Vladichak v. Mountain Creek Ski Resort, Inc. (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2022)

ANDREA VLADICHAK, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
MOUNTAIN CREEK SKI RESORT, INC., Defendant-Appellant,

and MICHAEL LAVIN, Defendant-Respondent.

No. A-1367-20

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 13, 2022

This opinion shall not “constitute precedent or be binding upon any court .” Although it is posted on the internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.

Argued April 4, 2022

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0590-18.

Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for appellant (Hueston McNulty, PC, attorneys; Samuel J. McNulty, of counsel and on the briefs; Edward J. Turro, on the briefs).

Matthew E. Kennedy argued the cause for respondent Michael Lavin (Leary Bride Mergner & Bongiovanni, PA, attorneys; Matthew E. Kennedy, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Fasciale and Sumners.

PER CURIAM

Defendant Snow Creek, LLC d/b/a Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (Mountain Creek) appeals from a November 9, 2020 order denying its motion for summary judgment and granting summary judgment to defendant Michael Lavin (Lavin) dismissing Mountain Creek’s cross-claims for defense costs and contractual indemnification. Judge David J. Weaver (motion judge) concluded in a thorough opinion that the contractual language was ambiguous and therefore Mountain Creek was not entitled to indemnification from Lavin or defense costs incurred to defend plaintiff’s allegations that Mountain Creek itself was negligent. We affirm.

On December 21, 2017, plaintiff sustained personal injuries while skiing at a ski area owned and operated by Mountain Creek in Vernon Township, New Jersey. Plaintiff was struck from behind by Lavin, another skier. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging Mountain Creek and Lavin were negligent. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was independently negligent for failing to provide appropriate warnings to skiers, failing to appropriately designate the difficulty of ski trails, failing to provide skiers with appropriate information about trail conditions, failing to timely remove obvious manmade hazards, and/or otherwise failing to establish adequate procedures to provide a safe skiing environment. The complaint alleged Lavin was negligent for breaching his duty to others to ski in a reasonably safe manner by skiing in a reckless manner and/or intentionally colliding into plaintiff and causing her injuries.

Prior to the incident, Lavin signed an equipment rental agreement (Rental Agreement) and lift ticket agreement (Release Agreement) in which he agreed to defend and indemnify Mountain Creek from any claims related to his own conduct and use of the property’s equipment facilities. On August 7, 2019, Mountain Creek filed an answer and cross-claims seeking defense and indemnification from Lavin based on the executed Rental and Release Agreements. Mountain Creek previously tendered the defense to Lavin on July 16, 2019.

Plaintiff’s counsel served a report from plaintiff’s liability expert, who concluded that Lavin violated the New Jersey Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -12, and the Skier’s Responsibility Code by failing to control his speed and course and by failing to yield to the skiers ahead of him. The expert opined that Lavin’s reckless conduct caused the accident. On March 27, 2020, Judge Stephan C. Hansbury entered an order granting Mountain Creek’s motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s claims that Mountain Creek was negligent. Lavin and plaintiff settled and filed a stipulation of dismissal with prejudice dated May 29, 2020.

After plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin, Mountain Creek filed its motion seeking reimbursement from Lavin for defending plaintiff’s allegations and indemnification from Lavin.[1] Lavin filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on September 1. That led to the order under review.

The judge concluded that, as a matter of law, the indemnification provisions were ambiguous and thus unenforceable to compel indemnification in favor of Mountain Creek for claims of its own negligence. The motion judge denied Lavin’s cross-motion for summary judgment in part and granted it in part. The motion judge requested the parties submit the detail and extent of defense costs incurred by Mountain Creek for costs incurred for which liability was only vicarious.

Mountain Creek’s attorneys stipulated that there were no fees or costs incurred from defending vicarious liability claims. On December 14, 2020, Judge Robert J. Brennan entered a consent order resolving all remaining issues as to all parties.

Mountain Creek raises the following arguments on appeal:

POINT I

STANDARD OF REVIEW-DE NOVO[.]

POINT II

THE [MOTION JUDGE] CORRECTLY RULED THAT THE TWO AGREEMENTS WERE NOT CONTRACTS OF ADHESION NOR WERE THEY CONTRARY TO PUBLIC POLICY.

