New Hampshire court upholds release and defines the steps under NH law to review a release.

Release law is stretched in New Hampshire court to cover injuries from snowmobile driven by employee hitting the plaintiff on the ski slopes.

McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

State: New Hampshire, Superior Court of New Hampshire, Hillsborough County

Plaintiff: Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger

Defendant: NH Development, Inc. and John Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2008

The defendant is the owner of Crotched Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire. The plaintiff signed an application for a season pass which included release language in the application. While skiing one day the plaintiff was hit by an employee of the defendant driving a snowmobile.

The defendants moved for summary judgment based on the release. The plaintiff objected stating the release violated public policy. The plaintiff also argued the parties, when the release was signed, did not contemplate the release would cover negligence claims.

The phrase “did not contemplate” is another way of saying there was no meeting of the minds. For a contract to be valid, the parties to the contract must understand the basic nature of the contract. There must be a meeting of the minds to the contract. This does not mean that all aspects of the contract must be contemplated by both parties, just that the major issues and purpose of the contract are understood.

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

The court reviewed the requirements for a release to be valid under New Hampshire law, which requires the release to:

…(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

Then the court looked at each of the three requirements. The first, Public Policy in New Hampshire, means the parties did not have a special relationship and were not of disparity in bargaining power. This definition is the original definition of public policy.

Special relationship means where one party had no choice but to deal with the other party to obtain a necessary good or service.

A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”

A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way

Specifically, a special relationship exists between common carriers, innkeepers or public utilities and the public. A Monopoly that supplies goods or services that a person must have is an example of a defendant this definition would fit. Transportation, a place to stay and gas and electric providers have special relationships with the people they serve. This is the original definition of relationship that creates unequal bargaining power where releases are void.

The theory behind public policy was the state must step in to protect the common public from unscrupulous, overbearing or overreaching companies when the public had no choice but to deal with them. This relationship is based on the practical necessity of the goods or services they provide. Without them, life would not be possible or as possible.

Skiing in New Hampshire is not a practical necessity. You can live your life and never ski, in fact, many people do. On top of that the defendant was not the only ski area. Meaning the plaintiff could have gone to any number of other ski areas; the defendant did not force her to visit its ski area nor was she compelled to visit the defendant’s ski area. Consequently, there was no disparity of bargaining power because the plaintiff could have bargained with someone else or not gone skiing and still lived on.

The plaintiff also argued the release was a violation of public policy because it relieved the defendant of statutory compliance with a New Hampshire statute governing the use of snowmobiles. However, the court found the release did not affect the enforcement of the statute. The statute was one outlining the requirements for a state commissioner to make and enforce laws concerning snowmobiles. The release did not alter the commissioner’s ability to do so and would not alter any law or regulation made or the law or regulations affect.

If the release does not violate public policy, then the requirement two requires a review of whether or not the plaintiff or a reasonable person would have understood the exculpatory provisions in the release. For the plaintiff to argue that she did not understand the release, she would have to prove the language in the release was not understandable.

…therefore examine[s] the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence….”

The plaintiff did not deny she understood the release; she argued that the release did not cover the precise occurrence that gave rise to here injuries. Meaning the release did not cover injuries from being hit by a snowmobile being driven by an employee of the defendant. However, the law does not require a release to be specific in its language to cover the injury the plaintiff may later claim.

Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

The release language was broadly written to cover all types of injuries that could occur while skiing. New Hampshire also does not require “magic words” such as negligence to make the release valid or convey a specific risk to the signor.

In reviewing the language the court found the language was broad enough to cover the injury the plaintiff received.

As noted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.”

The final argument made by the plaintiff was the release did not contemplate a snowmobile accident because snowmobiles are not an inherent part of skiing.

In this case, the release did not refer to the inherent risks of skiing, but stated that skiing was a hazardous sport and that injuries are commonplace.

Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.

Consequently, the restrictions that the term inherent would have identified were not there, the language was broad enough to cover the accident the plaintiff complained of.

The case was dismissed based upon the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

Use of the narrowing term inherent in the release when referring to the risks might have allowed the plaintiff to continue with her claim. Remember inherent is a restricting word and if used in this release, it might have excluded a snowmobile accident from the pool of possible claims. As the release was worded the snowmobile accident was covered.

The bigger issue is the attempt to spread the definition of Public Policy board enough that it would void this release. However, the court did not do that and kept the definition to the original definition that a release cannot protect those monopolies that provide a necessity to the public cannot use a release to limit their liability.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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