Woodman v. Kera, LLC

Decision Date12 August 2008
Docket NumberDocket No. 275079.,Docket No. 275882.
PartiesWOODMAN v. KERA, LLC.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Rhoades McKee, P.C. (by Gregory G. Timmer, Paul A. McCarthy, and Stephen J. Hulst), Grand Rapids, for the plaintiff.

Feuer & Kozerski, P.C. (by Scott L. Feuer), Birmingham, for the defendant.

Before: BANDSTRA, P.J., and TALBOT and SCHUETTE, JJ.

TALBOT, J.

Trent Woodman, a minor, through his mother and next friend, Sheila Woodman, appeals the orders granting defendant's motion for summary disposition of plaintiff's negligence claim and denying plaintiff's motion for summary disposition with regard to defendant's affirmative defense of waiver. Defendant appeals the order denying defendant's motion for summary disposition of plaintiff's claims of gross negligence and violation of the Consumer Protection Act.1 I would reverse and remand to the trial court.

I. FACTUAL HISTORY

Sheila Woodman rented defendant's facility, which contains large, inflatable play equipment, for her son's fifth birthday party. Defendant provided invitations to Sheila Woodman, which she subsequently forwarded to the party guests. The content of the invitation was as follows:

                _____________ has been invited to a ____________ party
                for __________________
                The party will be held at Bounce Party
                on _______, ________ from _____ to _____
                Please RSVP at ________ before ________
                ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                We are hosting our party at Bounce Party in Kentwood. We will have chaperon[e]s present
                to ensure that this is a safe and enjoyable party. We need a parent/guardian to review and
                sign the information below and send it with your child on party day. Please have your child
                at Bounce Party 15 minutes before the
                party start time
                Thank you, ____________________________
                              Your Host
                Bounce Party is an indoor inflatable play arena with interactive inflatables. Your child may
                have the opportunity to bounce, slide, maneuver mazes, run challenge courses, bouncy box,
                bungee basketball and joust. Your hosts will have chaperon[e]s on site and we will have staff
                members present. To ensure a safe and enjoyable party please be sure your child
                follows these few simple rules prior to attending the party.
                
                ♥ Please RSVP to your host. We really hope you will be able to attend the party.
                ♥ Wear CLEAN socks. No shoes or bare feet are allowed in the play arena.
                ♥ Wear comfortable clothes.
                ♥ Leave all jewelry, sharp objects, keys, hair bands, pencils, watches, etc. at home.
                ♥ Let your child know that good manners are expected and inappropriate behavior will
                result in removal.
                ♥ Be sure that the parent/legal guardian of the guest signs this release and the guest brings it
                with them to the party. Anyone without parent/guardian approval will not be able to
                participate in the arena games. If you have multiple guests in your family, you can list all
                their names on this one form.
                ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                THE UNDERSIGNED, by his/her signature herein affixed does acknowledge that any
                physical activities involve some element of personal risk and that, accordingly, in consideration
                for the undersigned waiving his/her claim against BOUNCE PARTY, and their agents,
                the undersigned will be allowed to participate in any of the physical activities.
                By engaging in this activity, the undersigned acknowledges that he/she assumes the element
                of inherent risk, in consideration for being allowed to engage in the activity, agrees to
                indemnify and hold BOUNCE PARTY, and their agents, harmless from any liability for
                personal injury, property damage or wrongful death caused by participation in this activity.
                Further, the undersigned agrees to indemnify and hold BOUNCE PARTY, and their agents,
                harmless from any and all costs incurred including, but not limited to, actual attorney's fees
                that BOUNCE PARTY, and their agents, may suffer by an action or claim brought against it
                by anyone as a result of the undersigned's use of such facility.
                Participant: ____________________   Signature: _______________________________
                                PRINTED NAME          Parent or Legal Guardian's signature if
                                                      participate [sic] is under age 18.
                Date: __________
                

BE SURE YOU COMPLETE THIS CARD AND SEND IT WITH THE PARTY GUEST!