POINT III

THE [MOTION JUDGE] ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE LANGUAGE IN THE AGREEMENTS SIGNED BY . . . LAVIN IS AMBIGUOUS AND INSUFFICIENT TO COMPEL . . . LAVIN TO INDEMNIFY AND DEFEND MOUNTAIN CREEK FOR CLAIMS OF ITS OWN NEGLIGENCE.

A. Special Status Of A Ski Operator.

B. The Two Agreements Were Unambiguous And Should Be Enforced.[2]

Mountain Creek raises the following points in reply, which we have renumbered:

POINT IV

. . . LAVIN’S REQUEST THAT THE APPELLATE DIVISION REVERSE THE [MOTION JUDGE]’S JUDGMENT THAT THE CONTRACTS WERE NOT UNCONSCIONABLE SHOULD BE REJECTED AS NO CROSS-APPEAL WAS FILED.

POINT V

THE AGREEMENTS IN QUESTION ARE ENFORCEABLE AND NOT UNCONSCIONABLE CONTRACTS OF ADHESION.

POINT VI

THE INDEMNIFICATION LANGUAGE IS SUFFICIENT AND EXPRESSLY PROVIDES FOR INDEMNIFICATION FOR CLAIMS ASSERTING MOUNTAIN CREEK’S OWN NEGLIGENCE.

We review the motion judge’s grant of a motion for summary judgment de novo. Branch v. Cream-O-Land Dairy, 244 N.J. 567, 582 (2021). We apply the same standard as the motion judge and consider “whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.” Brill v. Guardian Life
Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

I.

Mountain Creek contends the motion judge erred in ruling the indemnification provisions in the Release and Rental Agreements were ambiguous and unenforceable to compel Lavin to indemnify Mountain Creek for Mountain Creek’s own negligence. Mountain Creek also contends that it should be permitted to obtain indemnification from Lavin based on its special status as a ski area operator under the Ski Statute.

The judge’s role “in construing a contractual indemnity provision is the same as in construing any other part of a contract-it is to determine the intent of the parties.” Kieffer v. Best Buy, 205 N.J. 213, 223 (2011). Generally, courts give contractual provisions “their plain and ordinary meaning.” Ibid. (quoting M.J. Paquet, Inc. v. N.J. Dep’t of Transp., 171 N.J. 378, 396 (2002)). “However, indemnity provisions differ from provisions in a typical contract in one important aspect. If the meaning of an indemnity provision is ambiguous, the provision is ‘strictly construed against the indemnitee.'” Ibid. (quoting Mantilla v. NC Mall Assocs., 167 N.J. 262, 272 (2001)).

We have characterized this approach as a “bright line” rule requiring “explicit language” when “indemnification includes the negligence of the indemnitee.” Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 347 N.J.Super. 516, 523 (App. Div. 2002). Azurak involved a contract between a janitorial company (PBS) and a shopping mall owner (the Mall) that contained the following provision:

Contractor [PBS] shall indemnify, defend and hold harmless each Indemnitee [the Mall] from and against any claim (including any claim brought by employees of Contractor), liability, damage or expense (including attorneys’ fees) that such Indemnitee may incur relating to, arising out of or existing by reason of (i) Contractor’s performance of this Agreement or the conditions created thereby (including the use, misuse or failure of any equipment used by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees) or (ii) Contractor’s breach of this Agreement or the inadequate or improper performance of this Agreement by Contractor or its subcontractors, servants or employees.

[Azurak v. Corp. Prop. Invs., 175 N.J. 110, 111 (2003) (alterations in original).]

The plaintiff sued the Mall and PBS for injuries she sustained when she slipped on the Mall’s floor. Ibid. The trial judge granted the Mall’s summary judgment motion on the issue of indemnification based on the contract provision. Ibid. At trial, the jury determined “that plaintiff was 30% negligent; the Mall, 30%; and PBS, 40%.” Ibid. This court disagreed with the trial judge, finding that the indemnification provision did not encompass the Mall’s negligence because the provision’s language was neither explicit nor unequivocal as to claims of the Mall’s own negligence. Id. at 111-12. Our Court affirmed and held that “in order to allay even the slightest doubt on the issue of what is required to bring a negligent indemnitee within an indemnification agreement, we reiterate that the agreement must specifically reference the negligence or fault of the indemnitee.” Id. at 112-13.

