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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


Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

Lindy Grace Cunningham; Michael Chad Cunningham, Plaintiffs – Appellants, v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation, a Wyoming corporation, Defendant – Appellee.

No. 16-8016

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22608

December 20, 2016, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY:  [*1] (D.C. No. 2:15-CV-00007-NDF). (D. Wyo.).

COUNSEL: For LINDY GRACE CUNNINGHAM, MICHAEL CHAD CUNNINGHAM, Plaintiff – Appellant: Gerard R. Bosch, Mary Alison Floyd, Law Offices of Jerry Bosch, LLC, Wilson, WY.

For JACKSON HOLE MOUNTAIN RESORT CORPORATION, a Wyoming Corporation, Defendant – Appellee: James Kent Lubing, Lubing Law Group, Jackson, WY.

JUDGES: Before KELLY, MATHESON, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION BY: Carolyn B. McHugh

OPINION

ORDER AND JUDGMENT*

* This order and judgment is not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 32.1 and 10th Cir. R. 32.1.

Lindy and Chad Cunningham sued Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation (JHMR)1 for injuries Mrs. Cunningham sustained when she collided with a trail sign while skiing. The district court granted summary judgment for JHMR, concluding the Cunninghams’ claims were barred by the terms of a release Mrs. Cunningham signed when she rented ski equipment from JHMR’s ski shop. Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

1 Throughout this opinion, we use the acronym JHMR to refer to both the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort property and the corporation that owns the resort, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation.

  1. BACKGROUND

During a January 2013 vacation to Teton Village, Wyoming, Lindy Cunningham rented ski equipment from a JHMR shop located at the base of the resort’s ski area. During the rental process, Mrs. Cunningham signed a rental agreement,2 which included the following language (the release):

I [the signor] further agree to forever release, discharge, waive, [*2]  save and hold harmless, indemnify, and defend JHMR . . . from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions, and any and all medical expenses or other related expenses, including damage to persons and property, asserted by others, by me, or on my behalf, my estate, executors, heirs, or assigns brought under any theory of legal liability, INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE, arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR, or my presence on JHMR premises.

2 The Cunninghams contend there is a genuine dispute of fact regarding whether Mrs. Cunningham actually signed the rental agreement because, in response to requests for admission, Mrs. Cunningham asserted she viewed the agreement on a computer screen and not in the form presented during discovery. But there is no dispute Mrs. Cunningham’s physical signature appears on the rental agreement. And there is no dispute JHMR provides the same agreement to every rental customer on a computer screen before printing a hard copy for the customer’s signature. Moreover, this evidence relates solely to the third factor in our analysis of the release’s enforceability, which requires consideration of “whether the agreement was fairly entered into.” Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1060 (Wyo. 1986). As explained below, Mrs. Cunningham raised arguments only with respect to the fourth factor and therefore waived the arguments for which the signature evidence would be relevant. See Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1128 (10th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, the evidence does not provide a basis to reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

On January 14, while skiing at JHMR, Mr. Cunningham followed behind Mrs. Cunningham, filming her on his helmet-mounted GoPro camera. Footage from the camera shows Mrs. Cunningham fall toward the right side of the trail, slide, and then collide with a trail sign. The accident severely injured Mrs. Cunningham’s spine, rendering her a quadriplegic.

The Cunninghams sued JHMR, claiming negligence, premises liability, negligent training and supervision, and loss of consortium. After limited discovery, the district court concluded the Cunninghams’ claims were barred by the release, and it therefore granted summary judgment in JHMR’s favor.

  1. DISCUSSION

[HN1] We review the district [*3]  court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Sapone v. Grand Targhee, Inc., 308 F.3d 1096, 1100 (10th Cir. 2002). “Because this is a diversity case, we apply the substantive law of Wyoming, the forum state.” Id. Specifically, we “must ascertain and apply state law to reach the result the Wyoming Supreme Court would reach if faced with the same question.” Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162, 1164 (10th Cir. 2000). If “no state cases exist on a point, we turn to other state court decisions, federal decisions, and the general weight and trend of authority.” Grand Targhee, 308 F.3d at 1100 (citation omitted). Here, the district court concluded the release signed by Mrs. Cunningham was valid and enforceable under Wyoming law and encompassed all of the Cunninghams’ claims. In addition, the district court determined JHMR did not act willfully or wantonly.3 We affirm each of the district court’s determinations.

