Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.

Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.

The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.

Facts

The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.

To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

[Emphasize added]

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

[Emphasize added]

If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.

Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’

[Emphasize added]

Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.

As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

[Emphasize added]

In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.

The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.

The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.

Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.

Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Grant Tuttle et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

Heavenly Valley, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

G056427

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

February 5, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2015- 00813230 Nathan R. Scott, Judge. Affirmed.

The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

DUNNING, J. [*]

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.[ 1] Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant ;unreasonably increased the risks… over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing. The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

THE RELEASE

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.[ 2] The release begins with an all-capital advisement: WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS. Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. In paragraph 2, she ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS… known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions;… variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features;… [and] collisions. Paragraph 5 advised: The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY… for… injury or loss to [her], including death. This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE…. In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was binding to the fullest extent permitted by law… on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

II.

THE ACCIDENT AND THE LAWSUIT

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.[ 3] Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

III.

THE JURY TRIAL

The jury trial spanned five weeks.[ 4] The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered yes to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel were not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the jurors’ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.[ 5] The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and-release of liability and waiver was executed-existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated. (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could end up finding that the release was not valid and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as the release in evidence releases negligence. And the questions on the verdict form go[] to gross negligence, and-this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk. Defendant’s counsel remarked the dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: Right. Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, [a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form…. [¶]… If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them-you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

THE SPECIAL VERDICT

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

Yes X No __

4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes __ No X

If you answered Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question 5. [¶] If you answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

If you answered Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number 0′ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes X No __

Because the jury answered yes to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2, 131, 831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

ENTRY OF A DEFENSE JUDGMENT

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1, 065, 915.50, plus costs and interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.[ 6]

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle. The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: [D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.’

The trial court acknowledged the structure of the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

PLAINTIFFS’ POSTJUDGMENT MOTIONS

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint. (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence, [ 7] the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ postjudgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

THE RELEASE COVERED TUTTLE’S ACCIDENT.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

OVERVIEW: ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight)[ 8] and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.[ 9] Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility. (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.’ (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

ANALYSIS

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only concern is whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.’ (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise. She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it FROM ALL LIABILITY… BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE. No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, inherent or otherwise did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, [t]he term otherwise,’ when paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’… is best understood to mean NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release bears many similarities to the release in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently and unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning (id. at p.1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.’ (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use the word negligence’ or any particular verbiage… [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee. (Id. at pp. 1488 1489.) The release in Cohen used the word negligence only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release also did not indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities. (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5that p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. [ 10] (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

ENFORCEMENT OF THE RELEASE DOES NOT VIOLATE CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC POLICY.

Plaintiffs next argue the release’s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of aggravated negligence. Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release of other forms of aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence. (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for any negligent act’ related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence. (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668, [ 11] impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence. (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to aggravated wrongs (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and aggravated misconduct (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, the distinction between ordinary and gross negligence’ reflects a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary. (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ENTERING JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other postjudgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING SPECIAL VERDICTS

A special verdict must include conclusions of fact as established by the evidence… [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation may be disregarded as surplusage. (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703.) Additionally, where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.’ (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092.)

B.

THE TRIAL COURT’S RULING

As noted, the jury was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form…. But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer YES’ to one question and NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages. (Italics and bold omitted.)

The trial court further explained: Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶]… [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion-a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw-that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.

The trial court also correctly concluded the jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.

C.

ANALYSIS

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring a statutorily authorized post-trial motion challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine as is and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179 [because the defendant did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

PLAINTIFFS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they excepted to those errors, but then were penalized because the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley. Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431, [ 12] to which they agreed, misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options. Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which… made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs]… were… induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs]. This characterization misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or worked against plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would proceed with the verdict form as is. This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third−and significantly−plaintiffs’ counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

WE CONCUR: BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J.

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Notes:

[*] Retired judge of the Orange Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

[ 1] We refer to Dana Tuttle as Tuttle and to her spouse and sons collectively as plaintiffs. We refer to Heavenly Valley as defendant.

Plaintiffs erroneously identified Heavenly Valley in the complaint as the Vail Corporation. There is no dispute Heavenly Valley is the correct defendant in this case.

[ 2] Tuttle purchased the ski pass online. No actual signature was required; she signed the release by clicking the appropriate box on the electronic form.

[ 3] The jury exonerated Slater from liability. He is not a party to this appeal.

[ 4] The appellate record is lengthy. Given the limited issues before this court, however, we do not recite the trial evidence in detail.

[ 5] The trial court denied defendant’s first nonsuit motion two days earlier. At that time, the trial judge announced he would be prepared to find as a matter of law that colliding with a snowboarder or colliding with a tree is an inherent risk of skiing, but the jury would decide whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk of the sport.

[ 6] Defendant also requested a statement of decision addressing the applicability of primary implied and express assumption of the risk doctrines; the trial court denied the request. The trial court’s denial of this request is not at issue in this appeal.

[ 7] Plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in this appeal.

[ 8] Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296 was a plurality decision authored by Chief Justice George that all members of the court except Justice Kennard subsequently accepted. (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 107, citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 491.)

[ 9] Whether a risk is inherent to a particular active sport presents a question of law for the court. (Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 23 (Hass).)

[ 10] So it is here. Paragraph 13 of Tuttle’s release also binds her assignees, subrogors, distributors, heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

A wrongful death action is not a derivative action. Nonetheless, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk. (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 851 852; see Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 25 [In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks’ acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action].)

[ 11] Civil Code section 1668 lists the types of contractual releases that are unenforceable as a matter of public policy (i.e., those exempting anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent). Gross negligence is not on the list.

[ 12] Plaintiffs do not challenge the modified version of CACI No. 431 in this court, either. The modified instruction read: If you find that Heavenly Valley unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, or that Heavenly Valley was grossly negligent, and also find that Heavenly Valley’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm, then Heavenly Valley is responsible for the harm. Heavenly Valley cannot avoid responsibility just because some other person, condition, or event, including but not limited to Dana Tuttle’s own negligence or the acts of Anthony Slater were also a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm.

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Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363

Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC

Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District

June 27, 2018, Opinion Filed

C082306

Reporter

2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363 *; 2018 WL 3134581KATHLEEN WILLHIDE-MICHIULIS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN SKI AREA, LLC, Defendant and Respondent.

Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

Subsequent History: The Publication Status of this Document has been Changed by the Court from Unpublished to Published July 18, 2018 and is now reported at 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 638.

Ordered published by, Reported at Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 638 (Cal. App. 3d Dist., June 27, 2018)

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of Mono County, No. CV130105.

Judges: Robie, Acting P. J.; Murray, J., Duarte, J. concurred.

Opinion by: Robie, Acting P. J.

Opinion

Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries. She and her husband, Bruno Michiulis, appeal after the trial court granted defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area‘s (Mammoth) motion for summary judgment finding the operation of the snowcat and snow-grooming tiller on the snow run open to the public was an inherent risk of snowboarding and did not constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment and improperly excluded the expert declarations plaintiffs submitted to oppose the motion. They also assert the trial court improperly denied their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the expert declarations. Further, [*2]  although snowcats and snow-grooming tillers are capable of causing catastrophic injury, as evidenced by Willhide-Michiulis’s experience, we conclude this equipment is an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and the way in which the snowcat was operated in this case did not rise to the level of gross negligence. Because of this conclusion, the trial court properly granted Mammoth’s summary judgment motion based on the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement. With no pending trial, plaintiffs cannot show they were prejudiced by the court’s denial of their motion to transfer venue; thus we do not reach the merits of that claim. Accordingly, we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I

The Injury

Mammoth owns and operates one of the largest snowcat fleets in the United States to groom snow and maintain snow runs throughout Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. A snowcat is a large snow-grooming vehicle — 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. It has five wheels on each side of the vehicle that are enclosed in a track. In front of the snowcat is a plow extending the width of the snowcat. In back is a 20-foot wide trailer containing a tiller. A tiller “spins at a [*3]  high [speed] br[e]aking up the snow and slightly warming it and allowing it to refreeze in a firm skiable surface.” Mammoth strives not to have snowcats operating when the resort is open to the public; however, it may be necessary at times. Mammoth’s grooming guide instructs drivers that generally snowcats are operated at night or in areas closed to the public, except during: (1) emergency operations, (2) extremely heavy snow, or (3) transportation of personnel or materials. If a driver “must be on the mountain while the public is present,” however, the snowcat’s lights, safety beacon, and audible alarm must be on. The guide further directs drivers not to operate the tiller if anyone is within 50 feet or if on a snow run open to the public. In another section, the guide directs drivers not to operate the snowcat’s tiller when anyone is within 150 feet and “[n]ever . . . when the skiing public is present.”

Although the grooming guide directs drivers not to use the tiller on snow runs open to the public, there are exceptions to these rules. Snowcats use two large tracks, instead of wheels, to travel on the snow. If the tiller is not running, then the snowcat leaves behind berms and holes created by the [*4]  tracks, also known as track marks. Mammoth’s grooming guide explains that “[t]rack marks are not acceptable anywhere on the mountain and back-ups or extra passes should be used to remove them.” Track marks are not safe for the skiing public, so whenever the snowcat is justified to be on an open run, drivers commonly operate the tiller to leave behind safe conditions.

