Release is used to prove an activity is hazardous and deny a claim for life insurance. Heli-skiing should have been disclosed as a risk activity or hobby according to the court when buying life insurance.

“Rating up” is a term used to say an insured is a higher than normal risk, and the insurance rate will increase. The amount of the increase is dependent upon the risk. Heli-skiing would have tripled the cost of a life insurance policy. However, not telling the insurance company denied the claim.

West Coast Life Insurance Company. Hoar, 558 F.3d 1151; 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 5266

Date of the Decision: 2009

Plaintiff: West Coast Life Insurance Company

Defendants: Martha Hoar, as the personal representative of the other Estate of Stephen M. Butts; Telluride Properties, Llc., a Colorado Limited Liability Company; Telluride Properties, Inc., a Colorado corporation; Albert D. Roer, an individual; Polly Lychee, an individual

Plaintiff Claims: (1) breach of contract, (2) bad faith, and (3) violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act

Defendant Defenses: Rescission

Holding: for the plaintiff life insurance company

Owners in a business want to make sure the business will survive if one of the owners is disabled or dies. There is also a desire to take care of the family of the deceased. Finally, immediately purchasing the deceased share of the business keeps the business running smoothly without the worry or probate or someone with no business experience from running the business. This usually takes the form of a buy-sell agreement. The agreement sets out the terms on when the contract kicks in, how to value the business and how to pay the estate of the deceased or the disabled owner.

Many times the owners will want to make the purchase of the deceased estate immediate, so the business purchases life insurance on the owners. Upon the death of an insured, the insurance proceeds are used to keep the business going to pay for the ownership of the business from the estate of the deceased.

In this case, the parties created a business and purchased a $3 million-dollar policy on the owners. For large life insurance policies more underwriting, questions are asked and sometimes physicals are required. In this case, the insured owner was asked if he “”[e]ngaged in auto, motorcycle or boat racing, parachuting, skin or scuba diving, skydiving, or hang gliding or other hazardous avocation or hobby.” The insured said he was a scuba diver and skier. At the end of the form the insured had to affirm that all of his answers were full, complete, and true to the best of his knowledge and belief.

The insured was then interviewed by a third party hired to investigate the insured. The insured was asked what he did in his spare time. The insured answered he skied and golfed. He also stated he was into private aviation and scuba diving. At no time did the insured ask any clarifying questions as to what hazardous activities meant.

The insured regularly participated in heli-ski trips in Canada. He had been heli-skiing for at least six years. He purchased a Black Diamond Avalung for his ski trips. The heli-ski operation required the insured to sign a “Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risk and Indemnity Agreement.” The heli-ski operation also required avalanche rescue training, helicopter safety training and required the use of avalanche beacons.

During a heli-ski trip, the insured was killed in an avalanche.

The insurance company refused to pay the life insurance benefit because the insured had not been truthful on his application for insurance. The life insurance company sued for rescission. The trial court granted the life insurance company’s motion for summary judgment, and the case was appealed.

Summary of the case

Rescission is the term applied when a contract is unwound, and both parties are placed back in their original position. There must be a legally recognized cause for a court to require rescission. Material breach, or as in this case fraud, can be a cause for a court to rescind a contract.

To win a claim of rescission under Colorado law the insurance company had to prove:

(1) the applicant made a false statement of fact or concealed a fact in his application for insurance; (2) the applicant knowingly made the false statement or knowingly concealed the fact; (3) the false statement of fact or the concealed fact materially affected either the acceptance of the risk or the hazard assumed by the insurer; (4) the insurer was ignorant of the false statement of fact or concealment of fact and is not chargeable with knowledge of the fact; (5) the insurer relied, to its detriment, on the false statement of fact or concealment of fact in issuing the policy.

The court focused on the first and second claims that the deceased made a false statement or concealed a fact and did so knowingly.

The court did a thorough review of all the facts the life insurance company presented, which stated that heli-skiing was a high-risk operation. These facts included the acts of the insured/deceased as outlined above and statements made by the expert witness of the insurance company. One statement which the court found particularly informative was that heli-skier was “… approximately 18,702 times more likely to be killed in an avalanche than an individual skiing inbounds at a ski area.” This statement was then supported by this footnote the court included. “The probability of an avalanche fatality occurring while heli-skiing or snowcat skiing is approximately 1 per 29,000 visits.

