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Blackwell v. Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 9, 2017

CRYSTAL BLACKWELL, AS NEXT FRIEND TO JACOB BLACKWELL, A MINOR
v.
SKY HIGH SPORTS NASHVILLE OPERATIONS, LLC.

          Session November 16, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 14C524 Thomas W. Brothers, Judge.

         In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant trampoline park argues that the trial court erred by refusing to enforce a forum selection clause, a choice of law provision, and a waiver of liability and indemnity clause against the minor plaintiff. Additionally, the minor plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to alter or amend his complaint to allow him to claim pre-majority medical expenses. We reverse the trial court's denial of the minor plaintiff's motion to amend only to the extent that the minor plaintiff may be permitted to assert pre-majority medical expenses that were paid by him or that he is legally obligated to pay. We affirm the trial court in all other respects. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 9 Interlocutory Appeal; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part; and Remanded.

          David J. Weissman, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Crystal Blackwell, as next friend of Jacob Blackwell, a minor.

          Ben M. Rose and Joshua D. Arters, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Brandon O. Gibson, J., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE.

         Background

         On July 3, 2012, Plaintiff/Appellant Crystal Blackwell ("Mother") signed a contract entitled "Customer Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk" ("the release") with Defendant/Appellee Sky High Sports Nashville Operations, LLC ("Sky High") in order for her son, Jacob Blackwell ("Son, " and, as represented by Mother as next friend in this lawsuit, "Appellants") to participate in activities at an indoor trampoline park operated by Sky High. The release included a forum selection clause designating California as the proper forum for litigation, a choice of law provision stipulating California as the applicable law governing the contract, and a liability waiver on behalf of both Mother and Son, as discussed in detail infra. The release further provided that it would remain in effect for any future visits to Sky High until Son turned eighteen. Mother and Son returned to Sky High to participate in trampolining activities on multiple occasions after Mother signed the contract. On March 26, 2013, Son was allegedly injured at Sky High while participating in a trampoline dodgeball tournament.

         On February 5, 2014, Appellants filed a complaint in the Davidson County Circuit Court against "Sky High Sports Nashville, LLC." The complaint alleged that Son moved in an awkward fashion on a trampoline to dodge the ball and landed "awkwardly, " that another player's "double bounce" contributed to his awkward landing, and that Son suffered from a torn patellar tendon and broken tibia as a result, necessitating surgery. According to Appellants, Sky High "knew or should have known that playing dodgeball on a trampoline was a very dangerous activity" and therefore was guilty of negligence. The complaint further alleged that any warnings, disclaimers, or waivers of liability signed by Mother were "void, invalid, and/or inadequate." The complaint sought damages, including past medical expenses, future medical expenses, pain and suffering, emotional injury and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, lost wages, and loss of consortium in the amount of $500, 000.00.

         On May 5, 2014, Sky High Sports Nashville, LLC filed an answer denying the material allegations contained in the complaint. In addition, Sky High Sports Nashville, LLC raised several affirmative defenses: (1) that Sky High Sports Nashville, LLC was not the proper party; (2) that pursuant to the parties' contract, California was the proper forum and California law was applicable to the dispute; and (3) that Appellants' claims were barred by the release signed by Mother individually and on Son's behalf. On November 3, 2014, Sky High was substituted as the proper defendant by agreement of the parties and an amended complaint was filed reflecting the change.

         On March 17, 2015, Sky High filed its motion to enforce the contract between the parties. The motion first argued that any claims on behalf of Mother should be dismissed because the release contained a forum selection clause, a choice of law provision, and a waiver of liability, all of which were enforceable against Mother. Sky High also argued that the forum selection clause, choice of law provision, and liability waiver should be enforced against Son as well, despite "dated Tennessee authority to the contrary" which did "not reflect the current state of the law." In sum, Sky High offered the following various alternative methods for resolving this dispute: (1) that the trial court should dismiss the case based on the forum selection clause; (2) that the trial court retain jurisdiction but apply California law; or (3) that the trial court should enforce the release's liability waiver and dismiss the case as to both Mother and Son.

