New Mexico interpretation of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act for injuries a beginner received leaving a ski lessonPosted: January 27, 2014
I’m not sure why everyone needs to test skier safety acts. Here, the plaintiff admitted he could not ski, left the ski lesson and skied down the hill injuring him. So he sues the ski area?
Plaintiff: George Philippi
Defendants: Sipapu, Inc., a New Mexico corporation; Sipapu Recreation Development Corporation, a New Mexico corporation; and their employees, Lawrence Gottschau, James Booth, and Olive Bolander; and American Home Assurance Corporation
Plaintiff Claims: negligence and violation of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act
Defendant Defenses: New Mexico Ski Safety Act and statutory assumption of the risk
Holding: for the defendants
This is a pretty simply case. The plaintiff is a body builder. He took a ski lesson from the defendants and was not good at skiing. He was unable to master turning or other maneuvers and fell repeatedly during the lesson. The plaintiff told his instructors to stop the lesson because he was frustrated and tired. Allegedly following the instructor’s suggestions he skied down the hill into a funnel where he fell and was injured his right leg and knee.
The plaintiff sued in Federal District Court, and his claims were dismissed based on a motion for summary judgment. He appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. New Mexico is part of the Tenth Circuit, one of the appellate courts in the federal system based in Colorado. Consequently, this court is familiar with skiing.
Summary of the case
The plaintiff argued two issues on his appeal. First, the lower court misconstrued and misapplied the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk as set forth in the New Mexico Ski Safety Act. His second argument was the act incorporates comparative negligence principles, and thus the act cannot act as a complete bar to his recovery.
The court looked at the first claim and held the New Mexico Ski Safety Act imposes no duty on part of the ski area to protect the plaintiff, a novice skier, from the “inherent perils and obstacles posed by the terrain of a narrow, steep and ungroomed ski slope.”
The New Mexico Ski Safety Act states that a skier “accepts as a matter of law the dangers inherent in that sport insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” The skier assumes the risk of skiing and the legal responsibility of any injury to person or property from skiing. The act then lists the risks the skier assumes, as most acts do.
§ 24-15-10. Duties of the skiers
B. A person who takes part in the sport of skiing accepts as a matter of law the dangers inherent in that sport, insofar as they are obvious and necessary. Each skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to person or property, which results from participation in the sport of skiing, in the skiing area, including any injury caused by the following: variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees or other forms of forest growth or debris; lift towers and components thereof, pole lines and snow-making equipment which are plainly visible or are plainly marked in accordance with the provisions of Section 24-15-7 NMSA 1978; except for any injuries to persons or property resulting from any breach of duty imposed upon ski area operators under the provisions of Sections 24-15-7 and 24-15-8 NMSA 1978. Therefore, each skier shall have the sole individual responsibility for knowing the range of his own ability to negotiate any slope or trail, and it shall be the duty of each skier to ski within the limits of the skier’s own ability, to maintain reasonable control of speed and course at all times while skiing, to heed all posted warnings, to ski only on a skiing area designated by the ski area operator and to refrain from acting in a manner, which may cause or contribute to the injury of anyone.
The plaintiff argued the risks he encountered were not obvious to him because he was a novice skier.
Philippi’s complaint alleges that the defendants were aware of Philippi’s difficulties in mastering even the simplest skiing maneuvers, the defendants knew of “particular hazards or dangers,” and they knew or should have known that Philippi was likely to injure himself if “allowed to continue” down the slope.
The plaintiff argued the ski area had a duty to warn him of obstacles in the lower portion of the slope. The plaintiff argued the obstacles were not plainly visible to him as a novice skier and created hazards to him and the skiing public. The Act imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to warn or “correct particular hazards or dangers known to the operator where feasible to do so.”
However, the court found that allegations alone are not enough to proceed with his argument. “The party resisting [summary judgment] may not rest on the bare allegations or denials of his pleadings. Rather he must produce some evidence showing a genuine issue for trial.”
