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Don’t Like An Award From Compulsory Arbitration? You Must Appeal

Can a party to a case where a judgment has been entered in compulsory arbitration have that judgment modified without appealing? This is the underlying question in the recent matter heard by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, captioned as Blucas v. Agiovlasitis, 2018 Pa.Super. 25.

In Blucas, tenants brought suit against their former landlord for the return of their security deposit. The landlord, of course, claimed the leasehold had damages for which he incurred expenses and he needed compensation/reimbursement from the tenants.

The case was tracked into compulsory arbitration pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 7361. After a hearing before a panel of arbitrators, a judgment was entered awarding the tenants $10,000 and the landlord $1,450, for a net award to the tenants of $8,550.

Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307 and established case law, the entry of an award following compulsory arbitration has the force and effect of a final judgment. The court contrasted an award flowing from compulsory arbitration with one following statutory or common law arbitration. Unlike an award from compulsory arbitration, a party must petition the trial court to confirm an award from statutory or common law arbitration 30 days or more following the date of the award. For an award from compulsory arbitration neither party must file a præcipe to enter judgment on the award.

In July 2016, an award and notice of the same was entered on the docket in this matter, and was final (unless appealed). A judgment on the award was entered in November 2016. Within less than two weeks following the entry of the judgment in Blucas, the landlord remitted a check to the tenants for the full amount of the judgment ($8,550). Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1307, a party must file an appeal within 30 days from when the award and notice are entered on the docket in order to further litigate the matter. No appeal was ever filed. Instead of appealing, the tenants, in April 2017, filed a motion for costs and prejudgment interest (motion) requesting a recalculation of the award.

The court reviewed the various case, statutory, and procedural laws applicable to the instant matter, and unequivocally concluded that the sole remedy for an adverse or unsatisfactory compulsory arbitration award is an appeal within 30 days from the award and notice. The only exception to the above the court could discern is Pa.R.C.P. 1307(d), which provides for a means to “mold” a previously entered award for obvious errors, in either arithmetic or language, that do not go to the substance and/or merits of the award.

The tenants’ motion did not address basic errors in arithmetic and language but, rather, asked the trial court to award them additional damages in prejudgment interest and costs. Inexplicably, and without citing support, the trial court granted the tenants’ motion, which led to the landlord’s appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court, resulting in the decision, cited above, that is the subject of this article.

Superior Court noted that the motion did not comply with the law and procedure cited above.  The motion clearly is not an example of “molding.” More importantly, it was not filed within 30 days of the award.  The trial court was unclear as to precisely how it calculated the award and what the figures in the award exactly represented (e.g., interest and costs? security deposit? pet deposit? etc.). As a result, there is no way for Superior Court to even attempt to “mold” the award regarding prejudgment interest, even if it could. Consequently, as the tenants did not file an appeal of the compulsory arbitration award, the trial court was without authority to attempt to revisit the award with regard to prejudgment interest.

As always, it is absolutely critical for practitioners to be totally cognizant of the applicable deadlines and time periods mandated by law or procedure and act accordingly to ensure compliance with the same and opportunity to litigate a matter as fully as possible.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on March 19, 2018 and can be found here.

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A Collection of Personal Injury Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of personal injury legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

Musings:

My Articles:

A Collection of Contract and Debt Collection Writings by James W. Cushing, Esquire

Over the course of my career, I have written extensively on a wide variety of contract law issues and debt collection legal principles.  These writings have been published in The Legal IntelligencerUpon Further Review, and The Pennsylvania Family Lawyer as well as posted onto my blog.  I have collected these articles and blog posts and have listed them below.  Thanks for reading!

My Articles:

Musings:

The Secret Defense to Debt Collection Matters

Unfortunately, many people find themselves in a situation where they get behind on paying their bills and, due to lack of funds, wind up not paying some of them.  Not paying one’s bills will more often than not result in that debt being sold to a collections agency and that agency suing the debtor for payment (and adding on all kinds of things, like interest, attorney’s fees, penalties and the like to boot).

