Good News ASI was dismissed from the lawsuit

Bad news, the post-accident investigation proved the college was negligent according to the court.

Foster, et al., v. Alex Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566 (E.D. Wash. 2013)

Plaintiff: Stephanie Foster, et al.

Defendant: Alex Kosseff, et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence: Plaintiff was the intended beneficiary of the defendant’s work;

Defendant Defenses: No duty owed to the plaintiff

Holding: For the defendant

This is a follow-up to the article, I wrote Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry. The original article was about a motion to dismiss which the defendant safety audit company lost.

This article is the result of a motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of the defendant auditor which the court granted.

The plaintiff was a student at the defendant college, Whitman College and also worked in the Outdoor Program at the college. While working the plaintiff was asked to bring down the ropes still on the climbing wall. She climbed up to a platform next to the wall and removed the ropes. She then “hooked” into the remaining rope intending to rappel suffering severe and injuries to her spine.

The initial report prepared by the defendant auditors (meaning the individuals and the company the individual(s) worked for) was titled “Draft Risk Management Audit.” The report included extensive language about what the audit would and would not do and was quoted by the court.

The college hired the same auditor to investigate the accident. (Can you say conflict of interest?) The auditor submitted a report on his investigation into the accident. The report stated that the plaintiff had climbed above the Super Shut anchors which released the rope causing her to fall.

The court reviewed the accident report prepared by the defendant and made the following statement.

Thus, Kosseff concluded that both Whitman College and Ms. Foster were negligent in using the Super Shut anchors for a purpose for which they were not designed.

Summary of the case

The first argument the court reviewed was whether the plaintiff was an intended beneficiary of the work with the defendant auditor. The court quickly found that to be true. The Draft Audit stated the audit was being down for the college, employees and students. The college hired the audit for the benefit to the college, students and employees.

The second issue discussed was the scope of an audit. The court first went through the elements to prove negligence and what makes up the first part of the element’s duty, under Washington’s law.

There are four elements in a common law negligence claim in Washington: duty, breach, causation and damages. As to the first element, a duty of care is defined as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Whether a duty of care exists is a matter of law to be decided by the court rather than by a jury. This is a “threshold question” which involves three separate inquiries: “Does an obligation exist? What is the measure of care required? To whom and with respect to what risks is the obligation owed?”

Under Washington’s law, someone who inspects the premises of another does not become the insurer of anyone injured by the negligence of the inspection. In most states, an inspecting party is only “liable for undiscovered hazards which he or she undertook to discover in the first place.” Meaning, you are only liable for what you say you are going to discover and don’t.

Consequently, the defendant could not be liable, unless he had agreed to inspect the elements of the wall. The audit was directed at procedures and programs not equipment. On top of that, even if the audit looked at equipment, it did not look at how that equipment was used or in this case, misused.

Because the audit was not directed at the equipment which caused the accident, the defendant auditor was dismissed from the suit.

 

So Now What?

1.      If you are a college, with a climbing wall, it needs to be inspected by engineers.

2.    If you are a college, do not create a conflict of interest by hiring the company that gave you a review to investigate an accident which the review might have missed. Again, can you say Conflict of Interest?

3.    If you are any business do not have an accident investigated by anyone other than who your attorney or insurance company hires. Here, the defendant with the conflict of interest nailed the defendant college to the judgment wall with its report.

Because the report was not done by legal counsel, the report can be used by the plaintiff to prove the defendant negligent. That, however, will not be too difficult since the court in this decision already came to that conclusions based upon the accident report. However, a report that was protected by privilege would not have hung the defendant.

Although the plaintiff is probably upset that one defendant was dismissed, they have to be happy with the decision because of this issue.

The initial outcome of this case is good; the company being paid to review the college was dismissed from the case. However, the long-term effects are multiple.

·        Initially, the one defendant won, but only by sinking its co-defendants.

·        Long term, colleges are going to be hesitant to build climbing walls because this case is going to settle or go to trial for a large amount of money. Spinal cord injuries are multimillion dollar cases.

·        The entire industry has to wise up. Contracts that are created by legitimate risk management firms will be signed in advance and have tons of disclaimer and indemnification language. However, the issue is not who can sue or defend who, but what are you getting for your money?

As a side note, this part of the Draft Audit was quoted by the court.

If an accident does occur, participation in this voluntary program can protect the organization’s reputation and serve, if necessary, as part of a legal defense.

Instead of a defense, it created a legal claim and proof of negligence…….

 

 

Relevant Cases:

Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry                                                                                 http://rec-law.us/13L66Dn

 

Other Cases concerning Climbing Walls:

Gross Negligence beats a release…but after the trial                                       http://rec-law.us/K884tT

Michigan court upholds release in a climbing wall accident where injured climber sued his belayer for his injuries                                                                                                                http://rec-law.us/Lt1Z6T

Poorly written release gave the plaintiff’s the only chance they had to winhttp://rec-law.us/GVzUUV

 

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Foster, et al., v. Alex Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566 (E.D. Wash. 2013)

Foster, et al., v. Alex Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566 (E.D. Wash. 2013)

Stephanie Foster, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Alex Kosseff, et al., Defendants.