The risk of heli-skiing was then supported in the court’s argument by the fact the deceased had signed a release. “This is especially true where heli-skiers such as Butts were required to sign a waiver explicitly acknowledging heli-skiing was far more dangerous than resort skiing.”

The fact that the deceased had signed the release, purchased a Black Diamond Avalung, and took avalanche and helicopter training showed the activity was dangerous. That was proof of knowledge and intent that heli-skiing was a high-risk activity which his involvement in should have been disclosed to the insurance company.

The next argument was over the fourth element. The court found for this argument the insurance company had to have knowledge that the life insurance policy applicant was not truthful in answer questions.

Consequently, the beneficiary of the insurance policy, the defendants were not able to argue the contract should not be rescinded. The insurance company was granted rescission and did not have to pay the $3 million-dollar policy benefit.

So Now What?

The increase due to heli-skiing would have increased the yearly premium from $4,800 to $12,380. For most people making a living in the outdoor recreation, the basic premium is too much, the increased premium out of reach. Disability insurance can cost more.

Health insurance is probably no longer subject to such rating changes to do the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is one blessing for those of us making a living in the outdoors.

If you are just starting out, make sure you have good health, life and disability policies. Lying or misrepresenting the risks you take will subject your family to a similar situation. Purchasing the policies before you have gone too far…outdoors, may save you some money.

If you die mowing the lawn or in a car accident, the chances of this occurring are low. The investigation is triggered when you die doing a high-risk  activity, and the insurance company finds out you regularly participated in the activity and did not tell them at the time you applied for the policy.

You’ll probably not have to worry about this issue.  You’ll be dead.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Canadian judge holds “ski buddy” not liable for death of skier. Buddies assigned by guide in Helicopter on way out does not create a contract

The court found there was no contract between ski buddies, and the defendant skier met his duties to the deceased skier. A tree well is a risk of skiing, and no other skier could have done more than alert the guides when a skier was missing.

The deceased died in a tree well on a helicopter ski trip in Canada. His widow sued his ski buddy for his death claiming he was a“… contractually obligated to stay close to her husband, keep him in sight, and assist or alert guides and other skiers if he observed his buddy in need of assistance.”

The entire concept of a ski buddy is fraught with spatial issues.  Rarely do people ski side by side. If you are skiing side by side, both skiers can only occasionally glance downhill. Here, the facts and allegations of the plaintiff argue that the defendant should have skied behind the deceased to keep an eye on him. Would that have not placed the deceased in the same liability position with the defendant?

How do you ski through deep powder and trees and keep an eye on someone’s 100% of the time. Even if you do, how do two people do this for each other? It is physically impossible.

The next issue is normally one guide skis in front of the group and the second guide skis at the rear. No matter what, the time it would take to notify any guide either by waiting and hoping the second guide finds you or by skiing to the bottom guide, which did occur, is lengthy. The heli-ski operator told skiers to stop and yell if they got into trouble?

The most telling part of this article is the deceased was a successful personal injury attorney.

You can find the judge’s ruling dismissing the case here. The facts of the case as set out in the judge’s ruling led to the idea that there was no requirement to ski with a buddy at the time of the fatality. The buddy requirement ended when the group exited from the forest into a logged area. Everyone descended together at that point, and generally, no one tracks anyone else.

This is a Canadian legal decision and the decision, although well written was confusing because Canadian law is different from US law. My analysis may be incorrect in all aspects of the court’s decision. As an example, here is the court’s definition of standard of care in negligence.

Conduct is negligent if it creates an objectively unreasonable risk of harm. To avoid liability, a person must exercise the standard of care that would be expected of an ordinary, reasonable and prudent person in the same circumstances.

Rarely, in US law, is the phrase unreasonable risk of harm used to define negligence.

