Beth Stolting, et al., Plaintiffs vs. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc. d/b/a Splash Mountain Water Park et al, Defendants
CIVIL ACTION NO. MJG-00-299
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26572
August 24, 2001, Decided
August 24, 2001, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Stolting v. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26573 (D. Md., Aug. 24, 2001)
Affirmed by Stolting v. Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., 37 Fed. Appx. 80, 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 11925 (4th Cir. Md., 2002)
CORE TERMS: slide, pool, exit, patrons, ride, riding, water slides, warning, bottom, summary judgment, amusement park, feet, legs, intelligence, splash, depth, posted, notice, bent, risk of injury, moving party, reasonable jury, appreciated, disclaimer, non-moving, shallow, warned, owed, dangerousness, negligently
COUNSEL: [*1] For Beth Stolting, Plaintiff: Paul D Bekman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Salsbury Clements Bekman Marder and Adkins LLC, Baltimore, MD; Andrew M. Moskowitz, William D. Sanders, Alpert Butler and Sanders, P.C., West Orange, NJ.
For Rohan Cassells, Plaintiff: Andrew M. Moskowitz, LEAD ATTORNEY, Alpert Butler and Sanders, P.C., West Orange, NJ.
For Jollyroger Amusement Park, Inc., doing business as Splash Mountain Water Park, Defendant: J Paul Mullen, LEAD ATTORNEY, Phoenix, MD; Kathleen M Bustraan, Ward and Bustraan LLC, Towson, MD.
JUDGES: Marvin J. Garbis, United States District Judge.
OPINION BY: Marvin J. Garbis
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: SUMMARY JUDGMENT
The Court has before it Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment and the materials submitted by the parties relating thereto. The Court finds that a hearing is unnecessary.
A. Plaintiff’s Injury on the Shotgun Slide
On June 2, 1999, Plaintiffs Beth Stolting (hereinafter “Stolting”) and Rohan Cassells 1 (hereinafter “Cassells”), went to the Jolly Roger Amusement Park/Splash Mountain Park (hereinafter the “Park”) in Ocean City, Maryland. Stolting had been to water parks on “fifteen to twenty ” separate occasions and had been on water slides “hundreds of times,” [*2] but had never visited the Park. Stolting Dep. 29.
1 Now her husband and a plaintiff in the case.
At the entrance of the amusement park, a prominent disclaimer was posted. The sign read as follows:
The attractions contained within the Splash Mountain Waterpark are of a participatory nature and, as such, carry with them an inherent risk of injury. All guests agree, as a condition of admission, to use these facilities at their own risk.
Stolting read the sign upon entering the amusement park. She went on several water slides before arriving at the “Shotgun” 2 water slide (hereinafter “slide” or “ride”), which is the slide at issue in the instant case. Stolting Dep. 37. There were no posted instructions on how to ride the slide or any signs warning of the possible dangers posed by the slide. However, there were signs containing height restrictions, signs banning the use of inner tubes, and depth markers displaying the depth of the entry pool 3. Prior to riding the slide, Stolting watched others go down it. As Stolting prepared to go down the slide, she imitated the body positioning of those people who had previously been on the slide. With her knees bent at a “forty degree angle,” Stolting [*3] descended down the slide, hitting the bottom of the exit pool with her feet. Stolting Dep. 39- 40. Stolting does not remember how she landed or the positioning of her legs as she hit the water. Stolting Dep. 40- 41. However, she does allege that she felt her feet “hit the bottom of the pool . . . immediately” upon entering the exit pool. Stolting Dep. 44.
2 Also known as “the Cannonball Slide.”
3 The pool of water at the bottom of the slide is also referred to as the “entry” or “splash” pool.
At that point, Stolting lost her breath. She went to the side of the exit pool and was helped out of the pool and into a chair by lifeguards. At that time, Stolting complained of pain in her back, feet, and legs. The lifeguards gave Stolting ice and suggested that she should go to a hospital.
After resting for ten minutes, Stolting asked Cassells to take her to the Atlantic General Hospital in Ocean City, Maryland. 4 Stolting told the attending physician at the hospital that she was experiencing back and heal pain. The doctor took x-rays of Stolting’s heals, and then “told [her that] if [she] could walk out on crutches that [she] could leave.” 5 [*4] Stolting Dep. 50. Stolting was not given any medication.
4 Stolting never requested an ambulance.
5 No diagnosis was given.
During the next few days, she continued to rest and take Advil. Approximately one week later, Stolting was still experiencing pain and so, she decided to see Dr. Fischer (hereinafter “Fischer”). Fischer diagnosed Stolting with three fractured vertebrae. Stolting was told to remain on Advil and to continue bed rest. Fischer stated that it would take at least six months for her back to heal.