NO: 11-CV-5069-TOR

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON

2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40566

March 22, 2013, Decided

March 22, 2013, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Foster v. Kosseff, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380 (E.D. Wash., Jan. 14, 2013)

COUNSEL: [*1] For Stephanie Foster, Gary Foster, Susan Foster, Plaintiffs: Allen M Ressler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Ressler and Tesh PLLC, Seattle, WA; William S Finger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Frank & Finger PC, Evergreen, CO.

For Alex Kosseff, Adventure Safety International LLC, Defendants: Heather C Yakely, LEAD ATTORNEY, Evans Craven & Lackie PS – SPO, Spokane, WA.

JUDGES: THOMAS O. RICE, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: THOMAS O. RICE

OPINION

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT ALEX KOSSEFF’S AND DEFENDANT ADVENTURE SAFETY INTERNATIONAL’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BEFORE THE COURT is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International (ECF No. 80). This matter was heard with oral argument on March 22, 2013. William S. Finger appeared on behalf of the Plaintiffs. Heather C. Yakely appeared on behalf of Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International. The Court has reviewed the briefing and the record and files herein, and is fully informed.

BACKGROUND

Defendants Alex Kosseff (“Kosseff”) and Adventure Safety International LLC (“ASI”) have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. Defendants assert that these claims fail as a matter of law because neither Kosseff nor ASI [*2] owed Plaintiff Stephanie Foster (“Ms. Foster”) a duty of care to identify the dangerous condition which caused her to fall from the Whitman College climbing wall on April 28, 2008.

FACTS

Ms. Foster enrolled as a freshman at Whitman College in the fall of 2007. During the 2007-2008 academic year, Plaintiff enrolled in several rock climbing classes offered through the Whitman College Outdoor Program (“Outdoor Program”). She also accepted a paid position as a student climbing instructor for the Outdoor Program. As a result of this coursework and employment, Plaintiff participated in several climbing sessions on a sport climbing wall located on the Whitman College campus.

On April 28, 2008, Ms. Foster was summoned to the climbing wall by her supervisor, Brien Sheedy (“Sheedy”) to assist in removing several climbing ropes that were hanging from the top of the wall. At Sheedy’s direction, Ms. Foster ascended the wall, climbed atop a platform adjacent to the wall, and removed all but one of the ropes. Having completed her task, Ms. Foster lowered herself back onto the climbing wall with the intention of rappelling down the wall using the remaining rope. Shortly after beginning her descent, however, [*3] the remaining rope became unhooked from two “Super Shut” anchors located near the top of the wall. The release of the rope caused Ms. Foster to free fall approximately 35 feet to the ground, resulting in serious permanent injury to her spine.

In April of 2007, one year prior to Ms. Foster’s fall, Whitman College hired ASI to perform a “risk management audit” of the Outdoor Program. The purpose and scope of this audit are central to the outcome of this case. Unfortunately, the terms of the agreement between Whitman College and ASI were never reduced to writing. In any event, it is undisputed that the audit was conducted by Defendant Alex Kosseff (“Kosseff”) over the course of four days on the Whitman College campus. It is further undisputed that Whitman College paid $3,000 for the audit.

During the course of the audit, Kosseff met with several students and administrators who were involved with the Outdoor Program. He also observed several regularly-scheduled activities, including an open climbing wall session, a pool session offered to students in a kayaking class, a climbing wall session offered to students in a rock climbing class, a training session for an upcoming climbing competition, [*4] and a debriefing session for a glacier mountaineering course. ECF No. 153-5 at 7.

After completing his site visit, Kosseff prepared and submitted a written report of his findings and recommendations to Whitman College. The authenticity of this document, which bears the title, “Draft Risk Management Audit,” (hereafter “audit report”) is undisputed. 1 The audit report contains several passages which are relevant to the issues raised in the instant motion. One such passage, under the heading “Audit Process Introduction” reads as follows:

The ASI Risk Management Audit program is a voluntary program aimed at improving risk management practices in outdoor education and recreation. This program has been designed by ASI and the audit process is handled by one of our experienced staff members. We recognize that each program is unique and that one standardized risk management plan will not work for every organization. With this in mind, the ASI Risk Management audit process does not prescribe specific approaches, but rather aims to assess that different aspects [of] risk management are being addressed.

ASI’s audit program is designed as an accessible step for organizations that want to reduce the [*5] risk of an accident taking place. It gives organizational management, clients/students, and others confidence that prudent steps are being taken to manage hazards. If an accident does occur, participation in this voluntary program can protect the organization’s reputation and serve, if necessary, as part of a legal defense. ASI’s audit program focuses exclusively on risk management and safety concerns and does not address educational, marketing, business and financial management, or other issues.

ECF No. 153-5 at 5.

1 ASI apparently contemplated issuing a final draft after Whitman College had reviewed and implemented its recommendations, but no final draft was ever issued. ECF No. 84-1 at Tr. 35-36.

