous, construction is not necessary” because the “intent of the parties can be derived from within the four corners of the contract.” (“When the words of a contract are clear and explicit and lead to no absurd consequences, the search for the parties’ common intent is at an end.”).

What most non-lawyers do not understand is a contract must be interrupted solely by the words in the contract. As lawyers say within the four corners of the document. Statements (parol evidence) said before or after the signing of the contract are inadmissible to interpret the contract. The exception to this rule is if the contract is determined by the court to be ambiguous, then evidence outside of the terms of the agreement can be introduced to explain the language of the contract. But only to explain the ambiguous language of the contract.

When a contract is found to be ambiguous, however, “parol evidence is admissible to explain the contract but inadmissible to vary or add terms to the contract.” A contract is not rendered ambiguous merely because the parties now disagree as to their intent at the time of contracting. “Instead, ‘a contract is ambiguous only when it is capable of more than one meaning when viewed objectively by a reasonably intelligent person who has examined the context of the entire integrated agreement.'”

The court found that the release was not ambiguous so no other evidence could be introduced to explain the meaning of the release.

The release at issue in the instant case is not ambiguous. Although it must be interpreted and read in a common sense manner. The release, by its terms, covers “all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with [plaintiffs] participation in this activity or [plaintiff’s] use of [Top Gun] equipment…”

The plaintiff and the defendant both argued the issues as they needed. The plaintiff stated he was standing around the, and the defendant argued the plaintiff was hunting. However, the court found the plaintiff was not hunting by law. “As a matter of law, plaintiff could not have legally been pursuing waterfowl because the accident happened long before legal shooting time.”

Under South Dakota law, hunting cannot begin until thirty minutes before sunrise. Since the accident happened several hours before sunrise, the plaintiff was not hunting.

This accident could not, as a matter of law, have been a part of legal hunting. In South Dakota, a hunter may not shoot waterfowl until one half hour before sunrise. At the time of the accident, all preparations for hunting had been completed. The parties were in a waiting period. Instead, plaintiff was struck by a motor vehicle. The fact that plaintiff is claimed to be hunting at the time he was struck by the ATV is irrelevant because being struck by an ATV is not a harm arising out of hunting, especially long before sunrise.

Therefore, the release was not written to cover the accident that occurred to the plaintiff.

The court also added that the release did not cover motor vehicle accidents, which is what occurred to the plaintiff. (Any accident that is caused by something with an engine and tires, the courts usually interpret that as a automobile accident and apply automobile law, on or off road.)

The court then looked at releases and how they are interpreted with respect to high-risk activities under South Dakota law.

First, the more inherently dangerous or risky the recreational activity, the more likely that an anticipatory release will be held valid. That is, individuals who engage in activities like mountain climbing, race car driving, parachute jumping, and the like, are more likely to be held to have an understanding of the risky nature of their chosen activity.

Second, releases are deemed more acceptable when they are written on a separate sheet of paper. Id. It is the first line of reasoning that is most relevant to the instant analysis.

The court stated that if you undertake a high-risk activity you cannot sue for your injuries.

The first line of reasoning recognizes that individuals who voluntarily engage in a particularly dangerous activity for recreational purposes must accept a certain amount of risk that is inherent in said activity. That is, when an individual chooses to go skydiving, signs a release with a vendor providing such services, and is injured while hurtling to the earth, he cannot then sue in contravention of that release. Hunting is likewise a dangerous activity; the hunter voluntarily exposes himself to all the dangers of the firearms enthusiast as well as those of the outdoorsman. It is agreed that the release in this case covers liability arising out plaintiff’s participation in the activity of hunting. However, plaintiff’s participation in the hunt did not cause his injury.

Summing the issues up, the court made the statement that in South Dakota, the Supreme Court looked at the validity of the release as it relates to the activity the release was supposed to cover.

Each case the Supreme Court of South Dakota has considered relating to the application of a release from liability has involved harm that arose out of the activity for which liability was waived.

However, here the plaintiff was not undertaking a high-risk recreational activity. He was standing in a field.

In the instant case, plaintiff’s injury did not arise from his participation in the hunt. He was not accidentally shot by a fellow hunter; he did not strain his back while placing a decoy, nor did he twist his ankle while standing around waiting to be told what to do next. Instead, plaintiff was struck from behind by a motor vehicle at a time before legal hunting could commence, something separate and apart from his participation in the hunt.

The release was signed so the plaintiff could hunt. He was not injured hunting, and the release was not written in a way to cover the risks the plaintiff encountered standing in a field.

The release was thrown out by the court and the plaintiff was allowed to continue his lawsuit.

So Now What?

Too many releases are written to cover the risks of the specific activity, hunting, climbing, rafting, etc. Yet accidents occur in the parking lot, on the way to the activity and just standing around waiting for kayaks to be unloaded, belays to be set up or the guides to get organized.

Make sure your release is broad enough to cover all the risks your clients will encounter during the activity.

At the same time, don’t let an idiot drive an ATV and if people are going to be standing around in the dark, put a bicycle light on them so you can find them.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Messer v. Hi Country Stables Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2675, 2013 WL 93183

Messer v. Hi Country Stables Corp., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2675, 2013 WL 93183

United States District Court for the District of Colorado

January 8, 2013, Decided; January 8, 2013, Filed

Civil Action No. 11-cv-01500-WJM-MJW

Reporter

2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2675 *; 2013 WL 93183

ALVA MESSER, Plaintiff, v. HI COUNTRY STABLES CORPORATION, Defendant.

Prior History: Messer v. Hi Country Stables Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170499 (D. Colo., Nov. 30, 2012)

Counsel:  [*1] For Alva Messer, Plaintiff: Donald L. Salem, Feldmann Nagel, LLC-Denver, Denver, CO.

For Hi Country Stables Corporation, Defendant, Counter Claimant: Kenneth H. Lyman, Malcolm S. Mead, Hall & Evans, LLC-Denver, Denver, CO.

For Alva Messer, Counter Defendant: Donald L. Salem, Michael G. Bryan, Feldmann Nagel, LLC-Denver, Denver, CO.

Judges: William J. Martinez, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: William J. Martinez

Opinion

AMENDED ORDER DENYING IN PART AND GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

This matter is before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF. No. 41.) Plaintiff Alva Messer (“Plaintiff”) has filed a Response to this Motion (ECF No. 42.) and Defendant Hi Country Stables Corporation (“HCS” or “Defendant”) has filed a Reply. (ECF No. 45.) The Motion is ripe for adjudication.

Having reviewed the briefs and the relevant portions of the record, the Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND1

A. Factual Background

On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff Alva Messer purchased a guided horseback ride from Hi County  [*2] Stables. (ECF No. 41 at 3.) Defendant HCS operates commercial horse-back riding at Glacier Creek Stables in Rocky Mountain National Park (“RMNP”). (ECF No. 41 at 7.) HCS is one of two equestrian companies owned by Rex Walker. (Id.) The other equestrian company is Sombrero Ranches, Inc. (“SRI”). (Id.) Before beginning any guided horseback ride, both companies require customers to sign an exculpatory contract, titled “Release” (hereafter “the Release” or “Release Forms”). (Id.) The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are identical, except for the name of the company being released from liability. (Id. at 4.) The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are printed in tablets containing 100 tear-away forms per tablet. Once printed, the printing company delivers the tablets to the offices of HCS and SRI. (Id.)

At the start of the 2009 riding season, one tablet of Release Forms labeled SRI was placed in a box of office supplies for delivery to HCS. (Id. at 5.) For reasons that are unexplained by Defendant, those same Release Forms—which Released SRI from liability—were used by HCS at Glacier Creek Stables on July 16, 2009. (Id. at 5; see also, Exh. C, Walker Dep. at 29:13 – 30:5.)

Typically, when customers  [*3] arrive at HCS, they are informed that they must sign a Release. (Id. at 6; Exh. D, Marshall Dep. at 29.) Amongst other employees at HCS, Dallas Marshall informs customers that they are required to sign the Release and “mark their riding ability.” (Id.)

When the Messers arrived at HCS on July 16, 2009, Marshall followed her normal practice and informed the Messers of the Release. (Id.) She also requested that they indicate their riding ability, which Plaintiff did. (Id.) Following this, and before commencing the guided horseback ride, Plaintiff signed the Release. (Id.) The Release expressly provides that the customer “understands. . .the specific risks. . .arising from riding a horse. . .and that the [customer] nevertheless intentionally agree[s] to assume these risks.” (ECF No. 41, Exh. A.)

After signing the Release, Plaintiff entered the corral where she was assigned her horse before commencing the trail ride. (Id. at 8; see also, Exh B, Alva Messer Dep. at 35:16-24). The wrangler who led the guests on Plaintiff’s trail ride was Terry Humphrey. (Id.)

