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Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc.

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Second Division

August 31, 2017

ERIKA GROTHEER, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
ESCAPE ADVENTURES, INC., et al., Defendants and Respondents.

         APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County No. RIC1216581. John W. Vineyard, Judge. Affirmed.

          The Law Office of Robert J. Pecora and Robert J. Pecora for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Agajanian, McFall, Weiss, Tetreault & Crist and Paul L. Tetreault for Defendants and Respondents.

          OPINION

          SLOUGH J.

         Plaintiff and appellant Erika Grotheer is a non-English speaking German citizen who took a hot air balloon ride in the Temecula wine country and suffered a fractured leg when the basket carrying her and seven or eight others crash landed into a fence. Grotheer sued three defendants for her injuries: the balloon tour company, Escape Adventures, Inc. (Escape), the pilot and Escape's agent, Peter Gallagher (Gallagher), and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc. (Wilson Creek) (collectively, defendants or respondents). Grotheer alleged Escape and Gallagher negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed its passengers a heightened duty of care. (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Grotheer also alleged Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher's conduct because the vineyard shared a special relationship with the balloon company.

         The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape's liability waiver before the flight. The trial court agreed Grotheer could not establish the element of duty, finding Grotheer had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine and, as a result, Escape and Gallagher owed her no duty of care whatsoever. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight).) The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendants, and Grotheer appealed.

         Grotheer contends the trial court erred in concluding her claim was barred by primary assumption of risk and reasserts on appeal that Escape is a common carrier. We affirm the judgment, but on a different ground than relied on by the trial court. We hold: (1) a balloon tour company like Escape is not a common carrier subject to a heightened duty of care; (2) the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Grotheer's claim that Gallagher negligently failed to slow the balloon's descent to avoid a crash landing; and (3) Escape does have a duty to provide safe landing instructions to its passengers, but the undisputed evidence regarding the crash demonstrates that any failure on Escape's part to provide such instructions was not the cause of Grotheer's injury.

         I

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Preflight

         Grotheer's son, Thorsten, purchased his mother a ticket for a hot air balloon tour with Escape during her visit to California, as a present for her 78th birthday. On the morning of the tour, Grotheer and Thorsten met with the Escape crew and the other passengers in the parking lot of the vineyard owned by Wilson Creek, near the field where Escape launched its balloons. Thorsten later testified at his deposition that when they arrived to check in, he tried to explain his mother's language barrier to the flight crew so Escape could ensure she understood any safety instructions. Thorsten said Gallagher, the pilot, responded by waiving him away and saying, “Everything is going to be fine.” Thorsten tried telling two more Escape employees his mother could not understand English, but they appeared to be in a rush and told him he could not be in the immediate launch vicinity if he had not purchased a ticket. At some point during this check-in activity, Grotheer signed Escape's liability waiver, which purported to release the company and its agents from claims based on “ordinary negligence.”

         Gallagher then drove the passengers to the nearby launch site. Grotheer drove over separately, with Thorsten. In his declaration, Gallagher said he gave the passengers safety instructions during the drive, as is his custom. He said the instructions covered what to do during landing: “I described to my passengers what to expect in terms of lifting off... and landing... I told them to bend their knees and hold on upon landing, and not to exit the basket until told to do so.”

         According to passengers Boyd and Kristi Roberts, however, neither Escape nor Gallagher provided safety instructions. Boyd declared he sat in the front passenger seat next to Gallagher during the drive, which lasted a little over a minute and during which Gallagher described his credentials and years of experience. Boyd remembered receiving “a very general informational talk... about what to expect on [the] flight, ” but said “[t]here was no mention of safety issues or proper techniques for take-off and landing.” Boyd's wife, Kristi, also rode to the launch site with Gallagher and said she never heard him give instructions, “other than to hold on as we took off.”

         B. The Crash

         The tour proceeded without incident until the landing. According to the four accounts in the record, as the balloon descended at a high rate of speed, the basket crashed into a fence then crashed into the ground and bounced and skidded for about 40 yards before finally coming to a stop, on its side. By all accounts, the event was forceful and caused the passengers to be tossed about the basket.

         Boyd Roberts described the crash landing as follows: “The balloon was being pushed at a good clip by the wind and we were travelling in a horizontal direction as we were also descending. We were going sideways, and... [b]efore we landed, we actually crashed into and took out several sections of [a] 3 rail fence.” After the basket collided with the fence, it hit the ground “with a hard bump and a bounce.” The passengers were “taken for a wild ride as [the basket] was getting dragged downwind [by the balloon].” The basket “became more and more horizontal” as it was being dragged. “We easily skipped 30 or 40 yards, with a couple of hard impacts along the way.” When the basket finally came to rest, it was “on its side, not its bottom, ” with Grotheer's section on the bottom and Boyd's on top. He recalled that Grotheer was below him “lying on what was the side of the [basket] which was now the floor.”

