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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Linda Schlumbrecht-Muniz, M.D.

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

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

Defendant Defenses: Colorado Skier Safety Act

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final claim was based on respondeat superior.

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

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

So Now What?

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

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Neustadter v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., 2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584

Neustadter v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., 2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584
Mark Neustadter and Katherine Neustadter, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., Defendant-Respondent.
DOCKET NO. A-5671-05T5
Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division
2008 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584
September 11, 2007, Argued
February 15, 2008, Decided

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Certification denied by Neustadter v. Mountain Creek Resort, 195 N.J. 521, 950 A.2d 907, 2008 N.J. LEXIS 721 (2008)
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, L-670-03.
CORE TERMS: pole, man-made, hazard, ski, skier, trail, sufficient evidence, involuntary dismissal, expert testimony, failed to present, fence post, fencing, slope, ski resort, assumption of risk, photographs, correctly, hazardous, skiing, snow, reconstructed, snowboarders, ski area, reasonable time, legitimate inferences, essential element, case-in-chief, additionally, practicable, inflexible
COUNSEL: John R. Lanza argued the cause for the appellants (Lanza & Lanza, LLP, attorneys; John R. Lanza, of counsel; Mr. Lanza and Kenneth W. Thomas, on the brief).
Samuel J. McNulty argued the cause for the respondent (Hueston McNulty, attorneys; Mr. McNulty, of counsel and on the brief).
JUDGES: Before Judges Skillman, Yannotti and LeWinn.
Plaintiffs, husband and wife, appeal from the trial court’s grant of an involuntary dismissal at the end of their case seeking damages for injuries allegedly sustained by plaintiff-husband, Mark Neustadter (hereinafter “plaintiff”), in an accident on defendant’s premises, a ski resort.
On January 7, 2002, plaintiff, an acknowledged snowboarding expert, was injured while snowboarding at defendant’s resort when he collided with a post supporting orange netting on the slope. The gravamen of his negligence claim was that the post was so deeply embedded in snow, and of such an inflexible material, that it was immovable and took the full force of his body, resulting in a shattered knee.
At the conclusion of plaintiff’s case, the trial judge determined that plaintiff had not presented [*2] sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant’s part. The judge also concluded that plaintiff had failed to adduce any evidence to show the injury in question was caused by the collision with the identified fence post. Accordingly, the judge dismissed the complaint.
Plaintiff raises the following points on appeal:
Having thoroughly reviewed the trial record, we are convinced the judge properly limited the testimony of plaintiff’s liability expert and correctly [*3] concluded that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury reasonably to find liability on defendant’s part. This conclusion makes it unnecessary to reach the other issues raised on appeal.
In his complaint, plaintiff claimed defendant “negligently, carelessly, and/or recklessly designed, constructed, supervised, operated and/or maintained the premises so as to create and/or allow a dangerous and hazardous condition to exist.” He set forth the “particulars” of defendant’s negligence as follows:
a) Defendant knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that the unprotected pole was dangerous, and Defendant failed to warn Plaintiff of that condition;
b) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a material in order to protect Plaintiff from being injured should Plaintiff come into contact with the pole;
c) Defendant knew, or should have known, that the pole, if left open and exposed was likely to be dangerous to ski[ers] and snowboarders, and with such knowledge Defendant failed to cover the pole or use any other means to keep it safe for its business invitees;
d) Defendant failed to cover the pole with a protective covering for the protection of skiers [*4] and snowboarders; and
e) Defendant permitted the pole to be left unprotected and defective and dangerous knowing that the pole would necessarily pose a risk of harm to Plaintiff and other business invitees, skiers, and snowboarders.
Plaintiff proffered John H. Hanst as his liability expert. Hanst rendered a report on May 21, 2005. Other than his review of documents, Hanst’s opinions were based solely upon his one and only site visit to the ski resort on March 24, 2005, more than three years after plaintiff’s accident.
During that site visit Hanst “reconstructed” the accident with plaintiff and described the reconstruction in his report as follows: “We walked up the trail to the area where the incident occurred. The area was modestly changed. . . . A few of the fence posts have been covered with padding although the majority of them were not padded.” (Emphasis added). Hanst included photographs of the reconstructed accident scene in his report.
Defendant challenged Hanst’s report and testimony in an in limine motion. Defendant contended that Hanst described “conditions that were not those described by the Plaintiff. . . . H[is report] talk[ed] about a condition that did not exist and [wa]s [*5] not relevant or material to the case that w[ould] be before th[e] Court.”
In ruling on that motion, the trial judge found that Hanst’s report described conditions that were not in existence “on the date of [plaintiff’s] . . . accident. . . . They were at a [much later] time . . . when the conditions on the slope were not the same. Nobody can say they were the same.” (Emphasis added).
The judge limited Hanst’s testimony to “what conditions should exist on a ski slope and how the conditions on the day in question deviated, based upon the testimony of Mr. Neustadter.” The judge also ruled Hanst’s photographs of the reconstructed accident scene inadmissible because they “specifically show poles that are different from those that are described by Mr. Neustadter as existing in the area where he was injured on the day in question.” In the course of his ruling, the judge noted that Hanst’s report did not address plaintiff’s claim that “the poles had been in the snow too long and ice had formed around them and possibly they didn’t flex the way they should.”
At trial, plaintiff testified that he swerved to avoid a cluster of skiers ahead of him. This caused him to collide with a PVC pole, one to [*6] two inches in diameter, that was supporting orange mesh fencing erected to distinguish the expert trail from the novice trail.