In fact, it is common for skiers and snowboarders to chase snowcats that operate on public snow runs. For example, Taylor Lester, a Mammoth season-pass holder, has seen snowcats with tillers operate on snow runs open to the public. She, her friends, and her family, commonly ride close behind these snowcats so they can take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produce. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished by other skiers.

There is a blind spot in the snowcat created by the roll cage in the cab of the vehicle. This blind spot is mitigated by the driver using the mirrors of the snowcat and turning his or her head to look out the windows. Snowcats are also equipped with turn signals.

At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence [*5]  of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also includes these warnings in trail maps. Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis further agreed to release Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death to me and/or my child arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.”

On March 25, 2011, Clifford Mann, the general manager of mountain operations, had to dig out various buildings using a snowcat during Mammoth’s hours of operation because between 27 and 44 inches of snow fell the night before. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Mann was digging out a building when a Mammoth employee [*6]  called to ask him to fill in a hole she had created with her snowmobile on Old Boneyard Road. Less than an hour before her call, the employee had been driving her snowmobile on the unmarked service road and got it stuck in the snow. She called for assistance and she and another Mammoth employee dug out the snowmobile. Once the machine had been dug out of the snow, there was too big of a hole for her and her coworker to fill in. They decided to call Mann to have him fill in the hole with the snowcat because it was near the end of the day and the hole was a safety hazard for all other snowmobiles that would use the service road at closing. Mann agreed and drove his snowcat with the tiller running to Old Boneyard Road, which branched off of the bottom of mambo snow run. Before leaving for the Old Boneyard Road location, Mann turned on the snowcat’s warning beacon, lights, and audible alarm.

Around this same time, Willhide-Michiulis, a Mammoth season-pass holder, and her brother went for their last snowboard run of the day while Willhide-Michiulis’s husband went to the car. It was a clear day and Willhide-Michiulis and her brother split up after getting off the chair lift. Willhide-Michiulis [*7]  snowboarded down mambo, while her brother took a neighboring run. While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.

Mann did not use a turn signal before initiating the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. Before the collision, Mann had constantly been checking around the snowcat for people by utilizing the snowcat’s mirrors and by looking over his shoulders and through the windows. The snowcat did not have a speedometer, but Mann thought he was going less than 10 miles an hour. When he had nearly completed the turn from lower mambo onto Old Boneyard Road, Mann saw a “black flash” in his rearview mirror. He immediately stopped the snowcat, [*8]  which also stopped the tiller.

Mann got out of the snowcat and lifted the protective flap to look under the tiller. He saw Willhide-Michiulis stuck in the tiller and called for help. When help arrived, it took 30 minutes to remove Willhide-Michiulis from the tiller. She suffered a near-complete amputation of her left leg above the knee, which doctors amputated in a subsequent surgery. Her right leg sustained multiple fractures and lacerations, and she dislocated her right hip. The tiller also struck Willhide-Michiulis’s face, leaving multiple facial fractures and lacerations.

II

Plaintiffs’ Suit

Plaintiffs initially filed suit against Mammoth and Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles, the manufacturer of the snowcat and tiller, in Los Angeles County.1 As to Mammoth, plaintiffs alleged breach of contract, gross negligence, negligence, and loss of consortium. Venue was later transferred to Mono County, where the trial court dismissed multiple causes of action pertaining to Mammoth.2 The operative complaint alleges two causes of action against Mammoth — gross negligence and loss of consortium. At the same time plaintiffs filed the operative complaint, they also filed a motion to transfer venue back [*9]  to Los Angeles County because it was more convenient for the parties and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion to transfer venue without prejudice and we denied the petition for writ of mandate plaintiffs filed challenging that ruling.

Mammoth later moved for summary judgment on the two remaining causes of action arguing that plaintiffs’ case was barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the express assumption of risk agreement Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass contract. The court agreed and granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment finding primary assumption of risk and the waiver in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement barred plaintiffs relief. It found there was no dispute over the material facts of plaintiffs’ claims and that Willhide-Michiulis was injured when “she fell and slid under a [Mammoth] operated snowcat and was caught in the operating tiller. [Willhide-Michiulis] was snowboarding on an open run as the snowcat was operating on the same run. It appears that the collision occurred as the snowcat operator was negotiating a left turn from the run to the service road.” [*10]  It also found that accepting plaintiffs’ factual allegations as true, i.e., Mann operated a snowcat and tiller on an open run, he failed to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of the run, he failed to warn skiers of his presence, and no signs marked the existence of Old Boneyard Road — plaintiffs could not show Mammoth was grossly negligent or lacked all care because Mann took several safety precautions while driving the snowcat, and warning signs were posted throughout Mammoth Mountain, on trail maps, and in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because plaintiffs could not show gross negligence, the waiver of liability they signed as part of their season-pass agreement barred recovery.

The court further found plaintiffs’ factual allegations did not support a finding that Mann’s conduct increased the inherent risks of snowboarding and, in fact, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport. Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389, the court explained snowcats are plainly visible and generally avoidable and serve as their own warning sign because they are an obvious danger. The snowcat is equally obvious when it is moving as when it is stationary. Thus, the [*11]  primary assumption of risk doctrine also barred plaintiffs from recovery.

The court also excluded the declarations of three experts plaintiffs attached to their opposition to dispute Mammoth’s claim that it did not act with gross negligence. The first expert, Michael Beckley, worked in the ski industry for 25 years and was an “expert of ski resort safety and snow cat safety.” He held multiple positions in the industry, including ski instructor, snowcat driver, and director of mountain operations. Beckley based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and snow grooming equipment, and accounts of Mann’s conduct while driving the snowcat. He opined the operation of a snowcat on an open run with its tiller running was “extremely dangerous,” “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” He believed Mann increased the risk of injury to skiers and violated industry standards by driving down the middle of a snow run and failing to signal his turn. Mammoth’s failure to close the snow run, provide spotters, or comply with its own safety rules, Beckley declared, violated industry standards and the ordinary standard [*12]  of conduct.

Plaintiffs’ second expert, Eric Deyerl, was a mechanical engineer for over 20 years, with a specialization in vehicle dynamics and accident reconstruction. In forming his opinions, Deyerl inspected the snow run and snowcat equipment and relied on photographs and various accounts of the incident. Relying on those accounts, Deyerl opined that the circumstances leading to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision were different than those related by eyewitnesses. Deyerl believed that before initiating his turn, Mann failed to activate his turn signal, monitor his surroundings, and verify that he was clear — especially in the blind spot at the back left portion of the snowcat. No signs indicated the existence of Old Boneyard Road, and skiers like Willhide-Michiulis would not know to expect a snowcat to stop and turn from the middle of the snow run. All of these circumstances in isolation and together increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. Deyerl also disputed the accounts of eyewitnesses to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision with the snowcat.

The third expert, Brad Avrit, was a civil engineer who specialized in evaluating “safety practices and safety issues.” He was [*13]  also an “avid skier for over thirty years.” He based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and equipment, and accounts of Mann’s driving. Avrit opined that operating a snowcat on an open snow run with an active tiller was “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct that reasonable persons would follow in order to avoid injury to others.” He also believed Mann’s conduct of failing to drive down the left side of the snow run, failing to monitor his surroundings, and failing to signal his left turn or verify he was clear to turn, “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Avrit also thought the risk to skiers was increased by Mammoth’s failure to either close the snow run or use spotters while operating the snowcat when open to the public, or alternatively waiting the 30 minutes until the resort was closed to fix the hole on Old Boneyard Road.

Mammoth lodged both general and specific objections to these declarations. Generally, Mammoth asserted the experts’ opinions were irrelevant to the assumption of risk and gross negligence legal determinations before the court, the opinions lacked proper foundation, and the opinions were improper [*14]  conclusions of law. Specifically, Mammoth objected to several paragraphs of material on predominantly the same grounds. Finding the experts’ opinions irrelevant and citing Towns v. Davidson (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 461, 54 Cal. Rptr. 3d 568 (Towns), the trial court sustained Mammoth’s general objections and numerous specific objections.

DISCUSSION

I

The Court Properly Granted Mammoth’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment. They first contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding their experts’ declarations, and thus improperly ruled on Mammoth’s motion without considering relevant evidence. They also contend primary assumption of risk does not apply because Mann’s negligent driving and operation of a tiller on an open run increased the inherent risks associated with snowboarding. Further, plaintiffs argue these same facts establish Mammoth’s conduct was grossly negligent and fell outside of the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding plaintiffs’ experts’ declarations. Additionally, plaintiffs cannot show Mammoth was grossly negligent and violated [*15]  the terms of the release of liability agreement found in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because the express assumption of risk in the release applies, we need not consider the implied assumption of risk argument also advanced by plaintiffs. (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 590, fn. 2, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370; Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1374-1375, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813; Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1012-1013, 54 Cal. Rptr. 2d 330.)