3 JHMR also argued the claims were barred by the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA), Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 to -123, because Mrs. Cunningham hit a trail sign, which is an inherent risk of skiing. But the district court denied summary judgment on this basis, and neither party has appealed this determination. Accordingly, we do not address it here.

  1. Enforceability and Scope of the Release

[HN2] Wyoming courts will enforce clauses releasing parties from liability for injury or damages so long as the clause is not contrary to public policy. Schutkowski v. Carey, 725 P.2d 1057, 1059 (Wyo. 1986). And as relevant here, “[g]enerally, specific agreements absolving participants and proprietors from negligence liability during hazardous recreational activities are enforceable, subject to willful misconduct limitations.” Id.; see also Fremont Homes, Inc. v. Elmer, 974 P.2d 952, 956 (Wyo. 1999) (“Where willful and wanton [*4]  misconduct is shown, an otherwise valid release is not enforceable.”). To determine the enforceability of a particular exculpatory clause, the Wyoming Supreme Court applies a four-part test:

In reaching its determination a court considers . . . (1) whether a duty to the public exists; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Only exculpatory agreements meeting these requirements are enforceable.

Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060; see also Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987) (“An agreement passing scrutiny under these factors is valid, denying the signing party an action in negligence.”). In application, the Wyoming Supreme Court has essentially combined the first two factors, stating that “[a] duty to the public exists if the nature of the business or service affects the public interest and the service performed is considered an essential service.” Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1066 (Wyo. 1988). The third factor has also been discussed in conjunction with the first two. See Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060 (“The service provided by appellees was not a matter of practical necessity for any member of the public. It was not an essential service, so no decisive bargaining advantage existed.”). [*5]

On appeal, the Cunninghams make arguments related to the first three factors by asserting (1) JHMR owes a duty to the public because it operates on United States Forest Service land pursuant to a special use permit and is subject to federal regulation, (2) the release is contrary to public policy as expressed in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, and (3) the release unlawfully bars negligence actions arising from essential services such as the provision of emergency medical services at the JHMR clinic. But the Cunninghams did not raise these arguments before the district court. In their opposition to summary judgment, the Cunninghams focused exclusively on the fourth factor: whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. In addition, the Cunninghams failed to present evidence to the district court in support of these new arguments, which is why they ask this court to take judicial notice of the requisite facts.4 Although the Cunninghams maintain they raised the public-duty issue below, the discussion was limited to isolated references in the facts section of their memorandum to the district court, which merely recited the ownership interest of the [*6]  Forest Service and the alleged existence of a special use permit. The Cunninghams did not provide analysis or argument to the district court related to JHMR’s public duty or the other two arguments now raised on appeal. Under these circumstances, the Cunninghams have forfeited these arguments, and we do not consider them for the first time on appeal. See Bancamerica Commercial Corp. v. Mosher Steel of Kan., Inc., 100 F.3d 792, 798 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Vague, arguable references to a point in the district court proceedings do not preserve the issue on appeal.” (alterations, ellipsis, and citation omitted)).

4 Because the Cunninghams’ proffered evidence relates only to arguments not preserved for appeal, we deny the motion for judicial notice.

We therefore limit our review to  [HN3] the fourth factor, which “requires us to determine whether the release agreement evidences the parties’ intent to abrogate negligence liability in clear and unambiguous language.” Boehm, 748 P.2d at 711. To make this determination, we must “closely scrutinize” the exculpatory clause. Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1060. In doing so, we must interpret the clause “using traditional contract principles and considering the meaning of the document as a whole.” Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Med. Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132, 1135 (Wyo. 2000). In addition, “the nature of the service and the purpose of the release must be considered.” Schutkowski, 725 P.2d at 1062. Applying these principles, the district court concluded the rental agreement clearly and unambiguously released JHMR from liability for all of the Cunninghams’ [*7]  claims. We agree.

When Mrs. Cunningham signed the rental agreement, she released JHMR

from and against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions, and any and all medical expenses or other related expenses, including damage to persons and property, asserted by others, by me, or on my behalf, my estate, executors, heirs, or assigns brought under any theory of legal liability, INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE, arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR, or my presence on JHMR premises.

.See Street v. Darwin Ranch, Inc., 75 F. Supp. 2d 1296, 1302 (D. Wyo. 1999) (“The Release blatantly and unambiguously [*8]  specifies that Plaintiff waived negligence claims against Defendant for all injuries resulting from participation in the recreational activity, making it even more clear than the exculpatory clauses found valid in Schutkowski and Milligan.” (internal cross-reference omitted)).

