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Kurtz v. Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 5, 2019

RACHEL KURTZ, Plaintiff,



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Rachel Kurtz ("Plaintiff") alleges that she was injured on August 5, 2014 when an employee of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Inc. ("Defendant" or "Kripalu") took a chair from her as she carried it above her head. Plaintiff has sued Defendant to recover damages that she suffered due to Defendant's and its employee's alleged negligence (Dkt. No. 1). Defendant has moved for summary judgment claiming: (1) neither it nor its employee was negligent; (2) Plaintiff released it from liability for her injuries; and (3) to the extent it is liable for Plaintiff's injuries, it is protected by the charitable immunity statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 85K (Dkt. No. 26). For the reasons that follow, to the extent Defendant's motion seeks summary judgment as to its liability for negligence, it is denied. Nonetheless, if Defendant is found liable for Plaintiff's injuries, it qualifies for charitable immunity.

         II. Background[1]

         A. Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health

         Defendant is a Pennsylvania nonprofit charitable organization that was incorporated in 1966 as the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 1, 3; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 1, 3). 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" (Dkt. No. 26-15 at 18-19; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 6; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 6).[2] The Yoga Society of Pennsylvania's purpose at the time of its incorporation and at the time of its application to the IRS for tax exempt status was to "'advance the principles, teachings and methods of the science and philosophy of yoga in order the promote the physical well-being and spiritual enlightenment of its members in order to promote the content of the universal brotherhood of man'" (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 8; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 8).

         Defendant has been licensed and authorized to do business in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since July 8, 1981 (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 1, 2; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 1, 2). Defendant moved its physical presence from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts in 1983 (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 4; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 4). In 2007, Defendant changed its name from the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and amended its purpose clause (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 4, 9; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 4, 9). Its principal place of business is located at 57 Interlaken Road, Stockbridge, Massachusetts where it conducted all of its business activities in 2014 (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 5; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 5).

         Defendant operated the following educational and training schools: the School of Yoga, which trained yoga teachers; the School of Ayurveda, which trained Ayurveda health counselors; the School of Integrated Yoga Therapy, which trained yoga therapists; and the School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership, which was established in 2018 to train outdoor guides (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 11, 12; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 11, 12). The courses in the School of Yoga and the School of Ayurveda were open to the members of the public who were not pursuing certification in those disciplines (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 15; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 15).

         The programs and services that were offered through Defendant's Retreat and Renewal, Luminary, and Healing Arts Departments were also open to the general public (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 16, 24; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 16, 24). The Retreat and Renewal Department featured personalized retreat programs, which included accommodations, meals, workshops, outdoor activities, yoga, and the use of Kripalu's amenities (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 17, 20; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 17, 20). The Luminary Department's programs were mostly seminars, which supported Kripalu's mission and benefitted yoga instructors (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 17, 18; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 17, 18). The Healing Arts Department offered body and lifestyle consultations, including massages, facials, and other services (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 17, 21; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 17, 21). A portion of the income from the Healing Arts Department's services and activities were unrelated to Defendant's tax-exempt purpose (Dkt. No. 26-15 at 35, 39, 40; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 23).

         B. August 5, 2014

         Plaintiff had been a guest at Kripalu approximately eight times prior to July 2014 (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 30; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 30). In July 2014, she was accepted to attend Kripalu's School of Yoga's 200-hour training course to become a certified yoga instructor (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 25, 27, 28; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 25, 27, 28). The certification course was held from July 27 to August 22, 2014 (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 26; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 26). Plaintiff stayed at Kripalu while she attended the classes, which were held from 6:00 A.M. until 6:00 P.M. with a break for lunch (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 27, 28; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 27, 28). Plaintiff was allowed to participate in Kripalu's other programs and events during her lunch break and after 6:00 P.M. (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 29; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 29).

         On August 5, 2017, Plaintiff attended morning yoga (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 33; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 33). The class was held in a large room with chairs available for the students' use (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 34; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 34). Plaintiff took a metal-frame, stackable chair and sat on it during the lesson (Dkt. No. 26-9 at 18; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 35; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 35).

         Plaintiff had used stackable chairs during activities at Kripalu "[m]any times" before August 5, 2014 and had returned them without incident or complaint (Dkt. No. 26-9 at 18; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 38; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 38). She had either stacked the chair herself or a Kripalu staff member took the chair from her and stacked it (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 39; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 39).[3]

         At the conclusion of the morning yoga session on August 5, 2014, Plaintiff set about putting her chair away in order to assist in clearing the room for the dance yoga class that was scheduled to be held at noon (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 33, 35, 36; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 33, 35, 36). Plaintiff lifted the chair over her head by holding the legs and maintained that position as she carried the chair to the side of the room where two members of Kripalu's staff were stacking the chairs (Dkt. No. 26-9 at 19; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 45; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 45). According to Plaintiff's deposition testimony, without warning, Mr. Cook, a staff member, suddenly grabbed the chair that she was holding above her head (Dkt. No. 26-9 at 19; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶¶ 46, 47; Dkt. No. 30 ¶¶ 46, 47). The chair swung and struck Plaintiff's head (Dkt. No. 26-9 at 19; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 46; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 46). Plaintiff alleges that she suffered a concussion as a result (Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 51; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 51).

         C. Guest Participation Agreement and Release

         On July 27, 2014, before Plaintiff participated in the training program for which she had registered, she signed Kripalu's Guest Participation Agreement and Release ("Release") (Dkt. No. 26-13; Dkt. No. 26-17 ¶ 32; Dkt. No. 30 ¶ 32). 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. . . .

(Dkt. No. 26-13).

         III. Standard of Review

         "Summary judgment is proper where 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Carroll v. Xerox Corp., 294 F.3d 231, 236 (1st Cir. 2002) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). "A factual dispute is 'genuine' if 'it may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party' and, therefore, requires the finder of fact to make 'a choice between the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.'" DePoutot v. Raffaelly, 424 F.3d 112, 117 (1st Cir. 2005) (quoting Garside v. Osco Drug, Inc., 895 F.2d 46, 48 (1st Cir. 1990)). "[A] fact is 'material' 'if its existence or nonexistence has the potential to change the outcome of the suit.'" Jarvis v. Village Gun Shop, Inc., 805 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Borges ex rel. S.M.B.W. v. Serrano-Isern, 605 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2010)).

         In ruling on summary judgment, the court "view[s] 'the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.'" Euromotion, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 136 F.3d 866, 869 (1st Cir. 1998) (quoting Griggs-Ryan v. Smith,904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir. 1990)). "A party seeking summary judgment is responsible for identifying those portions of the record, 'which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'" Massacani v. Kelly Servs., Inc., Civil Action No. 3:16-cv-30069-KAR, 2018 WL 443448, at *1 (D. Mass. Jan. 16, 2018) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The movant can meet this burden "either by offering evidence to disprove an element of the plaintiff's case or by demonstrating an 'absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case.'" Rakes v. United States, 352 F.Supp.2d 47, 52 (D. Mass. 2005) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). If the moving party meets its burden, "'the nonmoving party must come forward with facts that show a genuine issue for trial.'" Sensing v. Outback Steakhouse of Fla., LLC, 575 F.3d 145, 152 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Carroll, 294 F.3d at 236). "'[T]he nonmoving party "may not rest upon mere allegations or denials of [the movant's] pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to each issue upon which [s]he would bear the ultimate burden of proof at ...

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