In another passage, under the heading “Audit Program Disclaimer,” the audit report states:

The nature of Adventure Safety International Risk Management Audit is to gain a general understanding of the risk management practices at the time of the review. This is done primarily through review of the self assessment responses supplied by the management of the program being accredited. This is supplemented with onsite observation and interviews, which occur during a brief site visit.

The major aim [*6] of this voluntary audit is to benchmark the program against the risk management guidelines that ASI believes will promote good risk management practice. The benchmarks have been established, at three levels, in many (but not all) areas of risk management planning. The intent is to identify and share good practice amongst outdoor programs and over time to raise the level of risk management practice.

The audit cannot provide any guarantee that future operations will be free of safety incidents. Rather the audit documents that at the time of the review risk management practices met or exceeded risk management guidelines established by ASI and based on current industry practices.

ECF No. 153-5 at 6.

Finally, the audit report documents ASI’s substantive findings and recommendations across 27 different program evaluation criteria. These criteria vary widely, ranging from training and oversight of activity leaders to safety of passenger vans and drivers. Included among these criteria are ratings for “Equipment” and “Facilities.” ECF No. 153-5 at 30, 35. The audit report assigns the Outdoor Program the highest rating in both categories, noting that the quality of the program’s equipment was “exceptional,” [*7] and that those responsible for the program routinely inspect facilities for potential safety hazards. ECF No. 153-5 at 30, 35.

Shortly after Ms. Foster’s fall on April 28, 2008, Whitman College hired ASI to investigate the cause of the accident. ASI assigned Kosseff to conduct the investigation. Kosseff ultimately concluded that the accident occurred as a result of Plaintiff climbing above the Super Shut anchors and subsequently descending below them. According to Kosseff, the Super Shut anchors were not designed to accommodate a person climbing above them; rather, the anchors were designed for use only at “dead end” locations on a sport climbing wall. Kosseff further noted that the manufacturer of the anchors had issued warnings against climbing above them, noting that the risk of a climbing rope becoming disengaged from an anchor in this situation was about “50/50.” Thus, Kosseff concluded that both Whitman College and Ms. Foster were negligent in using the Super Shut anchors for a purpose for which they were not designed.

In the instant lawsuit, Plaintiffs assign fault to Kosseff for failing to identify the risks posed by the Super Shut anchors during the ASI’s risk management audit. [*8] Had Kosseff identified these risks and reported them to Whitman College, Plaintiffs assert, the problem could have been corrected before Ms. Foster was injured. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that ASI’s duty of care arising from the risk management audit did not extend to identifying the risk posed by improper use of the Super Shut anchors.

DISCUSSION

The Court may grant summary judgment in favor of a moving party who demonstrates “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing the absence of any genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to identify specific genuine issues of material fact which must be decided by a jury. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 252.

For [*9] purposes of summary judgment, a fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. at 248. A dispute as to any such fact is “genuine” only where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. Id. In ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must construe the facts, as well as all rational inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). Finally, the court may only consider evidence that would be admissible at trial. Orr v. Bank of America, NT & SA, 285 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2002).

A. Plaintiff Was an Intended Beneficiary of the Risk Management Audit

In its prior order denying Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Court remarked that, in its view, the viability of Plaintiffs’ negligence claim hinged on their ability to establish that Ms. Foster was an intended third-party beneficiary of the contract between ASI and Whitman College. ECF No. 72 at 10 (citing Burg v. Shannon & Wilson, Inc., 110 Wash. App. 798, 807-08, 43 P.3d 526 (2002)). Specifically, the Court commented that, in order to avoid summary dismissal of this claim, Plaintiff would need to establish, [*10] as a threshold matter, that “ASI agreed to undertake the risk management audit for the benefit of the college’s employees and students rather than for the benefit of the college itself.” ECF No. 72 at 10.

Having reviewed the record on summary judgment, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a triable question of fact on this issue. First, the Draft Risk Management Audit indicates that ASI’s audit program is designed to “give[] organizational management, clients/students, and others confidence that prudent steps are being taken to manage hazards.” ECF No. 153-5 at 5 (emphasis added). Second, the Director of the Outdoor Program, Brien Sheedy, testified during his deposition that the risk management audit was designed to minimize risks to “all users” of the Outdoor Program, including students and employees. ECF No. 153-10 at 34-35. Third, Whitman College’s chief financial officer, Peter Harvey, testified that the college typically takes an “across the board” approach to risk management by attempting to mitigate risks to students, employees and faculty. ECF No. 153-8 at 25. Finally, Whitman College’s president, George Bridges, testified that he would expect any risk management [*11] audit commissioned by the college “to protect the school and the employees and the students.” ECF No. 153-9 at 44. A rational jury could find from this evidence that Ms. Foster, as an employee and student of Whitman College, was an intended beneficiary of the contract for the risk management audit.