Plaintiff encountered problems with her saddle during the trail ride which required adjustment by Plaintiff and Humphrey. (ECF No. 41,  [*4] Exh. B, Alva Messer Dep. at 49:1 – 50:1; Exh., Humphrey Dep. at 44:18-25; 45:7 – 46:1; 47:13-22; Exh. F, Donald Messer Dep. at 22:10-17).2

At the midway point, the Messer group stopped to take a rest break. (ECF No. 41, Exh. B, Alva Messer Dep. at 47:10-20). Plaintiff encountered further problems with her saddle—including slippage of the saddle to the horse’s right. (ld. at 50:2-9)

Sometime later, as Plaintiff’s horse was stepping down a “rock stair” in the trail, Plaintiff fell off the right side of the horse (the “Incident.”) (ECF No. 42, Exh. E, Humphrey Dep. at 54:15- 55:10; Exh. F, Donald Messer Dep. at 27:1- 28:6.) Plaintiff allegedly sustained serious injuries and economic loss resulting from the Incident. (ECF No.1 at ¶¶ 14 and 57.)

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A fact is “material” if under  [*5] the relevant substantive law it is essential to proper disposition of the claim. Wright v. Abbott Labs., Inc., 259 F.3d 1226, 1231-32 (10th Cir. 2001). An issue is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F.3d 837, 839 (10th Cir. 1997). In analyzing a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986)). With this approach of resolving factual ambiguities against the moving party, the Court, as it should, thus favors the right to a trial. See Houston v. Nat’l Gen. Ins. Co., 817 F.2d 83, 85 (10th Cir. 1987).

III. ANALYSIS

Defendant’s instant Motion seeks reformation of the Release and moves for summary judgment as to the Plaintiff’s claims—including: negligence; product liability; and, wilful and wanton conduct. If granted, Defendant argues that the Release should bar the negligence and product liability claims. The Court will first address  [*6] this issue.

A. Effect of the Release on the Negligence and Product Liability Claims

1. Reformation

Defendant seeks to reform the Release to reflect the true intent of the parties by substituting the name HCS for SRI. (ECF No. 41 at 22.)

Reformation of a contract is an “equitable remedy, and the formulation of such remedy rests with the court’s discretion.” May v. Travelers Property Casualty Co. 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80849, 2006 WL 3218852 at *2-3 (D. Colo. 2006, November 6, 2006). “Reformation of a written instrument is appropriate only when the instrument does not represent the true agreement of the parties and the purpose of reformation is to give effect to the parties’ actual intentions.” Maryland Cas. Co. v. Buckeye Gas Prod. Co., 797 P.2d 11, 13 (Colo. 1990).3 Mutual mistake of a contract provides grounds for reformation if the written instrument “does not express the true intent or agreement of the parties.” Segelke v. Kilmer, 145 Colo. 538, 360 P.2d 423, 426-27 (Colo. 1961).

An “essential prerequisite to a court’s power to reform a contract on the ground  [*7] of mutual mistake is the existence of a prior agreement that represents the actual expectations of the parties and provides the basis upon which a court orders reformation.” Maryland Cas. Co., 797 P.2d at 13. Prior agreement must be found from the evidence presented, which must be “clear and unequivocal”, and appropriate under the “circumstances.” Id.
See also, Segelke 360 P.2d at 426-27.

Here, Defendant asserts that the intent of the Release was to bind Plaintiff Alva Messer and Defendant HCS. Defendant contends that reference to SRI on the Release was a mutual mistake and that SRI should be substituted with HCS. The Court agrees. This holding is supported by Plaintiff Messer’s own testimony, which clearly reflects the parties’ common understanding of the signed document and shows acknowledgment by Plaintiff that the Release was, in fact, releasing HCS – not SRI. Such testimony is found in the following passage:

Q. You were told it was a release, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And did you have any conception or understanding of what that meant?

A. Well, I assume a release is to release the people, you know, the stables.

Q. And when you were presented this at Hi Country Stables, was it your understanding  [*8] that you were releasing Hi Country [Stables]?

A. Correct.

(Messer Deposition at 32:3-22).

Because the above testimony is clear and unequivocal, the Court finds that it reflects the parties’ true intentions of the Release that the contract was between Plaintiff Messer and Defendant HCS.

Additionally, Plaintiff signed the Release at a location owned by HCS immediately before embarking on a trail ride guided by HCS employees. (ECF No. 41, Exh A.) Given that Plaintiff signed the document at HCS, it is difficult to see how the Release was intended to apply to any entity other than HCS.

Accordingly, the Court finds that there was mutual mistake at the time the Release was entered into. Mutual intent of the parties was to enter into an agreement whereby HCS would be released from certain claims. This provides the equitable basis to grant the relief. The Court orders that the name “Sombrero Ranches, Inc.” (SRI) be deleted and substituted with “Hi Country Stables” (HCS) in the Release.

2. Application of Release to Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim

As the Court has found that the Release should be reformed, the next issue is whether the Release shields Defendant from Plaintiff’s negligence claim. For the  [*9] reasons below, the Court concludes that it does.

To determine whether the Release bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim, the Court must consider four factors: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981).4

As to the first factor, Colorado law is clear that businesses engaged in recreational services do not perform services that implicate  [*10] a public duty. This favors Defendant’s position as to the validity of the Release. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 469 (Colo. 2004).

With respect to the second factor, the Court similarly finds for Defendant because horse-back riding is “not an essential service.” Hamill v. Cheley Colorado Camps, 262 P.3d 945, 949-50 (Colo. App. 2011) Horse-back riding is one of choice, not necessity.

As to third factor, this also cuts in favor of Defendant since there is no evidence to suggest that the Release was entered into unfairly. Instead, Plaintiff signed the Release “in consideration for the opportunity” to ride the trail led by HCS wranglers. (ECF No. 41, Exh A.) Plaintiff also indicated her riding ability. This suggests that she had ample time to review the Release and become familiar with its conditions. It is these facts, amongst others, that rebut any notion that the Release was unfair. Bauer v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 788 F. Supp. 472, 474-475 (D. Colo. 1992).

With respect to the fourth factor, the Court looks to the language of the Release to elicit its intent. The Court must determine “whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and whether  [*11] this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.” Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 785 (Colo. 1989). Here, the test is met since the Release specifically uses the word “negligence” throughout the document. Reference to the word negligence expressly indicated that HCS would not be liable for such claims. Also, like the release in Jones, the Release in this case similarly points to the “specific risks” of property and personal injury damage that may “arise out of negligence.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. Such language serves to reinforce the intent of the Release and thatPlaintiff agreed to “assume such risks” during the course of the HCS led trail-ride. (ECF No. 41, Exh. A.)

In sum, the Court concludes that the Release shields Defendant from Plaintiff’s negligence claim. To the extent that Defendant’s Motion is directed towards that claim, the Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.5

3. Application of the Release to Plaintiff’s Strict Product Liability Claims

In addressing whether the Release applies to Plaintiff’s product liability claims, the Court finds this result is controlled by existing case law: Boles v. Sun Ergoline, 223 P.3d 724, 727-728 (Colo. 2010). That case held that an agreement releasing “a manufacturer from strict products liability for personal injury, in exchange for nothing more than an individual consumer’s right to have or use the product, necessarily violates the public policy of this jurisdiction and is void.” Id. (emphasis added). The Court holds that this passage has equal application here. As distinct from the negligence claim, Boles provides that the Release does not shield Defendant from the strict product liability claims.

Alternatively, Defendant argues that the broad language of the Release covers product liability claims.  [*13] Clause 2 provides: “that [the Customer] know[s] and understand[s] that horse riding . . . risks of . . . including the risk that [HCS]. . . may act negligently in . . . preparing or maintaining the horse . . . equipment or premises . . .” (ECF No. 41 Exh A.) Nothing in Clause 2 suggests that the Release covers claims which involve “leasing” or “manufacturing” saddles used in conjunction with Defendant’s trail rides, which would give rise to a products liability claim. Because exculpatory agreements are strictly construed against the party seeking exception, Defendant’s argument that the Release bars this claim must fail. Barker v. Colorado Region-Sports Car Club, 35 Colo. App. 73, 532 P.2d 372, 377 (Colo. App., 1974.)6

Accordingly, Plaintiff’s product liability claims are not barred by the HCS Release.7

B. Merits of the Product Liability Claims

Defendant also moves for summary judgment on the merits of Plaintiff’s product liability claim. In these claims, Plaintiff alleges (1) that HCS leased a defective saddle to Plaintiff by placing it in the “stream of commerce” and (2) that HCS manufactured a defective saddle that was used by Plaintiff (ECF No. 41 at 35; ECF No. 25 at ¶ ¶ 36-55.)8 Defendant offers two alternative arguments below as to why grant of summary judgment is justified with respect to these claims. The Court will address each in turn.

1. Horse-Back Riding by HCS is a Service and Does Not Give Rise to Products Liability

Defendant contends that summary judgment should be granted on Plaintiff’s product liability claims because the primary purpose of the contract was the provision of a service—not a product. This, Defendant contends, does not give rise to liability in tort. (ECF No. 41 at 37.) See, Yarbro v. Hilton Hotels, 655 P.2d 822, 828 (Colo. 1982)

To buttress its position, Defendant relies on Kaplan v. C Lazy U Ranch, 615 F. Supp. 234 (D. Colo. 1985). There, Judge John L. Kane of this District Court refused to treat “a saddled horse, or a ride on a horse with a saddle” as a product. Id. at 238. Judge Kane held that it was incongruent with strict product liability doctrine and cited several cases that have refused to extend the concept of strict liability to “persons rendering services.”9
Id. at 238 n.3. Defendant asserts that Kaplan has equal application here.

