March 12, 2012
DEREK DEARNLEY AND VICKY DEARNLEY, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
MOUNTAIN CREEK, ITS AGENTS, SERVANTS AND EMPLOYEES, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-540-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued February 29, 2012
Before Judges Harris and Koblitz.
Plaintiffs Derek Dearnley and Vicky Dearnley appeal from the June 16, 2011, summary judgment dismissal of their six-count complaint. Plaintiffs sought tort remedies for injuries suffered by Mr. Dearnley while snowboarding at defendant Mountain Creek Resort, Inc.'s ski area in Vernon. We affirm.
Between 1998 and 2010, Mrs. Dearnley was employed by defendant in its retail department. As part of her compensation benefits, she and her family members were entitled to apply for, and obtain, a free season pass to use defendant's facilities at its Vernon ski resort. On November 25, 2008, because her husband desired to take advantage of this benefit for the 2008-2009 winter season, Mrs. Dearnley applied for, and obtained, the pass. She signed, on his behalf, a document entitled, "Season Pass Contract, Student Ski & Ride Voucher Program, Rules and Conditions of Sale, Release of Liability and Indemnity Agreement" (the 2008 agreement). The 2008 agreement contained exculpatory provisions purporting to release tort claims before they occurred. For example, the pass holder "fully release[d] Mountain Creek FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY for personal injury, death or property damage arising out of or resulting from [the pass holder's] participation in this sport, MOUNTAIN CREEK'S NEGLIGENCE, conditions on or about the premises and facilities or the operations of the ski area" (capitalization in the original). The outcome of this appeal, however, does not turn on this language.
On January 4, 2009, Mr. Dearnley was snowboarding at the Mountain Creek ski area when he suffered an accident that he attributes to defendant's negligence and breach of its duties under N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11 (the Ski Act). As a result of the accident, Mr. Dearnley incurred serious injuries, which required immediate emergency surgery to stabilize his back by the implantation of metal rods and screws. According to his answers to interrogatories, Mr. Dearnley ultimately spent approximately six weeks in the hospital, had to endure three surgeries, and underwent weeks of physical therapy and rehabilitation.
On October 13, 2009, plaintiffs filed their personal injury and per quod complaint against defendant in the Law Division, Sussex Vicinage. Defendant's answer listed ten affirmative defenses, but did not assert that the 2008 agreement's exculpatory provisions barred the action.
Two months later, on December 21, 2009, while his wife was still employed by defendant, Mr. Dearnley applied for a season pass for the 2009-2010 winter season. He was presented with, and signed, a two-page document entitled, "Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. 2009-'10 Season Pass Wavier" (the 2009 agreement). In bold, capitalized print at the top of the first page, the 2009 agreement stated, "RELEASE, WARNINGS AND DISCLAIMERS ON SKIING."
At the top of the second page, to which Mr. Dearnley affixed his signature, the following appeared in bold typeface:
I FURTHER RELEASE AND GIVE UP ANY AND ALL CLAIMS AND RIGHTS THAT I MAY NOW HAVE AGAINST MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC. THIS RELEASES ALL CLAIMS, INCLUDING THOSE OF WHICH I AM NOT AWARE AND THOSE NOT MENTIONED IN THIS RELEASE. THIS RELEASE APPLIES TO CLAIMS RESULTING FROM ANYTHING WHICH HAS HAPPENED UP TO NOW.
The 2009 agreement also stated in bold typeface: "I AM AWARE THAT THIS CONTRACT IS LEGALLY BINDING AND THAT I AM RELEASING LEGAL RIGHTS BY SIGNING IT."
During discovery, the 2008 and 2009 agreements were exchanged between the parties' attorneys. Upon the realization of what Mr. Dearnley had signed, plaintiffs filed a motion "for an Order barring the affirmative defenses related to two adhesion contracts." Defendant filed a cross-motion seeking (1) summary judgment, (2) permission to file an amended answer, and (3) denial of plaintiffs' motion.
