New York court shreds Tough Mudder online release and arbitration clause because the reader could assent to the release without reading the release.

The clauses in the release were not clearly identified and could be avoided by plaintiff. Release was found to be void because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326

Scotti v Tough Mudder Inc., 63 Misc. 3d 843, 97 N.Y.S.3d 825, 2019 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1525, 2019 NY Slip Op 29098, 2019 WL 1511142

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Kings County

Plaintiff: Richard E. Scotti et al. (Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo)

Defendant: Tough Mudder Incorporated et al. (Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated)

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Arbitration Clause & Release

Holding: for the Plaintiffs

Year: 2019

Summary

Tough Mudder has been having a tough time in court. This was another court that found several ways to void the release. Tough Mudder was attempting to compel arbitration; however, the arbitration clause in the release did not meet the legal requirements of New York Law. The release itself failed because if violated New York General Obligations Law § 5-326 which voids releases for recreation.

Facts

This personal injury action stems from an accident which occurred on July 23, 2016, when the plaintiffs Richard E. Scotti and Joseph Russo participated in the “Tough Mudder,” a physically challenging obstacle course event (hereinafter the TM event), which took place at 1303 Round Swamp Road, Old Bethpage, New York. Defendants Tough Mudder Incorporated and Tough Mudder Event Production Incorporated (collectively, Tough Mudder) are the business entities that organized the TM event. Plaintiffs commenced the within action on or about November 17, 2017, against Tough Mudder alleging that they each sustained injuries as a result of defendants’ negligent operation of an activity at the event, referred to as the “salmon ladder.” Tough Mudder joined issue on or about December 20, 2017, with the service of a verified answer. In their answer, Tough Mudder denied all material allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses, including that the plaintiffs’ action is barred by the participation/registration agreement, which included an arbitration clause.

Tough Mudder now moves, pursuant to CPLR 7501 and 7503, to compel arbitration, arguing that the plaintiffs are barred from pursuing the instant action in this court because they each waived the right to sue by virtue of agreeing to arbitrate any “disputes, controversies, or claims” arising out of their participation in the TM event. Tough Mudder claims that the plaintiffs each entered into an agreement to arbitrate all claims related to their participation in the TM event when they completed an online Internet registration form. In support of this contention, Tough Mudder has submitted the sworn affidavit of Jenna Best, the manager of customer relations for Tough Mudder Incorporated. Best avers that she is fully familiar with the TM event online registration process as it existed in 2016 when the plaintiffs registered for the TM event at issue. Tough Mudder has submitted copies of the online registration forms that the plaintiffs allegedly completed for the TM event (Cash affirmation, exhibit D). Best states that, during the online registration process, the plaintiffs were required to scroll down to a section containing the “Participant Waiver and Course Rules” (hereinafter PWCR), a document version of which has been submitted herein She contends that the full text of the PWCR was contained in a box on the screen, which could be read by scrolling down in the text box. Best contends that the initial visible content of the scrollable box, which preceded the full PWCR document, which could be read in its entirety by scrolling down…

Below the box containing the scrollable PWCR was another box next to the statement: “I agree to the above waiver.” Best avers that it was necessary for the plaintiffs, or any other registrant, to click on the box to indicate his or her consent to the PWCR in order for the registrant to complete his or her registration for the TM event. According to Best, the Internet registration form cannot proceed to the payment page, and registration cannot be completed, until the registrant checks the box indicating his or her consent to the PWCR She further avers that both plaintiffs did in fact click on the box indicating their consent to the PWCR, as otherwise they would not have been able to participate in the TM event. Based upon the foregoing, Tough Mudder contends that the plaintiffs agreed to the terms of the online waiver, which included the arbitration clause, and, therefore, are barred from pursuing the instant action.

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

The court looked at the plaintiff’s arguments first.

In opposition, plaintiffs argue that the arbitration provision at issue is unenforceable because Tough Mudder has failed to establish that they actually agreed to it. In this regard, plaintiffs point out that the webpage where the PWCR was located contained a text box that did not show the entire document. In order to read the full PWCR, including the arbitration provision, plaintiffs contend it would have been necessary to scroll down through many screens of text using the arrows on the right-hand side of the text box. The PWCR fills seven single-spaced pages of text.

On top of that, the court stated the evidence presented by the defendant Tough Mudder was not sufficient to prove that either plaintiff checked the box or agreed to the terms of the contract.

Plaintiffs further argue that Tough Mudder has failed to proffer any evidence that either plaintiff actually signed/checked the consent box, or any evidence identifying the computers or electronic devices from which their respective registrations were completed.

The burden was on Tough Mudder to prove the plaintiffs signed the agreement which contained the arbitration clause.

It is well settled that “[a] party to an agreement may not be compelled to arbitrate its dispute with another unless the evidence establishes the parties’ clear, explicit and unequivocal agreement to arbitrate” When one party seeks to compel the other to arbitrate any disputes between them, the court must first determine whether the parties made a valid arbitration agreement. The party seeking arbitration bears the burden of establishing that an agreement to arbitrate exists

To prove the existence of the contract and the agreement to the arbitration clause the courts look for evidence that the website user had actual or constructive knowledge of clauses in the contract.

The question of whether there is agreement to accept the terms of an online contract turns on the particular facts and circumstances. Courts generally look for evidence that a website user had actual or constructive notice of the terms by using the website. Where the person’s alleged consent is solely online, courts seek to determine whether a reasonably prudent person would be put on notice of the provision in the contract, and whether the terms of the agreement were reasonably communicated to the user. In Specht v Netscape Communications Corp, the court emphasized that “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility”

The seven-page agreement had no headings, no italics, no bold print, nothing to indicate the agreement covered more issues than were identified in the heading. The heading stated:

“ASSUMPTION OF RISK, WAIVER OF LIABILITY, AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT “PARTICIPANTS: READ THIS DOCUMENT CAREFULLY BEFORE ACCEPTING. THIS DOCUMENT HAS LEGAL CONSEQUENCES AND WILL AFFECT YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND WILL ELIMINATE YOUR ABILITY TO BRING FUTURE LEGAL ACTIONS.”

No where in the heading was a mention of a mandatory arbitration clause. (Ambush by small print was eliminated by the courts in the 70’s, this lawsuit was in 2019; someone should have realized that by now.)

The court the defined the agreement as one of four types of agreements found online “the four “general types of online consumer contracts [are identified as] (a) browsewrap; (b) clickwrap; (c) scrollwrap; and (d) sign-in-wrap.”

Based on the evidence presented by the defendants the court found the agreement was a “clickwrap” agreement.

