This article was originally published on Recreation-Law.com, an excellent newsletter dealing with outdoor sport and recreation law. Its author, James H. Moss, J.D., is a well-known attorney specializing in the outdoor recreation industry. Jim has kindly granted permission to reprint the article.
Even Hikers Sue for their Injuries
By James H. Moss, J.D.
State: California, United States District Court, C.D. California
Plaintiff: Jill and Scott Kalter
Defendant: Grand Circle Travel
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence
Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk
Holding: for the defendant
The plaintiff fell trying to climb wet stone steps in Machu Pichu. She sued the travel agency she hired to take her there and lost. Climbing wet stones is an open and obvious risk and the doctrine of assumption of the risk prevented the plaintiff’s recovery.
Grand Circle is a tour operator that arranges vacation packages to destinations around the world. Jill Kalter (” Kalter” ) purchased a Grand Circle ” Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest” tour, along with an optional post-trip extension to visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Prior to departing on her trip, Kalter received from Grand Circle an itinerary of the Machu Picchu trip extension (the ” Itinerary” ), which stated that her group would visit Machu Picchu on two consecutive days, and that on the second day she would have the option of remaining with a guide or exploring the ruins on her own. The Itinerary also stated: ” [t]hese Inca sites are not like ancient squares in Europe; they are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces…. In the ruins, there are no handrails some places where you might like one.” Kalter received and read the itinerary prior to departing on her trip. In addition, the tour guide, Jesus Cardenas, distributed a map of Machu Picchu to the tour participants prior to entering the park. The map includes a section entitled ” Visit Regulations,” which states, among other things, ” Do not climb the walls,” and ” Follow only designated routes according to arrows.”
It was raining on both days Kalter was at Machu Picchu. The first day, she remained with Cardenas and walked on the stone paths The second day, she opted to explore on her own, and ventured off the established paths. Cardenas states that he gave verbal warnings to the group to use caution due to wet and slippery conditions. Kalter states that she did not hear Cardenas give these warnings, but that she ” has no reason to doubt” that he did so. Kalter went to an area known as the ” terraces,” filled with vertical rock walls that contain small stone protrusions called ” floating steps.” Some of these terraces are along paths color-coded by length, and no paths at Machu Picchu require traversing floating steps. Approximately one hour after venturing out on her own, Kalter became lost and disoriented, and was concerned about connecting with her group so that she would not miss the train. In an effort to get a better view of where she was, Kalter stepped up onto the bottom two floating steps of a vertical wall. Kalter did not think this was a dangerous act. As a result, Kalter fell and suffered serious injuries, and is now a quadriplegic.
The defendant moved for summary judgment, which was granted.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The defense raised by the plaintiff’s was assumption of the risk.
The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies where ” the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.” To determine if primary assumption of the risk applies, courts look to the nature of the activity, and the parties’ relationship to that activity. The question turns on whether the plaintiff’s injury is within the ” inherent” risk of the activity. A risk is inherent to an activity if its elimination would chill vigorous participation in the activity and thereby alter the fundamental nature of the activity. Accordingly, ” the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies where ‘ conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part’ of the activity itself.” When primary assumption of the risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries ” if the defendant ‘ engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity’ or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.”
If, on the other hand, ” the defendant does owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, but the plaintiff proceeds to encounter a known risk imposed by the defendant’s breach of duty,” the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk applies, which is analyzed under comparative fault principles.
The court found that inherent in the activity of hiking on uneven terrain among ancient ruins is the risk of falling and becoming injured.
The court then looked at the information the plaintiff received prior to going to Machu Picchu.
The Itinerary Kalter received prior to the tour informed her that the Inca sites at Machu Picchu ” are spread out over steep hillsides with large stone steps and uneven surfaces.” (Itinerary 65.) Eliminating tour participants’ access to these large stone steps and uneven surfaces in an attempt to protect against the risk of falling would eliminate the ability to view the Inca sites, and thus ” alter the fundamental nature of the activity.”
…Kalter did not fall while engaging in the activities condoned by Defendants-she chose to leave the established stone pathway, and further endangered herself by stepping onto the floating steps. Accordingly, the Court finds that primary assumption of the risk applies to Kalter’s injuries from falling while hiking at Machu Picchu.
The defendant would be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries only if the defendant’s conduct was so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in hiking among ancient ruins or uneven terrain.
The plaintiff argued that the defendant was liable for encouraging the plaintiff to roam the ruins on her own.
…Grand Circle’s act of allowing Kalter to explore on her own areas she had not been to with Cardenas was not ” so reckless as to be totally outside the range of ordinary activity” involved in the excursion, nor did it increase the inherent risk of falling and sustaining injury involved in hiking in this region.
The next issue was whether or not the defendant had a duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers equally obvious to both the plaintiff and others. The plaintiff admitted it was raining and admitted the steps were wet. The map she received told her not to climb the walls.
The court found the risks of the floating steps the plaintiff climbed leading to her fall were open and obvious, and she assumed the risk when climbing on them. “Moreover, numerous courts have held that tour companies and guides have no duty to warn of obvious dangers their customer’s encounter on trips.” Consequently, the defendant had no duty to warn the plaintiff of the dangers of climbing on the steps that lead to her fall.
The court held for the defendant.
As explained above, neither Grand Circle nor Cardenas are liable for Kalter’s injuries because the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applies, and because neither had a duty to warn her of the open and obvious danger of falling while climbing wet stone steps protruding from a vertical wall.
So Now What?
The plaintiff was a quadriplegic, so I suspect here health or disability insurance carrier started the lawsuit to recover the paid on behalf of the plaintiff. Alternatively, the plaintiff could have started the litigation because so much money was involved if they won that it might have been a lottery.
However the simple fact the plaintiff fell while on her own exploring, a ruin in Peru does not give rise to liability in this case.
What keeps coming to the surface in cases over the past couple of years is the defense of assumption of the risk. Looking at this from a different perspective. The more you educate your client, the less likely you will be sued and the less likely you will lose that lawsuit.
I’ve been saying that for more than thirty years, and it seems to come back with greater defenses and benefits for both the guests and the outfitters.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Apollo via Flickr.