B. Prior Injuries on the Shotgun Slide
In recent years, several other patrons have complained of injuries allegedly sustained while riding the Shotgun slide. In 1997, Myron Custer (hereinafter “Custer”) reported a bruised heel from contacting the bottom of the exit pool of the Shotgun slide. Custer accused the Park of maintaining an unsafe ride.
In 1998, Michael Agnello Jr.(hereinafter “Agnello”), reported receiving injuries from riding the slide. Agnello Affi. After contacting the bottom of the exit pool, Michael complained of bruised legs and walking with a limp for a few days. The Park responded to complaints by stating that a licensed inspector from the Department of Labor Safety [*5] Inspection had investigated the slide and concluded that the slide met all of Maryland’s standards of safety.
C. Procedural Posture
In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs sue Defendants, Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Inc., Splash Mountain Water Park, and Bayshore Development Corporation. Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants’ negligence caused Stolting’s injuries. The Defendants deny negligence and assert an affirmative defense of the assumption of risk doctrine. By the instant motion, Defendants seek summary judgment on all claims.
II LEGAL STANDARD
In order for the Court to grant a motion for summary judgment, the evidence submitted to the Court must “show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A genuine issue of material fact is one which might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).
The burden of proof weighs heavily on the moving party to establish that there is a lack of evidence in support of the non-moving party’s claim. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324-25, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party [*6] must demonstrate to the Court that, viewing all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable jury could not find in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the moving party has carried its burden of proof, then the non-moving party must produce more than a “mere scintilla of evidence in support of an essential element” in order to prevent the court from granting summary judgment. Id. at 251.
A. Negligence claim
The Plaintiffs’ claim is based on three purported acts of negligence:
1) After being put on notice that patrons had been injured on the Shotgun slide, Defendants negligently failed to post signs warning of the dangerousness of the ride;
2) Defendants negligently failed to post instructions on how patrons should position their bodies when riding the slide; and,
3) Defendants negligently provided too shallow an exit pool at the bottom of the slide.
Under Maryland 6 law, Plaintiffs must establish four elements in order to prevail on a negligence claim: 1) that a duty was owed to the Plaintiffs by the Defendants; 2) a breach of that duty owed by the Defendants; 3) a causal relationship between the breach of that duty [*7] and the harm suffered; and 4) that damages were sustained. Yousef v. Trustbank Sav., F.S.B., 81 Md.App. 527, 536-36, 568 A.2d 1134 (1990).
6 This case is a diversity action. Since Stolting’s cause of action took place in Maryland, that state’s substantive law applies. Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938).
1) Failure to Warn of Dangerousness
The Plaintiffs contend that the Park was on notice of the dangerousness of the Shotgun slide and should have posted signs warning of the dangers because other patrons had been injured on the slide. In support of their claim, Plaintiffs rely on prior injuries received by Custer and Agnello while they were on the Shotgun slide. The Plaintiffs maintain that notice of such injuries imposed a duty on the Park to post warning signs next to the ride.
The Plaintiffs argue that, as patrons of the Park, they were owed the highest standard of care. Tennant v. Shoppers Food Warehouse MD Corp., 115 Md.App. 381, 388, 693 A.2d 370 (1997), (citing Casper v. Chas F. Smith & Son, Inc., 71 Md.App. 445, 457, 526 A.2d 87 (1987), aff’d, 316 Md. 573, 578, 560 A.2d 1130 (1989)). According to Casper, however, reasonable or ordinary care is the highest standard of care owed to a business invitee. 71 Md. App. at 457. “The general [*8] rule is that the operator of a place of amusement owes to business invitees a non-delegable duty to use ordinary care and caution to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Hawkins v. Southern Maryland Agricultural Fair Ass’n, 237 Md. 90, 94 (1964), 205 A.2d 286. An amusement park is not an insurer of the safety of persons using devices at the place of amusement, but only a proprietor bound to use ordinary care for the safety and protection of its patrons. See Carlin v. Krout, 142 Md. 140, 147, 120 A. 232 (1923). Hence, the Park’s duty towards its patrons is only to provide “ordinary and diligent care” in keeping the Shotgun slide in a “reasonabl[y] safe condition.” Id. at 146.
At issue is whether the Park breached this duty to provide “ordinary and diligent care” by not posting signs warning of the dangerousness of the Shotgun slide. The Plaintiffs contend that reports of injuries sustained from former patrons who used the ride put the Park on notice that the slide was dangerous. The Plaintiffs base their claim particularly on the testimony of Custer, who was allegedly injured from riding the Shotgun slide in 1997.
