Tennessee still has not caught up, and assumption of the risk is not a defense to sport or recreational activities.Posted: December 2, 2019
There is no assumption of the risk defense in Tennessee. Consequently, cyclists in a paceline who crash can be liable to each other for the crash.
State: Tennessee, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville
Plaintiff: Carolyn Crisp
Defendant: Michael Nelms, et Al.
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: inherent risk
Holding: for the plaintiff
Cyclists in a paceline could be liable for a fatality of one of the riders because Tennessee has no assumption of the risk as a defense. Paceline riding is inherently dangerous; however, court chose to ignore that issue. Recreation in Tennessee is risky for sports & recreation participants.
A paceline is a group of riders cycling right behind the first ride, single file in a row. Cyclists do this because it increases the speed of the entire group and saves everyone’s energy. The rider in front is expanding 10% or more, less energy and the riders behind can expand up to 30% less energy. Pacelines are what you see in large cycling races like the Tour de France.
On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3] and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.
The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms’ front tire struck Long’s back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that “another rider hit” Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.
Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: “I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand.” On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.
In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedent’s widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4] June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
What a crock.
I’ve written extensively about most states bringing back the assumption of the risk defense for sports and recreational activities. Without players being protected from the risks of the sport, the sport or activity will have no enthusiasm and very little value. Tennessee has not adopted that doctrine. Tennessee states that assumption of the risk is a factor used to help determine the damages. Meaning when the jury determines if there was any negligence and then determine damages, the damages can be reduced by how much of the risk the plaintiff assumed.
Assumption of the risk is a complete bar to litigation in the vast majority of states. Not in Tennessee.
Tennessee still prevents litigation over inherently risky activities. However, this court in its zeal to allow the plaintiff to win, totally ignore the fact that riding in a paceline is an inherently dangerous activity.
Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedent’s age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.
By ignored, I mean the court bent over backwards to find a way to allow this case to proceed by simply ignoring the law concerning inherently dangerous activities. The court moved from inherently dangerous to finding a duty. No duty is owed in an inherently dangerous activity.
INHERENTLY DANGEROUS: An activity is inherently dangerous if there is (a) an existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person; (2)likelihood that any harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of commons usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes. (Restatement, Torts 2d § 519(1))
If assumption of the risk is not a defense, and if you ignore the issue of whether the risk is inherently dangerous. Consequently, you are back to simple negligence and the duties that each person owes another.
Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others.
The court even acknowledged why assumption of the risk is a doctrine that should be adopted in sporting and recreation situations.
The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition.
However, Tennessee does not believe it.
We do not share these court’s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person’s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.
If there is a duty of reasonable care, you can then proceed to prove negligence. Negligence in Tennessee is defined as a five-step process.
To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation.
From there it was easy to fabricate the idea that paceline riders owed each other a duty of reasonableness.
Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.
Think about the absurdity of the above statement. A group of cyclists in a paceline has the right of way. A large truck pulls out in front of the first rider. Based on the analysis of the facts by the court, the first rider is now supposed to hit or get hit by the truck. He or she cannot apply their brakes.
The Tennessee Appellate court sent the case back for trial.
So Now What?
Honestly, this is a scary case. Because Tennessee’s law is antiquated, any participant in any outdoor recreation activity or sporting event could be sued for any injury they receive during the event. Insurance costs in Tennessee will continue to rise because it will be cheaper to settle these cases then to try to win at trial.
And the court’s refusal to look at the inherent risks of cycling in a paceline was a plaintiff’s dream. Even professional’s crash in pacelines. Amateurs are always going to be at risk and there is nothing you can do about the risks. Don’t ride in a paceline, and you don’t get the benefits that a paceline provides.
If you engage in any event in Tennessee, you can walk away a defendant. Stay away from Tennessee if you are recreating.
Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. App. LEXIS 160; 2018 WL 1545852
Court of Appeals of Tennessee, At Knoxville
January 16, 2018, Session; March 28, 2018, Filed
CAROLYN CRISP v. MICHAEL NELMS, ET AL.
Subsequent History: Request granted Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 401 (Tenn., Aug. 8, 2018)
Later proceeding at Crisp v. Nelms, 2018 Tenn. LEXIS 503 (Tenn., Aug. 9, 2018)
Prior History: Tenn. R. App. P. 3 [*1]
Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded. Appeal from the Circuit Court for Blount County. No. L-18929. Rex H. Ogle, Judge.
P. Alexander Vogel, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Michael Nelms. Rick L. Powers and William A. Ladnier, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, George Long.
This appeal arises from a lawsuit over a fatal cycling accident. Carolyn Crisp (“Plaintiff“), surviving spouse of William Andrew Crisp (“Decedent“), sued Michael Nelms (“Nelms“) and George Long (“Long“) (“Defendants,“ collectively) in the Circuit Court for Blount County (“the Trial Court“) for negligence. Decedent and four others, including Nelms and Long, were riding as part of a “paceline“ group when a crash occurred. Nelms asserted comparative fault, stating that Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line. Long denied he slowed down suddenly. Defendants [*2]
filed motions for summary judgment. The Trial Court held, among other things, that paceline cycling inherently is dangerous and that Decedent was at least 50% at fault for his accident. Plaintiff appealed to this Court. We hold, inter alia, that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Long slowed down suddenly at the head of the line and whether a reasonable jury could find Decedent less than 50% at fault in his accident. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court and remand for the case to proceed.
On February 25, 2014, five people embarked on a cycling expedition along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend, Tennessee. The group was riding in a paceline, an activity wherein cyclists ride in a line one after the other in close quarters. This action serves to increase the efficiency of the ride as the riders draft off one another to counteract the wind resistance. At the front of the line was Long. Behind Long was Nelms. Richard Cox was third. Decedent was fourth, and Stacy Napier was at the back of the line. This was not a group of novices. Rather, these were seasoned cyclists riding expensive bicycles. Long and Decedent, friends since childhood [*3]
and regular cycling companions, were in their 70s.
The cyclists left Cycology, a bicycle shop on U.S. highway 321 in Blount County, at 10:30 a.m. The riders were traveling at a speed of about 22 miles per hour. Around noon, the incident occurred. Nelms‘ front tire struck Long‘s back tire. Nelms wrecked and fell to the pavement. Cox, third in line, swerved and avoided Nelms. Decedent, fourth, steered right but wound up flying off his bicycle and landing on his head. Hospital records reflect that “another rider hit“ Nelms. Nelms denies that Decedent hit him, asserting instead that Decedent sharply applied his breaks and thereby caused his own misfortune.
Decedent was rendered quadriplegic by the wreck. Decedent dictated a note to Nelms, stating in part: “I think it is important for you to know that I place no blame on you for the accident . . . it was just one of those things that you cannot understand.“ On August 22, 2014, Decedent died.
In February 2015, Plaintiff, Decedent‘s widow, sued Nelms in the Trial Court. In April 2015, Nelms filed an answer denying liability. Nelms raised the defense of comparative fault and stated that Long may have been negligent in causing the incident. In [*4]
June 2015, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, this time including Long as a defendant. In August 2015, Long filed an answer acknowledging that Nelms struck his bicycle but denying that he slowed down. Long raised the defense of comparative fault with respect to Nelms and Decedent. Discovery ensued.
Q. All right. The last sentence here, “The collision with Mr. Nelms‘ bike and the wheel of Mr. Long‘s“
– strike that. “The collision with Mr. Nelms‘ bike and with the wheel of Mr. Long‘s bike shows that these duties were breached by Mr. Nelms.“ That is an opinion you will be giving?
A. You have to define “suddenly“ because this is really a control systems problem. The reality is there is a variation in speed of all the cyclists out there, even the one in front. Now, it may be so subtle and so small that you may not perceive it. The fact is that the rider out in front has the duty to maintain a constant pace as possible, and then all the riders following [*5]
have to respond to any variation in input. Now, if for reason the rider out in front had an emergency braking where the following riders would not respond in time, then you are going to have a crash. In this case, I don‘t see anything in the evidence to support Mr. Long slowing down in a sudden manner to the point where Mr. Nelms could not respond.
A. Correct. He said that he slowed down suddenly. But when you look at all the other evidence, even Mr. Nelms said that there was nothing in the roadway that he saw – I should backup and say that the only reason why the rider is going to slow down is for some external factors such as something in the roadway – I‘m talking about an emergency type of condition such as a deer runs out or a squirrel runs out, and that happens all the time. It happens to our group, but there‘s no evidence of anything like that happening. Mr. Long testified that he was going to go at a constant pace all the way to River Road, so there‘s no reason for him to slow down. The only other reason for him to slow down is he were going to pull off and switch positions, but there‘s no evidence of that.
Q. Well, while we are on that topic, and I will cover it again, but I don‘t see that you give any opinion in your affidavit or in this letter where you discuss the wind conditions. Are you sticking to that?
A. Well, it‘s not going to be a main point. It may be a sub opinion based on some of the main opinions I‘m talking about. If you asked me, was there a wind at the time, then I‘m going to talk to you about what the others said and what the climatology report says.
A. Well, I will say there‘s conflicting testimony in that regard because Ms. Napers doesn‘t remember any wind, and Mr. Nelms only suspects that there was a strong wind, so yes, Mr. Long did testify there was a wind. Now, when you look at the climatology records in that time frame, we are talking 8 to 10 miles an hour with the wind coming predominantly [*7]
out of the north, and it gives the wind direction, 330 degrees.
A. Mr. Nelms. I will refer you to the specific record. I‘m referring to the Care Today Clinic. It‘s for Michael Nelms. Let‘s see if there‘s a date on it. The date is 2/25/14. The time is 7:23. Under HPI, which is history of the patient, it says, “Riding bicycle approximately 22 miles an hour, wrecked, and another rider hit him.“ When you look at that evidence in the context of all of the other testimony of the other riders that avoided the pileup, logically, you can only conclude it was Mr. Crisp hitting Mr. Nelms. Then Stacy testified that Mr. Crisp hit Mr. Nelms‘ bike. Well, everything is happening so quick, [*8]
but both the bike and Nelms are on the ground, so bike versus Mr. Nelms, so I can see where there would be some confusion, and it may have been both.
Q. You said you were employed to determine causation. Can you tell us whether or not this accident would have happened but for Mr. Nelms hitting the bicycle in front of him and losing control and wrecking?
A. Well, I‘m not sure I can answer it the way you‘ve phrased it. If you‘re – – let me see if I understand your question and I‘ll try to answer it. Are you asking me if the accident to Mr. Crisp would have occurred if Mr. Nelms had not hit the bike ahead of him, or are you asking me what – are you asking me causation, I guess is my question to you, to answer your question?
Q. No. I‘m asking you this question, and however you interpret it. But my question is, would this accident have happened – not have happened but for the fact that Mr. Nelms hit the bicycle in front of him?
A. I‘m not – I‘m not sure. If you isolate it just to the series of events, I would say it wouldn‘t. But if you‘re looking at causation [*9]
in terms of the whole scenario, I‘m going to say that you basically had four gentlemen in their 70s, and I‘m 71, riding – riding bikes in a tight paceline on a very, very windy day where wind was coming from several different directions over time, and it really isn‘t an appropriate thing to do, in my opinion. I don‘t ride pacelines anymore, and I used to race as a pro. So – and I‘m very familiar with riding in that area. I just don‘t see – if you‘re going to ride in a paceline, even as a pro, in your 20s and 30s, eventually you‘re going to wreck riding in one. It‘s just a very dangerous activity. It‘s not a safe activity.
Q. Would you[r] opinion be different if you assume these facts. That Mr. Nelms says that he was struck by another bicyclist, that Mr. Crisp says that he struck Mr. Nelms and that‘s what caused him to hit and go over the handlebars, and that he had no time to apply his brakes. If those facts were true, would your opinion differ?
A. Well, those – first of all, those aren‘t facts. Those are fact statements. Witness statements. And no, it wouldn‘t change my opinion, because it does not line up with the engineering data that I‘ve already given you in the record. The [*10]
two of them – for me to accept the fact witness statement it‘s got to agree with the engineering, and the engineering is not supporting that statement. It‘s not supporting your hypothetical on Nelms or your hypothetical on Crisp.
Nelms and Long filed motions for summary judgment in April and May 2016, respectively. In September 2016 following a hearing, the Trial Court entered an order granting Defendants‘ motions for summary judgment. In its oral ruling attached to its order, the Trial Court stated in part:
This is obviously a very tragic case, loss of life and just – there‘s nothing that anybody can do to obviously change this. My first thought, as I have read through these things, is that there is no difference here in how this proceeded than a stock car race. Everybody bunched together.
You know, back in the old days, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., would run you off the road, and there you were off the track, and there you were in the wall. But by its very nature, NASCAR – granted higher speeds – is different, but they‘ve got steel and helmets and everything else. This type of activity, in a sense, is no different than that.
These gentlemen were riding together. It is very reasonable to [*11]
assume – and well, it‘s a fact – that it‘s not seriously disputed that an accident, when they are riding this closely together, is certainly foreseeable on everybody‘s part. And unfortunately, something happened up front that caused people to slow. But as it relates to Mr. Crisp, the Court would have to leap to assumptions in order to say what he did or what he didn‘t do, and he owed himself a duty of reasonable care to see what was in front of him and to understand his surroundings as well.
It would also – as I have understood it and read it – and counsel, this Court, as I‘ve said many times, I cannot guarantee you I‘m right, but I guarantee you I try to be right. From my reading of the record, from the affidavits, that there is no basis other than sheer speculation that would allow a jury to find for the plaintiff in this case.
In fact, speculation is pretty much all there is in this case. We could allow them to speculate about certain facts, but the ultimate conclusion is, is that these types of accidents are foreseeable in bicycle racing, especially this close type of racing. We see it all the time. We pass them on the highways. I‘m not taking – well, I think I could take judicial [*12]
notice that cyclists in group activities wreck.
And so these parties chose to engage in this activity. They chose to ride together. There‘s testimony throughout about what happens when these cyclists are riding together, about drafting, about various movements on the surface that they are cycling on.
And the Court hates to do it, but the Court does not see how any jury could reasonably find that either of these defendants were negligent in the cause – the cause in fact or the proximate cause of the tragic accident and injury and ultimate death o[f] Mr. Crisp.
In October 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion to alter or amend and a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. In May 2017, the Trial Court entered an order denying Plaintiff‘s motion, stating:
2. That the plaintiff mistakenly [*13]
understood the Court to infer that the parties were racing. That was not the intention nor finding of this Court. The Court was merely referencing to the fact that bumper to bumper activities by automobiles or bicycles can lead to disastrous consequences.
6. That because Mr. Crisp chose to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries.
From all of which it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the above, along with the Court‘s Memorandum Opinion, are the findings and fact and conclusions of law, and that no further hearing on this particular issue shall be considered by the Court, and that this order is hereby [*14]
deemed a final order in all respects. Any remaining court costs are hereby taxed to the plaintiff, for which execution shall issue if necessary.
Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court.
HN1 Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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.“
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. HN2 We review a trial court‘s ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo, without a presumption of correctness. Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997); see also Abshure v. Methodist Healthcare—Memphis Hosps., 325 S.W.3d 98, 103 (Tenn. 2010). In doing so, we make a fresh determination of whether the requirements of Rule 56 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure have been satisfied. Estate of Brown, 402 S.W.3d 193, 198 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Hughes v. New Life Dev. Corp., 387 S.W.3d 453, 471 (Tenn. 2012)). . . .
HN3 [I]n Tennessee, as in the federal system, when the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden [*15]
of production either (1) by affirmatively negating an essential element of the nonmoving party‘s claim or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party‘s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the nonmoving party‘s claim or defense. We reiterate that HN4 a moving party seeking summary judgment by attacking the nonmoving party‘s evidence must do more than make a conclusory assertion that summary judgment is appropriate on this basis. Rather, Tennessee Rule 56.03 requires the moving party to support its motion with “a separate concise statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue for trial.“
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. “Each fact is to be set forth in a separate, numbered paragraph and supported by a specific citation to the record.“
Id. When such a motion is made, any party opposing summary judgment must file a response to each fact set forth by the movant in the manner provided in Tennessee Rule 56.03. HN5 “[W]hen a motion for summary judgment is made [and] . . . supported as provided in [Tennessee Rule 56],“ to survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party “may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [its] pleading,“ but must respond, and by affidavits or one [*16]
of the other means provided in Tennessee Rule 56, “set forth specific facts“
at the summary judgment stage
“showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.“
Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06. The nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.“
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348. The nonmoving party must demonstrate the existence of specific facts in the record which could lead a rational trier of fact to find in favor of the nonmoving party. HN6 If a summary judgment motion is filed before adequate time for discovery has been provided, the nonmoving party may seek a continuance to engage in additional discovery as provided in Tennessee Rule 56.07. However, after adequate time for discovery has been provided, summary judgment should be granted if the nonmoving party‘s evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04, 56.06. The focus is on the evidence the nonmoving party comes forward with at the summary judgment stage, not on hypothetical evidence that theoretically could be adduced, despite the passage of discovery deadlines, at a future trial. . . .
Defendants argue that paceline riding is an inherently risky activity as described [*17]
by the experts and participants, especially for a rider of Decedent‘s age. Nelms argues that Decedent had his own duty to adhere to, as well. Plaintiff argues in response that no rider in a paceline assumes that the person riding in front of him suddenly and inexplicably will slow down. Our initial inquiry is whether a duty of care exists in paceline riding and what the nature of that duty is.
In Perez v. McConkey, 872 S.W.2d 897 (Tenn. 1994), our HN7 Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery in a negligence action and held that cases involving implied assumption of the risk issues should be analyzed under the principles of comparative fault and the common law concept of duty. The Court stated that “the reasonableness of a party‘s conduct in confronting a risk should be determined under the principles of comparative fault. Attention should be focused on whether a reasonably prudent person in the exercise of due care knew of the risk, or should have known of it, and thereafter confronted the risk; and whether such a person would have [*18]
behaved in the manner in which the plaintiff acted in light of all the surrounding circumstances, including the confronted risk.“
Id. at 905.
HN8 Everyone has a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in light of the surrounding circumstances to refrain from conduct that could foreseeably injure others, and some locations and circumstances may require a higher degree of care than others. White v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, 860 S.W.2d 49, 51 (Tenn. App. 1993). The term reasonable care must be given meaning in relation to the circumstances. Doe v. Linder Constr. Co., Inc. 845 S.W.2d 173, 178 (Tenn. 1992). HN9 To establish a claim for negligence a plaintiff must prove: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) causation in fact; (5) and proximate causation. Haynes v. Hamilton County, 883 S.W.2d 606, 611 (Tenn. 1994).
[B]y participating in the drill, Ms. Becksfort did not confront or accept the risk that another player would act or play unreasonably. The plaintiff offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that Ms. Becksfort was not watching Jackson‘s ball, and was rather watching only her (Becksfort‘s) ball. The plaintiff also offered proof that Ms. Jackson knew or should have known that the ball was traveling in the direction of the plaintiff. [*19]
Kent Shultz stated in his deposition that during the two ball drill the respective sets of players focused on the ball in play on their half of the court. Mr. Shultz also testified that the shot which Ms. Jackson hit into the eye of the plaintiff was a forehand shot “with some power behind it.“ Ms. Jackson contended in her deposition that (apparently due to the speed at which the ball was traveling) there simply was no time to issue a warning; however, that appears to be a question of fact upon considering all the circumstances involved.
We think there is sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Ms. Jackson acted unreasonably by failing to warn of the errant shot. Based upon this record, reasonable minds could differ as to whether Ms. Jackson acted reasonably under the circumstances. Therefore, this question should be resolved by the trier of fact.
The reason many courts have required a plaintiff to prove reckless or intentional conduct on the part of a defendant in order to recover for injuries sustained in an athletic competition, is that [*20]
these courts have feared that an ordinary negligence standard will increase litigation of sports injuries and stifle athletic competition. See, e.g., Hoke v. Cullinan, 914 S.W.2d 335, 337, 42 12 Ky. L. Summary 33 (Ky. 1995) (“A view often expressed is that such a standard promotes sound public policy by allowing redress in extraordinary circumstances without permitting fear of litigation to alter the nature of the game.“); Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal. 4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, 710 (Cal. 1992) (“The courts have concluded that vigorous participation in sporting events likely would be chilled if legal liability were to be imposed on a participant on the basis of his or her ordinary careless conduct.“). We do not share these court‘s concerns with respect to the imposition of an ordinary negligence standard in cases of sports related injuries, because we think that the recognition that the reasonableness of a person‘s conduct will be measured differently on the playing field than on a public street, will sufficiently prevent the stifling of athletic competition. We also note that the reasonableness of a person‘s conduct will be measured differently depending upon the particular sport involved and the likelihood and foreseeability of injury presented by participation in the particular sport. What is reasonable, acceptable, and [*21]
even encouraged in the boxing ring or ice hockey rink, would be negligent or even reckless or intentional tortious conduct in the context of a game of golf or tennis. We should not fashion a different standard of care for each and every sport. We simply recognize that the reasonable conduct standard of care should be given different meaning in the context of different sports and athletic competitions.
