Decision supporting PA ski area when skier skied off the trail supported by the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

The Federal District Court case, Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013 and reviewed in Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing was upheld

Citation: Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., (the decision is so new, not id numbers have been assigned to it yet.

State: Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and his spouse May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort; Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for, among other things, failing to keep the slope free from unsafe conditions, warn Vu of the dangerous condition, and erect a fence or boundary marker to prevent skiers from skiing over the edge and into the large rocks below and alleged loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: No duty under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act (PSRA)

Holding: For the Defendant upholding the lower court decision

Year: 2019

Summary

A lower Federal District Court held that a skier assumed the risk when he skied off the trail and over a 3′-4′ embankment. The skier appealed and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court holding the Pennsylvania Skier Responsibility Act created no duty on the part of the ski area.

Facts

On the evening of January 23, 2015, Vu was skiing down a trail at the Liberty Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. At some point, Vu encountered a snowboarder, who “either cut [him] off or got awfully close” to him. To avoid colliding with the snowboarder, Vu “had a knee-jerk reaction to veer,” which led him toward the edge of the trail. Id. Vu skied over the edge, left the slope, and landed among a pile of rocks. He suffered multiple serious injuries, which he alleges were caused by his skiing over an unmarked, “artificial three to four-foot cliff at the slope’s edge” that was created by “the Defendants’ snowmaking and snow grooming practices.”

Vu’s daughter, who was skiing with him, testified that she did not see Vu ski off of the slope, but she did find him laying off of the trail. She stated that to get to her father, she had to exercise caution due to the height difference between the artificial snow and the natural terrain. She also testified that she had no “difficulty that evening discerning the edge of the trail.”

Dawson Disotelle was also present on the slope and witnessed the incident. He testified that he was snowboarding behind Vu and Vu’s daughter, and he saw that Vu’s “skis went to the left and his body went with [them] and he just went straight off the run.” Thereafter, Disotelle attempted to render assistance to Vu, which required Disotelle to “hop[] down” to where Vu was laying. According to Disotelle, the elevation change from the slope to where Vu landed was “[t]hree or four feet maybe,” and “it wasn’t a challenge to get down there.” Like Vu’s daughter, Disotelle testified that he was able to “easily” distinguish the skiable trail from off trail.

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

The appellate court simply looked at the Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act (PSRA) and found the ski area had no duty to the Plaintiff Vu.

The PSRA establishes a “no-duty” rule for skiing injuries, relieving ski resorts of the “duty to protect skiers from risks that are ‘common, frequent, and expected,’ and thus ‘inherent’ to the sport.” The no-duty rule applies in this context when: (1) the plaintiff was “engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury”; and (2) the risk of the injury at issue “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” When both prongs are met, summary judgment is warranted in favor of the ski resort “because, as a matter of law, [the plaintiff] cannot recover for her injuries.”

The court did have to look at case law and commented on the fact the Pennsylvania act did not identify risks that were inherent in skiing like most other skier safety acts did. “The PSRA “is unusual in its brevity and failure to give any definition of an ‘inherent’ risk of skiing….”

The court identified several cases that held that “…snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions, and falling from a ski lift…” where inherent to skiing.

Nor does the PRSA require proof that a skier assumed the risk, only that the injury “arose from a “general risk” inherent to the sport….” Consequently, the court found the risk of skiing off the edge of the trail over a three to four feet drop was inherent to skiing.

Not only does this risk appear to fall under the umbrella of elevation or contour (or both), which have been identified by Pennsylvania courts as inherent risks, but also other courts have recognized the more general risk of skiing off a trail as inherent to downhill skiing,

The court then added as support for its finding that what the Plaintiff Vu encountered was an inherent risk but that Vu had been skiing for twenty years and was skiing black diamond runs or the most difficult slopes.

So Now What?

The Pennsylvania Skiers Responsibility Act is the weakest of most of the ski area statutes because it does not define what the inherent risks of skiing are. However, the courts in Pennsylvania have done a fairly good job of determining, based on case law and statutes from other states what are the inherent risks of skiing.