A

The Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When Excluding The Expert Declarations Attached To Plaintiffs’ Opposition

As part of their argument that the court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to their opposition. Specifically, plaintiffs argue expert testimony was appropriate under Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, because “the facts here certainly warrant consideration of the expert testimony on the more esoteric subject of assessing whether a negligently-driven snowcat is an inherent risk of recreational skiing.” Mammoth counters that the evidence was properly excluded because it was irrelevant and “offered opinions of legal questions of duty for the court to decide.” We agree with Mammoth.

“Generally, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may use declarations by an expert to raise a triable issue of fact on an element of the [*16]  case provided the requirements for admissibility are established as if the expert were testifying at trial. [Citations.] An expert’s opinion is admissible when it is ‘[r]elated to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact . . . .’ [Citation.] Although the expert’s testimony may embrace an ultimate factual issue [citation], it may not contain legal conclusions.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 472.)

“In the context of assumption of risk, the role of expert testimony is more limited. ‘It is for the court to decide whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.’ [Citation.] A court in its discretion could receive expert factual opinion to inform its decision on these issues, particularly on the nature of an unknown or esoteric activity, but in no event may it receive expert evidence on the ultimate legal issues of inherent risk and duty.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

In Kahn, the plaintiff was a 14-year-old member of a school swim team who broke her neck after diving in shallow water. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 998.) Her coach had previously assured her she would not have to dive [*17]  at meets and she never learned how to dive in shallow water. Minutes before a meet, however, the coach told the plaintiff she would have to dive and threatened to kick her off the team if she refused. With the help of some teammates, the plaintiff tried a few practice dives but broke her neck on the third try. She sued based on negligent supervision and training. (Ibid.)

The court determined the case could not be resolved on summary judgment as there was conflicting evidence whether the coach had provided any instruction or, if so, whether that instruction followed the recommended training sequence, and whether plaintiff was threatened into diving. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1012-1013.) The court concluded the trial court was not compelled to disregard the opinions of a water safety instructor about the proper training a swimmer requires before attempting a racing dive in shallow water. (Id. at pp. 999, 1017.) In so ruling, the Kahn court stated, “[c]ourts ordinarily do not consider an expert’s testimony to the extent it constitutes a conclusion of law [citation], but we do not believe that the declaration of the expert in the present case was limited to offering an opinion on a conclusion of law. We do not rely upon expert opinion testimony to [*18]  establish the legal question of duty, but ‘we perceive no reason to preclude a trial court from receiving expert testimony on the customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity for purposes of weighing whether the inherent risks of the activity were increased by the defendant’s conduct.'” (Id. at p. 1017.) Thus, while the Kahn court did not preclude the trial court from considering expert testimony about the “‘customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity,'” it did not mandate a court to consider it either.

Here, plaintiffs argue their experts’ declarations were necessary to inform the trial court of the “more esoteric subject” of whether Mann’s negligent driving of the snowcat increased the inherent risks of recreational snowboarding. The problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that the experts’ declarations did not inform the court “‘on the customary practices'” of the esoteric activity of snowcat driving. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1017.) While stating that Mann and Mammoth violated industry standards and increased the potential for collision, no expert outlined what the industry standards were for operating a snowcat and thus provided no context for the trial court to determine the legal question of duty. The [*19]  expert in Kahn provided this type of context by declaring the proper procedures for training swimmers to dive, making it so the trial court could compare the defendant’s conduct to the industry standard. (Kahn, at pp. 999.) The declarations here merely repeated the facts contained in the discovery materials and concluded the risk of injury and collision was increased because of those facts.

The conclusory statements in the expert declarations make plaintiffs’ case like Towns, where the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding an expert’s opinion. (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.) In Towns, the plaintiff sued the defendant after he collided with her on a ski run. (Id. at p. 465.) In opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted the declaration of her expert, a member of the National Ski Patrol and a ski instructor. (Id. at pp. 466, 471-472.) In his declaration, the expert opined that the defendant’s behavior was reckless and “‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport of skiing.'” (Id. at p. 472.)

The trial court excluded the declaration in its entirety and granted the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed explaining, “[t]he nature and risks of downhill skiing are commonly understood, the [*20]  demarcation of any duty owed is judicially defined, and, most significantly, the facts surrounding the particular incident here are not in dispute. Thus, the trial court was deciding the issue of recklessness as a matter of law.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

The court also noted the expert’s declaration “added nothing beyond declaring the undisputed facts in his opinion constituted recklessness. In short, he ‘was advocating, not testifying.’ [Citation.] He reached what in this case was an ultimate conclusion of law, a point on which expert testimony is not allowed. [Citation.] ‘Courts must be cautious where an expert offers legal conclusions as to ultimate facts in the guise of an expert opinion.’ [Citation.] This is particularly true in the context of assumption of risk where the facts are not in dispute.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.)

Like the expert in Towns, plaintiffs’ experts only provided ultimate conclusions of law. Although Beckley declared to be an expert in snowcat safety, he shed no light on the subject except to say Mann’s conduct was “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” Similarly, Avrit, who was an expert in evaluating safety practices, did nothing more than declare [*21]  that Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Deyerl, an expert in accident reconstruction, disputed the accounts of percipient witnesses and declared Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. In short, plaintiffs’ experts provided irrelevant opinions more akin to “‘advocating, not testifying.'” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.) Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to plaintiffs’ opposition.

B

Summary Judgment Was Proper

We review a trial court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 388-389, 46 Cal. Rptr. 3d 668, 139 P.3d 56.) “In performing our de novo review, we must view the evidence in a light favorable to [the] plaintiff as the losing party [citation], liberally construing [the plaintiff’s] evidentiary submission while strictly scrutinizing [the] defendant[‘s] own showing, and resolving any evidentiary doubts or ambiguities in [the] plaintiff’s favor.” (Saelzler v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 768-769, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 617, 23 P.3d 1143.)

Summary judgment is proper when “all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that [defendant] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) A defendant moving for summary judgment meets [*22]  its burden of showing there is no merit to a cause of action by showing one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or there is a complete defense to that cause of action. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) Once the defendant has made the required showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action or defense. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849, 853, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493.)

1

Mammoth Met Its Burden Of Showing There Was No Merit To Plaintiffs’ Claim

As described, plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” “While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is [*23]  more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696; Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227-228, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.) “‘”The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.”‘” (Eriksson, at p. 719, italics omitted.)

Generally, in cases involving an express assumption of risk there is no cause to analyze the activity the complaining party is involved in or the relationship of the parties to that activity. (Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn., supra, 46 Cal.App.4th at p. 1012; see also Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1484, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 [“With respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release“]; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 590, fn. 2 [“if the express assumption of risk in the release applies, the implied assumption of risk principles . . . would not come into play”].) However, where, as here, plaintiffs allege defendant’s conduct fell outside the scope of the agreement and a more detailed analysis of the scope of a defendant’s duty [*24]  is necessary.

“[T]he question of ‘the existence and scope’ of the defendant’s duty is one of law to be decided by the court, not by a jury, and therefore it generally is ‘amenable to resolution by summary judgment.'” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003-1004.) A release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 750-751, 776-777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095.) In Santa Barbara, our Supreme Court reasoned that “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776, quoting Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 863, 871, 118 P.2d 465.) The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs alleged in the operative complaint that Mammoth was grossly negligent in the “operation of the subject snow cat,” by operating the tiller on an open run without utilizing spotters and failing to warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run and the danger posed by its tiller. These allegations are insufficient to support a finding of gross negligence.

Ordinary negligence “consists of the failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person [*25]  under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 753-754.) “‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. [Citation.] However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘” [Citations.]’ [Citations.] ‘”‘[G]ross negligence‘ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881, 208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792.)

“[T]he nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant.” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 315.) “‘[I]n the sports setting . . . conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself.’ [Citation.] [Our Supreme Court has] explained that, as a matter of policy, it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events.” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004.) But the question of duty depends not only on the nature of the sport, but also on the [*26]  role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case. (Ibid.) “‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” (Id. at p. 1005.) Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement. (See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856, 120 Cal. Rptr. 3d 90.)

Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 591 [redesign of snowboarding jump]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 366, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265 [construction of the unmarked race start area on the ski run]; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775 [placement of signs in ski run].) It is well established that “‘”‘[e]ach person who participates in the sport of [snow] 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 [*27]  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.'”‘” (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 12, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855, italics omitted; see also Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863; Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 467.)

Plaintiffs argue the above language is simply dicta and no authority has ever held that colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk in snowboarding or skiing. Because there is no authority specifically addressing the inherent risk of snow-grooming equipment, plaintiffs argue, colliding with a snowcat is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. Further, even if it were, Mammoth increased the inherent risk of snowboarding by operating a snowcat and tiller on an open run. We disagree.

The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, [*28]  did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.

