Colorado Appellate Court rules that fine print and confusing language found on most health clubs (and some climbing wall) releases is void because of the Colorado Premises Liability Act.

Door swings both ways in the law. Ski areas used the Colorado Premises Liability Act to lower the standard of care and effectively eliminate claims for lift accidents in Colorado. Here the same act is used to rule a release is void for accidents occurring on premises. However, the release was badly written and should have been thrown out.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

State: Colorado, Colorado Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Wendy Jane Stone

Defendant: Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2016

This case is going to change a lot of releases in Colorado, and possibly nationwide. Similar decisions concerning health club releases have occurred in other states for the same or similar reasons. Basically, your have to write a release correctly, or it is void.

Remember the articles about Vail using the Colorado Premises Liability Act to defeat claims for lift accidents? (See Colorado Premises Liability act eliminated common law claims of negligence as well as CO Ski Area Safety Act claims against a landowner and Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?) The same act has been used to void a release in a health club case.

The Colorado Premises Liability Act is a law that tells a landowner (which is broadly defined to include renters as well as landowners indoors and out) how they must treat three types of people on their land or as in this case, a person who is in a health club.

Here the plaintiff had washed her hands in the locker room, and as she was leaving she tripped over the blow dryer cord fracturing her right ankle.

Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

The plaintiff’s injuries arose from her being the land, not for using the benefits of the health club.

The plaintiff sued for negligence and for violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The Colorado Premises Liability Act sets for the duties owed by a landowner to someone on their land based on the relationship between the landowner and the person on the land. Pursuant to an earlier Colorado Supreme Court decision, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the sole remedies available to persons injured on the property of another.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based upon the release used by the health club, and the plaintiff appealed.

This decision is new and there is a possibility that it could be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and reversed.

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

The plaintiff filed here a complaint with two claims, negligence and breach of the Colorado Premises Liability Act. The court first looked at the negligence claim. The court found that negligence claim was properly dismissed, but for a different reason that the release stopped the claim. Here, the Colorado Premises Liability Act provides the only legal recourse against a landowner, so the negligence claim has no validity.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners.

Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court; therefore, correctly ruled against her on that claim.

When a statute as in this case the Colorado Premises Liability Act, states the only way to sue is under this act, the statute bars all other ways or theories to sue.

The plaintiff’s argument then was the release that was written and signed by the plaintiff only covered the activities in the health club and did not provide protection from a suit for simply being on the premises.

As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room.

The court then reviewed the general rules surrounding release in Colorado law.

Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language.

Under Colorado law, clear and unambiguously language is reviewed based on the lengthy, the amount of legal jargon and the possibility of confusion.

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Colorado has a four-part test to determine the validity of a release.

Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court quickly ruled that the first three factors were not at issue in this case.

In Colorado, there is no public duty based on recreational services. Recreational services are neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. The third factor was also met because the defendant did not have any advantage. The plaintiff was free to obtain the services of the defendant someplace else.

The fourth factor provided the issue the case would resolve around, “Whether the intention of the parties was clear and unambiguous.”

The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable.

The court found eight ways the release in this case failed.

First, the release was very small type, dense fine print.

First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

Second, the release was full of confusing legal jargon, including the following terms:

…affiliates, subsidiaries, successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.

This jargon was found to mitigate against the idea the release was clear and simple to understand.

Third, the release, referenced clauses, identified as chapters, which even the attorneys for the defendant found confusing. Nor could anyone explain what the references to chapters referred to.

Fourth the focus of the release was on the use of the exercise equipment. The court pointed out five instances in the release that related to the use of the equipment and none relating to occupation of the premises. Meaning the court found a release must release the claims the plaintiff is complaining of.

The fifth reason was the use of the term “inherent.” (As I’ve stated before and given presentations on, inherent is a limiting term you do not want to use in a release.) The court said the use of this term was only applied under Colorado law to apply to activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. A locker room is not inherently dangerous so the term is confusing in this case.

In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands.

The sixth issue the court had was the language between the different release terms was “squirrely.” (In 35 years of practicing law, I have used the term a lot, but never in a courtroom, and I’ve never seen it in a decision.) The way the language referred back to other clauses in the release and attempting to identify what injuries were actually covered created ambiguities and confusion. The defense counsel for the health club admitted the language was squirrely.

The seventh issue was the general language of the release used to broaden the release, (after using the narrowing term inherent). The release was full of “but for” or “but is not” type of phrases. It was an attempt to broaden the language in the release, which only made the release more confusing.

Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive.

The use of these terms created more ambiguity in the release. Specifically, the language created an expansive versus restrictive flow in the release, none of which referenced the locker room.

Based on the above language the court found the release was not clear, unambiguous and unequivocal.

Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

The negligence claim was dismissed, and the claim under the Colorado Premises Liability Act was allowed to proceed.

So Now What?

First remember, this case could still be appealed and changed by the Colorado Supreme Court. However, the logic and reasoning behind the Colorado Appellate Court decision is well laid out and clear. I don’t think these are issues the Colorado Supreme Court is going to take on.

Colorado has jumped onto the release bandwagon I’ve been telling people about for 25 years.  Your release has to be written in English, it needs to be understandable, and it needs to cover everything. Most importantly, it needs to be a separate document with no fine print, no legal jargon and easily read. You can no longer hide your release on the back of an agreement using fine print and expect it to protect you from claims.

