Your release cannot use the term “inherent risk” as the description of the risks, it creates no release at all.

California appellate court reviews numerous issues brought by plaintiff in this skier v. skier fatality. Most important issue is the relationship between Assumption of the Risk in California and a Release.

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al.

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Skier died after being hit by snowboarder coming out of terrain park. Descendant’s heirs could not sue because the release stated the descendant assumed the risk of her injuries. Case is still ongoing.

Discussion by the court provides great analysis of the different types of risk assumed and the differences between inherent risks and other risks.

Facts

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.”

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

It is unknown what happened to the lawsuit against the snowboarder.

The actual facts on how the trial proceeded are convoluted and not in the normal course of trials. The appellate court recognized this and found although the proceedings were different, the outcome was correct.

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

The court first reviewed release law in California. The main issue the court found was the relationship between a release in California and the inherent risks of a sport. The court made this statement, which should be known by everyone in the outdoor industry.

But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

When you play sports, explore the woods or ski, just three examples, you assume the risk of the inherent risks of the sport. If your release only identifies inherent risks as the risks, the release protects against, you release is protecting you from things you are already protected against. A plaintiff cannot sue you for the inherent risks of the activity.

Your release is written, or should be written, to protect you from all the other risks of an activity. Risks such as those created by equipment, guides or decision’s guides or participants make. Those are risks that are probably not inherent to the sport and a such; you are liable for those risks.

The court did an extensive analysis of these issues. The foundation case is Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, a California Supreme Court decision that has been quoted in hundreds of cases in most states and laid down the definitions of the different types of risk and how a person assumes those different risks.

Knight and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

The issue in the law then becomes has the defendant done something to change the inherent risks or said another way increased the risk to the participants. The participant assumes the inherent risks and others, but not to the extent the risk has been increased. You cannot assume gross negligence, for example.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

The balance between the risks in the sport that create the excitement and define the sport versus actions of the defendant in controlling or presenting the sport in such a way the risks cannot be assumed by the participants.

The court then compared the issues of increasing the risk and comparative fault. Comparative fault is how the jury or trier of fact determines who is actually liable and in what percentages for the injuries of the plaintiff.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.”

The court then reviewed the relationship between comparative fault and how that is affected when a release is used.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

The court then clarified its statement defining how a court looks at how the defenses are applied to the facts.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself.

Court added further clarification to its statement.

A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.'”

In assumption of the risk, the plaintiff must know the risks they are assuming. A release removes that actual knowledge from the analysis.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'”

The court then looked at the limits of protection a release provides. That limit is defined as gross negligence.

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

If the defendant engages in gross negligence, that is outside of the protection afforded by the release.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The court then recapped its comparison of the legal issues in a case involving inherent and other risks and a release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

There is a lot more discussion in the case about the procedural issues and how the trial was handled. There is no need to discuss these here.

So Now What?

This is a difficult case to read and understand, however, if you can parse the procedural arguments from the assumption of the risk and release arguments, it is extremely educational in explaining the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant in a case like this.

Simply put there is a hierarchy of defenses available to a business or program in the outdoor recreation industry. There is no fine line between them, in fact, it is a massive gray area, that changes when you move from state to state.

  • Inherent Risks of the Activity
  • Assumption of the Risk
  • Release

Nor are the defenses entirely separate from each other. And if used properly they can be effectively used to support and define each other.

Your website can help explain the risks, inherent and otherwise. Your release can identify specific risks, which may not be apparent to some or for which some may argue they did not know and understand. Your safety talk can define the inherent risks of the activity to make sure those are known by participants.

When writing a release or assumption of the risk agreement, those written documents need to take in all aspects of the risks and make sure nothing in your program or marketing derails your defense wall.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

February 5, 2020, Opinion Filed

G056427

Reporter

2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814 *; 2020 WL 563604

GRANT TUTTLE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. HEAVENLY VALLEY, L.P., 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: Request denied by Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. LEXIS 2940 (Cal., Apr. 29, 2020)

Prior History:  [*1] Appeal from a judgment and post judgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County, Ct. No. 30-2015-00813230, Nathan R. Scott, Judge.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: DUNNING, J.*, BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J. concurred.

Opinion by: DUNNING, J.

Opinion

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.1 Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks . . . over and above [*2] those inherent in the sport of skiing.” The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first [*3]  formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

The Release

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.” Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing “can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH.” In paragraph 2, she “ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS . . . known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions; . . . variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features; . . . [and] collisions.” Paragraph 5 advised: “The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably [*4] avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.”

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement “NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . for . . . injury or loss to [her], including death.” This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all “CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE . . . .” In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was “binding to the fullest extent permitted by law . . . on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.”

II.

The Accident and the Lawsuit

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.3 Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) “any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained . . . by Plaintiffs was directly [*5]  and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated”; (2) “Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury”; and (3) defendant “is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.”

III.

The Jury Trial

The jury trial spanned five weeks.4 The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing” and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered “yes” to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel was not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the [*6] jurors‘ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.5 The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: “So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.”

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant “we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.”

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the [*7] special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: “[Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and—release of liability and waiver was executed—existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated.” (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent [*8] risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could “end up finding that the release was not valid” and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as “the release in evidence releases
negligence. And the questions on the verdict form
go [] to gross negligence, and—this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk.” Defendant’s counsel remarked the “dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form.” Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: “Right.” Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. [*9]  Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, “[a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form . . . . [¶] . . . If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them—you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.”

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

The Special Verdict

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

“3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

“Yes X No __

“4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes __ No X

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question [*10]  5. [¶] If you answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered ‘No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number ‘0’ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

“5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes X No __”

Because the jury answered “yes” to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2,131,831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

Entry of a Defense Judgment

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1,065,915.50, plus costs and [*11] interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided “a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.”6

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release “clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle.” The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: “[D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and ‘negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.'”

The trial court acknowledged “the structure” of [*12] the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

Plaintiffs’ Post judgment Motions

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: “It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint.” (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ [*13] substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence,7 the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ post judgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Release Covered Tuttle’s Accident.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754, 29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so “the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language.” (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357, 129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. [*14]  (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291, 66 Cal. Rptr. 3d 704 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

Overview: Assumption of the Risk

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (Knight)8 and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.9 Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed [*15]  which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.” (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier [*16] signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘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.'” (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the [*17] release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'” [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, ‘[t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.'” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement “to ‘shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed” on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, [*18] the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

Analysis

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only [*19] concern is “‘whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.'” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed “ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise.” She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it “FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE.” No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, “inherent or otherwise” did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, “[t]he term ‘otherwise,’ when ‘paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’ . . . is best understood to mean ‘NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing.” (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release “bears many similarities to the release” in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently [*20]  and “unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning” (id. at p. 1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.'” (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted “the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks ‘not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use “the word ‘negligence‘ or any particular verbiage . . . [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee.” (Id. at pp. 1488-1489.) The release in Cohen used the word “negligence” only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release [*21] also did not “indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities.” (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court [*22]  of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: “By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk [*23]  of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.”10 (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353, 235 Cal. Rptr. 3d 716 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

Enforcement of the Release Does not Violate California’s Public Policy.

Plaintiffs next argue the release‘s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of “aggravated” negligence.

Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 “left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release [*24]  of other forms of ‘aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence.” (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for “‘any negligent act'” related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was “whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668,11 impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision “voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to “aggravated [*25]  wrongs” (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and “aggravated misconduct” (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, “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.) With a valid release, “a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

The Trial Court did not Err by Entering Judgment in Favor of Defendant.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault [*26] between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other post judgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

Legal Principles Governing Special Verdicts

A special verdict must include “conclusions of fact as established by the evidence . . . [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332, 104 Cal. Rptr. 3d 219, 223 P.3d 77.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation “may be disregarded as surplusage.” (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703, 67 P.2d 1055.) Additionally, “where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to ‘the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.'” (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457, 72 Cal. Rptr. 217, 445 P.2d 881; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092, 74 Cal. Rptr. 3d 235.)

B.

The Trial Court’s Ruling

As noted, the jury [*27] was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: “After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form. . . . But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer ‘NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering ‘No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering “NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer ‘YES’ to one question and ‘NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages.” (Italics and bold [*28] omitted.)

The trial court further explained: “Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer ‘NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶] . . . [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion—a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw—that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.”

The trial court also correctly concluded the “jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct [*29] from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.”

C.

Analysis

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning [*30] whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring “a statutorily authorized post-trial motion” challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form [*31] should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine “as is” and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural [*32] aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179, 202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 460, 370 P.3d 1022 [because the defendant “did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error”].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from [*33] the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

Plaintiffs are not Entitled to a New Trial.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they “excepted to” those errors, but then were penalized because “the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley.” Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431,12 to which they agreed, [*34]  misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend “the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options.” Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release “in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which . . . made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs] . . . were . . . induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs].” This characterization [*35] misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or “worked against” plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would “proceed with the verdict form as is.” This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third—and significantly—plaintiffs’ [*36] counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

DUNNING, J.*

WE CONCUR:

BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J.

MOORE, J.

 


Federal District Court in Utah voids release for bicycle racing because of public policy!

Plaintiff was injured pre-riding a race course when he struck a barrier closing a street. Although the release was determined to be valid under Utah’s law, the court determined the Utah legislature had created laws and regulations to protect people that voided the release.

What is confusing is, but for a race being held at that location at a later date, everyone would be immune from suit for a road closure. Meaning cities and transportation departments are hard if not impossible to sue. How then could a race sponsor be sued for an accident on a road before the race?

Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

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

Plaintiff: Gerald Finken

Defendant: USA Cycling, Inc.; Breakaway Promotions, LLC; Ogden/Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, and Does 1-10

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Plaintiff

Year: 2020

Summary

Master bicycle racer training for race struck barricade on a closed road. Plaintiff was following race course map prior to race day. Court interpreted confusing Utah’s law on the subject of releases to hold the inherent risks of cycling did not cover barricades on the course and under Utah law, the release was void as against Utah Public Policy.

Facts

The 2014 USA Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate[].”USA Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.

Before publication, USA Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA Cycling to review, and then “USA Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course. USA Cycling disputes it prepared the map.

Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.

Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA Cycling’s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure.

On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA Cycling. Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. He was hospitalized for two days for serious neck and back injuries.

After the accident, USA Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event.

Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.”

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

The court first looked at Utah’s law on releases. The Supreme Court in Utah generally supported releases, but there were several exceptions to the law that made interpreting Utah’s law on releases difficult. See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.
The court found that three types of releases were void under Utah’s law.

Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.

The court looked at the indemnification language in the release and found that most jurisdictions did not support indemnification, including Utah.

As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.”

For a release to be enforceable, the release must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.

[Utah] Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law

If a release is not clear on its face, then it is unenforceable. The court found the release used by USA cycling was clear and released USA Cycling from claims of negligence. However, the court took issue with the language that was obviously intended to cover the race, and the accident occurred on a pre-race ride. The court found that this was a risk that was not inherent to a race on a public road.

But the plaintiff was not racing; he was riding, and closed roads are an inherent risk of cycling or driving or walking even!

After reviewing the language of the release, the court held the release was clear as to USA Cycling.

A co-defendant, Breakaway argued it was also covered by the release. The court found the language “Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials” was not broad enough to cover Breakaway, which was an independent contractor. The court did not find that Breakaway was covered by that language and therefore, not protected by the release.

In addition, the agreement between Breakaway and USA Cycling stated that Breakaway would be “solely and entirely responsible for its acts….” Nowhere in the agreement “was Breakaway as an event director, or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA Cycling.”

Having found the release was valid for USA Cycling the court then looked at whether or not the release was void for some other reasons, such as a violation of Utah Public Policy.

To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.”

The court then reviewed two cases decided by the Utah Supreme Court. In both of those cases, one, an equine case and the other the Rothstein case (See Utah Supreme Court Reverses long position on releases in a very short period of time.) the court held that since the Utah Legislature had created statutes to protect the activities, the release was barred because the accidents that had happened to the plaintiffs in those cases were not an inherent risk of the activity.

Looking at the incident in this case, the court applied the inherent risks of bicycle racing to the facts, even though the plaintiff was not racing at the time. The court found that hitting a barricade closing a road was not an inherent risk of cycle racing.

The analysis for this was the requirement that the requirement that bicycle races have a special event permit and liability insurance. Since the liability insurance would not have to pay for a claim based on the inherent risk of cycling, but only those non-inherent risks, the State of Utah must believe that those non-inherent risks should not be precluded by a release.

Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, and the traveling public.

The court then made its stretch and found:

The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA Cycling.

The court then denied the motion for summary judgment of both defendants USA Cycling and Breakaway Promotions, LLC.

So Now What?

Sometimes you are going to find a judge that is going to give the plaintiff’s money no matter what the law dictates. This appears to be one of those cases. However, this case is still going on and perhaps instead of settling the defendants will take the case to trial and win. At least appeal this decision so Utah is not stuck within an even worse decision.

In this case applying the risks of bicycle racing, which is sometimes done on a closed course with directors, smooth roads and no obstructions to everyday cycling. If you are riding along, and you come onto a closed road, you better be able to stop before you hit the barrier closing the road. That is a risk of cycling. That is not a risk of racing, and the plaintiff in this case was not racing. The plaintiff even admitted he was going.

There are going to be a lot more disclaimers on maps and information supplied to racers in the future from USA Cycling. The map will say this is the course ON RACE DAY. The release should be written to cover more than just the race, but all training and attendance at any USA Cycling event.

The USA Cycling release needs to be rewritten because as it was quoted by the court, the language limits the risks to the inherent risks of the sport, greatly reducing the value of the release. See Plaintiff argues that release was limited to the risks that were inherent in climbing walls. Inherent is a limiting term and does not expand the scope of the risks a release is written to include and Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release.

At the very least, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to hold an amateur bicycle race, possibly even a professional bicycle race in Utah in the future. The liability is too great. The judge commented several times about the economic value cycling brought to the state then wrote a decision to end that financial benefit.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

Finken v. USA Cycling, Inc., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97928

United States District Court for the District of Utah

June 3, 2020, Decided; June 3, 2020, Filed

Civil No. 1:17-cv-79

Counsel:  [*1] For Gerald Finken, Plaintiff: P. Matthew Muir, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lesley A. Manley, JONES WALDO HOLBROOK & MCDONOUGH, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

For USA
Cycling, Defendant: Robert L. Janicki, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lance H. Locke, STRONG & HANNI, SANDY, UT.

For Ogden Weber Convention Visitors Bureau, Ogden/Weber Convention & Visitors Bureau, Defendants: Lloyd R. Jones, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF LLOYD R JONES, OKLAHOMA CITY, OK.

For Breakaway Promotions, LLC, Defendant: Dennis R. James, LEAD ATTORNEY, MORGAN MINNOCK RICE & MINER, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

Judges: Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge. Magistrate Judge Paul M. Warner.

Opinion by: Clark Waddoups

Opinion

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Gerald Finken entered the 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race. On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map published for the race. As he came around a turn on the route, he saw a concrete barrier blocking the road. Finken attempted to swerve around it, but crashed and suffered serious neck and back injuries. He has filed suit against USA Cycling, Inc. and Breakaway Promotions, LLC for negligently failing to warn riders about the barricade. Defendants have moved for summary judgment [*2]  on the ground that Finken signed a waiver of liability. For the reasons stated below, the court denies the motions for summary judgment.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The 2014 USA
Cycling Masters Road Championship race (“2014 Championship”) was held in Weber County, Utah on September 3-7, 2014. “USA
Cycling is the national governing body for the sport of cycling in the United States of America and was responsible for conducting the 2014 Championships.” Amended Complaint, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 20); USA
Cycling Answer, ¶ 11 (ECF No. 30). It entered into an Independent Contractor Agreement with Breakaway Promotions, LLC (“Breakaway”), where Breakaway agreed to perform multiple duties, including implementing the “course design and layout for each race course as well as start and finish areas.” Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 7 (ECF No. 56-7). Breakaway also agreed to be responsible for “[a]ll organization and course safety evaluations for each race venue.” Id. Breakaway further agreed to supply information “for the race Technical Guide” and contracted that such information would be “precise and accurate[].” Id.
USA
Cycling retained the responsibility, however, to publish the Technical Guide “in a reproducible format that [*3]  [could] be printed or sent digitally.” Id. The Technical Guide included maps and course route information.
1
USA
Cycling Depo., 33:19-35:1 (ECF No. 38-5) (given by Charles R. Hodge).

Before publication, USA
Cycling typically reviewed maps to ensure compliance with its rules. Leif Depo., 9:24-10:10 (ECF No. 45-1). Once a map “was approved, [it] would post it online and make it part of the event materials.” Id. 10:10-14. “One of the purposes of posting” the map online was so “participants or prospective participants [could] see . . . where the course [was to be] located.” Id. at 10:15-20. Chad Sperry, the owner of Breakaway, asserts Breakaway prepared “a preliminary map” for USA
Cycling to review, and then “USA
Cycling created their own map for the technical guide and to post online of this particular race course.” Sperry Depo., 30:4-17 (ECF No. 56-8). USA
Cycling disputes it prepared the map. Id. at 30:18-23; Leif Depo., 11:1-5 (ECF No. 45-1).

Part of the route for the race went along State Road 226, which is known as the Old Snowbasin Road. Prior to “submit[ing] the course layout to USA
Cycling for the event,” Breakaway knew a portion of the road was closed near the Ard Nord Trailhead. [*4]  Sperry Depo., 20:10-14, 23:1-3 (ECF No. 56-8). A concrete barricade had been placed across the road due to the road’s condition beyond the barricade. Id. at 21:2-6, 22:16-20. The plan was to have the barricade removed after the road was repaired for the race. Id. at 26:21-23. No warnings about the road closure were noted when the course map was posted for participants to view.

Sperry did a site visit in early August 2014, and saw the concrete barriers were still in place at that time. Id. at 22:9-15, 23:8-11. Additionally, Rachel Leif, USA
Cycling‘s National Events Manager, also learned prior to the race that a portion of the road was closed. Leif Depo., 12:22-24 (ECF No. 45-1). “[A] concerned masters rider” sent an email to USA
Cycling, which contained photographs of the route, including a picture of the concrete “barriers across the road and a ‘Road Closed’ sign.” Id. at 14:1-19, 15:3-5. The Vice President of National Events, Micah Rice, forwarded the email to Sperry on August 5, 2014, and copied Leif on it. Id. at 14:18-22, 39:24-40:2. “[B]y August 5th or 6th, 2014, [Leif] understood the road was closed.” Id. at 15:10-13. Although she “was the point person,” and knew she was viewing [*5]  pictures of the racecourse, she did not take action to notify participants of the road closure at that time. See id. at 13:11-17, 15:6-9, 16:13-22. Her conversations with participants pertained only to potholes that needed to be fixed in the road. Id. at 17:14-18. This is so even though Leif knew that “race participants will often pre-ride a course to prepare.” Id. at 30:3-10. Similarly, Sperry took no action to notify participants about the closure. Sperry Depo., at 40:10-25 (ECF No. 56-8).

On August 25, 2014, Finken did a pre-ride of the course using the map provided by USA
Cycling. Finken Depo., 60:5-7, 63:6-16 (ECF No. 38-3). Finken alleges he rode the route cautiously during his pre-ride due to his lack of knowledge about the course and wet road conditions. Id. at 68:8-25. Nevertheless, as he came around a turn and saw the concrete barriers across the road, he “locked up the brakes” but was not able to stop. Id. at 78:18-79:12. He attempted to swerve onto a worn path beside the barrier, but his handlebars and left hand struck the barrier. Id. at 77:10-16, 80:7-12, 82:24-83:21. Finken became airborne and landed on his right side. Id. at 82:4-5, 83:25-84:2. He was hospitalized for [*6]  two days for serious neck and back injuries. Id. at 107:16-108:25.

After the accident, USA
Cycling modified the Technical Guide to warn participants doing a pre-ride that a portion of the route was closed and would remain closed until the day before the event. Leif Depo., 24:23-25:3, 26:3-7, 27:9-21. Finken contends Breakaway and USA
Cycling were negligent in not giving that warning sooner. Both defendants contend, however, they cannot be liable for negligence because Finken signed a pre-injury waiver entitled, “Acknowledgment of Risk, Release of Liability, Indemnification Agreement and Covenant not to Sue” (the “Waiver”).

Finken registered for the race on or about July 27, 2014. Order Summary, at 4 (ECF No. 45-1). Part of that registration required Finken to sign the Waiver. Finken does not recall seeing or signing the Waiver, but for purposes of these summary judgment motions, it is undisputed that he signed it. The Waiver is broad. It notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” and includes dangers such as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis omitted). It further notes “the possibility of serious [*7]  physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id.
Finken agreed to “waive, release, discharge, hold harmless, and promise to indemnify and not to sue” USA
Cycling and specified others for “any and all rights and claims including claims arising from [their] own negligence.” Id. (emphasis omitted). Finken also agreed to release “all damages which may be sustained by [him] directly or indirectly in connection[] with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id.

ANALYSIS

I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

“Summary judgment is proper if the movant demonstrates that there is ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact’ and that it is ‘entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Thom v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). The defendants’ motions seek summary judgment based on the terms of a preinjury waiver. The parties have applied Utah law to address the claims in this case.

II. WAIVER AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENTS

In Utah, “[i]t is well settled that preinjury releases of claims for ordinary negligence can be valid and enforceable.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (citation omitted). “Indeed . . . the majority of jurisdictions” permit “people to surrender their rights [*8]  to recover in tort for the negligence of others.” Id. (citations omitted). This does not mean, however, that preinjury waivers are favored. Rather, “the shortcomings of exculpatory clauses . . . provide ample cause to approach preinjury releases with caution.” Berry v. Greater Park City Co., 2007 UT 87, ¶ 11, 171 P.3d 442, overruled in part by Penunuri, 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150. Thus, not all preinjury waivers are valid. “Specifically, (1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 984 (quotations and citations omitted).

As to indemnification provisions, “[i]n general, the common law disfavors agreements that indemnify parties against their own negligence because one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). “Because of this public safety concern,” Utah court’s “strictly construe indemnity agreements against negligence.” Id. (citation omitted).

A. Clarity of the Waiver

“Preinjury releases, to be enforceable, must be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner.” Pearce v. Utah Athletic Found., 2008 UT 13, ¶ 22, 179 P.3d 760, 767, overruled in part by Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 2017 UT 54, ¶¶ 22, 27, 423 P.3d 1150, (quotations and citations omitted). The Utah [*9]  Supreme Court has stated, “[t]o be effective, a release need not achieve perfection . . . . It suffices that a release be clear, unambiguous, and explicit, and that it express an agreement not to hold the released party liable for negligence.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Whether a contract is facially ambiguous is a question of law. Daines v. Vincent, 2008 UT 51, ¶ 25, 190 P.3d 1269 (citation omitted). If there is ambiguity as to the intent of the parties, that is a question of fact requiring admission of parol evidence. Id. (citation omitted). In this case, however, the court only addresses facial ambiguity because if the Waiver is not clear on its face, it is unenforceable.

i. USA
Cycling

The Waiver has clear language releasing USA
Cycling from negligence. What is less clear is negligence from what activity? The Waiver notes “that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport” due to such dangers as “collision with pedestrians, vehicles, other riders, and fixed or moving objects.” Waiver, at 2 (ECF No. 56-6) (emphasis added). It further notes “the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma or injury, or death associated with the event.” Id. (emphasis added). These provisions appear to provide notice about the event itself and [*10]  the dangers that may arise from it. Finken‘s injuries, however, arose from a pre-ride. When a map is published of a racecourse on a public road, one reasonably anticipates that road is open to travel. Although both defendants knew the road was closed until the race, they did not inform participants of that fact. Thus, they exposed pre-riders to a risk that is not inherent in a race on a public road. See Rutherford v. Talisker Canyons Fin., Co., LLC, 2019 UT 27, ¶¶ 19, 79, 445 P.3d 474 (citation omitted) (noting inherent risks are those that are an essential characteristic of a sport and “cannot be alleviated by the use of reasonable care” by an operator).

The Waiver goes on to state, however, that it releases “all damages which may be sustained by [Finken] directly or indirectly in connection[] with, or arising out of, [his] participation in or association with the event, or travel to or return from the event.” Id. (emphasis added). The only reason Finken was on the Old Snowbasin Road was in preparation for the event. His pre-ride therefore was in connection with his participation in that 2014 Championship race. Accordingly, the court concludes the Waiver was clear as to USA
Cycling.

ii. Breakaway

Breakaway contends the waiver also applied to it because it releases [*11]  “USA
Cycling‘s Event Directors, Affiliates, Agents, and Officials.” Mem. in Supp., at 14 (ECF No. 56). While the Waiver does release those persons, Breakaway has not specified which of those it was. It has failed to show it was an event director, affiliate, agent, or official.

The Waiver was USA
Cycling‘s waiver, and it appears to protect those persons directly affiliated with USA
Cycling. Based on Leif’s title as National Event Manager and Rice’s title as Vice President of National Events, the “Event Directors” may reference them and not Breakaway. The term is not defined in the Waiver and is too ambiguous for the court to conclude the Waiver is sufficiently clear on its fact to apply to Breakaway.

Breakaway entered an Independent Contractor Agreement that specifies it was “not an employee, or servant of” USA
Cycling. Breakaway Agmt., ¶ 2 (ECF No. 56-7). The agreement further specifies that Breakaway would “be solely and entirely responsible for its acts, and for the acts of independent contractor’s agents, employees, servants and subcontractors during the performance of this agreement.” Id. ¶ 3 (emphasis omitted). Nowhere in the agreement does it identify Breakaway as an event director, [*12]  or as an affiliate, agent, or official of USA
Cycling.

Because the Waiver does not clearly and unambiguously extend to Breakaway as an independent contractor, the court concludes Finken‘s claim against Breakaway is not barred67 c x.

B. Public Interest Exception

The public interest exception invalidates a preinjury release when “it attempts to limit liability for activities in which there is a strong public interest.” Berry, 2007 UT 87, ¶ 12, 171 P.3d 442. The Utah Supreme Court has adopted the six factors stated in Tunkl v. Regents of the University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 445-46 (Cal. 1963) to determine if the public interest exception applies. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 17, 179 P.3d 760 (citations omitted). For recreational activities, however, it has gone one step further. In Pearce, the Court “join[ed] other states in declaring, as a general rule, that recreational activities do not constitute a public interest and that, therefore, preinjury releases for recreational activities cannot be invalidated under the public interest exception.” Id. at ¶¶ 18, 21.

As stated above, Finken‘s pre-ride was done in connection with his expected participation in the 2014 Championship. Because the event and the pre-ride were recreational activities, the court concludes the public interest exception is inapplicable in this case.

C. Public Policy Exception

Finken [*13]  further contends the Waiver is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy. “To determine whether a contract offends public policy,” a court must “first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” Penunuri, 2013 UT 22, ¶ 26, 301 P.3d 984. The Utah Supreme Court also has stated, “for a contract to be void on the basis of public policy, there must be a showing free from doubt that the contract is against public policy.” Id. (quotations, citation, and alteration omitted). Thus, this exception should be applied, “if at all, only with the utmost circumspection.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted).

i. Penunuri Analysis – Equine Act

In Penunuri, the Utah Supreme Court addressed whether Utah’s Equine and Livestock Activities Act made certain preinjury waivers unenforceable as a matter of public policy. The waiver at issue in Penunuri, noted “that horseback riding involves significant risk of serious personal injury, and that there are certain inherent risks associated with the activity . . . that may result in injury, harm, or death to persons on or around them.” Id. at ¶ 3 (quotations omitted).

Utah’s Equine Act specifies “equine [*14]  activity sponsors are not liable for injuries caused by the ‘inherent risks’ associated with equine activities.” Id. at ¶ 9 (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202)). The same section also specifies, however, that a sponsor may be liable if an injury results from actions of the sponsor. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-202(2). The plaintiff argued the Legislature struck a balance as a matter of public policy by removing liability for inherent risks but keeping liability for negligent actions. She asserted the balancing of interests was similar to the Court’s analysis in Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 2007 UT 96, 175 P.3d 560. Thus, she argued any waiver barring recovery from a sponsor who was negligent was contrary to public policy. The Court disagreed.

It found the Equine Act did not have a public policy statement like Utah’s Inherent Risk of Skiing Act addressed in Rothstein. Id. at ¶ 24. When the Legislature eliminated liability for the inherent risks of horseback riding, it did “not explain the motivation behind” that decision. Id. at ¶ 32. Nor did the Equine Act note the economic importance of the activity for the State. Most importantly, it lacked the central purpose of the Skiing Act to “permit equine sponsors to purchase insurance at affordable rates.” Id. at ¶ 33 (quotations and citation omitted). [*15]  “[I]t was that ‘central purpose’ . . . that led [the Court] to infer that the Legislature had struck a ‘public policy bargain’ when it eliminated liability for the inherent risks of skiing.” Id. Without “a similar expression . . . in the Equine Act,” the Court “resist[ed] the temptation to add language or meaning to the Act where no hint of it exist[ed] in the text.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the Court concluded the waiver in Penunuri did not violate public policy. The Court reached a similar conclusion in Pearce, whereby “a preinjury release between a public bobsled ride operator and an adult bobsled rider” was deemed enforceable. Pearce, 2008 UT 13, ¶ 15, 179 P.3d 760.

ii. Rothstein Analysis – Skiing Act

The distinguishing factor between Rothstein and other cases is the combination of a public policy statement and a legislative balancing of risks between operators and participants. In Rothstein, a skier “collided with a retaining wall constructed of stacked railroad ties and embedded partially in the mountain.” Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶ 3, 175 P.3d 560. “At the time of the accident, a light layer of snow camouflaged the retaining wall from [the skier’s] view. . . . [T]he retaining wall was unmarked and no measures had been taken to alert skiers [*16]  to its presence.” Id. Rather, the ski resort “had placed a rope line with orange flagging near the wall,” but the rope stopped short and created “a large gap between the end of the rope and a tree.” Id. The skier thought the gap “indicated an entrance to the Fluffy Bunny run.” Id. He suffered serious injuries when he collided with the retaining wall. Id.

When analyzing Utah’s Skiing Act, the Court observed that “[s]eldom does a statute address directly the public policy relevant to the precise legal issue confronting a court.” Id. ¶ 11. It nevertheless found a clear “public policy rationale” for the Skiing Act. Id. Within that statute, the Legislature found that skiing “‘significantly contribute[es] to the economy of this state.'” Id. ¶ 12 (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51 renumbered at
§ 78B-4-401). The Legislature also found ski operators were having difficulty obtaining insurance at an affordable rate or at all. Id. (citing Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51). Thus, it struck a balance where operators could not be held liable “‘for injuries resulting from those inherent risks.'” Id. (quoting Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-51).

The Court therefore found the following:

The bargain struck by the Act is both simple and obvious from its public policy provision: ski area operators would [*17]  be freed from liability for inherent risks of skiing so that they could continue to shoulder responsibility for noninherent risks by purchasing insurance. By extracting a preinjury release from [the skier] for liability due to their negligent acts, [the resort] breached this public policy bargain.

Id. ¶ 16. The distinguishing factor between the balance struck in the Equine Act and the balance struck in Skiing Act was the express public policy statement that the balance was necessary due to the economic benefit to the State and the ski resort’s inability to insure itself for the inherent risks associated with skiing.

iii. Bike Racing Analysis

The facts giving rise to Finken‘s injuries are closely analogous to the facts in Rothstein. In Rothstein, a wall was unmarked and where one did not expect it to be. In this case, a barricade was unmarked on the course map and where one did not expect it to be. Neither the wall nor the barricade was within the inherent risks of the relevant sport. Although the facts are similar between the two cases, the issue before the court is whether Utah has a public policy that precludes USA
Cycling from avoiding liability for risks that are not inherent in a [*18]  bike race.

The Utah Legislature has found there are inherent risks associated with bike riding. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-509(1)(a), (d). For injuries arising from inherent risks of participating in bike riding, the Legislature has afforded protection to “a county, municipality, local district, . . . or special service district.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(a). It also has afforded protection to “the owner of property that is leased, rented, or otherwise made available to” the government “for the purpose of providing or operating a recreational activity.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(2)(b). The Legislature chose not to “relieve any other person from an obligation that the person would have in the absence of this section to exercise due care.” Id.
§ 78B-4-509(3)(b). That balance is different from the Equine Act and the Skiing Act because it leaves operators of biking events without any statutory protections.

In another section of statute, the Legislature more particularly addressed bike races. It stated bike racing is permitted on a highway only if approved by the highway authority of the relevant jurisdiction. Id.
§ 41-6a-1111. The State has a significant interest in ensuring safety on its public highways. Bike racing can impact not just the participants, but spectators or those in a motor vehicle trying [*19]  to navigate the same highway. Thus, the Legislature specified before approval may be granted, conditions must exist to “assure reasonable safety for all race participants, spectators, and other highway users.” Id.
§ 41-6a-1111(2)(b).

The Utah Department of Transportation instituted regulations to carry out the intent and purpose of the statute. The Department noted one purpose of its regulation was to “[e]ncourage and support special events such as . . . bicycle races” because it “recognize[d] their importance to Utah’s economy and to the well-being of residents of and visitors to Utah.” Utah Admin. Code R920-4-1(1)(b). Nevertheless, “to further . . . governmental interests,” it implemented safety protocols to ensure “[t]he safety of all participants in, and spectators of, special events,” as well as the travelling public. Id. at R920-4-1(2)(b), (c).

One protocol requires a person or entity to obtain a special event permit before holding a bike race on a highway. Id. at R920-4-1(4)(g), (i). To obtain a special event permit, the applicant must “provide a detailed map.” Id. at R920-4-13. The applicant also must have “liability insurance,” and such insurance must list the State of Utah “as an additional insured.” Id. at R920-4-9(1);  [*20] see also id. at R920-4-6. Consistent with statute, the applicant must obtain a waiver and release of liability from participants that releases the State and governmental personnel. Id. at R920-4-9(3)-(4). Although the statutory provision bars claims against the government for inherent risks, the regulatory waiver bars all claims. Similarly, though, there is no exclusion from liability for the operator of a bike race.

Based on the Rothstein analysis and harmonization of the relevant statutes and regulations, the court concludes the Legislature and Department of Transportation allow bike races on public highways but recognize inherent risks associated with such races. Safety is paramount because a bike race can impact not only those in the race, but spectators, or motorists who have no association with it. Detailed maps and liability insurance are pre-requisites to obtaining a special event permit to help protect against risks. As the Utah Supreme Court noted in Hawkins, “one might be careless of another’s life and limb, if there is no penalty for carelessness.” Hawkins, 2001 UT 94, ¶ 14, 37 P.3d 1062 (quotations and citation omitted). Thus, the requirement for liability insurance helps ensure safety for participants, spectators, [*21]  and the travelling public.