Nonetheless, the Cunninghams contend the release is unclear and/or ambiguous because the exculpatory language is “hidden,” the release is internally conflicted, and the release is overly broad. The Cunninghams also contend that, even if the release is clear and unambiguous, the parties mutually misunderstood the release to cover only rental-equipment-related injuries and that, by its terms, the release applies only to injuries arising from inherent hazards of skiing. We address each of these arguments in turn.

  1. “Hidden” Exculpatory Language

The Cunninghams first assert the exculpatory clause was too inconspicuous to be “clear and unambiguous.” We have found no case imposing a “conspicuousness” requirement to exculpatory clauses under Wyoming law.5 But even assuming enforcement of a sufficiently inconspicuous clause could offend public policy, the release here is not inconspicuous.

5 The only case the Cunninghams cite that identified such a requirement in the context of a liability waiver for recreational activity is  [*9] Kolosnitsyn v. Crystal Mountain, Inc., No. C08-05035-RBL, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 28, 2009). There, the district court considered whether Crystal Mountain’s liability release was conspicuous, but it did so under Washington state law, which deems exculpatory clauses “enforceable unless they violate public policy, are inconspicuous, or the negligence falls below standards established by law.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *3 (citing Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wn.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 10 (Wash. 1992)). Unlike Washington, Wyoming deems exculpatory clauses enforceable unless they violate public policy; it does not consider the two additional exceptions to enforceability that Washington recognizes. See, e.g., Massengill v. S.M.A.R.T. Sports Med. Clinic, P.C., 996 P.2d 1132, 1136 (Wyo. 2000).

The Cunninghams maintain the exculpatory language is buried in a long block of text, written in small typeface, and presented in the rental agreement under circumstances which make it appear as though the whole agreement pertains only to equipment rental. But the district court correctly explained, “While the Release is part of the Rental Agreement, it makes up the bulk of the agreement.” The entire rental agreement fills one side of one piece of paper, with the release provision placed front and center. The release is presented under a heading that states “RENTAL WARNING, RELEASE OF LIABILITY AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT — PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING.” Assumption of risk and waiver of liability are addressed in the first two paragraphs of the release, and they are clearly set apart from one another. Moreover, the first sentence of the release signals that its scope is broader than the rental of equipment, as it discusses the dangers of skiing in general. The exculpatory provision also stands out because the phrase “INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE” is written in all caps. Furthermore, the last paragraph of the release states in part, “I HAVE CAREFULLY READ THIS RELEASE, UNDERSTAND [*10]  ITS CONTENTS, AND UNDERSTAND THAT THE TERMS OF THIS DOCUMENT ARE CONTRACTUAL . . . . I AM AWARE THAT I AM RELEASING CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS THAT I OTHERWISE MAY HAVE . . . .” While the print is necessarily small, it is readable even in the further-shrunken form presented in the record on appeal. And as the district court observed, “there is nothing to suggest that [Mrs.] Cunningham requested larger print or indicated that she could not read the release.” For these reasons, even if conspicuousness is a requirement under Wyoming law, the release here was conspicuous.

  1. Internal Conflict

The Cunninghams next cite Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 899-900 (D. Colo. 1998), and argue the release is ambiguous because it is both consistent and inconsistent with the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA). But the Cunninghams’ reliance on Rowan is misplaced. There, the court found a release ambiguous in part because it specifically released the resort of liability for all risks, including the use of ski lifts. Id. at 899. The release then stated the plaintiff assumed the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in Colorado’s Ski Safety Act, a statute that explicitly states that use of ski lifts does not qualify as an “inherent risk.” Id. Thus, the release conflicted [*11]  with the relevant statutory language.

Here, by contrast, there is no conflict between the WRSA and the types of risks or injuries JHMR listed in the release.  [HN4] The WRSA does not exempt or identify specific inherent risks; it generally defines “inherent risks” as “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). And the release here, unlike the release in Rowan, does not incorporate by reference the WRSA. In light of these significant differences, Rowan does not support a finding of ambiguity here.

  1. Overbreadth

Next, the Cunninghams make multiple arguments related to the alleged overbreadth of the release. First, the Cunninghams argue the release is ambiguous because “it relates to all ‘activities’ and all ‘facilities’ and all ‘premises’ on ‘each and every day’ against a wide array of entities and individuals.” Because the exculpatory clause includes broad language covering all facilities and activities at the resort at any time of year, the Cunninghams conclude “[t]here is no way possible for a person to understand what this clause actually encompasses.”

