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.

Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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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.

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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.

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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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.

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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


Push a release too far, in a state that is not sure Releases should be valid, and you provide the court with the opportunity to void releases and indemnification in the state.

Non-mother brought a group of kids to climbing gym and signed release for the kids. One was hurt, and the climbing wall sued the non-mother for indemnification in the release for the damages of the injured child.

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

State: Connecticut; Superior Court of Connecticut

Plaintiff: Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon (minor)

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

Defendant Third Party Plaintiffs: Kate Licata, Indemnifier

Plaintiff Claims: negligent in supervising the rock climbing activities

Defendant Defenses: release and indemnification

Holding: For the Defendant Third Party Plaintiff, Indemnifier

Year: 2020

Summary

When litigating a case, you don’t look to the future effects of what you are doing. You look at winning. That is the only thing, your client and the client’s insurance company want. That is the only thing as an attorney you are allowed to do. You must represent the client and win.

In this case, the defendant used every argument they could to try to win, and not only lost the case, but voided releases for recreation in the state an eliminated any value the indemnification clause might have had in a release.

Facts

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. 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.

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 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 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.

The defendant argued on appeal that:

Licata argues that she was not given any opportunity to negotiate the terms of the Release document, which was presented to her on a “take or leave it” basis.

It was the Rock Climb defendants who were responsible for training Licata and/or the minor plaintiff to ensure safe rock climbing, as Licata claims she did not possess the knowledge, experience or authority to ensure the rock climbing facility was in a safe condition.

Additionally, Licata argues she was not in control of the situation on the date in question, and the cross claim does not even allege she was in control of the situation. Therefore, any claim for common-law indemnification also fails as a matter of law.

These three arguments made by the defendant are critical in how the court viewed the situation and more importantly the realities of using this type of document in a recreation case.

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

The court first set out the requirements to win a motion for summary judgment. In doing so it defined the term “a material fact.” “A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case….”

“[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.

Summary judgment will not be granted if there is a material fact in question. So knowing the definition is important since most summary judgement claims revolve around whether there is a material fact that must be adjudicated.

The court then looked at the indemnification clause in the release; contractual indemnification. Under Connecticut law, indemnification is defined as:

Indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one who is claimed to be primarily liable.” “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

Indemnification agreements are contracts and as such construed under the principles of contract law.

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

Additionally, for a contract to be valid, there must be mutual assent between the parties to create a contract and the parties to the contract must be reasonably clear.

The court then looked at the indemnification language in the release in this case.

Paragraph 3 is titled “Release and Indemnity. That paragraph notes that the signor of the agreement is an adult visitor or parent of a minor visitor and that the signor releases and discharges and agrees to indemnify the RCF defendants from all claims, suits, demands or causes of action, which are connected to the minor’s visit to and participation in, RCF activities. The agreement is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by the child and losses caused by the signor or the child. By signing the agreement, the signor agrees to indemnify and release claims of negligence of the RCF defendants.

Lastly, paragraph 5 of the Release notes that the signor acknowledges that if the minor visitor for whom the signor has signed their signature, is hurt and files a lawsuit, the signor will protect the released and indemnified RCF defendants from any claims of the minor visitor.

The court did point out, but did not act upon the issue that release was not signed by anyone at the gym.

The court then looked at release law in Connecticut. The Supreme Court of Connecticut set forth three requirements for a release in a recreational activity to be valid.

(1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis.

The court then found that the release in this case violated public policy in Connecticut.

We conclude that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Meaning, a release cannot be used to protect the provider of a recreational activity that is open to the public and requires skill because there is a general expectation that those activities are safe. On top of that, the plaintiff lacked any knowledge, experience or skill to determine if the defendants’ facility were in good working order or safe.

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.

The court looked at the statements from the guest’s point of view and found it illogical that the guest could make those judgements.

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 defendant also argued the release was an adhesion contract.

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.

Because the plaintiff could not negotiate the release provisions, and her only option was not to participate, because of that, the court concluded the contract was an adhesion contract.

The court circled back to the knowledge and skill of the guest by looking at the facts, that the guests and injured child did not bring any equipment or provided any training, guidance and/or supervision to the children under the third party plaintiff’s care.

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.

Because the third party plaintiff had no knowledge or skill concerning climbing, she could not have been supervising the children while climbing, it does not matter whether or not she was “adequately supervising” the children because she could not. This created another whole in the indemnification argument and another issue that must be decided by the trial court.

This brought the court back to the indemnification issue.

To hold a third party liable to indemnify one tortfeasor for damages awarded against it to the plaintiff for negligently causing harm to the plaintiff, a defendant seeking indemnification must establish that: (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.”

The definition in Connecticut basically ruled out the third party plaintiff as a possible indemnifier for the gym.

“Our Supreme Court has defined exclusive control of the situation, for the purpose of a common-law indemnification claim, as exclusive control over the dangerous condition that gives rise to the accident.”

Since the third party defendant did not have any control over the situation because she lacked the knowledge, experience and skill to climb or supervise anyone else climbing and because she, and the children went to the gym because of the gym’s knowledge, skill, ability to see risks and the gym had the needed equipment, there could not be indemnification.

On top of that, because the court found the climbing gym had done such a poor job of prosecuting it’s indemnification claim the court found the claim had been abandoned.

The third-party plaintiffs, the RCF defendants, have produced little to no credible evidence; nor have they alleged or argued that Licata was in control of the situation to the exclusion. “Where a claim is asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receives only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities, it is deemed to be abandoned.”

That means the indemnification claim could not be brought back up at trial.

So Now What?

There is a dozen interesting statements found in this release that when brought to the light of reality will cause or should cause concern for the way some releases are written. Not legal as much as how the assumptions on how the law would work when applied to the facts which the court rejected.

  1. Having signor of the release accept the equipment and facility as is or to be in good shape, was determined to be a joke. The signor was coming to the facility for their expertise and had no expertise to make that determination on their own.

You don’t want to have your release thrown out because a clause in the release, no matter who it protects is false.

  1. Having the signor of the release agree that they are in control of the children they bring to the gym was found ridiculous for the same reasons.
  2. The Indemnification clause was not written to follow Connecticut law and as such was found to be worthless.
    1. Worse when argued by the defendant gyms, it was found the language, and their arguments were so futile as to be abandoned.
  3. The release placed so many burdens, which the signor could not get around; the release was found to be void because it violated public policy.

I have yet to read a case where an indemnification clause has been upheld in a release, unless the circumstances were very odd and the parties knowledgeable about what they were agreeing too.

Are there situations where there is a need, and you can properly write an indemnification clause in a release. Yes. However, the injured part will be indemnifying you not for your losses, but for the losses you incur when their actions involve a third party.

An example might be you are billed for the cost of search and rescue under your permit or concession agreement to find the lost guest. A well-written indemnification clause can be used to recover for the costs of these expenses, because the defendant did not cause the loss and is not trying to recover for its losses, only the losses the guest has made the defendant liable for.

The three arguments made by the defendant set forth in the summary will soon be present in many third party defenses I predict. They are simple yet set forth the reality of the people signing the indemnification clauses. Uniformly, the courts have struck down indemnification clauses when used to recover money for a plaintiff’s claim.

For more articles on Indemnification Clauses see:

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.

New Jersey does not support fee shifting provisions (indemnification clauses) in releases in a sky-diving case.

Indemnification agreements? What are you signing?

One case where an indemnification agreement was upheld:

A federal district court in Massachusetts upholds indemnification clause in a release.

This case will have far reaching effect in other states.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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

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

No Shepard’s  Signal™
As of: April 9, 2020 8:28 PM Z

Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC

Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield At Bridgeport

February 13, 2020, Decided; February 13, 2020, Filed

FBTCV186079642S

Reporter

2020 Conn. Super. LEXIS 261 *

Cindy Cannon PPA Emma Cannon v. Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC et al.

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

Judges:  [*1] Richard E. Arnold, Judge Trial Referee.

Opinion by: Richard E. Arnold

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT #142

The third-party defendant Kate Licata has moved for summary judgment on Counts One and Two of the Cross Complaint filed by the defendants third-party plaintiffs, Rock Climb Fairfield, LLC, Carabiners Fairfield, LLC and Matthew Conroy.1 Count One of the cross complaint alleges contractual indemnification and Count Two alleges common-law indemnification. The cross complaint is dated February 22, 2019. The third-party defendant Licata’s motion for summary judgment is dated September 9, 2019. The defendant third-party plaintiff’s objection is dated October 14, 2019.2 Licata’s reply to the objection is dated October 17, 2019. The court heard oral argument on October 21, 2019.

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 [*2]  climbing activities, thereby causing the minor plaintiff’s injuries.3 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.

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 [*3]  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 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 [*4]  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 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.

The plaintiff cross claim defendant, Licata, argues that the defendants cross claim plaintiffs’ claims are void as against public policy as a result of the decision in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005), [*7]  regarding any waiver signed by Licata, and any waiver signed by Licata was a contract of adhesion. Licata argues that she was not given any opportunity to negotiate the terms of the Release document, which was presented to her on a “take or leave it” basis. It was the Rock Climb defendants who were responsible for training Licata and/or the minor plaintiff to ensure safe rock climbing, as Licata claims she did not possess the knowledge, experience or authority to ensure the rock climbing facility was in a safe condition. Additionally, Licata argues she was not in control of the situation on the date in question, and the cross claim does not even allege she was in control of the situation. Therefore, any claim for common-law indemnification also fails as a matter of law.

I

Summary Judgment

The legal standard governing summary judgment motions is well settled. Summary judgment “shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Practice Book §17-49. “A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts [*8]  at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013).

“The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact and that the party is, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) St. Pierre v. Plainfield, 326 Conn. 420, 426, 165 A.3d 148 (2017). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) [*9]  Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004). Consequently, on a motion by defendant for summary judgment the burden is on the defendant to negate each claim as framed by the complaint. Squeo v. Norwalk Hospital Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558, 594, 113 A.3d 932 (2015). “It necessarily follows that it is only [o]nce [the] defendant’s burden in establishing his entitlement to summary judgment is met [that] the burden shifts to [the] plaintiff to show that a genuine issue of fact exists justifying a trial.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rockwell v. Quintner, 96 Conn.App. 221, 229, 899 A.2d 738, cert. denied, 280 Conn. 917, 908 A.2d 538 (2006).

“A material fact is a fact that will make a difference in the result of the case . . . The facts at issue are those alleged in the pleadings.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Morrissey-Manter v. Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center, 166 Conn.App. 510, 517, 142 A.3d 363, cert. denied, 323 Conn. 924, 149 A.3d 982 (2016). Moreover, “[a] genuine issue has been variously described as a triable, substantial or real issue of fact . . . and has been defined as one which can be maintained by substantial evidence . . . Hence, the genuine issue aspect of summary judgment procedure requires the parties to bring forward before trial evidentiary facts, or substantial evidence outside the pleadings, from which the material facts alleged in the pleadings can warrantably be inferred.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rickel v. Komaromi, 144 Conn.App. 775, 790-91, 73 A.3d 851 (2013). “Because litigants ordinarily have a constitutional right to have issues [*10]  of fact decided by the finder of fact, the party moving for summary judgment is held to a strict standard. [H]e must make a showing that it is quite clear what the truth is, and that excludes any real doubt as to the existence of any genuine issue of material fact.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Barasso v. Rear Still Hill Road, LLC, 81 Conn.App. 798, 802-03, 842 A.2d 1134 (2004).

II

Additional Discovery Argument

In their objection to summary judgment, the RCF defendants argue several times that summary judgment would be inappropriate because discovery is not complete. The court has before it the scheduling orders submitted by the parties, as signed by legal counsel for the RCF parties and the plaintiff. These scheduling orders filed on February 22, 2019,were approved by the court (Kamp, J.) on March 7, 2019.6 The approved scheduling order listed September 30, 2019, as the date by which all discovery was to be completed. There have been no requests to modify the scheduling order or to extend the dates for the completion of discovery.7 The court has before it the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document and further additional information submitted by the parties to allow the court to move forward, including the transcript of the deposition [*11]  testimony of Nora Maklad and employee of RCF. There is no indication that the defendants have sought more information through the discovery process or that Licata has objected to, obstructed or delayed the discovery process. The court has a one hundred and twenty-day time limitation to issue its decision and the court will do so within that time limit with the information that is available, as a trial date assignment is pending.

III

Contractual Indemnification

Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleges contractual indemnification. “Indemnity involves a claim for reimbursement in full from one who is claimed to be primarily liable.” Atkinson v. Berloni, 23 Conn.App. 325, 326, 580 A.2d 84 (1990). “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 [*12]  of a claim for indemnification based on active-passive negligence) in order to state a legally sufficient claim for contractual indemnification.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Kinney v. Gilbane Building Co., Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven at Meriden, Docket No. CV 01 0276049 (September 21, 2004, Wiese, J.).

“As a general rule, contractual indemnification claims that are based on written agreements are construed in accordance with the principles of contract law.”
Lawrence v. Sodexho, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield, Docket No. CV 06 5001264 (January 25, 2007, Owens, J.T.R.); 42 Conn. L. Rptr. 843, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 245; see also PSE Consulting, Inc. v. Frank Mercede & Sons, Inc., 267 Conn. 279, 290, 838 A.2d 135 (2004). “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.” Greco Properties, LLC v. Popp, Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford, Docket No. CVH 7628, 2008 Conn. Super. LEXIS 414 (February 15, 2008, Bentivegna, J.), citing McCann Real Equities Series XXII, LLC v. David McDermott Chevrolet, Inc., 93 Conn.App. 486, 503-04, 890 A.2d 140, cert. denied, 277 Conn. 928, 895 A.2d 798 (2006).

“[I]n order to form a contract, generally there must be a bargain in which there is a manifestation of mutual assent to the exchange between two or more parties . . . and the identities of [*13]  the contracting parties must be reasonably certain.” (Citations omitted.) Ubysz v. DiPietro, 185 Conn. 47, 51, 440 A.2d 830 (1981); BRJM, LLC v. Output Systems, Inc., 100 Conn.App. 143, 152, 917 A.2d 605, cert. denied, 282 Conn. 917, 925 A.2d 1099 (2007). “[A] party is entitled to indemnification, in the absence of a contract to indemnify, only upon proving that the party against whom indemnification is sought either dishonored a contractual provision or engaged in some tortious conduct.” Burkert v. Petrol Plus of Naugatuck, Inc., 216 Conn. 65, 74, 579 A.2d 26 (1990). “[Allegations 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 . . .”(Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Fisher v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV-09-4008690-S, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 32 (January 7, 2011, Roche, J.).

As noted, herein, the contract relied upon by the Rock Climb defendants is the “Rock Climb Fairfield Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document that has been submitted for the court’s review. It was admittedly signed by Kate Licata on October 3, 2016, the date of the alleged incident, wherein the minor child was injured. The document bears the name of the minor child [*14]  and her date of birth. It lists the e-mail address of Licata and Licata’s electronic signature.

Paragraph 1 of the document titled “activities and risks” lists indoor wall climbing and bouldering as activities. Risks include, among other things: falling from climbing surfaces; persons climbing out of control or beyond personal limits; over-exertion; inadequate physical conditioning; and the negligence of other persons, including other visitors. The document states that the risks described in the document “are inherent in RCF activities . . . and cannot be eliminated without jeopardizing the essential qualities of the activity.”

Paragraph 2, titled “Assumption of Risks” states:

I accept and assume all the risks of a visit to RCF activity sites, inherent or not and whether or not described above, If the visitor is a minor of whom I am parent or legal guardian, I have explained the risks to the minor visitor, who understands them and wishes to visit and participate in RCF activities in spite of the risks.

Paragraph 3 is titled “Release and Indemnity. That paragraph notes that the signor of the agreement is an adult visitor or parent of a minor visitor and that the signor releases and discharges [*15]  and agrees to indemnify the RCF defendants from all claims, suits, demands or causes of action, which are connected to the minor’s visit to and participation in, RCF activities. The agreement is intended to include claims arising out of losses suffered by the child and losses caused by the signor or the child. By signing the agreement, the signor agrees to indemnify and release claims of negligence of the RCF defendants.

Lastly, paragraph 5 of the Release notes that the signor acknowledges that if the minor visitor for whom the signor has signed their signature, is hurt and files a lawsuit, the signor will protect the released and indemnified RCF defendants from any claims of the minor visitor.

The Release bears a signature line and date line for the “parent or legal court appointed guardian. As stated, it is signed by Kate Licata and dated October 3, 2016. The document is not signed by the RCF defendants or any agent, servant or employee of the RCF defendants.

Licata, in moving for summary judgment, argues the “Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk” document is void as against public policy and unenforceable against her. Her argument relies upon the decisions in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, 280 Conn. 153, 905 A.2d 1156 (2006).

In Hanks [*16] , the plaintiff, a patron, brought his three children and another child to Powder Ridge to snow-tube. Neither the plaintiff or the children had ever snow-tubed at Powder Ridge, but the snow-tubing run was open to the public generally, regardless of prior snow-tubing experience, with the restriction that only persons at least six years old or forty-four inches tall were eligible to participate. In order to snow-tube at Powder Ridge, patrons were required to sign a “Waiver, Defense, Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement, and Release of Liability.” The plaintiff read and signed the agreement on behalf of himself and the four children. While snow-tubing, the plaintiff’s right foot became caught between his snow-tube and the man-made bank of the snow-tubing run, resulting in serious injuries that required multiple surgeries to repair. Id., 316-17. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants negligently caused his injuries in several ways. Id. The defendants denied the plaintiff’s allegations of negligence and asserted two special defenses. “Specifically, the defendants alleged that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his own negligence and that the agreement relieved the defendants of liability, “even if the accident was due to the negligence of the defendants.” Id., 318-19.

In Hanks, our Supreme Court determined that even though the exculpatory agreement purporting to release the defendants from prospective liability for personal injuries sustained as a result of the operator’s negligent conduct was well drafted, it nonetheless violated public policy. In finding the agreement violated public policy, the Supreme Court reversed [*17]  the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for the defendants. Id., 321-26.

In Hanks, snowtubing was the recreational activity at issue. Our Supreme Court placed particular emphasis on: (1) the societal expectation that family oriented activities will be reasonably safe; (2) the illogic of relieving the party with greater expertise and information concerning the dangers associated with the activity from the burden of proper maintenance of the snowtubing run; and (3) the fact that the release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34. The court recognized the clear public policy in favor of participation in athletics and recreational activities. Id., at 335.

In Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153, the plaintiff was an experienced horseback rider, who was injured while riding one of the defendant’s horses. The plaintiff subsequently challenged the validity of a release document similar to the one in Hanks, and in this case, wherein the defendant sought to insulate itself from liability. Reardon found that the decision in Hanks was controlling in determining the validity of the release and indemnity agreement.

We conclude [*18]  that, based on our decision in Hanks, the totality of the circumstances surrounding the recreational activity of horseback riding and instruction that was offered by the defendants demonstrates that the enforcement of an exculpatory agreement in their favor from liability for ordinary negligence violates public policy and is not in the public interest. First, similar to the situation at issue in Hanks, the defendants in the present case provided the facilities, the instructors, and the equipment for their patrons to engage in a popular recreational activity, and the recreational facilities were open to the general public regardless of an individual’s ability level. Indeed, the defendants acknowledged that, although the release required riders to indicate their experience level, it also anticipated a range in skills from between “[n]ever ridden” to “[e]xperienced [r]ider,” and that the facility routinely had patrons of varying ability levels. Accordingly, there is a reasonable societal expectation that a recreational activity that is under the control of the provider and is open to all individuals, regardless of experience or ability level, will be reasonably safe.

Id., 161.

Additionally, in [*19]  the present case, as in Hanks, the plaintiff “lacked the knowledge, experience and authority to discern whether, much less ensure that, the defendants’ [facilities or equipment] were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. Specifically, although the plaintiff characterized herself as an experienced rider, she was in no greater position then the average rider to assess all the safety issues connected with the defendants’ enterprise. 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. In the context of carrying out these duties, the defendants were aware, and were in a position continually to gather more information, regarding any hidden dangers associated with the recreational activity including the [*20]  temperaments of the individual horses, the strengths of the various riding instructors, and the condition of the facility’s equipment and grounds. 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.

(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 161-62.

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.

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. In the present case, signing the release [*21]  provided by the defendants was required as a condition of the plaintiff’s participation in the horseback riding lesson, 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 participate in the activity. As in Hanks, therefore, the plaintiff had nearly zero 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.

(Internal citations and quotation marks omitted.) Id., 162-63.

It is also noted that the court in Reardon did not limit its decision to the sport of horseback riding or the activity of snowtubing which was the activity in Hanks. “The list of recreational activities that we identified in Hanks was meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive. [*22]  Indeed, it would be impossible for us to identify all of the recreational activities controlled by the Hanks decision.” Id., 165-66. The court finds that the factors considered in Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corporation, supra, 276 Conn. 314 and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 153 apply to the activities of bouldering and rock climbing which are present in the case before this court.8

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.9 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” [*23]  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.