B. The Danger Posed by Misuse of the Super Shut Anchors Was Beyond the Scope of ASI’s Risk Management Audit

There are four elements to a common law negligence claim in Washington: duty, breach, causation and damages. Michaels v. CH2M Hill, Inc., 171 Wn.2d 587, 605, 257 P.3d 532 (2011). As to the first element, a duty of care is defined as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Affiliated FM Ins. Co. v. LTK Consulting Servs., Inc., 170 Wash.2d 442, 449, 243 P.3d 521 (2010) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Whether a duty of care exists is a matter of law to be decided by the court rather than by a jury. Osborn v. Mason Cnty., 157 Wash.2d 18, 23, 134 P.3d 197 (2006). This is a “threshold question” which involves three separate inquiries: “Does an obligation exist? What is the measure of care required? To whom and with respect to what [*12] risks is the obligation owed?” Affiliated FM Ins. Co., 170 Wash.2d at 449. In deciding whether the law imposes a duty of care, a court must balance “considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.” Id. at 450 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Here, Defendants contend that they did not owe Ms. Foster a duty of care to discover the danger posed by misuse of the Super Shut anchors. The Court agrees. In Washington, a private party who inspects another’s premises for safety hazards may be liable to third parties for injuries caused by the inspecting party’s negligence. See Sheridan v. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co., 3 Wash.2d 423, 439-40, 100 P.2d 1024 (1940); (liability insurer which inspected cargo elevator for safety hazards liable to third party who was injured as a result of insurer’s failure to discover dangerous condition); Nielson v. Wolfkill Corp., 47 Wash. App. 352, 359-60, 734 P.2d 961 (1987) (injured worker’s cause of action for negligent safety inspection performed by Department of Labor and Industries inspector barred by Washington Industrial Insurance Act); see also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 324A(b) (1965) (“One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render [*13] services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person.”).

Nevertheless, the act of inspecting another’s premises for safety hazards does not transform the inspecting party into a de facto insurer against any and all risks. Although the Court has not located any cases directly on-point in the State of Washington, courts in other jurisdictions have held that an inspecting party is only liable for undiscovered hazards which he or she undertook to discover in the first place. See, e.g., Procter & Gamble Co. v. Staples, 551 So.2d 949, 955-56 (Ala. 1989) (“In defining the nature of the duty undertaken by a voluntary [safety] inspection, two aspects must be considered–the physical scope of the undertaking and the degree of scrutiny and action mandated by conditions observed or reasonably observable.”) (quotation and citation omitted); Winslett v. Twin City Fire Ins. Co., 141 Ga. App. 143, 232 S.E.2d 638, 639 (Ga. App. 1977) (no liability [*14] to third party for failing to discover dangerous condition on construction crane where “evidence was uncontradicted that no detailed inspections of machinery or equipment were contemplated or made”); Lavazzi v. McDonald’s Corp., 239 Ill. App. 3d 403, 606 N.E.2d 845, 849-50, 179 Ill. Dec. 1013 (Ill. App. 1992) (inspectors hired by restaurant to perform food safety inspections at supplier’s plant not liable for negligent inspection where inspectors “did not specifically focus any attention . . . on the piece of equipment involved in the injury”). In other words, the weight of authority from other jurisdictions counsels that an inspecting party’s liability for negligent inspection must be circumscribed by the scope of the inspection actually performed.

The Court concludes that “considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent” support adoption of this rule. See Affiliated FM Ins. Co., 170 Wash.2d at 450. Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertions, an inspecting party’s duty of care is not synonymous with the foreseeability of a particular injury occurring. As Defendants correctly note, this argument improperly collapses the duty of care and causation elements of a negligence claim. In Washington, a negligence plaintiff [*15] must make a “threshold showing” that the defendant owed her a duty of care before proceeding to the issues of whether the defendant breached its duty and whether the breach was a foreseeable cause of the plaintiff’s injury. See Munich v. Skagit Emergency Commc’ns Ctr., 175 Wn.2d 871, 877, 288 P.3d 328 (2012). While foreseeability can sometimes inform the scope of a duty owed, it cannot create the duty of care in the first instance. Michaels, 171 Wn.2d at 608. Indeed, equating duty with foreseeability in the context of a safety inspection would lead to a perverse result: an inspector would be legally obligated to report each and every manner in which a person might conceivably be injured–regardless of how obvious, inherent or attenuated the danger might be. This result would effectively transform safety inspectors into de facto insurers against all risks. As a matter of logic and public policy, the better approach is to define an inspector’s duty of care according to the types of hazards that were actually targeted by his or her inspection.

Applying this rule to the instant case, the Court finds that the hazard which caused Ms. Foster’s fall–misuse of the Super Shut anchors–was simply beyond [*16] the scope of the risk management audit that ASI performed. As a threshold matter, Plaintiffs have failed to establish that ASI undertook to inspect any individual pieces of equipment maintained by the Outdoor Program. In his deposition, Kosseff testified unequivocally that the Outdoor Program’s equipment was beyond the scope of ASI’s audit:

There were hundreds and hundreds of pieces of equipment within this program. Each of those pieces of equipment, especially the climbing [equipment], have specific ways in which they’re used. There — I was not looking at how this equipment would be utilized in this situation. I was looking at how the college conducted their systems for managing risk.