In the present case, we respectfully disagree with the apparent position of the Trial Court and Defendants that to participate in paceline riding is to assume the risk of whatever dangerous conduct, however unreasonable, is engaged in by the participants. Many years ago, our Supreme Court abolished implied assumption of the risk as a complete bar to recovery. We decline Defendants‘ invitation to essentially resurrect implied assumption of the risk through a special carve-out exception. Inherently risky or not, a paceline rider still has a duty of care to her fellow riders. For instance, while wrecks can and do happen, a paceline rider has a duty to refrain from abruptly applying her brakes or from hitting the wheel of the rider of front of her without good reason. We conclude that each [*22]
paceline rider in the instant case had a duty to act reasonably under the circumstances.
Having concluded that the paceline riders owed a duty of care, it remains to be established in this case at the summary judgment stage whether that duty was breached and by whom. That is problematic because there are conflicting accounts as to what happened. Chiefly, it never has been established how Nelms came to collide with Long‘s bicycle. Nelms states that Long suddenly slowed down. Long disputes this. Nelms and Long are, therefore, at odds in their accounts. This is not a trivial dispute but rather goes to the heart of the case—whether a breach of duty occurred and, if so, by whom. This is what juries often are called on to decide in a negligence case where comparative fault is alleged. There are genuine issues of material fact as to whether Defendants acted reasonably under the circumstances, and the issue of fault allocation, if any, should be resolved by the trier of fact. We take no position on the merits of the question, only that it remains a question suitable for trial.
The Trial Court, in its order denying Plaintiff‘s motion to alter or amend, also stated: “[B]ecause [Decedent] chose [*23]
to ride in the activity of paceline riding where it is certainly foreseeable that an accident could occur, the Court finds that a reasonable jury would have to find that he was at least 50% liable for his own injuries.“ This is a puzzling and unsupported finding. There were five participants in the paceline group at issue, and three of those were involved in the crash. If Decedent is presumed to be at least 50% responsible for his own accident simply for participating in paceline riding, then the other riders involved in the crash also must be at least 50% responsible simply by participating. The math does not add up as, naturally, one cannot exceed 100% in an allocation of fault. Finding or holding that someone who participates with others in an inherently dangerous activity must be at least 50% at fault if he is injured is, once again, an attempt to resurrect the defense of assumption of the risk. We decline to do so.
The judgment of the Trial Court is reversed, and this cause is remanded to the [*24]
Trial Court for collection of the costs below and for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion. The costs on appeal are assessed one-half equally against the Appellees, Michael Nelms and George Long.
Only a New York City bike share case create a 34-page opinion on just motions that are filed. The results are all over the board, both the defendants and the plaintiff winning issues on an electronic releasePosted: March 19, 2018
A Ten-page release was upheld as valid. But the process was full of enough holes the plaintiff is still in the game.
Corwin, et al., v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., 238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034
State: New York: United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
Plaintiff: Ronald D. Corwin, et al
Defendant: NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al
Plaintiff Claims: was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice
Defendant Defenses: Release, Assumption of the Risk Immunity
Extremely complicated decision because of the number of claims of the plaintiff and the number of defendants in the case. Each defendant has a different perspective to the defenses.
The decision looks at what happens if you are not wearing a helmet while cycling and you receive a head injury as well as how assumption of the risk and open and obvious defenses are dealt with in a city and against city agencies.
The last issue, is electronic releases in New York City.
The plaintiff had signed up for a year long bike share rental agreement with New York City bike share. He did that online and, in the process, agreed to a release that was ten pages.
He rented a bike one day and was riding on the street. He felt pressure from traffic on his left. A bike share area was coming up on his right and he rode into it. The bike share locations must be on the streets in New York. He continued through the area and at the end hit a concrete wheel stop. He crashed suffering injuries.
Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, in-stalled, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.
He sued everyone there was in New York. Sixteen different law firms are listed in the case. The plaintiff sued:
City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program
NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system
New York City Department of Transportation
Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company
Alta Planning + Design (“APD”)
Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system
Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) installation
Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”) installation
The lawsuit was in Federal District Court. This opinion is the magistrate’s opinion on the motions filed by the parties. Judge assign non-trial work, such as deciding motions to magistrates. After the magistrate’s opinion is filed the parties have X days to respond/object. The judge then reviews and either adopts, modifies or writes his own opinion.
When the judge rules on the magistrate’s opinion there is usually a written record of the ruling. There are two additional motions the magistrate writes about that are in the record, but no ruling from the court.
Probably the parties settled based on this ruling.
There are a lot of arguments in this 34-page ruling. I’m only going to write about the ones that are important to the outdoor recreation and cycling community.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first defense discussed here is the electronic release signed by the plaintiff to become a bike share member and rent bikes.
The first issues were plaintiff did not remember signing the release, but did sign up and admitted that he probably agreed to things.
The Bike Share program could not produce a release “signed” by the plaintiff. The produced a release that was in use at the time the plaintiff signed the release and the produced testimony of a former manager to testified that the only way the plaintiff could have become a member and ride bikes was if he had agreed to the release.
The plaintiff also argued the release was Unconscionable.
A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party
The court first went into the issue of whether the release existed and was signed. The release was determined to be a “clickwrap” agreement.
Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.”
The court found clickwrap agreements were enforceable.
Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.
However, the presumption of enforceability is based several factors.
The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind them-selves to contract terms
In New York the courts have already set a group of tests to determine if a clickwrap agreement is enforceable.
Second, terms should be enforced when a user is encouraged by the design and content of the website and the agreement’s webpage to examine the terms, such as when they are clearly available through hyperlink.
Conversely, terms should not be enforced when they are “buried at the bottom of a webpage” or “tucked away in obscure corners.” (collecting cases refusing to enforce such agreements).
Special attention should be paid to whether the site design brought the consumer’s attention to “material terms that would alter what a reasonable consumer would understand to be her default rights when initiating an online [transaction],” and, in appropriate cases, such terms should not be enforced even when the contract is otherwise enforceable (“When contractual terms as significant as . . . the right to sue in court are accessible only via a small and distant hyperlink . . . with text about agreement thereto presented even more obscurely, there is a genuine risk that a fundamental principle of contract formation will be left in the dust: the requirement for a manifestation of mutual assent.”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
Broad exculpatory clauses waiving liability for negligence would certainly qualify as material terms that alter a contracting party’s commonly-understood default rights.
Using this set of parameters, the magistrate reviewed the bike Share release and found it was not unconscionable.
The plaintiff then argued the release was not clear, coherent or unambiguous.
To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims.
This ambiguity was based on contradictions between two sections in the ten-page release. However, the court found there was no ambiguity.
Then the plaintiff argued the release was void on public policy grounds.
The plaintiff raised three arguments on why the release violated public policy. It violated New York City Administrative Code, it violated New York General Obligations law § 5-326 and it violated the cities common law duty to maintain roads.
The court found New York City administrative code could not serve as a basis for invalidating a release.
New York General Obligations law § 5-326 is the statute that restricts on who can use a release. The language of the statutes says that “operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities” can’t use a release. Since the bike share program was not a facility, the release was valid.
Finally, the common law duty the city of New York had to maintain the roads did not violate the release because “…the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads.”
The release was not void based on public policy considerations.
However, the release did not apply to the city of New York because that would be contrary to public policy.
In the end the negligence claims of the plaintiff were denied because of the release. The gross negligence claims were still valid. Under New York Law and the law of most states, claims for gross negligence cannot be stopped by a release.
The next issue was how the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet, at the time of his injury, would be used in the case.
The defendants argued that the plaintiff not wearing a helmet should be used by the defendants to show the plaintiff was liable for his injuries, (that the plaintiff was comparative negligence), to prove assumption of the risk and to mitigate the damages he incurred.
The plaintiff argued that since there was no statutory duty to wear a helmet, then the defendants could not make their arguments.
The court applied the same rationale to wearing a bike helmet as the courts had done in New York to wearing a seat belt in a car crash. Not wearing a bike helmet, it could not be used to prove liability on the part of the plaintiff but it could be used to reduce damages.
…the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how dam-ages, if any, should be assessed.
The defendant then argued they should have qualified immunity on the plaintiff’s claims of failing to provide a bike helmet to him while renting a bike.
Immunity is granted by statute to governments and their agencies for the decisions they make. As long as the decisions are not intentional and thought out the immunity applies. The immunity then stops the courts from reviewing those decisions as long as the decisions are made under the guidelines the law has set out.
Although the city may use the fact the plaintiff did not wear a helmet to reduce any damages the city might owe to the plaintiff. The plaintiff cannot use that argument to say the city was liable for not providing helmets. Nor can the plaintiff argue the his not wearing a helmet was unreasonable and did not breach a duty of care.
Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.
Here those guidelines were made by the city in its decision to not include helmets in the rentals of the bikes.
He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.
Assumption of the Risk
The defendants moved for summary judgment because the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries while riding a bike. Primary assumption of the risk is defined as:
In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.
The risks were also identified in the release the plaintiff signed and which had been accepted by the court.
Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.”
However, the court rejected the defense because the plaintiff at the time of his injury was not engaged in a sporting activity.
Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her con-sent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.
So, assumption of the risk only applies to recreation and sports in New York? If you are walking down a sidewalk and see a hole in the sidewalk, on your way to work you don’t assume the risk if you fall into the hole?
The next argument by the defendants are not liable because the danger the plaintiff encountered was open an obvious.
The Open and Obvious defense seems fairly simple. If the thing or condition that injured the plaintiff was open and obvious then the plaintiff cannot sue for his injuries. It is very similar to an assumption of the risk defense.
A defendant has “no duty to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous. Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion
The defendants argue the concrete wheel stop was open and obvious.
…because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.
The plaintiff’s argument, based on the testimony of his expert witness was the wheel stop was not open and obvious because it was too big and was located in the travel lane had been camouflaged, in the way it was put in and painted.
The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.”.
How something could be too big and then not be open and obvious is confusing. This was enough for the court to deny motion for summary judgment based on the open and obvious theory.
Gross Negligence of the Bike Share defendant
Gross negligence under New York law is
…conduct that evinces a reckless disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.
The plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants ignored sound engineering practices when creating and installing the wheel stop and that it was foreseeable that the injuries would occur when the wheel stop was placed in the cycling path. Based on that language, the court found that the actions of the defendants could be defined as gross negligence.
The defendant won most of the decisions, however the plaintiff won enough and won significant ones that allowed the litigation to continue.
So Now What?
The final paragraph of the decision has a review of all decisions for the plaintiff and the defendants if you would like to keep a tally. However, there are several decisions concerning plaintiffs that were not reviewed here because they had no relationship to outdoor recreation or the legal issues commonly faced in outdoor recreation.
Obviously, the injuries to the plaintiff are significant to bring such forces to this litigation to justify this much work. The amount of effort put into prosecuting a case for a plaintiff can SOMETIMES be an indication of the damages to the plaintiff when those damages are not identified in the decision.
More importantly, the legal issues of suing New York City and its agencies are far more complex then found in most cities.
There are some interesting points worth noting. You could guess that the judge thought a ten-page release was long since she pointed it out. However, you cannot argue that your release is too long. Especially since electronically they do not have a length that is measured so easily.
Not wearing a helmet can be an issue in cycling and possibly skiing, even though the effectiveness of wearing one can be disputed. I suspect the next step would be to find a helmet expert by the plaintiff to argue that a helmet would not have prevented the damages the plaintiff received and the defendants will find an expert to argue the opposite.
The failure to provide proof that the plaintiff signed the release was overcome. However, design your system so you don’t have to jump through these hurdles. Crate a system that matches the signing to the credit card or other way of showing that on this date at this time the person entered his name and address, credit card number and clicked on this button saying he accepted the release. Then you add, his credit card would not have been charged unless he agreed to the release.
If you are designing bike share locations, do so in a way that people on bikes can assume they can ride through them.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Ronald D. Corwin, et al., Plaintiffs, -against- NYC Bike Share, LLC, et al., Defendants.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
238 F. Supp. 3d 475; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29034
March 1, 2017, Decided
March 1, 2017, Filed
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reconsideration denied by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53812 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 7, 2017)
Summary judgment granted by Corwin v. NYC Bike Share, LLC, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57254 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 13, 2017)
CORE TERMS: bike, station, wheel, helmet, bicycle, summary judgment, street, cyclist’s, parking, user, roadway, lane, public policy, matter of law, traffic, wear, installation, riding, notice, negligence claims, qualified immunity, affirmative defenses, municipality, contractor, installed, recreational, planning, genuine, rider, safe
COUNSEL: [**1] For Ronald D. Corwin, Beth Blumenthal, Plaintiffs: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT; Neil R. Finkston, Law Office of Neil R. Finkston, Great Neck, NY.
For NYC Bike Share LLC, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., Defendants, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Peter W. Beadle, Law Offce of Vaccaro & White, LLP, New York, NY; Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.
For City of New York, Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Howard Martin Wagner, Trief and Olk, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.
For Alta Planning + Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Defendants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY; Katherine Buchanan, The Law Firm of Hall & Hall, LLP, Staten Island, NY.
For MetroExpress Services, Inc., Defendant: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.
For Sealcoat USA, [**2] Inc., Defendant, Cross Defendant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY; Brian L. Battisti, Morrison Mahoney, LLP(NYC), New York, NY.
For Sealcoat USA Inc., ADR Provider: Mitchell John Baker, LEAD ATTORNEY, Baker, Leshko, Saline & Blosser, LLP, White Plains, NY.
For Metro Express, Inc., Interested Party: Kevin F. Pinter, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nicoletti, Gonson, Spinner & Owen, LLP, New York, NY; Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.
For New York City Department of Transportation, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Kimberly Kristen Brown, Hoey, King,Epstein, Prezioso & Marquez, New York, NY.
For NYC Bike Share LLC, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Steve Vaccaro, Law Offices of Vaccaro and White, New York, NY.
For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY.
For Alta Planning Design, Inc., Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC, Cross Claimants, Cross Defendants: Kevin Jude O’Neill, LEAD ATTORNEY, Gogick, Byrne & O’Neil, LLP, New York, NY.
For Beth Blumenthal, Cross Defendant: Martin William Edelman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Edelman & [**3] Edelman, P.C., New York, NY; Michael K. O’Donnell, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Michael K. O’donnell, Greenwich, CT.
For City of New York, Cross Claimant, Cross Defendant: Eileen Theresa Budd, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, New York, NY; Judith Feinberg Goodman, Goodman & Jacobs LLP, New York, NY.
For MetroExpress Services, Inc., MetroExpress Services, Inc., Cross Defendant, Cross Claimants: Gary Richard Greenman, Nicoletti Gonson Spinner LLP, New York, NY.
For Sealcoat USA, Inc., Cross Claimant: John P. Cookson, LEAD ATTORNEY, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP (NY), New York, NY.
JUDGES: SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge.
OPINION BY: SARAH NETBURN
[*480] OPINION & ORDER
SARAH NETBURN, United States Magistrate Judge:
On October 25, 2013, Ronald D. Corwin, an annual member of the Citi Bike bicycle sharing program, was riding a Citi Bike in Midtown Manhattan. Upon passing through a Citi Bike station located on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue, he collided with a concrete wheel stop and violently hit his head against the cement. Alleging [*481] that the Citi Bike station in question was improperly designed, installed, and maintained, Corwin brought claims for common-law and gross negligence and [**4] professional negligence and malpractice, and Beth Blumenthal, Corwin’s wife, brought derivative claims for loss of her husband’s services, society, companionship, and consortium.1
1 As Blumenthal’s claims depend entirely on the viability of Corwin’s causes of actions, the two claims are referred to in shorthand as “Corwin’s” throughout the text of the opinion. Where the Court grants summary judgment or partial summary judgment to defendants on certain of Corwin’s claims, Blumenthal’s claims are dismissed as well. Vega-Santana v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 956 F. Supp. 2d 556, 562 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (“Where the primary cause of action is dismissed on summary judgment, the loss of consortium claim must be dismissed as well.”).
On February 27, 2014, Corwin brought claims against three defendants: the City of New York (“City”), who planned, oversaw, and collaborated with the other defendants in implementing the Citi Bike program; NYC Bike Share, LLC (“NYCBS”), the company operating the Citi Bike system, and the New York City Department of Transportation (“DOT”). ECF No. 1, Compl. On December 31, 2014, Corwin amended his complaint to remove the DOT and add three additional defendants: Alta Bicycle Share, Inc. (now named “Motivate, Inc.”), which is NYCBS’s parent company; and Alta Planning + Design (“APD”) and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York (“APDNY”), a design company and its wholly-owned subsidiary who drafted site plans for the Citi Bike system. ECF No. 27, First Am. Compl. After conducting significant discovery, Corwin moved for and was granted leave to amend his complaint to join two additional defendants, Metro Express Services, Inc. (“Metro Express”) and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Sealcoat”), both contractors who are [**5] alleged to have participated, in violation of the station’s design plan, in the installation of the wheel stop struck by Corwin. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl.
All of the defendants move separately for summary judgment on a variety of grounds.2 All defendants argue that the condition was open and obvious and that Corwin’s negligence claims generally fail as a matter of law. The City, NYCBS, and APD argue that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims were released by the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”) that he had to sign as a condition of Citi Bike membership, and that they are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. APD, Metro Express and Sealcoat argue that, as third-party entities in a contractual relationship with Corwin, they owed him no duty of care. APD additionally argues that the Citi Bike station’s deviation from the design is an absolute bar to liability, and that there was no causation between its design and Corwin’s injury. The City also contends that Corwin’s claims are barred due to the doctrine of qualified immunity and its lack of written notice of the condition pursuant to a municipal notice statute.
2 As their liability is exclusively a product of being a parent company of a wholly owned subsidiary, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc./Motivate, Inc. moves for summary judgment together with NYCBS, and APD moves together with APDNY. For the sake of brevity, these motions are referred to as the “NYCBS” and “APD” motions, respectively.
For his [**6] part, Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on two issues. First, he argues that the Release Agreement is unenforceable on numerous statutory, public policy, and contract formation grounds, and that defendants’ affirmative defenses [*482] relying on the Agreement should be dismissed as a matter of law. Second, he contends that the fact that he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident is irrelevant as a matter of law to issues of assumption of the risk, comparative fault, or failure to mitigate damages, and therefore defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on this argument should be dismissed.
For the following reasons, the cross-motions for summary judgment are GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is DENIED as to NYCBS; the Agreement is enforceable as a matter of law as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion to dismiss the affirmative defenses relating to the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City because a contractual waiver of the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain public thoroughfares would be contrary to public policy. Corwin’s motion to dismiss defendants’ affirmative defenses relating [**7] to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED; as stated above, the Release Agreement is ineffective to waive Corwin’s claims at to the City, and the City has not demonstrated its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on qualified immunity, notice, or other grounds. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable as to NYCBS, Corwin’s common-law negligence claims are barred, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED because APD and APDNY did not owe any duty to Corwin. Accordingly, APD and APDNY are dismissed from this case. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED because a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to whether they owed Corwin a duty of care under applicable New York law.
I. History of the Citi Bike Program
Beginning in 2009, the City of New [**8] York began to study the feasibility of installing a bike share system in and around City streets, located in curbside parking lanes, on sidewalks, and near public spaces and parks. ECF No. 293, City’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“City St.”) ¶ 2. On April 10, 2012, the City and NYCBS entered into an agreement for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and publicizing of “Citi Bike,” a network of self-service bike share stations with publicly available bicycles. ECF No. 310, Corwin’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“Corwin St.”) ¶ 2. The system became operational in May 2013. City St. ¶ 5; ECF No. 317, NYCBS’s Rule 56.1 Statement (“NYCBS St.”) ¶ 1.
The City-NYCBS contract required NYCBS to design and install on-street bike parking stations “with appropriate protections and markings from adjacent parking and moving traffic. . . . [including] non-permanent bollards and paint markings.” City St. ¶ 31. The contract also noted that all protections and markings were to be preapproved by the DOT’s Division of Traffic. Id.
