Plaintiff argues under Minnesota law, the language on the back of the season pass created an ambiguity which should void the season pass release for a ski area.

Since the language was not an “offer” no new contract was being offered by the ski area to skiers, and the language did not create any conflict with the release language.

Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

State: Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Lee and Cathy Bergin

Defendant: Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area

Plaintiff Claims: negligence,

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding:

Year: 2014

This is a lawsuit by a husband and wife against a ski area for the injuries husband received skiing. A friend purchased season passes online for himself and the defendants. As part of that online purchase, the friend agreed to a release online.

Interesting that just five years ago the issue would have been whether the release signed electronically was valid, now the courts do not even look at that issue.

The friend did not discuss the season pass with the defendants before agreeing to it for them. In a deposition, the husband agreed that he had the friend purchase the passes and had purchased season passes online for the past eleven years and agreed to the release all those years. The defendants wrote a check to the friend for the cost of the season passes.

The trial court held that the friend bound the defendants to the season pass release. The defendants did not argue this issue on appeal.

Seven months later, the defendants picked up their season passes and went skiing. On the back of the season pass was disclaimer language.

The defendants skied “the Wall” a double black diamond trail. The wall had a bump run on the right, and the husband skied the left side. Near the bottom of the run, he hit a bump (mogul?) and went airborne landing on his back. The defendant husband is paralyzed.

This was the only incident the defendant ski area had recorded concerning that run that year. The plaintiff’s sued, and the trial court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

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

During or prior to the granting of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff’s moved to amend their complaint to add a claim for reckless, willful or wanton conduct of the defendant. The trial court denied this, and the appellate court looked at this issue on appeal.

In order to support a claim for more than ordinary negligence, the rules of civil procedure required a short and plaint statement describing facts supporting their claim.

The court reviewed the requirements to prove the amended allegations. “Willful and wanton conduct is the failure to exercise ordinary care after discovering a person or property in a position of peril.” The plaintiff’s argued their two expert’s affidavits supported these new claims.

Because the defendant had no other notice of the issues, the defendant had no notice of the problem in advance of the plaintiff’s injuries. A requirement under Minnesota law to prove reckless, willful or wanton conduct.

Because the evidence is insufficient to establish that Wild Mountain engaged in conduct constituting greater-than-ordinary negligence, the district court correctly determined that a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence would not survive a motion for summary judgment.

The next issue the court looked at was the validity of the release.

A clause exonerating a party from liability,” known as an exculpatory clause, is enforceable if it: (1) is “unambiguous”; (2) is “limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only”; and (3) does not violate public policy.

An ambiguous clause in Minnesota is one that is “susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” The trial court held the release was valid because the release was unambiguous and barred only ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff argued the release was ambiguous because they argued the language on the back of the season pass created questions concerning the release. The plaintiff argued the season pass warning was part of the release and therefore, created issues of how the language of the release could be interpreted.

An ambiguity exists only in the language of the document.

Because a contract ambiguity exists only if it is “found in the language of the document itself,” we consider whether the season-pass card is a part of the season-pass agreement between Lee and Wild Mountain.

The court found the season pass was not a contract or part of the release. The language on the season pass emphasized the inherent risk of skiing. The language on the season pass was not a new offer by the defendant, to enter  a new or modified contract with the plaintiffs.

As the district court correctly concluded, the season-pass card, itself is not a contract. Although the season-pass card contains language emphasizing the inherent risk of skiing, it does not contain an offer by Wild Mountain to be legally bound to any terms.

Even if the language on the season pass was part of the release contract, it still did not create an ambiguity.

Accordingly, the season-pass agreement’s specific language excluding greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause supersedes the season-pass card’s general language on the inherent risks of skiing. The district court correctly determined that the exculpatory clause is limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only and granted summary judgment in favor of Wild Mountain.

Because the release was valid, and the plaintiff’s failed to establish the factual issues supporting a greater than the ordinary negligence claim the appellate court upheld the release and the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

So Now What?

When the plaintiff is paralyzed there is going to be a lawsuit. Either a subrogation claim by a health insurance company or a simple negligence claim will be filed because the possible recovery is so large. The amount of money involved is just too much not to try a lawsuit.

Here innovative thinking looked at the release and the language on the back of the plastic season pass card and found a new way to argue the release should be void.

At the same time, the obvious issue, there was no contract because the plaintiff did not purchase the pass from the defendant was missed.

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