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Lhotka v. Geographic Expeditions

January 29, 2010


(San Francisco City & County Super. Ct. No. 477496). Honorable Patrick J. Mahoney.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Siggins, J.


Geographic Expeditions, Inc. (GeoEx) appeals from an order denying its motion to compel arbitration of a wrongful death action brought by the survivors of one of its clients who died on a Mount Kilimanjaro hiking expedition. GeoEx contends the trial court erred when it ruled that the agreement to arbitrate contained in GeoEx's release form was unconscionable. Alternatively, GeoEx contends that if the court correctly concluded the arbitration clause was unconscionable, the court abused its discretion in striking the clause in its entirety rather than severing the objectionable provisions and enforcing the remainder. We find neither point is persuasive, and therefore affirm the order.


Jason Lhotka was 37 years old when he died of an altitude-related illness while on a GeoEx expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro with his mother, plaintiff Sandra Menefee.*fn1 GeoEx's limitation of liability and release form, which both Lhotka and Menefee signed as a requirement of participating in the expedition, provided that each of them released GeoEx from all liability in connection with the trek and waived any claims for liability "to the maximum extent permitted by law." The release also required that the parties would submit any disputes between themselves first to mediation and then to binding arbitration. It reads: "I understand that all Trip Applications are subject to acceptance by GeoEx in San Francisco, California, USA. I agree that in the unlikely event a dispute of any kind arises between me and GeoEx, the following conditions will apply: (a) the dispute will be submitted to a neutral third-party mediator in San Francisco, California, with both parties splitting equally the cost of such mediator. If the dispute cannot be resolved through mediation, then (b) the dispute will be submitted for binding arbitration to the American Arbitration Association in San Francisco, California; (c) the dispute will be governed by California law; and (d) the maximum amount of recovery to which I will be entitled under any and all circumstances will be the sum of the land and air cost of my trip with GeoEx. I agree that this is a fair and reasonable limitation on the damages, of any sort whatsoever, that I may suffer. [¶] I agree to fully indemnify GeoEx for all of its costs (including attorneys' fees) if I commence an action or claim against GeoEx based upon claims I have previously released or waived by signing this release." Menefee paid $16,831 for herself and Lhotka to go on the trip.

A letter from GeoEx president James Sano that accompanied the limitation of liability and release explained that the form was mandatory and that, on this point, "our lawyers, insurance carriers and medical consultants give us no discretion. A signed, unmodified release form is required before any traveler may join one of our trips. [¶] Ultimately, we believe that you should choose your travel company based on its track record, not what you are asked to sign.... My review of other travel companies' release forms suggests that our forms are not a whole lot different from theirs."

After her son's death, Menefee sued GeoEx for wrongful death and alleged various theories of liability including fraud, gross negligence and recklessness, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. GeoEx moved to compel arbitration.

The trial court found the arbitration provision was unconscionable under Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83 (Armendariz), and on that basis denied the motion. It ruled: "The agreement at issue is both procedurally and substantively unconscionable.... The Sano letter establishes that the agreement was presented as a Take It Or Leave It proposition and was also represented to be consistent with industry practice. As a consequence[,] if the plaintiff and decedent wished to go on this trip, they could do so only on these terms. Unconscionability also permeates the substantive terms of the agreement to arbitrate. The problematic terms are the limitation on damages, the indemnity of GeoEx, the requirement that GeoEx costs and attorneys' fees be paid if suit is filed related to certain claims, splitting the costs of mediation, the absence of an agreement on the cost of arbitration and the lack of mutuality as to each of these terms. As a consequence, this is not a case where the court may strike a single clause and compel arbitration."

This appeal timely followed.


The questions posed here are: (1) whether the agreement to arbitrate is unconscionable and, therefore, unenforceable; and (2) if so, whether the court properly declined to enforce the entire arbitration clause rather than sever unconscionable provisions. We answer both questions in the affirmative.

I. Standard of Review

On appeal from the denial of a motion to compel arbitration, "[u]nconscionability findings are reviewed de novo if they are based on declarations that raise `no meaningful factual disputes.' [Citation.] However, where an unconscionability determination `is based upon the trial court's resolution of conflicts in the evidence, or on the factual inferences which may be drawn therefrom, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the court's determination and review those aspects of the determination for substantial evidence.' [Citation.] The ruling on severance is reviewed for abuse of discretion." (Murphy v. Check `N Go of California, Inc. (2007) 156 Cal.App.4th 138, 144; Armendariz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 122.) In keeping with California's strong public policy in favor of arbitration, any doubts ...

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