Teachable Moment – Claims of Student Chaperon Injured While Whitewater Rafting Barred by Release (PA)

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McDonald v. Whitewater Challengers, Inc. (Pennsylvania)

The plaintiff (a New York resident) was a school teacher who chaperoned seventh and eighth grade school children on a whitewater rafting field trip with other faculty members.  While she was rafting, her raft struck a large rock, causing her personal injury.  Plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit against against the whitewater facility, alleging that the facility failed to provide a river guide/instructor in her boat, failed to provide a properly inflated raft, failed to advise her on the grade/class of whitewater rapids she would encounter, failed to instruct her on how to safely and effectively maneuver the rapids, and allowed an unsafe number of inexperiences rafters in the boat.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the waiver and release agreement signed by plaintiff prior to her participating in the rafting.  The trial court denied the motion.  Following further discovery, plaintiff then filed a motion for partial summary judgment arguing that New York law (and not Pennsylvania law) should be applied to the facts, and defendant filed a second motion for summary judgment.  Applying Pennsylvania law, the trial court denied both motions.  While the court acknowledged that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had previously “affirmed the validity of such exculpatory releases in inherently dangerous recreational activities,” the court held that there were “material issues of fact existed regarding whether she was economically compelled to sign the release” by her employer/school.  The parties filed petitions for permission to file an interlocutory appeals, which were granted.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania first addressed plaintiff’s appeal.  If New York law was applied, the defendant’s waiver and release could have been rendered void and unenforceable under New York’s statutory and decisional law (notably New York General Obligations Law Section 5-326).  Plaintiff noted that she was a New York resident and had signed the waiver and release in New York.  She also claimed that if the defendant wanted the benefit of Pennsylvania law, it should have included a choice of law clause in the agreement.  Plaintiff further noted that she received most of he treatment in New York, and that the New York State Insurance Fund had an interest in recouping her los wages and medical expenses.  However, the Court diasgreed holding that it seemed only fair to permit the defendant to rely on Pennsylvania law when it acted in Pennsylvania.  As the Court explained, the defendant “should not be placed in jeopardy of liability exceeding that created by Pennsylvania law just because McDonald is a visitor from New York, a state offering higher protection.”  Ultimately, the Court concluded that Pennsylvania had the “greater interest in the application of its law to this case.”

As to the defendant’s motion, the Court reversed the prior decision, remanding the case with instructions to grant judgment in favor of the defendant.  The defendant argued that plaintiff was not compelled to sign the waiver and release and that she would not have suffered any repercussions by not participating in the rafting.  Plaintiff contended that her refusal to participate in the rafting could have affected her ability to get a raise from her employer, but the Court noted that such a contention was “conjectural.”  In the end, the Court ruled that the plaintiff was not subject to economic compulsion and the waiver and release agreement was enforceable to bar her negligence claims.

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