New Mexico interpretation of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act for injuries a beginner received leaving a ski lessonPosted: January 27, 2014
I’m not sure why everyone needs to test skier safety acts. Here, the plaintiff admitted he could not ski, left the ski lesson and skied down the hill injuring him. So he sues the ski area?
Plaintiff: George Philippi
Defendants: Sipapu, Inc., a New Mexico corporation; Sipapu Recreation Development Corporation, a New Mexico corporation; and their employees, Lawrence Gottschau, James Booth, and Olive Bolander; and American Home Assurance Corporation
Plaintiff Claims: negligence and violation of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act
Defendant Defenses: New Mexico Ski Safety Act and statutory assumption of the risk
Holding: for the defendants
This is a pretty simply case. The plaintiff is a body builder. He took a ski lesson from the defendants and was not good at skiing. He was unable to master turning or other maneuvers and fell repeatedly during the lesson. The plaintiff told his instructors to stop the lesson because he was frustrated and tired. Allegedly following the instructor’s suggestions he skied down the hill into a funnel where he fell and was injured his right leg and knee.
The plaintiff sued in Federal District Court, and his claims were dismissed based on a motion for summary judgment. He appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. New Mexico is part of the Tenth Circuit, one of the appellate courts in the federal system based in Colorado. Consequently, this court is familiar with skiing.
Summary of the case
The plaintiff argued two issues on his appeal. First, the lower court misconstrued and misapplied the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk as set forth in the New Mexico Ski Safety Act. His second argument was the act incorporates comparative negligence principles, and thus the act cannot act as a complete bar to his recovery.
The court looked at the first claim and held the New Mexico Ski Safety Act imposes no duty on part of the ski area to protect the plaintiff, a novice skier, from the “inherent perils and obstacles posed by the terrain of a narrow, steep and ungroomed ski slope.”
The New Mexico Ski Safety Act states that a skier “accepts as a matter of law the dangers inherent in that sport insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” The skier assumes the risk of skiing and the legal responsibility of any injury to person or property from skiing. The act then lists the risks the skier assumes, as most acts do.
§ 24-15-10. Duties of the skiers
B. A person who takes part in the sport of skiing accepts as a matter of law the dangers inherent in that sport, insofar as they are obvious and necessary. Each skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to person or property, which results from participation in the sport of skiing, in the skiing area, including any injury caused by the following: variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees or other forms of forest growth or debris; lift towers and components thereof, pole lines and snow-making equipment which are plainly visible or are plainly marked in accordance with the provisions of Section 24-15-7 NMSA 1978; except for any injuries to persons or property resulting from any breach of duty imposed upon ski area operators under the provisions of Sections 24-15-7 and 24-15-8 NMSA 1978. Therefore, each skier shall have the sole individual responsibility for knowing the range of his own ability to negotiate any slope or trail, and it shall be the duty of each skier to ski within the limits of the skier’s own ability, to maintain reasonable control of speed and course at all times while skiing, to heed all posted warnings, to ski only on a skiing area designated by the ski area operator and to refrain from acting in a manner, which may cause or contribute to the injury of anyone.
The plaintiff argued the risks he encountered were not obvious to him because he was a novice skier.
Philippi’s complaint alleges that the defendants were aware of Philippi’s difficulties in mastering even the simplest skiing maneuvers, the defendants knew of “particular hazards or dangers,” and they knew or should have known that Philippi was likely to injure himself if “allowed to continue” down the slope.
The plaintiff argued the ski area had a duty to warn him of obstacles in the lower portion of the slope. The plaintiff argued the obstacles were not plainly visible to him as a novice skier and created hazards to him and the skiing public. The Act imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to warn or “correct particular hazards or dangers known to the operator where feasible to do so.”
However, the court found that allegations alone are not enough to proceed with his argument. “The party resisting [summary judgment] may not rest on the bare allegations or denials of his pleadings. Rather he must produce some evidence showing a genuine issue for trial.”
However, allegations alone are not enough to sustain an argument and a motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff must have more. Here the court said he needed to identify particular hazards or dangers which the defendant knew about and failed to warn the plaintiff about.
The second issue was the statute incorporated the comparative negligence statute of New Mexico and therefore, could not act as a complete bar to the plaintiff. If you remember comparative negligence, it states that the defense of assumption of the risk is gone. Instead of a plaintiff assuming the risk and his claims being barred, the jury determines how much of the plaintiff’s acts caused his injuries and assigns a percentage of fault to the plaintiff and the defendant. If the defendant’s degree of fault is greater than the plaintiff’s that percentage of fault is applied to the total damages, and the plaintiff takes that percentage of the money as a judgment.
By arguing comparative negligence applies here; the plaintiff is arguing that his case must, by law be heard by a jury to apply the percentage of fault. However, the court found that the statute did not require the use of comparative negligence because the statute protected the ski area from liability. The plaintiff could still assume the risk of his injuries and thus be barred from suing.
So Now What?
The plaintiff argued that the ski area “ski instructor’s manual” failed to point out the need to warn students of dangers and alert them to safety issues. It is interesting to use a ski area manual to try an argument from the lack of a point to train in the ski area manuals.
This argument in the case is what caught my attention. In many cases, we write manuals to help instruct employees to work and keep our guests safe. Here, that information in the manual might have changed the outcome of this case.
If the point had been in the manual, then would the ski area been liable if they had not pointed out the “hazards” on the slope to the plaintiff?
However, you need to think about that issue. How big would a manual need to be to instruct your employees to point out the hazards of the sport or the slope? What about the hazards of any outdoor recreation program or business. Would you have to identify every root crossing a trail or all the branches that may hang low for your taller guests?
The New Mexico Ski Safety Act is well-written and specifically lists the risk a skier assumes. It does not require a balancing test, only one answer. Did the injury the plaintiff receives occur because of the risks the plaintiff assumed stated in the act? In this case, he did. Nor did the statute require the ski area to do any more than identify or correct those risks that could not be seen by a skier of average ability and skill.
For more on comparative negligence see and Sometimes you want too much, sometimes you are greedy: WI plaintiff’s lawyers are killing their income source.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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