Plaintiff seeks to distinguish Kaplan by making specific reference to “SADDLE EQUIPMENT” in the Complaint. (See ECF No. 25 at ¶ ¶ 36- 51.) Plaintiff seeks to separate the saddle from the horse, and attempt to succeed on that basis.

The Court finds Kaplan persuasive. Like that case, the Court holds that a saddle (on a horse) is not a product—particularly in the context of horse-back riding services. The Court further finds Plaintiff’s distinction is misplaced because it fails to appreciate that the saddle was incidental to the primary purpose of the contract. Plaintiff entered into a contract for a guided five-hour horse back ride through RMNP. This service primarily relied upon a horse (which is not a product) and a saddle (which incidental to that service).10 Without a product, the product liability claims cannot succeed. Yarbro 655 P.2d at 828.

Because the saddle was only incidental to the contract for services, Plaintiff has failed to show a “trial  [*17] worthy” issue as to her product liability claims. Harper v. Mancos Sch. Dist. RE-6, 837 F.Supp.2d 1211, 1223-24 (D.Colo.2011).

2. Use of the Saddle Did Not Constitute a Lease

In the alternative, Defendant argues that summary judgment is warranted on Plaintiff’s product liability claims because it is not a “seller”of a product. That is, Defendant does not fall within the definition of “seller” under the statute because Defendant is not a “lessor” of products, nor a “manufacturer”. See generally, C.R.S. § 13-21-401; Hidalgo v. Fagen, Inc., 206 F.3d 1013, 1018 (10th Cir. 2000).11 Again, the Court agrees.

Contrary to Plaintiff’s position, the Court finds that Defendant does not “lease” saddles to its customers. Plaintiff signed a Release “in consideration for the opportunity to ride” a horse through RMNP. (ECF No. 41, Exh A.) The “opportunity to ride” does not create a lease. Its use is too short. Nor does it constitute ownership of the saddle itself.

Moreover, HCS cannot be considered a manufacturer because it does not manufacture saddles. (ECF No. 41, Exh. G, Humphrey  [*18] Dep. at ¶11; Exh H, Walker Dep. at ¶ 8.) Plaintiff argues that the “offside billet [of the saddle] is a product and that it became defective while in the course of it distribution from the original manufacturer through Defendant to her as the consumer.” (ECF No. 42 at 34-35). The Court treats this as an admission that Defendant never manufactured the billet. It also supports the finding that no product is involved in the present case.

Plaintiff has failed to show a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendant leased or manufactured a saddle. Thus, Defendant’s Motion as to both of the product liability claims is granted.

3. Plaintiff’s Argument re Blueflame Gas

Plaintiff argues that Defendant placed a defective saddle “in the course of the distribution process” and is, therefore, liable for product liability. (ECF No. 42 at 33. (emphasis added.)) In support, Plaintiff heavily relies on Blueflame Gas, Inc. v. Van Hoose, 679 P.2d 579 (Colo. 1984). There, the defendant purchased propane from Diamond Shamrock. Defendant then transported and sold the propane directly to residential customers. A gas explosion occurred at a residential home. The plaintiff claimed, inter alia, strict liability  [*19] based Defendant’s failure to odorize the propane, making it a defective product. The Supreme Court held that a defective product must have arisen at the time of manufacture or “in the course of the distribution process” to the plaintiff. Id. at 590.

The Court is not compelled to find in Plaintiff’s favor based on Blueflame.12 The saddle in this case was not sold to Plaintiff. The saddle was not part of a distribution process. And, unlike the customers in Blueflame, the Court finds that Plaintiff is not permitted to pursue her product liability claim based on a “distribution process” theory.

Therefore, in addition to the reasons addressed above, Plaintiff’s reliance on Blueflame does not save her product liability claims from summary judgment.

C. Merits of the Wilful and Wanton Claim

Plaintiff’s claim for wilful and wanton conduct is trial worthy. First, a waiver cannot release wilful tortfeasors (alleged or otherwise). The Release has no bearing  [*20] on this claim. Barker v. Colorado Region Sports Car Club, 35 Colo. App. 73, 532 P.2d 372, 377 (Colo. 1974).

Second, willful and wanton conduct requires a mental state “consonant with purpose, intent and voluntary choice.” Brooks v. Timberline Tours, 127 F.3d 1273, 1276 (10th Cir. 1997). Because key facts going to this mental state are disputed, Defendant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For example, Plaintiff contends that Humphrey did not perform the number of saddle “checks” he asserts. (Alva Messer Dep. at 43:4-44:18; 48:3-11; 48:21-49:17.) Plaintiff also disputes whether Humphery noticed the “saddle rolling to the right” during the trail ride. (Id.) These examples reflect material facts ripe for jury determination. If the jury credits Plaintiff’s testimony on these points, it could reasonably find that Defendant’s actions were wilful and wanton.

The Court finds that Plaintiff has shown a genuine dispute of material fact as to her wilful and wanton conduct claim. As to this claim, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is denied. See Bausman v. Interstate Brands Corp., 252 F.3d 1111, 1115 (10th Cir. 2001).

III. CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing, the Court hereby ORDERS as follows:

1. Defendant’s  [*21] Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 41) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART;

2. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED as to Plaintiff’s claims for negligence and product liability;

3. The Clerk shall enter judgment in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff’s negligence and product liability claims;

4. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as to Plaintiff’s wilful and wanton claim; and

5. Trial will proceed solely on Plaintiff’s willful and wanton claim, as previously scheduled, on March 11, 2013.

Dated this 8th day of January, 2013

BY THE COURT:

/s/ William J. Martinez

William J. Martinez

United States District Judge


Wimmer v. Top Gun Guide Serv., 421 F. Supp. 3d 849, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888, 2019 WL 5558308

Wimmer v. Top Gun Guide Serv., 421 F. Supp. 3d 849, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888, 2019 WL 5558308

United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Northern Division

October 26, 2019, Decided; October 28, 2019, Filed

1:18-CV-01001-CBK

Reporter

421 F. Supp. 3d 849 *; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185888 **; 2019 WL 5558308

ANTHONY WIMMER, Plaintiff, v. TOP GUN GUIDE SERVICE, INC., JOHN DOES 1-5, Defendants.

Counsel:  [**1] For Plaintiff Anthony Wimmer: Michael W. Strain, LEAD ATTORNEY, Strain Morman Law Firm, Sturgis, SD; Scott G. Hoy, Hoy Trial Lawyers, Prof. L.L.C., Sioux Falls, SD.

For Defendant Top Gun Guide Service, Inc.: Gordon H. Hansmeier, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rajkowski Hansmeier Ltd., St. Cloud, MN.

Judges: CHARLES B. KORNMANN, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: CHARLES B. KORNMANN

Opinion

 [*851]  MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter is before the Court on defendant Top Gun Guide Service, Inc.’s (“Top Gun”) motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Doc. 14.

BACKGROUND

This case arose from injuries that plaintiff Anthony Wimmer sustained while on a hunting trip hosted by defendant Top Gun near Aberdeen, South Dakota in April of 2015. Doc. 1 at 2; Doc. 6 at 1. Mr. Wimmer is a California resident and Top Gun is a Minnesota corporation. Id. On or about April 9, 2015, Mr. Wimmer arrived in Aberdeen, though he did not hunt on that day. Doc. 15 at 5; Doc. 22 at 1. At some point on April 9th, Mr. Wimmer signed a waiver purporting to release Top Gun from liability arising from the hunting trip. Doc. 15 at 5; Doc. 22 at 2. The release form provided, in pertinent part:

I acknowledge that hunting and fishing entails known and unanticipated risks which [**2]  could result in physical or emotional injury, paralysis, death, or damage to myself; . . . I understand that such risks are essential qualities of the activity. The risks include, among other things: Accidental shootings, or falls to myself . . . trip or fall accidents to myself . . . medical problems from preexisting conditions . . . to myself . . . I expressly agree and promise to accept and assume all of the risks existing in this activity. My participation in this activity is purely voluntary, and I elect to participate in spite of the risks to others and myself; I fully understand that hunting and fishing is a dangerous activity. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to indemnify and hold harmless [Top Gun] from any and all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or my use of [Top Gun] equipment or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [Top gun].

Doc. 17, Ex. D. The parties agree that in his deposition Mr. Wimmer testified that he read the release before signing it and that he did not disagree with anything contained therein. Doc. 15 at 6; Doc. 22 [**3]  at 2-4. Mr. Wimmer also agreed in his deposition that hunting and fishing is a dangerous activity. Anthony Wimmer Dep. at 41:7-9.

