University of Vermont AAHS

Rivera v. R.P. Gordon, Inc.

Michigan Court of Appeals

UNPUBLISHED, 2004 WL 1109153

May 18, 2004

 

Summary of Opinion

 

Plaintiff Rivera was injured while dismounting from one of defendant Gordonís trail ride horses when her foot became stuck in a stirrup.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant on the basis of the release of liability for negligence signed by the plaintiff.  In this opinion, the Court of Appeals says that the defendantís conduct was not gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct, which were excluded from the scope of the release, so the plaintiffís lawsuit is barred by the release.

 

Text of Opinion

 

 Plaintiff Amanda Rivera appeals the trial court's order that granted defendant R.P. Gordon, Inc.'s motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), and we affirm.

 

I. SUMMARY

 

 Prior to her injury at defendant's horseback-riding stable, plaintiff signed a contract whereby she released defendant of any personal injury claim caused by defendant's ordinary negligence, but expressly retained the right to sue if defendant's misconduct was so egregious as to constitute gross negligence (which the law defines as conduct so reckless as to constitute a substantial lack of concern for whether injury results), [FN1] or worse, wilful and wanton misconduct  [FN2] (which the law defines as conduct just shy of intentional misconduct). [FN3]

 

FN1. Xu v. Gay, 257 Mich.App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003).

 

FN2. It is likely that the rental agreement contains the gross negligence and wilful and wanton misconduct exceptions because Michigan law holds that a preinjury personal injury release only releases a party from claims for ordinary negligence, and that one may not release a party from liability for that party's gross negligence or wilful and wanton misconduct. Lamp v. Reynolds, 249 Mich.App 591, 594; 645 NW2d 311 (2002).

 

FN3. Xu, supra at 269-270 n 3, citing Jennings v. Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 138; 521 NW2d 230 (1994).

 

 After injuring her leg while dismounting her horse, plaintiff sued defendant and said that defendant's misconduct in helping her to dismount was so bad that this misconduct met the legal definition of wilful and wanton misconduct. The trial court disagreed with plaintiff, ruled that defendant's conduct constituted, at most, ordinary negligence, and thus dismissed plaintiff's personal injury claim. In so ruling, the trial court also found that defendant's conduct was not so flagrant as to meet the legal definition of willfulness and wantonness. Plaintiff appeals the trial court's ruling and maintains that because reasonable minds can differ on whether defendant's conduct met the legal definition of recklessness or wilful and wanton misconduct, this matter should not have been summarily dismissed, but rather, should have been allowed to go to a jury to determine if the alleged misconduct was ordinary negligence or reckless and/or wilful and wanton. We agree with the trial court's ruling and thus affirm the trial court's grant of summary disposition in favor of defendant.

 

II. FACTS AND PROCEDURE

 

 Defendant operates a riding stable in Maybury State Park and rents horses to park visitors who wish to ride within the park. Consistent with the rules established by defendant, patrons must sign a rental agreement, that includes a liability release whereby the rider agrees not to bring any personal injury claims against defendant except in the case of defendant's "gross negligence and willful [sic] and wanton misconduct."  [FN4] Each time a patron rents a horse, one or two of defendant's employees ride along with the patron. As a further precaution, defendant's rules provide that at the end of each ride, a patron is to ride into the stable, and to remain on the horse until one of defendant's employees helps the rider dismount.

 

FN4. The release reads as follows: "LIABILITY RELEASE I AGREE THAT: In consideration of [defendant] allowing my participation in this activity, under the terms set forth herein, I, the rider, for myself and on behalf of my child and/or legal ward, heirs, administrators, personal representatives or assigns, do agree to hold harmless, release, and discharge [defendant], its owners, agents, employees, officers, directors, representatives, assigns, members, owners of premises and trails, affiliated organizations, insurers, and others acting on its behalf ... of and from all claims, demands, causes of action and legal liability, whether the same be known or unknown, anticipated or unanticipated, due to [defendant's] ordinary negligence; and I do further agree that except in the event of [defendant's] gross negligence and willful [sic] and wanton misconduct, I shall not bring any claims, demands, legal actions and causes of action, against [defendant] ... for any economic and non-economic losses due to bodily injury, death, property damage, sustained by me and/or my minor child and/or legal ward in relation to the premises and operations of [defendant], to include while riding, handling, or otherwise being near horses owned by or in the care, custody and control of [defendant], whether on or off the premises of [defendant]."