Mountain Creek’s Release Agreement contained a provision that states:

INDEMNIFICATION. To the fullest extent permitted by law, I agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees asserted against Mountain Creek by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities WHETHER OR NOT MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

One provision of the Rental Agreement states:

To the fullest extent permitted by law, I also agree to DEFEND, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS Mountain Creek from any and all claims, suits, costs and expenses including attorneys’ fees for personal injury, death or property damage against it by me or third parties arising or allegedly arising out of or resulting from my conduct while utilizing Mountain Creek’s facilities or the use of this equipment whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part.

We agree with the motion judge that the indemnity provisions in the agreements are ambiguous as to claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence. Although the provisions reference Mountain Creek’s negligence in bold and capitalized letters, the language “arising out of or resulting from my conduct . . . whether or not MOUNTAIN CREEK’S NEGLIGENCE contributed thereto in whole or in part” is insufficient to meet the Azurak standard. One could reasonably interpret the provisions to require indemnification and defense of Mountain Creek for any claims of negligence against it caused by Lavin’s conduct even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault or to require Lavin to indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for separate claims of its own negligence. See Nester v. O’Donnell, 301 N.J.Super. 198, 210 (App. Div. 1997) (noting that a contract is ambiguous if it is “susceptible to at least two reasonable alternative interpretations” (quoting Kaufman v. Provident Life & Cas. Ins. Co., 828 F.Supp. 275, 283 (D.N.J. 1992), aff’d, 993 F.2d 877 (3d Cir. 1993))).

An indemnitor may expect to indemnify and defend an indemnitee for claims caused by its negligent conduct when the indemnitee may also be at fault but may not expect to be solely responsible to indemnify and defend the indemnitee when the indemnitee has committed separate acts of negligence. That is the case here, as plaintiff’s complaint alleged Mountain Creek was separately negligent for failing to provide adequate instructions to skiers and a safe ski environment. A better-and likely enforceable-provision would explicitly state that the indemnitor indemnifies Mountain Creek for claims arising out of indemnitor’s conduct and for claims of Mountain Creek’s independent negligence.

The provisions at issue do not meet the bright line rule requiring “unequivocal terms” that the duty to indemnify extends to the indemnitee’s own negligence. Thus, the provisions are ambiguous and must be strictly construed against Mountain Creek. The same reasoning and standards apply with equal force to Mountain Creek’s defense costs. The provisions’ ambiguity precludes their enforcement against Lavin for recovery of the costs incurred by Mountain Creek for defending its own negligence claims.

We also conclude Mountain Creek’s argument that the Ski Statute supports enforcement of the indemnification provisions is without merit. While the Ski Act may emphasize the inherent risk that skiers assume when skiing, the Act provides separate duties to the ski operator, which include establishing and posting a system for identifying slopes and their difficulty, ensuring the availability of information to skiers, and removing hazards as soon as practicable. N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a). The allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, which include failing to provide adequate signage and failing to instruct skiers properly, do not fall under the risks that “are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate” defined in the statute. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). In fact, plaintiff’s complaint addressed the responsibilities of a ski area operator as prescribed by the Act. Requiring indemnification in favor of a ski resort for claims of its own independent negligence does not further the Ski Act’s purpose of allocating the inherent risk of skiing between the skier and ski resort. Moreover, the public policy of the Ski Act has no bearing on our interpretation of the indemnity provisions and our conclusion that the provisions are ambiguous.

II.

Lavin argues, on an alternative basis, that the Rental and Release Agreements are unconscionable contracts of adhesion. Lavin was not required to file a Notice of Cross-Appeal to preserve this argument for appeal because “appeals are taken from judgments, not opinions, and, without having filed a cross-appeal, a respondent can argue any point on the appeal to sustain the trial [judge’s] judgment.” Chimes v. Oritani Motor Hotel, Inc., 195 N.J.Super. 435, 443 (App. Div. 1984). Even if Lavin were required to file a cross-appeal, we will address the merits of his argument.

As a threshold issue, we determine that the Release and Rental Agreements were contracts of adhesion. If a contract is characterized as a contract of adhesion, “nonenforcement of its terms may be justified on other than such traditional grounds as fraud, duress, mistake, or illegality.” Rudbart v. N. Jersey Dist. Water Supply Comm’n, 127 N.J. 344, 353 (1992). An adhesion contract is one that “is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, commonly in a standardized printed form, without opportunity for the ‘adhering’ party to negotiate except perhaps on a few particulars.” Vitale v. Schering-Plough Corp., 231 N.J. 234, 246 (2017) (quoting Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 355). “Although a contract of adhesion is not per se unenforceable, a [judge] may decline to enforce it if it is found to be unconscionable.” Ibid.