         Kristi Roberts' account of the crash landing matches Boyd's. She said, “we were going pretty fast towards the ground and it looked like we might hit the fence. We did hit the fence, as the [basket] crashed in the top of the three rails, and knocked it right apart.” After that, the basket “hit the ground hard.” Kristi recalled, “I was holding on as tight as I could to the [b]asket, but we were all standing up and it was hard to keep from falling over when we crashed into the ground.”

         Gallagher described the landing similarly, though not in as much detail. He said the balloon had been “descending more quickly than anticipated” and the “passenger compartment of the balloon made a hard landing, first on a fence, then on the ground.” He believed the balloon's descent had been hastened by a “false lift, ” which he described as a condition where the wind travels faster over the top of the balloon than the rest of the balloon. The faster wind creates lift, but when the wind slows the aircraft can quickly lose altitude unless the pilot adds more heat to the balloon's envelope. In his declaration, Gallagher said he “applied as much heat as possible to the envelope to add buoyancy, ” but the additional heat was not sufficient to arrest the descent before the balloon hit the fence.

         In her deposition, Grotheer said the balloon basket experienced two forceful impacts, first with the fence, then with the ground. She recalled she had been holding on to the metal rod in the basket when it hit the fence, but despite holding on, she was “still sliding.” She believed her leg broke upon the second impact-when the balloon hit the ground after the collision with the fence. She described her injury as follows: “The people in the balloon, they were all holding. It was hard. It hit the ground hard. And one woman just came like this (indicating).” Grotheer added, “[a]nd the lady is innocent because even her, she was pushed. She was pushed around by the other people in the basket.” Grotheer did not think anyone collided with her after that initial impact with the ground. She explained, “I just got myself real quick together. [The injury] was just at the beginning.”

         James Kitchel, Grotheer's expert who has piloted balloons for over 25 years, concluded the cause of the crash landing was Gallagher's “failure to maintain safe control over the ‘delta' temperature[, ] anticipate changing pressure differentials[, ] and counterbalance the effects on the rate of descent.” He disagreed with Gallagher's false lift theory, opining instead the balloon had likely simply experienced a wind shear. He believed all Gallagher had to do “to avoid this crash entirely” was add “sufficient heat” to the envelope “before the Balloon was already about to crash.”

         Kitchel explained that many people perceive ballooning as a gentle, peaceful experience, but in reality, balloon rides “can be violent, high speed events with tragic results.” What makes a balloon a risky conveyance is the pilot's inability to directly control the balloon's movement. A pilot can directly control only the balloon's altitude, which is done by managing the amount of heat added to the balloon's envelope. The direction and speed of the wind determines lateral movement. Kitchel stated, “There is no way of steering a Balloon, such as by having a rudder.... [A] Balloon pilot never truly knows where the Balloon is going to land. He is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.”

         Kitchel also opined that the industry standard of care requires a commercial balloon operator to give “at the very least, one detailed safety presentation.” According to Kitchel, the Federal Aviation Administration's Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA Handbook) suggests the following safety instructions to prepare passengers for a “firm impact” upon landing: (1) “Stand in the appropriate area of the basket”; (2) “Face the direction of travel”; (3) “Place feet and knees together, with knees bent”; (4) “‘Hold on tight' in two places”; and (5) “Stay in the basket.” Kitchel did not believe any one particular set of instructions was required and he described the FAA Handbook's safe landing procedures as a “good minimum standard.”

         C. The Complaint

         Grotheer's complaint against defendants alleged she was injured when the balloon “crash land[ed] into a fence located on WILSON CREEK property.” She alleged her injury was a result of negligent piloting and failure to provide safety instructions. She also alleged Escape is a common carrier and has a duty to ensure the safety of its passengers.

         D. The Summary Judgment Motion

         Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer's negligence claim failed as a matter of law because she had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Defendants also sought summary judgment on their liability waiver affirmative defense, claiming Grotheer had expressly waived her right to assert a negligence claim. In opposition, Grotheer argued: (1) the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not apply to common carriers like Escape; (2) the doctrine did not relieve Escape and Gallagher of a duty to avoid the crash landing and to provide safety instructions; and (3) the liability waiver was invalid because Escape knew she did not speak English and ...


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