Archive for the ‘Federal Litigation’ Category

Into the Void – Claims of Sixteen-Year-Old Skydiver Not Barred by Waiver and Release (OK)

January 4, 2016

Wethington v. Swainson (Oklahoma)

Accompanied by her parents, a sixteen-year-old girl went to the defendant to learn how to skydive.  As part of the registration process, the girl signed a “Registration Form and Medical Statement” that included a disclaimer near the bottom referring to the serious risks associated with skydiving.  The girl participated in an instruction course, which included fours hours of training.  In connection with the instruction course, the girl and her parents signed a detailed “Agreement, Release of Liability and Acknowledgement of Risk” form, which included numerous exculpatory provisions (the “Release”).  The Release also included a “Ratification by Parent/Guardian,” which was signed by both of the girl’s parents.  When she jumped from the plane, the girl’s parachute malfunctioned, causing her to spin rapidly toward the ground.  She landed at a high speed and impact, causing her to sustain serious injury.

The girl and her parents sued the defendant, and the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the Release barred the plaintiffs’ claims.  The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part.  Reviewing Oklahoma law and the terms of the Release, the Court concluded that “the Release states in clear and unequivocal terms the intention of the parties to excuse Defendant from liability caused by Defendant’s negligence, equipment failure, or inadequate instruction.”  However, the Court acknowledged that the minor had voided the Release due to her status as a minor, and the Court noted that “[u]nder Oklahoma law, a minor’s right to rescind a contract is unaffected by the approval or consent of a parent.”

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Speed Wobble – Discovery Regarding Failure to Warn Allowed in Longboarding Death Case (VT)

November 5, 2015

Cernansky v. Lefebvre (Vermont)
(trial court disposition)

A college student was fatally injured while riding a longboard style of skateboard.  His estate brought a lawsuit against the roommate who lent him the board and the skateboard shop that sponsored the roommate as a longboard rider.  The complaint alleged wrongful death and negligent failure to warn the decedent about the dangers associated with the activity (the roommate did not provide the decedent with any safety instructions prior to taking the decedent longboarding).  The roommate filed a motion to dismiss the action for failure to state a claim, and the skateboard shop filed a motion to dismiss the action against it based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.

The United States District Court for the District of Vermont denied both motions.  First, the Court held that the estate’s complaint did state a claim against the roommate under Vermont law for negligent failure to warn.  The Court explained:

“. . . the Complaint alleges [the roommate] should have foreseen the potential for serious injury based upon his knowledge of long boarding. More specifically, [the roommate] allegedly should have foreseen that sending [the decedent], a first-time longboarder, down a hill without a helmet or instruction presented a risk of harm giving rise to a legal duty. Plaintiff claims that [the roommate] breached that duty.  ¶  The fact that the longboard was loaned to [the decedent] does not alter the negligence analysis. In the comparable context of negligent entrustment, the ‘theory requires a showing that the entruster knew or should have known some reason why entrusting the item to another was foolish or negligent.'”

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Snowmobile Wins Again – Claims of Injured Ski Racer Survive Motion Based on Waiver and Assumption of Risk Statutes (CO)

October 29, 2015

Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. (Colorado)
(trial court disposition)

Plaintiff was a member of the Sarasota, Florida Ski Team.  She traveled to the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Colorado to participate in ski races.  After finishing her second race and exiting the race course, plaintiff skied down a trail and headed toward the ski lift.  She attempted to ski past the lift to a picnic area to meet up with other racers.  However, she collided with a snowmobile that was parked near the lift.  Plaintiff sued the ski resort alleging (1) common law negligence in parking the snowmobile in a dangerous, high-traffic area, and (2) negligence per se under the Colorado Ski Safety Act (“SSA”) by failing to mark and pad the snowmobile.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing (1) that the exculpatory clause contained in the race participation agreement signed by the plaintiff prior to her participation barred the plaintiff’s claims, (2) the common law negligence claim was barred by the SSA (“no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing”), and (3) the negligence per se claim failed because the SSA does not apply under the circumstances (i.e., with regard to a parked snowmobile).

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Too Important – Court Denies Motion to Compel Deposition of “Apex” Executive of Defendant (CA)

October 27, 2015

Kormylo v. Forever Resorts, LLC (California)
(trial court disposition)

Plaintiff was injured while swimming at a Nevada Resort owned and operated by the defendant.  The cause of plaintiff’s injuries were disputed, but plaintiff alleged that he was struck by a chase boat operated by an employee of the defendant.  The boat in question was registered to the President and founder of the defendant, but he was not named as a defendant in the case.