However, allegations alone are not enough to sustain an argument and a motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff must have more. Here the court said he needed to identify particular hazards or dangers which the defendant knew about and failed to warn the plaintiff about.
The second issue was the statute incorporated the comparative negligence statute of New Mexico and therefore, could not act as a complete bar to the plaintiff. If you remember comparative negligence, it states that the defense of assumption of the risk is gone. Instead of a plaintiff assuming the risk and his claims being barred, the jury determines how much of the plaintiff’s acts caused his injuries and assigns a percentage of fault to the plaintiff and the defendant. If the defendant’s degree of fault is greater than the plaintiff’s that percentage of fault is applied to the total damages, and the plaintiff takes that percentage of the money as a judgment.
By arguing comparative negligence applies here; the plaintiff is arguing that his case must, by law be heard by a jury to apply the percentage of fault. However, the court found that the statute did not require the use of comparative negligence because the statute protected the ski area from liability. The plaintiff could still assume the risk of his injuries and thus be barred from suing.
So Now What?
The plaintiff argued that the ski area “ski instructor’s manual” failed to point out the need to warn students of dangers and alert them to safety issues. It is interesting to use a ski area manual to try an argument from the lack of a point to train in the ski area manuals.
This argument in the case is what caught my attention. In many cases, we write manuals to help instruct employees to work and keep our guests safe. Here, that information in the manual might have changed the outcome of this case.
If the point had been in the manual, then would the ski area been liable if they had not pointed out the “hazards” on the slope to the plaintiff?
However, you need to think about that issue. How big would a manual need to be to instruct your employees to point out the hazards of the sport or the slope? What about the hazards of any outdoor recreation program or business. Would you have to identify every root crossing a trail or all the branches that may hang low for your taller guests?
The New Mexico Ski Safety Act is well-written and specifically lists the risk a skier assumes. It does not require a balancing test, only one answer. Did the injury the plaintiff receives occur because of the risks the plaintiff assumed stated in the act? In this case, he did. Nor did the statute require the ski area to do any more than identify or correct those risks that could not be seen by a skier of average ability and skill.
For more on comparative negligence see and Sometimes you want too much, sometimes you are greedy: WI plaintiff’s lawyers are killing their income source.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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Philippi v. Sipapu, Inc., 961 F.2d 1492; 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 6973
George Philippi, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Sipapu, Inc., a New Mexico corporation; Sipapu Recreation Development Corporation, a New Mexico corporation; and their employees, Lawrence Gottschau, James Booth, and Olive Bolander; and American Home Assurance Corporation, a New York corporation, Defendants-Appellees.
961 F.2d 1492; 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 6973
April 17, 1992, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO. (D.C. No. CIV-90-1178-JC). D.C. Judge JOHN E. CONWAY
DISPOSITION: DENIED. AFFIRMED
COUNSEL: Submitted on the briefs.
Patrick A. Casey and David C. Ruyle, Patrick A. Casey, P.A., Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Plaintiff-Appellant.
Joe L. McClaugherty and Cameron Peters, McClaugherty, Silver & Downs, P.C., Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Defendants-Appellees.
JUDGES: Before MOORE, TACHA, and BRORBY, Circuit Judges.
OPINION BY: TACHA
[*1493] TACHA, Circuit Judge.
Plaintiff, George Philippi, appeals a district court order granting summary judgment to the defendants. 1 Philippi argues that the district court erred in granting the defendants summary judgment on Philippi’s negligence action. Philippi also argues that two unresolved issues of New Mexico law may be determinative in this case and urges this court to certify these issues to the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico. We exercise jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1291 and affirm.
1 After examining the briefs and appellate record, this panel has determined unanimously that oral argument would not materially assist the determination of this appeal. See Fed. R. App. P. 34(a); 10th Cir. R. 34.1.9. The case is therefore ordered submitted without oral argument.
