The harder a court works to justify its decision the more suspect the reasoning. In this case, a ski area is liable for injuries to a spectator no matter what risks she knew and assumed.Posted: November 17, 2014
Neither the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act assumption of the risk, nor the No Duty Rule were enough to stop this lawsuit. Spectators are always at risk. Either that or the defense attorneys failed to discover the necessary elements to prove their case in deposition.
State: Pennsylvania, US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania
Plaintiff: Colleen Barillari and William Barillari
Defendant: Ski Shawnee, Inc.
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act and Assumption of the Risk
Holding: for the plaintiff
The plaintiff was a skier. On the day in question she was not skiing but was watching her husband take a lesson. She was standing on the snow but not close enough, in her opinion, to be at risk. She was behind a tape that separated the ski run from the instruction area. She was standing on a ski run though.
The plaintiffs are residents of New Jersey; Ski Shawnee is located in Pennsylvania. Residents of two different states gave the Federal District Court jurisdiction for the case. The federal court system was created so residents of two different states involved in litigation did not feel like the home state was favoring the person who lived there.
Standing there a skier collided with her. She filed a complaint alleging negligence and her husband filed a claim for loss of consortium. The ski area filed a motion for summary judgment based on the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act and assumption of the risk which the court denied with this decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The defense relied upon two distinct but similar theories for its case, The Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act and assumption of the risk. The court went through an extensive analysis of the law and other, mostly conflicting case law in its decision. What was even more interesting though was the court applied traditional definitions of assumption of the risk in its analysis of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act even though the act defines the risks assumed by a skier as under the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk.
(c) Downhill skiing.
(2) The doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk as it applies to downhill skiing injuries and damages is not modified by subsections (a) and (a.1).
The doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk has been defined by Pennsylvania courts as “where one, with full knowledge or full opportunity of knowledge, voluntarily-assumes a danger he is barred from recovery under the doctrine of voluntary assumption of risk:” As interpreted by another decision “plaintiff knew of the risk, appreciated its character and voluntarily chose to accept it.”
Here the court started with the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS, § 496A which defines the doctrine of assumption of risk as “”[a] plaintiff who voluntarily assumes a risk of harm arising from the negligent or reckless conduct of the defendant cannot recover for such harm.” The Restatement of Torts is a compendium of the law put together by experts, mostly legal professors who have reviewed the law of the states in their area of expertise and put it down in the restatement. It is the basis of research and provides a foundation for understanding the law on a particular subject. Rarely do courts adopt the restatement as is. It is modified and adapted based on prior case law in the state and how the state supreme court follows the law.
The court then stated that when this definition and defense, assumption of the risk, is applied to sport it is called the No Duty Rule, “the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.”
Under Pennsylvania law when applied to ski areas this has been interpreted to mean “ski resorts have no duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport of downhill skiing.”
Consequently, “[w]here there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.
The court stated Pennsylvania had a two-step analysis to determine whether a plaintiff is subject to the rule.
First, this Court must determine whether [the Plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk of being hit . . . by another skier . . . is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing . . .
The court then looked at several if not all the instances where Pennsylvania courts had determined someone was skiing and assumed the risk. At the end of the analysis, the court stated the plaintiff was a spectator at the time of the incident. Then the court stated that the plaintiff could assume the risk of a collision with another skier, but did not assume the risk of a collision with a skier when she was a spectator because she did not know she could be hit by a skier as a spectator…..standing on a run at the base of a hill.
Because the court found the spectator, who was a skier did not understand that standing on a ski run would subject to the possibility of being hit by another skier, she did not know the risk and therefore, could not assume the risk. Under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act the plaintiff did not assume the risk and the defendant would not rely on the protection it afforded.
The court then analyzed whether the plaintiff assumed the risk with a traditional definition.
The decision spent two paragraphs describing the defense as a hydra that would not die. Under Pennsylvania law, there are four different types of assumption of risk. The court defined two of them: “One form of this polymorphic doctrine is a voluntary assumption of the risk, where the plaintiff makes a conscious, voluntary decision to encounter a risk of which he is aware.”
