October 22, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court: Engagement Agreement Authorized Award of Post-Settlement Collection Costs

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Laleh v. Johnson on Monday, October 2, 2017.

Contracts—Fees and Costs.

The supreme court reviewed the court of appeals’ opinion affirming a trial court’s order requiring a pair of litigants to pay a court-appointed accounting expert’s post-settlement collection costs. The trial court appointed the expert to help resolve the litigants’ complex accounting claims, and the litigants signed an engagement agreement with the expert setting forth the scope of his services and payment. After the expert commenced work, the litigants settled the case and the trial court dismissed the suit. The expert then informed the trial court that the litigants refused to pay both his outstanding fees and his costs incurred post-settlement in attempting to collect the outstanding fees. Relying on a provision in the engagement agreement stating that the litigants were responsible for payment of “all fees and expenses” to the expert, the trial court held that the expert was entitled to the post-settlement costs he incurred while trying to collect his outstanding fees. The court of appeals disagreed with the trial court’s interpretation of the engagement agreement, holding that the agreement was silent as to the expert’s post-settlement collection costs, but it nevertheless affirmed the trial court’s award of the expert’s post-settlement collection costs on the ground that the trial court had inherent authority to require the litigants to pay such costs. The court held that a separate provision of the engagement agreement not previously considered by the trial court or the court of appeals authorized the trial court’s award of the disputed post-settlement collection costs. The court therefore affirmed the award of these costs to the expert, albeit on different grounds.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Damages Clause Not Void Where Non-offending Party Offered Choice of Actual or Liquidated Damages

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ravenstar, LLC v. One Ski Hill Place, LLC on Monday, September 11, 2017.

Freedom of Contract—Liquidated Damages Clauses—Contractual Damages.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether a liquidated damages clause in a contract is invalid because the contract gives the non-breaching party the option to choose between liquidated damages and actual damages. The court concluded that such an option does not invalidate the clause. Instead, parties are free to contract for a damages provision that allows a non-breaching party to elect between liquidated damages and actual damages. However, such an option must be exclusive, meaning a party who elects to pursue one of the available remedies may not pursue the alternative remedy set forth in the contract. Therefore, under the facts of this case, the liquidated damages clause in the contracts at issue is enforceable. Accordingly, the supreme court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: District Court Properly Denied Attorney Fees to Non-prevailing Party

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Klein v. Tiburon Development, LLC on Thursday, August 10, 2017.

Attorney Fees—Fee-Shifting Provision—Contract—Violation of Public Policy—Substantial Justification.

Following remand, the district court denied the Kleins’ request for attorney fees and costs pursuant to a line of credit agreement (LOC) between them and Tiburon Development LLC (Tiburon). The district court granted Tiburon’s and Sell’s (a member of Tiburon) motions for attorney fees and costs.

On appeal, the Kleins contended that the district court erroneously denied their request for attorney fees pursuant to the fee-shifting provision of the LOC. However, enforcing  and awarding the Kleins their attorney fees and costs pursuant to the LOC would violate public policy because the Kleins lost the predominant and only contested part of the LOC claim, and they had only nominal success on the secondary and uncontested issue of entitlement to interest on the LOC. It would have been an abuse of discretion to conclude that the Kleins were the prevailing party on the LOC claim. Further, the Kleins were sanctioned for their conduct during the litigation and ordered to pay all of Tiburon’s attorney fees.

The Kleins next contended that the district court erred in awarding Sell the attorney fees he incurred in seeking an award of fees because Sell failed to carry his burden to prove that the Kleins’ defense to his fees motion lacked substantial justification, and the district court never found that the Kleins’ defense was frivolous. An award of fees incurred in seeking fees under C.R.S. § 13-17-102 must be supported by a determination in the record that the sanctioned party’s defense to the fees motion lacked substantial justification. Because the record in this case does not support that finding, the district court erred in including in its fee award the fees Sell incurred in pursuing his motion for fees.

The Kleins further contended that the district court’s award of fees to Sell unreasonably included fees Sell incurred to respond to the Kleins’ C.R.C.P. 59 motion, which they asserted was not relevant to their claims against Sell. It was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to award Sell the attorney fees he incurred to respond to the Kleins’ C.R.C.P. 59 motion, and the decision was supported by findings in the record.