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 [*24]  risk more effectively then the defendants.” Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, supra, 280 Conn. 162-63. The RCF release at issue was a standardized adhesion contract, lacking equal bargaining power between the parties, and offered to the plaintiff on a “take it or leave it” basis. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., supra, 276 Conn. at 331-34.10

The RCF parties additionally argue that it is improper to allow Licata to avail herself of arguments based on public policy when she in turn violated public policy by signing the Release and Indemnification Agreement when she was not the parent or legal guardian of the minor plaintiff, Cannon. They argue Licata violated societal expectations and norms in signing the document and now disclaiming responsibility. They declare that Licata is the wrongdoer and should not be allowed to walk away from this issue.

Licata in her reply to the RCF objection to summary judgment argues that the RCF defendants have cited no authority for their position that Licata’s signing of the release document on behalf of the minor, Emma Cannon constituted a violation of public policy; nor have they explained why such a violation would restrict Licata from challenging the validity of the waiver. Licata also questions why the RCF defendants would make this argument, given that the sole basis [*25]  for the contractual indemnification claim against Licata is her signing of the release document is which they now assert violated public policy. The court agrees. If the signing of the release was invalid, then it would stand to reason that the release itself is invalid. The RCF defendants, by their own reasoning would be attempting to enforce an agreement, which they themselves claim is invalid.

For the reasons set forth herein, the court grants Licata’s motion for summary judgment on Count One of the Rock Climb defendants’ third-party complaint against Licata alleging contractual indemnification.

IV Common-Law Indemnification

In Count Two of the cross claim, the RCF defendants allege common-law indemnification. Therefore, the court reviews our law concerning common-law indemnification, as set forth in Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., 152 Conn.App. 196, 203-04, 96 A.3d 1275 (2014). Citing, Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., 152 Conn. 405, 412, 207 A.2d 732 (1965), the Appellate Court in Valente, supra, noted that “[g]enerally, there is no right to indemnification between joint tortfeasors.” Kaplan v. Merberg Wrecking Corp., supra, recognized an exception to this general rule. “Kaplan teaches that indemnification is available from a third party on whom a primary exposure of liability is claimed to rest. To hold a third party liable to indemnify one tortfeasor for damages awarded against [*26]  it to the plaintiff for negligently causing harm to the plaintiff, a defendant seeking indemnification must establish that: (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.” (Citation omitted.) Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04. “Our Supreme Court has defined exclusive control of the situation, for the purpose of a common-law indemnification claim, as exclusive control over the dangerous condition that gives rise to the accident.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id., citing, Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., 139 Conn.App. 767, 775, 57 A.3d 803 (2012) (dangerous condition held to be electric power line which electrocuted plaintiff), cert. denied, 308 Conn. 911, 61 A.3d 532 (2013).

The court has reviewed the objection to the motion for summary judgment filed by the RCF defendants and notes, as pointed out by Licata in her reply brief, that the RCF defendants have [*27]  not addressed Licata’s claim in her motion for summary judgment that she did not control the situation that prevailed at the RCF’s facility on the date of the minor’s injury; nor is it alleged in the cross claim that Licata controlled the situation. An essential element of common-law indemnification is that the third party, Licata, was in control of the situation to the exclusion of the third-party plaintiffs. Valente v. Securitas Sec. Services, USA, Inc., supra, 152 Conn.App. 203-04; Pellecchia v. Connecticut Light & Power Co., supra, 139 Conn.App. 775. The third-party plaintiffs, the RCF defendants, have produced little to no credible evidence; nor have they alleged or argued that Licata was in control of the situation to the exclusion. “Where a claim is asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receives only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities, it is deemed to be abandoned.” (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Merchant v. State Ethics Commission, 53 Conn.App. 808, 818, 733 A.2d 287 (1999). These same principles apply to claims raised in the trial court. Connecticut Light and Power Co. v. Department of Public Utility Control, 266 Conn. 108, 120, 830 A.2d 1121 (2003).

For the foregoing reasons discussed, herein, Licata’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to Count Two alleging common-law indemnification.

ORDERS

Licata’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted as to Count One, which alleges contractual indemnification and Count [*28]  Two, which alleges common-law indemnification.

THE COURT

Judge Richard E. Arnold,

Judge Trial Referee

End of Document


PA Supreme Court determines colleges owe a duty to provide medical care to student-athletes and releases are valid for stopping claims by student athletes.

Court also sets forth requirements for a release to be valid under Pennsylvania law.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

State: Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs: , Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch

Defendant: Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff’s

Year: 2017

Summary

In this decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviews requirements for how a release must be written in Pennsylvania law to be valid. Pennsylvania has no definition of gross negligence, but a release is still not valid to stop a gross negligence claim.

Finally, if you create a duty or make a promise that people rely on to their detriment or injury you are liable. Here a college is liable to its student-athletes who were injured during practice for not having certified athlete trainers on the field.

Facts

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna.

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second attempt at certification.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed [*7] new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent).

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder, i.e., experiencing numbness, tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed based by the trial court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants. The Plaintiff’s then appealed that dismissal of their complaint to the Pennsylvania Superior Court (intermediate appellate court). The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court on several issues. The defendants then filed this appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was based on two issues.

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

That means the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will only look at the two issues it has decided that need to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and nothing else.

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

What is interesting are two things.

First, the court allowed a release to be used by a college to prevent lawsuits when a student is injured during practice for an NCAA sport. The analysis did not center around the relationship between the student athlete and the university; it centered around the fact the University had told student athletes they would have trainers and did not.

Sort of a detrimental reliance claim: I relied upon your statements that then injured me. Or as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

The court found the College had created an expectation, relied upon by the students, that there would be athletic trainers available on the field during practice. Because the two trainers on the field were not certified, and possibly, to some extent, the actions of the school in changing the requirements or the people on the field to help the athletes from trainers to medical responders, the court found a legal theory where the college could be liable.

The second issue is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of Pennsylvania release law. Under Pennsylvania law “Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” To meet that criteria the court restated four requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

(1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause).

The first issue the court reviewed in determining if the release was valid was the lack of the word negligence in the release. If the release failed to specifically state the release stopped claims for the defendants negligence was it enforceable. The court said the release was valid even if it did not include the word negligence in its wording. To be valid the release must spell “…out the intention of the parties with particularity” and show “the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.”

That means the court must review the party’s intentions in creating the agreement between them. Furthermore, the injuries suffered by the plaintiff must be encompassed within the terms of the release. That does not mean a specific list of injuries, just a general idea that the injury suffered was within the contemplation of the release.

The court then looked at ordinary negligence and gross negligence under Pennsylvania law. The court first stated there is a difference between ordinary, gross and reckless conduct or negligence.

However, the court avoided the issue of defining gross negligence or the issue of whether gross negligence was valid in this claim. The court stated, “([A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”

The court then looked at how both parties in their briefs defined the actions of the defendant college. The court then reviewed public policy requirements to void a release under Pennsylvania law.

A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards. “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .”

However, the court then stated that pre-injury contracts, releases, are unenforceable when the liability of the defendant arises from recklessness. So the court refused to define gross negligence and used an old definition of recklessness. The Court then held that recklessness, not necessarily defined in a definition of negligence, could void a release.

Again, the Court repeated that Pennsylvania had not defined gross negligence in a civil liability setting.

Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care.

The court did then define gross negligence but did so in a way that did not set the definition in stone under Pennsylvania law. It just pulled definitions of gross negligence from lower courts and did not adopt any of them as the definition.

…in essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care.

As we have seen, gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.

The court then repeated that the release would not stop a claim for gross negligence.

Moreover, although the Waiver bars’ recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness.

Pennsylvania joins the list of states that a release will not stop a claim for gross negligence. A gross negligence claim must be decided by the trier of fact, the jury, in these cases.

So Now What?

First, we have definitive guidelines from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on how the court wants a release to be written. Second, we know that Pennsylvania joins the majority of states where a release cannot stop a claim for gross negligence.

We also know that recklessness is enough to void a release as well as gross negligence. However, terms we will result in battles by both sides to use the definitions they want applied to the facts of each particular case.

Finally, as in most states, if you make a promise to someone, and they rely on that promise to their detriment, you are going to write a check!

It is an interesting opinion purely from the allowance of the student-athletes to sue their college. However, the reasoning behind how a release must be written in Pennsylvania has great value.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 215 A.3d 3, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 5, 2018, Argued; August 20, 2019, Decided

No. 75 MAP 2017

Reporter

215 A.3d 3 *; 2019 Pa. LEXIS 4615 **

AUGUSTUS FELECCIA AND JUSTIN T. RESCH, Appellees v. LACKAWANNA COLLEGE A/K/A LACKAWANNA JUNIOR COLLEGE, KIM A. MECCA, MARK D. DUDA, WILLIAM E. REISS, DANIEL A. LAMAGNA, KAITLIN M. COYNE AND ALEXIS D. BONISESE, Appellants

Subsequent History: As corrected August 26, 2019.

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court at No. 385 MDA 2016 dated February 24, 2017, reconsideration denied April 26, 2017, Reversing the Judgment of the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division, at No. 12-CV-1960 entered February 2, 2016 and Remanding for trial.

Feleccia v. Lackawanna Coll., 2017 PA Super 44, 156 A.3d 1200, 2017 Pa. Super. LEXIS 117 (Pa. Super. Ct., Feb. 24, 2017)

Counsel: For Pennsylvania Association for Justice, Amicus Curiae: Barbara Axelrod, Esq., Beasley Firm, L.L.C. (The).

For Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, Amicus Curiae: Christopher D. Carusone, Esq., Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC.

For National Athletic Trainers’ Association & PA Athletic Trainers’ Society, Inc., Amicus Curiae: Mitchell Y. Mirviss, Esq.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Steven Jay Engelmyer, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Eric Joseph Schreiner, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Lackawanna College a/k/a Lackawanna Junior College, Kim A. Mecca, Mark D. Duda, William E.Reiss, Daniel [**2]  A.Lamagna, Kaitlin M.Coyne & Alexis D.Bonisese, Appellants: Joshua John Voss, Esq., Kleinbard LLC.

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Andrew P. Motel, Esq., Law Offices of Andrew P. Motel, L.L.C. (The).

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Robert A. Saraceni Jr., Esq.

For Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, Appellee: Daniel Joel Siegel, Esq., Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, L.L.C.

Judges: SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ. Justices Baer, Todd, Donohue and Mundy join the opinion. Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Wecht file concurring and dissenting opinions.

Opinion by: DOUGHERTY

Opinion

 [*5]  JUSTICE DOUGHERTY

In this discretionary appeal arising from the dismissal of personal injury claims on summary judgment, we consider whether the Superior Court erred in 1) finding a duty of care and 2) holding a pre-injury waiver signed by student athletes injured while playing football was not enforceable against claims of negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness. After careful review, we affirm the Superior Court’s order only to the extent it reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on the  [*6]  claims of gross negligence and recklessness, and we remand [**3]  to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

Appellees, Augustus Feleccia and Justin T. Resch, (collectively, appellees) were student athletes who played football at Lackawanna Junior College (Lackawanna), a non-profit junior college. See Complaint at ¶¶ 29, 30. At all times relevant to this matter, the following individuals were employed by Lackawanna and involved in its football program: (1) Kim A. Mecca, the Athletic Director for Lackawanna College who oversaw all of Lackawanna’s athletic programs, including the football program (AD Mecca); (2) Mark D. Duda, the head coach (Coach Duda); (3) William E. Reiss, an assistant and linebacker coach (Coach Reiss); (4) Daniel A. Lamagna, an assistant and quarterback coach (Coach Lamagna); (5) Kaitlin M. Coyne, hired to be an athletic trainer (Coyne); and (6) Alexis D. Bonisese, hired to be an athletic trainer (Bonisese) (collectively with Lackawanna referred to as appellants). Id. at ¶¶31-34, 40, 41, 43, 44.

Lackawanna had customarily employed two athletic trainers to support the football program.1 However, both athletic trainers resigned in the summer of 2009 and AD Mecca advertised two job openings for the position [**4]  of athletic trainer. AD Mecca received applications from Coyne and Bonisese, recent graduates of Marywood University who had obtained Bachelor of Science degrees in Athletic Training. AD Mecca conducted telephone interviews with Coyne and Bonisese for the open athletic trainer positions at Lackawanna. See Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 2017 PA Super 44, 156 A.3d 1200, 1203 (Pa. Super. 2017).

At the time she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position, Coyne had not yet passed the athletic trainer certification exam, which she took for the first time on July 25, 2009, and was therefore not licensed by the Board. Bonisese was also not licensed, having failed the exam on her first attempt, and still awaiting the results of her second attempt when she applied and interviewed for the Lackawanna position. Nevertheless, Lackawanna hired both Coyne and Bonisese in August 2009 with the expectation they would serve as athletic trainers, pending receipt of their exam results, and both women signed “athletic trainer” job descriptions. Id. After starting their employment at Lackawanna, Coyne and Bonisese both learned they did not pass the athletic trainer certification exam. Coyne informed AD Mecca of her test results, and AD Mecca also learned Bonisese had failed her second [**5]  attempt at certification. Id. at 1203-04.

AD Mecca retitled the positions held by Coyne and Bonisese from “athletic trainers” to “first responders.” Id. at 1204. AD Mecca notified Coyne and Bonisese via email and written correspondence that due to their failure to pass the certification exam, they would function as “first responders” instead of “athletic trainers.” However, neither Coyne nor Bonisese executed  [*7]  new job descriptions, despite never achieving the credentials included in the athletic trainer job descriptions they did sign. Appellants were also aware the qualifications of their new hires was called into question by their college professors and clinic supervisors. See Id. More specifically, Shelby Yeager, a professor for Coyne and Bonisese during their undergraduate studies, communicated to AD Mecca her opinion that Coyne and Bonisese were impermissibly providing athletic training services in September 2009. Professor Yeager was aware Lackawanna did not have any full-time athletic trainers on staff2 and noted Coyne and Bonisese, as recent graduates, were inexperienced and did not have the required Board license. Professor Yeager stated that Coyne in particular was “ill-equipped to handle the rigors [**6]  of a contact sport (like football) as an athletic trainer on her own regardless of whether she managed to pass [the certification] exam and obtain her state license.” Id., quoting Affidavit of Shelby Yeager. With regard to Bonisese, Bryan Laurie, who supervised her as a student, rated her performance as “below average/poor” and provided his assessment that she was not qualified to act as an athletic trainer in March of 2010. Id., citing Affidavit of Bryan Laurie.

Appellee Resch started playing football at the age of six, and continued playing through high school. Id. at 1204-05. Upon graduating from high school in 2008, Resch was accepted at Lackawanna and, hoping to continue playing football, met with Coach Duda prior to arriving for classes. Resch tried out for the Lackawanna football team in the fall of 2008. Resch not only failed to make the roster, but was also placed on academic probation, so he was ineligible to play football in the spring of 2009.

Appellee Feleccia also began playing football as a child at the age of ten, and played through high school. Feleccia was recruited by Coach Duda to play football at Lackawanna. See id. Feleccia did not make the team in the fall of 2008, but practiced [**7]  with them during that time. During a scrimmage in the fall of 2008, Feleccia tore the labrum in his left shoulder, which was surgically repaired. Feleccia was also placed on academic probation after the fall 2008 semester and temporarily withdrew from Lackawanna. See id.

In mid-January 2010, Resch and Feleccia returned to Lackawanna for the spring semester with the aspiration to make the football team. Id. Lackawanna required appellees to fill out and sign various documents in a “participation packet” before playing with the team, including a “Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement” (the Waiver) and a form including an “Information/Emergency Release Consent” (the Consent). See Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ at Exhibit 18(b). Appellee Resch “skimmed” and signed the Waiver on March 22, 2010. Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1205. Feleccia also executed the Waiver on March 22, 2010. The Waiver provided as follows:

1. In consideration for my participation in [Football] (sport), I hereby release, waive, discharge and covenant not to sue Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents, and employees from any and all liability, claims, demands, actions, and causes of action whatsoever arising out of or related [**8]  to any loss, damage, or injury, including death, that may be sustained by me, or to any property belonging to me,  [*8]  while participating in such athletic activity.

2. To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any physical disability or health-related reasons or problems which would preclude or restrict my participation in this activity. I am fully aware of the risks and hazards connected with [Football] (sport), and I hereby elect to voluntarily participate in said activity, knowing that the activity may be hazardous to me and my property. I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any risks of loss, property damage, or personal injury, including death, that may be sustained by me, or any loss or damage to property owned by me, as a result of being engaged in such activity.

3. I have adequate health insurance necessary to provide for and pay any medical costs that may directly or indirectly result from my participation in this activity. I agree to indemnify and hold harmless Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents, and employees, from any loss, liability, damage or costs, including court costs and attorneys’ fees that may be incurred, due to my participation in said activity. [**9]

4. It is my express intent that this Release and Hold Harmless Agreement shall bind my family, if I am alive, and my heirs, assigns and personal representative, if I am deceased, and shall be deemed as a release, waiver, discharge and covenant not to sue Lackawanna College, its trustees, officers, agents and employees. I hereby further agree that this Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement shall be construed in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In signing this release, I acknowledge and represent that I have read the foregoing Waiver of Liability and Hold Harmless Agreement, understand it and sign it voluntarily; no oral representations, statements, or inducements, apart from the foregoing written agreement, have been made; I am at least eighteen (18) years of age and fully competent; and I execute this Release for full, adequate and complete consideration fully intending to be bound by the same. Parent/Guardians’ signature required for individuals under eighteen (18) years of age.

Waiver attached as Exhibit A to Appellants’ Answer with New Matter.

Appellees also signed the Consent that provided, in pertinent part, as follows:

(1) I do hereby off[er] [**10]  my voluntary consent to receive emergency medical services in the event of an injury during an athletic event provided by the athletic trainer, team physician or hospital staff.

Consent attached as part of Exhibit 18(b) to Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ.

On March 29, 2010, appellees participated in the first day of spring contact football practice. The team engaged in a variation of the tackling drill known as the “Oklahoma Drill.” Appellees had previously participated in the Oklahoma Drill, or a variation of it, either in high school or at Lackawanna football practices, and were aware the drill would take place during practices. While participating in the drill, both Resch and Feleccia suffered injuries. Resch attempted to make a tackle and suffered a T-7 vertebral fracture. Resch was unable to get up off the ground and Coyne attended to him before he was transported to the hospital in an ambulance. See Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1207. Notwithstanding Resch’s injury, the Lackawanna football team continued practicing and running the Oklahoma Drill. Later that same day, Feleccia was injured while attempting to make his first tackle, experiencing a “stinger” in his right shoulder,  [*9]  i.e., experiencing numbness, [**11]  tingling and a loss of mobility in his right shoulder. Id. Bonisese attended Feleccia and cleared him to continue practice “if he was feeling better.” Id. Feleccia returned to practice and then suffered a traumatic brachial plexus avulsion while making a tackle with his right shoulder. Id.

Appellees filed suit against appellants, Lackawanna, AD Mecca, Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, Coach Lamagna and Coyne and Bonisese, asserting claims for damages caused by negligence, including negligence per se. The complaint also sought punitive damages, alleging appellants acted “willfully, wantonly and/or recklessly.” Complaint at ¶¶82, 97, 98, 102 & 103. Appellants filed preliminary objections which were overruled, and filed an answer with new matter raising defenses, including that the Waiver precluded liability on all of appellees’ claims.

At the close of discovery, appellants filed a motion for summary judgment, relying primarily on the Waiver; appellants argued they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law due to appellees’ voluntary release of appellants from any and all liability for damages resulting from participation in the Lackawanna football program. See Appellants’ Brief in Support of [**12]  MSJ at 13. In response, appellees argued Lackawanna “ran its Athletic Training Department in a manner demonstrating a total disregard for the safety of its student-athletes or the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Appellees’ Brief in Opposition to MSJ at 1. Appellees argued appellants had required appellees to sign the Consent for treatment by an “athletic trainer,” thus taking on a duty to provide an athletic trainer, but then failed to provide an athletic trainer for its football team. See id. at 18-20.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of appellants. The court ruled the Waiver: (1) did not violate public policy; (2) was a contract between Lackawanna and college students relating to their own private affairs, and (3) was not a contract of adhesion. See Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 2016 WL 409711, at *5-*10 (Pa..Com.Pl. Civil Div. Feb. 2, 2016), citing Chepkevich. v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174 (Pa. 2010) (setting forth elements of valid exculpatory agreements).