The court’s statement of the facts also shows a surprisingly quick search and location of the deceased. It took only 4 minutes, based on the radio log between when the search started and when the deceased was found.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant ski buddy owed a duty of care to the deceased by voluntarily taking on the responsibility to look out for the deceased. In order for a claim to be made under Canadian law, the person agreeing to accept the volunteer liability must have some control over the risks. Here the defendant had no control over the risks. Nor was there any evidence that the acceptance of the voluntary role of ski buddy was relied upon by the deceased.

The relationship created between ski buddies did not create a relationship where the volunteer assumed the responsibility over the deceased. Instead, the relationship between the parties was defined by the guides who created the relationship. That meant they ski buddies were to keep each other in visual and vocal contact in the forest and as outlined in a video everyone watched before skiing. The issue of the location of the responsibility, the forest was important. The parties had exited the forest into a logged area where it was generally understood the ski buddy relationship ended.

The ski buddies never spoke to each other so there was no understanding of their roles so no greater requirements were created between the ski buddies. The term ski buddy, as defined by the judge did not create a duty; in fact, the court found a ski buddy is to respect the autonomy of the other ski buddy. Meaning a ski buddy relationship does not mean you give up your skiing to watch the other, you still should enjoy your runs.

Besides the judge’s decision that the timeframe between when the deceased was discovered to not be with the group and when the guides were notified of the fact to not be negligent, the sole issue was contract.

The judge’s conclusions were as followed.

If there was a duty of care between the plaintiff and defendant as a ski buddy, then the defendant met it with his actions.

There was no contract between the parties. There was no contract or contract intention. Even if there was a contract, it ended once the parties exited the forest into the logged area where the accident occurred.

So?

The decision is not as definitive as one would have liked. The decision can also be appealed. However, it is still a great decision for skiers.

The saddest part is the heli-ski guide service created liability, which resulted in this lawsuit against one of its clients. By writing its release so that it not only protected the heli-ski operations but everyone else this would have been avoided.

Here are the articles I based this article on: ‘Ski buddy’ not liable for heli-ski death, court rules and Judge rules “ski buddy” not liable for death. The article describing the suit before the judge’s ruling is ‘Ski buddy’ sued in heli-ski death

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Canadian suit would hold you liable for your ski buddy’s death. Ski buddy meaning the guy you don’t know skiing next to you.

Suit is absurd and if successful would create liability every time someone was hurt skiing. Riding the chairlift with someone might get you sued. And this is not alleged, a court is hearing this now in trial!

Sometimes you read about litigation that just knocks your socks off. This case is one of those.  A widow, with $18 million after her husband’s death (so you know she needs the money) is suing a man assigned as a “ski buddy” at a heli-ski operation in Canada.  The suit alleges the defendant was assigned to:

…was therefore obligated to stay close to him, keep him in sight, and assist or alert guides and other skiers if he observed his buddy in need of assistance.

The documents allege Coe failed to perform his duties as a “ski buddy” and therefore delayed the search and possibly a chance to rescue and revive Mark Kennedy.

The “ski buddy” was assigned by a guide for the heli-ski operation Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing. The deceased and the plaintiff did not know each other; it was something done by the guide.

Coe [defendant] says he was paired with Kennedy without any consultation, and that he alerted guides as soon as he noticed Kennedy was no longer with the group, shortly after Coe and the other skiers arrived at the bottom of the run.

So you are riding the lift, and someone leans over and says “let’s ski this run together,” are you their ski buddy now? What if a ski school instructor asks you to ride up with a minor in a ski school class to assist them on and off the lift? Are you liable if the minor falls getting off the lift? Is the minor liable if they cause you to fall getting off the lift?

Seriously, this is absurd and if allowed to continue will create untold amounts of liability in the ski industry and about any industry. Think about belayers when rock climbing.

Do Something or maybe be prepared to say “No.”

So you are heli-skiing or cat skiing, and the guide says OK, you two buddy up, what do you do? If this plaintiff is successful, you say no. You can either run the risk of skiing alone and dying or skiing with someone and getting sued if they die.

More importantly why ski with a guide service if their paperwork does not protect you. It would have cost Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing 3-5 more words on the release signed by the deceased to protect the defendant.

When you go undertake an activity where you sign a release, read it to make sure you are protected also. Normally, there is a higher standard of care between co-participants in a sport. (See Indiana adopts the higher standard of care between participants in sporting events in this Triathlon case) However, even in the US some states have allowed that to slip in skiing collision cases.