Utah has recognized, however, that if liability insurance must cover inherent and non-inherent risks of a sport, the cost may be prohibitive and thereby hinder holding events or activities that would provide an economic benefit to the state. Hindering such economic benefits would be contrary to one of the stated purposes of the regulation. Thus, one may reasonably conclude that liability for inherent risks may be waived by the bike race participants so as not to hinder the economic benefits to the State.

The court concludes, however, if an operator is allowed to obtain a waiver from participants even for risks that are not inherent in the sport, it would alter one of the elements for a special event permit. Liability insurance is meant to cover liabilities. If all liability has been waived for bike participants, then the purpose for carrying liability insurance is altered as to those participants. Because bike races on highways are prohibited unless the reasonable safety of participants, spectators, and the travelling public may be assured, a balance was struck and cannot be altered via a waiver of liability. Accordingly, the court concludes as a matter of [*22]  public policy, the Waiver in this case is unenforceable because it attempts to waive liability even for non-inherent risks arising from or associated with the negligent acts of USA
Cycling.
2

iv. Modification of the Utah’s Skiing Act

An additional issue has arisen since briefing on the motions. From 2007 until 2020, the Rothstein balance existed between operators and skiers whereby preinjury waivers were enforceable for risks inherent in skiing, but not for unforeseen risks arising from the negligent actions of the operator. See Rothstein, 2007 UT 96, ¶¶ 16, 19, 175 P.3d 560. In 2020, the Utah Legislature altered this balance by passing legislation that allows preinjury waivers without regard to whether the risk was unforeseen. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-4-405 (2020). Moreover, claims brought on or after May 12, 2020, if not otherwise barred, have a noneconomic damages cap of $1,000,000. Id. at § 78B-4-406. The Legislature’s actions have abrogated the ruling in Rothstein and will necessarily impact future preinjury waiver analyses for other recreational activities.

The question here is whether the Legislature’s change of public policy should be applied retroactively to the analysis in this case. The United States Supreme Court has stated “the principle that the legal effect [*23]  of conduct should ordinarily be assessed under the law that existed when the conduct took place has timeless and universal appeal.” Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 265, 114 S. Ct. 1483, 1497, 128 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1994) (quotations and citation omitted). Moreover, the Due Process Clause “protects the interests in fair notice and repose that may be compromised by retroactive legislation.” Id. at 266 (citation omitted).

Here, the legislation was approved on March 28, 2020, but made effective May 12, 2020. This shows a clear intent for future application of law. Accordingly, the public policy analysis applied in Rothstein was still applicable at the time of the events in this case and informs this court’s decision.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the court DENIES the Motions for Summary Judgment filed by USA
Cycling and Breakaway (ECF Nos. 38, 56).

DATED this 3rd day of June, 2020.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Clark Waddoups

Clark Waddoups

United States District Judge


Convoluted procedural issues at the trial court, created a ripe field for confusion, but the appellate court held the release bard the claims of the plaintiff in the skier v. skier collision where the ski resort was also sued.

Once the jury found there was no gross negligence on the part of the plaintiff, the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: …implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Reading the case is confusing. A lot of the decision revolves around stipulated jury special verdict form and how the case was decided at the trial level after the jury rendered a verdict. The verdict was sort of in favor of the plaintiff; however, the stipulated part of the proceedings were used by the judge to hold for the defendant.

The plaintiff, deceased, season pass holder was hit on the slopes by a snowboarder. Her family sued the snowboarder and the ski area. The jury held the ski area was negligent but not grossly negligent. Because the deceased plaintiff had signed a release, the release stopped the negligence claims.

Facts

The jury found the plaintiff negligent, but not grossly negligent. The judge then ruled the release removed the duty on the party of the defendant so therefore the defendant was not liable.

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

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

The appellate court first looked at the release. The first analysis is what made this case stand out.

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

You cannot sue, because you assume the inherent risks of a sport. Therefore, a release that only protects the defendant from the inherent risks is worthless, as stated by the court.

To help everyone understand the statement above made by the court, the court reviewed Assumption of the Risk under California law.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight) and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

[Emphasize added]

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

[Emphasize added]

If a defendant increases the risk to participants, then the defendant is liable for any injury to a participant that occurs because of the increase in risk caused by the defendant. However, a participant may still choose to participate and may still be stopped from suing for injuries received from the increased risk if the participants know of the risks and voluntarily assumes the risk. This is called Secondary Assumption of the Risk.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.

Secondary Assumption of the risk is part of the defenses a release provides to a defendant. However, a release provides broader and more defenses then Secondary Assumption of the risk provides. On top of that, by signing a written document, the risk outlined in the release, if any, are assumed by the participant because the document is (and should be) a release and an Express Assumption of the Risk document.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

Not all court think exactly along these lines when reviewing releases. However, many do and all courts reach the same conclusion, just by different legal analysis.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.’

[Emphasize added]

Assumption of the risk is a great defense. However, a release provides a greater defense, a better defense and should, if properly written to incorporate the defenses available in all types of assumption of the risk.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ ([courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is one caveat with all of this. If they actions of the defendant in changing the risk, increase the risk to the level of gross negligence, a release in most states does not act to bar gross negligence.

As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

The court then summed up its review of the defenses of assumption of the risk and release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

[Emphasize added]

In reviewing the release the appellate court found it stopped the negligence claims of the plaintiff.

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence.

The court then applied its ruling on the release to the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was grossly negligent.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The rest of the case then goes on to evaluate the appellate court’s findings and the different way the court came to its ruling at the trial court level.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; however, the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The defendant won because the jury did not find the defendant was grossly negligent, and the release stopped all other claims of the plaintiff.

So Now What?

There are several things to learn from this case. The first is the intricacies, procedures and rulings that the trial system has, make any trial a nightmare now days. It is nothing like TV, more like a game of war played out on a board with dozens of books or rules that must be consulted before every move.

The second is the value and power of a release. Even after the plaintiff won the trial, the release came back into to play to defeat the claims of the plaintiff.

Thirdly the education the court provided and copies into this post about assumption of the risk as a defense, the different types of assumption of the risk and how your release should incorporate assumption of the risk.

Make sure your release incorporates assumption of the risk language and is written to protect you in the state where you are doing business for the business you are running.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle et al., v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Grant Tuttle et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

Heavenly Valley, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

G056427

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

February 5, 2020

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

Appeal from a judgment and postjudgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2015- 00813230 Nathan R. Scott, Judge. Affirmed.

The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

DUNNING, J. [*]

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.[ 1] Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant ;unreasonably increased the risks… over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing. The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

THE RELEASE

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.[ 2] The release begins with an all-capital advisement: WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS. Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. In paragraph 2, she ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS… known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions;… variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features;… [and] collisions. Paragraph 5 advised: The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY… for… injury or loss to [her], including death. This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE…. In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was binding to the fullest extent permitted by law… on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

II.

THE ACCIDENT AND THE LAWSUIT

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.[ 3] Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained… by Plaintiffs was directly and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated; (2) Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury; and (3) defendant is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.

III.

THE JURY TRIAL

The jury trial spanned five weeks.[ 4] The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered yes to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel were not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the jurors’ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.[ 5] The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and-release of liability and waiver was executed-existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated. (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could end up finding that the release was not valid and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as the release in evidence releases negligence. And the questions on the verdict form go[] to gross negligence, and-this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk. Defendant’s counsel remarked the dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: Right. Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, [a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form…. [¶]… If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them-you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

THE SPECIAL VERDICT

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

Yes X No __

4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes __ No X

If you answered Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question 5. [¶] If you answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

If you answered Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number 0′ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

Yes X No __

Because the jury answered yes to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2, 131, 831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

ENTRY OF A DEFENSE JUDGMENT

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1, 065, 915.50, plus costs and interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.[ 6]

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle. The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: [D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.’

The trial court acknowledged the structure of the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

PLAINTIFFS’ POSTJUDGMENT MOTIONS

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint. (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence, [ 7] the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ postjudgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

THE RELEASE COVERED TUTTLE’S ACCIDENT.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language. (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

OVERVIEW: ASSUMPTION OF THE RISK

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 (Knight)[ 8] and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.[ 9] Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not inherent’ in the sport. (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility. (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case 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.’ (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.’ [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, [t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.’ (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement to shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

ANALYSIS

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only concern is whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.’ (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise. She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it FROM ALL LIABILITY… BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE. No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, inherent or otherwise did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, [t]he term otherwise,’ when paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’… is best understood to mean NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release bears many similarities to the release in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently and unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning (id. at p.1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.’ (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use the word negligence’ or any particular verbiage… [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee. (Id. at pp. 1488 1489.) The release in Cohen used the word negligence only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release also did not indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities. (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5that p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence. [ 10] (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

ENFORCEMENT OF THE RELEASE DOES NOT VIOLATE CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC POLICY.

Plaintiffs next argue the release’s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of aggravated negligence. Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release of other forms of aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence. (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for any negligent act’ related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence. (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668, [ 11] impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence. (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to aggravated wrongs (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and aggravated misconduct (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, 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.) With a valid release, a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

THE TRIAL COURT DID NOT ERR BY ENTERING JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other postjudgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

LEGAL PRINCIPLES GOVERNING SPECIAL VERDICTS

A special verdict must include conclusions of fact as established by the evidence… [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation may be disregarded as surplusage. (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703.) Additionally, where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.’ (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092.)

B.

THE TRIAL COURT’S RULING

As noted, the jury was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form…. But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer YES’ to one question and NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages. (Italics and bold omitted.)

The trial court further explained: Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶]… [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion-a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw-that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.

The trial court also correctly concluded the jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.

C.

ANALYSIS

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring a statutorily authorized post-trial motion challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine as is and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179 [because the defendant did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

PLAINTIFFS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO A NEW TRIAL.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was hopelessly contradictory and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they excepted to those errors, but then were penalized because the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley. Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431, [ 12] to which they agreed, misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options. Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which… made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs]… were… induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs]. This characterization misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or worked against plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would proceed with the verdict form as is. This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third−and significantly−plaintiffs’ counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

WE CONCUR: BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J.

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Notes:

[*] Retired judge of the Orange Superior Court, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution.

[ 1] We refer to Dana Tuttle as Tuttle and to her spouse and sons collectively as plaintiffs. We refer to Heavenly Valley as defendant.

Plaintiffs erroneously identified Heavenly Valley in the complaint as the Vail Corporation. There is no dispute Heavenly Valley is the correct defendant in this case.

[ 2] Tuttle purchased the ski pass online. No actual signature was required; she signed the release by clicking the appropriate box on the electronic form.

[ 3] The jury exonerated Slater from liability. He is not a party to this appeal.

[ 4] The appellate record is lengthy. Given the limited issues before this court, however, we do not recite the trial evidence in detail.

[ 5] The trial court denied defendant’s first nonsuit motion two days earlier. At that time, the trial judge announced he would be prepared to find as a matter of law that colliding with a snowboarder or colliding with a tree is an inherent risk of skiing, but the jury would decide whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk of the sport.

[ 6] Defendant also requested a statement of decision addressing the applicability of primary implied and express assumption of the risk doctrines; the trial court denied the request. The trial court’s denial of this request is not at issue in this appeal.

[ 7] Plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence in this appeal.

[ 8] Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th 296 was a plurality decision authored by Chief Justice George that all members of the court except Justice Kennard subsequently accepted. (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 107, citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 491.)

[ 9] Whether a risk is inherent to a particular active sport presents a question of law for the court. (Hass v. RhodyCo Productions (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 11, 23 (Hass).)

[ 10] So it is here. Paragraph 13 of Tuttle’s release also binds her assignees, subrogors, distributors, heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.

A wrongful death action is not a derivative action. Nonetheless, although an individual involved in a dangerous activity cannot by signing a release extinguish his heirs’ wrongful death claim, the heirs will be bound by the decedent’s agreement to waive a defendant’s negligence and assume all risk. (Ruiz v. Podolsky (2010) 50 Cal.4th 838, 851 852; see Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 25 [In other words, although a decedent cannot release or waive a subsequent wrongful death claim by the decedent’s heirs, that decedent’s express agreement to waive the defendant’s negligence and assume all risks’ acts as a complete defense to such a wrongful death action].)

[ 11] Civil Code section 1668 lists the types of contractual releases that are unenforceable as a matter of public policy (i.e., those exempting anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent). Gross negligence is not on the list.

[ 12] Plaintiffs do not challenge the modified version of CACI No. 431 in this court, either. The modified instruction read: If you find that Heavenly Valley unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, or that Heavenly Valley was grossly negligent, and also find that Heavenly Valley’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm, then Heavenly Valley is responsible for the harm. Heavenly Valley cannot avoid responsibility just because some other person, condition, or event, including but not limited to Dana Tuttle’s own negligence or the acts of Anthony Slater were also a substantial factor in causing Dana Tuttle’s harm.

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A fly-fishing lawsuit, a first.

Montana Federal Court covers a lot of interesting legal issues for the OR industry in this decision. However, defendant is in a tough position because the statutes provide no help, he can’t use a release and probably like most fly-fishing guides; he believes he won’t be sued.

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

State: Montana

Plaintiff: Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, and Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin

Defendant: James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Holding: Split, mostly for the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

At the end of a float fly fishing trip, the boat hit a rock throwing the deceased into the river. While attempting to get the deceased back in the boat the deceased partner fell in. The deceased yelled to grab her because she could not swim. The defendant grabbed the girlfriend and maneuvered the boat through rapids.

The deceased drowned, (supposedly). Neither were wearing PFDs.

Facts

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

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

Only the legal issues affecting fly fishing or the outdoor industry will be reviewed. This decision is a result of both parties filing motions for summary judgment, so there is no chronological hierarchy of how the decision is written. Each motion is tackled by the judge in the order to make the following arguments more manageable.

A few things to remember. Montana does not allow an outfitter or guide to use a release. See Montana Statutes Prohibits Use of a Release.

Both parties filed motions concerning the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act (MRRA). The MRRA is similar to the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act, both of which are solely assumption of the risk statutes and weak overall. The plaintiff argued the MRRA was unconstitutional on several grounds, all of which were denied. The defendant argued the MRRA should bar the plaintiff’s claims which were also denied.

The first issue was inherent risks under the MRRA are not defined per activity or in general.

Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

This leaves a monstrous gap in the protection it affords, in fact, does not afford outfitters and guides in Montana any real protection.

The court did not agree that the MRRA was broad enough to protect the defendant in this case.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Because there was a genuine issue of material fact (a mix of plausible opinions) the MRRA was not broad or strong enough to stop the plaintiff’s claims and the defendant’s motion failed.

The plaintiff argued the MRRA was void because it was vague, it did not define inherent risk.

The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.”

The plaintiff also argued that because the MRRA did not define risk that it was void.

A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning.

The plaintiff argued they should be able to sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”).

To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” The question of whether the threshold level of emotional dis-tress can be found is for the Court to determine. (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plain-tiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional dis-tress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event.

The plaintiff also argued they should be able to sue for loss of consortium.

Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.”

In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.”

The court then looked at the issue of abnormally dangerous. A finding of that an activity is abnormally dangerous brings more damages and fewer requirements to prove part of the negligence of the defendant.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

So Now What?

A statute that protects defendants based on assumption of the risk does so because it identifies specific risk and broadens the definitions of what an inherent risk is. An example would be the Colorado Skier Safety Act. That act describes the inherent risk of skiing and then adds dozens of more risk, which are beyond the normal scope of inherent.

Both the MRRA and the Wyoming Recreational Safety Act statutorily defines the common law but does nothing to broaden or strengthen the common law. They could better be defined as politically pandering, an attempt by a politician to make constituents feel better by giving them something, which, in reality, has no value.

The fly-fishing outfitter was caught in Montana’s lack of available defenses, no statutory protection and no availability of a release. He might be able to strengthen his defenses by having his clients sign an Assumption of the Risk Document. He also might offer them PFDs.

Furthermore, remember in most whitewater or cold-water deaths drowning is not the cause of the death. Most people die of a heart attack. risk or Wikipedia: Cold Shock Response.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

McJunkin v. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

Charles P. Mcjunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett Mcjunkin, and Rhett Mcjunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. Mcjunkin, Plaintiffs, vs. James Yeager d/b/a Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant.

CV 17-12-BLG-TJC

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA, BILLINGS DIVISION

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169321

September 28, 2018, Decided

September 28, 2018, Filed

COUNSEL: [*1] For Charles P. McJunkin, deceased, by and through his executor and personal representative, Rhett McJunkin, Rhett McJunkin, executor and personal representative, on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin, Plaintiffs: Philip L. McGrady, LEAD ATTORNEY, McGRADY LAW, Whitefish, MT.

For James Yeager, doing business as, Jim Yeager Outfitters, Defendant: Ross Daniel Tillman, LEAD ATTORNEY, John M. Newman, BOONE KARLBERG, P.C., Missoula, MT.

JUDGES: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION BY: TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

OPINION

ORDER

Rhett McJunkin, as personal representative of the estate of Charles P. McJunkin, and on behalf of the heirs of Charles P. McJunkin (“Plaintiffs”), brings this action against Defendant James Yeager, doing business as Jim Yeager Outfitters (“Yeager” or “Defendant”), in relation to a fatal boating accident that occurred on the Stillwater River near Columbus, Montana. Plaintiffs assert claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. (Doc. 1.)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint (Doc. 23), Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment Regarding the Constitutionality of the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act [*2] (Doc. 28), and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review.

Having considered the parties’ submissions, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend should be DENIED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment should be DENIED, and Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND1

1 The background facts set forth here are relevant to the Court’s determination of the pending motions for summary judgment and are taken from the parties’ submissions and are undisputed except where indicated.

Yeager is a professional fishing guide and outfitter. On July 17, 2014, Yeager took a paying client, Charles P. McJunkin (“McJunkin”), on a guided fishing trip in a raft on the Stillwater River. As Yeager was guiding and operating the raft, McJunkin fell into the river and drowned. McJunkin was 81 years old at the time of his death.

McJunkin had gone on similar guided fishing trips with Yeager for approximately 20 years. In fact, in the week preceding the July 17, 2014 accident, McJunkin had floated and fished the Stillwater River three times with Yeager. On each occasion, Yeager put-in at the Johnson Bridge Fishing Access, and used the Swinging Bridge Fishing Access Site for a take-out at the end of the day. The Swinging Bridge take-out is approximately one-quarter mile above a set [*3] of rapids known as the Beartooth Drop. Yeager had never floated through the Beartooth Drop with McJunkin.

On the date of the accident, Yeager was guiding McJunkin and his partner, Julia Garner (“Garner”). The plan was to again float from Johnson Bridge to the Swinging Bridge take-out. The river conditions encountered by Yeager that day were characteristic of, and consistent with conditions he previously encountered on that stretch of the river. Yeager approached the Swinging Bridge take-out in the same manner as he had on the three earlier days of fishing. As he approached the take-out, the raft crossed an underwater shelf of rocks. When the rear of the raft passed the shelf, the boat rocked and McJunkin fell into the water. Although the raft was equipped with personal floatation devices (PFDs), McJunkin was not wearing one at the time.

McJunkin swam toward the raft, and Yeager attempted to position the raft so that McJunkin could grab ahold of the side. During this process, the party floated past the Swinging Bridge take-out. To complicate matters further, as Yeager attempted to pull McJunkin into the raft, Garner fell into the water. The parties dispute what caused Garner’s fall. Plaintiffs [*4] contend Yeager accidentally hit her with an oar. Yeager indicated he didn’t know what caused her to fall in, testifying “I don’t know if I hit a rock or a wave or whatever, Julie went in.” Garner yelled to Yeager that she could not swim. Yeager made the split-second decision to let go of McJunkin and attempt to save Garner, fearing she would drown otherwise. Yeager was able to pull her back into the raft as they entered the Beartooth Drop. Meanwhile, McJunkin lost contact with Yeager and the raft and floated through the rapid. He ultimately did not survive.

II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

[HN1] Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. “Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass’n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

[HN2] The party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine [*5] issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party’s case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party fails to discharge this initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party’s evidence. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60, 90 S. Ct. 1598, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970).

[HN3] If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party must “go beyond the pleadings and by ‘the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,’ designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The opposing party cannot defeat summary judgment merely by demonstrating “that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586; Triton Energy Corp. v. Square D Co., 68 F.3d 1216, 1221 (9th Cir. 1995) (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [*6] nonmoving party’s position is not sufficient.”) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment Related to the Montana Recreation Responsibility Act

Plaintiffs assert Yeager’s negligence caused McJunkin’s death. Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ negligence claim fails as a matter of law because it is barred by Montana’s Recreation Responsibility Act (the “MRRA”), Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-751, et seq. Thus, Yeager argues summary judgment on the negligence claim is warranted.

Plaintiffs counter that the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague, and violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and right to full legal redress. Plaintiffs, therefore, move for partial summary judgment declaring the MRRA unconstitutional. Plaintiffs further assert that even if the MRRA is constitutional, there are genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.

1. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment under the MRRA

[HN4] The MRRA limits the liability of recreational opportunity providers for injuries resulting from the inherent risks of sports or recreational opportunities.2 Specifically, the MRRA provides in relevant part:

(1) A person who participates in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risks in [*7] that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown, and is legally responsible for all injury or death to the person and for all damage to the person’s property that result from the inherent risks in that sport or recreational opportunity.

(2) A provider is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks within the particular sport or recreational opportunity that is provided.

(3)(a) Sections 27-1-751 through 27-1-754 do not preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider if the injury, death, or damage is not the result of an inherent risk of the sport or recreational opportunity.

Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-753.

2 “Sport or recreational opportunity” is defined broadly in the MRRA as “any sporting activity, whether undertaken with or without permission, include but not limited to baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, bicycling, hiking, swimming, boating, hockey, dude ranching, nordic or alpine skiing, snowboarding, snow sliding, mountain climbing, river floating, whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, target shooting, hunting, fishing, backcountry trips, horseback riding and other equine activity, snowmobiling, off-highway vehicle use, agritourism, an on-farm educational opportunity, and any similar recreational activity.” Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4).

The MRRA defines “Inherent risks” as:

[T]hose dangers or conditions that are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational activity and that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

[HN5] When interpreting a statute, a court is required to look to the plain meaning of the words. Clarke v. Massey, 271 Mont. 412, 897 P.2d 1085, 1088 (1995). A court will only resort to the legislative history of a statute if the legislative intent cannot be determined from the statute’s plain wording. Id. “[T]he office of judge is simply to ascertain and declare what is in terms or in substance contained therein, not to insert [*8] what has been omitted or to omit what has been inserted.” Mont. Code Ann. § 1-2-101.

Yeager maintains that the statute has a simple, straight-forward application to the facts of this case. He argues McJunkin’s death was caused by drowning; falling out of a boat and drowning is an inherent risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, Plaintiffs’ negligence claim is barred under the MRRA as a matter of law. In short, Yeager asserts because the injury in this case involved drowning while fishing from a raft, the MRRA precludes Plaintiffs’ claim. (Doc. 32 at 15.)

Yeager reads the MRRA much too broadly. Construing the statute in this fashion would immunize providers of recreational activities from their own negligence. The Court finds that such a construction would be contrary to the statute’s plain words, the legislative intent in enacting the legislation, and would likely render the MRRA unconstitutional.

[HN6] Under the plain language of the MRRA, a risk must satisfy two requirements to constitute an “inherent risk” and thus fall within the Act’s protection. There must be (1) a danger or condition that is characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity, and (2) the danger or condition must be one that cannot be prevented [*9] by the use of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2). Therefore, the MRRA does not insulate a provider from all risks which are characteristic of, or intrinsic to the activity. It only provides protection for those risks which cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care. In order to make this determination, it is necessary to look at the facts and circumstances of each case and the specific risk or condition involved.

Wyoming has a similar “Recreation Safety Act.” Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-1-121 through 1-1-123. Like the MRRA, the Wyoming Act provides that “[a]ny person who takes part in any sport or recreational opportunity assumes the inherent risk in that sport or recreational opportunity, whether those risks are known or unknown . . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(a). It also similarly states that a provider of the “recreational opportunity is not required to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-123(b). One critical difference between the two acts, however, is the definition of an inherent risk. The MRRA and the Wyoming Act both define inherent risk to mean “those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part” of the activity. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-122(a)(i). But the Wyoming Act’s definition does not also include the MRRA’s requirement [*10] that the risk “cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”

Nevertheless, the construction of the Wyoming Act is instructive as far as the similarities go. Courts which have construed and applied the Wyoming statute have rejected the broad, general interpretation advanced by Yeager in this case. To determine what risks are inherent, decisions under the Wyoming Act have consistently required that a court “go beyond a broad characterization and inquire into the specific circumstances of both [the plaintiff’s] actions and those of the recreation provider.” Creel v. L & L, Inc., 2012 WY 124, 287 P.3d 729, 736 (Wyo. 2012).

In Cooperman v. David, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 2000), for example, the plaintiff was injured during a guided horseback trail ride. The injury occurred when the plaintiff’s saddle slipped around to the belly of the horse, causing the plaintiff to fall to the ground. The defendant moved for summary judgment under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding. In determining the application of the Act, the Tenth Circuit made clear that the risk in question must be not be evaluated broadly or generally, but in the context of the specific factual setting presented.

Horseback riding undoubtedly carries some inherent risk [*11] that the rider will fall off the horse and get injured. A horse could stumble on an uneven path, or rear, or simply begin to gallop for no apparent reason. All of these risks clearly would qualify as inherent risks of horseback riding. Simply because some risks are inherent in horseback riding, however, does not mean that all risks of falling from a horse are necessarily inherent; instead, it is necessary to look factually at the specific risk to which the rider was exposed. When attempting to determine whether a risk is inherent to a sport, we can not look at the risk in a vacuum, apart from the factual setting to which the rider was exposed. And, we must evaluate the risk at the greatest level of specificity permitted by the factual record. See Madsen, 31 F.Supp.2d at 1328 (“The Court believes that one must look to the specific facts of a case to see whether there is a duty, and not simply look to the abstract character of the risk.”).

Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1167.

The same evaluation must be conducted under the MRRA. It is not enough to find that falling out of a boat and drowning is a general risk of fishing from a raft; therefore, drowning is an inherent risk in fishing. Although there may be circumstances where the risk of drowning [*12] cannot be prevented with the use of reasonable care, it is undoubtedly true the risk may be prevented in many other circumstances.

Therefore, each case must be examined in light of the specific factual context of the case to determine whether the specific risk involved could have been prevented using reasonable care. As the Wyoming Supreme Court points out, “[s]ome risks may occur from the choices a recreation provider makes on behalf of the participant and from the conditions in which the recreational opportunity is provided. Thus, atypical or uncharacteristic risks can arise even in those specific sports the Wyoming legislature clearly intended to exempt from liability for inherent risks.” Dunbar v. Jackson Hole Mtn. Resort Corp., 392 F.3d 1145, 1148–49 (10th Cir.2004).

In addition, Yeager’s broad interpretation of the MRRA would effectively immunize providers of a recreational opportunity from their own negligence. If providers were protected from all fishing-related drownings under the MRRA, they would be relieved of liability where the death was caused by negligence, or even by willful or wanton misconduct. For example, it would apply not only to situations where a participant falls out of a raft and drowns without negligent conduct by the provider; it would [*13] also apply where the provider negligently causes a raft to collide with a bridge abutment or other known obstruction in the river.

Such an application would be contrary to the legislative intent of the MRRA, which expressly provides that the Act does not “preclude an action based on the negligence of the provider. . . .” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-753. As recognized under the Wyoming Act, the “intent behind the Recreation Safety Act was not to preclude parties from suing for a provider’s negligence, it was merely to stop people from suing providers for those risks that were inherent to a sport.” Madsen v. Wyoming River Trips, 31 F.Supp.2d 1321, 1328 (D. Wyo. 1999).

Finally, construing the MRRA as Yeager urges would likely render the Act unconstitutional. [HN7] Statutes should be construed “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible.” Hernandez v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, 2008 MT 251, 345 Mont. 1, 189 P.3d 638, 642 (Mont. 2008). The Montana Supreme Court found a prior version of Montana’s Skier Responsibility Act unconstitutional because it prohibited a skier “from obtaining legal recourse against an operator even if the injury is proximately caused by the negligent or even intentional actions of the operator.”3
Brewer v. Ski-Lift, Inc., 234 Mont. 109, 762 P.2d 226, 230 (Mont. 1988). The Court found that although the state had a legitimate interest in protecting the economic vitality of the ski industry, there was no rational relationship [*14] between that purpose and requiring that skiers assume all risks for injuries regardless of the presence of negligence by the ski area operator. Id. at 230. See also, Oberson v. U.S. Dept. of Ag., Forest Serv., 2007 MT 293, 339 Mont. 519, 171 P.3d 715 (Mont. 2007) (snowmobile liability statute’s gross negligence standard, which relieved snowmobile operators from their negligent conduct, violated equal protection).

3 The statute at issue in Brewer barred recovery from a ski area operator if the skier suffered an injury resulting “from participating in the sport of skiing.” Brewer, 762 P.2d at 229 (citing Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(1)).

The purpose of the MRRA is substantially the same as the skier and snowmobile liability statutes — protection of providers of recreational activities from liability for risks over which the provider has no control. Under Yeager’s interpretation of the MRRA, providers of float fly fishing would be immune from liability for drownings, even when caused by the provider’s own negligence. Under Brewer and Oberson, such a construction would violate Plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection, due process, and access to the courts.

Therefore, whether the MRRA protects a provider of recreational opportunities from certain risks cannot be determined by looking at the broad, abstract character of the risk. Instead, the specific facts and circumstances in each case must be examined to determine whether the risk involved can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. If so, the MRRA does not [*15] shield the provider from liability.

That being established, the determination of whether McJunkin’s drowning resulted from an inherent risk of floating and fly fishing is not appropriate for summary judgment. While there may be cases where there are no genuine issue of material fact, and the issue may be appropriately decided as a matter of law, [HN8] the determination of whether a risk is an inherent risk is generally a factual determination for the jury to decide. See e.g. Mead v. M.S.B., Inc., 264 Mont. 465, 872 P.2d 782, 788-89 (Mont. 1994) (holding whether an inherent risk had been established under the Skier Responsibility Act was a question of fact to be resolved by the trier of fact); Cooperman, 214 F.3d at 1169 (noting the question of what is an inherent risk is normally a question of fact for the jury); Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 566 (Wyo. 1995) (“when genuine issues of material fact exist, it is proper to present the issue to the jury of whether a risk is inherent to a particular activity.”).4

4 At the time the Halpern case was decided, the Wyoming Act’s definition of inherent risk was similar to the MRRA. It was defined as “any risk that is characteristic of or intrinsic to any sport or recreational opportunity and which cannot reasonably be eliminated, altered or controlled.” Halpern, 890 P.2d at 564. The highlighted portion of the definition was subsequently removed by the Wyoming legislature.

Here, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risk encountered by McJunkin was an inherent risk to the sport of float fishing, or whether Yeager could have prevented the risk using reasonable care. Yeager’s expert opined that drowning [*16] is an inherent risk of floating in a raft on a river, and McJunkin’s death was a result of that inherent risk. But Plaintiffs’ expert states the risk of drowning can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Plaintiffs’ expert also opined that Yeager increased the risks to McJunkin, and failed to adhere to industry standards by not taking basic safety precautions and not having a plan or equipment to retrieve McJunkin from the water.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether the risks encountered by McJunkin could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care.

As such, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as to Count I of the Complaint.

2. Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment

McJunkin challenges the constitutionality of the MRRA on due process and equal protection grounds. [HN9] Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and “the party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of proving the statute unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” Globe v. Montana State Fund, 2014 MT 99, 374 Mont. 453, 325 P.3d 1211, 1216 (Mont. 2014). “‘The question of constitutionality is not whether it is possible to condemn, but whether it is possible to uphold the legislative action . . . .'” Davis v. Union Pac. R. Co., 282 Mont. 233, 937 P.2d 27, 31 (1997) (quoting Fallon County v. State 231 Mont. 443, 753 P.2d 338, 340 (Mont. 1988). “[E]very [*17] possible presumption must be indulged in favor of the constitutionality of the Act.” Id. Thus, courts “will construe a statute to further, rather than to frustrate, the Legislature’s intent according to the plain meaning of the statute’s language.” In re Custody and Parental Rights of D.S., 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). See also Hernandez, 189 P.3d at 642 (stating it is the court’s duty “to avoid an unconstitutional interpretation if possible”).

a. The MRRA is not Unconstitutionally Vague

Plaintiffs argue the MRRA is unconstitutionally vague on its face, and as applied. Plaintiffs contend the MRRA purports to limit liability for injuries that result from inherent risks, but it does not define “inherent risk” in any clear manner. Thus, Plaintiffs argue there is no fair way to apply the statute because it is unclear what constitutes an “inherent risk.”

[HN10] The void-for-vagueness doctrine chiefly applies to criminal statutes, but can apply to civil laws as well. Civil statutes, however, generally receive less exacting vagueness scrutiny. Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. 489, 498-99, 102 S. Ct. 1186, 71 L. Ed. 2d 362 (1982). The United States Supreme Court has held “[t]o find a civil statute void for vagueness, the statute must be so vague and indefinite as really to be no rule or standard at all.” Boutilier v. INS, 387 U.S. 118, 123, 87 S. Ct. 1563, 18 L. Ed. 2d 661 (1967). The Montana Supreme Court has similarly declared that a statute is unconstitutionally [*18] vague on its face only if it is shown “that the statute is vague ‘in the sense that no standard of conduct is specified at all.'” In re Custody, 2005 MT 275, 329 Mont. 180, 122 P.3d 1239, 1243 (Mont. 2005). “[P]erfect clarity and precise guidance are not required.” Id. A statute is not vague “simply because it can be dissected or subject to different interpretations.” Montana Media, Inc. v. Flathead Cty., 2003 MT 23, 314 Mont. 121, 63 P.3d 1129, 1140 (Mont. 2003).

Here, the Court finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague on its face. Section 27-1-752(2) plainly provides a standard for assessing what constitutes an “inherent risk.” The standard is established with common, readily-understood terms, and it incorporates the familiar negligence standard of reasonable care. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(2).

Further, contrary to Plaintiffs’ argument, the fact the MRRA does not specifically enumerate the risks inherent in each of the 30 recreational activities listed in the statute does not make the Act unconstitutional. [HN11] The Montana Supreme Court has recognized that even if a term in a statute is not exhaustively defined, and allows the court some discretion in determining whether the evidence presented satisfies the statute, the statute will not be rendered unconstitutionally vague. See In re Custody, 122 P.3d at 1243 (holding that although § 41-3-423(2)(a) did not contain an exhaustive list of conduct that constitutes the term “aggravated circumstances,” [*19] the statute was not void for vagueness). Moreover, even the more specific recreational liability statutes that Plaintiffs uses for comparison, provide non-exclusive lists of inherent risks. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-702(2) (“‘Inherent dangers and risks of skiing’ means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including: . . .”); § 23-2-822(2) (“Risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle operation include . . .”); § 27-1-726(7) (“‘Risks inherent in equine activities’ means dangers or conditions that are an integral part of equine activities, including but not limited to: . . .”).