We agree with the motion judge that “the Agreements at issue evidence characteristics of contracts of adhesion.” The Release and Rental Agreements were standardized form contracts that fit our Court’s definition as “take-it-or-leave-it” adhesion contracts. See ibid. All potential skiers at Mountain Creek’s resort are obligated to sign the Release Agreement, and there is little to no negotiating done before the agreements’ execution. However, an agreement found to be an adhesion contract may nevertheless be enforced if it is not unconscionable. See ibid.

When determining whether an adhesion contract is unconscionable, we evaluate four factors that “focus on procedural and substantive aspects of the contract to determine whether the contract is so oppressive, or inconsistent with the vindication of public policy, that it would be unconscionable to permit its enforcement.” Id. at 247 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Rodriguez v. Raymours Furniture Co., Inc., 225 N.J. 343, 367 (2016)). Those factors include “the subject matter of the contract, the parties’ relative bargaining positions, the degree of economic compulsion motivating the ‘adhering’ party, and the public interests affected by the contract.” Rudbart, 127 N.J. at 356. The first three factors speak to procedural unconscionability, and the last factor speaks to substantive unconscionability. See Rodriguez, 225 N.J. at 367. We consider these factors using a “sliding scale analysis.” Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., LLC, 203 N.J. 286, 301 (2010).

The motion judge correctly relied on Stelluti in determining the agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. In Stelluti, the plaintiff was injured in a spinning class at a private fitness center and argued that the pre-injury waiver of liability she signed was unenforceable on unconscionability grounds. Id. at 291, 300. The Court found that although the pre-printed form was an adhesion contract, it was not procedurally unconscionable. Id. at 301-02. The Court reasoned the plaintiff was not in a position of unequal bargaining power, despite being a layperson and not being fully informed of the legal effect of an adhesion contract, when she had the ability to take “her business to another fitness club,” to find a form of exercise different than joining a private gym, or to contemplate the agreement for some time before joining the gym and using its equipment. Id. at 302.

Under the Court’s reasoning in Stelluti and applying the four-factor test, the Release and Rental Agreements are not procedurally unconscionable. At the time of the incident, Lavin was twenty years old and a layperson without specialized knowledge of the law. He maintains he did not read the agreements before signing them despite having the opportunity to do so. Lavin also stated that he did not have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the agreement. However, Lavin was engaging in a recreational activity like the adhering party in Stelluti, and he was under no economic duress or obligation to consent to the agreements. Lavin could have chosen to take his business to another ski resort, rented skis from a different facility, or could have simply read the agreements or contemplated them before signing.

As for the remaining factor-the impact on public interest-Mountain Creek points to the “strong public policy of protecting ski operators and allocating the risks and costs of inherently dangerous recreational activities” under the Ski Statute. The Act’s purpose is to make explicit a policy of this State which clearly defines the responsibility of ski area operators and skiers, recognizing that the sport of skiing and other ski area activities involve risks which must be borne by those who engage in such activities and which are essentially impractical or impossible for the ski area operator to eliminate. It is, therefore, the purpose of this act to state those risks which the skier voluntarily assumes for which there can be no recovery.

[N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b).]

We agree that the Agreements are not substantively unconscionable. The agreements do not contain terms that are so “harsh” or “one-sided” to render them unconscionable and unenforceable. See Muhammad v. Cnty. Bank of
Rehoboth Beach, Del., 189 N.J. 1, 15 (2006). Construing the indemnity provision against Mountain Creek due to its ambiguity, the provision requires that Lavin indemnify and defend Mountain Creek for claims arising out of Lavin’s conduct while using Mountain Creek’s equipment and facilities, even when Mountain Creek is partially at fault. This indemnification scheme is consistent with the Ski Act’s purpose to promote “the allocation of the risks and costs of skiing” as “an important matter of public policy.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(a). Moreover, in Stelluti, the Court considered that “some activities involve a risk of injury and thus require risk sharing between the participants and operators” and that our Legislature has enacted statutes to address the allocation of risk in those circumstances. 203 N.J. at 308. It would not be against public policy to require indemnification of Mountain Creek by Lavin for claims of vicarious liability due to Lavin’s reckless conduct; however, Mountain Creek stipulated that it did not incur any costs in defending claims of vicarious liability.

