Connecticut court determines that a release will not bar a negligent claim created by statute.

Statute requires ski area to mark equipment on the slope. The ski area argued the release protected them from negligence claims based on the statute, and the court disagreed.

Laliberte v. White Water Mountain Resorts, 2004 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2194

State: Connecticut, Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Tolland, Complex Litigation Docket at Rockville

Plaintiff: Alexandra Laliberte

Defendant: White Water Mountain Resorts

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Connecticut Skier Safety Act & release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2004

The plaintiff was skiing as part of a high school varsity ski team. She hit a snow making device which was inadequately identified and placed on the trail according to the plaintiff.

The defendant moved for summary judgment based on the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and a release the plaintiff had signed to participate on the ski team.

The release had been signed when the plaintiff was a minor, however, she did not rescind the release when she became an adult.

As noted above, the plaintiffs concede that the release was signed by the plaintiffs knowingly and willingly. Also, the plaintiffs make no attack on the efficacy of the waiver because Ms. Laliberte was a minor at the time of its execution.

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

The first argument was whether the Connecticut Skier Safety Act shielded the defendant from liability. The act requires the ski area operator to mark conspicuously the location of snow making equipment.

Sec. 29-211.  (Formerly Sec. 19-418k). Duties of operator of passenger tramway or ski area.

In the operation of a passenger tramway or ski area, each operator shall have the obligation to perform certain duties including, but not limited to: (1) Conspicuously marking all trail maintenance vehicles and furnishing the vehicles with flashing or rotating lights which shall be operated whenever the vehicles are working or moving within the skiing area; (2) conspicuously marking the entrance to each trail or slope with a symbol, adopted or approved by the National Ski Areas Association, which identifies the relative degree of difficulty of such trail or slope or warns that such trail or slope is closed; (3) ensuring that any lift tower that is located on a trail or slope is padded or otherwise protected; (4) maintaining one or more trail boards, at prominent locations within the ski area, displaying such area’s network of ski trails and slopes, designating each trail or slope in the same manner as provided in subdivision (2) of this section and notifying each skier that the wearing of ski retention straps or other devices used to prevent runaway skis is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; (5) in the event maintenance personnel or equipment are being employed on any trail or slope during the hours at which such trail or slope is open to the public, conspicuously posting notice thereof at the entrance to such trail or slope; (6) conspicuously marking trail or slope intersections; (7) ensuring that passenger tramways, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, are equipped with restraint devices; (8) at the entrance of a passenger tramway, as defined in subparagraph (D) of subdivision (1) of section 29-201, as amended by this act, conspicuously posting instructions regarding the proper use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway and notice that the use of a restraint device on such passenger tramway is required by section 29-213, as amended by this act; and (9) ensuring that any hydrant, snow-making equipment and pipes that are located within the borders of a designated slope, trail or area that is approved and open for skiing by the operator and regularly groomed as part of the operator’s normal maintenance activities are padded or marked by portable fencing or a similar device.

Emphasize (bold) added

The plaintiff’s argued it was not marked. The ski area argued that the snow making device was not located on a ski trail or slope. Consequently, the court held that because there was a factual dispute, this matter had to go to trial.

The next issue was whether the release stopped claims created or based upon the statute. Normally, these claims are called negligence per se claims. (See Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability or Motion for Summary Judgement failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case for more on Negligence Per Se claims.) Negligence per se claims are negligence claims based on a statute or rule created to protect people. Normally, releases do not work against negligence per se claims. That wording or pleading in describing the claim was not used in this case.

The parties agreed that the release itself was valid. The issue was what the release applied to.

“The interpretation of an exculpatory contract is colored by two diametrically opposed legal principles: the first, that it is against public policy to contract away one’s liability for negligent acts in advance and the second, that the court will enforce agreements of the parties made with consideration.”

Squarely presented, however, is the issue of whether a preinjury release is enforceable to relieve the defendant of civil liability for an alleged negligent violation of a statutorily created duty with respect to the operation of a recreational facility.

The court first looked at the Connecticut Skier Safety Act and found the act was silent on the effect of a release. The court then reviewed other Connecticut cases and decisions from other states where a release was raised as a defense to a negligence claim based upon a statute. Generally, the court found “… the statute created a public duty which the tenant had no power to extinguish. Private parties cannot “suspend the law by waiver or express consent.” Quoting from another case the court found ““parties may not stipulate for protection against liability for negligence in the performance of a duty imposed by law or where public interest requires performance.”

The court found two bases for invalidating releases when argued to bar claims like this.

These cases invalidating preinjury waivers where the basis of liability is a violation of a statute appear to be based either on a presumption that such releases are against public policy or on the legal inability of the releasor to waive a duty which protects the public or a class of persons of which the releasor is only one member.

Here the court found using a release to avoid liability for a statutory duty would allow defendants to have free reign to ignore the statute.

If liability for breach of statutory duty may be waived preinjury, the operator of a recreational facility could design, construct, and run a facility in total disregard of the legislatively prescribed rules with impunity, as to civil damages, simply by restricting use of the facility to those patrons willing to sign a release. In other words, the operator could repeal the protection of the legislatively selected class member by member.

The motion for summary judgment was denied and the case set for trial.

So Now What?

This result is probably the result you will find in all cases where the release is raised as a defense to a statutory duty. The only way to avoid this is to have the statute that creates the duty, include a clause that states the release is still valid.

Similar arguments are used by courts when they have determined that a statute that may have statutory duties and also has statutory protections eliminates the use of a release in full. Meaning the statute provided the protection the legislature wanted, that is all you get. Hawaii did this (Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release) and New Mexico in Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332; 2002 NMCA 60; 48, P.3d 70; 2002 N.M. App. 39; 41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25.

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