The Court further finds the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague as applied. A person of common intelligence can understand the risks associated with river sports or activities. There is no indication McJunkin would not have been able to appreciate such risks, including the potential risk involved in floating and fishing. Indeed, in their depositions Plaintiffs were able to articulate risks associated with floating on a river, such as falling out of the boat and drowning. Therefore, McJunkin could have understood that the MRRA may limit Yeager’s liability for accidents on the river.

Accordingly, the Court finds the MRRA is not [*20] void for vagueness.

b. The MRRA Does Not Violate the Constitutional Guarantee of Equal Protection

Plaintiffs also argue the MRRA violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection in two ways. First, Plaintiffs assert the Act eliminates any theory of negligence on the part of recreational providers, essentially excusing them from the consequences of their own negligence. Second, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA arbitrarily treats certain groups of recreationalists differently. Plaintiffs assert that participants in activities covered by the MRRA are treated differently from those participating in activities covered under other activity-specific recreation statutes because the MRRA is vague, whereas the other statutes are not. Plaintiffs further assert the MRRA treats recreationists covered by the Act differently because the MRRA attempts to resurrect the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, and inserts a “primary” assumption of risk defense.

i. The MRRA Does not Eliminate All Theories of Negligence

As discussed above, although a provider is not liable for, or required to eliminate, alter, or control inherent risks under the MRRA, the provider still owes a duty of care for risks that [*21] can be prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA continues to permit negligence claims against a provider if the risk could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care. Thus, the MRRA does not violate Plaintiffs’ equal protection rights by immunizing providers from their own negligence.

ii. The MRRA Does Not Arbitrarily Treat Groups of Recreationists Differently

The MRRA is drawn broadly and defines “sport or recreational opportunity” by reference to a non-exhaustive list of 30 activities. Mont. Code. Ann. § 27-1-752(4). Some of the listed activities are also covered by their own activity-specific recreation liability statutes, such as skiing, snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use. Id.; §§ 23-2-651, et seq.; 23-2-702, et seq.; 23-2-822. Therefore, the MRRA goes on to exclude those activities from its scope. Mont. Code Ann § 27-1-754 (stating the MRRA does “not apply to duties, responsibilities, liability, or immunity related to” activities that are already subject to an activity-specific recreational statute).

Plaintiffs assert that this statutory scheme causes different groups of recreationists to be treated differently. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert the recreationists who fall under the MRRA are disadvantaged in several [*22] respects.

First, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA’s alleged vagueness only affects the subset of recreationists who participate in activities covered by the Act. Whereas, recreationists engaging in other sports, such as skiing or snowmobiling, have specific notice of their rights and the provider’s responsibilities. The Court has determined, however, that the MRRA is not unconstitutionally vague. Further, as noted above, even the activity-specific recreation statutes that specifically identify certain inherent risks do so in a non-exhaustive fashion. Thus, there is no significant difference in treatment between the recreationists who fall under the MRRA, and those who fall under other recreational statutes with respect to notice.

Next, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA departs from other recreational statutes by attempting to revive the “secondary” assumption of risk defense and by suggesting a “primary” assumption of risk defense. Historically, Montana has not used the terms “primary” and “secondary” assumption of risk. Nevertheless, legal commentators have explained [HN12] “primary” assumption of risk refers to the concept of duty, and “secondary” assumption of risk refers to contributory negligence.
[*23] See Dan B. Dobbs, et al., Dobbs’ Law of Torts § 238 (2d ed. 2018) (“[T]he term ‘primary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the no-duty or no-breach conception and its attendant complete-bar effect; and the term ‘secondary assumption of risk’ is used to indicate the contributory negligence conception.”); 65A C.J.S. Negligence § 398 (2018) (“Primary assumption of risk limits the duty which a person owes to another. Secondary assumption of risk, on the other hand, which is a type of contributory negligence and is an affirmative defense, may be raised by the defendant after the plaintiff has met the burden of showing that the defendant breached a legal duty owed to the plaintiff.”); W. Page Keeton, et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 68, 480-81 (5th Ed. 1984) (stating “primary” assumption of risk “is really a principle of no duty,” and explaining that under the duty perspective, “the plaintiff voluntarily enters into some relation with the defendant, with knowledge that the defendant will not protect him against one or more future risks that may arise from the relation . . . the legal result is that the defendant is simply relieved of the duty which would otherwise exist.”).

With regard to [*24] “secondary” assumption of risk, Plaintiffs assert the MRRA, “unlike any other recreation act in Montana,” resurrects the “secondary” assumption of risk defense, without articulating any specific inherent risks the participant would be assuming. (Doc. 29 at 15.) As Yeager points out, however, the MRRA is in fact similar to the other recreation statutes in that they also provide that the participant assumes the risks inherent in the particular activity. See e.g. Mont. Code Ann. § 23-2-736(4) (“A skier shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from inherent dangers and risks of skiing.”); § 23-2-822 (1) (“An off-highway vehicle operator shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of off-highway vehicle use. . . .”); 23-2-654(3) (“A snowmobiler shall accept all legal responsibility for injury or damage of any kind to the extent that the injury or damage results from risks inherent in the sport of snowmobiling.”). Further, as discussed in regard to Plaintiff’s vagueness challenge, the MRRA does not fail to put participants on notice of the inherent [*25] risks they are assuming. As such, recreationists participating in activities that fall under the MRRA are not on significantly different legal footing than participants in other recreational activities. Finally, Plaintiffs contend the MRRA’s suggestion of a “primary” assumption of risk defense amounts to an end-run around comparative negligence. As used here, the assumption of risk terminology in the MRRA refers to a principle of no duty. In Halpern v. Wheeldon, 890 P.2d 562, 565 (Wyo. 1995), the Wyoming Supreme Court found the assumption of risk language in the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act, “was intended to limit the duty to which a provider owes to a participant.” The Court explained that because primary assumption of risk was only intended to limit the provider’s duty, it did not affect the comparative negligence scheme. Id. Likewise, here, the Court finds the assumption of risk language in the MRRA affects only the provider’s duty. It does not revive contributory negligence or undermine Montana’s comparative negligence law. Moreover, as noted, the other activity-specific recreation statutes contain similar assumption of risk language. Thus, recreationists are treated the same under both the MRRA and other activity-specific recreation [*26] statutes, and there is no violation of equal protection.

c. The MRRA Does Not Unconstitutionally Interfere With the Right to Trial by Jury

Finally, Plaintiffs argue the MRRA infringes upon the province of the jury by injecting questions of ultimate fact into preliminary legal questions. As discussed above, however, whether McJunkin’s death was the result of an inherent risk of float fly fishing, and whether it could have been prevented by the use of reasonable care, are jury questions. Thus, the Court finds the MRRA does not unconstitutionally interfere with Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to trial by jury.

B. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Yeager contends Plaintiffs’ claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NEID”) fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence for a jury to find Plaintiffs suffered serious or severe emotional distress.5 The Court agrees.

5 Yeager also asserts Plaintiffs’ NIED claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence since the MRRA bars Plaintiffs’ negligence claim. As discussed, however, the Court has found there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiff’s negligence claim. Accordingly, Yeager’s argument fails in this regard.

[HN13] Under Montana law, an independent cause of action for NIED arises “under circumstances where serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent act or omission.” Sacco v. High Country Ind. Press, Inc., 271 Mont. 209, 896 P.2d 411, 426 (Mont. 1995). [*27] “To constitute ‘serious’ or ‘severe,’ the emotional distress must be ‘so severe no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.'” Feller v. First Interstate Bancsystem, Inc., 2013 MT 90, 369 Mont. 444, 299 P.3d 338, 344 (Mont. 2013). The question of whether the threshold level of emotional distress can be found is for the Court to determine. Sacco, 896 P.2d at 425 (“It is for the court to determine whether on the evidence severe [serious] emotional distress can be found; it is for the jury to determine whether, on the evidence, it has in fact existed.”) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 46, comment j at 78).

In Feller, the Montana Supreme Court considered [HN14] several factors in determining whether there is sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress, including: (1) whether the plaintiff had any physical manifestations of grief; (2) whether counseling was sought or recommended; (3) whether the plaintiff took medication or the use of medication dramatically increased; (4) whether the plaintiff had continuous nights of sleeplessness or days without appetite; (5) whether the plaintiff maintained close relationships with family members and friends; (6) the duration of the emotional distress; and (7) the circumstances under which the infliction incurred, including whether the plaintiff witnessed the distressing event. Feller, 299 P.3d at 345.

Here, the Court finds [*28] Plaintiffs have not presented evidence of the type of emotional distress necessary to demonstrate serious or severe compensable emotional distress. Rhett McJunkin and Charles McJunkin, Jr. testified at deposition that they have both experienced grief, trouble sleeping and have had nightmares. Rhett McJunkin also testified he took sleep medication approximately one year after the accident, but could not recall what the medication was, who prescribed the medication, or how long own long it was taken. Rhett McJunkin also stated he has also experienced “angst” and “anxiety,” and Charles McJunkin, Jr. indicated his focus has been affected.

Nevertheless, there is no indication of any physical manifestation of grief, and neither has sought counseling, taken or increased medication to manage their emotional distress, have suffered a loss of appetite, are unable to maintain close family relationships, and neither witnessed the accident. The Court finds that consideration of the Feller factors does not lead to the conclusion that Plaintiffs’ emotional distress rises to the level where severe emotional distress may be found.

The Court certainly sympathizes with Plaintiffs’ grief for their loss [*29] of their father. Nevertheless, their testimony does not show their emotional distress was so severe that “no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.” Feller, 299 P.3d at 344.

Accordingly, Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED on Count II of the Complaint.

C. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiffs’ Loss of Consortium Claim

Yeager argues Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim also fails as a matter of law because there is insufficient evidence to support the claim.6 The Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment.

6 Yeager again asserts Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim fails because there is no actionable predicate act of negligence. As discussed, this argument is again rejected because there are disputed issues of material fact regarding Plaintiffs’ negligence claim.

[HN15] Montana law recognizes loss of consortium claims by an adult child of an injured parent. N. Pac. Ins. Co. v. Stucky, 2014 MT 299, 377 Mont. 25, 338 P.3d 56, 61 (Mont. 2014). In Stucky, the Montana Supreme Court held an adult child must meet the following two-part test7 to establish a claim for loss of parental consortium: “1) a third party tortuously caused the parent to suffer a serious, permanent and disabling mental or physical injury compensable under Montana law; and 2) the parent’s ultimate condition of mental or physical impairment was so overwhelming and severe that it has caused the parent-child relationship to be destroyed or nearly destroyed.” Id. at 66.

7 The Court adopted the two-part test from Keele v. St. Vincent Hosp. & Health Care Ctr., 258 Mont. 158, 852 P.2d 574 (Mont. 1993), which recognized parental loss of consortium claims by minor children. The Montana Supreme Court stated it found no reason to adopt a different standard for an adult child’s claim of loss of parental consortium. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65. The Court specifically rejected adopting the more stringent “extraordinarily close and interdependent relationship” test from Hern v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., 2005 MT 301, 329 Mont. 347, 125 P.3d 597 (Mont. 2005), which applies to loss of consortium claims brought by the parent of an adult child.

[HN16] In establishing a loss of parental consortium claim, the plaintiff [*30] may present evidence of the following factors, which the jury may consider in determining both whether the two-part test has been satisfied, and what damages are appropriate: “the severity of injury to the parent; the actual effect the parent’s injury has had on the relationship and is likely to have in the future; the child’s age; the nature of the child’s relationship with the parent; and the child’s emotional, physical and geographic characteristics.” Id.

Stucky involved an injury to a parent, rather than the death of a parent. Nevertheless, an adult child’s loss of a parent would readily meet the requirements established in Stucky for the maintenance of a consortium claim. The fact McJunkin died is sufficient to establish the first prong of the test, which requires serious permanent injury. Second, death is obviously an injury so “overwhelming and severe” as to destroy the parent-child relationship. Thus, the second prong of the test is clearly established.

Yeager points out that Plaintiffs are in their late 50’s/early 60’s, they lived hundreds of miles away from their father, received no financial support from him, and saw him only occasionally. Plaintiffs counter that they had [*31] a tight bond with their father, and that Charles McJunkin, Jr. talked to his father on a regular basis. This is evidence for the jury to assess. Stucky, 338 P.3d at 65.

Accordingly, the Court finds there are disputed issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ loss of consortium claim. Yeager’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to Count III of the Complaint is therefore, DENIED.

III. MOTION TO AMEND COMPLAINT

Plaintiffs have also filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint. (Doc. 23.) Plaintiffs seek to add a new theory of liability to the existing negligence claim. In particular, Plaintiffs seek to add the theory of strict liability based upon an abnormally dangerous activity. Yeager opposes the motion, arguing Plaintiffs were not diligent in moving to amend, and the proposed amendment is futile.

On June 1, 2017, the Court issued a Scheduling order setting the deadline to amend pleadings for July 3, 2017. (Doc. 20.) Plaintiffs filed the instant motion seeking leave to amend on November 29, 2017. (Doc. 23.)

[HN17] In situations where the deadline for amendments to pleadings has passed, a party must show good cause for not seeking leave to amend within the Court’s scheduling order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b)(4) (“[a] schedule may [*32] only be modified for good cause and with the judge’s consent”); Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271, 1294 (9th Cir. 2000).

In Johnson v. Mammoth Recreations, Inc., 975 F.2d 604, 609 (9th Cir. 1992), the Ninth Circuit explained that “[u]nlike Rule 15(a)’s liberal [HN18] amendment policy which focuses on the bad faith of the party seeking to interpose an amendment and the prejudice to the opposing party, Rule 16(b)’s ‘good cause’ standard primarily considers the diligence of the party seeking the amendment.” Good cause to excuse noncompliance with the scheduling order exists if the pretrial schedule “cannot reasonably be met despite the diligence of the party seeking the extension.” Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 16 Advisory Committee’s Notes (1983 Amendment)).

Prejudice to the opposing party may provide an additional reason to deny a motion to amend, but “the focus of the inquiry is upon the moving party’s reasons for seeking modification.” Id. at 609. “If that party was not diligent, the inquiry should end.” Id.; see also In re Western States Wholesale Natural Gas Antitrust Litigation, 715 F.3d 716, 737 (9th Cir. 2013) (upholding denial of motion to amend where “the party seeking to modify the scheduling order has been aware of the facts and theories supporting amendment since the inception of the action”).

[HN19] If good cause exists for seeking amendment after the scheduling order’s deadline, the Court then turns to Rule 15(a) to determine whether amendment should be allowed. [*33] “Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) provides that leave to amend ‘shall be freely given when justice so requires,’ it ‘is not to be granted automatically.'” In re Western States, 715 F.3d at 738 (quoting Jackson v. Bank of Hawaii, 902 F.2d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir.1990)). Under Rule 15(a), the Ninth Circuit directs that courts consider the following five factors to assess whether to grant leave to amend: “(1) bad faith, (2) undue delay, (3) prejudice to the opposing party, (4) futility of amendment; and (5) whether plaintiff has previously amended his complaint.” Id. Each of these factors is not given equal weight, however. “Futility of amendment can, by itself, justify the denial of a motion for leave to amend.” Bonin v. Calderon, 59 F.3d 815, 845 (9th Cir. 1995).

A. Lack of Diligence

As noted above, Plaintiffs seek to amend the Complaint to include an additional theory of strict liability. The Court finds that Plaintiffs did not act diligently in seeking to amend the Complaint. The motion to amend was filed nearly five months after the Court’s deadline to amend pleadings. Plaintiffs’ explanation for the delay is that the additional theory of liability is premised upon Yeager’s expert report, which they did not receive until November 13, 2017.

The Court finds, however, that Plaintiffs were aware of the facts and theories supporting the amendment long prior to receipt of [*34] Yeager’s expert report. The expert report did not provide any new facts, but rather offered opinion evidence that fly fishing from a raft is inherently dangerous, and that the danger cannot be eliminated by reasonable precautions. But Plaintiffs have been aware that Yeager intended to raise an inherent risk defense since Yeager filed his answer on March 6, 2017, and raised the MRRA as an affirmative defense. (Doc. 4 at 7.) Yeager also filed a Preliminary Pretrial Statement approximately six months before the expert report was produced that put Plaintiffs on further notice of this theory of defense. (See Doc. 18 at 6) (stating that “[f]alling out of a raft on a river is a danger that cannot be prevented by the use of reasonable care.”) Therefore, Plaintiffs’ argument that they did not possess information supporting the abnormally dangerous activity theory of liability until after they received the expert report is not persuasive. See Bonin, 59 F.3d at 845 (holding a motion to amend may be denied “where the movant presents no new facts but only new theories and provides no satisfactory explanation for his failure to fully develop his contentions originally”).

B. Futility of Amendment

Even if the Court found “good cause,” under [*35] Rule 16, application of the Rule 15 factors dictate denial of the motion to amend. Although there is no indication Plaintiffs are acting in bad faith, or that amendment would unduly prejudice Yeager, the Court has found undue delay. Moreover, the Court finds the amendment would be futile.

In seeking to impose strict liability, Plaintiffs conflate the concept of inherent risk with an abnormally dangerous activity. The activity at issue here — fly fishing from a raft — is not the kind of activity that has been recognized as abnormally dangerous. [HN20] Simply because an activity has inherent risks, does not mean the activity is abnormally dangerous for purposes of strict liability. A comparison of activities that are considered abnormally dangerous illustrates the point. See e.g. Beckman v. Butte-Silver Bow Cty., 2000 MT 112, 299 Mont. 389, 1 P.3d 348 (Mont. 2000) (trenching); Sunburst Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Texaco, Inc., 2007 MT 183, 338 Mont. 259, 165 P.3d 1079 (Mont. 2007) (operating a gas refinery near residences and a school); Ulmen v. Schwieger, 92 Mont. 331, 12 P.2d 856 (Mont. 1932) (highway construction); and Stepanek v. Kober Const., 191 Mont. 430, 625 P.2d 51 (Mont. 1981) (construction scaffolding). The Court does not find the characteristics and risks of fly fishing equate in any meaningful way with these types of activities.8

8 Likewise, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 519, which has been adopted by the Montana Supreme Court, identifies the following as abnormally dangerous activities: “Water collected in quantity in unsuitable or dangerous place,” “Explosives in quantity in a dangerous place,” “Inflammable liquids in quantity in the midst of a city,” “Blasting, in the midst of a city,” “Pile driving, with abnormal risk to surroundings,” “Release into air of poisonous gas or dust,” “Drilling oil wells or operating refineries in thickly settled communities,” and “production of atomic energy.” Again, these activities are of a wholly different nature than float fly fishing.

“Whether an activity is abnormally dangerous is a question of law.” Chambers v. City of Helena, 2002 MT 142, 310 Mont. 241, 49 P.3d 587, 591 (Mont. 2002), overruled on other grounds, Giambra v. Kelsey, 2007 MT 158, 338 Mont. 19, 162 P.3d 134 (Mont. 2007). No court has held float fly fishing is an abnormally dangerous activity, and [*36] this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to be the first to do so.

In addition, the Court has determined the MRRA is constitutional and applies to Plaintiff’s negligence claim. The MRRA limits a recreational provider’s liability. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-752(3); 27-1-753. The Montana Legislature enacted the MRRA to protect recreational providers from liability for injuries that are caused by the very characteristics of a particular activity that make it attractive to participants. 2009 Mt. Laws Ch. 331 (H.B. 150), preamble. The Legislature specifically intended to limit providers’ liability and to discourage claims based on damages that result from inherent risks in a sport or activity. Id. The Legislature enacted the MRRA to further the State’s interest in maintaining the economic viability of Montana’s sports and recreational industries. Id.

Imposing strict liability would eviscerate the purpose of the MRRA. Instead of limiting recreational provider’s liability for inherent risks, it would render them strictly liable for those risks. See Christian v. Atl. Richfield Co., 2015 MT 255, 380 Mont. 495, 358 P.3d 131, 150 (Mont. 2015) (“A claim based upon strict liability for the conduct of an abnormally dangerous activity . . . means that the defendant is liable for harm resulting from the activity, even [*37] if the defendant acted with reasonable care.”). In short, it would accomplish the exact opposite of what the MRRA was intended to do.

Therefore, because Plaintiffs have not shown good cause for their delay in seeking amendment, and because the amendment would be futile, Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend the Complaint is DENIED.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court ORDERS as follows: (1) Plaintiffs’ Motion to Amend (Doc. 23) is DENIED;

(2) Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) is DENIED; and

(3) Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

IT IS ORDERED.

DATED this 28th day of September, 2018.

/s/ Timothy J. Cavan

TIMOTHY J. CAVAN

United States Magistrate Judge


A season pass release for a Pennsylvania ski are was limited to the inherent risks of skiing. Consequently, the plaintiff was able to argue his injury was not due to an inherent risk.

The defendant one because the court was able to interpret the risk as one that was inherent in skiing. The defendant also, laid out the risks of skiing quite broadly in its information to the plaintiff.

Cahill v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., 2006 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 444; 81 Pa. D. & C.4th 344

State: Pennsylvania, Common Pleas Court of Adams County, Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Timothy Joseph Cahill and Anne Leslie Cahill

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp. t/d/b/a Ski Liberty and t/d/b/a Liberty Mountain Resort and Snow Time, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligent for failing to properly maintain its ski slopes in a safe manner and/or failing to adequately warn concerning an icy area

Defendant Defenses: Assumption of the Risk and Release

Holding:

Year: 2006

Summary

Plaintiff was injured when he skied over an icy spot and fell at the defendant’s ski area. However, this case was quickly dismissed because he had signed a release and the risk of ice at a ski area was an inherent risk of the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

Facts

The plaintiff purchased a season pass to ski at the defendant’s ski area. He purchased his season pass on-line and signed a release at that time, online. When he went to pick up his season pass, he signed another written release. (See Too many contracts can void each other out; two releases signed at different times can render both release’s void.)

While skiing one day the plaintiff fell on an icy section. He claimed he was unaware of the ice. He severely injured is face, back, ribs and left hand. He sued the defendants for his injuries.

The defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. A Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is an argument that the pleadings do not make a legal case to continue the litigation.

A motion for judgment on the pleadings is in the nature of a demurrer as it provides the means to test the legal sufficiency of the pleadings. All of the [P]laintiffs’ allegations must be taken as true for the purposes of judgment on the pleadings. Unlike a motion for summary judgment, the power of the court to enter a judgment on the pleadings is limited by the requirement that the court consider only the pleadings themselves and any documents properly attached thereto. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted only where the pleadings demonstrate that no genuine issue of fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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

The court looked at Pennsylvania law. Like most states in Pennsylvania “exculpatory agreements, or releases, are valid provided, they comply with the safeguards enunciated by our Superior Court.”

Under Pennsylvania law, a release to be valid must:

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 went through the facts in this case to see if the requirements under the law were met.

The plaintiff was not forced to sign the release but did so freely. The release was signed based on a personal choice of the plaintiff to ski at the defendant’s facilities. “Clearly, this activity is not essential to Cahill’s personal or economic well-being but, rather, was a purely recreational activity.”

The release does not violate public policy because the agreement was private in nature and “in no way affect the rights of the public.”

The court found the release was unambiguous. The release spelled out the intent of the parties and gave notice to the plaintiff of what he was signing.

The releases executed by Cahill are unambiguous in both their language and intent. The language spells out with particularity the intent of the parties. The captions clearly advise patrons of the contents and purpose of the document as both a notice of risk and a release of liability. The waiver uses plain language informing the skier that downhill skiing is a dangerous sport with inherent risks including ice and icy conditions as well as other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, the condition of which vary constantly due to weather changes and use. Importantly, after advising a patron of these dangers, the documents unequivocally, in both bold and capital letters, releases Ski Liberty from liability for any injuries suffered while using the ski facilities regardless of any negligence on the part of Ski Liberty, its employees, or agents. 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 plaintiff had ample opportunity to read and review the release before paying for it. The court found the release was clear and spelled out in detail in plain language the intent of the parties.

The plaintiff argued the icy condition was a hazardous condition created by the defendant and is not an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. Because the condition was hazardous, the plaintiff argued you could not assume the risk of the icy area, and the release should be void.

The court found that icy conditions were an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

Cahill is an experienced skier who obviously has personal knowledge of the inherent dangers involved in the sport. His 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. The self-apparent risks were accepted by Cahill when he voluntarily entered into a business relationship with Ski Liberty. He chose to purchase a ski ticket in exchange for the opportunity to experience the thrill of downhill skiing. In doing so, he voluntarily assumed the risks that not only accompany the sport but may very well add to its attractiveness.

The court upheld the release and granted the defendants motion for judgment on the pleadings. This effectively ended the lawsuit.

So Now What?

It is rare that a Judgment on the Pleadings works, normally; the plaintiff can make an argument that the court finds requires more investigation, so the case can continue.

Here though, the release was well-written and the plaintiff’s argument was thrown out as a risk covered in the Pennsylvania Skier Safety Act.

In this case, the plaintiff was dealt a double blow, with only one being necessary for the defendant to win. He signed a valid release and the risk he undertook was an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing.

The terrain off of the trail was different than normally found at a ski area. A 3-4 drop off into a pile of rocks. However, the risk is skiing off the trail, not what you run into when you do.

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Loss of Consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The definition of an inherent risk when skiing is not what causes the injury, only the risk that led to the injury. Under Pennsylvania law, there is a broad definition of inherent risks and this case was dismissed because the plaintiff assumed those inherent risks, and the defendant did not owe a duty to protect him from those risks.

Facts

The plaintiff was an experienced skier, who had been skiing for twenty years. He was skiing behind his daughter at the defendant’s ski area. A snowboarder came close to the plaintiff or hit the plaintiff sending or causing him to ski off the trail. He went off the trail, over a 3-4 drop and landed in a pile of rocks.

…Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered was skiing with his daughter.

He sued the defendant ski area because it was:

…negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

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

The decision was based on the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. The court had to decide if the risks encountered by the plaintiff were inherent risks of skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing. As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.”

If there is no duty, then there can be no negligence.

Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.

Pennsylvania has a two-part test to determine if the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty.

First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of down-hill skiing.” If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law.

The first test was met; the plaintiff was skiing at the time of his accident.

The court then had to determine if the risks the plaintiff encountered were inherent to skiing. Under Pennsylvania law, inherent risks “are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing.”

The plaintiff argued that because the plaintiff was no specifically aware of the risk of the 3-4-foot drop off and the pile of rocks, he could not assume the risk.

Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply.

In many cases, assumption of the risk would not be a defense if the injured plaintiff had no specific knowledge of the risk. However, it was not the case here under the statute. It did not matter if the Plaintiff had specific knowledge of the risk or a general knowledge of the risks of skiing, he assumed those risks.

The court then looked at the facts and found there were two circumstances that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injuries, veering to avoid a collision and skiing over the drop off.

The first is an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with an-other skier is one of the common, frequent and expected risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.

The next issue was whether skiing over the drop off into a pile of rocks was an inherent risk of skiing. Here again, the court found skiing off the trail, no matter what you may encounter once you are off the trail, is an inherent risk of skiing. The court backed its point up quite interestingly.

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis.

The court found the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty because he assumed the risks of his injury under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act.

So Now What?

Actually, an easy case. Easy under Pennsylvania law because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts interpretation of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. When skiing in Pennsylvania collisions with other skiers or boarders are an inherent risk of skiing and skiing off the trail is also.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,

1:16-cv-2170

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

March 26, 2018, Decided

CORE TERMS: skiing, trail, edge, downhill, ski, skier, snowboarder, sport, inherent risk, slope, collision, rocks, summary judgment, drop-off, att, daughter, skied, snow, pile, foot, lift ticket, knee-jerk, genuine, resort, Skier’s Responsibility Act, matter of law, specific risk, experienced, elevation, veering

COUNSEL: [*1] For Quan VU, May Siew, Plaintiffs: D. Aaron Rihn, Mark D. Troyan, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA USA.

For Ski Liberty Operating Corp. doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort, Defendant: Anthony W. Hinkle, Snow Time, Inc., Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Plaintiffs: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Defendants: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

JUDGES: Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: John E. Jones III

OPINION

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs are Quan Vu and his wife, May Siew. (“Plaintiffs”). Defendants are Ski Liberty Operating Corp. and Snow Time, Inc., operating as Liberty Mountain Resort. (“Defendants”). This action arises out of a skiing accident at Liberty Mountain that left Mr. Vu severely injured. The complaint brings one count of negligence on behalf of Mr. Vu and one count of loss of consortium on behalf of Mrs. Siew, both alleging that the accident was caused by the Defendants’ negligence in maintaining the ski slope and failing to warn Mr. Vu of [*2] the slope’s hazardous condition. (Doc. 1). Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 36). The Motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for our review. (Docs. 38, 42, 43). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 23, 2015, Mr. Vu was downhill skiing with his daughter at Liberty Mountain. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). Mr. Vu was following his daughter from behind as they skied down the Lover Heavenly trail, a blue square intermediate hill, when he had his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Due to his injuries, Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. (Id. at pp. 65-66). The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered [*3] was skiing with his daughter. (Id. at p. 66).

Mr. Vu’s daughter testified: “I saw someone get really close to him and he was trying to avoid them and it was either ramming into him, the snowboarder, or person who was trying to get really close to him, or veering off path.” (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). “He — there was someone trying to kind of get really close to him. And he didn’t want to ram into him. So he — I don’t really understand — know what happened. But he tried to avoid it. And there was like a big ditch or something there. And he tried to stop and tried to avoid the person who was trying to cut him off.” (Id.). “My dad was — the snowboarder was — my dad was kind of like the ham in the middle of a sandwich. Between the end of the trail, the edge of the trail and the snowboarder.” (Id. at p. 9). “I just felt that the snowboarder was getting quite close to my dad and I didn’t want a collision to happen or the snowboarder to ram into my dad.” (Id. at p. 10).

Ultimately, whether he did so intentionally or not, Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. There was a drop-off at the edge of the ski trail of about three to four feet. (Doc. 41, ¶ 32). Below that drop-off was a large pile [*4] of rocks. (Id. at ¶ 31). Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail, off of the embankment, and landed on the pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11).

Mr. Vu was an experienced skier at the time of his accident. He had skied for over twenty years and was capable of skiing black diamond slopes. (Id. at P 6). Mr. Vu testified that he was familiar with the Skier’s Responsibility Code and understood that he was responsible for skiing in control and in such a manner that he could stop or avoid other skiers. (Id.). Mr. Vu also testified that he understood that skiing is a dangerous sport and that he could get hurt if he skied out of control or if he fell. (Id.).

On the day of his accident, Mr. Vu’s wife purchased his Liberty Mountain Resort Lift Ticket. (Id. at ¶ 18). The back of the lift ticket reads as follows:

PLEASE READ

Acceptance of this ticket constitutes a contract. The conditions of the contract are stated on this ticket & will prevent or restrict your ability to sue Liberty Mountain Resort. If you do not agree with these conditions, then do not use the facility. Snowsports in their various forms, including the use of lifts, are dangerous sports with inherent and other risks. These risks include but are [*5] not limited to: variations in snow, steepness & terrain, ice & icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees & other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, utility lines & poles, fencing or lack of fencing, snowmaking & snowgrooming equipment & component parts, on-snow vehicles & other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, and terrain features on or off designated trails as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowsport participants. Trail conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and use. All the inherent and other risks involved present the risk of permanent catastrophic injury or death. In consideration of using Liberty’s facilities, the purchaser or user of this ticket agrees to accept the risks of snowsports and understands and agrees that they are hazardous and further agrees NOT TO SUE Ski Liberty Operating Corp., its owners or employees if injured while using the facilities regardless of any negligence, including gross negligence, on the part of the resort, and/or its employees or agents. The purchaser or user of this ticket voluntarily assumes the risk of injury while participating in the sport, and agrees [*6] to report all injuries before leaving the resort . . .

(Doc. 37, Ex. D) (emphasis in original). Though Mr. Vu was uncertain if he read the language on the lift ticket on the day of his accident, he testified that he had read it at some point prior to his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 20). At his deposition, Mr. Vu was asked to read portions of the lift ticket and he had trouble doing so because the font was too small. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 70).

Mr. Vu and his wife initiated this action with the filing of a complaint on October 27, 2016. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 36).

I II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute [*7] is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).

Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a genuine dispute for trial. See id. at 773 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). In advancing their positions, the parties must support their factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).

A court should not grant summary judgment when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the [*8] mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on two legal bases. First, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred as a matter of law because Mr. Vu’s injuries were caused by an inherent risk of skiing. Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the exculpatory release language contained on the Liberty Mountain lift ticket. Because we find that Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of risks inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, we hold that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law without even considering the exculpatory release language of the lift ticket.

The material facts surrounding Mr. Vu’s accident are not in dispute. Though Mr. Vu and his daughter are unclear on the specifics, it is undisputed that Mr. Vu ended up skiing off of the trail, over a drop-off, and into a pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified that a snowboarder was getting too close to him and his “knee-jerk” reaction was to veer to avoid a collision, causing him [*9] to ski off of the trail and over the embankment. (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). Mr. Vu’s daughter also testified that her father’s accident occurred when he tried to avoid a collision with a snowboarder. (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). While Defendants argumentatively refer to this person as the “phantom snowboarder” and question the credibility of the testimony, for purposes of this Motion we can take Plaintiffs’ facts as true and assume that Mr. Vu skied off of the trail, either intentionally or as a result of a knee-jerk reaction, to avoid colliding with a snowboarder. Even so, summary judgment must be granted in favor of the Defendants because Mr. Vu’s accident occurred as a result of inherent risks of downhill skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.” 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a [*10] place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (2010) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496A, cmt. C, 2). “Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.” Id.

In Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania established a two-part test for courts to use to determine whether a plaintiff’s claims are barred by the no duty rule of the Skier’s Responsibility Act. 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000). “First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” Id. at 344. “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Id. If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law. Id. In the case at-bar, there can be no dispute that Mr. Vu was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his accident. The salient question, therefore, becomes whether veering off-trail and over a drop-off into a pile [*11] of rocks to avoid a collision with a snowboarder are inherent risks of downhill skiing. If those risks are inherent to skiing, then Defendants had no duty to protect Mr. Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1186. If those risks are not inherent, traditional principles of negligence apply and we must determine what duty the Defendants owed Mr. Vu, whether the Defendants breached that duty, and whether the breach caused Mr. Vu’s injuries.

We begin with a discussion of what it means for a risk to be “inherent.” The Hughes court explained that “inherent” risks are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing. Id. In interpreting risks, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has instructed that “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself, dictates a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88. “Accordingly, courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to define the injury producing risks in very a specific and narrow manner.” Cole v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, 2017 WL 4621786, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 16, 2017) (Mariani, J.). For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Chepkevich rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she did not assume the “specific [*12] risk” involved, looking instead to the “general risk” that gave rise to the accident. 2 A.3d at 1188. A number of courts have addressed the scope of the Skier’s Responsibility Act and have concluded that some of the inherent risks of downhill skiing include: lack of netting, improper course plotting, or soft snow1; skiing off trail and striking a tree2; collisions with unpadded snow equipment poles3; striking a fence on the edge of the trail4; and collisions with other skiers or snowboarders.5

1 Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, L.P., 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008).