Affirmed.

———

Notes:

[1] Mountain Creek did not contribute towards plaintiff’s settlement with Lavin.

[2] To comport with our style conventions, we altered the capitalization of Mountain Creek’s Points A and B but omitted the alterations for readability.

———


Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.

The Federal District Court in this case used the language of the lift ticket to support the defendant ski area’s motion for summary judgment. The decision  also says the release is valid for lift accidents in Colorado closing one of the last gaps in suits against ski areas in Colorado.

Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

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

Plaintiff: Sally Rumpf & Louis Rumpf

Defendant: Sunlight, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligence per se, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: (1) they are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket; (2) they fail for a lack of expert testimony; and (3) that Sally Rumpf
was negligent per se under the Ski Safety Act. 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

The plaintiff traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit family and ski. She rented equipment from the
defendant ski area, Ski Sunlight and purchased a lift ticket. As required to rent the ski equipment, the plaintiff signed a release. 

While attempting to board a chair lift, the plaintiff injured her shoulder. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted with this decision. 

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

In the statement of the facts, the court quoted from the language on the lift ticket.

Holder understands that he/she is responsible for using the ski area safely and for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. Holder agrees to read and understand all signage and instructions and agrees to comply with them. Holder understands that he/she must control his/her speed and course at all times and maintain a proper lookout. Holder understands that snowmobiles, snowcats, and snowmaking may be encountered at any time. In consideration of using the premises, Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property. Holder agrees that any and all disputes between Holder and the Ski Area regarding an alleged incident shall be governed by COLORADO LAW  and EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION shall be in the State or Federal Courts of the State of Colorado.

What is interesting is the Colorado Skier Safety Act, C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107(8)(b) requires specific language to be on the lift ticket.

WARNING

Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from any ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

It is unclear from the decision, and I do not have a copy of the Ski Sunlight lift ticket, to know if the required language is on the lift ticket. However, the language that was on the lift ticket was important and used by the court to make its decision.

The language required by the Colorado Skier Safety Act speaks to the risks assumed by a skier while skiing and does not speak to any risks of a chair lift. This creates an obvious conflict in the law for a ski area. Do you use the language required by the statute or use different language that a federal judge has said was  instructive in stopping the claims of a plaintiff. 

The court found the plaintiff had read and understood the release and knew she was bound by it. The plaintiff’s argument centered on the theory that the release did not cover lift accidents based on a prior case, Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70 (1998). That case held that a ski area owes the highest degree of care to skiers on the lift. 

Plaintiffs further argue that the exculpatory language at issue is “only applicable to ski cases when the accident or injury occurs while the plaintiff is skiing or snowboarding on the slopes,” and not when loading the ski lift. 

The Bayer decision changed the liability issues for Colorado Ski Areas. It also created the only gap in  protection for Colorado Ski Areas between the Colorado Skier Safety Act and release law. However, this was significantly modified by Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, reviewed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

The court then reviewed the requirements under Colorado law for releases to be valid. 

Exculpatory agreements, which attempt to insulate a party from liability for its own negligence, are generally recognized under Colorado law, but are construed narrowly and “closely scrutinized” to ensure that the agreement was fairly entered into and that the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Additionally, the  terms of exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed against the drafter. 

The court reiterated several times that it was the intent of the parties within the language of the release that was the important aspect of the release, more than the specific language of the release. This intent was  supported by the language on the lift ticket. Colorado has a 4 factor test to determine the validity of a release. 

…in determining the validity of an exculpatory agreement, the Court must consider the following factors: (1) whether the service provided involves a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service provided; (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 

Skiing in Colorado is recreational and not a service, so there is no public duty that would void a release. Because it is a service, and the plaintiff is free to go ski else where there is no adhesion so the agreement was entered into by the parties fairly. 

Adhesion was defined by the court in Colorado as:

…Colorado defines an adhesion contract as “generally not bargained for, but imposed on the public for a necessary  service on a take it or leave it basis.” However, printed form contracts offered on a take it or leave it basis, alone, do not render the agreement an adhesion contract.

