The actual risk causing the injury to the plaintiff was explicitly identified in the release and used by the court as proof it was a risk of skiing and snowboarding. If it was in the release, then it was a risk.

Plaintiff hit a snowcat and was severely injured when she was sucked under the tiller. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area was not liable because of the release and snowcats on the mountain are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding.

Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District

Plaintiff: Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis et al (and her husband Bruno Michiulis)

Defendant: Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, gross negligence and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the risk and release

Holding: for the defendant ski area Mammoth Mt. Ski Area

Year: 2018

Summary

When skiing or snowboarding you assume the risk of seeing a snowcat grooming on the slopes in California. If you run into a snowcat and get sucked into the tiller you have no lawsuit against the ski area.

A snowcat at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is a great big red slow-moving machine with flashing lights and sirens. They are hard to miss, so therefore they are something you assume the risk when on the slopes.

Facts

The injury suffered by the plaintiff and how it occurred is gruesome. She hit a snowcat while snowboarding and fell between the cat and the tiller. Before the cat could stop she was run over and entangled in the tiller eventually losing one leg and suffering multiple other injuries.

Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries

The plaintiff was snowboarding on her last run of the night. She spotted the snow cat 150 feet ahead of her on the run. When she looked up again, she collided with the snowcat.

While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back-left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.

The defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area posted warning signs at the top and bottom of every run warning that snowcats and other vehicles may be on the runs. The season pass releases the plaintiff, and her husband signed also recognized the risk of snowcats and identified them as such.

Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.

The trial court concluded the plaintiff assumed the risks of her injury and granted the ski area motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed that decision, and this appellate decision is the result of that appeal.

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

The decision included a massive recounting of the facts of the case both before the analysis and throughout it. Additionally, the court reviewed several issues that are not that important here, whether the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff’s expert opinions and whether or not the location of the case was proper.

Releases in California are evolving into proof of express assumption of the risk. The court reviewed the issues of whether Mammoth met is burden of showing the risks the plaintiff assumed were inherent in the sport of snowboarding. The facts in the release signed by the plaintiff supported that assumption of the risk defense and was pointed out by the court as such.

…plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.”

California courts also look at the assumption of risk issue not as a defense, but a doctrine that releases the defendant of its duty to the plaintiff.

“While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. “The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.””

The court then is not instructed to look at the activity to see the relationship of the parties or examine the activity that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The question becomes is the risk of injury the plaintiff suffered inherent in the activity in which the plaintiff was participating. The issue then becomes a question solely for the courts as in this case, does the scope of the release express the risk relieving the defendant of any duty to the plaintiff.

After the judge makes that decision then the question of whether or not the actions of the defendant rose to the level of gross negligence is reviewed. “The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence.

Ordinary or simple negligence is a “failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.”

“‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”[G]ross negligence’ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘”

When looking at gross negligence, the nature of the sport comes back into the evaluation.

“‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement.

Skiing and snowboarding have a long list of litigated risks that are inherent in the sport and thus assumed by the plaintiff or better, to which the defendant does not owe the plaintiff a duty.

There the plaintiff argued the snow groomer was not an assumed risk. The court eliminated that argument by pointing out the plaintiff had signed a release which pointed out to the plaintiff that one of the risks she could encounter was a snow groomer on the slopes.

The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.

The court went on to find case law that supported the defense that snow groomers were a risk of skiing and boarding, and it was a great big slow moving bright-red machine that made it generally unavoidable.

Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide- Michiulis.

Even if there were no warning signs, nothing on the maps of the ski area, nothing in the release, once the plaintiff spotted the snowcat the responsibility to avoid the snowcat fell on her.

The appellate court upheld the trial courts motion for summary judgement in favor of the defendant ski area Mammoth Mountain.

So Now What?

The California Appellate Court took 11 pages to tell the plaintiff if you see a big red slow-moving machine on the ski slopes to stay away from it.

What is also interesting is the evolution of the law in California from a release being a contractual pre-injury agreement not to sue to proof that the defendant did not owe a duty to the plaintiff because she assumed the risk.

Besides, how do you miss, let alone ski or snowboard into a big red slow-moving machine with flashing lights and sirens on a ski slope?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363

Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area, LLC

Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District

June 27, 2018, Opinion Filed

C082306

Reporter

2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363 *; 2018 WL 3134581KATHLEEN WILLHIDE-MICHIULIS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN SKI AREA, LLC, Defendant and Respondent.

Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

Subsequent History: The Publication Status of this Document has been Changed by the Court from Unpublished to Published July 18, 2018 and is now reported at 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 638.

Ordered published by, Reported at Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 638 (Cal. App. 3d Dist., June 27, 2018)

Prior History:  [*1] Superior Court of Mono County, No. CV130105.

Judges: Robie, Acting P. J.; Murray, J., Duarte, J. concurred.

Opinion by: Robie, Acting P. J.

Opinion

Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries. She and her husband, Bruno Michiulis, appeal after the trial court granted defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area‘s (Mammoth) motion for summary judgment finding the operation of the snowcat and snow-grooming tiller on the snow run open to the public was an inherent risk of snowboarding and did not constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment and improperly excluded the expert declarations plaintiffs submitted to oppose the motion. They also assert the trial court improperly denied their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the expert declarations. Further, [*2]  although snowcats and snow-grooming tillers are capable of causing catastrophic injury, as evidenced by Willhide-Michiulis’s experience, we conclude this equipment is an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and the way in which the snowcat was operated in this case did not rise to the level of gross negligence. Because of this conclusion, the trial court properly granted Mammoth’s summary judgment motion based on the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement. With no pending trial, plaintiffs cannot show they were prejudiced by the court’s denial of their motion to transfer venue; thus we do not reach the merits of that claim. Accordingly, we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I

The Injury

Mammoth owns and operates one of the largest snowcat fleets in the United States to groom snow and maintain snow runs throughout Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. A snowcat is a large snow-grooming vehicle — 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. It has five wheels on each side of the vehicle that are enclosed in a track. In front of the snowcat is a plow extending the width of the snowcat. In back is a 20-foot wide trailer containing a tiller. A tiller “spins at a [*3]  high [speed] br[e]aking up the snow and slightly warming it and allowing it to refreeze in a firm skiable surface.” Mammoth strives not to have snowcats operating when the resort is open to the public; however, it may be necessary at times. Mammoth’s grooming guide instructs drivers that generally snowcats are operated at night or in areas closed to the public, except during: (1) emergency operations, (2) extremely heavy snow, or (3) transportation of personnel or materials. If a driver “must be on the mountain while the public is present,” however, the snowcat’s lights, safety beacon, and audible alarm must be on. The guide further directs drivers not to operate the tiller if anyone is within 50 feet or if on a snow run open to the public. In another section, the guide directs drivers not to operate the snowcat’s tiller when anyone is within 150 feet and “[n]ever . . . when the skiing public is present.”

Although the grooming guide directs drivers not to use the tiller on snow runs open to the public, there are exceptions to these rules. Snowcats use two large tracks, instead of wheels, to travel on the snow. If the tiller is not running, then the snowcat leaves behind berms and holes created by the [*4]  tracks, also known as track marks. Mammoth’s grooming guide explains that “[t]rack marks are not acceptable anywhere on the mountain and back-ups or extra passes should be used to remove them.” Track marks are not safe for the skiing public, so whenever the snowcat is justified to be on an open run, drivers commonly operate the tiller to leave behind safe conditions.

In fact, it is common for skiers and snowboarders to chase snowcats that operate on public snow runs. For example, Taylor Lester, a Mammoth season-pass holder, has seen snowcats with tillers operate on snow runs open to the public. She, her friends, and her family, commonly ride close behind these snowcats so they can take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produce. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished by other skiers.

There is a blind spot in the snowcat created by the roll cage in the cab of the vehicle. This blind spot is mitigated by the driver using the mirrors of the snowcat and turning his or her head to look out the windows. Snowcats are also equipped with turn signals.

At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence [*5]  of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also includes these warnings in trail maps. Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis further agreed to release Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death to me and/or my child arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.”

On March 25, 2011, Clifford Mann, the general manager of mountain operations, had to dig out various buildings using a snowcat during Mammoth’s hours of operation because between 27 and 44 inches of snow fell the night before. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Mann was digging out a building when a Mammoth employee [*6]  called to ask him to fill in a hole she had created with her snowmobile on Old Boneyard Road. Less than an hour before her call, the employee had been driving her snowmobile on the unmarked service road and got it stuck in the snow. She called for assistance and she and another Mammoth employee dug out the snowmobile. Once the machine had been dug out of the snow, there was too big of a hole for her and her coworker to fill in. They decided to call Mann to have him fill in the hole with the snowcat because it was near the end of the day and the hole was a safety hazard for all other snowmobiles that would use the service road at closing. Mann agreed and drove his snowcat with the tiller running to Old Boneyard Road, which branched off of the bottom of mambo snow run. Before leaving for the Old Boneyard Road location, Mann turned on the snowcat’s warning beacon, lights, and audible alarm.

Around this same time, Willhide-Michiulis, a Mammoth season-pass holder, and her brother went for their last snowboard run of the day while Willhide-Michiulis’s husband went to the car. It was a clear day and Willhide-Michiulis and her brother split up after getting off the chair lift. Willhide-Michiulis [*7]  snowboarded down mambo, while her brother took a neighboring run. While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.

Mann did not use a turn signal before initiating the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. Before the collision, Mann had constantly been checking around the snowcat for people by utilizing the snowcat’s mirrors and by looking over his shoulders and through the windows. The snowcat did not have a speedometer, but Mann thought he was going less than 10 miles an hour. When he had nearly completed the turn from lower mambo onto Old Boneyard Road, Mann saw a “black flash” in his rearview mirror. He immediately stopped the snowcat, [*8]  which also stopped the tiller.

Mann got out of the snowcat and lifted the protective flap to look under the tiller. He saw Willhide-Michiulis stuck in the tiller and called for help. When help arrived, it took 30 minutes to remove Willhide-Michiulis from the tiller. She suffered a near-complete amputation of her left leg above the knee, which doctors amputated in a subsequent surgery. Her right leg sustained multiple fractures and lacerations, and she dislocated her right hip. The tiller also struck Willhide-Michiulis’s face, leaving multiple facial fractures and lacerations.