At the outset, we question whether the Cunninghams adequately [*12]  preserved this argument. The Cunninghams’ opposition to summary judgment contains only a passing reference to the issue:

The []release language appears to apply to the signator’s “presence on JHMR premises.” Theoretically, if someone left the ski hill and came back for dinner at the resort and was injured as a result of [JHMR]’s negligence this release would apply. This is not clear or unambiguous or within [the] scope of renting skis.

And the Cunninghams presented no evidence in the district court of JHMR’s ownership or operation of other facilities and activities at the resort. The Cunninghams instead attempt to introduce such evidence on appeal through their motion for judicial notice.

But even if we consider this issue, the Cunninghams’ arguments fail on the merits. The release explicitly limits JHMR’s liability for “any and all claims, demands, causes of action, liabilities, actions . . . arising directly or indirectly out of my use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR.” Although this language is broad, there is nothing ambiguous about it. Indeed, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected an analogous argument when it held that a release from liability for “legal claims or legal [*13]  liability of any kind whether foreseen or unforeseen” meant precisely what it said and thus clearly barred a plaintiff’s negligence claims. Milligan, 754 P.2d at 1068.

The Cunninghams also argue the release should be deemed void because it covers a broad range of potential injuries but is presented in a rental agreement, thus leading renters to believe they are releasing only claims for injuries caused by the rental equipment, while in fact, the release covers all injuries, including those unrelated to equipment. In support of their argument, the Cunninghams cite Kolosnitsyn v. Crystal Mountain, Inc., in which the court expressed concern about a person “unwittingly” signing away his rights because the rental-agreement release might have applied to injuries related to the rental equipment alone or to injuries related to use of the ski area. No. C08-05035-RBL, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491, at *4 (W.D. Wash. Aug. 28, 2009) (unpublished).

But the decision in Kolosnitsyn was based on facts not present here. In Kolosnitsyn, the plaintiff rented equipment from a ski shop and while skiing at an adjoining resort suffered injuries not caused by his equipment. 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *1. When he sued the resort, it invoked a release the plaintiff had signed when renting his equipment, based on the resort’s ownership [*14]  of the ski shop and the release’s waiver of claims against “the ski/snowboard shop, its employees, [and its] owners.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *1-2 (emphasis added). The court found the release unenforceable because it did not clearly identify the adjoining resort as the ski shop’s “owner.” 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, [WL] at *4. Thus, the plaintiff would not have known from the release itself that he was waiving claims against the resort, including for the resort’s own negligence. Id.

Here, by contrast, the release expressly waives claims against JHMR itself–it bars “any and all claims,” including those “arising directly or indirectly” from “use of the facilities, ski area or ski lifts at JHMR.” Thus, Kolosnitsyn does not support the Cunninghams’ position. Moreover, although neither we nor Wyoming courts have addressed this precise issue, we have concluded that an exculpatory release signed in conjunction with the rental of sporting equipment can bar claims for injuries arising out of participation in the sport but unrelated to the equipment. See Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 308 F.3d 1105, 1108, 1109, 1112-13 (10th Cir. 2002) (applying Colorado’s four-factor test that Wyoming has since adopted and concluding a release signed in connection with a mountain-bike rental barred negligence claims against resort for biker’s injuries [*15]  unrelated to the bike or other rented equipment).

The Cunninghams also argue the release should be held invalid because it applies to skiers who rent equipment, but not to skiers who bring their own. Although this argument finds some support in the Kolosnitsyn decision, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79111, 2009 WL 2855491, at *4, it does not fit squarely within the four-factor framework established by Wyoming law. Rather, it seems to be a general appeal to public policy. While the Wyoming Supreme Court does not enforce contracts that are contrary to public policy, it also “will not invalidate a contract entered into freely by competent parties on the basis of public policy unless that policy is well settled.” Andrau v. Mich. Wis. Pipe Line Co., 712 P.2d 372, 376 (Wyo. 1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Cunninghams have not shown a settled public policy in Wyoming that discourages releases like JHMR’s. Moreover, the evidence shows JHMR requires its season-pass holders to sign releases identical or similar to the one signed by Mrs. Cunningham. We therefore reject this argument.

  1. Mutual Mistake and Inherent Hazards

The Cunninghams next argue that even if the release is unambiguous, it does not bar their claims for two reasons. First, the Cunninghams maintain both they and JHMR believed the release [*16]  applied only to injuries related to rental equipment and therefore the parties were mutually mistaken as to the release’s scope. But the Cunninghams also concede they did not raise this argument before the district court. We therefore decline to address the argument because it has been forfeited and the Cunninghams did not argue plain-error review. See Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1128 (10th Cir. 2011).