The court then considered whether the Waiver was enforceable, i.e., whether it “spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows the intent to release [Lackawanna] from liability by express stipulation.” Id. at *10, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (additional citations omitted). The court noted the Waiver did not specifically use the word “negligence” or mention the [**13]  Oklahoma Drill, but it was executed freely by appellees, and stated they were fully aware of the risks and hazards in the activity and “voluntarily assume[d] full responsibility for any . . . personal injury” resulting from it. Id. at *11, quoting the Waiver. The court found the Waiver immunized appellants from liability because it addressed the “risks and hazards” ordinarily inherent in the sport of football. Id. at *12.3 Finding the negligence claims barred, the court ruled the claim for punitive damages also failed, and discussion of the Waiver’s applicability to those allegations was unnecessary. Id. at *14 n.13.  [*10]  The court concluded there was no genuine issue of material fact and appellants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the Waiver.

Appellees filed an appeal and the Superior Court reversed.4 Although the panel agreed with the trial court’s holding the Waiver was valid under Chepkevich, the panel disagreed that the Waiver barred all of appellees’ claims as a matter of law. The panel first observed the Waiver was “not sufficiently particular and without ambiguity” to relieve appellants of liability for their own acts of negligence. Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1212-13, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189 (exculpatory [**14]  clause is unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”).

The panel also held the trial court erred in failing to address appellees’ allegations underlying their claim for punitive damages, and whether the Waiver applied to preclude liability based on those allegations. Id. at 1213. The panel recognized this Court’s jurisprudence holding exculpatory clauses are not enforceable to preclude liability for reckless conduct. Id. at 1214, citing Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 47 A.3d 1190, 616 Pa. 385 (Pa. 2012).

Finally, the panel’s “most important” reason for reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was that, after reviewing the record in the light most favorable to appellees as the non-moving parties, there were genuine issues of material fact as to “whether the College’s failure to have qualified medical personnel at the March 29, 2010 practice constitute[d] gross negligence or recklessness,” and whether that failure caused appellees’ injuries or increased their risk of harm. Id. at 1214, 1219. The panel’s determination in this regard was based on its view that Lackawanna had a “duty of care to its intercollegiate student athletes . . . to have qualified medical personnel available at the [**15]  football tryout on March 29, 2010, and to provide adequate treatment in the event that an intercollegiate student athlete suffered a medical emergency.” Id. at 1215. The panel relied in part on Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College, 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Circ. 1993), where the Third Circuit predicted this Court “would hold that a special relationship existed between the [c]ollege and [student-athlete] that was sufficient to impose a duty of reasonable care on the [c]ollege.” Id. at 1367. The panel further held it was for a jury to decide whether appellees signed the Waiver “unaware that [Lackawanna’s] athletic department did not include qualified athletic trainers.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1219. Accordingly, the panel remanded the matter for trial.

Upon petition by appellants we granted allowance of appeal to address following issues:

a. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

b. Is an exculpatory clause releasing “any and all liability” signed in connection with participation in intercollegiate football enforceable as to negligence?

Feleccia v. Lackawanna College, 644 Pa. 186, 175 A.3d 221 (Pa. 2017) (per curiam).

HN1[] This matter presents pure questions of law, over which our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary. See [**16]  In re Vencil, 638 Pa. 1, 11-12, 152 A.3d 235 (Pa. 2017). “[A]n appellate court may reverse the entry of summary judgment only where it finds that the trial  [*11]  court erred in concluding that the matter presented no genuine issue as to any material fact and that it is clear that the moving party was entitled to [a] judgment as a matter of law.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1004 (Pa. 2003), citing Pappas v. Asbel, 564 Pa. 407, 768 A.2d 1089 (Pa. 2001). We consider the parties’ arguments with these standards in mind.

II.

A. Is a Pennsylvania college required to have qualified medical personnel present at intercollegiate athletic events to satisfy a duty of care to the college’s student-athletes?

Appellants argue the Superior Court created a brand new common law duty of care requiring colleges to have qualified medical personnel available to render treatment at every practice and every game. Appellants aver the Superior Court did so without attempting to analyze the factors set forth in Althaus ex rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 756 A.2d 1166, 1169 (Pa. 2000) (before recognizing new duty of care courts must analyze the relationship between the parties; the social utility of the actor’s conduct; the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and the overall public interest in the proposed solution). Appellants’ Brief at 18-20, citing Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215. Appellants [**17]  assert that, in creating this new duty of care, the Superior Court relied only on a decades-old, non-binding federal decision. Id., citing Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1371. Appellants argue that, had the Superior Court applied the Althaus factors instead, it would not have created such a duty. Appellants’ Brief at 20-22. Appellants argue a proper analysis of these factors either weighs against the creation of a new duty or is neutral. Accordingly, appellants request we reverse the Superior Court’s decision to the extent it created a new duty.5

Appellees respond that the panel did not create a new, onerous duty, and that appellants actually failed to comply with existing common law and statutory duties to have qualified medical personnel available at intercollegiate athletic events. Appellees refer to MPA provisions that set forth the qualifications for an “athletic trainer” and the manner in which they must perform their duties. Specifically, appellees note the regulations implementing the MPA establish restrictions and protocols for licensed athletic trainers, and they also prohibit the use of the title “athletic trainer” by any person without a Board-issued license. [**18]  See Appellees’ Brief at 29-30, quoting 63 P.S. §422.51a (“An athletic trainer who meets the requirements of this section shall be licensed, may use the title ‘athletic trainer’ . . . and may perform athletic training services. A person who is not licensed under this section may not use the designation of licensed athletic trainer, athletic trainer or any of the listed abbreviations for that title, including ‘L.A.T.’ or ‘A.T.L.,’ or any similar designation.”). Appellees thus argue the Superior Court’s holding recognizes appellants have a duty to provide athletic trainers at practices,  [*12]  who, by statute, should be qualified medical personnel. Appellees’ Brief at 31.

Appellees also submit appellants’ claim the Superior Court ignored the Althaus factors is disingenuous. Appellees note the panel explicitly relied on Kleinknecht and, although the federal decision predated Althaus, the Third Circuit considered the same factors ultimately set forth in Althaus. Appellees’ Brief at 39-40, citing Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215 (Kleinknecht court recognized: special relationship between college and student-athlete requiring college to act with reasonable care towards athletes; risk of severe injuries during athletic activities was foreseeable; [**19]  and college acted unreasonably in failing to protect against risk). In any event, appellees reiterate, the Superior Court did not create a new common law duty, but rather recognized the “duty of care is necessarily rooted in often amorphous public policy considerations[.]” Appellees’ Brief at 38, quoting Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169.

Finally, appellees observe appellants themselves undertook the duty to protect their student-athletes by customarily hiring licensed athletic trainers prior to 2009, and holding out Coyne and Bonisese as “athletic trainers” in the documentation regarding their employment, including executed job descriptions, where Coyne and Bonisese acknowledged they were required to have passed the national certification exam, which is a pre-requisite to use of the title “athletic trainer.” See Appellees’ Brief at 41-43, quoting Rstmt (2d) of Torts, §323 (“One who undertakes . . . to render services to another . . . is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking[.]”). Appellees argue the evidence presented was sufficient to raise factual jury questions regarding whether appellants breached this duty and whether [**20]  that breach led to appellees’ injuries.6

Having considered the parties’ arguments and the opinion below, we acknowledge the Superior Court articulated a duty not previously recognized by Pennsylvania Courts: a college has a “duty of care to its intercollegiate student athletes requir[ing] it to have qualified medical personnel available at [athletic events, including] the football tryout, . . . and to provide adequate treatment in the event that an intercollegiate student athlete suffer[s] a medical emergency.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1215, citing Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1369-70. We further recognize the Superior Court did not analyze the Althaus factors, as  [*13]  required when imposing a previously unarticulated common law duty. Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169. Instead, the panel relied on non-binding federal case law to impose what it viewed as a new common law duty. In this specific regard, the panel erred.

HN2[] Courts should not enter into the creation of new common law duties lightly because “the adjudicatory process does not translate readily into the field of broad-scale policymaking.” Lance v. Wyeth, 624 Pa. 231, 85 A.3d 434, 454 (Pa. 2014), citing Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1245; see also Official Comm. of Unsecured Creditors of Allegheny Health Educ. & Research Found. v. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 605 Pa. 269, 989 A.2d 313, 333 (Pa. 2010) (“Unlike the legislative process, the adjudicatory process is structured to cast a narrow focus on matters framed by litigants before the Court in [**21]  a highly directed fashion”). We also acknowledge it “is the Legislature’s chief function to set public policy and the courts’ role to enforce that policy, subject to constitutional limitations.” Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1245 & n.19 (additional citations omitted). “[T]he Court has previously adopted the default position that, unless the justifications for and consequences of judicial policymaking are reasonably clear with the balance of factors favorably predominating, we will not impose new affirmative duties.” Id. at 1245 (citations omitted).

Applying the Althaus factors is not a mere formality, but is necessary when courts announce a new common law duty. Althaus requires consideration of the justifications for and the relevant consequences and policy concerns of the new duty of care. See Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169 (setting forth factors for determination of new common law duty). Further, “determining whether to impose a duty often requires us to weigh ‘amorphous public policy considerations, which may include our perception of history, morals, justice and society.'” Walters v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, 187 A.3d 214, 223 (Pa. 2018), quoting Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169 (additional citations omitted). The Superior Court did not engage these factors, nor did the summary judgment record include relevant data regarding, for example, injury rates [**22]  at practices, the consequences of having (or not having) available qualified medical professionals, the budgetary or other collegiate resource impact, or the relative public policy concerns involved.7

Importantly, however, an Althaus analysis was not necessary here because our review reveals the present circumstances involve application of existing statutory  [*14]  and common law duties of care. See, e.g., Dittman v. UPMC, 196 A.3d 1036, 1038 (Pa. 2018) (analysis of Althaus factors not required where case is one involving “application of an existing duty to a novel factual scenario”). In Dittman, for example, we recognized the legal duty of an employer (UPMC) “to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet-accessible computer system.” Id. at 1038. We did so because UPMC had required its employees to provide sensitive personal information, and then collected and stored that information on its computer system without implementing adequate security measures, such as encryption, firewalls, or authentication protocols. Id. at 1047. We reasoned that this “affirmative conduct” by UPMC created the risk of a data breach, which in [**23]  fact occurred. Id. We further determined that, in collecting and storing its employees’ data on its computers, UPMC owed those employees a duty to “exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm arising out of that act.” Id. Dittman may have been our first opportunity to recognize this duty in the context of computer systems security, but there is longstanding jurisprudence holding that “[i]n scenarios involving an actor’s affirmative conduct, he is generally ‘under a duty to others to exercise the care of a reasonable man to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm to them arising out of the act.'” Id. at 1046, quoting Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1246. This existing duty “appropriately undergirds the vast expanse of tort claims in which a defendant’s affirmative, risk-causing conduct is in issue.” Id. at 1047, quoting Seebold, 57 A.3d at 1246, see also Dittman, 796 A.3d at 1056-57 (Saylor, CJ, concurring and dissenting) (requirement to provide confidential information as condition of employment created “special relationship” between employer and employees giving rise to duty of reasonable care to protect information against foreseeable harm).

Additionally, HN3[] we have adopted as an accurate statement of Pennsylvania law the Restatement (Second) of Torts §323 (1965). Gradel v. Inouye, 491 Pa. 534, 421 A.2d 674, 677-78 (Pa. 1980) (“Section 323(a) of the Restatement of Torts has been part [**24]  of the law of Pennsylvania for many years.”). Section 323 provides:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if

(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or

(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

Restatement. (Second) of Torts, §323 (1965). See also Feld v Merriam, 506 Pa. 383, 485 A.2d 742, 746 (Pa. 1984) (landlord that undertook duty to provide secured parking for tenants may be liable for damages arising from failure to exercise reasonable care in doing so).

In Feld, the plaintiffs were injured during a carjacking that began inside the garage of their apartment building. They filed a negligence lawsuit against their landlord, who had charged tenants additional rental fees to provide a gate and security guard for its parking garages. In discussing the viability of the plaintiffs’ negligence action, the Feld Court first noted landlords do not generally owe a duty as insurer to protect the safety of their tenants. However, the Court noted such a duty might [**25]  arise if the landlord undertook  [*15]  to provide secured parking and failed to exercise reasonable care in doing so, and the tenants, who had relied on those services, were injured as a result. Id. at 746, citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, §323 (1965) (identifying discrete duty where a “landlord [who] by agreement or voluntarily offers a program to protect the premises, . . . must perform the task in a reasonable manner and where a harm follows a reasonable expectation of that harm, he is liable.”).

Application of these legal principles to the present factual scenario supports a determination that “affirmative conduct” by appellants created a “special relationship” with and increased risk of harm to its student athletes such that appellants had a duty to “exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm arising” from that affirmative conduct. Dittman, supra. In addition, the record supports a finding appellants undertook a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its student athletes participating in athletic events, including the football practice on March 29, 2010,8 although it remains to be determined whether the steps actually taken by appellants satisfied that duty. [**26]  See Wilson v. PECO Energy Co., 2012 PA Super 279, 61 A.3d 229, 233 (Pa. Super. 2012) (sufficient facts alleged to overcome summary judgment and reach jury on question of scope of duty undertaken and its breach).

Specifically, when we consider the record in the light most favorable to appellees as the non-moving parties, we observe the following: before hiring Coyne and Bonisese, Lackawanna customarily employed athletic trainers, who were licensed as required by applicable statutes and regulations; Lackawanna required its student athletes including appellees to execute the Consent to treatment by “athletic trainer, team physician or hospital staff” in the event of an emergency during participation in the football program; Lackawanna held out Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers to appellees and their teammates, despite its knowledge they lacked the statutorily required licenses; Lackawanna demonstrated its awareness that Coyne and Bonisese did not have the qualifications of athletic trainers by renaming them “first responders,” but did not alter their job descriptions, which encompassed the duties of “athletic trainers”; Coyne and Bonisese were the only individuals present at the March 29, 2010 football tryout to provide treatment [**27]  to injured student athletes; the coaching staff propagated the misrepresentation of Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers; and Coyne and Bonisese  [*16]  performed the role of athletic trainers by attending appellees when they were injured, and directing appellee Feleccia to return to practice when he was “feeling better.”

Under these circumstances, appellants clearly created an expectation on which the student athletes might reasonably rely — i.e. in the case of injury during an athletic event, they receive treatment from a certified athletic trainer, as clearly outlined in the Consent they were required to sign. We thus easily conclude appellants undertook a duty to provide treatment by a certified athletic trainer at the March 29, 2010 practice. We further conclude the record, taken in the light most favorable to appellees, demonstrates the existence of a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to overcome summary judgment regarding whether appellants breached this duty and caused appellees’ injuries. Thus, we hold the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of appellants.

B. Is the Waiver enforceable as to the negligence claims?

Notwithstanding the existence of a duty [**28]  on the part of appellants, and factual allegations of a breach of that duty which would support a negligence claim, we must now consider whether the Waiver completely precludes any liability on such a claim, or on appellees’ additional claims of gross negligence and recklessness. Appellants observe that by signing the Waiver appellees released “any and all liability, claims, demands, actions and causes of action whatsoever arising out of or related to any loss, damage, or injury, including death, that may be sustained” while playing football at Lackawanna. Appellants’ Brief at 38. Appellants submit Topp Copy Prods. v. Singletary, 626 A.2d 98, 100, 533 Pa. 468 (Pa. 1993) held a Waiver of “any and all” liability was sufficiently clear to bar claims of all negligence, and the Superior Court erred in holding the Waiver is unenforceable because “it does not indicate that Lackawanna was being relieved of liability for its own acts of negligence.” Appellants’ Brief at 39, quoting Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 100 (“[T]he word ‘all’ needs no definition; it includes everything and excludes nothing. There is no more comprehensive word in the language, and as used here it is obviously broad enough to cover liability for negligence.”) (additional citations omitted). Appellants emphasize “Pennsylvania [**29]  courts have consistently held that exculpatory clauses may bar suits based on negligence even where the language of the clause does not specifically mention negligence at all.” Appellants’ Brief at 43, quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193 (emphasis added).

Appellees submit the only issue preserved by appellants with respect to the validity of the Waiver is whether it is enforceable as to negligence, and that in this regard, the Superior Court correctly determined the Waiver is not sufficiently explicit regarding appellants’ own negligence to be enforceable. Appellees further assert the law is clear the Waiver is not enforceable to protect appellants from liability arising from gross negligence or recklessness, and the Superior Court properly remanded for further proceedings to determine whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness. Appellees’ Brief at 45-46, citing Tayar, supra, and Chepkevich, supra.

At the outset, we note appellants concede, as they must, that appellees’ claims of liability arising from recklessness are not precluded by the Waiver. See, e.g. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203 (finding public policy prohibits pre-injury waivers from releasing reckless behavior). The issue before us is thus narrowed to whether the Waiver, which purports [**30]  to release “any  [*17]  and all liability,” precludes liability on appellees’ claims of negligence and, relatedly, gross negligence.9 We bear in mind that exculpatory contracts are generally disfavored, and subject to close scrutiny. See Employers Liability Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Bus. Men’s Ass’n, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620, 623 (Pa. 1966) (“contracts providing for immunity from liability for negligence must be construed strictly since they are not favorites of the law”); see also Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199. Accordingly, exculpatory contracts are valid and enforceable only when “certain criteria are met.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200 & n.8, citing Chepkevich and Topp Copy. Our case law provides “guiding standards” for assessing the enforceability of exculpatory contracts. See, e.g., Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99 (1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause).

i. Ordinary Negligence

The Superior Court considered the Waiver to be unenforceable as to appellees’ claims of negligence because its “language does not indicate that Lackawanna was being relieved of liability for its own acts of negligence.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1213. The court further found fault with the Waiver because it did not specifically include the word “negligence.” Id. at 1212-13. Although our cases have directed that exculpatory clauses must clearly provide “a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence[,]” we have not prescribed specific language. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189, quoting Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99. In this case, the Waiver purported to protect appellants from “any and all liability” arising out of “any injury” sustained by student athletes while playing football at Lackawanna. We have determined such language is sufficient to express the parties’ intention to bar ordinary negligence claims. See Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99, 101 (lease agreement releasing lessor from ‘”any and all liability” clearly and unambiguously covered negligence claims’); see also Cannon v. Bresch, 307 Pa. 31, 160 A. 595, 596 (Pa. 1932) (lease releasing landlord from “all liability” was sufficient to cover liability for negligence).

 [*18]  The Superior Court, in reaching the opposite result, failed to acknowledge the trial court did not find [**32]  the mere existence of the Waiver automatically extinguished all potential claims of liability. Rather, the trial court applied the Topp Copy guiding standards to determine “whether the [exculpatory] clause ‘spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows the intent to release [appellants] from liability by express stipulation.'” Trial Court op. at 19, quoting McDonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc., 2015 PA Super 104, 116 A.3d 99, 121 (Pa. Super. 2015), quoting Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191. The trial court examined the facts of record, including the parties’ intentions related to the execution of the Waiver as well as whether the risks undertaken by appellees and injuries suffered were encompassed within its terms. Trial Court op. at 18-22. The trial court determined it could not “say that the risks associated with Lackawanna’s Oklahoma Drill are so far beyond those risks ordinarily inherent to the sport of football and addressed in the Waiver as ‘risks and hazards’ typical of the sport that we must, as a matter of law, invalidate the Waiver.” Id. at 21-22. The trial court thus found the Waiver was enforceable and entered summary judgment in favor of appellants. We conclude that the Superior Court’s reversal of this holding with respect to appellees’ claims of ordinary negligence was error.10  [**33] See, e.g., Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194-95 (release enforceable to preclude liability for general claims of negligence); see also, Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 101 (release of “any and all” liability sufficient to preclude liability resulting from landlord’s negligence); see also Cannon, 160 A. at 597 (“The covenant in this lease against liability for acts of negligence does not contravene any policy of the law.”).

ii. Gross Negligence

As we have seen, appellees’ claims of ordinary negligence are barred by the Waiver, their claims of recklessness are not, and the allegations of recklessness will be tested at trial on remand. We have yet to rule on whether appellees may also proceed to trial on their allegations of gross negligence, or whether such claims are precluded by the Waiver. See Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199 n.7 (“[A]s gross negligence is not implicated in the instant matter, we leave for another day the question of whether a release for gross negligence can withstand a public policy challenge.”).

Appellants consider gross negligence to be more closely aligned with negligence than recklessness, describing it as a form of negligence where there is a more significant departure from the standard of care, but without the “conscious action or inaction” that characterizes recklessness. [**34]  See Appellants’ Brief at 52. Appellants view gross negligence as a type of negligence that is covered by the Waiver and precludes appellees’ action for damages. Id. at 53-54.

