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Last Updated April 24, 2018
Under California law, you assume the risk of getting hit by a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile while snowboarding.Posted: January 15, 2018
Both sides of this case created problems for themselves, and both sides stretched their credibility. In the end, it was easy for the plaintiff to lose because of that credibility gap created by the facts and when those facts were reported.
Plaintiff: Dominique Forrester
Defendant: Sierra at Tahoe
Plaintiff Claims: General Negligence are Claims for Breach of Statutory Duty; Negligence Per Se; Gross Negligence and/or Reckless Conduct; and/or Common Carrier Liability
Defendant Defenses: assumption of the risk
Holding: for the defendant
Snowboarder loses suit claiming a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile hit him on a beginner slope. By reporting the incident after he left the resort, he created a credibility issue.
In the end, getting hit by a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile is a risk you assume when skiing in California.
The facts in a case like this are always screwy to begin with and in my opinion, screwy from both sides of the litigation. The plaintiff and a friend were snowboarding. The plaintiff was filming his friend doing jumps. After the last jump, the plaintiff snowboarded toward the bottom which was on a beginner run waiting for his friend. While waiting, he heard someone yell, and he was hit by a toboggan. He hit his head suffering injuries. The plaintiff thought he saw a ski patroller driving away with the toboggan attached to the snowmobile. The fall broke some of his equipment also.
His friend saw the incident and stated that the driver was wearing a different uniform from what the plaintiff reported. Neither of them saw lights nor a flag on the snowmobile.
The plaintiff and his friend did not report the injury but drove home. On the way home they decided the plaintiff should call Sierra. He did and got a recording machine. He then started vomiting.
The next day the plaintiff hurt all over. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a concussion, a whiplash and disc degeneration.
The plaintiff called the ski area the next day and was told there was no one for him to talk to. He was to call back Wednesday. Wednesday, he called back and filed a report.
Forrester called Sierra again on Monday morning. He was told there was no one with whom he could discuss the incident and to call back on Wednesday. He called Wednesday and spoke with Evan MacClellan, the risk manager. MacClellan completed an incident report based on the phone call. The report described the injury as occurring at the bottom of Broadway near the terrain park. The report described that Forrester was hit by a “snowmobile” (patroller), got up after the incident, and did not report it. On the way home he started to vomit and went to the hospital the next day. The report listed Medina as a witness and included his telephone number.
The same day the plaintiff contacted an attorney.
The ski area investigated the claim. No ski patrollers or terrain park employees knew of any collision with a toboggan and a snowboarder.
MacClellan spoke with the ski patrol and terrain park employees about Forrester’s claim. None of the ski patrollers on duty that day or others with whom they spoke recalled any accident or collision. Both MacClellan and the general manager, John Rice, were suspicious of the claim; in 37 years in the ski industry, Rice had never seen a report made days after the incident. MacClellan did not call Medina, although Forrester had identified him as a witness. MacClellan could not determine that the accident actually took place. He first learned that Forrester claimed the collision was with a towed toboggan rather than the snowmobile itself after Forrester’s deposition.
Obviously, the ski area felt that no collision or accident had occurred. The case went to trial, and the plaintiff lost because the jury found he had assumed the risk of injuries.
Normally, juries like judges are asked to assemble, to a limited extent, the facts upon which they base their decision. In this case that was not done.
As we noted earlier, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because the collision itself was in dispute. Because the jury was not asked to make any preliminary factual findings, we cannot even assume that it found a collision occurred. We know only that the jury found Sierra did not unreasonably increase the inherent risk of snowboarding by its conduct on the day in question–whatever its conduct was found to be.
The plaintiff appealed the decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked into the issues surrounding the snowmobile. The defendant kept a checklist that was to be completed each day before the snowmobile was ridden. The checklist was not kept after it was completed.
Sierra requires its snowmobile drivers to follow a safety checklist and check lights, brakes, and other functions before a snowmobile is taken out. The checklist is a written form detailing the items to be checked and the name of the person taking out the snowmobile. The checklist is discarded daily unless an entry triggers a need for snowmobile maintenance. Due to this practice of discarding the checklist daily, no attempt was made to find the checklists for March 7, and the driver of the snowmobile allegedly involved in the accident was never found.