Here, the PWCR at issue appears to be a click-wrap agreement as identified in Berkson in that the clickable box is located directly below the scrollable text box that allegedly contained the full text of the agreement. Only by scrolling down in the text box would the user see all of the terms of the PWCR, including the arbitration clause at issue.

The court then held that you could agree to the agreement without scrolling through the agreement; therefore, you could sign the agreement without knowing what was in the agreement.

However, the user could proceed to complete the registration process without necessarily scrolling down through the text box to view the full document, thereby rendering it a click-wrap agreement.

The plaintiff could be bound by a clickwrap agreement, but only if they were given sufficient opportunity to read the agreement and agree to it. There must also be a way to decline a click-wrap agreement.

A party may be bound to a click-wrap agreement by clicking a button declaring assent, so long as the party is given a “sufficient opportunity to read the . . . agreement, and assents thereto after being provided with an unambiguous method of accepting or declining the offer.”

Then the court closed the door on the defendants attempt to compel arbitration.

…[a] court cannot presume that a person who clicks on a box that appears on a . . . screen has notice of all contents not only of that page but of other content that requires further action (scrolling, following a link, etc.). The presentation of the online agreement matters: Whether there was notice of the existence of additional contract terms presented on a webpage depends heavily on whether the design and content of that webpage rendered the existence of terms reasonably conspicuous. Clarity and conspicuousness of arbitration terms are important in securing informed assent.” (Internal quotation marks and citations omitted.)

Understand, the court did not say the contract was invalid; the court was only looking at the issue of the arbitration clause. Under New York law for the arbitration clause to be valid, the plaintiff had to “had actual or constructive notice of the terms….” Since there was no notice of arbitration in the heading, and you could agree to the agreement without reading it, the agreement failed the heightened requirements to prove an arbitration clause existed between the parties.

Thus, on a motion to compel arbitration, a valid agreement to arbitrate exists where the notice of the arbitration provision was reasonably conspicuous, and manifestation of assent is unambiguous as a matter of law. Therefore, the issue herein is whether Tough Mudder’s website registration screen put a reasonably prudent user on inquiry notice of the relevant terms of the PWCR, particularly the arbitration clause at issue.

Then the court jumped on the issue that the evidence in front of the court did not prove their argument. Black-and-white copies were provided to the court rather than color copies. The font size was small and barely legible.

In addition, the court notes that the purported copies of the plaintiffs’ respective online registration forms (screenshots) submitted by Tough Mudder are black and white copies of poor quality, the text of which is in an extremely small font size and is barely legible. Tough Mudder has not proffered any color copies of any screenshots depicting its online registration process. In addition, the full text of the PWCR, as provided by Tough Mudder, is not a screenshot but a black and white document, consisting of seven pages of single-spaced language, all in the same font and size, with no underlined, hyperlinked or bolded terms.

The court then attacked how the document would have been presented online from the evidence in front of it.

In order to view the “Mediation and Arbitration” clause, the plaintiffs, by using the arrows inside the text box, needed to scroll down significantly beyond what is initially visible, to page four of the seven-page single-spaced PWCR document. The court additionally notes that, as with the entire document, the arbitration provision is neither underlined, bolded nor hyperlinked. Further, since this court has only been provided with a black and white document, not screenshots, it is unable to discern how the subject arbitration clause actually appeared to the user. Indeed, “[i]n the context of web-based contracts, [courts] look to the design and content of the relevant interface to determine if the contract terms were presented to the offeree in a way that would put her [or him] on inquiry notice of such terms

It is laughable that in 2019 you read a case where the court complains about the type being too small to read.

The court found that based on the evidence in front of it, there was not an arbitration clause between the parties.

The court then looked at the release.

New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voids releases for recreation activities where a fee is paid.

That statute protects consumers from the effect of form releases printed on membership applications and similar documents when such releases are offered in connection with the use of a “place of amusement or recreation” for which a fee is paid

The court found New York General Obligations Law § 5-32 voided the release.

The terms of this statute apply to the plaintiffs herein, who paid a fee to use Tough Mudder’s obstacle course, which, contrary to Tough Mudder’s assertion, is a place of recreation. Indeed, the nature of the TM event as described by Tough Mudder—a rigorous, athletic competition requiring proper training—is comparable to the other activities, such as horseback riding, auto racing, cycling and skiing, which have been held to be covered by General Obligations Law § 5-326.

The final issue was the agreement had a severability clause. This is a clause that states if a portion of the contract is found unenforceable or void by the court it does not void the entire document. Only the portions the court finds void, are severed from the document, and the document without those clauses can be used as evidence in court.

However, as Tough Mudder correctly argues, the unenforceable provisions of the PWCR do not nullify the entire agreement. Where an agreement consists partially of an unlawful objective, the “court may sever the illegal aspects . . . and enforce the legal ones, so long as the illegal aspects are incidental to the legal aspects and are not the main objective of the agreement.

Which is exactly what the court did.

Here, the waiver of liability provision in the PWCR releasing Tough Mudder from liability, as well as the arbitration clause, are severable from the remainder of the PWCR agreement on the ground that the unenforceable provisions are incidental to the legal aspects and not the main objective of the agreement. Further, the severability provision in the PWCR reflects the intent of the parties that the legal provisions of the agreement be severed from any provisions determined to be void and unenforceable.

So, hopefully the seven-page document had language that could be used to prove assumption of the risk by the defendants.

So Now What?

On paper, this release might have survived. However, there are more issues with online releases. This is the second case where the court found the proof offered by the defense to prove the release was signed was found to be lacking because of poor copies of the website. That is just stupid. With color printers now days, computers and monitors that can be brought into court or linked to in a document you should be able to have anyone see what the document actually looked and how the software performed.

When you have several different issues in a contract, it is common to identify the new issues with a heading or bold type. In this case not only where there are new issues in the release besides release language there was an arbitration agreement. New York, as most states, have specific language in how an arbitration agreement should be written. This release failed that test.

The arbitration agreement was an attempt to lose the value of the entire release because releases for recreation where a person pays money to recreation are void. New York General Obligations Law § 5-32

§ 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.

The big issue the court seemed to be pushing was the game of hide and seek that Tough Mudder plays both with its courses and with the release. Contestants never know what they will encounter when competing in a Tough Mudder event. Consequently, you eliminate a lot of the defense of assumption of the risk. You can’t assume a risk you don’t know about.