The judgments denying an award of attorney fees and costs to the Kleins and awarding Sell the attorney fees he incurred to respond to the Kleins’ C.R.C.P. 59 motion were affirmed. The judgment was reversed insofar as the court awarded Sell the attorney fees he incurred in seeking fees against the Kleins, and the case was remanded for the district court to subtract the amount of such fees from the award.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Petition to Vacate Appraisal Award Properly Denied

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Owners Insurance Co. v. Dakota Station II Condominium Association, Inc. on Thursday, July 27, 2017.

Appraisal Award in Insurance Dispute—Impartial Appraiser Standard.

Owners Insurance Company (Owners) issued a property damage policy to Dakota Station II Condominium Association, Inc. (Dakota). Wind and hail storms damaged buildings in the residential community owned by Dakota. The losses were combined into a single insurance claim, but there was a dispute about the total amount of damages. The parties invoked the insurance policy’s appraisal provision. Each party selected an appraiser. They submitted proposed awards of different amounts and then nominated a neutral umpire as provided in the insurance policy. The final award of about $3 million was a mix of four damage estimates from Owners’ appraiser, Burns, and two estimates form Dakota’s appraiser, Haber. Burns refused to sign the final determination of costs. Haber and the umpire agreed and signed the award, and Owners paid Dakota.

Dakota then sued Owners in federal court for breach of contract and unreasonable delay in paying insurance benefits. During discovery, Owners learned several facts about Haber that it alleged demonstrated she was not an impartial appraiser. Owners filed a petition to vacate the appraisal award under C.R.S. § 13-22-223. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the petition.

On appeal, Owners argued that the trial court erred by not analyzing the insurance policy’s appraisal dispute provision, as well as the conduct and hiring of Haber, under the Colorado Uniform Arbitration Act’s (CUAA) standards for a neutral arbitrator in C.R.S. § 13-22-211(2). The Colorado Court of Appeals found no error because the policy did not incorporate CUAA’s standards and the parties’ stipulation that CUAA applied did not specifically state whether the appraisers were to be held to the statutory standard.

Owners then argued that Haber was not an “impartial appraiser” under the insurance policy. This term was not defined in the policy and has not been construed by a Colorado appellate court. The trial court interpreted it as an appraiser who applies appraisal principles with fairness, good faith, and lack of bias. The court agreed that this was the correct reading of the policy provision and its intent. The trial court’s application of this standard was supported by the record.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment Not Appropriate when Questions of Fact Remain over Contract Dispute

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Obermeyer Hydro Accessories, Inc. v. CSI Calendaring, Inc. on Thursday, March 30, 2017.

Obermeyer Hydro Accessories, Inc. purchased fabric sheets used for water control structures from CSI Calendering, Inc. beginning in 2010. The parties’ dispute arose from a January 2013 quote for the product. The quote was a 50% increase from the parties’ earlier transactions. The parties agree that they had a contract, but they disagree on when it was formed. The district court granted summary judgment to CSI and Obermeyer appealed.

Obermeyer contends that the contract was formed before the January quote. “CSI contends that the contract was not formed until the January quote and that even if the parties had a prior contract, the contract was modified (1) by the quote or (2) by Obermeyer” making numerous payments invoiced at the price from the January quote. The Tenth Circuit held that a jury could find that a contract was formed before the January quote, and questions of fact remain as to the whether the contract was modified by the January quote or Obermeyer’s subsequent payments. Therefore, summary judgment was not appropriate.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed the grant of summary judgment de novo. The court applied Texas law as the governing law of the agreement, as agreed to by the parties. The Tenth Circuit applied the six elements under Texas law “needed to form a valid and binding contract.” The court reviewed the circumstances of what the parties said and did objectively to determine whether there was a meeting of the minds. Because “there was no evidence that CSI had ever suggested before January 11 that timing of invoices would affect the price,” a jury could reasonably find that the price was offered and accepted before the January quote.