On April 10th, Mr. Wimmer arrived at the hunting site and began setting up hunting decoys. Doc. 15 at 7; Doc. 22 at 5. Shortly after having finished setting up the decoys, Mr. Wimmer was standing in the field where the hunt was to take place when he was struck from behind “by either an [all terrain vehicle (ATV)] or sled.” Id. The sled was being towed behind the ATV. Id. The ATV was being operated by a Top Gun guide.

Id. The accident  [*852]  occurred between 3:30 a.m. — 4:30 a.m. Doc. 15 at 4. Mr. Wimmer alleges that he sustained severe injuries. Doc. 1 at 2. •

Defendant argues that “[b]ecause Mr. Wimmer knowingly, voluntarily, and fairly signed a release that unambiguously covers the injuries that he suffered and that does not contravene public policy,” his claims should be dismissed with prejudice. Doc. 15 at 8. Defendant contends that the liability waiver Mr. Wimmer signed before participating in the hunt releases Top Gun from all liability in relation to the ATV accident. Id. In short, Top Gun’s argument relies on the liability waiver being found to encompass [**4]  the harm at issue in this case. Defendant then proceeds to argue that the waiver is valid and its enforcement would not contravene South Dakota’s public policy. Id. at 9-11. Defendant argues that releases involving voluntary recreational activities have withstood attacks that they are contrary to South Dakota’s public policy many times before; only an attempted waiver of conduct rising to the level of willful negligence or intentional tort would contravene the state’s public policy. Id. at 11. Because Mr. Wimmer does not allege willful negligence or any intentional torts, defendant argues that his claims must fail. Id.

Plaintiff responds that the harm that befell him was outside the scope of the waiver. Plaintiff argues that he had no meaningful opportunity to negotiate the terms of the waiver and so it must be viewed as an “anticipatory release and contract of adhesion, which should be viewed with a skeptical and critical eye,” and any ambiguities should be construed against the drafter. Doc. 20 at 5. Plaintiff argues that the waiver, by its terms, only applies to the limited activities of hunting and fishing. Id. Plaintiff argues that his are not hunting injuries because, at the time of the accident, [**5]  he had already finished setting up the decoys and was merely standing in the field waiting to be told what he should do next. Id. at 6. Plaintiff urges that such activity should not be considered hunting. Id.

Plaintiff next argues that even if he was hunting at the time of the accident, the release is contrary to South Dakota law as it purports to waive liability for acts of gross negligence and, so, enforcing it would be against South Dakota’s public policy. Id. at 7. Plaintiff also argues that provisions of South Dakota law related to motor vehicle liability preclude enforcement of the waiver as against the state’s public policy. Id. at 9.

Defendant replies that plaintiff’s reading of the waiver is too narrow, the terms of the waiver are broad enough to cover any injury “in any way connected with” the activity of hunting. Doc. 23 at 3. Thus, defendant contends, the terms of the waiver apply to plaintiff’s injury whether or not he was actively shooting or pursuing birds at the time of the injury. Id. Defendant further contends that setting up decoys is a part of pursuing birds, which is within the definition of hunting adopted in South Dakota’s laws. Id. at 4.

Defendant also argues that enforcing the release against [**6]  plaintiff would not violate South Dakota public policy because plaintiff only claims ordinary negligence, liability for which may be waived. Id. at 5. Defendant argues that plaintiff has produced no evidence that defendant’s agent operated the ATV in a reckless or willfully negligent manner. Id. at 6-7. Defendant argues that there was no disparity in bargaining power that would warrant this waiver being viewed as a contract of adhesion. Id. at 7. Finally, defendant argues that the waiver does not allow Top Gun to circumvent South Dakota’s motor vehicle insurance laws, as plaintiff has claimed, and enforcing the waiver would not be  [*853]  contrary to the public policy those laws espouse. Id. at 8.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is proper where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 711 F.3d 911, 913 (8th Cir. 2013). The United States Supreme Court has held that:

The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to any material [**7]  fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986) (internal quotations omitted).

“As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. at 248. That is, to make summary judgment inappropriate, there must be a factual dispute concerning facts the existence or nonexistence of which would “be outcome determinative under [the] prevailing [substantive] law.” Grey v. City of Oak Grove, Mo., 396 F.3d 1031, 1034 (8th Cir. 2005).

Thus, in accordance with Rule 56(c), the party seeking summary judgment must first identify grounds demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. Upon such a showing, the burden shifts to the non-movant to present affirmative evidence, beyond the pleadings, showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256-57, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). To meet its burden, the non-movant “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Ind. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). Rather, the non-movant must be able to “show there [**8]  is sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict in [its] favor.” Nat’l Bank of Commerce v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602, 607 (8th Cir. 1999). After this exercise, “we view the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Northport Health Servs. of Arkansas, LLC v. Posey, 930 F.3d 1027, 1030 (8th Cir. 2019).

DISCUSSION

“Because this is a diversity action, we apply the substantive law of the forum state.” Vandewarker v. Cont’l Res., Inc., 917 F.3d 626, 629 (8th Cir. 2019), reh’g denied (Apr. 10, 2019) (citing
N. Oil & Gas, Inc. v. Moen, 808 F.3d 373, 376 (8th Cir. 2015). Under South Dakota law, a waiver of liability is contractual in nature and is governed by contract law. Johnson v. Rapid City Softball Ass’n, 514 N.W.2d 693, 697 (S.D. 1994). When interpreting a contract, “[t]he goal . . . is to see that the mutual intent of the parties is carried into effect.” Nelson v. Schellpfeffer, 2003 SD 7, 656 N.W.2d 740, 743 (S.D. 2003). Courts look to the language of the contract to determine the intent of the parties, Roseth v. Roseth, 2013 SD 27, 829 N.W.2d 136, 142 (S.D. 2013), and afford contractual terms their “plain and ordinary meaning,” Bunkers v. Jacobson, 2002 SD 135, 653 N.W.2d 732, 738 (S.D. 2002) (citation  [*854]  and quotation marks omitted). “When the meaning of contractual language is plain and unambiguous, construction is not necessary” because the “intent of the parties can be derived from within the four corners of the contract.” Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142 (citation omitted); see also
Nelson, 656 N.W.2d at 743 (“When the words of a contract are clear and explicit and lead to no absurd consequences, the search for the parties’ common intent is at an end.”).

When a contract is found to be ambiguous, however, “parol evidence [**9]  is admissible to explain the contract but inadmissible to vary or add terms to the contract.” Couch v. Lyon, No. CIV. 12-3029-RAL, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160770, 2013 WL 5942607, at *4 (D.S.D. Nov. 5, 2013)
(citing
Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142.). A contract is not rendered ambiguous merely because the parties now disagree as to their intent at the time of contracting. Roseth, 829 N.W.2d at 142. “Instead, ‘a contract is ambiguous only when it is capable of more than one meaning when viewed objectively by a reasonably intelligent person who has examined the context of the entire integrated agreement.'” Id.
(quoting
Vander Heide v. Boke Ranch, Inc., 2007 SD 69, 736 N.W.2d 824, 836 (S.D. 2007)).

The release at issue in the instant case is not ambiguous. Although it must be interpreted and read in a common sense manner. The release, by its terms, covers “all claims, demands, or causes of action, which are in any way connected with [plaintiffs] participation in this activity or [plaintiff’s] use of [Top Gun] equipment…” Doc. 17, Ex. D. Furthermore, plaintiff has not challenged the validity of the release or any of its terms; thus, the Court will apply the release and construe it by its terms, using common sense methods.

Defendant argues that, at the time of injury, plaintiff was in the process of pursuing birds, that is, plaintiff was on a hunting trip, in a hunting field regardless of whether [**10]  he was actively shooting or preparing to shoot at the time. Because plaintiff was pursuing birds at the time he was injured, defendant argues that his injury is “connected with” the activity of hunting. Plaintiff argues that he was done setting up decoys at the time he was injured and, as a result, he was not pursuing birds at the time of the harm—he was merely a man standing in a field. As a matter of law, plaintiff could not have legally been pursuing waterfowl because the accident happened long before legal shooting time. Thus, both parties focused their arguments on what the plaintiff was doing at the time of the accident.

This accident could not, as a matter of law, have been a part of legal hunting. In South Dakota, a hunter may not shoot waterfowl until one half hour before sunrise. At the time of the accident, all preparations for hunting had been completed. The parties were in a waiting period. Instead, plaintiff was struck by a motor vehicle. The fact that plaintiff is claimed to be hunting at the time he was struck by the ATV is irrelevant because being struck by an ATV is not a harm arising out of hunting, especially long before sunrise. In addition, the release makes no [**11]  mention of a motor vehicle accident.

The language in the release, “in any way connected with [plaintiffs] participation in this activity,” is so broad that it necessitates an exercise in line drawing. At some point, it would be absurd to find an activity that, while distantly connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt, is covered by a waiver of liability for a hunting trip. For example, if plaintiff had been injured when the car in which he was being transported from the hotel to the hunting grounds was involved in an accident, would any negligence from that activity be covered  [*855]  by the release? It is certainly an activity in some way connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt, as the party was on the way to the hunting grounds. But to say that a waiver of liability for a hunting trip covered negligence related to a car trip from the hotel to the hunting grounds would be to stretch the bounds of what general, catch-all provisions of a contract can accomplish.