Tough Mudder then tried that game with its release (or did not have an attorney write its release) and tried to slide the arbitration clause past the participants. It failed because the court held it must meet New York law and be written and visible in a way that the signor understands they are signing an arbitration agreement. That is a bigger burden then just signing a release.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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California’s new Consumer Privacy law (CCPA) which gives California Residents new rights in the information you collect when the consumer visits your website

Are you getting a ton of emails stating the terms of service for a site you have been using are changing? Are you wondering why? California’s new Consumer Privacy law (CCPA) which gives California Residents new rights in the information you collect when the consumer visits your website became effective January 1, 2020. Everyone who has a website is changing their terms of service to respond to the CCPA, thus the constant emails.

The EU has had a similar law in place for years (EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)). However, the California law is much stricter. Reliance on a EU parent company to comply with the California law will not work.

The CCPA is the reason why you are constantly seeing the acknowledgment or warning that a site uses cookies. Every time you visit that site, even my own, that cookie warning will appear. Because no other information is tracked, the cookie warning appears every time.

The Rundown on the California Consumer Privacy Act

First, this should not be your only review of the law. The law is vast and has dozens of sections that will require interpretation by the courts.

Second, even the California Attorney General has not decided how to prosecute the law. As the California Attorney General issues opinions about the law, the interpretations and your responses will change.

Third, those numerous sections that will require court interpretation will take years to decide. This is going to be an ongoing education and reaction issue to be aware of.

Here are things you will need to add to your website and terms of service or privacy notice because of the new law. If you do not have terms of service or privacy page, you need to get one ASAP!

Who does the law apply to?

The law states that is only applies to businesses that do business with California consumers. However, since any business can sell in California or better any resident of California can buy anything from wherever they are located from anyone on the Internet, the law effectively applies to everyone, worldwide.

The law also applies to businesses that share a common branding with businesses dealing with California consumers. Meaning if you are an importer of a product from Germany, the sales of the product of the German manufacturer, worldwide apply and would subject you and your manufacturer to the law. Your website may be up to date with the CCPA; however, if your foreign manufacturer’s site is not current and a California consumer buys something from that site, you and your foreign manufacturer will be liable, even if the product is shipped from you warehouse in the US.

You must give consumers:

  1. An option to opt out of the sale of any data you collect from a California Consumer on your site.
    1. Either you give the consumer the right to prevent their data from being sold, or you cannot collect any data about a consumer who comes to your site.
    2. Any data means you cannot collect any information or place cookies on their computer to find out if the consumers are coming back.
    3. Alternatively, agree in writing that you will never sell any data you collect.
  2. A consumer has the right to have their data deleted.
    1. Again, that means any information, electronic or their name and email address.
    2. This applies even if you do not sell any data.
    3. You will need to work with your programmers to make sure you have a way of doing that.
  3. Consumers have the right to see what data you have collected from them.
    1. You need to place in your terms of service a complete list of everything you collect from the consumer when the consumer visits your website.
    2. The consumer must be able to see the sources of that data; the type of third party’s their data is shared with, and how it’s been categorized.

Data is defined as:

Name

Address

Postal address

Online identifier or any unique identifier

IP address

Email address

Account name

SSN

Driver’s license info

Data is any information that can be tied back to a specific person

Also

Any information of protected classifications under California or Federal Law. That means race, age, religion, sexual orientation, sex, etc.

Purchasing history

Geolocation

Audio/video

Biometric data

Inferences made about your personality

Inferences made about your psychological trends

“Olfactory” data

Browsing history

Records of a visitor’s interactions with a website

Biometric info

Geolocation data

Professional or employment information

Education information

Information on any purchase(s)

Commercial information

Personal property, products or services purchased, obtained or considered

Other purchasing or consuming histories or tendencies

Any inferences from the information identified or drawn from any information collected

Consumer’s Preferences

Characteristics

Psychological Trends

Preferences

Predispositions

Behavior

Attitudes

Intelligence

Abilities

Aptitudes

Basically, ANYTHING YOU COLLECT when a consumer visits your website is data that must be disclosed, including whether the consumer has visited your website before must also be disclosed to the consumer. You have to tell the consumer you are collecting the information.

And you have to give the consumer the right to see the information you are collecting. Not only does this apply to any information that has been collected in the past but anything ongoing into the future. So, information you collected from a consumer one year ago, you still have to comply with the law, even though you collected the information when the law was not in effect. So, any info collected from 1/1/2019 must be available, and you must provide a notice of what was collected then also.

Consequently, you have terms that identify two sets of data, that collected before 1/1/2020 and information collected after 1/1/2020.

Any changes in what information you are collecting must be noticed in your terms of service so the consumer knows what was collected about him or her based on when the consumer visited your website. To be on the safe side, if you changed the way, you collected data because of the law, meaning after 1/1/2020 I would notice that also. Better to be on the safe side then in trouble.

The law requires a footer (on each page of your website) that allows a consumer to opt out of the collection of any data. The footer must be clearly visible. (What that means will be decided in a lawsuit sometime, so don’t hide it.)

What can I do if a Consumer wants his information deleted?

Delete the information. The law is not clear if you can maintain a list of names of the consumers whose data you have deleted. So maintain that list to protect yourself, but knowing it alone could cause problems.

Nor does a mass deletion of the data seem to work. The law states you have to delete the data on a per consumer basis on request. So if you want to delete all consumer information, you must do so in a way that tracks the deletion by a person, not a mass cleaning of data.

Breach of Data Collected on Your Website

The law assigns penalties for any breach, theft or inadvertent disclosure of consumer’s data. On top of any PR costs and costs in claims, California is now going to pile on statutory fines if you lose consumer information through a breach.

One way of protecting yourself is to hire third-parties to handle your sale or financial information. The consumers are in the business of protecting consumer data; you are in the business of making skis or backpacks. It might cost you a few more dollars per transaction; however, the risk might be worth it.

“Buy” the Data from Consumers

You can provide incentives to allow consumers to provide data and for you to keep it. Whether or not you must provide an incentive each time a consumer comes to your website or just once is not clear, but for now assume that the incentive provided is valid unless the information you are collecting changes. Then assume you must provide a new incentive. Meaning, the consumer gives you their info, and you’ll take $10 off your shipping. Even if the consumer does not purchase anything on your website, the consumer still received the incentive. You must be able to match up the incentive to the person whose info you are keeping. The Incentives may be the ability to join your mailing list; however, that is not clear yet.

How the Data You Collect is stored.

The next issue is how the info is kept. Normally, this data is not associated with a person. Meaning the data is kept in a way that makes it hard to say this came from Bob in CA. So, you may have to work with IT or website designer to figure out a way to make sure no data escapes because it is not associated with the right person.

A parent can find out about information collected about their child. You may want to identify consumers who come to your website by their age.