Moreover, common law holds that collisions with snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding. In Connelly, the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 8.) In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, the court found this risk was inherent in the sport and the obvious danger of the tower served as its own warning. (Id. at p. 12.) In concluding that contact with the tower was an inherent risk of the sport, the Connelly court relied on Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 266 Cal. Rptr. 749. (Connelly, at p. 12.) In Danieley, a skier collided with a tree. (Danieley, at p. 113.) The Danieley court, in turn, relied on a Michigan statute that set forth certain inherent risks of skiing, including both trees and “‘collisions with ski lift towers and their components'” along with properly marked or plainly visible “‘snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan [*29]  Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the preexisting common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Danieley, at p. 123.)

Although there may not be a published case specifically addressing the inherent risk of snowcats to skiers and snowboarders, a snowcat, otherwise known as snow-grooming equipment, is one of the risks explicitly adopted as California common law by the Danieley and Connelly courts. (Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc., supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at p. 123; Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 12.) Thus, in California, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport of snowboarding.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs argue operating the tiller of the snowcat on an open snow run increased the inherent risk snowcats pose to snowboarders. We recognize assumption of the risk, either express or implied, applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at pp. 268-269.) In Souza, a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. (Id. at p. 262.) Following Connelly, we affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, finding the snowmaking hydrant was visible and a collision with it was an inherent risk of skiing. (Souza, at pp. 268-272.) The snowmaking equipment in Souza was necessary [*30]  and inherent to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Id. at p. 268.)

Here, plaintiffs claim snowcats operating on open runs are not necessary or inherent to the sport because “[p]recluding a snowcat from operating on an open run would minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport one whit.” As in Souza, we find the following quote apt: “‘”As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, . . . the doctrine of [primary] assumption of risk . . . would not apply to obvious, known conditions so long as a defendant could feasibly have provided safer conditions. Then, obviously, such risks would not be ‘necessary’ or ‘inherent’. This would effectively emasculate the doctrine, . . . changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”‘” (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269.)

Snow-grooming equipment, including the snowcat and tiller at issue here, are necessary to the sport of snowboarding because the snowcat grooms the snow needed for snowboarding into a skiable surface. Without the tiller also grooming the snow, the snowcat leaves behind an unusable and unsafe surface riddled with berms and holes. This surface is so unsafe that Mammoth’s grooming [*31]  guide prohibits snowcat drivers from leaving behind such hazards. Given the purpose of the snowcat and tiller, it cannot be said that they are not inherent and necessary to the sport of snowboarding.

The fact that the snowcat and tiller Willhide-Michiulis collided with was operating during business hours and on an open run does not affect our analysis. Willhide-Michiulis’s husband testified that, although uncommon, he had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth during business hours transporting people. Further, Taylor Lester, a witness to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision and a longtime Mammoth season-pass holder, testified that she had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth on prior occasions as well. Out of the 10 years she has been a season-pass holder, Lester had seen snowcats operating during business hours at Mammoth 20 to 40 times, half of which had been using their tillers.

In fact, Lester testified that it was common for her and her friends, and also her sister and father, to ride close behind snowcats that were tilling so that they could take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produced. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished [*32]  by other skiers. Lester’s sister also testified she liked to “sneak behind” snowcats while they groom runs to ride on the freshly-tilled snow. Even after Willhide-Michiulis’s collision, Lester’s sister still snowboarded behind snowcats to ride the freshly groomed snow.

Given this testimony, we conclude that the use of snowcats and their tillers on ski runs during business hours is inherent to the sport of snowboarding, the use of which does not unreasonably increase the risks associated with the sport. To find Mammoth liable because it operated a snowcat and tiller during business hours would inhibit the vigorous participation in the sport Lester and her sister testified about. Instead of racing to freshly tilled snow to take advantage of its unspoiled status, snowboarders and skiers alike would be prohibited from chasing snowcats and instead have to settle for inferior skiing conditions. Further, snowcats would no longer be used as modes of transportation at ski resorts, a common practice testified to by Willhide-Michiulis’s husband. Or snowcats would operate, but without their tiller, leaving behind unsafe skiing conditions that would doubtlessly interfere with full and vigorous participation [*33]  in the sport. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004 [“it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events”].)

Regardless of the fact that snowcats and tillers are inherent in the sport of snowboarding, plaintiffs also allege the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with was not obvious and Mammoth was grossly negligent because it failed to provide spotters or warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run or the dangerousness of its tiller. As described, gross negligence requires a showing of “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Here, Mammoth did warn plaintiffs of the presence of snowcats and other snow-grooming equipment at the ski resort. At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also included these warnings in its trail maps. These warnings were also apparent in plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement, which warned that “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks [*34]  posed by . . . collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis acknowledged that she saw the warning contained in her season-pass agreement.

Not only were plaintiffs warned about the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment throughout the ski resort, but Willhide-Michiulis was warned of the presence of the specific snowcat she collided with. Before going down the mambo run to fix the pothole on Old Boneyard Road, Mann turned on the safety beacon, warning lights, and audible alarm to the snowcat. This provided warning to all those around the snowcat, whether they could see it or not, to the snowcat’s presence. Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide-Michiulis. As the trial court found, [*35]  “‘the very existence of a large metal plainly-visible [snowcat] serves as its own warning.'” (Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 271.) Upon seeing such a warning, it was incumbent upon Willhide-Michiulis to avoid it — nothing was hidden from Willhide-Michiulis’s vision by accident or design.

Given these facts, we cannot conclude, as plaintiffs would have us do, that Mann’s failure to timely signal his turn or Mammoth’s failure to provide spotters or warn of the specific dangers of a tiller constituted gross negligence. Given all the other warnings provided by Mammoth and Mann, plaintiffs cannot show “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.) Accordingly, Mammoth was successful in meeting its burden to show the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint lacked merit.

2

No Triable Issue Of Fact Exists To Preclude Summary Judgment

Because Mammoth met its initial burden, plaintiffs now have the burden to show that a triable issue of fact exists. Plaintiffs argue that one does exist because the way Mann drove the snowcat at the time of the collision was grossly negligent. In addition to the allegations in the complaint — that operating a snowcat and tiller [*36]  on an open run was grossly negligent — plaintiffs alleged in their opposition that Mann was grossly negligent also for failing to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of a snow run onto an unmarked service road without warning skiers of his presence or the possibility that a snowcat would turn at the locations of Old Boneyard Road. They point to their experts’ declarations and Mann’s violations of Mammoth’s safety standards as support for this contention.

“‘Generally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence [citation] but not always.'” (Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 632, 640, 189 Cal. Rptr. 3d 449, quoting Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358, 257 Cal. Rptr. 356; see also City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 767 [“we emphasize the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, and of granting summary judgment on the basis of that distinction in appropriate circumstances”].) Where the evidence on summary judgment fails to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact, the existence of gross negligence can be resolved as a matter of law. (See Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 260, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473 [stating a mere difference of opinion regarding how a student should be instructed does not amount to gross negligence]; Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 52-53, 135 Cal. Rptr. 3d 761 [no triable issue of material fact precluding summary [*37]  judgment, even though the evidence raised conflicting inferences regarding whether measures undertaken by the defendants were effective to mitigate effects on commercial tenant of remodeling project]; Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 639, 184 Cal. Rptr. 3d 155 [no triable issue of material fact where defendant took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment, on which plaintiff was injured, was well maintained].)”

As described, Mann’s driving of the snowcat with a tiller on an open run was not grossly negligent and was, in fact, an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and conduct contemplated by the parties in the release of liability agreement. The question now is whether the additional conduct alleged in plaintiffs’ opposition — Mann’s failure to use a turn signal, making of a sharp left turn from the middle of the snow run, failure to warn skiers on mambo of his presence, and failure to warn skiers of the existence of Old Boneyard Road — elevated Mann’s conduct to gross negligence. We conclude it does not.

We have already described why plaintiffs’ claims that Mann failed to provide adequate warning of his existence on the snow run and of his turn did not rise to the level of gross negligence. His additional alleged conduct [*38]  of driving down the middle of the snow run and making a sharp left turn onto an unmarked service road also do not justify a finding of gross negligence in light of the precautions taken by both Mammoth and Mann. Mammoth warned plaintiffs of the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment in its season-pass contracts, trail maps, and throughout the ski resort. Mann also turned on the snowcat’s warning lights, beacon, and audible alarm before driving down mambo. Mann testified he constantly looked for skiers and snowboarders while driving the snowcat down mambo and that he checked through the snowcat’s mirrors and windows to make sure he was clear before making the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. He also testified he did not drive the snowcat faster than ten miles an hour while on mambo and was traveling even slower during the turn. This fact was confirmed by Lester. Given these affirmative safety precautions, Mann’s failure to use a turn signal when turning from the middle of the run onto an unmarked service road did not equate to “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (See Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Plaintiffs dispute this conclusion by [*39]  citing to their expert declarations and Mammoth’s grooming guide as support that Mann’s conduct was an extreme departure from industry standards and Mammoth’s own safety policies. Evidence of conduct that evinces an extreme departure from safety directions or an industry standard could demonstrate gross negligence. (See Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 546, 561, 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228.) Conversely, conduct demonstrating the failure to guard against, or warn of, a dangerous condition typically does not rise to the level of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 264, 272, 248 Cal. Rptr. 330.)