Colorado has been a state where releases are rarely over-turned. However, this was a crappy piece of paper that had release language on it. The print was too small; the language was so confusing the attorney for the health club did not understand it and the court pointed this fact out.

Your release needs to be well written, needs to be written by an attorney, needs to be written by an attorney who understands what you do and the risks you are presenting to your guests/customers/participants.

If you are interested in having me prepare a release for you, download the information form and agreement here: information-and-agreement-to-write-a-release-for-you-1-1-17

For more articles on this type of releases found in health clubs see:

Sign-in sheet language at Michigan’s health club was not sufficient to create a release.            http://rec-law.us/28J1Cs8

For articles explaining why using the term inherent in a release is bad see:

Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.   http://rec-law.us/1SqHWJW

 

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Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

* Formatting in this case maybe different when finalized by the Court.

Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

Wendy Jane Stone, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., a Minnesota corporation doing business in the State of Colorado, d/b/a Life Time Fitness; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.

Court of Appeals No. 15CA0598

COURT OF APPEALS OF COLORADO, DIVISION I

2016 Colo. App. LEXIS 1829

December 29, 2016, Decided

OPINION

[*1] City and County of Denver District Court No. 14CV33637 Honorable R. Michael Mullins, Judge

Opinion by JUDGE MILLER

Taubman and Fox, JJ., concur

Announced December 29, 2016

Charles Welton P.C., Charles Welton, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

Markusson Green & Jarvis, John T. Mauro, H. Keith Jarvis, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellees

¶ 1 In this action seeking recovery for personal injuries sustained at a fitness club, plaintiff, Wendy Jane Stone, appeals the summary judgment entered in favor of defendants, Life Time Fitness, Inc.; Life Time Fitness Foundation; and LTF Club Operations Company, Inc. (collectively, Life Time), on Stone’s negligence and Premises Liability Act (PLA) claims based on injuries sustained when she tripped on a hair dryer cord after washing her hands. The principal issue presented on appeal is whether the district court correctly ruled that Stone’s claims are contractually barred based on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in a member usage agreement (Agreement) she signed when she became a member of Life Time.

¶ 2 We disagree with the district court’s conclusion that the exculpatory provisions of the Agreement are valid as applied [*2] to Stone’s PLA claim. Consequently, we reverse the judgment as to that claim and remand the case for further proceedings. We affirm the district court’s judgment on the negligence claim.

I. Background

¶ 3 Stone was a member of a Life Time fitness club located in Centennial. According to the complaint, she sustained injuries in the women’s locker room after finishing a workout. Stone alleged that she had washed her hands at a locker room sink and then “turned to leave when she tripped on the blow dryer cord that was, unbeknownst to her, hanging to the floor beneath the sink and vanity counter top.” She caught her foot in the cord and fell to the ground, fracturing her right ankle.

¶ 4 Stone alleged that allowing the blow dryer cord to hang below the sink counter constituted a trip hazard and a dangerous condition and that, by allowing the condition to exist, Life Time failed to exercise reasonable care. She asserted a general negligence claim and also a claim under Colorado’s PLA, section 13-21-115, C.R.S. 2016.

¶ 5 Life Time moved for summary judgment, relying on assumption of risk and liability release language contained in the Agreement Stone signed when she joined Life Time. Life Time argued that the Agreement was [*3] valid and enforceable, that it expressly covered the type and circumstances of her injuries, and that it barred Stone’s claims as a matter of law. A copy of the Agreement appears in the Appendix to this opinion.

¶ 6 After full briefing, the district court granted Life Time’s motion, concluding that the Agreement was “valid and enforceable” and that Stone had released Life Time from all the claims asserted in the complaint.

II. Discussion

¶ 7 She contends that the district court, therefore, erred in entering summary judgment and dismissing her action.

A. Summary Judgment Standards

¶ 8 Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings and supporting documents establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Gagne v. Gagne, 2014 COA 127, ¶ 24; see C.R.C.P. 56(c). We review de novo an order granting a motion for summary judgment. Gagne, ¶ 24; see Ranch O, LLC v. Colo. Cattlemen’s Agric. Land Tr., 2015 COA 20, ¶ 12.

B. Negligence Claim

¶ 9 In her complaint, Stone alleged common law negligence and PLA claims, and she pursues both claims on appeal. The trial court’s summary judgment ruled in favor of Life Time without distinguishing between Stone’s negligence and PLA claims. It simply concluded that the [*4] exculpatory clauses in the Agreement were “valid and enforceable” and released Life Time from all claims asserted against it.

¶ 10 We turn to the negligence claim first because we may affirm a correct judgment for reasons different from those relied on by the trial court. English v. Griffith, 99 P.3d 90, 92 (Colo. App. 2004).

¶ 11 The parties agree that the PLA applies to this case. In section

13-21-115(2), the statute provides:

In any civil action brought against a landowner by a person who alleges injury occurring while on the real property of another and by reason of the condition of such property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property, the landowner shall be liable only as provided in subsection (3) of this section.

