Dawson et al., v. Mt. Brighton, Inc. et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43730, 2013 WL 1276555

Dawson et al., v. Mt. Brighton, Inc. et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43730, 2013 WL 1276555

Corinne Dawson et al., Plaintiffs, v. Mt. Brighton, inc. et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 11-10233

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division.

March 27, 2013

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR SANCTIONS AND ORDER SETTING FINAL PRETRIAL CONFERENCE AND TRIAL DATES

DENISE PAGE HOOD, District Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

On August 10, 2011, a First Amended Complaint was filed by Plaintiffs Corinne Dawson, individually and as co-Next Friend of A.M., a minor, Peter Miles, co-Next Friend of A.M., a minor, Justine Miles and Dwaine Dawson against Defendants Mt. Brighton, Inc. and Robert Sturgis alleging: By A.M., by and through his Co-Next Friends, Statute Violations against All Defendants under the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, M.C.L. § 408.326a (Count I); By Corinne Dawson, Dwaine Dawson and Justine Miles, Statute Violations by All Defendants under the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, M.C.L. § 408.326a (Count II); By A.M., by and through his Co-Next Friends, Common Law Premises Liability against All Defendants (Count III); and, By Corinne Dawson, Dwaine Dawson and Justine Miles, Common Law Premises Liability against All Defendants (Count IV).

A.M., a 12 year old minor and a beginner skier, was at Mt. Brighton participating in a school sponsored ski trip on January 30, 2008. The temperature the day before and early morning hours was over 40 degrees, but by 8:00 a.m. the temperature was less than 10 degrees, with strong winds. Mt. Brighton began grooming the grounds later than normal on January 30, 2008, because of the poor conditions the day before. Only two ski slopes were open, the two rope beginner ski slopes.

An employee of Mt. Brighton for about 8 years, Sturgis operated the grooming machine that day. (Sturgis Dep. at 19) Sturgis indicated that his main concern when operating the machine was the safety of skiers around the grooming machine while in operation. (Sturgis Dep. at 52) Sturgis was grooming with another operator, Mike Bergen. (Sturgis Dep. at 83) Bergen led the grooming, followed by Sturgis. They began by grooming the bunny slopes and intermediate slopes which were groomed prior to the opening of the resort that day. (Sturgis Dep. at 66-67, 83, 86)

Sturgis and Bergen also groomed the area described as the “black and red” slopes, which were closed. (Sturgis Dep. at 86) Sturgis and Bergen then went to groom the area called the “blue” slope, which was closed. (Sturgis Dep. at 87) The resort had opened by this time. The route to the blue slope from the black and red slopes took them along the Main Lodge. Sturgis testified that his groomer passed well below the bunny hill slope, located to his left. (Sturgis Dep. at 96-98) Sturgis saw two individuals on top of the bunny hill and two girls next to a pump house to his right. Sturgis maintained eye contact with the girls because they were closer to the grooming machine than the individuals on top of the bunny hill. (Sturgis Dep. at 98) As Sturgis was going around the pump house, a boy alongside the groomer was saying something about the tiller. Sturgis jumped out and saw A.M. under the tiller. Sturgis lifted up the tiller, shut the machine off and sought first-aid. Sturgis had no idea from whence A.M. had come. (Sturgis Dep. at 104-05)

A.M. testified that he received a lesson that day on how to start and stop on skis and had skied down the bunny slope several times with his friends. (A.M. Dep. at 30-31, 33-34). This was A.M.’s second time skiing. A.M. had been skiing in the beginner area and had seen the snow groomers. (A.M. Dep. at 32-33) A.M. indicated he was racing with another boy down the hill. When he reached the bottom, he turned around to say “I won” and that was the last thing he remembered. A.M. testified that as he was going down the hill, he was trying to stop, “was slipping and trying to grab something.” (A.M. Dep. at 32-33) A.M. struck the groomer and was entrapped in the tiller. A.M. was dragged over 200 feet by the groomer.

This matter is now before the Court on Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiffs filed a response, along with various documents, including “Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Facts”, Declaration of Larry Heywood, and Declaration of Timothy A. Loranger. Defendants filed a reply. Plaintiffs also filed a document titled “Plaintiffs’ Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike” portions of Defendants’ summary judgment motion. Defendants replied to this motion. Defendants filed a Motion to Adjourn Scheduling Order Dates seeking adjournment of the December 4, 2012 trial date, to which Plaintiffs submitted a response that they did not object to the motion.

II. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

A. Standard of Review

Rule 56(a) of the Rules of Civil Procedures provides that the court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The presence of factual disputes will preclude granting of summary judgment only if the disputes are genuine and concern material facts. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute about a material fact is “genuine” only if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Although the Court must view the motion in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, where “the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Summary judgment must be entered against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be “no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23. A court must look to the substantive law to identify which facts are material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

B. Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act

Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment under Michigan’s Ski Area Safety Act (“SASA”) which bars recovery for any injuries under common law premises liability or negligence claims. Plaintiffs respond that because of Defendants’ violation of SASA, specifically failing to post any signs that grooming was taking place, Defendants are not immune from liability under SASA. Plaintiffs also argue that SASA does not apply since the place where the incident occurred was not a ski run, slope or trail.

SASA was enacted in 1962. The purposes of SASA include, inter alia, safety, reduced litigation, and economic stabilization of an industry which contributes substantially to Michigan’s economy. Shukoski v. Indianhead Mountain Resort, Inc., 166 F.3d 848, 850 (6th Cir. 1999). The Michigan legislature perceived a problem with respect to the inherent dangers of skiing and the need to promote safety, coupled with the uncertain and potentially enormous ski area operators’ liability. Id. (citation omitted) Given the competing interests between safety and liability, the legislature decided to establish rules regulating ski operators and the ski operators’ and skiers’ responsibilities in the area of safety. Id. The Legislature decided that all skiers assume the obvious and necessary dangers of skiing, limiting ski area operators’ liability and promoting safety. Id. The statute states:

(1) While in a ski area, each skier shall do all of the following:

(a) Maintain reasonable control of his or her speed and course at all times.

(b) Stay clear of snow-grooming vehicles and equipment in the ski area.

(c) Heed all posted signs and warnings.

(d) Ski only in areas which are marked as open for skiing on the trial board…

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.

M.C.L. § 408.342. This subjection identifies two types of dangers inherent in the sport. Anderson v. Pine Knob Ski Resort, Inc., 469 Mich. 20, 24 (2003). The first is described as natural hazards and the second as unnatural hazards. Id. Both types of examples are only examples because the Legislature used the term “dangers include, but are not limited to.” Id. at 25.

A.M. was injured by snow-grooming equipment, which is expressly noted in SASA. Plaintiffs argue that there was no sign posted regarding the use of snow-grooming equipment, as required in the statute, M.C.L. § 408.326(a), which states,

Each Ski Area operator shall, with respect to operation of a ski area, do all of the following:

* * *

(f) Place or case to be placed, if snow grooming or snow making operations are being performed on a ski run, slope, or trial while the run, slope, or trial is open to the public, a conspicuous notice at or near the top of the entrance to the run, slope, or trail indicating that those operations are being performed.

M.C.L. § 408.326(a).

The Michigan courts have held that even if there are allegations that provisions of SASA were violated which may have caused injury, there is no limitation in SASA as to the risks assumed. Rusnak v. Walker, 273 Mich.App. 299, 307 (2006). Rusnak was a suit under SASA involving a collision between two skiers. In Rusnak, the Michigan Court of Appeals noted that, “the Legislature did not start off the subsection by stating except for violations of other sections of this act, ‘ the skier assumes the obvious and necessary dangers inherent in the sport.” Id . (italics added). The assumption of the risk provision in M.C.L. § 408.342 is “clear and unambiguous, providing that a skier assumes the risk of obvious and necessary dangers that inhere in the sport, and [t]hose dangers’ specifically include collisions” with snow groomers. Id.

The Michigan Supreme Court has made clear that the Legislature created a certainty concerning a ski area operator’s liability risks. Anderson, 469 Mich. at 26. In a case where a skier collided at the end of a ski run with a shack that housed race timing equipment, the Michigan Supreme Court noted:

To adopt the standard plaintiff urges would deprive the statute of the certainty the Legislature wished to create concerning liability risks. Under plaintiff’s standard, after any accident, rather than immunity should suit be brought, the ski-area operator would be engaged in the same inquiry that would have been undertaken if there had been no statute ever enacted. This would mean that, in a given case, decisions regarding the reasonableness of the place of lift towers or snow groomers, for example, would be placed before a jury or judicial fact-finder. Yet it is just this process that the grant of immunity was designed to obviate. In short, the Legislature has indicated that matters of this sort are to be removed from the common-law arena, and it simply falls to us to enforce the statute as written. This we have done.

Id. There is no need to consider whether the ski operator retains a duty under common-law premises liability. Id. at 26-27. Plaintiffs’ argument that Defendants violated SASA by failing to post the appropriate sign that snow grooming was taking place does not override the express assumption of the risk by the skier enacted by the Legislature.