Plaintiff sought to take the President’s deposition, arguing that his testimony was required to defeat the defendant’s twelfth affirmative defense under a Nevada maritime Limitation of Liability Act.  Plaintiff contended that the owner of a vessel who fails to adequately train its crew is not entitled to limit liability under the Act, and that the President’s deposition was needed to establish this lack of training and supervision of defendant’s employees.  Defendant refused to permit the deposition, and plaintiff filed a motion to compel.

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Not Amusing – Assumption of Risk, Contributory Negligence Not Applicable to Injured Two Year Old; Triable Issues RE Accident (MD)

October 26, 2015

McNeill v. Trimper’s Rides of Ocean City, Inc. (Maryland)
(trial court disposition)

A two-year-old boy went to an amusement park under the watch of his uncle.  He was on a ride for young children when the rider operator stopped the ride to remove another rider.  When the ride stopped, the boy apparently thought the ride was over and go out of his seat.  The ride operator then resumed the ride and the it struck the boy.  The boy’s father sued the amusement park, alleging that the ride operator negligently failed to insure that the boy was safely out of the way of danger before putting the ride back into motion.  The defendant filed an answer which included the affirmative defenses of assumption of the risk and contributory negligence.  Defendant also argued that the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations.

Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the defendants’ affirmative defenses of assumption of the risk and contributory negligence were inapplicable because the boy was only two years old.  Plaintiff further asserted that under Maryland law, any negligence on the part of the child could not be imputed to a parent or caretaker.  The defendant’s opposition to the motion conceded “that the affirmative defenses of statute of limitations, contributory negligence, and assumption of the risk do not apply on the present record.”  However, the District Court explained that the concession did not create a basis for an award of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff because it was not a res ipsa loquitor case and the plaintiff still needed to prove the elements of negligence.

Neither party had been able to locate and depose the operator of the ride at the time of the incident.  Additionally, the boy’s uncle was the only available eyewitness in the case, but his view of the accident was obstructed and he could not testify as to what exactly had happened.  The Court noted that the plaintiff may eventually prevail at trial, but that it could not, by way of a motion, resolve factual disputes as to how the incident occurred.   The Court also ruled that the lawsuit was not time-barred.

 

Bitten – Questions Certified to Supreme Court on Huge Jury Verdict for Student Stricken by Illness on School Tour (CT)

October 16, 2015

Munn v. Hotchkiss (Connecticut)

A fifteen-year-old freshman at a private boarding school participated in a month-long summer program in China organized by the school.  Prior to participating in the program, the school sent the student and her parents a packet outlining the activities and a set of legal forms requesting that the parents waive legal claims against the school.  The school also sent medical advice regarding the trip, including a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) webpage and a note that the school’s infirmary could “serve as a travel clinic.”  However, the CDC website reference was incorrect and the infirmary was unable to provide independent medical advice.  The school also later sent an itinerary, a packing list (including a general reference to “bug spray”), and a handbook on international travel.  However, there were no specific warnings about insect-borne diseases where health risks were mentioned in the materials.

During the program, the students went on a weekend excursion without any bug sprays warnings being given.  After walking through trees and brush, the student had numerous bug bites and an itchy welt on her left arm.  Ten days later, the student awoke with a headache, fever, and wooziness.  Her condition deteriorated and she was taken to the hospital.  Eventually, the student’s parents traveled to China from the United States to be with her in the hospital.  She was severely ill and partially paralyzed, and was airlifted back to New York.  The student was diagnosed with tick-borne encephalitis (“TBE”), a viral infectious disease that affects the central nervous system.  She lost the ability to speak and lost cognitive function, although she managed to live a functional life, finishing high school and attending college.

The student and her parents filed a diversity action in federal court against the school, alleging that the school was negligent in the planning and supervision of the trip.  Plaintiffs claimed that the school failed to warn them about the risks of viral encephalitis and failed to provide her with protective clothing, bug spray, or vaccinations.  They also alleged that the school failed to provide medical personnel on the trip and failed to establish procedures for medical emergencies.  The defendant school argued that the “Agreement Waiver, and Release of Liability” form that was signed by the student’s parents prior to the program precluded liability, but the District Court excluded the document, finding that its language was ambiguous and that it was contrary to public policy under Connecticut law.