However, because the inherent risks are not defined, the plaintiffs are going to continue to test the issues because there is a chance they can win.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Pennsylvania case reviews the requirements for a valid release in ski accident claim.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

Release barred claims for injuries from falling on icy slopes

The plaintiff was a season pass holder at the defendant’s resort and an expert skier. While skiing one day he fell on an icy spot created when a snowmaking hydrant malfunctioned and spread water around the area which froze.

Ski Liberty requires season pass holders to sign a release. To get a season pass, skiers first sign up on-line. The online sign up required the plaintiff to click through an acknowledgement of the terms of the season pass which included the release.

A skier then had to sign a written release at the time the season pass was picked up or at the resort. The court specifically set forth the following issues it found important in determining the validity of the release. The release stated the parties intended to be legally bound. That information was conspicuous location above the signature line.

The plaintiff sued because “Ski Liberty was negligent for failing to maintain the ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning the icy area.” The plaintiff’s injuries were to his face, back, ribs and left hand. The plaintiff’s wife sued for loss of consortium.

What I found interesting was the plaintiff claimed that he did not know there was ice on the slope. I’ve skied through the east and a lot in Pennsylvania. The slopes are all ice, finding snow is the rare occasion.

Summary of the case

The decision starts with the court quoting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court requirements for a valid release.

The contract must not contravene any policy of the law. It must be a contract between individuals relating to their private affairs. Each party must be a free bargaining agent, not simply one drawn into an adhesion contract, with no recourse but to reject the entire transaction…[T]o be enforceable, several additional standards must be met. First, we must construe the agreement strictly and against the party asserting it. Finally, the agreement must spell out the intent of the parties with the utmost particularity.

The court then found the requirements were met by the release at issue. The plaintiff was not forced to enter the contract but did so voluntarily. There was no evidence of coercion or inducement. The activity, skiing, is recreational and not essential to the plaintiff’s personal or economic well-being. The release does not contravene public policy because the issues were private in nature and did not affect the rights of the public.

The court then reviewed the Pennsylvania ski statute and found the statute pointed out that skiing had risks. The court also found the statute suggested it was the policy of the state of Pennsylvania to enforce the doctrine of assumption of risk who engages in skiing.

The language of the release spelled out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise the signor of the content and purpose of the release and worked as a notice of the risk as well as a release of liability. The release then in bold letters released the defendant of any liability.

The application of the releases to use of Ski Liberty facilities is not only spelled out specifically in the document but is reinforced by other references to the releases throughout the body of the document.

The court then looked at the plaintiff’s argument that a hazardous condition created by the defendant and known by the defendant is not an inherent risk to the sport of skiing. If the risk was not inherent, then the plaintiff argued the release was void and assumption of risk did not apply.

The court did not agree and dismissed the plaintiff’s argument with a great statement.

His [plaintiff’s] experience undoubtedly has taught him that the sport of skiing is not conducted in the pristine and controlled atmosphere of a laboratory but rather occurs in the often hostile and fickle atmosphere of a south central Pennsylvania winter. Those familiar with skiing, such as Cahill, are aware that nature’s snow is regularly supplemented with a man-made variety utilizing water and a complex system of sprayers, hydrants, and pipes. Human experience also teaches us that water equipment frequently leaves puddles which, in freezing temperatures, will rapidly turn to ice. The risks caused by this variety of ever-changing factors are not only inherent in downhill skiing but, perhaps, are the very nature of the sport.

So Now What?

The decision outlines quite plainly. What is needed to write a release in Pennsylvania. More importantly it points out several points that courts look for to determine if the defendant as acting in a way as to not hide the release and to make sure the defendant truly understood what they were signing.

Those items include:

·        Conspicuous notice of the legal purpose of the document

·        Plenty of time to review the release before signing

·        Captions that point out the legal ramifications rather than hiding them

·        Important language in the release in bold print

·        A release written in plain English that is understandable by the signor

·        A section that explains the possible risks of the activity

·        References in the document to outside sources to assist the signor in understanding the document

Courts hate to uphold releases where there is nothing but the pure letter of the contract to rely upon. If the release clearly informed the signor of the risks and the signor had to have known they were signing a release, then the court can easily decide for the defendant.

Plaintiffs: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendants: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: Ski Liberty was negligent for failing to properly maintain the ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning the icy area.

Defendant Defenses: Release and Assumption of the Risk

Holding: Release was valid and barred the claims of the plaintiffs

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