The PLA thus provides the sole remedy against landowners for injuries on their property. Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322, 328-29 (Colo. 2004); Wycoff v. Grace Cmty. Church of Assemblies of God, 251 P.3d 1260, 1265 (Colo. App. 2010). Similarly, it is well

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – Footnotes – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Section 13-21-115(1), C.R.S. 2016, defines “landowner” as including “a person in possession of real property and a person legally responsible for the condition of real property or for the activities conducted or circumstances existing on real property.” In its answer, Life Time admitted that it owned and operated the club where Stone was injured and that the PLA governs her [*5] claims.

– – – – – – – – – – – – End Footnotes- – – – – – – – – – – – – –

established that the PLA abrogates common law negligence claims against landowners. Legro v. Robinson, 2012 COA 182, ¶ 20, aff’d, 2014 CO 40.

¶ 12 Accordingly, albeit for reasons different from those expressed by the trial court, we conclude that Stone could not bring a claim for common law negligence, and the trial court therefore correctly ruled against her on that claim. We now turn to the effect of the exculpatory clauses in the Agreement on Stone’s PLA claim.

C. Application of Exculpatory Clauses to PLA Claim

¶ 13 As we understand Stone’s contentions, she does not dispute that the exculpatory language in the Agreement would preclude her from asserting claims under the PLA for any injuries she might sustain when working out on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or other exercise equipment or playing racquetball. We therefore do not address such claims. Instead, Stone argues that the exculpatory clauses do not clearly and unambiguously apply to her injuries incurred after washing her hands in the women’s locker room. We agree.

1. Law

¶ 14 “Generally, exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored.” B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998). Determining the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the court. Id.; Jones [*6] v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 375 (Colo. 1981). This analysis requires close scrutiny of the agreement to ensure that the intent of the parties is expressed in clear, unambiguous, and unequivocal language. Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Our supreme court has explained:

To determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we have previously examined the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

Id.

¶ 15 Under Jones, a court must consider four factors in determining whether an exculpatory agreement is valid: (1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 623 P.2d at 375.

2. Analysis

a. The First Three Jones Factors

¶ 16 The first three Jones factors provide little help for Stone’s position. The supreme court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (addressing guided hunting services and noting that providers of recreational activities owe “no special duty [*7] to the public”); Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-78 (skydiving services); see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (addressing recreational camping services and noting supreme court authority).

¶ 17 With regard to the second factor, the nature of the services provided, courts have consistently deemed recreational services to be neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 941 F. Supp. 959, 962 (D. Colo. 1996) (snowmobiling not a matter of practical necessity), aff’d, 127 F.3d 1273 (10th Cir. 1997); Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (whitewater rafting not an essential service), aff’d sub nom. Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997). Stone attempts to distinguish those cases by asserting that people join fitness centers “to promote their health, not for the thrill of a dangerous recreational activity.” She cites no authority for such a distinction, and we are not persuaded that such activities as camping and horseback riding, at issue in the cases cited above, are engaged in for a dangerous thrill as opposed to the healthful benefits of outdoor exercise. Consequently, the recreational nature of the services Life Time provides does not weigh against upholding or enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 18 With respect to the third factor, a contract is fairly entered into if one party [*8] is not at such an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power that the effect of the contract is to place that party at the mercy of the other party’s negligence. See Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949; see also Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989). Possible examples of unfair disparity in bargaining power include agreements between employers and employees and between common carriers or public utilities and members of the public. See Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 784. However, this type of unfair disparity is generally not implicated when a person contracts with a business providing recreational services. See id.; see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949-50.

¶ 19 In evaluating fairness, courts also examine whether the services provided could have been obtained elsewhere. Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950. Nothing in the record indicates that Stone could not have taken her business elsewhere and joined a different fitness club or recreation center. Nor is there any other evidence that the parties’ relative bargaining strengths were unfairly disparate so as to weigh against enforcing the Agreement.

¶ 20 We therefore turn to the fourth prong of the Jones test – whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language. [*9]

b. The Fourth Jones Factor

¶ 21 The validity of exculpatory clauses releasing or waiving future negligence claims usually turns on the fourth Jones factor – whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Wycoff, 251 P.3d at 1263 (applying the Jones factors to a PLA claim). This case also turns on that factor.

¶ 22 The issue is not whether a detailed textual analysis would lead a court to determine that the language, even if ambiguous, ultimately would bar the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, the language must be clear and unambiguous and also “unequivocal” to be enforceable. Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; see also Threadgill v. Peabody Coal Co., 34 Colo. App. 203, 209, 526 P.2d 676, 679 (1974), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378.

¶ 23 We conclude that the Agreement fails this test for numerous reasons.

¶ 24 First, as explained by the New York Court of Appeals, “a provision that would exempt its drafter from any liability occasioned by his fault should not compel resort to a magnifying glass and lexicon.” Gross v. Sweet, 400 N.E.2d 306, 309 (N.Y. 1979), cited with approval in Jones, 623 P.2d at 378. Here, the Agreement consists of extremely dense fine print, for which a great many people would require a magnifying glass or magnifying reading glasses.

¶ 25 Second, the two clauses are replete with legal jargon, using phrases and terms such as “affiliates, subsidiaries, [*10] successors, or assigns”; “assumption of risk”; “inherent risk of injury”; “includes, but is not limited to”; and “I agree to defend, indemnify and hold Life Time Fitness harmless.” The use of such technical legal language militates against the conclusion that the release of liability was clear and simple to a lay person.