2 Id.

3 Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002 (3d Cir. 1983).

4 Cole, 2017 WL 4621786, at *5.

5 Hughes, 762 A.2d 339.

Before addressing the risks that Mr. Vu encountered, we must address Plaintiffs’ initial argument that the assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable. Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8) (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply. (Id. at pp. 9-13). For support of this argument, Plaintiffs cite several cases that are materially distinct from the case at-bar. First, Plaintiffs [*13] quote Barillari v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., “[i]t is not enough that the plaintiff was generally aware that the activity in which he was engaged had accompanying risks.” 986 F. Supp. 2d 555, 563 (M.D. Pa. 2013). Importantly, the court made this statement when analyzing the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk after determining that the Skier’s Responsibility Act was not applicable because the plaintiff was not engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of the accident. Id. at 561. The instruction of this quote is inapplicable to our consideration of the no duty doctrine of assumption of the risk.

Next, Plaintiffs rely heavily on Bolyard v. Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, Inc., 2012 WL 629391(M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2012) (Caputo, J.). In Bolyard, the plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence after sustaining injuries while snow tubing on the defendant’s property. Id. at *1. The court recognized that while the plaintiff had “general knowledge” of the dangers of snow tubing on the hill, she did not assume the risk because “there is no evidence in the record that she had any knowledge of the specific hazards of that particular slope.” Id. at *6. Plaintiffs argue that “[s]imilar to the patron in Bolyard,” Mr. Vu was only generally aware of the risks he could suffer while skiing and thus assumption of the risk is inapplicable. (Doc. [*14] 42, p. 8). We disagree.

Notably, the slope in Bolyard was an old slope that was not currently in operation. 2012 WL 629391, at *1. The court used principles of negligence as applicable to landowners and licensees to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff and, consequently, considered the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as a defense. Id. at **3-6. Analyzing the present action under the no duty rule, we do not consider the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk; instead, we must determine whether Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of an inherent risk of the sport of skiing such that the Defendants had no duty at all. Pursuant to Hughes and the Skier’s Responsibility Act, there is no duty to protect a skier from the inherent risks of skiing and therefore, “when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant.” Id.

Finally, Plaintiffs cite Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC,6
Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc.,
7
Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp,
8 and Telega v. Sec. Bureau, Inc.9 in support of their position that assumption of the risk does not apply because Mr. Vu did not appreciate the specific risks that caused his accident. To start, none of these cases address the Skier’s Responsibility [*15] Act. These cases discuss appreciation of specific risk only after determining that the no duty rule was inapplicable because the risk encountered was not inherent. Again, we reiterate that “[n]egligence principles are irrelevant where the ‘no duty’ rule applies.” Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 WL 5257648, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Whether the no duty rule applies turns on whether Mr. Vu’s particular injuries arose out of risks inherent in the sport of skiing — an issue that is not dependent on a plaintiff’s subjective awareness of those specific risks.

6 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (Mariani, J.).

7 749 A.2d 522, (Pa. Super. 2000).

8 483 Pa. 75, 85, 394 A.2d 546, 551 (1978).

9 719 A.2d 372, 376 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998).

We now turn to the risks involved in Mr. Vu’s accident. The facts reveal two circumstances that gave rise to Mr. Vu’s injuries: (1) veering to avoid a collision with a snowboarder; and (2) skiing over the drop-off at the edge of the trail and into a pile of rocks. If these risks are inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, Plaintiffs’ claims cannot stand.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with another skier is one of the common, frequent and expected [*16] risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Likely in recognition of the clear case law, Plaintiffs do not argue in their brief in opposition to the Motion that avoiding a collision with a snowboarder is a risk that would give rise to a duty on behalf of Defendants. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence are premised on Mr. Vu’s avoidance of a collision with the snowboarder, those claims must fail.

Next, we consider whether skiing over the edge of the trail and encountering a three to four foot drop-off into a pile of rocks is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Plaintiffs frame this risk as the primary cause of Mr. Vu’s injuries.10 “Simply put, the risk of ejectment from a ski trail due to a 3 to 4 foot drop off and striking one’s head on rocks and/or boulders . . . is not an inherent, frequent, common, and expected risk of skiing.” (Doc. 42, p. 11). All parties recognize that the drop-off was at the edge of the trail rather than a ditch or hole in the slope itself. Though Plaintiffs stress that Mr. Vu did not “willingly [*17] decide to ski off trail,” the distinction is of no consequence. Plaintiffs describe the incident in terms of Mr. Vu being “ejected” from the trail due to the embankment, but it is illogical to argue that the existence of the drop-off itself would cause a skier to go over it. Whether Mr. Vu did so intentionally, accidentally, or as a means of avoiding a collision, the incontrovertible fact is that Mr. Vu did, ultimately, ski off of the three to four foot edge of the trail.

10 “. . . the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8); “Even if Defendant could establish that having a 3 to 4 foot trail edge drop presents a danger inherent to the sport of skiing . . .” (Id. at p. 9); “. . . he was ejected from the trail when attempting to avoid a collision and was confronted with a 3 to 4 foot drop in elevation from the ski trail.” (Id. at p. 11).

We hold that the risk of skiing off trail and suffering from the change of elevation between the trail and surrounding terrain is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who was well aware of the risks of skiing off the designated slope; he testified repeatedly that he “would never ski off-trail.” (Doc. 41, att. 1, p. 43). He had previously skied at Liberty Mountain on multiple occasions and could not remember ever complaining about the trail or trail markings. (Id. at pp. 35-36). Additionally, Mr. Vu’s daughter testified that she did not have any difficulty discerning the edge of the slope where her father went off trail the evening of the accident. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14). It would be irrational for [*18] any court to hold that skiing off trail and encountering dangerous terrain is not an inherent risk of the sport of downhill skiing — ski slopes are marked and maintained in appreciation of this risk, and beginner and experienced skiers alike know to stay within the trail limits to avoid injury. Mr. Vu himself testified that he understood that he could run into trees, rocks, boulders, or snowmaking equipment if he skied off trail. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 71).

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis. One case from the New York appellate court, however, was particularly analogous. In Atwell v. State, the plaintiff was skiing near the edge of the trail when he observed a “floundering” skier in his path. 645 N.Y.S.2d 658, 659 (1996). Plaintiff “instinctively reacted and turned without thinking” to avoid a collision and ended up skiing off trail and into a tree. Id. The court easily found that plaintiff’s injuries were due to inherent risks of skiing. Id. at 650. “[F]rom claimant’s own description of the accident, there can be no dispute that everything he encountered, including the skier he turned [*19] to avoid hitting, the berm at the edge of the trail referred to by claimant’s expert and the tree with which he collided, are all statutorily recognized as inherent dangers of skiing.” The court noted that “[c]laimant chose to ski near the edge of the trail and there is nothing in the record to indicate that the location of the edge of the trail was not readily observable to him.” Id. Similarly here, Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who chose to ski near the edge of the slope. He had a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a skier, and ended up veering off of the trail and suffering from the elevation change and his collision with rocks. Not only is there a lack of any evidence that the edge of the trail was difficult to discern, but Mr. Vu’s daughter testified at length about how her father was close to the edge of the trail and specifically stated that she could observe the edge of the slope without difficulty. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14).

We agree with the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which simply held: “Even the most generous reading of the plaintiff’s pleadings reveals the chief cause of his injuries to be an unenumerated, yet quintessential risk of skiing: that a skier might lose control [*20] and ski off the trail. By participating in the sport of skiing, a skier assumes this inherent risk and may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries.” Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 140 N.H. 675, 684, 671 A.2d 548, 553 (1996).

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.

ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In conformity with the Memorandum issued on today’s date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

1. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 36) is GRANTED.

2. The Clerk of the Court SHALL CLOSE the file on this case.

/s/ John E. Jones III

John E. Jones III

United States District Judge


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

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

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

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

Plaintiff: Linda Schlumbrecht-Muniz, M.D.

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

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

Defendant Defenses: Colorado Skier Safety Act

Holding: for the Defendant

Year: 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final claim was based on respondeat superior.

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

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

So Now What?

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

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Under California law, you assume the risk of getting hit by a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile while snowboarding.

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.

Forrester v. Sierra at Tahoe, 2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5204

State: California

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

Year: 2017

Summary

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.

Facts

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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This decision is either normal, or ground breaking. The release info is nothing new. However, the court found the language on the back of the lift ticket created a release which barred the plaintiff’s claims.

11th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds lower decision dismissing claims of a plaintiff who broke her femur unloading a lift during a ski lesson.

Lower Court decision was based on Colorado Premises Liability Act. This decision was based on the release the plaintiff signed to take the ski lesson.

For an analysis of the lower court decision see: Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

State: Colorado: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Plaintiff: Teresa Brigance

Defendant: Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (Keystone Ski Area)

Plaintiff Claims: (1) negligence, (2) negligence per se, (3) negligent supervision and training, (4) negligence (respondeat superior), (5) negligent hiring, and (6) violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act (the “PLA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115

Defendant Defenses: Release and the lift ticket

Holding: For the Defendant Ski Area, Vail

Year: 2018

This case looks at the law concerning releases in Colorado. Writing a release requires three skills. The first is an understanding of the law that will be applied to the release in question. The second is an understanding of the activity, and the risks associated with the activity the release must cover. The third is what do judges want to see in the release and what they don’t want to see.

The first and third items are what I specialize in. The second item is what we have to specialize in. Writing a release is not handing a contract job to an attorney. It is understanding how you want to run your business, the guests you want to serve and the types of problems you want to prevent from turning into litigation.

If you need a release for your business, activity or program consider working with me to design one. You also have the option of purchasing a pre-written release based upon the needs of your business, type of activity and the state where you are located.

To help you understand release law, here is an article about how a release was written correctly and then used to stop a claim.

Summary

This decision does not stand out among decisions concerning release law in Colorado. However, it is an extreme change from Colorado law and the law of most other states when it states the backside of a lift ticket is a release. The lower court decision was analyzed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

The plaintiff was taking a ski lesson when she fell getting off the lift. She sued for the normal negligent issues. The court throughout her claims based upon the release she signed to take the ski lesson.

Facts

The plaintiff signed up to take a ski lesson with Keystone Resorts, a ski area owned by the defendant Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. and ultimately by Vail Resorts Management Company. (There may be some more corporations or LLC’s in the middle.) When she signed up for the lesson, she signed a release which is a common practice at ski areas.

When she was unloading a lift, the edge of the chair caught the top of her ski boot, and she fell eventually breaking her femur.

She sued. Her case was thrown out by the trial court. See Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662 analyzed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

On a side note. One of her claims was the lift did not stop immediately. One defense I never see to this claim; lifts don’t stop immediately. If the lift stopped immediately, everyone riding the lift would be thrown off. Lift’s decelerate at a speed that allows the lift to stop as quickly as possible without ejecting everyone riding on the lift. If nothing else it is a save everyone else on the lift and sacrifice the person who can’t unload.

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

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is a federal court. The plaintiff filed this case in federal court because she was from Florida. Vail and the locations of the accident are in Colorado. That allowed her to have federal jurisdiction in the case because the plaintiff and the defendant were from two different states.

When a federal court has a case like this, it applies the law of the state that has jurisdiction as if the case were not in federal court. In this case, the decision looks at Colorado law as it applies to ski areas and releases. There is no Federal law concerning ski areas, other than general laws on leasing Forest Service land for a ski area.

The court started its analysis by reviewing the release and Colorado law on releases.

Colorado has a tag it applies to releases; like a few other states, that releases are disfavored under Colorado law. However, disfavored a release may be; that statement seems to be something to provide the plaintiff with an idea of fairness rather than the reality that if you write your release correctly, it will be upheld in Colorado.

For a decision that was lost because the defendant did not write the release correctly see Colorado Appellate Court rules that fine print and confusing language found on most health clubs (and some climbing wall) releases is void because of the Colorado Premises Liability Act.

There are four tests a release must pass to be valid in Colorado.

(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

The court found plenty of Colorado law stating that a recreation service or activity does not owe a duty to the public and is not a service that should be questioned, which covers the first two requirements. The release was well-written, and the plaintiff did not argue that the release was not entered into fairly. Consequently, the court was able to state the release was valid the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the release.

One argument of the plaintiff’s the court did spend some time on was the Ski Area Safety Statute and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act created a public duty. Thus, the nature of the relationship between the ski area and a guest was one not of recreation but of a public duty, therefore, the release was not valid. This argument was an attempt to void the release based on the first two requirements set out above.

However, the court found that the creation of both statutes was done so that releases were not voided for skiing in Colorado. Looking at Colorado law the court found:

Our conclusion that the SSA and PTSA do not bar exculpatory agreements is supported by the Colorado Supreme Court’s regular enforcement of exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities, particularly in the context of equine activities, as well as the General Assembly’s relatively recent pronouncements regarding the public policy considerations involved in a parent’s ability to execute exculpatory agreements on behalf of its child with respect to prospective negligence claims.

The court found all four requirements for a release to be valid in Colorado were met.

What was exciting about this case wad the Court found the lift ticket was a release.

What is of note about this case is the Appellate Court like the lower court, looked at the language on the back side of the lift ticket as a release. The court starts by calling the language a “Lift Ticket Waiver.”

The Lift Ticket Waiver–approximately two paragraphs in length–is not as detailed as the Ski School Waiver, but contains somewhat similar language regarding the ticket holder’s assumption of risk and waiver of claims. After detailing some of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing that the holder of the ticket assumes, as well as identifying other risks and responsibilities, the Lift Ticket Waiver provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise” and “to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person and property.”

Emphasize added

No other court in Colorado has ever looked at the language on the back of the lift ticket as being a release. That language is there because it is required by statute. Colorado Ski Safety Act C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107. Duties of ski area operators – signs and notices required for skiers’ information. (8) states:

(8) (a) Each ski area operator shall post and maintain signs which contain the warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8). Such signs shall be placed in a clearly visible location at the ski area where the lift tickets and ski school lessons are sold and in such a position to be recognizable as a sign to skiers proceeding to the uphill loading point of each base area lift. Each sign shall be no smaller than three feet by three feet. Each sign shall be white with black and red letters as specified in this paragraph (a). The words “WARNING” shall appear on the sign in red letters. The warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8) shall appear on the sign in black letters, with each letter to be a minimum of one inch in height.

(b) Every ski lift ticket sold or made available for sale to skiers by any ski area operator shall contain in clearly readable print the warning notice specified in paragraph (c) of this subsection (8).

(c) The signs described in paragraph (a) of this subsection (8) and the lift tickets described in paragraph (b) of this subsection (8) shall contain the following warning notice:

WARNING

Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from any ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

    Emphasize added

The court specifically stated the language highlighted above in yellow contains “waiver of claims.” Based on the statute and the language, this is solely a list of the risks a skier assumes by statute when skiing inbounds in Colorado. However, now this court has found more in the text.

For more on lift tickets baring claims see Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states. The reason most courts find that the language on the back of a lift ticket is not a release is there is no meeting of the minds, no one points out to the purchaser of a lift ticket there is a contract they are agreeing to.

In this case that would be impossible because the case states the husband purchased the lift ticket so the plaintiff could not have agreed to the contract.

In addition, Dr. Brigance’s husband purchased a lift ticket enabling her to ride the ski lifts at Key-stone. Dr. Brigance received the ticket from her husband and used it to ride the Discovery Lift. The lift ticket contained a warning and liability waiver (the “Lift Ticket Waiver”) on its back side, which provides in pertinent part:

Emphasize added

As stated above, the court notes that the husband and not the plaintiff purchased the lift tickets. No contract could be created in this case, yet somehow; the court found the lift ticket was a contract and as such was a release of liability. There was no meeting of the minds and there was no consideration passing between the plaintiff and the ski area.

However, this has monstrous meaning to all other ski areas in Colorado. If the language required by statute to be placed on the back of lift tickets is also a release of liability, then a new defense is available to all injuries of any skier, boarder, tuber or other person on the ski area who purchases a lift ticket.

More importantly you could require everyone coming on to the ski area to purchase a lift ticket no matter the reason. The cost could only be one dollar, but the savings to the ski area would be immense. If you are skiing you lift ticket is $200. If you are just going to dinner or watching your kids ski the lift ticket is $1.00 and gives you a $1.00 discount on your first drink.

Everyone who has a lift ticket at a ski area has effectively signed a release now.

However, remember, this is a federal court interpreting state law, the law of Colorado. Until the Colorado Courts weight in on the subject and the Colorado Supreme Court decides the issue, its value may be suspect. It is reliable in Federal Court as this condition is precedent setting, however, I would lean hard on the decision, not stand on it.

The court concluded, and in doing so provided a better idea about how Colorado looks are releases, that:

In summary, Colorado’s “relatively permissive public policy toward recreational releases” is one “that, no doubt, means some losses go uncompensated.” And the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly may someday “prefer a policy that shifts the burden of loss to the service provider, ensuring compensation in cases like this.” Id. But “that decision is their decision to make, not ours, and their current policy is clear.” Id. As a result, for the reasons stated above, we conclude the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable and accordingly bar Dr. Brigance’s claims.

So Now What?

Overall, the case has nothing new on release law and is another affirmation that releases in Colorado, if written correctly, will stop claims for negligence.

However, if the Colorado courts follow the reasoning contained in this decision about the validity of the language on the back of a lift ticket as a bar to claims, then this is the first step in making almost impossible to sue a ski area in Colorado for any reason.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

Brigance, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

Teresa Brigance, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., Defendant – Appellee.

No. 17-1035

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 397

January 8, 2018, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. (D.C. No. 1:15-CV-01394-WJM-NYW).

Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447 (D. Colo., Jan. 13, 2017)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-In an action brought by an injured skier, an examination of each of the Jones v. Dressel factors for determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement led to the conclusion that none of them precluded enforcement of a Ski School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver. The factors included the existence of a duty to the public, the nature of the service performed, whether the contract was fairly entered into, and whether the intention of the parties was expressed in clear and unambiguous language; [2]-The district court properly determined that the provisions of the Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979 and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act had no effect on the enforceability of defendant ski resort’s waivers. Colorado law had long permitted parties to contract away negligence claims in the recreational context; [3]-The skier’s claims were barred by the waivers.

OUTCOME: The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the ski resort and the partial grant of the resort’s motion to dismiss.

CORE TERMS: ski, exculpatory, skiing, lift ticket, recreational, lesson, lift, ski area, practical necessity, recreational activities, public policies, bargaining, skier, inherent dangers, unenforceable, service provided, essential service, inherent risks, discovery, holder, signer, summary judgment, riding, equine, common law, ski lifts, negligence per se, quotation marks omitted, practically, harmless

COUNSEL: Trenton J. Ongert (Joseph D. Bloch with him on the briefs), Bloch & Chapleau, LLC, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff – Appellant.

Michael J. Hofmann, Bryan Cave LLP, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant – Appellee.

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

OPINION BY: McHUGH

OPINION

McHUGH, Circuit Judge.

During a ski lesson at Keystone Mountain Resort (“Keystone”), Doctor Teresa Brigance’s ski boot became wedged between the ground and the chairlift. She was unable to unload but the chairlift kept moving, which caused her femur to fracture. Dr. Brigance filed suit against Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“VSRI”), raising claims of (1) negligence, (2) negligence per se, (3) negligent supervision and training, (4) negligence (respondeat superior), (5) negligent hiring, and (6) violation of the Colorado Premises Liability Act (the “PLA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-115. The district court dismissed Dr. Brigance’s negligence and negligence per se claims at the motion to dismiss stage. After discovery, the district court granted VSRI’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims, concluding the waiver Dr. Brigance signed before participating [*2] in her ski lesson, as well as the waiver contained on the back of her lift ticket, are enforceable and bar her claims against VSRI. Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

Keystone is a ski resort located in Colorado that is operated by VSRI. In March 2015, Dr. Brigance visited Keystone with her family and participated in a ski lesson. At the time, ski lesson participants, including Dr. Brigance, were required to sign a liability waiver (the “Ski School Waiver”) before beginning their lessons. The Ski School Waiver signed1 by Dr. Brigance contained, among other things, the following provisions:

RESORT ACTIVITY, SKI SCHOOL, & EQUIPMENT RENTAL WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY & INDEMNITY AGREEMENT

THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.

. . .

2. I understand the dangers and risks of the Activity and that the Participant ASSUMES ALL INHERENT DANGERS AND RISKS of the Activity, including those of a “skier” (as may be defined by statute or other applicable law).

3. I expressly acknowledge and assume all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers [*3] and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to: Falling; free skiing; following the direction of an instructor or guide; . . . equipment malfunction, failure or damage; improper use or maintenance of equipment; . . . the negligence of Participant, Ski Area employees, an instructor . . . or others; . . . lift loading, unloading, and riding; . . . . I UNDERSTAND THAT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE RISKS IN THIS AGREEMENT IS NOT COMPLETE AND VOLUNTARILY CHOOSE FOR PARTICIPANT TO PARTICIPATE IN AND EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS AND DANGERS OF THE ACTIVITY, WHETHER OR NOT DESCRIBED HERE, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN, INHERENT OR OTHERWISE.

4. Participant assumes the responsibility . . . for reading, understanding and complying with all signage, including instructions on the use of lifts. Participant must have the physical dexterity and knowledge to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. . . .

. . .

6. Additionally, in consideration for allowing the Participant to participate in the Activity, I AGREE TO HOLD HARMLESS, RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE [VSRI] FOR ANY . . . INJURY OR LOSS TO PARTICIPANT, INCLUDING DEATH, WHICH PARTICIPANT MAY SUFFER, ARISING IN WHOLE OR IN PART OUT OF PARTICIPANT’S PARTICIPATION [*4] IN THE ACTIVITY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THOSE CLAIMS BASED ON [VSRI’s] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE . . . .

Aplt. App’x at 117 (emphasis in original).

1 Although VSRI did not produce an original or copy of the Ski School Waiver signed by Dr. Brigance, it provided evidence that all adults participating in ski lessons at Keystone are required to sign a waiver and that the Ski School Waiver was the only waiver form used by VSRI for adult ski lessons during the 2014-15 ski season. Before it was clear that VSRI could not locate its copy of the signed waiver, Dr. Brigance indicated in discovery responses and deposition testimony that she signed a waiver before beginning ski lessons. See Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance II“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *3-4 (D. Colo. Jan. 13, 2017). Based on this evidence and Dr. Brigance’s failure to argue “that a genuine question remains for trial as to whether she did in fact sign the Ski School Waiver in the form produced or whether she agreed to its terms,” 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *4, the district court treated her assent to the Ski School Waiver as conceded and concluded that “there is no genuine dispute as to whether [Dr. Brigance] consented to the terms of the Ski School Waiver,” id.

On appeal, Dr. Brigance offers no argument and points to no evidence suggesting that the district court’s conclusion was erroneous in light of the evidence and arguments before it. Instead, she merely denies having signed the Ski School Waiver and reiterates that VSRI has yet to produce a signed copy of the waiver. But in response to questioning at oral argument, counsel for Dr. Brigance conceded that this court could proceed with the understanding that Dr. Brigance signed the Ski School Waiver. Oral Argument at 0:41-1:23, Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., No. 17-1035 (10th Cir. Nov. 13, 2017). Three days later, counsel for Dr. Brigance filed a notice with the court effectively revoking that concession.

Dr. Brigance’s assertion that she did not execute the Ski School Waiver is forfeited because she failed to adequately raise it as an issue below. Avenue Capital Mgmt. II, L.P. v. Schaden, 843 F.3d 876, 884 (10th Cir. 2016); see also Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *4 (“[N]otwithstanding the absence of a signed copy of the [Ski School Waiver], [Dr. Brigance] does not argue that this issue presents a genuine dispute requiring trial.”). But even if we were to entertain the argument, it would fail to defeat summary judgment. Despite her obfuscation, VSRI’s inability to produce the signed Ski School Waiver and Dr. Brigance’s assertions that she did not sign the waiver–which contradict her discovery responses and deposition testimony–are insufficient to establish that the district court erred in concluding that no genuine dispute exists as to whether Dr. Brigance agreed to the terms of the waiver. [HN1] “Although the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact” rests with the movant at summary judgment, “the nonmovant must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Champagne Metals v. Ken-Mac Metals, Inc., 458 F.3d 1073, 1084 (10th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the

party asserting that a fact . . . is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . ; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)–(B). Dr. Brigance made no such showing below, nor does she attempt to do so on appeal.

In addition, Dr. Brigance’s husband purchased a lift ticket enabling her to ride the ski lifts at Keystone. Dr. Brigance received the ticket from her husband and used it to ride the Discovery Lift. The lift ticket contained a warning and liability waiver (the “Lift Ticket Waiver”) on its back side, which provides in pertinent part:

HOLDER AGREES AND UNDERSTANDS THAT SKIING . . . AND USING A SKI AREA, INCLUDING LIFTS, CAN BE HAZARDOUS.

WARNING

Under state law, the Holder of this pass assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from the [*5] ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. Other risks include cliffs, extreme terrain, jumps, and freestyle terrain. Holder is responsible for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts and must control speed and course at all times. . . . Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise. Holder agrees to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person or property. . . .

. . .

NO REFUNDS. NOT TRANSFERABLE. NO RESALE.

Id. at 121 (emphasis in original).

After receiving some instruction during her ski lesson on how to load and unload from a chairlift, Dr. Brigance boarded the Discovery Lift. As Dr. Brigance attempted to unload from the lift, her left ski boot became wedged between the ground and the lift. Although she was able to stand up, she could not disengage the lift because her boot remained squeezed between the ground and the lift. Eventually, the motion of the lift pushed Dr. Brigance forward, fracturing her femur.

B. Procedural Background

Dr. Brigance filed suit against VSRI in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado as a result of the injuries she sustained while attempting to unload [*6] from the Discovery Lift.2
In her amended complaint Dr. Brigance alleged that the short distance between the ground and the Discovery Lift at the unloading point–coupled with the inadequate instruction provided by her ski instructor, the chairlift operator’s failure to stop the lift, and VSRI’s deficient hiring, training, and supervision of employees–caused her injuries. She consequently asserted the following six claims against VSRI: (1) negligence; (2) negligence per se; (3) negligent supervision and training; (4) negligence (respondeat superior); (5) negligent hiring; and (6) liability under the PLA.

2 The district court properly invoked diversity jurisdiction because Dr. Brigance is a citizen of Florida and VSRI is a Colorado corporation with its principal place of business in Colorado, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(a), (c)(1)(B)–(C).

VSRI moved to dismiss all claims raised by Dr. Brigance with the exception of her respondeat superior and PLA claims. The district court granted in part and denied in part VSRI’s motion. Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance I“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYM, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *1-5 (D. Colo. Mar. 11, 2016). It dismissed Dr. Brigance’s negligence claim as preempted by the PLA. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, [WL] at *3-4. It also dismissed her negligence per se claim, concluding that she “fail[ed] to identify any requirement” of the Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979 (the “SSA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 33-44-101 to -114, that VSRI had allegedly violated. Brigance I, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *2. In dismissing this claim, the district court also held that the [*7] provisions of the Passenger Tramway Safety Act (the “PTSA”), Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-5-701 to -721, relied upon by Dr. Brigance “do[ ] not provide a statutory standard of care which is adequate to support [a] claim for negligence per se.” Brigance I, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, 2016 WL 931261, at *2 (emphasis omitted). But the district court refused to dismiss Dr. Brigance’s claims regarding negligent supervision and training and negligent hiring. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, [WL] at *4-5.

Upon completion of discovery, VSRI moved for summary judgment on the basis that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver completely bar Dr. Brigance’s remaining claims. In the alternative, VSRI argued that summary judgment was appropriate because (1) Dr. Brigance failed to satisfy the elements of her PLA claim and (2) her common-law negligence claims are preempted by the PLA and otherwise lack evidentiary support. Dr. Brigance opposed the motion, contending in part that the waivers are unenforceable under the SSA and the four-factor test established by the Colorado Supreme Court in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981). Dr. Brigance also asserted that her common-law negligence claims are not preempted by the PLA and that she presented sufficient evidence to allow her claims to be heard by a jury.

The district court granted VSRI’s motion. Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (“Brigance II“), No. 15-cv-1394-WJM-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *10 (D. Colo. Jan. 13, 2017) [*8] . It determined that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable under the factors established by the Colorado Supreme Court in Jones and that the SSA and PTSA do not otherwise invalidate the waivers. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *5-9. It then determined that all of Dr. Brigance’s remaining claims fall within the broad scope of the waivers and are therefore barred. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *10. This appeal followed.

II. DISCUSSION

Dr. Brigance challenges the district court’s enforcement of both the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver, as well as the dismissal of her negligence and negligence per se claims. [HN2] “[B]ecause the district court’s jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship, [Colorado] substantive law governs” our analysis of the underlying claims and enforceability of the waivers. Sylvia v. Wisler, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *3 (10th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). We “must therefore ascertain and apply [Colorado] law with the objective that the result obtained in the federal court should be the result that would be reached in [a Colorado] court.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In doing so, “we must defer to the most recent decisions of the state’s highest court,” although “stare [*9] decisis requires that we be bound by our own interpretations of state law unless an intervening decision of the state’s highest court has resolved the issue.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Although the substantive law of Colorado governs our analysis of the waivers and underlying claims, [HN3] federal law controls the appropriateness of a district court’s grant of summary judgment and dismissal of claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Stickley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 505 F.3d 1070, 1076 (10th Cir. 2007). We therefore review the district court’s grant of summary judgment and dismissal of claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) de novo, applying the same standards as the district court. Id.; see also Sylvia, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *4, 16. “However, we may affirm [the] district court’s decision[s] on any grounds for which there is a record sufficient to permit conclusions of law, even grounds not relied upon by the district court.” Stickley, 505 F.3d at 1076 (internal quotation marks omitted).

“Summary judgment should be granted if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Sylvia, 875 F.3d 1307, 2017 WL 5622916, at *16 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because it is undisputed that all of Dr. Brigance’s claims–including those dismissed pursuant [*10] to Rule 12(b)(6)–fall within the broad scope of either waiver if they are deemed enforceable under Colorado law, the first, and ultimately only, question we must address is whether the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable.

[HN4] Under Colorado law, “exculpatory agreements have long been disfavored,” B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134, 136 (Colo. 1998), and it is well-established that such agreements cannot “shield against a claim for willful and wanton conduct, regardless of the circumstances or intent of the parties,Boles v. Sun Ergoline, Inc., 223 P.3d 724, 726 (Colo. 2010). See also Espinoza v. Ark. Valley Adventures, LLC, 809 F.3d 1150, 1152 (10th Cir. 2016) (“Under Colorado common law, it’s long settled that courts will not give effect to contracts purporting to release claims for intentional, knowing, or reckless misconduct.”). “But claims of negligence are a different matter. Colorado common law does not categorically prohibit the enforcement of contracts seeking to release claims of negligence.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1152; accord Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Neither does it always preclude exculpatory agreements as to claims of negligence per se. Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154-55.

Accordingly, [HN5] the Colorado Supreme Court has instructed courts to consider the following four factors when determining the enforceability of an exculpatory agreement: “(1) the existence of a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service performed; (3) whether the [*11] contract was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” J/ones, 623 P.2d at 376. It appears that if an exculpatory agreement satisfies any of the four factors, it must be deemed unenforceable. Although consideration of these factors is generally sufficient to determine the enforceability of exculpatory agreements, the Colorado Supreme Court has clarified that “other public policy considerations” not necessarily encompassed in the Jones factors may invalidate exculpatory agreements. See Boles, 223 P.3d at 726 (“[M]ore recently, we have identified other public policy considerations invalidating exculpatory agreements, without regard to the Jones factors.”); see, e.g., Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229, 1232-37 (Colo. 2002), superseded by statute, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107.

The district court examined each of the Jones factors and concluded that none of them preclude enforcement of the Ski School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver. Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *5-8. It also determined that the provisions of the SSA and PTSA “have no effect on the enforceability” of the waivers. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, [WL] at *9. We agree.

A. The Jones Factors

1. Existence of a Duty to the Public

[HN6] The first Jones factor requires us to examine whether there is an “existence of a duty to the public,” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376, or, described another way, “whether [*12] the service provided involves a duty to the public,” Mincin v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 308 F.3d 1105, 1109 (10th Cir. 2002). The Colorado Supreme Court has not specified the precise circumstances under which an exculpatory agreement will be barred under this factor, but it has explained that unenforceable exculpatory agreements

generally involve businesses suitable for public regulation; that are engaged in performing a public service of great importance, or even of practical necessity; that offer a service that is generally available to any members of the public who seek it; and that possess a decisive advantage of bargaining strength, enabling them to confront the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation.

Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. The Colorado Supreme Court has expressly “distinguished businesses engaged in recreational activities” from the foregoing class of businesses because recreational activities “are not practically necessary” and therefore “the provider[s of such activities] owe[ ] no special duty to the public.” Id.; see also Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153 (“Though some businesses perform essential public services and owe special duties to the public, the [Colorado Supreme] [C]ourt has held that ‘businesses engaged in recreational activities’ generally do not.” (quoting Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467)).

And, indeed, [*13] Colorado courts examining exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities under Colorado law have almost uniformly concluded that the first Jones factor does not invalidate or render unenforceable the relevant agreement. See, e.g., Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467-69; Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-78; Stone v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., No. 15CA0598, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3 (Colo. App. Dec. 29, 2016) (unpublished) (“The supreme court has specified that no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services.”), cert. denied, No. 17SC82, 2017 Colo. LEXIS 572, 2017 WL 2772252 (Colo. Jun. 26, 2017); Hamill v. Cheley Colo. Camps, Inc., 262 P.3d 945, 949 (Colo. App. 2011) (“Our supreme court has held that businesses engaged in recreational activities that are not practically necessary, such as equine activities, do not perform services implicating a public duty.”); see also Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153-56; Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1110-11; Patterson v. Powdermonarch, L.L.C., No. 16-cv-00411-WYD-NYW, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151229, 2017 WL 4158487, at *5 (D. Colo. July 5, 2017) (“Businesses engaged in recreational activities like [defendant’s ski services] have been held not to owe special duties to the public or to perform essential public services.”); Brooks v. Timberline Tours, Inc., 941 F. Supp. 959, 962 (D. Colo. 1996) (“Providing snowmobile tours to the public does not fall within” the first Jones factor.); Lahey v. Covington, 964 F. Supp. 1440, 1445 (D. Colo. 1996) (holding white-water rafting is recreational in nature and is therefore “neither a matter of great public importance nor a matter of practical necessity” (internal quotation marks omitted)), aff’d sub nom., Lahey v. Twin Lakes Expeditions, Inc., 113 F.3d 1246 (10th Cir. 1997).