 

 Here, plaintiff rented a horse from defendant on August 25, 2001, and signed the rental agreement. Prior to August 25, 2001, plaintiff had ridden horses at the park "hundreds of times," as often as twice a week for at least five years. Each and every time she rode, she signed the rental agreement. After plaintiff completed her ride, and consistent with defendant's policy, one of defendant's employees helped plaintiff dismount. While preparing to dismount, plaintiff caught her foot in the stirrup, and called out to the attendant for assistance, but a nearby "commotion" both distracted the attendant and spooked the horse, causing it to "take off" with plaintiff's left foot caught in the stirrup. This nearly simultaneous confluence of circumstances caused plaintiff injuries to her right ankle for which she seeks damages. It is this uncomplicated, yet unfortunate, incident that the trial court ruled amounts to, at most, negligence, but surely not willfulness or wantonness. Plaintiff's complaint alleged only "wilful and wanton misconduct" against defendant, not gross negligence. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition and argued that plaintiff's claim was barred because plaintiff released defendant of any personal injury claims except those caused by defendant's wilful and wanton misconduct, and the conduct of defendant's employee was not wilful and wanton. The trial court agreed with defendant and granted summary in defendant's favor disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7).

 

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

 

 " 'We review a trial court's grant or denial of a motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7) de novo to determine whether the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law ." Blazer Foods, Inc v. Restaurant Properties, Inc, 259 Mich.App 241, 244-245; 673 NW2d 805 (2003), quoting DeCaminada v. Coopers & Lybrand, LLP, 232 Mich.App 492, 496; 591 NW2d 364 (1998). When this Court reviews such motions, it accepts as true the well-pleaded allegations of the nonmoving party, and construes them in that party's favor. Id. at 245. It is further necessary for this Court to consider the "pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions, and documentary evidence filed or submitted by the parties to determine whether the claim is barred by law." Id., citing MCR 2.116(G)(5). A motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7) "should be granted only if no factual development could provide a basis for recovery." Xu v. Gay, 257 Mich.App 263, 267; 668 NW2d 166 (2003).

 

III. ANALYSIS

 

A. GROSS NEGLIGENCE

 

 Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred when it granted summary disposition in favor of defendant because defendant's conduct was grossly negligent and there exists a question of fact about defendant's "alleged" grossly negligent conduct. However, as we noted above, plaintiff did not allege gross negligence in her complaint, and therefore, defendant argues that she has waived this issue. Plaintiff may not raise an issue for the first time on appeal. Booth v University of Michigan Board of Regents, 444 Mich. 211, 234; 507 NW2d 422 (1993); ISB Sales Co v. Dave's Cakes, 258 Mich.App 520, 532-533; 672 NW2d 181 (2003). However, the record is unclear whether plaintiff in fact raised the gross negligence issue at the motion hearing, and whether the trial court specifically addressed or ruled on this issue. Accordingly, though plaintiff may have waived this issue by failing to plead it, we will address the issue.

 

 During the hearing on defendant's motion for summary disposition, it appears that plaintiff made the argument that Michigan law regarding "wilful and wanton misconduct" and "gross negligence" was "confused," and that, for all intents and purposes, the former was the equivalent of the latter. Plaintiff continues to argue, on appeal, that the law relating to these two standards of conduct was "confused," and implies that the confusion was resolved only recently by this Court's opinion, issued after the trial court entered its order, in Xu, supra. In Xu, the plaintiff initiated a wrongful death action against the defendant, who owned a fitness center. Xu, supra at 264-265. The decent in Xu died after falling and hitting his head while using one of the defendant's treadmills. Id. at 265. As in this case, the decedent in Xu had signed what defendant alleged was a preinjury liability release. Id. The plaintiff in Xu filed a complaint and alleged a claim of gross negligence against the defendant. Id.

