California Waiver Protects Facility Against Liability in Canoeing Death

By Doyice Cotten

In December 2016, Lamerle Johnson attended a retreat at Mayacamas Ranch hosted by Rockwood Leadership Institute. Upon his arrival, he received a “Release & Waiver of Liability,” which the resort required guests to review and sign before they were assigned rooms and given keys. Johnson signed the release on December 5, 2016.(Johnson v. Mayacamas Holdings, LLC, 2021)

The release stated:

“I am aware that the grounds and facilities of Mayacamas Ranch are rural and rustic. I do not have any medical or physical conditions, which would impair or affect my ability to engage in any activities or which would cause any risk of harm to myself or to the participants or otherwise endanger my health while attending and utilizing Mayacamas Ranch…. I am further aware that certain activities available at the Ranch may be dangerous, for example, swimming, consuming alcohol, or hiking the trails. I understand that the Ranch does not provide lifeguards or any other forms of supervision for the use of the facilities nor for monitoring consumption of alcoholic beverages. I understand that the Ranch does not have on staff anyone trained in CPR nor first aid. Pool [c]loses promptly at 10 p.m. to adhere to strict property noise ordinance…. I assume full responsibility for all risks of bodily injury, death or property damage and hold harmless Mayacamas Ranch, its officers, agents, principals and employees and the owners of the real property…. I waive, release, and discharge any and all claims, rights and/or causes of action which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my presence at Mayacamas Ranch. I acknowledge that I have read and agree to all Mayacamas Ranch policies listed in this release & waiver of liability.” (Italics added.)

Johnson and another guest, Troy Williams, went hiking and “stumbled upon” Hidden Lake. Johnson took one of the canoes onto the water with no problem. The next day, Johnson, Williams, and two other guests (Heracio Ray Harts and Eddy Zheng) went hiking before the day’s scheduled activities. They arrived at Hidden Lake and took turns taking the two canoes onto the water. They found a bin containing life jackets, but could not get it open. While on the lake Johnson began “horsing around” and rocking Williams’s canoe. Williams started to return to shore, looked back and saw Johnson had flipped and was in the water. Williams fell in while trying to help Johnson, but managed to get to shore.

First responders later found Johnson’s deceased body. Water temperature was 40 degrees.

On the day of the incident, the canoes were unsecured; previously, they had been secured with a chain and a lock. The water temperature in Hidden Lake was about 40 degrees, and the air temperature was roughly 38 degrees. Respondents had no policies, procedures, or practices to warn guests about specific safety hazards associated with cold water shock and swimming or canoeing at Hidden Lake.

Johnson’s Estate sued Mayacamas Ranch LLC claiming negligence, premises liability and wrongful death. Mayacamas moved for summary judgment based on the waiver of liability and primary assumption of risk.

Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing the release did not identify the Mayacamas Defendants, did not cover canoeing on Hidden Lake, and did not absolve the defendants from liability for gross negligence. They also argued that assumption of the risk was inapplicable and provided an expert witness who asserted that  and that failure to take certain safety precautions—such as failing to provide warnings, failing to limit access to the canoes, and failing to make life vests accessible constituted gross negligence, recklessness and a deliberate and willful disregard for the safety of the public.

The trial court found the waiver to be unambiguous and found no triable  issue of material fact as to the existence of gross negligence. Subsequently, the court ruled in favor of the defendents motion to dismiss.

The Appellate Court

The appellate court stated that a “written release of future liability reflects an express assumption of the risk by the plaintiff, thereby negating the defendant’s duty of care.” The court said that a signed release of all liability applies to any ordinary negligence of the defendant provided the negligence is reasonably related to the purpose for which the release was given. The court added that the waiver must be “clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the intent of the subscribing parties.”

The court stated that the release was clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the parties’ intent that Johnson assume all risks of injury or damage at Mayacamas Ranch and waive and release all claims related to his stay. The waiver was entitled “Release & Waiver of Liability,” and clearly communicated he communicating to Johnson that he was releasing claims and waiving liability. It explicitly stated that he would “assume full responsibility for all risks of bodily injury, death or property damage.”

Regarding plaintiff’s argument that Mayacamas was not a named party and the waiver  did not apply to canoeing and it did not apply to gross negligence, the court said the contentions lack merit. It stated that it was plain that Mayacamas was a protected party in the waiver,

The release stated that Johnson would hold harmless “Mayacamas Ranch, its officers, agents, principals and employees and the owners of the real property.” It did not explicitly name Paradise With Purpose, Profit Recovery Center, or Mayacamas Holdings. Therefore, appellants contend, the Mayacamas Defendants “were not named parties to the Release” and could not invoke its protections unless they were intended third-party beneficiaries. Appellants further contend there was no evidence that the release was intended to benefit the Mayacamas Defendants and appellants presented evidence to the contrary. Regarding the scope of the waiver, the court felt the release was exceedingly broad; it stated that Johnson assumed “full responsibility for all risks of bodily injury, death or property damage” and “waive, release, and discharge any and all claims, rights and/or causes of action which I now have or which may arise out of or in connection with my presence at Mayacamas Ranch.”

 Regarding the gross negligence issue, the court defined negligence in California as “ ‘Gross negligence is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. It described such a lack of care that would indicate a passive and indifferent attitude toward results. It stated that mere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty, amounts to ordinary negligence. It added that “conduct demonstrating the failure to guard against, or warn of, a dangerous condition typically does not rise to the level of gross negligence.”

Plaintiffs claim gross negligence because defendants  did not lock up the canoes, post signs, provide a flotation device and life vests, or warn guests about “cold water shock” and canoeing at the lake, including admonishing them that canoes can capsize and life vests should be worn. These alleged wrongdoings, however, do not constitute gross negligence.

Ruling

The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court ruling in favor of the defendants.

Risk Management Take-Away

This case reaffirms the importance of a well-written waiver of liability.

Photo Credit: thanks to Martin Cathrae    via Flicker.