A woman who fell off a horse while on a horseback ride. She sued for negligence, which the release stopped, product liability which the law stopped and willful and wanton conduct, which will proceed to trial.
State: Colorado; United States District Court for the District of Colorado
Plaintiff: Alva Messer
Defendant: Hi Country Stables Corporation
Plaintiff Claims: negligence; product liability; and, willful and wanton conduct
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: Mostly for defendant, however plaintiff could continue on willful and wanton claims
A woman purchased a trail ride from the defendant. On the ride, her saddle slipped, and she fell off the horse. She sued for negligence which the release stopped, product’s liability, which failed because the stable is not a manufacturer and willful and wanton conduct. The court allowed the willful and wanton claim to proceed.
On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff Alva Messer purchased a guided horseback ride from Hi County Stables. Defendant HCS operates commercial horse-back riding at Glacier Creek Stables in Rocky Mountain National Park (“RMNP”). HCS is one of two equestrian companies owned by Rex Walker. The other equestrian company is Sombrero Ranches, Inc. (“SRI”). Before beginning any guided horseback ride, both companies require customers to sign an exculpatory contract, titled “Release” (hereafter “the Release” or “Release Forms”). The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are identical, except for the name of the company being released from liability. The Release Forms for HCS and SRI are printed in tablets containing 100 tear-away forms per tablet. Once printed, the printing company delivers the tablets to the offices of HCS and SRI.
At the start of the 2009 riding season, one tablet of Release Forms labeled SRI was placed in a box of office supplies for delivery to HCS. For reasons that are unexplained by Defendant, those same Release Forms—which Released SRI from liability—were used by HCS at Glacier Creek Stables on July 16, 2009.
Typically, when customers arrive at HCS, they are informed that they must sign a Release. Amongst other employees at HCS, Dallas Marshall informs customers that they are required to sign the Release and “mark their riding ability.”
When the Messers arrived at HCS on July 16, 2009, Marshall followed her normal practice and informed the Messers of the Release. She also requested that they indicate their riding ability, which Plaintiff did. Following this, and before commencing the guided horseback ride, Plaintiff signed the Release. The Release expressly provides that the customer “understands. . .the specific risks. . .arising from riding a horse. . .and that the [customer] nevertheless intentionally agree[s] to assume these risks.”
After signing the Release, Plaintiff entered the corral where she was assigned her horse before commencing the trail ride. The wrangler who led the guests on Plaintiff’s trail ride was Terry Humphrey.
Plaintiff encountered problems with her saddle during the trail ride which required adjustment by Plaintiff and Humphrey.
At the midway point, the Messer group stopped to take a rest break. Plaintiff encountered further problems with her saddle—including slippage of the saddle to the horse’s right.
Sometime later, as Plaintiff’s horse was stepping down a “rock stair” in the trail, Plaintiff fell off the right side of the horse (the “Incident.”) Plaintiff allegedly sustained serious injuries and economic loss resulting from the Incident.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The first issue was the fact the release that was signed did not name the proper defendant. Two stables were owned by the same person, each with different names. Each had a release that named it as the entity being protected. Somehow, a pad of the wrong releases ended up at the defendant, and the release signed by the plaintiff had the name of a different stable on it then where she was riding.
To make changes in a contract like this is called reformation. The court can reform a contract if the party’s intention when signing the contract is the same, and the language does not express the correct intention of the parties.
Reformation of a written instrument is appropriate only when the instrument does not represent the true agreement of the parties and the purpose of reformation is to give effect to the parties’ actual intentions.” Mutual mistake of a contract provides grounds for reformation if the written instrument “does not express the true intent or agreement of the parties.”
A mutual mistake must have occurred for a reformation to be effective.
An “essential prerequisite to a court’s power to reform a contract on the ground of mutual mistake is the existence of a prior agreement that represents the actual expectations of the parties and provides the basis upon which a court orders reformation.”
Because it was obvious that the plaintiff intended to go on a horseback ride with the defendant, where she signed the release, where she paid her money and where she took the ride, the court had no problems correcting the mutual mistake and placing the correct language in the release. This meant placing the name of the defendant in the position of the person to be protected by the release.