ECF No. 84-1 at Tr. 94. Similarly, Brien Sheedy states in his declaration that he “understood and expected that the [audit] would not review specific equipment utilized in the Outdoor Program, for example the Fixe Super Shut anchors, as that type of inspection was not envisioned by the audit process based upon the information [he] learned from [Kosseff]” prior to hiring ASI. ECF No. 82 at ¶ 6. Although this testimony is somewhat self-serving, Plaintiffs have not rebutted it.

Moreover, even assuming for [*17] the sake of argument that ASI was charged with inspecting individual pieces of equipment, it could not reasonably have been expected to identify hazards stemming from potential misuse of the equipment. As Defendants correctly note, the Super Shut anchors which Ms. Foster was using at the time of the accident did not truly “fail.” Rather, the anchors did something that they were designed to do–i.e., release a climbing rope–when Ms. Foster used them for an unsupported application.

To whatever extent Kosseff understood the danger of the Super Shuts releasing a rope in this scenario, he was not obligated to address it with Whitman College. ASI did not contract with Whitman College to address dangers caused by misuse of the Outdoor Program’s equipment. While there is no written contract evidencing the scope of work that ASI agreed to perform, the audit report prepared by Kosseff is highly informative. Having reviewed the audit report in its entirety, the Court finds that the purpose of the risk management audit was to improve Whitman College’s safety practices rather than to identify and catalog specific safety hazards. Indeed, there is no evidence that ASI agreed to perform a detailed “safety [*18] inspection” of specific outdoor equipment, buildings, vehicles, etc. Nor is there any evidence that Kosseff actually undertook to perform an inspection at that minute level of detail.

In the final analysis, there is simply no evidence that ASI agreed or undertook to examine the virtually countless ways in which the Outdoor Program’s climbing equipment could have been dangerously misused. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have not met their burden of establishing that ASI owed Ms. Foster a duty of care to discover and report the danger posed by misuse of the Super Shut anchors. In the absence of a duty of care, Plaintiffs cannot prevail on their negligence claim. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is granted.

ACCORDINGLY, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED:

1. The motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International (ECF No. 80) is GRANTED. Plaintiffs’ claims against these Defendants are DISMISSED with prejudice.

2. Plaintiffs’ claim against Defendant Fixe Industry, which has never been served in this action, is DISMISSED without prejudice.

3. All pending motions are DENIED as moot.

The District Court Executive is hereby directed to enter this Order and a judgment [*19] accordingly, provide copies to counsel, and CLOSE the file.

DATED March 22, 2013.

/s/ Thomas O. Rice

THOMAS O. RICE

United States District Judge


Bad luck or about time, however, you look at this decision, you will change the way you work in the Outdoor Recreation Industry

Foster, et al., v. Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380

It is an industry, and it is not based on dreams or what your think it should be: Welcome to the real world

Simply, someone went into a climbing wall at a university, was paid to review the risk-management issues, created a report and is now being sued because of it.

The plaintiff was a student and employee of Whitman College of Spokane Washington. The plaintiff worked at the climbing wall as an instructor. She was injured when she fell 32 feet from the climbing wall. (Some of this information I got from a news article Student crushes vertebrae in climbing wall fall.) The court opinion says she was training on the wall. The article says she was cleaning holds when she fell.

She fell because a shut failed to work properly. The decision said the plaintiff failed to use the shut properly. The manufacturer of the Shut was not included in the lawsuit.

Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International, LLC, (ASI) were named as defendants. ASI had been hired by the college to perform a “risk management audit.” A document was prepared by ASI, which was titled Whitman College Outdoor Programs Draft Risk Management Audit. One of the major arguments was the report was labeled a draft report.

ASI, according to the article, was also hired by the college after the accident to investigate the complaint.

The plaintiff sued, and ASI filed an answer to the complaint. This motion was then filed moving to have ASI dismissed from the suit.

The court found that the plaintiff could continue her claim against the defendant because she was a third party beneficiary of the agreement between the college and the defendant or because as an employee of the college at the time of the accident, she was part of the agreement. Plaintiff would not have a claim against the defendant if she was an incidental beneficiary of the contract.

The question then “depends upon the extent to which ASI agreed to undertake the risk management audit for the benefit of the college’s employees and students rather than for the benefit the college itself.”

So if she was an employee of college at the time of the accident, is the basis for this claim a worker’s compensation subrogation claim?

Summary of the case

The basis of ASI’s motion was it did not owe a duty to the plaintiff.

The crux of ASI’s argument is that it did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care because the dangerous condition which caused her accident was simply “outside the scope of the risk-management audit” that it agreed to perform. Specifically, ASI argues that the scope of the audit was limited to “gain[ing] a general understanding of [Whitman College’s] risk management practices,” and that it did not “guarantee that future operations will be free of safety incidents.”

ASI is saying that they were working for the college, not the plaintiff. The court did not buy the argument.

The court held the audit report was not the only reason for its decision and was not necessarily required by the plaintiff to prove her case. That issue, whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.

The court looked at the plaintiff as the intended recipient, the third party beneficiary, of the work done by ASI. I also think the court could have held that the plaintiff was the intended beneficiary of the report because she was an employee of the College.

If you are hired to work for a college and the work, you are performing is for the benefit of the patrons of the college, you are possibly liable to the students.