To illustrate this point, plaintiffs cite two cases. First, they rely on Jimenez. In Jimenez, one of the plaintiffs was injured when she fell backwards off of a moving treadmill and hit her head on an exercise machine that was approximately four feet behind the treadmill. (Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., supra, 237 Cal.App.4th at p. 549.) The plaintiffs presented evidence “indicating a possible industry standard on treadmill safety zones,” including the manufacturer’s statement in its manual that a six-foot space behind the treadmill was necessary for user safety and an expert’s statement that placing other equipment so close to the back of the treadmill greatly increased the risk of injury. (Id. at p. 556.) The court concluded, based on this evidence, a jury could reasonably find [*40]  the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care, and thus a triable issue of fact existed to preclude summary judgment. (Id. at p. 557.)

In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, also relied upon by plaintiffs, the plaintiff was riding a motorcycle when he fell near a platform in an area out of view of other riders at a motocross facility, and was struck by another cyclist. (Id. at pp. 1072, 1077.) The caution flagger, who was supposed to have staffed the platform to alert riders to the presence of fallen cyclists, was not on duty when plaintiff fell. The court found the release plaintiff signed unenforceable against a claim of gross negligence. (Id. at pp. 1077, 1081.) It noted the dangerous nature of the sport, and also found a specific duty on the part of the course operator to provide some form of warning system such as the presence of caution flaggers. (Id. at p. 1084.) Also, the course owner had a safety manual requiring flaggers to stay at their stations whenever riders were on the course, and expert testimony was presented that caution flaggers were required at all such times. (Id. at p. 1086.) Because the evidence could support a finding that the absence of a caution flagger was an extreme and egregious departure from the standard of [*41]  care given the applicable safety manual and in light of knowledge of the particular dangers posed, the claim of gross negligence should have survived summary judgment. (Id. at p. 1089.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on these cases is misplaced for two reasons. First, unlike Jimenez and Rosencrans, plaintiffs presented no expert evidence regarding the safety standards applicable to snowcat drivers. (See Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1086-1087 [triable issue of fact as to gross negligence where a safety expert’s declaration described common safety precautions for motocross and stated that the defendant’s failure to take those safety precautions constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct and showed a blatant disregard for the safety of the participants].) And second, plaintiffs did not produce evidence showing that Mammoth failed to take any safety precautions required by company safety policies.

As described, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the experts’ declarations from evidence. The declarations did nothing more than to provide conclusions that Mann’s and Mammoth’s conduct violated industry standards and constituted gross negligence. The experts did not articulate what the industry standards [*42]  for driving a snowcat or for protecting the skiing public from a snowcat actually were, let alone how Mann and Mammoth violated them. Instead, the experts merely provided their opinions that Mammoth and Mann failed to guard from or warn of the dangerous condition the snowcat and tiller posed. This is insufficient for a showing of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at p. 272.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Mammoth’s grooming guide is likewise misplaced. Plaintiffs characterize the grooming guide as containing “safety standard[s],” which Mann violated by operating the snowcat’s tiller while the public was present. The grooming guide, however, does not purport to be a safety guide or to set safety standards for Mammoth’s snowcat operators. Instead, it is a “manual” where snowcat operators “will find a basis for all training that is a part of the Slope Maintenance Department.” While “all training” may also include safety training, nothing submitted by plaintiffs indicate that the excerpts they rely on are industry or company-wide safety standards as opposed to Mammoth’s guide to “acceptable high quality” grooming.

For example, the grooming guide instructs drivers to “[n]ever operate the tiller when the skiing public is present.” But [*43]  the guide also justifies a snowcat’s presence in areas open to the public during emergencies, periods of extremely heavy snow, or for transportation of personnel or materials. Here, there was extremely heavy snow and a hazardous condition requiring Mann to drive a snowcat on public snow runs. The guide further instructs drivers that track marks left behind by a snowcat without a tiller are “not acceptable” and must be removed. It was Mann’s understanding from these guidelines that once a snowcat’s presence was justified in an area open to the public, the tiller also had to be running to leave behind safe skiing conditions.

Further, the guide instructs snowcat drivers to travel on a groomed snow run instead of on ungroomed snow on either side of the run. This is because ungroomed snow is made of unstable soft snow that cannot support the weight of a snowcat. According to the grooming guide, driving on a finished groomed run “is better than risking your cat or your life” on the ungroomed snow on the sides of the run. Thus, Mann did not violate Mammoth’s safety policy by driving down the center of a snow run when traveling to Old Boneyard Road and operating the snowcat’s tiller on a public [*44]  run. Because it is not reasonable a jury would find Mann violated safety policies contained in the grooming guide, let alone that that violation constituted more than mere negligence, plaintiffs have not shown that Mann’s or Mammoth’s conduct rose to the level of gross negligence.

II

Venue

Plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when denying their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County where they initially filed their suit. Specifically, plaintiffs argue their motion should have been granted because it was more convenient for the parties and their witnesses to have trial in Los Angeles County and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. Thus, plaintiffs argue, “upon reversal of summary judgment, the trial court should be directed to issue an order transferring this action back to Los Angeles.”

As plaintiffs acknowledge, a reversal of the court’s summary judgment order is a vital initial step to reversal of the trial court’s order regarding venue. This is because without first showing that their case is active and trial is pending, plaintiffs cannot show a miscarriage of justice resulting from the denial of their venue motion.

We are enjoined [*45]  by our Constitution not to reverse any judgment “for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 13; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 475.) Prejudice is not presumed, and “our duty to examine the entire cause arises when and only when the appellant has fulfilled his duty to tender a proper prejudice argument.” (Paterno v. State of California (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 68, 106, 87 Cal. Rptr. 2d 754.)

Plaintiffs cannot show prejudice resulting from the denial of their venue motion because we upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling and their case has been dismissed. Thus, even if the venue motion should have been granted and venue transferred to Los Angeles for trial, there is no trial to be had. Accordingly, we need not address plaintiffs’ claim of error regarding their motion to transfer venue.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Costs are awarded to defendants. (Cal. Rule of Court, rule 8.278, subd. (a)(1).)

/s/ Robie, Acting P. J.

We concur:

/s/ Murray, J.

/s/ Duarte, J.


Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing.

The terrain off of the trail was different than normally found at a ski area. A 3-4 drop off into a pile of rocks. However, the risk is skiing off the trail, not what you run into when you do.

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Loss of Consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The definition of an inherent risk when skiing is not what causes the injury, only the risk that led to the injury. Under Pennsylvania law, there is a broad definition of inherent risks and this case was dismissed because the plaintiff assumed those inherent risks, and the defendant did not owe a duty to protect him from those risks.

Facts

The plaintiff was an experienced skier, who had been skiing for twenty years. He was skiing behind his daughter at the defendant’s ski area. A snowboarder came close to the plaintiff or hit the plaintiff sending or causing him to ski off the trail. He went off the trail, over a 3-4 drop and landed in a pile of rocks.

…Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered was skiing with his daughter.

He sued the defendant ski area because it was:

…negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

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

The decision was based on the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. The court had to decide if the risks encountered by the plaintiff were inherent risks of skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing. As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.”

If there is no duty, then there can be no negligence.

Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.

Pennsylvania has a two-part test to determine if the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty.

First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of down-hill skiing.” If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law.

The first test was met; the plaintiff was skiing at the time of his accident.

The court then had to determine if the risks the plaintiff encountered were inherent to skiing. Under Pennsylvania law, inherent risks “are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing.”

The plaintiff argued that because the plaintiff was no specifically aware of the risk of the 3-4-foot drop off and the pile of rocks, he could not assume the risk.

Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply.

In many cases, assumption of the risk would not be a defense if the injured plaintiff had no specific knowledge of the risk. However, it was not the case here under the statute. It did not matter if the Plaintiff had specific knowledge of the risk or a general knowledge of the risks of skiing, he assumed those risks.

The court then looked at the facts and found there were two circumstances that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injuries, veering to avoid a collision and skiing over the drop off.

The first is an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with an-other skier is one of the common, frequent and expected risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.

The next issue was whether skiing over the drop off into a pile of rocks was an inherent risk of skiing. Here again, the court found skiing off the trail, no matter what you may encounter once you are off the trail, is an inherent risk of skiing. The court backed its point up quite interestingly.

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis.

The court found the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty because he assumed the risks of his injury under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act.

So Now What?

Actually, an easy case. Easy under Pennsylvania law because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts interpretation of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. When skiing in Pennsylvania collisions with other skiers or boarders are an inherent risk of skiing and skiing off the trail is also.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,

1:16-cv-2170

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

March 26, 2018, Decided

CORE TERMS: skiing, trail, edge, downhill, ski, skier, snowboarder, sport, inherent risk, slope, collision, rocks, summary judgment, drop-off, att, daughter, skied, snow, pile, foot, lift ticket, knee-jerk, genuine, resort, Skier’s Responsibility Act, matter of law, specific risk, experienced, elevation, veering

COUNSEL: [*1] For Quan VU, May Siew, Plaintiffs: D. Aaron Rihn, Mark D. Troyan, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA USA.