II

Plaintiffs’ Suit

Plaintiffs initially filed suit against Mammoth and Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles, the manufacturer of the snowcat and tiller, in Los Angeles County.1 As to Mammoth, plaintiffs alleged breach of contract, gross negligence, negligence, and loss of consortium. Venue was later transferred to Mono County, where the trial court dismissed multiple causes of action pertaining to Mammoth.2 The operative complaint alleges two causes of action against Mammoth — gross negligence and loss of consortium. At the same time plaintiffs filed the operative complaint, they also filed a motion to transfer venue back [*9]  to Los Angeles County because it was more convenient for the parties and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion to transfer venue without prejudice and we denied the petition for writ of mandate plaintiffs filed challenging that ruling.

Mammoth later moved for summary judgment on the two remaining causes of action arguing that plaintiffs’ case was barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the express assumption of risk agreement Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass contract. The court agreed and granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment finding primary assumption of risk and the waiver in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement barred plaintiffs relief. It found there was no dispute over the material facts of plaintiffs’ claims and that Willhide-Michiulis was injured when “she fell and slid under a [Mammoth] operated snowcat and was caught in the operating tiller. [Willhide-Michiulis] was snowboarding on an open run as the snowcat was operating on the same run. It appears that the collision occurred as the snowcat operator was negotiating a left turn from the run to the service road.” [*10]  It also found that accepting plaintiffs’ factual allegations as true, i.e., Mann operated a snowcat and tiller on an open run, he failed to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of the run, he failed to warn skiers of his presence, and no signs marked the existence of Old Boneyard Road — plaintiffs could not show Mammoth was grossly negligent or lacked all care because Mann took several safety precautions while driving the snowcat, and warning signs were posted throughout Mammoth Mountain, on trail maps, and in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because plaintiffs could not show gross negligence, the waiver of liability they signed as part of their season-pass agreement barred recovery.

The court further found plaintiffs’ factual allegations did not support a finding that Mann’s conduct increased the inherent risks of snowboarding and, in fact, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport. Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389, the court explained snowcats are plainly visible and generally avoidable and serve as their own warning sign because they are an obvious danger. The snowcat is equally obvious when it is moving as when it is stationary. Thus, the [*11]  primary assumption of risk doctrine also barred plaintiffs from recovery.

The court also excluded the declarations of three experts plaintiffs attached to their opposition to dispute Mammoth’s claim that it did not act with gross negligence. The first expert, Michael Beckley, worked in the ski industry for 25 years and was an “expert of ski resort safety and snow cat safety.” He held multiple positions in the industry, including ski instructor, snowcat driver, and director of mountain operations. Beckley based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and snow grooming equipment, and accounts of Mann’s conduct while driving the snowcat. He opined the operation of a snowcat on an open run with its tiller running was “extremely dangerous,” “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” He believed Mann increased the risk of injury to skiers and violated industry standards by driving down the middle of a snow run and failing to signal his turn. Mammoth’s failure to close the snow run, provide spotters, or comply with its own safety rules, Beckley declared, violated industry standards and the ordinary standard [*12]  of conduct.

Plaintiffs’ second expert, Eric Deyerl, was a mechanical engineer for over 20 years, with a specialization in vehicle dynamics and accident reconstruction. In forming his opinions, Deyerl inspected the snow run and snowcat equipment and relied on photographs and various accounts of the incident. Relying on those accounts, Deyerl opined that the circumstances leading to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision were different than those related by eyewitnesses. Deyerl believed that before initiating his turn, Mann failed to activate his turn signal, monitor his surroundings, and verify that he was clear — especially in the blind spot at the back left portion of the snowcat. No signs indicated the existence of Old Boneyard Road, and skiers like Willhide-Michiulis would not know to expect a snowcat to stop and turn from the middle of the snow run. All of these circumstances in isolation and together increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. Deyerl also disputed the accounts of eyewitnesses to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision with the snowcat.

The third expert, Brad Avrit, was a civil engineer who specialized in evaluating “safety practices and safety issues.” He was [*13]  also an “avid skier for over thirty years.” He based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and equipment, and accounts of Mann’s driving. Avrit opined that operating a snowcat on an open snow run with an active tiller was “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct that reasonable persons would follow in order to avoid injury to others.” He also believed Mann’s conduct of failing to drive down the left side of the snow run, failing to monitor his surroundings, and failing to signal his left turn or verify he was clear to turn, “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Avrit also thought the risk to skiers was increased by Mammoth’s failure to either close the snow run or use spotters while operating the snowcat when open to the public, or alternatively waiting the 30 minutes until the resort was closed to fix the hole on Old Boneyard Road.

Mammoth lodged both general and specific objections to these declarations. Generally, Mammoth asserted the experts’ opinions were irrelevant to the assumption of risk and gross negligence legal determinations before the court, the opinions lacked proper foundation, and the opinions were improper [*14]  conclusions of law. Specifically, Mammoth objected to several paragraphs of material on predominantly the same grounds. Finding the experts’ opinions irrelevant and citing Towns v. Davidson (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 461, 54 Cal. Rptr. 3d 568 (Towns), the trial court sustained Mammoth’s general objections and numerous specific objections.

DISCUSSION

I

The Court Properly Granted Mammoth’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment. They first contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding their experts’ declarations, and thus improperly ruled on Mammoth’s motion without considering relevant evidence. They also contend primary assumption of risk does not apply because Mann’s negligent driving and operation of a tiller on an open run increased the inherent risks associated with snowboarding. Further, plaintiffs argue these same facts establish Mammoth’s conduct was grossly negligent and fell outside of the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement.

We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding plaintiffs’ experts’ declarations. Additionally, plaintiffs cannot show Mammoth was grossly negligent and violated [*15]  the terms of the release of liability agreement found in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because the express assumption of risk in the release applies, we need not consider the implied assumption of risk argument also advanced by plaintiffs. (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 590, fn. 2, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370; Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1374-1375, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813; Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1012-1013, 54 Cal. Rptr. 2d 330.)

A

The Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When Excluding The Expert Declarations Attached To Plaintiffs’ Opposition

As part of their argument that the court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to their opposition. Specifically, plaintiffs argue expert testimony was appropriate under Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, because “the facts here certainly warrant consideration of the expert testimony on the more esoteric subject of assessing whether a negligently-driven snowcat is an inherent risk of recreational skiing.” Mammoth counters that the evidence was properly excluded because it was irrelevant and “offered opinions of legal questions of duty for the court to decide.” We agree with Mammoth.

“Generally, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may use declarations by an expert to raise a triable issue of fact on an element of the [*16]  case provided the requirements for admissibility are established as if the expert were testifying at trial. [Citations.] An expert’s opinion is admissible when it is ‘[r]elated to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact . . . .’ [Citation.] Although the expert’s testimony may embrace an ultimate factual issue [citation], it may not contain legal conclusions.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 472.)

“In the context of assumption of risk, the role of expert testimony is more limited. ‘It is for the court to decide whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.’ [Citation.] A court in its discretion could receive expert factual opinion to inform its decision on these issues, particularly on the nature of an unknown or esoteric activity, but in no event may it receive expert evidence on the ultimate legal issues of inherent risk and duty.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

In Kahn, the plaintiff was a 14-year-old member of a school swim team who broke her neck after diving in shallow water. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 998.) Her coach had previously assured her she would not have to dive [*17]  at meets and she never learned how to dive in shallow water. Minutes before a meet, however, the coach told the plaintiff she would have to dive and threatened to kick her off the team if she refused. With the help of some teammates, the plaintiff tried a few practice dives but broke her neck on the third try. She sued based on negligent supervision and training. (Ibid.)

The court determined the case could not be resolved on summary judgment as there was conflicting evidence whether the coach had provided any instruction or, if so, whether that instruction followed the recommended training sequence, and whether plaintiff was threatened into diving. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1012-1013.) The court concluded the trial court was not compelled to disregard the opinions of a water safety instructor about the proper training a swimmer requires before attempting a racing dive in shallow water. (Id. at pp. 999, 1017.) In so ruling, the Kahn court stated, “[c]ourts ordinarily do not consider an expert’s testimony to the extent it constitutes a conclusion of law [citation], but we do not believe that the declaration of the expert in the present case was limited to offering an opinion on a conclusion of law. We do not rely upon expert opinion testimony to [*18]  establish the legal question of duty, but ‘we perceive no reason to preclude a trial court from receiving expert testimony on the customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity for purposes of weighing whether the inherent risks of the activity were increased by the defendant’s conduct.'” (Id. at p. 1017.) Thus, while the Kahn court did not preclude the trial court from considering expert testimony about the “‘customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity,'” it did not mandate a court to consider it either.

Here, plaintiffs argue their experts’ declarations were necessary to inform the trial court of the “more esoteric subject” of whether Mann’s negligent driving of the snowcat increased the inherent risks of recreational snowboarding. The problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that the experts’ declarations did not inform the court “‘on the customary practices'” of the esoteric activity of snowcat driving. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1017.) While stating that Mann and Mammoth violated industry standards and increased the potential for collision, no expert outlined what the industry standards were for operating a snowcat and thus provided no context for the trial court to determine the legal question of duty. The [*19]  expert in Kahn provided this type of context by declaring the proper procedures for training swimmers to dive, making it so the trial court could compare the defendant’s conduct to the industry standard. (Kahn, at pp. 999.) The declarations here merely repeated the facts contained in the discovery materials and concluded the risk of injury and collision was increased because of those facts.

The conclusory statements in the expert declarations make plaintiffs’ case like Towns, where the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding an expert’s opinion. (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.) In Towns, the plaintiff sued the defendant after he collided with her on a ski run. (Id. at p. 465.) In opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted the declaration of her expert, a member of the National Ski Patrol and a ski instructor. (Id. at pp. 466, 471-472.) In his declaration, the expert opined that the defendant’s behavior was reckless and “‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport of skiing.'” (Id. at p. 472.)

The trial court excluded the declaration in its entirety and granted the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed explaining, “[t]he nature and risks of downhill skiing are commonly understood, the [*20]  demarcation of any duty owed is judicially defined, and, most significantly, the facts surrounding the particular incident here are not in dispute. Thus, the trial court was deciding the issue of recklessness as a matter of law.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)

The court also noted the expert’s declaration “added nothing beyond declaring the undisputed facts in his opinion constituted recklessness. In short, he ‘was advocating, not testifying.’ [Citation.] He reached what in this case was an ultimate conclusion of law, a point on which expert testimony is not allowed. [Citation.] ‘Courts must be cautious where an expert offers legal conclusions as to ultimate facts in the guise of an expert opinion.’ [Citation.] This is particularly true in the context of assumption of risk where the facts are not in dispute.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.)

