Ruts left in slope by snowmaking ATV did not rise to the level of recklessness or gross negligence in the Pennsylvania skiing lawsuit.

Great review of gross negligence and recklessness law under Pennsylvania law in this decision.

Kibler v. Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., 2018 PA Super 89 (Pa.Super. 2018)

State: Pennsylvania, Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Patrick Kibler and Kathryn Kibler, Husband and Wife

Defendant: Blue Knob Recreation, Inc., /d/b/a Blue Knob All Seasons Resort, and Blue Knob Resort, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Gross Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For Defendant

Year: 2017

Summary

Ruts left on the slope are an inherent risk of skiing and do not rise to gross negligence in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries both under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act and the release he signed for his pass.

Facts

On March 21, 2014, [appellant] applied for a season ski pass for the 2014-2015 ski season at Blue Knob Ski Resort. [Appellant] signed and dated the season pass/application agreement, which contained [184 A.3d 977] information and guidelines about the Blue Knob season pass.

On December 21, 2014 at 9:00 a.m., [appellant] arrived at Blue Knob to ski with friends. Prior to arriving at the resort, [appellant] learned that five slopes were open to ski. [Appellant] eventually would ski on two of these five open slopes. After skiing down a slope identified as “Lower Mambo,” [appellant] stopped to look for his skiing companions, who were snowboarding on another slope. In an attempt to rejoin them without walking back up the slope, [appellant] intended to ski toward the middle of “Lower Mambo Valley” in order to reach a ski lift. While traversing this area, [appellant] ran over “trenches” he avers were four-to-six inches deep and six-to-eight inches wide, which extended halfway across the ski slope. Defendants’ employees identified the trenches as being caused by an all-terrain-vehicle operated by a resort employee. [Appellant] fell when encountering these trenches, causing him to fracture his left tibia and fibula.

Plaintiff sued for his injuries, and the trial court dismissed his claim on a motion for summary judgment. This was the plaintiff’s appeal.

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

The court first looked at the issues in this appeal from the standpoint of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act. The act states that skiers voluntarily assume the risk of the sport. Unlike most other skier safety acts, the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act does not list the risks the skier assumes. That is left up to the court in each case. This leads to more litigation as each plaintiff is free to argue that the risk that caused his accident is not an inherent risk of skiing and not covered under the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

When reviewing whether a risk is inherent and part of the sport of skiing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court created standards to assist courts in making that decision.

First, this Court must determine whether [appellant] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of [his] injury. If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk [encountered] is one of the “inherent risks” of downhill skiing, which [appellant] must be deemed to have assumed under the Act. If so, then summary judgment was appropriate because, as a matter of law, [appellant] cannot recover for [his] injuries.

Inherent risks of skiing in Pennsylvania are those “that are ‘common, frequent, or expected’ when one is engaged in a dangerous activity, and against which the defendant owes no duty to protect.”

The court found the plaintiff was engaged in downhill skiing. Downhill skiing has a broad definition under Pennsylvania law.

Obviously, the sport of downhill skiing encompasses more than merely skiing down a hill. It includes those other activities directly and necessarily incident to the act of downhill skiing. Such activities include boarding the ski lift, riding the lift up the mountain, alighting from the lift, skiing from the lift to the trail and, after a run is completed, skiing towards the ski lift to start another run or skiing toward the base lodge or other facility at the end of the day.

To determine if wheel ruts in the slope were a risk in skiing the court turned to a New York decision.

Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and find that wheel ruts in the terrain are an inherent risk to the sport of downhill skiing. Accordingly, we hold that appellants cannot recover damages as a matter of law, and that the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

However, the court never found or determined if the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act prevented the claim. The court then turned to the release the plaintiff signed when he paid for his season pass.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void.

Specifically, appellant avers that the release in question is “not a valid exculpatory release” due to the fact that the release is ambiguous, the release is “without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person,” and there is no evidence that appellants actually read the release.

The court then looked for the requirements under Pennsylvania law for a release to be valid.

It is generally accepted that an exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. [[O]ur supreme court] noted that once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses we listed as guiding standards that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Since the release was between the ski area and a skier, it was a private contract and did not contravene public policy. The court then looked at whether the release was enforceable. That standard required the court to:

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.”

To be valid in Pennsylvania a release must spell out with particularity the intentions of the parties.

…construe the release strictly against [defendants] to determine whether it spells out the intention of the parties with particularity and shows to the intent to release [defendants] from liability by express stipulation, recognizing that is [defendants’] burden to establish immunity.

