Booze And Boating Don’t Mix (But They Do Lead To An Interesting Discussion Of Negligent Entrustment)

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Boat and beer (pd)Some sets of facts just seem tailor-made for a potential lawsuit. Climbing up a ladder with a chainsaw to cut your neighbor’s tree limbs that are hanging over your lawn comes to mind.  Also on that list, a day out on a boat with your friends from the local bar, more than a few beers, and a jet-ski. Those were the basic facts in Votor-Jones v. Kelly. In that case, what started out as a fun day out at sea for a group of friends became a very bad day for plaintiff and an opportunity for the court to opine on the rarely-invoked tort of negligent entrustment.

In Kelly, plaintiff was “one of seven employees and patrons of Kelly’s Tavern invited on a social trip organized by the tavern’s owner and plaintiff’s boyfriend.” While plaintiff described the event as a “bar outing,” it was not the more formal, “large scale ” “customer appreciation days” that the bar had organized in the past. Instead, it was “small and planned the night prior at the suggestion of the boat’s operator.” Each attendee was required to bring their own food and alcohol. To that end, plaintiff and her boyfriend testified that, on the morning of the cruise, they went to the bar and fulled their cooler with approximately 24 beers and a bottle of wine. The group had a total of four or five coolers like this on the boat.

The attendees had a “tacit agreement” that they would not drink until 4pm, but some apparently ignored this agreement. One defendant acknowledged that she was drinking prior to boarding the boat and plaintiff testified that she saw this woman have “at least three beers on the dock” before the cruise began. Once the cruise started, this same woman was seen with a beer in her hand and was described by plaintiff as being “loud,” “boisterous,” and “excited.” Plaintiff conceded that she did not know if the woman was drunk, but did see her “wobbling on the boat, as was everyone else.”

Continue reading “Booze And Boating Don’t Mix (But They Do Lead To An Interesting Discussion Of Negligent Entrustment)”

Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Arbitration (pd)Most cases involving commercial contracts and arbitration provisions follow a similar pattern. They generally involve consumers arguing that they cannot be bound by arbitration clauses found in the fine print of boilerplate contracts that they had no ability to negotiate. But Shah v. T & J Builders, LLC turns this scenario on its head. In Shah, plaintiffs, the consumers, drafted the contract that contained the arbitration clause but later argued that it was unenforceable. To make matters worse (or at least more unusual), plaintiffs took this position after participating in an arbitration proceeding with defendant for two years. Not surprisingly, plaintiffs efforts to have their own arbitration clause deemed unenforceable were unsuccessful.

In Shah, plaintiffs hired defendant to build an extension on their home. The contract, which was "heavily negotiated between the parties," albeit without counsel, was drafted by plaintiffs. It contained an arbitration clause that required the parties to arbitrate "any dispute [ ] relative to the performance of [the] contract that [they could not] satisfactorily resolve." After one such dispute arose, plaintiffs terminated the contract and defendant filed an arbitration demand. Plaintiffs answered the demand and filed a counterclaim, alleging breach of contract and violations of New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Nowhere in their answer or counterclaim did plaintiffs address, much less challenge, the arbitration clause.

The parties, through counsel, then pursued their claims in arbitration for almost two years, exchanging discovery and expert reports, participating in a site inspection, and participating in several conferences with the arbitrator. Two weeks before the scheduled arbitration date, the parties submitted their pre-arbitration briefs. This is where the fun began. 

Continue reading “Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.”

A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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You Can’t Be Compelled To Arbitrate In A Nonexistent Forum

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Arbitration (pd)This one may seem obvious, but, in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a contractual arbitration provision that calls for arbitration in an "illusory forum" is not enforceable. So, if you were thinking about trying to compel arbitration in Wakanda or before the Jedi Council, better think twice.

In MacDonald, plaintiff entered into a loan agreement with a entity known as Western Sky in connection with a $5,000 loan. The loan agreement stated that it was "subject solely to the jurisdiction of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe," and "governed by the . . . laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." It also contained an arbitration provision requiring that any disputes arising out of the agreement be "conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation by an authorized representative in accordance with its consumer dispute rules and the terms of [the agreement]." But the agreement also provided that either party, after demanding arbitration, could select an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association ("AAA") or Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services ("JAMS") to administer the arbitration, and, if it did, "the arbitration [would] be governed by the chosen arbitration organization's rules and procedures" to the extent that they did not contradict the "law of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." The agreement also contained a severability clause, providing that, if any provision of the agreement was deemed invalid, the remaining provisions would remain in effect.