Selling one’s debt to a collection agency is an important step in the process that directly affects the subsequent lawsuit against the debtor.  Typically, large lenders – especially lenders like credit cards companies – have a fair amount of debtors who stop paying (for whatever reason) on the debt owed to the lender which results in their debts being sent to collections.  When these lenders send debts to collections, they do so by selling the debts to a collection agency.  When they sell the debts to a collection agency, they will often sell the debts in bulk, often for pennies on the dollar.  The transaction benefits the creditor as it gets something for the debts owed without having to pursue costly and time consuming litigation.  The transaction benefits the collection agency because it can pursue collection (including law suit) against a debtor for the full amount despite having bought the debt for far less than its principal value, let alone its value inflated by interest and such.

More often than not, when debts are sold to collection agencies, the initial creditor (e.g.: a credit card company) simply provides an affidavit to the collection agency regarding the amount of the debts and the names of those who owe the debts.  Typically, no other document is supplied by the initial creditor to the collection agency, including any contracts with the debtor or anything bearing the signature on the debtor.  Once the collection agency assumes the debt, it has the right to bring suit against the debtor for the unpaid debt.

The lack of documentation of the contract with the debtor is absolutely key to any defense to the collection of the debt.  If the creditor brings suit against the debtor in the Court of Common Pleas and does not attach the contract between the debtor and the creditor which underlies the alleged debt, the debtor can file objections to the complaint (the document which initiates the law suit) asking for it to be dismissed due to the lack of a contract.  I can say, from personal experience, that such a tactic works as, very often, the collection agency pursing the debtor simply does not have the underlying contractual documentation to prove its case against the debtor.

If the case is brought in small claims court, the creditor does not have the obligation to include a copy of the contract to the complaint, so successfully defending against a collections law suit takes some shrewd strategy.  The lack of documentary evidence is still a huge problem for the creditor, but the small claims aspect of this matter makes the approach different and much trickier.  As the complaint does not require the contract to be appended to it, and the primary place for these matters to be resolved is at a hearing before a judge, the creditor has the procedural advantage.  At the hearing, the collection agency, armed with an affidavit from the initial creditor (as described above), secures almost all of the other evidence it needs to win against the debtor through the debtor’s testimony.

Here is how the hearing would play out: the creditor describes the claim to the judge, which is that the debtor had a contract with a credit card company (for example), he did not pay the debt owed, and is now in collections and all of this is supported by the affidavit.  Now, the affidavit, taken alone, is insufficient to win the case as there is no evidence that the debtor actually contracted with the creditor.  So, at the appropriate time during the trial, the creditor will ask the debtor some questions (i.e.: cross-examination).  These questions will be something like: “did you have a credit card from XYZ company on these dates”?  “Did you make charges on it?” “Did you make all the payments on it?”  “Do you owe $XYZ on the credit card?” And other questions like it.  At the end of the examination, the debtor himself provides all of the evidence against himself that the creditor needs to win the case against him.   As a result, the creditor will win the case against the debtor thanks to the debtor supplying all of the evidence, via his testimony, need by the creditor.

So, how does a debtor avoid the fate of the debtor in the above scenario?  That is where a good lawyer comes into play.

Limiting Legal Malpractice Claims: Applying the Glenbrook Analysis

The statue of limitations for a legal malpractice action in Pennsylvania is two years from the date of the malpractice; however that time period may be extended under certain circumstances.  In Glenbrook Leasing Co. v. Beausang, 839 A.2d 437 (Pa. Super. 2003), affirmed, 881 A.2d 1266 (Pa. 2005), the Pennsylvania Superior Court explored the viability of various ways to potentially extend that two year period.

Plaintiff in Glenbrook is a real estate partnership which purchased office space in a condominium development to be used as medical offices.  The agreement of sale for the office space included language granting Plaintiff use (and alleged ownership) of 35 parking spaces.  Nothing was placed in the deed regarding Plaintiff’s ownership of the aforesaid parking spaces.