¶ 26 Third, the first of the two clauses relied on by Life Time bears the following heading: “under Chapter 458, 459, 460, or Chapter 461 ASSUMPTION OF RISK.” At oral argument, counsel for Life Time conceded that the reference to multiple chapters was ambiguous and confusing, and he could not explain to what the chapters referred. Our research has not enlightened us on the subject. Conscientious lay persons could reasonably have skipped over the fine print appearing under that heading, believing it did not apply to them because they would have no reason to understand that chapters 458, 459, 460, or 461 had any relevance to their situation. Thus, the assumption of risk heading was not clear and unambiguous.

¶ 27 Fourth, the dominant focus of the Agreement is on the risks of strenuous exercise and use of exercise equipment at the fitness center:

  • The opening paragraph [*11] of the Agreement contains the following warning: “All members are strongly encouraged to have a complete physical examination by a medical doctor prior to beginning any work out program or strenuous new activity. If I have a history of heart disease, I agree to consult a physician before becoming a Life Time Fitness member.”
  • Under the confusing assumption of risk heading, the first sentence states, “I understand that there is an inherent risk of injury, whether caused by me or someone else, in the use of or presence at a Life Time Fitness Center, the use of equipment and services at a Life Time Fitness Center, and participation in Life Time Fitness’ programs.”
  • There then follows a listing of types of risks, including the use of “indoor and outdoor pool areas with waterslides, a climbing wall area, ball and racquet courts, cardiovascular and resistance training equipment,” and other specified programs, as well as
  • “[i]njuries arising from the use of Life Time Fitness’ centers or equipment” and from activities and programs sponsored by Life Time; “[i]njuries or medical disorders resulting from exercise at a
  • Life Time Fitness center, including, but not limited to heart attacks, strokes, [*12] heart stress, spr [sic] broken bones and torn muscles or ligaments”; and “[i]njuries resulting from the actions taken or decisions made regarding medical or survival procedures.”

¶ 28 Fifth, the term “inherent risk of injury” that appears in the assumption of risk clause has been applied in various Colorado statutes and case law to address waivers of liability only for activities that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. Thus, the General Assembly has provided for releases from liability in circumstances such as activities involving horses and llamas, section 13-21-119, C.R.S. 2016; being a spectator at baseball games, section 13-21-120, C.R.S. 2016; agricultural recreation or agritourism activities (including hunting, shooting, diving, and operating a motorized recreational vehicle on or near agricultural land), section 13-21-121, C.R.S. 2016; skiing, section 33-44-109, C.R.S. 2016; and spaceflight activities, section 41-6-101, C.R.S. 2016. Significantly, not one of these statutory exemptions from liability extends to the use of locker rooms, rest rooms, or dressing rooms associated with these activities. Rather, the releases of liability extend only to the dangerous or potentially dangerous activities themselves.

¶ 29 Colorado’s published cases concerning the term “inherent risks” similarly concern dangerous or potentially [*13] dangerous activities. For example, the term “inherent risks” has been addressed in cases involving skiing, Graven v. Vail Assocs., Inc., 909 P.2d 514, 519 (Colo. 1995); horseback riding, Heil Valley Ranch, Inc., 784 P.2d at 782; medical procedures or surgical techniques, Mudd v. Dorr, 40 Colo. App. 74, 78-79, 574 P.2d 97, 101 (1977); and attendance at roller hockey games, Teneyck v. Roller Hockey Colo., Ltd., 10 P.3d 707, 710 (Colo. App. 2000). Thus, in reported cases, the term “inherent risks” has been limited to dangerous or potentially dangerous activities, rather than accidents occurring in more common situations, such as using locker rooms.

¶ 30 In light of this statutory and case law backdrop, the use of the inherent risk language in the assumption of risk clause, and the Agreement’s focus on the use of exercise equipment and facilities and physical injuries resulting from strenuous exercise, one could reasonably conclude that by signing the Agreement he or she was waiving claims based only on the inherent risks of injury related to fitness activities, as opposed to washing one’s hands. Indeed, Stone so stated in her affidavit submitted in opposition to the motion for summary judgment.

¶ 31 Sixth, Life Time contends that the only relevant language we need consider is that set forth in the second exculpatory clause, labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY.” That provision begins [*14] by stating that “I waive any and all claims or actions that may arise against Life Time . . . as a result of any such injury.” (Emphasis added.) The quoted language, however, is the first use of the term “injury” in the release of liability clause. So the scope of the release can be determined only by referring back to the confusing assumption of risk clause. It is not surprising then that Life Time’s counsel characterized the release’s reference to “such injury” as “squirrely.” In any event, all of the ambiguities and confusion in the assumption of risk clause necessarily infect the release clause.

¶ 32 Seventh, the exculpatory clauses repeatedly use the phrases “includes, but is not limited to” and “including and without limitation,” as well as simply “including.” The repeated use of these phrases makes the clauses more confusing, and the reader is left to guess whether the phrases have different meanings. The problem is compounded by conflicting views expressed by divisions of this court on whether the similar phrase “including, but not limited to” is expansive or restrictive. Compare Maehal Enters., Inc. v. Thunder Mountain Custom Cycles, Inc., 313 P.3d 584, 590 (Colo. App. 2011) (declining to treat the phrase as restrictive and citing Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern [*15] Legal Usage 432 (2d ed. 1995)), with Ridgeview Classical Sch. v. Poudre Sch. Dist., 214 P.3d 476, 483 (Colo. App. 2008) (declining to conclude that the phrase took the statute out of the limiting rule of ejusdem generis). For purposes of deciding this case we need not resolve this conflict; the relevance of the conflict for present purposes is that it creates another ambiguity.