When Custer reported his injuries to the Park, he insisted that the slide [*9] was dangerous because the angle of slope was too steep. Custer’s claim is unsubstantiated. Indeed, a licensed inspector from Maryland investigated the ride and found that the Shotgun slide met the safety standards set out by Maryland law. In any event, Custer is by no means qualified to provide admissible opinion testimony that the angle of the slide was “too steep.” Moreover, his opinion is not based on any scientific principles and is no more than his grossly unqualified ipse dixit.
Although the Plaintiffs correctly state that “Maryland has gone almost as far as any state in holding that meager evidence of negligence is sufficient to submit the case to a jury,” the opinion offered by Custer is not enough to take the issue to a jury. State v. Thurston, 128 Md. App. 656, 662, 739 A.2d 940 (1999). The Plaintiffs have not presented evidence sufficient to establish that the Defendants had reason to believe the slide was so dangerous as to require a special warning next to it.
The Park did all it need have done by having the slide evaluated and vouched for by a licensed professional. Moreover, even if the Park were on notice of a dangerous condition posed by the Shotgun slide, the Park adequately warned [*10] patrons of the dangers of water slides by posting a disclaimer at the entrance of the amusement park. Stolting admitted in her deposition that she saw the disclaimer and that although she did not remember what it said, she read it. Stolting Dep. 90. The sign posted at the entrance of the Park expressly warned patrons that all rides within the Water park “carr[ied] with them an inherent risk of injury.” There is no evidence adequate to establish that a pertinent standard of care required additional warnings. Defs.’ Reply to Pls.’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 4.
2) No Posted Instructions
The Plaintiffs argue that the Park had an obligation to post instructions on how to ride the Shotgun slide. They offered Hanst’s purported “expert” opinion in support of this contention that patrons should have been told to keep their knees bent when riding down the slide 7. For the reasons stated in its Memorandum and Order re: Motion In Limine, issued this date, Hanst’s “expert” opinion has been held inadmissible.
7 Plaintiffs claim that riding with straight legs as opposed to bent knees caused the accident.
Moreover, even if Hanst’s opinion were considered, and there has been a duty to warn Plaintiff to keep her [*11] legs bent, the “negligent” failure to give the advice would be irrelevant. Stolting cannot establish causation. Stolting testified that her legs were bent at a “forty-degree angle” as she slid down the slide. Stolting Dep. 39-40. Thus, even if Plaintiffs had established a duty to instruct a breach of that duty, Plaintiffs cannot establish that the failure to instruct was a proximate cause of her injuries.
3) Depth of the Exit Pool
The Plaintiffs argue that the Defendants were negligent because the exit pool at the bottom of the Shotgun slide was too shallow. Plaintiffs base this claim on the opinion of Hanst who asserted that the exit pool should have been eight to ten feet. 8 As held in the Memorandum and Order re: Motion in Limine issued this date, Hanst’s expert opinion is inadmissible.
8 The exit pool is four to five feet deep. Hanst opined that it should have been four to five feet deeper than it was.
Additionally, both Olsen, the engineer, and the inspector from the Department of Inspection and Safety verified that the slide met the safety standards enforced by the state of Maryland. Even Hanst verified in his deposition that there was nothing in the inspector’s or the engineer’s [*12] reports with which he disagreed. In fact, Hanst’s own investigation of the slide, which consisted of riding the slide himself and watching others on the slide, did not produce any findings contradictory to those of the Defendants. Neither Hanst nor any of the people he watched on the slide were injured after making contact with the bottom of the exit pool.
There is no evidence sufficient to prove to a reasonable fact finder that Defendants negligently provided too shallow an exit pool. No reasonable jury could find that the Park was negligent by virtue of having an exit pool with a depth of “only” between four and five feet. 9
9 Indeed, a reasonable jury might even find that an eight to ten foot deep exit pool, as suggested by Hanst, could create a danger of drowning.
B, Assumption of Risk
The Court notes that even if Plaintiffs were able to establish that some negligence by Defendants caused the accident at issue, Defendants would still be entitled to summary judgment.
In Maryland, assumption of risk is an affirmative defense to a claim of negligence. ADM P’ship v. Martin, 348 Md. 84, 91, 702 A.2d 730 (1997). To establish an assumption of risk defense, the Defendants have the burden of demonstrating [*13] that the Plaintiffs: 1) had knowledge of the risk of danger; 2) appreciated the risk; and 3) voluntarily confronted the risk of danger. Id. at 90-91. An objective standard must be used in deciding “whether a plaintiff had knowledge and appreciation of the risk, . . . and a plaintiff . . . [cannot] say that he did not comprehend a risk which must have been obvious to him.” Id. (quoting Gibson v. Beaver, 245 Md. 418, 421, 226 A.2d 273 (1967)). Overall, the question of whether the plaintiff assumed the risk is usually a question for the jury, however, when it is clear that by using an objective test, “a person of normal intelligence in the position of the plaintiff must have understood the danger, the issue is for the court.” Schroyer v. McNeal, 323 Md. 275, 283-84, 592 A.2d 1119 (1991).