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Beyond Control – Woman Injured on Costa Rican Bicycle Tour; Claims Survive Motion to Dismiss (CO)

October 15, 2015

Steinfeld v. EmPG International, LLC (Colorado)
(trial court disposition)

A woman fell off her bicycle during a bicycle your vacation in Costa Rica.  She and her husband filed a lawsuit against the bicycle tour company.  The lawsuit was filed in Pennsylvania where the plaintiffs resided, but the Pennsylvania District Court held that is lacked personal jurisdiction over the defendant tour company that was based in Colorado.  The defendant filed a motion to dismiss based in large part on the assumption of risk and waiver of liability forms (“Releases”) signed by the plaintiffs prior to their participation in the tour.  However, the Colorado District Court applied Colorado law (as having the “most significant relationship” to claims), denied the motion, and allowed the case to proceed to discovery, finding that the Releases did not bar all of the plaintiffs claims.  The Court explained:

“A waiver implicitly or explicitly is grounded on warranties of fitness, and assumption of risk can only take place when the risk is inherent and clearly foreseeable.  The Complaint in this case abounds with allegations of misrepresentations and abandonment of good faith attempts to fulfill the obligations of the contract.”

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Capped and Dismissed – Arbitration Provision with Damages Cap in Zip-Line Waiver and Release Enforced (VT)

September 30, 2015

Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC (Vermont)
(trial court disposition)

The seventy-six year old plaintiff was severely injured while participating in an adventure zip-line course in Vermont.  Plaintiff had never participated in an adventure course before.  Despite having received instruction from the zip-line facility, the plaintiff mistakenly attached his equipment to a guy wire, thinking it was a zip-line cable.  While descending, he ran into a tree that anchored the other end of the guy wire.  He sued the zip-line facility alleging that it negligently designed, constructed, and operated the course.

Plaintiff’s friend had purchased their tickets for the adventure course online through the facility’s website.  Plaintiff arrived at the facility, and they were presented with a “Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Indemnification, and Arbitration Agreement” to sign.  Plaintiff contended that the website had not warned them that they would be required to sign a liability waiver in order to participate in the activities.  The agreement was presented in digital format on an electronic device, and plaintiff was instructed to read and sign it electronically.  The agreement specifically included a provision pursuant to which the plaintiff agreed to submit any claims in excess of $75,000 to binding arbitration.  Alternatively, if plaintiff filed a lawsuit in court, the agreement provided that plaintiff agreed that his damages would be capped at $75,000.  The agreement further attempted to require the arbitration panel or court (as applicable) to decide the enforceability of the agreement as a “threshold matter.”

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Ejected – Man Knocked Unconscious on Water Slide; Court Permits Amendment to Complaint Alleging Punitive Damages (PA)

September 10, 2015

Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos (Pennsylvania)
(trial court disposition)

Plaintiff Brian Perez was a paying guest and business invitee of the defendant Great Wolf Lodge, which operates a hotel and water park in the Poconos.  While riding on a water slide with his companions, Perez’s raft began “oscillating excessively,” causing him to strike his head and neck on the side of the ride, rendering him unconscious, and ejecting him from the ride.  Perez and his wife filed a complaint against the defendant alleging negligent overloading of the raft.  Discovery ensued and was very contentious.  There was what was characterized as a “failure of discovery by the defendants for much of the first year of this litigation.”  At some point, the initial attorney representing the defendant was replaced.  Thereafter, some significant additional disclosures, totaling approximately 5,000 pages of material, were made by the defendant.  As a result of the disclosures, the plaintiffs filed a motion to amend the complaint to add a claim for punitive damages to the lawsuit.

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Scuba Tragedy – Diver Drowns; Releases Enforceability to Protect Diver Association from Ordinary Negligence (HI)

September 3, 2015

Hambrock v. Smith (Hawaii)
(trial court disposition)

Plaintiff, her husband, and their children went on a recreational scuba diving excursion that departed from Hawaii.  During the excursion, plaintiff’s husband died by drowning.  Plaintiff brought a lawsuit against numerous defendants, including (1) the dive guide on the scuba excursion (“Smith”), (2) the co-captain of the dive vessel (“McCrea”), (3) a dive training organization and an association for diving instructors and dive centers in which both the Smith and McCrea were members (“PADI”), and (4) the corporate entity out of which the Smith and McCrea ran their scuba excursions (“HSS”).  The lawsuit alleged negligence (all defendants), gross negligence (all defendants), and vicarious liability on theories of apparent agency, agency by estoppel, and maritime joint venture (against PADI).

PADI filed a motion seeking summary judgment as to both the negligence claims and the vicarious liability claims against it (i.e., all claims except gross negligence) based on the liability releases signed by the plaintiff and her family prior to the scuba diving activities.  In addition to opposing PADI’s motion, the plaintiff also filed a motion for partial summary judgment of her own, challenging the enforceability of the releases.  In addressing the enforceability of the releases, the U.S. District Court for Hawaii reviewed both admiralty law and Hawaii state law.

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