Release was effective in stopping ordinary negligence claims; however, the gross negligence claims were allowed to continue.
State: South Dakota, United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, Western Division
Plaintiff: Brad Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor; and Tara Reed, Individually and as Joint Limited Conservators of I.R., a Minor
Defendant: Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner
Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: For both plaintiff and defendant, but proceeding to trial
The minor child was injured on a tubing hill when her tube stopped in the middle of the hill, and she was hit and injured by her brother coming after her. The release the parents signed stopped the ordinary negligence claim but under South Dakota, law did not stop a claim for gross negligence.
There was no discussion in the decision as to whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child, the injured plaintiff. It just seemed to be taken for granted by the court, or at least not argued by the plaintiffs.
On March 13, 2015, Brad and Tara Reed brought their children to the defendant’s resort near Lead, South Dakota, for an afternoon of recreational snow tubing.1 The resort was owned and operated by Union Resort, LLC, dba Mystic Miner. Among the Reeds’ children with them that day was seven-year-old I.R. Accompanying the Reeds were another couple and Alex, a social worker from the Philippines.
Upon arriving shortly before noon, the Reed party entered the lodge area where customers are required to check in and purchase admission tickets for the resort. The Reeds purchased snow tubing day passes for themselves and their children, including I.R. As a condition of allowing I.R. to use the resort, Union required the Reeds to agree to a written release of liability. The Reeds signed the release and printed the names of each of their children, including I.R., as participants.
The Reeds understood the document was a release of liability agreement and that, by signing, they would be relinquishing certain unspecified rights. They did not ask any questions about the release. The release informed resort participants that tubing activities are extremely hazardous and can result in personal injury. The Reeds understood that tubing carried with it a degree of risk, including risk of trauma to the head, and that I.R. would be exposed to this risk.
After signing the release and paying the admission fee, the Reeds and their kids received individual tickets for the tube park. Those tickets included additional warnings.
At the resort, there are numerous bright red signs that provide instructions and warnings to participants. Among the messages on some of the signs was a warning that collisions with other tubers was one of the dangers of tubing. Other signs instructed the tubers to follow the attendant’s instructions and to wait for the attendant’s signal before starting [down the tube run]. The Reeds do not recall whether they saw or read any of these signs.
The Reeds were directed to select tubes from the resort’s selection of tubes, which they did. Defendant had approximately 50 to 70 tubes in inventory at the time, but there is no evidence how many of these tubes had already been selected by prior guests. No employee of defendant selected the tubes for the Reeds. Several defendant employees testified at their depositions that it was a practice at the resort to leave tubes with tears in the bottoms in circulation for guests to use. The employees explained that such tubes were slower and slower equated to safer in their minds.
During the Reeds’ stay at the resort, they went down the tube runs approximately 15 to 20 times. Two of the four tube runs at the resort were open that day. During the Reeds’ runs, there were two defendant employees at the bottom of the tube runs assisting guests with the tow rope (which towed guests to the top of the run).
On approximately two of the Reeds’ 15-20 tubing runs, there was a young man at the top of the tube runs who also appeared to be a resort employee with a radio in his possession. However, the young man never monitored the tube runs, never gave instructions to tubers, and never staged tubers going down the tube runs. “Staging” means controlling the entry of guests onto the tube runs to ensure that the prior tuber has finished the run and cleared the area before the next tuber is allowed to begin his or her descent. There was no staging and, instead, tubers decided themselves when to begin their descent, a situation Brad Reed described as a “free-for-all.”
At approximately 2 p.m., the Reeds decided to take one last run down the tube runs before leaving the resort. Up to this point, the Reeds had experienced no concerns or incidents. Up to this final run, I.R. had always completed her run down the slope as part of a group or with one of her parents. On the final run, she asked to be allowed to go down the tube run by herself, to which her parents agreed. Mrs. Reed told I.R. they would go down the run together, parallel to each other in each of the two open tube runs. At this point, Alex was directly behind I.R. in line for the same tube lane. Mr. Reed was behind Alex in the same line.
Once both lanes were clear, Mrs. Reed and I.R. began their descents. Mrs. Reed went all the way down the run, but I.R.’s tube stopped approximately 3/4 of the way down the slope. While I.R. was stopped, Alex began her descent before I.R. cleared the lane. When Alex’s tube reached I.R.’s tube, they collided. No defendant employee told Alex to begin her descent, but no defendant employee was present at the top of the run to tell her, instruct her, or prevent her from beginning her descent until I.R. cleared the lane.
From the top of the slope, Mr. Reed testified Alex should have been able to see I.R. had not cleared the lane had Alex been paying attention. Mr. Reed himself was able to observe the collision from his vantage point at the top of the slope.
After the accident, the Reeds observed an approximately 8-inch hole in the bottom of I.R.’s tube that had filled with snow. Defendant asserts it was its policy to stow the tubes under the deck each night and to pull them out the next day for guests’ use. Defendant asserts employees were directed to observe the tubes for significant tears or defects and to remove defective tubes during this process. However, several defendant employees testified they left tubes with tears in their bottoms in rotation for guest use because the tears would slow the tuber down as they descended the slope. Employees believed a slower descent was a safer descent.
If a lightweight child descended the slope with a tube with a tear in it, sometimes the tube would stop mid-way down the slope and a defendant employee would have to walk up the slope to retrieve the child. In such an instance, the defendant employee at the bottom of the slope would radio the employee at the top and tell them to stop sending guests down the slope until the child was retrieved and taken to the bottom.
