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Tobogganing is added to the NJ Skier Safety Act, yet in this case, it allows the ski area to be sued.

However, the courts in this case seemed to want the plaintiff’s to win no matter what.

Brett, v. Great American Recreation, Inc., et al., 279 N.J. Super. 306; 652 A.2d 774; 1995 N.J. Super. LEXIS 53

State: New Jersey, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

Plaintiff: Patrick Brett and Elisa Ramundo

Defendant: Great American Recreation, Inc. et al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: (1) defendant owed no duty to plaintiffs under either the common law or the Statute because they were trespassers at the time of the accident, and (2) even if plaintiffs were not barred from recovery as trespassers, the facts of this case do not render defendant liable under the terms of the Statute.

Holding: For the plaintiff’s

Year: 1995

This is an old decision; however, it explains how a statute created to and passed to protect an activity, can be used to hold the operators of the activity liable.

There are numerous claims, cross claims, third party claims and claimants. Several parties were dismissed prior to trial. Basically, everyone who was brought into the lawsuit also made claims against the people bringing them in and anyone else that could have any liability.

Thirteen college friends intended to spend the weekend in a condo owned by the uncle of one of the thirteen. The condo was sitting next to the Great Gorge North ski area. Between the ski area and the condos was a vacant strip of land. The land is owned by two condo associations, including one of the plaintiffs were staying in.

During the day, the vacant strip of land is used by the ski area as a bunny hill. When the ski hill is closed the lights are turned off.  However, the lights are turned back on later in the night for the groomers to operate.

One of the party of 13 found in the condo a toboggan. After the lights were turned back on, several of the thirteen went tobogganing on the bunny hill. They were not alone tobogganing; other people were tobogganing, sledding and using the hill after it had closed but with the lights on.

Different people in the group used the toboggan at different times; taking turns because the toboggan could only hold six at a time. On the third run, the toboggan was launched higher up the hill.

The toboggan went down the bunny hill across a fifty to sixty foot flat section of land, over a flattened snow fence then over the edge of a 20’ embankment landing in the parking lot below. One of the six was able to fall off the toboggan before it went over the embankment. The five remaining riders were seriously injured landing in the parking lot and hitting a light pole.

Security guards were employed by the defendant condo association. Part of their duties included keeping people off the bunny hill. However, this night the security guards were shorthanded, and hill was not checked. The plaintiff’s even argued that the defendants were negligent because they failed to eject people on the bunny hill.

Stonehill employed security personnel to police the entire condominium area, including the Bunny Buster trail. That policing included keeping trespassers off the trail at night, but the security force was short-handed that night and failed to police the trail. Defendant’s attorney argued in his summation that Stonehill was negligent because it failed to have its security force eject after-hours trespassers.

The case proceeded to trial, and the plaintiffs were awarded $2,475,000 among the five of them. The damages were apportioned under comparative negligence as: plaintiffs 22%, defendant 54% and Stonehill 24% (one of the condo associations).

The defendants appealed.

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

The court first pointed out that even if the plaintiffs were found to be trespassers that did not mean, under New Jersey law that no duty was owed to the trespassers. If the land contained a dangerous instrumentality, then a duty is owed to a trespasser to warn them of the danger.

Traditionally, a landowner owed no duty to a trespasser other than to refrain from acts willfully injurious.” The Court held, however, that even traditionally there was a higher standard of care due a trespasser “when the property owned by the landowner can be classified as a dangerous instrumentality.” Here, the design of the Bunny Buster trail rendered it unexpectedly dangerous.

In this case, the court concluded that next to a bunny hill, an embankment is a dangerous instrumentality. The court’s opinion of the situation is pretty clear in the next discussion when the embankment is called a fatal trap.

Here, on one side of that relationship are young people attracted to a condominium because of its proximity to snow trails and who, not unexpectedly, used defendant’s adjacent lighted trail to toboggan after skiing hours. On the other side of the relationship is the operator of the trail, which, as designed, was a near-fatal trap to those using the trail to toboggan.

New Jersey has a Skier Safety Act. The court found that the New Jersey Skier Safety Act applied to this case.

To determine whether it applies to the exclusion of common-law principles, one must look at two sections of the Statute: N.J.S.A. 5:13-4, which lists the duties of skiers, 1 and N.J.S.A. 5:13-5, which describes the risks that a skier is deemed to have assumed. If a factfinder finds that a skier was injured because he or she had violated one or more of those statutory duties or is deemed by the Statute to have assumed one or more of the stated risks of skiing, the Statute applies.

Once it is determined the act applies, the court, or jury, determines if the injuries of the plaintiff were caused by the ski operators violation of the act. If so the plaintiff recovers.

If the factfinder finds that the injuries were not proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of any of its statutory responsibilities, the Statute bars the injured skier from recovering compensation from the operator. If the factfinder finds that the injuries were proximately caused by the ski operator’s violation of one or more of its statutory responsibilities, the skier is entitled to recover under principles of comparative negligence.