The plaintiff argued the release should be void because:

Appellants first aver that the language of the release was ambiguous. Specifically, appellants allege that the release failed to “clearly and unequivocally intend for the defendant[s] to be relieved from liability, using language understandable to an ordinary and knowledgeable person so participants know what they have contracted away.” Appellants then allege that the release failed include any reference to the risk encountered by appellant. Appellants specifically argue that “the risk [appellant] encountered, i.e. , deep and wide frozen trenches in the middle of a beginner’s slope, are not stated because it is nonsensical to contend such a serious hazard is inherent to the sport.

The plaintiff then argued the release lacked conspicuity and “was without print of a size and boldness that draws the attention of an ordinary person.” The court referred to Pennsylvania Uniform Code, which set froth requirements for contracts and defines what a conspicuous term is:

(i) A heading in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text, or in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same or lesser size.

(ii) Language in the body of a record or display in larger type than the surrounding text, in contrasting type, font or color to the surrounding text of the same size, or set off from surrounding text of the same size by symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

The court found the release valid because exculpatory language was preceded by a heading that was written in all caps equal to the size of the text in the exculpatory paragraph. The heading also contained two exclamation points to draw attention to it.

The plaintiff then argued he did not read the release. (That’s his problem no one else’s!) “Our cases provide that “failure to read an agreement before signing it does not render the agreement either invalid or unenforceable.”

The court then reviewed the gross negligence, and reckless conduct claims the plaintiff made. A claim that the actions of the defendant were reckless would not be barred by a release. The court then reviewed the definition of gross negligence.

The general consensus finds [that] gross negligence constitutes conduct more egregious than ordinary negligence but does not rise to the level of intentional indifference to the consequences of one’s acts.” (relying in part on bailment cases and in part on the definition of “gross negligence” as applied to the [Mental Health Procedures Act[9] ] ). Gross negligence may be deemed to be a lack of slight diligence or care compromising a conscious, voluntary act or omission in “reckless disregard” of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. While it is generally true that the issue of whether a given set of facts satisfies the definition of gross negligence is a question of fact to be determined by a jury, a court may take the issue from a jury, and decide the issue as a matter of law, if the conduct in question falls short of gross negligence, the case is entirely free from doubt, and no reasonable jury could find gross negligence.

The court then identified the definition of recklessness.

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.

Then the court reviewed recklessness as defined by the Restatement (Second) of Torts:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965). The Commentary to this Section emphasizes that “[recklessness] must not only be unreasonable, but it must involve a risk of harm to others substantially in excess of that necessary to make the conduct negligent.” cmt. a. Further, as relied on in Fitsko, the Commentary contrasts negligence and recklessness:

Reckless misconduct differs from negligence in several important particulars. If differs from that form of negligence which consists in mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions to enable the actor adequately to cope with a possible or probable future emergency, in that reckless misconduct requires a conscious choice of a course of action, either with knowledge of the serious danger to others involved in it or with knowledge of facts which would disclose this danger to any reasonable man…. The difference between reckless misconduct and conduct involving only such a quantum of risk as is necessary to make it negligent is a difference in the degree of risk, but this difference of degree is so marked as to amount substantially to a difference in kind.

Finally, the court summed up the definitions as:

Recklessness is more than ordinary negligence and more than want of ordinary care; it is an extreme departure from ordinary care, a wanton or heedless indifference to consequences, and indifference whether or not wrong is done, and an indifference to the rights of others

Since the plaintiff could not prove any intentional conduct on the part of the defendant, the actions of the defendant were not reckless or gross negligence.

[Appellants] aver that Defendants’ snow-making crew created the “trenches” by operating an all-terrain-vehicle across part of the ski-slope, rather than entirely along the sides of the slopes.[Footnote 7] While apparently against normal maintenance policy and procedures and arguably negligent, we do not believe these actions amount to gross negligence or recklessness. Defendants’ employees were engaged in the normal and expected process of maintaining the ski slopes and did so in a careless fashion, producing a condition that— although possibly dangerous— was not inherently unexpected upon a ski slope. We view such conduct to be a matter of “… mere inadvertence, incompetence, unskillfulness, or a failure to take precautions” rather than recklessness.

The summary judgement of the trial court dismissing the plaintiff’s claims was upheld.

So Now What?

Anytime you do anything outside of the scope of operations of your competitors you set yourself up for a claim. Using ATV’s on the ski slope rather than a snow machine created that opportunity here for the plaintiff.

The ATV was a vehicle that could be used by the defendant year round and probably saved them money. However, the amount of time their employees spent defendant this claim and responding to the allegations I would guess wiped out that savings.

If you insist and being different, which is necessary for any industry to grow and change, justify the why with thought and reasons that are more than money. In this case, simply grooming after the ATV had passed would have solved the problem.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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

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