Appellees respond that gross negligence is “more egregiously deviant conduct than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. . . . The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.”  [*19]  Appellees’ Brief at 50, quoting Bloom v. Dubois Reg’l Med. Ctr., 597 A.2d 671, 679, 409 Pa. Super. 83 (Pa. Super. 1991); accord Albright v. Abington Mem’l Hosp., 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164 (Pa. 1997) (“We believe that this definition is a clear, reasonable, and workable definition of gross negligence[.]”). Here, appellees assert, there were sufficient facts presented for the jury to conclude appellants’ conduct was grossly negligent, and public policy compels the conclusion such conduct should not be immunized by the Waiver. Appellees’ Brief at 52-53.

HN4[] A determination that a contract is unenforceable because it contravenes public policy “requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards.” See Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1199, citing Williams v. GEICO Gov’t Employees Ins. Co., 613 Pa. 113, 32 A.3d 1195, 1200 (Pa. 2011). “It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion [**35]  in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. . . .” Id., quoting Williams, 32 A.3d at 1200. Our law is clear that pre-injury exculpatory contracts purporting to protect a party from liability arising from recklessness are unenforceable on this public policy basis.

Although we have equated “gross negligence” with “recklessness” in the criminal law context, we have not expressly applied that equation in the civil context. See Com. v. Huggins, 575 Pa. 395, 836 A.2d 862, 867 (Pa. 2003) (gross negligence equates with recklessness for purpose of establishing mens rea for manslaughter). In the civil context, there is some difficulty in ascertaining the term’s precise meaning. See In re Scheidmantel, 2005 PA Super 6, 868 A.2d 464, 484-85 (Pa. Super. 2005) (recognizing “gross negligence” is frequently invoked but is not well defined in the civil context and “Pennsylvania Courts have struggled to provide a workable definition for ‘gross negligence’ when faced with the need to apply the concept.”). In Albright, 696 A.2d at 1164, we defined gross negligence in the context of the Mental Health Procedures Act11 as a “form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard [**36]  of care.” Id. at 1164, quoting Bloom, 597 A.2d at 679.

HN5[] Thus, although we have not previously settled on a definitive meaning of the term “gross negligence” as compared to “ordinary negligence” in the civil context, we have recognized there is a difference between the two concepts, and they are distinguished by the degree of deviation from the standard of care. See, e.g., Albright, supra; Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 2000 PA Super 239, 758 A.2d 695, 703 (Pa. Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001). See also Pa. Suggested Standard Civil Jury Instructions 13.50 (“Gross negligence is significantly worse than ordinary negligence” requiring proof actor “significantly departed from how a reasonably careful person would act under the circumstances”). To the extent our courts have used the term, the “general consensus finds gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. Other Pennsylvania sources have observed:

 [*20]  In essence, gross negligence is merely negligence with a vituperative epithet. It constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts. It may also be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care [**37]  comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. The term has also been found to mean a form of negligence where the facts support substantially more than ordinary carelessness, inadvertence, laxity, or indifference. The behavior of the defendant must be flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care.

2 Summ. Pa. Jur. 2d Torts §20:5 (internal citations omitted).

HN6[] Gross negligence has thus been consistently recognized as involving something more than ordinary negligence, and is generally described as “want of even scant care” and an “extreme departure” from ordinary care. Royal Indem. Co. v. Sec. Guards, Inc., 255 F.Supp.2d 497, 505 (E.D. Pa. 2003), quoting Williams v. State Civil Serv. Comm’n, 9 Pa. Commw. 437, 306 A.2d 419, 422 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973), aff’d 457 Pa. 470, 327 A.2d 70 (Pa. 1974); see also Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d at 485 (gross negligence is “a lack of slight diligence or care comprising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in ‘reckless disregard’ of a legal duty and the consequences to another party”). See also Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) (gross negligence is a “lack of slight diligence or care” and a “conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party”). With these principles in mind, we now proceed to consider whether a pre-injury exculpatory [**38]  waiver is valid to preclude claims of gross negligence.12

In Tayar, we held an exculpatory clause was not valid to preclude liability arising from reckless conduct because allowing such waivers would permit parties to “escape liability for consciously disregarding substantial risks of harm to others[.]” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1203. We recognized such pre-injury releases are unenforceable in circumstances where they “would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Id.

As we have seen, HN7[] gross negligence does not rise to the level of the intentional indifference or “conscious disregard” of risks that defines recklessness, but it is defined as an “extreme departure” from the standard of care, beyond that required to establish ordinary negligence, and is the failure to exercise even “scant care.” Royal Indem. Co., 255 F.Supp.2d at 505. See also 2 Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of  [*21]  Torts § 140 (gross negligence is “a high, though unspecified degree of negligence, or as courts sometimes say, the failure to use even slight care.”) Thus, gross negligence involves more than a simple breach of the standard of care (which would establish ordinary negligence), and instead [**39]  describes a “flagrant” or “gross deviation” from that standard. Bloom, 597 A.2d at 679 (gross negligence involves behavior that is “flagrant, grossly deviating from the ordinary standard of care”). As such, the same policy concerns that prohibit the application of a waiver in cases of recklessness — i.e., allowing it would incentivize conduct that jeopardizes the signer’s health, safety and welfare to an unacceptable degree requires a similar holding with regard to gross negligence.13 Accordingly, we hold the Waiver is not enforceable to preclude liability arising from appellees’ claims of gross negligence, and the allegations supporting such claims should be tested at trial on remand.

III. Conclusion

For all the foregoing reasons, we hold appellants had a duty to provide duly licensed athletic trainers for the purpose of rendering treatment to its student athletes participating in athletic events, including the football practice of March 29, 2010, and there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether appellants breached this duty. Moreover, although the Waiver bars recovery for appellees’ damages arising from ordinary negligence, we hold the Waiver does not bar recovery for damages arising [**40]  from gross negligence or recklessness, and there remain factual questions regarding whether appellants’ conduct constituted gross negligence or recklessness. Accordingly, we affirm the Superior Court’s order only to the extent it vacated the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on these claims specifically, and we remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

Justices Baer, Todd, Donohue and Mundy join the opinion.

Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Wecht file concurring and dissenting opinions.

Concur by: SAYLOR; WECHT

Dissent by: SAYLOR; WECHT

Dissent

CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION

CHIEF JUSTICE SAYLOR

I join the majority opinion to the extent it reverses the Superior Court’s creation of a generalized duty of care owed by Pennsylvania colleges to student athletes to have medical personnel available at all football practices. See Majority Opinion, slip op. at 14. I respectfully differ, however, with the majority’s follow-on holding that, under an assumption-of-duty theory as reflected in Section 323 of the Second Restatement of Torts, Lackawanna College definitively owed a duty of care to Plaintiffs on the date in question.

As a general matter, whether a defendant owed a duty of care to another person at [**41]  the relevant time is a legal issue to be decided on the underlying facts. See, e.g., Dittman v. UPMC,     Pa.    ,    , 196 A.3d 1036, 1046 (2018); accord Kukis v.  [*22]  Newman, 123 S.W.3d 636, 639 (Tex. Ct. App. 2003) (“The existence of a duty is a question of law for the court to decide based on the specific facts of the case.”). Because the complaint was dismissed on a defense motion for summary judgment, the majority appropriately “consider[s] the record in the light most favorable to [Plaintiffs] as the non-moving parties[.]” Majority Opinion, slip op. at 19. In doing so the majority recites certain facts which remain in dispute. This alone is not problematic given that, again, the record is being viewed favorably to Plaintiffs. The difficulty arises when the majority holds, in definitive terms, that a duty existed in light of such circumstances.

For example, the majority states, “Lackawanna held out Coyne and Bonisese as athletic trainers to [Plaintiffs] and their teammates,” and that these same two individuals “performed the role of athletic trainers by attending [Plaintiffs] when they were injured[.]” Id. Notably, Appellees expressly denied that Coyne and Bonisese held themselves out as athletic trainers or Lackawanna College held them out as such. See Defendants’ Answer and New Matter at ¶¶40, 42, 43, 44 (averring [**42]  that, at all relevant times, Coyne and Bonisese were held out by themselves and the college as first responders). Thus, I would frame the holding in more abstract terms and allow the common pleas court to determine, after resolution of any necessary factual disputes, whether Appellees’ affirmative conduct created a duty under the circumstances — and if so, the scope that duty.1

In terms of the second question accepted for review — whether the exculpatory clause is valid as to negligence — I also respectfully differ with the majority’s conclusion that the clause is unenforceable as contrary to public policy relative to a claim based on gross negligence.2

It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in  [*23]  regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. There must be a positive, well-defined, universal public sentiment, deeply integrated in the customs and beliefs of the people and in their conviction of what is just and right and in the interests of the public weal.

Shick v. Shirey, 552 Pa. 590, 600, 716 A.2d 1231, 1235-36 (1998) (quoting Mamlin v. Genoe, 340 Pa. 320, 325, 17 A.2d 407, 409 (1941)); see also Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 399, 47 A.3d 1190, 1199 (2012) (recognizing that “avoidance of contract [**43]  terms on public policy grounds requires a showing of overriding public policy from legal precedents, governmental practice, or obvious ethical or moral standards”). Tayar cited Williams v. GEICO Government Employees Insurance Co., 613 Pa. 113, 32 A.3d 1195 (2011), for this position, and continued as follows:

Public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest. As the term “public policy” is vague, there must be found definite indications in the law of the sovereignty to justify the invalidation of a contract as contrary to that policy[.] . . . Only dominant public policy would justify such action. In the absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or of violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts . . . contrary to public policy. The courts must be content to await legislative action.

Tayar, 616 Pa. at 399-400, 47 A.3d at 1199 (quoting Williams, 613 Pa. at 120-21, 32 A.3d at 1200) (alterations made by Tayar).

In this vein, it seems to me that, to invalidate the waiver relative to gross negligence claims as contrary to public policy, the concept of gross negligence would, at a minimum, have to be well understood and defined. [**44]  Apart from a clear notion of what constitutes gross negligence as distinguished from ordinary negligence, it seems difficult to contend that laws, legal precedents, long governmental practice, or other recognized indicators of longstanding, dominant public policy are so firmly entrenched in this Commonwealth against such waivers as to permit this Court to declare, as the majority presently does, that they are judicially prohibited.

Yet, as the majority explains, it is difficult even to ascertain the precise meaning of gross negligence, as that term represents an “amorphous concept,” that is, at its essence, “merely negligence with a vituperative epithet.” The majority proceeds to describe gross negligence as “appear[ing] to lie somewhere between” negligence and recklessness. Majority Opinion, slip op. at 21 n.9, 27.

This type of uncertainty in discerning just what gross negligence consists of, in my view (and for reasons more fully explained below) undermines the concept that liability waivers should be deemed unenforceable as against claims of gross negligence although they can be valid and enforceable in relation to claims of ordinary negligence.

In terms of the competing interests involved, it should go [**45]  without saying that athletic and other recreational pursuits by Pennsylvania residents are in the public interest and should be encouraged. See, e.g., Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 30, 2 A.3d 1174, 1191 (2010) (reviewing cases). On the other hand, it is plainly contrary to public policy to enforce releases which would allow individuals intentionally to harm others with impunity. Accord Tayar, 616 Pa. at 401, 47 A.3d at 1200. In Tayar, this Court extended that understanding to harm stemming  [*24]  from recklessness, that is, conduct in which the actor knowingly disregards an unreasonable risk of harm. Tayar reasoned that the conscious act of ignoring such a risk “aligns . . . closely with intentional conduct.” Id. at 403, 47 A.3d at 1201. Still, this Court should not overlook the competing policy grounds underlying the enforceability of liability waivers relative to inherently risky athletic activities.

Generally speaking, an exculpatory clause is a renunciation of a right and, as such, it constitutes a means of allocating risk as between contracting parties. See generally Anita Cava & Don Wiesner, Rationalizing a Decade of Judicial Responses to Exculpatory Clauses, 28 Santa Clara L. Rev. 611, 648 (1988). Because incurring risks is costly, shifting risks from the organizer of the athletic endeavor (the “supplier”) to the participant (the “consumer”) allows the supplier to lower the price of the activity, [**46]  particularly where there is market competition and/or where, as here, the provider is a non-profit organization. Cf. Carnival Cruise Lines v. Shute, 499 U.S. 585, 594, 111 S. Ct. 1522, 1527, 113 L. Ed. 2d 622 (1991) (applying similar reasoning to a contractual forum-selection clause). See generally Brief for Amicus Ass’n of Indep. Colls. & Univs. of Pa. at 12-14 (detailing that complying with the generalized duty imposed by the Superior Court would be likely to impose significant costs on the Association’s member institutions). A lower price, in turn, serves the public interest because, on the margin at least, recreational opportunities become available to lower-income residents who would otherwise be excluded from such events.

It may be assumed that another factor favoring enforcement is the recognition that, subject to limiting principles, parties are generally at liberty to enter into contracts of their choosing. See Cent. Dauphin Sch. Dist. v. American Cas. Co., 493 Pa. 254, 258, 426 A.2d 94, 96 (1981). This is reflected in the test for enforceability, one element of which asks whether each party is a “free bargaining agent.” Tayar, 616 Pa. at 399, 47 A.3d at 1199 (citing Emp’rs Liab. Assur. Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Ass’n, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966)).

Conversely, enforcing waivers of liability based on any kind of fault — including ordinary negligence — diminishes incentives for the supplier to manage risks which it is in a better position than the consumer to control.

None of the above is to suggest that negligent or grossly negligent [**47]  conduct is in any sense socially beneficial. Rather, it is offered solely for the purpose of illustrating that multiple competing interests are at stake when a litigant requests that we judicially invalidate an otherwise binding contractual provision on public policy grounds. Presumably, this Court’s line of decisions enforcing waivers as to ordinary negligence reflects a balancing of these considerations.

Certainly, and as noted, a weighing of such policies favors unenforceability where intentional or reckless conduct is concerned. In such instances, not only are there obvious reasons based on enduring societal mores which support such a result, but — and perhaps less obvious — any competing interest in cost reduction is not unduly compromised. This is because, absent some proof of intentional conduct or conscious disregard, the common pleas court can, in a given case, be expected to act as a gatekeeper so that the supplier need not incur the cost of litigating the case to the conclusion of a jury trial and, perhaps, post-trial motions.

The same cannot be said for gross negligence precisely because of its “amorphous” nature. After today it will be difficult for common pleas courts to [**48]  decide — when the  [*25]  defendant is in possession of a validly-executed waiver covering the activity in question — whether the complaint should be dismissed on the grounds that it only alleges ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. As a consequence, litigants can be expected to argue, with regard to any supportable allegation of negligence, that they are entitled to have a jury decide whether the defendant’s negligence was, in fact, “gross.” Absent thorough and detailed appellate guidance as to the types of facts that must be pled to allege gross negligence, such an argument is likely to prevail in many if not most cases.

In all events, the type of policy making this Court presently undertakes is best suited to the General Assembly. We have observed on multiple occasions that the legislative branch is the appropriate forum for the balancing of social policy considerations and interests and the making of social policy judgments, and that it has the tools to perform these tasks — tools which the courts lack. See, e.g., Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 618 Pa. 632, 653, 57 A.3d 1232, 1245 & n.19 (2012).

Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from the holding reached in Part II(b) of the majority opinion. I note, however, that I do not foreclose reconsidering my [**49]  position if, in the future, the concept of gross negligence in Pennsylvania is made subject to a more precise definition which allows for some measure of consistency and predictability in litigation.

CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION

JUSTICE WECHT

I. Introduction

Like the Majority, I believe that Lackawanna College had a duty to ensure that certified athletic trainers were available to treat student-athletes injured during the March 29, 2010 football tryouts. Considering the record in the light most favorable to Feleccia and Resch, as we must, it is clear that Lackawanna College assumed this duty through its own actions and representations.1 As a general matter, I agree as well with the Majority’s analysis regarding the enforceability of the liability waiver that Feleccia and Resch signed. Specifically, I join in the conclusion that the waiver was enforceable as to ordinary negligence, and not enforceable as to gross negligence.2

 [*26]  I write separately because, while the Majority limits Lackawanna College’s duty to the obligation it undertook through its own actions and representations, see Maj. Op. at 18-19, principles of Pennsylvania tort law require us to go further. Based upon [**50]  the factors that this Court articulated in Althaus ex rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 562 Pa. 547, 756 A.2d 1166 (Pa. 2000), as well as the persuasive opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg Coll., 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Cir. 1993), colleges owe a duty to their student-athletes to ensure that qualified medical personnel3 are available to render needed assistance during school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate contact sport activities.

II. Legal Backdrop

A. Kleinknecht

While this Court previously has rejected the doctrine of in loco parentis as a basis for finding that colleges owe a duty of care to their students,4 we have not addressed whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes. In a case with similar facts, the Third Circuit predicted that this Court would indeed conclude that a college’s relationship with its student-athletes created a duty of care to these athletes during their participation in intercollegiate contact sports. Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1367-69. In Kleinknecht, a college lacrosse player suffered cardiac arrest during practice and ultimately died. No medical personnel were present at the practice, and the coaches lacked any immediate means to contact emergency services.

Distinguishing prior cases in which courts held that colleges owed no duty to their students, [**51]  the Kleinknecht court explained that, unlike in those cases, the lacrosse player was not acting as a private student engaged in his own affairs when he collapsed.5 Instead, the student was  [*27]  participating in a scheduled practice for an intercollegiate, school-sponsored team under the supervision of coaches employed by the college. The court also found the college’s recruitment of the lacrosse player significant, noting that it could not “help but think that the College recruited [the athlete] for its own benefit, probably thinking that his [athletic skill] would bring favorable attention and so aid the College in attracting other students.” Id. at 1368.

Additionally observing that the imposition of a duty is justified when the foreseeable risk of harm is unreasonable, the Kleinknecht court considered the foreseeability and magnitude of the risk at the lacrosse practice. The court found that it is “clearly foreseeable that a person participating [in an intercollegiate contact sport] will sustain serious injury requiring immediate medical attention.” Id. at 1371. The court also opined that the “magnitude of foreseeable harm—irreparable injury or death to [a student-athlete] as a result of inadequate [**52]  preventative emergency measures—is indisputable.” Id. at 1370. Accordingly, in light of the relationship between a college and its student-athletes and the foreseeability of grave injury during athletes’ participation in contact sports, the court opined that the college owed a duty “to provide prompt and adequate emergency medical services” to its intercollegiate athletes when they are “engaged in a school-sponsored athletic activity for which [they] ha[ve] been recruited.” Id. at 1371.

B. Althaus

Seven years after the Third Circuit decided Kleinknecht, this Court compiled earlier approaches to the duty inquiry and distilled them into a five-factor framework.6 Observing that the concept of duty is “necessarily rooted in often amorphous public policy considerations,” Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169, we acknowledged that discerning a “previously unrecognized duty” is an inherently difficult task. See Walters v. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, 187 A.3d 214, 222 (Pa. 2018). To assist in this undertaking, we identified the following five factors for courts to consider: “(1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the social utility of the actor’s conduct; (3) the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred; (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and (5) the overall public [**53]  interest in the proposed solution.” Althaus, 756 A.2d at 1169. We also have noted that “[n]o one of these five factors is dispositive. Rather, a duty will be found to exist where the balance of these factors weighs in favor of placing such a burden on a defendant.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, 1008-09 (Pa. 2003).

III. Analysis

Although some twenty-six years have passed since the Third Circuit’s prediction in Kleinknecht, this Court has yet to resolve whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes. Allowing for argument’s  [*28]  sake that this is a new duty, a principled weighing of the Althaus factors leads to the conclusion that colleges owe a duty to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes participating in school-sponsored and supervised intercollegiate contact sports.7

A. Althaus (1): The relationship between the parties8

A party’s duty of care to another can arise from the parties’ relationship. See Morena v. S. Hills Health Sys., 501 Pa. 634, 462 A.2d 680, 684 (Pa. 1983). In light of the increased autonomy afforded to college students in modern times, courts have rejected the notion that colleges act in loco parentis or as [**54]  “insurer[s] of the safety of [their] students.” See Sullivan, 572 A.2d at 1213 (quoting Bradshaw, 612 F.2d at 138). However, despite widespread agreement among courts on this general principle, courts differ as to whether colleges owe any duty to their student-athletes.9 In recent  [*29]  decades, scholars have opined that the unique relationship between colleges and their student-athletes justifies the imposition of a duty upon the college when the athletes participate in intercollegiate contact sports. These commentators observe that, unlike the relationship between a college and its average student, the relationship between colleges and their student-athletes is characterized by mutual benefits and by the college’s assertion and exercise of significant control over the athletes’ lives, thereby justifying the recognition of a duty of care.10

In the case before us today, the relationship between [**55]  Lackawanna College and its intercollegiate football players weighs in favor of recognizing a duty similar to the one that the Third Circuit articulated in Kleinknecht. Like the student-athlete in Kleinknecht, at the time of their injuries, Feleccia and Resch both were engaged in something other than their own private affairs. Rather, Feleccia and Resch were participating in tryouts for the intercollegiate, school-sponsored football team under the supervision of coaches employed by the college. Like the Third Circuit in Kleinknecht, I would find that the college expected its relationship with the student-athletes to benefit the college. Before Feleccia and Resch enrolled at Lackawanna College, its head football coach contacted both of them about playing football for the school’s intercollegiate team, presumably because the college expected to gain favorable attention or other benefits from their participation in the program. Moreover, as the Majority aptly observes, Feleccia’s and Resch’s relationship with Lackawanna College rested in part upon their reasonable expectation, based upon the college’s actions and representations, that a certified athletic trainer would treat them if they [**56]  were injured during athletic activities. See Maj. Op. at 19.