About six years later, the condominium association took action to limit Plaintiff’s use of the aforesaid 35 parking spaces.  Unsurprisingly, a dispute arose between Plaintiff and the condominium association regarding the ownership and use of the parking spaces, which eventually evolved into litigation.  The litigation culminated in a ruling in favor of the condominium association.  The ruling was based on the merger doctrine, which generally states that any guarantee to be granted in a real estate transaction must be stated in the deed to the subject property.  As applied to the instant matter, Plaintiff was considered not to have any ownership rights over the parking spaces as they were not memorialized in the deed to the property.

When the initial real estate transaction took place, Plaintiff was represented by Defendant, a real estate law firm.  Plaintiff believed that its loss in the litigation against the condominium association, and the resulting loss of the 35 parking spaces, was a direct result of the legal malpractice of Defendant in failing to take into consideration the merger doctrine, and by failing to include language regarding the parking spaces in the deed to the property at issue.  About a year after the conclusion of the litigation against the condominium association, and about six years after the association first presented the issues regarding the deed, and its lack of language dealing with the parking spaces to Plaintiff, the company brought suit against Defendant law firm, claiming it committed legal malpractice.

Defendant ultimately filed a motion for summary judgement, claiming that Plaintiff brought suit far beyond the two year statute of limitations.  The trial court ruled in favor of Defendant.  On appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, and the Supreme Court issued a per curiam order affirming the Superior Court’s ruling.  It is the Superior Court’s opinion that is the subject of this article.

While the statue of limitation in a legal malpractice claim is two years, that period can be extended via the equitable discovery rule which sates that the two years is initiated not at the occurrence of the malpractice, but when it was, or should have been, discovered.  The Court ruled that Plaintiff discovered, or should have discovered, that there may have been legal malpractice six years before it initiated suit against Defendant (or four years longer than the two year statute allows) when the dispute with the condominium association first arose.

Plaintiff then argued that the Court should apply the “continuous representation rule” which states that the limitations period would not begin to run until plaintiff terminated Defendant’s services.  The Court was unmoved by Plaintiff’s argument to extend the legal malpractice statute of limitations based on the continuous representation rule.  The Court noted that the rule was not the law of Pennsylvania (although it is in other jurisdictions) and it is not the place of the Superior Court to adopt new rules without authority to do so.

Plaintiff next argued that the limitations period should be extended through estoppel, asserting that the “special relationship” between a lawyer and his client lulled Plaintiff into a false sense of security, through fraud, or deception, or concealment, to trust Defendant beyond when it would have been prudent to do so.  This sort of argument has traction among physicians and patients and Plaintiff attempted here to apply it to attorneys and clients.  The Court rejected this argument as well, as it found Defendant was completely candid with Plaintiff regarding the claims made by the condominium association, including providing Plaintiff with the first allegation of their own malpractice nearly six years prior to Plaintiff’s bringing suit.

Finally, Plaintiff argued that the question of precisely when it discovered the malpractice is a question of fact that should have been decided by a jury, not via a motion for summary judgement.  The Court rejected this argument as well, ruling that the facts in this matter were abundantly clear as to when Plaintiff discovered the malpractice.

The statute of limitations is critical to be aware of when considering bringing suit.  Although the Court made a variety of rulings, as described above, it is significant and useful in that it lays out some guidelines as to how to apply the various means to extend the statute of limitations and notably refuses to adopt and apply the continuous representation rule.

Originally published in Upon Further Review on September 24, 2015 and can be seen here.

US Supreme Court Weighs in on Threats Over Social Media

The new reality of social interaction includes the popular, and seemingly always proliferating, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.  Considering the increasing ubiquity of social media, it was only a matter of time before the United States Supreme Court would weigh in on its use, which it had opportunity to do in the matter of Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2001 (2015).