This was just a preliminary motion, there is a lot of litigation and trial left in this case, and ASI may eventually be dismissed. However, ASI will have to find better arguments.

So Now What?

1.      If you are performing this type of work, you can be sued. I’ve known it for years, and I’m amazed the number of people who are astounded by this decision.

2.    If you do this type of work, you need insurance to cover your liability.

3.    If you do this type of work, based on this decision, you can’t miss anything.

4.    If you do this type of work you better not be stupid enough to call what you do an audit.

Remember that marketing makes promises that risk management has to pay for. Audit sounded like a cool word to use to describe walking into a program and looking around. However, audit has a much more definitive definition. Wikipedia uses the following words to define “audit:” thoroughly examines and reasonable assurance that the statements are free from material error.

5.     Why are you doing this work? Do you have the credentials and the experience to make these decisions? What is your engineering degree? What ASTM committees that are involved in the creation of the equipment and facilities that you audit are you on? What equipment are you taking with you to perform the appropriate tests?

And this is not the only way that a third party can be brought into a suit like this. They misrepresented their abilities (Which I believe every single one of them is doing) which can lead to liability.

You just can’t say I’ve done it for 10 years. Therefore, I can tell you how to do it. You have to study and inspect and test. You have to take the climbing wall apart and see if the structure is built correctly. Are the bolts the proper size and strength and not just was some pseudo organization says but what the ASTM says it should be? What is the force the climbing wall can sustain? Is all the equipment in the chain where force will be applied, built and maintained to sustain that force?

This is a bad case, but not one that is unexpected just took longer to occur then I would have guessed.

If you do have an accident, you can’t hire the person who did your inspect to do the accident inspection. Besides that, inspection is not protected and is discoverable by the plaintiff.

The three largest payouts in the OR industry occurred after third party investigators were hired to determine what happened. In one, the plaintiffs took the investigators report and turned it into the complaint.

If you have a wall or run a program hire professional. Not people you may meet at a show, but people with real credentials after their name.

If you think, you still want to keep doing this, make sure your agreement with the program defines what you can and cannot do, and that you are not liable for the programs’ failure to follow your recommendations.

 

Plaintiff: Stephanie Foster

 

Defendant: Alex Kosseff, et al.

 

Plaintiff Claims: Defendant was negligent in failing to discover the risk posed by the Super Shut anchor.

 

Defendant Defenses: Defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care.

 

Holding: Defendant’s motion to dismiss was denied.

 

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By Recreation Law          Rec-law@recreation-law.com   James H. Moss                  Jim Moss

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Foster, et al., v. Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380

Foster, et al., v. Kosseff, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380

Stephanie Foster, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Alex Kosseff, et al., Defendants.

NO: 11-CV-5069-TOR

United States District Court For The Eastern District Of Washington

2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5380

January 14, 2013, Decided

January 14, 2013, Filed

CORE TERMS: audit report, audit, duty of care, beneficiary–, climbing, owed, failure to state a claim, citation omitted, incorporation, discover, lawsuit, anchor, owe, dangerous condition, negligence claim, authenticity, quotation, summary judgment, recreational, leave to amend, underlying purpose, recommendations, deliberately, cognizable, omitting, coverage, survive, amend, issues of law, discovery

COUNSEL: [*1] For Stephanie Foster, Susan Foster, Gary Foster, Plaintiffs: Allen M Ressler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Ressler and Tesh PLLC, Seattle, WA; William S Finger, LEAD ATTORNEY, Frank & Finger PC, Evergreen, CO.

For Alex Kosseff, Adventure Safety International LLC, Defendants: Heather C Yakely, LEAD ATTORNEY, Evans Craven & Lackie PS – SPO, Spokane, WA.

JUDGES: THOMAS O. RICE, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: THOMAS O. RICE

OPINION

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT ADVENTURE SAFETY INTERNATIONAL’S MOTION TO DISMISS

BEFORE THE COURT is Defendants Alex Kosseff’s and Adventure Safety International, LLC’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (ECF No. 33). This motion was heard without oral argument on January 14, 2013. The Court has reviewed the motion, the response, and the reply, and is fully informed.

BACKGROUND

In this diversity case, Plaintiff seeks to recover damages for a back injury which she sustained during a fall from a recreational climbing wall maintained by her employer, Whitman College. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Alex Kosseff and Adventure Safety International, LLC, were negligent in failing to discover the dangerous condition which caused the accident during a safety audit commissioned by Whitman College [*2] in 2007. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on the ground that they did not owe a duty of care to Plaintiff. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the motion.

FACTS

Plaintiff Stephanie Foster (“Plaintiff”) is a student enrolled at Whitman College in Spokane, Washington. In April 2008, Plaintiff was employed as a student instructor in Whitman College’s Outdoor Program. One of her duties in this position was to teach other students how to properly climb and descend a recreational climbing wall located on the Whitman College campus.

