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Hrycak v. Public Storage, Inc.

Superior Court of Delaware

September 30, 2019

RUTH HRYCAK, Plaintiff,
v.
PUBLIC STORAGE, INC. Defendant.

          Submitted: June 25, 2019

         Upon Defendant Public Storage, Inc. 's Motion for Summary Judgment GRANTED

          Philip M. Finestrauss, Esquire, PHILIP M. FlNESTRAUSS, P.A, Wilmington, Delaware Attorney for Plaintiff Ruth Hrycak.

          David W. Giattino, Esquire, McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware Attorney for Defendant Public Storage Inc.

          Eric M. Davis, Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is a civil action based on a claim of negligence. Plaintiff Ruth Hrycak brought a negligence action against Defendant Public Storage, Inc. ("Public Storage"), after she slipped and fell while walking to her storage unit. Ms. Hrycak asserts that her injuries were a direct and proximate result of Public Storage's negligent conduct. Ms. Hrycak claims she is entitled to compensation for general, compensatory, and special damages, including pain and suffering, the costs of the accident, and pre and post judgment interest.

         After answering, Public Storage filed its Motion for Summary Judgment for Defendant (the "Motion"). Public Storage contends it is entitled to judgment because the lease agreement between Public Storage and Ms. Hrycak contains a limitation of liability provision that bars Ms. Hrycak's claim. Public Storage asserts that this provision exculpates it of any liability to Ms. Hrycak for its own and its employees' negligence because it is clear and unequivocal, not voidable as unconscionable, and not void as against public policy.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the Motion.

         II. RELEVANT

         FACTS

         A. Factual Background

         On September 10, 2015, Ms. Hrycak rented a self-storage unit from Public Storage at 3800 Kirkwood Highway, Wilmington, Delaware 19808-5108 (the "Premises").[1] Ms. Hrycak rented a unit measuring 10 feet by 15 feet at a rate of $201 per month.[2] Ms. Hrycak signed a Lease/Rental Agreement (the "Agreement"), initialing seven times and signing her name on the last page of the contract.[3]

         Paragraph 7 of the Agreement contains the limitation of liability language (the "Provision"). The Provision provides:

LIMITATION OF OWNERS LIABILITY: INDEMNITY. Owner and Owner's Agents will have no responsibility to Occupant or to any other person for any loss, liability, claim, expense, damage to property or injury to persons ("Loss") from any cause, including without limitation, Owner's and Owner's Agents active or passive acts, omissions, negligence or conversion, unless the Loss is directly caused by Owner's fraud, willful injury or willful violation of law. Occupant shall indemnify and hold Owner and Owner's Agents harmless from any loss incurred by Owner and Owner's Agents in any way arising out of Occupants use of the Premises or the Property including, but not limited to, claims of injury or loss by Occupant's visitors or invitees. Occupant agrees that Owner's and Owner's Agents' total responsibility for any Loss from any cause whatsoever will not exceed a total of $5, 000. By INITIALING HERE _. Occupant acknowledges that he understands and agrees to the provisions of this paragraph.[4]

         Ms. Hrycak put her initials at the end of the Provision.[5]

         On or about May 31, 2016, at approximately 4:00 p.m., Ms. Hrycak was walking to her storage unit as an invitee of Public Storage when she slipped and fell.[6] Ms. Hrycak alleges that she slipped and fell in a "poorly lit area with [an] accumulation of water."[7] Ms. Hrycak sustained serious and potentially permanent physical and emotional injuries, including but not limited to, bruising of the left hip, a lateral meniscus tear to the left knee, requiring surgery, with attendant scarring, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life.[8] Further, Ms. Hrycak asserts that her injuries have resulted in her incurring hospital, medical, and travel expenses, as well as lost wages and a diminution of earning capacity.[9]

         B. Procedural History

         Ms. Hrycak filed a complaint (the "Complaint") against Public Storage[10] on May 25, 2018. In the Complaint, Ms. Hrycak alleges that her injuries were proximately caused by the negligence of Public Storage because it (1) failed to conduct reasonable safety inspections to discover dangerous conditions; (2) failed to take reasonable steps to cure dangerous conditions; (3) failed to dry water from common walkways; (4) failed to warn of dangerous conditions; (5) failed to rope off or otherwise make safe maintenance storage areas; (6) failed to make walkways and other common areas safe for business invitees; and (7) failed to provide adequate lighting for common walkway areas.[11] Public Storage filed an answer to the Complaint (the "Answer") on October 26, 2018.