Accordingly, like the school-athlete relationship at issue in Kleinknecht, the relationship between Lackawanna College and its intercollegiate football players weighs in favor of recognizing a duty.

B. Althaus (2): The social utility of the actor’s conduct

The conduct at issue in any negligence case is the “act or omission upon which liability is asserted.” Walters, 187 A.3d at  [*30]  234. In cases in which an actor’s omission is at issue, courts must consider not only the social utility of the actor’s conduct, but also the utility of the individual’s failure to act. For example, in Walters, this Court weighed the social utility of UPMC providing health care services to the community against the utility of UPMC’s failure to report a former employee’s theft of fentanyl to the appropriate authorities. Although we concluded that UPMC’s provision of health care was beneficial to society, we found that its failure to take “steps to enhance public safety” by ensuring that its former employee did not “repeat his dangerous and criminal conduct” lacked any social utility. Id. at 235.

Similarly, in Phillips, 576 Pa. 644, 841 A.2d 1000, this Court weighed the social utility of a company manufacturing butane lighters [**57]  against the utility of the company’s failure to manufacture these lighters with child safety features. After opining that the lighters had obvious social utility, we observed:

[T]he evidence does not show that the utility of the lighter is increased when a child safety device is lacking. Conversely, it is readily apparent that a device which would prevent small children, who lack the discretion and caution of the average adult, from creating a flame would have great utility in our society.

Id. at 659-60. Therefore, we concluded that this factor weighed in favor of imposing a duty.11

Here, we must weigh the social utility of Lackawanna College maintaining an intercollegiate athletic program against the utility of the college’s failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available to its student-athletes during football tryouts. Unquestionably, intercollegiate athletics furnish many benefits. As the Supreme Court of California observed in Avila, “[i]ntercollegiate competition allows a school to, on the smallest scale, offer its students the benefits of athletic participation and, on the largest scale, reap the economic and marketing benefits that derive from maintenance of [**58]  a major sports program.” Avila, 131 P.3d at 392. Intercollegiate athletic programs provide numerous revenue sources for colleges. In addition to the money colleges earn from ticket sales at intercollegiate athletic events, successful athletic programs serve as magnets for corporate sponsorships and substantial donations from alumni and fans.12 These programs also exponentially increase the sales of merchandise bearing the school’s name, mascot, and logo, generating significant profits for schools.13

Intercollegiate athletic programs also may increase the school’s marketability and enrollment.14 These programs inevitably  [*31]  facilitate the recruitment of other athletes, who desire to play for a reputable team. Intercollegiate athletics attract media attention, expanding the school’s visibility to prospective students. Further, the culture surrounding intercollegiate athletic programs improves the quality of students’ college experience by fostering and enhancing school spirit, and by offering students the opportunity to participate in a variety of social activities that attend these sports. Thus, by improving the quality of campus life, such programs enhance the school’s appeal to athletes and non-athletes [**59]  alike. Additionally, cheering for or participating in intercollegiate sports often creates a lasting connection between students and their universities, increasing the likelihood that they will donate to the school as alumni, recommend the school to potential students, or otherwise volunteer their services in order to help the school succeed.

In contrast, Lackawanna’s failure to ensure that certified athletic trainers were available during football tryouts lacks any social utility. Undoubtedly, the availability of qualified medical personnel such as certified athletic trainers increases the social utility of intercollegiate programs by providing athletes with proper medical care, and by preventing injuries like Feleccia’s and Resch’s. Moreover, as discussed more fully infra, the college’s failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available severely undermined the benefits that intercollegiate athletics generate.

Thus, because the social utility of maintaining intercollegiate athletic programs is great, and because the failure to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes during intercollegiate contact sports lacks any social utility, [**60]  this factor weighs in favor of imposing a duty.

C. Althaus (3): The nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred

In addition to identifying the nature of a college’s relationship with its student-athletes as a basis for imposing a duty of care upon the college, the Kleinknecht court also found that the college owed its athletes a duty of care based upon the foreseeability of severe injury at a practice for a contact sport. Here, the risk of injury exceeded the risk at issue in Kleinknecht. As observed by amicus curiae, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (“NATA”), collegiate football has one of the highest injury rates of all collegiate sports, and the preseason practice injury rate is over twice the rate during in-season practices. See Amicus Brief for NATA at 8. Moreover, college football players routinely suffer severe injuries. The drill that led to Feleccia’s and Resch’s injuries was a variation of the once-prevalent Oklahoma Drill, a tackling drill that has been the subject of extensive criticism during recent concussion litigation.15 Two experts, including the former head football coach at Texas A&M University and a certified athletic trainer at Stevenson [**61]  University, also opined that Lackawanna College ran a particularly dangerous variant of the drill.16

 [*32]  The foreseeability of the risk of the exacerbation of practice injuries was only enhanced when Lackawanna College employed Alexis Bonisese and Kaitlin Coyne to fulfill the roles of athletic trainers, despite the school’s awareness that these two individuals possessed neither the athletic training certifications nor the skills necessary to perform the duties of athletic trainers. See Maj. Op. at 3-4, 19. By employing Bonisese and Coyne, Lackawanna College not only failed to ensure that qualified medical personnel were available to care for injured football players, but also created an additional risk for the College’s athletes by allowing them to receive care and advice from unqualified individuals whom the athletes believed to be certified trainers. The athletes thus were unable to make an informed decision as to whether to consult or follow the recommendations of (uncertified) staff, exposing those athletes to the hidden risk of greater injury arising from bad advice.17

Given the magnitude and frequency with which players [**62]  sustain serious injury in contact sports, and football in particular, and given the likelihood that uncertified individuals undertaking the responsibilities of athletic trainers will render bad advice that further endangers athletes, the harm that Feleccia and Resch suffered was entirely foreseeable. In light of these considerations, Lackawanna College’s failure to protect against these risks was unreasonable, and this factor weighs in favor of imposing a duty on colleges in favor of student-athletes.

D. Althaus (4): The consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor

Requiring colleges to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes participating in intercollegiate contact sports undoubtedly imposes a financial burden upon colleges and universities, particularly small colleges lacking the resources of larger institutions. Some schools may be hard-pressed to find the money to fulfill this obligation, and could face a difficult decision between cutting spending in other areas of their budgets and reducing the number of intercollegiate sports that they offer. Additionally, it may be difficult for some colleges to find qualified medical personnel who are willing [**63]  to work for their schools, depending upon the individual’s salary requirements and the location of the college. However, for several mitigating reasons, these burdens weigh only modestly, if at all, against imposing a duty upon colleges.

First, this duty is limited. Like Lackawanna College, the college in Kleinknecht contended that imposing a duty of care would create a slippery slope, requiring colleges to provide medical personnel for all sports, irrespective of whether the sport posed a substantial risk of injury or whether the college sponsored or supervised the athletic event. The Third Circuit rejected this argument as an “unwarranted extension” of its holding, explaining that the duty it imposed was limited to the particular facts of the case in which an athlete suffered a medical emergency  [*33]  while participating in an intercollegiate contact sport for which the college had recruited him. Kleinknecht, 989 F.2d at 1370-71. I agree generally with the Kleinknecht court’s suggested limitation,18 such that the duty in question should extend only to intercollegiate contact sports. At least for present purposes, other athletic activities, such as intramurals, necessarily fall outside the scope of this duty.19

Second, Lackawanna College and colleges like it are tuition-dependent for the bulk of their revenue. See Deposition of Suellen Musewicz, 11/11/14, at 15. For all the reasons discussed above, maintaining an intercollegiate athletic program attracts more students, increasing tuition revenue. Indeed, Feleccia and Resch both averred that they attended Lackawanna College because they wanted to participate in its football program.20 Furthermore, although hiring qualified medical personnel such as certified athletic trainers increases the cost of colleges’ athletic programs, it also can increase the appeal of these programs to prospective student-athletes, in additional service of the above-stated benefits. By contrast, developing a reputation for employing unqualified individuals to treat injured players has the potential to decrease the number of students willing to participate on a college’s sports teams. Failing to ensure that injured athletes have access to proper medical care during athletic events increases injury rates, decreasing the college’s ability to capitalize on the benefits that successful programs generate. Additionally, such failures can result in litigation [**65]  (as evidenced by the present case), which presents its own financial and reputational challenges for colleges.

Third, hiring qualified medical personnel is hardly cost-prohibitive. This is particularly true because the number of medical personnel a college must employ to cover its intercollegiate contact sports is dependent upon a variety of factors unique to each college. As one example, NATA has promulgated worksheets to assist colleges in calculating an appropriate amount of medical coverage for their athletic programs. These worksheets incorporate many factors, including the intercollegiate sports that the college offers, the injury rates of those sports, the length of each sport’s season, and the number of participating athletes.

Using Lackawanna College as an example, to be staffed adequately in-season for all sports during the 2009-10 academic year according to NATA’s recommendations, one expert opined that the college needed to hire approximately 2.27 full-time athletic trainers. See Expert Report of M.  [*34]  Scott Zema, 9/28/15, at 4 (unnumbered). This number is roughly consistent with the two full-time certified athletic trainers that Lackawanna College had on staff prior to employing [**66]  Bonisese and Coyne, an expense that evidently was deemed cost-effective at the time. Thus, requiring Lackawanna College to meet NATA’s suggestion would require it to do little more than restore the staffing it had prior to creating the dubious “first responder” positions for the uncertified Bonisese and Coyne.

In short, the consequences of recognizing this duty are not de minimis, but this impact is offset by the aforementioned considerations, particularly when considering the facts of this case. Thus, in my view, the fourth Althaus factor weighs only slightly, if at all, against imposing a duty.

E. Althaus (5): The overall public interest in the proposed solution

In cases in which we have considered whether one party owed a duty to another, this Court time and again has observed that the concept of duty amounts to “the sum total of those considerations of policy which led the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection.” See Sinn v. Burd, 486 Pa. 146, 404 A.2d 672, 681 (Pa. 1979) (quoting Leong v. Takasaki, 55 Haw. 398, 520 P.2d 758, 764 (Haw. 1974)). Accordingly, like Dean Prosser, we have recognized:

These are shifting sands, and no fit foundation . . . . The word serves a useful purpose in directing attention to the obligation to be imposed upon the defendant, rather than the [**67]  causal sequence of events; beyond that it serves none. In the decision whether or not there is a duty, many factors interplay: The hand of history, our ideas of morals and justice, the convenience of administration of the rule, and our social ideas as to where the loss should fall. In the end the court will decide whether there is a duty on the basis of the mores of the community, “always keeping in mind the fact that we endeavor to make a rule in each case that will be practical and in keeping with the general understanding of mankind.”

Gardner ex rel. Gardner v. CONRAIL, 573 A.2d 1016, 1020, 524 Pa. 445 (Pa. 1990) (quoting William L. Prosser, Palsgraf Revisited, 52 Mich. L. Rev. 1, 14-15 (1953)). Thus, a duty arises, in part, from society’s interest in protecting the plaintiff from a certain harm.

In Kleinknecht and in the present case, the public has a substantial interest in protecting the health and well-being of intercollegiate athletes. As the Superior Court observed, “[c]olleges are expected to put a priority on the health and safety of their students, especially student[-]athletes engaged in dangerous sports.” Feleccia, 156 A.3d at 1219. As discussed supra, student-athletes participating in intercollegiate contact sports face a significant and foreseeable risk of acute injury, and colleges benefit considerably [**68]  from students’ participation in their athletic programs. The receipt of such benefits at the expense of these athletes’ health and well-being is, as one scholar opined, “grossly unfair.”21

Colleges are best positioned to ensure that their athletes receive timely, competent medical attention when they participate in contact sports. In theory, one might suggest that student-athletes could  [*35]  seek out their own treatment when they are injured and decide for themselves when they feel well enough to return to play. The wisdom of imposing such a responsibility on student-athletes is questionable, at best. Scholars have observed that, when allowed to make their own decisions regarding injuries and returning to play, collegiate athletes often are willing to sacrifice their bodies in pursuit of their athletic goals, and to take great risks because they believe themselves to be impervious to injury.22 Further, in addition to the pressure that they place upon themselves, student-athletes also experience pressure from coaches, teammates, parents, sponsors, and the media to perform despite their injuries.23 This pressure can cause athletes to return to play before recovering fully from an illness [**69]  or injury or to play through pain rather than receiving necessary medical attention.24 These considerations are only amplified in the context of a competitive tryout, when an athlete may fear losing the chance to play entirely. Moreover, the extensive training and certification required of an athletic trainer demonstrates just how unqualified student-athletes are to make their own decisions regarding whether they need medical attention and when they can return to play.25

Our Commonwealth’s imposition of rigorous requirements on those wishing to claim the title “athletic trainer” also demonstrates the interest of our citizens, expressed through their General Assembly, in ensuring that athletes who seek athletic training services receive a certain standard of care. The Medical Practice Act of 1985 and its implementing regulations prohibit unlicensed individuals from using the title “athletic trainer” or providing athletic training services, and allow the imposition of injunctions and penalties on those who [**70]  violate the Act.26 As these laws indicate,  [*36]  the interest of Pennsylvania and its citizens in the health and safety of student-athletes is particularly great when a college affirmatively purports to provide its athletes with care from certified athletic trainers while in fact allowing uncertified individuals to masquerade in performing athletic training duties. In such circumstances, an athlete’s decision-making ability regarding his medical care and return to play not only is compromised by the aforementioned pressures, but also is impaired by his ignorance of the caregiver’s lack of qualification to deliver advice.

Lackawanna College’s conduct makes clear that the public’s interest in protecting the health and safety of intercollegiate athletes cannot be entrusted categorically to colleges based upon the assumption that they will in all instances ensure that their athletic departments are staffed adequately to provide treatment to injured student-athletes. Judicial recognition of this duty is necessary to ensure that colleges take the necessary precautions to protect their athletes from injury by holding them accountable for failing to fulfill this obligation.

Because the public [**71]  has a strong interest in protecting collegiate athletes from injury, and from receiving athletic training services from uncertified individuals, this factor also weighs in favor of imposing a duty.

IV. Conclusion

Based upon this analysis of the Althaus factors, the better view of Pennsylvania law is that colleges and universities bear a duty to ensure that qualified medical personnel are available to student-athletes when the athletes participate in intercollegiate contact sports. Whether Lackawanna College breached this duty, and whether this breach caused Feleccia’s and Resch’s injuries, remain questions for the jury.27 Thus, while I agree with the Majority to the extent that it concludes that Lackawanna College owed a duty to Feleccia and Resch in this case, I disagree with the Majority’s choice to limit its holding to this case-specific evaluation of this school’s particular representations and these parties’ course of conduct. Unintentionally, but in practical effect, such limitation may create a perverse incentive for institutions like Lackawanna College to do less rather than more to protect their athletes by encouraging the institutions to make no representations at all.

End of Document


Ruts left in slope by snowmaking ATV did not rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence in the Pennsylvania skiing lawsuit.

Great review of gross negligence and recklessness law under Pennsylvania law in this decision.

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife

Defendant: Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., /d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Ruts left on the slope are an inherent risk of skiing and do not rise to gross negligence in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries both under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act and the release he signed for his pass.

Facts

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Plaintiff sued for his injuries, and the trial court dismissed his claim on a motion for summary judgment. This was the plaintiff’s appeal.

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

The court first looked at the issues in this appeal from the standpoint of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act. The act states that skiers voluntarily assume the risk of the sport. Unlike most other skier safety acts, the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act does not list the risks the skier assumes. That is left up to the court in each case. This leads to more litigation as each plaintiff is free to argue that the risk that caused his accident is not an inherent risk of skiing and not covered under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

When reviewing whether a risk is inherent and part of the sport of skiing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created standards to assist courts in making that decision.

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Inherent risks of skiing in Pennsylvania are those “that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.”

The court found the plaintiff was engaged in downhill skiing. Downhill skiing has a broad definition under Pennsylvania law.

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

To determine if wheel ruts in the slope were a risk in skiing the court turned to a New York decision.

Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

However, the court never found or determined if the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act prevented the claim. The court then turned to the release the plaintiff signed when he paid for his season pass.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void.

Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellants actually read the release.

The court then looked for the requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

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

Since the release was between the ski area and a skier, it was a private contract and did not contravene public policy. The court then looked at whether the release was enforceable. That standard required the court to:

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.”

To be valid in Pennsylvania a release must spell out with particularity the intentions of the parties.

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void because:

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.

The plaintiff then argued the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” The court referred to Pennsylvania Uniform Code, which set froth requirements for contracts and defines what a conspicuous term is:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

The court found the release valid because exculpatory language was preceded by a heading that was written in all caps equal to the size of the text in the exculpatory paragraph. The heading also contained two exclamation points to draw attention to it.

The plaintiff then argued he did not read the release. (That’s his problem no one else’s!) “Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.”

The court then reviewed the gross negligence, and reckless conduct claims the plaintiff made. A claim that the actions of the defendant were reckless would not be barred by a release. The court then reviewed the definition of gross negligence.

The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

The court then identified the definition of recklessness.

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.

Then the court reviewed recklessness as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Finally, the court summed up the definitions as:

Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others

Since the plaintiff could not prove any intentional conduct on the part of the defendant, the actions of the defendant were not reckless or gross negligence.

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

The summary judgement of the trial court dismissing the plaintiff’s claims was upheld.

So Now What?

Anytime you do anything outside of the scope of operations of your competitors you set yourself up for a claim. Using ATV’s on the ski slope rather than a snow machine created that opportunity here for the plaintiff.

The ATV was a vehicle that could be used by the defendant year round and probably saved them money. However, the amount of time their employees spent defendant this claim and responding to the allegations I would guess wiped out that savings.

If you insist and being different, which is necessary for any industry to grow and change, justify the why with thought and reasons that are more than money. In this case, simply grooming after the ATV had passed would have solved the problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

184 A.3d 974

Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife, Appellants

v.

Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation, t/d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc., a Pennsylvania Corporation

No. 903 WDA 2017

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 19, 2018

Argued November 29, 2017

[184 A.3d 975] [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[184 A.3d 976]

Appeal from the Order, May 24, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County, Civil Division at No. 2015-183. TRAVIS W. LIVENGOOD, J.

Douglas V. Stoehr, Altoona, for appellants.

Anthony W. Hinkle, Blue Bell, for appellees.

BEFORE: BOWES, J., STABILE, J., AND FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

OPINION

FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

Patrick and Kathryn Kibler (collectively “appellants”[1] ) appeal from the May 24, 2017 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County granting Blue Knob Recreation, Inc. and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.’s (hereinafter, collectively “defendants”) motion for summary judgment. After careful review, we affirm.

The trial court provided the following synopsis of the facts:

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass. The bottom half of said document contains the following exculpatory language:

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING

BEFORE SIGNING!!

Snowboarding, skiing and other snow related activities, like many other sports, contain inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risk of personal injury, death or property damage, which may be caused by: variation in terrain or weather conditions, surface or subsurface, snow, ice, bare spots, thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps, forest growth, debris, other persons using the facilities, branches, trees, roots, stumps, rocks, and other natural or man made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of the facility. For the use of Blue Knob Ski Area, the holder assumes all risks of injury and releases Blue Knob Recreation from all liability THEREFORE: Not withstanding the foregoing, if I sue Blue Knob Recreation ET AL I agree that I will only sue it, whether on my own behalf or on behalf of a family member, in the Court of Common Pleas of Bedford County or in the United States District Court for the District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and further agree that any and all disputes which might arise between Blue Knob Recreation ET AL and myself shall be litigated exclusively in one of said courts.

See Blue Knob All Seasons Resort Information/Guidelines.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Trial court opinion, 5/23/17 at 2-3.

On February 15, 2015, appellants filed a civil complaint with the trial court sounding in negligence. Following discovery, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with an accompanying memorandum of law on January 23, 2017. Appellants filed a motion for summary judgment on March 17, 2017. Oral arguments were held before the trial court on April 18, 2017. On May 24, 2017, the trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, dismissing appellants’ complaint with prejudice, and denied appellants’ motion for summary judgment.

On June 16, 2017, appellants filed a timely notice of appeal with this court. The trial court ordered appellants to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and appellants complied on July 18, 2017. The trial court filed an opinion on August 10, 2017, pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) in which it incorporated the content of its May 24, 2017 order and opinion granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Appellants raise the following issues for our review: [184 A.3d 978] A. Was the hazard encountered by [appellant] inherent to the dangers of downhill skiing, when [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that the hazard was out of the ordinary, not common, and [appellant] should not have expected to encounter the hazard?