No photograph was taken of I.R.’s tube at the beginning of the day, after the accident, or at any other time on the day of the accident. It is unknown if the tear in the bottom of her tube was there from the start of the day or whether the tear occurred during the Reeds’ use of the tube that day. The Reeds mixed and mingled the various tubes they checked out, so several members of the Reeds’ group could have used the accident tube at various times of the day.
The accident tube was the only tube checked out by the Reed group that had a tear in it. The Reeds did not notice the tear until after I.R.’s injury. The Reeds did not inform anyone at the resort about the tear in the tube after the accident occurred. There is no evidence that any defendant employee had specific knowledge that the Reeds had checked out a tube with a tear in it on the day of the accident, though defendant employees had general knowledge that such tubes were often retained in inventory because they were perceived to be “safer” because they were slower.
From the beginning of the 2010-11 season through the end of the 2014-15 season, defendant had incident reports of 17 collisions of tubers. During that same time frame, there were 72 total incident reports.3 Several of these collisions between tubers occurred within a few weeks and, in two examples, a few days, of I.R.’s collision. Specifically, there were 5 incident reports involving collisions between tubers going down the tube lane between December 30, 2014, and February 27, 2015. None of defendant’s incident reports record whether a hole in a tube contributed to the incident.
Defendant maintains that it had a proper protocol of having at least one employee at the top of the tube run and one employee at the bottom of the tube run at all times. The employee at the top of the tube run was supposed to “stage” the tubers going down. The employee at the bottom of the tube run would retrieve items lost by tubers going down the slope (hats, mittens, etc.) and also retrieve guests whose tubes stopped without fully descending the slope.
The Reeds assert defendant was chronically understaffed and that defendant made a deliberate decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run the day of I.R.’s accident. Defendant asserts the Reeds have no evidence to support the assertion that the decision not to station an employee at the top of the tube run was a deliberate decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The plaintiff’s conceded that the release barred their claims for negligence, the first count in their complaint. That left the issue of whether the release barred their claims for gross negligence and whether they had pled enough facts to support a gross negligence claim.
Gross negligence under South Dakota law is the same as willful and wanton conduct:
Under South Dakota law, the phrase “gross negligence” is synonymous with the phrase “willful and wanton misconduct.” Both phrases refer “to a category of tort that is different in kind and characteristics than negligence.” Negligence occurs when one acts with an “unreasonable risk of harm to another.” Willful and wanton misconduct requires a risk of harm that is “substantially greater than that which is necessary to make the conduct negligent.” The threatened harm “must be an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.”
The major difference between ordinary negligence and gross negligence is the mental state of the defendant.
In addition, proof of a negligence claim focuses on the ordinary standard of care, while a gross negligence claim focuses on the defendant’s mental state. A defendant acts willfully and wantonly when it knows or has reason to know at the time of its actions of the dire risk and proceeds without concern for the safety of others. The standard does not require proof of intent to harm, but it does “partake to some appreciable extent … of the nature of a deliberate and intentional wrong.” Gross negligence requires “an affirmatively reckless state of mind.” There must be “a conscious realization that a serious physical injury was a probable, as distinguished from a possible (ordinary negligence), result of such conduct.”
That creates a two-step test to determine if the defendant was grossly negligent.
Summarizing the above case law, gross negligence is distinguished from ordinary negligence by two factors. The risk of harm must be greater for gross negligence—whereas under ordinary negligence, the risk of harm can be anything from negligible harm to death, the risk of harm for gross negligence must be death or serious harm. Secondly, the likelihood that harm will come about, phrased in terms of the defendant’s state of mind, must be greater. For example, if there is a 10 percent chance some harm will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure that harm does not come about, he is merely negligent. If there is an 85 percent chance serious harm or death will happen and the defendant fails to take steps to ensure the harm does not occur, he has acted willfully and wantonly or with gross negligence.
The court’s analysis of the chance of the harm occurring is a way of looking at the differences between ordinary and gross negligence that I have never seen before.
The court looked at the facts as presented by both sides and found both lacking the information the court felt would prove the plaintiff’s case. However, the court made this statement.
Under the law of gross negligence, South Dakota has recognized a plaintiff will rarely have direct evidence of the defendant’s state of mind. Rather, state of mind must be inferred from the circumstances. Id. Also, under the law of summary judgment, all inferences from the facts must be made in favor of the nonmoving party, Both sources of law, then, support taking the Reeds’ view of the inference to be drawn from the fact that defendant was chronically understaffed and did not have an employee stationed at the top of the tube run at the time of I.R.’s accident.
So, with the inferences created by the plaintiffs about the state of mind of the tubing hill, the court held that there was enough information plead to allow the gross negligence claim to continue.
The court then looked at the assumption of the risk argument made by the defendant. There was no case law in South Dakota stating that assumption of the risk was a defense to gross negligence, so the court held that assumption of the risk would not stop the gross negligence claim.
So Now What?
What did not arise in this case is whether the release stopped the claims of the minor child. The case was captioned as the parents suing on behalf of their minor child. In that regard, the release would bar the claims of the parents. However, this is a different way of suing on behalf of a minor, not away normally done in most states any more.
Also, this is a decision by a Federal District Court applying South Dakota law so, whether a not a release stops a minor’s claims is probably still up in the air until the South Dakota Supreme Court decides the issue.
However, it is a decision to lean on if you have participants who are minors in your program.
The other issues are classic situations where the defendant looks at a situation one way as a positive for patrons but the injured patron is able to turn the situation around and use it as a club against the defendant. Torn tubes were regarded by the defendant as good because they were slower than the other tubes. However, a torn tube is not a product that is 100%, in the condition it was received from the manufacturer. It was a defective product. So, the plaintiff was able to show the defendant was derelict in using them.
If they placed the tubes in a different location with a sign that said, slower tubes it might have been helpful.
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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
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