Decision supporting PA ski area when skier skied off the trail supported by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

The Federal District Court case, Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013 and reviewed in Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing was upheld

Citation: Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., (the decision is so new, not id numbers have been assigned to it yet.

State: Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and his spouse May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort; Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for, among other things, failing to keep the slope free from unsafe conditions, warn Vu of the dangerous condition, and erect a fence or boundary marker to prevent skiers from skiing over the edge and into the large rocks below and alleged loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: No duty under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (PSRA)

Holding: For the Defendant upholding the lower court decision

Year: 2019

Summary

A lower Federal District Court held that a skier assumed the risk when he skied off the trail and over a 3′-4′ embankment. The skier appealed and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court holding the Pennsylvania Skier Responsibility Act created no duty on the part of the ski area.

Facts

On the evening of January 23, 2015, Vu was skiing down a trail at the Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. At some point, Vu encountered a snowboarder, who “either cut [him] off or got awfully close” to him. To avoid colliding with the snowboarder, Vu “had a knee-jerk reaction to veer,” which led him toward the edge of the trail. Id. Vu skied over the edge, left the slope, and landed among a pile of rocks. He suffered multiple serious injuries, which he alleges were caused by his skiing over an unmarked, “artificial three to four-foot cliff at the slope’s edge” that was created by “the Defendants’ snowmaking and snow grooming practices.”

Vu’s daughter, who was skiing with him, testified that she did not see Vu ski off of the slope, but she did find him laying off of the trail. She stated that to get to her father, she had to exercise caution due to the height difference between the artificial snow and the natural terrain. She also testified that she had no “difficulty that evening discerning the edge of the trail.”

Dawson Disotelle was also present on the slope and witnessed the incident. He testified that he was snowboarding behind Vu and Vu’s daughter, and he saw that Vu’s “skis went to the left and his body went with [them] and he just went straight off the run.” Thereafter, Disotelle attempted to render assistance to Vu, which required Disotelle to “hop[] down” to where Vu was laying. According to Disotelle, the elevation change from the slope to where Vu landed was “[t]hree or four feet maybe,” and “it wasn’t a challenge to get down there.” Like Vu’s daughter, Disotelle testified that he was able to “easily” distinguish the skiable trail from off trail.

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

The appellate court simply looked at the Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act (PSRA) and found the ski area had no duty to the Plaintiff Vu.

The PSRA establishes a “no-duty” rule for skiing injuries, relieving ski resorts of the “duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport.” The no-duty rule applies in this context when: (1) the plaintiff was “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury”; and (2) the risk of the injury at issue “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” When both prongs are met, summary judgment is warranted in favor of the ski resort “because, as a matter of law, [the plaintiff] cannot recover for her injuries.”

The court did have to look at case law and commented on the fact the Pennsylvania act did not identify risks that were inherent in skiing like most other skier safety acts did. “The PSRA “is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing….”

The court identified several cases that held that “…snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions, and falling from a ski lift…” where inherent to skiing.

Nor does the PRSA require proof that a skier assumed the risk, only that the injury “arose from a “general risk” inherent to the sport….” Consequently, the court found the risk of skiing off the edge of the trail over a three to four feet drop was inherent to skiing.

Not only does this risk appear to fall under the umbrella of elevation or contour (or both), which have been identified by Pennsylvania courts as inherent risks, but also other courts have recognized the more general risk of skiing off a trail as inherent to downhill skiing,

The court then added as support for its finding that what the Plaintiff Vu encountered was an inherent risk but that Vu had been skiing for twenty years and was skiing black diamond runs or the most difficult slopes.

So Now What?

The Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act is the weakest of most of the ski area statutes because it does not define what the inherent risks of skiing are. However, the courts in Pennsylvania have done a fairly good job of determining, based on case law and statutes from other states what are the inherent risks of skiing.

However, because the inherent risks are not defined, the plaintiffs are going to continue to test the issues because there is a chance they can win.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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