         Appellants filed a response to the motion to enforce on May 4, 2015. Therein, Appellants argued that the forum selection clause and choice of law provision were invalid because the dispute involved in this case has no connection to California. Appellants also asserted that based upon this Court's decision in Childress v. Madison County, 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989), a parent may not effectively waive liability on behalf of a minor. The response offered no argument, however, that the release of liability did not apply to any claims on behalf of Mother. Accordingly, on the same day, Mother filed a notice of voluntary dismissal of her claims against Sky High.

         In response to Appellants' contention that the dispute in this case had no connection with California, Sky High filed the affidavit of Rolland Weddell on May 6, 2015. In his affidavit, Mr. Weddell asserted that he helped found Sky High Sports, "a larger national brand" of which Sky High was a part. According to Mr. Weddell, the company's first two stores were founded in California in 2006. Mr. Weddell explained that ten trampoline parks under the Sky High Sports brand currently operate in California. Mr. Weddell, however, resides in Nevada, where he serves as the loss prevention manager for Sky High. There is no dispute that Sky High's corporate headquarters is also in Nevada.

         The trial court held a hearing on Sky High's motion to enforce on May 8, 2014. On May 22, 2015, the trial court entered an order denying Sky High's motion to enforce in its entirety. Therein, the trial court ruled that neither the forum selection clause nor the choice of law provision were valid because their enforcement would cause a great hardship for Son to prosecute his action in California and, Tennessee, rather than California, has "a more significant relationship to the facts surrounding this case." The trial court also noted that Tennessee law included a fundamental public policy regarding the protection of children. Consequently, the trial court denied Sky High's request to enforce the waiver of liability as to the Son's claims, noting that such a contract is not permissible in Tennessee under the holding in Childress.

         On June 22, 2015, Sky High filed a motion to alter or amend the trial court's judgment, or in the alternative, for an interlocutory appeal of the trial court's denial of the motion to enforce pursuant to Rule 9 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. While this motion was pending, on July 31, 2015, Appellants filed a motion to amend their complaint. Therein, Appellants contended that because the individual claims of Mother had been voluntarily dismissed, an amendment was necessary to ensure the proper parties were named in the complaint and to request medical expenses, both past and future, on behalf of Son, with Mother acting as next friend. Sky High opposed the amendment, arguing that only a parent could bring a claim for past medical expenses for a minor child. Sky High contended that, because Mother's claims were barred by the release, neither Mother nor Son was entitled to recover these damages.

         On February 23, 2016, the trial court entered an order on the pending motions to amend the complaint and to alter or amend, or in the alternative, for an interlocutory appeal. First, the trial court denied Sky High's motion to alter or amend but granted their request for an interlocutory appeal of the denial of the motion to enforce. Additionally, the trial court granted Appellants' motion to alter or amend, except to the extent that the amendment would allow "recovery of any pre-majority medical expenses." The trial court, however, also allowed an interlocutory appeal of this ruling. Eventually, this Court also granted the requested interlocutory appeal as to both issues. Accordingly, this appeal followed.

         Issues Presented

         As we perceive it, this appeal involves four issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the forum selection clause contained in the release?
2. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the choice of law provision contained in the release?
3. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability against Son contained in the release signed by Mother?
4. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to allow the amendment to the complaint to allow Son to recover for pre-majority medical expenses.

         Standard of Review

         In this case, the trial court denied Sky High's motion to dismiss based upon a forum selection clause, a choice of law provision, and a liability waiver contained in the release. In considering an appeal from a trial court's ruling on a motion to dismiss, we take all allegations of fact in the complaint as true and review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo with no presumption of correctness. Mid-South Industries, Inc. v. Martin Mach. & Tool, Inc., 342 S.W.3d 19, 27 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010) (citing Owens v. Truckstops of America, 915 S.W.2d 420, 424 (Tenn. 1996)); see also Stevens ex rel. Stevens v. Hickman Cmty. Health Care Servs., Inc., 418 S.W.3d 547, 553 (Tenn. 2013) (citing Graham v. Caples, 325 S.W.3d 578, 581 (Tenn. 2010)) ("The trial court's denial of [d]efendants' motions to dismiss involves a question of law, and, therefore, our review is de novo with no presumption of correctness.").