That is not to say that general contract provisions are not enforceable. Indeed, South Dakota case law has upheld the efficacy of broad waivers of liability. There are generally two lines of reasoning that permeate [**12]  South Dakota case law concerning releases from liability.

First, the more inherently dangerous or risky the recreational activity, the more likely that an anticipatory release will be held valid. That is, individuals who engage in activities like mountain climbing, race car driving, parachute jumping, and the like, are more likely to be held to have an understanding of the risky nature of their chosen activity.

Johnson, 514 N.W.2d at 700 (Wuest, J. concurring) (internal citations omitted). Second, releases are deemed more acceptable when they are written on a separate sheet of paper. Id. It is the first line of reasoning that is most relevant to the instant analysis. 1

The first line of reasoning recognizes that individuals who voluntarily engage in a particularly dangerous activity for recreational purposes must accept a certain amount of risk that is inherent in said activity. That is, when an individual chooses to go skydiving, signs a release with a vendor providing such services, and is injured while hurtling to the earth, he cannot then sue in contravention of that release. Hunting is likewise a dangerous activity; the hunter voluntarily exposes himself to all the dangers of the firearms enthusiast as well [**13]  as those of the outdoorsman. It is agreed that the release in this case covers liability arising out plaintiff’s participation in the activity of hunting. However, plaintiff’s participation in the hunt did not cause his injury. Defendant asserts that setting up decoys is a means of pursuing birds—hunting—but, while that may be true, neither the decoys themselves, nor any part of the process of placing them, caused plaintiff’s injuries.

Each case the Supreme Court of South Dakota has considered relating to the application of a release from liability has involved harm that arose out of the activity for which liability was waived. In Johnson, the signed release concerned the plaintiff’s participation in a softball league. She subsequently “injured her right ankle sliding into third base during a softball game.” Johnson, 514 N.W.2d at 694. In Holzer, the signed release concerned the plaintiff’s presence in the “pit” area of a race track; he was subsequently hit by a tire that flew off one of the racecars and over protective barricades. Holzer, 610 N.W.2d at 789-91. In Lee v. Beauchene, the signed release covered the plaintiff’s participation in an automobile race; subsequently his “car struck a hole [in the track] that he estimated was one [**14]  to one and one-half feet deep. The car flipped.” Lee v. Beauchene, 337 N.W.2d 827, 828 (S.D. 1983). In each of the foregoing cases, the plaintiff’s injury was caused by his or her participation in the activity for which liability was waived. That is, the injury arose from the activity itself. If that were not the case, however, those cases might have turned out quite differently. For instance, if the plaintiff in Holzer had been accidentally shot while working in the pit area, the question of whether he had waived the track’s liability  [*856]  for such harm would have been a different question.

In the instant case, plaintiff’s injury did not arise from his participation in the hunt. He was not accidentally shot by a fellow hunter, he did not strain his back while placing a decoy, nor did he twist his ankle while standing around waiting to be told what to do next. Instead, plaintiff was struck from behind by a motor vehicle at a time before legal hunting could commence, something separate and apart from his participation in the hunt. Thus, while liability was effectively waived for injury arising out of the activities of hunting or fishing, there was no release for the harm that befell plaintiff. The ATV was being driven by Top Gun staff, [**15]  presumably to transport the decoys from the cars to the hunting grounds. At some point in that process, the employee struck plaintiff with the ATV. While such work is in some way connected with the hunt, it is not connected with plaintiff’s participation in the hunt in any way beyond plaintiff’s mere presence on the hunting grounds. When plaintiff signed a release for harm arising out of hunting or fishing, he was simply not there giving up his right to sue for harm arising out of a motor vehicle accident, or any other activity when he could not have been legally hunting.

As the Court finds that the release does not apply to the harm at issue in this case, the parties’ arguments concerning South Dakota’s insurance law and public policy concerning releases of liability in claims for gross negligence, respectively, will not be addressed.

IT IS ORDERED that defendant Top Gun’s motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Doc. 14, is hereby DENIED.

DATED this 26th day of October, 2019.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ CHARLES B. B. KORNMANN

CHARLES B. B. KORNMANN

United States District Judge


Your release cannot use the term “inherent risk” as the description of the risks, it creates no release at all.

California appellate court reviews numerous issues brought by plaintiff in this skier v. skier fatality. Most important issue is the relationship between Assumption of the Risk in California and a Release.

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

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al.

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Skier died after being hit by snowboarder coming out of terrain park. Descendant’s heirs could not sue because the release stated the descendant assumed the risk of her injuries. Case is still ongoing.

Discussion by the court provides great analysis of the different types of risk assumed and the differences between inherent risks and other risks.

Facts

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.”

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

It is unknown what happened to the lawsuit against the snowboarder.

The actual facts on how the trial proceeded are convoluted and not in the normal course of trials. The appellate court recognized this and found although the proceedings were different, the outcome was correct.

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

The court first reviewed release law in California. The main issue the court found was the relationship between a release in California and the inherent risks of a sport. The court made this statement, which should be known by everyone in the outdoor industry.

But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

When you play sports, explore the woods or ski, just three examples, you assume the risk of the inherent risks of the sport. If your release only identifies inherent risks as the risks, the release protects against, you release is protecting you from things you are already protected against. A plaintiff cannot sue you for the inherent risks of the activity.

Your release is written, or should be written, to protect you from all the other risks of an activity. Risks such as those created by equipment, guides or decision’s guides or participants make. Those are risks that are probably not inherent to the sport and a such; you are liable for those risks.

The court did an extensive analysis of these issues. The foundation case is Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, a California Supreme Court decision that has been quoted in hundreds of cases in most states and laid down the definitions of the different types of risk and how a person assumes those different risks.

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

The issue in the law then becomes has the defendant done something to change the inherent risks or said another way increased the risk to the participants. The participant assumes the inherent risks and others, but not to the extent the risk has been increased. You cannot assume gross negligence, for example.

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

The balance between the risks in the sport that create the excitement and define the sport versus actions of the defendant in controlling or presenting the sport in such a way the risks cannot be assumed by the participants.

The court then compared the issues of increasing the risk and comparative fault. Comparative fault is how the jury or trier of fact determines who is actually liable and in what percentages for the injuries of the plaintiff.

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

The court then reviewed the relationship between comparative fault and how that is affected when a release is used.

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

The court then clarified its statement defining how a court looks at how the defenses are applied to the facts.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself.

Court added further clarification to its statement.

A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.'”

In assumption of the risk, the plaintiff must know the risks they are assuming. A release removes that actual knowledge from the analysis.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'”

The court then looked at the limits of protection a release provides. That limit is defined as gross negligence.

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

If the defendant engages in gross negligence, that is outside of the protection afforded by the release.

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

The court then recapped its comparison of the legal issues in a case involving inherent and other risks and a release.

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

There is a lot more discussion in the case about the procedural issues and how the trial was handled. There is no need to discuss these here.

So Now What?

This is a difficult case to read and understand, however, if you can parse the procedural arguments from the assumption of the risk and release arguments, it is extremely educational in explaining the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant in a case like this.

Simply put there is a hierarchy of defenses available to a business or program in the outdoor recreation industry. There is no fine line between them, in fact, it is a massive gray area, that changes when you move from state to state.

  • Inherent Risks of the Activity
  • Assumption of the Risk
  • Release

Nor are the defenses entirely separate from each other. And if used properly they can be effectively used to support and define each other.

Your website can help explain the risks, inherent and otherwise. Your release can identify specific risks, which may not be apparent to some or for which some may argue they did not know and understand. Your safety talk can define the inherent risks of the activity to make sure those are known by participants.

When writing a release or assumption of the risk agreement, those written documents need to take in all aspects of the risks and make sure nothing in your program or marketing derails your defense wall.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Indemnification fails again in a release. Parent of child having a birthday at climbing gym signed release for the injured child, not her own child.

Indemnification is rarely if upheld in a release. The language does not meet the requirements needed under the law in most states to be an indemnification agreement.

Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, 2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of, Judicial District of Fairfield At Bridgeport

Plaintiff: Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon

Defendant: Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Indemnification by third party

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Connecticut climbing gym had mother of a group of girls at a gym for a birthday party sign release for all the girls. After one of the girls was injured and sued, the climbing gym attempted to recover money from the mother who signed the release based on the language of the release in its indemnification clause. That failed.

If failed so badly the court voided the entire release finding it to be an adhesion contract.

Indemnification agreements in releases never work to recover damages from an injured plaintiff.

Facts

We are never made aware of the facts that gave rise to the injury that created this decision. However, since the issue is solely who is liable under contract (release) for the injury it is not really relevant.

The case arises from an incident where the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, fell from a climbing wall at the Rock Climb defendant’s indoor rock climbing facility located in Fairfield, Connecticut. The minor plaintiff claims she sustained personal injuries. On behalf of her minor child, Cindy Cannon instituted the present action alleging the facility, its agents and employees were negligent in supervising the rock climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries. The defendants have filed an answer and eight special defenses to the amended complaint.