The court then addressed CSI’s arguments that even if the contract was formed before the January quote that it was modified, and therefore CSI is entitled to summary judgment. “Modification requires mutual consent, which is ordinarily a question of fact for the jury.” The party asserting modification has the burden to prove modification by establishing notice of the change and acceptance. The other party must have knowledge of the nature of the change. Further, “Texas law requires that modification of a contract for the sale of goods must be made in objective and subjective good faith.”

CSI did not meet its burden. CSI did not explicitly state that it was changing the price, nor did it explain to Obermeyer its reason for the modification as required to establish objective good faith. CSI asserted that the change in price was made clear in the January quote by the use of the term turnkey. However, “CSI never explained to Obermeyer how it was using the term turnkey and the term had never before been used in their dealings.” Additionally, Obermeyer could have made natural assumptions not indicative of a massive change in pricing. Here, the court stated that “the specifics of the purported change smack of fast dealing.” And that, “on this record a jury could reasonably reject CSI’s explanation.”

The court determined that the question of modification by performance was also a question for the jury. Under the UCC performance requires that the other party have “knowledge of the nature of the performance.” CSI argued both that Obermeyer should-have-known, and the doctrine of negligent assent to support modification. Here, questions remain as to whether Obermeyer’s payments reflected its understanding of the change in price, which is a question for the jury.

Finally, CSI contended that commercial transactions would suffer from uncertainty in a decision against it. The court responded, “commerce is not enhanced if buyers and sellers must always treat each other as adversaries, auditing every transaction as it occurs to be sure the other party is not cheating. If the jury finds that Obermeyer had been misled by an unscrupulous supplier on which it had relied in good fact, we do not think that the world of commerce will suffer.”

The court REVERSED the summary judgment and REMANDED for further proceedings.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Set-Off to Other Liable Parties Should be Applied to Jury Verdict before Contractual Limitation

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Taylor Morrison of Colorado, Inc. v. Terracon Consultants, Inc. on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Contract—Limitation on Liability—Setoff—Jury Award—Statutory Costs—Prejudgment Interest—Post-Judgment Interest—Expert Testimony—Willful and Wanton—Settlement Statute—Costs.

Taylor Morrison of Colorado, Inc. (Taylor) was the developer of a residential subdivision. Taylor contracted with Terracon Consultants, Inc. (Terracon) to provide geotechnical engineering and construction materials testing services for the development of the subdivision. Taylor and Terracon agreed to cap Terracon’s total aggregate liability to Taylor at $550,000 (Limitation) for any and all damages or expenses arising out of its services or the contract. After homeowners notified Taylor about drywall cracks in their houses, Taylor investigated the complaints and then sued Terracon and other contractors for damages relating to those defects. After trial, the jury awarded Taylor $9,586,056 in damages, but also found that Terracon’s conduct was not willful and wanton. The court concluded that the Limitation includes costs and prejudgment interest and applied it to reduce the jury’s $9,586,056 damages award to $550,000. It also deducted the $592,500 settlement received from the other liable parties to arrive at zero dollars. The court found that neither party prevailed for purposes of awarding statutory interest and further concluded that neither Terracon’s deposit of $550,000 into the court registry nor its email to Taylor addressing a mutual dismissal constituted a statutory offer of settlement that would have allowed Terracon a costs and fees award.

On appeal, Taylor contended that the trial court erroneously deducted the setoff from the Limitation instead of deducting it from the jury damages verdict. The correct approach is to first apply the setoff against the jury verdict and then apply the contractual limitation against this reduced amount. Thus, Terracon’s liability according to the Limitation should have been a final judgment of $550,000 for Taylor.

Taylor next contended that the trial court erred when it concluded that the Limitation, by its terms, includes statutory costs and prejudgment interest. The pertinent contract language states that the Limitation applies to “any and all” expenses “including attorney and expert fees.” Thus, the Limitation’s language covers costs associated with interpreting and enforcing the contract.

Taylor further argued that the trial court erred in ruling that the Limitation does not include prejudgment interest within its cap on liability. The Limitation caps Terracon’s liability for “any and all injuries, damages, claims, losses, or expenses.” (Emphasis in original.) Because prejudgment interest is a form of damages, the Limitation also covers prejudgment interest. Taylor also asserted that post-judgment interest is not covered by the Limitation. The Court of Appeals agreed because post-judgment interest is not an element of compensatory damages.