For the plaintiff to win her argument, the plaintiff must show “, “that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation, or that [the] services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

The court then applied contract law to determine if the agreement was ambiguous.

“Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.” Under Colorado law, I must examine the actual language of the agreements 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.

The court in reviewing the release found the release to clearly and unambiguously set forth the party’s intent to release the ski area from liability.

The court again backed up its decision by referring to the language on the lift ticket. 

Furthermore, the ski lift ticket specifically references safely loading, riding and unloading Sunlight’s ski lifts and provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property.” 

As such the release was valid and stopped the claims of the plaintiff and her spouse.

So Now What?

Although the basics of the decision are familiar under Colorado law, the court’s reference to the language on the lift ticket is a departure from Colorado law and the law of most other states. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states

Whether or not a lift ticket standing by itself is enough to stop a claim is still in the air and probably will be. The language on this lift ticket may have been different than the language required by law, which basically states the skier assumes the risk of skiing. The required statutory language does not cover any issues with loading, unloading or riding chair lifts. 

This creates a major conflict for ski areas. What do you put on the lift ticket. The statute requires specific language; however, there are no penalties for failing to put the language on the lift ticket. However, it is negligence to violate any part of the statute, if that negligence caused an injury. 

C.R.S. §§ 33-44-104. Negligence – civil actions.

(1) A violation of any requirement of this article shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of the person violating such requirement.

(2) A violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of this article or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board pursuant to section 25-5-704 (1) (a), C.R.S., shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of such operator.

Failing to put the language on the lift ticket by itself could not cause an injury. The language required on the lift ticket is the same language required to be posted where ever lift tickets are sold and posted at the bottom of all base area lifts. Base area lifts are the lifts used to get up the mountain. Lifts that start further up the mountain, which require a lift right to reach don’t need the warning signs. 

My advice is to include the statutory language and much of the language of this decision on lift tickets. You just don’t want to walk into a courtroom and be accused of failing to follow the law. You might be right, but you will look bad and looking bad is the first step in writing a check. The biggest limitation is going to be the size of the lift ticket and print size.

This case, although decided before Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard? and was quoted in this decision, it adds another block into what is now an almost impregnable wall against claims from skiers in Colorado.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

Sally Rumpf & Louis Rumpf, Plaintiffs, v. Sunlight, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 14-cv-03328-WYD-KLM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

August 3, 2016, Decided

August 3, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: exculpatory, ski lift, rental agreement, lift tickets, ski, summary judgment, sports, recreational, snow, service provided, ski area, loading, skiing, language contained, unambiguous language, adhesion contract, unambiguously, exculpation, bargaining, equipment rental, loss of consortium, negligence claims, collectively, safely, riding, Ski Safety Act, question of law, ski resort, standard of care, moving party

COUNSEL: [*1] For Sally Rumpf, Louis Rumpf, Plaintiffs: Michael Graves Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, LLC, Denver, CO USA.

For Sunlight, Inc., Defendant: Jacqueline Ventre Roeder, Jordan Lee Lipp, Davis Graham & Stubbs, LLP-Denver, Denver, CO USA.

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

OPINION BY: Wiley Y. Daniel

OPINION

ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION AND RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This matter is before the Court on the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 39) and the response and reply to the motion. For the reasons stated below, Defendant’s motion is granted.

I have reviewed the record and the parties’ respective submissions, and I find the following facts to be undisputed, or if disputed, I resolve them in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs.

On December 24, 2012, Plaintiffs Sally Rumpf and her husband Louis Rumpf traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit family and go skiing. On December 27, 2012, Plaintiffs went to Sunlight, a ski resort near Glenwood Springs. Prior to skiing, Plaintiffs rented ski equipment from Sunlight. As part of the ski rental, the Plaintiffs each executed a release, which provides in pertinent part:

I understand that the sports of skiing, snowboarding, skiboarding, [*2] snowshoeing and other sports (collectively “RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS”) involve inherent and other risks of INJURY and DEATH. I voluntarily agree to expressly assume all risks of injury or death that may result from these RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS, or which relate in any way to the use of this equipment.