Like the expert in Towns, plaintiffs’ experts only provided ultimate conclusions of law. Although Beckley declared to be an expert in snowcat safety, he shed no light on the subject except to say Mann’s conduct was “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” Similarly, Avrit, who was an expert in evaluating safety practices, did nothing more than declare [*21]  that Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Deyerl, an expert in accident reconstruction, disputed the accounts of percipient witnesses and declared Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. In short, plaintiffs’ experts provided irrelevant opinions more akin to “‘advocating, not testifying.'” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.) Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to plaintiffs’ opposition.

B

Summary Judgment Was Proper

We review a trial court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 388-389, 46 Cal. Rptr. 3d 668, 139 P.3d 56.) “In performing our de novo review, we must view the evidence in a light favorable to [the] plaintiff as the losing party [citation], liberally construing [the plaintiff’s] evidentiary submission while strictly scrutinizing [the] defendant[‘s] own showing, and resolving any evidentiary doubts or ambiguities in [the] plaintiff’s favor.” (Saelzler v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 768-769, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 617, 23 P.3d 1143.)

Summary judgment is proper when “all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that [defendant] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) A defendant moving for summary judgment meets [*22]  its burden of showing there is no merit to a cause of action by showing one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or there is a complete defense to that cause of action. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) Once the defendant has made the required showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action or defense. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849, 853, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493.)

1

Mammoth Met Its Burden Of Showing There Was No Merit To Plaintiffs’ Claim

As described, plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” “While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is [*23]  more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696; Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227-228, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.) “‘”The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.”‘” (Eriksson, at p. 719, italics omitted.)

Generally, in cases involving an express assumption of risk there is no cause to analyze the activity the complaining party is involved in or the relationship of the parties to that activity. (Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn., supra, 46 Cal.App.4th at p. 1012; see also Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1484, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 [“With respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release“]; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 590, fn. 2 [“if the express assumption of risk in the release applies, the implied assumption of risk principles . . . would not come into play”].) However, where, as here, plaintiffs allege defendant’s conduct fell outside the scope of the agreement and a more detailed analysis of the scope of a defendant’s duty [*24]  is necessary.

“[T]he question of ‘the existence and scope’ of the defendant’s duty is one of law to be decided by the court, not by a jury, and therefore it generally is ‘amenable to resolution by summary judgment.'” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003-1004.) A release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 750-751, 776-777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095.) In Santa Barbara, our Supreme Court reasoned that “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776, quoting Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 863, 871, 118 P.2d 465.) The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs alleged in the operative complaint that Mammoth was grossly negligent in the “operation of the subject snow cat,” by operating the tiller on an open run without utilizing spotters and failing to warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run and the danger posed by its tiller. These allegations are insufficient to support a finding of gross negligence.

Ordinary negligence “consists of the failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person [*25]  under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 753-754.) “‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. [Citation.] However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘” [Citations.]’ [Citations.] ‘”‘[G]ross negligence‘ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881, 208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792.)

“[T]he nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant.” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 315.) “‘[I]n the sports setting . . . conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself.’ [Citation.] [Our Supreme Court has] explained that, as a matter of policy, it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events.” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004.) But the question of duty depends not only on the nature of the sport, but also on the [*26]  role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case. (Ibid.) “‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” (Id. at p. 1005.) Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement. (See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856, 120 Cal. Rptr. 3d 90.)

Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 591 [redesign of snowboarding jump]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 366, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265 [construction of the unmarked race start area on the ski run]; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775 [placement of signs in ski run].) It is well established that “‘”‘[e]ach person who participates in the sport of [snow] skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees and other forms of natural [*27]  growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'”‘” (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 12, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855, italics omitted; see also Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863; Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 467.)

Plaintiffs argue the above language is simply dicta and no authority has ever held that colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk in snowboarding or skiing. Because there is no authority specifically addressing the inherent risk of snow-grooming equipment, plaintiffs argue, colliding with a snowcat is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. Further, even if it were, Mammoth increased the inherent risk of snowboarding by operating a snowcat and tiller on an open run. We disagree.

The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, [*28]  did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.

Moreover, common law holds that collisions with snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding. In Connelly, the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 8.) In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, the court found this risk was inherent in the sport and the obvious danger of the tower served as its own warning. (Id. at p. 12.) In concluding that contact with the tower was an inherent risk of the sport, the Connelly court relied on Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 266 Cal. Rptr. 749. (Connelly, at p. 12.) In Danieley, a skier collided with a tree. (Danieley, at p. 113.) The Danieley court, in turn, relied on a Michigan statute that set forth certain inherent risks of skiing, including both trees and “‘collisions with ski lift towers and their components'” along with properly marked or plainly visible “‘snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan [*29]  Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the preexisting common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Danieley, at p. 123.)

Although there may not be a published case specifically addressing the inherent risk of snowcats to skiers and snowboarders, a snowcat, otherwise known as snow-grooming equipment, is one of the risks explicitly adopted as California common law by the Danieley and Connelly courts. (Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc., supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at p. 123; Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 12.) Thus, in California, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport of snowboarding.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs argue operating the tiller of the snowcat on an open snow run increased the inherent risk snowcats pose to snowboarders. We recognize assumption of the risk, either express or implied, applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at pp. 268-269.) In Souza, a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. (Id. at p. 262.) Following Connelly, we affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, finding the snowmaking hydrant was visible and a collision with it was an inherent risk of skiing. (Souza, at pp. 268-272.) The snowmaking equipment in Souza was necessary [*30]  and inherent to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Id. at p. 268.)

Here, plaintiffs claim snowcats operating on open runs are not necessary or inherent to the sport because “[p]recluding a snowcat from operating on an open run would minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport one whit.” As in Souza, we find the following quote apt: “‘”As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, . . . the doctrine of [primary] assumption of risk . . . would not apply to obvious, known conditions so long as a defendant could feasibly have provided safer conditions. Then, obviously, such risks would not be ‘necessary’ or ‘inherent’. This would effectively emasculate the doctrine, . . . changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”‘” (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269.)

Snow-grooming equipment, including the snowcat and tiller at issue here, are necessary to the sport of snowboarding because the snowcat grooms the snow needed for snowboarding into a skiable surface. Without the tiller also grooming the snow, the snowcat leaves behind an unusable and unsafe surface riddled with berms and holes. This surface is so unsafe that Mammoth’s grooming [*31]  guide prohibits snowcat drivers from leaving behind such hazards. Given the purpose of the snowcat and tiller, it cannot be said that they are not inherent and necessary to the sport of snowboarding.

The fact that the snowcat and tiller Willhide-Michiulis collided with was operating during business hours and on an open run does not affect our analysis. Willhide-Michiulis’s husband testified that, although uncommon, he had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth during business hours transporting people. Further, Taylor Lester, a witness to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision and a longtime Mammoth season-pass holder, testified that she had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth on prior occasions as well. Out of the 10 years she has been a season-pass holder, Lester had seen snowcats operating during business hours at Mammoth 20 to 40 times, half of which had been using their tillers.

In fact, Lester testified that it was common for her and her friends, and also her sister and father, to ride close behind snowcats that were tilling so that they could take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produced. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished [*32]  by other skiers. Lester’s sister also testified she liked to “sneak behind” snowcats while they groom runs to ride on the freshly-tilled snow. Even after Willhide-Michiulis’s collision, Lester’s sister still snowboarded behind snowcats to ride the freshly groomed snow.

Given this testimony, we conclude that the use of snowcats and their tillers on ski runs during business hours is inherent to the sport of snowboarding, the use of which does not unreasonably increase the risks associated with the sport. To find Mammoth liable because it operated a snowcat and tiller during business hours would inhibit the vigorous participation in the sport Lester and her sister testified about. Instead of racing to freshly tilled snow to take advantage of its unspoiled status, snowboarders and skiers alike would be prohibited from chasing snowcats and instead have to settle for inferior skiing conditions. Further, snowcats would no longer be used as modes of transportation at ski resorts, a common practice testified to by Willhide-Michiulis’s husband. Or snowcats would operate, but without their tiller, leaving behind unsafe skiing conditions that would doubtlessly interfere with full and vigorous participation [*33]  in the sport. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004 [“it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events”].)

Regardless of the fact that snowcats and tillers are inherent in the sport of snowboarding, plaintiffs also allege the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with was not obvious and Mammoth was grossly negligent because it failed to provide spotters or warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run or the dangerousness of its tiller. As described, gross negligence requires a showing of “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Here, Mammoth did warn plaintiffs of the presence of snowcats and other snow-grooming equipment at the ski resort. At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also included these warnings in its trail maps. These warnings were also apparent in plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement, which warned that “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks [*34]  posed by . . . collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis acknowledged that she saw the warning contained in her season-pass agreement.

Not only were plaintiffs warned about the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment throughout the ski resort, but Willhide-Michiulis was warned of the presence of the specific snowcat she collided with. Before going down the mambo run to fix the pothole on Old Boneyard Road, Mann turned on the safety beacon, warning lights, and audible alarm to the snowcat. This provided warning to all those around the snowcat, whether they could see it or not, to the snowcat’s presence. Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide-Michiulis. As the trial court found, [*35]  “‘the very existence of a large metal plainly-visible [snowcat] serves as its own warning.'” (Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 271.) Upon seeing such a warning, it was incumbent upon Willhide-Michiulis to avoid it — nothing was hidden from Willhide-Michiulis’s vision by accident or design.

Given these facts, we cannot conclude, as plaintiffs would have us do, that Mann’s failure to timely signal his turn or Mammoth’s failure to provide spotters or warn of the specific dangers of a tiller constituted gross negligence. Given all the other warnings provided by Mammoth and Mann, plaintiffs cannot show “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.) Accordingly, Mammoth was successful in meeting its burden to show the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint lacked merit.

2

No Triable Issue Of Fact Exists To Preclude Summary Judgment

Because Mammoth met its initial burden, plaintiffs now have the burden to show that a triable issue of fact exists. Plaintiffs argue that one does exist because the way Mann drove the snowcat at the time of the collision was grossly negligent. In addition to the allegations in the complaint — that operating a snowcat and tiller [*36]  on an open run was grossly negligent — plaintiffs alleged in their opposition that Mann was grossly negligent also for failing to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of a snow run onto an unmarked service road without warning skiers of his presence or the possibility that a snowcat would turn at the locations of Old Boneyard Road. They point to their experts’ declarations and Mann’s violations of Mammoth’s safety standards as support for this contention.