 

In the Elonis matter, the petitioner Anthony Douglas Elonis’s wife left him in May 2010, taking their children with her.  Following their separation, Mr. Elonis began listening to “violent music” and posting so-called “rap lyrics” to his Facebook page.  Eventually he changed his name on his Facebook profile to “Tone Dougie,” a rap-style nom de plume, in order to create an “on-line persona.”  His rap lyrics contained rather violent and graphic language but did contain a disclaimer that his lyrics were fictions with no intentional resemblance to real persons.  He also said on Facebook that he writes these lyrics, and other such posts, as a form of therapy for himself to deal with the pain of the breakup of his family.

 

Unfortunately for Mr. Elonis, people who viewed his Facebook posts did not seem to appreciate his therapeutic efforts.  Evidently, after the Halloween following his separation, Mr. Elonis posted a photograph of himself from a Halloween event at his place of employ holding a toy knife to his co-worker’s throat, accompanied by a caption reading “I wish.”  Mr. Elonis was fired by his employer for this post due to its violent and threatening nature regarding his co-worker.

 

Mr. Elonis responded to his termination from employment at an amusement park with the following Facebook post: “Moles! Didn’t I tell y’all I had several? Y’all sayin’ I had access to keys for all the f***in’ gates. That I have sinister plans for all my friends and must have taken home a couple. Y’all think it’s too dark and foggy to secure your facility from a man as mad as me? You see, even without a paycheck, I’m still the main attraction. Whoever thought the Halloween Haunt could be so f***in’ scary?””  This post formed the basis for the first count of his criminal indictment for threatening park patrons and employees.

 

In addition to the above, Mr. Elonis also posted crude, demeaning, and violent material regarding his ex-wife, including a long post adapting a comedian’s sketch about how to avoid overtly saying one wishes to kill the president to a post of similar content about killing one’s wife.  In the post he included accurate details about his ex-wife’s home and rhetorically asked whether the reader is willing to “go to jail for [one’s] Constitutional rights.”

 

Upon seeing the above-mentioned post, his ex-wife began to fear for her life and secured a protection order against Mr. Elonis.  In response Mr. Elonis posted on Facebook what appeared to be lyrics or poetry contemplating whether a protection order could stop a bullet and suggested blowing up a police department with a bomb.  This post formed the basis of two more counts of his criminal indictment.  The fourth count of Mr. Elonis’s criminal indictment flowed from a subsequent Facebook post regarding potentially mass killing a local kindergarten class.  After the FBI investigated the aforesaid post, Mr. Elonis followed it up with what formed the basis of the fifth count of his criminal indictment, namely a post threatening the life of FBI agents (though none by name).

 

Mr. Elonis was eventually indicted for making threats to injure patrons and employees of the park, his estranged wife, police officers, a kindergarten class, and an FBI agent.  All of these threats were in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) which states “[w]hoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

 

Mr. Elonis filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the basis that none of the charges against him contained any allegation that he intended to threaten anyone.  The District Court (his matter originated in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania) denied the motion.  At the trial for the charges Mr. Elonis testified that his posts were emulating rap lyrics (especially those of Eminem who also penned lyrics about killing his wife) and, therefore, were made without any intent to threaten anyone.  The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they felt threatened and in fear of injury.  At the conclusion of the trial, Mr. Elonis’ requested that the jury be instructed that in order for him to be convicted the prosecution must prove he had an intention to threaten.  His request was denied.  Ultimately, Mr. Elonis was sentenced to three years and eight months’ incarceration and three years’ suspended release.  Mr. Elonis then appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit which upheld the conviction and ruled that the intent suggested by Mr. Elonis was not required by the law.  Mr. Elonis then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and it is that Court’s decision that is the subject of this article.

 

Mr. Elonis argued to the Supreme Court that the term “threat” necessarily implies an intention to inflict harm.  Unpersuaded, the Court pointed out that the definition of “threat” proffered by Mr. Elonis speaks to the message conveyed by the threatening statement and not the mental state of the speaker.  The government noted that the other crimes in the statutes neighboring 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) all explicitly include a mental state in their terms which suggests that the legislature intentionally left such a provision out of 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) and, therefore, no mental state is required for conviction under this section.  The Court was unpersuaded by this argument as well indicating that all that could be concluded is that Congress laid out a broad class of crimes but simply did not include what mental state, if any, is required for conviction.  Based on the above, the Court observed that neither party sufficiently identified any indication of any particular mental state required by 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c).  Despite this, the Court recognized that any crime must carry with it some conscious action (e.g.: mens rea) and that the mere omission of a mental state from 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) does not mean none exists.