The design for the Citi Bike stations was modeled in part on the City’s previous experience with “bike corrals,” which were also placed in parking lanes and were designed by the DOT’s Highway Design Unit and [**9] Pedestrian and Bicycle Group. City St. ¶¶ 41-42. These corrals had many elements that would ultimately be integrated [*483] into the Citi Bike stations, such as wheel stops, paint marking and bollards. Id. ¶ 42.
At the time that the NYCBS contract was signed with the City, APD and APDNY were subsidiaries of Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., NYCBS’s parent company. Id. ¶ 48. APD assembled a team of architects, engineers, and designers to collaborate with the City on station design. Id. ¶¶ 49-50. Using a bike corral on Smith and Sackett Street as an exemplar, the APD and the City developed “Station Siting Guidelines” that included the use of unpainted, concrete wheel stops. Id. ¶¶ 51-57. Though the City originally approved the use of rubber wheel stops, it instructed NYCBS to replace them with concrete wheel stops because the rubber stops were not sufficiently durable. Id. ¶ 96. The wheel stops were considered by APD to be necessary to prevent damage to the station equipment by encroaching vehicles. Id. ¶ 58.
The final design for Citi Bike stations situated in parking lanes included white thermoplastic markings and three-foot tall, reflective, flexible delineators on or near the markings. Wheel stops [**10] were to be used in the stations to protect the station equipment. Id. ¶¶ 64-66. These elements were collectively referred to as “street treatment.” Id. ¶ 81. While NYCBS installed the station equipment directly, it contracted the installation of street treatment to Metro Express, allegedly without the City’s awareness. Id. ¶ 83. MetroExpress, in turn, subcontracted this work to another entity, Sealcoat, allegedly without the awareness of either the City or NYCBS. Id. ¶¶ 85-86.
The City considered, but chose not to mandate that Citi Bike riders wear helmets. It also did not provide helmets for Citi Bike riders on demand. Id. ¶ 8. The City came to this conclusion because (a) New York law did not mandate that adult cyclists wear helmets and it did not want to promote different standards for Citi Bike riders and other cyclists as a matter of public policy; (b) it believed, based on studies conducted in other cities, that mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and bike share system use in particular; (c) certain statistics indicated that mandatory helmet laws actually decreased cyclist safety by reducing the number of cyclists on the road; and (d) research suggested [**11] that helmeted cyclists tended to ride more recklessly than those without helmets. Id. ¶¶ 9-16; Corwin St. ¶ 10. The City also specifically evaluated the feasibility and wisdom of instituting a public helmet distribution system, but ultimately concluded that there were numerous logistical barriers to such a system, such as hygiene, the fact that the structural integrity of helmets would be compromised if they were involved in an accident, and lack of proper fitting and sizing capabilities. City St. ¶¶ 18-22. The City further considered what it viewed as unfavorable experiences with such systems in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia. Id. ¶ 25. The City did, however, provide annual Citi Bike members with discounted vouchers for helmets and expanded its helmet giveaway and fitting programs. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.
II. Design and Installation of Citi Bike Station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue
The station where Ronald Corwin’s accident occurred was located at the intersection of East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 98. The City issued a permit to NYCBS for the installation of the station on July 22, 2013, and the station equipment was installed on July 30, 2013. Id. ¶¶ 103-04. [**12] The City approved APD’s design drawing of the station on August 6, 2013, including all street treatment. Id. ¶ 100. The approved design had only one wheel stop at the west end of the station, [*484] no thermoplastic striping within the boxes at the ends of the station, a station width of eight feet, and a total of six delineators. ECF No. 301, Alta Planning and Design Rule 56.1 Statement (“APD St.”) ¶ 30. None of the site plan drawings, including the approved drawing, contained a wheel stop at the east end of the station closest to Madison Avenue.
The street treatment at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station was installed on or about October 22, 2013. APD St. ¶ 31. Notwithstanding its absence on the approved plan, a wheel stop was installed at the east end of the station as well, and the station did not conform to the approved plan in several other respects: the station footprint was made wider by the installation of thermoplastic striping more than eight feet in width, additional delineators were added, and cross-hatched striping was installed on either end of the station underneath the wheel stops. Id. ¶ 34. Though this is disputed by the defendants, Corwin argues that the wider footprint [**13] is relevant because, as it provided less clearance between the edge of the station and moving traffic, it would have encouraged a cyclist to use the station itself as a temporary riding lane. ECF No. 335, Decl. of Pl.’s Exp. James E. Green, ¶¶ 56-58. The City denies approving the installation of a second wheel stop at this site, and claims that its records do not show that it had written notice regarding the additional wheel stop. City St. ¶¶ 102, 106, 108.
The entity responsible for installing the wheel stop is contested; Metro Express and Sealcoat contend that an October 18, 2013 email from NYCBS informed them only of the need for repairs to the station, and that after Sealcoat representative Ryan Landeck visited the station on October 22, 2013, he reported that there was nothing to be done at the station in a October 24, 2013 email to Metro Express. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck Depo. at 41, 51; ECF No. 368-4, Landeck Oct. 24, 2013 E-mail. Metro Express further contends that the City had often instructed NYCBS, who in turn had instructed Metro Express to install “Supplemental Street Treatments” not depicted on station plans, and that such supplemental installations included second wheel [**14] stops. ECF No. 368-8, May 17, 2013 Email; ECF No. 335-20, Strasser 06/28/16 Depo. at 48-51. Metro Express alleges that on July 17, 2013, and October 9, 2013, it was specifically ordered by NYCBS to install a second wheel stop not depicted on station plans at three stations around the network. ECF 368-10; 368-11; 368-12; 368-13; 368-14. There is no direct evidence in the record, however, that such a request was ever issued for the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue station.
III. Ronald Corwin’s Citi Bike Membership and Release Agreement
Ronald Corwin signed up online for an annual Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013. Corwin St. ¶ 15. Corwin does not remember the details of the process, and did not recall clicking on or reading the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement as a condition of membership. Id. ¶ 18. Nevertheless, he did admit in deposition testimony that “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike Pass.” NYCBS St. ¶ 21. NYCBS has not, however, produced a version of the Agreement dated contemporaneously to Corwin’s registration, or Corwin’s actual electronic signature. Corwin St. ¶ 22.
While the applicability and enforceability [**15] of the Release Agreement is disputed by the parties, there is no serious dispute as to its content. NYCBS has produced an agreement dated July 25, 2014, and Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of [*485] NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, testified that this agreement was active on the date that Corwin became a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl. ¶¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl. ¶¶ 2-3; ECF 316-1, Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). Ginsburgh attested that it would be impossible to become a Citi Bike member without first being shown the Release Agreement in a scrollable text box and then clicking a box stating “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in (sic) User Agreement.” NYCBS St. ¶¶ 17-18; City St. ¶¶ 118-20.
The Release Agreement contains several provisions, which are reproduced below in relevant part:
Section 6. Releases:
In exchange for You being allowed to use any of the Services, Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information, You . . . do hereby fully and forever release [**16] and discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. Such releases are intended to be general and complete releases of all Claims. The Released Persons may plead such releases as a complete and sufficient defense to any Claim, as intended 3rd beneficiaries of such releases.
“Claims” is defined in the Release Agreement as “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, disputes, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories), proceedings [or] damages that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information . . . .” “Released Persons” is defined in the Agreement, as relevant, as including: “(i) NYCBS and all of its owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns [and] (ii) the City of New York.”
Section 7. Disclaimers:
You do hereby acknowledge and agree that your use of any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, is at your sole risk. . . . [**17] All of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or related information are provided “as is” and “as available” (and you rely on them solely at your own risk). . . . You assume full responsibility and risk of loss for using any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated [sic] information, and NYCBS and all other released persons are not liable for any claim attributable to any of the foregoing.
Section 8. Limited Liability:
You do hereby acknowledge and agree that, except as may otherwise be limited by New York General Obligation Law Section 5-326, NYCBS and all other released persons are not responsible or liable for any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to (A) any risk, danger or hazard described in the Agreement, (B) Your use of or inability to use, any of the services, Citi Bike bicycles, stations, bike docks, or releated (sic) information, (C) your breach of this agreement or your violation of any law, (D) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction by you, (E) your failure to wear a bicycles helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle, or (F) any negligence, misconduct, or other action or inaction of any third party. You do hereby waive all claims with respect to any [**18] [*486] of the foregoing, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, even if NYCBS or any of the other released persons has been advised of the possibility of such claims. The total liability of NYCBS and all other released persons for all claims, including those based in contract, tort (including negligence), statutory, or other grounds, is limited to the sum of $100.
Section 9. Assumption of Risk by Member:
Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death to Member or others, as well as damage to property, and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.
IV. Ronald Corwin’s Ride and Accident
At 10:57 a.m. on October 25, 2013, Ronald Corwin picked up a Citi Bike at a station located on the southeastern corner of 6th Avenue and East 56th Street. From there, he travelled in the direction of Grand Central Station. Corwin St. ¶ 25; NYCBS St. ¶ 32. He was not wearing a helmet. Corwin St. ¶ 26; City St. ¶ 137. Corwin proceeded eastbound in the [**19] traffic lane on East 56th Street, with vehicular traffic proceeding to his left. NYCBS St. ¶ 34. Because Corwin claimed to have been “under pressure” from the vehicular traffic, he turned into the Citi Bike station on East 56th Street and Madison Avenue. Id. ¶ 35. The station area was indicated by a perimeter of 4 inch white thermoplastic stripes on the asphalt roadway, and three foot tall white flexible delineators with gray reflective tape spaced approximately every 10 feet along the thermoplastic striping. Id. ¶ 36. At either end of the station, unpainted concrete wheel stops measuring 5 feet, 10.5 inches long by five inches high, were installed on the roadway. Id. ¶ 40. These wheel stops were framed by a box of white thermoplastic striping with diagonal cross-hatching, staked out by three-foot tall flexible delineators. Id. ¶ 41. While he was travelling within the station “envelope,” the front wheel of Corwin’s Citi Bike hit the concrete wheel stop installed near the crosswalk at the Madison Avenue end of the station, causing him to crash onto the pavement and sustain serious injury. Corwin St. ¶ 26.
I. Standard of Review
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court “shall grant summary judgment if [**20] the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” See also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The moving party must show that “under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of establishing that there are no material facts in dispute and must provide “affirmative evidence” from which a factfinder could return a verdict in its favor. Id. at 257. Then “the burden shifts to the nonmovant to point to record evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact.” Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 273 (2d Cir. 2006). “[T]he trial court’s task at the summary judgment motion stage of the litigation is carefully limited to discerning whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be tried, not to [*487] deciding them. Its duty, in short, is confined at this point to issue-finding; it does not extend to issue-resolution.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., LP, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).
In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference [**21] could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. . . .” Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d Cir. 1994). To create a disputed fact sufficient to deny summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence in the record and “may not rely simply on conclusory statements or on contentions that the affidavits supporting the motion are not credible. . . .” Ying Jing Gan v. City of New York, 996 F.2d 522, 532 (2d Cir. 1993). Instead, the response “must set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
II. Waiver and Release
It is undisputed that in order to become a member of Citi Bike, Corwin would have been required to assent to a release of claims as set forth in the Bicycle Rental, Liability Waiver, and Release Agreement (“Release Agreement”). This Agreement covered “any and all claims, injuries, demands, liabilities, causes of action (including statutory, contract, negligence, or other tort theories) . . . that arise from or relate to (a) any of the Services, including any of the Citi Bike bicycles, Stations, Bike Docks, or related information or (b) Your use of any of the foregoing.” It required Corwin to “discharge all Released Persons for all Claims that You have or may have against any Released Person, except [**22] for Claims caused by the Released Person’s gross negligence or willful misconduct.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement. As relevant here, the Agreement expressly included NYCBS and the City of New York, as well as all of NYCBS’s “owners, managers, affiliates, employees, agents, representatives, successors, and assigns” within the definition of “Released Persons.” Id.
Corwin moves for partial summary judgment to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses based on the Release Agreement, arguing that the Agreement is ambiguous, contrary to law, and/or void as a matter of public policy. For their part, the City and NYCBS move for summary judgment arguing that Corwin’s negligence claims against them are waived by the release, with the exception of those sounding in gross negligence. Though it is not expressly named in the release, APD also argues that the claims against it are released because of its relationship to NYCBS.
As a threshold issue, the Court considers if there is a genuine dispute as to whether Corwin signed a release and, if so, its scope. Corwin argues that because defendants have failed to produce an actual copy of the Release Agreement with his electronic signature, or a [**23] copy of the Agreement as it existed when he became an annual member, defendants cannot demonstrate that he signed the waiver at all. Defendants have produced a declaration from Justin Ginsburgh, former General Manager of NYCBS and current Vice President of Business Development of its parent company Motivate Inc./Alta Bicycle Share, that describes the membership process and states that Corwin would have [*488] had to agree to the terms of the Agreement in order to become a member. ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., ¶¶ 7-9. Ginsburgh also declares that the Release Agreement appended to his declaration, dated July 15, 2014, was a “true and complete copy of the User Agreement that was in effect in May 2013 when Mr. Corwin became a Citi Bike member.”3 Id. at ¶ 10; ECF No. 371-3, Ginsburgh Supp. Decl., ¶¶ 2-3 (“The User Agreement . . . was fully in effect when plaintiff Ronald Corwin obtained his Citi Bike membership on June 25, 2013.”). Ginsburgh had previously noted in deposition testimony, however, that he was no longer in his General Manager position as of April 1, 2014, and therefore “[didn’t] know if any changes occurred [to the membership signup] after that.” ECF No. 360-6, Justin Ginsburgh Depo. [**24] at 463. Corwin stated in deposition testimony that he completed the membership application and “signed whatever it is [he] had to sign in order to get [his] Citi Bike pass,” but did not remember the contents of the Agreement or whether he had read it. ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.
3 The first Ginsburgh Declaration inaccurately references Corwin becoming a Citi Bike member in May 2013; in fact, Corwin became a Citi Bike member on June 25, 2013.
Corwin has failed to “set forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial,” Wright, 554 F.3d at 266, as to the existence and scope of the Agreement. Defendants have produced declaration testimony from Justin Ginsburgh, and Corwin has challenged the credibility of those statements. He has not, however, despite extensive discovery, introduced any evidence that there was an agreement with different terms in effect when Corwin became a Citi Bike member, or even any evidence that raises doubt as to whether the Agreement provided by defendants was in effect. Nor has Corwin provided any evidence that he was somehow able to sign up for his Citi Bike membership without following the process described by Ginsburgh, which required him to manifest assent to the Release Agreement. Therefore, Corwin has failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact regarding the existence of a contract between [**25] the parties. Accordingly, whether or not Corwin’s claims are barred by the Release Agreement shall depend solely on the effectiveness of Corwin’s assent under the circumstances, and the enforceability of the waiver provisions as to the various defendants.
A. Unconscionability Analysis in Online “Clickwrap” Contracts
The first question for the Court’s consideration is whether, absent any overarching questions of statutory or common law public policy, the contract is enforceable on its own terms or whether, as Corwin argues, it is an “unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion.” A contract or clause is unconscionable when it was “both procedurally and substantively unconscionable when made–i.e., some showing of an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party.” Gillman v. Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A., 73 N.Y.2d 1, 10, 534 N.E.2d 824, 537 N.Y.S.2d 787 (1988) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Desiderio v. Nat’l Ass’n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 207 (2d Cir. 1999).
The parties agree that the contract in question is a “clickwrap” agreement. Such an agreement requires the user to take an affirmative action, usually, the clicking of a box that states that he or she has read and agrees to the terms of [*489] service. “[U]nder a clickwrap arrangement, [**26] potential licensees are presented with the proposed license terms and forced to expressly and unambiguously manifest either assent or rejection prior to being given access to the product.” Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 429 (2d Cir. 2004). Clickwrap agreements are “more readily enforceable [than online contracts that do not require the user to take an affirmative action], since they ‘permit courts to infer that the user was at least on inquiry notice of the terms of the agreement, and has outwardly manifested consent by clicking a box.'” Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15-CV-9796 (JSR), 199 F. Supp. 3d 752, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 29, 2016) (citing Cullinane v. Uber Techs., Inc., No. 14-CV-14750 (DPW), 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89540, 2016 WL 3751652, at *6 (D. Mass. July 11, 2016)). While the Court of Appeals has not categorically ruled on the issue, it has strongly implied that such contracts are presumptively enforceable. See, e.g., Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., 796 F.3d 193, 197 (2d Cir. 2015) (noting that case would have been “simpler to resolve had [defendant] used a ‘clickwrap’ mechanism to provide reasonable notice and to obtain [plaintiff’s] assent”). Accordingly, most lower courts have enforced such contracts, absent extraordinary circumstances. See Berkson v. Gogo LLC, 97 F. Supp. 3d 359, 397 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (collecting cases); Centrifugal Force, Inc. v. Softnet Commc’n, Inc., No. 08-CV-5463 (CM), 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20536, 2011 WL 744732, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 1, 2011) (“In New York, clickwrap agreements are valid and enforceable contracts.”).
Nevertheless, a user’s clicking of a box is not, without more, sufficient to signal their assent to any contract term. The touchstone in most courts’ analysis of the enforceability [**27] of clickwrap contracts turns on whether the website provided “reasonably conspicuous notice that [users] are about to bind themselves to contract terms.” Specht v. Netscape Commc’ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 32 (2d Cir. 2002) (Sotomayor, J.). In many cases, this becomes a fact-intensive inquiry because “electronic agreements fall along a spectrum in the degree to which they provide notice, and it is difficult to draw bright-line rules because each user interface differs from others in distinctive ways.” Meyer, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99921, 2016 WL 4073071, at *8.
In this case, NYCBS represents that “before the prospective member can proceed to pay for the membership, each person is shown the . . . ‘User Agreement.’ The User Agreement is displayed on the page in its own scrollable text box, which may also be opened in a new window for ease [**29] of viewing and printing.” ECF No. 316, Ginsburgh Decl., at ¶ 7. The “continue” button allowing Corwin to provide his payment information would not activate until Corwin clicked on a statement reading “I certify that I am the Member, I am 18 years old or over, and I have read and agree to the conditions set forth in [sic] User Agreement.” Id. at ¶¶ 8-9; Release Agreement, ECF No. 316-1 at 56. The Release Agreement itself, roughly 10 pages in length, contained a bold-faced and underlined section in larger font titled “Releases; Disclaimers; Limited Liability; Assumption of the Risk.” The text of the sections in question are in normal-sized font. Though Corwin stated that he had no specific recollection of reading and signing the Release Agreement, he did admit “I don’t deny that I signed whatever it is I had to sign in order to get my Citi Bike pass.” ECF No. 315-4, Ronald Corwin 9/9/2015 Depo. at 195.
Applying the considerations in Berkson, the Release Agreement is enforceable. The full scrollable text of the agreement was available on the same page a user must utilize to register, requiring no clicking of hyperlinks, and the user cannot continue to input his payment information until [**30] he signals assent to the agreement by taking the affirmative step of clicking a box. While it is possible to imagine clearer signaling of the importance of the waiver provisions to an unwary or unsophisticated consumer, the terms are not hidden or buried in an obscure part of the website, but rather are in plain view. Accordingly, the Release Agreement is not unconscionable, and Corwin is not entitled to strike the City and NYCBS’s affirmative defenses on this basis.
To be enforceable, an exculpatory agreement must be stated in clear, coherent, unambiguous language and expressly release a defendant from ordinary claims. See, e.g., Spancake v. Aggressor Fleet Ltd., No. 91-CV-5628 (DLC), 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7319, 1995 WL 322148, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. May 26, 1995). Corwin argues that the waiver is unenforceable due to ambiguity, finding a conflict between Section 8 (“Limited Liability”), which purports to release defendants from claims arising from riders’ “failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Citi Bike bicycle,” and Section 5, which does not list failing to wear a helmet as one of 11 “Prohibited Acts.” ECF 316-1, Release Agreement.
There is plainly no contradiction between Section 5 and Section 8. Section 5 lists actions, such as defacing a Citi Bike bicycle, transferring a bicycle to a non-member, or using a cellphone while riding that [**31] could presumably lead to contractual consequences for the member. Not wearing a helmet is not prohibited, which is also consistent with New York law allowing adult cyclists to ride without a helmet. See infra Part III.
Section 8 instead provides a non-exhaustive list of circumstances for which the [*491] contract seeks to limit liability. On its face, the fact that this list is not identical to that in Section 5 presents no contradiction, as they are presented for entirely different purposes.4 Moreover, the examples in Section 8 are meant only to illustrate some of the circumstances under which liability is to be limited; the section refers to limited liability for “any claim, including those that arise out of or relate to . . . your failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using Citi Bike bicycle.” Id. (emphasis added).
