By Doyice Cotten
Lamerle Johnson drowned while canoeing in the lake at the resort, Mayacamas Lake. This regards aspects of the California appellate court decision in the resulting legal action (Johnson v. Mayacamas Holdings LLC, 2021).
As guests of the resort, Johnson signed a liability waiver designed to relieve the resort of liability for negligence. The waiver follows:
Release and Waiver of Liability
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 a friend went hiking on the property and “stumbled upon” Hidden Lake. They found canoes and took one of the canoes onto the water without incident. They were not wearing life jackets because they were unable to open the bin. At a later date, they were horsing around on the canoe and Johnson fell in the water and drowned.
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.
Trial Court Ruling
A lawsuit followed. Defendants moved for summary judgment and argued that the release provided a complete defense to each cause of action and the primary assumption of the risk doctrine also barred liability.
There were several issues addressed. One issue was that the waiver did not identify the Mayacamas Resort as protected parties. A second issue was that the waiver did not cover canoeing on Hidden Lake. Finally, the waiver did not protect against gross negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment on each cause of action.
The appellate court stated:
“A written release of future liability reflects an express assumption of the risk by the plaintiff, thereby negating the defendant’s duty of care. If the plaintiff signed a release of all liability, the release applies to any ordinary negligence of the defendant, so long as the act of negligence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injury is reasonably related to the purpose for which the release was given. The release must be clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the intent of the subscribing parties.
Here, 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 release was entitled “Release & Waiver of Liability,” 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,” and that he would “hold harmless Mayacamas Ranch, its officers, agents, principals and employees and the owners of the real property.”
Appellants contended the release was insufficient because it did not apply to the Mayacamas Defendants because it does not list Mayacamas Holdings. The court responded:
Although the release did not identify the Mayacamas Defendants by name, a reasonable person in Johnson’s position—signing a release and waiver of liability for all claims arising from his presence at Mayacamas Ranch—would necessarily expect the phrase “Mayacamas Ranch, its officers, agents, principals and employees” to include the entity that was operating, and doing business as, “Mayacamas Ranch.” That entity was the defendant, Paradise With Purpose, which—as alleged in the amended complaint—operated and managed both parcels.
Next, Appellants claim the scope of the release was ambiguous and “could reasonably be construed to apply only to Johnson’s use of the resort’s swimming pool, and not to canoeing; because of this ambiguity, they argue, there was a material factual dispute that precluded summary judgment.”
The court responded that It is not reasonable to conclude that the waiver covered only Johnson’s swimming in the pool. The waiver was very broad and Johnson assumed “full responsibility for all risks of bodily injury, death or property damage.”
As to the claim of gross negligence, the court disagreed that there was gross negligence. It defined gross negligence as being a “want of ever scant care” or “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.” It then defined ordinary negligence as “a failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.”
The court ruled that none of the claims were impactful on the original ruling. It ruled in support of the trial court grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant.
Risk Management Take-Away
This writer has cautioned on numerous times to clearly name the protected parties in the waiver. In this case, the error turned out to be survivable. That, however, in no way lessens the importance of clearly indicating all protected parties.
Regarding the fact that the lake was not listed, some courts in some states might have questioned this point. The breadth of the waiver might have been clarified more. List some or most of the major hazards; a lake on the property ought to be listed.
Photo Credit: thanks to Ross via Flickr.