The relevant services provided by VSRI–skiing and ski lessons–are [*14] clearly recreational in nature. Like horseback riding and skydiving services, see Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467; Jones, 623 P.2d at 377, skiing and ski lessons are not of great public importance or “matter[s] of practical necessity for even some members of the public,” Jones, 623 P.2d at 377. They therefore do not implicate the type of duty to the public contemplated in the first Jones factor. Although it appears the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals have yet to address the first Jones factor within the context of skiing or ski lesson services, the few courts that have considered similar issues have reached the unsurprising conclusion that ski-related services are recreational activities and do not involve a duty to the public. See, e.g., Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., No. 14-cv-03328-WYD-KLM, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946, 2016 WL 4275386, at *3 (D. Colo. Aug. 3, 2016); Potter v. Nat’l Handicapped Sports, 849 F. Supp. 1407, 1409 (D. Colo. 1994); Bauer v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 788 F. Supp. 472, 474 (D. Colo. 1992).

Dr. Brigance fails to address the principle “that businesses engaged in recreational activities that are not practically necessary . . . do not perform services implicating a public duty.” Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. Instead, she contends VSRI owes a duty to the public because the ski and ski lesson services provided by VSRI implicate a number of additional factors the California Supreme Court relied upon in Tunkl v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441, 444-46 (Cal. 1963), to determine whether an exculpatory agreement should be deemed invalid as affecting [*15] public interest.3 Specifically, Dr. Brigance contends VSRI owes a duty to the public because the Colorado ski industry is subject to express regulation under the SSA and PTSA, VSRI is willing to perform its services for any member of the public who seeks them, VSRI maintains an advantage in bargaining strength, and skiers are placed under the complete control of VSRI when riding their lifts.

3 Dr. Brigance separately argues that the waivers are invalid under the provisions and public policies contained within the SSA, PTSA, and PLA. Although she incorporates these arguments in her analysis of the first Jones factor, we address them separately in Section II.B, infra.

The Colorado Supreme Court has cited Tunkl and noted its relevance in determining whether a business owes a duty to the public. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77. But when analyzing the first Jones factor, particularly within the context of recreational services, courts applying Colorado law focus on and give greatest weight to whether the party seeking to enforce an exculpatory agreement is engaged in providing services that are of great public importance or practical necessity for at least some members of the public. See, e.g., Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153-54; Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 896-97 (D. Colo. 1998); Potter, 849 F. Supp. at 1409; Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77; Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. And the additional factors listed by Dr. Brigance are insufficient to establish that the recreational services offered by VSRI are of great public importance or practically necessary. An activity does not satisfy the first Jones factor simply because it is subject to state regulation. [*16] As we have explained, the first Jones factor does not

ask whether the activity in question is the subject of some sort of state regulation. Instead, [it] ask[s] whether the service provided is of “great importance to the public,” a matter of “practical necessity” as opposed to (among other things) a “recreational one. [Jones,] 623 P.2d at 376-77. And the distinction the Jones factors draw between essential and recreational services would break down pretty quickly if the presence of some state regulation were enough to convert an otherwise obviously “recreational” service into a “practically necessary” one. After all, state law imposes various rules and regulations on service providers in most every field these days–including on service providers who operate in a variety of clearly recreational fields.

Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154; see also Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467-68. Furthermore, Dr. Brigance’s argument regarding VSRI’s bargaining strength is more properly addressed under the third Jones factor, and her remaining arguments concerning VSRI’s willingness to provide services to the public and its control over skiers are not sufficiently compelling to sway us from departing from the principle “that [HN7] no public duty is implicated if a business provides recreational services.” [*17] Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3.

The district court therefore did not err in concluding that the first Jones factor does not render the Ski School Waiver and the Lift Ticket Waiver unenforceable.

2. Nature of the Service Performed

[HN8] Under the second Jones factor, we examine “the nature of the service performed.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. Analysis of this factor is linked to and in many respects overlaps the analysis conducted under the first Jones factor, as it calls for an examination of whether the service provided is an “essential service” or a “matter of practical necessity.” See Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153; Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949. As is evident from our discussion of the first Jones factor, Colorado “courts have consistently deemed recreational services to be neither essential nor a matter of practical necessity.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; see also Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467 (noting “recreational activities . . . are not practically necessary”); Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78 (holding the skydiving service provided by defendants “was not an essential service”); Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (acknowledging recreational camping and horseback riding services are not essential or matters of practical necessity). And as previously established, the ski and ski lesson services offered by VSRI are recreational in nature and therefore, like other recreational activities examined by this and other [*18] courts, cannot be deemed essential or of practical necessity. See, e.g., Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (“[M]ountain biking is not an essential activity.”); Squires ex rel. Squires v. Goodwin, 829 F. Supp. 2d 1062, 1073 (D. Colo. 2011) (noting the parties did not dispute that skiing “is a recreational service, not an essential service”); Rowan, 31 F. Supp. 2d at 897 (“[S]kiing is not an essential service.”); Potter, 849 F. Supp. at 1410 (disagreeing with plaintiff’s argument that “ski racing for handicapped skiers rises to the level of an essential service [as] contemplated by Colorado law”); Bauer, 788 F. Supp. at 474 (noting “free skiing[, equipment rentals, and ski lessons] for travel agents do[ ] not rise to the level of essential service[s] contemplated by Colorado law.”).

Dr. Brigance raises no argument specific to this factor other than asserting that “the ski industry is a significant revenue generator for the State of Colorado” and the services provided by VSRI are “public [in] nature.” Aplt. Br. 47. Dr. Brigance cites no authority suggesting that either factor would render the recreational services provided by VSRI essential in nature. And given Colorado courts’ assertion that “recreational services [are] neither essential nor . . . matter[s] of practical necessity,” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3, we conclude the district court did not err in determining that the second Jones factor also does not dictate that the waivers be [*19] deemed unenforceable.

3. Whether the Waivers Were Fairly Entered Into

[HN9] The third Jones factor requires us to examine “whether the contract was fairly entered into.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. “A contract is fairly entered into if one party is not so obviously disadvantaged with respect to bargaining power that the resulting contract essentially places him at the mercy of the other party’s negligence.” Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949 (citing Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1989)). When engaging in this analysis, we examine the nature of the service involved, Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1156, the circumstances surrounding the formation of the contract, id., and whether the services provided are available from a source other than the party with which the plaintiff contracted,
see Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950.

The Colorado Court of Appeals has identified “[p]ossible examples of unfair disparity in bargaining power [as] includ[ing] agreements between employers and employees and between common carriers or public utilities and members of the public.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3. It has also expressly acknowledged an unfair disparity in bargaining power in residential landlord-tenant relationships, presumably based in part on its holding “that housing rental is a matter of practical necessity to the public.” Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 708 (Colo. App. 1996). But the Colorado Court of Appeals has also held that “this type of unfair disparity [*20] is generally not implicated when a person contracts with a business providing recreational services.” Stone, 2016 COA 189M, 2016 WL 7473806, at *3. This is because recreational activities are not essential services or practically necessary, and therefore a person is not “at the mercy” of a business’s negligence when entering an exculpatory agreement involving recreational activities. Hamill, 262 P.3d at 949-50. As we have previously explained, “Colorado courts have repeatedly emphasized that . . . because recreational businesses do not provide ‘essential’ services of ‘practical necessity[,]’ individuals are generally free to walk away if they do not wish to assume the risks described” in an exculpatory agreement. Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157; see also Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (noting that a disparity of bargaining power may be created by the “practical necessity” of a service, but that no such necessity existed because “mountain biking is not an essential activity” and therefore the plaintiff “did not enter into the contract from an inferior bargaining position”).

We reiterate, at the risk of redundancy, that the ski and ski lesson services offered by VSRI are recreational in nature and do not constitute essential services or matters of practical necessity. As a result, Dr. Brigance did not enter the Ski [*21] School Waiver or Lift Ticket Waiver from an unfair bargaining position because she was free to walk away if she did not wish to assume the risks or waive the right to bring certain claims as described in the waivers. This conclusion is supported by a number of cases involving similar recreational activities, including those we have previously addressed under the first two Jones factors. See, Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78 (holding an exculpatory release related to skydiving services was not an unenforceable adhesion contract “because the service provided . . . was not an essential service” and therefore the defendant “did not possess a decisive advantage of bargaining strength over” the plaintiff); see also Squires, 829 F. Supp. 2d at 1071 (“Where, as here, the service provided is a recreational service and not an essential service, there is no unfair bargaining advantage.”); Day v. Snowmass Stables, Inc., 810 F. Supp. 289, 294 (D. Colo. 1993) (“[T]he recreational services offered by [defendant] were not essential and, therefore, [it] did not enjoy an unfair bargaining advantage.”); Bauer, 788 F. Supp. at 475 (“Here, defendants’ recreational services were not essential and, therefore, they did not enjoy an unfair bargaining advantage.”).

Moreover, the circumstances surrounding Dr. Brigance’s entry into the exculpatory agreements indicate she [*22] did so fairly. Dr. Brigance does not identify any evidence in the record calling into question her competency, ability to comprehend the terms of the agreements, or actual understanding of the agreements. Nor does she point to anything in the record reflecting an intent or attempt by VSRI to fraudulently induce her to enter the agreements or to conceal or misconstrue their contents. In addition, there is nothing in the record to suggest Dr. Brigance’s agreement to the terms of the Ski School Waiver was not voluntary. See Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *3-4.

Notwithstanding the well-established law that exculpatory agreements involving businesses providing recreational services do not implicate the third Jones factor, Dr. Brigance argues her assent to the terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver was obtained unfairly and that VSRI had an advantage in bargaining strength. This is so, she contends, because she “did not have a chance to review the exculpatory language contained on the back of the non-refundable [lift] ticket before she purchased it” and that “[o]nce the ticket was purchased, she was forced to accept the exculpatory language or lose the money she invested.” Aplt. Br. 47. Dr. Brigance’s argument fails to account for her [*23] voluntary acceptance of the Ski School Waiver. And although Dr. Brigance asserts she “did not have a chance to review” the Lift Ticket Waiver before purchasing it, she does not identify any evidence that VSRI prevented her from reviewing the Lift Ticket Waiver before she used it to ride the Discovery Lift, and “Colorado courts have repeatedly emphasized that individuals engaged in recreational activities are generally expected to read materials like these.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157. Most importantly, Dr. Brigance did not raise this argument below and does not provide a compelling reason for us to address it on appeal.4
See Crow v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 323, 324 (10th Cir. 1994) (“Absent compelling reasons, we do not consider arguments that were not presented to the district court.”).

4 In fact, the district court noted that Dr. Brigance “neither disputes the relevant facts nor counters VSRI’s argument that she accepted the contractual terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver by skiing and riding the lifts.” Brigance II, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5447, 2017 WL 131797, at *4. As a result, the district court concluded Dr. Brigance had agreed to the terms of the Lift Ticket Waiver and would be bound to its terms to the extent it was otherwise enforceable. Id.

For these reasons, the district court did not err in concluding that the third Jones factor does not render the Ski School Waiver or the Lift Ticket Waiver unenforceable.

4. Whether the Parties’ Intent Was Expressed Clearly and Unambiguously

[HN10] The fourth and final Jones factor is “whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. The inquiry conducted under this factor “should be whether the intent of the parties was to extinguish liability and [*24] whether this intent was clearly and unambiguously expressed.Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785. The Colorado Supreme Court has explained that “[t]o determine whether the intent of the parties is clearly and unambiguously expressed, we [may] examine[ ] the actual language of the agreement for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.”
Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 467. We may also take into account a party’s subsequent acknowledgement that it understood the provisions of the agreement. Id.
In addition, it is well-established that the term “negligence” is not invariably required for an exculpatory agreement to be deemed an unambiguous waiver or release of claims arising from negligent conduct. Id.

The Ski School Waiver contains approximately a page and a half of terms and conditions in small, but not unreadable, font.5 It prominently identifies itself as, among other things, a “RELEASE OF LIABILITY . . . AGREEMENT”–a fact that is reiterated in the subtitle of the agreement by inclusion of the statement “THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY & WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.” Aplt. App’x 117. The provisions of the waiver include the signer’s express acknowledgment [*25] and assumption of “ALL INHERENT DANGERS AND RISKS of the Activity, including those of a ‘skier’ (as may be identified by statute or other applicable law),” as well as “all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to” a lengthy list of specific events and circumstances that includes “lift loading, unloading, and riding.” Id. In addition to this assumption-of-the-risk language, the Ski School Waiver provides that the signer

AGREE[S] TO HOLD HARMLESS, RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE [VSRI] FOR ANY . . . INJURY OR LOSS TO PARTICIPANT, INCLUDING DEATH, WHICH PARTICIPANT MAY SUFFER, ARISING IN WHOLE OR IN PART OUT OF PARTICIPANT’S PARTICIPATION IN THE ACTIVITY, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THOSE CLAIMS BASED ON ANY RELEASED PARTY’S ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE OR BREACH OF ANY CONTRACT AND/OR EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTY.

Id.

5 Although Dr. Brigance denies that she signed the Ski School Waiver, see supra note 1, she has not made any arguments regarding the readability or font size of the terms and conditions.

The Lift Ticket Waiver–approximately two paragraphs in length–is not as detailed as the Ski School Waiver, but contains somewhat similar language regarding the ticket holder’s assumption of risk and waiver of claims. After detailing [*26] some of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing that the holder of the ticket assumes, as well as identifying other risks and responsibilities, the Lift Ticket Waiver provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS, inherent or otherwise” and “to hold the ski area harmless for claims to person and property.” Id. at 121.

Neither waiver is unduly long nor complicated, unreadable, or overburdened with legal jargon. Most importantly, the intent of the waivers is clear and unambiguous. In addition to the language indicating Dr. Brigance’s assumption of all risks of skiing, inherent or otherwise, both waivers contain clear language stating that Dr. Brigance agreed to hold VSRI harmless for injuries to her person as a result of skiing at Keystone. Moreover, the Ski School Waiver clearly and unambiguously provides that Dr. Brigance agreed to “RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND NOT TO SUE” VSRI for personal injuries arising in whole or in part from her participation in ski lessons, including claims based on VSRI’s “ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE.” Id. at 117. Dr. Brigance does not argue that any of the language regarding her agreement to hold harmless, indemnify, release, or not to sue VSRI is ambiguous or confusing. [*27] And like this and other courts’ examination of similarly worded provisions, we conclude the relevant release language of the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver cannot be reasonably understood as expressing anything other than an intent to release or bar suit against VSRI from claims arising, in whole or in part, as a result of Dr. Brigance’s decision to ski and participate in ski lessons at Keystone, including claims based on VSRI’s negligence. See Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1157-58; Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1112-13; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468-69; B & B Livery, 960 P.2d at 137-38; Hamill, 262 P.3d at 950-51.

Dr. Brigance’s argument on appeal regarding the fourth Jones factor centers on the assumption-of-the-risk language contained in both waivers. Specifically, Dr. Brigance contends the intent of the waivers is ambiguous because the provisions providing that she assumes all risks of skiing, “inherent or otherwise,” conflict with the SSA because the statute’s provisions only bar a skier from recovering against a ski area operator “for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-112; see also id. at 33-44-103(3.5). Because of this alleged conflict, Dr. Brigance asserts that she could not know whether she was “releasing [VSRI] of all liability as indicated by the [waivers], or only for the inherent risks of skiing as [*28] mandated by the SSA.” Aplt. Br. 50-51.

Dr. Brigance’s argument is unavailing for a number of reasons. First, it only addresses the assumption-of-the-risk language contained in each waiver. But the more pertinent provisions of the waivers are those regarding Dr. Brigance’s agreement to hold harmless, release, indemnify, and not to sue VSRI. These provisions appear independent from the assumption-of-the-risk language and therefore their plain meaning is unaffected by any potential ambiguity in the “inherent or otherwise” clauses. Dr. Brigance does not contest the clarity of the release provisions and, as previously described, we believe those provisions unambiguously reflect the parties’ intent to release VSRI from claims arising from Dr. Brigance’s participation in ski lessons at Keystone.

Second, the Lift Ticket Waiver’s “assumes all risks, inherent or otherwise” phrase, as well as a similar phrase contained in the Ski School Waiver, are not ambiguous. Rather, their meanings are clear–the signer of the agreement or holder of the ticket is to assume all risks of skiing, whether inherent to skiing or not. The term “otherwise,” when “paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary”–as [*29] is done in both waivers–is best understood to mean “NOT.” Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing. Dr. Brigance offers no alternative reading of the phrases and does not specify how “inherent or otherwise” could be understood as only referring to the inherent risks identified in the SSA. And while the Ski School Waiver contains a provision in which the signer agrees to assume all inherent dangers and risks of skiing as may be defined by statute or other applicable law, the next provision of the agreement clearly expands that assumption of risk, stating that the signer “expressly acknowledge[s] and assume[s] all additional risks and dangers that may result in . . . physical injury and/or death above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks of the Activity, including but not limited to” a rather extensive list of circumstances or events that may occur while skiing, including “lift loading, unloading, and riding.” Aplt. App’x at 117. That same provision continues, indicating that the signer understands the description of risks in the agreement is “NOT COMPLETE,” but that the signer nevertheless [*30] voluntarily chooses to “EXPRESSLY ASSUME ALL RISKS AND DANGERS OF THE ACTIVITY, WHETHER OR NOT DESCRIBED HERE, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN, INHERENT OR OTHERWISE.” Id. Reading the “inherent or otherwise” phrase in context clearly indicates that, at a minimum, the Ski School Waiver includes an assumption of risk above and beyond the inherent risks and dangers of skiing as defined in the SSA. See Ringquist v. Wall Custom Homes, LLC, 176 P.3d 846, 849 (Colo. App. 2007) (“In determining whether a provision in a contract is ambiguous, the instrument’s language must be examined and construed in harmony with the plain and generally accepted meanings of the words used, and reference must be made to all the agreement’s provisions.”); Moland v. Indus. Claim Appeals Office of State, 111 P.3d 507, 510 (Colo. App. 2004) (“The meaning and effect of a contract is to be determined from a review of the entire instrument, not merely from isolated clauses or phrases.”).

Third, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a similar argument in B & B Livery, Inc. v. Riehl, 960 P.2d 134 (Colo. 1998). There, the Colorado Supreme Court examined an exculpatory agreement that included a statutorily mandated warning that equine professionals are not liable to others for the inherent risks associated with participating in equine activities, “as well as a broader clause limiting liability from non-inherent risks.” Id. at 137-38. It concluded that “the [*31] insertion of a broader clause further limiting liability does not make the agreement ambiguous per se” and instead “merely evinces an intent to extinguish liability above and beyond that provided” in the statute. Id. at 137; see also Hamill, 262 P.3d at 951 (upholding enforcement of an exculpatory agreement that purported to cover “inherent and other risks,” as well as claims against “any legal liability,” and noting that “[t]o hold . . . that the release did not provide greater protection than the release from liability of inherent risks provided by the equine act . . . would render large portions of the agreement meaningless”). Furthermore, the waivers do not conflict with the SSA merely because they purport to cover a broader range of risks than those identified by the statute as inherent to skiing. See Fullick v. Breckenridge Ski Corp., No. 90-1377, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3 (10th Cir. Apr. 29, 1992) (unpublished) (“If one could never release liability to a greater degree than a release provided in a statute, then one would never need to draft a release, in any context.”); Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468 (“[T]his court has made clear that parties may, consistent with the [equine] statute, contract separately to release sponsors even from negligent conduct, as long as the intent of the parties is clearly expressed in the contract.”).

Finally, the single [*32] case relied upon by Dr. Brigance that applies Colorado law is distinguishable. In Rowan v. Vail Holdings, Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 889, 899-900 (D. Colo. 1998), the district court determined an exculpatory agreement was ambiguous and therefore unenforceable in part because it first recited “the risks being assumed in the broadest possible language,” expressly including risks associated with the use of ski lifts, and then later addressed the assumption of risk in terms of the inherent risks and dangers of skiing as defined in the SSA, which indicates the use of ski lifts does not fall within its definition of inherent risks. The release therefore conflicted with itself and the relevant statutory language.
See Cunningham v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corp., 673 F. App’x 841, 847 (10th Cir. Dec. 20, 2016) (unpublished). But unlike the waiver at issue in Rowan, the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not define the inherent risks of skiing in a manner contrary to the SSA. Nor do they contain conflicting provisions. The non-exhaustive list of inherent risks identified in the Lift Ticket Waiver appears to be drawn directly from the SSA, while the Ski School Waiver indicates inherent risks include those “as may be defined by statute or other applicable law.” Aplt. App’x at 117, 121. In addition, after referencing the inherent risks of skiing and providing that the signer [*33] of the agreement assumes those risks, the Ski School Waiver goes on to identify other, non-inherent risks associated with skiing and ski lessons and expressly provides that the signer assumes those risks. Specifically, the waiver makes clear that the risks assumed by Dr. Brigance include “all additional risks and dangers . . . above and beyond the inherent dangers and risks” of skiing and ski lessons, whether described in the waiver or not, known or unknown, or inherent or otherwise. Id. at 117. Unlike the provisions at issue in Rowan that provided conflicting statements regarding the risks assumed, the waivers here unambiguously provide that Dr. Brigance agreed to not only assume risks and dangers inherent to skiing, but also those risks and dangers not inherent to skiing.

Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the fourth Jones factor does not invalidate the waivers.

***

Based on the foregoing analysis, we agree with the district court that application of the Jones factors to the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not render them unenforceable.

B. The SSA and PTSA

Although analysis of the Jones factors is often sufficient to determine the validity of an exculpatory [*34] agreement, the Colorado Supreme Court has “identified other public policy considerations invalidating exculpatory agreements, without regard to the Jones factors.” Boles, 223 P.3d at 726. At various points on appeal, either as standalone arguments or embedded within her analysis of the Jones factors, Dr. Brigance contends the Ski School Waiver and the Lift Ticket Waiver are unenforceable as contrary to Colorado public policy because they conflict with the SSA, PTSA, and the public policies announced therein.6 The district court considered these arguments and determined that the statutes do not affect the enforceability of either waiver as to Dr. Brigance’s claims. We find no reason to disagree.

6 Dr. Brigance also argues that the PLA prohibits use of exculpatory agreements as a defense to claims raised under its provisions and that the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver conflict with the public policies set forth in its provisions. But Dr. Brigance forfeited these arguments by failing to raise them in the district court. Avenue Capital Mgmt. II, 843 F.3d at 884. Although we may consider forfeited arguments under a plain-error standard, we decline to do so when, as here, the appellant fails to argue plain error on appeal. Id. at 885; see also Richison v. Ernest Grp., Inc., 634 F.3d 1123, 1130-31 (10th Cir. 2011). We decline to address Dr. Brigance’s argument that the waivers are unenforceable because their language is broad enough to encompass willful and wanton behavior for the same reason.

In 1965, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the PTSA with the purpose of assisting “in safeguarding life, health, property, and the welfare of the state in the operation of passenger tramways.” Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70, 73 (Colo. 1998). [HN11] The PTSA provides that “it is the policy of the state of Colorado to establish a board empowered to prevent unnecessary mechanical hazards in the operation of passenger tramways” and to assure that reasonable design and construction, periodic inspections, and adequate devices and personnel are provided with respect to passenger [*35] tramways. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 25-5-701. The General Assembly empowered the board “with rulemaking and enforcement authority to carry out its functions,” including the authority to “conduct investigations and inspections” and “discipline ski area operators.” Bayer, 960 P.2d at 73-74; see also Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 25-5-703 to -704, -706 to -707. With its authority, the board adopted the standards, with some alterations, utilized by the American National Standards Institute for passenger tramways. Bayer, 960 P.2d at 73-74.

The General Assembly enacted the SSA fourteen years later. The SSA “supplements the [PTSA]’s focus on ski lifts, but its principal function is to define the duties of ski areas and skiers with regard to activities and features on the ski slopes.” Id. at 74. [HN12] The provisions of the SSA indicate that “it is in the interest of the state of Colorado to establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for the skiers using them” and that the SSA’s purpose is to supplement a portion of the PTSA by “further defin[ing] the legal responsibilities of ski area operators . . . and . . . the rights and liabilities existing between the skier and the ski area operator.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 33-44-102. [HN13] In addition to the SSA’s provisions defining various responsibilities and duties of skiers and ski area operators, [*36] the 1990 amendments to the SSA limited the liability of ski area operators by providing that “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” Id. at 33-44-112. The SSA also provides that any violation of its provisions applicable to skiers constitutes negligence on the part of the skier, while “[a] violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of [the SSA] or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board . . . shall . . . constitute negligence on the part of such operator.” Id. at 33-44-104. “The effect of these statutory provisions is to make violations of the [SSA] and [the rules and regulations promulgated by passenger tramway safety board] negligence per se.Bayer, 960 P.2d at 74. [HN14] Ultimately, the SSA and PTSA together “provide a comprehensive . . . framework which preserves ski lift common law negligence actions, while at the same time limiting skier suits for inherent dangers on the slopes and defining per se negligence for violation of statutory and regulatory requirements.” Id. at 75.

Dr. Brigance contends the waivers conflict with the public policy objectives of the SSA and PTSA because enforcing [*37] either waiver would allow VSRI to disregard its statutorily defined responsibilities and duties. We find Dr. Brigance’s argument unpersuasive.

At the outset, it is worth reiterating that [HN15] under Colorado law exculpatory agreements are not invalid as contrary to public policy simply because they involve an activity subject to state regulation. Espinoza, 308 F.3d at 1154; see also id. at 1155 (acknowledging the Colorado Supreme Court has allowed enforcement of exculpatory agreements with respect to equine activities despite the existence of a statute limiting liability for equine professionals in certain circumstances, while still allowing for liability in other circumstances); Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1111 (“The fact that the Colorado legislature has limited landowner liability in the contexts of horseback riding and skiing is relevant to the question of whether landowner liability might be limited in other circumstances absent a contract.”). Similarly, exculpatory agreements do not conflict with Colorado public policy merely because they release liability to a greater extent than a release provided in a statute.
See Fullick, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3; Chadwick, 100 P.3d at 468; B & B Livery, 960 P.2d at 137-38.

[HN16] It is true that the SSA and PTSA identify various duties and responsibilities that, if violated, may subject a ski area operator to [*38] liability. But the acts establish a framework preserving common law negligence actions in the ski and ski lift context, Bayer, 960 P.2d at 75, and do nothing to expressly or implicitly preclude private parties from contractually releasing potential common law negligence claims through use of an exculpatory agreement. While “a statute . . . need not explicitly bar waiver by contract for the contract provision to be invalid because it is contrary to public policy,” Stanley v. Creighton Co., 911 P.2d 705, 707 (Colo. App. 1996), Dr. Brigance does not identify a single provision in either the SSA or PTSA suggesting the enforcement of exculpatory agreements in the ski and ski lift context is impermissible or contrary to public policy. Moreover, “Colorado law has long permitted parties to contract away negligence claims in the recreational context” and we “generally will not assume that the General Assembly mean[t] to displace background common law principles absent some clear legislative expression of that intent.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154, 1155. This principle is particularly relevant in the context of exculpatory agreements because “[t]he General Assembly . . . has shown that–when it wishes–it well knows how to displace background common law norms and preclude the release of civil claims.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1154-55.

Our conclusion that [*39] the SSA and PTSA do not bar exculpatory agreements is supported by the Colorado Supreme Court’s regular enforcement of exculpatory agreements involving recreational activities, particularly in the context of equine activities, as well as the General Assembly’s relatively recent pronouncements regarding the public policy considerations involved in a parent’s ability to execute exculpatory agreements on behalf of its child with respect to prospective negligence claims. In 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that Colorado public policy prohibits a parent or guardian from releasing a minor’s prospective claims for negligence. See Cooper, 48 P.3d at 1237. The Colorado Supreme Court’s broad holding appeared to apply even within the context of recreational activities, as the relevant minor had injured himself while skiing. Id. at 1231-35. The following year, the General Assembly enacted Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107, which expressly declared that the General Assembly would not adopt the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding in Cooper. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-22-107(1)(b). Instead, the General Assembly explained that, among other things, it is the public policy of Colorado that “[c]hildren . . . should have the maximum opportunity to participate in sporting, recreational, educational, and other activities [*40] where certain risks may exist” and that “[p]ublic, private, and non-profit entities providing these essential activities to children in Colorado need a measure of protection against lawsuits.” Id. at 13-22-107(1)(a)(I)-(II). Accordingly, the General Assembly established that “[a] parent of a child may, on behalf of the child, release or waive the child’s prospective claim for negligence.” Id. at 13-22-107(3). The General Assembly’s enactment of § 33-22-107 reaffirms Colorado’s permissive position on the use of exculpatory agreements in the recreational context, and its authorization of parental releases and waivers suggests it did not intend and would not interpret the SSA as barring such agreements for adults.

Notwithstanding the lack of any statutory suggestion that the SSA and PTSA prohibit the enforcement of exculpatory agreements as a matter of public policy, Dr. Brigance contends two Colorado Court of Appeals decisions support her assertion to the contrary. In Stanley v. Creighton, the Colorado Court of Appeals analyzed an exculpatory clause in a residential rental agreement under the Jones factors and concluded that the agreement involved a public interest sufficient to invalidate the exculpatory [*41] clause. 911 P.2d at 707-08. The Stanley court reached this conclusion because, among other things, Colorado has long regulated the relationship between landlords and tenants, the PLA “confirms that landowner negligence is an issue of public concern,” and “a landlord’s services are generally held out to the public and . . . housing rental is a matter of practical necessity to the public.” Id. Although the Stanley court’s partial reliance on the existence of state regulations tends to support Dr. Brigance’s assertion that the existence of the SSA and PTSA render the Ski School Wavier and Lift Ticket Waiver either contrary to public policy or sufficient to satisfy the first Jones factor, the circumstances here are readily distinguishable. Unlike residential housing, skiing is not essential nor a matter of practical necessity. Among other considerations not present here, the Stanley court “placed greater emphasis on the essential nature of residential housing” and “alluded to a distinction between residential and commercial leases, implying that an exculpatory clause might well be valid in the context of a commercial lease.” Mincin, 308 F.3d at 1110.

Similarly, Dr. Brigance’s reliance on Phillips v. Monarch Recreation Corp., 668 P.2d 982 (Colo. App. 1983), does not alter our conclusion. In Phillips [*42]
, the Colorado Court of Appeals stated that “[s]tatutory provisions may not be modified by private agreement if doing so would violate the public policy expressed in the statute.” Id. at 987. Applying this principle, the Phillips court concluded that because the SSA “allocate[s] the parties’ respective duties with regard to the safety of those around them, . . . the trial court correctly excluded a purported [exculpatory] agreement intended to alter those duties.” Id. But apparently unlike the agreement at issue in Phillips, the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver do not appear to alter the duties placed upon VSRI under the SSA. See, Fullick, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 9988, 1992 WL 95421, at *3. And the court’s application of this principle to the SSA appears to be inconsistent with the more recent pronouncements by the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly regarding Colorado policies toward the enforceability of exculpatory agreements in the context of recreational activities. Moreover, as detailed above, the SSA and PTSA do not express a policy against exculpatory agreements.

“Given all this,” particularly the SSA’s and PTSA’s silence with respect to exculpatory agreements, “we do not think it our place to adorn the General Assembly’s handiwork with revisions to [*43] the [SSA, PTSA, and] common law that it easily could have but declined to undertake for itself.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1155.

In summary, Colorado’s “relatively permissive public policy toward recreational releases” is one “that, no doubt, means some losses go uncompensated.” Espinoza, 809 F.3d at 1153. And the Colorado Supreme Court and General Assembly may someday “prefer a policy that shifts the burden of loss to the service provider, ensuring compensation in cases like this.” Id. But “that decision is their decision to make, not ours, and their current policy is clear.” Id. As a result, for the reasons stated above, we conclude the Ski School Waiver and Lift Ticket Waiver are enforceable and accordingly bar Dr. Brigance’s claims.

III. CONCLUSION

We AFFIRM the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of VSRI and, on this alternative basis, its partial grant of VSRI’s motion to dismiss.


Forrester v. Sierra at Tahoe, 2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5204

Forrester v. Sierra at Tahoe, 2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5204

Dominique Forrester, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Sierra at Tahoe, Defendant and Respondent.

C079107

COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT

2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5204

July 27, 2017, Opinion Filed

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: Review denied by Forrester v. Sierra at Tahoe, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 7927 (Cal., Oct. 11, 2017)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Superior Court of El Dorado County, No. PC20120138.

CORE TERMS: snowmobile, collision, ski, inherent risk, snowboarding, sport, checklist, toboggan, driver, ski resort, skiing, unreasonably, assumption of risk, slope, secondary, emergency, resort, ski area, skier, hit, snowboarder, patroller, patrol, risks inherent, instructional error, lift, discarded, siren, suppression, tower

JUDGES: Duarte, J.; Butz, Acting P. J., Mauro, J. concurred.

OPINION BY: Duarte, J.

OPINION

Plaintiff Dominique Forrester was injured while snowboarding at defendant ski resort Sierra-at-Tahoe (Sierra) on March 7, 2010. He claimed he was hit by a toboggan, that in turn was being towed by a snowmobile, while on a beginner slope. The trial court found assumption of the risk applied to the claim, and the case went to the jury to answer the question of whether Sierra unreasonably increased the risk to Forrester above that already inherent in the sport of snowboarding. By a vote of 10 to 2, the jury answered “no.”

On appeal, plaintiff contends the trial court erred in ruling that primary assumption of the risk applied to this case, and instructing the jury accordingly. Plaintiff argues a collision with a snowmobile is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. He further contends the court incorrectly instructed the jury on secondary assumption of the risk, and erred in refusing to instruct on the willful suppression of evidence.

As we will explain, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because the very existence of the alleged accident–the collision itself–was [*2] and remains in dispute. We first conclude that unwanted contact with a snowmobile (here encompassing a towed toboggan), on a ski slope at a ski resort, is indeed an inherent risk of snowboarding. Although Forrester argues the particular alleged circumstances of the operation of the snowmobile on the day of the incident took the collision outside the boundaries of inherent risk, that issue was tendered to the jury and the jury found Sierra did not unreasonably increase the risks already inherent in snowboarding

We assume instructional error on secondary assumption of the risk but find no prejudice, and conclude that the evidence did not support an instruction on willful suppression of the evidence.

Accordingly, we affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Alleged Accident

On Sunday, March 7, 2010, Forrester met his high school friend, Franklin Medina, for a day of snowboarding at Sierra. That day was the busiest of the year, with about 6,370 people at the resort. Forrester described himself as an intermediate snowboarder who does not perform jumps. He did not wear ear buds or ear phones while snowboarding and did not recall ever seeing a snowmobile in a ski area before that [*3] day.

At about 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., Forrester was filming Medina doing jumps. After the last jump, Medina snowboarded down the run to wait for Forrester. The bottom area of the ski run is known as Broadway; it is a beginner run near the teaching area and close to the lodge.