The assumption of the risk provision as to groomers specifically, is “broad” and “clear” and “contains no reservation or limitation of its scope.” Rusnak, 273 Mich.App. at 309. However, “[t]he actions or inactions of a defendant cannot always be irrelevant, for if they were, the duties and liabilities placed on individual skiers would have no meaning.” Id. “Indeed, we cannot favor one section, such as the assumption-of-risk provision, over other equally applicable sections, such as the duty and liability provisions.” Id. The Rusnak panel held that a plaintiff does assume the risks set forth in the statute. Id. The provisions must be read together while giving them full force and effect. Id. However, a plaintiff can still recover limited damages against a defendant if the plaintiff can prove that a defendant violated SASA, causing the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. Id. In such a situation, the defendant’s acts would be relevant for a “comparative negligence” evaluation. Id. at 311. Depending on the facts, the actions of a defendant may be relevant for purposes of determining the allocation of fault and, perhaps damages. Id. at 313. Reading the provisions together is consistent with the plain language of the two provisions at issue, which conform to the legislative purpose of SASA – to reduce the liability of ski operators, while at the same time placing many, but not all, risks of skiing on the individual skiers. Id. at 314.

In this case, it is clear A.M. assumed the risk of skiing. However, A.M. has created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was a notice at or near the top of or entrance to the ski run, slope, or trail indicating that snow grooming operations were being performed as set forth in M.C.L. § 408.236a(f). There remains a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the incident occurred falls within the phrase, “ski run, slope, or trail.” The State of Michigan Investigator and Defendants’ expert, Mark Doman, stated at his deposition that the area where the incident occurred could be described as a “ski run, slope, or trail” even though Defendants argue that this area is a “transition area.” (Doman Dep., p. 74) Summary judgment on the issue of notice under M.C.L. § 408.236a(f) is denied. Although there is no genuine issue of material fact that A.M. assumed the risk as to snow groomers under SASA, Defendants’ actions as to their duties under M.C.L. § 408.236a(f) as to notice is relevant for purposes of determining the allocation of fault and damages under a comparative negligence analysis.

III. SANCTIONS

Defendants seek sanctions against Plaintiffs under the Court’s inherent power. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have no intention to follow applicable well established court and ethical rules, including: page limit; entering onto Mt. Brighton for inspection in violation of Fed.R.Civ.P. 34 without notice to Defendants; and having contact with the owner of Mt. Brighton without counsel in violation of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct 4.1 and 4.2. Defendants seek dismissal based on Plaintiffs’ alleged pattern of discovery abuse. Defendants claim that Plaintiffs’ counsel took an oath in this Circuit to follow the rules and practice with integrity, yet counsel had no plans to follow the oath and this Court must sanction Plaintiffs’ counsel to deter any further continued conduct. Plaintiffs respond that they did not violate the court or ethical rules.

A. Page Limit

As to the page limit claim, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs violated Local Rule 7.1 regarding page limits since Plaintiffs submitted separate documents setting forth their version of “material facts” separate from Plaintiffs’ response brief, in addition to other documents including “objection” to the summary judgment motion and “declarations” by Plaintiffs’ experts.

Plaintiffs respond that as to the page limit issue, this matter was argued at the time the Court heard the summary judgment motion. In any event, Plaintiffs claim they did not exceed the page limit since Local Rule 7.1(d)(3) states that the text of a brief may not exceed 20 pages and that Plaintiffs’ response brief was only 19 pages. Plaintiffs agree that the accompanying documents in support of their brief included declaration of expert witness, list of material facts, a motion to Defendants’ report and objections to Defendants’ purported “evidence.” These documents are not part of their response “brief” but other documents supporting Plaintiffs’ arguments. Plaintiffs argue that while there is nothing in the rules which requires the filing of a separate document of undisputed facts, there is nothing prohibiting such a filing.

Local Rule 7.1(d)(3) provides, “[t]he text of a brief supporting a motion or response, including footnotes and signatures, may not exceed 20 pages. A person seeking to file a longer brief may apply ex parte in writing setting forth the reasons.” E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(d)(3). A review of Plaintiffs’ “Response” to the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. #28) shows that the brief is only 19 pages, which does not violate Local Rule 7.1(d)(3). However, Plaintiffs did file other documents supporting their opposition including a separate document entitled “Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Material Facts” (Doc. #29) which consists of 14 pages. This document highlights facts and source of the facts, including declarations and deposition page numbers. Plaintiffs also filed a separate document entitled “Plaintiffs’ Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike” (Doc. #30) which consists of 9 pages. Plaintiffs also filed two documents entitled “Declaration of Larry Heywood” (Doc. #31) and “Declaration of Timothy A. Loranger, Esq.” (Doc. #32).

Defendants did not cite to any authority, other than the Court’s inherent power, that violation of a Local Rule must result in dismissal of a case. It is noted that at the time of the filing of the response and other documents in September 2012, Defendants did not object to these filings by a separate motion until the instant motion which was filed on November 26, 2012. Defendants addressed the documents Plaintiffs filed in Defendants’ reply brief and so argued at oral arguments. Generally, exhibits and declarations supporting motions or response briefs are “attached” as exhibits to the main brief. As to Plaintiffs’ Separate Statement of Material Facts and Evidentiary Objections and Motion to Strike, these arguments should have been made in Plaintiffs’ main brief.[1] These documents may have been filed to circumvent the page limit requirement. However, the Court has the discretion to allow filings separate from the parties’ main brief. A violation of the page limit local rule does not support dismissal of the case as sanctions.

B. Rule 34

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs violated Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 34 regarding inspection of land when Plaintiffs’ counsel went to Mt. Brighton, without notice to Defendants and their counsel on two occasions.

Plaintiffs admit that counsel visited Mt. Brighton property without providing any notice to the defense because Plaintiffs believed no such notice was necessary since Mt. Brighton was open to the public for business when they visited. Plaintiffs argue that Rule 34 only states that a party “may” serve a request to permit entry and that the rule does not state “must.” Plaintiffs admit photographs were taken at that time, but that taking photographs was not prohibited by Mt. Brighton. Plaintiffs claim that admissions of these photographs at trial should be brought as motions in limine.

Rule 34 of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides:

(a) In General. A party may serve on any other party a request within the scope of Rule 26(b):

* * *

(2) to permit entry onto designated land or other property possessed or controlled by the responding party, so that the requesting party may inspect, measure, survey, photograph, test, or sample the property or any designated object or operation on it.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a)(2).

Generally, if a party seeks protection from certain discovery matters, that party usually files a Motion for protective order under Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 26(c). Here, Defendants did not seek such protection, nor did Defendants object to Plaintiffs’ entry of the land once they learned of the first instance in June 29, 2012 during the deposition of David Mark Doman wherein Plaintiffs’ counsel admitted he had sent an agent to take pictures of Defendant’s premises without notice to defense counsel. The instant Motion as filed in November 2012. Discovery rule violations are usually addressed under Rule 37. Defendants did not file a motion under Rule 37 to prohibit Plaintiffs from using any photographs they took in connection with any pre-trial proceedings at that time.

The second incident occurred on November 14, 2012, the same day oral argument was heard on the summary judgment motion. Joseph Bruhn, owner of Mt. Brighton, indicated he met three gentlemen who did not identify themselves but indicated they were there for “breakfast” even though it was 11:00 a.m. (Bruhn Aff., ¶ 5) Mr. Bruhn indicated the restaurant was not open and later noticed the gentlemen were taking pictures from the deck. (Bruhn Aff., ¶ 8) Mr. Bruhn learned the gentlemen were lawyers from Los Angeles in town to attend facilitation of this matter to be held the next day, November 15, 2012. (Bruhn, Aff., ¶9) This second incident is troublesome. Although Mr. Bruhn did not identify himself as the owner of Mt. Brighton, Plaintiffs’ counsel themselves knew the purpose of their visit – to inspect the property and take pictures.

In general, Rule 37(b)(2)(B) of the Rules of Civil Procedure provides for sanctions where a party fails to comply with a court order requiring the party to produce another person for examination, including prohibiting the disobedient party from introducing matters in evidence, striking pleadings, rendering default judgment against the disobedient party, treating as contempt of court the failure to obey an order or any further “just orders.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(B); 37(b)(2)(A). Here, no order has been entered by the Court striking the photographs or finding that Plaintiffs violated Rule 34. The “spirit” of Rule 34 was violated in that Plaintiffs did not notify the defense they were inspecting the premises for discovery purposes, even if the property is open to the public. The property is private property, but open to the public. The lay of the land is at the core of these proceedings. Plaintiffs should have notified the defense they sought to inspect the land as required under Rule 34. “Trial by surprise” is not a tactic in civil actions and related discovery proceedings. However, dismissal of the case is not warranted at this time, but the Court will consider this matter at trial by way of a motion in limine or objection if any testimony or exhibit is sought to be introduced relating to Plaintiffs’ first visit to Mt. Brighton. The second visit is addressed below.

C. Violation of Michigan Rules of Professional Responsibility

Defendants seek dismissal as sanctions because they allege that Plaintiffs’ counsel violated the Michigan Rules of Professional Responsibility (“MRPC”) by contacting Mt. Brighton’s owner without counsel. Plaintiffs respond that when counsel visited Mt. Brighton unannounced, counsel did not know that the gentleman greeting him at the Mt. Brighton restaurant was Mr. Bruhn, the owner of Mt. Brighton. Mr. Bruhn informed counsel that the kitchen was not open but he never indicated that Mt. Brighton was closed. Plaintiffs’ counsel then went out onto the patio to take a few photographs of the ski/golf area. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants admit in their moving papers that Plaintiffs did not violate MRPC 4.2 since there was no discussion of any aspect of the “subject of the representation” but that because counsel did not identify himself to Mr. Bruhn. Mr. Bruhn indicated in an affidavit that he did not learn of Plaintiffs’ counsel identity until the facilitation in this matter the day after.