B. Is the Blue Knob All Seasons Resort 2014-2015 Season Pass Holder Information/Guidelines document a valid exculpatory release, where the top half of the document only discusses the requirements to be a season pass holder, and the lower half is ambiguous, the word “releases” is located 75% down the page, lacks conspicuity, without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person, and where no evidence exists that [appellant] read this document?

C. Is a claim for injuries caused by the grossly negligent and/or reckless acts of a ski resort barred by an alleged exculpatory sentence in Blue Knob’s season pass?

D. Did [appellant] voluntarily assume the risk of injury when he encountered a hazard at [defendants’] resort for which he was unaware, and for which [defendants’] Director of Maintenance testified that [appellant] had no reason to anticipate or know of the hazard’s existence? Appellant’s brief at 4-5.[2]

In reviewing an appeal from the trial court’s granting of a motion for summary judgment, we are governed by the following standard of review:

[O]ur standard of review of an order granting summary judgment requires us to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. Our scope of review is plenary. In reviewing a trial court’s grant of summary judgment, we apply the same standard as the trial court, reviewing all the evidence of record to determine whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact. We view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered. All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact must be resolved against the moving party.

* * *

Upon appellate review, we are not bound by the trial court’s conclusions of law, but may reach our own conclusions.

Petrina v. Allied Glove Corp., 46 A.3d 795, 797-798 (Pa.Super. 2012) (internal citations omitted).

Rule of Civil Procedure 1035 governs motions for summary judgment and provides, in relevant part, as follows:

After the relevant pleadings are closed, but within such time as not to unreasonably delay trial, any party may move for summary judgment in whole or in part as a matter of law

(1) Whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of [184 A.3d 979] action or defense which could be established by additional discovery or expert report, or (2) If, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury.

Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2. This Court has explained the application of this rule as follows:

Motions for summary judgment necessarily and directly implicate the plaintiff’s proof of the elements of a cause of action. Summary judgment is proper if, after the completion of discovery relevant to the motion, including the production of expert reports, an adverse party who will bear the burden of proof at trial has failed to produce evidence of facts essential to the cause of action or defense which in a jury trial would require the issues to be submitted to a jury. In other words, whenever there is no genuine issue of any material fact as to a necessary element of the cause of action or defense, which could be established by additional discovery or expert report and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Thus, a record that supports summary judgment either (1) shows the material facts are undisputed or (2) contains insufficient evidence of facts to make out a prima facie cause of action or defense. Petrina, 46 A.3d at 798. Criswell v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 115 A.3d 906, 909-910 (Pa.Super. 2015).

Voluntary Assumption of the Risk

Appellants’ first and fourth issues on appeal address the voluntary assumption of the risk associated with downhill skiing. The General Assembly directly addressed this issue when it passed the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (hereinafter, “the Act”). The Act provides, in relevant part,

(c) Downhill skiing—

(1) The General Assembly finds that the sport of downhill skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of this Commonwealth and also attracts to this Commonwealth large numbers of nonresidents significantly contributing to the economy of this Commonwealth. It is recognized that as in some other sports, there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.

(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by subsections (a) and (a.1).[3]

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c).

In light of the Act, our supreme court established the following standard when reviewing grants of summary judgment in cases involving downhill skiing:

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary [184 A.3d 980] judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 344 (2000). In the context of downhill skiing, our supreme court stated that both common law assumption of the risk doctrine and the court’s decision in Hughes “direct that inherent risks are those that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1187 n.14 (2010).

In the instant appeal, it is beyond dispute that appellant was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his injury. Indeed, as noted by the Hughes court,

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Therefore, our paramount inquiry is whether encountering wheel ruts on a ski slope created by an ATV operated by an employee of defendants is an inherent risk to downhill skiing.

Appellants make the argument that operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope is not an inherent aspect of the sport, and should therefore not be considered an inherent risk as contemplated by the Act. (See appellants’ brief at 32.) Appellants specifically cite the deposition testimony of Craig Taylor, defendants’ director of maintenance, in which Mr. Taylor stated that it would not be common or expected by a skier to encounter wheel ruts made by an ATV on the ski slope. (See notes of testimony, 10/21/15 at 28.) Defendants aver that the cause of the alleged condition is not relevant to whether the condition itself, in this case wheel ruts left by operating an ATV up the middle of a ski slope, constitutes an inherent risk associated with downhill skiing.

As noted by the Chepkevich court, “Pennsylvania’s Act is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing,” especially when compared to other states in which skiing constitutes a “significant industry.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1188 n.15. Of the states referenced by the Chepkevich court, the most instructive is New York.

In Schorpp v. Oak Mountain, LLC, 143 A.D.3d 1136, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296 (N.Y.App.Div. 2016), the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division[4] reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment in a negligence cause of action. Id. at 1137, 39 N.Y.S.3d 296. The plaintiff in this case “skied into a ‘depression’ that was filled with snow. The skis got caught in the depression causing [the plaintiff] to flip over and fall out of his skis.” Id. The appellate court held that under New York’s assumption of the risk doctrine as it pertains to downhill skiing, “an individual ‘assumes the inherent risk of personal injury caused by ruts, bumps or variations in the conditions of the skiing terrain.’ ” Id. , quoting Ruepp v. West Experience, 272 A.D.2d 673, 674, 706 N.Y.S.2d 787 (N.Y.App.Div. 2000) (emphasis added). Unlike its Pennsylvania counterpart, the [184 A.3d 981] New York State Legislature specifically identified ruts as an inherent risk of downhill skiing. N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

Given that our cases do not directly address an injury incurred while engaged in downhill skiing caused by wheel ruts in the terrain on the slope, we find the New York statute and case law to be the most instructive in the instant appeal. Moreover, the language of the release signed by appellant, which we further discuss infra , is nearly identical to the language of the New York statute.[5] We agree with the holding of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

Validity of Release[6]

Appellants’ second issue pertains to the release appellant signed when he purchased his season pass. Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellant actually read the release. (Appellants’ brief at 33.)

When considering the validity of exculpatory releases, we are governed by the following standard:

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. Princeton Sportswear Corp. v. H & M Associates, 510 Pa. 189, 507 A.2d 339 (1986); Employers Liability Assurance Corp. v. Greenville Business Men’s Association, 423 Pa. 288, 224 A.2d 620 (1966). In Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682 (1963), [our supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract [184 A.3d 982] language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause. Dilks, 192 A.2d at 687.

Topp Copy Products, Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (1993), cited by Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1189.

In the context of exculpatory releases used for downhill skiing, we find the rationale behind the Chepkevich court’s decision to be highly instructive to the instant appeal.[7]

As we have stated, downhill skiing … is a voluntary and hazardous activity, and that fact is acknowledged in the Act as discussed above. Moreover, an exculpatory agreement conditioning the use of a commercial facility for such activities has not been construed as a typical contract of adhesion. The signer is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity. The signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable. Moreover, the absence of a definition or illustration of negligence does not render this Release an invalid contract of adhesion; that factor simply does not relate to the concerns implicated by adhesion contracts.

Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (internal citations omitted).

Facial Validity

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must first look to the facial validity of the release. In Chepkevich, our supreme court found that the release signed by the plaintiff did not “contravene any policy of the law. Indeed, the clear policy of this Commonwealth, as articulated by the Act, is to encourage the sport [of downhill skiing] and place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.” Id. , citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7102(c)(2). The court also stated that, “Pennsylvania courts have upheld similar releases respecting skiing and other inherently dangerous sporting activities.” Id. (collecting cases). Finally, our supreme court held that the release the plaintiff signed was a contract between Hidden Valley and the plaintiff, “relating to their private affairs, specifically [the plaintiff’s] voluntary use of the resort’s facilities.” Id.

[184 A.3d 983] Our discussion in the instant appeal is comparable to the analysis employed by the Chepkevich court. Here, the release signed by appellant does not contravene any policy of the law. Similar to the release used by defendant Hidden Valley in Chepkevich , the release before us relates to the private affairs of appellant and defendants— namely, appellant’s voluntary use of defendants’ facilities. Accordingly, we find that the release signed by appellant is facially valid.

Enforceability

Similar to the Chepkevich court, we must now look to the release’s enforceability. “[T]he Topp Copy/Employers Liability standard requires us to construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.” Id. , citing Topp Copy, 626 A.2d at 99.

In the instant appeal, appellants aver that the release was ambiguous, lacked conspicuity, and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellant’s brief at 33.) Appellants further aver that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. (Id. ) We shall address each of these claims individually.

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” (Id. at 39.) Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. (Id. at 43.) Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.” (Id. ) This argument misses the mark. To the contrary, as noted supra , one of the inherent risks explicitly referenced in the release is the presence of ruts on the ski slope. Merriam-Webster defines “rut” as “a track worn by a wheel or by habitual passage.” Merriam-Webster.com.Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. Roget’s Thesaurus identifies “trench” as a synonym of “rut.” Thesaurus.com.Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition, n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2018. We therefore find that defendants’ release was not ambiguous, and that it explicitly referenced the risk encountered by appellant.

We now turn to appellants’ claim that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” (Appellants’ brief at 33.) As noted above, the release appellant signed contained information regarding his season ski pass. Following the ski pass information, in a paragraph labeled “PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE SIGNING!![,]” defendants’ release contained the exculpatory language before us for review. (Id. at 34.)

The Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code[8] defines “conspicuous” as “so written, [184 A.3d 984] displayed, or presented that a reasonable person against which it is to operate ought to have noticed it.” 13 Pa.C.S.A. § 1201(b)(10). The Code specifically states that a conspicuous term includes the following:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

Id. at § 1201(b)(10)(i-ii) (emphasis added).

Here, the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant meets the definition of conspicuous as set forth by the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code. The exculpatory language of the release is preceded by a heading that is written in all capital letters in a size of text equal to the exculpatory language of the release. The heading also contains two exclamation points that call attention to the language of the heading, pursuant to the Code. Accordingly, we find that appellants’ argument that the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person” is without merit, as defendants’ release is conspicuous under the Pennsylvania Uniform Commercial Code.

Finally, we address appellants’ averment that that there is no evidence that appellant read the release before signing it. Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.” Toro v. Fitness International LLC, 150 A.3d 968, 975 (Pa.Super. 2016), citing Hinkal v. Pardoe, 133 A.3d 738, 743 (Pa.Super. 2016), appeal denied , 636 Pa. 650, 141 A.3d 481 (Pa. 2016). See alsoSchillachi v. Flying Dutchman Motorcycle Club, 751 F.Supp. 1169, 1174 (E.D. Pa. 1990) (“The law in Pennsylvania is clear. One who is about to sign a contract has a duty to read that contract first”). In the instant appeal, appellant was not excused of his duty to read the Release before signing it. Therefore, appellant’s argument that there is no evidence that he read the release before signing is without merit.

Gross Negligence and Reckless Conduct

Finally, appellant avers that the release does not protect defendants from liability for acts of gross negligence and/or reckless conduct. Our supreme court has held that exculpatory releases of reckless behavior are contrary to public policy, “as such releases would jeopardize the health, safety, and welfare of the people by removing any incentive for parties to adhere to minimal standards of safe conduct.” Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1203 (2012), citing Hall v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 538 Pa. 337, 648 A.2d 755, 760 (1994). Therefore, our inquiry centers on whether the conduct alleged by appellants— operating an ATV on a ski slope and creating wheel ruts on the slope— constituted gross negligence and/or reckless conduct.

This court has observed the following pertaining to gross negligence:

In Ratti v. Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 758 A.2d 695 (Pa.Super. 2000), appeal denied, 567 Pa. 715, 785 A.2d 90 (Pa. 2001), we indicated that when courts have considered the concept of “gross negligence” in various civil contexts, [184 A.3d 985] they have concluded uniformly that there is a substantive difference between “ordinary negligence” and “gross negligence.” Id. at 703. “The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” Id. at 704 (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. Id. at 704-705 (citing Black’s Law Dictionary 1057 (7th ed. 1999) ). In re Scheidmantel, 868 A.2d 464, 485-486 (Pa.Super. 2005). While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

Downey v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center, 817 A.2d 517, 525-526 (Pa.Super. 2003) (en banc ), quoting Albright v. Abington Memorial Hospital, 548 Pa. 268, 696 A.2d 1159, 1164-1165 (1997).

The Tayar court provided the following comparison of recklessness with ordinary negligence:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence. In Fitsko v. Gaughenbaugh, 363 Pa. 132, 69 A.2d 76 (1949), [our supreme court] cited with approval the Restatement ( [First] ) of Torts[10] definition of “reckless disregard” and its explanation of the distinction between ordinary negligence and recklessness. Specifically, the Restatement (Second) of Torts defines “reckless disregard” as follows:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” Id. , cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct [184 A.3d 986] requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Id. , cmt. g; see also AMJUR Negligence § 274 (“Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others”). Our criminal laws similarly distinguish recklessness and negligence on the basis of the consciousness of the action or inaction. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3), (4) (providing that a person acts recklessly when he “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk,” while a person acts negligently when he “should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk”).

This conceptualization of recklessness as requiring conscious action or inaction not only distinguishes recklessness from ordinary negligence, but aligns it more closely with intentional conduct. Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200-1201. ` Here, we find as a matter of law, that the record does not reflect gross negligence or reckless conduct on the part of defendants. Specifically, we agree with the trial court’s following conclusion:

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

[Footnote 7] Defendants seemingly concede the cause of the “trenches” and Defendants’ employees conceded that such actions were improper in normal slope maintenance process.

Trial court opinion, 5/24/17 at 8-9.

Accordingly, we find that defendants did not engage in grossly negligent or reckless conduct, and that the Release provided by defendants and signed by appellant is enforceable.

Order affirmed.

Bowes, J. joins this Opinion.

Stabile, J. concurs in the result.

———

Notes:

[1] For clarity, we will refer to Mr. Kibler as “appellant” throughout this memorandum.

[2] Appellants’ four issues address two overarching issues: voluntary assumption of risk and the validity of the release attached to the season pass provided by defendants. Accordingly, for the purposes of our review, we shall address issues A and D together and issues B and C together.

[3] Subsections (a) and (a.1) address contributory negligence and joint and several liability.

[4] This court is the intermediate court of appeals in New York.

[5] The New York statute provides, in relevant part:

§ 18-101. Legislative purpose

The legislature hereby finds that alpine or downhill skiing is both a major recreational sport and a major industry within the state of New York. The legislature further finds: (1) that downhill skiing, like many other sports, contains inherent risks including, but not limited to, the risks of personal injury or death or property damage, which may be caused by variations in terrain or weather conditions; surface or subsurface snow, ice, bare spots or areas of thin cover, moguls, ruts, bumps; other persons using the facilities; and rocks, forest growth, debris, branches, trees, roots, stumps or other natural objects or man-made objects that are incidental to the provision or maintenance of a ski facility in New York state ….

N.Y. General Obligations Law § 18-101.

[6] As noted by Justice Baer in his concurring opinion in Chepkevich , a review of the release issued by defendants and signed by appellant is not wholly necessary. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1198 (Baer, J., concurring). The majority stated that, “consideration of alternative holdings is subject to prudential concerns, and we believe there are prudential concerns to consider the Release here.” Id. at 1188 n.16. We will follow the lead of the majority and analyze both issues as they have both been briefed and argued before this court.

[7] The release before the Chepkevich court was printed on an 8½ by 11-inch sheet of paper entitled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” and contained the following language:

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to variations in snow and terrain, ice and icy conditions, moguls, rocks, debris (above and below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, poles, snowmaking equipment (including pipes, hydrants, and component parts), fences and the absence of fences and other natural and manmade objects, visible or hidden, as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other skiers …. All the risks of skiing and boarding present the risk of serious or fatal injury. By accepting this Season Pass I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1176.

[8] As in prior cases, we note that the Uniform Commercial Code is applicable to the sale of goods, while this case pertains to the sale of services; “nevertheless, we find the UCC’s warrant disclaimer provision in Article 2, and its interpreting caselaw, provides guidance in the instant case.” Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1274 n.12 (Pa.Super. 2006).

[9] 50 P.S. § § 7101-7503.

[10] The Restatement (Second) of Torts was published in 1965.

———


Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

March 31, 2018, Decided; March 31, 2018, Filed

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

Counsel:  [**1] For Thomas Jackson Miller, Plaintiff: Arend R. Tensen, Cullenberg & Tensen, Lebanon, NH.

For The Sunapee Difference, LLC, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort, other Mount Sunapee Resort, Defendant: Thomas B.S. Quarles, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Brendan P Mitchell, Devine Millimet & Branch PA, Manchester, NH.

Judges: Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Invoking the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), plaintiff Thomas Jackson Miller, a New York resident, sued The Sunapee Difference, LLC, operator of the Mount Sunapee Resort (“Mount Sunapee”), a New Hampshire ski area, for injuries he sustained when he struck the unmarked and unpadded post that was concealed by fresh snow. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), Mount Sunapee moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the liability release printed on Miller’s [**2]  lift ticket bars his claim. Miller argues that the release is unenforceable under New Hampshire law and inapplicable on its face. As both sides submitted  [*585]  documents outside the pleadings in litigating this motion, the court has, with the parties’ consent,1 converted the motion into one for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).2 Having considered the parties’ filings and hearing oral argument, the court finds that the release is both applicable and enforceable, and therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Mount Sunapee.3

I. Applicable legal standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3]  internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

II. Background

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket [**4]  was the following:

 [*586]  STOP

[a red octagon image similar to a traffic-control “stop sign”]

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area [**5]  or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

(Emphasis in original).

After timely filing this lawsuit,5 Miller filed an Amended Complaint6 asserting a single count of negligence. He alleges that Mount Sunapee failed to mark or warn skiers of the pipe, or otherwise mitigate its danger to skiers, by, for example, padding it or making it visible to skiers. In addition, Miller alleges that Mount Sunapee breached its duties to create a safe environment for guests, and to perform in-season trail maintenance [**6]  work. Finally, Miller claims that Mount Sunapee is liable because it failed to comply with N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:23 (II)(b), which provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he ski area operator shall warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.”7

 [*587]  III. Analysis

As noted at the outset, Sunapee argues that the release printed on Miller’s lift ticket — in combination with the acceptance of its terms on the backing sheet — bars his claim. “Although New Hampshire law generally prohibits a plaintiff from releasing a defendant from liability for negligent conduct, in limited circumstances a plaintiff can expressly consent by contract to assume the risk of injury caused by a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 413, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002). Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract. McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009) (citing Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)); Lizzol v. Brothers Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 DNH 199, *7.

Plaintiff argues that the [**7]  release satisfies none of these criteria, because: 1) it violates public policy; 2) a reasonable person would have understood the release to exclude only “inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in New Hampshire’s “ski statute,” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24; 3) the release does not encompass reckless, wanton, or willful conduct; and 4) the release is unsigned.

A. Public policy

“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that an exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543 (quoting Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has also found an agreement to be against public policy “if, among other things, it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Id. (citing Harper v. Healthsource New Hampshire, 140 N.H. 770, 775, 674 A.2d 962 (1996)). Miller does not argue that he had a special relationship with Mount Sunapee or that there was a disparity in bargaining power between the two.8 Instead, he confines his public policy argument to two points: 1) that the release violates New Hampshire statutory law; and 2) that it is injurious to the interest of the public. Neither argument [**8]  withstands scrutiny.

1. New Hampshire statutory law

Miller argues that the combination of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 225-A:23, II, and 225-A:24 requires ski area operators to plainly mark or make visible snow-making equipment. Therefore, he concludes, applying the release to the allegedly hidden snow gun holder would allow Mount Sunapee to impermissibly evade this statutory responsibility. As a general proposition, Miller is correct that a release can not excuse a ski area‘s statutory violation. Harper, 140 N.H. at 775; cf. Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, 140 N.H. 675, 683, 671 A.2d 548 (1996) (noting, in ski accident case, that ski areas’ immunity does not apply to claim based on statutory violation). However, Miller’s argument here is built on a faulty premise — that  [*588]  § 225-A:24, denoted “Responsibilities of Skiers and Passengers” — imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to mark or make visible snow-making equipment. The court rejects this argument for several reasons.

First, Miller attempts, without legal support, to create an affirmative duty out of the text of § 225-A:24 where none exists. Section 225-A:24 “is an immunity provision for ski area operators.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). It has been “interpreted to mean that ski area operators owe no duty to skiers to protect them from the inherent risks of skiing.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area/Gunstock Area Comm’n, 146 N.H. 495, 497, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001). One of the inherent “risks, hazards, or dangers which [**9]  the skier . . . assumes as a matter of law” is “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment.” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Miller argues that because unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment is not “an inherent risk” enumerated by the statute, ski areas therefore have a statutory duty to mark them or make them visible.