4 On wholly separate grounds, in Part III of its opinion, the Court grants Corwin summary judgment on Defendants’ affirmative defenses that Corwin’s failure to wear a bicycle helmet relieves them of liability because as a matter of New York law, the failure to wear a helmet goes only to the question of mitigation of damages. This does not, however, affect the clear and unambiguous nature of the waiver provisions.
As such, the Release Agreement is not void due to ambiguity.
C. Unenforceability on Public Policy Grounds
New York law “frowns upon contracts intended to exculpate a party from the consequences of his own negligence and though, with certain exceptions, they are enforceable, such agreements are subject to close judicial scrutiny.” Gross v. Sweet, 49 N.Y.2d 102, 106, 400 N.E.2d 306, 424 N.Y.S.2d 365 (1979). Therefore, an exculpatory contract must express “in unequivocal terms the [**32] intention of the parties to relieve a defendant of liability for the defendant’s negligence.” Lago v. Krollage, 78 N.Y.2d 95, 100, 575 N.E.2d 107, 571 N.Y.S.2d 689 (1991); Roane v. Greenwich Swim Comm., 330 F. Supp. 2d 306, 321 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (finding that appearance of the actual word “negligence” was significant in determining whether exculpatory contract was to be enforced). But “even an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced . . . if it is found to violate public policy . . . .” Ash v. New York Univ. Dental Ctr., 164 A.D.2d 366, 369, 564 N.Y.S.2d 308 (1st Dep’t 1990).
Public policy “is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interests.” Lubov v. Horing & Welikson, P.C., 72 A.D.3d 752, 753, 898 N.Y.S.2d 244 (2d Dep’t 2010) (citation omitted); see also Lewis v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Civil Serv., 60 A.D.3d 216, 222, 872 N.Y.S.2d 578 (3d Dep’t 2009) (defining New York public policy as “the law of the [s]tate, whether found in the Constitution, the statutes or judicial records”) (citation omitted). Parties may, however, “agree to give up statutory or constitutional rights in a contract, as long as public policy is not violated.” J. D’Addario & Co., Inc. v. Embassy Indus., Inc., 20 N.Y.3d 113, 119, 980 N.E.2d 940, 957 N.Y.S.2d 275 (2012).
Corwin argues that the Release Agreement violates three sources of public policy–New York City Administrative Code § 19-110, which provides that municipal permit holders may be held liable for their own negligence, New York General Obligations Law § 5-326, which invalidates exculpatory clauses in agreements with operators of recreational facilities, and [**33] the City’s non-delegable common-law duty to maintain the public streets.
i. New York City Administrative Code § 19-110
New York City Administrative Code (“NYCAC”) § 19-110 reads:
Liability for damage. In all cases where any person shall engage in any activity for which a permit is required pursuant to [the subchapter concerning streets [*492] and sidewalks], such person shall be liable for any damage which may be occasioned to persons, animals, or property by reason of negligence in any manner connected with the work.
Corwin argues that this statute represents a “public policy” intended to provide a “statutory remedy” against all persons who negligently perform work subject to the issuance of a permit. He notes that there was no explicit reference to waiving any rights or remedies under NYCAC § 19-110 in the Release Agreement, but even if there were, such a waiver would be unenforceable because of an alleged public policy to protect the public and ensure a remedy against any person acting under a permit to individuals injured by their negligence.
Case law regarding § 19-110 (and its predecessor provision, § 19-107) is sparse, and no court has held that § 19-110 provides a statutory right at all–much less a non-waivable statutory right elevated to [**34] the status of public policy. Instead, the available case law deals exclusively with whether the statute can be invoked as a basis for the City to seek indemnification, as opposed to contribution, from a negligent municipal contractor. See City of New York v. Consol. Edison Co., 198 A.D.2d 31, 31-32, 603 N.Y.S.2d 47 (1st Dep’t 1993) (finding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification, but rather only that a contractor was responsible for its own negligence); Petrucci v. City of New York, 167 A.D.2d 29, 34, 569 N.Y.S.2d 624 (1st Dep’t 1991) (concluding that statute did not provide a basis for indemnification of the City, but only an “intent to render the contractor responsible for those damages actually caused to injured third parties or property by its own negligence or carelessness”); Libardi v. City of New York, 201 A.D.2d 539, 540-41, 607 N.Y.S.2d 717 (2d Dep’t 1994) (same).
This limited case law appears to do no more than clarify, in line with common-law negligence principles, that the City may seek contribution for damages to third parties occasioned by a negligent contractor or property owner conducting work pursuant to a municipal permit. It is plainly insufficient to constitute an overarching public policy guaranteeing Corwin the right to sue any contractor notwithstanding a contractual waiver. Indeed, Corwin has cited no case in which the statute was interpreted to provide a plaintiff a private right of action or a “statutory [**35] remedy” differing in any way from a common-law negligence claim. Accordingly, NYCAC § 19-110 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.
ii. New York General Obligations Law § 5-326
New York has a statutory restriction that invalidates exculpatory clauses or agreements between users and owners and operators of recreational facilities. N.Y. General Obligations Law (“GOL”) § 5-326 provides:
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 [*493] deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.
The Release Agreement explicitly refers to this statute, noting that Released Persons are not “responsible or liable . . . except as may [**36] otherwise be limited by New York General Obligations Law 5-326.” ECF No. 316-1.
In order for GOL § 5-326 to apply, the plain text of the statute indicates that the agreement in question must (1) be made between a user and an owner or operator of a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” and (2) a fee or other compensation must be paid for “use” of a “facility” covered by the statute. Courts that have considered situations where equipment was rented and taken out of the control of the facility owner or operator have additionally considered whether the owner or operator exercised a substantial level of control over the environment in which the recreational activity takes place. See, e.g., Dumez v. Harbor Jet Ski, Inc., 117 Misc. 2d 249, 250, 458 N.Y.S.2d 119 (Sup. Ct. Niagara Cty. 1981).
Corwin argues that the Citi Bike program was primarily, or at the very least, substantially, a “recreational” program, and that the defendants’ business plan presupposed a significant number of daily and recreational users. He cites to a state court proceeding in which a neighborhood association challenged the installation of a Citi Bike station in a public park on the grounds that it was purely a commuter program. There, the City argued and the court held that the program fulfilled a valid recreational purpose. Friends of Petrosino Square v. Sadik-Khan, 42 Misc. 3d 226, 977 N.Y.S.2d 580 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2013), aff’d, 126 A.D.3d 470, 5 N.Y.S.3d 397 (1st Dep’t 2015). Therefore, [**37] according to Corwin, because the Citi Bike rental station where the accident occurred was a “place of recreation,” and he paid a fee to access the facility in the form of his annual membership, GOL § 5-326 operates to invalidate the exculpatory clause in the contract.5
5 Corwin also argues that the express language in the Release Agreement referencing GOL § 5-326 operates as an admission that negligence claims stemming from Citi Bike are not waivable and “is compelling proof of defendants’ recognition that [the] waiver is void.” ECF No. 361, Pl.’s Reply Mem. at 8. This is incorrect. Rather, the reference to GOL § 5-326 is plainly to ensure that the waiver provisions are not overbroad, putting users on notice that any such claims, were they to exist, would not be waived. It is not an admission that such claims actually could exist, or that in this case they do exist.
While the parties may dispute whether Corwin’s fateful Citi Bike ride was “recreational” in character, it is clear that the applicability of GOL § 5-326 cannot possibly turn on whether the given individual was using the bicycle recreationally or for commuting purposes. Defendants, moreover, argue that the statute does not apply because the membership fee does not entitle the user access or use of any physical facility; the fee is solely for the rental of a bike, while any individual is free to traverse the Citi Bike stations or New York City streets.
Several New York courts have held that GOL § 5-326 does not apply to accidents occurring on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Deutsch v. Woodridge Segway, LLC, 117 A.D.3d 776, 777, 985 N.Y.S.2d 716 (2d Dep’t 2014) (statute not applied to plaintiff who rented a Segway vehicle and was taken on defendant-guided tour of muddy public trail “because the fee she paid to the defendant was for the rental of the Segway vehicle, and was not an admission [**38] fee for the use of the public trail over which the tour was conducted”); [*494] Brookner v. N.Y. Roadrunners Club, Inc., 51 A.D.3d 841, 842, 858 N.Y.S.2d 348 (2d Dep’t 2008) (statute not applied to marathon runner because entry fee “was for his participation in the marathon, and was not an admission fee allowing him to use the City-owned public roadway over which the marathon was run” and “public roadway in Brooklyn where the plaintiff alleges he was injured is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Tedesco v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Auth., 250 A.D.2d 758, 758, 673 N.Y.S.2d 181 (2d Dep’t 1998) (statute not applied to cyclist on paid bike tour “since the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, where the plaintiff . . . was injured, is not a ‘place of amusement or recreation'”); Stuhlweissenburg v. Town of Orangetown, 223 A.D.2d 633, 634, 636 N.Y.S.2d 853 (2d Dep’t 1996) (statute not applied to accident occurring in softball game where no fee was paid to access field).
On the other hand, other courts have applied GOL § 5-326 to certain accidents on publicly accessible roadways, trails, or fields. See Williams v. City of Albany, 271 A.D.2d 855, 856-57, 706 N.Y.S.2d 240 (3d Dep’t 2000) (declining to follow Stuhlweissenburg and invalidating waiver for accident occurring in publicly accessible field for plaintiff playing in privately-operated flag football league); Filson v. Cold River Trail Rides, Inc., 242 A.D.2d 775, 777, 661 N.Y.S.2d 841 (3d Dep’t 1997) (invalidating waiver in horseback-riding accident guided by defendant but occurring on publicly accessible parkland); Wright v. Freeport Hudson Anglers, Inc., 2009 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4712 (Sup Ct. Nassau Cnty. Apr. 8, 2009) (invalidating waiver for sea accident occurring in fishing tournament).
In seeking to reconcile [**39] the case law, Defendants point out that every court to consider the applicability of GOL § 5-326 to an accident occurring on a public, paved, urban street has found the statute to be inapplicable. Corwin, for his part, argues that these cases are inapposite because the bike station was not part of a public road at all, but rather a separate “recreational facility” that happened to be located on a public road.6
6 If true, this, of course, would contradict Corwin’s argument that the Release Agreement is unenforceable as to the City because it purports to waive the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain its roads.
Considering the case law and the legislative intent animating the statute, the Court finds as a matter of law that a Citi Bike station is not a “facility” for the purposes of § 5-326. The stations are plainly more properly characterized as storage facilities for bicycles rather than facilities for recreation in and of themselves. Even if riders incidentally enter or pass through the stations on their bicycles, or if the design of the particular bike station that was the site of the accident encouraged riders to pass through it, this does not turn them into “places of amusement or recreation.” Assuming without deciding that Citi Bike is properly characterized as a primarily recreational program, the intended sites for that recreational use are the City’s roadways and bike lanes–the very types of [**40] paved public thoroughfares that courts have held are not “places of amusement or recreation.” See, e.g., Brookner, 51 A.D.3d at 842. Therefore, the station can only be defined in two ways: either it is part of the public road on which riders are meant to engage in recreational activity, or it is a storage facility that is not part of the roadway. Either way, it is not a “place of amusement or recreation” or “similar establishment,” as required to trigger the statute. Accordingly, GOL § 5-326 cannot serve as a basis for invalidating the Release Agreement.
iii. City’s Common Law Duty to Maintain the Roads
New York courts have long held “that a municipality owe[s] to the public the absolute [*495] duty of keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition.” Friedman v. State, 67 N.Y.2d 271, 283, 493 N.E.2d 893, 502 N.Y.S.2d 669 (1986) (quotations omitted); see also Wittorf v. City of New York., 23 N.Y.3d 473, 480, 991 N.Y.S.2d 578, 15 N.E.3d 333 (2014) (“[A] municipality has a duty to maintain its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition and liability will flow for injuries resulting from a breach of that duty.”). As this duty has been characterized as “absolute” and “non-delegable” (though subject to the doctrine of qualified immunity, see infra Part IV), Corwin argues that the City’s duty applies to the bike station and wheel stop at issue and cannot be released by means of a private contract. The City [**41] contends that while it does indeed have a duty to maintain public roadways, a contractual waiver of this duty is permissible and would not offend any overarching public policy.
Before considering whether the City’s duty to maintain public roadways may be released by contract to a voluntary participant in a public transportation program such as Citi Bike, the Court must first determine whether the Citi Bike station where Corwin’s accident occurred properly falls within the scope of that duty. Indeed, defendants argue repeatedly that cyclists are not intended to use bike station areas as a travel lane, and that those facilities are intended only for the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. They contend that the presence of the concrete wheel stops and surrounding cross-hatching, white thermoplastic striping, and flexible delineators plainly distinguished the bike station from the adjoining roadway, and should have indicated to a cyclist that it was an area in which cycling was not permitted.
In determining the scope of a municipality’s duty, New York courts have generally considered whether the municipality affirmatively undertook to provide an improved area adjacent to the road, [**42] such as a shoulder. If so, it has generally been held to be responsible for its maintenance. See Bottalico v. State, 59 N.Y.2d 302, 305, 451 N.E.2d 454, 464 N.Y.S.2d 707 (1983) (finding highway shoulder to be within scope of duty because it was “both foreseeable and contemplated that, once provided, an improved shoulder at times will be driven upon”). The touchstone of this analysis is foreseeability. It does not necessarily depend on the reasonableness of a plaintiff’s conduct. A municipality is required to “maintain the shoulder in a reasonably safe condition for foreseeable uses, including its use resulting from a driver’s negligence.” Id. at 304; see also Stiuso v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 889, 891, 663 N.E.2d 321, 639 N.Y.S.2d 1009 (1995) (same); Saulpaugh v. State, 132 A.D.2d 781, 781-82, 517 N.Y.S.2d 328 (4th Dep’t 1987) (same).
On the other hand, no duty exists where a paved roadway “is more than adequate for safe public passage and travel beyond those limits is neither contemplated nor foreseeable.” Tomassi v. Town of Union, 46 N.Y.2d 91, 97, 385 N.E.2d 581, 412 N.Y.S.2d 842 (1978) (noting that “utility poles, drainage ditches, culverts, trees and shrubbery are often in close proximity to the traveled right of way . . . [b]ut for the careful driver, the placement of these items near the pavement creates no unreasonable danger”). The courts have repeatedly denied recovery for roadway users whose injury stemmed from the lack of maintenance of areas near the roadway whose use was unforeseeable even in emergencies. [**43] See, e.g., Preston v. State, 6 A.D.3d 835, 836, 775 N.Y.S.2d 115 (3d Dep’t 2004) (no recovery for driver hitting tree seven feet from the edge of the travel line, where “nothing in the record indicat[ed] [*496] that defendant affirmatively took any action to create or maintain the area”); Green v. Cty. of Allegany, 300 A.D.2d 1077, 1077, 752 N.Y.S.2d 487 (4th Dep’t 2002) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch and culvert headwall); Muller v. State, 240 A.D.2d 881, 882, 658 N.Y.S.2d 727 (3d Dep’t 1997) (no recovery for failure to maintain drainage ditch headwall beyond the traversable shoulder where the “emergency use of such additional area was neither contemplated nor foreseeable”).
The record does not demonstrate that the City actively contemplated that cyclists would be passing through Citi Bike stations; indeed, precisely the alleged failure to contemplate this possibility forms the basis for Corwin’s argument that the City is not entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. The Court does find, however, that the possibility of cyclists passing through Citi Bike stations located in on-street parking lanes was foreseeable. At times, defendants’ representatives have seemed to admit that riding in the parking lane was, if not expressly permitted, at least a common practice of cyclists. ECF No. 335-24, Jon Orcutt 09/03/15 Depo. at 396-97. (“There are plenty of places with a wide parking lane . . . where [**44] a wide parking lane is kind of implemented as a stealth bike lane.”) This conclusion is buttressed by a brief traffic study conducted by Corwin’s expert, James M. Green. ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶¶ 35, 57 (finding that cyclists regularly circulated through the station at issue and arguing that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design,” which was wider and jutted further out into the traffic lane). But even absent the expert’s study, logic dictates that, just as an automobile is not generally permitted to drive on an improved shoulder but may swerve into it (negligently or not) in a situation where the circumstances so require, it is foreseeable that a cyclist such as Corwin may (negligently or not) enter into the Citi Bike station seeking safety when feeling pressured by tight traffic.
This is, perhaps, an imperfect analogy: whereas the express and primary purpose of an improved highway shoulder is to provide a safe outlet for motorists in emergency situations, this is not so for Citi Bike stations, whose primary purpose is the storage, retrieval, and return of bicycles. Nevertheless, the applicable case law does not require that the primary purpose of the improved [**45] space abutting the road be for such emergency uses; as stated above, foreseeability is sufficient to trigger the municipality’s duty. Nor have courts drawn distinctions between motorists and other roadway users; instead, they have found that cyclists may bring claims predicated on state or municipal government’s failure to maintain roadways. See, e.g., Cotty v. Town of Southampton, 64 A.D.3d 251, 255, 880 N.Y.S.2d 656 (2d Dep’t 2009) (primary assumption of risk doctrine “not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition . . . and such a result does not become justifiable merely because the roadway happens to be in use by a person operating a bicycle”); Caraballo v. City of Yonkers, 54 A.D.3d 796, 796-97, 865 N.Y.S.2d 229 (2d Dep’t 2008) (“[T[he infant plaintiff cannot be said, as a matter of law, to have assumed the risk of being injured by a defective condition of a pothole on a public street, merely because he was participating in the activity of recreational noncompetitive bicycling, and using the bicycle as a means of transportation.” (citations omitted)).
Finally, there can be no question that the duty to maintain the roads applies not only to the physical condition of the road itself, but also to the placement of [*497] obstacles or hazards that make use of the road unsafe. Annino v. City of Utica, 276 N.Y. 192, 196-97, 11 N.E.2d 726 (1937) (municipality found liable [**46] for a tripod dangerously placed over a manhole cover so as to constitute a dangerous obstruction); Whitney v. Town of Ticonderoga, 127 N.Y. 40, 44, 27 N.E. 403 (1891) (“[T]he impairment of a highway for public use may be no less such by an obstruction placed in it than by a physical disturbance or injury to the bed of the roadway.”).
Accordingly, the Court finds that the Citi Bike station, including all of its on-street equipment located in the parking lane, falls within the City’s non-delegable duty to maintain the public roads. Therefore, the Court must now decide whether the City can waive this duty by contract as a condition of participating in the Citi Bike public transportation program.
“[E]ven an agreement that clearly and unambiguously attempts to exempt a party only from liability for ordinary negligence will not be enforced by the courts . . . if it is found to violate public policy either by way of conflicting with an overriding public interest or because it constitutes an abuse of a special relationship between the parties, or both.” Ash, 164 A.D.2d at 369. Indeed, when choosing to invalidate such clauses, courts have often analyzed the “public interest” and “special relationship” prongs together. See id. at 369-71 (invalidating exculpatory clause between dental clinic and patient both [**47] because of the public interest in protecting the welfare of its citizens and ensuring medical quality and the uniqueness of the physician-patient relationship); Conklin v. Canadian-Colonial Airways, Inc., 266 N.Y. 244, 247-48, 194 N.E. 692 (1935) (invalidating clause between common carrier and passenger because allowing public service corporations to disclaim all liability for negligence by contract is contrary to public interest, and passengers are not typically given a choice in contracting); Johnston v. Fargo, 184 N.Y. 379, 384-85, 77 N.E. 388 (1906) (invalidating exculpatory clause between employer and employees both because of the state interest in the “maintenance of proper and reasonable safeguards to human life and limb” and the unequal bargaining power between the parties). On the other hand, courts have readily enforced exculpatory clauses in arm’s length commercial transactions between two private parties, see, e.g., Florence v. Merchants Cent. Alarm Co., Inc., 51 N.Y.2d 793, 412 N.E.2d 1317, 433 N.Y.S.2d 91 (1980), when not expressly prohibited by statute.