1) Knowledge of the Risk of Danger
Stolting’s experience riding water slides establishes that Stolting had knowledge of the risks she faced when she chose to ride the Shotgun slide. “Those who participate or sit as spectators at sports and amusements may be taken to assume the known risks of being hurt by roller coasters, flying baseballs, [or] hockey pucks . . . .” Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 68, at 485-86 (5th ed. 1984). [*14] Moreover, Stolting in fact read the sign warning of the danger.
2) Appreciation of the Risk
If any person of normal intelligence in [one’s same] position would have understood the danger one faced, then one has appreciated the risk. Leakas v. Columbia Country Club, 831 F.Supp. 1231, 1236 (D. Md. 1993). The Court determined in Leakas that a “twenty-six year old, experienced swimmer,” had the “knowledge and appreciation of the risk of diving into shallow water because any person of normal intelligence in Leakas’ position must have understood the danger.” Leakas, 831 F.Supp. at 1236. Moreover in Casper, the court held that a stream covered over by a sheet of ice was an “open and obvious danger,” which every child could understand and appreciate. Casper v. Chas F. Smith & Son, Inc., 71 Md.App. 445, 458, 526 A.2d 87 (1987), aff’d, 316 Md. 573, 578, 560 A.2d 1130 (1989).
In the case at Bar, Stolting’s age, education and experience on water slides clearly establishes that she was able to appreciate the risk.
Plaintiffs, relying on Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., argue that even though Stolting might have had knowledge of a risk based on her experience, she did not appreciate the risk posed by the Shotgun [*15] slide. Md. State Fair and Agric. Soc’y, Inc. v. Lee, 29 Md.App. 374, 380-81, 348 A.2d 44 (1964) (holding that racetrack owners’ negligence in leaving track sandy created a hidden and unforeseeable danger, which caused plaintiff’s injuries). The facts of Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., however, are distinguishable from those in the instant case.
In Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society, Inc., the Court held that the dangers posed by the negligent conditions (in particular a sandy track) would not necessarily have been comprehended by “any person of normal intelligence in [the plaintiff’s] position.” 29 Md.App. at 381. In the instant case, there is no danger that a person of ordinary intelligence could not have fully appreciated. There is no evidence of any hidden or unforeseeable dangerous condition that caused Stolting’s injuries. In fact, the evidence establishes that the risk posed by the water slide was an open and obvious risk of which Plaintiff (and all other park patrons) was expressly warned. The risk could be, and should have been, appreciated by Stolting and any other reasonable person.
3) Voluntarily Confronted the Risk of Danger
Finally, the Defendants argue that [*16] in addition to knowing and appreciating the risk, Stolting voluntarily confronted the risk. The Defendants rely on the decision in Leakas in which the Court determined that Leakas assumed the risk when he chose to dive into a pool “of unknown depth.” 831 F.Supp. at 1237. Like the plaintiff in Leakas, Stolting “voluntarily encounter[ed] the danger.” Id. After reading the disclaimer at the front of the Park, watching other patrons maneuver themselves down the slide, and relying on her prior experiences on water slides, Stolting chose to ride the Shotgun slide. Of her own free will, Stolting voluntarily made the decision to go on the ride and take her chances even though, as she was specifically warned, the rides in the Park “carry with them an inherent risk of injury.”
The court concludes that any reasonable jury would have to find that Stolting assumed the risk of injury on the Shotgun slide by having knowledge of the risk, appreciating the risk, and voluntarily confronting the risk of danger. Hence, Stolting’s negligence claim, even if viable, would be barred by the assumption of risk doctrine.
For the foregoing reasons:
1. [*17] Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.
2. Judgment shall be entered by separate ORDER.
SO ORDERED this 24th day of August, 2001.
/s/ Marvin J. Garbis
Marvin J. Garbis
United States District Judge
By separate Order issued this date, the Court has granted summary judgment to the Defendants.
1. Judgment shall be, and hereby is, entered in favor of Defendants JOLLY ROGER AMUSEMENT PARK, INC. d/b/a SPLASH MOUNTAIN WATER PARK and Bayshore Development Corporation against Plaintiffs Beth Stolting and Rohan Cassells dismissing all claims with prejudice with costs.
2. Any and all prior rulings disposing of any claims against any parties are incorporated by reference herein.
3. This Order shall be deemed to be a final judgment within the meaning of Rule 58 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
SO ORDERED this 24th day of August, 2001.
/s/ Marvin J. Garbis
Marvin J. Garbis
United States District Judge