Anyplace where a person is volunteering information, posting a photo or video, commenting, etc., will need a bigger disclaimer/permission information. Any time you post a photo or video there is a ton of information the photograph or video that is uploaded with the photo or video. This information includes the date and time of the photograph or video, where it was taken, etc. You will need to work with your IT department to identify what information comes with any photo or video uploaded to your site and place that information in the disclaimer.

What can you do with the data you do collect?

Although you have the permission to collect the data, that does not mean you can do anything with the data. The statute states you can only use the data in the way you told the consumer you were going to use the data. That means, you must have another section of your terms or privacy policy that states exactly what you are going to do with the data you collect.

… a business shall not “use personal information collected for additional purposes without providing the consumer with notice consistent with this section

Using the data in any way other than how you collected the data violates the statute.

Selling consumer data requires additional disclaimers and requirements.

Exceptions to the law

An exception to the law is where the data being kept is required to complete a financial transaction or protect against fraud. You’ll need to include this information in any policy. Check with your credit card processing company to determine what information is needed by them to support credit card processing. Then include that information and any shipping information in the list of information to be kept because the financial transaction.

Again, passing this liability to your consumer credit card processing company might be a good way to manage the risk.

Safe Harbor

They are safe harbors.

The law does not apply to any company that is doing less than $25 million in sales each year. However, this number is a total number for all subsidiaries and parent companies. You may not be selling $25 million in the US, but your parent company based in Italy combined with yours might throw you out of the safe harbor.

Businesses that have no Safe Harbor.

(1)    Any business that buys, sells or shares the personal information of 50,000 or more consumers per year. Buying a mailing list with 50,001 names if you are only doing $1 million in business will throw you out of the safe harbor.

(2) Any business derives 50 percent or more of its annual revenue from selling consumers’ personal information.

Enforcement

The law is enforced by the CA attorney general and enforcement does not start until 7/1/2020 However, it can be backwards looking going back to 1/1/2020. You will have some breathing room to make decisions and to test how things work and respond with this grace period; however, you need to be diligent and get working on these issues.

Right now, it is expected that the California Attorney General does not have the resources to tackle more than 3 or 4 of these cases at a time. If you like playing the lottery, you can rely on this, however, I’m sure the California legislators who passed the law will insist in greater enforcement. Consequently, if you want to gamble, go to Vegas.

Damages

Besides the statutory fines that can be imposed by the California Attorney General, the law also allows consumers who have been affected to sue.

The CCPA provides a winning plaintiff seeking statutory damages recover a minimum of $100, and a maximum of $750 per violation.

The law also removed the requirement that an consumer prove actual damages, which was required to prove damages in a breach of security before the enactment of CCPA. The only thing the California Consumer must prove is that their data was accessed in a breach.

Immediate Priorities

There are specific priorities you should put into place immediately.

1.    Place the footnote at the bottom of your webpages that states the consumer can opt out of the collection of information. For the time being, I suggest the footer be linked to an email or from where the consumer provides the necessary information for you to identify the consumer and not collect any information.

a.    You might even create an automatic response to confirm the consumer have opted out.

2.    If your company is smaller than $25 million in sales prepare a response to all inquiries about your CCPA data collection practices that can be emailed to any inquiry. You do not have to prove the point, just state that you are not subject to the CCPA because you do not meet the minimum sales.

3.    Start identifying the information you collect and modify your terms of service to indicate that. This is required by several states and the EU now so you need to comply as much as possible.

Insurance

You may want to look into purchasing breach insurance? Alternatively, insurance to cover violations of this law until you get things under control and understand how the law is going to be interpreted and applied. If that is an option, you can purchase it anytime in the next six months and be covered or when you think you are going to hit $25 M in sales.

Other States

Ohio passed the Ohio Data Protection Act in 2018, and New York passed the NY CRR Section 500.03 in 2017. Other states are looking at similar laws. If you want to be kept appraised on the changes in these laws let me know.

If you have any questions, please contact me.

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.

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A season pass release for a Pennsylvania ski are was limited to the inherent risks of skiing. Consequently, the plaintiff was able to argue his injury was not due to an inherent risk.

The defendant one because the court was able to interpret the risk as one that was inherent in skiing. The defendant also, laid out the risks of skiing quite broadly in its information to the plaintiff.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

State: Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Adams County, Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for failing to properly maintain its ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning an icy area

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding:

Year: 2006

Summary

Plaintiff was injured when he skied over an icy spot and fell at the defendant’s ski area. However, this case was quickly dismissed because he had signed a release and the risk of ice at a ski area was an inherent risk of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

Facts

The plaintiff purchased a season pass to ski at the defendant’s ski area. He purchased his season pass on-line and signed a release at that time, online. When he went to pick up his season pass, he signed another written release. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.)

While skiing one day the plaintiff fell on an icy section. He claimed he was unaware of the ice. He severely injured is face, back, ribs and left hand. He sued the defendants for his injuries.

The defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is an argument that the pleadings do not make a legal case to continue the litigation.

A motion for judgment on the pleadings is in the nature of a demurrer as it provides the means to test the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. All of the [P]laintiffs’ allegations must be taken as true for the purposes of judgment on the pleadings. Unlike a motion for summary judgment, the power of the court to enter a judgment on the pleadings is limited by the requirement that the court consider only the pleadings themselves and any documents properly attached thereto. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only where the pleadings demonstrate that no genuine issue of fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court looked at Pennsylvania law. Like most states in Pennsylvania “exculpatory agreements, or releases, are valid provided, they comply with the safeguards enunciated by our Superior Court.”

Under Pennsylvania law, a release to be valid must:

The contract must not contravene any policy of the law. It must be a contract between individuals relating to their private affairs. Each party must be a free bargaining agent, not simply one drawn into an adhesion contract, with no recourse but to reject the entire transaction…[T]o be enforceable, several additional standards must be met. First, we must construe the agreement strictly and against the party asserting it. Finally, the agreement must spell out the intent of the parties with the utmost particularity.

The court then went through the facts in this case to see if the requirements under the law were met.

The plaintiff was not forced to sign the release but did so freely. The release was signed based on a personal choice of the plaintiff to ski at the defendant’s facilities. “Clearly, this activity is not essential to Cahill’s personal or economic well-being but, rather, was a purely recreational activity.”

The release does not violate public policy because the agreement was private in nature and “in no way affect the rights of the public.”

The court found the release was unambiguous. The release spelled out the intent of the parties and gave notice to the plaintiff of what he was signing.