No case has considered the specific question of whether a municipality’s duty to keep its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel can be waived by contract. For almost two centuries, however, New York state courts have spoken of an “absolute” duty that could not be delegated to third parties. See Annino, 276 N.Y. at 196 (1937) (“The city owed to the public the absolute duty of [**48] keeping its streets in a reasonably safe condition for travel and was bound to exercise reasonable care to accomplish that end.”) (emphasis added) (citations omitted); Storrs v. City of Utica, 17 N.Y. 104, 108-09 (1858) (finding that municipal corporations “owe to the public the duty of keeping its streets in a safe condition for travel” and “although the work may be let out by contract, the corporation still remains charged with the care and control of the street in which the improvement is carried on . . . [and cannot] either avoid indictment in behalf of the public or its liability to individuals who are injured.”). The only significant exception to this nondelegable duty is that “it is intended to protect the traveling public”–therefore, [*498] the duty has been held not to extend to injured employees of independent contractors working on road construction projects. Lopes v. Rostad, 45 N.Y.2d 617, 624-25, 384 N.E.2d 673, 412 N.Y.S.2d 127 (1978). In reaching this conclusion, the Lopes court stated that, because the government is responsible for providing the public with roads and highways for travel:
[w]ith this responsibility comes the further obligation to assure, insofar as is reasonably possible, that the thoroughfares of travel will be constructed and maintained in a safe condition. A governmental body would hardly [**49] have fulfilled its responsibility if the roadways it provided for public use were a source of public danger. It is for this reason that “[g]overnments have ever been most zealous to afford special protection to the users of streets, highways and other means of transportation” (1936 Report of NY, Law Rev Comm, p 955).
Id. at 625.
Corwin, a cyclist passing through a bike station located in a parking lane on a public street, falls within the category of those deemed protected by a municipality’s duty to maintain its roadways. While it is certainly understandable that the City would seek to limit its exposure to liability stemming from those using the Citi Bike program, its desire to see this salutary transportation initiative succeed is not sufficiently related to the key, centuries-old public policy of guaranteeing the safety of the users of City streets. It is this public policy that underlies its non-delegable duty to keep streets and roadways safe. The City has designed a public transportation system that involves physical installations in parking lanes on heavily transited streets, and permitted a contractor, NYCBS, to implement and manage that program. Even though the purported liability waiver is confined [**50] to road conditions in the circumscribed area of the bike stations, the Court finds that the enforcement of such a waiver against over a million Citi Bike users is contrary to the public policy that dictates that the City has the duty to guarantee road safety.7
7 The waiver would certainly be effective as to claims unrelated to road conditions, such as, for example, the quality of the bicycles or the malfunctioning of the rental kiosks.
After all, the fact that Corwin was riding a Citi Bike, as opposed to his own bicycle, at the time of his accident was purely coincidental. The City does not articulate any public policy in barring Corwin’s claim but permitting a claim brought by a non-member of Citi Bike who strikes the same wheel stop while riding his own bicycle. There is no basis for immunizing the City from suit by one class of cyclists–who participate in a highly publicized transportation program such as Citi Bike–while allowing non-Citi Bike users to bring suit for the same accident occurring in the same area of the street. Simply put, the law clearly imposes upon the City a duty to ensure road safety for all pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and road users on all sections of the road that are foreseeably transitable.
At oral argument, counsel for the City indicated that the execution of transportation programs such as Citi Bike would not be feasible without [**51] such waivers of liability. But the City is not left wholly unprotected. As discussed in Parts IV and V of this opinion, the finder of fact may determine that the City is entitled to qualified immunity in regards to the station design, or that the City was not “affirmatively negligent” and is thus protected by the notice provisions of New York Administrative Code § 7-201. Therefore, the Court does not believe that its invalidation of the [*499] waiver as to road conditions and hazards within the bike stations threatens the viability of the Citi Bike program.
For the foregoing reasons, the Release Agreement effectively releases Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS, allowing only claims of gross negligence to proceed against it. The waiver does not apply to the City, however, because such a release of the City’s duty would be contrary to public policy; accordingly, Corwin may proceed with his common-law negligence claims against the City. The Court need not decide if the APD is a “Released Person” under the Agreement, as it grants summary judgment to APD on all claims in Part VIII of this opinion on other grounds.
III. Affirmative Defenses Based on Corwin’s Failure to Wear [**52] a Helmet
Defendants have set out various affirmative defenses–including comparative negligence, primary assumption of the risk, and failure to mitigate damages–premised on the uncontested fact that Corwin was not wearing a bicycle helmet at the time of the crash. Corwin moves for partial summary judgment on all of these defenses, arguing that there was no statutory obligation that he do so, that the City and NYCBS themselves represented that wearing a helmet was unnecessary, and that New York Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”) § 1238(7) and case law in New York and other jurisdictions expressly prohibits such conduct from being considered for the purposes of liability or damages.
As a preliminary matter, Corwin argues that defendants have failed to produce sufficient evidence to raise a factual question as to whether there was an unreasonable risk of a head injury while riding a Citi Bike without a helmet. Summary judgment is improper if “there is any evidence in the record from any source from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party . . . .” Chambers, 43 F.3d at 37. There are disputed questions of material fact in this case as to both (a) whether a reasonably prudent person in Corwin’s [**53] circumstances would have worn a helmet and (b) whether wearing such a helmet would have mitigated the damages Corwin suffered. See, e.g., ECF No. 344, Decl. of Elizabeth McCalley (arguing that Corwin would not have sustained many of his severe injuries had he worn a helmet).
There is no dispute that Corwin was not obligated to wear a helmet while riding a Citi Bike or any other bicycle; unlike the seatbelt requirements of N.Y. VTL § 1229-c, there is no statutory obligation for an adult bicyclist to wear a helmet while riding a bike on a public road. N.Y. VTL § 1238(5) does require children under the age of fourteen to do so, but imposes no affirmative obligations on individuals over that age. A subsection of the same statute also indicates that “the failure of any person to comply with the provisions of this section shall not constitute contributory negligence or assumption of risk, and shall not in any way bar, preclude or foreclose an action for personal injury or wrongful death by or on behalf of such person, nor in any way diminish or reduce the damages recoverable in any such action.” VTL § 1238(7); see also Lamica v. Precore, 273 A.D.2d 647, 647-48, 709 N.Y.S.2d 694 (3d Dep’t 2000) (in accident involving helmetless child on bicycle, dismissing defendants’ counterclaim that parents were negligent [**54] for failing to ensure child wore helmet). Therefore, Corwin argues, if New York has seen fit to preclude expressly the consideration of helmet evidence for either liability or damages purposes even when wearing a helmet is mandated [*500] by law, surely the failure to wear a helmet by someone not obligated to do so by law should be similarly inadmissible.
The fact that New York has categorically barred the consideration of such evidence in a statute aimed at the protection of children does not, however, imply that the state has a general public policy against the admission of such evidence for all bicycle riders. Indeed, though Corwin argues that it would be “anomalous and irrational” to admit helmet evidence for an older rider under no legal obligation to wear a helmet, there is a clear and obvious rationale for the limited reach of the statute: a desire to prevent families from being burdened with costs stemming from accidents occurring on account of their young children’s inability to perceive risks, and a determination that parents should not be found negligent for failing to ensure that their children wear helmets. No court has interpreted VTL § 1238(7) to stand for a general public policy that the [**55] failure to wear a helmet is inadmissible for purposes of measuring comparative negligence or mitigation of damages, and the Court declines to do so today.
While the New York Court of Appeals has not spoken authoritatively on the specific question of whether the non-use of a bicycle helmet is admissible under such circumstances, the framework that it adopted regarding the non-use of seat belts in automobiles is instructive. At a time when no law mandated that occupants of a passenger car wore seat belts, the court explicitly rejected the failure to wear a seat belt as a basis for contributory negligence8 or primary assumption of the risk, but concluded that:
nonuse of an available seat belt . . . is a factor which the jury may consider, in light of all the other facts received in evidence, in arriving at its determination as to whether the plaintiff has exercised due care, not only to avoid injury to himself, but to mitigate any injury he would likely sustain. However . . . the plaintiff’s nonuse of an available seat belt should be strictly limited to the jury’s determination of the plaintiff’s damages and should not be considered by the triers of fact in resolving the issue of liability. [**56]
Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 449-50, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916 (1974).
8 Though the Spier decision was rendered before New York’s adoption of the comparative fault system and therefore discussed only if a plaintiff would be wholly barred from recovery under the then-existing doctrine of contributory negligence, New York courts have consistently considered seat belt evidence exclusively for purposes of mitigation of damages, and not for the apportionment of comparative fault. See, e.g., Stein v. Penatello, 185 A.D.2d 976, 976-77, 587 N.Y.S.2d 37 (2d Dep’t 1992).
Therefore, in cases involving the failure to wear a seat belt, New York law imposes a pre-accident obligation to mitigate damages, and the burden of proving that the injured party failed to do so rests upon the defendant. Davis v. Davis, 49 A.D.2d 1024, 1024, 374 N.Y.S.2d 482 (4th Dep’t 1975). Lower New York courts have applied the same principles to other types of protective gear as well. See, e.g., Penzell v. State, 120 Misc. 2d 600, 466 N.Y.S.2d 562, 567 (Ct. Cl. 1983) (motorcycle helmets); Giannetti v. Darling Del. Carting Co., 175 Misc. 2d 1, 666 N.Y.S.2d 372, 374-76 (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Cnty. 1997) (safety gloves in fast food restaurant). And, indeed, in the state court proceedings parallel to this case, the Appellate Division explicitly applied this reasoning to bicycle helmets, noting that “[Corwin’s] failure to use a helmet is akin to a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt in a motor vehicle case. It is well settled that any such failure does not go to comparative liability, but rather to how [*501] damages, if any, should be assessed.” Corwin v. City of New York, 141 A.D.3d 484, 490, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118 (1st Dep’t 2016) (citation omitted).9
9 State courts in other jurisdictions have also drawn analogies between seat belt and helmet use. See, e.g., Stehlik v. Rhoads, 2002 WI 73, 253 Wis. 2d 477, 645 N.W.2d 889 (Wis. 2002) (same principles govern seat belt and helmet defenses for ATV rider); Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 186 (Iowa 1991) (same for moped rider); Warfel v. Cheney, 157 Ariz. 424, 758 P.2d 1326 (Ariz. App. 1988) (same for motorcyclist).
To be sure, some courts across the country have reached contrary conclusions.10 See, e.g., Cordy v. Sherwin Williams Co., 975 F. Supp. 639, 647-48 (D.N.J. 1997) (noting that nothing in federal or state law alerts adult cyclists that their rights may be prejudiced by failure to wear a helmet, finding fewer safety concerns with helmetless biking and rejecting analogy to seat belt laws); Walden v. State, 250 Mont. 132, 818 P.2d 1190, 1196-97 (Mont. 1991) (holding same in state where evidence [**57] of seat belt use is inadmissible for mitigation of damages purposes). The decision in Corwin, however, and the logic of Spier and the New York cases extending it beyond the seat belt domain, compel denial of Corwin’s motion for summary judgment as it pertains to the affirmative defenses relating to mitigation of damages.
10 Corwin relies on Phelan v. State of New York, 11 Misc. 3d 151, 804 N.Y.S.2d 886 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 2005), where the New York Court of Claims declined to consider a bicyclist’s non-use of a helmet in mitigation of damages. The case, however, is distinguishable as “no persuasive testimony, medical or otherwise, was proffered to establish that [plaintiff’s] injuries would have been either avoided or reduced had she worn a helmet.” Id. at 167. Therefore, the defendant failed to make even a prima facie case that damages should be mitigated by the decedent’s failure to wear a helmet. To the extent that Phelan also based the decision on the fact the “[d]ecedent was not required to wear a helmet [by law],” this is inconsistent with the Appellate Division’s decision in Corwin, 141 A.D.3d 484, 36 N.Y.S.3d 118, and the logic of Spier v. Barker, 35 N.Y.2d 444, 323 N.E.2d 164, 363 N.Y.S.2d 916.
Nevertheless, even as Spier and its progeny indicate that Corwin’s non-use of a helmet will be admissible for the purposes of calculating damages, the cases also hold that such evidence is inadmissible on questions of liability. Therefore, defendants shall not be permitted to argue that Corwin was comparatively negligent for failing to wear a helmet.11 For the same reason and for the reasons expressed in Part VI of this Opinion, defendants will also not be permitted to argue that Corwin’s claims are barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. See also Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 256 (2d Dep’t 2009) (“[R]iding a bicycle on a paved public roadway normally does not constitute a sporting activity for purposes of applying the primary assumption of risk doctrine.”).
11 Of course, defendants may still argue at trial that Corwin was comparatively negligent for other reasons, including, inter alia, the speed, manner, and location of where he was riding his bicycle.
Accordingly, Corwin’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED as to the City’s Seventh and Ninth affirmative defenses (ECF. No. 200), NYCBS’s Sixth affirmative [**58] defense (ECF No. 199), and Metro Express’s Sixth affirmative defense (ECF No. 213) concerning the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to mitigation of damages, and GRANTED as the City’s Second and Eighth affirmative defenses, NYCBS’s First and Seventh affirmative defenses and Metro Express’s Second and Seventh affirmative defenses, inasmuch as those defenses assert the relevance of his non-use of a helmet to comparative negligence and assumption of the risk. Sealcoat [*502] did not explicitly reference Corwin’s failure to use a helmet as an affirmative defense, (ECF No. 211) and in Part VIII, the Court grants summary judgment to APD and APDNY, thus rendering the question of summary judgment on their First affirmative defense moot.
IV. Qualified Immunity
A. City’s Qualified Immunity for Bike Station Design and Wheel Stop Placement
The City of New York moves for summary judgment on the grounds that its involvement in the design and planning of the Citi Bike program is a uniquely governmental function for which it is entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. See Valdez v. City of New York, 18 N.Y.3d 69, 76, 960 N.E.2d 356, 936 N.Y.S.2d 587 (2011) (“Even if a plaintiff establishes all elements of a negligence claim, a state or municipal defendant engaging in a governmental [**59] function can avoid liability if it . . . proves that the alleged negligent act or omission involved the exercise of discretionary authority.”).
“When a negligence claim is asserted against a municipality, the first issue for a court to decide is whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose.” Applewhite v. Accuhealth, Inc., 21 N.Y.3d 420, 425, 995 N.E.2d 131, 972 N.Y.S.2d 169 (2013). A municipality engages in governmental functions when its acts are “undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers,” and in proprietary functions when “its activities essentially substitute for or supplement traditionally private enterprises.” Id. (citations omitted). If a municipality acts in a governmental capacity, the plaintiff must prove that he was owed a special duty, and that the exercise of governmental authority was not discretionary. Turturro v. City of New York, 28 N.Y.3d 469, 478-79, 45 N.Y.S.3d 874, 68 N.E.3d 693 (2016).
Traffic planning decisions, including decisions about the design of roads and other facilities, are proprietary functions, arising from a municipality’s “proprietary duty to keep its roads and highways in a reasonably safe condition.” Wittorf, 23 N.Y.3d at 480. This duty, while “nondelegable . . . is measured by the courts with consideration given [**60] to the proper limits on intrusion into the municipality’s planning and decision-making functions.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). As such, “in the specific proprietary field of roadway safety, a municipality is afforded ‘a qualified immunity from liability arising out of a highway planning decision'” under certain circumstances. Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 479-80 (quoting Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 283)).
Such immunity arises only when the defendant can “demonstrate that a public planning body considered and passed upon the same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 30 A.D.3d 289, 290-91, 818 N.Y.S.2d 32 (1st Dep’t 2006) (finding general evaluation of buses referencing passengers’ ability to grab onto overhead racks insufficient to grant qualified immunity on claim that transit authority should have installed grab bars and handholds); Leon v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 96 A.D.3d 554, 554-55, 947 N.Y.S.2d 33 (1st Dep’t 2012) (denying qualified immunity for passenger injured by falling in gap between train car and platform when City had only studied the risk that train would scrape platform); see [*503] also Turturro, 28 N.Y.3d at 483 (no qualified immunity for City’s failure to study speeding traffic on avenue); Poveromo v. Town of Cortlandt, 127 A.D.3d 835, 837, 6 N.Y.S.3d 617 (2d Dep’t 2015) (no qualified immunity for municipality’s failure to install certain traffic devices at an intersection absent a study); Kuhland v. City of New York, 81 A.D.3d 786, 787, 916 N.Y.S.2d 637 (2d Dep’t 2011) (no qualified immunity for design of traffic [**61] intersection in absence of any pedestrian traffic studies); cf. Levi v. Kratovac, 35 A.D.3d 548, 549, 827 N.Y.S.2d 196 (2d Dep’t 2006) (qualified immunity granted for design of traffic intersection pursuant to a pedestrian safety study and reasonable traffic plan).
In light of these principles, the key question is whether the City’s planning of the Citi Bike program “passed upon the same question of risk” that this case presents–namely, that the placement of unpainted concrete wheel stops within Citi Bike stations could pose a tripping danger to cyclists. The City describes a collaborative process between it and APD based on its experiences with “bike corrals” that employed similar features, including wheel stops. ECF No. 293, City St. ¶¶ 40-42, 50. The City indicates that it viewed wheel stops as “the most important safety feature that was also installed in 2011.” Id. ¶ 46. Accordingly, the result of its collaboration with APD was a set of guidelines including the use of “non-permanent bollards, wheel stops, and paint markings.” Id. ¶ 55; ECF No. 289-19, 04/23/12 Station Siting Guidelines at 11. The City notes that APD and APDNY considered a wheel stop to be a necessary feature to protect the bike station from vehicles encroaching on the station and [**62] damaging the equipment or injuring individuals who may be within the station. City St. ¶ 58; ECF No. 289-3, Adrian Witte 08/14/15 Depo. at 20-21; ECF No. 289-5, Jeff Olson 09/29/15 Depo. at 410-11. The City did not, however, approve of the use of wheel stops that extend outside of the parking lane and into the travel lane. City St. ¶ 66; ECF No. 291, Sameer Barkho Decl. ¶ 10. The City determined that a yellow and black object marker, which had been included in the original design of some bike corrals, was “optional” because the on-street bike parking station sat in a parking lane and not a travel lane, and “pavement markings were more than sufficient to signal to an approaching motorist or bicyclist the presence of the on-street bike parking station and the presence of the wheel stop in the parking lane.” Id. ¶ 11. On the contrary, wheel stops would be situated within a white painted rectangular box with “white paint markings forming diagonal lines within the rectangular box.” Id. at ¶ 12.
The record plainly indicates that the decision to install concrete wheel stops in Citi Bike stations was the product of careful consideration and deliberation between the City and APD’s design and [**63] engineering experts. This mere fact, however, does not suffice for the City to be entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Corwin does not merely seek to have the fact finder “examine the criteria that were considered by the State’s professional staff, emphasize factors allegedly overlooked, and, with the benefit of hindsight, rule that the studies were inadequate as a matter of law.” Friedman, 67 N.Y.2d at 285-86. Rather, he argues that though the City considered the need and efficacy of wheel stop placement to prevent cars from encroaching into the stations and harming individuals or property, it conducted no studies whatsoever as to whether such wheel stops could constitute tripping hazards for cyclists passing through such stations.
[*504] Though it is a close question, because the City has obviously given the coloring, placement, and demarcation of wheel stops some thought, the Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City studied or “passed upon the same question of risk” presented in this case. While there is extensive testimony in the record that the City believed that wheel stops were of great importance in protecting stations from automobiles, the City has presented [**64] no specific study that suggests that it considered the effect of wheel stop placement or design on the safety of pedestrians or cyclists passing through the station, or whether the City considered that the wheel stops might be in the foreseeable paths of cyclists who, by custom or necessity, pass through the Citi Bike station footprints. In particular, it is not clear on what basis the City decided that object markers were to be made “optional,” or if the City considered the adequacy of shorter wheel stops that would extend no further into the parking lane than the bikes themselves. Therefore, as a reasonable fact-finder could find that the City did not study or pass on the “same question of risk,” the City is not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law on the specific question of wheel stop placement. At trial, the jury will be asked special interrogatories to resolve these disputed facts.
B. City’s Qualified Immunity for Failure to Provide Bicycle Helmets to Citi Bike Users
The City also moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity on Corwin’s claims that “the intentional failure and refusal of the Defendants to design Citi Bike to include a convenient system [**65] of helmet rentals–as in place in Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle–or otherwise provide helmets at all Citi Bike sites, was negligent . . . .” ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 352.