According to Forrester, as he began to snowboard down Broadway, he heard someone yell “hey.” He tried to turn around and was hit in the back of the legs. He went airborne and landed on his bottom and then hit his head. His goggles cut his face. He was hurt and dizzy. The snowmobile was 30 yards away when Forrester first saw it, and the driver “took off.” Forrester thought the driver’s jacket was orange or red, but he was not sure. He assumed only ski patrollers, who wear orange-red jackets, operated snowmobiles. He thought the snowmobile driver was wearing a beanie. Forrester did not hear the snowmobile. After the collision, Forrester slid down the mountain, and some other snowboarders asked if he was okay. He did not realize his equipment was broken until he later responded to special interrogatories.

Medina claimed he saw the incident, and that the snowmobile was in front of Forrester’s path and pulling a toboggan. [*4] He saw the toboggan clip Forrester’s feet and “take him out.” The snowmobile was going two or three times faster than Forrester. Forrester took his equipment off and walked down the mountain. Medina claimed the driver of the snowmobile was wearing a black and purple vest like the ones worn by terrain park employees (rather than the orange and red jacket described by Forrester). Medina did not see any lights on the snowmobile and did not notice a flag, nor did he hear a siren.

Forrester did not report the accident, but tried to “walk off” the injury. On the way home Forrester and Medina discussed that Forrester had been hit and decided they should call Sierra. Forrester called just after 5:00 p.m. and got an answering machine. Forrester began vomiting and they stopped in Placerville where Medina took pictures of his face. Medina drove Forrester home.

The next day, Monday, Forrester hurt all over his body, including a bad headache. He went to his doctor who ordered a CT scan, the results of which were normal. Over the next few days, Forrester’s back began to hurt. He was diagnosed with a concussion and a whiplash back injury. Forrester was later diagnosed with disc degeneration with a [*5] prognosis of ongoing pain.

Reporting the Accident

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.

Forrester contacted an attorney the same day he spoke with MacClellan. Forrester sent MacClellan a written report, in which he stated he “was involved in a collision with a Sierra Ski Patrol Officer (Ski Patroller) whom [sic] was driving a snow mobile, towing a stretcher. . . . The Ski Patroller was apparently attempting to cross from my left, which was behind me (I have a ‘regular’ board stance), across my face, to the right of me when he collided into me from my blind side. As a result I flew over [*6] him and crashed very hard into the mountain. I suffered a head injury, as well as whiplash, and subsequently blacked out for a short period of time.” The statement continued that Forrester did not see the “patroller” and heard no sirens; he heard only a brief “hey” right before the impact. His friend Medina had witnessed the collision and could not believe it; other snowboarders asked if Forrester was okay, but the ski patrol did not.

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 had spoken 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.

The Lawsuit and Trial

Forrester brought suit against Sierra for general negligence and [*7] premises liability. The complaint stated: “Included in the Cause of Action for General Negligence are Claims for Breach of Statutory Duty; Negligence Per Se; Gross Negligence and/or Reckless Conduct; and/or Common Carrier Liability.” Forrester took some theories of liability “off the table” and the trial court granted defendant’s motion for nonsuit as to others. As we explain in more detail, post, the matter was submitted to the jury as an assumption of the risk case, with the jury asked to determine whether Sierra unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snowboarding

Snowmobile Evidence

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 on a daily basis 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. At trial, Sierra stipulated that anyone [*8] driving a snowmobile at the resort that day would have been employed by Sierra. The checklist would not necessarily reveal the identity of the driver of the snowmobile in any event, because once the snowmobile is checked out others may use it without completing a new checklist. Sierra maintains no record showing who is using a snowmobile at a particular time on a specific date.

A snowmobile is a loud machine; its sound is comparable to a motorcycle or lawnmower. The flashing lights are always on if the snowmobile is running, but the siren can be turned on and off. It is against Sierra’s policy to operate a snowmobile without a siren when guests are present. The snowmobile has an attached fiberglass pole with a flag atop, to aid in visibility. March 7, 2010, was a peak day and there was a blackout on the use of snowmobiles in the ski areas except for emergencies. Rice defined emergencies as ski patrol rescue, lift evacuation, a fire or gas leak on the hill, and to carry law enforcement to an altercation. There were no documented emergencies the day of the incident. MacClellan testified that with 6,000 people on the ski slopes, it would be “virtually impossible” to drive a snowmobile [*9] through the Broadway area.

The ski patrol uses orange toboggans for rescue, which are stored in different locations on the mountain and used to transport injured guests. Patrollers take them uphill by chair lift or by snowmobile. Snowmobiles are rarely used to take a toboggan down the mountain; usually a patroller skis them down. Snowmobiles do not tow injured guests in a toboggan.

Plaintiff’s Experts

In addition to medical experts, plaintiff called a ski safety consultant and an accident reconstructionist. Richard Penniman testified as an expert on ski area mountain operations. He testified it was below industry standard to have a snowmobile on the ski slopes when a large number of people are present. On a run like Broadway that is designed for beginners, it was very dangerous to have anything present other than skiers and snowboarders. It was below the industry standard to use the Broadway area as a snowmobile route. Penniman added snowmobiles are only a convenience and a ski resort can operate without them. He conceded, however, that it was standard practice for ski areas to use snowmobiles and agreed they were extremely useful in an emergency where the risk they create might be worth [*10] it. He agreed with the policy of Sierra-at-Tahoe not to use snowmobiles on busy days except in the case of an emergency. In Penniman’s opinion, Sierra’s conduct in operating a snowmobile the day of the incident increased the risk of injury to skiers and snowboarders.

Jesse Wobrock, an accident reconstructionist and bioengineer, prepared an animation of the accident. He testified the accident had “an injury mechanism for both the lumbar spine and the traumatic brain injury.” The damage to Forrester’s left binding was consistent with the height of the toboggan, as was the orange color transfer on the binding. Wobrock testified the physical evidence corroborated the eyewitness testimony. In his opinion, the snowboard went between the tread of the snowmobile and the toboggan; the toboggan ran over the snowboard.

Defense Case

John Gardiner, a forensic engineer and biomechanic, testified for the defense. He opined there was neither consistent testimony nor sufficient physical evidence to conclude what occurred that day. Gardiner testified that if Forrester’s left binding made contact with a toboggan, the contact occurred at the rear portion of the toboggan. If the contact had been near the [*11] front of the toboggan, the snowboard would have hit the treads of the snowmobile and caused damage; there was no evidence of damage to the front of the snowboard. In Gardiner’s opinion, the force involved in Forrester’s fall would not have caused a lumbar disc injury and a concussion. Gardiner also testified that Medina’s view of the accident would have been obstructed by the snowmobile and its driver and that Wobrock’s animation of the incident was inconsistent with the laws of physics and Forrester’s testimony.

The defense pointed out the many inconsistencies between Medina’s deposition and his trial testimony, such as where he dropped off Forrester, whether Forrester wore a helmet, Forrester’s level of skill on a snowboard, the time they finished snowboarding, and whether Medina saw the snowmobile before the collision. Medina had changed his story only after talking to Forrester. The defense argued the differences between the testimony of Medina and Forrester as to the color of the snowmobile, the clothing of the driver, the location of the accident, and the timing showed that Forrester failed to carry his burden of proof as to what happened. The defense questioned how Forrester [*12] could fail to see or hear the snowmobile and offered three possibilities: (1) the collision had not happened; (2) Forrester was not paying attention; or (3) Forrester saw the snowmobile, but not the toboggan and tried to cut behind. The defense argued number three was the most reasonable and Forrester did not report the accident because he felt it was his fault.

Instructions

As relevant here, the court instructed the jury as follows:

“[CACI No.] 410. Dominique Forrester claims he was harmed while participating in snowboarding at the snow — at the Sierra at Tahoe Ski resort. To establish this claim Dominique Forrester must prove all of the following:

“1. That Sierra at Tahoe was the owner of the ski resort and that its employee was operating the snowmobile in issue in this case. Sierra at Tahoe admits that it is the owner of the ski resort and only its employee would have had access to and would have been operating a snowmobile on the ski resort.

“2. Dominique Forrester must also prove that Sierra at Tahoe unreasonably increased the risk to Dominique Forrester over and above those inherent in snowboarding;

“3. And Dominique Forrester must prove that Dominique Forrester was harmed; and lastly [*13]

“4. That Sierra at Tahoe’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dominique Forrester’s harm.

“[Modified CACI No.] 405. Sierra at Tahoe claims that Dominique contributed to his harm. To succeed on this claim, Sierra at Tahoe must prove the following:

“1. That Dominique Forrester assumed the risks that led to his injury; and

“2. That Dominique Forrester’s assumption of those risks was a substantial factor in causing his harm.

“If Sierra at Tahoe proves the above, Dominique Forrester’s damages are reduced by your determinations of the percentage of Dominique Forrester’s responsibility. I will calculate the actual reduction.”

Verdict and Motion for New Trial

During deliberations, the jury asked for a definition of “unreasonable” and to have Rice’s testimony about reports of emergencies that day reread. With the parties’ approval, the court responded to the first request as follows: “‘Unreasonable’ – is conduct that is contrary to conduct that a prudent person would exercise in the same or similar circumstances e.g. conduct that is careless, irrational, foolish, unwise, senseless, immoderate, exorbitant or arbitrary under the circumstances.”

By a vote of 10 to 2, the jury found Sierra did [*14] not unreasonably increase the risks to Forrester over and above those inherent in snowboarding in a ski area. Because the jury’s answer to this first question was “no,” it did not answer any additional questions contained in the verdict forms.

Forrester moved for a new trial, contending assumption of the risk did not apply to the case, there were evidentiary errors, and the court erred in not instructing on suppression of evidence. The court denied the motion.1

1 The record does not contain an order denying the motion. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 660, if there was no order, the effect is a denial of the motion.

DISCUSSION

I

Assumption of the Risk

A. The Law

“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.” (Gregory v. Cott (2014) 59 Cal.4th 996, 1001, 176 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1, 331 P.3d 179.) “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.” (Wattenbarger v. Cincinnati Reds, Inc. (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 746, 751, 33 Cal. Rptr. 2d 732.)

“The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or [*15] reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration–or cause abandonment’ of the activity.” (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1156, 150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158.) “[U]nder the primary assumption of risk doctrine, operators, sponsors and instructors in recreational activities posing inherent risks of injury have no duty to eliminate those risks, but do owe participants the duty not to unreasonably increase the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)

“Snowboarding is a classic example of a sport that requires participants to assume considerable risks.” (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 603, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370 (Vine).) Courts have recognized many risks inherent in skiing and snowboarding. “Those risks include injuries from variations in terrain, surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions, moguls, bare spots, rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris. They also include collisions with other skiers, ski lift towers, and other properly marked or plainly visible objects and equipment.” (Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863.)

Whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies in a particular case is a question of law.”2 (Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.)

2 Although Forrester recognizes the question of whether assumption of the risk applies is a question of law reviewed de novo, he devotes a considerable portion of his briefing to arguing the trial court’s two analyses, first before trial and then on the motion for a new trial, were incorrect. “In reviewing a trial court’s decision, we review the result, not the reasoning.” (Florio v. Lau (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 637, 653, 80 Cal. Rptr. 2d 409.)

B. Application to this Case

As we noted earlier, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because [*16] 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. With this in mind, we turn to Forrester’s first claim of error.

Forrester contends a collision with a snowmobile is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. He argues that although some collisions–such as with trees or other skiers or snowboarders–are inherent risks, the line should be drawn at a collision between an individual and a motorized vehicle. He asserts assumption of the risk has no role in the circumstances he claims were present here: an unmarked snowmobile with no lights, siren or flag, operated by a non-safety employee on a busy beginner slope, contrary to the safety policies of the ski resort.

Sierra counters that the circumstances Forrester claims were present here, outlined immediately above, would have unreasonably increased the risks undertaken by Forrester had the jury found the circumstances were as Forrester alleged. Sierra [*17] argues that it is apparent from the jury’s “no” vote that it found circumstances more closely aligned to those alleged by the defense, such as the absence of any collision (and even the absence of any snowmobile) whatsoever and other facts favorable to Sierra.

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 Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855 (Connelly), the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, we 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, where a skier collided with a tree. Danieley, 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 [*18] equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the pre-existing common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Ibid.)

In Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389 (Souza), a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. 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. (Id. at p. 268.)

A snowmobile is not one of the risks specifically identified in the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, and we have not found a published case specifically deciding whether a collision on a ski slope with a snowmobile is an inherent risk of skiing or snowboarding. Nevertheless, collision with certain vehicles has been included. While Souza involved only stationary equipment, the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act–which Danieley and Connelly accepted as reflecting the common law–included a collision with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk. Thus, collisions with some vehicles are recognized as inherent risks of the sports of skiing and snowboarding.

We recognize that assumption [*19] of the risk applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza, supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 268.) In Souza, snowmaking equipment was necessary to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Ibid.) As in Souza, we find the following quote from Verro v. New York Racing Ass’n, Inc. (1989) 142 A.D.2d 396, 400, 536 N.Y.S.2d 262 apt: “As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, if only the risks of ordinary and necessary dangers inherent in a sport are deemed assumed, 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, however, changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”

Forrester’s expert Penniman claimed snowmobiles were merely a convenience and a ski resort could operate without them. He also testified, however, that the use of snowmobiles was a standard practice at ski resorts. Although critical of their overuse, Penniman recognized their usefulness in an emergency. He agreed with Sierra’s policy, which permitted snowmobiles to be used on the ski slopes in cases of emergency, [*20] even on the busiest days. Thus Penniman agreed generally that the use of snowmobiles was necessary to ski resorts, although he disputed the specific circumstances under which that use might be warranted.

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. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775.

At least one unpublished federal case has found a collision with a snowmobile to be an inherent risk of skiing or snowboarding. In Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C. (D. Colo., Apr. 23, 2009, No. 08-CV-00052-MSK-MJW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, affd sub nom. Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C. (10th Cir. 2010) 363 Fed.Appx. 547, the court found “the specific risk of colliding with a snowmobile being operated by a ski resort employee is necessarily within the ‘risks of skiing/riding.'” (Id. at p. *7.) The court reasoned that since “the legislature has seen fit to specifically enact safety measures to prevent skier-snowmobile collisions, one can [*21] hardly argue that such a collision somehow falls outside of [plaintiff’s] express assumption of ‘all risks of skiing.'”3 (Ibid.)

3 Although California has no similar regulation of snowmobiles at ski slopes, the requirements of the Colorado law are similar to Sierra-at-Tahoe’s policy for snowmobile operation. “All snowmobiles operated on the ski slopes or trails of a ski area shall be equipped with at least the following: One lighted headlamp, one lighted red tail lamp, a brake system maintained in operable condition, and a fluorescent flag at least forty square inches mounted at least six feet above the bottom of the tracks.” (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33-44-108, subd. (3).)

Based on the foregoing, we conclude the trial court did not err in ruling that primary assumption of the risk applies in this case and instructing the jury accordingly. To the extent that the evidence showed a snowmobile was operating at the resort and involved in an collision with Forrester that day, its presence and that of related equipment (here apparently a towed toboggan) on the slope was an inherent risk of snowboarding at the resort. However, that risk may well have been unreasonably increased by Sierra if the specific circumstances alleged by Forrester regarding the snowmobile’s use at the time of the alleged collision were believed by the jury. But the jury was presented with a variety of competing scenarios as to what happened at the resort that day. Although we do not know which evidence it credited and which it did not, we know that it did not consider the specific circumstances of the snowmobile’s operation that day to have unreasonably increased the risk already present from the necessary use of snowmobiles at resorts.4

4 The better practice in cases such as this one, where key facts–here even the preliminary fact as to whether there was a collision at all, let alone a collision between a snowboarder and a snowmobile towing a toboggan–are in dispute, is to craft the special verdict form to require the jury to make preliminary factual findings, here such as whether the alleged accident occurred at all and the particulars, if so. (See CACI No. 410, Directions for Use [“There may also be disputed facts that must be resolved by a jury before it can be determined if the doctrine applies”], citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 486, 64 Cal. Rptr. 3d 803, 165 P.3d 581.)

In arguing that a collision [*22] with a motorized vehicle is not an inherent risk, Forrester relies on out-of-state cases, some unpublished. We find those cases distinguishable or not persuasive. In Verberkmoes v. Lutsen Mountains Corp. (D. Minn. 1994) 844 F.Supp. 1356, a skier collided with an unmarked all terrain vehicle (ATV) parked on or near a groomed trail. The court denied summary judgment for the defendant, finding the hazard of the parked ATV was within the control of the ski resort, not an obvious risk like a lift tower, and not a hidden risk like a snow-covered stump. (Id. at pp. 1358-1359.) Defendant’s “parking of the ATV on the trail during routine maintenance of the ski slope cannot be deemed, as a matter of law, an inherent risk of skiing.” (Id. at p. 1360.) Rather, it was “a danger that reasonable prudence on the part [of defendant] would have foreseen and corrected or at least placed a warning for skiers.” (Id. at p. 1359.) We find Verberkmoes distinguishable, largely because the decision was based on where the ATV was parked; the ski resort could have easily parked it elsewhere or warned against the hazard. Here, the question was whether the resort’s use of snowmobiles on the ski slopes and consequential possibility of contact with snowboarders was an inherent risk of snowboarding.

In Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. (D. Colo. 2015) 132 F.Supp.3d 1310, the defendant had argued that [*23] a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent danger and risk of skiing. The court had rejected this argument twice before, each time concluding “whether a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not necessarily a question of law because what is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not limited to the circumstances specifically enumerated in the [Ski Safety Act].” (Id. at p. 1316.) The court declined to address the argument again. (Ibid.)

We find this conclusory analysis unhelpful. For the reasons stated ante, we find a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent risk of snowboarding. As to whether this particular collision was the result of the inherent risk, the jury was properly tasked with determining whether Sierra’s operation of the snowmobile unreasonably increased the risk already inherent in snowboarding. This determination governed whether this particular collision was barred by the assumption of the risk doctrine.

Forrester also relies on an unpublished case from the state of Ohio, Coblentz v. Peters 2005 Ohio 1102, 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 1073, that found use of a motorized golf cart was not “an actual part of the sport of golf,” so the risk of being struck and injured by a golf cart “is not an ordinary risk of the game.” [*24] (Id. at ¶ 21.) To the limited extent this case is analogous, we decline to apply its narrow analysis to the sport of snowboarding and the associated risk of encountering the resort’s necessary equipment when on the ski slopes. (See Souza, supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269 [finding snowmaking equipment necessary to the sport of skiing].)

As we have noted, unlike many assumption of the risk cases, including those cited ante, here there is a genuine factual dispute as to what happened to Forrester and caused his injuries. The jury needed to resolve this factual dispute in order to determine whether Sierra unreasonably increased the inherent risk. Accordingly, the issue of whether recovery is barred by assumption of the risk could not be determined as a matter of law, such as by a motion for summary judgment, as is often the case. Here, we need not decide if Forrester’s specific collision was an inherent risk, but only the broader question of whether a collision with a snowmobile operated on the ski slopes of a resort is an inherent risk of snowboarding. If so, recovery is still possible if Sierra unreasonably increased the risk by the specific circumstances surrounding its operation of the snowmobile.

“Although defendants generally [*25] have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm.” (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 315-316, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696.) Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine, 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., supra, 67 Cal.App.4th 1317 [placement of signs in ski run].)

Forrester contends that even if the ski patrol’s use of a snowmobile is necessary to support the sport of snowboarding, the evidence here showed the snowmobile was not used for that purpose. Indeed, he claims that because the members of the ski patrol on duty that day denied being involved in a collision, the evidence established that the snowmobile was driven by a non-safety employee. He argues the trial court was required [*26] to resolve factual questions as to whether a member of the ski patrol was using the snowmobile before it determined whether assumption of risk applied.

We disagree with Forrester that the trial court was required to resolve these factual questions before submitting the case to the jury. Resolution of the factual issues as to how and by whom the snowmobile was operated “requires application of the governing standard of care (the duty not to increase the risks inherent in the sport) to the facts of this particular case–the traditional role of the trier of fact.” (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 112, 86 Cal. Rptr. 3d 588.) “Our conclusion it is for the trier of fact to determine whether Vela breached his limited duty not to increase the risks inherent in the sport of volleyball finds solid support in the Supreme Court’s most recent sports injury, primary assumption of the risk decision, Shin v. Ahn, supra, 42 Cal.4th 482 . . . . In Shin the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of a motion for summary judgment brought by a golfer who had struck one of his own playing partners with a tee shot. The court held the primary assumption of the risk doctrine regulates the duty a golfer owes both to playing partners and to other golfers on the course, found being hit by a stray [*27] golf shot was an inherent risk of the sport and concluded ‘golfers have a limited duty of care to other players, breached only if they intentionally injure them or engage in conduct that is “so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.”‘ [Citation.] However, the Court also held whether the defendant had breached that limited duty of care by engaging in reckless conduct was a question for the trier of fact: ‘In determining whether defendant acted recklessly, the trier of fact will have to consider both the nature of the game and the totality of circumstances surrounding the shot. . . . [¶] Many factors will bear on whether a golfer’s conduct was reasonable, negligent, or reckless. . . . [¶] . . . This record is simply too sparse to support a finding, as a matter of law, that defendant did, or did not, act recklessly. This will be a question the jury will ultimately resolve based on a more complete examination of the facts.’ [Citation.]” (Luna, at pp. 112-113.) “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shin, we conclude as the Luna court did, that resolving the question of whether [defendant] increased the risk of falling is properly decided by the trier [*28] of fact.” (Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1062, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 566.)

Forrester’s argument about the circumstances of the snowmobile’s use that day is premised upon the jury’s accepting his version of events–that a snowmobile hit him from behind, while driven by a non-safety employee who was not responding to an emergency and who was operating without lights, siren, or flag and contrary to numerous safety policies of Sierra. In short, Forrester assumes that the snowmobile had no legitimate reason to be on Broadway at the time of the incident. But the state of the evidence was such that the jury could decide otherwise. Due to Forrester’s failure to report the accident when it happened, the conflicting testimony of Forrester and Medina, the conflict in expert testimony as to how a collision would have occurred and what caused Forrester’s injuries, and the absence of any independent witness who saw or even heard about the accident, the jury could have rationally concluded the accident did not happen at all. Alternatively, the jury could have concluded that Forrester hit the toboggan out of carelessness or recklessness, Forrester’s injuries were not from the collision, or simply that Forrester failed to prove his version of the accident.

This [*29] case turned in large part on the jury’s assessment of credibility. There was evidence from which the jury could conclude that the incident occurred as described by Forrester and Medina, and that Sierra unreasonably increased its visitors’ inherent risk of a collision with a snowmobile accordingly–because a non-safety employee, not responding to an emergency, drove a snowmobile at significant speed across a beginner run on the busiest day of the year without using lights, siren or a flag, and in contravention of numerous safety policies. These circumstances, or any combination thereof, could certainly constitute an unreasonable increase of the inherent risk by Sierra. Forrester’s theory was tendered to the jury and the jury decided adversely to his argument. Forrester does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict.

The trial court did not err in determining assumption of the risk applied and submitting the case to the jury on the question of whether Sierra unreasonably increased the risk inherent in the sport of snowboarding.

II

Instruction on Secondary Assumption of the Risk

A. Background

As we set forth ante, the jury was also instructed pursuant to CACI No. 405–the comparative [*30] fault instruction modified by the trial court–as to secondary assumption of the risk. The jury was told that in order for Sierra to succeed on its claim that Forrester contributed to his own harm, Sierra would need to prove both that Forrester assumed the risks that led to his injury and that Forrester’s assumption of those risks was a substantial factor in causing his harm.

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). [Citation.] In the latter class of cases, we concluded, the issue could be resolved by applying the doctrine of comparative fault, and the plaintiff’s decision to face the risk would not operate as a complete bar to recovery. In such a case, the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence. [Citation.]” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1003, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30.)

“Secondary assumption [*31] of risk [arises] where a defendant breaches a duty of care owed to the plaintiff but the plaintiff nevertheless knowingly encounters the risk created by the breach. Secondary assumption of risk is not a bar to recovery, but requires the application of comparative fault principles.” (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 11.)

B. Analysis

Forrester contends the special instruction on secondary assumption of the risk was incorrect because it omitted the requirement that a plaintiff “knowingly” or “voluntarily” accept the increased risk, and because the court failed to set it apart from the instruction related to primary assumption of the risk. Forrester contends the error prejudiced him because it confused the jury on the law.

As Sierra does not defend the instruction, we will assume arguendo that it is incorrect for omitting “knowingly” or “voluntarily.” We reject, however, the argument that it was error to instruct on secondary assumption of the risk immediately after instructing in the language of CACI No. 410 on primary assumption of the risk. Each instruction begins by noting the party whose claim the instruction addresses and what each party must prove to succeed on its claim. The two claims are necessarily related. “Nevertheless, in [*32] certain circumstances primary and secondary assumption of risk are intertwined and instruction is required so the jury can properly determine whether the defendant did, in fact, increase the risks inherent in a hazardous sport so that secondary assumption of risk should be considered.” (Vine, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 592.)

“Cases like this one, where the plaintiff contends the defendant breached the duty not to increase the risks inherent in a hazardous sporting activity, present both aspects of the assumption of risk doctrine. If the plaintiff fails to show any increase in the inherent risks, or if the trial court determines that the only risks encountered were inherent in the sport, the defendant prevails based on primary assumption of risk. If the jury, properly instructed on the scope of the defendant’s duty, determines the defendant did increase the inherent risk, it then considers the plaintiff’s claim based on secondary assumption of risk as an aspect of the plaintiff’s comparative fault.” (Vine, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 593.)

“[T]here is no rule of automatic reversal or ‘inherent’ prejudice applicable to any category of civil instructional error, whether of commission or omission. A judgment may not be reversed for instructional error in a civil case [*33] ‘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.)” (Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 580, 34 Cal. Rptr. 2d 607, 882 P.2d 298 (Soule).)

“Instructional error in a civil case is prejudicial ‘where it seems probable’ that the error ‘prejudicially affected the verdict.’ [Citations.]” (Soule, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 580.) Actual prejudice must be assessed in the context of the entire record using a multifactor test. (Ibid.) “Thus, when deciding whether an error of instructional omission was prejudicial, the court must also evaluate (1) the state of the evidence, (2) the effect of other instructions, (3) the effect of counsel’s arguments, and (4) any indications by the jury itself that it was misled.” (Id. at pp. 580-581.)

Forrester contends the record demonstrates prejudice because there was strong evidence that Sierra increased the risk by its operation of a snowmobile that day, the jury deliberated for two full days, and the request for a definition of “unreasonable” suggests the jury was confused as to the law.

We disagree that the record shows it was “probable” that the instructional error “prejudicially affected the verdict.” (Soule, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 580.) As we have discussed, the evidence raised questions [*34] of witness credibility, and the jury was also called upon to consider conflicting expert testimony. The jury heard five days of evidence and deliberated for two days. In that circumstance, the jury’s two days of deliberation may suggest its “conscientious performance of its civic duty, rather than its difficulty in reaching a decision.” (People v. Walker (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 432, 439, 37 Cal. Rptr. 2d 167 [six and one-half hours of deliberation after two and one-half hours of presentation of evidence].) The jury’s request for a definition of “unreasonable” and its request for a reread of evidence as to whether there was an emergency that day indicate the jury was most likely focused on Sierra’s conduct, not Forrester’s.

The most useful guide for the jury in sorting through the issues of primary and secondary assumption of the risk was the verdict form that separated the issues. The verdict form asked six questions; only if the jury answered yes to a question was it to proceed to the next question. The questions were: (1) Did Sierra or its employee unreasonably increase the risks inherent in snowboarding? (2) Was this unreasonable increase in the risks a substantial factor in causing harm to Forrester? (3) What are Forrester’s total damages? (4) Did [*35] Forrester assume the risks that led to his injury? (5) Was that assumption of risk a substantial factor in causing his injury? (6) What percentage of responsibility for Forrester’s harm do you assign to Sierra, to Forrester? The jury answered the first question “no” and therefore did not answer any other questions. Accordingly, the jury never reached the issue of secondary assumption of risk and thus never had to apply the challenged jury instruction. Forrester has failed to show prejudicial instructional error. (See Caldwell v. Paramount Unified School Dist. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 189, 206, 48 Cal. Rptr. 2d 448 [error to grant new trial due to instructional error when jury never reached issue covered by instruction]; Vahey v. Sacia (1981) 126 Cal.App.3d 171, 179-180, 178 Cal. Rptr. 559 [purported instructional error on damages was not prejudicial where jury found the defendant was not negligent and never reached the issue of damages].)

III

Refusal to Instruct on Willful Suppression of Evidence

A. Background

At trial, Forrester made much of the fact that the snowmobile’s driver was never identified, which he blamed on Sierra’s failure to retain the daily checklist completed by the driver who had taken out the snowmobile that day. Before trial, Forrester sought to admit Sierra’s special ski permit and winter operation plan from the United States Forest [*36] Service. He argued Sierra was required to maintain the checklist under the document retention policy set forth in that plan. The trial court excluded the document, ruling that whether Sierra had a contractual duty to retain the report was irrelevant, particularly because–given the evidence that the snowmobile could be used by multiple people in the same day–the checklist would not necessarily indicate who was driving a snowmobile at the time of the alleged accident. The court noted that Sierra had provided Forrester with a list of 19 authorized drivers.

Forrester requested that the trial court give CACI No. 204, which provides: “You may consider whether one party intentionally concealed or destroyed evidence. If you decide that a party did so, you may decide that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party.” The request was based on evidence that MacClellan failed to interview all 19 people authorized to use a snowmobile that day and the destruction of the checklist. The court denied Forrester’s request.

Forrester raised the failure to give CACI No. 204 in his motion for a new trial.

B. Analysis

Forrester contends it was error to refuse the requested instruction. For the first time on appeal, he asserts [*37] the snowmobile driver’s leaving the scene of the accident without identifying himself was sufficient evidence to support the instruction. As to the destruction of the checklist, the basis for instruction advanced at trial, Forrester argues there was no evidence the checklist was actually discarded, only that the practice was to discard the checklists daily. He contends he was prejudiced by lack of the instruction because he could not argue the presumption that the destroyed evidence was unfavorable to Sierra to offset the inability to identify the driver.

“A party is entitled to have the jury instructed on his theory of the case, if it is reasonable and finds support in the pleadings and evidence or any inference which may properly be drawn from the evidence.” (Western Decor & Furnishings Industries, Inc. v. Bank of America (1979) 91 Cal.App.3d 293, 309, 154 Cal. Rptr. 287.) An instruction on willful suppression of evidence is appropriate if there is evidence “that a party destroyed evidence with the intention of preventing its use in litigation.” (New Albertsons, Inc. v. Superior Court (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1403, 1434, 86 Cal. Rptr. 3d 457.)

First, Forrester did not rely at trial on the theory that evidence was destroyed when the snowmobile driver left without identifying himself. “‘A civil litigant must propose complete instructions in accordance with his or her theory of the litigation [*38] and a trial court is not “obligated to seek out theories [a party] might have advanced, or to articulate for him that which he has left unspoken.” [Citations.]’ [Citation.]” (Stevens v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1645, 1653, 57 Cal. Rptr. 2d 525.) Thus we need not consider this new theory first advanced on appeal.

Further, the evidence established the checklist had been discarded shortly after the accident, before Forrester made his complaint. While there was no testimony from the person who discarded the checklist for that day and MacClellan testified he did not know if the specific checklist had been discarded, Rice testified the checklists were thrown out on a daily basis and MacClellan testified he knew they were thrown out shortly after they were filled out.

Forrester relies on Ventura v. ABM Industries Inc. (2012) 212 Cal.App.4th 258, 150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 861, claiming it is “right on point.” In Ventura, a negligent hiring and supervision case, the trial court gave the instruction at issue here based on testimony of the human resources director about redactions in personnel records and the defendant’s failure to interview certain witnesses during the investigation of plaintiff’s complaints. (Id. at p. 273.) The appellate court found no error, noting “Defendants were free to present the jury with evidence that (as counsel represented to the [*39] court), the redactions were only of telephone numbers, and that the failure to interview certain witnesses was proper, and to argue that evidence to the jury.” (Ibid.)

Ventura is distinguishable. There, the actions that supported the instruction occurred during the investigation of plaintiff’s claim, thus permitting an inference there was destruction of evidence to prevent its use in litigation. Here, the evidence was that the snowmobile checklists were routinely discarded each day long before the incident at issue here, unless information on the checklist triggered a need for maintenance. Because Forrester did not report his accident until multiple days had passed, Sierra did not become aware of Forrester’s claim until after the checklist at issue had been discarded. There was no evidence, either direct or from which the inference could be drawn, that the practice of discarding the checklists daily was intended to forestall their use in litigation.

The trial court did not err in declining to give CACI No. 204 on willful suppression of evidence.5

5 Further, Forrester’s claim of prejudice is unconvincing. The instruction permits the jury to draw the inference that the suppressed evidence would have been unfavorable to the party suppressing it. The checklist would have shown, at most, the name of the snowmobile driver. Sierra stipulated that the driver was one of its employees and provided Forrester with a list of authorized drivers.

DISPOSITION

The judgment is affirmed. Sierra shall recover costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a).)

/s/ Duarte, J.

We concur:

/s/ Butz, Acting P. J.

/s/ Mauro, J.


Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, 960 P.2d 70 (Colo. 1998)

Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, 960 P.2d 70 (Colo. 1998)
Eric Bayer, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Crested Butte
Mountain Resort, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.
No. 97SA145
Supreme Court
May 18, 1998
Petition for Rehearing DENIED. EN BANC. June 22, 1998
Certification of Questions of Law from the United States Court of
Appeals for the Tenth Circuit Pursuant to C.A.R. 21.1
CERTIFIED QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Jean E. Dubofsky, P.C., Jean E. Dubofsky, Boulder, Colorado, Purvis, Gray, Schuetze & Gordon, Robert A. Schuetze, Glen F. Gordon, Boulder, Colorado, Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant.

White & Steele, P.C., Glendon L. Laird, John M. Lebsack, Peter W. Rietz, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee.

EN BANC
JUSTICE KOURLIS dissents, and CHIEF JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent.
JUSTICE HOBBS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

[1] Pursuant to C.A.R. 21.1, we agreed to answer the following questions certified to us by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

What standard of care governs the duty owed by ski lift operators in Colorado to users of those lifts in the winter season?

Separately, and more particularly, does the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Act and/or the Colorado Ski Safety and Liability Act preempt or otherwise supersede the pre-existing Colorado common law standard of care governing the duty owed by ski lift operators to users of those lifts in the winter season?

[2] These questions arise in connection with Eric Bayer’s negligence suit against Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc. (Crested Butte) involving serious injuries he sustained after falling approximately 30 feet from a ski lift at the Crested Butte ski area.

[3] The federal district court concluded that the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Act (Tramway Act) and the Colorado Ski Safety and Liability Act (Ski Safety Act) have substituted a lesser degree of care for ski lift operators than the highest degree of care, thus superseding our holding in Summit County Development v. Bagnoli, 166 Colo. 27, 40, 441 P.2d 658, 664 (1968). Based on its ruling that a standard of ordinary care applies, the district court granted summary judgment and dismissed the case.