¶ 33 That ambiguity – expansive versus restrictive – is critical because nothing in the Agreement refers to risks of using sinks or locker rooms. The assumption of risk clause refers to the “risk of loss, theft or damage of personal property” for the member or her guests while “using any lockers” at a Life Time fitness center. That is quite a separate matter, however, from suffering a physical injury in a locker room.

¶ 34 Significantly, when Life Time intends to exclude accidental injuries occurring in locker rooms, it knows how to draft a clear waiver of liability doing so. In Geczi v. Lifetime Fitness, 973 N.E.2d 801, 803 (Ohio Ct. App. 2012), the plaintiff entered into a membership agreement with Life Time in 2000 (eleven years before Stone entered into the Agreement), which provided in relevant part:

[T]he undersigned agrees to specifically assume all risk of injury while using any of the [*16] Clubs[‘] facilities, equipment, services or programs and hereby waives any and all claims or actions which may arise against LIFE TIME FITNESS or its owners and employees as a result of such injury. The risks include, but are not limited to

. . . .

(4) Accidental injuries within the facilities, including, but not limited to the locker rooms, . . . showers and dressing rooms.

Id. at 806. Life Time chose not to include similar language in the Agreement signed by Stone.

c. The Agreement Is not Clear, Unambiguous, and Unequivocal

¶ 35 Based on the foregoing discussion, and after scrutinizing the exculpatory clauses, we conclude that the Agreement uses excessive legal jargon, is unnecessarily complex, and creates a likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. See Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. Accordingly, the Agreement does not clearly, unambiguously, and unequivocally bar Stone’s PLA claim based on the injuries she alleges she sustained after she washed her hands in the women’s locker room.

III. Conclusion

¶ 36 The judgment on Stone’s negligence claim is affirmed, the judgment on her PLA claim is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings on that claim.

JUDGE [*17] TAUBMAN and JUDGE FOX concur.


Colorado Premises Liability act eliminated common law claims of negligence as well as CO Ski Area Safety Act claims against a landowner.

Case is a major change in the liability of a ski area to the skiers and boarders who ride any lift in Colorado.

Raup, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11499

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

Plaintiff: Carolyn S. Raup

Defendant: Vail Summit Resorts, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Premises Liability Act, and for negligence, including negligence per se

Defendant Defenses: The negligence claims are Colorado Premises Liability Act

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2016

This case may be ongoing the decision may not be final. However, the ruling is game changing and changes a large section of the law in Colorado.

The plaintiff was riding a chairlift at one of the defendants Vail resorts during the summer. The Colorado Tramway Act requires lifts operated during the summer to have a comfort bar available to riders. As the plaintiff and two other riders were approaching the top terminal, they had intended to ride the lift back down.

The liftie (top terminal lift employee), ran out and started yelling at the rides to raise the safety bar and exit the lift.

The plaintiff and friends did not understand or know that riding around the terminal would trigger the emergency stop. The riders also did not know that the download capacity of a lift is very different from the upload capacity of the lift. Many times that download capacity is 25 to 33% of the upload capacity. That means instead of loading every chair downhill you may only be allowed to load every third or fourth chair.

The other two riders were able to exit the lift running down the exit ramp. The plaintiff fell suffering severe injuries. The plaintiff brought this suit in the Federal District Court of Colorado. Vail moved to dismiss the claims of negligence and negligence per se brought by the plaintiff.

The court granted Vail’s motion with the following analysis.

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

The court first looked at the requirements for the plaintiff to survive a motion to dismiss under Colorado law.

To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the party asserting the claim “must allege that ‘enough factual matter, taken as true, [makes] his claim for relief … plausible on its face.'” (quotation and internal quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the [pleaded] factual content [ ] allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.’

Thus, a party asserting a claim “must include enough facts to ‘nudge[] h[er] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.

A motion to dismiss is filed normally before the defendant has filed an answer to the complaint. The motion is filed when their allegations in the complaint are not supported by the law or misstate the law. The court rarely grants these motions because as started above, there must be just a plausible claim to survive.

In this case, the issue was the claims of the plaintiff were not available under the law. Meaning the law did not allow the plaintiff to make those types of claims against a defendant.

In this case, the Colorado Premises Liability Act, the act which controls the liability of a landowner to people on his land, was the only way the plaintiff could sue. More importantly, did the Colorado Premises Liability Act preclude not only common law claims (negligence) against a landowner but also claims brought under the Colorado Skier Safety Act based on a ski area being the landowner.

An earlier interpretation by the Colorado Supreme Court in two different cases preempted the common law claims. “

I agree with Vail that the Vigil and Lombard cases make clear that all common law claims involving landowner duties, including negligence and negligence per se claims, are abrogated by the Premises Liability Act which provides the exclusive remedy.