         In addition, the trial court denied Appellants' motion to amend their complaint. A trial court's decision to deny a motion to amend a complaint is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. Merriman v. Smith, 599 S.W.2d 548, 559 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1979).

         Discussion

         I.

         We begin first by considering whether the trial court erred in refusing to dismiss Appellants' complaint on the basis of the forum selection clause contained in the release, or in the alternative, in refusing to apply California law to this dispute. The release signed by Mother on behalf of Son contains the following language: "In the event that I file a lawsuit against Sky High [], I agree to do so solely in the state of California and I further agree that the substantive law of California shall apply in that action without regard to the conflict of law rules of that state."

         The trial court did not rule that the forum selection and choice of law provisions were unenforceable because the release containing them was signed by Mother on behalf of Son, as is true of the liability waiver discussed in detail infra; instead, the trial court ruled that the forum selection and choice of law provisions were unenforceable based upon the Tennessee framework regarding provisions of this type. Likewise, in their reply brief to this Court, Appellants do not assert that the forum selection and choice of law provisions are unenforceable against Son simply due to the fact that the provisions were included in a contract signed by Mother on behalf of Son. Rather, Appellants assert that the trial court correctly determined that California has so little interest in this case and litigating in California would be substantially less convenient than in Tennessee so as to militate against enforcement of both the forum selection and choice of law provisions. Accordingly, we assume arguendo for purposes of this appeal that both the forum selection clause and choice of law provision are binding against Son unless otherwise rendered unenforceable by Tennessee law. We therefore first proceed to address whether Tennessee law renders the forum selection clause unenforceable in this case.

         A.

         Generally, a forum selection clause is enforceable and binding on the parties entering into the contract. Lamb v. MegaFlight, Inc., 26 S.W.3d 627, 631 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). A forum selection clause will be upheld if it is fair and reasonable in light of all the circumstances surrounding its origin and application. Id. (citing Dyersburg Mach. Works, Inc. v. Rentenbach Eng'g Co., 650 S.W.2d 378 (Tenn. 1983)). According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, a court must give effect to a forum selection clause and refuse to entertain the action unless:

(1) the plaintiff cannot secure effective relief in the other state, for reasons other than delay in bringing the action; (2) or the other state would be a substantially less convenient place for the trial of the action than this state; (3) or the agreement as to the place of the action was obtained by misrepresentation, duress, abuse of economic power, or other unconscionable means; (4) or it would for some other reason be unfair or unreasonable to enforce the agreement.

Dyersburg, 650 S.W.2d at 380 (quoting The Model Choice Forum Act of 1968). The Dyersburg Court further stated that Tennessee courts should give consideration to the above factors and should enforce a forum selection clause unless the party challenging the clause demonstrates that enforcement would be unfair or inequitable. Id. Our research demonstrates that the factors promulgated by the Dyersburg Court have been followed in numerous subsequent cases. E.g., Cohn Law Firm v. YP Se. Advert. & Publ'g, LLC, No. W2014-01871-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 3883242, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 24, 2015); Sevier Cnty. Bank v. Paymentech Merch. Servs., No. E2005-02420-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 2423547 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 23 2006); Spell v. Labelle, No. W2003-00821-COA-R3-CV, 2004 WL 892534 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 22, 2004); Signal Capital, No. E2000-00140-COA-R3-CV, 2000 WL 1281322 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 2000); Tennsonita (Memphis), Inc. v. Cucos, Inc., No. 36, 1991 WL 66993 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 2, 1991). Tennessee law is clear, however, that the party challenging the enforcement of the forum selection clause "should bear a heavy burden of proof." Chaffin v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., No. 02A01-9803-CH-00080, 1999 WL 188295, *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 7, 1999).

