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Jones v. Dressel

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff, a minor, entered into a contract with Defendant for skydiving services. The contract contained a provision that released Defendant,its owners, agents, and employees from any liability for losses or injury sustained by Defendant while using Defendant’s services, including its aircraft, regardless if the harm was caused by Defendant’s negligence. A year later, Plaintiff was injured while en route to a jump site on Defendant’s airplane. Anther year later, Plaintiff brought suit against Defendant, the plane’s owners and operators, and the Littleton Airport on the grounds of negligence and willful and wanton conduct. The trial court granted defendants’ partial motion for summary judgment on the negligence issue. The appellate court affirmed. Plaintiff appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When there is an exculpatory provision in an agreement for nonessential services, the defendant is relived form liability from simple negligence when the contract was fairly entered into and the intent provision is clear and unambiguous.

    Facts.

    Michael Jones, Plaintiff,a 17 year old, entered into a contractual agreement with Free Flight Sport Aviation, Inc., Defendant, for recreational skydiving services, such as transportation by airplane to the jump site. The contract contained an exculpatory clause that would releaseDefendant, its owners, agents, and employees from any liability for losses or injury sustained by Defendant while using Defendant’s services, including its aircraft, regardless if the harm was caused by Defendant’s negligence. The contract had an alternative provision that would waive the exculpatory clause in exchange for a $50 fee. However, that provision was crossed out when Plaintiff received the agreement to sign. Plaintiff did not inquire into the crossed out provision, resulting in ambiguity of whether Defendant would apply the alternative provision to Plaintiff. Once Plaintiff turned 18, Plaintiff sustained serious injuries in a crash of a Plaintiff’s airplane while on the route to a jump site. A year later, Plaintiff sued Defendant, the plane’s owners and operators, and the Littleton Airport on the grounds of negligence and willful and wanton conduct. The trial court granted defendants’ partial motion for summary judgment on the negligence issue. The appellate court affirmed. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether the defendant is relived form liability from simple negligence when the contract was fairly entered into and the intent provision is clear and unambiguous when there is an exculpatory provision in an agreement for nonessential services.

    Held.

    Yes, the defendant is relived form liability from simple negligence when the contract was fairly entered into and the intent provision is clear and unambiguous when there is an exculpatory provision in an agreement for nonessential services.

    Discussion.

    First, althoughPlaintiff was a minor when he signed the agreement, he ratified it once he reached majority age by continuing to use the contracted services. Second, the contract and its exculpatory provision are valid and may be enforced because the mere fact that a contract is a form agreement presented in a take-it-or-leave-it manner does not, alone, render the agreement an adhesion contract to make the contract void as a matter of public policy. Instead, Plaintiff must show evidence that there was a substantial imbalance in the parties’ bargaining power, an absence of any opportunity to for Plaintiff to negotiate, or the absence of an alternative supplier of similar services. In this case, Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate any of these conditions. Therefore, the contract is not an adhesion contract. Also, while exculpatory provisions are not enforceable when they are meant to immunize a defendant against claims of willful and wanton misconduct, such provisions are enforceablewhen the provision withstand scrutiny in reference to four factors: (1) duty to the public, (2) nature of the service, (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into, and (4) whether the exculpatory intent was expressed clearly and unambiguously. Contracts involve duties to the public when they are related to the provision of essential services by entities that tend to be regulated. The services Defendant was providing were not essential. Also, the contract was fairly formed and entered into, and the exculpatory provision was clear and unambiguous. Lastly, the exculpatory provision is not void for contravening federal regulations imposed upon common carriers because Defendant’s aircraft was not a common carrier. By definition, an aircraft is not deemed to be a common carrier when its use is incidental to the primary business purpose of its owner. The airplane furnished by Defendant was incidental Defendant’s primary commercial enterprise. Therefore, the decision is affirmed.


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