MRPC 4.2 provides, “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a party whom the lawyer knows to be represented in the matter by another lawyer, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer or is authorized by law to do so.” Although Defendants admit that “arguably” Plaintiffs did not directly speak with Mr. Bruhn as to the “subject of the representation, ” Plaintiffs’ counsel knew the reason they were on the premises was to take photographs of the property. Defendants seek an order from this Court finding that Defendants violated Rule 4.2 and that the proper sanction is to dismiss the case.

Although Plaintiffs’ counsel, as noted by the defense, did not “arguably” violate Rule 4.2, the Court cannot expressly so find. Violations of the professional responsibility code must be brought under E.D. Mich. LR 83.22. Defendants have not sought such a formal request. The Court, however, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2), will not allow Plaintiffs to offer any photographs taken of the property during the second visit to Mt. Brighton on November 14, 2012 since they knew the purpose of their visit was to take photographs and could have so indicated to opposing counsel, Mr. Bruhn or to any of Defendants’ agents. Plaintiffs had notice since June 2012 and under the discovery rules that they were required to notify Defendants of any access to Defendants’ property.

D. Rule 11 Sanctions

In Plaintiffs’ response, they indicate they may seek sanctions under Rule 11 themselves. Generally, Rule 11 provides that prior to requesting/filing a Motion for sanctions under this rule, the party must serve notice to the opposing party under the safe harbor provision of Rule 11. Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(1)(A). Rule 11(c) states that the Motion shall not be filed if not submitted to the opposing party. Pursuant to the “safe harbor” provision in Rule 11, a party seeking sanctions under the rule must first serve notice to the opposing party that such a Motion will be filed. If either party seeks to file such Rule 11 sanctions, they must do so with the “safe harbor” provision in mind.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons set forth above,

IT IS ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 21) is DENIED as more fully set forth above.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion to Adjourn Scheduling Order Dates (Doc. No. 23) is MOOT.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion to Strike Portions of Defendants’ Summary Judgment Motion or Submit Evidence (Doc. No. 30) is DENIED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 39) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The second set of photographs is disallowed to be used as evidence in this case. The request for dismissal as sanctions is denied.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that a Final Pretrial Conference date is scheduled for Monday, June 10, 2013, 2:30 p.m. The parties must submit a proposed Joint Final Pretrial Order by June 3, 2013 in the form set forth in Local Rule 16.2. All parties with authority to settle must appear at the conference. The Magistrate Judge may reschedule the cancelled facilitation and submit a notice to the Court by June 3, 2013 once facilitation is complete.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Trial is scheduled for Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 9:00 a.m.

Notes:

[1] The parties are referred to E.D. Mich. LR 7.1 and CM/ECF Pol. & Proc. R5 and R18 governing filing of motions, briefs and exhibits. See, http://www.mied.usourts.gov.


NASTAR release was held by the Michigan Appellate court to be written narrowly and only protect the ski area when the guest was racing or training.

Michigan Ski Safety Act did not apply because it was too early in the proceedings to determine if a rope hanging below the chairlift was an inherent risk of skiing under the act.

Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: Ronald Ritari, JR. and Tama Ritari

Defendant: Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., doing business as Marquette Mountain

Plaintiff Claims: was negligent by having ropes in the area of the chair lift, failing to post warnings of the danger, failing to take measures to prevent plaintiff from catching his skis on the rope, failing to employ the emergency stop when plaintiff yelled for help, and failing to adequately supervise and control the chair lift

Defendant Defenses: Release and Michigan Ski Area Safety Act (SASA)

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2017

Summary

Your release must be written to cover the risks and activities you need to cover. If your release fails, as in this case, then you are faced with proving the activity that injured your guest was an inherent risk of skiing.

A rope hanging below a lift, low enough a ski could be caught in the lift is going to be an interesting argument at trial to prove it is an inherent risk of skiing.

Facts

The plaintiff was a season pass holder at the ski area and enjoyed racing NASTAR. One evening while riding the chair lift his skis were caught on a nylon rope hanging below the lift when a gust of wind pulled the chair down. The plaintiff was pulled out of the chair by the rope where he fell 12′ to the ground sustaining a fractured pelvis and fracture ribs.

The plaintiff filed suit. The Defendant ski area filed a motion for summary judgment based on the NASTAR release and the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act. The plaintiff seems to have signed two releases, one when he purchased a season pass, however, only the NASTAR release was argued at trial.

The trial court dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment finding the release was ambiguous, and the rope hanging below the chairlift was not an inherent risk of skiing. The defendant appealed the trial court’s decision.

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

The court first looked at the release. The trial court had found the release was ambiguous. “A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.”

The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. If the text in the release is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions must be ascertained from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity.

To determine if a contract is valid the contract “…must be read as a whole, construed so as to give effect to every word or phrase as far as practicable…” An ambiguous contract is also referred to as a contract “…reasonable susceptible to more than one interpretation.”

The appellate court found the release was not ambiguous.

We conclude that, when read as a whole and interpreted in conjunction with the NASTAR registration form on its reverse side, the language of the Participant release is unambiguous and in-tended to relieve defendant of “all liability” for injuries suffered during training for or participating in a racing competition.

The plaintiff also argued that the release only applied when the plaintiff was racing or training for NASTAR. Here the court found for the plaintiff. On this issue, the appellate court agreed with the trial court and held that the release could be interpreted to only be for racing or training for NASTAR events.

A rope hanging below the chairlift was not a listed risk in the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act. Therefore, the court needed to determine if the ski area safety act applied to this risk.

There is no dispute that the nylon rope that entangled plaintiff is a hazard not listed in MCL 408.342(2). Thus, the question is whether the placement of a nylon rope under a chair lift is inherent to skiing and, if so, whether placement of the rope in this case was obvious and necessary. For defendant to be entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), these material facts must be undisputed and defendant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The court held the jury had to determine if the risk was obvious and necessary and inherent to skiing.

The appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for additional discovery by the parties and trial.

So Now What?

Any time you have an incident on the lift outside of the loading and unloading area it is going to create a problem for the courts and a question of fact. In several states, like Colorado, the operator of a lift owes the highest degree of care to the lift riders. In Colorado, this case would be based on how much the check would be, not if there was going to be a check.

Furthermore, a rope hanging below a lift that a skier could catch a ski or board with is also suspect. Whether the riders were bouncing on the lift or a gust of wind did force the chair down, that is a risk that needed to be looked at from all angles. Skiers running into people and legs extending from the chair and people on the chair catching their fee in it is a risk of roping off an area under a lift.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ronald Ritari, JR. and Tama Ritari, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., doing business as Marquette Mountain, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 335870

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

October 24, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Ritari v. Peter E. O’Dovero, 2018 Mich. LEXIS 90 (Mich., Jan. 12, 2018)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Marquette Circuit Court. LC No. 16-054384-NO.

CORE TERMS: skiing, nastar, rope, training, ski, chair lift, racing, placement, sport, registration form, hazard, recreational, ski area, participating, skier, lift, competitive, competitor, hazardous, alpine, matter of law, clearance, snowboarding, season, risks associated, reverse side, unambiguous, susceptible, entangled, ambiguous

JUDGES: Before: K. F. KELLY, P.J., and BECKERING and RIORDAN, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In this interlocutory appeal,1 defendant, Peter E. O’Dovero, Inc, d/b/a Marquette Mountain, challenges the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (release, immunity granted by law) and (C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact, movant entitled to judgment as a matter of law). The case arises out of an incident at Marquette Mountain ski resort that occurred when plaintiff, Ronald Ritari, Jr., was riding up the ski hill on a chair lift and became entangled in a rope that had been installed underneath the lift, which pulled him off the lift and caused him to sustain serious injuries in the ensuing fall.2 Because material questions of fact remain, we agree with the trial court that summary disposition is inappropriate at this time.

1 Ronald Ritari Jr v Peter E O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered April 20, 2017 (Docket No. 335870).

2 Plaintiff Tama Ritari’s claim is derivative of her husband’s; therefore, “plaintiff” refers to Ronald Ritari, Jr.

I. PERTINENT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On the evening of January 29, 2015, plaintiff went to Marquette Mountain to ski. He was a season pass holder there and enjoyed NASTAR3 racing. According to plaintiff’s complaint and affidavit, at around 6:45 p.m. he and his son boarded [*2] a chair lift to reach the top of the hill for their first run of the evening. They planned to take a couple of pleasure runs down the hill before their Thursday night ski league began. When his chair was approximately 20 yards from the loading zone, a gust of wind pulled the chair down and the tips of plaintiff’s skis became entangled in a nylon rope attached to the ground by two poles directly below the chair lift. Plaintiff was able to free the tip of his left ski from the rope, but he was unable to free the tip of his right ski, and he felt his leg being pulled backward as his chair continued to move up the hill. Plaintiff grabbed the middle pole of the chair to keep from falling and screamed as loudly as he could for the chair lift operator to stop the lift. But the chair lift did not stop, and plaintiff was pulled out of his chair by the rope. He fell approximately 12 feet to the ground and sustained a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs.