This argument is both contrary to the language of the statute and unsupported by any legal authority. While the language of the statutory immunity provision — enumerating a “Skier’s Responsibilities” — arguably does not bar Miller’s claim9 that he struck an unmarked and not visible piece of equipment, it likewise creates no affirmative duties for ski areas. Stated differently, while New Hampshire law may allow
ski area liability for injuries resulting from collisions with unmarked equipment, it does not logically follow that New Hampshire law requires the marking of such equipment. The statute sets forth no such obligation or legal duty.

To avoid the plain language of §225-A:24, Miller argues that Rayeski, supra, imposes an affirmative duty on Mount Sunapee when read in conjunction with § 225-A:23. In that case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, invoking §225-A:24, upheld the dismissal of a skier’s claim for injuries sustained [**10]  in a collision with an unmarked light pole. 146 N.H. at 500. The plaintiff in Rayeski argued that the light pole collision was similar to a collision with unmarked snow-making equipment, which the statute “implies . . . is not an inherent risk of skiing” by not barring such a claim. Id. at 498. In the course of finding that the pole collision was an inherent risk of skiing (despite not being specifically enumerated as such in the statute), the Court distinguished between poles and snow making equipment:

We conclude that the legislature’s explicit reference to “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment” was intended to balance the immunity granted to ski area operators under RSA 225-A:24 with their duty under RSA 225-A:23, II(b) (2000) to warn skiers of snow making or grooming activities by denying immunity to ski area operators who breach a statutorily imposed safety responsibility.

Id. (emphasis added).

Based on the emphasized language, Miller argues that § 225-A:23 required Mount Sunapee to mark or make visible the snow gun holder he struck. This argument ignores the plain language both of Rayeski and the statute. The Rayeski
opinion referred only to “snow making or grooming activities,” and made no reference to marking equipment. And [**11]  the statute, captioned “Base Area; Information to Skiers and  [*589]  Passengers,” requires that a ski area operator “warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.” (Emphasis added). Thus, contrary to Miller’s argument, this section imposes no requirement to “mark or make visible” the snow gun holder at issue in this case. Instead, the statute requires the ski area to post “at the base area” a warning concerning grooming and snowmaking operations, if applicable.
10See Nardone v. Mt. Cranmore, Civ. No. 91-114-SD, slip op. at 6-7 (holding that § 225-A:23, II(b)‘s warning requirement does not apply where snowmaking was not in progress and where plaintiff collided with fixed, unmarked piece of snowmaking equipment) (emphasis added).11 Miller does not dispute Mount Sunapee’s contention that there was no grooming or snow making “in progress” at the time of or in the vicinity of Miller’s accident.12 An inoperative snow gun holder is neither an “activity” nor an “operation.”

Further undermining Miller’s argument that § 225-A:24 creates obligations for ski area
operators is the fact that [**12]  its five sub-sections are explicitly and unambiguously addressed to skiers and passengers (as opposed to ski area
operators), as follows: I) “Each person who participates in the sport of skiing . . . accepts . . . the dangers inherent in the sport . . . .”; II) “Each skier and passenger shall have the sole responsibility . . . “; III) “Each skier or passenger shall conduct himself or herself . . .”; IV) “Each passenger shall be the sole judge of his ability . . .”; V) “No skier or passenger or other person shall . . .” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I-V (emphasis added).

In addition, under New Hampshire statutory construction law, “[t]he title of a statute is ‘significant when considered in connection with . . . ambiguities inherent in its language.'” Appeal of Weaver, 150 N.H. 254, 256, 837 A.2d 294 (2003) (quoting State v. Rosario, 148 N.H. 488, 491, 809 A.2d 1283 (2002); see also, Berniger v. Meadow Green-Wildcat Corp., 945 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1991) (interpreting N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24 and observing that “[i]t is well established that a statute’s title may aid in construing any ambiguities in a statute.”). As noted, the title of § 225-A:24 is explicitly directed at “skiers and passengers,” not ski area operators. While this court discerns no such ambiguity that would justify a foray into ascertaining “legislative intent,” our Court of Appeals has stated that “the title indicates the legislative intent to limit the application [**13]  of [§ 225-A:24] to skiers and passengers and similar classes of individuals, which does not include a ski operator or its employees.” Berniger, 945 F.2d at 9 (1st Cir. 1991). This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the preceding provision, § 225-A:23, is captioned “Responsibilities of Ski Area Operators,” further  [*590]  suggesting § 225-A:24‘s inapplicability here. This statutory structure — clearly distinguishing ski area operator responsibilities from visitor responsibilities — is especially important in light of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s requirement that statutes be construed “as a whole.” Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721, 82 A.3d 917 (2013); see also, Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2529, 186 L. Ed. 2d 503 (2013) (“Just as Congress’ choice of words is presumed to be deliberate, so too are its structural choices.”); DeVere v. Attorney General, 146 N.H. 762, 766, 781 A.2d 24 (2001) (noting that structure of a statute can be an interpretive tool). Accordingly, the court finds that the Mount Sunapee release does not impermissibly seek to avoid statutory liability.13

In addition to his misplaced reliance on Rayeski, Miller also argues that the McGrath Court’s allowance of liability releases is “limited to situations where the public statute at issue contains a statutorily imposed enforcement mechanism,” which allows state officials to protect the public interest by imposing [**14]  penalties on violators.14

The holding in McGrath, which involved a snowmobiling accident, is not as broad as plaintiff posits. It is true that the Court in McGrath, in rejecting a claim that a liability waiver violated public policy because it allowed defendants to avoid certain snowmobile safety statutes, noted that the waiver did not affect the State’s ability to enforce snowmobiling rules and penalize infractions, and thus did not entirely relieve the defendant property owners of any statutory responsibility. 158 N.H. at 543 (citing N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 215-C:32 and 34). But several factors undercut Miller’s reliance on McGrath. First, plaintiff’s argument is premised on his assertion that Mount Sunapee is trying to avoid liability for a statutory violation. The court has already rejected plaintiff’s premise as an untenable reading of §§ 225-A:23 and 24. Next, the State enforcement criterion was not dispositive in McGrath, as the Court found that the liability waiver did not contravene public policy because, “[i]rrespective of the statute, the plaintiff has voluntarily agreed not to hold the ski area, or its employees, liable for injuries resulting from negligence so that she may obtain a season ski pass.” Id. at 543 (emphasis added). In addition, even [**15]  if the court read McGrath to require a state law enforcement vehicle to protect the public interest, the New Hampshire ski statutes do in fact provide one. Under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:26, “any person . . . violating this chapter . . . shall be guilty of a violation if a natural person, or guilty of a misdemeanor if any other person.”

Plaintiff argues that this statutory enforcement provision is limited to tramway operations, and thus does not satisfy McGrath. He supports this argument with a letter from a supervisor at the New Hampshire Division of Fire Safety,15 which  [*591]  correctly observes, pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:3-a, that the authority of the Passenger Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”16 The letter also states that the penalty provision of § 225-A:26 “specifically relates to operating a tramway without it first being registered.”17 The letter also specifically mentions §§ 225-A:23 and 24, as being outside the tramway board’s authority.18

There are several reasons why the letter does not advance plaintiff’s statutory argument. First, the letter is not properly part of the summary judgment record. According to its terms, it was sent in response [**16]  to plaintiff’s counsel’s request for documents concerning the enforcement of § 225-A:26. However, “[i]n opposing a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must proffer admissible evidence that could be accepted by a rational trier of fact as sufficient to establish the necessary proposition.” Gomez-Gonzalez v. Rural Opportunities, Inc., 626 F.3d 654, 662 n.3 (1st Cir. 2010) (emphasis added). The letter itself is inadmissible hearsay, as it is being offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted with respect to enforcement of § 225-A:23 and 24. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2); see also Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 2011) (“It is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment for the truth of the matter asserted.”). Moreover, although apparently issued by a government office (the plaintiff made no effort to lay such a foundation), the letter is not admissible under the Public Records hearsay exception. See
Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) (requiring, for admissibility, the evidence in question to, inter alia, set out the public office’s activities and involve a matter observed while under a legal duty to report). It is true that some forms of evidence, such as affidavits and declarations, may be considered on summary judgment, even if they would not be admissible at trial, so long as they “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence” [**17]  if the affiant or declarant testified to them at trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4). The letter in question, however, is neither an affidavit nor a declaration. In addition to being an unsworn letter, it fails to show how the letter writer is expressing “personal knowledge,” and fails to show that she is “competent to testify on the matters stated,” as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); see also
Fed. R. Evid. 602 (personal knowledge requirement).

Next, even if the letter was properly before the court, it lacks any legal force, either as a pronouncement of New Hampshire law, or an interpretation thereof. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:8 empowers the Tramway Safety Board to make rules regarding tramways. “Rules and Regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, pursuant to a valid delegation of authority, have the full force and effect of laws.” State v. Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. 794, 803, 887 A.2d 1133 (2005). Under New Hampshire administrative law, however, as set forth under its Administrative Procedure Act, the letter in question is not a rule, and thus lacks such force. It is simply a letter answering a question posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer. See
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 541-A:1, XV (explicitly excluding, under definition of “Rule,” “informational pamphlets, letters or other explanatory materials which refer to a statute or rule without affecting its substance or [**18]  interpretation”). Notably, the plaintiff cites no provision of New Hampshire’s administrative  [*592]  law involving the Passenger Tramway Safety Board or Rules which support his theory. See N.H. Code. Admin. R. Ann. (PAS 301.01 et. seq. (2016)).

Finally, even if the letter was a properly admissible part of the summary judgment record in support of the proposition that the enforcement of § 225-A:26 is limited to tramway operations, and even if it were a duly-promulgated article of New Hampshire administrative law, it still fails to advance the plaintiff’s argument (to the extent it even addresses the issue before the court), because it incorrectly contradicts the governing statute, § 225-A:26.

As noted, the letter states that the authority of the Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”19 This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, as it tracks the language of § 225-A:3-a. That observation misses the point, however, as § 225-A:26 does not limit enforcement of § 225-A to the Tramway Board. To the contrary, the statute holds “any person” “guilty” of a violation or misdemeanor for violations of “this chapter,” i.e., the entirety of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A, a chapter which [**19]  addresses a wider variety of ski-related activities than ski lifts and tramways. Thus, the letter contradicts the plain language of the statute by inaccurately portraying the applicability of § 225-A:26 as limited to “operating a tramway without it first being registered.”20 Under New Hampshire law, “[r]ules adopted by administrative agencies may not add to, detract from, or in any way modify statutory law,” Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. at 803, and the letter’s pronouncement, even it were a duly adopted Rule, would be invalid. See Appeal of Gallant, 125 N.H. 832, 834, 485 A.2d 1034 (1984) (noting that agency regulations that contradict the terms of a governing statute exceed the agency’s authority and are void). The statute penalizes not only failing to register, but also “violating this chapter or rules of the [Tramway Safety] board.” (emphasis added). In effect, the plaintiff is asking the court to ignore the plain language of the statute in favor of a letter which is neither properly before the court nor is a valid administrative rule and which fails to address the issue before the court — the scope of § 225-A:26. The court is not free to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, New Hampshire’s Administrative Procedure Act,21 or the plain language of New Hampshire’s ski-related statutes.

Accordingly, the court finds that New Hampshire statutory law provides no support to plaintiff’s public policy argument.

2. Injurious to the public interest

Plaintiff next argues that the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy as injurious to the public interest because Mount Sunapee is located on state-owned land that was, at least in part, developed with federal funding. Plaintiff cites no authority for this argument, but instead relies on various provisions in the lease between Mount Sunapee and the State of New Hampshire. None of these provisions establish or support the proposition that public policy prohibits the enforcement of the release.

For example, the lease requires the property to be used for “public outdoor recreational uses,” “for the mutual benefit of the public and the Operator,” and “as a public ski area . . . for the general public.”22 In addition, the ski area operator is  [*593]  required to “allow public access,” “maintain the Leased Premises in first class condition,” and “undertake trail maintenance.”23 Even assuming, arguendo, that the lease theoretically establishes public policy, the plaintiff makes no coherent argument how the release in question runs afoul of any [**21]  of its provisions. Instead, plaintiff argues, strenuously but without authority, that condoning Mount Sunapee’s requirement that a skier agree to the release as a condition of skiing there “effectively sanctions the conversion of public land by Mount Sunapee.”24 He also argues, again without authority, that:

“[p]rivate operators of public lands, to which the public must be allowed access, cannot be allowed to limit access to such lands to those individuals who are willing to forego their statutory rights by exculpating the private operators from the consequences of their own negligence. To hold otherwise, would mark the first step toward eliminating public access to public lands at the expense of the general public.”

(Emphasis added). Initially, the court reiterates its finding, supra, Part III.A.1, that the language at issue in this case does not implicate plaintiff’s statutory rights. Moreover, whatever persuasive force his policy-based arguments hold, plaintiff cites no authority — in the form of cases, statutes or regulations — upon which the court can rely to accept them.25

As a final public-interest related matter, the parties dispute the import of liability releases used at Cannon [**22]  Mountain, a state-owned and operated ski area. In its motion, Mount Sunapee cited those releases to demonstrate that New Hampshire’s public policy does not generally disfavor liability releases.26 Plaintiff, however, points out that because the Cannon release does not use the word “negligence,” it may, in fact, not release Cannon from its own negligence. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (noting that “the [exculpatory] contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”). Therefore, plaintiff suggests, Sunapee’s release may have exceeded what public policy (as articulated in the Cannon release) permits. Regardless of the Cannon release’s enforceability — a matter on which the court offers no opinion — the court finds that Mount Sunapee has the better of this argument. New Hampshire’s public policy is likely best expressed by its legislative enactments, particularly N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I, under which “ski area operators owe no duty to protect patrons from the inherent risks of skiing and thus are immunized from liability for any negligence related to these risks.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 295, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). Such legislatively-enacted immunity from negligence undercuts Miller’s argument that the Cannon release demarcates [**23]  the outer boundary of New Hampshire public policy. Ultimately, the court is skeptical that, as both parties implicitly argue, the state’s risk management decisions and devices, as embodied in certain ski area releases, constitute articulations of public policy.

Having failed to demonstrate any statutory transgressions or injury to the public interest, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy.

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

The next factor the court must consider in assessing the enforceability of the Mount Sunapee release is whether the plaintiff or a reasonable person in his position would have understood its import. Dean, 147 N.H. at 266-67. Miller argues that a factual dispute exists as to this criterion because there was no “meeting of the minds” sufficient to form an enforceable binding agreement.27 He bases this proposition, in turn, on two assertions: 1) that the release is unsigned; and 2) that he did not read it. The court finds that New Hampshire law does not require a signature to effectuate the terms of a release and that the plaintiff had — but chose not to take advantage of — an opportunity to read the release.

1. Signature

As an initial matter, the court notes that a “meeting of the minds” is not an explicit requirement of enforceability under New Hampshire law. The Court in Dean required only that “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement.” 147 N.H. at 266-67. While a signature might be evidence of such understanding, it has never been held to be a prerequisite. Indeed, in Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 552 A.2d 99 (1988), the Court enforced an unsigned and unread release of an insurance claim.

Plaintiff asserts that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has never explicitly upheld the enforcement of an unsigned liability release. See, e.g., McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (“[t]he ski pass application signed by the plaintiff”); Dean, 147 N.H. at 266 (“Mr. Dean signed the Release before entering the infield pit area”); Audley, 138 N.H. at 417 (“two releases signed by the plaintiff”); Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106 (“release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed”). Even if one were to accept this proposition despite the holding in Gannett, which is arguably distinguishable from the line of New Hampshire cases just cited, it is not dispositive, because the Court has also never explicitly required a signature on a liability release as a condition [**25]  of enforceability.

In a diversity case such as this one, if the state’s highest court has not spoken directly on the question at issue, this court must try to predict “how that court likely would decide the issue,” looking to the relevant statutory language, analogous state Supreme Court and lower state court decisions, and other reliable sources of authority. Gonzalez Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 318-19 (1st Cir. 2009). A review of an analogous decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and several New Hampshire trial court decisions reviewing ski area liability releases leads the court to conclude that Miller’s unsigned release is enforceable.

The court finds some guidance in Gannett, supra, where the Court enforced a release of an insurance claim even though the releasing party neither read nor signed the release, but returned it before cashing the insurer’s check. 131 N.H. at 270. Especially salient here, the Court found it “irrelevant whether [plaintiff] actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when she had the opportunity to read it.” Id. at 269-270 (emphasis added). The Gannett Court cited the passage in Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108, enforcing an un-read liability  [*595]  release where the defendant felt rushed through the admittance line. The Barnes court enforced [**26]  the release where “[t]here was no evidence . . . that [the plaintiff] was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.” Id.

Two New Hampshire Superior Court cases involving ski lift ticket releases also inform this analysis. See Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967) (noting that decrees of lower state courts should be “attributed some weight”, but are not controlling, where the highest State court has not spoken on an issue). In Camire v. Gunstock Area Comm’n, No. 11-C-337, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 (N.H. Super. Ct., Mar. 22, 2013) (O’Neil, J.), the court granted the defendant ski area summary judgment based on an unsigned release. 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *8. (“[T]he fact that Ms. Camire did not sign the agreement does not render it unenforceable, as a participant’s signature is not required under the factors set forth in [Dean]“), aff’d on other grounds, 166 N.H. 374, 97 A.3d 250 (2014). While the trial judge also noted that the ski area had a large sign near the ticket kiosk calling attention to the existence of the lift ticket release, and that plaintiff testified in her deposition that she would have understood the ticket’s release language had she read it, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *5, the trial court’s observation that the lack of a signature was not dispositive is entitled, as the United States Supreme Court has [**27]  noted, to “some weight.” Bosch’s Estate, 387 U.S. at 465.

The court also draws some guidance from a New Hampshire trial court that denied a ski area operator’s motion for summary judgment in another case involving a lift ticket release. In Reynolds v. Cranmore Mountain Resort, No. 00-C-0035, (N.H. Super. Ct., March 20, 2001) (O’Neil, J.), the plaintiff’s lift ticket contained a peel off backing similar to the one at issue here, including the red “STOP” sign symbol. Id. at 2. The plaintiff claimed that she did not sign the release and that the release language was not conspicuous enough to give notice to a reasonable person. Id. at 5. While the court did not rule on the signature issue, it ruled that a jury issue remained as to whether the “STOP” sign on the ticket was sufficiently conspicuous, because the peel-off backing contained an advertisement for a free workout, also written in red, in a larger font than much of the warning on the backing. Id. at 1-2, 7. In so ruling, the court relied on Passero v. Killington, Ltd., 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, 1993 WL 406726 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 1993), a Pennsylvania case in which the lift ticket at issue contained an advertisement in a larger typeface than the release language. 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, [WL] at * 7 (“[Plaintiff] argues that the exculpatory clause’s minuscule size, its setting against a dark background, and the existence [**28]  of a much larger advertisement for a 15% discount on a “COMPLETE OVERNIGHT SKI TUNE-UP” on the lift ticket’s adhesive backing, all serve to distract the skier’s attention away from the substantive rights he or she is supposedly relinquishing by purchasing the lift ticket.”). The Superior Court found that it was “best left to the trier of fact to determine whether the language of the lift ticket reasonably communicated the existence of a contractual agreement to the purchaser . . . .” Id. Here, the Mount Sunapee lift ticket contains no such distracting advertisement or font sizes greater than that of the release language on the ticket. As the distracting features were the basis for the New Hampshire Superior Court’s denial of summary judgment in Reynolds, the lack of any such features here is significant. Accordingly, the court finds that the lack of a signature on the lift ticket release is not, under the circumstances of this case, a barrier to its enforceability where the plaintiff had an opportunity to read it and the terms were unambiguous and not contrary to public policy.

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of [**29]  the release.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced. Dean, 147 N.H. at 270; cf. Jenks v. N.H. Motor Speedway, Inc., 2010 DNH 38 (material factual dispute existed as to whether plaintiff had opportunity to read release where plaintiff put his name on a sign-up sheet and release may have been obscured).

Plaintiff, a personal injury attorney, originally submitted two sparse affidavits in opposition to Mount Sunapee’s dispositive motion.28 The affidavits’ only reference to the release is that he did not read the language on the lift ticket or the peel off backing, nor was he instructed to. He did not claim that he lacked the time or opportunity to read it, or was discouraged from doing so. Nor do the affidavits state that he did not peel off the lift ticket from the backing paper.