 

After a review of the applicable case law, the Court concluded that when a criminal statute is silent on mental state, the only mens rea that can be read into it is only that which is enough to separate wrongful conduct from innocent conduct as applied to each element of the crime.  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the mental state requirement, relative to Mr. Elonis’ case, must apply to whether the communication itself contains an actual threat.  By contrast, Mr. Elonis’ conviction was based solely upon how his posts would be perceived by a reasonable person.  As a result, the Court rejected the government’s argument for a mental state closer to negligence (i.e.: “reasonable person”) as well as Mr. Elonis’ argument from ignorance asserting that he could not be convicted unless it was shown he knew the posts could be characterized as threatening.

 

Ultimately the Court reversed Mr. Elonis’ conviction.  The Court held that the jury instructions mentioned above were insufficient.  There must be something more than the prosecution merely proving that a reasonable person could regard Mr. Elonis’ posts as threats.  Instead, there must be an instruction indicating that a mental state for Mr. Elonis is necessary for conviction.  The Court was confident that the mental state requirement would be satisfied if it could be shown that Mr. Elonis knew that his posts could be understood to be a threat and/or were posted to be threatening.  Although the Court rejected a negligence standard, as noted above, the Court declined to rule whether a recklessness standard would be sufficient to convict for the crime at issue herein as that issue was not raised by the parties until oral argument and briefly at that.  The Court was reluctant to be the first tribunal to rule on the issue and, instead, opted to allow the lower courts to initially look at the issue.  Consequently, the Court also remanded Mr. Elonis’ case for further proceedings per the Court’s ruling.

Originally published on August 25, 2015 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be seen here.

Local Ice Rink Tries to Put Law Suits on Ice

My nephew recently had a birthday and, because he is an avid ice hockey player, he chose to celebrate it at a local ice rink.  Before I get to the meat of this post let me say that I had not ice skated in at least ten years before that party and I was seriously out of practice!  By the end of the party I felt I was back to some semblance of respectability, but my back, ankles, and knees are clearly not as young as they once were.

Anyway, the ice rink facility the party was held at is very large and well equipped for such a party.  The facility is so large that there are two ice rinks separated by a common area for eating and lacing up one’s skates.  Next to one of the rinks are a series of smaller rooms where people gather for the parties that are held.  As one may expect from a kid’s party, much pizza, cake, and Coca-Cola are consumed in these rooms.

Part of the party process requires anyone intending to participate in ice skating to receive a sticker which identifies him/her as a guest of a party.  The sticker is a white paper with the name of the party on a piece of wax paper.  The person who receives the sticker peels off the sticker from the wax paper and puts the sticker on his or her shirt as identification on the ice rink.

All seemed rather typical to me for such a party until I noticed something peculiar.  While I was enjoying a slice of pizza, one of the kids at the party peeled off his sticker from its wax paper backing and threw the wax paper onto the table in front of me.  I glanced down at the wax paper and noticed that it was covered with text.  Curiosity got the best of me, so I picked up the wax paper and read all of the text written on it, which read as follows:

WAIVER OF LIABILITY

ASSUMPTION OF RISK:

I am aware that ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities involve inherent risks dangers and hazards which can result in serious personal injury or death.  I am also aware that the ice skating rinks and arenas contain dangers that can cause serious injury or death.  I hereby freely agree to assume and accept all known and unknown risks of injury arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities.  I recognize and acknowledge that risks of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball can be greatly reduced by: taking lessons, abiding by the Responsibility Code and using common sense.

