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McJunkin v. Yeager

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

September 28, 2018

CHARLES P. MCJUNKIN, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, RHETT MCJUNKIN, and RHETT MCJUNKIN, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of CHARLES P. MCJUNKIN, Plaintiffs,



         Rhett McJunkin, as personal representative of the estate of Charles P. McJunkin, and on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin (“Plaintiffs”), brings this action against Defendant James Yeager, doing business as Jim Yeager Outfitters (“Yeager” or “Defendant”), in relation to a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Stillwater River near Columbus, Montana. Plaintiffs assert claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1.)

         Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion to Amend the Complaint (Doc. 23), Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding the Constitutionality of the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (Doc. 28), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court's review.

         Having considered the parties' submissions, the Court finds Plaintiffs' Motion to Amend should be DENIED, Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be DENIED, and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin (“McJunkin”), on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

         McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

         On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

         McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab a hold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner's fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn't know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don't know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.


         Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

         The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

         If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).


         A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment Related to the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

         Plaintiffs assert Yeager's negligence caused McJunkin's death. Yeager contends Plaintiffs' negligence claim fails as a matter of law because it is barred by Montana's Recreation Responsibility Act (the “MRRA”), Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-751, et seq. Thus, Yeager argues summary judgment on the negligence claim is warranted.

         Plaintiffs counter that the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and right to full legal redress. Plaintiffs, therefore, move for partial summary judgment declaring the MRRA unconstitutional. Plaintiffs further assert that even if the MRRA is constitutional, there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.

         1. Yeager's Motion for Summary Judgment under the MRRA

         The MRRA limits the liability of recreational opportunity providers for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of sports or recreational opportunities.[2]Specifically, the MRRA provides in relevant part:

(1) A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person's property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.
(2) A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.
(3)(a) Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-753.

The MRRA defines “Inherent risks” as:
[T]hose dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational activity and that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

         When interpreting a statute, a court is required to look to the plain meaning of the words. Clarke v. Massey, 897 P.2d 1085, 1088 (1995). A court will only resort to the legislative history of a statute if the legislative intent cannot be determined from the statute's plain wording. Id. “[T]he office of judge is simply to ascertain and declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” Mont. Code Ann. § 1-2-101.

         Yeager maintains that the statute has a simple, straight-forward application to the facts of this case. He argues McJunkin's death was caused by drowning; falling out of a boat and drowning is an inherent risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, Plaintiffs' negligence claim is barred under the MRRA as a matter of law. In short, Yeager asserts because the injury in this case involved drowning while fishing from a raft, the MRRA precludes Plaintiffs' claim. (Doc. 32 at 15.)

         Yeager reads the MRRA much too broadly. Construing the statute in this fashion would immunize providers of recreational activities from their own negligence. The Court finds that such a construction would be contrary to the statute's plain words, the legislative intent in enacting the legislation, and would likely render the MRRA unconstitutional.

         Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act's protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2). Therefore, the MRRA does not insulate a provider from all risks which are characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity. It only provides protection for those risks which cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care. In order to make this determination, it is necessary to look at the facts and circumstances of each case and the specific risk or condition involved.

         Wyoming has a similar “Recreation Safety Act.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through 1-1-123. Like the MRRA, the Wyoming Act provides that “[a]ny person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risk in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown . . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(a). It also similarly states that a provider of the “recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(b). One critical difference between the two acts, however, is the definition of an inherent risk. The MRRA and the Wyoming Act both define inherent risk to mean “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). But the Wyoming Act's definition does not also include the MRRA's requirement that the risk “cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”

         Nevertheless, the construction of the Wyoming Act is instructive as far as the similarities go. Courts which have construed and applied the Wyoming statute have rejected the broad, general interpretation advanced by Yeager in this case. To determine what risks are inherent, decisions under the Wyoming Act have consistently required that a court “go beyond a broad characterization and inquire into the specific circumstances of both [the plaintiff's] actions and those of the recreation provider.” Creel v. L & L, Inc., 287 P.3d 729, 736 (Wyo. 2012).

         In Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2000), for example, the plaintiff was injured during a guided horseback trail ride. The injury occurred when the plaintiff's saddle slipped around to the belly of the horse, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground. The defendant moved for summary judgment under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding. In determining the application of the Act, the Tenth Circuit made clear that the risk in question must be not be evaluated broadly or generally, but in the context of the specific factual setting presented.

Horseback riding undoubtedly carries some inherent risk that the rider will fall off the horse and get injured. A horse could stumble on an uneven path, or rear, or simply begin to gallop for no apparent reason. All of these risks clearly would qualify as inherent risks of horseback riding. Simply because some risks are inherent in horseback riding, however, does not mean that all risks of falling from a horse are necessarily inherent; instead, it is necessary to look factually at the specific risk to which the rider was exposed. When attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the rider was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record. See Mad ...

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