On the day of the party, plaintiff's father, Jeffrey Woodman, signed the above document on plaintiff's behalf. An employee of defendant conducted a "safety talk" before the party started, which defendant asserted specifically included an instruction not to jump from the slide. In addition, written rules posted on the slide and the wall informed guests not to jump from the slide. However, after correctly using the slide five times, plaintiff jumped from the top of the slide, fell to the ground, and broke his leg.

II. LOWER-COURT PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff, through his mother and next friend, filed a three-count complaint against defendant, alleging gross negligence, negligence, and violation of Michigan's Consumer Protection Act (MCPA), MCL 445.901 et seq. Plaintiff alleged that defendant knowingly failed to provide supervision, ignored the slide's manufacturer's warnings and safety instructions, did not properly equip the slide with available safety devices, and failed to have an attendant to monitor the slide. Plaintiff contended that these failures and omissions were the direct and proximate causes of his injuries. With respect to the MCPA claim, plaintiff alleged that defendant falsely advertised itself as providing a safe play environment when, in fact, defendant knew it failed to install appropriate safety equipment and provide adequate supervision. Defendant filed an answer to the complaint, denying plaintiff's claims and asserting affirmative defenses, including the defense of waiver.

On July 27, 2006, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), (8), and (10), defendant moved for summary disposition of all three counts. Defendant argued that plaintiff's father signed a valid release on behalf of plaintiff and waived all of plaintiff's potential claims against defendant and that plaintiff could not prove gross negligence. Further, even if gross negligence could be demonstrated, defendant contended that liability was precluded because the danger of jumping from the slide constituted an open and obvious hazard. Defendant asserted that it had no duty to supervise plaintiff because his parents were with him at the time of the accident. Defendant urged the trial court to dismiss plaintiff's MCPA claim because defendant did not make any misrepresentations and the allegations made in the complaint do not comprise the type of case the MCPA was designed to remedy. Concurrently, plaintiff moved for summary disposition on defendant's affirmative defense of waiver, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (10). Plaintiff argued that the purported waiver was invalid as a matter of law because a parent may not waive, release, or compromise claims by or against his or her child.

The trial court conducted a hearing on the summary-disposition motions on September 14, 2006. The trial court determined that the waiver, signed by plaintiff's parent, was valid and should be given effect. When granting summary disposition on the waiver issue, the trial court noted the absence of "any Michigan case which says that a parent who signs a waiver like this one prior to a child engaging in an activity is engaging in an act which is a legal nullity." The trial court further opined that it concurred with the general proposition that a parent can validly execute a waiver approving his or her child's participation in an activity and dismissed plaintiff's claim of ordinary negligence.

Considering plaintiff's gross-negligence claim, the trial court opined that plaintiff's counsel provided a sufficient demonstration that defendant ignored specific instructions or recommendations regarding use and staffing for the slide. The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's gross-negligence claim because it found that "a reasonable finder of fact could conclude from that conduct that it constitutes a substantial indifference to whether an injury results from the operation of the slide."

Addressing defendant's defense of open and obvious danger, the trial court questioned whether a five-year-old had the intellectual capacity to comprehend the dangers inherent in jumping off a slide. Recognizing that negligence cannot be imputed to a child under the age of seven, the trial court reasoned that "[i]f negligence can't be imputed to them, I'm not really sure how they can be barred from proceeding by the open and obvious doctrine." The trial court further rejected defendant's assertion that it had no duty to supervise plaintiff because of the presence of his parents, ruling that "the nature of the defendant's business is such that they have an inherent obligation in that regard." Because the scope of defendant's duty and whether it breached an existent duty comprised questions of fact for the jury, the trial court declined to grant defendant's request for summary disposition on this issue. Although the trial court questioned the applicability of the MCPA to plaintiff's claim, it declined to dismiss the claim until the issue could be further developed.

On November 6, 2006, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (10), plaintiff again moved for summary disposition regarding defendant's affirmative defense of waiver, asserting that the invitation language was insufficient to constitute a waiver. Plaintiff argued that the invitation did not waive or indemnify negligence claims against defendant because the document only addressed risks inherent in participating in the activities at defendant's facility. Defendant responded that the invitation constituted a valid waiver and...

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