“‘Generally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence [citation] but not always.'” (Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 632, 640, 189 Cal. Rptr. 3d 449, quoting Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358, 257 Cal. Rptr. 356; see also City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 767 [“we emphasize the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, and of granting summary judgment on the basis of that distinction in appropriate circumstances”].) Where the evidence on summary judgment fails to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact, the existence of gross negligence can be resolved as a matter of law. (See Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 260, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473 [stating a mere difference of opinion regarding how a student should be instructed does not amount to gross negligence]; Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 52-53, 135 Cal. Rptr. 3d 761 [no triable issue of material fact precluding summary [*37]  judgment, even though the evidence raised conflicting inferences regarding whether measures undertaken by the defendants were effective to mitigate effects on commercial tenant of remodeling project]; Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 639, 184 Cal. Rptr. 3d 155 [no triable issue of material fact where defendant took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment, on which plaintiff was injured, was well maintained].)”

As described, Mann’s driving of the snowcat with a tiller on an open run was not grossly negligent and was, in fact, an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and conduct contemplated by the parties in the release of liability agreement. The question now is whether the additional conduct alleged in plaintiffs’ opposition — Mann’s failure to use a turn signal, making of a sharp left turn from the middle of the snow run, failure to warn skiers on mambo of his presence, and failure to warn skiers of the existence of Old Boneyard Road — elevated Mann’s conduct to gross negligence. We conclude it does not.

We have already described why plaintiffs’ claims that Mann failed to provide adequate warning of his existence on the snow run and of his turn did not rise to the level of gross negligence. His additional alleged conduct [*38]  of driving down the middle of the snow run and making a sharp left turn onto an unmarked service road also do not justify a finding of gross negligence in light of the precautions taken by both Mammoth and Mann. Mammoth warned plaintiffs of the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment in its season-pass contracts, trail maps, and throughout the ski resort. Mann also turned on the snowcat’s warning lights, beacon, and audible alarm before driving down mambo. Mann testified he constantly looked for skiers and snowboarders while driving the snowcat down mambo and that he checked through the snowcat’s mirrors and windows to make sure he was clear before making the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. He also testified he did not drive the snowcat faster than ten miles an hour while on mambo and was traveling even slower during the turn. This fact was confirmed by Lester. Given these affirmative safety precautions, Mann’s failure to use a turn signal when turning from the middle of the run onto an unmarked service road did not equate to “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (See Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)

Plaintiffs dispute this conclusion by [*39]  citing to their expert declarations and Mammoth’s grooming guide as support that Mann’s conduct was an extreme departure from industry standards and Mammoth’s own safety policies. Evidence of conduct that evinces an extreme departure from safety directions or an industry standard could demonstrate gross negligence. (See Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 546, 561, 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228.) Conversely, conduct demonstrating the failure to guard against, or warn of, a dangerous condition typically does not rise to the level of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 264, 272, 248 Cal. Rptr. 330.)

To illustrate this point, plaintiffs cite two cases. First, they rely on Jimenez. In Jimenez, one of the plaintiffs was injured when she fell backwards off of a moving treadmill and hit her head on an exercise machine that was approximately four feet behind the treadmill. (Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., supra, 237 Cal.App.4th at p. 549.) The plaintiffs presented evidence “indicating a possible industry standard on treadmill safety zones,” including the manufacturer’s statement in its manual that a six-foot space behind the treadmill was necessary for user safety and an expert’s statement that placing other equipment so close to the back of the treadmill greatly increased the risk of injury. (Id. at p. 556.) The court concluded, based on this evidence, a jury could reasonably find [*40]  the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care, and thus a triable issue of fact existed to preclude summary judgment. (Id. at p. 557.)

In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, also relied upon by plaintiffs, the plaintiff was riding a motorcycle when he fell near a platform in an area out of view of other riders at a motocross facility, and was struck by another cyclist. (Id. at pp. 1072, 1077.) The caution flagger, who was supposed to have staffed the platform to alert riders to the presence of fallen cyclists, was not on duty when plaintiff fell. The court found the release plaintiff signed unenforceable against a claim of gross negligence. (Id. at pp. 1077, 1081.) It noted the dangerous nature of the sport, and also found a specific duty on the part of the course operator to provide some form of warning system such as the presence of caution flaggers. (Id. at p. 1084.) Also, the course owner had a safety manual requiring flaggers to stay at their stations whenever riders were on the course, and expert testimony was presented that caution flaggers were required at all such times. (Id. at p. 1086.) Because the evidence could support a finding that the absence of a caution flagger was an extreme and egregious departure from the standard of [*41]  care given the applicable safety manual and in light of knowledge of the particular dangers posed, the claim of gross negligence should have survived summary judgment. (Id. at p. 1089.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on these cases is misplaced for two reasons. First, unlike Jimenez and Rosencrans, plaintiffs presented no expert evidence regarding the safety standards applicable to snowcat drivers. (See Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1086-1087 [triable issue of fact as to gross negligence where a safety expert’s declaration described common safety precautions for motocross and stated that the defendant’s failure to take those safety precautions constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct and showed a blatant disregard for the safety of the participants].) And second, plaintiffs did not produce evidence showing that Mammoth failed to take any safety precautions required by company safety policies.

As described, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the experts’ declarations from evidence. The declarations did nothing more than to provide conclusions that Mann’s and Mammoth’s conduct violated industry standards and constituted gross negligence. The experts did not articulate what the industry standards [*42]  for driving a snowcat or for protecting the skiing public from a snowcat actually were, let alone how Mann and Mammoth violated them. Instead, the experts merely provided their opinions that Mammoth and Mann failed to guard from or warn of the dangerous condition the snowcat and tiller posed. This is insufficient for a showing of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at p. 272.)

Plaintiffs’ reliance on Mammoth’s grooming guide is likewise misplaced. Plaintiffs characterize the grooming guide as containing “safety standard[s],” which Mann violated by operating the snowcat’s tiller while the public was present. The grooming guide, however, does not purport to be a safety guide or to set safety standards for Mammoth’s snowcat operators. Instead, it is a “manual” where snowcat operators “will find a basis for all training that is a part of the Slope Maintenance Department.” While “all training” may also include safety training, nothing submitted by plaintiffs indicate that the excerpts they rely on are industry or company-wide safety standards as opposed to Mammoth’s guide to “acceptable high quality” grooming.

For example, the grooming guide instructs drivers to “[n]ever operate the tiller when the skiing public is present.” But [*43]  the guide also justifies a snowcat’s presence in areas open to the public during emergencies, periods of extremely heavy snow, or for transportation of personnel or materials. Here, there was extremely heavy snow and a hazardous condition requiring Mann to drive a snowcat on public snow runs. The guide further instructs drivers that track marks left behind by a snowcat without a tiller are “not acceptable” and must be removed. It was Mann’s understanding from these guidelines that once a snowcat’s presence was justified in an area open to the public, the tiller also had to be running to leave behind safe skiing conditions.

Further, the guide instructs snowcat drivers to travel on a groomed snow run instead of on ungroomed snow on either side of the run. This is because ungroomed snow is made of unstable soft snow that cannot support the weight of a snowcat. According to the grooming guide, driving on a finished groomed run “is better than risking your cat or your life” on the ungroomed snow on the sides of the run. Thus, Mann did not violate Mammoth’s safety policy by driving down the center of a snow run when traveling to Old Boneyard Road and operating the snowcat’s tiller on a public [*44]  run. Because it is not reasonable a jury would find Mann violated safety policies contained in the grooming guide, let alone that that violation constituted more than mere negligence, plaintiffs have not shown that Mann’s or Mammoth’s conduct rose to the level of gross negligence.

II

Venue

Plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when denying their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County where they initially filed their suit. Specifically, plaintiffs argue their motion should have been granted because it was more convenient for the parties and their witnesses to have trial in Los Angeles County and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. Thus, plaintiffs argue, “upon reversal of summary judgment, the trial court should be directed to issue an order transferring this action back to Los Angeles.”

As plaintiffs acknowledge, a reversal of the court’s summary judgment order is a vital initial step to reversal of the trial court’s order regarding venue. This is because without first showing that their case is active and trial is pending, plaintiffs cannot show a miscarriage of justice resulting from the denial of their venue motion.

We are enjoined [*45]  by our Constitution not to reverse any judgment “for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 13; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 475.) Prejudice is not presumed, and “our duty to examine the entire cause arises when and only when the appellant has fulfilled his duty to tender a proper prejudice argument.” (Paterno v. State of California (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 68, 106, 87 Cal. Rptr. 2d 754.)

Plaintiffs cannot show prejudice resulting from the denial of their venue motion because we upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling and their case has been dismissed. Thus, even if the venue motion should have been granted and venue transferred to Los Angeles for trial, there is no trial to be had. Accordingly, we need not address plaintiffs’ claim of error regarding their motion to transfer venue.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Costs are awarded to defendants. (Cal. Rule of Court, rule 8.278, subd. (a)(1).)

/s/ Robie, Acting P. J.

We concur:

/s/ Murray, J.

/s/ Duarte, J.


Plaintiff argues under Minnesota law, the language on the back of the season pass created an ambiguity which should void the season pass release for a ski area.

Since the language was not an “offer” no new contract was being offered by the ski area to skiers, and the language did not create any conflict with the release language.

Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

State: Minnesota, Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Plaintiff: Lee and Cathy Bergin

Defendant: Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area

Plaintiff Claims: negligence,

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding:

Year: 2014

This is a lawsuit by a husband and wife against a ski area for the injuries husband received skiing. A friend purchased season passes online for himself and the defendants. As part of that online purchase, the friend agreed to a release online.

Interesting that just five years ago the issue would have been whether the release signed electronically was valid, now the courts do not even look at that issue.

The friend did not discuss the season pass with the defendants before agreeing to it for them. In a deposition, the husband agreed that he had the friend purchase the passes and had purchased season passes online for the past eleven years and agreed to the release all those years. The defendants wrote a check to the friend for the cost of the season passes.

The trial court held that the friend bound the defendants to the season pass release. The defendants did not argue this issue on appeal.

Seven months later, the defendants picked up their season passes and went skiing. On the back of the season pass was disclaimer language.

The defendants skied “the Wall” a double black diamond trail. The wall had a bump run on the right, and the husband skied the left side. Near the bottom of the run, he hit a bump (mogul?) and went airborne landing on his back. The defendant husband is paralyzed.

This was the only incident the defendant ski area had recorded concerning that run that year. The plaintiff’s sued, and the trial court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

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

During or prior to the granting of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff’s moved to amend their complaint to add a claim for reckless, willful or wanton conduct of the defendant. The trial court denied this, and the appellate court looked at this issue on appeal.

In order to support a claim for more than ordinary negligence, the rules of civil procedure required a short and plaint statement describing facts supporting their claim.

