Federal court holds that under Minnesota law, a release signed at a ski area did not violate MN Public Policy

Public policy probably cannot be used to defeat a release used by a ski area, because a ski area does not provide a necessity to the public. Even when a Canadian comes to the US to ski.

Myers, v. Lutsen Mountains Corporation, 587 F.3d 891; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 25825

State: Minnesota, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Plaintiff: Douglas R. Myers

Defendant: Lutsen Mountains Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: release is void due to public policy grounds

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2009

This case arises from a ski accident that occurred Minnesota. The Plaintiff drove two hours from his home in Canada to the defendant ski area. Upon arrival, he signed a release when he purchased a lift ticket. He stated in his deposition that he was an expert skier.

Although he doesn’t remember the facts leading up to his accident, later in the day, he was coming down the hill got air landing in rocks and trees suffering injuries.

The trial court dismissed his claim based on the release, and he appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jurisdiction was achieved because the plaintiff was a resident of Canada, and the ski area was located in Minnesota.

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

The Basis for the plaintiff’s argument was a violation of public policy should throw out the release because he had to drive so far to be able to go skiing. The Plaintiff argued he had no other choice but skis at the defendant ski area because of the distance he drove.

The court first looked at what was required for a release to be valid under Minnesota law. To be valid, Minnesota courts have held that releases could not be ambiguous, they cannot release intentional or willful or wanton acts, and they could not violate public policy.

Exculpatory clauses are enforceable in Minnesota as long as the clause (1) is not ambiguous, (2) does not release intentional, willful, or wanton acts, and (3) does not violate public policy.

The plaintiff first argument to defeat the release was that the release was ambiguous. The plaintiff argued the language of the release, released the defendant from all types of claims not just negligence. The court simply disagreed and found that the coverage of the release only covered simple negligence and was not ambiguous.

The plaintiff next argued that the release violated public policy. The violation of public policy was based on the fact that he had no bargaining power or there was a disparity bargaining power between himself and ski area. He had no option but to ski at the defendant resort.

The appellate court then looked at Minnesota Supreme Court decisions on public policy and found there was a two-factor test.

The Minnesota Supreme Court considers two factors to determine whether exculpatory agreements violate public policy: (1) whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between the parties (a compulsion to sign the contract with an unacceptable provision and a lack of ability to negotiate the elimination of that provision), and (2) the type of service being offered or provided through the contract (one who provides a public or essential service is less likely to be exempted from liability for harm caused by negligently providing that service).

The disparity in bargaining power argument did not fly with the court because the Supreme Court of Minnesota had held that a disparity bargaining power cannot exist if the offered service was available at some other place.

Regarding the first factor, the Minnesota Supreme Court has explained that a disparity of bargaining power does not exist if the offered service is not necessary or if it could have been obtained elsewhere.

The plaintiff argued a different case decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier. The plaintiff paid several thousand dollars to the defendant as a deposit and then had driven several hours to rent a houseboat. The court held that the houseboat was just not a recreational issue but was also a place of accommodation. Innkeepers have always been included in the class of people who could not use a release because they offer a necessity to the public, a place to stay. Consequently, it has been a violation of public policy for an innkeeper to use a release in most states.

Because the houseboat was both recreational and a place of accommodation, there was a disparity bargaining power which was then emphasized by the distance the plaintiff had to travel. Worse, the fact a release is not offered until after he’d already paid his money and driven distance seemed to make the court a little upset and eagerly void the release.

Yang is instructive on this issue. The Minnesota Supreme Court held the rental company was acting both as a resort and as an innkeeper providing a public service when it offered houseboats for daily and weekly rentals. As a matter of public policy, the company could not circumvent its duty to protect guests by requiring them to release the company from liability for its negligence.

The court suggested there was a disparity in bargaining power because the plaintiff had paid a deposit of “a couple thousand” dollars, had not known about the release until he arrived at the place of business, several hours away from the plaintiff’s home, and the next nearest business providing the same service was over 65 miles away, but the essential nature of the service was the dispositive factor in the court’s conclusion that houseboat rental involves a public interest sufficient to invalidate the exculpatory agreement.

The court then looked to whether the service being offered was a necessity and as such a violation of the public policy doctrine which voids releases. Normally, essential public services are such things as utilities, transportation, or accommodations by an innkeeper, not ski areas.

When considering whether a service is public or essential in this context, “courts consider whether it is the type [of service] generally thought suitable for public regulation. Types of services thought to be subject to public regulation have included common carriers, hospitals and doctors, public utilities, innkeepers, public warehousemen, employers and services involving extra-hazardous activities.”

Although the Minnesota Supreme Court had not looked at whether a recreational service could be considered as a necessity, Minnesota appellate courts had found that a recreational opportunity or service was not a necessity and therefore, did not violate public policy. The appellate court in reviewing these decisions held that the Minnesota Supreme Court would rule the same way.

We recognize that skiing is an activity enjoyed by many, but we believe the Minnesota Supreme Court would conclude it is not a necessary or public service and would find the release signed by Myers does not violate public policy.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint based on the release sign.

So Now What?

Although there is nothing distinctive in this decision, it does help you understand how the estate looks at public policy and relations shipped to a recreational activity. Public policy is an argument constantly being used by plaintiffs now days to argue that a release should be invalid. In some cases, the courts accepted that premise, such as in Oregon. (See Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.) However, those cases are still rare.

To combat this way to fight releases you may want to look at your release and identify in the release issues in your state that might make it subject to a public policy argument. Identify those issues and have the signor agree they do not fall within the definition of public policy. A signor agreeing that the release does not violate public policy may not be conclusive in a court of law but will help a court decide that your release for recreational service and not for a necessity of life.

Always remember, waiting until the last minute to present your release to your guests is a way to void your release. Many states have held this and with the internet such an easy way to show your client the release in advance, this argument will take on more weight as time goes by.

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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