Thereafter, the Rock Climb defendants filed an apportionment complaint against the defendant Kate Licata, who brought the minor plaintiff, Emma Cannon, and several other girls to the facility for a group birthday party event. The apportionment complaint is dated February 6, 2019.4 The apportionment complaint alleges that Licata was negligent in numerous ways and seeks an apportionment of liability and damages as to Licata for the percentage of negligence attributable to her. The apportionment complaint is not the subject of the motion for summary judgment that is presently before the court. The Rock Climb defendants also filed a cross claim against Licata alleging contractual and common-law indemnity. The cross claim, which is the subject of Licata’s motion for summary judgment, is dated February 22, 2019.

So, the parent of the birthday child signed releases for the children attending the birthday party. When one child was injured and sued the climbing gym, the climbing gym brought the parent who signed the release into the lawsuit based on the indemnification language in the releases she signed.

The release was signed electronically; however, this was not an issue the court seemed interested in looking at.

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

The cross claim alleges that the Rock Climb defendants, who are the third-party plaintiffs, require all invitees to its facility to complete a “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” form before participating in rock climbing activities. If the participant is a minor, the form must be signed by the minor’s parent or court-appointed guardian, which Licata was not.

The defendant climbing gym filed a motion for summary judgement arguing the mother should be liable for any damages they pay out on behalf of the injured minor child. This was based on two legal theories the first was the indemnification language found in the release itself.

The release form contains language to the effect that the parent or guardian of the minor has explained the inherent risks of the activity to the minor and the minor understands the said risks and that the minor, nonetheless, wishes to participate in the activities. The release form further provides that “the parent of the minor visitor . . . forever discharge, and agree to indemnify . . . Carabiners Fairfield, LLC, its agents, owners, officers, volunteers, employees, and all other persons or entities acting in any capacity on its behalf . . . from any and all claims, suits, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my or the minor visitor’s visit to the RCF activity site . . . My agreement of indemnity is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by me (an adult climber or parent) or the child and losses caused by me or the child. The agreements of indemnity and release include claims of negligence . . . of a Released Party.” The Rock Climb defendants allege that Licata completed an online version of the Release form and electronically signed it on behalf of the minor plaintiff Emma Cannon on October 3, 2016. Thus, Licata is contractually obligated to defend and indemnify the Rock Climb defendants for the injuries and damages resulting from Emma Cannon’s fall at the Rock Climb defendants’ facility pursuant to General Statutes §52-102a.5

The second defense or reason why the mother should be liable was based on common-law indemnification.

The Rock Climb defendants also allege Licata is liable for common-law indemnification, claiming that any injuries sustained by the minor plaintiff were proximately caused, in whole or part, by Licata’s negligence and carelessness in multiple ways. Among these allegations are failing to supervise and monitor the minor; failing to instruct the minor; and failing to warn the minor of the dangerous nature and risks of the activity. Lastly, the Rock Climb defendants argue that a substantial amount of discovery remains outstanding and various issues of fact are yet to be settled, and therefore, it argues that Licata’s summary judgment motion should be denied.

To succeed on an indemnification agreement the court found under Connecticut law the defendant climbing gym must show the following.

A party may bring an indemnification claim based on the terms of an indemnity agreement . . . [A]llegations of contractual indemnification must be supported by the terms of the contract or the contract itself . . . Under Connecticut law, to state a contract-based indemnification claim, the claimant must allege either an express or implied contractual right to indemnification . . . There is no requirement that a party seeking indemnification must assert allegations of exclusive control (or any of the other elements of a claim for indemnification based on active-passive negligence) in order to state a legally sufficient claim for contractual indemnification.

An indemnification agreement in Connecticut has four elements.

“The essential elements for a cause of action based on breach of contract are (1) the formation of an agreement, (2) performance by one party, (3) breach of the agreement by the opposing party, and (4) damages . . . [and] causation.”

The plaintiff argued that the entire release was void because of two prior Connecticut court decisions.

Lastly, the Reardon court noted that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.

(See Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, et al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006 Conn. LEXIS 330
and
States that do not Support the Use of a Release.)

The release stated the mother who signed the release knew that “the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. The court found this to be utterly bogus (as do I). The mother had no knowledge or experience rock climbing and no clue, whether the facility was in good condition.

To the contrary, it was the defendants, not the plaintiff or the other customers, who had the “expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone [could] properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management.” In particular, the defendants acknowledged that they were responsible for providing their patrons with safe horses, qualified instructors, as well as properly maintained working equipment and riding surfaces.

This was the same position a Connecticut court in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation et al., 276 Conn. 314; 885 A.2d 734; 2005 Conn. LEXIS 500, that the requirements in the release were absurd because the knowledge necessary to know and understand if the activity was safe or the equipment was in good working order was solely within the knowledge and experience of the defendant.

As we concluded in Hanks, it is illogical to relieve the defendants, as the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with engaging in horseback riding at their facility, from potential claims of negligence surrounding an alleged failure to administer properly the activity.

The court then, using the issue of the ability of the mother who signed the release to contract about the equipment found the release to be a contract of adhesion.

Specifically, we have noted that the most salient feature of adhesion contracts is that they are not subject to the normal bargaining processes of ordinary contracts, and that they tend to involve a standard form contract prepared by one party, to be signed by the party in a weaker position, usually a consumer, who has little choice about the terms.

The issue of whether or not the release was an adhesion contract had been touched on lightly; however, the court eventually unloaded on the defendant finding the release to be a contract of adhesion, which voids releases in most states.

…that the release that the plaintiff signed broadly indemnifying the defendants from liability for damages resulting from the defendants’ own negligence was a classic contract of adhesion of the type that this court found to be in violation of public policy in Hanks.

Most states look at recreation, and since it is not a necessity, something needed for the modern survival of a person or family as not being contacts of adhesion. However, in Connecticut, there is no review of why the release is signed, just a review of the specific language in the release to determine if it is an adhesion contract.

The court then looked at the release under the requirements of the Connecticut Supreme Court and found the release lacking as well as the indemnification language in the release.

In the present case, the defendant’s facility was open to the general public regardless of a patron’s experience level. The minor plaintiff was a ten-year-old female. The defendants have admitted that they provided instruction to the group of minors attending the birthday celebration at the defendants’ facility. Neither the minor plaintiff or Licata provided any of the equipment to be used. Licata, herself, did not provide training, guidance or supervision to the minors, including the minor plaintiff. Licata possessed no special knowledge regarding rock climbing or bouldering activities including training and safety procedures other than an initial orientation by RCF employees. Maklad testified at her deposition that the orientation lasted only five to ten minutes. The RCF defendants/third-party plaintiffs admit that there was zero expectation that Licata would “train and guide climbers” or to inspect various facility equipment. RCF argues that they did expect that parents and guardians would supervise children. Thus, there is a question of fact as to whether or not Licata was adequately supervising the minor plaintiff Cannon when she fell. The court disagrees.

And then tore the release apart based on the lack of bargaining power between the parties.

In this case, signing the release provided by RCF was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the bouldering and rock climbing activities at the RCF facility. There was no opportunity for negotiation by the plaintiff, and if she was unsatisfied with the terms of the release, her only option was to not to allow the minor guests who accompanied her to the birthday party to participate. Licata had no bargaining power with respect to the negotiation of the release and in order to participate in the activity, she was required to assume the risk of the defendants’ negligence. “This condition of participation violates the stated public policy of our tort system because the plaintiff was required to bear an additional risk despite her status as a patron who was not in a position to foresee or control the alleged negligent conduct that she was confronted with, or manage and spread the risk more effectively then the defendants.”

The court then looked at the common-law indemnification argument of the climbing gym. For one party to hold the other party liable under common law, the following facts must be in place.

(1) the third party against whom indemnification is sought was negligent; (2) the third party’s active negligence, rather than the defendant’s own passive negligence, was the direct, immediate cause of the accident and the resulting harm; (3) the third party was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the defendant seeking reimbursement; and (4) the defendant did not know of the third party’s negligence, had no reason to anticipate it, and reasonably could rely on the third party not to be negligent.”

Just looking at these requirements at a climbing wall, you know the mother of a child hosting a birthday party, there is not going to meet any of these requirements.

The defendant climbing wall could not produce any evidence that the mother was in exclusive control of the situation to the exclusion of all others.

The mother’s motion for summary judgment was granted, and the plaintiff’s indemnification claims failed.

So Now What?

Overall, the language in this release did not meet Connecticut law on many counts. However, the court found the language to be so one-sided and so bad that if found multiple ways to void it. Releases must be written for the activity, the guests and the law of the state where the release will be used. When you have a state like Connecticut, where releases are always on a thing line between valid and void, the language is critical to succeed.

Indemnification claims in a release have never worked. The only way that the claims may work, would be against third parties when the liability is created by the guest. An example of something like that might be a guest on a trip starts a forest fire. The special-use permit or concession agreement generally holds the outfitter/permittee/concessionaire liable for the damages caused by the fire. The indemnification clause might work in that situation to recover some of the money to reimburse the outfitter.

