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Owen Peterson v. Flare Fittings, Inc., et al., Case No. 5D13-2235 (5th DCA)

In Peterson, the Fifth District reversed summary judgments entered in favor of defendants, Disney World, Flare Fittings and Crossfire Paintball. In November 2008, the plaintiff arrived at the Wide World of Sports Complex owned by Disney World for a paintball tournament. The event consisted primarily of the tournament, but also served as a trade show where vendors set up booths to advertise and sell paintball-related items. Prior to competing in the tournament, the plaintiff was injured while walking through the vendor area, when an oversized balloon hit his head. Days later, the plaintiff returned to participate in the paintball tournament, and signed a waiver of damages and injuries resulting from participation in paintball or other activities conducted in conjunction with the event. The waiver purported to cover injuries that occurred before, during and after such participation. The plaintiff later filed suit. During the litigation, the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Disney World based on the exculpatory clause and in favor of Flare Fittings and Crossfire Paintball finding the plaintiff had failed to introduce summary judgment evidence to establish either had breached a duty resulting in injury.

The Fifth District began by noting that exculpatory clauses attempt to deny an injured party the right to recover damages from a person who negligently cause the injury. Such clauses are disfavored in the law because they relieve one party of the obligation to use due care and shift the risk of injury to the party who is probably the least equipped to take the necessary precautions to avoid injury and bear the risk of loss. They are strictly construed against the party seeking to be relieved of liability. Exculpatory clauses are enforceable only where and to the extent the intention to be relieved from liability is made clear and unequivocal. The wording must be clear and understandable so that an ordinary and knowledgeable person will know what he is contracting away. Pre-claim exculpatory clauses require specific language because of the uncertainty of future events. Post-claim exculpatory clauses – such as the one at issue in this case – requires the parties’ awareness of the circumstances related to the injury and the injured party can reasonably be held accountable for fully appreciating the implications of a general release. The Fifth District found such awareness or accountability to be lacking here.

The Fifth District considered whether both parties in this case gave clear and valid consideration in the waiver. The court found that the waiver language focused the signatory on the paintball competition and not the vendor area. The court further found that the waiver failed to clarify that it included any incident that occurred before its signing. It therefore failed to notify the plaintiff of a post-claim release.

The Fifth District next considered the summary judgments entered in favor of Flare Fittings and Crossfire Paintball. The court noted that a party seeking summary judgment must meet a high burden of proof. The court found that the defendants’ arguments “ignored the burden of proof that accompanied their motions for summary judgment.” Summary judgment is improper even where there is no conflict in the evidence, provided that inferences reasonably deducible therefrom cast doubt upon material issues. The Fifth District found that while the plaintiff presented very little evidence demonstrating a dangerous condition at the event or a duty owed, the plaintiff provided evidence that the balloon contained the corporate logo of one of the defendants and other evidence suggesting the presence of issues of fact regarding the defendants’ liability for positioning, securing and maintaining the balloon in a safe condition. Therefore, the Fifth District ruled that the defendants failed to meet their high burden.

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