For Ski Liberty Operating Corp. doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort, Defendant: Anthony W. Hinkle, Snow Time, Inc., Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Plaintiffs: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Defendants: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

JUDGES: Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: John E. Jones III

OPINION

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs are Quan Vu and his wife, May Siew. (“Plaintiffs”). Defendants are Ski Liberty Operating Corp. and Snow Time, Inc., operating as Liberty Mountain Resort. (“Defendants”). This action arises out of a skiing accident at Liberty Mountain that left Mr. Vu severely injured. The complaint brings one count of negligence on behalf of Mr. Vu and one count of loss of consortium on behalf of Mrs. Siew, both alleging that the accident was caused by the Defendants’ negligence in maintaining the ski slope and failing to warn Mr. Vu of [*2] the slope’s hazardous condition. (Doc. 1). Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 36). The Motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for our review. (Docs. 38, 42, 43). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 23, 2015, Mr. Vu was downhill skiing with his daughter at Liberty Mountain. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). Mr. Vu was following his daughter from behind as they skied down the Lover Heavenly trail, a blue square intermediate hill, when he had his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Due to his injuries, Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. (Id. at pp. 65-66). The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered [*3] was skiing with his daughter. (Id. at p. 66).

Mr. Vu’s daughter testified: “I saw someone get really close to him and he was trying to avoid them and it was either ramming into him, the snowboarder, or person who was trying to get really close to him, or veering off path.” (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). “He — there was someone trying to kind of get really close to him. And he didn’t want to ram into him. So he — I don’t really understand — know what happened. But he tried to avoid it. And there was like a big ditch or something there. And he tried to stop and tried to avoid the person who was trying to cut him off.” (Id.). “My dad was — the snowboarder was — my dad was kind of like the ham in the middle of a sandwich. Between the end of the trail, the edge of the trail and the snowboarder.” (Id. at p. 9). “I just felt that the snowboarder was getting quite close to my dad and I didn’t want a collision to happen or the snowboarder to ram into my dad.” (Id. at p. 10).

Ultimately, whether he did so intentionally or not, Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. There was a drop-off at the edge of the ski trail of about three to four feet. (Doc. 41, ¶ 32). Below that drop-off was a large pile [*4] of rocks. (Id. at ¶ 31). Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail, off of the embankment, and landed on the pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11).

Mr. Vu was an experienced skier at the time of his accident. He had skied for over twenty years and was capable of skiing black diamond slopes. (Id. at P 6). Mr. Vu testified that he was familiar with the Skier’s Responsibility Code and understood that he was responsible for skiing in control and in such a manner that he could stop or avoid other skiers. (Id.). Mr. Vu also testified that he understood that skiing is a dangerous sport and that he could get hurt if he skied out of control or if he fell. (Id.).

On the day of his accident, Mr. Vu’s wife purchased his Liberty Mountain Resort Lift Ticket. (Id. at ¶ 18). The back of the lift ticket reads as follows:

PLEASE READ

Acceptance of this ticket constitutes a contract. The conditions of the contract are stated on this ticket & will prevent or restrict your ability to sue Liberty Mountain Resort. If you do not agree with these conditions, then do not use the facility. Snowsports in their various forms, including the use of lifts, are dangerous sports with inherent and other risks. These risks include but are [*5] not limited to: variations in snow, steepness & terrain, ice & icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees & other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, utility lines & poles, fencing or lack of fencing, snowmaking & snowgrooming equipment & component parts, on-snow vehicles & other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, and terrain features on or off designated trails as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowsport participants. Trail conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and use. All the inherent and other risks involved present the risk of permanent catastrophic injury or death. In consideration of using Liberty’s facilities, the purchaser or user of this ticket agrees to accept the risks of snowsports and understands and agrees that they are hazardous and further agrees NOT TO SUE Ski Liberty Operating Corp., its owners or employees if injured while using the facilities regardless of any negligence, including gross negligence, on the part of the resort, and/or its employees or agents. The purchaser or user of this ticket voluntarily assumes the risk of injury while participating in the sport, and agrees [*6] to report all injuries before leaving the resort . . .

(Doc. 37, Ex. D) (emphasis in original). Though Mr. Vu was uncertain if he read the language on the lift ticket on the day of his accident, he testified that he had read it at some point prior to his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 20). At his deposition, Mr. Vu was asked to read portions of the lift ticket and he had trouble doing so because the font was too small. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 70).

Mr. Vu and his wife initiated this action with the filing of a complaint on October 27, 2016. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 36).

I II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “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). A dispute [*7] is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).

Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a genuine dispute for trial. See id. at 773 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). In advancing their positions, the parties must support their factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).

A court should not grant summary judgment when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the [*8] mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on two legal bases. First, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred as a matter of law because Mr. Vu’s injuries were caused by an inherent risk of skiing. Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the exculpatory release language contained on the Liberty Mountain lift ticket. Because we find that Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of risks inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, we hold that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law without even considering the exculpatory release language of the lift ticket.

The material facts surrounding Mr. Vu’s accident are not in dispute. Though Mr. Vu and his daughter are unclear on the specifics, it is undisputed that Mr. Vu ended up skiing off of the trail, over a drop-off, and into a pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified that a snowboarder was getting too close to him and his “knee-jerk” reaction was to veer to avoid a collision, causing him [*9] to ski off of the trail and over the embankment. (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). Mr. Vu’s daughter also testified that her father’s accident occurred when he tried to avoid a collision with a snowboarder. (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). While Defendants argumentatively refer to this person as the “phantom snowboarder” and question the credibility of the testimony, for purposes of this Motion we can take Plaintiffs’ facts as true and assume that Mr. Vu skied off of the trail, either intentionally or as a result of a knee-jerk reaction, to avoid colliding with a snowboarder. Even so, summary judgment must be granted in favor of the Defendants because Mr. Vu’s accident occurred as a result of inherent risks of downhill skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.” 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a [*10] place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (2010) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496A, cmt. C, 2). “Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.” Id.

In Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania established a two-part test for courts to use to determine whether a plaintiff’s claims are barred by the no duty rule of the Skier’s Responsibility Act. 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000). “First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” Id. at 344. “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Id. If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law. Id. In the case at-bar, there can be no dispute that Mr. Vu was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his accident. The salient question, therefore, becomes whether veering off-trail and over a drop-off into a pile [*11] of rocks to avoid a collision with a snowboarder are inherent risks of downhill skiing. If those risks are inherent to skiing, then Defendants had no duty to protect Mr. Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1186. If those risks are not inherent, traditional principles of negligence apply and we must determine what duty the Defendants owed Mr. Vu, whether the Defendants breached that duty, and whether the breach caused Mr. Vu’s injuries.

We begin with a discussion of what it means for a risk to be “inherent.” The Hughes court explained that “inherent” risks are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing. Id. In interpreting risks, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has instructed that “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself, dictates a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88. “Accordingly, courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to define the injury producing risks in very a specific and narrow manner.” Cole v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, 2017 WL 4621786, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 16, 2017) (Mariani, J.). For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Chepkevich rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she did not assume the “specific [*12] risk” involved, looking instead to the “general risk” that gave rise to the accident. 2 A.3d at 1188. A number of courts have addressed the scope of the Skier’s Responsibility Act and have concluded that some of the inherent risks of downhill skiing include: lack of netting, improper course plotting, or soft snow1; skiing off trail and striking a tree2; collisions with unpadded snow equipment poles3; striking a fence on the edge of the trail4; and collisions with other skiers or snowboarders.5

1 Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, L.P., 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008).

2 Id.

3 Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002 (3d Cir. 1983).

4 Cole, 2017 WL 4621786, at *5.

5 Hughes, 762 A.2d 339.

Before addressing the risks that Mr. Vu encountered, we must address Plaintiffs’ initial argument that the assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable. Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8) (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply. (Id. at pp. 9-13). For support of this argument, Plaintiffs cite several cases that are materially distinct from the case at-bar. First, Plaintiffs [*13] quote Barillari v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., “[i]t is not enough that the plaintiff was generally aware that the activity in which he was engaged had accompanying risks.” 986 F. Supp. 2d 555, 563 (M.D. Pa. 2013). Importantly, the court made this statement when analyzing the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk after determining that the Skier’s Responsibility Act was not applicable because the plaintiff was not engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of the accident. Id. at 561. The instruction of this quote is inapplicable to our consideration of the no duty doctrine of assumption of the risk.