[4] In answering the certified questions, we reaffirm our holding in Bagnoli. A ski lift operator must exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with the lift’s practical operation, regardless of the season.

I.

[5] Eric Bayer, a 19-year-old college student and resident of Florida, was skiing at the Crested Butte ski area on December 31, 1992. He boarded the Paradise Lift, a double-chair, center pole lift, with a person whom he did not know. This lift was not equipped with restraining devices on the chairs. Bayer rode the Paradise Lift for about 100 yards, lost consciousness, slumped in his chair, and slid feet first to the ground below. He suffered serious and permanent head injuries from the fall. The cause of his unconsciousness remains unknown.

[6] The Passenger Tramway Safety Board (Board), which regulates ski lifts in Colorado, requires the use of restraining devices during summer lift operation but has no companion requirement for winter operation. Bayer does not dispute that Crested Butte complied with applicable Board regulations.

[7] The existence and scope of a legal duty of care is a question of law. See United Blood Servs. v. Quintana, 827 P.2d 509, 519 (Colo. 1992). In Bagnoli, we determined that a ski lift operator must exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with practical operation of a lift. Bagnoli, 166 Colo. at 40, 441 P.2d at 664. In answering the certified questions, we must determine whether the Tramway Act or the Ski Safety Act, or the two in combination, have modified or preempted our holding in Bagnoli.[fn1]

II.

[8] We hold that the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act, alone or in combination, have not preempted or superseded the common law standard requiring a ski lift operator to exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the ski lift. The General Assembly did not intend by either act to substitute a standard of care lesser than the highest degree.

[9] Under the Tramway Act, the primary responsibility for the design and operation of ski lifts, consistent with our holding in Bagnoli, rests with the operators; the board is to adopt reasonable standards for the industry, but these are not intended to preclude common law negligence actions or the duty to exercise the highest degree of care. The Ski Safety Act establishes the relative duties of skiers and ski area operators on the ski slopes, limits damage awards, and precludes liability claims resulting from the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, while expressly excluding ski lift accidents from these limitations.

A.

[10] The Highest Degree of Care

[11] A basic proposition of tort law is that the amount of care demanded by the standard of reasonable conduct must be in proportion to the risk; the greater the danger, the higher is the degree of caution which the person owing the duty must exercise. See W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts 34, at 208-09 (5th ed. 1984). As we said in Blueflame Gas, Inc. v. Van Hoose, 679 P.2d 579, 587 (Colo. 1984), “It is axiomatic in the law of negligence that the greater the risk, the greater the amount of care required to avoid injury to others.”

[12] Our holding in Bagnoli squarely placed on lift operators the duty to exercise the highest degree of care consistent with the practical operation of the ski lift because (1) passengers give up their freedom of action and movement, surrendering themselves to the care and custody of the ski lift operator, (2) there is usually nothing passengers can do to cause or prevent the accident, and (3) the operator has exclusive possession and control of the ski lift. See Bagnoli, 166 Colo. at 40, 441 P.2d at 664. We derived these factors directly from our prior decision in Lewis v. Buckskin Joe’s, Inc., 156 Colo. 46, 56, 396 P.2d 933, 938-39 (1964), wherein we held that amusement ride operators must “exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation” of the ride.[fn2]

[13] Underlying our adoption in Bagnoli of the Lewis factors is that ski lifts are operated at considerable height from the ground over rough, elevated, often precipitous Colorado terrain. A fall from the lift can be calamitous. Passengers entrust their safety to the lift operators. Operation of a ski lift thus entails both greater danger and greater responsibility than circumstances involving ordinary care.

[14] In addressing the federal district court’s conclusion that the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act supersede Bagnoli, we first discuss the legislative design and purposes of the two acts.

B.

[15] The Tramway Act And The Ski Safety Act [16] The statutory canons of construction require us to give effect to the plain meaning of statutory enactments; we must employ rules of grammar and common usage and accord to technical terms and legislative definitions their particular meaning. See 2-4-101, 1 C.R.S. (1997).

[17] The Colorado General Assembly initially addressed ski safety in Colorado through the 1965 Tramway Act. The act’s purpose is to assist in safeguarding life, health, property, and the welfare of the state in the operation of passenger tramways.[fn3] See 25-5-701, 8 C.R.S. (1997). The act establishes a Board “to prevent unnecessary mechanical hazards” and to “assure that reasonable design and construction are used for, that accepted safety devices and sufficient personnel are provided for, and that periodic inspections and adjustments are made which are deemed essential to the safe operation of, passenger tramways.” 25-5-701, 8 C.R.S. (1997). The General Assembly has confirmed that, notwithstanding the powers and duties of the Tramway Board, “[t]he primary responsibility for design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection rests with the area operators” of passenger tramway devices. 25-5-705, 8 C.R.S. (1997) (emphasis added).

[18] The legislature has empowered the Board[fn4] with rulemaking and enforcement authority to carry out its functions. The Board is authorized, but not required, to utilize the standards adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), see 25-5-704, 8 C.R.S. (1997), and has authority to conduct investigations and inspections, to discipline ski area operators, to issue licenses, to order emergency shut downs, and to engage in other functions related to the purpose of the Tramway Act, see 25-5-704 to -716, 8 C.R.S. (1997).[fn5] The Board by regulation has adopted the ANSI 1992 standards, with some additions, revisions, and deletions. See Rule 0.1, 3 C.C.R. 718-1 at 1.

[19] Building on the construct of the Tramway Act, the General Assembly followed with the Ski Safety Act in 1979. This act supplements the Tramway Act’s focus on ski lifts, but its principal function is to define the duties of ski areas and skiers with regard to activities and features on the ski slopes. See 33-44-102, 9 C.R.S. (1997). In 1990 amendments to the Ski Safety Act, the legislature limited the liability of ski area operators for accidents on the slopes involving the “inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” See ch. 256, sec. 7, 33-44-112, 1990 Colo. Sess. Laws, 1543; see also ch. 256, sec. 1, Legislative Declaration, 1990 Colo. Sess. Laws, 1540; Graven v. Vail Assocs., 909 P.2d 514, 517-18 (Colo. 1995).

[20] Included within the inherent risks of skiing are dangers or conditions that are an “integral part of the sport of skiing,” such as weather, snow conditions, collisions with natural and man-made objects, and terrain variations. See 33-44-103(3.5), 9 C.R.S. (1997). The skier must know the range of his or her ability, ski in control, maintain a proper lookout while skiing, avoid collisions with other skiers, and not use a ski slope or trail or passenger tramway while impaired by alcohol or other controlled substances. See 33-44-109, 9 C.R.S. (1997). The statute provides that “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” 33-44-112, 9 C.R.S. (1997). See also Graven, 909 P.2d at 518-21.

[21] For their part, ski area operators must maintain a sign system, including signs indicating the level of difficulty of the area’s slopes and trails, notices that warn of danger areas, closed trails, and ski area boundaries, and the marking of man-made structures that are not readily visible to skiers. See 33-44-107, 9 C.R.S. (1997). They must undertake safety precautions related to the operation of equipment such as snowmobiles and motorized snow-grooming vehicles on slopes and trails within ski area boundaries. See 33-44-108, 9 C.R.S. (1997).

[22] The Ski Safety Act also addresses aspects of ski lift operation through several provisions which regulate passenger conduct. Passengers must have sufficient physical dexterity to use a lift safely and are required to observe certain conduct when embarking, riding, and disembarking a ski lift. See 33-44-105, 9 C.R.S. (1997). They may not move outside designated areas, throw objects from the tramway, engage in conduct that could cause injury to others, or disobey instructions from the ski area operator. See id. On the other hand, ski area operators must maintain a sign system including specific instructions such as “Keep Ski Tips Up,” and “Unload Here.” See 33-44-106, 9 C.R.S. (1997).

[23] Any violation of the statute’s provisions applicable to skiers constitutes negligence on their part; in tandem, any violations by a ski area operator of the Ski Safety Act or the Tramway Act constitute negligence as to them. See 33-44-104, 9 C.R.S. (1997). The effect of these statutory provisions is to make violations of the Ski Safety Act and/or Tramway Act negligence per se.

C.

[24] Effect Of The Tramway Act And The Ski Safety Act On The Degree Of Care Applicable To Ski Lift Operators

[25] Of controlling significance in answering the certified questions of law is that we infer no abrogation of a common law right of action absent clear legislative intent. See Vaughan v. McMinn, 945 P.2d 404, 408 (Colo. 1997); Farmers Group, Inc. v. Williams, 805 P.2d 419, 423 (Colo. 1991). If the legislature wishes to abrogate rights that would otherwise be available under the common law, it must manifest its intent “expressly or by clear implication.” McMinn, 945 P.2d at 408.

[26] Crested Butte contends, and the federal district court determined, that the legislature has replaced the high standard we announced in Bagnoli with a standard of ordinary care. In arguing for a duty of care lesser than the highest degree, Crested Butte relies on the 1965 provision in the Tramway Act exempting ski lifts from laws of the state applicable to “common carriers.” It also argues, in the alternative, that the “legislature’s enactment of a comprehensive statutory and regulatory scheme for safety requirements at ski areas manifests the intent to preempt the field of common law liability, especially where the claim is that a particular safety device was not installed on a lift.”

[27] To the contrary, we conclude that the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act, together with the Bagnoli standard of care, provide a comprehensive Colorado framework which preserves ski lift common law negligence actions, while at the same time limiting skier suits for inherent dangers on the slopes and defining per se negligence for violation of statutory and regulatory requirements.

1.

[28] The Common Carrier Provision Of The Tramway Act [29] The Tramway Act states that Provisions in lieu of others. The provisions for regulation, registration, and licensing of passenger tramways and the area operators thereof under this part 7 shall be in lieu of all other regulations or registration, or licensing requirements, and passenger tramways shall not be construed to be common carriers within the meaning of the laws of this state.

[30] 25-5-717, 8 C.R.S. (1997) (emphasis added.)[fn6]

[31] We must read and interpret statutory language in its context. See 2-4-101, 1 C.R.S. (1997) (“Words and phrases shall be read in context.”). The phrase concerning common carriers in section 25-5-717 is an integral part of a provision dealing with regulation, registration, and licensing of passenger tramways. Its evident purpose in the context of the “meaning of the laws of this state” is to prohibit any board or agency, other than the Tramway Board, from registering, regulating, or licensing ski lifts. For example, ski lifts are not to be considered common carriers subject to Public Utilities Commission (PUC) jurisdiction. Without this provision, ski lifts arguably would have been under the very broad statutory definition of “common carriers” for regulatory purposes. See 40-1-102(3)(a)(I), 11 C.R.S. (1997).[fn7]

[32] We did not rely in Bagnoli on the notion that ski lift operators are common carriers when enunciating the applicable standard of care. Rather, we applied the Lewis factors to ski lift operators because of the degree of control they exercise over passengers, the relative powerlessness of a passenger to secure his or her own safety under the circumstances, and the consequent state of dependence and trust which a passenger must place in the lift operators. In Lewis, we said It is not important whether defendants were serving as a carrier or engaged in activities for amusement. The important factors are, the plaintiffs had surrendered themselves to the care and custody of the defendants; they had given up their freedom of movement and actions; there was nothing they could do to cause or prevent the accident. Under the circumstances of this case, the defendants had exclusive possession and control of the facilities used in the conduct of their business and they should be held to the highest degree of care.

[33] Lewis, 156 Colo. at 57, 396 P.2d at 939 (emphasis added). One of the justices vigorously dissented as to the degree of care expected, on the basis that “this is not a `carrier case.'” Id. at 72, 396 P.2d at 947 (McWilliams, C.J., dissenting).

[34] In Bagnoli, we nevertheless adhered to the basic proposition that enunciating the degree of care to be exercised depends on the danger and degree of responsibility involved. We emphasized that the duty in negligence actions “remains one of exercising due care, and due care depends upon the attendant circumstances.” 166 Colo. at 38-39, 441 P.2d at 664 (emphasis added). We held that the attendant circumstances of ski lift operation, like amusement rides, demand the highest degree of care. We pointed out that other jurisdictions had imposed on ski lift operators a common carrier status in requiring the higher duty of care, but that, in Colorado, common carrier status made no difference in this regard in light of the Lewis factors. See Bagnoli, 166 Colo. at 39-40, 441 P.2d at 664.[fn8] Thus, in Bagnoli, we held that a Colorado jury instruction need not designate a ski lift operator as a common carrier. Because of the existence of the above described rule of Lewis, supra, and the nature and purpose of our statutes pertaining to common carriers at the time of this accident, there was no need to designate the ski lift operator as a common carrier in Instruction No. 15.

[35] Id. We said that the inclusion of the “common carrier” description in the actual instruction delivered to the jury in Bagnoli was of no consequence, since the paramount purpose of Instruction No. 15 was to convey to the jury the rule of law that a chair ski lift operator must exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the ski lift.

[36] Id., 441 P.2d at 664-65 (emphasis added).

[37] Thus, while common carriers may be required to exercise the highest degree of care towards their passengers, it does not follow that transport device operators who are not classified as common carriers are dispensed from exercising the highest degree of care when the attendant circumstances warrant such caution.

2.

[38] Legislative Action Subsequent To Bagnoli

[39] The legislature has carefully chosen how to let stand, supplement, or limit application of the common law in the arena of ski safety; it has chosen not to alter the standard of care applicable to ski lift safety. In 1990, the General Assembly limited the liability of ski area operators for claims involving the inherent dangers and risks of skiing. However, the amendments expressly prevent ski lift operators from claiming that the limitation on a ski area’s liability applies to causes of action arising from ski lift accidents. See 33-44-103(3.5), 33-44-112, 9 C.R.S. (1997).[fn9] As further confirmation of the intent to exclude ski lift accidents from the liability limitations, the bill’s chief sponsor, Representative Scott McInnis, testified that the 1990 amendments to the Ski Safety Act would not affect common law tort liability as it related to ski lifts: “This bill does not exclude a ski area from negligence and the liability it faces with ski lifts.” House floor debate on S.B. 80, Mar. 21, 1990.

[40] Another example of the General Assembly’s careful distinctions between ski slope and ski lift accident liability is found in section 33-44-113. This provision limits the amount of damages recoverable from a ski lift operator for accidents that occur while skiing but specifically excludes damages “associated with an injury occurring to a passenger while riding on a passenger tramway.” 33-44-113, 9 C.R.S. (1997).[fn10] Thus, in both a limitation of liability provision and in a limitation of damages provision related to skiing, the General Assembly chose to write an exception preserving the liability and damages law applicable to ski lift accidents.

[41] The legislature has amended the Tramway Act eleven times since the Bagnoli decision: in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1993.[fn11] None of those amendments altered the ski lift operator liability rules or shifted to the Tramway Board the operator’s “primary responsibility for design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection.” 25-5-705, 8 C.R.S. (1997). The Ski Safety Act was passed in 1979[fn12] and substantively amended in 1990,[fn13] with cross references being made to the Tramway Act. The General Assembly did not choose to overrule Bagnoli on either of these occasions.

3.

[42] Statutory Preemption Of Common Law Causes Of Action And Standards Of Care

[43] Crested Butte further suggests that the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act together manifest the legislature’s intent to preempt the field of ski lift safety and, thus, abrogate common law negligence actions and/or the applicable standard of care. Crested Butte insists that the following provisions, which make violations of the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act negligence per se, replace common law liability except as provided therein

Negligence — civil actions. . . .

(2) A violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of this article or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board pursuant to section 25-5-704(1)(a), C.R.S., shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of such operator.

[44] 33-44-104(2), 9 C.R.S. (1997) (emphasis added), and, Inconsistent law or statute. Insofar as any provision of law or statute is inconsistent with the provisions of this article, this article controls.

[45] 33-44-114, 9 C.R.S. (1997).

[46] We disagree with Crested Butte’s proposed construction of these provisions. In section 33-44-104(2),[fn14] the legislature determined that any violation of the Tramway Act, or Board regulations, would constitute negligence for purposes of a tort suit based on an alleged violation. A statutory provision which defines violation of a statute or rule as negligence per se is not necessarily inconsistent with maintenance of a common law negligence action, and the creation of a statutory remedy does not bar preexisting common law rights of action, in the absence of clear legislative intent to negate the common law right. See McMinn, 945 P.2d at 408; see also Trigg v. City & County of Denver, 784 F.2d 1058, 1059-60 (10th Cir. 1986) (in ski lift accident case, both common law negligence and negligence per se Colorado jury instructions may be required, if justified by sufficient evidence). We conclude that section 33-44-104(2) demonstrates no indication that the legislature wished to bar, rather than supplement, common law actions in ski lift cases.

[47] Crested Butte contends that the Tramway Act’s provisions (1) establishing a Board to “assure that . . . accepted safety devices . . . are provided for,” see 25-5-701, 8 C.R.S. (1997), and (2) empowering the Board to “establish reasonable standards of design and operational practices,” see 25-5-709, 8 C.R.S. (1997), necessarily imply that the General Assembly intended to preempt the field of common law liability in ski lift cases. See Lunsford v. Western States Life Ins., 908 P.2d 79, 87 (Colo. 1995) (stating that “resort to common law principles is preempted regarding issues to which the . . . statute expressly applies or where there are other pertinent statutory provisions. However, if the . . . statute is inapplicable and no other applicable statutes exist, we will rely on the common law”).

[48] The primary responsibility for design and operation of a ski lift rests with the operator. The standards adopted by the Board are intended to be reasonable regulatory standards, not to comprise the operator’s sole duty in regard to passenger safety. Compliance with these standards is evidence of due care but not conclusive evidence.

[49] In our electricity cases, for example, we have explained that regulatory standards for the safe operation of a dangerous instrumentality do not preclude a finding of negligence under the common law. For example, in City of Fountain v. Gast, 904 P.2d 478, 480 (Colo. 1995), and Yampa Valley Electric v. Telecky, 862 P.2d 252, 257-58 (Colo. 1993), we held that, despite the existence of comprehensive National Electric Safety Code standards for the industry, a person may maintain a negligence action against a utility for breach of a common law duty of care. In this state, electric utilities must exercise the highest degree of care to protect the public. See Gast, 904 P.2d at 480.

[50] Evidence of a defendant’s compliance with industry standards, while relevant and admissible for determining whether the defendant breached its duty of care, is not conclusive evidence of due care. See Telecky, 862 P.2d at 257 (compliance with NESC standards is only a part of the determination that the jury was required to make); see also Gast, 904 P.2d at 480 (compliance with NESC standards does not conclusively establish that the highest degree of care was exercised, but is merely one factor to be considered in determining the highest degree of skill and care); Blueflame Gas v. Van Hoose, 679 P.2d 579, 591 (Colo. 1984) (compliance with an administrative safety regulation by propane supplier does not conclusively establish that the highest degree of care was exercised, but is merely one circumstance to be considered).[fn15]

[51] Although the Restatement (Second) of Torts does not have the force of law, we may look to it as a summary of guiding legal principles. The Restatement (Second) of Torts 288C (1965), supports our conclusion that additional tort remedies remain available despite statutory regulation of an industry “Compliance with a legislative enactment or an administrative regulation does not prevent a finding of negligence where a reasonable man would take additional precautions.” In the comment to this section, the Restatement explains that, “Where a statute, ordinance or regulation is found to define a standard of conduct . . . the standard defined is normally a minimum standard, applicable to the ordinary situations contemplated by the legislation. This legislative or administrative minimum does not prevent a finding that a reasonable man would have taken additional precautions where the situation is such as to call for them.” Id. 288C, cmt. a.

[52] We reject Crested Butte’s argument that section 285 rather than section 288C of the Restatement should assist our reasoning in this case. Section 285 states that the determination of the standard of conduct of a reasonable person applicable to a given case may be: (a) established by a legislative enactment or administrative regulation which so provides; or (b) adopted by the court from a legislative enactment or administrative regulation which does not so provide; or (c) established by judicial decision; or (d) applied to the facts of the case by the trial judge or the jury if there is no such enactment, regulation, or decision. See Restatement (Second) of Torts 285 (1965).

[53] Crested Butte’s analysis fails to account for the logic of section 288C, which states that a standard of conduct defined by statute, ordinance, or regulation as described in section 285 is normally a “minimum standard,” and does not prevent a finding that a reasonable person would have taken additional precautions when the situation requires. Id. 288C.

[54] If Crested Butte could point to some part of the Tramway Board’s statutes or regulations which prohibits it from taking additional safety precautions, or a patent conflict preventing utilization of a particular safety device under the circumstances, its argument that Board standards preempt common law negligence actions might have merit. For example, in Jefferson County School District R-1 v. Gilbert, 725 P.2d 774, 778-79 (Colo. 1986), we held that a city met its duty of care to make streets safe because it met engineering standards prescribed by statute; the statute specifically prohibited the city from installing a traffic signal unless an intersection met certain criteria. Thus, we held that the city did not have a duty to install traffic devices where the statute specifically prohibited the city from installing them except under certain conditions. Here, although the Board required restraining devices during summer operation and not winter, its regulations did not prohibit operation with restraining devices during winter operation.

[55] Crested Butte also asserts that the Bagnoli standard, if it still applies, should be limited to ski lift negligence actions based on operational errors or defects in equipment and not to design of the lift. Although the facts in Bagnoli related to operation of the lift in the loading procedure and not the design of the lift, section 25-5-705 of the Tramway Act affirms the ski lift operator’s primary responsibility for “design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection,” without restriction to the season of operation. The General Assembly has not stated in this regard that the operator’s duty is limited to exercising ordinary care. The Lewis and Bagnoli factors are applicable to each of these components of ski lift safety, and we hold that the ski lift operator must exercise the highest degree of care in regard to each.

[56] A differential standard between operation and design could discourage lift operators from adopting safer designs. Operators would be held to Bagnoli’s higher standard when operating with new safety devices, but a lower standard when choosing to stay with existing equipment. Adoption of Crested Butte’s argument that the Tramway Act and Ski Safety Act preempt common law liability would entail no responsibility on the part of ski operators to ensure safe design, other than to comply with the Board’s regulations. This notion is contrary to the legislature’s intent in assigning the primary responsibility for design to the operators, as well as contrary to a fundamental precept of tort law — that conduct adverse to evolving safety norms should not be rewarded. See W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts 33, at 194-95 (5th ed. 1984).

III.

[57] Answers To Certified Questions

[58] The Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act do not contain express language or a clear implication to preempt common law actions or the standard of care for ski lift accident cases; rather, they evidence the opposite implication. The legislature’s intent in the Tramway Act is to “assist in safeguarding life, health, property, and the welfare of this state.” See 25-5-701, 8 C.R.S. (1997) (emphasis added). “The primary responsibility for design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection rests with the area operators of passenger tramway devices.” 25-5-705, 8 C.R.S. (1997). In the context of common law actions, our role has been to enunciate the degree of care which ski lift operators must exercise. Ordinary care is not applicable; the factors of passenger safety and operator control attendant to operation of a ski lift require the operator to exercise the highest degree of care. The legislature, despite numerous occasions in the adoption and amendment of the two acts, has not altered the applicability of the Bagnoli standard.

[59] We therefore answer the certified questions as follows: we hold that the standard of care applicable to ski lift operators in Colorado for the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection of a ski lift, is the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the lift. Neither the Tramway Act nor the Ski Safety Act preempt or otherwise supersede this standard of care, whatever the season of operation.

[60] JUSTICE KOURLIS dissents, and CHIEF JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent.

[fn1] Of course, we do not determine whether Crested Butte breached its duty of care or any other issue remaining in the federal court litigation.

[fn2] Decided after passage of the Tramway Act based on an accident occurring before its passage, Bagnoli has been the law of Colorado for the last 30 years. The Colorado Jury Instructions include the following summary of its holding

12:13 AMUSEMENT DEVICES AND SKI LIFTS DUTY OF CARE WHERE USER LACKS FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT It is the duty of the (owner)(operator) of an (amusement device)(ski lift) to exercise the highest degree of care a reasonably careful person could exercise under the same or similar circumstances, in keeping with the practical operation of such a device, for the safety of any person using the device with the (owner’s)(operator’s) express or implied permission.

The failure to exercise such care is negligence. CJI-Civ 3d

12:13 at 98. This instruction is used in ski lift and amusement ride cases and for “those kinds of devices which, to use, the user is required to give up his or her freedom of movement and control of the situation and submit him or herself to the control of the operator.” Id. at 99. The Instruction’s “Notes on Use” state that neither the Passenger Tramway Safety Act nor the Ski Safety and Liability Act changed the applicability of the instruction to ski lifts, except that a negligence per se instruction will be used in cases involving a violation of the Ski Safety Act or regulations of the Board. See id. Although the content of a Colorado Jury Instruction is not legally definitive, its long and common usage is persuasive on the matter of being a correct summary of the law. See Wade v. Olinger Life Ins. Co., 192 Colo. 401, 409 n. 7, 560 P.2d 446, 452 n. 7 (1977). [fn3] A passenger tramway is “a device used to transport passengers uphill on skis, or in cars on tracks, or suspended in the air by the use of steel cables, chains, or belts, or by ropes, and usually supported by trestles or towers with one or more spans.” 25-5-702(4), 8 C.R.S. (1997).

[fn4] The Board is comprised of one member representing the U.S. Forest Service and six members appointed by the governor, two representing the ski industry, two representing the public at large, and two members with experience in the tramway industry, to regulate passenger tramway devices. See 25-5-703, 8 C.R.S. (1997).

[fn5] The power and duties of the tramway board were specifically enumerated and reorganized into separate sections in the 1993 amendments to the tramway act. See ch. 267, secs. 7-8, 25-5-704 to -719, 1993 Colo. Sess. Laws, 1536-44.

[fn6] Section 25-5-718 was repealed and recodified as section 25-5-717 by the 1993 amendments to the Tramway Act. See ch. 267, sec. 8, 1993 Colo. Sess. Laws, 1538 & 1543. The provisions are nearly identical, and we refer to the most recent codification.

[fn7] “Common carrier” is defined in the public utilities statute as: “Every person directly or indirectly affording a means of transportation, or any service or facility in connection therewith, within this state by motor vehicle, aircraft, or other vehicle whatever by indiscriminately accepting and carrying for compensation passengers between fixed points or over established routes or otherwise . . . .” 40-1-102(3)(a)(I), 11 C.R.S. (1997).

[fn8] Courts in other jurisdictions have addressed the issue of the duty of care owed by ski lift operators, with widely varying results. Some jurisdictions have stated that ski lifts constitute common carriers for purposes of tort liability. See Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d 897, 900 (Cal.App. 1992) (ski lift is a common carrier for tort purposes); D’Amico v. Great American Recreation, Inc. 627 A.2d 1164, 1166 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 1992) (ski area operators are common carriers in the operation of ski lifts). But see McDaniel v. Dowell, 26 Cal. Rptr. 140 (Cal.App. 1962) (rope tow not a common carrier for tort liability purposes).

Whether or not they considered ski lifts to be common carriers, courts have differed as to the degree of care ski lift operators must exercise. Some states require the highest degree of care commensurate with a ski lift’s practical operation, see Hunt v. Sun Valley Co., 561 F.2d 744, 746 (9th Cir. 1977) (applying Idaho law); Fisher v. Mt. Mansfield Co., 283 F.2d 533, 534 (2d Cir. 1960) (applying Vermont law); D’Amico, 627 A.2d at 1166-67; Squaw Valley, 3 Cal.Rptr.2d at 899-900, and other states require only ordinary care, see Pessl v. Bridger Bowl, 524 P.2d 1101, 1107 (Mont. 1974); Bolduc v. Herbert Schneider Corp., 374 A.2d 1187 (N.H. 1977); Friedman v. State, 282 N.Y.S.2d 858, 860 (Ct. Cl. 1967).

The question of the degree of care owed by ski lift operators to passengers is grounded in the common law and statutes particular to each state. We look to Colorado law as the basis for our determination that the highest degree of care applies to ski lift operators in this state.

[fn9] Section 33-44-103(3.5) provides in pertinent part:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the liability of the ski area operator for injury caused by the use or operation of ski lifts.

[fn10] Section 33-44-113 provides:

The total amount of damages which may be recovered from a ski area operator by a skier who uses a ski area for the purpose of skiing or for the purpose of sliding downhill on snow or ice on skis, a toboggan, a sled, a tube, a ski-bob, a snowboard, or any other device and who is injured, excluding those associated with an injury occurring to a passenger while riding on a passenger tramway, shall not exceed one million dollars, present value, including any derivative claim by any other claimant, which shall not exceed two hundred fifty thousand dollars, present value, and including any claim attributable to noneconomic loss or injury, as defined in sections 13-21-102.5(2) C.R.S., whether past damages, future damages, or a combination of both, which shall not exceed two hundred fifty thousand dollars.

(Emphasis added.)

[fn11] See ch. 395, sec. 29, 66-25-9, 1973 Colo. Sess. Laws 1373; ch. 126, secs. 1-10, 1976 Colo. Sess. Laws 660-63; ch. 354, secs. 1-16, 1977 Colo. Sess. Laws 1288-92; ch. 433, secs. 120-122, 25-5-708 to -710, 1979 Colo. Sess. Laws 1661; ch. 315, secs. 1-7, 1983 Colo. Sess. Laws 1071-73; ch. 101, sec. 23, 25-5-717, 1985 Colo. Sess. Laws 411; ch. 193, secs. 1-10, 1986 Colo. Sess. Laws 974-78; ch. 172, sec. 83, 25-5-710, 1987 Colo. Sess. Laws 971; ch. 36, sec. 11, 25-5-710, 1988 Colo. Sess. Laws 317; ch. 301, sec. 40, 25-5-710, 1991 Colo. Sess. Laws 1917-18; ch. 267, secs. 1-11, 1993 Colo. Sess. Laws 1532-44.

[fn12] See ch. 323, secs. 1-3, 1979 Colo. Sess. Laws 1237-44.

[fn13] See ch. 256, secs. 1-11, 1990 Colo. Sess. Laws 1540-44.

[fn14] Section 33-44-104(2) was amended in 1994 to refer to section 25-5-704(1)(a) of the Tramway Act instead of section 25-5-710(1)(a) because of the 1993 amendments to the Tramway Act. See ch. 276, sec. 74, 33-44-104, 1994 Colo. Sess. Laws, 1644. Because the substance of the section is the same, we refer to the most recent codification.

[fn15] In Pizza v. Wolf Creek Ski Development Corp., 711 P.2d 671, 683 (Colo. 1985), before the 1990 amendments to the Ski Safety Act, we noted that the risks associated with skiing do not rise to the level of those associated with supplying electricity, operating amusement devices, and selling propane gas. However, in that case we were speaking to the dangers associated with skiing — such as variations in terrain, which skiers can guard against — and not the dangers related to the operation of ski lifts. See id. Rather, we stated in Bagnoli that the risks associated with operating ski lifts are much like those associated with operating amusement rides and based our conclusion regarding the applicable degree of care on the same factors we discussed in Lewis. See Bagnoli, 166 Colo. at 40, 441 P.2d at 664.

[61] JUSTICE KOURLIS dissenting

[62] Because I do not believe that the common carrier standard of care enunciated in Summit County Development Corp. v. Bagnoli, 166 Colo. 27, 33, 441 P.2d 658, 661 (1968), survives the General Assembly’s express pronouncements in the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Act (Tramway Act) and the Colorado Ski Safety and Liability Act (Ski Safety Act), I respectfully dissent.

I.

[63] The issues certified to this court by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit are: (1) what standard of care governs the duty owed by ski lift operators in Colorado to winter season lift users; and (2) does the Tramway Act and/or the Ski [Safety] Act preempt or otherwise supersede the preexisting Colorado common law standard of care governing the duty owed by ski lift operators to users of those lifts in the winter season? I would answer the second question affirmatively, and clarify that the standard of care applicable to ski lift operators is one of ordinary negligence, as provided in the two Acts.

II.

[64] The plaintiff in this case, Eric Bayer, asks Crested Butte to insure him from injury while riding a ski lift, whether or not such injury was occasioned by negligence through mechanical, design or operational failure of the ski lift. Eric Bayer became unconscious and fell from the lift he was riding at Crested Butte ski area incurring severe injury. Bayer claims that Crested Butte had a duty to exercise “the highest degree of care,” and that such level of care would have required the installation of a restraining device on the lift from which he fell. He asserts no other wrongful action or omission by Crested Butte. Bayer concedes that the majority of ski lifts in Colorado do not have restraining devices and are certified for operation without them by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board (Safety Board). He also concedes that no statute, rule or regulation requires lifts to be equipped with such devices for winter operation. The federal district court granted summary judgment to Crested Butte, ruling that the applicable standard of care was reasonable care and that Crested Butte had exercised such reasonable care in the installation of the lift. On appeal, Bayer continues to argue that under Bagnoli, Crested Butte should be held to a higher standard of care than ordinary negligence. In my view, Bagnoli has no continuing life in light of intervening legislation; and the appropriate standard of care is ordinary and reasonable care.

III.

[65] In Bagnoli, this court determined that a lift operator was a “common carrier” with respect to the plaintiff and therefore owed the plaintiff “the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the chairlift.” Id. at 33, 441 P.2d at 661.

[66] The higher standard of care imposed in Bagnoli has traditionally been reserved for inherently dangerous activities. See Federal Ins. Co. v. Public Serv. Co., 194 Colo. 107, 111-12, 570 P.2d 239, 241-42 (1977). Ultra-hazardous or abnormally dangerous activities warrant a rule of strict liability. See Western Stock Ctr., Inc. v. Sevit, Inc., 195 Colo. 372, 379, 578 P.2d 1045, 1050 (1978).

[67] The law has held common carriers to the higher standard of care, even though their activities are not necessarily inherently dangerous. The rationale for that higher standard arose out of their acceptance of an unusual responsibility to the public. See William L. Prosser, The Law of Torts 184 (3d ed. 1964). Additionally, burden of proof considerations played a role in the analysis, based upon the fact that a passenger on a mode of transport for hire is not familiar with the instrumentalities and appliances used for transportation and would be disadvantaged if required to prove the specific cause of the accident. See Denver & R.G.R. Co. v. Fotheringham, 17 Colo. App. 410, 68 P. 978 (1902).

[68] The common carrier standard of care was initially rejected by this court in Hook v. Lakeside Park Co., 142 Colo. 277, 351 P.2d 261 (1960), as applied to amusement park devices on the theory that the “presumptions or inferences available to a passenger in an action against a carrier are not available” in an amusement park setting. Hook, 142 Colo. 283, 351 P.2d at 265.

[69] The court revisited the issue in Lewis v. Buckskin Joe’s Inc., 156 Colo. 46, 396 P.2d 933 (1964), and concluded that amusement park devices should be treated as common carriers[fn1] because “the plaintiffs had surrendered themselves to the care and custody of the defendants; they had given up their freedom of movement and actions; there was nothing they could do to cause or prevent the accident. Under the circumstances of the case, the defendants had exclusive possession and control of the facilities used in the conduct of their business.” Id. at 56-57, 396 P.2d at 939. Three members of the Lewis court dissented on that point, distinguishing common carriers from recreational providers.

