Have you read your health and life policy to see if your activities are excluded. This travel insurance policy excluded mountaineering and skiing

First this case defines mountaineering, legally! The court carefully picked its way through the language of the policy to keep the injured plaintiff in the lawsuit a little longer. That probably means the insurance company settled the case rather than spend more money fighting, but that is only speculation.

Redmond v. Sirius International Insurance Corporation, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5089

Date of the Decision: January 15, 2014

Plaintiff: Ryan M. Redmond

Defendant: Sirius International Insurance Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: breach of contract and insurance bad faith

Defendant Defenses: the contract

Holding: Cross motions for summary judgment denied, case headed for trial

The plaintiff in this case when ski mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. Half way up Ellingwood Couloir, the plaintiff and a friend stopped climbing and started to ski down. Two other friends proceeded up the couloir. The plaintiff fell, tumbling down the mountain. He was eventually airlifted from the park.

The plaintiff had purchased a travel policy. The insurance company that issued the travel policy, relying upon the exclusions in the policy, denied coverage for the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff and the defendant insurance company filed motions for summary judgment covering multiple issues, including a dismissal of the case due to the policy exclusions.

Summary of the case

The policy exclusions stated:

All charges, costs, expenses and/or claims (collectively “Charges”) incurred by the Insured Person and directly or indirectly relating to or arising from or in connection with any of the following acts …:

* * *

(11) Charges incurred for any surgery, Treatment or supplies relating to, arising from or in connection with, for, or as a result of:

* * *

(d) any Injury or Illness sustained while taking part in mountaineering activities where specialized climbing equipment, ropes or guides are normally or reasonably should have been used, Amateur Athletics, Professional Athletics, aviation (except when traveling solely as a passenger in a commercial aircraft), hang gliding and parachuting, snow skiing except for recreational downhill and/or cross country snow skiing (no cover provided whilst skiing in violation of applicable laws, rules or regulations; away from prepared and marked in-bound territories; and/or against the advice of the local ski school or local authoritative body), racing of any kind including by horse, motor vehicle (of any type) or motorcycle, spelunking, and subaqua pursuits involving underwater breathing apparatus (except as otherwise expressly set forth in Section Q. Recreational Underwater Activities). Practice or training in preparation for any excluded activity which results in injury will be considered as activity while taking part in such activity; and/or

(e) any Illness or Injury sustained while participating in any sporting, recreational or ad-venture activity where such activity is undertaken against the advice or direction of any local authority or any qualified instructor or contrary to the rules, recommendations and procedures of a recognized governing body for the sport or activity….

Basically the policy attempted to exclude recreational activities except skiing at a ski area.

The court first looked at the requirements for either party to win a motion for summary judgment. Similar in most courts in most cases.

“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the case, and a nonmoving party’s dispute is “genuine” only if a reasonable finder of fact could find in the nonmoving party’s favor at trial. The court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and likewise it draws all inferences in the non-movant’s favor. The court may not weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations. Thus, the nonmoving party will defeat a motion for summary judgment if it is able to produce admissible evidence that, when viewed in the most favorable light, would be sufficient to enable the finder of fact to return a verdict in its favor.

The court then looked at the requirements on interpreting an insurance policy. Insurance policies are contracts and must meet all contract requirements. Insurance policies in many states also have to meet specific requirements and have different ways of interpreting some specific insurance issues. In Wisconsin policies are interpreted as a contract first.

“An insurance policy is a contract, and as such is subject to the same rules of construction as other contracts.” Because contract interpretation is primarily a question of law, it is a matter that is generally well-suited for summary judgment. “When interpreting an insurance contract courts must look at the contract as a whole.” In construing an insurance contract, the court should do “so as not to render any words, phrases, or terms ineffective or meaningless.” Terms should be given their plain and ordinary meaning. In determining the “plain and ordinary meaning” of a term, courts will frequently turn to dictionaries.

However, if a provision of an insurance contract is ambiguous, it is to be construed strictly against the insurer. An insurance contract is not ambiguous simply because parties each have their own interpretation of a provision. Rather, “[a]n insurance contract is ambiguous when it is susceptible to more than one interpretation and reasonably intelligent persons would honestly differ as to its meaning.”

Construction against the author of a contract is a common occurrence in the law. The party that drafts the contract is the party that loses if the court is faced with a situation where the exact intention of the language is not clear. Instead of tossing a coin, the writer of the contract loses.

The court looked at the exclusion language above to determine if the activity of climbing up a couloir and skiing down is mountain climbing.

First the court determined that mountaineering did not encompass the action of skiing down the mountain. When in doubt in defining words courts use dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mountaineering” as, “The action or sport of climbing mountains.” Oxford English Dictionary, (January 15, 2014), http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/239554.

Merriam-Webster similarly defines it as “the sport or technique of scaling mountains.” Merriam-Webster, (January 15, 2014), http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mountaineering.

The definition within the American Heritage Dictionary states, “The climbing of mountains, especially using special equipment and techniques on rock, ice, or snow.

Also called mountain climbing.” American Heritage Dictionary, (January 15, 2014), http://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=mountaineering.