On April 29, 2011, Judge Edward V. Gannon heard oral argument. The judge granted defendant's motion to amend its answer to permit the pleading of (1) release and (2) accord and satisfaction as affirmative defenses. The judge noted that the 2009 agreement was executed after both the filing of plaintiffs' complaint and defendant's answer, and therefore could not have been contemplated by the first exchange of pleadings. Reciprocally, he denied plaintiff's motion to bar the affirmative defenses. Finally, he reserved decision on what he called "a matter of first impression with regard to this particular type of release."
On June 16, 2011, Judge Gannon entered an order granting summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice. He explained his decision in a thorough ten-page statement of reasons, taking pains to carefully explicate the two agreements and then analyze them under the lens of applicable law. This appeal ensued.
Orders granting summary judgment pursuant to Rule 4:46-2 are reviewed de novo, and we apply the same legal standard employed by the Law Division. Canter v. Lakewood of Voorhees, 420 N.J. Super. 508, 515 (App. Div. 2011). In performing our appellate function we consider, as did the motion court, "'whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.'" Advance Hous., Inc. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 422 N.J. Super. 317, 327 (App. Div. 2011) (quoting Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995)), certif. granted, ___ N.J. ___ (Jan. 24, 2012).
Similarly, when the legal conclusions of a motion court's Rule 4:46-2 summary judgment decision are reviewed on appeal, "'[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference[,]' and, hence, an 'issue of law is subject to de novo plenary appellate review.'" Estate of Hanges v. Metro. Prop. Cas. Ins. Co., 202 N.J. 369, 382-83 (2010) (quoting City of Atl. City v. Trupos, 201 N.J. 447, 463 (2010)).
Judge Gannon dismissed plaintiffs' claims based upon the release contained in the 2009 agreement, which was personally executed by Mr. Dearnley months after his injuries and surgeries, months after he hired a lawyer, and months after he filed suit. From our review of the undisputed factual record, we are satisfied that this case does not present any novel or first impression issues. Rather, it revolves around an ordinary release -- not exculpatory -- clause and is governed by familiar principles of contract interpretation. As Judge Gannon stated,
Invalidating the agreed upon waiver would signal judicial mistrust of our citizen's ability to intelligently enter contracts, in which benefits derive from the assumptions of burdens. In this case, Mr. Dearnley surrendered his right to maintain this suit in exchange for the benefits afforded to season pass holders. A contracting party's assumption of a substantial burden is no basis for interfering with our citizens' right to freely contract.
We affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Gannon, and add only the following brief comments.
Plaintiffs condemn the 2009 agreement as a contract of adhesion, fraught with unconscionabilty, and contrary to public policy. We emphasize that our review is limited to the 2009 agreement, not the 2008 agreement. We are not concerned with defendant's efforts to exculpate itself from tort liability before an invitee becomes injured at its ski area. Instead, we parse Mr. Dearnley's release of a claim after it allegedly accrued.
We begin our analysis of the enforceability of the release contained in the 2009 agreement with recognition of the deep-seated principle that contracts will be enforced as written. Vasquez v. Glassboro Serv. Ass'n, Inc., 83 N.J. 86, 98-100 (1980). Ordinarily, courts will not rewrite contracts to favor a party, for the purpose of giving that party a better bargain. Relief is not available merely because enforcement of the contract causes oppression, improvidence, or unprofitability, or because it produces hardship to one of the parties. Brunswick Hills Racquet Club, Inc. v. Route 18 Shopping Ctr. Assocs., 182 N.J. 210, 223 (2005). A court cannot "'abrogate the terms of a contract unless there is a settled equitable principle, such as fraud, mistake, or accident, allowing for such intervention.'" Id. at 223-24 (quoting Dunkin' Donuts of America, Inc. v. Middletown Donut Corp., 100 N.J. 166, 183-84 (1985)).