The plaintiff argued the Colorado Tramway Act still allowed negligence claims. The act was  interpreted by a Supreme Court Decision in Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70, 80 (Colo. 1998), which held the ski area owed the highest degree of care to a rider on a chair lift, that of a common carrier.

However, the court found that Bayer had preempted by the Vigil act quoted above.

Six years after Bayer, the Colorado Supreme Court in Vigil made clear that the Premises Liability Act preempted all common law claims and provided the sole method of recovering against a landowner. Vigil, 103 P.3d at 328. The fact that Vigil did not reference Bayer does not change this result.

The plaintiff then argued the acts of the leftie were negligent and created a separate claim for negligence. However, again, the court found the actions were covered by the Premises Liability Act.

Vail’s duty of care to invitees such as Plaintiff is defined under the Premises Liability Act, which makes clear that it applies in actions by a person who alleges injury while on the property of another and by reasons of either the condition of the property or activities conducted on the property. This encompasses the allegations at issue in this case, including the injuries allegedly sustained by Plaintiff by activities of Vail’s employee in ordering Plaintiff and her fellow passengers to disembark from the chairlift. As such, the Premises Liability Act provides the only standard for recovery.

The court granted Vail’s motion to dismiss and dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence claims leaving only the premises liability claims.

So Now What?

Does this mean there is now a lower duty owed to riders of chairlifts in Colorado because they are classified as invitees under the Colorado Premises Liability Act? I don’t know.

However, it is clear; the Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes all other recreational specific statutes that then limits the recovery against most recreation providers due to injuries on the land (or waters?).

REMEMBER, THIS CASE IS NOT OVER AND HAS NOT BEEN APPEALED. THE DECISION REVIEWED HERE COULD CHANGE.

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Raup, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11499

Raup, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11499

Carolyn S. Raup, Plaintiff, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 15-cv-00641-WYD-NYW

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11499

February 1, 2016, Decided

February 1, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: Raup v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164999 (D. Colo., Dec. 9, 2015)

CORE TERMS: Liability Act, landowner, passenger, law claims, disembark, negligence per se, common law, chairlift, lift, chair lift, premises liability, quotation, tramway, Tramway Act, common law, reasonable care, obvious danger, malfeasance, preempted, amusement, partial, survive, ride, top, fracture, affirmative acts, ski lift, sole grounds, party asserting, en banc

COUNSEL: [*1] For Carolyn S. Raup, Plaintiff: Joseph J. Mellon, Mellon Law Firm, Denver, CO; Francis Vincent Cristiano, Cristiano Law, LLC, Denver, CO.

For Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., Defendant: Catherine Rittenhous Ruhland, Craig Ruvel May, Michael Norris Mulvania, Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP, Denver, CO; Samuel Nathan Shapiro, Vail Resorts Management Company, Legal Department, Broomfield, CO.

JUDGES: Wiley Y. Daniel, Senior United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Wiley Y. Daniel

OPINION

ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This matter is before the Court on Defendant Vail Summit Resort Inc.’s [“Vail”] Partial Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint filed on June 1, 2015. A response in opposition to the motion was filed on June 12, 2015, and a reply was filed on June 26, 2015. Thus, the motion is fully briefed.

This case arises out of injuries Plaintiff sustained when she attempted to disembark from the top of the Colorado SuperChair chair lift at Breckenridge Ski Resort during the summer of 2013. (Compl. ¶¶ 11, 21-22.) Plaintiff alleges that this occurred at a Summer Fun Park at Breckenridge, which included scenic chair lift rides on the Colorado SuperChair. (Id., ¶ 11.) Vail is alleged to be the landowner of the Summer Fun [*2] Park, including the chair lift. (Id., ¶ 9.)

Plaintiff asserts that as she and two other passengers (Plaintiff’s daughter and a friend) were near the top and intending to go back down on the chair lift without unloading, suddenly a lift operator employed by Vail, on his own initiative, affirmatively and negligently rushed out of the building at the top waiving his hands and directed them to immediately “lift the bar” and get off the chairlift. (Id., ¶ 19.) Plaintiff alleges that pursuant to the Tramway Act, the passengers, including Plaintiff, were obligated to “follow verbal instructions that are given to [them] regarding the use of the passenger tramway.” (Id.) (citing Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-105(1)). It is alleged that not only was there no apparent need for them to disembark at that point, since the ski lift was also used to transport individuals back down the mountain, the lift operator had or should have been in a position to have had other safe options for them to disembark, such as stopping the chairlift. (Id.)

According to the Complaint, the chairlift operator in fact knew or should have known as well that his affirmative command, if obeyed by Plaintiff, would put her in a precarious and dangerous situation, [*3] where Plaintiff, a middle aged woman, would have to suddenly raise the bar and disembark from the chairlift while the lift was moving toward a declining slope designed for skiers and not summer passengers. (Compl., ¶ 18.) The lift operator, as well, negligently made no effort to physically assist Plaintiff at the disembarking area. (Id, ¶ 19.) Also, it is alleged that the disembarking area was not properly designed for passenger traffic during the summer, particularly given the sudden command of the operator, but was instead only designed for skiers because of the steep slope that followed the area where passengers were to disembark. (Id., ¶ 20.) Thus, among many other things, Plaintiff alleges that Vail was operating a passenger tramway “while a condition exist[ed] in the design, construction, operation, or maintenance of the passenger tramway which endangers the public health, safety, or welfare, which condition was known, or reasonably should have been known, by [Vail],” in violation of the provisions of the Tramway Act, at § 25-5-706(3)(c), C.R.S., and the violation of such provision is designated to constitute negligence on the part of the operator. (Id.) (citing C.R.S. § 33-44-104(2)).