The court also found the plaintiff’s violated one statute of the New Jersey Skier Safety Act. The plaintiff’s failed to maintain control of their toboggan and did not know their abilities.

Here it is obvious that plaintiffs violated at least one of the statutory duties and therefore the Statute applies.  [HN7] N.J.S.A. 5:13-4d provides:

A skier shall be the sole judge of his ability to negotiate any trail, slope, or uphill track and shall not attempt to ski or otherwise traverse any trail, slope or other area which is beyond the skier’s ability to negotiate.

The court also found the plaintiff’s assumed the risk because they still went down the slope. However, this assumption of the risk, the court found was not a complete bar, but only proved the plaintiffs contributed to their injuries. Which is contrary to how the assumption of risk provision reads and is somewhat contrary to earlier statements in the case?

It is important to note that these statutory violations and risk assumptions do not affect the percentage of a skier’s comparative negligence. That determination is left to the factfinder if it finds that the skier contributed to his or her own injuries by violating one or more of the skier’s responsibilities. The skiers’ statutory violations and risk assumptions initially serve merely to invoke application of the Statute.

This interpretation of the statute effectively render’s the inherent risk section of the statute void. An inherent risk is a risk that is part of the activity. In inherent risk is something that cannot be removed from the activity without rendering the activity moot. You cannot sue for an injury you receive from an inherent risk of the activity, allegedly. Skier Safety Acts are written to broaden the risks that are inherent and to make them, if assumed an absolute bar to a claim, in most states.

However, in New Jersey, this is not the case.

It is important to note that these statutory violations and risk assumptions do not affect the percentage of a skier’s comparative negligence. That determination is left to the factfinder if it finds that the skier contributed to his or her own injuries by violating one or more of the skier’s responsibilities. The skiers’ statutory violations and risk assumptions initially serve merely to invoke application of the Statute.

The case took a somewhat amusing turn. The court reviewed the plaintiff’s claim that a stronger fence should have been built and that the defendants were liable because they had not built a fence strong enough to keep the plaintiff’s from going over the embankment. Aren’t the injuries going to be different when a toboggan going fast enough to over an embankment hits a fence, but still severe?

The argument then went back to the New Jersey Skier Safety Act. The act differentiates between manmade hazards and natural ones. The statute defines a ski area as real property “…”utilized for skiing, operating toboggans, sleds, or similar vehicles during the skiing season.”

However, the court simply stated, “Being borne off an embankment after reaching the bottom of a trail is not an inherent risk of tobogganing.”

Then the court looked at the hazard and determined the act required removal of a hazard. If the hazard could not be removed, then the plaintiff’s had to be warned of the hazard.

Where physical removal of a hazard is not possible, reasonable warnings of the hazard may constitute its practicable removal. The Statute impliedly contemplates that an operator at least has a duty to post suitable warnings of danger. It will be recalled that N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 expressly charges skiers with the reciprocal duty “to heed all posted warnings.”

The decision then went back to the duty owed to trespassers. The defendants argued the New Jersey Skier Safety Act does not apply to trespassers. However, the court stated that even if the plaintiffs were trespassers a high duty was owed with or without the New Jersey Skier Safety Act.

We already suggested that even at common law, defendant may owe plaintiffs a duty of reasonable care because their presence on the lighted trail was reasonably foreseeable, the risk of grave injury was great and the duty of care was not delegable.

The court then summed out the analysis it was making to allow a recovery by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs were not merely “in” the ski area; they were “utilizing the ski area for recreational purposes such as . . . operating toboggans.” They were therefore skiers entitled to recover under principles of comparative negligence if defendant violated any of its limited statutory responsibilities.

The statutory responsibility was the failure to remove the embankment or post a warning about it.

A major issue at trial was whether defendant violated any of its statutory responsibilities. The focus was on the meaning of  [HN10] N.J.S.A. 5:13-3, which provides in relevant part:

a. It shall be the responsibility of the operator to the extent practicable, to:

* * * *

(3) Remove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.

The appellate court upheld the jury’s decision and award at trial.

So Now What?

In New Jersey, you must make your property safe for all users of the property, even if they are doing so without our permission. If you cannot remove the hazard, you must post a warning of the hazard, if the hazard is considered ultra-hazardous.

Simply put, risk management is not controlling what people are expected to do at your program or business. Risk Management is looking at all aspects of the operation and finding ways that people can be hurt doing things other than what they came for.

The Zip Line may be perfect but is someone can mistake an anchor for a zip line you will be sued. See Federal court voids release in Vermont based on Vermont’s unique view of release law. Someone uses the equipment incorrectly, and the court is going to hold you to the fire. See Sometimes you get screwed; here Petzl was shafted by the court.

However, a person can use a piece of equipment, try a ride, climb up or down; they will do it wrong, be hurt and sue.

Risk Management is looking at things from every point of view, for every age group, for every activity, if you don’t think those people, those age groups or that activity can be done.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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

 

 

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