Although plaintiff originally borrowed $5,000, "[h]e was charged a $75 origination fee and a 116.73% annual interest rate over the seven-year term of the loan, resulting in a $35,994.28 finance charge." After paying approximately $15,493 on the loan, which included $38.50 in principal, $15,256.65 in interest, and $197.85 in fees, plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit against defendants, asserting federal RICO claims and state law claims for usury and consumer fraud. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the motion, holding that the loan agreement's "express disavowal of federal and state law rendered the arbitration agreement invalid as an unenforceable prospective waiver of statutory rights." Defendants appealed. 

Continue reading “You Can’t Be Compelled To Arbitrate In A Nonexistent Forum”

Court Bounces Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Sky zone (pd)A few months ago, I wrote about the enforceability of an arbitration provision in a case involving a child who was injured at a trampoline park ("Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable"). In that case, the trampoline park moved to compel arbitration, but the court denied the motion, holding that the waiver was unenforceable under the New Jersey Supreme Court's seminal decision in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P, because there was no clear and unambiguous statement that plaintiff was waiving the right to sue in court to obtain relief. Today, the Appellate Division released its decision in Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC, which involved a similar issue at a similar trampoline park and in which, unfortunately for the trampoline park, the court arrived at the same conclusion (albeit for different reasons).

In Weed, plaintiff, a minor, went to a SkyZone trampoline park. Before being allowed to jump, her mother was required to sign a document with a title only a lawyer could love — "Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate" (the "Agreement") Having apparently read my blog about the enforceability of these types of agreements at trampoline parks, the Agreement explained, in some detail, that, by signing the Agreement, the participant was waiving the right to sue in court, the right to trial by jury, etc. Plaintiff's mother signed it, and plaintiff's visit to the park on this occasion was apparently uneventful.

Not so when she returned several months later. On that visit, plaintiff was accompanied by a friend and her friend's mother. Both children were again required to sign the Agreement before being allowed to jump. Plaintiff's friend's mother signed on behalf of both children. Notably, the Agreement required that an adult signing on behalf of a child had to be the child's parent or legal guardian, or had to have been granted power of attorney to sign on behalf of the child. Plaintiff's friend's mother did not meet these requirements, but nonetheless signed the Agreement and plaintiff and her friend were allowed to enter. Plaintiff was injured during this visit to the park and sued. 

Continue reading “Court Bounces Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision”

Wait. This Is Arbitration? I Thought It Was Mediation.

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Early in the movie, My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci's character, Vincent Gambini, tells the judge that he has significant experience trying cases in New York. The judge does some research and learns that there is no record of anyone named Vincent Gambini trying any cases in New York. Gambini then does what one should never do, he lies to the judge. He tells the judge that he tried cases under the name Jerry Gallo. Gambini thinks this is a brilliant move because Jerry Gallo is a notable New York lawyer who Gambini has read about in the papers. Unfortunately for Gambini, however, he never read the articles about Jerry Gallo's death. Naturally, the judge finds out that Jerry Gallo is dead, and confronts Gambini, which leads to the following exchange:

I imagine this may have been similar to what the defendant in Marano v. The Hills Highlands Master Association, Inc. said when it received an unfavorable arbitration award. "Did you say binding arbitration? No. We were participating in non-binding mediation. Not arbitration." Things worked out for Vincent Gambini in the movie, they did not work out so well for defendant in Marano. 

In Marano, plaintiffs owned a unit in a condominium development. The relationship between unit owners, like plaintiffs, and the association was governed by the association's bylaws, which "arguably include[d] an arbitration provision." So, after a dispute developed between plaintiffs and the condominium association over a "flooding condition" in their backyard, plaintiffs' attorney wrote to the association's attorney to demand arbitration. He received no response, so he wrote again and stated that unless the association's attorney confirmed that he was "in the process of arranging for the arbitration proceeding," plaintiffs would sue to compel arbitration. The association's attorney responded by disputing some of the claims in plaintiffs' letter but agreeing to participate in "ADR" (alternative dispute resolution). Several weeks later, plaintiffs' attorney again wrote to the association's attorney asking for confirmation that the parties would proceed to an "arbitration hearing," with a hearing officer who would serve "as an arbitrator." In response, the association's counsel contacted a retired judge to determine his availability and willingness to serve as "the arbitrator."

Up to this point, it appears clear that the parties were discussing arbitration, not mediation. What happened next created the confusion that sent the case down the path that would eventually land it before the Appellate Division.  

Continue reading “Wait. This Is Arbitration? I Thought It Was Mediation.”