On April 28, 2008, Plaintiff fell from the climbing wall during a training exercise and was seriously injured. A subsequent investigation revealed that the accident occurred when a “Super Shut” climbing anchor manufactured by Defendant Fixe Industry1 inadvertently opened while Plaintiff was descending the wall. This investigation further revealed that the anchor opened as a result of Plaintiff using it in a manner for which it was not designed.

1 Defendant Fixe Industry has never been served in this action.

Approximately one year prior to Plaintiff’s accident, Whitman College hired Defendants Alex Kosseff and [*3] Adventure Safety International, LLC (collectively “ASI”) to perform a “risk management audit” of the Outdoor Program’s facilities. The parties sharply disagree about the scope of this audit. Plaintiff asserts that the audit extended to identifying and mitigating all risks posed to users of the climbing wall. ASI maintains that the audit was merely intended to provide Whitman College with a “general understanding” of how to improve its risk management program. In any event, it is undisputed that ASI’s audit did not identify the risk that the Super Shut anchor posed when used improperly.

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on April 22, 2011. Among other claims, Plaintiff asserts that ASI was negligent in failing to discover the risk posed by the Super Shut anchor. ASI now moves to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim on the ground that it did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care as a matter of law. Because ASI has previously filed an answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint, (ECF No. 9) the Court will treat the instant motion as a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Elvig v. Calvin Presbyterian Church, 375 F.3d 951, 954 (9th Cir. 2004).

DISCUSSION

A [*4] motion for judgment on the pleadings is reviewed under the same legal standard as a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Dworkin v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 867 F.2d 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 1989). A motion to dismiss “tests the legal sufficiency of a [plaintiff’s] claim.” Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). To survive such a motion, the plaintiff must allege facts which, when taken as true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868, (2009) (quotation and citation omitted). To satisfy this plausibility standard, the allegations in a complaint must be sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, are insufficient. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

In addition, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a plaintiff’s complaint contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,’ [*5] but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). To determine whether Rule 8(a)(2) has been satisfied, a court must first identify the elements of the plaintiff’s claim(s) and then determine whether those elements could be proven on the facts pled. Although the court should generally draw reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, see Sheppard v. David Evans and Assoc., 694 F.3d 1045, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012), it need not accept “naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

The Ninth Circuit has repeatedly instructed district courts to “grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless … the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts.” Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000). The standard for granting leave to amend is generous–the court “should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). In determining whether leave to amend is appropriate, a court must consider the following five factors: bad faith, undue delay, prejudice [*6] to the opposing party, futility of amendment, and whether the plaintiff has previously amended the complaint. United States v. Corinthian Colleges, 655 F.3d 984, 995 (9th Cir. 2011).

A. Consideration of the Draft Audit Report

In support of its motion to dismiss, ASI has submitted a document entitled “Whitman College Outdoor Programs Draft Risk Management Audit” (hereafter “audit report”). ECF No. 36-1. The parties disagree about whether the Court may properly consider the contents of this document without converting the instant motion into a motion for summary judgment. On December 4, 2012, in response to Plaintiff’s concerns that ASI was effectively seeking summary judgment, the Court ruled that it would treat ASI’s motion “as a standard motion to dismiss, considering only (1) facts specifically alleged in the complaint; and (2) documents submitted by Defendants that were referenced in the complaint and whose authenticity has not been questioned.” ECF No. 52 at 3-4. This ruling was based, in large part, upon ASI’s representations that it had submitted the audit report “for background purposes” only and that the contents of the report were “not relevant to the actual issues of law before [*7] the court.” See ECF No. 51 at 5.

It has now become clear that the contents of the audit report are material to the issues of law presented in the instant motion. The crux of ASI’s argument is that it did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care because the dangerous condition which caused her accident was simply “outside the scope of the risk management audit” that it agreed to perform. ECF No. 70 at 7. Specifically, ASI argues that the scope of the audit was limited to “gain[ing] a general understanding of [Whitman College’s] risk management practices,” and that it did not “guarantee that future operations will be free of safety incidents.” ECF No. 70 at 7 (citing ECF No. 71-1 at 9). Because this argument expressly relies upon the contents of the audit report itself, the Court must decide whether the audit report is “fair game” at this early stage of the proceedings.

“Generally, a district court may not consider any material beyond the pleadings in ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.” Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n. 19 (9th Cir. 1989). One exception to this rule is the so-called “incorporation by reference doctrine,” which permits a court to consider “documents [*8] whose contents are alleged in a complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the plaintiff’s pleading.” Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005). As the Ninth Circuit explained in Knievel, this exception typically applies in “situations in which the plaintiff’s claim depends on the contents of a document, the defendant attaches the document to its motion to dismiss, and the parties do not dispute the authenticity of the document.” Id. The underlying purpose of this exception is “to prevent plaintiffs from surviving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion by deliberately omitting documents upon which their claims are based.” Swartz v. KPMG LLP, 476 F.3d 756, 763 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation and citation omitted); see also United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003) (explaining that that the incorporation by reference doctrine “may apply, for example, when a plaintiff’s claim about insurance coverage is based on the contents of a coverage plan, or when a plaintiff’s claim about stock fraud is based on the contents of SEC filings”) (citations omitted).