It seriously only takes a few additional words in a release to stop this litigation. If you are a guide or outfitting service make sure you are protecting your clients. You do not need to reputation of staying out of court and keeping your clients in court.

If you are in a position where an outfitter or guide can create liability for you, be prepared to make this stark and horrifying decision.

This case is in Canada. Once known for not allowing this type of crap. Let’s hope this stays up north.

See ‘Ski buddy’ sued in heli-ski death

You can read the pleadings (Complaint and Answer) here.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Great article on why helmet laws are stupid

Either that or we should be wearing helmets at dinner.

Yes I know I write a lot about helmets. However the most important issue I write about is to make people think about what they do and why. In this case you are not solving any problems and you are creating greater liability issues.

The article was written because a new law in Nova Scotia requires skiers and riders to wear helmets. The law carries a $250 fine. On top of that, there “will, indeed, be helmet cops on the slopes. The minimum fine is $250.

The head injury rate is pretty low. “…since 2000, 11 helmetless skiers and snowboarders have suffered such an injury on the slopes of Nova Scotia.” That is one head injury per year in Nova Scotia from head injuries.

Simply put the article looks at the risks of a head injury in Nova Scotia from skiing based on the injury stats of Canada.

In 2003-04, one in 4,100 Canadians was admitted to hospital for head trauma suffered in a fall, and one in 5,300 for head trauma suffered in a car accident. Bill 131 proposes to offset, by 60%, a risk of roughly one in the population of Nova Scotia, which is 945,000.

If you want to stop head injuries, you would legislate wearing a helmet while driving. That would prevent more head injuries.

The articles intent is to point out there is no logical basis in the way laws are created. Instead of asking “why” they need a new law, legislators are asking “why not.”

Or as I say, what can I do, no matter how stupid, that will put me on the front page of a newspaper to help me get reelected.

It’s a great article. See Why not enact pointless ski helmet law?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Canadian government suing Blackcomb Mountain for the health care costs of an injured snowboarder

Never forget the subrogation clause in any insurance policy. It will allow the insurance company to sue whoever caused your injury to recoup their payouts.

The injured snowboarder caught an edge and fell over Crystal Road run, down a steep embankment and over a climb. She suffered a:

….dislocation of the vertebrae with associated spinal-cord injury and several fractures of the vertebrae. She also suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, dislocated her ribs and had a left femur and femoral fracture.

The lawsuit claims the accident was caused by the “negligence and breach of duty of the defendant,” The complaint further sates the defendant created a “hazardous condition and failed to erect adequate warning signs. The suit also alleges the company failed to erect a barrier.”

The defendant is Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises Limited Partnership, which is the owners and operators of Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler Mountain. The defendants have not filed an answer at the time of the article.

Subrogation is the name of a clause in an insurance policy that allows the insurance company to collect any money that may be owed you for your injuries. If you injured due to the negligence of someone else, your health insurance company can sue that third party to recover the money they paid out on your behalf for your medical bills.

This must be the first time it has occurred in Canada. When I worked as a risk manager at a ski resort I received a subrogation claim letter every week. I received one every time a member or the military or a federal employee was injured.

The ski area does not have to pay out if they ski area was not negligent or if the ski area as a defense to the claim. So any defense the ski area may have against a suit by the injured skier or boarder is effective against the subrogation claims. In my case, the Colorado Ski Safety Act, Assumption of the Risk and in many cases a release stopped the subrogation claim.

See B.C. sues ski resort for care costs of injured boarder

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Another lawsuit asking for change, but only going to receive money.

The Free Republic is reporting in a story Lawsuit in sledding Tragedy that a family from City of Gatineau, Canada is suing the City of Gatineau over the death of their son in a sledding accident. The family is suing because the sledding hill was unsafe.

The Free Republic is reporting that the family is suing in the hopes that the hill will be closed or changed so that no one else has to live through what have. The father stated “”We’re not doing it for the money, we’re doing it for our son,….”

This is another situation such as discussed in the article It’s Not Money. The plaintiff’s are suing want to make a change, however the only thing the courts can provide is cash.

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