3 According to its website, NASTAR is the “largest public grassroots ski racing program in the world” and “gives recreational racers an opportunity to compete and compare their scores to friends and family regardless of when and where they race using the NASTAR handicap system.” NASTAR competitions typically occur on grand slalom and slalom courses laid out by the host ski resorts in accordance with NASTAR’s instructions. http://www.nastar.com (accessed 9/15/17).

Plaintiff filed suit against defendant, alleging that the ski area was negligent by having ropes in the area of the chair lift, failing to post warnings of the danger, failing to take measures to prevent plaintiff from catching his skis on the [*3] rope, failing to employ the emergency stop when plaintiff yelled for help, and failing to adequately supervise and control the chair lift. Before any discovery began by way of interrogatories, depositions, or otherwise, defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (C)(10), contending that plaintiff had signed releases broad enough to bar any claim for injuries arising out of the incident. Defendant relied on three forms signed by plaintiff.

Specifically, On December 13, 2014, in conjunction with purchasing an annual ski pass at Marquette Mountain for the 2014-2015 season, plaintiff signed a release wherein he agreed to assume “the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing/snowboarding . . . .” On December 16, 2014, he filled out a document in order to participate in NASTAR races. The document, a single sheet of paper, contains two forms, one on the front and one on the back. Hand-printed vertically in capital letters along the right side of both forms are the instructions, “FILL OUT BOTH SIDES.”

On the front side of the NASTAR document is a registration form. The form has headings entitled “Registration Form,” “Racer Information,” [*4] “Team Information,” and “Waiver and Release of Liability.” According to the release language on this form, plaintiff, “in exchange for being permitted to participate in NASTAR events (the “Event”),” assumes all risks associated with his involvement in the event and the “risk of injury caused by the condition of any property, facilities, or equipment used during the Event, whether foreseeable or unforeseeable.”

On the reverse side of the NASTAR document is a release entitled “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant” (henceforth, the “Participant release”). According to the relevant terms of this release, “Participant, the undersigned, being at least 18 years old . . . agrees and understands that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms (hereinafter the “Activity”) is HAZARDOUS4 and may involve the risk of physical injury or death.” The Participant also agrees that “training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing,” that he or she is “a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” According to the release, the Participant assumes all risks associated with the Activity, including but not limited to [*5] the risk of all course conditions, course construction or layout and obstacles, risks associated with riding the lifts, and risks associated with ski lift operations and acts or omissions of employees. The Participant agrees to release defendant from “all liabilities” arising from engagement in “the Activity,” including any injuries caused by the actual negligence of defendant’s employees. In its motion for summary disposition, defendant contended that, by signing this release, plaintiff assumed “all” risks, argued that “all” left no room for exceptions, and stressed that the terms of this release barred plaintiff’s claim for negligence as a matter of law.

4 A fold or wrinkle in the copy of the release that is in the record obscures this word. However, defendant quotes the relevant section of the release in its motion for summary disposition as “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing.”

In support of its motion, defendant also argued that MCL 408.342(2), the assumption of risk provision in the Ski Area Safety Act of 1962 (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., operated to bar plaintiff’s claim because risks associated with fencing and falling from a chair lift inhere in the sport of skiing.

Plaintiff countered that neither the season-pass release nor the assumption of risk provision in SASA barred his claim because the inappropriate placement of a rope directly under the chair lift was not an inherent risk of skiing. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the [*6] rope was not necessary because its placement violated the standards governing minimum clearance between a chair lift and an obstacle below, and it was not obvious because he neither saw it nor expected it to be placed where it was. He further argued that neither side of the executed NASTAR document barred his claim because he was not engaged in a NASTAR event, nor was he training for such an event when he was injured. Finally, plaintiff contended that there remained genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendant’s chair lift personnel were inattentive and failed to timely shut off the chair lift when the rope entangled him, and that this was not a risk assumed pursuant to the assumption of risk provision of SASA.

At the motion hearing, defendant argued that the Participant release on the back side of the NASTAR document applied not just to competitions and training for competitions, but to “skiing in all its forms.” Accordingly, the Participant release controlled resolution of the matter and insulated defendant from any alleged negligent placement of the nylon rope. At the same time, defendant insisted that it had not been negligent in placement of the rope at issue because [*7] the rope’s location complied with required clearance standards and was necessary to the safety of skiers.5 Plaintiff reiterated his argument that the forms on both sides of the NASTAR document pertained to participation in competition-related skiing, and that the rope at issue was neither necessary nor obvious with respect to any assumption of the risk plaintiff assumed when signing up for his season pass or through SASA.

5 Defendant acknowledged plaintiff’s argum
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Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.ent about the front side of the NASTAR document focusing on event racing and the fact that the release language there and in the season pass document coincides with the language of SASA, which is commonly referred to as the assumption of the risk clause. As such, while arguing that the rope at issue was a necessary and obvious danger, defendant focused on the back side of the NASTAR document and its “sweeping” release of defendant’s own negligence for the purpose of his motion for summary disposition at such an early stage in the litigation.

Ruling from the bench, the trial court noted that construing the viability of plaintiff’s claim under SASA turned on necessary factual findings yet to be made, rendering summary disposition inappropriate at that point in the proceedings. With regard to the releases, the trial court observed that the parties’ arguments were geared toward the form on the reverse side of the NASTAR document. The trial court easily dispensed with the front page as being race-related. As for the back side, the Participant release, the trial court concluded that there were questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of liability outside the context of racing or training.

In addition to its location on the back of the NASTAR form, the trial court pointed [*8] to three phrases in the Participant release that seem to limit the scope of that release to training for or participating in a competition. The first is the phrase in which the participant agrees with the premise “that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” The second is the provision, “Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse.” The third phrase is, “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more [hazardous] . . . than recreational skiing.” The trial court described the language of the release as “a little ambiguous” and concluded that in light of the questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of all liability at any time, even when the person who signed it is simply recreationally skiing, summary disposition was premature.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary disposition because the unambiguous language of the December 16, 2014 Participant release releases it from all liability regardless of whether plaintiff was injured [*9] while practicing for a competition, in competition, or simply skiing recreationally. It also claims that it is entitled to summary disposition under the assumption of the risk statute in SASA, MCL 408.343(2). We conclude that defendant is racing too quickly to the finish line in this case, to which it may or may not be entitled a victory.

We review de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition, Casey v Auto Owners Ins Co, 273 Mich App 388, 393; 729 NW2d 277 (2006), as well as issues involving contractual and statutory interpretation, Rodgers v JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, 315 Mich App 301, 307; 890 NW2d 381 (2016).

A. RELEASE

Summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) is appropriate where the terms of a release bar a claim. As this Court has explained,

The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. If the text in the release is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions must be ascertained from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity. [Cole v Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc, 241 Mich App 1, 13-14; 614 NW2d 169 (2000).]

In addition, a contract must be read as a whole, Dobbelaere v Auto-Owners Ins Co, 275 Mich App 527, 529; 740 NW2d 503 (2007), and “construed so as to give effect to every word or phrase as far as practicable,” Klapp v United Ins Group Agency, Inc, 468 Mich 459, 467; 663 NW2d 447 (2003). See [*10] also Restatement Contracts, 2d, § 202, p 86 (“a writing is interpreted as a whole, and all writings that are part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).6 The interpretation of an unambiguous contract is a matter of law. Mich Nat’l Bank, 228 Mich App 710, 714; 580 NW2d 8 (1998).

6 See also Restatement Contracts, 1st, § 235 (“A writing is interpreted as a whole and all writings forming part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).

After our review of the language of the Participant release, we disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that the language of the release is ambiguous, or in other words, “reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 272 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (“A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.”). However, we agree with plaintiff, not defendant, as to its meaning and scope. Several factors indicate that the NASTAR registration and Participant release were part of the same transaction–which is in fact undisputed–and therefore, should be read and interpreted together: the “Participant” release is on the reverse side of the NASTAR registration form, both forms bear the handwritten instruction to “fill out both sides,” and plaintiff executed both releases on the same date specifically in order to participate in NASTAR races. We conclude that, when read as a whole and interpreted in conjunction with the NASTAR registration form on its reverse side, [*11] the language of the Participant release is unambiguous and intended to relieve defendant of “all liability” for injuries suffered during training for or participating in a racing competition.

As noted above, the trial court identified three examples where the language of the release focuses specifically on competitive skiing. After identifying the “Activity” in which the Participant is participating as “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” and noting that it may involve physical injury or death, the release requires the participant to “agree and understand that training and racing competitively is more [hazardous] than recreational skiing” (emphasis added). In addition, the release requires the participant to “agree with the Premise that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition” (emphasis added). Note that it does not also say when simply pleasure skiing or taking the children out for lessons on the bunny hill. Further, the Participant is required to “agree that Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse” (emphasis added). This focuses [*12] on race-related activities. Even without consideration of the NASTAR release, the fact that the Participant release requires the participant to agree expressly to statements emphasizing the dangers of training for and participating in competitive racing specifically renders the release susceptible to the interpretation that its focus is on insulating defendant from liability for injuries sustained by participants when training for or competing in races.