The releases executed by Cahill are unambiguous in both their language and intent. The language spells out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise patrons of the contents and purpose of the document as both a notice of risk and a release of liability. The waiver uses plain language informing the skier that downhill skiing is a dangerous sport with inherent risks including ice and icy conditions as well as other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, the condition of which vary constantly due to weather changes and use. Importantly, after advising a patron of these dangers, the documents unequivocally, in both bold and capital letters, releases Ski Liberty from liability for any injuries suffered while using the ski facilities regardless of any negligence on the part of Ski Liberty, its employees, or agents. The application of the releases to use of Ski Liberty facilities is not only spelled out specifically in the document but is reinforced by other references to the releases throughout the body of the document.

The plaintiff had ample opportunity to read and review the release before paying for it. The court found the release was clear and spelled out in detail in plain language the intent of the parties.

The plaintiff argued the icy condition was a hazardous condition created by the defendant and is not an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. Because the condition was hazardous, the plaintiff argued you could not assume the risk of the icy area, and the release should be void.

The court found that icy conditions were an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

Cahill is an experienced skier who obviously has personal knowledge of the inherent dangers involved in the sport. His experience undoubtedly has taught him that the sport of skiing is not conducted in the pristine and controlled atmosphere of a laboratory but rather occurs in the often hostile and fickle atmosphere of a south central Pennsylvania winter. Those familiar with skiing, such as Cahill, are aware that nature’s snow is regularly supplemented with a man made variety utilizing water and a complex system of sprayers, hydrants, and pipes. Human experience also teaches us that water equipment frequently leaves puddles which, in freezing temperatures, will rapidly turn to ice. The risks caused by this variety of ever-changing factors are not only inherent in downhill skiing but, perhaps, are the very nature of the sport. The self-apparent risks were accepted by Cahill when he voluntarily entered into a business relationship with Ski Liberty. He chose to purchase a ski ticket in exchange for the opportunity to experience the thrill of downhill skiing. In doing so, he voluntarily assumed the risks that not only accompany the sport but may very well add to its attractiveness.

The court upheld the release and granted the defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings. This effectively ended the lawsuit.

So Now What?

It is rare that a Judgment on the Pleadings works, normally; the plaintiff can make an argument that the court finds requires more investigation, so the case can continue.

Here though, the release was well-written and the plaintiff’s argument was thrown out as a risk covered in the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

In this case, the plaintiff was dealt a double blow, with only one being necessary for the defendant to win. He signed a valid release and the risk he undertook was an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Safe, NOTHING is safe, when you advertise telling those who come to your website that your business, activity, or land is safe, you will be writing checks for anything pain, blood, illness or injury that can occur.

Website for park stated it was a safe place for visitors. Plaintiff went to the park because of that statement and when she fell on a rock protruding above the boardwalk, she sued. Is a rock sticking through a boardwalk a risk, normal or at least “not safe.”

The plaintiff was able to claim negligent misrepresentation because the park represented itself as safe. Safe is a Bad work.

Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association, 2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

State: New Hampshire: United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Misha Kendall

Defendant: The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence, Gross Negligence and Negligent Misrepresentation

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

The website promoting the private park stated the park was safe. The plaintiff went, paid her fee and got hurt. Therefore, the park was not safe. The plaintiff was able to argue the statements made on the website about safety were negligent misrepresentation; Negligent statements made to induce the plaintiff to come to the park.

The second issue was a gap between a recently passed statute and decisions of the New Hampshire Supreme Court which effectively nullified the two immunity statutes by the legislature to protect the park.

Facts

There is always an issue of “when.” When did the plaintiff actually learn or see, but in this case, the court stated the following facts.

The land is owned by a nonprofit corporation, and is operated by a third party.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (the “Society”) is a nonprofit corporation which owns the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves (“Lost River”). White Mountain Attractions Association (“White Mountain”) operates Lost River. White Mountain manages Lost River’s website, and the Society contributes to and approves the website’s content.

The land is protected from lawsuits by a specific statute that was enacted in 1917.

Section 1. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, being a corporation organized under the laws of this state for the purpose of encouraging the protection and preservation of forests and other natural resources of this state for the public benefit, and having in pursuance of its corporate purposes acquired several properties, including those known as Sunapee, Monadnock and Lost River’s reservations, which it has made accessible for use by the public by the building of paths, trails, bridges, and other structures, is hereby exempted from all civil liability in any suit or action by or on behalf of any person injured or claiming to have been injured through the negligent act or omission of said society or of any officer, agent, or employee thereof in constructing or maintaining such paths, trails, bridges, or other structures upon any property now held or hereafter acquired by it for such purposes.

So, the relationship with the state is, it is not a state park, but it is protected like one to a major extent.

The plaintiff alleges that was looking for an outdoor activity that would be safe for herself and her two six-year-old children. She went to the website of for the park to look for a “safe way” to view rock formations.

She took herself and her two children to the park, paid the entrance fee and proceeded to a boardwalk. The boardwalk was four feet wide and crowded. The boardwalk turned sharply after a bridge on the say to the Sun Altar cave. The plaintiff’s view was blocked after the turn because of the crowd, a sign and a large tree.

Just after the turn a boulder protruded up through the boardwalk about a foot.

Just after the turn, a large boulder extended through the middle of the boardwalk to a height of about a foot. The boardwalk was constructed around this boulder. There were no signs to warn of the boulder in the boardwalk. Kendall did not see the boulder in her path, tripped over it, and fell, shattering her elbow. Her digital camera was destroyed, and her clothing had to be cut off of her at the hospital. She has permanent damage to her elbow that has resulted in disability.

The plaintiff sued for her injuries.

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

The defendant raised four defenses to the gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation claims of the plaintiff.

Defendants contend that Kendall’s claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation are futile for the following reasons: (a) defendants are immune from liability for both claims under the 1917 Law; (b) no claim for gross negligence exists under New Hampshire law; (c) the statement about the boardwalks being safe is not a misrepresentation of fact but merely an opinion; and (d) Kendall does not allege damages that can be recovered for negligent misrepresentation.

The court first started with the immunity statutes. Besides the specific immunity statute enacted in 1917, there was a more recent statute, RSA 508.14, II.

508:14. Landowner Liability Limited.

II. Any individual, corporation, or other nonprofit legal entity, or any individual who performs services for a nonprofit entity, that constructs, maintains, or improves trails for public recreational use shall not be liable for personal injury or property damage in the absence of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

Emphasize added

What never enters the discussion is the fact the plaintiff paid to be on the land, so the recreational use statute, RSA 508.14 should not apply.

The court first decided if the new statute canceled out the old statute and made the termination that it did not. It then examined both statutes stating that the statutes should be strictly construed and viewed as being consistent with each other. Reading the first statute that one, the court found the first statute stopped claims for negligence, but not gross negligence.