The court reviewed the requirements to prove the amended allegations. “Willful and wanton conduct is the failure to exercise ordinary care after discovering a person or property in a position of peril.” The plaintiff’s argued their two expert’s affidavits supported these new claims.

Because the defendant had no other notice of the issues, the defendant had no notice of the problem in advance of the plaintiff’s injuries. A requirement under Minnesota law to prove reckless, willful or wanton conduct.

Because the evidence is insufficient to establish that Wild Mountain engaged in conduct constituting greater-than-ordinary negligence, the district court correctly determined that a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence would not survive a motion for summary judgment.

The next issue the court looked at was the validity of the release.

A clause exonerating a party from liability,” known as an exculpatory clause, is enforceable if it: (1) is “unambiguous”; (2) is “limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only”; and (3) does not violate public policy.

An ambiguous clause in Minnesota is one that is “susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” The trial court held the release was valid because the release was unambiguous and barred only ordinary negligence.

The plaintiff argued the release was ambiguous because they argued the language on the back of the season pass created questions concerning the release. The plaintiff argued the season pass warning was part of the release and therefore, created issues of how the language of the release could be interpreted.

An ambiguity exists only in the language of the document.

Because a contract ambiguity exists only if it is “found in the language of the document itself,” we consider whether the season-pass card is a part of the season-pass agreement between Lee and Wild Mountain.

The court found the season pass was not a contract or part of the release. The language on the season pass emphasized the inherent risk of skiing. The language on the season pass was not a new offer by the defendant, to enter  a new or modified contract with the plaintiffs.

As the district court correctly concluded, the season-pass card, itself is not a contract. Although the season-pass card contains language emphasizing the inherent risk of skiing, it does not contain an offer by Wild Mountain to be legally bound to any terms.

Even if the language on the season pass was part of the release contract, it still did not create an ambiguity.

Accordingly, the season-pass agreement’s specific language excluding greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause supersedes the season-pass card’s general language on the inherent risks of skiing. The district court correctly determined that the exculpatory clause is limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only and granted summary judgment in favor of Wild Mountain.

Because the release was valid, and the plaintiff’s failed to establish the factual issues supporting a greater than the ordinary negligence claim the appellate court upheld the release and the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

So Now What?

When the plaintiff is paralyzed there is going to be a lawsuit. Either a subrogation claim by a health insurance company or a simple negligence claim will be filed because the possible recovery is so large. The amount of money involved is just too much not to try a lawsuit.

Here innovative thinking looked at the release and the language on the back of the plastic season pass card and found a new way to argue the release should be void.

At the same time, the obvious issue, there was no contract because the plaintiff did not purchase the pass from the defendant was missed.

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Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

Bergin, et al., v. Wild Mountain, Inc. 2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

Lee Bergin, et al., Appellants, vs. Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area, Respondent.

A13-1050

COURT OF APPEALS OF MINNESOTA

2014 Minn. App. Unpub. LEXIS 212

March 17, 2014, Filed

NOTICE: THIS OPINION WILL BE UNPUBLISHED AND MAY NOT BE CITED EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY MINNESOTA STATUTES.

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]

Chisago County District Court File No. 13-CV-11-695.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

CASE SUMMARY:

COUNSEL: For Appellants: James P. Carey, Marcia K. Miller, Sieben, Grose, Von Holtum & Carey, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For Respondent: Brian N. Johnson, John J. Wackman, Peter Gray, Nilan Johnson Lewis, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota.

JUDGES: Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Hooten, Judge.

OPINION BY: HOOTEN

OPINION

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

HOOTEN, Judge

In this personal-injury action, appellants-skiers sued respondent-ski resort for damages resulting from a skiing accident. Appellants challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of respondent, arguing that the district court erred by (1) denying their motion to amend the complaint to add allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct; (2) determining that an exculpatory clause bars their claim of ordinary negligence; and (3) applying the doctrine of primary assumption of risk to bar their claim of ordinary negligence. Because respondent’s conduct does not give rise to a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence, and because the exculpatory clause is enforceable to bar a claim of ordinary negligence, we affirm.

FACTS

Appellants Lee and Cathy Bergin sued respondent [*2] Wild Mountain, Inc. d/b/a Wild Mountain Ski Area for injuries that Lee sustained while skiing at Wild Mountain. The Bergins sought damages for Lee’s physical injuries, loss of wages and earning ability, loss of property, and medical expenses, as well as for Cathy’s loss of services, companionship, and consortium. Following discovery, Wild Mountain moved for summary judgment. The pleadings and discovery reveal the following.

In March 2010, Robert Knight purchased over the internet 2010-2011 season passes to Wild Mountain for himself, the Bergins, and another individual. To complete the purchase, Knight agreed to a season-pass agreement which included a release of liability:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms is a hazardous sport that has many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of this sport. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury, death or property damage, and release Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area . . . and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from [*3] any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises and facilities, the operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the area, or my participation in skiing or other activities at the area, accepting myself the full responsibility for any and all such damage of injury of any kind which may result.

In accordance with Minnesota law, nothing in this Release of Liability should be construed as releasing, discharging or waiving claims I may have for reckless, willful, wanton, or intentional acts on the part of Wild Mountain Ski & Snowboard Area, or its owners, officers, shareholders, agents or employees.

Knight [*4] did not ask Lee about the release of liability before agreeing to it. Lee wrote a check to Knight for the Bergins’ season passes. In his deposition, Lee admitted that he authorized Knight to purchase the season passes, that he had purchased season passes to Wild Mountain since 2001 and had agreed to a release of liability each year, that he understood the release of liability, and that he would have authorized Knight to purchase the season passes had he known about the release of liability.1

1 The Bergins do not appeal the district court’s determination that Lee is bound by the season-pass agreement even though he did not execute it himself.

On the morning of November 28, 2010, the Bergins arrived at Wild Mountain to pick up their season passes and ski. The season pass is a wallet-sized card with Lee’s name and picture on the front and the following language on the back:

I agree and understand that skiing and snowboarding involve the risk of personal injury and death. I agree to assume those risks. These risks include trail conditions that vary due to changing weather and skier use, ice, variations in terrain and snow, moguls, rocks, forest growth, debris, lift towers, fences, mazes, snow [*5] grooming, and snowmaking equipment, other skiers, and other man-made objects. I agree to always ski and snowboard in control and to avoid these objects and other skiers. I agree to learn and obey the skier personal responsibility code.

The Bergins and their friends skied “The Wall,” a double-black-diamond trail. At the top of The Wall, Lee observed that there were mounds of snow on the skiers’ left side of the run. Thinking that the left side was not skiable terrain, Lee skied down the right side. Then, at the bottom of the hill in the flat transition or run-out area, Lee encountered a “mound of snow” that he could not avoid. He hit the snow mound, flew up six to ten feet in the air, and landed on his back and the tails of his skis. Lee estimated that the snow mound was “maybe a little bigger” and “maybe a little taller” than a sofa, and that “there was no sharp edges defining” it. After the fall, Lee underwent surgery on his back and is partially paralyzed.

Daniel Raedeke, the president of Wild Mountain, testified by affidavit that Wild Mountain started making snow on The Wall on November 25, three days before Lee’s accident. On the morning of November 26, snowmaking ceased and The [*6] Wall was opened for skiing. According to Raedeke, “hundreds of skiers took thousands of runs down The Wall prior to” Lee’s accident. Raedeke added:

At the completion of snowmaking activities, there were some terrain variations at various points throughout the entire Wall run from top to bottom and side to side. Terrain variations from snowmaking are common at Minnesota (and Midwest) ski areas, particularly early in the season as ski areas rely on machine-made snow to get the areas open. It is very common for terrain variation to be encountered by skiers in Minnesota and elsewhere and they are generally well-liked, particularly by expert level skiers like [Lee].

Raedeke testified that “Wild Mountain received no reports of anything being hazardous or even out-of-the ordinary on The Wall.”

The Bergins submitted the affidavits of two ski-safety experts, Seth Bayer and Richard Penniman. Bayer testified that Wild Mountain “engaged in snow-making activity, intentionally created the hazard [Lee] encountered by creating large mounds of man-made snow . . . then intentionally left the snow-making mound in the run-out or transition area.” According to Bayer, Wild Mountain “knew or should have known [*7] that the snow-making mound in the transition area created a hazard and should have groomed out the mound or further identified the mound as a hazard.” He added that Wild Mountain failed to follow professional safety standards in making and grooming the snow.

Similarly, Penniman testified that complying with professional safety standards “would have entailed grooming out the snow making mounds; putting fencing around the snow making mounds; and warning skiers of the mounds with a rope barricade and caution signs.” He testified that “Wild Mountain’s failure to have a consistent and structured snow making and grooming policy, which specifically addressed the [professional safety standard], caused or contributed to the unsafe decision to leave a large mound of man-made snow in the transition area between the bottom of The Wall ski trail and the chair lift.” According to Penniman, “snow making mounds are not an inherent risk to the sport of skiing.”

Following discovery and Wild Mountain’s motion for summary judgment, the Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. In April 2013, the district court denied the Bergins’ motion and granted summary [*8] judgment in favor of Wild Mountain. This appeal follows.

DECISION

I.

[HN1] After a responsive pleading is served, “a party may amend a pleading only by leave of court or by written consent of the adverse party; and leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 15.01. [HN2] “We review a district court’s denial of a motion to amend a complaint for an abuse of discretion.” Johnson v. Paynesville Farmers Union Co-op. Oil Co., 817 N.W.2d 693, 714 (Minn. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 1249, 185 L. Ed. 2d 180 (2013). [HN3] “A district court should allow amendment unless the adverse party would be prejudiced, but the court does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment.” Id. (citations omitted).

[HN4] Summary judgment is proper “if 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 that either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. [HN5] A genuine issue of material fact does not exist “when the nonmoving party presents evidence which merely creates a metaphysical doubt [*9] as to a factual issue and which is not sufficiently probative with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case to permit reasonable persons to draw different conclusions.” DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 71 (Minn. 1997). [HN6] On appeal, “[w]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. We review de novo whether a genuine issue of material fact exists. We also review de novo whether the district court erred in its application of the law.” STAR Ctrs., Inc. v. Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., 644 N.W.2d 72, 76-77 (Minn. 2002) (citations omitted).

The Bergins moved to amend their complaint to add the allegation that Lee’s accident “was a result of the reckless, willful, or wanton conduct” of Wild Mountain. They assert that Wild Mountain “knew or should have known that a large, un-marked, un-groomed, mound of snow in the transition area between ‘The Wall’ and a chair lift . . . created a significant risk of physical harm to skiers.” The district court concluded that, although Wild Mountain would not be prejudiced if the motion to amend was granted,2 the motion must still be denied because the proposed claim “would not survive [*10] summary judgment, as [Wild Mountain’s] conduct does not, as a matter of law, rise to the level of reckless, willful or wanton.”