A second related corollary of the assumption of risk doctrine is sometimes titled the “no-duty rule.” It applies when a plaintiff tacitly agrees to relieve the defendant of a duty by entering a certain relationship with the defendant, when the plaintiff is then injured by an inherent risk of that activity, such as a spectator at a sporting event.
The court determined the two remaining types of assumption of the risk did not apply in this case in a footnote.
The two remaining forms of assumption of the risk do not apply to this case. These are i) express assumption of the risk; and, ii) situations in which the plaintiff’s conduct in voluntarily encountering a known risk is itself unreasonable.
Under Pennsylvania law assumption of the risk is a three-step process (even though the decision stated earlier it was only two):
[t]o grant summary judgement on [that basis] the court must conclude, as a matter of law: (1) the party consciously appreciated the risk that attended a certain endeavor; (2) assumed the risk of injury by engaging in the endeavor despite the appreciation of the risk involved; and (3) that injury sustained was, in fact, the same risk of injury that was appreciated and assumed. This assumption of risk defense is established as a matter of law “only where it is beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Moreover, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.”
The court focused on the knowledge of the plaintiff. “Rather, the plaintiff must be aware of “the particular danger” from which he is subsequently injured in order to voluntarily assume that risk as a matter of law.”
Again, the court went through several Pennsylvania cases distinguishing the definition of assumption of the risk the judge wanted to use from the other cases in Pennsylvania. The court then held:
Mrs. Barillari did not voluntarily assume the risk of her injury under this doctrine because there are no facts demonstrating she was specifically aware of the risk of the type of harm she suffered–namely, a skier crashing into a spectator.
This decision was based on the plaintiff’s statement:
Rather, Mrs. Barillari stated she was not worried about a skier crashing into her, “because [she] was close enough to the ribbon and [she] was with other people that were just watching. [She] wasn’t standing with a bunch of skiers. [She] was standing with spectators.”
Under this logic, you would not know you could be hit skiing by a skier if you were standing in a group of trees……on the side of a run.
Like the plaintiffs in Bolyard and Handschu, Mrs. Barillari did not possess the requisite conscious appreciation of the specific risk of harm that caused her injury.
The court then went back and looked at whether the No Duty Rule applied in this case. The No Duty Rule is defined as:
…the plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.
Again, the court wove its way through the Pennsylvania case law, even at one point stating the No Duty Rule applied to spectators. However, the court found the rule did not apply in this case because there was a difference in the risk the rule applied to. The risk the rule applied to must be a necessary element of the sport, not just a possible risk.
Applying these principles to the case before the Court, the no-duty rule cannot protect the Defendant and bar Mrs. Barillari’s claim. The Defendant asserts that this case is directly analogous to the example of a spectator at a baseball game being hit by a foul ball–Mrs. Barillari was a spectator by a ski slope that was hit by a skier. Although a skier crashing into spectators may be a foreseeable risk inherent in the sport of skiing, it is not a necessary and inherent element of that sport
The court summed up its decision by stating the burden on ski areas to protect spectators would not be that great.
Furthermore, charging ski facilities with the ordinary duty of care to protect spectators from ski crashes, rather than shielding them with “no-duty,” will not in any way affect the essence of skiing. The ski resort may erect mesh fences, snow walls, ropes, and other sorts of precautions around the sides and at the base of the slopes without impeding the rhythmic descent of countless alpine enthusiasts.
So Now What?
Spectators will be protected because in the future I’m sure they will not be allowed anywhere near the slopes in Pennsylvania for fear of being sued.
One of the biggest holes in all ski area defenses is spectators. Either watching friends or loved one’s ski or attending an event or race, spectators are always subject to injury. I believe only the Colorado Skier Safety act has been interpreted broadly enough, because it is written broadly enough to protect the ski area from suits by spectators.
Not only do spectators get hit by skiers, they get knocked by racers who leave the trail and plow into them. The slip and fall getting on or off the slope, and they get lost hiking up or down the hill appearing suddenly on an open run or not appearing for hours.
This case is a great look at the law of Assumption of the Risk in Pennsylvania. Other than that, it is a judicial greased pig to reach a decision that the court wanted.
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By Recreation Law Recemail@example.comJames H. Moss
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