“Baled” Out – Woman Trips on Stairs at Farm; Indemnity Agreement in Release Contrary to Public Policy (CT)

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Squinobal v. Zenko (Connecticut)

Plaintiff was injured when she slipped and fell on wooden stairs located on the defendant’s premises.  The defendant operated a farm and equestrian facility.  At the time of the incident, plaintiff was carrying a bale of hay and seed to a feed trailer.  Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that her injuries resulted from the negligence and carelessness of the defendant.  The defendant filed a counterclaim based on a “Lesson, Horse Rental, and Arena Use Release” document (“Release”) signed by the plaintiff in order to ride horses at the facility.  The defendant then filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the ground that plaintiff had a duty to defend and indemnify the defendant under the terms of the Release.

The Superior Court of Connecticut denied the defendant’s motion.  The court reviewed Connecticut caselaw in detail, highlighting the state’s disfavor of exculpatory agreements.  Given that the Connecticut court’s will not enforce an agreement which violates public policy, the court set out to “consider whether the duty to defend and indemnify clause violate[d] public policy.”  The court quoted the language at issue as follows:

“USER … AGREES TO HOLD HARMLESS INDEMNIFY AND DEFEND MANAGEMENT AGAINST ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, DEMANDS, CAUSES OF ACTION, DAMAGES, JUDGMENTS, ORDERS, COSTS OR EXPENSES, INCLUDING ATTORNEYS FEES, WHICH MAY IN ANY WAY ARISE FROM OR BE IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH USER’S USE OF OR PRESENCE UPON THE PROPERTY OF MANAGEMENT AND THE FACILITIES LOCATED THEREON”

The court noted that the language “raise[d] serious concerns in light of fundamental policy purposes of the tort compensation system.”  The language required the plaintiff “to pay for her own damages from the [defendant’s] actions and evades the importance of tort claims’ prophylactic nature in preventing future harm.”  The court continued, “When the [defendants] do not have to pay damages or for their defense in a tort action, the incentive to correct any wrongdoing is erased.”  Reviewing the public policy factors, the court stated that “the agreement pertains to a business of recreational equestrian activities which is suitable for public regulation,” citing to a recreational equestrian activity assumption of the risk statute.  Additionally, the court noted that both the Release and the plaintiff’s affidavit suggested that the defendants “were holding themselves out as providing a facility for equestrian activities to the public, which further suggests that the [defendant’s] business [fell] within the public interest.”

Moreover, based on the plaintiff’s testimony, the Court stated that plaintiff “had nearly zero bargaining power with respect to the duty to defend and indemnity clause.”  The court then concluded that “[b]ased on this adhesion contract as well as the totality of the circumstances as to the other [public policy] factors and the duty to defend and indemnify clause incompatibility with the fundamental policy purposes of our tort compensation system, it [was] submitted that the duty to defend and indemnify clause violate[d] public policy.”

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