The issue though is the New Hampshire Supreme court ruled that New Hampshire does not recognize gross negligence. There is only one form of negligence in New Hampshire, simple negligence.

However, because the statute in question stated that the defendant could be liable for gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, the court held the legislature wanted the plaintiff to be able to sue for gross negligence.

Therefore, the plaintiff’s allegations of gross negligence were outside of the immunity afforded by both statutes.

Gross negligence was defined by the court as:

…”very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care” and willful misconduct has been interpreted as intentional conduct or recklessness that “carries a great chance of causing harm to another.”

Based on that definition the court was able to find the boulder built in the middle of the boardwalk was gross negligence.

…Kendall alleges that defendants built the boardwalk around an obstruction, a boulder that protrudes into the boardwalk approximately one foot higher than the boardwalk. She also alleges that the boulder is in a dangerous location, just around a turn, and is obscured by a sign, a tree, and crowds of people using the boardwalk. She alleges that defendants placed no warnings about the boulder for the tourists to see before walking on the boardwalk. The proposed amended complaint alleges that the obstructed boardwalk constitutes an obvious danger, and that defendants acted with gross negligence in failing to remove or warn of the boulder.

The court tackled the negligent misrepresentation claim next. Negligent misrepresentation is “a negligent misrepresentation of a material fact by the defendant and justifiable reliance by the plaintiff.” The website stated the place was safe and the plaintiff, in her opinion, found it wasn’t.

The court was not sold on the plaintiff’s allegations, however.

At this early stage, the court cannot determine whether defendants’ alleged statement that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations is an actionable misrepresentation.

Whether the statement on the website was actionable would be based upon several factors: whether or not it was puffing, slight exaggerations to close the sale that everyone knows are not true, the specificity of the statement, the knowledge of the person making the statement and the knowledge of both parties in relation to each other.

The plaintiff argued “that on their website, defendants represented that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations despite obvious dangers.”

The allegations made by the plaintiff were enough for the court not to dismiss them.

Consequently, the plaintiff will be allowed to amend her complaint to add additional claims, which would make the defendants motion to dismiss the original complaint moot.

So Now What?

Marketing makes promises that Risk Management has to Pay For. The marketing promised a safe place to recreate, and the plaintiff received in an injury there; therefore, the place was not safe.

Combine the statements made on the website with the gap between decisions of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and recent statutes in New Hampshire and the plaintiff was effective in keeping her claim alive.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association, 2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association, 2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

Misha Kendall v. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. d/b/a White Mountain Attractions Association

Civil No. 16-cv-428-LM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE

2017 DNH 126; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95362

June 21, 2017, Decided

June 21, 2017, Filed

CORE TERMS: gross negligence, boardwalk, negligent misrepresentation, immunity, river, boulder, leave to amend, futile, willful, citation omitted, immunity statutes, misrepresentation, nonprofit, website, bridge, repeal, trails, safe, common law right, misrepresentation claim, misconduct, construe, forest, entity, wanton, amend, path, internal quotation marks, formations, futility

COUNSEL: [*1] For Misha Kendall, Plaintiff: Benjamin T. King, LEAD ATTORNEY, Megan E. Douglass, Douglas Leonard & Garvey PC, Concord, NH.

For The Society for the Protection of NH Forests, White Mountains Attractions Association, Defendants: Robert E. Murphy, Jr., Wadleigh Starr & Peters PLLC, Manchester, NH.

JUDGES: Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Landya McCafferty

OPINION

ORDER

Misha Kendall brings suit against The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and White Mountain Recreation Association, Inc. alleging claims for negligence and gross negligence arising from her injuries and property damage sustained when she fell on a boardwalk at Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves in Woodstock, New Hampshire. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint (doc. no. 13).

In response, Kendall objects and moves for leave to amend her complaint (doc. no. 20) to add factual allegations, remove her claim for negligence, and add a claim for negligent misrepresentation based on defendants’ statement on their website. Defendants object to the motion to amend.

The court first addresses Kendall’s motion for leave to amend her complaint, and then turns to defendants’ motion to dismiss.

I. Motion to Amend

In her proposed [*2] amended complaint, Kendall alleges claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation. Defendants argue that the proposed amendment would be futile because they are immune from liability for both claims under 1917 New Hampshire Laws Chapter 19, § 1 (“1917 Law”) and because the proposed amended complaint fails to state a plausible claim for relief. Defendants also argue that the motion to amend is untimely.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2), the court will grant leave to amend a complaint “when justice so requires.” Despite the broad standard, a “court may deny leave to amend for a variety of reasons, including futility, bad faith, undue delay, or a dilatory motive on the movant’s part.” In re Curran, 855 F.3d 19, 27-28 (1st Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A. Timeliness

Defendants argue that Kendall’s motion should be denied because of undue delay, based on the time between when Kendall filed the original complaint and when she filed the motion for leave to amend.

Kendall brought suit as a pro se party, filing her complaint in state court on August 8, 2016. After defendants removed the case to this court, counsel entered an appearance on Kendall’s behalf on November 4, 2016. On December 7, 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss. [*3] Counsel responded to defendants’ motion to dismiss and then moved to amend on January 19, 2017. As such, the timing does not show undue delay, and defendants have not shown unfair prejudice that would result from allowing the amended complaint.

B. Futility

In the proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation.1 Defendants contend that the proposed claims are futile.

1 Kendall also substitutes White Mountains Recreation Association, Inc. as the correct legal name for White Mountains Attraction Association.

1. Standard of Review

In assessing, before discovery, whether the claims in a proposed amended complaint are futile, the court uses the same standard that applies to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Curran, 855 F.3d at 28; Adorno v. Crowley Towing & Transp. Co., 443 F.3d 122, 126 (1st Cir. 2006). The court takes the factual allegations in the proposed amended complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Morgan v. Town of Lexington, 823 F.3d 737, 742 (1st Cir. 2016). Then, based on that view of the proposed amended complaint, the court determines whether the plaintiff has stated a plausible claim for relief. Curran, 855 F.3d at 28.

2. Background

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (the “Society”) is a nonprofit corporation which owns the Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves (“Lost River”). White Mountain Attractions Association (“White Mountain”) operates Lost River. White Mountain manages Lost River’s [*4] website, and the Society contributes to and approves the website’s content.

In her proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges that she was looking for an outdoor activity that would be safe for her and her two six-year-old children. Kendall read about Lost River on its website and noted the descriptions and information provided. In particular, Kendall read that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided “a ‘safe way’ to view rock formations.” Doc. no. 20-1 at ¶ 9.