RELEASE AND WAIVER OF CLAIMS AGREEMENT:

For allowing m e to participate in public skating, hockey and/or broomball activites at the [ice rink], I agree to the fullest extent permitted by law, as follows: 1) TO WAIVE ALL CLAIMS that I have or may have against the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates, arising out of public skating, hockey and/or broomball.  2) TO RELEASE the [ice rink] and its owners and affiliates from all liability for any loss, damage, injury or expense that I (o my next of kin, parent, guardian estate) may suffer, arising out of ice skating, hockey and/or broomball activities from any cause whatsoever including negligence or breach of contract on the part of the [ice rink] in the operation, supervision, design or maintenance of its facility.

So, basically, on the back of the wax paper for the identification sticker was a rather detailed waiver which protects the ice rink from all liability for injuries sustained there.  When I saw this, I instantly knew I had to write a blog on it because this waiver seemed so ridiculous to me.

I find this waiver to be of dubious enforceability.  Waivers must be accepted knowingly.  The identification stickers are merely provided by the ice rink to the person in charge of the party who then distributes them to the people at the party.  No one at the ice rink indicated that a waiver of liability is written on the back of the stickers.  Furthermore, the waiver is written on what is ostensibly trash.  The people there had no idea that the back of the stickers had text on them, let alone something as vitally important as a waiver of liability.  Instead, the people at the party – as one may expect – simply peeled off the stickers from the wax paper and threw out the wax paper.  I would have never noticed it myself had the kid at my table not, by chance, tossed his trash in front of me.  In addition, the waiver of liability is received after the contract was formed and payment was made for the use of the ice rink.  So, no consideration was exchanged for the waiver.  A waiver cannot simply be thrust onto someone after the contract was formed and payment made.  Even if it could be argued that there was consideration for the waiver between the ice rink and the person who paid for the party, there was certainly no consideration between the ice rink and a guest of the party.

A waiver of this sort is basically an exculpatory clause.  When it comes to exculpatory clauses, they are to “be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection.” Phillips Home Furnishings v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa. Super. 174 (1974) citing Kotwasinksi v. Rasner, 436 Pa. 32 (1969). Furthermore, an exculpatory clause will not be valid if there is a disproportionate bargaining power between the parties to the contract at issue. Id. citing Hennigsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 161 A. 2d 69 (NJ, 1960).  In addition, an exculpatory clause that a Court is unwilling to enforce is where the terms of a contract are unwilling to be altered by its maker.  In other words, a contract where the other party (i.e.: not the drafter of the contract) “has no bargaining power and must accept [the] terms” presented to him and is “powerless to alter” them, with rejection of the contract as the only alternative to executing the contract.  There is no meeting of the minds in this sort of contract negotiation. Galligan v. Arovitch, 421 Pa. 301 (1966).  In addition to the relationship of the parties to a contract, the Court also analyzes whether a party to a contract were “aware of and understood the terms of the release before his agreement can be deemed a particularized expression of the intent to assume risk.” Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 933 A.2d 110 (Pa.Super., 2007) citing Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, 911 A.2d 946 (Pa.Super.2006).  Finally, “[i]n determining whether a releasing party had such awareness and understanding, we consider: 1) the release’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the release’s print; and, 3) whether the release is highlighted in some fashion.” Id.,citing Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1269 (Pa.Super.2006)

Based on the above, I think it is pretty clear that the language located on the back of the sticker is problematic. The contract relationship is obviously imbalanced.  A person seeking admission to the ice rink has no choice but to accept the exculpatory clause else he cannot gain access.  Further, the exculpatory clause is printed on what amounts to a piece of trash.  The guest cannot bargain and negotiate with the person at the ice rink’s office about the terms of the clause and try to change them.  In fact the person at the office likely has no authority at all to act on the ice rink’s behalf in order to change or alter the language on the sticker even if he wanted to do it.  So, obviously, there is a “take-it-or-leave-it” aspect to the sticker.  In terms of whether the recipient of the sticker was aware of and understood the terms of the exculpatory clause, I think even the average observer can see that there is likely no awareness of this clause, let along comprehension, at the time of entry into the rink.  Who reads what is basically trash?  No one gets the language mentioned or explained by the person at the ice rink’s office.  I would guess that the person at the office has likely never read it either or knows what it means.  What non-lawyer knows what an exculpatory clause is or how it works and how it could effect him?  Remember, this is all in the context of a busy kids’ party and being handed a sticker for one’s shirt amid the hustle and bustle at an ice rink.  Who is taking the time to read the wax paper on the back of a sticker, let alone understand the technical legal jargon on it?

