California case examines the relationship between a common carrier and public policy when applied to a ski area chair lift.

A release and the fact the statute allowed the use of releases by common carriers in a recreational setting worked to save the ski area in this lawsuit.

Platzer v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, 104 Cal. App. 4th 1253; 128 Cal. Rptr. 2d 885; 2002 Cal. App. LEXIS 5246; 2003 Cal. Daily Op. Service 24; 2003 Daily Journal DAR 5

State: California: Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District

Plaintiff: Joseph Platzer, a Minor, etc., et al.,

Defendant: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area

Plaintiff Claims: negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Year: 2002

Holding: for the Defendant

Although a simple case, this decision clarifies several issues according to California law. The minor plaintiff was in a ski lesson at the defendant ski area. While riding a lift the minor fell off the chairlift. The minor plaintiff’s mother sued.

The trial court dismissed the negligence claims based on a release the mother signed when she signed her child up for lessons. The court then had a trial on the plaintiff’s claims of gross negligence. The defendant won the jury trial and the plaintiff appealed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The arguments by the plaintiff to void the release were based on a public policy argument. Chair lifts are common carriers in California. A common carrier owes a higher duty of care to riders then a reasonable standard of care. Common carriers are governed by a statue in California. Normally, a common carrier cannot have a “rider” release the common carrier in advance for negligence.

At common law a common carrier might make any other contract relative to the carriage of property intrusted to it, save one exempting it from liability for any kind of negligence. This rule was founded upon considerations of public policy, it being deemed derogatory thereto to allow a common carrier to contract against its own negligence, because to permit this had a tendency to promote negligence.

However this rule had been changed in California by the statute controlling common carriers.

…as far as ordinary negligence is concerned, the rule at common law has been abrogated by our code (sec. 2174) 3 to the extent that the shipper and carrier may now contract for the purpose of limiting the liability of the latter therefor.

Common carriers where prohibited from obtaining a release from the public for its services. That was based on the value of the services provided to the public. The public cannot live without the services provided by a common carrier or an industry labeled as covered by public policy. A common carrier is:

… a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards.

Because the public needed the services offered by the common carrier and the public was not able to bargain for the services, the common carrier was regulated and prohibited from contracting away its liability.

As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services.

The issue that is always brought up was the ability of the public to bargain away the exculpatory clause in the agreement by paying for more money.

In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence.

The argument is made occasionally by courts that clients should be allowed to bargain (pay more money) for the service or recreation without having to sign a release. However no courts have specially required it.

This control over the contract and the situation and the need of the public created a situation that evolved into a fear that the common carrier would take advantage of its position. “Finally, as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.”

This limitation applied to common carriers applies to negligence and not to gross negligence. Consequently, once the release stopped the negligence claim the trial still went forward on the gross negligence claim. The gross negligence was not appealed, probably because a jury had made the ruling against the plaintiff and in favor of the defendant.

Rarely are decisions made by juries over turned on appeal unless the decision is just beyond understanding how the jury came to its decision by the court.

The other issue the court looked at was the public policy exception as applied to a recreation provider. The court first looked at what controlled the situation, the common law or the statute governing common carriers. Statutes always control or supersede the common law. “A specific statute on a subject controls over a general provision.”

Although the defendant’s chairlift was a common carrier, it still did not fully fit the definition because the activity of skiing was not an essential activity. Because it was recreational, it did not require the strict scrutiny of its actions like a common carrier.

On top of that, the statute specifically excluded chair lifts from the Public Utilities Commission which oversees common carriers and business providing essential public services.

The final issue was the release was admitted into trial. The plaintiff objected to the admission of the release, but did not state the legal basis for the objection. Without a legal basis for the objection there is nothing for the appellate court to rule on.

However the court did state.

…we conclude the release was relevant to the issue of gross negligence. Among other things, it described the inherent risks of skiing and using the ski lifts. The court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the release into evidence.

This ruling may be of value to attorneys attempting to enter a release into evidence in the future.

So Now What?

The case is great in attempting to understand the confluence of statute and common law as well as how the statute and common law conflict or are interwoven.

Here the ski area had a release signed which saved the day. The duty of having a kid in a ski school class as well as on a chair lift created different standards of care owed to the plaintiff which this court wove its way through.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law              James H. Moss

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