On August 8, 2013, Kendall decided to go to Lost River with her children. She was an experienced hiker and dressed accordingly. When she and her children arrived, she paid the entrance fee, and they entered Lost River.

After walking down a sandy path through the forest, Kendall and the children came to a boardwalk and a bridge over a river. The boardwalk was crowded and no more than four feet wide. The boardwalk turned sharply after the bridge on the way to the “Sun Altar” cave. Because of the turn, the crowd, a sign giving information about the cave, and a large tree, Kendall could not see ahead on the boardwalk after the bridge.

Just after the turn, a large boulder extended through the middle of the boardwalk to a height [*5] of about a foot. The boardwalk was constructed around this boulder. There were no signs to warn of the boulder in the boardwalk. Kendall did not see the boulder in her path, tripped over it, and fell, shattering her elbow. Her digital camera was destroyed, and her clothing had to be cut off of her at the hospital. She has permanent damage to her elbow that has resulted in disability.

3. Discussion

Defendants contend that Kendall’s claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation are futile for the following reasons: (a) defendants are immune from liability for both claims under the 1917 Law; (b) no claim for gross negligence exists under New Hampshire law; (c) the statement about the boardwalks being safe is not a misrepresentation of fact but merely an opinion; and (d) Kendall does not allege damages that can be recovered for negligent misrepresentation. Kendall responded to the futility arguments in her reply.

a. Immunity

There are two immunity statutes at issue in this case, and the parties dispute which one applies to the claims in Kendall’s proposed amended complaint.

In 1917, the New Hampshire legislature provided the Society with immunity from liability for any negligence [*6] in constructing or maintaining paths, trails, and bridges. The 1917 Law states:

Section 1. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, being a corporation organized under the laws of this state for the purpose of encouraging the protection and preservation of forests and other natural resources of this state for the public benefit, and having in pursuance of its corporate purposes acquired several properties, including those known as Sunapee, Monadnock and Lost River reservations, which it has made accessible for use by the public by the building of paths, trails, bridges, and other structures, is hereby exempted from all civil liability in any suit or action by or on behalf of any person injured or claiming to have been injured through the negligent act or omission of said society or of any officer, agent, or employee thereof in constructing or maintaining such paths, trails, bridges, or other structures upon any property now held or hereafter acquired by it for such purposes.

(emphasis added).

A more recent statute, RSA 508:14, II, provides immunity to any nonprofit entity, such as the Society, “that constructs, maintains, or improves trails for public recreational use,” from liability “for [*7] personal injury or property damage.” This more recent immunity statute, however, provides an exception for “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.” RSA 508:14, II states:

Any individual, corporation, or other nonprofit legal entity, or any individual who performs services for a nonprofit entity, that constructs, maintains, or improves trails for public recreational use shall not be liable for personal injury or property damage in the absence of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.

(emphasis added).

Defendants contend that Kendall’s claims are futile because the 1917 Law gives them immunity from any claim involving negligence, which they contend includes claims for gross negligence and negligent misrepresentation. Defendants argue that because the 1917 Law is more specific, as it applies directly to the Society rather than to all nonprofit entities, it controls over the more general immunity provision in RSA 508:14, II. Not surprisingly, Kendall argues that RSA 508:14, II, and not the 1917 Law, applies to the claims in her proposed amended complaint. Because RSA 508:14, II provides an exception for claims based on allegations of gross negligence, such as the claims she alleges in her proposed amended [*8] complaint, Kendall asserts that defendants are not entitled to immunity.

At first glance, one might conclude that in enacting RSA 508:14, II, the New Hampshire legislature repealed the 1917 Law by implication. That is, the more recent immunity statute applies to a far broader spectrum of landowners, which would include the Society. The doctrine of “repeal by implication” is generally disfavored, however, especially where, as here, the more recent statute contains no expression of a legislative intent to repeal the 1917 Law. See generally Branch v. Smith, 538 U.S. 254, 273, 123 S. Ct. 1429, 155 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2003) (holding that “repeals by implication are not favored” unless there is “a clearly expressed congressional intention” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)); Diaz-Ramos v. Hyundai Motor Co., 501 F.3d 12, 16-17 (1st Cir. 2007) (“A general law does not repeal a special law unless such repeal is expressly stated or clearly arises from the legislative intent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Moreover, a court should avoid applying the disfavored “repeal by implication” doctrine where it is possible to read two laws as consistent with one another. Indeed, the New Hampshire Supreme Court directs that where “reasonably possible, statutes should be construed as consistent with each other.” EnergyNorth Nat. Gas, Inc. v. City of Concord, 164 N.H. 14, 16, 48 A.3d 960 (2012) (quoting In re Union Tel. Co., 160 N.H. 309, 319, 999 A.2d 336 (2010)) (internal [*9] quotation marks omitted). Therefore, if possible, the court should construe the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II “so that they do not contradict each other, and so that they will lead to reasonable results and effectuate the legislative purpose of the statutes.” Soraghan v. Mt. Cranmore Ski Resort, Inc., 152 N.H. 399, 405, 881 A.2d 693 (2005) (internal citation omitted).

Another rule of statutory construction at play here calls for the court to narrowly construe immunity statutes. See, e.g., Estate of Gordon-Couture v. Brown, 152 N.H. 265, 267, 876 A.2d 196 (2005). Specifically, the rule requires the court to give a narrow construction to the term “negligent” in the 1917 Law because the Law restricts the common law right to recover for injuries caused by another’s negligence. Id. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court explained, a court must:

strictly interpret statutes that are in derogation of the common law. While a statute may abolish a common law right, there is a presumption that the legislature has no such purpose. If such a right is to be taken away, it must be expressed clearly by the legislature. Accordingly, immunity provisions barring the common law right to recover are strictly construed.

Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007) (internal citations omitted); see also Dolbeare v. City of Laconia, 168 N.H. 52, 54, 120 A.3d 146 (2015) (immunity statutes “in derogation of the common law right to recover, are strictly construed”).

In short, there are [*10] two rules of statutory construction that govern this dispute: courts should strictly construe immunity statutes and, where reasonably possible, courts should construe statutes as consistent with one another. Applying these principles, the court narrowly interprets the 1917 Law’s use of the term “negligent” to exclude gross negligence and wanton or willful conduct. Such a construction renders the scope of the immunity provided in 1917 Law consistent with the scope of immunity provided in RSA 508:14, II.

Defendants contend that New Hampshire law does not recognize a cause of action for gross negligence and, therefore, the term “negligent” in the 1917 Law necessarily includes gross negligence. In support of that assertion, they rely on Barnes v. N.H. Karting Ass’n, Inc., 128 N.H. 102, 509 A.2d 151 (1986), and the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s statement that “New Hampshire law does not distinguish causes of action based on ordinary and gross negligence.” Id. at 108.