2 Wild Mountain does not challenge this finding on appeal.

The Bergins argue that the district court erred as a matter of law by “[r]equiring [them] to move to amend the [c]omplaint.” They assert that “Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 9.02 does not require plaintiffs to plead allegations of reckless, willful, or wanton conduct with particularity.” See Minn. R. Civ. P. 9.02 (stating that “[m]alice, intent, knowledge, and other condition of mind of a person may be averred generally”). Accordingly, they contend that the district court should have examined whether Wild Mountain committed greater-than-ordinary negligence based on the complaint and discovery.

The Bergins’ reliance on rule 9.02 is misplaced. [HN7] Although the Bergins were not required to plead a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence with particularity under rule 9.02, they still had to plead it with “a short and plain statement . . . showing that [they are] entitled to relief” under Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01, which they failed to do by pleading only a claim of “negligence and carelessness.” See L.K. v. Gregg, 425 N.W.2d 813, 819 (Minn. 1988) [*11] (stating that pleadings are liberally construed to “give[] adequate notice of the claim” against the defending party); cf. State v. Hayes, 244 Minn. 296, 299-300, 70 N.W.2d 110, 113 (1955) (concluding that “both at common law and by virtue of long-established usage,” the term “carelessness” in a criminal statute is “synonymous with ordinary negligence”).3

3 We also note that the district court did not require the Bergins to move to amend their complaint. Following a hearing on the summary judgment motion, the district court sent a letter to the parties, stating that “[a]t the Summary Judgment Motion Hearing, [the Bergins] moved the Court to amend the Complaint” and that “[t]he Court will leave the record open” for them to file the motion. The district court simply responded to the Bergins’ desire to amend the complaint without requiring them to do so.

Turning to the Bergins’ substantive argument, they assert that “there are questions of fact regarding whether Wild Mountain engaged in reckless or willful or wanton conduct that . . . preclude summary judgment.” [HN8] “[R]eckless conduct includes willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others . . . .” Kempa v. E.W. Coons Co., 370 N.W.2d 414, 421 (Minn. 1985).

The [*12] actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500 (1965) (emphasis added); see also 4 Minnesota Practice, CIVJIG 25.37 (2006). “Willful and wanton conduct is the failure to exercise ordinary care after discovering a person or property in a position of peril.” Beehner v. Cragun Corp., 636 N.W.2d 821, 829 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. Feb. 28, 2002).

The Bergins argue that their expert affidavits support their claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. We are not persuaded for three reasons.

First, [HN9] “[a]ffidavits in opposition to a motion for summary judgment do not create issues of fact if they merely recite conclusions without any specific factual support.” Grandnorthern, Inc. v. W. Mall P’ship, 359 N.W.2d 41, 44 (Minn. App. 1984). Bayer’s testimony that Wild [*13] Mountain “knew” that the snow mound was hazardous is speculation because there is no evidence that Bayer knew Wild Mountain employees’ state of mind before Lee’s fall and injury.

Second, the Bergins misunderstand the “had reason to know” standard for establishing a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. The Bergins contend that they need not prove knowledge to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence and that it is enough that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous. But [HN10] knowledge separates the “had reason to know” standard from the “should have known” standard:

(1) The words “reason to know” . . . denote the fact that the actor has information from which a person of reasonable intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would infer that the fact in question exists, or that such person would govern his conduct upon the assumption that such fact exists.

(2) The words “should know” . . . denote the fact that a person of reasonable prudence and intelligence or of the superior intelligence of the actor would ascertain the fact in question in the performance of his duty to another, or would govern his conduct upon the assumption that [*14] such fact exists.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 12 (1965) (emphases added). Accordingly, Bayer’s testimony that Wild Mountain “should have known” that the snow mound was hazardous is insufficient to establish the state of mind necessary to establish a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence.

Finally, the expert affidavits are insufficient to establish that Wild Mountain had reason to know that the snow mound was hazardous. According to Bayer and Penniman, the snow mound was hazardous because skiers do not expect a snow mound in the transition run-out area and because the lighting condition obscured the snow mound. Assuming that these alleged facts are true, nothing in the record suggests that Wild Mountain had knowledge of these facts from which to infer that the snow mound was hazardous. Rather, Raedeke’s testimony shows that Wild Mountain received no complaints from hundreds of skiers who skied The Wall before Lee’s accident. The expert affidavits are, at most, evidence that a reasonable person managing the ski operation would not have created, or would have marked, the snow mound in the run-out area. This evidence shows only ordinary negligence.

Because the evidence is insufficient [*15] to establish that Wild Mountain engaged in conduct constituting greater-than-ordinary negligence, the district court correctly determined that a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence would not survive a motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, the district court acted within its discretion by denying the Bergins’ motion to amend their complaint to add a claim of greater-than-ordinary negligence. See Johnson, 817 N.W.2d at 714 (stating that [HN11] a district court “does not abuse its discretion when it disallows an amendment where the proposed amended claim could not survive summary judgment”).

The Bergins also argue that the district court “did not address the evidence that created questions of material fact regarding Wild Mountain’s reckless, willful, or wanton conduct.” But the district court examined Wild Mountain’s conduct and concluded that it “does not meet the standards for gross negligence, willful and wanton conduct, or reckless conduct (as defined by both parties).” The district court’s discussion of Lee’s knowledge of the inherent risks of skiing–while perhaps extraneous–does not indicate that the district court failed to analyze Wild Mountain’s conduct.

II.

The Bergins argue [*16] that the district court erred by determining that the exculpatory clause bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence. [HN12] The interpretation of a written contract is a question of law reviewed de novo. Borgersen v. Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 729 N.W.2d 619, 625 (Minn. App. 2007). [HN13] Under certain circumstances, “parties to a contract may . . . protect themselves against liability resulting from their own negligence.” See Schlobohm v. Spa Petite, Inc., 326 N.W.2d 920, 922-23 (Minn. 1982) (considering exculpatory clauses in construction contracts and commercial leases). “A clause exonerating a party from liability,” known as an exculpatory clause, is enforceable if it: (1) is “unambiguous”; (2) is “limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only”; and (3) does not violate public policy. See id. at 923. “An exculpatory clause is ambiguous when it is susceptible to more than one reasonable construction.” Beehner, 636 N.W.2d at 827.

The district court concluded that Wild Mountain’s exculpatory clause is enforceable because it is unambiguous and bars only ordinary-negligence claims. The Bergins contend that the exculpatory clause is ambiguous because “there are questions of fact [*17] regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.” They assert that the exculpatory clause and the language on the season-pass card “construed together are overly broad and ambiguous” because the season-pass card contains a non-exhaustive list of risks while the season-pass agreement expressly excludes greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause. We are not persuaded.

Because [HN14] a contract ambiguity exists only if it is “found in the language of the document itself,” we consider whether the season-pass card is a part of the season-pass agreement between Lee and Wild Mountain. See Instrumentation Servs., Inc. v. Gen. Res. Corp., 283 N.W.2d 902, 908 (Minn. 1979). [HN15] “It is well established that where contracts relating to the same transaction are put into several instruments they will be read together and each will be construed with reference to the other.” Anchor Cas. Co. v. Bird Island Produce, Inc., 249 Minn. 137, 146, 82 N.W.2d 48, 54 (1957). Here, the contractual relationship between Lee and Wild Mountain was formed when the online season-pass agreement was executed more than eight months before Lee picked up the season-pass card. [*18] As the district court correctly concluded, the season-pass card itself is not a contract. Although the season-pass card contains language emphasizing the inherent risk of skiing, it does not contain an offer by Wild Mountain to be legally bound to any terms. See Glass Serv. Co., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 530 N.W.2d 867, 870 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. June 29, 1995). And as a corollary, Lee could not have accepted an offer that did not exist. The season-pass card is an extrinsic document that does not create an ambiguity in the season-pass agreement.

The Bergins rely on Hackel v. Whitecap Recreations, 120 Wis. 2d 681, 357 N.W.2d 565 (Wis. Ct. App. 1984) (Westlaw). There, a skier was injured when he was “caught in a depression apparently caused by the natural drainage of water.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. The ski resort “denied liability on the basis of language printed on the lift ticket purchased by” the skier. Id. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was improper because “[w]hether the printed language on the ski ticket was part of the contractual agreement between the parties is a question of fact.” Id. Based on Hackel, the Bergins argue that “there are [*19] questions of fact regarding whether the [season-pass card] was part of the exculpatory contract.”

The Bergins’ reliance on Hackel is misplaced. As an unpublished opinion issued before 2009, Hackel has neither precedential nor persuasive value in Wisconsin. See Wis. R. App. P. 809.23(3) (Supp. 2013). Even if it were, Wisconsin’s adoption of a common-law rule is “not binding on us as authority.” See Mahowald v. Minn. Gas Co., 344 N.W.2d 856, 861 (Minn. 1984) (examining other jurisdictions’ standards of tort liability). Substantively, the questions of fact that precluded summary judgment in Hackel are absent here. In Hackel, the only language alleged to be exculpatory was printed on the back of a lift ticket, which the skier did not sign. 120 Wis. 2d 681, at *1. This language did not expressly release the ski resort from liability, but it listed the risks that the skier agreed to assume. Id. The Wisconsin court concluded that a fact issue exists as to whether the language could be construed to mean “that skiers assume inherent risks of the sport without relieving [the ski company] of its own negligence” or that “[t]he language might also be construed as an exculpatory clause.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *2. Another [*20] question of fact that precluded summary judgment was “whether the [unsigned] ticket was intended as part of the contract.” 120 Wis. 2d 681, Id. at *1 n.1. Here, unlike in Hackel, neither the existence of an exculpatory clause nor the intention that it be a part of the contract is in question. It is undisputed that Lee agreed to the exculpatory clause in the season-pass agreement before receiving the season-pass card.

Even if the season-pass card and season-pass agreement are construed together, they do not create an ambiguity. [HN16] “Terms in a contract should be read together and harmonized where possible,” and “the specific in a writing governs over the general.” Burgi v. Eckes, 354 N.W.2d 514, 518-19 (Minn. App. 1984). Accordingly, the season-pass agreement’s specific language excluding greater-than-ordinary negligence from the scope of the exculpatory clause supersedes the season-pass card’s general language on the inherent risks of skiing. The district court correctly determined that the exculpatory clause is limited to a release of liability arising out of negligence only and granted summary judgment in favor of Wild Mountain.