Rational personal and economic behavior in the modern post-industrial world is only possible if agreements between parties are respected. The reasonable expectations created by mutual assent ought to receive the protection of the law and courts should not be encouraged to fashion a better arrangement for a party because of a gaffe to which the other party is not privy. In other words, avoidance of a contract is a very stern remedy that requires clear evidence demonstrating that the consequences of the mistake are so grave that enforcement of the contract would be unconscionable. That formidable threshold has not been surmounted here.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, a contract provision that is procedurally and substantively unconscionable can be set aside. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of Rehoboth Beach, 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1338, 127 S. Ct. 2032, 167 L. Ed. 2d 763 (2007). "[P]rocedural unconscionability . . . 'can include a variety of inadequacies, such as age, literacy, lack of sophistication, hidden or unduly complex contract terms, bargaining tactics, and the particular setting existing during the contract formation process[.]'" Ibid. (quoting Sitogum Holdings, Inc. v. Ropes, 352 N.J. Super. 555, 564-66 (Ch. Div. 2002). A contract of adhesion, presented by the drafting party to the other party on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, as here, typically involves "some characteristics of procedural unconscionability[.]" Id. at 16. The determination "that a contract is one of adhesion, however, 'is the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry' into whether a contract, or any specific term therein, should be deemed unenforceable based on policy considerations." Id. at 28 (citing Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm., 127 N.J. 344 (1992)).
Substantive unconscionability essentially refers to the inclusion within a contract of "harsh or unfair one-sided terms." Id. at 15 (citing Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 564-66). It is also described as "'the exchange of obligations so one-sided as to shock the court's conscience.'" B & S Ltd., Inc. v. Elephant & Castle Intern., Inc., 388 N.J. Super. 160, 176 (Ch. Div. 2006)(quoting Sitogum, supra, 352 N.J. Super. at 565).
Generally, courts must undertake "a careful fact sensitive examination into [claims of] substantive unconscionability." Id. at 16 (footnote omitted). "When making the determination that a contract of adhesion is unconscionable and unenforceable, we consider, using a sliding scale analysis, the way in which the contract was formed and, further, whether enforcement of the contract implicates matters of public interest." Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).
The release provisions of the 2009 agreement are not the analytical equivalent of its exculpatory provisions. "The law does not favor exculpatory agreements because they encourage a lack of care." Gershon v. Regency Diving Ctr., Inc., 368 N.J. Super. 237, 247 (App. Div. 2004). For that reason, courts closely scrutinize attempts to contract in advance to release tort liability. "'[C]courts have not hesitated to strike limited liability clauses that are unconscionable or in violation of public policy.'" Hojnowski v. Vans Skate Park, 187 N.J. 323, 333 (2004) (quoting Lucier v. Williams, 366 N.J. Super. 485, 491 (App. Div. 2004)).
The subject release does not call forth any of the foregoing concerns. Mr. Dearnley's 2009 agreement with defendant neither eroded defendant's duty of care nor did it incentivize negligence. Each of the contracting parties gained or gave away something of value. There was no coercion, duress, fraud, or sharp practices afoot. Public policy is not offended by requiring a non-incapacitated adult to honor the type of promise given here. See Raroha v. Earle Fin. Corp., 47 N.J. 229, 234 (1966) (holding that in the absence of fraud, misrepresentation or overreaching by the releasee, in the absence of a showing that the releasor was suffering from an incapacity affecting his ability to understand the meaning of the release and in the absence of any other equitable ground, it is the law of this State that the release is binding and that the releasor will be held to the terms of the bargain he willingly and knowingly entered).
Judge Gannon properly calibrated the "sliding scale" of our unconscionabilty jurisprudence and correctly determined that the 2009 agreement's release was enforceable. Mr. Dearnley's releasor's remorse is an insufficient basis to return this matter to the Law Division for trial.*fn2