The day in question was one of the busiest of the year. The ski area employees testified that it was so buy, it would have been impossible to drive a snowmobile through the crowd on the slope in question.
The court then reviewed the evidence of the competing expert witnesses, both of whom offered testimony that at best seems stretched and will be ignored here and was ignored a lot by the court.
The court then reviewed the defenses offered by the ski area, starting with Primary Assumption of the Risk.
“Primary assumption of risk is a complete bar to recovery. It applies when, as a matter of law, the defendant owes no duty to guard against a particular risk of harm.” “Primary assumption of risk occurs where a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sporting event or activity involving certain inherent risks. For example, an errantly thrown ball in baseball or a carelessly extended elbow in basketball are considered inherent risks of those respective sports.”
Ski areas and other operators, sponsors and instructors of recreational activities have no duty to eliminate the risk. They do have a duty not to increase the risk beyond those inherent in the sport. The court based on this analysis looked at whether a toboggan is an inherent risk of skiing and boarding and found it was.
We first address the threshold question of whether unwanted contact with a snowmobile is, in general, an inherent risk of snowboarding. We conclude that it is.
On at least two occasions, this court has found a collision with resort equipment at a ski resort to be an inherent risk of the sport.
In both examples, the court compared the collisions to collisions with stationary objects, a lift tower and a tree.
The court looked at the facts in this case and concluded the incident was a collision with a toboggan, rather than a toboggan hitting a snowboarder. I suspect the facts in the two cases the court reviewed would have different conclusions if the lift tower or the tree had hit the skiers?
To reach this conclusion, the court went back to the statements of the experts of both the plaintiff and the defendant who testified that snowmobiles were a standard practice in the sport of skiing.
There are many inherent risks of injury and emergency in skiing and snowboarding, and snowmobiles are used to respond quickly to injuries as well as to other emergencies such as lift malfunctions requiring evacuation, fire, gas leaks, and altercations. It appears to us that the use of snowmobiles on the ski slopes at ski resorts is at least as necessary to the sport as the snowmaking equipment in Souza or the directional signs acknowledged as “necessary” in Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd.
The court then also looked at Secondary Assumption of Risk.
The term “assumption of risk” has been “used in connection with two classes of cases: those in which the issue to be resolved was whether the defendant actually owed the plaintiff a duty of care (primary assumption of risk), and those in which the defendant had breached a duty of care but where the issue was whether the plaintiff had chosen to face the risk of harm presented by the defendant’s breach of duty (secondary assumption of risk). In the latter class of cases, we concluded; the issue could be resolved by applying the doctrine of comparative fault, and the plain-tiff’s decision to face the risk would not operate as a complete bar to recovery. In such a case, the plaintiffs knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence.
The court held that discussing secondary assumption of risk was not necessary in this case because the jury found the defendant was not liable because of primary assumption of the risk.
The plaintiff also argued that an evidentiary ruling should have been made in the plaintiff’s favor because the defendant failed to keep the snowmobile checklist. The rules and laws of what evidence should be kept or can be destroyed to have changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and this area of law is a hot bed of litigation and arguments.
However, the court moved around this issue because the checklist was destroyed every day. The defendant gave the plaintiff a list of the possible drivers of snowmobiles at the resort. Because the checklist was only used by the first driver, and the snowmobile could have been ridden by someone other than the driver who completed the checklist, the court found it was not critical to the case. The plaintiff request of the information had occurred after the checklist had been destroyed as was the habit for the defendant.
So Now What?
First being hit by an object being towed by a snowmobile inbounds in California is an assumed risk. This is the first case f this type I have found. Every other case where the defendant has been held not liable because of assumption of the risk at a ski area was based on the skier or boarder hitting a fixed object.
Second, credibility maybe all you have in some cases. Consequently, you never want to stretch or destroy your credibility, and you do not want your experts to do the same.
Last, if you are hurt at a resort, get help at the resort. Some of the plaintiff’s injuries might have been mitigated if treated immediately.
However, all the above issues could be crap, if the jury ruled not because they believed the plaintiff assumed the risk, but because they did not believe the plaintiff at all.
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