* * *

I AGREE TO RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS the equipment rental facility, its employees, owners, affiliates, agents, officers, directors, and the equipment manufacturers and distributors and their successors in interest (collectively “PROVIDERS”), from all liability for injury, death, property loss and damage which results from the equipment user’s participation in the RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS for which the equipment is provided, or which is related in any way to the use of this equipment, including all liability which results from the NEGLIGENCE of PROVIDERS, or any other person or cause.

I further agree to defend and indemnify PROVIDERS for any loss or damage, including any that results from claims or lawsuits for personal injury, death, and property loss and damage related in any way to the use of this equipment.

This agreement is governed by the applicable law of this state or province. [*3] If any provision of this agreement is determined to be unenforceable, all other provisions shall be given full force and effect.

I THE UNDERSIGNED, HAVE READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS EQUIPMENT RENTAL & LIABILITY RELEASE AGREEMENT.

(ECF No. 39, Ex. 2) (emphasis in original).

The Plaintiffs also purchased lift tickets from Sunlight, which included the following release language:

Holder understands that he/she is responsible for using the ski area safely and for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. Holder agrees to read and understand all signage and instructions and agrees to comply with them. Holder understands that he/she must control his/her speed and course at all times and maintain a proper lookout. Holder understands that snowmobiles, snowcats, and snowmaking may be encountered at any time. In consideration of using the premises, Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property. Holder agrees that any and all disputes between Holder and the Ski Area regarding an alleged incident shall be governed by COLORADO LAW and EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION [*4] shall be in the State or Federal Courts of the State of Colorado. …

(ECF No. 39, Ex. 4) (emphasis in original).

Plaintiff Sally Rumpf injured her shoulder when she attempted to board the Segundo chairlift at Sunlight. Plaintiffs Sally and Louis Rumpf bring this action against Defendant Sunlight alleging claims of negligence, negligence per se, and loss of consortium. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-35).1

1 Plaintiff Sally Rumpf asserts the two negligence claims while Plaintiff Louis Rumpf asserts the loss of consortium claim.

The Defendant moves for summary judgment on all three claims, arguing that (1) they are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket; (2) they fail for a lack of expert testimony; and (3) that Sally Rumpf was negligent per se under the Ski Safety Act.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may grant summary judgment where “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the … moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Equal Employment Opportunity Comm. v. Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp., 220 F.3d 1184, 1190 (10th Cir. 2000). “When applying this standard, the court must ‘view [*5] the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.'” Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1148 (10th Cir. 2000) (quotation omitted). “‘Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.'” Id. (quotation omitted). Summary judgment may be granted only where there is no doubt from the evidence, with all inferences drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, that no genuine issue of material fact remains for trial and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Bee v. Greaves, 744 F.2d 1387 (10th Cir. 1984).

III. ANALYSIS

I first address Defendant’s argument that it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ three claims for relief based on the exculpatory agreements contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket. It is undisputed that Plaintiff Sally Rumpf read and understood that she was bound by the release language on both the rental agreement and the lift ticket. (Sally Rumpf Dep. at 72:17-23, 97-8-17, 99:2-25, 101:11-25, 102:1-21, 106:6-25, 107:1-25, 108:1-25, and 109:1-7).2

2 The evidence reveals that Plaintiff Louis Rumpf also understood and agreed to the release language on both the [*6] rental agreement and the lift ticket.

Defendant argues that the exculpatory language is valid and enforceable under the four-factor test set forth in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). The determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the Court. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. Exculpatory agreements, which attempt to insulate a party from liability for its own negligence, are generally recognized under Colorado law, but are construed narrowly and “closely scrutinized” to ensure that the agreement was fairly entered into and that the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Id. Additionally, the terms of exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed against the drafter. Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1990). Pursuant to Jones, in determining the validity of an exculpatory agreement, the Court must consider the following factors: (1) whether the service provided involves a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service provided; (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376; Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 784, see Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C., No. 08-cv-00052-MSK-MJW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, 2009 WL 1108093 at *2 (D. Colo. April 23, 2009).

Based on the Plaintiffs’ response, it does not appear that they [*7] are contesting that the exculpatory language contained in the rental agreement or the lift ticket satisfies the above-mentioned Jones criteria, arguing instead that because “this case arises from a ski lift attendant’s negligence, the exculpatory release language is inapplicable and irrelevant.” (Resp. at 1). Citing Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70 (1998), Plaintiffs claim that Colorado law “specifically provides negligence causes of action for skiers injured getting on and getting off ski lifts.” (Resp. at 10).