I wrote a similar post to this one a couple of summers ago about my trip to the Philadelphia Zoo.  The Zoo tries to do similar things as this ice rink, which is to sneak in an exculpatory clause on the back of an admission ticket after the ticket is purchased which means, therefore, there is no opportunity to read it at the time of purchase.  You can read more about that clause here.

So, suffice it to say, I think the inclusion of the exculpatory clause on the back of the ice rink’s identification sticker is pretty sneaky.  I do not think the clause is particularly enforceable and is of questionable legitimacy in contractual terms.

The Philadelphia Zoo Tries to Put Bars Around its Visitors

I just purchased a season pass to the Philadelphia Zoo last weekend.  We took a trip to the Zoo last year and my older son loved it and so we decided to try to go regularly this year as it is a nice place to be outside and do something and, for my son, a nice place to do something fairly interesting and educational that does not involve video games, death defying stunts, or tormenting his younger brother.  The fact that he spent an hour staring at a gorilla, which has sparked something of a gorilla obsession for him, is a little weird, but so be it; everyone has their “things”!  At least it led to an evening watching the original King Kong movie after our visit to the Zoo, which is one of my favorite movies.

My visit to the Zoo last weekend inspired this post because of very curious language I discovered on the back of my admission ticket when I got home.  The ticket to park at the Zoo had the normal disclaimers more-or-less about how the Zoo is not responsible for damage done to one’s car in the lot and that the ticket only entitles someone to park there in order to visit the Zoo for the day.  I did not find any of this language questionable or objectionable; indeed, I found it pretty typical.

The back of the admission ticket was what struck me.  The language on the back of the admission ticket says the following: “By accepting this ticket guest agrees to hold the Zoo and its employees harmless and waive any claim against the Zoo and its employees for bodily injury to guest or damage to guest’s property even if caused in whole or in part by the negligence of the Zoo or its employees.”

This language is very problematic in many ways.  Language like the above is commonly known as an “exculpatory clause” which, perhaps obviously, tries to exculpate one party from liability or guilt from certain actions or instances.

First of all, when it comes to exculpatory clauses, they are to “be strictly construed with every intendment against the party seeking their protection.” Phillips Home Furnishings v. Continental Bank, 231 Pa. Super. 174 (1974) citing Kotwasinksi v. Rasner, 436 Pa. 32 (1969). Furthermore, an exculpatory clause will not be valid if there is a disproportionate bargaining power between the parties to the contract at issue. Id. citing Hennigsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 161 A. 2d 69 (NJ, 1960).  In addition, an exculpatory clause that a Court is unwilling to enforce is where the terms of a contract are unwilling to be altered by its maker.  In other words, a contract where the other party (i.e.: not the drafter of the contract) “has no bargaining power and must accept [the] terms” presented to him and is “powerless to alter” them, with rejection of the contract as the only alternative to executing the contract.  There is no meeting of the minds in this sort of contract negotiation. Galligan v. Arovitch, 421 Pa. 301 (1966).  In addition to the relationship of the parties to a contract, the Court also analyzes whether a party to a contract were “aware of and understood the terms of the release before his agreement can be deemed a particularized expression of the intent to assume risk.” Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 933 A.2d 110 (Pa.Super., 2007) citing Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, 911 A.2d 946 (Pa.Super.2006).  Finally, “[i]n determining whether a releasing party had such awareness and understanding, we consider: 1) the release’s placement in the document; 2) the size of the release’s print; and, 3) whether the release is highlighted in some fashion.” Id.,citing Beck-Hummel v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., 902 A.2d 1266, 1269 (Pa.Super.2006)