By way of RSA 508:14, II, however, the New Hampshire legislature has included just such a distinction. In the context of nonprofit entities that maintain public trails for recreational use, the legislature has defined the scope of immunity by distinguishing between derivative degrees of negligence. Although the 1917 Law predates [*11] RSA 508:14, II, the court is not inclined to ignore the legislature’s unmistakably clear language exempting gross negligence from the scope of immunity in its more recent statute. Cf. Lee v. Chamberlain, 84 N.H. 182, 188, 148 A. 466 (1929) (“[W]here such doctrine is made the basis of a legislative rule, enforceable here, it cannot be treated as meaningless.”). Thus, the court finds that in the specific context at issue here, New Hampshire law does distinguish between ordinary and gross negligence.

For the reasons explained above, the court can–and therefore must–reasonably construe the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II as consistent with one another. As a practical matter, such a construction means that while both statutes provide immunity to defendants for claims based on allegations of negligence, neither provides immunity for claims based on allegations of gross negligence. The court therefore concludes that defendants are not entitled to immunity from Kendall’s claims to the extent they are based on allegations of gross negligence.

b. Merits of the Claims

Defendants contend that even if they are not immune from claims based on allegations of gross negligence or wanton or willful misconduct, the proposed amended complaint does not contain allegations that rise to that [*12] level. They also assert that the proposed amended complaint does not adequately allege a claim for negligent misrepresentation.

i. Gross Negligence

Gross negligence has been interpreted to mean “very great negligence, or the absence of slight diligence, or the want of even scant care” and willful misconduct has been interpreted as intentional conduct or recklessness that “carries a great chance of causing harm to another.” Beane v. Beane, 856 F. Supp. 2d 280, 307 (D.N.H. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Colston v. Boston & Me. R.R., 78 N.H. 284, 99 A. 649, 649 (1916) (noting “gross” in gross negligence means great and “willful” means with conscious knowledge).

In the proposed amended complaint, Kendall alleges that defendants built the boardwalk around an obstruction, a boulder that protrudes into the boardwalk approximately one foot higher than the boardwalk. She also alleges that the boulder is in a dangerous location, just around a turn, and is obscured by a sign, a tree, and crowds of people using the boardwalk. She alleges that defendants placed no warnings about the boulder for the tourists to see before walking on the boardwalk. The proposed amended complaint alleges that the obstructed boardwalk constitutes an obvious danger, and that defendants acted with gross [*13] negligence in failing to remove or warn of the boulder.

Drawing all reasonable inferences in Kendall’s favor, the proposed amended complaint sufficiently alleges gross negligence. Accordingly, the doctrine of futility does not bar Kendall’s request for leave to amend her complaint to allege a claim based on gross negligence.

ii. Negligent Misrepresentation

Defendants also contend that the proposed amended complaint does not adequately allege a claim for negligent misrepresentation. Kendall’s negligent misrepresentation claim is based on defendants’ statement on their website that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations.

To state a claim for negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must allege facts that show “a negligent misrepresentation of a material fact by the defendant and justifiable reliance by the plaintiff.” Wyle v. Lees, 162 N.H. 406, 413, 33 A.3d 1187 (2011). Defendants contend that the alleged misrepresentation identified in the proposed amended complaint is merely an opinion, not a statement of fact, and, therefore, cannot be the basis of a negligent misrepresentation claim.

Although statements of opinion do not generally provide a proper basis for a claim for misrepresentation, [*14] under “certain circumstances, an opinion may constitute the basis of fraud or misrepresentation.” DePalantino v. DePalantino, 139 N.H. 522, 524, 658 A.2d 1207 (1995) (citing cases); see also Isaacs v. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Med. Ctr., No. 12-cv-040-LM, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54183, 2014 WL 1572559, at *16 (D.N.H. Apr. 18, 2014). At this early stage, the court cannot determine whether defendants’ alleged statement that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations is an actionable misrepresentation. See, e.g., Morris v. Princess Cruises, Inc., 236 F.3d 1061, 1067 (9th Cir. 2001) (“Whether a statement is an actionable statement of ‘fact’ or mere ‘puffing’ depends upon a number of factors, including the statement’s specificity, the speaker’s knowledge, the comparative levels of the speaker’s and the hearer’s knowledge, and whether the statement relates to the present or the future.”).2

2 Defendants also assert that the negligent misrepresentation claim is not based on allegations of gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct and, therefore, they are immune from liability under both the 1917 Law and RSA 508:14, II. Viewed generously, however, the proposed amended complaint alleges that on their website, defendants represented that there were boardwalks at Lost River that provided a “safe way” to view rock formations despite obvious dangers. Whether defendants made the alleged misrepresentation with gross negligence requires factual development and cannot be determined at this stage of the litigation.

Defendants also contend that Kendall has not alleged damages that may be recovered for negligent misrepresentation. A plaintiff is entitled to her economic losses caused by a defendant’s negligent misrepresentation but is not entitled to damages for emotional distress. Crowley v. Global Realty, Inc., 124 N.H. 814, 817-18, 474 A.2d 1056 (1984).

Kendall makes no demand for damages in her proposed amended complaint that is specific to her negligent misrepresentation claim. Instead, at the conclusion of the proposed amended complaint, Kendall requests damages [*15] for medical expenses, lost wages and employment benefits, destroyed property, emotional distress and inconvenience, and loss of the enjoyment of life. Although she cannot recover for emotional distress and loss of the enjoyment of life under her claim for negligent misrepresentation, Kendall alleges other damages that are recoverable. Therefore, Kendall’s proposed negligent misrepresentation claim is not futile.

C. Result

The circumstances support allowing Kendall to amend her complaint. Defendants have not shown, at this stage of the case, that Kendall’s claims would be futile. Therefore, Kendall is granted leave to file her amended complaint.

II. Motion to Dismiss

Defendants moved to dismiss Kendall’s original complaint. When the amended complaint is filed, it will supersede the original complaint, making the motion to dismiss moot. Brait Builders Corp. v. Mass. Div. of Capital Asset Mgmt., 644 F.3d 5, 9 (1st Cir. 2011). For that reason, the motion to dismiss is denied as moot.

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend (doc. no. 20) is granted. Plaintiff shall file the proposed amended complaint attached to document no. 20 as the amended complaint on or before June 23, 2017. Defendants’ motion to dismiss (doc. no. 13) is denied as moot.

[*16] SO ORDERED.

/s/ Landya McCafferty

Landya McCafferty

United States District Judge

June 21, 2017