[**2] In January of 1984, Philippi suffered a physical injury during the course of a skiing lesson at Sipapu Ski Area in New Mexico. Philippi, a body builder, injured his right leg and knee while attempting to negotiate the “Lower Bambi” run at Sipapu. Philippi brought this action against the defendants claiming, among other things, that the defendants acted negligently in violation of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act, N.M. Stat. Ann. 24-15-1 to 24-15-14 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act” or “the Ski Safety Act”).
In their motion for summary judgment, the defendants argued that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the Ski Safety Act is Philippi’s only remedy and because Philippi’s claim is barred by his statutory assumption of the risks of skiing and his own breaches of duty under the Act. As an alternative basis for summary judgment, the defendants argued that they did not breach any of their duties under the Act. Without stating the basis of its ruling, the district court found that the motion for summary judgment was “well taken and should be granted.”
Philippi raises two claims on appeal. First, he argues that the district court misconstrued and misapplied the doctrine [**3] of primary and secondary assumption of the risk, as embodied in the Ski Safety Act. Second, Philippi argues that even if his conduct constitutes secondary assumption of the risk, the Act embodies comparative negligence principles, and his conduct, therefore, cannot totally bar his recovery under the Act. Philippi urges us to certify both of these issues to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Although the basis of the district court’s ruling is not evident, [HN1] “we may affirm the granting of summary judgment if any proper ground exists to support the district court’s ruling.” McKibben v. Chubb, 840 F.2d 1525, 1528 (10th Cir. 1988). We find it unnecessary to reach the merits of Philippi’s arguments on appeal because both arguments presuppose that, but for the district court’s alleged errors in applying the doctrines of assumption of the risk and comparative negligence, the district court would have concluded that the defendants owed a duty to Philippi. Viewing the facts alleged in the complaint and in opposition [*1494] to the summary judgment motion in the light most favorable to Philippi, we hold as a matter of law that the defendants owed no duty to protect Philippi from the harm [**4] he allegedly sustained. Because Philippi cannot demonstrate a duty owed by the defendants, we find certification of the issues on appeal inappropriate, as these issues are not determinative of this action.
This case requires us to determine whether the Ski Safety Act imposes a duty on a ski area operator to warn, or in some way protect, a novice skier from the inherent perils and obstacles posed by the terrain of a narrow, steep and ungroomed ski slope. Philippi’s injury occurred during a skiing lesson. According to the amended complaint, Philippi fell repeatedly during the lesson and, despite the ski instructors’ demonstrations and instructions, he was unable to master turning and other skiing maneuvers. Philippi allegedly informed the instructors that he wanted to stop the lesson because he was frustrated and tired. The instructors encouraged Philippi to continue skiing to the end of the run because the remaining terrain was “relatively easy,” and there was “no place to stop or stand.” The complaint alleges that “following the instructions of one of the individual Defendants, Plaintiff entered onto a narrow, steep, ungroomed slope which required numerous turns to navigate. Plaintiff [**5] could not see obstacles on this slope until he was upon them and too late to avoid them. During this portion of the instruction Plaintiff fell and severely injured his right leg and knee. . . .”
[HN2] Under section 24-15-10(B) of the Ski Safety Act, a skier “accepts as a matter of law the dangers inherent in that sport insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” The Act goes on to state that a skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to person or property which results from participation in the sport of skiing, in the skiing areas, including any injury caused by . . . variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots, rocks, trees or other forms of forest growth or debris . . . .
[HN3] The Act specifically excludes from the scope of a skier’s assumption of risk “any injuries . . . resulting from any breach of duty imposed upon ski area operators under the provisions of Sections 24-15-7 and 24-15-8 [of the Act].” Id.
Philippi maintains that even though he assumed the obvious and necessary risks associated with skiing, including any injury caused by variations in terrain, the risks he encountered were not “obvious and necessary” [**6] to him as a novice skier. The Act imposes an affirmative duty on ski area operators “to warn of or correct particular hazards or dangers known to the operator where feasible to do so.” Id. 24-15-7(I). Philippi’s complaint alleges that the defendants were aware of Philippi’s difficulties in mastering even the simplest skiing maneuvers, the defendants knew of “particular hazards or dangers,” and they knew or should have known that Philippi was likely to injure himself if “allowed to continue” down the slope. Thus, Philippi alleges that under section 24-15-7(I) of the Act, the defendants had a duty to warn him of the obstacles of the lower portion of the ski slope — obstacles “which were not plainly visible and which created an immediate hazard to [Philippi] and the skiing public.”
