Plaintiff was injured while on a trail ride. She sued defendant, Mrotek's Inc., which successfully defended in the trial court on the ground that plaintiff had signed a release from liability. However, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals said that the document released only Helen Mrotek, not Mrotek's Inc. Therefore, the lawsuit could go forward against Mrotek's Inc. despite the release from liability signed by the plaintiff.
The case is not over. The question remains whether Mrotek's Inc. is liable for the injury to the plaintiff because one of its employees was at fault and caused the injury. That question will be resolved by settlement or trial in the trial court.
Mona Park-Childs and Randy Childs appeal a summary judgment dismissing their negligence action against Mrotek's, Inc. Mona was seriously injured while on a guided horseback ride at Mrotek's, Inc. Before departing on the horse, Mona signed an exculpatory contract. [FN1] The trial court ruled that the exculpatory contract barred the Childs' negligence action. We conclude that the exculpatory contract does not release Mrotek's, Inc., from liability. Therefore, we reverse the summary judgment and remand the cause for further proceedings.
FN1. The contract provided in relevant part: In consideration of Helen Mrotek, doing business under the name and style of Mrotek's, Incorporated, entering into contract for hire of a horse or horses, with the undersigned, and for other valuable considerations, receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, the undersigned does hereby release and hold Helen Mrotek HARMLESS from any LIABILITY FOR INJURIES or DAMAGES SUFFERED or CAUSED by reason of the hire of said horse, or horses, under this contract. It being understood that Helen Mrotek makes NO representations, or warranties, expressed or implied, as to the character, habits, soundness and disposition of the horse, or horses hired under this contract, and the undersigned expressly WAIVES ALL CLAIMS FOR DAMAGES for misrepresentations, fraud, breach of warranty, negligence, or breach of contract, and the undersigned ASSUMES ALL RISKS and hazards incident or relative to this contract. The undersigned agrees to be financially responsible for themself and for his/her child if injured.
Interpretation of a contract is a question of law that we review de novo. See Yauger v. Skiing Enterprises, Inc., 206 Wis.2d 76, 79, 557 N.W.2d 60, 61 (1996). Exculpatory contracts are not favored by the law and are to be strictly construed against the party seeking to rely on them. See Richards v. Richards, 181 Wis.2d 1007, 1015, 512 N.W.2d 118, 121 (1994); Merten v. Nathan, 108 Wis.2d 205, 210-11, 321 N.W.2d 173, 176 (1982).
The exculpatory contract signed by Mona does not bar an action against Mrotek's, Inc. On its face, it only releases claims against Helen Mrotek. Although Mrotek's, Inc., is referred to in the first sentence of the contract, it is not specifically released or held harmless by the language of the contract. Because this exculpatory contract must be strictly construed against Mrotek's, Inc., the language releasing Helen Mrotek cannot be expanded to include Mrotek's, Inc.
By the Court.--Judgment reversed and cause remanded for further proceedings.
This opinion will not be published. See Rule 809.23(1)(b)5, Stats.
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