To be sure, the plaintiff carries no burden of proof at summary judgment, but the sparse and somewhat cryptic nature of the plaintiff’s affidavits — one of which conspicuously tracked the facts emphasized in the Reynolds Superior Court decision, supra, but added nothing more — led this court to ask several pointed questions at oral argument. When pressed by the court regarding the omitted, but [**30]  critical, subject matter, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Miller purchased the ticket, affixed it to his own jacket, had the opportunity to read the backing and the release, and would have recognized it as a release (although not as interpreted by Mount Sunapee).29

In an abundance of caution, and reluctant to grant summary judgment terminating plaintiff’s claims without a more fully developed record, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental discovery concerning, inter alia, the issue of plaintiff’s purchase and use of the lift ticket on the day of his injury.30 Although the plaintiff resisted defense counsel’s attempts to elicit direct answers to straightforward questions about his handling and viewing of the lift ticket, plaintiff’s deposition confirmed certain relevant facts that his counsel conceded at oral argument. First, plaintiff testified that he was handed the lift ticket with the release language facing up, and did not see the language on the peel-off backing.31 Nevertheless, plaintiff confirmed that he had the opportunity to read the release language on the lift ticket and the peel off backing before he removed the ticket from the backing and affixed it to his clothing.32 Even [**31]  though plaintiff testified  [*597]  that he attached the ticket to his pants immediately after receiving it, and thus did not read it, he agreed that he was not pressured to do so,33 and had the opportunity to read it if he so chose.34

Based on the summary judgment record, the plaintiff’s concessions at oral argument and his supplemental deposition testimony sua sponte ordered by the court in an abundance of caution, the court finds that the undisputed facts demonstrate that plaintiff purchased the lift ticket, peeled it from its backing before attaching it to his clothing, had the opportunity to read both sides of it,35 and that “a reasonable person in plaintiff’s position” would have “known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. The court therefore finds that plaintiff’s decision to not  [*598]  read the lift ticket release language does not render it unenforceable.36

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

The final factor the court considers is whether the plaintiff’s claims “were within the contemplation of the parties.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. This factor concerns whether plaintiff’s claims were within the scope of the release. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. To determine the scope and application of a liability release agreement, the court must examine its language. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545.

While plaintiff’s counsel conceded at oral argument that a reasonable person would have recognized the lift ticket language as a release, he argues that it would only be understood as applying to “the inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in § 225-A:24,37 and not to the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident.38 As [**35]  explained below, this argument is based on an incomplete reading of the release and a flawed reading of persuasive New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent. It is therefore rejected.

Plaintiff argues that the first words of the release — “Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous”39 — limit the scope [**36]  of the release to  [*599]  the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, which, he posits, do not include collisions with unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment. The remainder of the release, however, is far broader, explicitly encompassing “all risks . . . of personal injury . . . resulting from . . . inherent or any other risks or dangers.” (Emphasis added). Additional language in the release is similarly broad:

I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCEwhich may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause.40

(Bold emphasis in original; underlining added). While plaintiff acknowledges that his “participation in skiing” might trigger the release, he argues that the expansive “any and all” language is qualified by the first sentence’s reference to skiing as “inherently dangerous,” which, he asserts, warrants limiting [**37]  the release to the risks itemized in § 225-A:24.

In support of his “inherent risks” argument, plaintiff relies on Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995), a case in which a horseback rider was kicked by her guide’s horse, allegedly due to the guide’s negligence. Id. at 168. The Court in Wright held that a release which first noted the “inherent hazards” of horseback riding “obscured” the later following exculpatory clause, part of which resembled the one employed here by Mount Sunapee. Id. at 170. But there is a significant textual difference between the release in
Wright and the one at issue here, and that difference was the lynchpin of the Wright Court’s analysis: the operative language of the Wright release affirmatively referred back to the “inherent hazards” language. In Wright, the exculpatory clause purporting to release the defendant from “any and all” liability began with the phrase “I therefore release . . .” Id. (emphasis added). The Court found the word “therefore” not only significant but dispositive, noting that it means, inter alia, “for that reason” and thus “cannot be understood without reading the antecedent [inherent hazards] language.” Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “[b]ecause the exculpatory [**38]  clause is prefaced by the term ‘therefore,’ a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.”
41Id. The Court ultimately held that the negligence of a guide is not such an “inherent risk.” Id.

Unlike the release in Wright, however, the Mount Sunapee release contains no such “therefore” or other referential language which might call into question the breadth of the language that follows. As such, the court finds that the release  [*600]  “clearly state[s] that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence,” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, and explicitly called particular attention “to the notion of releasing the defendant for liability for its own negligence.” Cf. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 419, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (rejecting exculpatory clause because it failed to call particular attention to releasing defendant from liability). The court therefore finds that the Mount Sunapee release is not limited to the “inherent risks” of skiing enumerated in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Accordingly, even assuming that Miller’s accident did not result from an “inherent risk” of skiing, his claim is nevertheless encompassed by the terms of the release and within the contemplation [**39]  of the parties.

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

After Mount Sunapee’s initial motion for judgment on the pleadings raised the lift ticket release as a defense, Plaintiff added four paragraphs to his suit in an Amended Complaint, all in support of his one negligence count. The new additions quote from a handwritten note on a “grooming report” prepared by Mount Sunapee Mountain Operations Manager Alan Ritchie two weeks prior to plaintiff’s accident. Ritchie’s note states the following: “keep the skier’s left guardrail 3′ from the tower guns at BTM (Hidden Hydrants below the snow[)]. Remove 2′ of snow from just above the Blue Shield around the Teckno fan gun.”42 Based solely upon this entry, Miller asserts that Mount Sunapee knew of buried snowmaking equipment and that failing to mark it or otherwise make it visible both violated its statutory duty and constituted “reckless, wanton, and positive acts of misconduct” from which it can not legally be released.43

In response, Mount Sunapee argues: 1) that the allegations do not support a claim for a statutory violation; 2) that New Hampshire law does not recognize extra-culpable, non-releasable categories of negligence; and 3) that [**40]  the Amended Complaint and attached documents fail, in any event, to set forth facts amounting to anything other than ordinary negligence. The court has already found no statutory violation44 and further finds that the complaint, even as amended, alleges nothing more than ordinary negligence.

1. Recklessness

Plaintiff argues that the additional allegations in the Amended Complaint state a claim for reckless behavior, which, he argues, is not within the purview of the release. The court finds that the new amendments do not allege conduct that is more culpable than negligence, which is subject to the terms of the Mount Sunapee release.45

The New Hampshire Supreme Court generally refers favorably to the Restatement of Torts and has done so with respect to its description of “reckless” conduct:

 [*601]  Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial [**41]  physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.” Id.
comment a at 588.

Boulter v. Eli & Bessie Cohen Found., 166 N.H. 414, 421, 97 A.3d 1127 (2014).

As the Court noted in Thompson v. Forest, 136 N.H. 215, 220, 614 A.2d 1064 (1992), a litigant’s characterization of conduct as evincing a particular culpable mental state is not particularly useful. “Recklessness,” at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.” Id. (quoting WP Keaton, et al., Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts § 8 (5th ed. 1984)). Here, notwithstanding the descriptive adjectives employed by the plaintiff, the facts and allegations pled do not suggest that, to anyone affiliated with Mount Sunapee, there was “a substantial certainty” that serious foreseeable harm would occur based on its alleged conduct or that Mount Sunapee’s conduct involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm “substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that the risk was one involving an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.

Plaintiff relies on a recent New Hampshire Superior Court case involving an injured ski lift [**42]  passenger in which the trial judge held that the plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness were sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.46 In Perry v. SNH Dev., No. 2015-CV-00678, 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 (N.H. Super. Ct., Sept. 13, 2017) (Temple, J.), the child plaintiff was injured after first dangling from, and then falling from, a chair lift into which she was improperly loaded. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. There, the plaintiff successfully pled facts that alleged recklessness and avoided the ski area‘s enforceable negligence release. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *23. Specifically, the plaintiffs in Perry alleged that the ski area‘s:

employee(s)[‘] total and complete failure to monitor the safe and proper loading of the Rocket chair lift in any fashion, coupled with the undisputed failure (actions or inactions) to stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress and ongoing for a considerable period of time, were failures to do acts which the employees had a duty to perform for [plaintiffs] and constitute a reckless disregard of safety.

2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *27. The court denied the ski area‘s motion for summary judgment on the recklessness issue, first noting the allegation that there “were multiple employees of Crotched Mountain in or around [**43]  the area observing that Sarah was not able to properly and/or safely board the Rocket chair lift; but rather [was] dangling from the chair lift.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. The court found this allegation sufficient to support an inference that the ski area‘s employees  [*602]  “knew that [the child plaintiff] was not properly loaded on the chair lift, but chose not to act.” Id. The court additionally cited the allegations that the ski area‘s employees knew that their failure to “stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress” would create an “unreasonable risk of physical harm or death.” Id. These facts, the Superior Court concluded, were sufficient to establish a claim of reckless conduct. Id.

In reaching its decision, the Perry court assumed that recklessness involved a defendant’s “conscious choice.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *32 (citing State v. Hull, 149 N.H. 706, 713, 827 A.2d 1001 (2003)). Here, plaintiff argues that a reasonable inference can be made that Mount Sunapee knowingly disregarded the risk of harm posed by hidden snowmaking equipment, and that they “knew that ‘hidden’ hydrants posed a danger, but chose not to act.47

The court finds no such inference. As noted, the amended allegations do not pertain to a time or place related to Miller’s accident. [**44]  There is nothing in the Ritchie affidavit that supports an allegation that Mount Sunapee made a “conscious choice” to create a “risk that was substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that . . . [involved] an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422 (internal quotation marks omitted). Significantly, the allegations in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby lift passenger already in obvious danger, a child literally dangling from the moving chair lift. Under plaintiff’s theory, any collision with buried snowmaking equipment would constitute a claim for recklessness.

One of the cases cited in Perry supports the court’s conclusion. In Migdal v. Stamp, 132 N.H. 171, 564 A.2d 826 (1989), the plaintiff, a police officer, was shot by a 15-year old who had been involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health issues. Id. at 173. The day after his release into his parents’ custody, the teen took several guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an unsecured gun cabinet in their home, fired them throughout the house, and then shot and injured the plaintiff, who responded to the scene. Id. The injured officer sued the shooter’s parents, [**45]  who sought dismissal based on the “fireman’s rule.”48 After first noting that the rule bars claims of negligent, but not reckless, conduct, id. at 176, the Court concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled recklessness by alleging that the parents “failed to seek recommended medical treatment” for their son and allowed him access to “an array of firearms and ammunition,” despite their knowledge that their son “was suffering from mental and emotional instabilities,” had “exhibited dangerous propensities,” and had ransacked and vandalized the house the day before. Id. Mount Sunapee’s conduct — failure to mark or make visible the snow gun holder — is neither of the same type nor degree as the defendants’ conduct in Migdal.

A ski case from the District of Massachusetts is also instructive. In Brush v. Jiminy Peak Mountain, 626 F. Supp. 2d 139 (D. Mass. 2009), a ski racer was injured when she lost control and collided with a ski tower support located off the trail. Id.
 [*603]  at 143. In suing, inter alia, the ski area, the plaintiff alleged that netting and other safety devices should have been placed around the support, as required by certain ski racing standards and as had been done by the defendant in the past. Id. at 145. In order to avoid application of a release, the plaintiff asserted [**46]  a claim for gross negligence, which, under Massachusetts law, is a less culpable standard than recklessness. Id. at 151 (citing Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 121 N.E. 505, 506 (Mass. 1919)). The Court concluded that plaintiff had alleged only simple negligence. Id. The Court first observed that “[t]here is no evidence in the record, and indeed no allegation, that any of the Defendants, or anyone at the competition, became aware that there was an area of the trail without netting where netting was normally placed and declined to remedy the situation.” Id. Ultimately, the Court held, “[a]t most there was a collective failure to take a step that might have lessened the injuries suffered by Plaintiff. No reasonable jury could find that this simple inadvertence, no matter how tragic its consequences, constituted gross negligence.” Id.

The court views the conduct alleged here as much more akin to that alleged in Brush — which alleged conduct that was less culpable than recklessness — than that in Perry
or Migdal. The factual allegations in this case fall far short of recklessness. First, as previously noted, the grooming report on which plaintiff relies is remote both in time and location. Next, the conduct alleged here is significantly less egregious than the [**47]  allegations in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby passenger already in danger of falling from a lift chair, or the conduct in Migdal, where the defendant parents, one day after their son had exhibited mental instability, ransacked the family home, and exhibited dangerous tendencies, failed to seek treatment for him and to secure multiple firearms and ammunition. As in Brush, the most that can be said here is that Mount Sunapee failed to take a step that — while not legally required, see supra, § III.A.1 — might have prevented plaintiff’s accident. These allegations do not support a claim that their acts or omissions in not clearing snow away from a snow gun holder in an ungroomed area “were substantially more serious” than ordinary negligence. Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.
49

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

In an attempt to characterize his claims in such a way to avoid the language of the release, plaintiff’s Amended Complaint describes them as “wanton and positive acts of misconduct,” that is, more culpable than negligence, but not intentional.50 The court, however, has already determined that the Complaint alleges no more than ordinary negligence, so this argument fails.

3. Potential [**48]  certification

If the court had found that the facts alleged by the plaintiff could constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, it would have considered certifying an unresolved question to the New Hampshire  [*604]  Supreme Court: whether conduct more culpable than negligence, but less than intentional could be the subject of a release like the one at issue here. See
N.H. Sup. Ct. R. 34. In the absence of such allegations, certification is unnecessary.

IV. Conclusion

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

As plaintiff has alleged only that Mount [**49]  Sunapee’s negligence caused his injuries, and that the facts he alleges do not constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, the court finds that plaintiff’s claims fall within the ambit of the Mount Sunapee release and that the release is enforceable against the plaintiff. Therefore, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, having been converted to a motion for summary judgment51 is GRANTED.52

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936; 2018 WL 4110742

 

Scott-Moncrieff v. Lost Trails, LLC

 

, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2018, Decided; August 29, 2018, Filed

CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:16-CV-1105

Reporter

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146936 *; 2018 WL 4110742

PATRICE SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Plaintiff v. THE LOST TRAILS, LLC, et al, Defendants

Subsequent History: Appeal filed, 09/13/2018

Counsel:  [*1] For Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, Plaintiff: James W. Sutton, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF VIASAC & SHMARUK, FEASTERVILLE, PA.

For The Lost Trails, LLC, d/b/a Lost Trails ATV Adventures, Defendant, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: John T. McGrath, Jr., Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA; Michael J. Connolly, Moosic, PA.

Judges: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, United States Magistrate Judge.

Opinion by: KAROLINE MEHALCHICK

Opinion

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant, The Lost Trails, LLC (“Lost Trails”) in this matter. The motion (Doc. 50) was filed on November 14, 2017, together with a brief in support (Doc. 52), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 53). Plaintiff, Patrice Scott-Moncrieff, filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 54) on November 28, 2017, a reply brief (Doc. 55) was filed on December 6, 2017, and a sur reply brief (Doc. 62) was filed on January 17, 2018. This motion is ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from Defendant’s Statements of Undisputed Material Facts (Doc. 53). Where the parties dispute certain facts, [*2]  those disputes are noted. In addition, the facts have been taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party, with all reasonable inferences drawn in her favor. This is in accordance with the Local Rules of this Court, which state, in pertinent part, as follows:

LR 56.1 Motions for Summary Judgment.

A motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.56, shall be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.

The papers opposing a motion for summary judgment shall include a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in the statement required in the foregoing paragraph, as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.

Statements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements.

All material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed to be admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing [*3]  party.

Local Rule 56.1 (emphasis added).

To comply with Local Rule 56.1, Plaintiff should (1) clearly and unequivocally admit or deny whether each fact contained in Defendant’s statement of facts is undisputed and/or material, (2) set forth the basis for any denial if any fact is not admitted in its entirety, and (3) provide a citation to the record that supports any such denial. Occhipinti v. Bauer, No. 3:13-CV-1875, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136082, 2016 WL 5844327, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2016); Park v. Veasie, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50682, 2011 WL 1831708, *4 (M.D. Pa. 2011). As such, where Plaintiff disputes a fact set forth by Defendant, but fails to provide a citation to the record supporting their denial, that fact will be deemed to be admitted. “Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D.Pa. 2010). In this matter, Plaintiff, though including a statement of fact in her brief in opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. 54), does not comply with the local rules and submit a separate statement of material facts in opposition to Defendant’s statement of material facts. Notably, despite being given the opportunity to file a sur-reply brief in this matter, after Defendant raises the issue of Plaintiff’s failure to file a statement of facts in its Reply Brief (Doc. 55), Plaintiff still [*4]  did not file a separate statement of fact. As such, the facts set forth in Defendant’s statement of material facts will be deemed admitted.

On October 20, 2013, Plaintiff visited Defendant’s ATV facility for the first time and, prior to using the facility, executed a waiver of liability. (Doc. 50-2, at 4-5; DOC. 53, AT ¶¶ 5, 9). Plaintiff did not read the waiver in its entirety prior to signing it, and claims she was rushed during the process. (Doc. 53, at ¶ 7; Doc. 50-2, at 71). On June 22, 2014, Plaintiff returned to the facility, at which time she alleged suffered injuries when she was thrown from the ATV she was riding. (Doc. 1).

The release from liability signed by Plaintiff on October 20, 2013 reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

In consideration for the opportunity for event participation and utilization of general admission, all facilities, equipment and premises of Lost Trails, LLC (LT), North American Warhorse Inc, (NAW) Theta Land Corp. (TLC), 1000 Dunham Drive LLC (DD), and their respective affiliates, members, agents, employees, heirs and assigns and other associates in furtherance of the sport of Off-Road Riding, racing and any other activities, scheduled or unscheduled, [*5]  (hereinafter collectively called “Off-Roading.”) This Waiver shall commence on the date first signed and shall remain binding for all time thereafter.

By signing this document, I hereby understand and agree for me and/or my minor child to this Release of Liability, Wavier of Legal rights and Assumption of Risk and to the terms hereof as follows:


2. I hereby RELEASE AND DISCHARGE LT, NAW, TLC, DD and all related parties, event volunteers, company officers, directors, elected officials, agents, employees, and owners of equipment, the land used for Off-Roading activities and any owners of adjourning lands to the premises (hereinafter collectively referred to as “Released parties”) from any and all liability claims, demands or causes of action that I, my minor child or my representatives and my heirs may hereafter have for injuries, loss of life, and all other forms of damages arising out of my voluntary participation in Off-Roading activities.

3. I understand and acknowledge that Off-Road riding and racing activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate and I EXPRESSLY AND VOLUNTARILY ASSUME ALL RISK OF DEATH OR PERSONAL INJURY [*6]  OR OTHER FORMS OF DAMAGES SUSTAINED WHILE PARTICIPATING IN OFF-ROADING ACTIVITIES WHETHER OR NOT CAUSED BY THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASE PARTIES.

4. I further agree that I WILL NOT SUE OR OTHERWISE MAKE A CLAIM on behalf of me and/or on behalf of my minor child, against the Released Parties for damages or other losses sustained as a result of my participation in Off-Roading activities.

5. I also agree to INDEMNIFY AND HOLD THE RELEASED PARTIES HARMLESS from all claims, judgments and costs, including attorneys’ fees, incurred in the connection with any action brought against them, jointly or severally, as a result of my or my minor child’s participation in “Off-Roading” activities.

6. I take full responsibility for, and hold harmless Released Parties for any injury, property damage, or death that I or my minor child may suffer or inflict upon others .or their property as a result of my engaging in Off-Roading activities.

7. I further represent that I am at least 18 years of age, or that as the parent or (adult) legal guardian, I waive and release any and all legal rights that may accrue to me, to my minor child or to the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, as the result of [*7]  any injury or damage that my minor child, the minor child for whom I am (adult) legal guardian, or I may suffer while engaging in Off-Roading activities.

8. I hereby expressly recognize that this Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from participation in Off-Roading activities including any claims related to the negligence of the Released Parties by any of the undersigned.

9. I further expressly agree that the foregoing Release of Liability, Waiver of Legal Rights and Assumption of Risks is intended to be as broad and inclusive as is permitted by law of the province or state in which services, materials and/or equipment are provided and the course of business is conducted, and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the balance shall, notwithstanding, continue in full legal force and effect. I agree that, should any claim or action arise from my participation as described herein, including any issue as to the applicability of this Release or any provision contained within it, proper Jurisdiction and Venue will lie only in Monroe [*8]  County, Pennsylvania and I waive Jurisdiction and Venue anywhere else.

(Doc. 54-1, at 20-21).

Plaintiff initialed all of the above provisions. She did not initial paragraph 10 on the next page, however, which states as follows:

l0. Having had ample time and opportunity to raise any concerns or questions that I may have, and having read and understood the information, I certify my acceptance of the aforementioned provisions by signing below.

I am in good health and physical condition. I am voluntarily participating with knowledge that dangers are involved and agree to assume all risks. I also understand that if I am injured or become