August 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Signed Release Barred Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim Against Outdoor Education Center

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Squires v. Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center on Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

In 2008, Plaintiff, a legally blind child with cerebral palsy and cognitive delays, was severely injured while skiing at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. Before the trip, Defendant sent documents regarding the trip to the participants’ parents, including Plaintiff’s mother, Mrs. Squires. The documents included a Letter to Students and a Release. Plaintiff and her mother signed the Release.

On the first day of skiing, Plaintiff was injured when another skier lost control and skied into the tethers connecting Plaintiff and her instructor. Plaintiff filed this action claiming Defendant’s negligence and gross negligence caused her injuries. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing the Release barred Plaintiff’s negligence claim and there was no evidence to support her gross negligence claim. The magistrate judge granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff’s negligence claim, and denied Defendant’s motion on Plaintiff’s gross negligence claim. This claim proceeded to a jury, which found Defendant not liable. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Plaintiff argued the Release was unenforceable. She reasoned that the Release was invalid under the four-part test articulated in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981), and that her mother did not make an informed decision as required by C.R.S. § 13-22-107.

In determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid, Colorado courts 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. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376.

Plaintiff challenged only the magistrate judge’s conclusion on the fourth factor. In making this  determination, Colorado courts examine “the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the Release provisions.” Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). The Tenth Circuit found the Release signed by Plaintiff and her mother clearly and unambiguously waived any negligence claims Plaintiff might have brought against Defendant. Contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, Colorado law does not require that exculpatory agreements refer to the specific activity in which the plaintiff participated and was injured.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to whether Mrs. Squires’s consent to the Release was voluntary and informed, as required by C.R.S. § 13-22-107. Plaintiff argued it was not voluntary and informed, because her mother did not understand the risks involved with adaptive skiing and, specifically, the use of bi-skis. Considering not only the language of the Release, but also the information Defendant provided to Plaintiff and Mrs. Squires in connection with the Release, as well as Mrs. Squire’s actual knowledge on the date she signed the Release, the Tenth Circuit concluded Mrs. Squires’s decision to Release Plaintiff’s prospective negligence claims against Defendant was informed. Mrs. Squires had sufficient information from which to evaluate the degree of risk Plaintiff faced.

The Court concluded the Release satisfied both the Jones test and the voluntary and informed requirement of § 13-22-107 and was, therefore, enforceable.

The magistrate judge’s order granting summary judgment to Defendant on Plaintiff’s negligence claim is AFFIRMED.

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