At the conclusion of Hanst’s voir dire, the judge limited his qualification as an expert to the area of alpine skiing, and excluded him from giving expert testimony on the subject of “mountain management” since he had no experience in that field. The sum total of Hanst’s liability testimony was that a rigid pole was a “man-made hazard,” and the ski operator had an obligation to reduce or eliminate that hazard.
After plaintiff had completed presentation of his case-in-chief, defendant moved for involuntary dismissal of the complaint pursuant to Rule 4:37-2(b). The judge granted the motion finding that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to establish liability under the Ski Statute, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11. The judge additionally found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to show that any negligence on the part of defendant was a proximate cause of his injury. On June 23, 2006, the judge entered an order memorializing his findings. This appeal followed.
Plaintiff argues that the judge erred by granting defendant’s motion for involuntary [*7] dismissal of their complaint. He maintains that defendant had a duty under the Ski Statute to remove any “obvious man-made hazard” from the premises. Plaintiff contends that he presented evidence showing that he struck a man-made fence pole. He contends further that, because his evidence showed that the post was rigid, thereby constituting a “hazard,” the jury should have been permitted to determine whether defendant failed to discharge its duty to remove the pole. We disagree.
Rule 4:37-2(b) provides that, upon completion of a plaintiff’s case-in-chief,
the defendant . . . may move for dismissal of the action or of any claim on the ground that upon the facts and upon the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. . . . [S]uch motion shall be denied if the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.
In other words, dismissal is appropriate where the court determines that no rational jury could conclude from the evidence that an essential element of plaintiff’s case is present. “The trial court is not concerned with the worth, nature or extent . . . of the evidence, but only with its existence, viewed most favorably to [*8] the party opposing the motion.” Dolson v. Anastasia, 55 N.J. 2, 5-6, 258 A.2d 706 (1969). Where, as here, plaintiff failed to adduce expert testimony on the essential element of liability, such failure will warrant dismissal of his personal injury action.
The Ski Statute clearly defines the respective liabilities of skiers and ski operators, and sets forth the duties of both and the assumption of risk borne by skiers. N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -5. The statute states that a skier’s assumption of risk under N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 bars recovery for injuries sustained due to “the inherent risks of skiing . . . created by weather conditions, conditions of snow, trails, slopes, other skiers, and all other inherent conditions.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-6 states that a skier’s assumption of risk:
shall be a complete bar of suit and shall serve as a complete defense to a suit against an operator by a skier for injuries resulting from the assumed risks, . . . unless an operator has violated his duties or responsibilities under this act, in which case the provisions of [comparative negligence] shall apply.
The Ski Statute imposes upon the ski operator a duty to “[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3). [*9] However, the statute expressly exempts a ski operator from liability for its failure to remove man-made hazards such as fencing or poles which are necessary for the normal operation of a ski resort, as follows:
No operator shall be responsible to any skier or other person because of its failure to [remove obvious man-made hazards] if such failure was caused by . . . the location of man-made facilities and equipment necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area, such as . . . fencing of any type, racing poles, or any other object or piece of equipment utilized in connection with the maintenance of trails . . . used in connection with skiing.
[N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(b)(3) (emphasis added).]
In addition, a ski operator shall not be held liable for failure to remove obvious, man-made hazards unless the operator “has knowledge of the failure to [remove man-made hazards]” or “should have reasonably known of such condition and having such knowledge has had a reasonable time in which to correct [the] condition.” N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(d).
Plaintiff failed to present any evidence to support his allegations that the fence post was an obvious, man-made hazard; or that defendant had actual or constructive [*10] knowledge of an obvious, man-made hazard relating to plaintiff’s injuries; or that defendant failed to remove such a hazard within a reasonable time. Therefore, the trial judge correctly found that plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that defendant failed to meet its duty under N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) to “[r]emove as soon as practicable obvious, man-made hazards.” As the trial judge recognized, liability may not be imposed under the Ski Statute if a ski operator’s failure to comply with N.J.S.A. 5:13-3(a)(3) was caused by the “location of man-made facilities” that are “necessary for the ordinary operation of the ski area[.]”
In his decision on the record, the judge aptly observed that there was nothing inappropriate about the placement of the fence posts delineating the expert trail and the novice trail; and it was plaintiff’s burden to show, through expert testimony, that something had happened to the poles after their installation which rendered them hazardous and not “necessary for the ordinary operation” of the facility. The judge properly determined that plaintiff had not met his burden in this regard. Moreover, the judge rightly [*11] found that plaintiff had not presented any evidence to show that defendant was aware, or reasonably should have been aware, that the poles had become hazardous for a reasonable period of time in which to address that condition. Therefore, the judge correctly determined that the evidence presented by plaintiff, and the “legitimate inferences” that could be drawn from that evidence, were insufficient to “sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.” R. 4:37-2(b).
Plaintiff additionally argues that the judge erred by limiting Hanst’s testimony at trial. Again, we disagree. A trial judge has the discretion to determine whether an expert is competent to testify. Carey v. Lovett, 132 N.J. 44, 64, 622 A.2d 1279 (1993). As we stated previously, the judge barred Hanst from testifying concerning the fencing on defendant’s premises because Hanst’s opinions were not based on the conditions that existed at the time plaintiff was injured. At trial, the judge also precluded Hanst from testifying that defendant should have had special “break away poles” and refused to permit Hanst to speculate as to whether weather conditions that might have existed at the time of the accident caused the PVC poles to become inflexible. [*12] None of those issues had been addressed in Hanst’s report. We are convinced that the judge did not abuse his discretion by limiting Hanst’s testimony.