Each of the three passengers allegedly obeyed [*4] the operator’s command to disembark. (Compl., ¶ 21.) Plaintiff’s daughter and her friend were able to jump off the chair lift, although the quickness of the maneuver and the steepness of the incline caused them to have to run forward for several steps before they could stop. (Id.) Plaintiff was allegedly not as fortunate. As she attempted to exit the lift, the chair struck her in the back and she fell to the left off the edge of the ramp onto the concrete and stone surface below, suffering serious injury, including, among other things, a left femur fracture, left tibial plateau fracture, and left ankle fracture dislocation. (Id., ¶ 22.) )

Plaintiff brings claims against Vail pursuant to the Premises Liability Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115 (Count I) and for negligence, including negligence per se (Count II). Vail argues that Plaintiff’s negligence/negligence per se claims in Count II should be dismissed because the Premises Liability Act provides the sole grounds for relief.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

In reviewing a motion to dismiss, the court must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true and view them in the light most favorable” to the party asserting the claim. Jordan-Arapahoe, LLP v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 633 F.3d 1022, 1025 (10th Cir. 2011). To survive a motion to dismiss under [*5] Rule 12(b)(6), the party asserting the claim “must allege that ‘enough factual matter, taken as true, [makes] his claim for relief … plausible on its face.'” Id. (quotation and internal quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the [pleaded] factual content [ ] allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Id. (quotation omitted).

Thus, a party asserting a claim “must include enough facts to ‘nudge[] h[er] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'” Dennis v. Watco Cos., Inc., 631 F.3d 1303, 1305 (10th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted). Conclusory allegations are not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. Gallagher v. Shelton, 587 F.3d 1063, 1068 (10th Cir. 2009).

B. The Merits of Vail’s Arguments

The issue that must be resolved in connection with Vail’s partial motion to dismiss is whether the Premises Liability Act provides the sole grounds for relief in this matter, preempting Plaintiff’s negligence and negligence per se claims. Vail relies on the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion in Vigil v. Franklin, 103 P.3d 322 (Colo. 2004) (en banc), which held that common law landowner duties did not survive the enactment of the Premises Liability Act. The Colorado Supreme Court based this holding on the fact that the “the express, unambiguous language of the statute evidences [*6] the General Assembly’s intent to establish a comprehensive and exclusive specification of the duties landowners owe to those injured on their property.” Id. at 323.

Thus, Vigil noted the “broad scope of the statute”, which states in relevant part:

(2) In any civil action brought against a landowner by a person who alleges injury occurring while on the real property of another and by reason of the condition of such property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property, the landowner shall be liable only as provided in subsection (3) of this section.

103 P.3d at 326 (quoting Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115(2)) (emphasis added). It held that this “is specific in its terms and is without ambiguity or qualification”, and showed that “the General Assembly indicated its intent to comply occupy the field and supersede the existing law in the area.” Id. at 328. The Assembly was found to have reiterated its intent to be comprehensive and exhaustive by using the language “only as provided in subjection (3).” Id. The Vigil court stated that “[t]his language, coupled with the precisely drawn landowner duties in subsection (3), leaves no room for application of common law tort duties. Id. Indeed, it found that “the premises liability classification of the duty owed licensees and [*7] invitees” was “complete and exclusive.” Id.

The Vigil court also found that the “operational mechanism of the statute . . . demonstrates the General Assembly’s intent to preempt common law tort duty analyses.” 103 P.3d at 328. Thus, it stated:

At common law the existence of a duty was a question of law to be determined by the court. . . .Under the premises liability statute, the only issue of law to be determined by the court is the classification of the injured plaintiff; liability and damages are questions of fact to be determined by the trier of fact. § 13-21-115(4). In keeping with our responsibility to give effect to every word and term contained within the statute, if possible, . . . a judge’s common law obligation to determine the existence of landowner duties is inconsistent with the limited role the statute assigns the judge, and would impermissibly enlarge the role of the court beyond that indicated in the statute’s plain language.

Id.

Since the statute was found to be clear and unambiguous on its face, the Colorado Supreme Court stated it “need not look beyond its plain terms” and “must apply the statute as written.” Vigil, 103 P.3d at 328. Even so, it found this “construction of the statute as preemptive and exhaustive is consistent [*8] with case law from the court of appeals and the observations of authoritative Colorado tort commentators.” Id. at 329. In so finding, the court cited several cases which held that the Premises Liability Act abrogates common law claims for negligence. Id. Finally, the court found that the passage of the Premises Liability Act also abrogated the common law regarding defenses to the existence of such duties, including the common law open and obvious danger doctrine that was at issue in that case. Id. at 330.

