The actual risk causing the injury to the plaintiff was explicitly identified in the release and used by the court as proof it was a risk of skiing and snowboarding. If it was in the release, then it was a risk.Posted: September 17, 2018
Plaintiff hit a snowcat and was severely injured when she was sucked under the tiller. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area was not liable because of the release and snowcats on the mountain are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding.
State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District
Plaintiff: Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis et al (and her husband Bruno Michiulis)
Defendant: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC
Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence and loss of consortium
Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk and release
Holding: for the defendant ski area Mammoth Mt. Ski Area
When skiing or snowboarding you assume the risk of seeing a snowcat grooming on the slopes in California. If you run into a snowcat and get sucked into the tiller you have no lawsuit against the ski area.
A snowcat at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is a great big red slow-moving machine with flashing lights and sirens. They are hard to miss, so therefore they are something you assume the risk when on the slopes.
The injury suffered by the plaintiff and how it occurred is gruesome. She hit a snowcat while snowboarding and fell between the cat and the tiller. Before the cat could stop she was run over and entangled in the tiller eventually losing one leg and suffering multiple other injuries.
Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries
The plaintiff was snowboarding on her last run of the night. She spotted the snow cat 150 feet ahead of her on the run. When she looked up again, she collided with the snowcat.
While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back-left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.
The defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area posted warning signs at the top and bottom of every run warning that snowcats and other vehicles may be on the runs. The season pass releases the plaintiff, and her husband signed also recognized the risk of snowcats and identified them as such.
Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.
The trial court concluded the plaintiff assumed the risks of her injury and granted the ski area motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed that decision, and this appellate decision is the result of that appeal.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The decision included a massive recounting of the facts of the case both before the analysis and throughout it. Additionally, the court reviewed several issues that are not that important here, whether the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s expert opinions and whether or not the location of the case was proper.
Releases in California are evolving into proof of express assumption of the risk. The court reviewed the issues of whether Mammoth met is burden of showing the risks the plaintiff assumed were inherent in the sport of snowboarding. The facts in the release signed by the plaintiff supported that assumption of the risk defense and was pointed out by the court as such.
…plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.”
California courts also look at the assumption of risk issue not as a defense, but a doctrine that releases the defendant of its duty to the plaintiff.
“While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. “The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.””
The court then is not instructed to look at the activity to see the relationship of the parties or examine the activity that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The question becomes is the risk of injury the plaintiff suffered inherent in the activity in which the plaintiff was participating. The issue then becomes a question solely for the courts as in this case, does the scope of the release express the risk relieving the defendant of any duty to the plaintiff.
After the judge makes that decision then the question of whether or not the actions of the defendant rose to the level of gross negligence is reviewed. “The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence.
Ordinary or simple negligence is a “failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.”
“‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”[G]ross negligence’ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘”
When looking at gross negligence, the nature of the sport comes back into the evaluation.
“‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement.
Skiing and snowboarding have a long list of litigated risks that are inherent in the sport and thus assumed by the plaintiff or better, to which the defendant does not owe the plaintiff a duty.
There the plaintiff argued the snow groomer was not an assumed risk. The court eliminated that argument by pointing out the plaintiff had signed a release which pointed out to the plaintiff that one of the risks she could encounter was a snow groomer on the slopes.
The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.
The court went on to find case law that supported the defense that snow groomers were a risk of skiing and boarding, and it was a great big slow moving bright-red machine that made it generally unavoidable.
Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide- Michiulis.
Even if there were no warning signs, nothing on the maps of the ski area, nothing in the release, once the plaintiff spotted the snowcat the responsibility to avoid the snowcat fell on her.
The appellate court upheld the trial courts motion for summary judgement in favor of the defendant ski area Mammoth Mountain.
So Now What?
The California Appellate Court took 11 pages to tell the plaintiff if you see a big red slow-moving machine on the ski slopes to stay away from it.
What is also interesting is the evolution of the law in California from a release being a contractual pre-injury agreement not to sue to proof that the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff because she assumed the risk.
Besides, how do you miss, let alone ski or snowboard into a big red slow-moving machine with flashing lights and sirens on a ski slope?
Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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