Next, Plaintiffs rely heavily on Bolyard v. Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, Inc., 2012 WL 629391(M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2012) (Caputo, J.). In Bolyard, the plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence after sustaining injuries while snow tubing on the defendant’s property. Id. at *1. The court recognized that while the plaintiff had “general knowledge” of the dangers of snow tubing on the hill, she did not assume the risk because “there is no evidence in the record that she had any knowledge of the specific hazards of that particular slope.” Id. at *6. Plaintiffs argue that “[s]imilar to the patron in Bolyard,” Mr. Vu was only generally aware of the risks he could suffer while skiing and thus assumption of the risk is inapplicable. (Doc. [*14] 42, p. 8). We disagree.

Notably, the slope in Bolyard was an old slope that was not currently in operation. 2012 WL 629391, at *1. The court used principles of negligence as applicable to landowners and licensees to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff and, consequently, considered the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as a defense. Id. at **3-6. Analyzing the present action under the no duty rule, we do not consider the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk; instead, we must determine whether Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of an inherent risk of the sport of skiing such that the Defendants had no duty at all. Pursuant to Hughes and the Skier’s Responsibility Act, there is no duty to protect a skier from the inherent risks of skiing and therefore, “when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant.” Id.

Finally, Plaintiffs cite Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC,6
Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc.,
7
Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp,
8 and Telega v. Sec. Bureau, Inc.9 in support of their position that assumption of the risk does not apply because Mr. Vu did not appreciate the specific risks that caused his accident. To start, none of these cases address the Skier’s Responsibility [*15] Act. These cases discuss appreciation of specific risk only after determining that the no duty rule was inapplicable because the risk encountered was not inherent. Again, we reiterate that “[n]egligence principles are irrelevant where the ‘no duty’ rule applies.” Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 WL 5257648, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Whether the no duty rule applies turns on whether Mr. Vu’s particular injuries arose out of risks inherent in the sport of skiing — an issue that is not dependent on a plaintiff’s subjective awareness of those specific risks.

6 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (Mariani, J.).

7 749 A.2d 522, (Pa. Super. 2000).

8 483 Pa. 75, 85, 394 A.2d 546, 551 (1978).

9 719 A.2d 372, 376 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998).

We now turn to the risks involved in Mr. Vu’s accident. The facts reveal two circumstances that gave rise to Mr. Vu’s injuries: (1) veering to avoid a collision with a snowboarder; and (2) skiing over the drop-off at the edge of the trail and into a pile of rocks. If these risks are inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, Plaintiffs’ claims cannot stand.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with another skier is one of the common, frequent and expected [*16] risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Likely in recognition of the clear case law, Plaintiffs do not argue in their brief in opposition to the Motion that avoiding a collision with a snowboarder is a risk that would give rise to a duty on behalf of Defendants. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence are premised on Mr. Vu’s avoidance of a collision with the snowboarder, those claims must fail.

Next, we consider whether skiing over the edge of the trail and encountering a three to four foot drop-off into a pile of rocks is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Plaintiffs frame this risk as the primary cause of Mr. Vu’s injuries.10 “Simply put, the risk of ejectment from a ski trail due to a 3 to 4 foot drop off and striking one’s head on rocks and/or boulders . . . is not an inherent, frequent, common, and expected risk of skiing.” (Doc. 42, p. 11). All parties recognize that the drop-off was at the edge of the trail rather than a ditch or hole in the slope itself. Though Plaintiffs stress that Mr. Vu did not “willingly [*17] decide to ski off trail,” the distinction is of no consequence. Plaintiffs describe the incident in terms of Mr. Vu being “ejected” from the trail due to the embankment, but it is illogical to argue that the existence of the drop-off itself would cause a skier to go over it. Whether Mr. Vu did so intentionally, accidentally, or as a means of avoiding a collision, the incontrovertible fact is that Mr. Vu did, ultimately, ski off of the three to four foot edge of the trail.

10 “. . . the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8); “Even if Defendant could establish that having a 3 to 4 foot trail edge drop presents a danger inherent to the sport of skiing . . .” (Id. at p. 9); “. . . he was ejected from the trail when attempting to avoid a collision and was confronted with a 3 to 4 foot drop in elevation from the ski trail.” (Id. at p. 11).

We hold that the risk of skiing off trail and suffering from the change of elevation between the trail and surrounding terrain is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who was well aware of the risks of skiing off the designated slope; he testified repeatedly that he “would never ski off-trail.” (Doc. 41, att. 1, p. 43). He had previously skied at Liberty Mountain on multiple occasions and could not remember ever complaining about the trail or trail markings. (Id. at pp. 35-36). Additionally, Mr. Vu’s daughter testified that she did not have any difficulty discerning the edge of the slope where her father went off trail the evening of the accident. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14). It would be irrational for [*18] any court to hold that skiing off trail and encountering dangerous terrain is not an inherent risk of the sport of downhill skiing — ski slopes are marked and maintained in appreciation of this risk, and beginner and experienced skiers alike know to stay within the trail limits to avoid injury. Mr. Vu himself testified that he understood that he could run into trees, rocks, boulders, or snowmaking equipment if he skied off trail. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 71).

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis. One case from the New York appellate court, however, was particularly analogous. In Atwell v. State, the plaintiff was skiing near the edge of the trail when he observed a “floundering” skier in his path. 645 N.Y.S.2d 658, 659 (1996). Plaintiff “instinctively reacted and turned without thinking” to avoid a collision and ended up skiing off trail and into a tree. Id. The court easily found that plaintiff’s injuries were due to inherent risks of skiing. Id. at 650. “[F]rom claimant’s own description of the accident, there can be no dispute that everything he encountered, including the skier he turned [*19] to avoid hitting, the berm at the edge of the trail referred to by claimant’s expert and the tree with which he collided, are all statutorily recognized as inherent dangers of skiing.” The court noted that “[c]laimant chose to ski near the edge of the trail and there is nothing in the record to indicate that the location of the edge of the trail was not readily observable to him.” Id. Similarly here, Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who chose to ski near the edge of the slope. He had a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a skier, and ended up veering off of the trail and suffering from the elevation change and his collision with rocks. Not only is there a lack of any evidence that the edge of the trail was difficult to discern, but Mr. Vu’s daughter testified at length about how her father was close to the edge of the trail and specifically stated that she could observe the edge of the slope without difficulty. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14).

We agree with the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which simply held: “Even the most generous reading of the plaintiff’s pleadings reveals the chief cause of his injuries to be an unenumerated, yet quintessential risk of skiing: that a skier might lose control [*20] and ski off the trail. By participating in the sport of skiing, a skier assumes this inherent risk and may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries.” Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 140 N.H. 675, 684, 671 A.2d 548, 553 (1996).

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.

ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In conformity with the Memorandum issued on today’s date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

1. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 36) is GRANTED.

2. The Clerk of the Court SHALL CLOSE the file on this case.

/s/ John E. Jones III

John E. Jones III

United States District Judge


A parked snowmobile is an inherent risk of skiing for which all skiers assume the risk under Colorado Ski Area Safety Act.

A Steamboat ski area employee parked a snowmobile at the bottom of a run. The plaintiff came down the run and hit the snowmobile injuring herself. She claimed the snowmobile was not visible from 100′ and was in violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act. The Federal District Court for Colorado Disagreed.

Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30484

State: Colorado, United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Linda Schlumbrecht-Muniz, M.D.

Defendant: Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation, a Delaware Corporation d/b/a STEAMBOAT

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligence per se, and respondeat superior

Defendant Defenses: Colorado Skier Safety Act

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2015

The plaintiff was skiing down a run at Steamboat Ski Area. (Steamboat is owned by Intrawest Resorts, Inc.) On that day, an employee of Steamboat parked a snowmobile at the bottom of that run. The snowmobile was not visible for 100′. The plaintiff collided with the vehicle incurring injury.

The plaintiff sued claiming simple negligence, negligence per se and respondeat superior. The Negligence per se claim was based on an alleged failure of the ski area to follow the Colorado Skier Safety Act.

The ski area filed a motion for summary judgment arguing the claims of the plaintiff failed to plead the information needed to allege a violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act.

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

The court first looked at the requirements necessary to properly plead a claim.

“…the mere metaphysical possibility that some plaintiff could prove some set of facts in support of the pleaded claims is insufficient; the complaint must give the court reason to believe that this plaintiff has a reasonable likelihood of mustering factual support for these claims.” The ultimate duty of the court is to “determine whether the complaint sufficiently alleges facts supporting all the elements necessary to establish an entitlement to relief under the legal theory proposed.”

This analysis requires the plaintiff to plead facts sufficient to prove her claims to some certainty that the court can see without a major stretch of the imagination.

The ordinary negligence claims were the first to be reviewed and dismissed. The Colorado Skier Safety Act states that the defendant ski area is “immune from any claim for damages resulting from “…the inherent dangers and risks of skiing…

Notwithstanding any judicial decision or any other law or statute, to the contrary, … no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.

Although the law allows suits against ski areas for violation of the act, those claims must be plead specifically and fit into the requirements set forth in the act. As such the court found the defendant Steamboat could be liable if:

Accordingly, Steamboat may be liable under one of two theories: a skier may recover if her injury resulted from an occurrence not considered an inherent danger or risk of skiing; or a skier may recover if the ski operator violated a provision of the Act and that violation resulted in injury.