A few years later, the Colorado Supreme Court found that claims of negligence per se against a landowner to recover damages for injuries sustained on the premises are also preempted by the language of the Premises Liability Act. Lombard v. Colo. Outdoor Education Center, Inc., 187 P.3d 565, 574 (Colo. 2008) (en banc). Lombard court noted that “[t]he underlying principle of the common law doctrine of negligence per se is that legislative enactments such as statutes and ordinances can prescribe the standard of conduct of a reasonable person such that a violation of the legislative enactment constitutes negligence.” Id. at 573. “Thus, the doctrine serves to conclusively establish the defendant’s breach of a legally cognizable duty owed to the plaintiff.” Id. The court found that “it would be entirely [*9] inconsistent with the plain language of the statute and the holdings of this court to bypass the statute and allow for the imposition of liability on the basis of a negligence per se claim.” Id. at 575.

I agree with Vail that the Vigil and Lombard cases make clear that all common law claims involving landowner duties, including negligence and negligence per se claims, are abrogated by the Premises Liability Act which provides the exclusive remedy. While Plaintiff argues that Vigil’s holding addressed on the merits only as to the defense of the common law open and obvious danger and that its statements regarding common law claims involving landowner duties are dicta, I disagree. The Colorado Supreme Court’s interpretation of the scope of the Premises Liability Act was necessary to its ultimate holding in the case regarding whether the affirmative defense of open and obvious danger survived the codification of premises liability law despite the preemptive scope of the law. See Vigil, 103 P.3d at 328-332. Further, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its interpretation in Lombard.

Plaintiff also argues, however, that there is still a common law claim she can assert based on the Tramway Act, relying on Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70, 80 (Colo. 1998). In Bayer, the Colorado Supreme [*10] Court held that the Ski Safety Act and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act did not preempt a common law claim for injury on a ski lift or the highest degree of care standard that the common law had previously applied. Bayer, 960 P.2d at 72. I agree with Vail, however, that Bayer is not controlling here because the question of the applicability of the Premises Liability Act was not presented. Six years after Bayer, the Colorado Supreme Court in Vigil made clear that the Premises Liability Act preempted all common law claims and provided the sole method of recovering against a landowner. Vigil, 103 P.3d at 328. The fact that Vigil did not reference Bayer does not change this result.

I note that the Colorado Court of Appeals applied Vigil in Anderson v. Hyland Hills Park & Recreation Dist., 119 P.3d 533 (Colo. App. 2004), in a claim for negligence in connection with an amusement park. It addressed whether the trial court erred in applying the higher standard of care applicable to amusement ride cases rather than that in the premises liability statute. The Anderson court held that the Premises Liability Act preempted any common law claim and trumped the highest degree of care standard in the amusement ride context. 119 P.3d at 536. In reaching its conclusion, the Anderson court distinguished prior case law that applied the same “highest [*11] duty of care” common law claim as in Bayer. See id. The issue here is the same as presented in Anderson.

Plaintiff also argues, however, that Vail’s employee created for himself and his employer a duty of reasonable care at the point where he affirmatively acted and chose to order Plaintiff and her fellow passengers to immediately disembark from the chairlift — allegedly creating the peril which caused Plaintiff’s injuries. She asserts that this issue was not addressed in Vigil or Anderson, and that landowners cannot seek refuge with the Premises Liability Act for duties that they independently create for themselves by their own affirmative acts, particularly when such actions have nothing to do with the condition of the property or its maintenance.

In that situation, Plaintiff argues that the landowner’s potential liability is not confined to nor controlled by the Premises Liability Act since they don’t involve “failures to act” or acts of “nonfeasance” as addressed therein, but instead involve affirmative acts of malfeasance which the statute does not address. Plaintiff asserts that liability for acts of such malfeasance are instead controlled by the general analysis for tort liability [*12] as set forth in a non-exhaustive manner in the case of Univ. of Denver v. Whitlock, 744 P.2d 54, 56 (Colo. 1987). Plaintiff further relies on Westin Operator, LLC v. Groh, 347 P.3d 606, 2015 CO 25 (Colo. 2015) where the court found an independent duty to exercise reasonable care based upon the affirmative action and malfeasance of the landowner in evicting an intoxicated guest without exercising reasonable care in doing such.

I agree with Vail that Groh and Whitlock are not applicable here, as they did not address or involve the Premises Liability Act. Indeed, Groh dismissed a claim under that Act because “by its terms, it applies only when a plaintiff is injured on the defendant’s property, and Groh was injured off-premises. 347 P.3d at 610 n.3. The “assumed duty” found in Groh applies only in situations where no duty already exists. Here, Vail’s duty of care to invitees such as Plaintiff is defined under the Premises Liability Act, which makes clear that it applies in actions by a person who alleges injury while on the property of another and by reasons of either the condition of the property or activities conducted on the property. This encompasses the allegations at issue in this case, including the injuries allegedly sustained by Plaintiff by activities of Vail’s employee in ordering Plaintiff and her fellow passengers [*13] to immediately disembark from the chairlift. As such, the Premises Liability Act provides the only standard for recovery. Vail’s motion is granted, and Count II is dismissed.

III. CONCLUSION

Based on the foregoing, it is

ORDERED that Defendant Vail Summit Resort Inc.’s [“Vail”] Partial Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (ECF No. 11) is GRANTED. Count II of the Complaint, asserting negligence and negligence per se, is DISMISSED.

Dated: February 1, 2016

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Wiley Y. Daniel

Wiley Y. Daniel

Senior United States District Judge