The record plainly demonstrates that the City’s decision not to mandate or provide helmets to Citi Bike users was the fruit of a well-reasoned policy based on extensive study of the “same question of risk as would go to a jury in the case at issue.” Jackson, 30 A.D.3d at 290. As early as 2009, the City’s Feasibility Study noted that “increasing the number of bicyclists is one of the most reliable ways to increase bicyclist safety,” and cast doubt on the feasibility of helmet distribution. City St. ¶ 4; ECF No. 290-1, Bike Share Feasibility Study. The director of the City’s Bike Share Unit stated that the City found that “mandatory helmet laws decreased bicycle ridership in general and decreased participation in bike share programs in particular. [The City] considered statistics showing that mandatory helmets laws actually decreased the safety of bicycling . . . [and] bicycle riders wearing helmets tend to ride more recklessly than riders who do not.” ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 5. The City specifically noted that in Melbourne, [**66] Australia, mandatory helmet laws resulted in a lowered rate of bicycle usage. City St. ¶ 13; ECF No. 289-2, Kate Fillin-Yeh 08/20/15 Depo. at 46-48. The City also specifically considered installing automatic helmet rental machines and rejected the proposal on hygiene and structural integrity grounds in public comments justifying the policy choice. ECF No. 290, John Frost Decl. ¶ 6; ECF No. 289-1, Stephanie Levinsky-Shaw 08/12/15 Depo. at 222. Nevertheless, the City encouraged bicycle helmet use by distributing discount voucher coupons for the purchase of helmets to annual members and expanding helmet fitting and giveaway programs. ECF No. 290, Frost Decl. ¶ 7; ECF No. 289-2, Fillin-Yeh Depo. at 56, 60.
[*505] Contrary to Corwin’s contentions, the fact that Defendants may raise the issue of his non-use of a helmet to prove a failure to mitigate damages does not affect the City’s qualified immunity on this issue. Corwin will, of course, be free to demonstrate that his “conduct was not unreasonable under the circumstances and that he did not breach a duty of care because adults are not required to wear helmets while riding bicycles in New York City and the Citi Bike program does not provide helmets.” [**67] Corwin, 141 A.D.3d at 495 (Andrias, J., dissenting). He may not, however, seek to hold the City liable for what was a well-reasoned and studied determination made in the public interest. See Weiss v. Fote, 7 N.Y.2d 579, 588, 167 N.E.2d 63, 200 N.Y.S.2d 409 (1960) (“[C]ourts should not be permitted to review determinations of governmental planning bodies under the guise of allowing them to be challenged in negligence suits.”). Accordingly, the City is granted summary judgment on Corwin’s negligence claim regarding its failure to provide helmets because it has qualified immunity on this issue.
V. New York City Administrative Code § 7-201
New York City Administrative Code § 7-201(c)(2) provides that:
No civil action shall be maintained against the city for damage to property or injury to person or death sustained in consequence of any street . . . being out of repair, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed, unless it appears that written notice of the defective, unsafe, dangerous or obstructed condition, was actually given to the commissioner of transportation . . . or where there was previous injury to person or property as a result of the . . . condition, and written notice thereof was given to a city agency, or there was written acknowledgement from the city of the . . . condition, and there was a failure or neglect [**68] within fifteen days after the receipt of such notice to repair or remove the defect, danger or obstruction complained of, or the place otherwise made reasonably safe.
Popularly known as the “Pothole Law,” the purpose of § 7-201(c)(2) is to prevent municipal liability for “nonfeasance” and to limit it to cases where the municipality had actual notice and opportunity to correct the hazardous condition. Katz v. City of New York, 87 N.Y.2d 241, 243, 661 N.E.2d 1374, 638 N.Y.S.2d 593 (1995). It is uncontested that the City did not have written notice of the installation of the specific wheel stop at the Madison Avenue end of the Citi Bike station where the crash occurred until after the accident, and that the drawing accompanying the permit does not show a wheel stop at that location. City St. ¶¶ 107-12. City records do not demonstrate any written complaints or claims of injury regarding a wheel stop at that location. Id. at ¶¶ 111-13.
There are, however, two exceptions to § 7-201(c)(2)–“that the municipality affirmatively created the defect through an act of negligence or that a special use resulted in a special benefit to the locality.” Yarborough v. City of New York, 10 N.Y.3d 726, 728, 882 N.E.2d 873, 853 N.Y.S.2d 261 (2008) (citation omitted).
Corwin does not merely allege that the City failed to remediate a dangerous condition created by a third party; indeed, his entire theory of liability [**69] is predicated on the premise that the City was affirmatively negligent in the design and placement of Citi Bike stations and wheel stops in the system as a whole. Additionally, he argues that the City was on notice of contractors’ failures to install stations as per plan specifications and yet failed to monitor them effectively, and ultimately approved an [*506] identical policy of putting wheel stops on both ends of Citi Bike stations. ECF No. 335-33, NYC Comptroller Audit; ECF No. 336-25, Station Plan w/ 2 Wheel Stops. The City, for its part, notes that neither it nor NYCBS, with whom it had a contractual relationship, actually installed the wheel stop at issue; rather, it alleges that it was installed by Sealcoat, a contractor of MetroExpress, who itself was NYCBS’s contractor. City St. ¶¶ 83-84.
The Court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the City was affirmatively negligent so as to lose the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2). While Corwin cannot produce “smoking gun” evidence that the City affirmatively directed NYCBS or its agents to install the specific wheel stop in question, Corwin does provide evidence indicating that similar wheel stops were installed [**70] elsewhere in the City and that modifications to station plan installations were often done informally. See ECF No. 368-6 (10/30/2013 email from Dani Simons, NYCBS, to Stephanie Levitsky, DOT, stating “I do not know why [the wheel stop is] not in the drawings. I do know that [NYCBS directors] Hasib [Ikramullah] and Michael [Pellegrino] have both told me that we’ve started putting them on the cross-walk side of stations in high traffic areas . . . .”); ECF No. 336-19 (07/01/2013 email from Stephanie Levinsky to Jon Orcutt referencing “numerous on the fly modification[s]”); ECF No. 368-8 (May 15, 2013 email from DOT to NYCBS referencing “supplemental street treatments” not on the initial plan diagrams).
This evidence could lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that either the specific wheel stop in question, or all wheel stops that enter into the foreseeable pathway of a cyclist, were installed pursuant to affirmative acts of negligence by the City. The fact that the City had no direct contractual relationship or knowledge of the involvement of Metro Express or Sealcoat is not dispositive. Just as the City cannot delegate its duty to maintain the roads to a contractor, it cannot do so to a subcontractor [**71] of that contractor.
Accordingly, the question of whether the affirmative negligence exception to the written notice protections of § 7-201(c)(2) applies is a disputed question of fact to be resolved at trial, and the City is not entitled to summary judgment because it was not provided notice of the allegedly defective condition.12
12 Because the Court finds that the “affirmative negligence” exception may apply and because neither party has adequately briefed the “special use resulting in a special benefit” exception to § 7-201(c)(2), the Court declines to address the “special use” exception in this opinion.
VI. Primary Assumption of the Risk
The City, NYCBS, and APD also move for summary judgment on the grounds that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk bars Corwin’s negligence claims. In voluntarily undertaken recreational activities, the duty of a defendant is “to make the conditions as safe as they appear to be. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, plaintiff has consented to them and defendant has performed its duty.” Turcotte v. Fell, 68 N.Y.2d 432, 439, 502 N.E.2d 964, 510 N.Y.S.2d 49 (1986). In this case, the Release Agreement signed by Corwin contained explicit provisions on assumption of the risk, which state, inter alia, that “Member agrees that riding a Citi Bike bicycle involves many obvious and not-so-obvious risks, dangers, and hazards, which may result in injury or death . . . and that such risks, dangers, and hazards cannot always be predicted or [*507] avoided. Member agrees that such risks, dangers, [**72] and hazards are Member’s sole responsibility.” ECF No. 316-1, Release Agreement. Whether or not the broad assumption of the risk language is applicable depends on what courts consider to be the risks inherent in bicycling, recreational or otherwise, on a paved road in an urban environment.
The New York Court of Appeals has cautioned that the doctrine of assumption of risk is justifiable exclusively for its utility in “‘facilitat[ing] free and vigorous participation in athletic activities'” and warned that the doctrine must be “closely circumscribed” and not “applied outside this limited context” lest it unduly displace the state’s comparative negligence regime. Trupia v. Lake George Cent. Sch. Dist., 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127 (2010) (citing Benitez v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 73 N.Y.2d 650, 657, 541 N.E.2d 29, 543 N.Y.S.2d 29 (1989)).13 Accordingly, the assumption of the risk doctrine is not applicable to this case. “In determining whether a bicycle rider has subjected himself or herself to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, we must consider whether the rider is engaged in a sporting activity, such that his or her consent to the dangers inherent in the activity may reasonably be inferred.” Cotty, 64 A.D.3d at 255. Courts have consistently held that riding a bicycle on a paved road is not such a “sporting activity.” The fact that an individual may be engaging in a recreational [**73] or leisure activity is not enough because the doctrine “is not designed to relieve a municipality of its duty to maintain its roadways in a safe condition.” Id.; see also Moore v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 751, 752, 816 N.Y.S.2d 131 (2d Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff did not assume risk of recreational cycling on paved park road); Vestal v. Cty. of Suffolk, 7 A.D.3d 613, 614-15, 776 N.Y.S.2d 491 (2d Dep’t 2004) (“[T]he injured plaintiff cannot be said as a matter of law to have assumed the risk of being injured as a result of a defective condition on a paved pathway merely because she participated in the activity of bicycling,” even where County argued that the pathway was “abandoned”).
13 In its reply memorandum of law, NYCBS appears to characterize Trupia as permitting an open-ended “social benefit” analysis to determine whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies and discusses the numerous beneficial aspects of the Citi Bike program as a public transit system. Trupia, however, was limited to discussing the social benefit to certain risky athletic activities and explicitly warns against applying the doctrine in any other context. 14 N.Y.3d 392, 395, 927 N.E.2d 547, 901 N.Y.S.2d 127.
To be sure, courts have held that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in other contexts involving recreational cyclists. See, e.g., DeJesus v. City of New York, 29 A.D.3d 401, 402, 815 N.Y.S.2d 502 (1st Dep’t 2006) (plaintiff assumed risk for riding on pedestrian-only pathway in housing development); Chrem v. City of New York, 293 A.D.2d 301, 302, 741 N.Y.S.2d 201 (1st Dep’t 2002) (plaintiff assumed risk of steep drop-off in the back of a dirt mound not designated for cycling); Furgang v. Club Med, Inc., 299 A.D.2d 162, 162, 753 N.Y.S.2d 359 (1st Dep’t 2002) (“[T]he risk of encountering ruts and bumps while riding a bike over a rough roadway without a helmet is so obvious [that] as a matter of law, plaintiff assumed any risk inherent in the activity . . . .”); Goldberg v. Town of Hempstead, 289 A.D.2d 198, 198, 733 N.Y.S.2d 691 (2d Dep’t 2001) (“Since the risk of striking a hole and falling is an inherent risk in riding a bicycle on most outdoor surfaces, [**74] and the defective condition in this case was open and obvious, the infant plaintiff assumed [*508] the risk associated with riding her bicycle on the ballfield.”) (citations omitted); Calise v. City of New York, 239 A.D.2d 378, 379, 657 N.Y.S.2d 430 (2d Dep’t 1997) (plaintiff assumed the risk of hitting an exposed tree root on unpaved path in public park). These cases, however, are readily distinguishable because they all involved individuals riding a bicycle on an unpaved path or other area plainly not designated for cycling. While defendants contend that the Citi Bike station was such an “undesignated” area, the station was obviously integrated into the public roadway, and Corwin has at the very least raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the design of this station compelled or encouraged him to ride through it to avoid riding dangerously close to traffic. Therefore, his brief passage through the parking lane and bike station cannot be analogized to a considered decision to engage in recreational mountain biking or to ride down an undesignated pedestrian walkway.
Accordingly, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is unavailable, and defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on this theory.
VII. “Open and Obvious”
A defendant has “no duty [**75] to protect or warn against an open and obvious condition which is not inherently dangerous.” Stern v. River Manor Care Ctr., Inc., 106 A.D.3d 990, 990, 965 N.Y.S.2d 377 (2d Dep’t 2013). Whether a condition was open and obvious is generally a question of fact inappropriate for summary judgment and “depends on the totality of the specific facts of each case.” Russo v. Home Goods, Inc., 119 A.D.3d 924, 925-26, 990 N.Y.S.2d 95 (2d Dep’t 2014). Nevertheless, “a court may determine that a risk was open and obvious as a matter of law when the established facts compel that conclusion . . . .” Tagle v. Jakob, 97 N.Y.2d 165, 169, 763 N.E.2d 107, 737 N.Y.S.2d 331 (2001). Defendants contend that Corwin’s claims fail as a matter of law because the concrete wheel stop, located in a striped white box with “zebra” cross-hatching underneath and surrounded by four three-foot-tall flexible delineators, was “open and obvious.”
Defendants’ claims are buttressed by cases holding that wheel stops located in parking lots or similar environments were sufficiently “open and obvious” so as to bar claims by injured pedestrians. See, e.g., May v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc., No. 13-CV-170 (FJS)(ATB), 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140090, 2014 WL 4966544, at *5-6 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 2, 2014) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious especially given plaintiff’s admission that she had previously seen it); Abraido v. 2001 Marcus Ave, LLC, 126 A.D.3d 571, 571-72, 4 N.Y.S.3d 43 (1st Dep’t 2015) (wheel stop in well-lit parking lot open and obvious); Bellini v. Gypsy Magic Enters., Inc., 112 A.D.3d 867, 868, 978 N.Y.S.2d 73 (2d Dep’t 2013) (parking lot wheel stop open and obvious when plaintiff admitted she was attempting to step over it); Wachspress v. Cent. Parking Sys. of New York, Inc., 111 A.D.3d 499, 499-500, 974 N.Y.S.2d 439 (1st Dep’t 2013) (parking [**76] lot wheel stop open and obvious); Zimkind v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 12 A.D.3d 593, 593-94, 785 N.Y.S.2d 108 (2d Dep’t 2004) (same).
Whether or not a potential hazard is readily visible to the naked eye is evidently an important consideration in determining whether it is open and obvious, but it does not definitively resolve the question because “[t]he nature or location of some hazards, while they are technically visible, make them likely to be overlooked.” Westbrook v. WR Activities-Cabrera Mkts., 5 A.D.3d 69, 72, 773 N.Y.S.2d 38 (1st Dep’t 2004). On at least two occasions, New York courts, considering the broader context of plaintiffs’ encounter with wheel stops, declined [*509] to find that they were “open and obvious.” In Rivera v. Queens Ballpark Co., LLC, 134 A.D.3d 796, 797-98, 22 N.Y.S.3d 106 (2d Dep’t 2015), the court found that a concrete wheel stop that began in a designated parking space but partially extended into and obstructed a pedestrian walkway was not “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Similarly, in O’Leary v. Saugerties Cent. Sch. Dist., 277 A.D.2d 662, 662, 716 N.Y.S.2d 424 (3d Dep’t 2000), a plaintiff who tripped over a concrete parking lot wheel stop raised a triable issue of fact by arguing that it was undetectable and camouflaged by cars parked bumper-to-bumper.
Were the Court to view the wheel stop, cross-hatching, and delineators in isolation, it would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the conspicuous parking lot wheel stops that New York courts have found to be “open and obvious” as a matter of law. Notwithstanding [**77] Corwin’s argument that the wheel stop was “camouflaged” because it was not painted in a bright color that would contrast it with its surroundings, photographic evidence submitted by both Corwin and defendants suggests to the Court that it would have been readily visible to an observant pedestrian. Nevertheless, the types of obstacles that a pedestrian might expect to encounter in a parking lot are substantially different from those that a cyclist would expect in an on-street bike station. Therefore, the Court finds that Corwin has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the wheel stop was open and obvious to an attentive person in his position–that is, a cyclist traveling within a station that arguably invited use as a bike lane.
The declaration of James M. Green, Corwin’s engineering expert, brings forth various issues relevant in this analysis. First, Green alleges that the Citi Bike station in question was wider than the specifications required, presenting Corwin with the “choice of continuing through the bike parking facility, or turning out into traffic, with only approximately 0.75 feet between [him] and moving vehicular traffic.” ECF No. 335, Green Decl. ¶ 56. An [**78] hour-long traffic study conducted by Green found that “cyclists circulate through the [Citi Bike] station with regularity” and that this was a “foreseeable consequence of this Station design.” Id. ¶¶ 35, 57. Green therefore argues that the wheel stop, though in a parking lane, was placed within the foreseeable path of a cyclist. Id. ¶ 46. He further concluded that various factors, including the wheel stop’s partial obscuring by parked bicycles, its lack of contrast against the grey asphalt, and a cyclist’s need simultaneously to pay attention to dynamic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, would have made the wheel stop inconspicuous, not “open and obvious.” Id. ¶¶ 48-49.
In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Scott, 550 U.S. at 378. Drawing all inferences in his favor, Corwin has distinguished the cases that feature garden-variety wheel stops in parking lots. Similar to the scenario in Rivera, 134 A.D.3d at 797, where the court did not find that a wheel stop was open and obvious as a matter of law when it partially obstructed a pedestrian walkway, there is a genuine dispute of material [**79] fact as to whether the wheel stop hazardously obstructed a path that was foreseeably and actually utilized by cyclists.
Accordingly, defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the wheel stop that caused Corwin’s accident was “open and obvious.”
[*510] VIII. Claims against Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC
Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning + Design + Architecture of New York, PLLC (collectively, “APD”), the architects and designers for the Citi Bike project who collaborated with the City to generate site plans for stations, move for summary judgment on Corwin’s claims of common law, gross, and professional negligence. APD notes that the key elements of the station that Corwin alleges caused his crash–primarily, the installation of the additional wheel stop at the east end of the station and the increased width of the station footprint–were installed in violation of its approved design. Corwin alleges that, even if APD did not recommend the installation of the specific wheel stop, their recommendation of unpainted concrete wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system, and wheel stops’ placement within the [**80] foreseeable path of cyclists passing through stations were substantial factors in his accident. The Court need not resolve this dispute, however, because it finds that, regardless of the propriety of its recommendations to the City, APD did not owe a duty of care to Corwin under Espinal v. Melville Snow Contractors, Inc., 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002).
It is uncontested that, as an architecture firm, APD did not have any contractual obligations to install, inspect, or maintain Citi Bike stations and, therefore, could not be liable to Corwin under any theory dependent on its control of Citi Bike stations or wheel stops. See Gibbs v. Port Auth. of New York, 17 A.D.3d 252, 254, 794 N.Y.S.2d 320 (1st Dep’t 2005) (“Liability for a dangerous condition on property may only be predicated upon occupancy, ownership, control or special use of such premises . . . .”). It is similarly clear that APD had no direct contractual obligation to Corwin. Therefore, any duty to Corwin would necessarily flow out of APD’s contractual obligation to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS. “In the ordinary case, a contractual obligation, standing alone, will impose a duty only in favor of the promisee and intended third-party beneficiaries.” Eaves Brooks Costume Co. v. Y.B.H. Realty Corp., 76 N.Y.2d 220, 226, 556 N.E.2d 1093, 557 N.Y.S.2d 286 (1990); see also H.R. Moch Co. v. Rensselaer Water Co., 247 N.Y. 160, 168, 159 N.E. 896 (1928) (Cardozo, J.) (noting that a contrary holding would imply that a contracting party would be forced into “the involuntary assumption [**81] of a series of new relations, inescapably hooked together”).
In Espinal, the New York Court of Appeals, synthesizing decades of case law, announced three exceptions to the general principle that contracting parties do not owe a duty of care to third persons. These exceptions are:
(1) where the contracting party, in failing to exercise reasonable care in the performance of his duties, ‘launche[s] a force or instrument of harm’ (Moch, 247 N.Y. at 168); (2) where the plaintiff detrimentally relies on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties (see Eaves Brooks, 76 N.Y.2d at 226) and (3) where the contracting party has entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely (see Palka v. Servicemaster Mgmt. Servs. Corp., 83 N.Y.2d 579, 589, 634 N.E.2d 189, 611 N.Y.S.2d 817 (1994)).
Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d at 140.
Corwin could not have relied on APD’s continuing performance under its contract with Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because [*511] APD had no such obligations except submitting site plans, and it had no effect on the duty of the other defendants to maintain the bike stations safely. Therefore, the only Espinal exception that arguably applies is that APD “launched a force or instrument of harm” with its allegedly negligent site plans and recommendations for wheel stop placements. This standard is met where “the promisor, while engaged affirmatively in [**82] discharging a contractual obligation, creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others, or increases that risk.” Church v. Callanan Indus., Inc., 99 N.Y.2d 104, 111, 782 N.E.2d 50, 752 N.Y.S.2d 254 (2002); see also Guzman v. Wackenhut Corp., 394 F. App’x 801, 803 (2d Cir. 2010) (summary order).