         Public Storage filed the Motion on April 18, 2019. On May 2, 2019, Ms. Hrycak filed Plaintiffs Objection to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Objection"). On May 10, 2019, Public Storage filed Defendant's Reply to the Plaintiffs Objection to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Reply"). On June 24, 2019, Ms. Hrycak sent a letter to the Court (the "Letter") requesting leave to substitute an ordinance listed in the Objection in light of further research. On June 24, 2019, Public Storage filed Defendant's Objection to the Plaintiffs Request for Leave to Make a New Argument at Oral Argument. The Court held a hearing on the Motion on June 25, 2019. At the conclusion of that hearing, the Court took the Motion under advisement.

         III. PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

         A. Defendant's Contentions

         Public Storage argues the Court should grant the Motion because Ms. Hrycak's claim is barred by the clear and unambiguous Provision in the Agreement. Public Storage also argues that the Release is neither void nor voidable. In the Reply, Public Storage asserts that the Premises are not within the corporate limits of Wilmington, and that they are not subject to the Wilmington Code Provisions, which the Plaintiff cites in the Objection. Public Storage also argues that the Premises is not residential, and therefore not in violation of any statutory duty cited by Ms. Hrycak in the Objection.

         In the Letter, Ms. Hrycak notes her mistake regarding the Wilmington location and seeks to substitute an argument regarding New Castle County ordinances. At the hearing, Public Storage objected to Ms. Hrycak's request to substitute statutes in the Letter. Public Storage contends that the New Castle County Property Maintenance Code is not the type of public policy that invalidates the Release, and thus Ms. Hrycak's claim should be barred.

         B. Plaintiff's Contentions

         In the Objection, Ms. Hrycak notes that in addition to general allegations of negligence, the Complaint alleges Public Storage's failure to provide adequate lighting for common walkway areas to be a proximate cause of her injuries. At oral argument, Ms. Hrycak asserted that Public Storage violated a New Castle County Property Maintenance Code provision. Ms. Hrycak argues that the context of the alleged negligence violates Public Storage's statutory duty owed to her. Additionally, Ms. Hrycak contends that there is an inherent material dispute of fact as to the lighting in the area where the slip and fall occurred.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review on a motion for summary judgment is well-settled. The Court's principal function when considering a motion for summary judgment is to examine the record to determine whether genuine issues of material fact exist, "but not to decide such issues."[12]Summary judgment will be granted if, after viewing the record in a light most favorable to a nonmoving party, no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[13] If, however, the record reveals that material facts are in dispute, or if the factual record has not been developed thoroughly enough to allow the Court to apply the law to the factual record, then summary judgment will not be granted.[14] The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating that the undisputed facts support his claims or defenses.[15] If the motion is properly supported, then the burden shifts to the non-moving party to demonstrate that there are material issues of fact for the resolution by the ultimate fact-finder.[16]

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The Provision in the Agreement is Valid.

         The Supreme Court has previously recognized that a contractual release of prospective negligence may be valid.[17] "Under Delaware law, parties may enter into an agreement that relieves a business owner of liability for injuries to business invitees that result from the owner's negligent conduct."[18] A release of negligence is "valid if it meets three requirements. First, the release must not be ambiguous. Second, the release must not be unconscionable. Finally, the release must not be against public policy."[19]

         Delaware case law is consistent on limitation of liability provisions. For example, in Ketler v. PFPA, the plaintiff was a member at a Planet Fitness gym and alleged he was injured when a cable broke while he was operating a rowing machine.[20] The plaintiff had signed a membership agreement containing a waiver releasing the Planet Fitness gym from prospective negligence.[21] The Supreme Court upheld the Court's determination that the release of prospective negligence was valid because it was clear and unequivocal, not unconscionable, and not against public policy.[22]

         In addition, in Hong v. Hockessin Athletic Club, the plaintiff alleged she and her children were members of the Hockessin Athletic Club and that her three-year-old son was injured after falling from indoor playground equipment.[23] Like in Ketler, the plaintiff had signed a membership agreement containing a waiver and release of liability.[24] The Court granted summary judgment for Hockessin Athletic Club and held that the Plaintiffs claims were barred because of the liability waiver.[25]

         Upon review of the Provision and the record, the Court finds that the Provision is a valid limitation of liability as it is (1) unambiguous, (2) not unconscionable, and (3) not against public policy. Given that the Provision satisfies the criteria established by the Supreme Court, the Provision is valid and prevents Ms. Hrycak's right to file suit against Public Storage on negligence claims.[26]