Defendant contends that the Participant release’s acknowledgement that competitive racing is more hazardous than recreational skiing does not restrict the release’s scope to competitive skiing. However, the release does more than merely acknowledge the dangers of competitive skiing; it requires the Participant to expressly agree that competitive skiing is more hazardous than recreational skiing. Moreover, under the defendant’s alleged interpretation, the Participant’s acknowledgement that he or she is a competitor at all times renders it impossible for the person who signs the release as a “Participant” to ever ski recreationally. According to the logic of defendant’s argument, once a person fills out the NASTAR registration form and [*13] accompanying Participant release, he or she is a “competitor” indefinitely, regardless of whether he or she is actually competing or training for a competition.7

7 Under defendant’s proposed at-all-times interpretation, there is no time frame for how long someone is considered to be a Participant if that word is not tied to actual racing or training. Are they deemed to be a Participant for the rest of the season? Indefinitely? What if they only participated in one race? In doing so, have they given up all rights they might otherwise have had as a recreational skier? And where does it say that in the release? Defendant’s proposed interpretation creates an ambiguity that it cannot resolve within the confines of the agreement.

Other portions of the Participant release also support the conclusion that the unambiguous language limits its scope to liability for injuries suffered during or while training for a ski or snowboard competition. The heading contains what one might reasonably construe as an identification of the parties to the release, “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant.” The comma inserted between “Marquette Mountain Ski Area” and “Competition Participant” suggests that the release involves Marquette Mountain Ski Area on one side, and a “competition participant” on the other. Defendant urges this Court to ignore the “competition participant” designation, arguing that it is not part of the four corners of the agreement and is neither used nor defined in the release. However, interpreting the NASTAR release and the Participant release together makes clear that “competition participant” refers to the person participating in the NASTAR competition that defendant is hosting.8 Further, if “competition” refers only to the NASTAR [*14] event, but “participant” can have more than one referent,9 it seems reasonable that the release would focus on defining “participant” to ensure inclusion of all the word’s possible meanings. Additionally, that the participant is “a competitor at all times” harkens back to “competition participant” in the heading, again allowing one to reasonably interpret the release to pertain only to the release of liability arising from injuries associated with training for or racing in a competition.

8 The mere fact that the release uses the word “Participant” conjures up images of participation in something; it would not lead the reader to conclude that one is a Participant whenever they are on the slopes, even when they are not actually participating in anything or training for anything.

9 E.g., “participant” includes a person at least 18-years old, a participating minor, and the parents or legal guardian of as well as his or her parent or legal guardian.

Moreover, the Participant warrants in the Participant release that he or she is in good health and has left no special instructions “that have not been listed on the registration form.” Although the Participant release makes no further mention of a registration form, the NASTAR document on the reverse side is both a registration form and a release, and it contains a ‘Physically Challenged” heading where competitors may identify their physical or intellectual challenges.

Finally, defendant asserts that “alpine skiing and snowboarding” is not limited to competitive racing. This is true; “alpine skiing” may refer to downhill skiing for sport or recreation. However, interpreting the Participant release with [*15] the NASTAR release renders the phrase “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” susceptible to the interpretation that it refers specifically to the three downhill disciplines from which participants may choose to compete at a NASTAR event: alpine skiing, snowboarding, and telemarker (which combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing).

Given the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the trial court correctly denied defendant’s motion for summary disposition associated with the Participant release, but it erred to the extent it deemed the release language ambiguous. Assuming factual development establishes that plaintiff was not engaged in training for or competing in racing activities at the time of his injury, as plaintiff contends it will, the Participant release does not apply. Moreover, for the reasons set forth below, determination of whether the release language in plaintiff’s season pass bars his claim–which entails an assumption of the risks inherent in skiing analysis–will depend on further factual development gleaned from discovery, which has not yet begun.

B. MCL 408.342(2)

A motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual sufficiency of a claim. Smith v Globe Life Ins Co, 460 Mich 446, 454; 597 NW2d 28 (1999). Summary disposition [*16] under (C)(10) is proper if the documentary evidence filed by the parties and viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion fails to show a genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich 358, 362; 547 NW2d 314 (1996).

The Legislature enacted SASA in 1962, and amended it in 1981. Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich App 731, 737; 613 NW2d 383 (2000) (quotation marks and citation omitted). One of the purposes of the Legislature’s amendment was “to make the skier, rather than the ski area operator, bear the burden of damages from injuries.” Id. Thus, among the provisions in the 1981 amendment was one for the acceptance of risk by skiers, MCL 408.342(2), which provides as follows:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snowmaking or snow-grooming equipment.

Where, as here, an injury results [*17] from a hazard not listed in the statute, Michigan’s Supreme Court has established a test to determine whether a defendant ski resort is nevertheless immune on grounds that the hazard is of the same type as those listed in the statute. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, 469 Mich 20, 24-25; 664 NW2d 756 (2003).

At issue in Anderson was whether the assumption of risk provision barred the plaintiff’s suit for injuries suffered when he collided with a timing shack during a skiing race. The Supreme Court determined that the different types of hazards listed in MCL 408.342(2) had in common “that they all inhere in the sport of skiing and, as long as they are obvious and necessary to the sport, there is immunity from suit.” Id. at 25. Thus, once a hazard is determined to be inherent to the sport of skiing, “only if [it is] unnecessary or not obvious is the ski operator liable.” Id. at 26. Applying the facts of Anderson to its legal conclusion, the Supreme Court reasoned:

There is no disputed issue of fact in this matter that in ski racing, timing, as it determines who is the winner, is necessary. Moreover, there is no dispute that for the timing equipment to function, it is necessary that it be protected from the elements. This protection was afforded by the shack that all also agree was obvious [*18] in its placement at the end of the run. We have then a hazard of the same sort as the ski towers and snow-making and grooming machines to which the statute refers us. As with the towers and equipment, this hazard inheres in the sport of skiing. The placement of the timing shack is thus a danger that skiers such as Anderson are held to have accepted as a matter of law. [Id. at 25-26.]

Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the ski operator was immune from suit because the timing shack was a hazard inherent to skiing, and it was necessary and obvious.

We conclude that the trial court did not err in finding that, at this early stage of the proceedings, the record facts are simply insufficient to determine whether SASA applies to bar plaintiff’s claim. There is no dispute that the nylon rope that entangled plaintiff is a hazard not listed in MCL 408.342(2). Thus, the question is whether the placement of a nylon rope under a chair lift is inherent to skiing and, if so, whether placement of the rope in this case was obvious and necessary. For defendant to be entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), these material facts must be undisputed and defendant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

However, [*19] the parties dispute the material facts. And the record evidence–given that discovery has not yet begun–is not sufficient to resolve their disputes. For example, although both parties agree that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard B77.1-2006 governs the construction, installation, and operation of a ski lift, they dispute whether defendant’s positioning of the rope violated the clearance requirements set forth in ANSI, and whether such violation renders defendant liable for injuries attributable to the violation. In fact, there is no record evidence as to what the rope was even for, making impossible at this point a determination of whether it was a necessary part of skiing. Plaintiff asserts that defendant’s placement of the rope “in an area directly below the chair lift” violated the ANSI standards, and that the rope was neither obvious nor necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s allegation that his fall to the ground was approximately 12 feet demonstrates that defendant complied with the requirement to have a clearance of at least 8 feet between the lowest point of the carrier and the terrain. In addition, defendant characterizes the rope as a “fence,” [*20] and asserts, “fencing and its risks are intrinsic in the sport of skiing,” and further asserts that the rope/fence was absolutely needed to prevent skiers from traveling under the chair lift and being injured.” However, because there is nothing in the record evidence indicating the rope’s purpose or its location relative to the chair lift and the terrain, it is impossible to determine where the rope was placed and whether it was necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s description of his fall in his affidavit demonstrates that there was at least an 8-foot clearance between the carrier, but defendant has not eliminated the possibility that the rope was too close to the carrier when it caught plaintiff’s skis, and it begs the question of why there was a rope if the minimum clearance did not require one. In short, defendant has not met its burden to submit affirmative evidence indicating that it was entitled to summary disposition on grounds that the dangers posed by the nylon rope at issue were inherent to skiing, and that they were necessary and obvious.10
Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

10 Because we conclude that defendant’s motion for summary disposition was properly denied at this stage of the case, we need not address plaintiff’s additional argument that SASA does not bar his claim arising from the chair lift operator’s alleged failure to stop the chair lift after plaintiff became entangled in the rope.

Affirmed.

/s/ Kirsten Frank Kelly

/s/ Jane M. Beckering

/s/ Michael J. Riordan


Allowing a climber to climb with harness on backwards on health club climbing wall enough for court to accept gross negligence claim and invalidate the release.

Whether or not the employee was present the entire time, is irrelevant, anytime any employee had the opportunity to see the harness on incorrectly was enough to be gross negligence.

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez

Defendant: LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

Facts

The facts are difficult to determine because the interpretation of the court in its opinion does not follow the normal language used in the climbing industry.

The plaintiff was injured when he leaned back to descend after climbing a climbing wall. Because he was not hooked in properly, something broke, and he fell. The plaintiff claims an employee of the defendant watched him put the harness on and hook into the belay system. The employee alleges she was not present for that. The plaintiff allegedly put the harness on backwards.

The harness allegedly had a red loop that should have been in front. No one either knew how the harness was to be worn or that the harness was on incorrectly.

Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

The plaintiff argued the employee was grossly negligent. The trial court granted the defendants motion to dismiss based on the release, and this appeal ensued.

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

The court first started by defining gross negligence under Michigan’s law. Michigan law is similar if not identical to many other states. Gross negligence requires proof the defendant engaged in reckless conduct or acted in a way that demonstrated a substantial lack of concern for the plaintiff.

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]”

Although the issue debated in the appeal was the location of the employee when the plaintiff was putting on the harness and climbing. It was undisputed the defendant’s employee was instructing the plaintiff while he was climbing. Eventually, the court found this not to be a real issue since any opportunity to see the harness was on incorrectly would have allowed the defendants employee to resolve the issue.

Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness.

Failure then, to spot the problem or resolve the problem was proof of gross negligence, or a failure to care about the safety and welfare of the plaintiff.

Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence.

Because the court could determine the acts of the defendant employee were possibly gross negligence, it was enough to determine what occurred and if gross negligence occurred.

So Now What?

This is pretty plane on its face. You allow a person to use a piece of equipment incorrectly who is then injured there is going to be a lawsuit. You allow a person to use a piece of safety equipment, equipment needed for the safe operation of your business incorrectly you are going to lose no matter how well written your release.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

Alvarez v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellants, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellee, Jane Doe, Defendant. David Alvarez and Elena Alvarez, Plaintiff-Appellees, v LTF Club Operations Company Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center, and Defendant-Appellant, Jane Doe, Defendant.

No. 328221, No. 328985

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 2198

November 29, 2016, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO. Oakland Circuit Court. LC No. 2014-140282-NO.

CORE TERMS: harness, climbing, gross negligence, rock, climb, belay, incorrectly, backwards, walked, deposition testimony, loop, red, putting, front, genuine issue, material fact, reasonable minds, precautions, favorable, watched, donned, order granting, rock climbing, grossly negligent, adjacent, facing, matter of law, conduct constituted, ordinary negligence, evidence submitted

JUDGES: Before: M. J. KELLY, P.J., and MURRAY and BORRELLO, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In Docket No. 328221, plaintiffs, David Alvarez and his wife Elena Alvarez, appeal as of right the trial court’s order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., doing business as Lifetime Fitness Center (Lifetime). In Docket No. 328985, Lifetime appeals as of right the order denying its request for case evaluation sanctions and for taxation of costs. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the trial court’s order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.

This litigation arises from David’s fall from a rock climbing wall at Lifetime’s facility in Novi. Plaintiffs were at Lifetime, where they are members, with their minor daughter to allow her the opportunity to use the rock climbing wall. Neither the plaintiffs, nor their daughter, had previously attempted to use the rock climbing wall. After David signed the requisite forms, Karina Montes Agredano, a Lifetime employee, provided David with a harness, he climbed to the top of the rock wall, [*2]  and attempted to lower himself back down via the automatic belay system. However, because David’s harness was on backwards and incorrectly hooked to the belay system, it broke and he fell to the ground suffering multiple injuries.

Plaintiffs argued that, as an employee of Lifetime, Agredano was grossly negligent1 in failing to ascertain whether David had properly attached his harness and the belay system before permitting him to climb the rock wall or descend. Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition arguing the assumption of risk and waiver of liability provision within the paperwork David signed barred plaintiffs’ claims because Agredano’s asserted conduct constituted only ordinary negligence and not gross negligence. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition finding plaintiffs failed to “present any evidence establishing that defendant was grossly negligent in failing to take precautions for plaintiff’s safety.”

1 Plaintiffs had signed a waiver of any negligence based liability.

Plaintiffs assert that the trial court erred in dismissing their claim of gross negligence against Lifetime, arguing a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Agredano [*3]  was grossly negligent. We agree.

The trial court granted summary disposition in accordance with MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (10). This Court reviews “de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition.” In re Mardigian Estate, 312 Mich App 553, 557; 879 NW2d 313 (2015). Specifically:

When considering a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), a court must view the evidence submitted in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence submitted might permit inferences contrary to the facts as asserted by the movant. When entertaining a summary disposition motion under Subrule (C)(10), the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence. [Id. at 557-558, quoting Dillard v Schlussel, 308 Mich App 429, 444-445; 865 NW2d 648 (2014) (quotation marks omitted).]

In addition:

In determining whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7), a court must accept as true a plaintiff’s well-pleaded factual allegations, affidavits, or other [*4]  documentary evidence and construe them in the plaintiff’s favor. Where there are no factual disputes and reasonable minds cannot differ on the legal effect of the facts, the decision regarding whether a plaintiff’s claim is barred by the statute of limitations is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo. [Terrace Land Dev Corp v Seeligson & Jordan, 250 Mich App 452, 455; 647 NW2d 524 (2002) (citation omitted).]

To establish a claim for gross negligence, it is incumbent on a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant acted or engaged in “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 269; 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (citations omitted). “Evidence of ordinary negligence is insufficient to create a material question of fact regarding the existence of gross negligence.” Woodman v Kera, LLC, 280 Mich App 125, 152; 760 NW2d 641 (2008), aff’d 486 Mich 228 (2010). “The issue of gross negligence may be determined by summary disposition only where reasonable minds could not differ.” Id. “Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient under Michigan law, because, with the benefit of hindsight, a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result.” Tarlea v Crabtree, 263 Mich App 80, 90; 687 NW2d 333 (2004). However, gross negligence will often be exhibited by a “willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety[.]” Id.

As [*5]  evidence of Agredano’s gross negligence, plaintiffs offered their deposition testimony. In his deposition testimony, David indicated that Agredano provided him with a harness and was present as he put it on and prepared to climb the wall:

  1. Q. And where was [Agredano] when you were placing the harness on yourself?
  2. A. She was in front of us. We were here. She was in front of us.
  3. Q. So she’s staring directly at your as you’re putting the harness on?
  4. A. She was, yeah, in front of us. We were here, and she was — I mean, we could show the picture if you want.
  5. Q. But I want to know if she was facing you when you were putting this harness on?
  6. A. Yes.

* * *

  1. Q. How much time elapsed between the time that you had your harness on and began climbing from the time when your wife began climbing?
  2. A. Okay. So they walked over to the wall, and then, as soon as I put on my harness, I walked over to the wall adjacent to [Agredano], and I watched my wife. She was already up the So whatever time it took for her to get up the eight feet, which is probably a couple minutes. I mean, a minute maybe.
  3. Q. All right. And when you walked over to the wall, was [Agredano] standing to your right?
  4. A. When I walked over to [*6] the wall, she was on my right.
  5. Q. And would you say she was within three or four feet of you?
  6. A. I could touch her. She was right there.

Further, David stated that Agredano spoke to him after he had inadvertently placed the harness on backwards and directed him to a climbing area, but did not warn him that the red loop on his harness should be on his front before he began to climb the wall:

  1. Q. When were you told to hook into something between your legs?
  2. A. Sure. So I had trouble putting on the harness, right? They walked over to the I followed . . . . I was next to — adjacent to [Agredano] . . . . As my wife started to come down [the rock wall], I asked — I asked, where should I go climb? [Agredano] pointed me over to the other adjacent valet or belay.
  3. Q. Belay
  4. A. Belay. Then somewhere between there I asked — or I don’t know if I asked, but she said, Hook it between your legs. . . .

David also stated that Agredano was present in the climbing wall area during the whole incident and watched him climb the rock wall while wearing the harness incorrectly:

  1. Q. And was [Agredano] facing you when you began climbing?
  2. A. She was facing both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. What I want to know is were [sic] you and [*7] your wife on the climbing, and she was behind you looking at the two of you?
  2. A. Yeah. She was looking at both of us.

* * *

  1. Q. Was there any point in time, while you were putting on your harness or after you put on your harness, where [Agredano] was inside the wall, through this door?
  2. A. No.
  3. Q. So she was outside in the climbing wall area with you the entire time?
  4. A. Correct.

In Elena’s deposition testimony, she testified that Agredano also spoke to David after he reached the top of the rock wall, gave him instructions regarding how to descend, and instructed David to let go of the wall despite his incorrectly worn harness:

  1. Q. What happened at that point?
  2. A. And he said — he asked her twice how to go down. And he asked her two times, because I remember, like, why he’s asking her? . . . So then, when he asked her two times, she said, just let go, and it will bring you down, the automatically thing will bring you down. And she said, I think, you know, push, let go. She said, just let go. Just let go. . . .

While Agredano claimed that she was not in the room when David incorrectly donned his harness and ascended the wall, we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and [*8]  accept their testimony as true. Terrace Land Dev Corp, 250 Mich App at 455. David and Elena’s deposition testimony was that Agredano was present when David donned his harness and ascended the wall, that she had ample opportunity to determine that David had put his harness on incorrectly, but that she failed to correct his mistake. Further, plaintiffs testified that Agredano watched David climb the wall in an unsafe harness, and directed David to let go of the wall to repel back down to the ground despite the red loop on David’s harness indicating that his harness was on backwards. Thus, plaintiffs’ testimony allows the inference that Agredano did not simply have the ability to do more to assure David’s safe climb. Instead, accepting plaintiffs’ testimony as true, evidence exists that Agredano ignored the red loop in David’s harness–a clear visible indication2 that David was climbing the rock wall in an unsafe manner–and took no steps to avoid the known danger associated with climbing the rock wall with an improperly secured harness. Thus, Agredano’s alleged failure to affirmatively instruct David on the proper way to wear the harness before he donned it himself, coupled with her alleged disregard for the red loop warning sign [*9]  that David had his harness on backwards, and instructing him to push off the wall, could demonstrate to a reasonable juror that she “simply did not care about the safety or welfare of” David. Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Accordingly, reasonable minds could differ regarding whether Agredano’s conduct constituted gross negligence. Thus, the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition.