On these facts, accepting the argument that providing allegedly negligent design advice and site plans is sufficient to “launch a force or instrument of harm” would lead to the very limitless expansion of tort liability that New York law seeks to prevent. Moch Co., 247 N.Y. at 165 (Cardozo, J.) (“An intention to assume an obligation of indefinite extension to every member of the public is seen to be the more improbable when we recall the crushing burden that the obligation would impose.”). Indeed, Corwin’s argument is that APD’s negligence consists not of specific malfeasance relating to the design of the Citi Bike station where his accident occurred,14 but its general negligence in approving the type, appearance, and placement of wheel stops throughout the Citi Bike system. The logical conclusion of this argument is that by providing services to Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, APD would be subjecting itself to potential tort liability to literally millions of potential plaintiffs who could be involved in an accident involving wheel stops in any one of hundreds of Citi Bike stations–even as [**83] it had no responsibility for the maintenance or installation of the allegedly hazardous obstructions.15 This is not the law as summarized in Espinal.
14 Indeed, as APD argues, the Citi Bike station at issue in this case did not conform to its plan at all. See ECF No. 321-30, APD Expert Report. Corwin’s own expert would seem to agree. In a rebuttal report, James M. Green contended that “the original Engineering design [presented by APD] was proper in minimizing the clearance behind the parked bicycles and leaving out a wheel stop at the [relevant] intersection and was not followed during the construction of the bike station.” ECF No. 321-24, Green 01/06/16 Rebuttal Report at 9.
15 Corwin’s evidence that APD actually had some responsibility for the installation of Citi Bike stations, which appears to consist of a single May 22, 2013 email from APD engineer Adrian Witte referring the installation of station “bridging” (ECF No. 336-28), and deposition testimony references to the “collaborative” process between APD, NYCBS, and the City (ECF No. 335-6. Jeff Olson 08/26/15 Depo. at ¶¶ 401-02, 484, 530), is insufficient to raise a genuine dispute of material fact about APD’s lack of responsibility over Citi Bike stations.
Finally, Corwin argues that APD was an alter ego of Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS because APD served as the parent company over Alta Bicycle Share before its sale in 2014. ECF No. 192, Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16. “It is well-settled that the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil has the burden of establishing that there is a basis to do so.” Maggio v. Becca Constr. Co., 229 A.D.2d 426, 427, 644 N.Y.S.2d 802 (2d Dep’t 1996) (citations omitted). Notwithstanding the close relationship between APD and Alta Bicycle Share/NYCBS, and their former association, Corwin has failed to establish that APD is anything but a legitimate and separate business entity engaging in planning and design. “Those seeking to pierce a corporate veil of course bear a heavy burden of showing that the corporation was dominated as to the transaction [*512] attacked and that such domination was the instrument of fraud or otherwise resulted in wrongful or inequitable consequences. . . . An inference of abuse does not arise . . . where a corporation was formed for legal purposes or is engaged in legitimate business.” TNS Holdings, Inc. v. MKI Sec. Corp., 92 N.Y.2d 335, 339-40, 703 N.E.2d 749, 680 N.Y.S.2d 891 (1998); see also Joseph Kali Corp. v. A. Goldner, Inc., 49 A.D.3d 397, 398-99, 859 N.Y.S.2d 1 (1st Dep’t 2008) (refusing to pierce corporate veil [**84] between two entities operated by same principal). On the record before it, the Court sees no conceivable equitable reason to disregard the corporate form in this case.
As the Court concludes that APD did not owe any duty to Corwin under Espinal, it need not consider APD’s alternate arguments regarding proximate causation and its defense that Corwin’s claim arose out of a deviation from its design. The Court GRANTS APD’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety.
IX. Claims against Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc.
Defendants Metro Express Services, Inc. and Sealcoat USA, Inc. (“Metro Express” and “Sealcoat,” respectively), third-party contractors who are alleged to have installed or sub-contracted the installation of the specific wheel stop that caused Corwin’s injuries, move for summary judgment, arguing that they did not owe Corwin a duty of care under Espinal, 98 N.Y.2d 136, 773 N.E.2d 485, 746 N.Y.S.2d 120 (2002), and that the wheel stop is an open and obvious condition as a matter of law. Having already rejected the “open and obvious” argument in Part VII of this opinion, the Court considers whether Metro Express and Sealcoat had a duty to Corwin under one of the three Espinal exceptions discussed in Part VIII.
As was true [**85] for APD, there is no argument that Corwin “detrimentally relie[d] on the continued performance of the contracting party’s duties” or that Metro Express or Sealcoat “entirely displaced the other party’s duty to maintain the premises safely.” Id. at 140. Detrimental reliance becomes a consideration only when there is some form of continued contractual performance by the third-party contractor and is not relevant when the alleged negligent conduct concerns a one-time installation of station equipment (even if the contractor may have installed said equipment in many stations). And there is no evidence in the record that Metro Express or Sealcoat assumed any responsibilities, much less exclusive responsibilities, for the maintenance and safety of Citi Bike facilities.
Therefore, the only issue is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact that Metro Express or Sealcoat “launch[ed] a force or instrument of harm.” Corwin contends that the wheel stop on the east side of the Citi Bike station was an “instrument of harm,” and a contractor negligently responsible for its installation could be found liable under Espinal. To be sure, “[a] builder or contractor is justified in relying upon the plans and specifications [**86] which he has contracted to follow unless they are so apparently defective that an ordinary builder of ordinary prudence would be put upon notice that the work was dangerous and likely to cause injury.” Ryan v. Feeney & Sheehan Bldg. Co., 239 N.Y. 43, 46, 145 N.E. 321 (1924). There are, however, genuine disputes of material fact as to whether the contractors installed the wheel stop in question and whether they did so pursuant to a plan provided them by NYCBS.
Citing ambiguities in emails received from NYCBS, Metro Express contends that a full installation of street treatments [*513] was never ordered for the Citi Bike station at issue, and in fact NYCBS only ordered Metro Express and Sealcoat to carry out repairs. ECF No. 366, Metro Express Reply Mem. at 3-4. Metro Express further notes that Sealcoat reported that there was nothing wrong with the station and never invoiced or received payment for any work. Id. at 5. Finally, it contends that Metro Express was never provided with a plan for the Station, and that NYCBS had been instructing Metro Express to install “supplemental street treatments” not depicted on the station plans, noting two specific instances in which they were ordered to do so in stations at Jay Street and Tech Place, and Charles Street and Greenwich [**87] Ave. Id. at 7-9.
While Metro Express and Sealcoat certainly raise issues of fact about their liability, there is sufficient information in the record to preclude a finding that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For example, in addition to NYCBS’s allegations that Metro Express and Sealcoat were responsible for the installation, Ryan Landeck, Sealcoat Vice President, admitted in non-party deposition testimony in 2015 that Sealcoat had installed the wheel stop in question under Metro Express’s direction. ECF No. 289-10, Landeck 11/19/15 Depo. at 34, 45.16
16 Mr. Landeck later testified at a deposition that took place after Sealcoat was joined in the case that Sealcoat found that there was nothing to do be done at that location and Sealcoat did not invoice or receive payment for its alleged work at the station. ECF No. 368-3, Landeck 05/25/2016 Depo. at 51, 55. An October 23, 2013 email from Landeck to Michael Strasser, General Manager at Metro Express, further stated that “nothing was wrong at this station.” ECF No. 368-4.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that, unlike APD, there is a material dispute whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm” if plaintiffs prove at trial that they negligently installed the wheel stop at the East 56th Street and Madison Avenue Citi Bike station in contravention of the site plan and the directions received from NYCBS. Unlike the case for APD, who provided general designs for hundreds of Citi Bike stations, there is no danger of an undue ballooning of tort liability because the contractors would be liable only for their own negligence and have an absolute defense if they can demonstrate [**88] that they were carrying out a pre-existing plan. Cf. In re World Trade Ctr. Lower Manhattan Disaster Site Litig., 44 F. Supp. 3d 409, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (finding that Espinal and Moch stood for “the general public policy that courts will not impose a tort duty on a contracting party where doing so would expose the party to potentially unlimited and undefined liability” and finding a duty where there was “no risk of . . . boundless tort liability”).
Therefore, because the Court finds that a question of fact exists regarding whether Metro Express and/or Sealcoat “launched a force or instrument of harm,” Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.
X. Gross Negligence Claims
Given that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims against NYCBS are barred by the enforceability of the Release Agreement as discussed in Part II of the opinion, NYCBS moves for summary judgment on the grounds that Corwin’s gross negligence claims fail as a matter of law.17
17 The City has also moved for summary judgment on this point; however, the Court has found that Corwin’s common-law negligence claims may proceed as to the City.
Under New York law, gross negligence is “conduct that evinces a reckless [*514] disregard for the rights of others or ‘smacks’ of intentional wrongdoing.” Am. Tel. & Tel. Co. v. City of New York, 83 F.3d 549, 556 (2d Cir. 1996) (quoting Colnaghi, U.S.A., Ltd. v. Jewelers Prot. Servs., Ltd., 81 N.Y.2d 821, 823-24, 611 N.E.2d 282, 595 N.Y.S.2d 381 (1993)). “[T]he act or omission must be of an aggravated character, as distinguished from the failure to exercise ordinary care.” Curley v. AMR Corp., 153 F.3d 5, 13 (2d Cir. 1998). “In order to establish a prima facie case in gross [**89] negligence, a plaintiff ‘must prove by a fair preponderance of the credible evidence’ that the defendant ‘not only acted carelessly in making a mistake, but that it was so extremely careless that it was equivalent to recklessness.'” Travelers Indem. Co. of Connecticut v. Losco Grp., Inc., 204 F. Supp. 2d 639, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (quoting Hong Kong Exp. Credit Ins. Corp. v. Dun & Bradstreet, 414 F. Supp. 153, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 1975)).
Drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Corwin, the nonmoving party, summary judgment is not appropriate on Corwin’s gross negligence claims. If, as argued by Corwin’s expert James M. Green, NYCBS is proven at trial to have unjustifiably ignored sound engineering practices and placed camouflaged wheel stops in the direct and foreseeable paths of cyclists, a reasonable factfinder could conclude that their conduct was sufficiently reckless and/or aggravated to meet the gross negligence standard. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Corwin’s gross negligence claims is therefore denied.
Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relying on the Release Agreement is GRANTED as to the City and DENIED as to NYCBS. Corwin’s motion for summary judgment on defendants’ affirmative defenses relating to his non-use of a helmet is GRANTED in part; defendants may not argue that this is relevant to questions [**90] of liability to establish comparative negligence or assumption of the risk, but if liability is found, may argue that Corwin failed to mitigate damages. The City’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED. NYCBS’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part; because the Court finds that the Release Agreement is enforceable, Corwin’s common-law negligence and professional negligence and malpractice claims are dismissed, but he may still maintain gross negligence claims. APD’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. Metro Express and Sealcoat’s motions for summary judgment are DENIED.
The Clerk of Court is respectfully directed to terminate Dkt. Nos. 288, 295, 303, 304, 309, and 314 and terminate defendants Alta Planning + Design, Inc. and Alta Planning Design Architecture of New York, PLLC from the case.
/s/ Sarah Netburn
United States Magistrate Judge
DATED: New York, New York
March 1, 2017
Name of Product: Zipp 88 aluminum hubs for bicycle wheels
Hazard: The hub flange ring on the front hub can fail posing a crash and injury hazard.
Consumer Contact: SRAM at (800) 346-2928 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET on Friday, or visit http://www.sram.com or http://www.zipp.com and click on Recall Notice for more information.
Units: About 12,000
Description: The aluminum hub shell is silver. The outside flange ring is gray aluminum in the standard option and blue, gold, gray, pink or red in the ZedTech options. The diameter of the two clinch nuts is approximately 1 inch. The first version of the 88 hub is the only one affected by the recall. The first version has the Z logo on the flange ring. The other versions – not affected by this recall – do not have the Z logo on the flange ring. The hubs were sold in five bike brands and sold separately. A listing of these brands and their model types can be viewed here: http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2015/SRAM-Recalls-Zipp-88-Bicycle-Wheel-Hubs/
Incidents/Injuries: The company reports two incidents of collapsed front wheels. Both resulted in stitches, bruises and lacerations, plus a concussion in one case.
Remedy: Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled Zipp 88 front hub and contact SRAM for a free replacement hub.
Sold at: Specialty bicycle retailers nationwide. Front hub sold for about $215; front wheel with the hub sold for about $920; front and rear wheel set sold for about $2300 and bicycles with the wheel set containing the recalled hub sold for about $5,000 to $12,000. Items were sold between October 2008 and December 2010.
Manufacturer: Prodigy Group, Mooresville, Ind.
Manufactured in: USA
Retailers: If you are a retailer of a recalled product you have a duty to notify your customers of a recall. If you can, email your clients or include the recall information in your next marketing communication to your clients. Post any Recall Poster at your stores and contact the manufacturer to determine how you will handle any recalls.
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Georgia Federal Court finds that assumption of the risk is a valid defense in a head injury case against a bicycle helmet manufacturer.Posted: September 22, 2014
If you purchase a helmet that only protects part of your head, then you cannot sue for injuries to the part of your head not protected.
State: Georgia, US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Plaintiff: Lois Elaine Wilson
Defendant: Bicycle South, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: Product Liability (breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence)
Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Open and Obvious
Holding: For the defendants
This case is fairly easy to understand, even though the opinion is quite complicated. The plaintiff was riding her bike from Florida to California. While traveling through Georgia she crashed suffering head injuries.
She sued claiming the rear wheel of the bike collapsed causing her crash. She claimed her head injuries were caused because the helmet failed to protect her head.
She sued the wheel manufacturer, Opportunities Inc., the bicycle manufacturer, Trek Bicycle Corporation and the retailer Bicycle South, Inc. The three defendants were found not liable at trial.
The jury did find the helmet manufacturer, Skid Lid Manufacturing Company liable for the plaintiff’s head injuries. The majority of the decision reviews the helmet issues. The plaintiff purchased the helmet for her ride. The helmet was a “half helmet” which only covered the top half of her head. The helmet came down to about the top of her ears.
The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on the head injury issue caused by the helmet manufacturer. The defendant Skid Lid moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, (JNOV), which the court granted. The defendant helmet manufacturer appealed the decision.
A JNOV is effectively a motion filed by the losing party and the judge overrules the jury. This is a motion that is rarely granted and only done so to overcome extreme or unreasonable jury verdicts. The judge must find that no reasonable jury could reach the decision that was reached by the jury in the case. Normally this is because there are insufficient facts to support the claims or the jury applied the law incorrectly.
In this case, the JNOV seemed to have been entered because the jury ignored the defenses presented by the defendant.
Summary of the case
Georgia at the time of the decision allowed several defense to product liability claims, two of which were: Assumption of the risk and the “open and obvious” defects. Variations of these defenses are available in some, but not all states. The trial judge in this case granted the JNOV based on the Assumption of the Risk defense. The appellate court looked at both of these defenses.
The open and obvious defense states a plaintiff cannot recover from a defendant when the alleged defect is patent and obvious to the user.
The open and obvious rule states that a product is not defective if the peril from which injury could result is patent or obvious to the user. This determination regarding the peril is made on the basis of an objective view of the product. In assessing what is obvious, it must be remembered that, contrary to the belief of some, the American public is not child-like.
This defense is not based on a defect in the product, only that the product will not or will do something that is patent, and open and obvious.
The defense applied here because the plaintiff when purchase the helmet purchased one that only covered part of her head. It was “obvious” that the helmet would not protect the part of her head that the helmet did not cover.
The assumption of risk defense is slightly different, but also applicable in this case. If the consumer knows of a defect in the product, is aware of the danger presented by the defect and proceeds to use the product anyway the plaintiff is barred from recovering. “The first part of the test, actual knowledge of the defect and danger, is fulfilled because appellant had subjective knowledge that the helmet she purchased only covered a portion of her head.”
The assumption of risk defense in Georgia is slightly more difficult to prove because the injured plaintiff must have known about the defect. (However, a defect only becomes one in pleadings after an injury has occurred.) What I mean by this is, as a manufacturer should point out the limitations of the product in the information supplied by the product. This provides the necessary notice to a user of the defect and provides a defense to the manufacturer.
The court also ruled on evidentiary issues in the case which are not important in understanding these issues.
So Now What?
For manufacturers, selling a product means more than just point out the great features of the product. You must warn the consumer of any problems or issues with the product and you must point out what the product cannot do.
That does not mean that you should point out your bicycle won’t get you to the moon. It might mean you should point out that the bicycle should only be ridden on roads if it is a road bike. Videos online show road bikes being ridden everywhere, but that does not mean as a manufacturer you should be liable when someone tries to ride the Monarch Crest Trail on your road bike.
As a retailer, you should point out the differences in products trying to specifically point out short comings about a product. This helmet has a MIPS system in side, this one does not.
Both of these defenses are easy to rely on, however not all states still allow the use of these defenses.
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Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682Posted: September 21, 2014
Wilson v. Bicycle South, Inc., 915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682
Lois Elaine Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Bicycle South, Inc., a Georgia Corporation, et al., Defendants-Appellees
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
915 F.2d 1503; 1990 U.S. App. LEXIS 18903; 31 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 682
October 30, 1990
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: As Amended.
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. No.1: 85-cv-2658-CAM; Moye, Jr., Judge.
COUNSEL: Robert H. Benfield, Jr., Middleton & Anderson, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.
For Trek Bicycle: Stephen F. Dermer, Smith Gambrell & Russell, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Bicycle South: Jonathan Mark Engram, Swift Currie McGhee & Hiers, Thomas E. McCarter, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Opportunities, Inc.: Tommy T. Holland, Carter & Ansley, Christopher N. Shuman, Atlanta, Georgia.
For Skid Lid: Palmer H. Ansley, Long Weinberg Ansley & Wheeler, David A. Sapp, Atlanta, Georgia.
JUDGES: Clark, Circuit Judge, Morgan and Hill, * Senior Circuit Judges.
* See, Rule 34-2(b), Rules of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
OPINION BY: HILL
[*1504] HILL, Senior Circuit Judge
This appeal concerns a products liability action based upon alleged breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence resulting in injuries to Lois Elaine Wilson (“Wilson”), appellant. Wilson incurred head injuries during an accident in Georgia while on a cross-country bicycle trip. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Wilson and against one defendant on a bicycle helmet defect claim, and against Wilson and in favor of three defendants on a bicycle wheel defect claim. The district court granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the helmet claim. Plaintiff appeals [*1505] this grant and also alleges several other errors by the district court concerning the bicycle wheel claim.
A. Issues Presented
Appellant raises four distinct categories of issues on appeal. First, appellant claims that the district court erred in granting appellee Skid Lid Manufacturing Company’s (“Skid Lid”) motion for a judgment notwithstanding [**2] the verdict. Second, appellant contends that the district court improperly commented on the evidence. Third, she asserts that the district court committed reversible error by refusing to admit “similar accident” evidence. Finally, appellant maintains that the district court erred in charging the jury on the defense of “legal accident.”
We hold that the trial court did not err in granting the JNOV. Nor do the trial judge’s comments on the evidence provide cause for reversal. Similarly, we find appellant’s third and fourth contentions to be meritless.
B. Factual and Procedural History
On January 6, 1983, appellant purchased a Trek 614 touring bicycle. Trek Bicycle Corporation (“Trek”) manufactured the bicycle, Opportunities, Incorporated (“Opportunities”) assembled the bike’s rear wheel according to Trek’s specifications, and Bicycle South, Inc. (“Bicycle South”) sold the bike to appellant. The latter three parties will be referred to collectively as “the bicycle defendants.” On February 9, 1983, appellant also purchased, from a company not a party to this lawsuit, a bicycle helmet manufactured by Skid Lid. Rather than purchase a helmet covering her entire head, appellant chose [**3] one that only covered the top half of her head, coming down to about the top of her ears.
Wilson purchased the bike and helmet for a cross-country bicycling trip from Florida to California. Eight days into her trip, on April 23, 1983, Wilson sustained head injuries in a fall from the bicycle while she was riding downhill on a two-lane Georgia highway between Plains and Americus, Georgia. Between January 6 and April 23, Wilson had ridden approximately 1200 to 1600 miles on the bicycle.
The cause of appellant’s fall is disputed by the parties. Appellant maintains that the rear wheel collapsed into a saddle-like shape as a result of an improper manufacturing process and a failure to retrue the spokes of the wheel after the rim was assembled. Under this theory, the tension in the wheel, which was not released after the rim was formed and the wheel assembled, caused the spokes to loosen after use and led to the collapse. The bicycle defendants, on the other hand, maintain that the fall did not result from the wheel collapse, but that the wheel collapsed as a result of appellant’s fall from the bike. 1
1 The actual cause of the fall does not affect the issues currently before this Court.
[**4] The point of initial impact between Ms. Wilson’s head and the pavement was behind her left ear and below the edge of the helmet. As a result of the impact, she claims that she sustained three injuries. The first two, a basilar skull fracture and occipital scalp laceration, were not particularly serious and do not comprise the more serious damage. The more serious injury was a “contre-coup” (an injury to the opposite side of the head from the point of initial impact) brain contusion.