Taylor next argued that the trial court’s exclusion of expert testimony concerning willful and wanton conduct was reversible error. Here, the court allowed the experts to testify about the factual conduct and opine on Terracon’s performance using characterizations within their expertise, but prevented testimony about legal concepts outside their expertise and whether a legal standard was met.

Terracon argued on cross-appeal that the trial court erred by not awarding it costs under Colorado’s settlement statute. Terracon’s deposit of $550,000 into the court registry pursuant to C.R.C.P. 67(a) was not a settlement offer because Taylor did not have the option to reject it. The statute requires both an offer and a rejection; thus the statute was not triggered, and Terracon is not entitled to costs. Further, Terracon’s email did not comply with C.R.S. § 13-17-202 because this alleged “settlement offer” contained nonmonetary conditions that extended the offer beyond the claims at issue. Therefore, there was no error in denying costs to Terracon.

The judgment was reversed as to the final award and the case was remanded with instructions. The judgment and orders were affirmed in all other respects.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Exculpatory Clauses Did Not Exculpate Property Owners Association

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in McShane v. Stirling Ranch Property Owners Association on Monday, May 1, 2017.

Exemption from Liability—Exculpatory Contracts— Corporation as Distinct Entity—Corporate Actions through Agents—Vicarious Liability.

The Colorado Supreme Court addressed whether a homeowners association may benefit from exculpatory clauses in the community’s declaration and bylaws when those clauses do not name the association as a protected party. Because the plain language of the exculpatory clauses at issue in this case does not limit the association’s liability, and the association, as an entity distinct from internal boards acting as its agents, cannot benefit from exculpatory clauses protecting those agents, the court concluded that petitioners may bring their claims against the association. Accordingly, the court of appeals’ decision was reversed and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy ofThe Colorado Lawyer .

Colorado Supreme Court: Privity of Contract Must Exist for Breach of Warranty of Suitability Claim

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Forest City Stapleton, Inc. v. Rogers on Monday, April 17, 2017.

Implied Warranty of Suitability—Privity of Contract—Implied Warranties.

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether privity of contract is necessary for a home buyer to assert a claim for breach of the implied warranty of suitability against a developer. The court concluded that because breach of the implied warranty of suitability is a contract claim, privity of contract is required in such a case. Here, the home buyer was not in privity of contract with the developer and thus cannot pursue a claim against the developer for breach of the implied warranty of suitability. Accordingly, the court of appeals’ judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Statutory Limitations Period Began when Broker Knew of Contractual Breach

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in International Network, LLC v. Woodard on April 6, 2017.

Breach of Contract—Exclusive Right-to-Sell Listing—Statute of Limitations—Jury Instructions.

Woodard (seller) owned a 100-acre ranch. In 2006 he signed an exclusive right-to-sell listing agreement with International Network, Inc. (broker). The agreement was for a six-month listing period and provided for a percentage commission to be paid to broker upon sale. Seller had the absolute right to cancel the agreement at any time upon written notice.

Approximately four months into the listing period, seller began negotiating with an attorney who represented a group of potential buyers. Seller did not disclose his negotiations to broker. About a month after commencing these discussions, seller abruptly cancelled the listing agreement without cause. Broker ceased marketing the property. After the listing period had expired, but within the 90-day holdover period set forth in the agreement, seller and the buyers finalized an agreement resulting in the sale of the property.

Seven years later, broker initiated this action against seller for breach of contract based on seller’s failure to comply with the referral provision, which required seller to conduct all negotiations for the sale of the property through broker and refer to broker all communications received from prospective buyers. Following trial, a jury found in favor of broker and awarded damages in the amount of the commission that would have been owed under the listing agreement.

On appeal, seller argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for directed verdict and his post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because broker’s breach of contract claim was barred by the statute of limitations. C.R.S. § 13-80-101(1)(a) states that a breach of contract claim must be commenced within three years after accrual of the cause of action, and accrual occurs when the breach is discovered or should have been discovered. It was undisputed that seller breached the referral provision in 2006. Seller argued that under the facts, broker should have realized there might have been a breach of the referral provision and through the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered it in 2006. Broker asserted it had no knowledge of seller’s duplicity until broker’s agent heard seller’s testimony in another lawsuit in 2011 in which seller testified he had violated the listing agreement and intentionally concealed his negotiations to avoid paying a commission. Therefore, in commencing this action in 2013 broker was within three years of its discovery of the breach. Based on the record, the Colorado Court of Appeals could not conclude that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to broker, compelled a different result.