In Bayer, the plaintiff was injured when he attempted to board a ski lift at Crested Butte ski resort. After the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals certified various questions to the Colorado Supreme Court, the Colorado Supreme Court held that “the standard of care applicable to ski lift operators in Colorado for the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection of a ski lift, is the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the lift. Neither the Tramway Act nor the Ski Safety Act preempt or otherwise supersede this standard of care, whatever the season of operation.” Id. at 80. I agree with Defendant, however, that Bayer is not controlling here because the question of the applicability [*8] of exculpatory language was not presented.

Plaintiffs further argue that the exculpatory language at issue is “only applicable to ski cases when the accident or injury occurs while the plaintiff is skiing or snowboarding on the slopes,” and not when loading the ski lift. (Resp. at 11).

I now analyze the exculpatory language at issue using the four Jones factors mentioned above. In Jones, the court instructed that for an exculpatory agreement to fail, the party seeking exculpation must be engaged in providing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity to some members of the public. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77. Here, the service provided is recreational and not an essential service that gives the party seeking exculpation an unfair bargaining advantage. Thus, there is no public duty that prevents enforcement of either the ski rental agreement or the exculpatory language included in Sunlight’s lift ticket.

To the extent that Plaintiffs contend that the exculpatory language at issue was “adhesive,” I note that Colorado defines an adhesion contract as “generally not bargained for, but imposed on the public for a necessary service on a take it or leave it basis.” Id. at 374. However, [*9] printed form contracts offered on a take it or leave it basis, alone, do not render the agreement an adhesion contract. Clinic Masters v. District Court, 192 Colo. 120, 556 P.2d 473 (1976). Rather, “[t]here must a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation, or that [the] services could not be obtained elsewhere.” Id. In Jones, the court held that the agreement was not an adhesion contract and the party seeking exculpation did not possess a decisive bargaining advantage “because the service provided … was not an essential service.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78. Thus, here, I find that the exculpatory agreements were fairly entered into and are not adhesion contracts.

Finally, I examine whether the exculpatory agreements express the parties’ intent in clear and unambiguous language. Plaintiffs argue that loading or riding a ski lift is outside the scope of the exculpatory language set forth in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket.

“Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.” Dorman v. Petrol Aspen, Inc., 914 P.2d 909, 912 (Colo. 1996). Under Colorado law, I must examine the actual language of the agreements for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of [*10] confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. See Heil Valley Ranch 784 P.2d at 785; Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Specific terms such as “negligence” or “breach of warranty” are not required to shield a party from liability. What matters is whether the intent of the parties to extinguish liability was clearly and unambiguously expressed. Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785.

After carefully reviewing the relevant language set forth in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket, I find that both agreements clearly and unambiguously express the parties’ intent to release Sunlight from liability for certain claims. When Plaintiffs executed the ski rental agreement, they agreed to

RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS the equipment rental facility [Sunlight], its employees, owners, affiliates, agents, officers, directors, and the equipment manufacturers and distributors and their successors in interest (collectively “PROVIDERS”), from all liability for injury … which results from the equipment user’s participation in the RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS for which the equipment is provided, or which is related in any way to the use of this equipment, including all liability which results from the NEGLIGENCE of PROVIDERS, or any other person or cause.

(ECF [*11] No. 39, Ex. 2) (emphasis in original). I find that this language unambiguously encompasses the use of Sunlight’s ski lifts. Furthermore, the ski lift ticket specifically references safely loading, riding and unloading Sunlight’s ski lifts and provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property.” (ECF No. 39, Ex. 4) (emphasis in original). I find that the language at issue is neither long nor complicated and clearly expresses the intent to bar negligence claims against Sunlight arising from the participation in recreational snow sports, which includes loading or riding ski lifts. Accordingly, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims and loss of consortium claim are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted.3

3 In light of my findings in this Order, I need not address Defendant’s additional, independent arguments in support of summary judgment.

IV. CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 39) is GRANTED. This [*12] case is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE, and Judgment shall enter in favor of Defendant against the Plaintiffs. It is

FURTHER ORDERED that the Defendant is awarded its costs, to be taxed by the Clerk of the Court under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1.

Dated: August 3, 2016

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Wiley Y. Daniel

Wiley Y. Daniel

Senior United States District Judge