Wednesday, June 8, 2011

YMCA settles negligence lawsuit

Plaintiff alleged that organization was negligent in climbing-wall accident

Express Staff Writer

A negligence lawsuit filed against the Wood River Community YMCA by a young Bellevue man who broke his back after falling from the facility's climbing wall has been settled for an as-yet-undisclosed amount.

Curtis Hopfenbeck, who was 21 years old at the time of the accident in January 2008, filed the suit in December 2009, claiming more than $208,000 in medical expenses to repair fractures of three vertebrae. He contended that the Y was negligent in not training him how to use the climbing equipment and that the rope and self-belay device that he was using suddenly detached from the climbing wall while he was 20 feet up near the top of the wall.

In a motion for summary judgment filed in January 2011, the Y countered by contending that Hopfenbeck had signed a liability release. Furthermore, the Y claimed, he had considerable experience at climbing on indoor walls. The motion for summary judgment was never heard, and the suit was dismissed by agreement of both parties on May 26.

Calls to the attorneys on both sides of the suit to inquire about settlement terms were not returned by press deadline Tuesday.

In a deposition, Hopfenbeck acknowledged that he had not paid a fee to use the wall, was not a member of the Y in Ketchum and had not asked anyone's permission to climb. He said he began climbing on his own after taking a ballet class at the Y, but a Y employee did ask him to sign a liability waiver.

Hopfenbeck said another climber there showed him how to use a Grigri belaying device, which can be used to self-belay. He said he practiced with it some, then climbed to the top of the wall and lay back in his harness to rest.

"The next thing I knew I was on the ground," he said. "I don't even recall falling."

He said his father, Paul Hopfenbeck, who filed the suit on his son's behalf as a guardian ad litem, told him that someone at the Y had told him that "the ropes came out of the carabiners at the top of the wall."

A call to the Y to inquire about whether policies at the climbing wall had been changed since Hopfenbeck's accident were not returned by press deadline Tuesday.

A point of contention in the suit was Curtis Hopfenbeck's mental capacity to understand the liability waiver. Since the accident, he has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. Dr. Richard Worst, a psychiatrist hired by the plaintiff as an expert witness, said in a deposition that Hopfenbeck has a normal IQ, but that his condition can interfere with his ability to focus on complex subjects. The lawsuit cited court cases in which judges had ruled liability releases unenforceable when plaintiffs were deemed unable to understand them.

In his deposition, Hopfenbeck said he didn't tell anyone at the Y about his mental condition.

He said the accident "pretty much took away two years of my life, in the time that I had to spend recovering. In that time, I've experienced a lot of pain because of the surgeries that I had to get. I mean, then there's the ongoing pain.

"I no longer do a lot of the things as well as I used to be able to do them, or without taking a break."

Greg Moore:

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