         We first note that there are no allegations in this case that the forum selection clause at issue was "obtained by misrepresentation, duress, abuse of economic power, or other unconscionable means[.]" Dyersburg, 650 S.W.2d at 380. We agree with both Appellants and the trial court, however, that, with respect to the second Dyersburg factor, California is a substantially less convenient place to hold this lawsuit. We recognize that a "party resisting a forum selection clause must show more than inconvenience or annoyance[.]" ESI Cos., Inc. v. Ray Bell Constr. Co., No. W2007-00220-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 544563, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 29, 2008). Accordingly, mere increased litigation expenses will be insufficient to invalidate a forum selection clause. Still, the Tennessee Supreme Court has previously held that where neither company at issue was a resident of the proposed forum and none of the witnesses were residents of the proposed forum, the party resisting a forum selection clause had met its burden to show that the proposed forum was a substantially less convenient forum. See Dyersburg, 650 S.W.2d at 381 (holding that the second factor was met because the chosen forum of Kentucky was "a substantially less convenient place for trial . . . wherein all witnesses are Tennessee residents, the plaintiffs and the defendants, . . . are Tennessee corporations").

         The same is true in this case. Here, Mother and Son are Tennessee residents. Moreover, the alleged injury to Son and his later treatment all occurred in Tennessee. It thus appears that Appellants' witnesses to both the alleged negligence and later treatment may all be found in Tennessee. On the other hand, Sky High has not presented this Court with any prospective witnesses regarding the events at issue in this case that are California residents. While it is true that Sky High is not a Tennessee corporation, as were the corporations in Dyersburg, nothing in the record suggests that Sky High is incorporated or has its principal place of business in California, the forum designated in the release. Rather, the only information in the record indicates that Sky High has its headquarters in Nevada. Instead, from the affidavit of Mr. Weddell, we discern that Sky High's limited contact with California involves only that the "larger brand" under which Sky High operates was founded in California over a decade ago and now operates several facilities in California. Respectfully, a decades-old contact by a parent company with a state and the operation of several trampoline parks in a state is insufficient to undermine Appellants' contentions regarding the inconvenience that would be posed by litigating in California. Accordingly, we hold that Appellants have met their burden to show that California presents a substantially less convenient forum than Tennessee.

         We also agree that, with respect to the first and fourth Dyersburg factors, California is unlikely to provide Son with effective relief and that forcing Son to litigate in California would otherwise be unfair. As discussed in detail infra, Tennessee law and California law differ as to whether waivers of liability signed by parents may be enforced as to their children. Compare Childress v. Madison Cnty., 777 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1989) (refusing to enforce such a waiver), with Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal.App.3d 1559, 274 Cal.Rptr. 647 (Ct. App. 1990) (enforcing such a waiver). Because we reaffirm Tennessee law that parents cannot effectively sign pre-injury waivers on behalf of their children, as discussed in detail infra, allowing Son to litigate his case in Tennessee provides him with a better opportunity for full relief.

         B.

         We next consider whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the release's choice of law provision indicating that California law should apply to this case. Generally, absent a choice of law provision in a contract, "Tennessee follows the rule of lex loci contractus. This rule provides that a contract is presumed to be governed by the law of the jurisdiction in which it was executed absent a contrary intent." Messer Griesheim Indus., Inc. v. Cryotech of Kingsport, Inc., 131 S.W.3d 457, 474-75 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (quoting Vantage Tech., LLC v. Cross, 17 S.W.3d 637, 650 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999)). As this Court explained:

If the parties manifest an intent to instead apply the laws of another jurisdiction, then that intent will be honored provided certain requirements are met. The choice of law provision must be executed in good faith. Goodwin Bros. Leasing, Inc. v. H & B Inc., 597 S.W.2d 303, 306 (Tenn. 1980). The jurisdiction whose law is chosen must bear a material connection to the transaction. Id. The basis for the choice of another jurisdiction's law must be reasonable and not merely a sham or subterfuge. Id. Finally, the parties' choice of another jurisdiction's law must not be "contrary to 'a fundamental policy' of a state having [a] 'materially greater interest' and whose law would otherwise govern." Id., n.2 (citing RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONFLICT OF LAWS § 187(2) (1971)).

