Minnesota Supreme Court allows skier v. skier lawsuits in MN. Colliding with a tree is an inherent risk but colliding with a person is not?

NSSA website that describes skiing as safe if done under control contributes to the reasoning that skiers should be able to sue other skiers in a sport.

Soderberg, v. Anderson, 906 N.W.2d 889, 2018 Minn. App. LEXIS 47 (Minn. Ct. App., Jan. 16, 2018)

State: Minnesota; Supreme Court of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Julie A. Soderberg

Defendant: Lucas Anderson

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Primary Assumption of the Risk

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2019

Summary

Primary Assumption of the Risk does not apply to collisions between skiers on the slopes in Minnesota. Any collision between two people using a ski area will now result in lawsuits.

The Minnesota Supreme Court believed that skiing, and snowboarding were not inherently dangerous because they could be done with common sense and awareness to reduce the risk, as quoted from the NSAA website.

Facts

On the morning of January 3, 2016, appellant Lucas Anderson, age 35, went snowboarding at Spirit Mountain near Duluth. Spirit Mountain welcomes both skiers and snowboarders to enjoy runs marked “easiest,” “more difficult,” and “difficult.” Anderson considered himself to be an expert snowboarder. He began skiing in elementary school and took up snowboarding when he was 15.

When Anderson snowboarded at Spirit Mountain, he typically warmed up by going down less challenging runs. That morning, Anderson went down part of a “more difficult” run called Scissor Bill, which merges with an “easiest” run called Four Pipe. As he left Scissor Bill and entered Four Pipe, Anderson slowed down, looked up for other skiers and snowboarders coming down the hill, and proceeded downhill.

Anderson then increased his speed, used a hillock as a jump, and performed an aerial trick called a backside 180. To perform the trick, Anderson-riding his snowboard “regular”-went airborne, turned 180 degrees clockwise, and prepared to land “goofy.” Halfway through the trick, Anderson’s back was fully facing downhill. He could not see what was below him.

Respondent Julie Soderberg was below him. A ski instructor employed by Spirit Mountain, she was giving a lesson to a six-year-old child in an area of Four Pipe marked “slow skiing area.” At the moment when Anderson launched his aerial trick, Soderberg’s student was in the center of the run. Soderberg was approximately 10 to 15 feet downhill from, and to the left of, her student. She was looking over her right shoulder at her student.

As Anderson came down from his aerial maneuver, he landed on Soderberg, hitting her behind her left shoulder. Soderberg lost consciousness upon impact. She sustained serious injuries.

Soderberg sued Anderson for negligence. Anderson moved for summary judgment, arguing that, based on undisputed facts and the doctrine of implied primary assumption of risk, he owed Soderberg no duty of care and was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court first looked at Assumption of the risk and the differences between Primary Assumption of the Risk and Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Secondary assumption of risk is an affirmative defense that may be invoked when the plaintiff has unreasonably and voluntarily chosen to encounter a known and appreciated danger created by the defendant’s negligence. Secondary assumption of risk is “an aspect of contributory negligence,” and is part of the calculation of comparative fault. Id.

By contrast, primary assumption of risk is not a defense and applies only in limited circumstances. Unlike secondary assumption, primary assumption of risk “completely bars a plaintiff’s claim because it negates the defendant’s duty of care to the plaintiff.” Therefore, primary assumption of risk precludes liability for negligence, and is not part of the calculation of comparative fault. Primary assumption of risk “arises ‘only where parties have voluntarily entered a relationship in which plaintiff assumes well-known, incidental risks.'”

The court found the ski instructor did not assume the risk of being hit. “Here, the parties agree that Soderberg did not expressly assume the risk of being hit by Anderson. So, the issue is whether she assumed the risk by implication.”

This first step in the analysis, that the ski instructor did not assume the risk of being hit, which the defense agreed to, sealed the fate of the decision. I think now days; most people consider the risk of a collision to be possible on the slopes.

So, the court then went through the history of primary assumption of the risk in Minnesota and how it was applied in baseball, skating and other sports. It then related why it has not applied primary assumption of the risk to snowmobiling.

Recreational snowmobiling, though, is a different matter. We have consistently declined to apply the doctrine to bar claims arising out of collisions between snowmobilers. In Olson v. Hansen, 216 N.W.2d 124 we observed that, although snowmobiles can tip or roll, such a hazard “is one that can be successfully avoided. A snowmobile, carefully operated, is no more hazardous than an automobile, train, or taxi.” Id. at 128. Similarly, we “refused to relieve [a] defendant of the duty to operate his snowmobile reasonably and analyzed the defendant’s conduct under the doctrine of secondary assumption of risk.” In 2012, we reaffirmed that snowmobiling is not an inherently dangerous sporting activity.

The court found that although skiers do collide with each other, it is not so frequent that it is considered an inherent risk of the sport.

First, although there is no question that skiers can and do collide with one another, the record does not substantiate that injurious collisions between skiers are so frequent and damaging that they must be considered inherent in the sport. As the National Ski Areas Association has recognized through its seven-point Responsibility Code (adopted by Spirit Mountain), skiing and snowboarding contain “elements of risk,” but “common sense and personal awareness can help reduce” them. This recognition counsels against a flat no-duty rule that would benefit those who ski negligently. As the Connecticut Supreme Court has explained, “If skiers act in accordance with the rules and general practices of the sport, at reasonable speeds, and with a proper lookout for others on the slopes, the vast majority of contact between participants will be eliminated. The same may not be said of soccer, football, basketball and hockey . . . .”

The National Ski Area Association, (NSAA) has this statement on their website:

Common Sense, it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind and practice when on the slopes. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) believes education, helmet use, respect and common sense are very important when cruising down the mountain. NSAA developed Your Responsibility Code to help skiers and boarders be aware that there are elements of risk in snowsports that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce.

The National Ski Patrol, which probably has a better understanding of the risks of skiing does not have that statement on its website. The good news is both the NSAA, and the NSP now at least have the same code on their websites. That was not true in the past.

The court then stated it just did not want to extend primary assumption of the risk to another activity.

Second, even though today we do not overrule our precedent regarding flying sports objects and slippery rinks, we are loathe to extend the doctrine of implied primary assumption to yet another activity. “The doctrine of assumption of risk is not favored, and should be limited rather than extended.”

Finally, the court stated that it did not believe this decision would lead to fewer Minnesotans skiing. It will, but not by much. However, what it will do will be to increase litigation amount skiers and boarders. And if you are looking at going to a state to ski, knowing you can be sued if you hit someone else on the slopes might have you ski in another state.

Minnesota now joins Colorado in having billboards you can see leaving the ski areas asking if you have been hurt while skiing.

So Now What?

The court used an interesting analysis coupled with language from the NSAA website to determine that skiing was like snowmobiling and totally controllable, therefore, it was not a sport where you assume the risk of your injuries.

This is a minority opinion. Something this court did not even consider in its opinion. Most states you assume the risk of a collision. This decision was clearly written to increase the litigation in the state.

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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