2 Agredano testified that if someone was standing below a rock climber, that person would be readily able to see if a harness was on backwards.

Because we have concluded that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to defendant, it is unnecessary for us to address in Docket No. 328985 whether the decision to deny the case evaluation award would otherwise have been appropriate if the grant of summary disposition had been proper.

We reverse the order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

/s/ Michael J. Kelly

/s/ Christopher M. Murray

/s/ Stephen L. Borrello

 


Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

Lee Bergin, et al., Appellants, vs. Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area, Respondent.

A13-1050

COURT OF APPEALS OF MINNESOTA

2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

March 17, 2014, Filed

NOTICE: THIS OPINION WILL BE UNPUBLISHED AND MAY NOT BE CITED EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY MINNESOTA STATUTES.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

Chisago County District Court File No. 13-CV-11-695.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: For Appellants: James P. Carey, Marcia K. Miller, Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For Respondent: Brian N. Johnson, John J. Wackman, Peter Gray, Nilan Johnson Lewis, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota.

JUDGES: Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Hooten, Judge.

OPINION BY: HOOTEN

OPINION

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

HOOTEN, Judge

In this personal-injury action, appellants-skiers sued respondent-ski resort for damages resulting from a skiing accident. Appellants challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of respondent, arguing that the district court erred by (1) denying their motion to amend the complaint to add allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct; (2) determining that an exculpatory clause bars their claim of ordinary negligence; and (3) applying the doctrine of primary assumption of risk to bar their claim of ordinary negligence. Because respondent’s conduct does not give rise to a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence, and because the exculpatory clause is enforceable to bar a claim of ordinary negligence, we affirm.

FACTS

Appellants Lee and Cathy Bergin sued respondent [*2] Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area for injuries that Lee sustained while skiing at Wild Mountain. The Bergins sought damages for Lee’s physical injuries, loss of wages and earning ability, loss of property, and medical expenses, as well as for Cathy’s loss of services, companionship, and consortium. Following discovery, Wild Mountain moved for summary judgment. The pleadings and discovery reveal the following.

In March 2010, Robert Knight purchased over the internet 2010-2011 season passes to Wild Mountain for himself, the Bergins, and another individual. To complete the purchase, Knight agreed to a season-pass agreement which included a release of liability:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms is a hazardous sport that has many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of this sport. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury, death or property damage, and release Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area . . . and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from [*3] any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises and facilities, the operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the area, or my participation in skiing or other activities at the area, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all such damage of injury of any kind which may result.

In accordance with Minnesota law, nothing in this Release of Liability should be construed as releasing, discharging or waiving claims I may have for reckless, willful, wanton, or intentional acts on the part of Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area, or its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees.

Knight [*4] did not ask Lee about the release of liability before agreeing to it. Lee wrote a check to Knight for the Bergins’ season passes. In his deposition, Lee admitted that he authorized Knight to purchase the season passes, that he had purchased season passes to Wild Mountain since 2001 and had agreed to a release of liability each year, that he understood the release of liability, and that he would have authorized Knight to purchase the season passes had he known about the release of liability.1

1 The Bergins do not appeal the district court’s determination that Lee is bound by the season-pass agreement even though he did not execute it himself.

On the morning of November 28, 2010, the Bergins arrived at Wild Mountain to pick up their season passes and ski. The season pass is a wallet-sized card with Lee’s name and picture on the front and the following language on the back:

I agree and understand that skiing and snowboarding involve the risk of personal injury and death. I agree to assume those risks. These risks include trail conditions that vary due to changing weather and skier use, ice, variations in terrain and snow, moguls, rocks, forest growth, debris, lift towers, fences, mazes, snow [*5] grooming, and snowmaking equipment, other skiers, and other man-made objects. I agree to always ski and snowboard in control and to avoid these objects and other skiers. I agree to learn and obey the skier personal responsibility code.

The Bergins and their friends skied “The Wall,” a double-black-diamond trail. At the top of The Wall, Lee observed that there were mounds of snow on the skiers’ left side of the run. Thinking that the left side was not skiable terrain, Lee skied down the right side. Then, at the bottom of the hill in the flat transition or run-out area, Lee encountered a “mound of snow” that he could not avoid. He hit the snow mound, flew up six to ten feet in the air, and landed on his back and the tails of his skis. Lee estimated that the snow mound was “maybe a little bigger” and “maybe a little taller” than a sofa, and that “there was no sharp edges defining” it. After the fall, Lee underwent surgery on his back and is partially paralyzed.

Daniel Raedeke, the president of Wild Mountain, testified by affidavit that Wild Mountain started making snow on The Wall on November 25, three days before Lee’s accident. On the morning of November 26, snowmaking ceased and The [*6] Wall was opened for skiing. According to Raedeke, “hundreds of skiers took thousands of runs down The Wall prior to” Lee’s accident. Raedeke added:

At the completion of snowmaking activities, there were some terrain variations at various points throughout the entire Wall run from top to bottom and side to side. Terrain variations from snowmaking are common at Minnesota (and Midwest) ski areas, particularly early in the season as ski areas rely on machine-made snow to get the areas open. It is very common for terrain variation to be encountered by skiers in Minnesota and elsewhere and they are generally well-liked, particularly by expert level skiers like [Lee].

Raedeke testified that “Wild Mountain received no reports of anything being hazardous or even out-of-the ordinary on The Wall.”

The Bergins submitted the affidavits of two ski-safety experts, Seth Bayer and Richard Penniman. Bayer testified that Wild Mountain “engaged in snow-making activity, intentionally created the hazard [Lee] encountered by creating large mounds of man-made snow . . . then intentionally left the snow-making mound in the run-out or transition area.” According to Bayer, Wild Mountain “knew or should have known [*7] that the snow-making mound in the transition area created a hazard and should have groomed out the mound or further identified the mound as a hazard.” He added that Wild Mountain failed to follow professional safety standards in making and grooming the snow.

Similarly, Penniman testified that complying with professional safety standards “would have entailed grooming out the snow making mounds; putting fencing around the snow making mounds; and warning skiers of the mounds with a rope barricade and caution signs.” He testified that “Wild Mountain’s failure to have a consistent and structured snow making and grooming policy, which specifically addressed the [professional safety standard], caused or contributed to the unsafe decision to leave a large mound of man-made snow in the transition area between the bottom of The Wall ski trail and the chair lift.” According to Penniman, “snow making mounds are not an inherent risk to the sport of skiing.”

Following discovery and Wild Mountain’s motion for summary judgment, the Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. In April 2013, the district court denied the Bergins’ motion and granted summary [*8] judgment in favor of Wild Mountain. This appeal follows.

DECISION

I.

[HN1] After a responsive pleading is served, “a party may amend a pleading only by leave of court or by written consent of the adverse party; and leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. [HN2] “We review a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint for an abuse of discretion.” Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Co-op. Oil Co., 817 N.W.2d 693, 714 (Minn. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 1249, 185 L. Ed. 2d 180 (2013). [HN3] “A district court should allow amendment unless the adverse party would be prejudiced, but the court does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment.” Id. (citations omitted).

[HN4] Summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. [HN5] A genuine issue of material fact does not exist “when the nonmoving party presents evidence which merely creates a metaphysical doubt [*9] as to a factual issue and which is not sufficiently probative with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case to permit reasonable persons to draw different conclusions.” DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 71 (Minn. 1997). [HN6] On appeal, “[w]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. We review de novo whether a genuine issue of material fact exists. We also review de novo whether the district court erred in its application of the law.” STAR Ctrs., Inc. v. Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., 644 N.W.2d 72, 76-77 (Minn. 2002) (citations omitted).

The Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add the allegation that Lee’s accident “was a result of the reckless, willful, or wanton conduct” of Wild Mountain. They assert that Wild Mountain “knew or should have known that a large, un-marked, un-groomed, mound of snow in the transition area between ‘The Wall’ and a chair lift . . . created a significant risk of physical harm to skiers.” The district court concluded that, although Wild Mountain would not be prejudiced if the motion to amend was granted,2 the motion must still be denied because the proposed claim “would not survive [*10] summary judgment, as [Wild Mountain’s] conduct does not, as a matter of law, rise to the level of reckless, willful or wanton.”

2 Wild Mountain does not challenge this finding on appeal.

The Bergins argue that the district court erred as a matter of law by “[r]equiring [them] to move to amend the [c]omplaint.” They assert that “Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 9.02 does not require plaintiffs to plead allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct with particularity.” See Minn. R. Civ. P. 9.02 (stating that “[m]alice, intent, knowledge, and other condition of mind of a person may be averred generally”). Accordingly, they contend that the district court should have examined whether Wild Mountain committed greater-than-ordinary negligence based on the complaint and discovery.