Messer Griesheim, 131 S.W.3d at 475 (quoting Vantage, 17 S.W.3d at 650).[1]

         Here, there is no allegation that the choice of law provision at issue was not executed in good faith. Instead, the choice of law provision fails for largely the same reason that the forum selection clause fails: no material connection exists between the transaction at issue and California. As previously discussed, the contract at issue was signed in Tennessee, between Tennessee residents and a Nevada company, concerning activities taking place in Tennessee. Black's Law Dictionary defines "material" as "[h]aving some logical connection with the consequential facts." Black's Law Dictionary 1066 (9th ed. 2009). The simple fact that Sky High's parent company was founded in California over a decade ago and now operates several facilities there is simply not sufficient to show a logical connection to the transaction at issue in this case.

         We do not disagree with Sky High's assertion that it is reasonable and generally enforceable for a company to "limit where it is subject to suit." Tennessee law is clear, however, that a company's choice of law provision will only be honored where the proposed state's law has a material connection to the transaction at issue. See Messer Griesheim, 131 S.W.3d at 475. Furthermore, the cases that Sky High cites for this proposition do not support their argument in this case. First, in Bright v. Spaghetti Warehouse, Inc., No. 03A01-9708-CV-00377, 1998 WL 205757 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 29, 1998), the Court of Appeals enforced a choice of law provision designating that Texas law would apply to the contract where the contract was largely negotiated in Texas and the defendant was a Texas corporation. Id. at *5. As such, the transaction at issue in Bright had far more contact with the state whose law was named in the contract than is present in this case. Even more puzzling, Thomas v. Costa Cruise Lines N.V., 892 S.W.2d 837 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1994), does not involve either a choice of law provision or the application of Tennessee law to determine its enforceability; rather, Thomas involves a forum selection clause, whose enforcement was governed by federal law. Id. at 840. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in denying Sky High's request to enforce the choice of law provision on this basis. Because the contract's choice of law provision is unenforceable, the general rule of lex loci contractus applies in this case. See Messer Griesheim, 131 S.W.3d at 474. As such, Tennessee law, as the law of the place where the contract was executed, governs the dispute in this case.

         II.

         Having determined that this case has been properly brought in a Tennessee court and that Tennessee law applies, we next consider whether the trial court erred in refusing to enforce the waiver of liability and the indemnity language contained in the release pursuant to Tennessee law. Here, the contract at issue contains the following language, in relevant part:

3. I hereby voluntarily release, forever discharge, and agree to defend indemnify and hold harmless [Sky High] from any and all claims, demands, causes of action, which are in any way connected with my participation in this activity or any use of [Sky High's] equipment or facilities, including any such claims which allege negligent acts or omissions of [Sky High].
4. Should [Sky High] or anyone acting on their behalf, be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, I agree to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. This means that I will pay all of those attorney's fees and costs myself.
5. I certify that I have adequate insurance to cover any injury or damage that I may cause or suffer while participating, or else I agree to bear the costs of such injury or damage myself. I further certify that I am willing to assume the risk of any medical or physical condition that I may have.
8. If the participant is a minor, I agree that this Release of Liability and Assumption of Risk agreement ("RELEASE") is made on behalf of that minor participant and that all of the releases, waivers and promises herein are binding on that minor participant. I represent that I have full authority as Parent or Legal Guardian of the minor participant to bind the minor participant to this agreement.
9. If the participant is a minor, I further agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless SKY HIGH SPORTS from any and all claims or suits for personal injury, property damage or otherwise, which are brought by, or on behalf of the minor, and which are in any way connected with such use or participation by the minor, including injuries or damages caused by the negligence of [Sky High], except injuries or damages caused by the sole negligence or willful misconduct of the party seeking indemnity.

(Emphasis added).

         In the trial court, Sky High argued that the above language constituted a legal and enforceable waiver of liability and indemnity agreement against both the claims brought by Mother and the claims brought on behalf of Son. There is no dispute in this case that "parties may contract that one shall not be liable for his negligence to another but that such other shall assume the risk incident to such negligence." Moss v. Fortune, 207 Tenn. 426, 429, 340 S.W.2d 902, 903-04 (Tenn. 1960). These types of agreements, however, are subject to some important exceptions, such as waivers involving gross negligence or willful conduct or those involving a public duty. Id. at 904. These types of provisions must ...


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