Second, the Cunninghams briefly argue that, based on the reasoning of a Wyoming state district court in Beckwith v. Weber, Civ. Action No. 14726, the exculpatory language in the second paragraph of the release must be read to apply only to injuries arising from the “inherent hazards” discussed in the first paragraph of the release. But, as the district court concluded, Beckwith is distinguishable because the release there contained only a single sentence that did not mention a release of liability for negligence. By contrast, the release here clearly and unambiguously bars negligence claims against JHMR, not just claims arising out of the inherent risks of skiing. And even if the release could be limited to the inherent risks identified in the first paragraph of the release, such risks include “collisions with . . . man-made objects [*17]  and features.” Because Mrs. Cunningham collided with a man-made trail sign, she cannot succeed on this argument, even if the release could be read to apply only to the identified inherent risks.

In sum, we agree with the district court that the release clearly and unambiguously bars the Cunninghams’ claims. And because the ambiguity of the release was the only issue preserved for our review, we conclude the release is valid and enforceable under Wyoming law.

  1. Willful and Wanton Conduct

Finally, the Cunninghams argue the release is unenforceable because JHMR engaged in willful and wanton misconduct. See Milligan v. Big Valley Corp., 754 P.2d 1063, 1068 (Wyo. 1988) ( [HN5] “Where willful and wanton misconduct is shown, an otherwise valid release is unenforceable.”). Wyoming sets a high bar for establishing willful and wanton misconduct.

Willful and wanton misconduct is the intentional doing of an act, or an intentional failure to do an act, in reckless disregard of the consequences and under circumstances and conditions that a reasonable person would know, or have reason to know that such conduct would, in a high degree of probability, result in harm to another.

Hannifan v. Am. Nat’l Bank of Cheyenne, 2008 WY 65, 185 P.3d 679, 683 (Wyo. 2008) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Weaver v. Mitchell, 715 P.2d 1361, 1370 (Wyo. 1986)). It is “more aggravated than gross negligence.” Danculovich v. Brown, 593 P.2d 187, 191 (Wyo. 1979). “In order to [*18]  prove that an actor has engaged in willful misconduct, one must demonstrate that he acted with a state of mind that approaches intent to do harm.” Cramer v. Powder River Coal, LLC, 2009 WY 45, 204 P.3d 974, 979 (Wyo. 2009) (citation omitted).

Here, there is no evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude JHMR acted willfully or wantonly when it placed the trail sign with which Mrs. Cunningham collided. It is undisputed that the sign has been in the same spot in substantially the same form for over thirty years. Yet there was no evidence presented that anyone other than Mrs. Cunningham has collided with the sign in that time. Although the Cunninghams’ experts criticized JHMR’s choices in placing and constructing the sign, as the district court concluded, “[a]t best, the alleged failings related to the placement and construction of the sign are negligent, not willful and wanton behavior.”

Moreover, the only case to which the Cunninghams draw an analogy–Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889 (D. Colo. 1998)–is clearly inapposite. Rowan involved a skier who died after colliding with a picnic deck (1) that was at the bottom of a race course on which skiers “attained speeds in excess of 120 kilometers per hour,” id. at 892; (2) that was positioned such that skiers had “to make a hard left turn at the end of the course to avoid [*19]  the deck,” id. at 893-94; (3) that was unpadded, despite having been previously padded and despite available padding that easily could have been attached, id. at 893, 900; and (4) with which there had been several “close calls” and an actual injury on the same day the skier was killed and in the two days prior, id. at 900. In addition, the resort made the decedent and other skiers sign the release in the middle of the third day of their test runs, doing so only after receiving notice of multiple close calls and an actual injury, and claiming it routinely required releases but without producing evidence to support this claim. Id. at 898, 900. The present circumstances bear no similarity to the facts in Rowan. Where the trail sign here had been in place without known incident for over thirty years prior to Mrs. Cunningham’s accident, no reasonable jury could conclude JHMR engaged in willful and wanton misconduct by placing it there. Accordingly, the release is enforceable and bars the Cunninghams’ claims.6

6 Because Mr. Cunningham’s claim for loss of consortium is derivative of Mrs. Cunningham’s claims related to her injuries, his claim also fails. Massengill, 996 P.2d at 1137; Boehm v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 748 P.2d 704, 710 (Wyo. 1987).

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of JHMR. And we DENY the Cunninghams’ motion for judicial notice.

Entered for the Court

Carolyn B. McHugh

Circuit Judge