Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.Posted: April 20, 2020
Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.
State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division
Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al
Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.
Holding: For the Defendant
Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.
The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.
The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.
The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.
Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.
You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.
To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.
The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.
A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.
If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.
Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.
Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.
A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.
Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.
However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’
Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.
Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)
There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.
As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.
The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.
To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.
In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.
Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.
The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.
A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.
The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.
We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.
So Now What?
There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.
The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.
Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.
Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.
Copyright 2020 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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