Seller also argued that it was error to not give a jury instruction on the elements of liability for recovery on a real estate commission claim, contending that the broker was not the procuring cause of the sale. Here, seller breached the referral provision and cannot use his intentional concealment of his negotiations to prevent broker from obtaining damages in the form of a commission. The court did not err in rejecting seller’s procuring cause instruction.

Seller contended the trial court erred by rejecting seller’s proposed jury instruction on the affirmative defense of laches. The trial court ruled, and the Court agreed, that seller’s improper conduct precluded his assertion of a laches defense.

Seller further argued that the court erred in denying him the right to impeach broker’s agent with certain evidence. The court precluded seller’s questioning due to lack of a sufficient foundation and acted within its discretion in limiting seller’s cross-examination.

Broker requested attorney fees and costs in accordance with the agreement, which the court awarded.

The judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded for further proceedings to award broker’s costs and attorney fees incurred on appeal.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Collective Bargaining Agreement Provided for Payment for ELA Classes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Denver Classroom Teachers Association v. School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Collective Bargaining Agreements—Damages—Statute of Limitations—Administrative Remedies.

School District No. 1 and the Board of Education of School District No. 1 in the County of Denver and State of Colorado (collectively, the District) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) entered into several collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and extensions from 2005 to 2015. From the mid-1990s until the 2006–07 school year, the District compensated teachers for attending English Language Acquisition (ELA) training. ELA is a program to train teachers to work more effectively with students who have limited English language proficiency. A federal consent order requires the District to have teachers who are trained to teach such students. After the 2006–07 school year, the District stopped paying teachers for attending the training. DCTA filed a grievance against the District alleging violations of the 2005–08 CBA. DCTA subsequently filed suit for breach of the 2005–08 and 2008–11 CBAs and the extensions, and a jury returned verdicts in favor of DCTA for breach of contract, but it held the District not liable in special interrogatories regarding breach for teachers in the Professional Compensation (ProComp) system.

On appeal, the District first contended that the CBAs and extensions were unambiguous and that they did not require the district to pay teachers for ELA training. Because the articles provide for payment for work beyond the 40-hour week, and because the ELA training may fall into that category, the contract was fairly susceptible to being interpreted to require payment for such work. Therefore, the CBAs were ambiguous, and the trial court properly let the interpretation go to the jury as a question of fact.

The District next contended that additional evidence showed unambiguously that it was not required to compensate teachers for ELA training beyond that year because (1) ELA training was a special condition of employment and (2) the parties’ bargaining history indicates that any requirement to compensate teachers for ELA training was purposely excluded from the CBAs. First, the CBAs were ambiguous regarding whether ELA training is a “special condition” regarding assignment of the teacher, requiring the teachers, not the District to pay for the training. Second, the District’s past practice of paying teachers for ELA training supported DCTA’s position that the CBAs entitled teachers to receive pay for ELA training.Therefore, the question was properly given to the jury.

The District also asserted that the trial court erred in not precluding recovery of damages that accrued before October 24, 2007, which was six years before the case was filed. The statute of limitations for breaching a CBA is six years. The District stopped paying teachers for ELA training starting with the 2007–08 school year, which began on August 13, 2007. DCTA filed its complaint on October 24, 2013. The trial court did not commit reversible error in deciding to award damages for the complete Fall 2007 semester.

Finally, the District contended that DCTA should have been barred from any relief for the 2008–09 school year and beyond because it failed to exhaust administrative remedies for those years. DCTA filed a grievance only for the 2007–08 school year, which was under the 2005–08 CBA. Further efforts by DCTA to achieve payment for ELA training through administrative remedies would have been futile, and the trial court did not err in this finding.