The Bergins’ reliance on rule 9.02 is misplaced. [HN7] Although the Bergins were not required to plead a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence with particularity under rule 9.02, they still had to plead it with “a short and plain statement . . . showing that [they are] entitled to relief” under Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01, which they failed to do by pleading only a claim of “negligence and carelessness.” See L.K. v. Gregg, 425 N.W.2d 813, 819 (Minn. 1988) [*11] (stating that pleadings are liberally construed to “give[] adequate notice of the claim” against the defending party); cf. State v. Hayes, 244 Minn. 296, 299-300, 70 N.W.2d 110, 113 (1955) (concluding that “both at common law and by virtue of long-established usage,” the term “carelessness” in a criminal statute is “synonymous with ordinary negligence”).3

3 We also note that the district court did not require the Bergins to move to amend their complaint. Following a hearing on the summary judgment motion, the district court sent a letter to the parties, stating that “[a]t the Summary Judgment Motion Hearing, [the Bergins] moved the Court to amend the Complaint” and that “[t]he Court will leave the record open” for them to file the motion. The district court simply responded to the Bergins’ desire to amend the complaint without requiring them to do so.

Turning to the Bergins’ substantive argument, they assert that “there are questions of fact regarding whether Wild Mountain engaged in reckless or willful or wanton conduct that . . . preclude summary judgment.” [HN8] “[R]eckless conduct includes willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others . . . .” Kempa v. E.W. Coons Co., 370 N.W.2d 414, 421 (Minn. 1985).

The [*12] 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) (emphasis added); see also 4 Minnesota Practice, CIVJIG 25.37 (2006). “Willful and wanton conduct is the failure to exercise ordinary care after discovering a person or property in a position of peril.” Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 829 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 28, 2002).

The Bergins argue that their expert affidavits support their claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. We are not persuaded for three reasons.

First, [HN9] “[a]ffidavits in opposition to a motion for summary judgment do not create issues of fact if they merely recite conclusions without any specific factual support.” Grandnorthern, Inc. v. W. Mall P’ship, 359 N.W.2d 41, 44 (Minn. App. 1984). Bayer’s testimony that Wild [*13] Mountain “knew” that the snow mound was hazardous is speculation because there is no evidence that Bayer knew Wild Mountain employees’ state of mind before Lee’s fall and injury.

Second, the Bergins misunderstand the “had reason to know” standard for establishing a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. The Bergins contend that they need not prove knowledge to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence and that it is enough that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous. But [HN10] knowledge separates the “had reason to know” standard from the “should have known” standard:

(1) The words “reason to know” . . . denote the fact that the actor has information from which a person of reasonable intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would infer that the fact in question exists, or that such person would govern his conduct upon the assumption that such fact exists.

(2) The words “should know” . . . denote the fact that a person of reasonable prudence and intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would ascertain the fact in question in the performance of his duty to another, or would govern his conduct upon the assumption that [*14] such fact exists.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 12 (1965) (emphases added). Accordingly, Bayer’s testimony that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous is insufficient to establish the state of mind necessary to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.

Finally, the expert affidavits are insufficient to establish that Wild Mountain had reason to know that the snow mound was hazardous. According to Bayer and Penniman, the snow mound was hazardous because skiers do not expect a snow mound in the transition run-out area and because the lighting condition obscured the snow mound. Assuming that these alleged facts are true, nothing in the record suggests that Wild Mountain had knowledge of these facts from which to infer that the snow mound was hazardous. Rather, Raedeke’s testimony shows that Wild Mountain received no complaints from hundreds of skiers who skied The Wall before Lee’s accident. The expert affidavits are, at most, evidence that a reasonable person managing the ski operation would not have created, or would have marked, the snow mound in the run-out area. This evidence shows only ordinary negligence.

Because the evidence is insufficient [*15] to establish that Wild Mountain engaged in conduct constituting greater-than-ordinary negligence, the district court correctly determined that a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence would not survive a motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, the district court acted within its discretion by denying the Bergins’ motion to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. See Johnson, 817 N.W.2d at 714 (stating that [HN11] a district court “does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment”).

The Bergins also argue that the district court “did not address the evidence that created questions of material fact regarding Wild Mountain’s reckless, willful, or wanton conduct.” But the district court examined Wild Mountain’s conduct and concluded that it “does not meet the standards for gross negligence, willful and wanton conduct, or reckless conduct (as defined by both parties).” The district court’s discussion of Lee’s knowledge of the inherent risks of skiing–while perhaps extraneous–does not indicate that the district court failed to analyze Wild Mountain’s conduct.

II.

The Bergins argue [*16] that the district court erred by determining that the exculpatory clause bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence. [HN12] The interpretation of a written contract is a question of law reviewed de novo. Borgersen v. Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 729 N.W.2d 619, 625 (Minn. App. 2007). [HN13] Under certain circumstances, “parties to a contract may . . . protect themselves against liability resulting from their own negligence.” See Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 922-23 (Minn. 1982) (considering exculpatory clauses in construction contracts and commercial leases). “A clause exonerating a party from liability,” known as an exculpatory clause, is enforceable if it: (1) is “unambiguous”; (2) is “limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only”; and (3) does not violate public policy. See id. at 923. “An exculpatory clause is ambiguous when it is susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” Beehner, 636 N.W.2d at 827.

The district court concluded that Wild Mountain’s exculpatory clause is enforceable because it is unambiguous and bars only ordinary-negligence claims. The Bergins contend that the exculpatory clause is ambiguous because “there are questions of fact [*17] regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.” They assert that the exculpatory clause and the language on the season-pass card “construed together are overly broad and ambiguous” because the season-pass card contains a non-exhaustive list of risks while the season-pass agreement expressly excludes greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause. We are not persuaded.

Because [HN14] a contract ambiguity exists only if it is “found in the language of the document itself,” we consider whether the season-pass card is a part of the season-pass agreement between Lee and Wild Mountain. See Instrumentation Servs., Inc. v. Gen. Res. Corp., 283 N.W.2d 902, 908 (Minn. 1979). [HN15] “It is well established that where contracts relating to the same transaction are put into several instruments they will be read together and each will be construed with reference to the other.” Anchor Cas. Co. v. Bird Island Produce, Inc., 249 Minn. 137, 146, 82 N.W.2d 48, 54 (1957). Here, the contractual relationship between Lee and Wild Mountain was formed when the online season-pass agreement was executed more than eight months before Lee picked up the season-pass card. [*18] As the district court correctly concluded, the season-pass card itself is not a contract. Although the season-pass card contains language emphasizing the inherent risk of skiing, it does not contain an offer by Wild Mountain to be legally bound to any terms. See Glass Serv. Co., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 530 N.W.2d 867, 870 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. June 29, 1995). And as a corollary, Lee could not have accepted an offer that did not exist. The season-pass card is an extrinsic document that does not create an ambiguity in the season-pass agreement.

The Bergins rely on Hackel v. Whitecap Recreations, 120 Wis. 2d 681, 357 N.W.2d 565 (Wis. Ct. App. 1984) (Westlaw). There, a skier was injured when he was “caught in a depression apparently caused by the natural drainage of water.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. The ski resort “denied liability on the basis of language printed on the lift ticket purchased by” the skier. Id. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was improper because “[w]hether the printed language on the ski ticket was part of the contractual agreement between the parties is a question of fact.” Id. Based on Hackel, the Bergins argue that “there are [*19] questions of fact regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.”

The Bergins’ reliance on Hackel is misplaced. As an unpublished opinion issued before 2009, Hackel has neither precedential nor persuasive value in Wisconsin. See Wis. R. App. P. 809.23(3) (Supp. 2013). Even if it were, Wisconsin’s adoption of a common-law rule is “not binding on us as authority.” See Mahowald v. Minn. Gas Co., 344 N.W.2d 856, 861 (Minn. 1984) (examining other jurisdictions’ standards of tort liability). Substantively, the questions of fact that precluded summary judgment in Hackel are absent here. In Hackel, the only language alleged to be exculpatory was printed on the back of a lift ticket, which the skier did not sign. 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. This language did not expressly release the ski resort from liability, but it listed the risks that the skier agreed to assume. Id. The Wisconsin court concluded that a fact issue exists as to whether the language could be construed to mean “that skiers assume inherent risks of the sport without relieving [the ski company] of its own negligence” or that “[t]he language might also be construed as an exculpatory clause.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *2. Another [*20] question of fact that precluded summary judgment was “whether the [unsigned] ticket was intended as part of the contract.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *1 n.1. Here, unlike in Hackel, neither the existence of an exculpatory clause nor the intention that it be a part of the contract is in question. It is undisputed that Lee agreed to the exculpatory clause in the season-pass agreement before receiving the season-pass card.

Even if the season-pass card and season-pass agreement are construed together, they do not create an ambiguity. [HN16] “Terms in a contract should be read together and harmonized where possible,” and “the specific in a writing governs over the general.” Burgi v. Eckes, 354 N.W.2d 514, 518-19 (Minn. App. 1984). Accordingly, the season-pass agreement’s specific language excluding greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause supersedes the season-pass card’s general language on the inherent risks of skiing. The district court correctly determined that the exculpatory clause is limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only and granted summary judgment in favor of Wild Mountain.

Because we conclude that an unambiguous and enforceable exculpatory clause [*21] bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence, we decline to reach the issue of whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk also bars the claim of ordinary negligence.

Affirmed.