Accordingly, the Court finds that there was a mutual mistake at the time the Release was entered into. Mutual intent of the parties was to enter into an agreement whereby HCS would be released from certain claims. This provides the equitable basis to grant the relief. The Court orders that the name “Sombrero Ranches, Inc.” (SRI) be deleted and substituted with “Hi Country Stables” (HCS) in the Release.
The next issue was the validity of the release itself. Under Colorado law, there is a four-part test that a release must pass to be valid.
To determine whether the Release bars Plaintiff’s negligence claim, the Court must consider four factors: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.
The first three parts of the test the court quickly covered. Prior Colorado Supreme Court cases held that a recreational activity owes no duty to the public; horseback riding is not an essential service that would bar the release under part two of the test and there was no evidence the release was entered into unfairly.
The fourth test the court also found was valid with this release.
With respect to the fourth factor, the Court looks to the language of the Release to elicit its intent. The Court must determine “whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.”
It was obvious that the intent of the parties was to decide in advance who would pay for the injuries of any patron of the ride. The release in this case repeatedly used the word negligence throughout the document so the plaintiff knew the purpose of the release. The release also pointed out specific risks of horseback riding that the signor could suffer.
The release was valid to stop the negligence claims.
The next issue was the product liability claim. The plaintiff argued that since the defendant had placed the saddle in the stream of commerce, by placing it on the horse, it was liable for any injuries caused by the defectiveness of the saddle.
The defendant argued that the release stopped this claim also. However, the law in Colorado is that a release cannot stop a product liability claim.
That case held that an agreement releasing “a manufacturer from strict products liability for personal injury, in exchange for nothing more than an individual consumer’s right to have or use the product, necessarily violates the public policy of this jurisdiction and is void.”
The court found the product liability claim was not barred by the release. However, the court did hold that just placing a saddle on a horse for a trail ride does not create a product liability claim for defective equipment in Colorado. Horseback riding is a service; it is not a manufacturing process. Placing a saddle on the horse does not change that. The horse-riding service could not exist (for 99.9% of the people) without the saddle.
Plaintiff entered into a contract for a guided five-hour horseback ride through RMNP. This service primarily relied upon a horse (which is not a product) and a saddle (which incidental to that service). Without a product, the product liability claims cannot succeed.
The saddle was not an item manufactured by the defendant; it was incidental to the service being offered by the defendant and so the product liability claim failed. Finally, the defendant was not a manufacturer of saddles.
The final issues were the claims for willful and wanton conduct. A release cannot bar claims that are greater than negligence, willful and wanton conduct or gross negligence.
Willful and wanton conduct claims are mental state claims. Meaning the claim goes to the actions, the mental state of the defendant in ignoring or creating the issue. This require conscious thought, not simple failure. “…willful and wanton conduct requires a mental state “consonant with purpose, intent and voluntary choice.”
The court then allowed the plaintiffs claims based on willful and wanton conduct of the defendant to proceed to trial.
So Now What?
First, there is a need to look at the product liability claim. Not in the fact that most recreation businesses are manufacturing items, but because they are repairing them. Although you can find outfitter made items such as old raft frames, most items used now days are manufactured by a third party. However, many outfitters and recreation businesses do repair items.
Repairing an item may bring the outfitter into the trial under a product liability claim in many states. The outfitter by making repairs has entered into the stream of commerce between the manufacturer and the end user. The outfitter is no longer a user of the product, but a manufacturer of the product.
Remember there are some items you should never repair or that may be illegal to repair.
PFD’s cannot be repaired by law. Climbing harnesses or any other item where the failure would result in catastrophic injury or death or where the manufacturing process is protected by statute or standard should never be repaired.
The reformation issue was stupid. The cost of printing one set of releases on tan paper and the other on white would have eliminated this problem. Other examples would be putting the page numbers on the bottom right of one release and the center or top of the other. Locating the logo of the defendant in a different location on each release would have worked. Anything to that any employee can recognize that they are using the wrong release.
Some day there will be a horseback riding case that does not involve a slipping saddle. Why there still are, is a mystery to me, and I grew up with horses.
Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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