         1. Clear and Unequivocal

         Because "contractual provisions which purport to relieve a party from liability for matters resulting from its own negligence are not favored" in Delaware, a release of prospective negligence must be "crystal clear and unequivocal" to insulate a party from liability.[27] "[A] contract is ambiguous only when the provisions in controversy are reasonably or fairly susceptible of different interpretations or may have two or more different meanings."[28]

         In Ketler, the Delaware Supreme Court held that the language in the waiver was clear and unequivocal because it expressly released the owners of the gym "from any liability for any injury resulting from the negligence of Planet Fitness, whether related to exercise or not."[29] In Hong, the Court rejected the plaintiffs argument that the waiver language was ambiguous.[30]The Court noted that the Plaintiff "signed a comprehensive waiver of liability and release in connection with her Membership Agreement that expressly stated that she (and all others on her membership) assumed the risk of 'any injury or damage incurred while engaging in any physical exercise or activity or use of any club facility on the premises, ' including the use of 'any equipment in the facility' and participation 'in any activity, class, program, instruction, or any event sponsored by HAC.'"[31]

         Here, Public Storage argues that the sole interpretation of the Provision is: Public Storage is "no[t] responsib[le] to" Hrycak for "any loss, liability, claim, expense, damage to property or injury to persons" arising "from any cause, including . . . [the] acts, omissions, [or] negligence" of Public Storage and its agents unless the "direct[] cause[]" of the harm was "fraud, [a] willful injury[, ] or [a] willful violation of law" by Public Storage.[32] Public Storage asserts that this interpretation is the plain meaning of the Provisions. Further, Public Storage argues that the Provision's language is broad and applies to Ms. Hrycak's injuries in the present case. Public Storage asserts that the Release absolves it of any liability for Ms. Hrycak's injuries. In the Reply, Ms. Hrycak does not respond to the interpretation of the Release or assert that there is any ambiguity of the Release language.

         The Court finds that the Provision is clear and unequivocal. The Provision expressly limits Public Storage's liability for any "injury to persons" arising "from any cause, including . . . [the] negligence" of Public Storage.[33] The Provision does not apply if the harm was a result of fraud, a willful injury, or a willful violation of law by Public Storage. Ms. Hrycak's slip and fall, as well as her resulting injuries, clearly falls within "any cause" of injury, including negligence on the part of Public Storage. Additionally, Ms. Hrycak does not allege that the slip and fall was a result of Public Storage engaging in fraud, willful injury, or a willful violation of law. As such, Public Storage is exculpated from liability for any injuries, including those which are a result of ordinary negligence. Given the Agreement's specific language and its application to the present facts, the Provision satisfies the first criterion.

         2. Not Unconscionable

         To be valid, a release of prospective negligence may not be unconscionable.[34] In Ketler, the Delaware Supreme Court described unconscionability as "a concept that is used sparingly."[35]Traditionally, a contract is unconscionable where "no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest or fair man would accept, on the other."[36] Disparity in the bargaining powers of the contracting parties is not sufficient to support a finding of unconscionability. "[T]here must be an absence of meaningful choice and contract terms unreasonably favorable to one of the parties."[37]

         In the Objection, Ms. Hrycak calls the Release "an adhesion type contractual waiver, "[38]however, she does not assert any facts or cases to support the claim that the contract was unconscionable. In the Motion, Public Storage argues "what Public Storage leased to Hrycak space to store property is not essential, so she could have just walked away from the Lease."[39]

         The Court finds that the Agreement and the Provision are not unconscionable. Ms. Hrycak had a meaningful choice when she entered into the Agreement, she was free to accept the terms of the Agreement or not. A place to store personal property is not an essential good. Ms. Hrycak continued to rent the storage unit from September 2015 to the time of the accident in May 2016. If Ms. Hrycak felt the terms of the Agreement were in any way unfair she was free to terminate the Agreement. There is no evidence indicating that the Agreement was voidable as unconscionable. The Court, therefore, finds that the Provision satisfies the second criterion.

         3. Does Not Violate Public Policy

         The Release must not violate public policy. "The public policy of this state is typically determined by the Delaware General Assembly."[40] "A release of tort liability is unenforceable to exculpate a party for statutory violations where the plaintiff is a member of the class protected by the statute."[41]

         In Ketler, there were no Delaware statutes identified on the validity of a release of prospective negligence.[42] The plaintiffs in Ketler, attempted to "argue that the release violates the public policy embodied in the principle that a property owner has a duty to make his property safe for business invitees."[43] However, the Supreme Court rejected this argument, stating that [t]he public policy of this state is typically determined by the Delaware General Assembly."[44] The Supreme Court held that "a general release by its nature releases a party from ...


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