The first claim of an injury that was not an inherent risk of skiing would hold the defendant ski area liable for a negligence claim. The second requires specific violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act.

Steamboat argued that pursuant to the Colorado Skier Safety Act, the term inherent risks as defined in the act were to be read broadly and a parked snowmobile was an inherent risk of skiing.

The Ski Safety Act defines “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” to mean:

…those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including changing weather conditions; snow conditions as they exist or may change, such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; surface or subsurface conditions such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects; impact with lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or as a result of slope design, snowmaking or grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

The court then looked at decisions interpreting the inherent risk section to determine if the act was to be construed narrowly or broadly.

In all cases, Colorado courts looked at the act as a list of the possible risks of skiing but not all the possible risks. As such, a snowmobile parked at the bottom of the slope was an inherent risk of skiing.

I am also persuaded that the presence of a parked snow mobile at the end of a ski run is an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. While Steamboat cites Fleury for that court’s description of the “common understanding of a ‘danger,'” and analogizes the presence of a snowmobile to cornices, avalanches, and rubber deceleration mats for tubing, I find that a parked snowmobile is not analogous to those examples because a snowmobile is not part of the on-course terrain of the sport.

The court also found that even if the snowmobile parked on a run was not an inherent risk, the statute required skiers to stay away from vehicles and equipment on the slopes. “Each skier shall stay clear of snow-grooming equipment, all vehicles, lift towers, signs, and any other equipment on the ski slopes and trails.”

The plaintiff’s argument was the violation of the statute was failing to properly for failing to properly outfit the snowmobile.

Plaintiff clarifies in her Response that the negligence per se claim is for violation of section 33-44-108(3), which requires snowmobiles operated “on the ski slopes or trails of a ski area” to be equipped with “[o]ne lighted headlamp, one lighted red tail lamp, a brake system maintained in operable condition, and a fluorescent flag at least forty square inches mounted at least six feet above the bottom of the tracks.”

Plaintiff also argued the statute was violated because the snowmobile was not visible for 100′ as required by the statute. However, this put the plaintiff in a catch 22. If the plaintiff was not a vehicle, then it was a man-made object which was an inherent risk of skiing. If she pleads the snowmobile was a vehicle and not properly equipped, then she failed to stay away from it.

Neither approach leads Plaintiff to her desired result. Steamboat correctly asserts that if the snow-mobile is characterized as a man-made object, Plaintiff’s impact with it was an inherent danger and risk pursuant to section, and Steamboat is immune to liability for the resulting injuries. If Plaintiff intends for her Claim to proceed under the theory that Steamboat violated section 33-44-108(3) by failing to equip the snowmobile with the proper lighting, she did not plead that the parked vehicle lacked the required items, and mentions only in passing in her Response that the vehicle “did not have an illuminated head lamp or trail lamp because it was not operating.”

The final claim was based on respondeat superior.

Plaintiff has alleged that the Steamboat employee was acting within the scope of her employment when she parked the snowmobile at the base of Bashor Bowl. See id. (“Under the theory of respondeat superior, the question of whether an employee is acting within the scope of the employment is a question of fact”)

Because the respondeat claim was derivative of the prior claims, and they were dismissed, the respondeat superior claim must fail. Derivative means that the second claim is wholly based on the first claim. If the first claim fails, the second claim fails.

So Now What?

This is another decision in a long line of decisions expanding the risks a skier assumes on Colorado slopes. The inherent risks set forth in Colorado Skier Safety Act are examples of the possible risks a skier can assume, not the specific set of risks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Negligence Per Se is the violation of a law or regulation created to protect a group of people. If you are Negligent Per Se, you have no defenses.

Defendant took plaintiffs on a guided personal watercraft tour with an employee/guide who had not been trained as required by Florida’s law.

Tassinari v. Key West Water Tours, L.C., et al., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46490

State: Florida: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Plaintiff: Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva

Defendant: Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff

Third Party Defendant(s): Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence Per Se

Defendant Defenses: : (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2007

Summary

If there is a statute that applies to your business or activity, you must know and abide by the statute. Failure to do so can void all of your defenses and in some cases the claim may not be covered by your insurance policy.

Here the defendant rented personal watercraft to the plaintiffs without instructing the guests as required by Florida Statute. By not abiding by the statute, the defendant’s defenses were void and the defendant’s liability was decided by the court.

Facts

The plaintiff’s, husband, wife and daughter paid for a guided personal watercraft (PWC or formerly known as jet ski) tour. During the tour, another tour participant panicked and drove his PWC at a high rated of speed into the plaintiff’s.

The plaintiff’s sued the defendant PWC tour company. The PWC tour company sued the participant who drove the PWC into the plaintiff’s as third-party plaintiffs versus third party defendants.

The defendants relied on four defenses:

(1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness;

(2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness;

(3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and

(4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.

The plaintiff argued that because the defendant did not hire or require it’s guides to meet educational requirements required by state law, the defendant was negligent per se.

Negligence per se is negligence that violates a law or regulation which was created for the purpose of protecting a group of people that were injured by the plaintiff.

The Florida statutes in question were:

Florida Statute § 327.39

§ 327.39. Personal watercraft regulated.

(b) 1. It is unlawful for the owner of any leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, or any person having charge over or control of a leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, to authorize or knowingly permit the watercraft to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.

The second statute was Florida Statute § 327.54

§ 327.54. Liveries; safety regulations; penalty.

(1) A livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person:

(e) When the vessel is equipped with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater, unless the livery provides prerental or preride instruction that includes, but need not be limited to:

1. Operational characteristics of the vessel to be rented.

2. Safe vessel operation and vessel right-of-way.

3. The responsibility of the vessel operator for the safe and proper operation of the vessel.

4. Local characteristics of the waterway where the vessel will be operated.

Any person delivering the information specified in this paragraph must have successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.

The first statute required the person renting a PWC to instruct the renter on the use of the PWC. The second statute identified the instructions to be given and required the person giving the instructions to have successfully completed a boater safety course. The defendant’s employee in this case had not given the necessary instructions and had not completed a boater safety course.

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

Federal judiciary has a rule they apply to these situations called the Pennsylvania Rule. The Pennsylvania Rule states:

…when a ship at the time of an collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.

Basically, the Pennsylvania rule shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who normally has the burden to proof the defendant was at fault, to the defendant, requiring the defendant to prove, it was not at fault.

The next hurdle is the state law’s relationship to admiralty law. Admiralty law is a Federal law, in fact, a series of international laws, to control transportation of goods and people across borders and international travel. States can only make laws concerning admiralty issues if there is not federal law on the subject already. If the federal law conflicts with the state law, the federal law applies.

Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident.

There is no federal law concerning the rental of PWCs. So, the two Florida statutes were available to the plaintiff. Additionally, the Florida statutes were created to protect a specific group of people, and the plaintiffs were part of the group to be protected.

These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.

Side note: the defendant co-owner admitted he was not familiar with Florida’s statutes that were at issue. The court’s response was the classic you learn in law school, and you should learn in kindergarten. “…ignorance of the law is not a defense.”

The defendant argued that instruction would have changed the accident or prevented the accident. The court did not buy that argument.

However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.

For the defendant not to be liable, the must be completely free of fault, and the violation of the Florida statute created fault on the part of the defendant; consequently, the defendant was not free of fault.

The defendant then argued the limitation of liability under admiralty law applied. The limitation of liability states the defendant is liable to the value of the vessel after the accident. Here the defendant argued the extent of their liability was $3,000 because that was what the PWC was worth.

For the defendant to use this defense, required a two-step test:

(1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.

Since the defendants could have easily investigated whether their employee had taken a boater safety course, and they did not, they could not take advantage of the limitation of liability because the defendant should have had knowledge of the unseaworthiness of the PWC.

The next defense argued was the release signed by the plaintiff. Here the release was void because it violated public policy. The statute created a safety requirement on the part of the defendant. The statute was enacted to keep the public safe. Therefore, failing to keep the public safe was a public policy issue.

[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.”

In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgement was denied. The plaintiff had filed a motion for summary judgment as to the liability of the defendant. That motion was granted. The sole remaining issue then was the amount of the liability, how much the defendant owed the plaintiff.

So Now What?

Releases are the best defense to lawsuits in most states. However, the most effective legal argument to void a release is to claim the defendant was Negligence Per Se. Here the court found that because the statutes were created for public policy reasons, the release violated public policy and thus was void.

Most state courts just void the release stating the release cannot prevent claims based on violation of a statute.

More importantly, any time a statute is created that applies to your business or activity, you must understand and follow the statute. Both statutes argued above had criminal penalties for violation of the statutes. Not only was the defendant liable in a lawsuit for violating the statutes, the defendants could be fined by the state.

Don’t get into business without knowing the law.

More articles on Negligence Per Se

Motion for Summary Judgment failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case.

Instructional Colorado decision Negligence, Negligence Per Se and Premises Liability

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