Because we conclude that an unambiguous and enforceable exculpatory clause [*21] bars the Bergins’ claim of ordinary negligence, we decline to reach the issue of whether the doctrine of primary assumption of risk also bars the claim of ordinary negligence.

Affirmed.


Yauger v. Skiing Enterprises, Inc., 196 Wis. 2d 485; 538 N.W.2d 834; 1995 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1022

Yauger v. Skiing Enterprises, Inc., 196 Wis. 2d 485; 538 N.W.2d 834; 1995 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1022

Michael Yauger and Brenda Yauger, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Skiing Enterprises, Inc., d/b/a Hidden Valley Ski Area, a Wisconsin corporation, and Investors Insurance Company of America, a foreign corporation, Defendants-Respondents.

No. 94-2683

COURT OF APPEALS OF WISCONSIN

196 Wis. 2d 485; 538 N.W.2d 834; 1995 Wisc. App. LEXIS 1022

July 12, 1995, Oral Argument

August 23, 1995, Opinion Released

August 23, 1995, Opinion Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [***1] APPEAL from a judgment of the circuit court for Manitowoc County: ALLAN J. DEEHR, Judge.

DISPOSITION: Affirmed.

COUNSEL: On behalf of the plaintiffs-appellants, the cause was submitted on the briefs of Gary L. Bendix and John M. Bruce of Savage, Gregorski, Webster, Stangel & Bendix, S.C. of Manitowoc. There was oral argument by John M. Bruce.

On behalf of the defendants-respondents, there was a brief and oral argument by Thomas B. Hartley of Guttormsen, Hartley & Guttormsen of Kenosha.

JUDGES: Before Anderson, P.J., Brown and Snyder, JJ.

OPINION BY: BROWN

OPINION

[**836] [*490] BROWN, J. We are asked to gauge whether the exculpatory contract in this case is void as against public policy. Here, Brenda and Michael Yauger brought a wrongful death action against Hidden Valley Ski Area after their eleven-year-old daughter, Tara, was killed when she struck the concrete base of a ski lift tower. The trial court dismissed the claim finding that the [*491] Yaugers’ contract with Hidden Valley for a season pass contained a valid exculpatory clause. The Yaugers now reassert their challenge that [***2] it is void.

The following facts were taken from the appellate record consisting of the pleadings, affidavits and depositions. On October 8, 1992, Michael Yauger submitted an application for a family season pass at Hidden Valley. This form is reproduced at the end of the opinion. The pass cost roughly $ 720. Although only Michael signed the application, his wife and two daughters (then ages ten and eight) were named on the form. Depositions reveal that Michael submitted the application in person at the Hidden Valley Ski Shop.

The Yauger family was familiar with Hidden Valley. Michael had skied there approximately sixty times in the three seasons prior to the accident, and Tara had skied there about fifty times prior to her accident. The record also shows that the Yauger family had a season pass at the resort the prior year.

On March 7, 1993, Tara suffered her fatal accident. The exact facts surrounding her death are unsettled, but the record currently suggests that she struck the side of a concrete base of a ski lift tower. The Yaugers sued Hidden Valley that October, claiming that this support was not adequately padded.

After limited discovery, Hidden Valley and its insurer [***3] sought summary judgment on grounds that the exculpatory release within the Yaugers’ contract for a season pass barred them from bringing this claim since it arose out of the “certain inherent risks in skiing.” The Yaugers responded that the clause was invalid as against public policy because it was not knowingly entered into by each of the Yaugers, was ambiguous and overbroad and also attempted to encompass protections provided under Wisconsin’s safe-place law.

[*492] The trial court granted Hidden Valley’s motion. It focused its analysis on the phrase “certain inherent risks in skiing” and reasoned that it covered the type of injury that killed Tara, namely, the risk that a skier will collide with a stationary object. It also rejected the Yaugers’ argument that Brenda Yauger was not bound by the exculpatory clause, finding that her express endorsement was not necessary since she received the benefit of the season pass.

We are reviewing a grant of summary judgment; thus, § 802.08(2), STATS., governs [**837] the analysis. See Decade’s Monthly Income and Appreciation Fund v. Whyte & Hirschboeck, S.C., 164 Wis. 2d 227, 230, 474 N.W.2d 766, 767 (Ct. App. 1991), aff’d, 173 Wis.2d 665, [***4] 495 N.W.2d 335 (1993). [HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no material issues of fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. Moreover, this appeal concerns the interpretation of a contract which appellate courts address de novo. Id. at 230-31, 474 N.W.2d at 767. Therefore, to defeat Hidden Valley’s motion for summary judgment the Yaugers must show that material facts are in dispute, or that the trial court erred in its analysis of the exculpatory clause. See id. at 230-31, 474 N.W.2d at 767.

We first turn to the analysis of the season pass and its exculpatory clause. Wisconsin law does not favor these agreements and courts therefore examine with care the facts of each case to ascertain whether enforcement will contravene public policy. See Merten v. Nathan, 108 Wis. 2d 205, 210-11, 321 N.W.2d 173, 176 (1982). The goal is to strike a balance between conflicting principles of contract and tort law. See id. at 211, 321 N.W.2d at 177. [HN2] Freedom of contract suggests that [*493] courts should abstain from interfering in people’s relationships and personal affairs. See id. On [***5] the other hand, tort law recognizes that those responsible for causing harm through negligence should bear the cost of the harm and should not be allowed to circumvent this duty through contract. See id. at 211-12, 321 N.W.2d at 177.

A review of the recent supreme court cases on this issue indicates that there are two aspects to the question of whether an exculpatory contract violates public policy. In Dobratz v. Thomson, 161 Wis. 2d 502, 468 N.W.2d 654 (1991), the court cited with approval § 195 of the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS (1979), which sets out a series of situations in which an exculpatory contract would violate public policy. Id. at 515-16, 468 N.W.2d at 658-59 (citing Arnold v. Shawano County Agric. Soc’y, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 210-11, 330 N.W.2d 773, 777 (1983)). The first element tests the effect of the exculpatory clause, e.g., does it exempt an employer from suits by an employee. See id. 1

1 This two-prong analysis was also discussed in Discount Fabric House v. Wisconsin Telephone Co., 117 Wis. 2d 587, 602, 345 N.W.2d 417, 424-25 (1984), where the court faced a challenge to an exculpatory release that served to cover any errors in telephone directory advertising. The court explained that the analysis of such contracts involves an assessment of the “commercial reasonableness” of the terms (substantive) and the relationship between the parties during negotiations (procedural). Id.

[***6] The Yaugers’ assertion that the exculpatory clause in Hidden Valley’s season pass application contravenes the safe-place statute, § 101.11, STATS., fits this line of analysis. In further support of this argument they cite Meyer v. Val-Lo-Will Farms, Inc., 14 Wis. 2d 616, 111 [*494] N.W.2d 500 (1961), for the proposition that a for-profit winter sports park was subject to the safe-place law. In substance, they argue that the exculpatory clause violates public policy because it seeks to relieve Hidden Valley of the duty imposed by the statute. See RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195(2)(c). 2 The trial court rejected this argument, reasoning that the safe-place statute did not create a special cause of action, but established a higher duty of care for what would ordinarily be addressed through common law negligence.

2 The applicability of the safe-place statute, § 101.11, STATS., in situations where frequenters challenge exculpatory contracts was raised, but left unanswered, in Kellar v. Lloyd, 180 Wis. 2d 162, 178-81, 509 N.W.2d 87, 93-94 (Ct. App. 1993).

[***7] While we agree with the trial court’s result, a different analysis is appropriate. Moreover, we need not decide the issue of whether the safe-place law imposed a special statutory duty on Hidden Valley. We hold that even if the statute does apply, a potential defendant may still bargain for an exclusion.

As noted above, the supreme court has endorsed § 195 of the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS. See Merten, 108 Wis. 2d at 212-13, 321 N.W.2d at 177-78. 3 [*495] The [**838] official comment to this section, however, suggests that the enumerated standards are not a litmus test for these agreements; it states: “the rigor of this rule may, however, be mitigated by a fairly bargained for agreement to limit liability to a reasonable agreed value in return for a lower rate.” RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195 cmt. a.

3 We recognize that the exact status of RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONTRACTS § 195 (1979), is somewhat clouded. In Dobratz v. Thomson, 161 Wis. 2d 502, 515-16, 468 N.W.2d 654, 658-59 (1991), the court expressly quoted all the subsections after noting that it had originally “referred with approval” to them in Arnold v. Shawano County Agric. Soc’y, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 210-11, 330 N.W.2d 773, 777 (1983). When one examines the Arnold opinion, however, it includes only a general reference to the RESTATEMENT. Indeed, the rule in § 195(2)(c), which provides the basis for the Yaugers’ argument, was not referred to in the discussion. See Arnold, 111 Wis. 2d at 210-11, 330 N.W.2d at 777. Moreover, in the supreme court’s most recent exploration of these issues, the majority opinion made no reference to § 195, although it did reaffirm its confidence in the Dobratz decision. Richards v. Richards, 181 Wis. 2d 1007, 1014, 513 N.W.2d 118, 121 (1994). We have located a federal district court case in which the various subsections of § 195 were found to be a component of Wisconsin law and formed the basis for voiding an exculpatory contract. See RepublicBank Dallas, N.A. v. First Wisconsin Nat’l Bank, 636 F. Supp. 1470, 1473 (E.D. Wis. 1986) (voiding clause exempting liability for harm arising out of reckless or intentional acts). We thus find that § 195 continues to be a valid component of Wisconsin common law.

[***8] The process envisioned by the drafters of this comment aptly describes the transaction between the Yaugers and Hidden Valley. The Yaugers wanted a discount on their skiing. The resort was a willing supplier, but recognized that the increase in days skied would directly increase the risk of an accident and the potential for a damages claim. Hidden Valley therefore sought a release from liability. Gauging the deal at the time when the parties entered into the contract, we cannot say that the exchange was totally unreasonable. The Yaugers obtained their discount, but lost the right to bring a claim arising out of an accident which may never have occurred. Here, freedom of contract requires that we not delve deeper into the merits of this agreement. [*496] See Merten, 108 Wis. 2d at 211, 321 N.W.2d at 177. 4

4 Of course the above analysis certainly does not summarize all the concerns of the bargaining parties. The Yaugers and Hidden Valley were also making allowances for the risk that there would be no snow that season. The key to understanding our analysis, however, is to recognize that courts rarely are able to do a better job of writing contracts than the parties themselves.