Based on the above, I think it is pretty clear that the language located on the back of the Zoo’s admission ticket,  in very small print (albeit all in capitals), is problematic. The contract relationship is obviously imbalanced.  A person seeking admission to his local zoo has no choice but to accept the exculpatory clause else he cannot gain access.  Further, the exculpatory clause is printed on an existing ticket which is handed to the Zoo’s guest upon entry.  The guest cannot bargain and negotiate with the person at the Zoo’s ticket window about the terms of the clause and try to change them.  In fact the person at the ticket window likely has no authority at all to act on the Zoo’s behalf in order to change or alter the language on the ticket even if he wanted to do it.  So, obviously, there is a “take-it-or-leave-it” aspect to the admission ticket.  In terms of whether the recipient of the admission ticket was aware of and understood the terms of the exculpatory clause, I think even the average observer can see that there is likely no awareness of this clause, let along comprehension, at the time of purchase.  Who reads the ticket when it is handed to him?  Who gets the language mentioned or explained by the person at the ticket window?  I would guess that the person at the ticket window has likely never read it either or know what it means.  What non-lawyer knows what an exculpatory clause is or how it works and how it could effect him?  Remember, this is all in the context of waiting in a line with dozens of other people at a zoo ticket window with children (likely making some sort of ruckus) in the hot sun in the middle of the day.  Who is taking the time to read the ticket let alone understand the technical legal jargon on it?  Speaking as a parent, I am lucky to be able to receive the ticket from the window and cram it in my pocket in a reasonable way while in line let alone read it intelligently.

Second, even if none of the above applied, I think there are serious contractual issues at play.  The basics of a contract is that one party makes the offer of terms while another accepts them in consideration for some sort of exchange of goods and/or money.  The exchange of money for admission to the Zoo is a type of contract.  The Zoo is trying to append the exculpatory clause as a term of their offer of admission in exchange for one’s money.  The problem with that is that the exculpatory clause is not ever disclosed to the guest until after the transaction is made (i.e.: money for ticket) and once the transaction is made, the Zoo is clear that (from its website and the back of the admission ticket) “[a]ll ticket sales are final and may not be resold. No exchanges or refunds for any reason including inclement weather.”  The transaction for the ticket is as one may expect: the guest stands in long line outside (in whatever weather there is on a given day) with multiple other people (most of which have their share of rambunctious children including the guest purchasing the ticket) who, after shouting through a little porthole in a window with poor acoustics, receives tickets in exchange for money through a little slot at the bottom of the window.  The interaction between the guest and the ticket agent is one which merely involves inquiring into how many people (and their respective ages) for whom the guest would like admission tickets and the payment for the tickets.  It is not until after the tickets are purchased – for which there is no refund – that the guest learns that suddenly he has agreed to an exculpatory clause.  Therefore, this clause was not bargained for by the guest as he had no idea he was buying the clause along with his ticket as the small print on the back of the ticket is the only place where it exists and is communicated to the guest and that all takes place after a non-refundable purchase.  Indeed, not even the “tickets” portion of the Zoo’s website (seen here) has any mention of the exculpatory clause (though they are sure to make sure the reader knows that the purchase is non-refundable on the same page).  On the Zoo’s website, the exculpatory clause language is hidden on the “print tickets” page here, which is a page that one would not look at if purchasing tickets at the window (as I did).

One final note before I conclude.  Children under two years old require no ticket so I suppose one would presume that, even if enforceable, the exculpatory clause does not apply to them, which I find curious in itself.

So, suffice it to say, I think the inclusion of the exculpatory clause on the Zoo’s admission ticket is pretty sneaky and, if I may say so, pretty sleazy, especially considering it purports to exculpate its own negligence.  I do not think the clause is particularly enforceable and is of questionable legitimacy in contractual terms.

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