(Always make sure your outfitter liability policy provides coverage for actions to third parties by your guests.)

However, I have never found a case where indemnification has worked to recover damages for an injury from parents, friends or the leader of the group of kids. Maine looked at the language of indemnification in a release and seemed to indicate it would be supported if written correctly. See Maine follows the majority and does not allow a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue.

The situation that created this mess is classic. A group of kids is coming to your business or program, and no one has notified the parents of a requirement to sign a release in advance. Upon arrival, someone who does not know or understand or a facility that does not care just has the adult with the kids sign the paperwork. That does not work.

Either get the parent’s signatures on documents or spend most of the time creating an assumption of the risk defense by educating the kids.

Don’t waste the paper or electrons having a youth leader or mother responsible of the group sign the release for the rest of the children in attendance. It just does not work.

This will be the fourth article I’ve written about Connecticut courts voiding releases. If you work or operate in Connecticut you are probably working in a state that does not support the use of a release.

For more information about indemnification see:

Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

Indemnification between businesses requires a contract outlining the type of indemnification and a certificate of insurance from one party to the other so the insurance company knows it is on the hook

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

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

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

State:
Nevada, Court of Appeals of Nevada

Plaintiff: Joseph Kuchta

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

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

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

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

Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

February 5, 2020, Opinion Filed

G056427

Reporter

2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814 *; 2020 WL 563604

GRANT TUTTLE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. HEAVENLY VALLEY, L.P., 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: Request denied by Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. LEXIS 2940 (Cal., Apr. 29, 2020)

Prior History:  [*1] Appeal from a judgment and post judgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County, Ct. No. 30-2015-00813230, Nathan R. Scott, Judge.

Disposition: Affirmed.

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

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

Judges: DUNNING, J.*, BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J. concurred.

Opinion by: DUNNING, J.

Opinion

INTRODUCTION

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

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks . . . over and above [*2] those inherent in the sport of skiing.” The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

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

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

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

The Release

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

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing “can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH.” In paragraph 2, she “ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS . . . known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions; . . . variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features; . . . [and] collisions.” Paragraph 5 advised: “The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably [*4] avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.”

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

II.

The Accident and the Lawsuit

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

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.3 Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) “any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained . . . by Plaintiffs was directly [*5]  and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated”; (2) “Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury”; and (3) defendant “is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.”

III.

The Jury Trial

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

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the [*6] jurors‘ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.5 The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: “So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.”

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

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the [*7] special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: “[Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and—release of liability and waiver was executed—existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated.” (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent [*8] risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

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

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. [*9]  Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, “[a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form . . . . [¶] . . . If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them—you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.”

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

IV.

The Special Verdict

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

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

“Yes X No __

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

“Yes __ No X

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question [*10]  5. [¶] If you answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered ‘No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

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

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

“Yes X No __”

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

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

V.

Entry of a Defense Judgment

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1,065,915.50, plus costs and [*11] interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided “a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.”6

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

The trial court acknowledged “the structure” of [*12] the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

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

VI.

Plaintiffs’ Post judgment Motions

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

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ [*13] substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence,7 the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ post judgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Release Covered Tuttle’s Accident.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754, 29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so “the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language.” (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357, 129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. [*14]  (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291, 66 Cal. Rptr. 3d 704 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

Overview: Assumption of the Risk

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (Knight)8 and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.9 Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed [*15]  which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

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

A different analysis applies when a skier [*16] signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

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

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the [*17] release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'” [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, ‘[t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.'” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement “to ‘shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed” on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, [*18] the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

Analysis

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only [*19] concern is “‘whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.'” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

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

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

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release “bears many similarities to the release” in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently [*20]  and “unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning” (id. at p. 1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.'” (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted “the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks ‘not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use “the word ‘negligence‘ or any particular verbiage . . . [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee.” (Id. at pp. 1488-1489.) The release in Cohen used the word “negligence” only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release [*21] also did not “indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities.” (Id. at p. 1489.)

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

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

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court [*22]  of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

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

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

Addressing the release, Hass held: “By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk [*23]  of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.”10 (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353, 235 Cal. Rptr. 3d 716 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

Enforcement of the Release Does not Violate California’s Public Policy.

Plaintiffs next argue the release‘s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of “aggravated” negligence.

Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 “left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release [*24]  of other forms of ‘aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence.” (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

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

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

References in Santa Barbara to “aggravated [*25]  wrongs” (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and “aggravated misconduct” (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, “a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

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

III.

The Trial Court did not Err by Entering Judgment in Favor of Defendant.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault [*26] between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other post judgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

Legal Principles Governing Special Verdicts

A special verdict must include “conclusions of fact as established by the evidence . . . [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332, 104 Cal. Rptr. 3d 219, 223 P.3d 77.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation “may be disregarded as surplusage.” (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703, 67 P.2d 1055.) Additionally, “where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to ‘the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.'” (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457, 72 Cal. Rptr. 217, 445 P.2d 881; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092, 74 Cal. Rptr. 3d 235.)

B.

The Trial Court’s Ruling

As noted, the jury [*27] was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: “After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form. . . . But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer ‘NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering ‘No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering “NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer ‘YES’ to one question and ‘NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages.” (Italics and bold [*28] omitted.)

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

The trial court also correctly concluded the “jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct [*29] from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.”

C.

Analysis

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning [*30] whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

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

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring “a statutorily authorized post-trial motion” challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form [*31] should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657.)

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

We agree the procedural [*32] aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179, 202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 460, 370 P.3d 1022 [because the defendant “did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error”].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from [*33] the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

Plaintiffs are not Entitled to a New Trial.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they “excepted to” those errors, but then were penalized because “the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley.” Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431,12 to which they agreed, [*34]  misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend “the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options.” Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release “in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which . . . made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs] . . . were . . . induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs].” This characterization [*35] misstates the record.

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

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

Third—and significantly—plaintiffs’ [*36] counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

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

DISPOSITION

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

DUNNING, J.*

WE CONCUR:

BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J.

MOORE, J.

 


States that do not Support the Use of a Release.

Assumption of the risk is your best defense in these states.

These states do not allow a recreational business or program to use a release to stop litigation.

State

Citation

Issues/Article

Releases are Void
Louisiana C.C. Art. 2004 (2005) Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party. Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.
Virginia Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890) Except for Equine Activities Chapter 62. Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202. Liability limited; liability actions prohibited
Oregon Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994 Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.
Use of a Release is Restricted
Arizona Phelps v. Firebird Raceway, Inc., 2005 Ariz. LEXIS 53
New Mexico Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332;2002 NMCA 60;48
P.3d 70;2002 N.M. App. 39;41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25
State created Equine Liability Statute so no need for release
West Virginia Kyriazis v. University of West Virginia; 192 W. Va. 60; 450 S.E.2d 649;
1994 W. Va. LEXIS 161
Use of Releases is Probably Void
Connecticut Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, Et Al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006
Conn. LEXIS 330
Mississippi Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375 Mississippi Supreme Court makes it almost impossible to write a release that is enforceable because the court does not give direction as to what it wants.
Wisconsin Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2 Wisconsin decision has left the status of release law in Wisconsin in jeopardy
Wisconsin Roberts v. T.H.E. Insurance Company, et al., 2016 WI 20; 2016 Wisc. LEXIS 121 Wisconsin Supreme Court voids another release because it violates public policy. Public Policy as defined in Wisconsin requires the ability to bargain before signing the release.
Vermont Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd, 164 Vt 329; 670 A.2d 795; 1995 Vt. Lexis 127
Specific uses of Releases are Void
Alaska Sec. 05.45.120(a). Use of liability releases A ski area operator may not require a skier to sign an agreement releasing the ski area operator from liability in exchange for the right to ride a ski area tramway and ski in the ski area. A release that violates this subsection is void and may not be enforced.
Hawaii King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511 (D. Haw. 2004) Found that Hawaii statute § 663-1.54. Recreational activity liability prevented the use of a release
New York General Obligation Law § 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.
Not Sure Where the Supreme Court Stands at This Time
Montana MCA § 27-1-701 Liability for negligence as well as willful acts. Except as otherwise provided by law, everyone is responsible not only for the results of his willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person except so far as the latter has willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury upon himself.
However, Montana passed the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act which now allows the use of a release for Recreational activities. This Act has not been reviewed by the courts.
Utah Decisions for Releases
Utah’s decision upholds a release for simple negligence but not gross negligence in a ski accident

Pearce v. Utah Athletic Foundation, 2008 UT 13; 179 P.3d 760; 597 Utah Adv. Rep. 13; 2008 Utah LEXIS 16

Decisions Against Releases

Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time

Utah seems to be adopting a position against releases. So far, they are invalidating releases if the legislature has created a statute protecting an activity.
However, they have had several decisions supporting releases. Good luck

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Federal District Court in Utah voids release for bicycle racing because of public policy!