Alleging defects in the bicycle wheel and helmet, Ms. Wilson filed a complaint in this products liability action based upon breach of warranty, strict liability, and negligence. During the trial, appellant attempted to introduce evidence of a prior bicycle wheel defect claim brought by another party against Trek, Opportunities, and another bicycle store, alleging that the incidents were substantially similar. The trial court excluded the earlier incident.
At the beginning of his charge, the trial judge explained to the jury:
As a federal judge, I have the right, power, and duty to comment on the facts, to express my opinion with respect thereto . . . but remember, in the last analysis, every factual issue [**5] in this case must be decided by you, by you alone, and anything that anybody else in this room says [*1506] about the facts is a mere opinion, not binding upon you.
Subsequently, referring to witness testimony, the judge again emphasized that “as sole judges of the facts, you, the jury, and you only, must determine which of the witnesses you believe and what portion of their testimony you accept and what weight you attach to it.” Prior to analyzing and giving his opinion of the evidence that Ms. Wilson presented, 2 the judge again cautioned the jury that “you, as jurors, are at liberty to disregard each, every, and all comments of the court in arriving at your own findings of the facts.” At the conclusion of his remarks, the trial judge further emphasized:
Let me stress as strongly as I can that you, the jury, are the sole and only judges of the facts. The past several minutes I have been giving you [**6] my opinion with respect to matters committed solely to your decision, not mine. My comments are and can only be expressions of a personal opinion and are not binding on you in any way, shape, or form. Remember that in considering every issue in this case, including those to which I have just alluded, you must resort to your own recollection of the evidence, not that which I have just stated. . . . You must, in the diligent performance of your duty, rely on your recollection of all the evidence and not merely that which I may have called to your attention and emphasized.
2 The trial judge focused especially on items of derogatory information with respect to appellant’s expert, Mr. James Green.
On April 13, 1989, the jury returned a verdict in favor of appellant against appellee Skid Lid in the amount of $ 265,000 on the helmet claim. On the bicycle wheel claim, the jury returned a verdict against appellant and in favor of the bicycle defendants.
On April 21, 1989, appellee Skid Lid moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and on May 24 the trial court entered an Order granting the motion. The court did so because it found that Ms. Wilson had “assumed the risk of injury as to parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet.”
A. The Helmet & the Judgment Notwithstanding the [**7] Verdict
[HN1] We review the district court’s grant of a JNOV under the same standard as the district court used in determining whether to grant a JNOV. As we stated in Castle v. Sangamo Weston, Inc., 837 F.2d 1550, 1558 (11th Cir.1988):
All of the evidence presented at trial must be considered “in the light and with all reasonable inferences most favorable to the party opposed to the motion.” A motion for judgment n.o.v. should be granted only where “reasonable [people] could not arrive at a contrary verdict. . . .” Where substantial conflicting evidence is presented such that reasonable people “in the exercise of impartial judgment might reach different conclusion, [sic]” the motion should be denied. (citations omitted)
In applying this standard for the sufficiency of evidence, we also look to Georgia substantive law to determine whether Skid Lid deserved judgment as a matter of law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); Salter v. Westra, 904 F.2d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir.1990).
Defendants in products liability actions have asserted two similar defenses in attempting to steer clear of liability, assumption of the risk and the “open and obvious [**8] rule.” 3 While the trial judge in this case based the JNOV on assumption of the risk, we also address the open and obvious rule because affirmance of the JNOV is proper even if based on a different rationale. See Paisey v. Vitale, 807 F.2d 889, 890 (11th Cir.1986).
3 This rule is also known as the “patent danger rule” and has its roots in a New York decision involving negligence law, Campo v. Scofield, 301 N.Y. 468, 95 N.E.2d 802 (1950). New York later abandoned the rule in Micallef v. Miehle Co., 39 N.Y.2d 376, 384 N.Y.S.2d 115, 348 N.E.2d 571 (1976).
[*1507] We need not reach the assumption of the risk issue if the helmet was not defective because Skid Lid would have breached no duty to Ms. Wilson. We thus initially address the open and obvious rule. [HN2] The open and obvious rule states that a product is not defective if the peril from which injury could result is patent or obvious to the user. Stodghill v. Fiat-Allis Construction Machinery, Inc., 163 Ga. App. 811, 295 S.E.2d 183, 185 (1982). This determination [**9] regarding the peril is made on the basis of an objective view of the product. Weatherby v. Honda Motor Co., Ltd., 195 Ga. App. 169, 393 S.E.2d 64, 66 (1990) (certiorari denied June 21, 1990). In assessing what is obvious, it must be remembered that, contrary to the belief of some, the American public is not child-like. Stodghill is instructive in this respect. In Stodghill, the plaintiff was using a bulldozer manufactured by the defendants to clear felled trees from a construction site when a tree jumped over the bulldozer blade and struck him in the chest. The plaintiff claimed that the machine was defective because it had no protective metal cage surrounding the driver’s seat. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized that the plaintiff “was obviously aware that the bulldozer he was operating had no protective cage and that the absence of this safety device exposed him to the danger of being injured by anything which might strike the driver’s compartment.” Id. 295 S.E.2d at 184. The court concluded that
“because the failure of the appellees in this case to install a protective cage over the driver’s seat of the bulldozer was an obvious characteristic of the machine [**10] which created no hidden peril and did not prevent the machine from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed, it cannot reasonably be considered a design or manufacturing defect under Georgia law.”
Id. at 185.
Similar to the absence of the protective cage on the bulldozer, it is or should be apparent to one who purchases an article of clothing or protective gear that the article can only protect that portion of the body which is covered. A person purchasing a bullet proof vest cannot realistically claim that he expected it to protect him from a bullet in the leg. Likewise, one purchasing a sleeveless t-shirt cannot protest that it should have protected him from a scrape on the arm. In the case at bar, rather than selecting a helmet covering her entire head, appellant elected to purchase a helmet that she knew covered only the top half of her head. She did know, or certainly should have known, that the helmet with less extensive coverage would not protect her from an impact to an area not covered by the helmet. Unlike a full helmet, the half-helmet was not designed to protect against impacts anywhere on the head. The extent of coverage was “an obvious characteristic [**11] of the [helmet] that created no hidden peril and did not prevent the [helmet] from functioning properly for the purpose for which it was designed.” Stodghill, 295 S.E.2d at 185. We thus find, as a matter of law, that the helmet was not defective under Georgia law. 4
4 We note that Georgia courts have been careful to avoid treating the American public as children where a peril is obvious or patent and the product thus not defective. In Weatherby, the five-year old plaintiff had been a passenger on an off-road motorcycle that did not have its gas cap in place. During the ride over uneven terrain, gasoline splashed from the open tank and ignited, causing burns to the plaintiff. The court found that an open fuel tank “surely suggests the possibility of spillage,” that because the fuel tank is located above the engine “gravity can be anticipated to bring the spilled fuel in contact with the engine and spark plug,” and that the dangers of spilled gasoline coming into contact with an engine are generally known. 393 S.E.2d at 67. The court consequently concluded as a matter of law that the peril of an open fuel tank resting over the engine and its spark plug was “an obvious or patent peril,” and that the product was thus not defective. Id. at 68.
[**12] Even if the failure to cover the full head were a defect, it is still beyond peradventure that appellant assumed the risk of injury to the parts of her body patently not covered by the helmet. [HN3] Under Georgia law, “‘if the user or consumer discovers the defect and is aware of the danger, but nevertheless proceeds unreasonably to make use of the product, he is [*1508] barred from recovery.'” 5 Center Chemical Co. v. Parzini, 234 Ga. 868, 870, 218 S.E.2d 580 (1975) (citation omitted). The first part of the test, actual knowledge of the defect and danger, is fulfilled because appellant had subjective knowledge that the helmet she purchased only covered a portion of her head. Had appellant, somehow, been unaware that the helmet only partially covered her head, the result might be different. As counsel for appellant admitted at oral argument, however, there is no evidence that she thought the helmet covered more of her head than it did cover, or that she believed it would protect her from injury to parts of her body not covered. Nor do we find, after our careful review of the transcript, any testimony to that effect. As for the second portion of the test, unreasonable use, it seems axiomatic [**13] to say that it is unreasonable to use a helmet to protect a portion of the body that the helmet clearly does not cover.
5 This test, in contrast to the open and obvious rule, looks to the subjective perceptions of the user or injured party. Another difference between assumption of the risk and the open and obvious rule is that while the latter places the burden of proof on the plaintiff, the former places it on the defendant. Weatherby, 393 S.E.2d at 66. See also Annotation, Products Liability: modern status of rule that there is no liability for patent or obvious dangers, 35 A.L.R. 4th 861, 865 (1985) (discussing open and obvious rule and the differences from assumption of the risk).
In sum, the district judge properly granted appellee Skid Lid’s motion for a JNOV.
B. Comments on the Evidence
At the close of the case, the district judge employed the time-honored, though little used, right and duty of a federal trial judge to comment on the evidence. As the Supreme Court stated in Quercia v. United [**14] States, 289 U.S. 466, 469, 53 S. Ct. 698, 698-99, 77 L. Ed. 1321 (1932):
[HN4] In a trial by jury in a federal court, the judge is not a mere moderator, but is the governor of the trial for the purpose of assuring its proper conduct and of determining questions of law. (citation omitted) In charging the jury, the trial judge is not limited to instructions of an abstract sort. It is within his province, whenever he thinks it necessary, to assist the jury in arriving at a just conclusion by explaining and commenting upon the evidence, by drawing their attention to the parts of it which he thinks important; and he may express his opinion upon the facts, provided he makes it clear to the jury that all matters of fact are submitted to their determination. (citations omitted) Sir Matthew Hale thus described the function of the trial judge at common law: “Herein he is able, in matters of law emerging upon the evidence, to direct them; and also, in matters of fact to give them a great light and assistance by his weighing the evidence before them, and observing where the question and knot of the business lies, and by showing them his opinion even in matters of fact; which is a great advantage and [**15] light to laymen. (citation omitted)
The trial judge will not be reversed unless his comments “excite a prejudice which would preclude a fair and dispassionate consideration of the evidence.” Id. at 472, 53 S. Ct. at 700. See also United States v. Hope, 714 F.2d 1084, 1088 (11th Cir.1983) (“[a] trial judge may comment upon the evidence as long as he instructs the jury that it is the sole judge of the facts and that it is not bound by his comments and as long as the comments are not so highly prejudicial that an instruction to that effect cannot cure the error”). 6 It is only where [*1509] this prejudice exists that the substantial rights of the parties are affected and Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 permits disturbing a judgment. 7 In assessing whether this prejudice exists and has affected the parties’ substantial rights, we consider the record as a whole and not merely isolated remarks. See Newman v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 648 F.2d 330, 334-335 (5th Cir. Unit B June 1981). “The test is not whether the charge was faultless in every particular but whether the jury was misled in any way and whether it had understanding of the issues and its duty to determine those issues.” Bass v. International [**16] Bhd. of Boilermakers, 630 F.2d 1058, 1065 (5th Cir.1980) (citations omitted).
6 Other circuits have adopted similar language regarding a trial judge’s right to comment on the evidence. See, e.g., White v. City of Norwalk, 900 F.2d 1421 (9th Cir.1990); Johnson v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 892 F.2d 422 (5th Cir.1990); Vaughn v. Willis, 853 F.2d 1372 (7th Cir.1988); United States v. Munz, 542 F.2d 1382 (10th Cir.1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1104, 97 S. Ct. 1133, 51 L. Ed. 2d 555 (1977); Mihalic v. Texaco, Inc., 377 F.2d 978 (3d Cir.1967); Meadows v. United States, 144 F.2d 751 (4th Cir.1944); A number of practitioners and commentators have also assessed the role of the judge in a jury trial. See, e.g., Bancroft, Jury Instructions, Communications, Juror Substitutions and Special/Partial Verdicts: Selected Topics — The Principal Law, 340 Prac.L.Inst. 611 (1987); Loeffler, Project — Seventeenth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals 1986-1987 (III. Trial: Authority of the Trial Judge), 76 Geo.L.J. 986 (1988); Murphy, Errors in the Charge, 14 Litig. 39 (1988).
7 [HN6] Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 provides in part:
“No error . . . is ground for granting a new trial . . . unless refusal to take such action appears to the court inconsistent with substantial justice. The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties.”
Appellants allege that the district judge went too far in commenting on the evidence and on the testimony of their expert, Mr. Green. We do not doubt that a trial judge could misuse his authority. 8 After careful review of the record, however, while we are not prepared in this case to suggest the outside limits on a trial judge’s comments, we are satisfied that the district judge here did not overstep his bounds. As recounted in Part I.B. of this opinion, he went to great lengths to assure that the jury understood that it was the sole fact-finder in the case. 9 When his remarks are considered in their entirety, on the facts of this case we find no prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties.
8 Perhaps one of the best examples of a jury charge that would constitute an abuse of authority today, but was permitted prior to Quercia, is Judge Emory Speer’s eight and one-half hour, 92 page charge in United States v. Greene, 146 F. 803 (S.D.Ga.1906), cert. denied, 207 U.S. 596, 28 S. Ct. 261, 52 L. Ed. 357 (1907). In testimony before a congressional committee looking into the possibility of impeaching Judge Speer, Alexander Lawrence (one of Greene’s defense attorneys) characterized the judge and his charge as follows:
He knows the jury, knows how to play on their passions, on their prejudices, as no living man that I have seen could do it; he has a faculty for marshalling evidence that I have never seen another living man able to marshal; and in that Greene & Gaynor case he charged that jury for eight hours and I will challenge any six prosecuting attorneys in the United States, from the Attorney General down, all of them together, to take that mass of testimony taking three months’ time that Judge Speer heard, and then put it down in as ingenious an argument against the defense as Judge Speer put it in that thing. It was a masterpiece of oratory, but a very poor thing when you come down to look at it from a judicial standpoint.
H. Res. 234, 63rd Cong., 2d Sess. (1914) (Minority Report of Representative Volstead).
Since, Quercia, many appeals courts have overturned cases where the trial judge has gone too far. See, e.g., Bentley v. Stromberg-Carlson Corp., 638 F.2d 9, 11 (2d Cir.1981) (trial judge’s comments to the jury gave all the arguments for the defendant, being “tantamount to directing a verdict” for defendant); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 761 (5th Cir.1979) (trial judge’s mistaken assertions virtually destroyed appellant’s circumstantial case, requiring reversal); Maheu v. Hughes Tool Co., 569 F.2d 459, 471-472 (9th Cir.1978) (trial judge’s comments amounted to “personal character reference” for witness and thus “went too far”).
9 It seems that the jurors responded to the trial judge’s direction that they were the sole fact-finders. The judge brought to their attention that appellant’s expert had been prepared to testify that the helmet was defective because of one set of facts and then shifted his reasoning when that set of facts was disproven; nevertheless, the jury still awarded appellant $ 265,000 against the helmet manufacturer.
In the course of his remarks, appellant also contends that the trial judge improperly restricted her case to the testimony of her one expert, Mr. Green. In stressing the importance of Mr. Green’s testimony to appellant’s case, the judge stated as follows:
In this case, as in every case, there are the two big main issues: one, liability, and, two, the amount of any damages proximately flowing therefrom. The plaintiff has the burden of proving each and every element of the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff’s entire case here, and in meeting the elements which must be proved, rests upon the expert testimony, [*1510] that is, the expert opinion, of Mr. Green. Except for Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff [**19] has not made out a case of liability. With Mr. Green’s testimony, the plaintiff has made out a legal case on liability; therefore, the court suggests that the first, immediate, and crucial issue in the case for you to determine is the credibility or the believability of Mr. Green.
After studying the record, we find no merit in appellant’s contention. We are inclined to agree with the trial judge that, without Mr. Green, the case would not have been one for the jury.
In sum, we find that on the facts of this case the trial judge’s comments to the jury, when taken as a whole, neither excited a prejudice affecting the substantial rights of the parties nor incorrectly instructed the jury.
C. The Allegedly Similar Accident
Appellant argues that the trial court erred by refusing to admit evidence of the collapse of another wheel manufactured by appellees Trek and Opportunity. Appellant sought to show appellees’ notice of a defect in the wheel, the magnitude of the danger, appellees’ ability to correct a known defect, the lack of safety for intended purposes, the strength of the product, the standard of care, and causation.
The trial judge denied the proffer on the grounds that the evidence [**20] was not probative because of the necessity for a considerable amount of extrinsic evidence to determine whether the incidents were sufficiently similar to meet the standards of Fed.R.Evid. 403. 10 [HN7] A trial judge has broad discretion over the admission of evidence, Borden, Inc. v. Florida East Coast Ry. Co., 772 F.2d 750, 754 (11th Cir.1985), and we find that the district judge did not abuse his discretion. 11
10 The cause of the alleged similar incident had never been established because that case settled out of court. The parties in the instant case vigorously dispute the actual cause, demonstrating that even had the trial court reached the issue of whether the two incidents were similar this issue would have required a trial within a trial.
11 Because of our disposition of this issue, we need not reach the question of whether the two incidents were actually similar, and if so, whether the prior incident would have been properly excluded under Fed.R.Evid. 403.
D. The Charge on “Legal Accident”
In his [**21] instructions to the jury, the judge included a charge on “legal accident.” 12 To determine whether such a charge is appropriate, we first look to Georgia substantive law. See Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938); McCullough v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 587 F.2d 754, 759 (5th Cir.1979). [HN8] Georgia law permits a charge on “legal accident” where there is evidence in the record authorizing a finding that the occurrence was an “accident.” 13 Chadwick v. Miller, 169 Ga. App. 338, 344, 312 [*1511] S.E.2d 835, 840 (1983). 14 Where appropriate, the charge is valid in a products liability case. Kemp v. Bell-View, Inc., 179 Ga. App. 577, 579, 346 S.E.2d 923, 926 (1986).
12 This portion of the charge reads as follows:
Now, let me tell you that the mere fact that an accident happened or an occurrence happened from which injury stemmed standing alone does not permit a jury to draw any inference that the occurrence was caused by anyone’s negligence or by any defect.
Now, I have used the word “accident” loosely, as I think is commonly the practice, is interchangeable with the word occurrence producing injury, but in Georgia law accidental injury means, in connection with personal injury actions such as this, any injury which occurs without being caused by the negligence either of the plaintiff or of the defendants. The idea of accident removes responsibility for the cause of the injury if found to have occurred by reason of a legal accident as defined under Georgia law, that is, one which is caused by the negligence neither of the plaintiff or the defendants.
It is necessary that you find from a preponderance of the evidence in this case, in order to find for the plaintiff, that the occurrence and/or resulting injuries were the result of defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty to the exclusion of legal accident, as I have defined that term to you, because the plaintiff has the burden of proof, as I will charge you later, to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the occurrence did, in fact, result from defect and/or negligence and/or breach of warranty, to the exclusion of legal accident.
13 [HN9] “Accident” is defined as “an occurrence which takes place in the absence of negligence and for which no one would be liable.” Chadwick, 169 Ga. App. at 344, 312 S.E.2d 835.
14 Appellant cites Seaboard Coastline R.R. Co. v. Delahunt, 179 Ga. App. 647, 347 S.E.2d 627 (1986), for the proposition that a charge on “legal accident” can be given only where there is no evidence of negligence on the part of either party. The Georgia Court of Appeals recognized in Stiltjes v. Ridco Exterminating Co., 192 Ga. App. 778, 386 S.E.2d 696, 697 (1989), however, that Delahunt had misstated the law in Georgia.
Because the manner of giving jury instructions is procedural rather than substantive, it is governed by federal rather than state law. McCullough, 587 F.2d at 759. In reviewing alleged errors in jury instructions, we must determine whether the trial court’s charge, considered as a whole, “sufficiently instructs the jury so that the jurors understand the issues involved and are not misled.” Mark Seitman & Assocs., Inc. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 837 F.2d 1527, 1531 (11th [**23] Cir.1988) (citation omitted). We will only reverse if we are left with “a substantial and ineradicable doubt as to whether the jury was properly guided in its deliberations.” Id. (citation omitted).
After careful review, we find evidence in the record that supports a charge on legal accident as defined by Georgia law. We are therefore satisfied that the district judge properly guided the jury with respect to this issue.
For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.