The definitions all defined mountaineering as climbing and climbing means going up. However, the court also found that:

Thus, if “mountaineering” is defined by reference to “climbing” and climbing can denote either ascent or descent, then necessarily, “mountaineering” must include both ascent and descent. The court finds this understanding of mountaineering to be the only logical definition. After all, in the context of mountaineering, the proverb “What goes up, must come down,” is generally literally true.

The next issue then if skiing down was not mountaineering and excluded, was the issue, whether the activity which injured the plaintiff violated the ski terms of the policy. The court then had to consider if skiing in a couloir in a national park is skiing out of bounds. The defendant argued that ski mountaineering was encompassed by the term mountaineering. However, the court did not agree. “The court also rejects the defendant’s contention that the mountaineering exclusion encompasses “ski mountaineering,” which the defendant characterizes as a subset of mountaineering.”

The plaintiff argued that ski mountaineering required the use of ropes and other specialized equipment. The court found that the term mountaineering did not encompass ski mountaineering.

Thank heavens for us; the court did not accept either of these definitions.

The next issue was whether or not the acts of the plaintiff fell within the exclusions in the policy concerning skiing. The court reviewed the policy and the skiing exclusion and defined the exclusion this way.

This provision, moving back and forth between coverage and exclusions, is far from a model of clarity. It first excludes coverage for injuries sustained while snow skiing but then immediately excludes from the exclusion (and thus covers) injuries sustained while “recreational downhill and/or cross country snow skiing,” and then adds a parenthetical to now exclude from the exclusion to the exclusion (and thus deny coverage for) injuries sustained while “skiing in violation of applicable laws, rules or regulations; away from prepared and marked in-bound territories; and/or against the advice of the local ski school or local authoritative body.” The net effect of this provision is that injuries sustained as a result of recreational snow skiing are covered provided the skiing was not unlawful, against the advice of certain entities, or “away from prepared and marked in-bound territories.”

(You always wondered what someone learns in law school. You learn to read policy exclusions and then interpret them as explained above. The court found the language in the policy: “This provision, moving back and forth between coverage and exclusions, is far from a model of clarity.”)

The plaintiff argued that he was skiing in an area allowed by the insurance policy because anywhere within Grand Teton National Park was allowed to be skied, and he did not leave the park boundary. Inbounds meaning in the National Park. The court then looked at other aspects of the policy to determine what was meant.

“Recreational” is not ambiguous. It is readily understood as, “An activity or pastime which is pursued for the pleasure or interest it provides.” Oxford English Dictionary, (January 15, 2014), http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/159954.

There is no evidence that Redmond was skiing for any purpose other than the pure pleasure or interest the sport provides, and thus the court concludes that Redmond’s skiing on the day of his injury was recreational.

Thus, competitive or commercial skiing likely would not be covered under the policy.

The net effect of the review was the court could not determine if the actions of the plaintiff were excluded by the policy. The definitions the court used and defined in making this determination do have value.

…Redmond [plaintiff] was skiing away from prepared and marked in-bound territories, this plainly encompasses more than simply skiing in an area where skiing is not barred. Thus, having concluded that “away from” means roughly “outside of,” restating this exclusion as a positive question, the issue before the court becomes, “Was Redmond skiing in a prepared and marked in-bound territory when he was injured?” Only if he was would the policy possibly afford coverage for his injures.

The court then looking at the overview of skiing could not determine what the terms in the skiing exclusion meant.

The court presumes that if a ski area is bordered on the sides by signs and ropes demarcating the boundaries of the permissible skiing area, it is likely “marked” within the scope of the policy. But is this the only kind of identification that will render an area “marked?” What if the area is depicted on a map that includes boundary lines indicating the recommended areas for skiing? If markings on a map are sufficient, who must prepare such a map to render the area marked? Must the map be prepared by the entity in charge of the area, e.g. the National Park Service, or would a map prepared by a person with special knowledge of the area suffice? Or must the markings even relate to the in-bound territories? Would a sign in the vicinity of the mountain stating “Ski at your own risk,” suffice as a marking? Perhaps there are many other plausible understandings of this term.

The court finally determined that the terms “prepared” and “marked” were not defined adequately in the policy. Therefore, the policy was ambiguous. The court could not grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. That issue was left for a jury to decide.

The case went on for multiple pages discussing all the motions filed by each side. This issue was the only one of importance.

So Now What?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) created this exclusion in health insurance policies. The exclusion is legal, but up to an insurance company to enact and place its policies. Several attempts have been made since HIPAA was enacted to correct this issue; however, all have died in committee.

Simply put the court worked hard to determine a way the plaintiff would have insurance.  The simple term “ski area,” added to the definition of skiing would have made the purpose of the lawsuit irrelevant. Obviously, the ski area description was solely for skiing inbounds not in a park.

If you enjoy recreating in the outdoors, make sure that you have the insurance coverage you believe you are paying for. Read your policy or find someone who can read it for you. An insurance policy is more than something to read when you can’t get to sleep at night.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Copyright 2014 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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