Plaintiff was injured pre-riding a race course when he struck a barrier closing a street. Although the release was determined to be valid under Utah’s law, the court determined the Utah legislature had created laws and regulations to protect people that voided the release.

What is confusing is, but for a race being held at that location at a later date, everyone would be immune from suit for a road closure. Meaning cities and transportation departments are hard if not impossible to sue. How then could a race sponsor be sued for an accident on a road before the race?

Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

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

Plaintiff: Gerald Finken

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc.; Breakaway Promotions, LLC; Ogden/Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, and Does 1-10

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Master bicycle racer training for race struck barricade on a closed road. Plaintiff was following race course map prior to race day. Court interpreted confusing Utah’s law on the subject of releases to hold the inherent risks of cycling did not cover barricades on the course and under Utah law, the release was void as against Utah Public Policy.

Facts

The 2014 USA Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate[].”USA Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.

Before publication, USA Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA Cycling to review, and then “USA Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course. USA Cycling disputes it prepared the map.

Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.

Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA Cycling’s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure.

On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA Cycling. Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. He was hospitalized for two days for serious neck and back injuries.

After the accident, USA Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event.

Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.”

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

The court first looked at Utah’s law on releases. The Supreme Court in Utah generally supported releases, but there were several exceptions to the law that made interpreting Utah’s law on releases difficult. See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.
The court found that three types of releases were void under Utah’s law.

Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.

The court looked at the indemnification language in the release and found that most jurisdictions did not support indemnification, including Utah.

As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.”

For a release to be enforceable, the release must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.

[Utah] Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law

If a release is not clear on its face, then it is unenforceable. The court found the release used by USA cycling was clear and released USA Cycling from claims of negligence. However, the court took issue with the language that was obviously intended to cover the race, and the accident occurred on a pre-race ride. The court found that this was a risk that was not inherent to a race on a public road.

But the plaintiff was not racing; he was riding, and closed roads are an inherent risk of cycling or driving or walking even!

After reviewing the language of the release, the court held the release was clear as to USA Cycling.

A co-defendant, Breakaway argued it was also covered by the release. The court found the language “Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials” was not broad enough to cover Breakaway, which was an independent contractor. The court did not find that Breakaway was covered by that language and therefore, not protected by the release.

In addition, the agreement between Breakaway and USA Cycling stated that Breakaway would be “solely and entirely responsible for its acts….” Nowhere in the agreement “was Breakaway as an event director, or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA Cycling.”

Having found the release was valid for USA Cycling the court then looked at whether or not the release was void for some other reasons, such as a violation of Utah Public Policy.

To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.”

The court then reviewed two cases decided by the Utah Supreme Court. In both of those cases, one, an equine case and the other the Rothstein case (See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.) the court held that since the Utah Legislature had created statutes to protect the activities, the release was barred because the accidents that had happened to the plaintiffs in those cases were not an inherent risk of the activity.

Looking at the incident in this case, the court applied the inherent risks of bicycle racing to the facts, even though the plaintiff was not racing at the time. The court found that hitting a barricade closing a road was not an inherent risk of cycle racing.

The analysis for this was the requirement that the requirement that bicycle races have a special event permit and liability insurance. Since the liability insurance would not have to pay for a claim based on the inherent risk of cycling, but only those non-inherent risks, the State of Utah must believe that those non-inherent risks should not be precluded by a release.

Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, and the traveling public.

The court then made its stretch and found:

The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA Cycling.

The court then denied the motion for summary judgment of both defendants USA Cycling and Breakaway Promotions, LLC.

So Now What?

Sometimes you are going to find a judge that is going to give the plaintiff’s money no matter what the law dictates. This appears to be one of those cases. However, this case is still going on and perhaps instead of settling the defendants will take the case to trial and win. At least appeal this decision so Utah is not stuck within an even worse decision.

In this case applying the risks of bicycle racing, which is sometimes done on a closed course with directors, smooth roads and no obstructions to everyday cycling. If you are riding along, and you come onto a closed road, you better be able to stop before you hit the barrier closing the road. That is a risk of cycling. That is not a risk of racing, and the plaintiff in this case was not racing. The plaintiff even admitted he was going.

There are going to be a lot more disclaimers on maps and information supplied to racers in the future from USA Cycling. The map will say this is the course ON RACE DAY. The release should be written to cover more than just the race, but all training and attendance at any USA Cycling event.

The USA Cycling release needs to be rewritten because as it was quoted by the court, the language limits the risks to the inherent risks of the sport, greatly reducing the value of the release. See Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.

At the very least, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to hold an amateur bicycle race, possibly even a professional bicycle race in Utah in the future. The liability is too great. The judge commented several times about the economic value cycling brought to the state then wrote a decision to end that financial benefit.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Massachusetts’s Supreme Court holds that wrongful-death claims are derivative.

A derivative claim can be stopped by any defense of the main claim the derivative claim is dependent on. In this Scuba fatality, a release stopped claims by the heirs.

Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., 484 Mass. 193, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134, 140 N.E.3d 394, 2020 WL 949922

State: Massachusetts, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Margaret C. Doherty, personal representative

Defendant: Diving Unlimited International, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019

Summary

Under Massachusetts law, a wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim. That means that the defenses available to stop a lawsuit by the deceased, also work against the survivors of the decedent. In this case, the deceased signed a release prior to his death which stopped the wrongful-death claim of his survivors.

Facts

The decedent, who was a certified open-water scuba diver, drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by DUI and held in Gloucester. At this event, where local divers tested DUI’s dry suit, Golbranson was the leader of the dive, overseeing some of the participants.

Prior to participating in the event, the decedent signed two documents. The first was a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including “effect of agreement,” “assumption of risk,” “full release,” “covenant not to sue,” “indemnity agreement,” and “arbitration.” In capital letters under the subsection titled “effect of agreement,” it said, “Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death.” It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it “unless or until you understand.” The subsection titled “full release” stated that the decedent “fully release[d] DUI from any liability whatsoever resulting from diving or associated activities,” and the subsection titled “covenant not to sue” stated that the decedent agreed “not to sue DUI for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities,” and that the decedent’s “heirs or executors may not sue DUI for death arising from scuba diving or its associated activities.”

The decedent also signed an equipment rental agreement which stated, “This agreement is a release of the [decedent’s] rights to sue for injuries or death resulting from the rental and/or use of this equipment. The [decedent] expressly assumes all risks of skin and/or scuba diving related in any way to the rental and/or use of this equipment.”

Golbranson led a group comprised of the decedent and two other divers. During their dive, one of the divers experienced a depleted air supply. Golbranson signaled for the group to surface and to swim back to shore on the surface. Only the decedent resisted, emphasizing his desire to keep diving, thus separating himself from the group that was returning to shore. Shortly thereafter, the decedent surfaced and called for help. The decedent died at the hospital from “scuba drowning after unequal weight belt distribution.”

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

A wrongful-death claim is a statutory claim, created by state legislatures to allow surviving heirs to sue over the death of a loved one who was providing value or benefits to the survivor. In most cases, since there is no duty directed to a survivor, the surviving heirs have limited rights to recover for the loss of a breadwinner in a family, until the wrongful-death statutes were enacted.

In this case, the decedent signed a release and a rental agreement to test the dive equipment. The rental agreement included additional release language.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts determined the sole issue upon review was whether the release signed by the decedent barred the claims of the plaintiff, the heir who had filed the wrongful-death claim.

The decision was simple for the court. A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim of the wrongful-death statute. That means that a derivative claim does not stand on its own, it only exists because of the main claim. As such, if the main claim, wrongful death is void because of the release, then that claim also stops the derivative claims of the survivors.

Given that the plaintiff does not contest the judge’s determinations that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement are valid and that those waivers covered Golbranson as an agent of PUI, the only issue before the court is whether the statutory beneficiaries in the action for wrongful death have a right to recover damages that is independent of the decedent’s own cause of action. See G. L. c. 229, §§ 1, 2. In GGNSC, 484 Mass. at, we have resolved that issue: our wrongful death statute creates a derivative right of recovery for the statutory beneficiaries listed in G. L. c. 229, § 1. Therefore, we hold that here, the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as his “executor or personal representative,” from bringing a lawsuit under G. L. c. 229, § 2, for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries.

A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim under Massachusetts’s law. Therefore, if the release stops the claims of the decedent, it also stops the claims of the heirs.

So Now What?

Although most states have determined that wrongful-death claims are derivative of the main action of the decedent, you want to make sure your release protects you from wrongful death and other claims that are derivative. Language in your release needs to say that the person signing the release as well as his family and heirs cannot sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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

Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District

March 12, 2018, Filed

NO. 4-17-0364

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

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

Disposition: Affirmed.

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

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

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

Opinion by: HARRIS

Opinion

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

Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

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

[*P2]  I. BACKGROUND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [*P30]  This appeal followed.

[*P31]  II. ANALYSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

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

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

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

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

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

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

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

“(a) the place where the injury occurred,

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*P48]  1. Section 145 Contacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*P60] 2. Section 6 Principles

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

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

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*P73]  C. Motion for Summary Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[*P97]  III. CONCLUSION

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

 [*P99]  Affirmed.

End of Document