DCTA, in its cross-appeal, contended that the trial court erred in giving the jury special interrogatories to decide whether teachers under the ProComp system were exempt from receiving extra pay for ELA training. Because competent evidence supported the assertion, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the jury to determine whether teachers under the ProComp agreement forfeited their entitlement to compensation for ELA training.

The final judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attorney’s Prelitigation Statements Must Be Made in Good Faith to Qualify as Privileged

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Begley v. Ireson on Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Belinda Begley and Robert Hirsch, and their joint revocable trust (collectively, plaintiffs), purchased a property in Denver with the intent of demolishing the existing house and building a new house. Their architect’s plans were approved by the City & County of Denver, and plaintiffs contracted with a builder to begin demolition in anticipation of construction. The builder demolished the old house and began the shoring work for the new house. The neighbors, Ireson and Hoeckele, along with their attorney, Gibbs (collectively, defendants), made several threatening statements to the builder, which caused him to cease work and breach his contract with plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint against defendants, alleging intentional interference with a contract and intentional interference with prospective contractual relations. Several days later, defendants filed suit against plaintiffs, and moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) for failure to state a claim, arguing that their allegedly tortious statements were made in anticipation of litigation and were therefore protected. The district court apparently took judicial notice of defendants’ suit and granted their C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) motion. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Colorado Court of Appeals first noted that motions to dismiss under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(5) are viewed with disfavor. The district court had ruled that the plaintiffs’ complaint failed to state a claim because there was no allegation that the statements by Hoeckele, Ireson, and Gibbs caused the builder to breach his contract. The court of appeals found this was error. The complaint alleged with specificity several incidents in which Ireson, Hoeckele, and Gibbs interfered with the construction contract, and the court held that nothing more was required to survive the motion to dismiss. The court reversed the district court’s grant of defendants’ motion.

The district court next ruled that because Gibbs’ statements and communications to the builder were made while he was representing Ireson and Hoeckele and were “in anticipation and in furtherance of litigation,” they were absolutely privileged against the torts that plaintiffs alleged. The court of appeals again found that this ruling was in error. The court analyzed several state appellate court decisions, as well as section 586 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and determined that prelitigation statements must be made in good faith to be privileged. Because the district court made no finding as to whether Gibbs’ statements were made in good faith, the court of appeals reversed and remanded.

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s rulings and remanded for further proceedings.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Exculpatory Clauses in Fitness Agreement Did Not Bar PLA Claim

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc. on Thursday, December 30, 2016.

Summary Judgment—Negligence—Premises Liability Act—Liability Release—Assumption of Risk.

Stone was a member of a fitness club owned by defendants (collectively, Life Time). She fell and fractured her ankle in the club’s women’s locker room after a workout. Stone asserted a general negligence claim and a claim under Colorado’s Premises Liability Act (PLA), alleging that Life Time allowed a trip hazard and dangerous condition to exist and thus failed to exercise reasonable care.

Life Time moved for summary judgment, relying on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in the agreement Stone signed when she joined the club. The district court granted the motion, without distinguishing between the negligence and PLA claims, finding that the agreement was valid and enforceable and that Stone had released Life Time from all the claims asserted in the complaint.

On appeal, Stone contended that the district court erred in entering summary judgment and dismissing her action. As to the negligence claim, the Court of Appeals determined that the PLA provides the sole remedy for injuries against landowners on their property and abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners. Thus Stone could not bring a common law negligence claim against Life Time.

Stone also argued that the exculpatory clauses in the agreement, while applying to the workout areas, did not clearly and unambiguously apply to injuries incurred in the women’s locker room. Exculpatory agreements are generally disfavored. A court must consider four factors to determine whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (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 was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. As to the first factor, the Colorado Supreme Court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services. On the second factor, courts have consistently held that recreational services are neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. With respect to the third factor, recreational service contracts of this type are generally considered to be fairly entered into. These three factors weighed in favor of the enforceability of the agreement. On the fourth prong, however, in waiving future negligence claims, the intention of the parties must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language. After scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, the court of appeals concluded that the agreement used excessive legal jargon, was unnecessarily complex, and created a likelihood of confusion. Thus, the agreement did not bar Stone’s PLA claim.

The judgment on the negligence claim was affirmed, the judgment on the PLA claim was reversed, and the case was remanded.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.