Court: Yoga Facility Could Be Liable or Patron’s Concussion

Mar 15, 2019

A magistrate judge from the District of Massachusetts has ruled that while a plaintiff who suffered a concussion at a yoga facility is entitled to sue the facility for negligence, the facility qualifies for charitable immunity, which would limit damages.
Plaintiff Rachel Kurtz alleged that she was injured on August 5, 2014 when an employee of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Inc. took a chair from her as she carried it above her head at the end of a class. She sued the facility to recover damages for a concussion, which she allegedly suffered due to the negligence of the facility and its employee.
By way of background, the court noted that Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is a Pennsylvania nonprofit charitable organization that was incorporated in 1966 as the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania. In 1967, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) determined that the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania was “exempt from Federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.” The facility has been licensed and authorized to do business in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since July 8, 1981. The defendant moved its physical presence from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts in 1983. In 2007, it changed its name from the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.
On July 27, 2014, before the plaintiff participated in the training program for which she had registered, she signed Kripalu’s Guest Participation Agreement and Release. In pertinent part, the Release stated:
“Guest Activities and Need to Self-Monitor
. . . As a guest, I have the opportunity to take part in a range of activities designed to enhance my health and well-being. This includes activities specific to the program I am taking, as well as general activities outside my program, offered to all Kripalu guests.
These general activities include yoga and dance classes; exercise and conditioning classes; strength training; massage and bodywork; share circles and other personal growth experiences; relaxation and meditation instruction; lectures on various topics that often include a participatory component; outdoor recreation and fitness pursuits, such as bicycling, hiking, kayaking, and winter sports; and other activities not mentioned here.
Whether specific or general, I recognize that activities of this nature involve an element of physical, emotional, and psychological risk. I understand each person’s level of physical and psychological fitness is different, and that some activities may not be appropriate for me given my individual capacities. I accept the need to monitor my own participation, knowing that each activity, and each exercise within any given activity, is optional. It is fine for me to sit an activity or exercise out, or let my instructor know that I am choosing not to participate, or otherwise ask for help. . . .
Release of Liability
After being informed of the above risks and responsibilities, I generally release Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, together with its instructors and other representatives, from all claims, causes of action, medical expenses, and other costs related to my guest participation, whether they arise at Kripalu, or from my later use of information or instruction at home. . . .”
The court noted that the defendant’s motion for summary judgment posed three questions: “The first is whether the facts, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, require a determination that Defendant was not negligent as a matter of law. The next inquiry addresses whether Plaintiff waived a negligence claim against Defendant by signing the Release. The final question relates to whether the Massachusetts charitable immunity statute limits Defendant’s liability, if any, to $20,000. Each of these queries will be addressed in turn.”
“In the instant case, the plaintiff was a guest at Kripalu,” wrote the court. “The chair that she was carrying above her head was a bulky object with sharp edges. Mr. Cook, the defendant’s employee, was legally obligated to be careful when he took the chair from the plaintiff … . Therefore, the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care as a matter of law.” The plaintiff’s allegation of common law negligence, however, cannot be resolved on a summary judgment motion, according to the court. Thus, it denied that portion the defendant’s motion.
The plaintiff also alleged that the defendant was negligent in failing to train, educate, and instruct its employees “in the safe removal or rearrangement of chairs, tables and any other items in its classrooms.”
“According to the defendant, by analogy, it was relieved of its duty to train its employees to be careful when taking chairs from guests because it did not have notice that the activity posed a risk to guests and because an employee of ordinary intelligence should have recognized the obvious danger in suddenly grabbing a chair a guest was holding above her head,” the judge wrote. “However, the defendant cites no authority for its position. Instead, the authorities upon which it relies involve landowners and employers who are relieved from their duties to warn visitors of obvious dangers on their property.”
The judge added that “there are significant distinctions between the facts of the instant case and those of the authorities upon which the defendant relies. First, the defendant’s argument appears to equate Mr. Cook with the plaintiffs in the ‘open and obvious’ danger cases. According to the defendant, it had no duty to instruct Mr. Cook who, like the plaintiffs in the cited cases, should have recognized the danger in grabbing the chair from the plaintiff. However, this case does not concern the defendant’s duty to Mr. Cook, but addresses whether the defendant owed a duty of reasonable care to the plaintiff, who was a guest at the defendant’s facility.
“A further distinction is the fact that the plaintiff does not allege that she was injured by an evidently dangerous condition on the property or an obvious risk in the activity in which she was engaged. Rather, she alleges that her injury was caused by the defendant’s failure to instruct its employees on the proper manner of rearranging furniture after an event. The facts, therefore, do not support the conclusion that the defendant did not have a legal duty to train its employees.
“Whether Defendant breached its duty to Plaintiff by failing to adequately train its employees and whether the breach caused Plaintiff’s injury present genuine questions of material fact.”
Like the plaintiff’s common law negligence claim, the negligent training claim should not be decided while considering a summary judgment motion, according to the court.
The court then turned to the release, which the defendants claimed represents an affirmative defense. It found that the “question (is) whether the Release, as limited, extends to discharge the defendant’s liability for the plaintiff’s negligence claims. Given that the plaintiff was injured while she was putting away a chair after her morning yoga session had concluded, it is unclear whether the activity in which she was engaged when she was injured was ‘related to’ her ‘guest participation’ as contemplated by the terms of the Release.”
furthermore, “the Release’s ambiguity creates a genuine issue of material fact as to its scope and the defendant is not entitled to summary judgment based on the affirmative defense of release.”
Finally, in addressing whether the defendant is entitled to charitable immunity, the court wrote that “because the alleged tort occurred during the plaintiff’s enrollment in one of Kripalu’s School of Yoga’s educational programs and the program was an activity that directly accomplished the defendant’s stated charitable mission, the charitable immunity statute limits the amount of damages the plaintiff can recover.
“The court finds, therefore, that defendant qualifies for charitable immunity and liability on the negligence claim will be limited to $20,000 exclusive of interest and costs pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws c. 231, § 85K.”
Kurtz v. Kripalu Ctr. for Yoga & Health; D. Mass.; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18481, Case No. 3:17-cv-30109-KAR; 2/5/19
Attorneys of Record: (For Plaintiff) Ryan M Finn, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, LLP, Troy, NY; Thomas J. Higgs, E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy LLP, Troy, NY. (For Defendant) Matthew H. McNamara, Thorn Gerson Tyman and Bonanni, LLP, Albany, NY


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