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Broadley v. Mashpee Neck Marina, Inc. - 471 F.3d 272 (1st Cir. 2006)

Rule:

An exculpatory clause limited to barring liability for ordinary negligence would be valid, assuming it were not inflicted by a monopolist or one with greatly superior bargaining power.

Facts:

On August 25, 2002, Mark Broadley was injured at the Mashpee Neck Marina ("Marina") at Cape Cod when his foot became caught in a gap between the main dock and a floating dock where his vessel was moored. The gap between the docks was about two to three inches wide when the water was calm, but the wake of a passing boat can cause the docks to move and the gap to widen. Broadley fractured his ankle and was left with a permanent loss of function. In his suit against Marina, Broadley alleged that Marina's negligence caused the accident. According to Broadley, the space between docks was a potential hazard that could have been mitigated either by using a flexible material to cover the gap or by tying the docks together more tightly. Marina denied liability, citing the boilerplate exculpatory clause of the contract for seasonal mooring between the parties. Marina claimed that the exculpatory clause precluded Broadley from bringing suit for personal injury due to Marina's negligence. Broadley responded that under admiralty law, a party may limit but may not completely absolve itself from liability for ordinary negligence; and that the clause was overbroad and therefore unenforceable insofar as it absolved Marina of liability for gross negligence and intentional wrongdoing. The district court issued summary judgment in Marina's favor, holding that the clause should be reformed to limit it to ordinary negligence.

Issue:

Was the exculpatory clause overbroad and therefore unenforceable insofar as it absolved Marina of liability for gross negligence and intentional wrongdoing?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The court determined that contract clause was vastly overbroad and against public policy insofar as it purported to absolve the marina of liability for gross negligence, recklessness, and intentional wrongdoing. Those concerns led the court to reject the application of the contract's severability clause to rescue the overbroad exculpatory clause. In declining to narrow the exculpatory clause, the court relied on the extreme overbreadth of the clause and the plainness of its illegality, the boilerplate character of the contract and lack of negotiation, the absence of an explicit reference to negligence, and the attorney's fees clause.

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