In response to the defendants’ argument in support of summary judgment that the defendants owed no duty to Philippi, Philippi bore the burden of making a showing sufficient to establish the existence of the defendants’ duty. See High Plains Natural Gas v. Warren Petroleum Co., 875 F.2d 284, 290-91 (10th Cir. 1989). [HN4] “The party resisting [summary judgment] may not rest on the bare allegations [**7] or denials of his pleadings. Rather he must produce some evidence showing a genuine issue for trial.” Lowell Staats Mining Co. v. Philadelphia Elec. Co., 878 F.2d 1271, 1274 (10th Cir. 1989).
Philippi claims that the deposition testimony and affidavits, along with facts alleged in his complaint, demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact concerning the defendants’ violation of section 24-15-7(I) of the Act. Philippi points out that, despite the instructors’ awareness of Philippi’s inability [*1495] to master even the simplest skiing maneuvers, the instructors “failed to help” and “failed to warn” Philippi of the risks of the lower portion of the Bambi trail. Further, Philippi made some showing that the defendants were aware that novice skiers had “problems” on the portion of the trail on which Philippi’s injury occurred. In addition, Philippi points to the failure of the Sipapu ski instructor’s manual to advise the instructors of the need to warn students of dangers and alert them to safety considerations. Philippi argues that reasonable minds could differ on whether these circumstances give rise to a duty on behalf of the defendants and, therefore, that the issue should [**8] be left to the finder of fact.
[HN5] Under New Mexico law, however, the question of whether a defendant owes a duty to a particular plaintiff is a question of law to be determined by the court. Calkins v. Cox Estates, 110 N.M. 59, 792 P.2d 36, 39 (N.M. 1990); Schear v. Board of County Comm’rs, 101 N.M. 671, 687 P.2d 728, 729 (N.M. 1984). Under section 24-15-7(I) of the Ski Safety Act, the defendants only have the duty to warn of or correct “particular hazards or dangers.” Philippi cannot rest on the bare allegation in his amended complaint that the defendants were aware of and failed to warn of “particular hazards or dangers.” Nothing in Philippi’s amended complaint, deposition or affidavits identifies any “particular hazard or danger” known to the defendants. Philippi merely asserts that his injury was caused by the defendants’ failure to warn him individually of the general conditions of the terrain on the lower portion of the beginner slope. Allegations of “thin and bare” terrain on a “narrow, steep and ungroomed” slope do not amount to a particular hazard of which the defendants had a duty to warn Philippi. Likewise, allegations of the defendants’ knowledge of injuries [**9] to novice skiers on that same portion of the slope do not amount to a particular hazard of which the defendants had a duty to warn Philippi.
The purpose of the Ski Safety Act is to define “those areas of responsibility and affirmative acts for which ski area operators shall be liable for loss, damage or injury and those risks which the skier expressly assumes and for which there can be no recovery.” N.M. Stat. Ann. 24-15-2. Philippi assumed the risk for variations in terrain, id. 24-15-10, and Philippi had the duty to ski within the limits of his own ability. Id. Section 24-15-13 of the Act clearly states that a skier cannot recover for injuries or damages resulting from the skier’s own violation of his duties, as set forth in section 24-15-10. In our view, the Act allocates to the skier the risks for the type of injury Philippi alleges. In light of the language and purpose of the New Mexico Ski Safety Act, we conclude as a matter of law that [HN6] the scope of the duty imposed on ski operators in section 24-15-7(I) of the Act is not broad enough to encompass the duty to provide a general warning to a novice skier that, because of the skier’s limited abilities, portions of a beginner [**10] slope may be dangerous.
The motion to certify questions of state law is DENIED and the order of the district court is AFFIRMED.