[***9] The second prong of the public policy question entails examining the circumstances surrounding the bargaining process. See Dobratz, 161 Wis. 2d at 516 n.2, 468 N.W.2d at 659. For example, in Richards v. Richards, 181 Wis. 2d 1007, 1010, 513 N.W.2d 118, 119 (1994), 5 the supreme court was asked to review an exculpatory contract signed by a passenger in a commercial, long-haul truck. The plaintiff was married to a driver employed by the defendant and was asked to sign a “passenger authorization” before joining her husband on the road. Id. at 1012, 513 N.W.2d at 119. Within the form was a clause releasing the defendant from liability for any harm that might occur during her travels. Id. Still, the wife brought suit after she and her husband were involved in an accident. The lower courts found that the release was valid and granted summary [*497] judgment for the defendant. Id. at 1010, 513 N.W.2d at 119.

5 We discuss Richards in detail because it represents the supreme court’s most recent analysis of how flaws in the specific terms of an agreement, or the circumstances of the bargaining process, may serve as grounds for voiding an exculpatory agreement. For other examples, see Merten v. Nathan, 108 Wis. 2d 205, 214-15, 321 N.W.2d 173, 178 (1982) (release invalidated because defendant misrepresented a fact during the negotiation process), and Eder v. Lake Geneva Raceway, 187 Wis. 2d 596, 610-11, 523 N.W.2d 429, 434 (Ct. App. 1994) (release clause found to be ambiguous).

[***10] After its review of the contract, however, the supreme court found it to be void as contrary to public policy. Id. at 1011, 513 N.W.2d at 119. The majority pointed to three aspects of the agreement, which together led to this conclusion. First, the contract served two purposes. The court emphasized that the exculpatory clause was not distinguishable from other components of the document. It reasoned that highlighting the release provision would have provided greater protection for the signing party. See id. at 1017, 513 N.W.2d at 122.

Next, the court found that the contract was over-inclusive. It applied not only to the [**839] defendant, but also to all of its affiliates. Moreover, it did not delineate the nature of claims that would be excluded, such as those arising from negligence but not from intentional acts. Also, the time period through which the exclusion would apply was not limited. The majority found that the contract was lopsided in favor of the defendant and should therefore be construed against the company. See id. at 1017-18, 513 N.W.2d at 122.

Finally, the court noted that the release was embodied in a standard form contract, and the defendant [***11] did not inform the plaintiff of the purpose and effect of the authorization. This suggested that there was little or no opportunity to dicker about the terms. Id. at 1019, 513 N.W.2d at 123.

The Yaugers cite Richards and raise a number of arguments, each suggesting that they and Hidden Valley were not on equal footing when they entered into this agreement. The many issues they raise can be distilled into three central points. First, the Yaugers contend that the release clause, which was a single [*498] term in the season pass application, was never pointed out to Michael before he completed and signed the form. See Richards, 181 Wis. 2d at 1019, 513 N.W.2d at 123. They further assert that summary judgment was inappropriate because Hidden Valley presented no evidence on this issue.

We are not persuaded. This agreement was signed in October, at least one month prior to the skiing season. There was no sense of urgency. Michael could have taken the form home for further consideration. In addition, the Yaugers had purchased a season pass for the prior year. Therefore, Michael had a source of knowledge from which to draw comparisons. Compare Eder v. Lake [***12] Geneva Raceway, 187 Wis. 2d 596, 609, 523 N.W.2d 429, 433 (Ct. App. 1994)(noting that parties signing the release were not allowed onto the racetrack grounds until they signed the release form).

Next, the Yaugers assert that the language within the exculpatory clause is ambiguous. It specifically addressed “certain inherent risks in skiing.” They question what constitutes these “inherent risks” and whether the clause only applies to a “certain” number of these dangers. In addition, they note that Hidden Valley did not provide any evidence which would identify these risks. The Yaugers also raise concerns that the clause (which is composed of a single sentence) reads to limit Hidden Valley’s liability for any injury occurring on the premises. They stress that this could be reasonably interpreted as an attempt to limit the resort’s liability for any accident on the premises, such as a slip and fall in the restaurant. See Richards, 181 Wis. 2d at 1017-18, 513 N.W.2d at 122.

The trial court concluded that the terminology covered the obvious dangers in skiing, viz, falling down or [*499] colliding with another skier or a fixed object, and that the “any injury” language was limited [***13] to those harms arising out of these risks. We agree.

[HN3] Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law. Borchardt v. Wilk, 156 Wis. 2d 420, 427, 456 N.W.2d 653, 656 (Ct. App. 1990). We test whether the term is reasonable or fairly susceptible of more than one construction. Id. [HN4] A clause is not ambiguous, however, merely because its language is general or broad. See Wilke v. First Federal Savs. & Loan Ass’n, 108 Wis. 2d 650, 654, 323 N.W.2d 179, 181 (Ct. App. 1982).

This was a contract between Hidden Valley and a season pass holder. The contracting skier, therefore, could reasonably be expected to have some knowledge about the sport. The Yaugers’ interest in skiing is further demonstrated by their willingness to commit over seven hundred dollars to skiing that season. 6 The record also reveals that the Yaugers had a similar pass at the resort the prior year. We are thus hesitant to accept their arguments that such language would lead to confusion among parties executing these agreements. The language is plain and simple. It aptly describes the risks that [**840] arise whenever one’s skis are in contact with the slope. 7

6 The season pass was not refundable.

[***14]

7 Very similar language can be found in Wisconsin’s recreational responsibility law. See § 895.525(3), STATS. (“A participant in a recreational activity … accepts the risks inherent in the recreational activity ….”) (emphasis added). Moreover, several states have adopted specific skier responsibility laws which codify these terms. For example, Colorado law provides, in part:

“Inherent dangers and risks of skiing” means those dangers or conditions which are an integral 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, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects; impact with lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, 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 and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

COLO. REV. STAT. ANN. § 33-44-103(10) (West Supp. 1994) (emphasis added).

Further discussion of these laws, and judicial efforts in providing interpretation, are set forth in Arthur N. Frakt and Janna S. Rankin, Surveying the Slippery Slope: The Questionable Value of Legislation to Limit Ski Area Liability, 28 IDAHO L. REV. 227 (1991-92).

[***15] [*500] Finally, the Yaugers argue that the exculpatory clause should be held void because it was “not clearly identified or distinguished.” See Richards, 181 Wis. 2d at 1017, 513 N.W.2d at 122.

The trial court noted that although the exculpatory language was not highlighted, there was no indication that it was disguised and therefore did not provide grounds for rendering the agreement void. Indeed, the clause is set out in a separate paragraph.

Any break in text requires the reader to pause and thus provides a moment for reflection.

The face of the application does not otherwise suggest that Hidden Valley was trying to trick season pass holders into signing away their rights. It was an application form. Not only did the applicants have to sign the agreement, but they had to furnish information [*501] such as their address, age, other family member names, etc. In sum, the form and application process provided ample opportunity for Michael to consider the terms of the agreement.

We have addressed a variety of concerns about the exculpatory clause of the season pass contract. Although no single point is troublesome enough to render the clause void, Richards suggests that [***16] courts may consider all these aspects together when making a determination about the effects of public policy. See id. at 1011, 513 N.W.2d at 119. But even the totality of the circumstances presented here does not warrant that this contract be set aside. The contracting process simply does not raise any concern of overreaching by the party seeking to be released from liability. 8

8 The Yaugers raised one other challenge to the exculpatory clause relating to the contract language. They assert that under Hortman v. Otis Erecting Co., 108 Wis. 2d 456, 463, 322 N.W.2d 482, 485-86 (Ct. App. 1982), an agreement which indemnifies a party for its own negligence must specifically include the term “negligence.” As the defendants contend, however, this specific argument was not presented to the trial court and is therefore waived on appeal. See, e.g., Bank One, Appleton, N.A. v. Reynolds, 176 Wis. 2d 218, 222, 500 N.W.2d 337, 339 (Ct. App. 1993).

We now turn to the second issue presented. [***17] Although we have found that the exculpatory clause serves as a bar to the Yaugers’ claim, Brenda nonetheless asserts that it should not run against her individually since she did not expressly acknowledge these terms, nor did she authorize her husband to execute a contract releasing these claims. In support of her argument, she draws an analogy to Arnold v. Shawano County Agri. Soc’y, 111 Wis. 2d 203, 214-15, 330 N.W.2d 773, 779 (1983), where the court held that a [*502] spouse’s claim for consortium rights is not defeated by a valid exculpatory contract running against the deceased.

In dismissing this claim the trial court distinguished Arnold, stating:

In this case the plaintiff Brenda Yauger did not sign the application, but the application was made on her behalf and for her [**841] benefit, which is not the factual situation in Arnold. And she is specifically identified and money is specifically paid for her membership, for her use, and the use of her daughter ….

Although we agree in substance with the trial court’s analysis, we feel it necessary to elaborate further. We add that Brenda’s claim is barred by the exculpatory clause because it is so intertwined [***18] with that of her husband, and thus it was reasonable for Hidden Valley to assume that Michael was acting on her behalf when he executed the agreement.

The Yaugers’ claim has three components: loss of consortium, Tara’s medical expenses and the cost of her funeral. See § 895.04(4), STATS. The right to pursue a claim for these losses accrues to Michael and Brenda as the “parents of the deceased.” See id. This is not a situation in which one parent’s recovery is limited or barred by his or her negligence. See § 895.04(7). This distinction recently was addressed in Chang v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 182 Wis. 2d 549, 561, 514 N.W.2d 399, 403 (1994), where the court noted: “the right to sue and recover damages under the wrongful death statute must be distinguished from the ownership and allocation of the recovery itself.”

Brenda alleges that she never authorized her husband to enter into this exculpatory clause (and bargain [*503] away her right to pursue a potential claim), nor was she aware of its effects. Nevertheless, she shared equally in the benefits that arose to her family, and the face of the application form would suggest that all [***19] named parties are bound by its terms.

Although there is little case law applying the principles of agency in transactions between married persons and third parties, Smart v. Estate of Ford, 23 Wis. 2d 60, 65-66, 126 N.W.2d 573, 576 (1964), summarized the Wisconsin rule that third parties may reasonably believe that one spouse had authority to act on behalf of the other. Here, we are dealing with the Yaugers’ joint interest in the companionship of their beloved daughter. Michael completed the season pass application on behalf of his whole family and paid the appropriate sum. Absent any evidence that Brenda informed Hidden Valley that she was not bound by this agreement, the Yaugers should both be held by the terms of the application.

By the Court.–Judgment affirmed.

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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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