The Court will not consider the audit report under the incorporation by reference [*9] doctrine for several reasons. First, the contents of the report are disputed. In responding to the instant motion, Plaintiff indicates that only a portion of the document was prepared by Defendant Kosseff and that another portion may have been prepared by Whitman College prior to ASI’s inspection of its facilities. ECF No. 67 at 2-3. Plaintiff further asserts that the audit report purports to be a draft rather than a finalized document. See ECF No. 36-1. This latter assertion is particularly on-point. Indeed, the document is styled as a “Draft Risk Management Audit,” and has the words “Whitman College Draft Risk Management Audit” reproduced at the top of each page. ECF No. 36-1 (emphasis in original).

Second, considering the audit report at this juncture would not serve the underlying purpose of the incorporation by reference doctrine. Notably, this is not a case in which the plaintiff has attempted to survive a motion to dismiss “by deliberately omitting documents upon which [her] claims are based.” Swartz, 476 F.3d at 763. To the contrary, Plaintiff did not have a copy of the audit report (and therefore lacked knowledge of its precise contents) when this lawsuit was filed. See Pl.’s [*10] Compl., ECF No. 1, at ¶¶ 15, 30-31 (alleging that Plaintiff learned of the audit report’s existence from an investigation performed by the Department of Labor and Industries and that Whitman College and Defendant ASI “failed or refused” to provide her with a copy before the lawsuit was filed).

Third, the contents of the audit report are not particularly “integral” to Plaintiff’s claim. See Ritchie, 342 F.3d at 908. Unlike claims for breach of an insurance contract, for example (see Ritchie, 342 F.3d at 908), Plaintiff’s negligence claim does not necessarily rely upon the contents of a specific document. In fact, Plaintiff could theoretically prove the elements of her negligence claim (i.e., duty, breach, causation and damages) exclusively through witness testimony without introducing the audit report at all. Further, it is worth noting that the audit report is not a contract between ASI and Whitman College; it is simply ASI’s work product. As such, the audit report is not particularly probative of the most crucial issue in this case: whether ASI owed Plaintiff a legal duty. Although the report details specific tasks performed, it does not describe the precise scope of work that that [*11] ASI agreed to perform.

Finally, equitable considerations weigh against considering the audit report at this time. At bottom, Plaintiff’s negligence claim relies on the allegation that ASI agreed to “analyze and point out dangers and suggest remediation of dangers to prevent injury to students and employees utilizing the climbing wall.” Pl.’s Compl., ECF No. 1, at ¶ 28. ASI has attempted to establish that the audit was more limited in scope and that, as a result, it did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care. In so doing, however, ASI has expressly relied upon the contents of the audit report. Based upon ASI’s prior representation that it would not do so, the Court denied Plaintiff an opportunity to conduct additional discovery relevant to this issue. That ruling has now placed Plaintiff at a significant disadvantage. Accordingly, the Court will not consider the contents of the audit report to the exclusion of other evidence which Plaintiff may develop as discovery progresses.

B. Duty Owed to Intended Third-Party Beneficiary

In light of the Court’s ruling above, the only remaining issue is whether Plaintiff has stated a legally cognizable claim on the facts alleged in the complaint. In the Court’s [*12] view, the relevant inquiry is whether Plaintiff was an intended third-party beneficiary of the contract between ASI and Whitman College. To the extent that Plaintiff was an intended beneficiary as an employee and student of Whitman College, ASI may have owed her a duty of care to discover the dangerous condition at issue. See Burg v. Shannon & Wilson, Inc., 110 Wash. App. 798, 807-08, 43 P.3d 526 (2002) (holding that engineering firm had no duty of care to disclose specific safety recommendations to third party who would have benefitted from the recommendations, but who was not an intended third-party beneficiary of the underlying agreement). To the extent that Plaintiff was merely an incidental beneficiary of the contract, however, she lacks a cognizable claim. Id. Stated somewhat differently, the viability of Plaintiff’s claim depends upon the extent to which ASI agreed to undertake the risk management audit for the benefit of the college’s employees and students rather than for the benefit the college itself.

In her complaint, Plaintiff squarely alleges that the risk management audit was performed for the benefit of Whitman College’s employees and students. See Pl.’s Compl., ECF No. 1, at ¶ 28 [*13] (“The risk assessment was done for the benefit of Whitman College and its employees and students because Whitman College understood its duty to provide safe recreational activities and as part of good institutional management.”). This allegation, which the Court must accept as true for purposes of this motion, is sufficient to establish that Plaintiff was an intended third-party beneficiary of the agreement such that ASI may have owed her a duty of care to discover the dangerous condition at issue. Whether Plaintiff was in fact an intended beneficiary–as well as the scope of any duty owed to her by ASI–may be revisited on summary judgment.

ACCORDINGLY, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED:

Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (ECF No. 33) is DENIED.

The District Court Executive is hereby directed to enter this Order and provide copies to counsel.

DATED this 14th day of January, 2012.

/s/ Thomas O. Rice

THOMAS O. RICE

United States District Judge

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By Recreation Law          Rec-law@recreation-law.com   James H. Moss                  Jim Moss

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