 

 Here, plaintiff says that "gross negligence" and "wilful and wanton misconduct" are equivalent terms. This is not the case. This Court in Xu held that the terms "wilful and wanton misconduct" and "gross negligence" are "separate concepts." Xu, supra at 269-270 n 3. Furthermore, in 1994, our Supreme Court in Jennings v. Southwood, 446 Mich. 125; 521 NW2d 230 (1994), observed that the previous definition of gross negligence referred to the "last-chance" doctrine, which addressed the negligence of the defendant that follows negligence of the plaintiff. Jennings v. Southwood, 446 Mich. 125, 130; 521 NW2d 230 (1994); see also Xu, supra at 269‑270 n 3. As this Court in Xu explained, our Supreme Court in Jennings defined "wilful and wanton misconduct" as tantamount to " 'an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalence of a willingness that it does." ' Id. at 269-270 n 3, quoting Jennings, supra at 138. Assuming, arguendo, that there was confusion regarding the correct definition of "gross negligence" to be applied in liability release cases (and we do not believe there was or is any confusion), we nevertheless find that a careful reading of our Supreme Court's 1994 opinion in Jennings clearly shows that "gross negligence" is different from "wilful and wanton misconduct."

 

 In Xu, this Court also noted that our Supreme Court, in Jennings, rejected the previous common law definition of gross negligence in the context of the Emergency Medical Services Act (EMSA), MCL 333.20901 et seq. In Jennings, the Court adopted the definition of gross negligence used in the Government Tort Liability Act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq., that defines gross negligence as "conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results." Xu, supra at 267‑269, citing Jennings, supra at 135‑137; see also MCL 691.1407(2)(c). The Xu panel applied this definition of gross negligence to liability release cases. Id. at 269.

 

 Here, defendant's employee became momentarily distracted, albeit at an inopportune time, and was unable to adequately help plaintiff dismount from her horse. We find that no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that this momentary distraction constituted conduct that was "so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results." Xu, supra at 269. Accordingly, we hold that summary disposition was properly granted in favor of defendant pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7) because no factual development could provide a basis of recovery under a theory of gross negligence.

 

B. WILFUL AND WANTON MISCONDUCT

 

 Plaintiff also says that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition in favor of defendant because defendant's conduct was wilful and wanton and that a reasonable trier of fact could come to such a determination. As we stated above, under Michigan law, wilful and wanton misconduct requires a showing that " 'the conduct alleged shows an intent to harm or, if not that, such indifference to whether harm will result as to be the equivalence of a willingness that it does." ' Xu, supra at 269-270 n 3, quoting Jenning, supra at 138. Wilful and wanton misconduct occurs where the conduct alleged is either "intentional, or its effective equivalent." Jennings, supra at 140 (emphasis in the original). Here, plaintiff's own testimony is that defendant's employee was momentarily distracted at the time of the accident. We find that such a momentary distraction does not display an intent to harm plaintiff, and that no reasonable trier of fact could determine this conduct to be the equivalent of an intention to harm plaintiff. We further find that no factual development could provide plaintiff with a basis of recovery under this theory. The conduct challenged here may have been negligent, but it clearly was not so egregious as to constitute wilful and wanton misconduct. Also, because we find defendant's conduct insufficiently egregious to constitute gross negligence, a fortiori, the very same conduct does not meet the more rigorous "wilful and wanton misconduct" standard. As a result, we hold that the trial court correctly held that the liability release in the rental agreement, signed by plaintiff, barred her claim, and that the trial court properly granted summary disposition in favor of defendant pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7).

 

 Affirmed.


Return to Top of This Page
Return to Liability Releases Page