[70] If, indeed, a higher standard of care evolves primarily out of either an inherently dangerous activity or out of a common carrier status, clearly the court in Lewis was

relying upon the common carrier analysis, not a conclusion that amusement park devices are inherently dangerous.

[71] And thus, the court came to Bagnoli. In Bagnoli, the court noted that not all of the factors present in Lewis similarly applied to Bagnoli, but concluded nonetheless that Summit County Development Corporation was a common carrier and, as such, owed the plaintiff the highest degree of care. The court cited various other states that had similarly imposed a common carrier status on ski lift operators.

[72] The Bagnoli rationale turned on the common carrier status of the defendant. The court declared that a “ski lift facility, like other transportation facilities, and like the stagecoach amusement ride in Lewis, requires the operator to exercise the highest degree of care commensurate with its practical operation.” Bagnoli, 166 Colo. at 40, 441 P.2d at 664.

[73] However, after we decided Bagnoli, the legislative landscape changed around the nation, including in Colorado. The chronology reflects that courts initially defined ski lifts as common carriers, and thereby activated a higher standard of care. Many legislatures, like Colorado’s General Assembly, then chose to act and declared that passenger tramways are not common carriers. Following legislative pronouncements that ski lifts were not to be treated as common carriers, other states have retreated from a determination that a higher standard of care applies.

[74] For example, in Pessl v. Bridger Bowl, 524 P.2d 1101 (Mont. 1974), the Montana Supreme Court concluded that the duty of care owed by ski lift operators in Montana was one of reasonable and ordinary care because of the enactment of Montana’s Passenger Tramway Act which, in pertinent part, parallels the Tramway Act before us today.[fn2] See Pessl, 524 P.2d at 1107. See also Bolduc v. Herbert Schneider Corp., 374 A.2d 1187 (N.H. 1977)(holding same as Pessl, and recognizing that states adopting such statutes typically did so in response to court decisions which imposed a higher degree of care); D’Amico v. Great American Recreation, Inc., 627 A.2d 1164 (N.J. 1992)(applying highest degree of care because New Jersey’s ski safety act did not include language exempting operators from common carrier status); Albert v. State, 362 N.Y.S.2d 341 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 1974)(finding that chairlift operators are not common carriers under similarly worded N.Y. statute); Friedman v. State, 282 N.Y.S.2d 858 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 1967)(same as Albert); Donald M. Zupanec, Annotation, Liability for Injury or Death from Ski Lift, Ski Tow, or Similar Device, 95 A.L.R.3d 203 (1979). The New Hampshire Supreme Court specifically recognized in Bolduc that the legislative decision to remove passenger tramways from common carrier status was in response to court cases like Bagnoli. See Bolduc, 374 A.2d at 1189.

[75] Hence, other courts around the nation have specifically deferred to the legislative determination that passenger tramways may no longer be treated as common carriers. Bagnoli explicitly concludes that lift operators should be treated as common carriers, and such a conclusion is no longer valid. Additionally, the Lewis factors relied upon in Bagnoli cannot stand as an independent basis for the imposition of a higher standard of care unrelated to common carrier status, because they are merely an articulation of the reasons why common carriers are held to a different standard. Those factors cannot stand alone.[fn3] Hence, in my view, the legislature has removed the cornerstone of the foundation upon which Bagnoli rested. As the California Court of Appeal stated in McDaniel v. Dowell, 26 Cal.Rptr. 140, 143 (Dist. Ct. App. 1962), absent classification of a ski lift operation as a common carrier, “[t]here is no other basis for the imposition upon the defendant [] of a duty to exercise the utmost care and diligence for the safety of the plaintiff.”[fn4] IV.

[76] The accident in Bagnoli occurred on April 21, 1962, three years prior to the effective date of the Tramway Act. The court in Bagnoli thus did not apply the Tramway Act even though the actual decision was handed down in 1968, after the Act’s passage.

[77] On July 1, 1965, the following provision of the Tramway Act went into effect The provisions for regulations, registration and licensing of passenger tramways and the operators thereof under this Part 7 shall be in lieu of all other regulations or registration, or licensing requirements, and passenger tramways[fn5] shall not be construed to be common carriers within the meaning of the laws of this state.

[78] 25-5-717, 11A C.R.S. (1989)(emphasis supplied).

[79] In answering the questions before us today, the Majority observes that we infer no abrogation of a common law right of action absent clear legislative intent. Maj. op. at 12. I find just such clear legislative intent apparent in the unambiguous language of the Tramway Act. Crested Butte operates ski lifts. Ski lifts are passenger tramways, and under the Tramway Act passenger tramways “shall not be construed to be common carriers.” 25-5-717, 11A C.R.S. (1989).

[80] The legislature expressly decided that ski lifts were not to be treated as common carriers in Colorado. In addition, the legislature implicitly occupied the field by enacting pervasive and comprehensive legislation for safety requirements regarding ski lifts. See Lunsford v. Western States Life Ins., 908 P.2d 79, 87 (Colo. 1995)(noting that statutory preemption of areas of the common law may arise expressly or by clear implication).

[81] The Tramway Act is comprehensive in its scope of regulation of Colorado ski lifts In order to assist in safeguarding life, health, property and the welfare of this state, it is the policy of the State of Colorado to establish a board empowered to prevent unnecessary mechanical hazards in the operation of ski tows, lifts and tramways and to assure that reasonable design and construction are used for, that accepted safety devices and sufficient personnel are provided for, and that periodic inspections and adjustments are made which are deemed essential to the safe operations of ski tows, ski lifts and passenger tramways.

[82] 25-5-701, 11A C.R.S. (1989).[fn6]

[83] The Tramway Act further authorizes the Safety Board to “adopt reasonable rules and regulations relating to public safety in the design standards, construction, operation and maintenance of passenger tramways.” 25-5-710(a), 11A C.R.S. (1989). The Tramway Act directs the Safety Board to use general guidelines and standards adopted by the American Standards Association, Inc., see id.; and the Act makes the Safety Board responsible for establishing “reasonable standards of design and operational practices.” 25-5-710.1, 11A C.R.S. (1989).

[84] In 1979, the legislature expanded the scope of its pronouncements when it enacted the Ski Safety Act.[fn7] The express purpose of that Act was “to establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for skiers using them.” 33-44-102, 14 C.R.S. (1995).

[85] For purposes of the issue before the court, the Ski Safety Act achieves four results. First, it supplements the Tramway Act and further defines the relative rights and responsibilities of ski area operators and skiers. See 33-44-102. Second, it clarifies that negligent operation of a ski lift is not an “inherent risk of skiing.” Id. Third, it provides that a violation by a ski area operator of any portion of the Ski Safety Act or of any rule or regulation promulgated by the Safety Board shall constitute negligence. See 33-44-104(2). Lastly, it includes preemptive language as follows: “Insofar as any provision of law or statute is inconsistent with the provisions of this article, this article controls.” 33-44-114 (emphasis added).

[86] The cumulative effect of those provisions leaves no doubt as to the legislative intent to set forth the governing law concerning ski area liability: both with respect to operation of ski slopes and ski lifts. The Tramway Act removes ski lifts from common carrier status. The Ski Safety Act incorporates the requirements of the Tramway Act and the Safety Board’s regulations and further mandates that inconsistent provisions of the common law are abrogated.

[87] Since the Tramway Act eliminates the elevated common carrier status of ski lift operators as a basis for a higher standard of care, the applicable standard reverts to that of ordinary care. The Tramway Act delegates to the Safety Board the task of establishing reasonable standards of design for ski lifts. The Ski Safety Act warns that failure to comply with any rule or regulation promulgated by the Safety Board shall constitute negligence on the part of the operator. The standard of care owed by ski lift operators to users of those lifts in the winter season is, therefore, ordinary and reasonable care consistent with the rules and regulations of the Safety Board.[fn8] [88] Indeed, not only should this court accede to legislative mandate, but additionally the fixing of an elevated standard of care is without basis in fact or law once the common carrier status rationale is eliminated.

V.

[89] In the absence of statutory edict, the courts must develop the common law. However, the General Assembly retains the authority to repeal common law rights or duties. See 2-4-211, 1 C.R.S (1997). In determining whether a legislative enactment serves to supplement the common law, or to repeal it, the courts have rightfully proceeded with caution. However, the principle of statutory construction that statutes in derogation of the common law must be narrowly construed should never be invoked to defeat the plain and clear intent of the legislature. See Martin v. Montezuma-Cortez Sch. Dist. RE-1, 841 P.2d 237, 251-52 (Colo. 1992). Legislative intent that is clearly expressed must be given effect. See Van Waters & Rogers, Inc. v. Keelan, 840 P.2d 1070, 1076 (Colo. 1992)(finding a clear intent by the General Assembly to change the common law rule and require damages to be set off by certain non-exempt collateral source contributions); Pigford v. People, 197 Colo. 358, 360, 593 P.2d 354, 356 (1979)(noting a clear statement of legislative intent to change the common law in order to permit admissibility of certain prior offenses in criminal prosecutions for unlawful sexual behavior).

[90] When the legislature overrules a court decision that does not involve a constitutional issue, the court must comply with the legislative direction. “It is not within the purview of this court to question the legislature’s choice of policy.” City of Montrose v. Public Utils. Comm’n, 732 P.2d 1181, 1193 (Colo. 1987)(recognizing that legislature effectively overruled City of Montrose v. Public Utils. Comm’n, 197 Colo. 119, 590 P.2d 502 (1979), with respect to the means by which a utility was permitted to surcharge municipal fees).

[91] It is my view that the Majority is, indeed, declining to recognize the appropriate exercise of legislative authority and policy-making in defining the standard of care applicable to ski lift operators. Hence, I respectfully dissent.

[92] I am authorized to state that CHIEF JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in this dissent.

[fn1] At pages 15-16, the Majority includes a reference from Bagnoli, citing Lewis, to the effect that the actual common carrier status was not important. In fact, the Lewis language was merely clarifying that it was not important to distinguish between a stagecoach “prepared and maintained by the defendant for the carriage or amusement of those who pay the required fee.” Lewis, 156 Colo. at 56, 396 P.2d at 939 (emphasis in original).

[fn2] The Montana court also noted that Montana cases had rejected the analogy between a passenger of a common carrier for hire and a patron of an amusement place. See Pessl, 524 P.2d at 1106.

[fn3] There is an inference in some of the cases, including Hook, that amusement park devices are inherently dangerous and, thus, possibly deserving of a higher standard of care on that basis. This court has expressly rejected this rationale for ski area operators. See Pizza v. Wolf Creek, 711 P.2d 671, 683 (Colo. 1985)(expressly rejecting analogy comparing operating a ski area to inherently dangerous activities).

[fn4] The California court was concerned with whether a rope tow should be classified as a common carrier, and concluded that it should not. The court was not addressing the import of a statute, because at that time, California had no passenger tramway act.

[fn5] A “passenger tramway” is defined as “a device used to transport passengers uphill on skis or in cars on tracks, or suspended in the air by the use of steel cables, chains, or belts, or by ropes, and usually supported by trestles or towers with one or more spans.” 25-5-702(4), 11A C.R.S. (1989).

[fn6] I also note that emergency shutdown of a passenger tramway is justified only if the lift is shown to be an “unreasonable” hazard, 25-5-716, 11A C.R.S. (1989), lending further credence to the conclusion that the Tramway Act supplants any elevated standard of care and reestablishes an ordinary standard of reasonable care.

[fn7] In 1990, the legislature amended the Ski Safety Act to clarify the law regarding the duties and responsibilities of skiers and ski area operators and to provide additional protection for ski area operators. See Graven v. Vail Assocs., 909 P.2d 514, 517, 517 n. 3, 524 n. 4 (Colo. 1995). None of the 1990 amendments impact upon the question before us today, although they do further display the legislative intent to limit the causes of action available to skiers against ski areas.

[fn8] I do not believe that the “highest standard of care” is applicable to ski lift operators in the wake of the Tramway Act and the Ski Safety Act. Therefore, I do not reach the question of the interrelationship between compliance with the statutory and regulatory standards and that elevated standard of care. (Maj. op at 24-28). Further, I do not believe the question is before us as to whether evidence in addition to compliance with applicable standards and regulations should be adduced on the issue of negligence. In answering certified questions, the court should be brief and confine itself to the precise questions propounded. See In re Interrogatories of the U.S. District Court, 642 P.2d 496, 497 (Colo. 1982).


Neither a release nor the Pennsylvania Equine Liability Act protects a stable for injuries when the stirrup broke.

Between a poorly written release, an Equine statute that requires proof the rider assumed the risk and the “cavalier” attitude of the defendant; the plaintiff will proceed to trial.

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Wilberto Melendez

Defendant: Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Recklessness

Defendant Defenses: Release and Pennsylvania Equine Liability Protection Act

Holding: For the plaintiff

Year: 2016

The plaintiff was part of a group ride. Upon arrival he was told, he had to sign a release which he did. At the office where the plaintiff signed, the release signs were posed as required by the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. During the ride, the plaintiff asked the guides if he could gallop the horse and was told no several times. Eventually at the end of the ride, the plaintiff was allowed to gallop his horse.

Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

While galloping the horse, the stirrup broke causing the plaintiff to fall incurring injuries.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release signed by the plaintiff and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act. The court denied the motion because the issue of the stirrup breaking could be considered reckless under Pennsylvania law.

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

The decision first looks at releases or exculpatory agreements under Pennsylvania law.

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.

Under Pennsylvania, the language of the release must be clear in relieving notifying the possible plaintiff, he or she is releasing the defendant of negligence. “However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless, be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.”

As in most states, releases are not favored and must conform to contract law. However, the term “not favored” is a term of art rather than a term used to determine if the release will be valid.

Contracts immunizing a party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.”

In that regard Pennsylvania, courts have set up standards on how releases will be governed.

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by ex-press stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

As in most other states, Pennsylvania does not allow a release to relieve a defendant for intentional or reckless acts. “Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior.

The plaintiff did not argue that the release was not valid. The court reviewed the release on its own and find it valid.

First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them.

Second, the agreement was between two private parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

The court also found Pennsylvania law allowed the use of releases for inherently dangerous activities. Horseback riding in Pennsylvania is an inherently dangerous activity.

The plaintiff’s argument centered on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Inherent, a limiting word, defines the risks that are part of horseback riding no matter what. Inherent risks are part of horseback riding and can rarely be reduced or modified by someone because of the horse. However, there are more than just inherent risks in any activity and the plaintiff argued that a stirrup breaking was not an inherent risk and not covered by the release or the statute.

How the bridle or saddle is attached to the horse is under the control of the stable, thus not an inherent risk of horseback riding in must states. How the horse responds; maneuvers or acts is an inherent risk of riding a horse.

Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment.

Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it.

(For other articles on the use of “inherent” in a release see: Here is another reason to write releases carefully. Release used the term inherent to describe the risks which the court concluded made the risk inherently dangerous and voids the release and 2015 SLRA – Inherent Risk: Should the Phrase be in your Release?)

The court looked at the issue and rephrased it to a contract analogy. A contract must state the intention of the parties. A release is a contract.

…the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before.

The court then looked at the issue and found that defective equipment was not an inherent risk of horseback riding. This means if you use the term “inherent risk” in your release to describe all of the risks, claims based defective equipment would not be covered by your release in Pennsylvania. However, the release in this case was written broadly so it was not an issue.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.”

Pennsylvania courts have held that a release protects against claims for inherent as well as non-inherent risks if written to include those risks, and this release was written broadly.

The plaintiff argued the release should be read narrowly because the release did not identify defective equipment as a risk to be covered. However, the court found that every risk needs not be reviewed or identified in a release.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory agreement. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use.

The next point the plaintiff argued was the actions of the defendant amounted to recklessness and as such voided the release. The court defined recklessness under Pennsylvania law as:

Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.”

Pennsylvania uses the term recklessness to define acts of the defendant that exceed the scope of a release. The majority but not all states use the term gross negligence.

This argument the court did accept. The court found that it was the defendant’s responsibility to inspect the equipment, and the defendant could not provide any evidence of any inspection.

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident.

The court on this same topic went on looking at the facts to determine other reckless acts of the defendant. In that review, the court added a comment about the attitude of the defendant/owner of Happy Trails and described his attitude as “cavalier.”

He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness

Finding a lack of knowledge about the age or condition of the defendant’s equipment, no record of inspecting or maintaining the equipment and the attitude of the defendant allowed the court to reach a conclusion that the actions of the defendant would be found by a jury to be reckless. As such, a motion for summary judgment could not be granted if there were “genuine dispute as to any material fact.”

The next issue was the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to the case. The court could find no other case law in Pennsylvania that looked at the application of the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act to defective equipment. Consequently, the court had to interpret the statute to see if the language of the statute covered defective equipment.

The Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act like most equine liability protection acts provides immunity to horse owners, stables, etc., for the actions of the animals. (Since Equine Acts have been created, they have been 100% effective. No horses have been sued. Lawsuits against horse owners have increased.) However, the Pennsylvania statute places a burden on the stable or horse owner to prove knowledge of the risk for the immunity to apply.

Most equine protection acts are written to say that when on a horse, or at places where horses, llamas, mules, etc., are, you assume the risk of the actions of the animal. By assuming the risk, the defendant owner is immune from liability for the plaintiff’s injuries. The Pennsylvania statute is different. The Pennsylvania statute states “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.”

This requirement puts a burden upon the horse owner to provide additional education to the rider.

The court looked at the definition of assumption of risk as defined in the Restatement of Torts, which found four different definitions or as the Restatement defines them doctrines of assumption of the risk.

The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.”

The first type of assumption of risk the court found that applied here was express assumption of risk. Express assumption of risk occurs when the plaintiff has consented to the risk. Usually, this consent is given by writing, if written property as part of a release.

The second type applicable in this case was implied assumption of the risk. Implied assumption of the risk has no exactness to the risk assumed. The plaintiff knows there is risk, and the defendant hopes the plaintiff knows of the explicit risk that may injure the plaintiff or that caused the plaintiff’s injuries. If the plaintiff had no knowledge of the risk, then the plaintiff cannot assume the risk.

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”

In this case, there was no evidence that the plaintiff knew of the risk. That risk was of equipment failure that the stirrup would break. Consequently, the plaintiff could not assume the risk.

Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.”

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge.

Because the risk that injured the plaintiff was outside of the risks assumed by the plaintiff, the defense of assumption of the risk did not apply. As such, the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act did not provide the defendant with any protection.

With the release not valid and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act not providing any protection both defenses of the defendant failed. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

So Now What?

This case would not have meant anything if the plaintiff had simply fallen off the horse. Both the release and the Pennsylvania Equine Activities Immunity Act would have prevented recovery if a claim had even been made.

But broken equipment always creates a different issue. Here it created an issue of whether the actions of the defendant were reckless and proved the plaintiff did not assume the risk.

Another important issue is courts put into their decision the facts they find persuasive or at least interesting.  There were several facts in the decision that did not alter or affect the decision on its face, but important enough for the court to identify them anyway. I always find these facts as instructional and a good indication of something that was not enough for the judge to argue but important anyway.

I also believe that they may not have any legal value, but if written into the decision by the judge, they had to have an impact on the judge’s thinking, and consequently, those issues did affect the outcome of the case.

In this decision those facts included:

After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part….

Combined with the next sentence:

An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. Plaintiff signed the agreement.

Meaning, the plaintiff was not told in advance he was going to be required to sign a release.

Another one was the plaintiff being told galloping was too dangerous yet he was eventually allowed to gallop his horse.

On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail.

Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal.

If galloping the horse was too dangerous earlier, what changed? More importantly, galloping the horse led to the broken stirrup which led to the injury.

And then there are the straight out in your face statements a court rarely makes.

Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal.

If this statement or something like it has been at the beginning, you would have known immediately that the defendant was going to lose. Never walk into a courtroom looking like the bad guy and never give the court proof, such as this, that you are.

For other Equine Liability Act articles see:

$1.2 M award in horseback riding fatality in Wyoming                                     http://rec-law.us/1fE4ncB

$2.36 M awarded to boy kicked by horse during inner-city youth program   http://rec-law.us/1lk7cTP

A specific statute, a badly written release and an equine liability statute sink instructors and business in horse riding accident.                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/SJZCkU

Decisive Supreme Court Decision on the Validity of Releases in Oklahoma                      http://rec-law.us/19gxvkT

Equine laws stop suit against horse, outfitter still sued                                    http://rec-law.us/XjgJvw

Good News ASI was dismissed from the lawsuit                                               http://rec-law.us/131HKWH

Hawaii attempts to limit liability increases the amount of money every injured party will recover. Legislation to limit liability lost recreation business the opportunity to use a release         http://rec-law.us/1nvfCV5

Hawaii’s deceptive trade practices act sends this case and release back to the trial court                                                                                                                                                http://rec-law.us/Z3HdQj

Indiana Equine Liability Statute used to stop litigation                                     http://rec-law.us/12UFp1N

Lying in a release can get your release thrown out by the court.                   http://rec-law.us/11ysy4w

Michigan Equine helped the plaintiff more than the stable and helped prove there may be gross negligence on the part of the defendant                                                             http://rec-law.us/1ZicaQs

Parental control: should you, are you accepting responsibility for kids and when you should or can you not.                                                                                                                             http://rec-law.us/1fteMth

Release saves riding school, even after defendant tried to show plaintiff how to win the case.  http://rec-law.us/14DC7Ad

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law

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Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Melendez v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, v. Happy Trails and Riding Center, Inc., Defendant.

3:14-CV-1894

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131576

September 26, 2016, Decided

September 26, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: trail, summary judgment, exculpatory, recklessness, equine, stirrup, stable, immunity, genuine, horse, horseback riding, recreational, animal, material fact, skiing, ride, assumption of risk, faulty, broken, ski, rider, inherent risk, exculpatory clause, riding, sport, skier, enumerate, counter, rental, entity

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Wilberto Melendez, Plaintiff, Counterclaim Defendant: Robin A. Feeney, LEAD ATTORNEY, FINE & STAUD LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For Happy Trails and Riding Center, Incorporated, Defendant, Counterclaim Plaintiff: Dennis M. Marconi, Barnaba & Marconi, LLP, Trenton, NJ.

JUDGES: Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Robert D. Mariani

OPINION

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. Introduction and Procedural History

On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, filled a one count Complaint with this Court against Defendant, Happy Trails and Riding Center, lnc.1 (Doc. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff suffered injury as a result of Defendant’s negligence in its operation of a business which rented horses and equipment to the public for recreational horseback riding. After the conclusion of fact discovery, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) and supporting brief (Doc. 20) on October 29, 2015. Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition (Doc. 22) and Defendant filed a Reply. (Doc. 23). Oral argument on the matter was held on April 4, 2016.

1 Defendant points out that the business is owned and operated by Randolph Bennett, d/b/a Happy Trails Stables, and was incorrectly pleaded as Happy Trails Riding [*2]  Center, Inc. For the purposes of this motion, the error, if any, is immaterial and the opinion will refer to Defendant as “Defendant” or “Happy Trails.”

The motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below the Court will deny Defendant’s motion in its entirety.

II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

In accordance with Local Rule 56.1, Defendant submitted a Statement of Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 20), as to which it contends that there is no genuine dispute for trial. Plaintiff submitted a response, a Counter Statement of Facts, (Doc. 22), with the result being that the following facts have been admitted, except as specifically noted:

Plaintiff, Wilberto Melendez, went to Defendant’s stable on May 31, 2014, for the purpose of going horseback riding. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 1, 2). After his group arrived, Plaintiff went into the stable’s office to register. (Id. at ¶ 5). Plaintiff was presented with a form (the “agreement”), which stated, in pertinent part:

AGREEMENT FOR PARTICIPATION AND\OR VOLUNTEERS [sic] I RELEASE AND DISCHARGE, ACCEPTANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY AND ACKNOWLEDGE [sic] OF RISK:

IN CONDERATION [sic] FOR BEING PERMITTED TO UTILIZE THE FACILITIES AND EQUIPMENT [*3]  OF HAPPY TRAILS RIDING STABLES AND TO ENGAGE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, AND ALL RELATED ACTIVITIES.

….

1. I understand and acknowledge that the activity I am voluntarily engage [sic] in as a participant and/or [sic] bears certain know [sic] risk [sic] and unanticipated risks which could result in jury, [sic] death, illness, or disease, physical or mental, or damage to myself, to my property, or to spectators or other third parties. I understand and acknowledge those risk [sic] may result in personal claims against “HAPPY TRAILS STABLES” or claims against me by spectators or other third parties.

1. [sic] The nature of the activity itself, including the possible risks to you the rider.

A. The animal may be startled by unforeseen or unexpected noises from other animals, people, vehicles, activities and as a result you the rider may be hurt or injured should the animal react to said noises or activity, by running, bucking, rolling, or kicking, etc.

B. That you as the rider realizes [sic] that the animal is reacting to your physical instructions, conduct, and verbal instructions and commands, and therefore, the animal will respond in accordance with your reactions or commands. However, there are [*4]  times when the animal may be confused or distracted during course [sic] of your instructions and/or commands.

C. You the rider understands [sic] that an animal may kick or bite you the rider, or you the pedestrian, and that other animals which may be on tour, could kick or bite you the rider and/or pedestrian.

D. You the rider are aware that physical conditions of the trails may cause injury or risk to you, should these physical conditions such as low tree limbs, bushes, or other type of natural growth come in contact with animal [sic] or yourself.

2. I hereby release and discharge Happy Trails Stables, instructors, trail guides, stable managers, employees, owners of the horses and related equipment and land utilized for Happy Trails Stables activities, hereinafter referred to as the “Released Parties,” from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I, or any of my heirs, successors or assigns, [sic] may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence of the released parties.

3. I further agree that I, my heirs, successors, or assigns, [sic] will not sue or make claim [*5]  against the Released Parties for damage or other loses sustained as a result of my participation in Happy Trails activities.

….

4. I understand and acknowledge that Happy Trails activities have inherent dangers that no amount of cares, [sic] caution, instruction, or expertise can eliminate and I expressly and voluntarily assume all risk of personal injury or death sustained while participating in “Happy Trails Stables” activities weather [sic] or not caused by negligence of the Released Parties ….

….

6. I hereby expressly recognize that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence of the Released Parties. I also assume the risk of the equine activities pursuant to the [sic] Pennsylvania law.

(Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11; Doc. 20-7) (emphasis original). An employee of Happy Trails informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff must sign the agreement in order to go horseback riding. (Doc. 20, 5). Plaintiff signed the agreement. (Id. at ¶ 8). In addition to the agreement, there were signs posted inside the office, outside [*6]  the office, and by the stable which read “You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania Law.” (See id. at ¶¶ 12-15; Doc. 20-8).

After completing the agreement, Plaintiff waited while a Happy Trails employee saddled up a horse. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiff then mounted the horse and participated in a guided group horseback ride for the next forty-five minutes without incident. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21). On several occasions during the ride, Plaintiff requested permission from the guide to gallop the horse. (Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23). Plaintiff was told it was too dangerous to do on the trail. (Id.). At the end of the ride, one of the guides brought Plaintiff away from the group so that Plaintiff could canter the horse. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff then put the horse into a gallop and, while rounding a turn, a stirrup broke and Plaintiff fell from the animal. (id. at ¶¶ 27-29).

Plaintiff maintains that the stirrup Defendant provided him was faulty or defective and that this was the cause of his fall. (Doc. 22 at 1). Plaintiff further maintains that this fall resulted in fractured ribs and pneumothorax. (Id. at 3).

III. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those [*7]  claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “As to materiality, ….[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat’l Wildlife Fed’n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S. Ct. 3177, 111 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record…or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences [*8]  should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party’s evidence contradicts the movant’s, then the non-movant’s must be taken as true.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S. Ct. 1262, 122 L. Ed. 2d 659 (1993).

However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S. Ct. 1769, 167 L. Ed. 2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,

its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).

IV. Analysis [*9]

Plaintiffs complaint alleges that Defendant was negligent in providing broken or defective equipment–the stirrup–to Plaintiff, which directly resulted in his injury. (Doc. 1, ¶ 20). Defendant puts forth two arguments that it maintains are separate and independent grounds for summary judgment. First, Defendant argues that the agreement that Plaintiff signed prior to the horseback ride insulates Defendant from liability under these facts. (Doc. 20 at 9). Second, Defendant argues that, pursuant to 4 P.S. §§ 601-606 (hereinafter “Equine Activities Immunity Act,” “EAIA,” or “the Act”), Happy Trails is immune from liability as a provider of equine activities. (Id.).

A. Exculpatory Agreement

An exculpatory clause is valid if (1) the clause does “not contravene public policy”; (2) the contract is “between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs”; and (3) each party is “a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 607 Pa. 1, 2 A.3d 1174, 1189 (Pa. 2010) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., Inc. v. Singletary, 533 Pa. 468, 626 A.2d 98, 99 (Pa. 1993)). However, a valid exculpatory clause will nevertheless be unenforceable “unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence.” Id. (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Contracts immunizing a [*10]  party against liability for negligence are not favored by law and therefore established standards must be “met before an exculpatory provision will be interpreted and construed to relieve a person of liability for his own or his servants’ acts of negligence.” Dilks v. Flohr Chevrolet, Inc., 411 Pa. 425, 192 A.2d 682, 687 (Pa. 1963). Thus, Pennsylvania courts have established several standards governing the enforceability of exculpatory clauses:

1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.

Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., 616 Pa. 385, 47 A.3d 1190, 1196 (Pa. 2012) (quoting Topp Copy Prods., 626 A.2d at 99). Further, exculpatory clauses may not immunize a party for intentional or reckless behavior. Id. at 1202-03.

Defendant contends that the agreement Plaintiff signed is valid, enforceable, and encompasses broken equipment. (Doc. 20 at 13-16). Therefore, Defendant argues, Plaintiffs negligence [*11]  claim is barred and Happy Trails is entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 16).

Plaintiff does not appear to argue that the agreement is not valid on its face. Nor should he, considering that the agreement easily satisfies the validity requirements under Chepkevich. First, the agreement does not violate any public policy of Pennsylvania. In light of the Equine Activities Immunity Act–discussed in the next section–and similar statutes addressing other recreational activities, it is the policy of the state to encourage participation in those activities, despite their inherent danger, and assign the risk of loss to those who choose to participate in them. Cf. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1191 (finding that, in light of a statute that preserves the assumption of risk defense in the context of downhill skiing, it is “the clear policy of this Commonwealth . . .to encourage the sport and to place the risks of skiing squarely on the skier.”). Further, Pennsylvania courts have held as valid similar exculpatory agreements in the context of a variety of other inherently dangerous recreational activities. See, e.g., id. (downhill skiing); Wang v. Whitetail Mountain Resort, 2007 PA Super 283, 933 A.2d 110, 113-14 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007) (snow tubing); Valeo v. Pocono Int’l Raceway, Inc., 347 Pa. Super. 230, 500 A.2d 492, 492-93 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) (auto racing); Nissley v. Candytown Motorcycle Club, Inc., 2006 PA Super 349, 913 A.2d 887, 889-91(Pa. Super. Ct. 2006) (motorcycle riding).

Second, the agreement was between two private [*12]  parties, Happy Trails and Mr. Melendez, concerning the purely private matter of renting a horse for recreational purposes. Finally, this is not a contract of adhesion. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1190-91 (“The signer I is under no compulsion, economic or otherwise, to participate, much less to sign the exculpatory agreement, because it does not relate to essential services, but merely governs a voluntary recreational activity.”). Thus, the agreement is facially valid.

Turning to enforceability, Plaintiff contends that Defendant has failed to meet its burden to show either that defective equipment is an inherent risk of horseback riding, or that the language of the agreement shows that Plaintiff expressly assumed the risk of defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 11). Plaintiff points out that the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk. (Id.). Further, Plaintiff argues that a broken stirrup is not an inherent risk of horseback riding as demonstrated by the testimony of both Happy Trails’ owner and a Happy Trails’ employee who both stated they had never seen a stirrup break before. (Id. at 12-13). Thus, Plaintiff argues, because the risk was not foreseeable and was not expressly in the agreement, Plaintiff could [*13]  not appreciate the risk and could therefore not assume it. (Id. at 13).

Plaintiffs argument essentially states that the second element from Tayar –that “the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties”–is not met in this case because the agreement did not specifically enumerate the risk of defective equipment. Pennsylvania courts, however, have rejected this argument before. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193-94.

In Chepkevich, a skier, Lori Chepkevich, sued a ski resort after she fell from a ski lift and was injured. Id. at 1175-76. She claimed her injury occurred because an employee promised to stop the ski lift briefly to allow Chepkevich to help a child board the lift and then the employee failed to do so. Id. Prior to the accident, Chepkevich had signed a document titled “RELEASE FROM LIABILITY” which stated, in pertinent part,

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Snowblading, including the use of lifts, is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks which include but are not limited to [certain enumerated risks]…. I agree to accept all these risks and agree not to sue Hidden Valley [*14]  Resort or their employees if injured while using their facilities regardless of any negligence on their part.

Id. at 1176. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first rejected Chepkevich’s argument that she did not assume the specific risk that caused her injury and instead found that a fall from a ski lift was an inherent risk in the sport of skiing. Id. at 1188. Therefore, the Court found that the suit was barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act, 42 PA. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7102(c), which preserves the common law assumption of the risk defense in the context of downhill skiing. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88.

Turning to an alternative ground for summary judgment–the release–the Chepkevich Court held that the term “negligence” did not require any definition or illustration to be given effect. Id. at 1193. Indeed, reversing the court below on that point, the Court found “no reason to require the drafters of exculpatory releases to provide definitions and context for commonly used terms such as ‘negligence.”‘ Id. The Court then found that the plain language of the release encompassed Chepkevich’s claim for negligence and therefore barred the claim. Id. at 1194-95. Because the Court had already found that the risk involved was inherent, the Court found it unnecessary to address the merits of Chepkevich’s [*15]  final argument “that the Release exempted Hidden Valley from liability only when its negligence gave rise to a risk otherwise inherent to the sport of skiing.” Id. at 1193-94.

Concerning the case at hand, while this Court agrees with Plaintiff that the provision of defective equipment is not an inherent risk in the sport of horseback riding, this point is not dispositive. As one Pennsylvania court explained, “the assumption of the risk doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering in tort for risks inherent to a certain activity. In contrast, the explicit, broad, and valid language of the exculpatory clause bars all claims, regardless of whether they arise from an inherent risk.” Nissley, 913 A.2d at 892 (footnote and internal citations omitted). Thus, as long as the language of the exculpatory agreement applies, any inherent risk analysis is superfluous. The fact that the court in Chepkevich found it unnecessary to its holding to address the plaintiffs argument that non-inherent risks cannot be released in exculpatory agreements does not affect this analysis. As that court saw no need to overturn the language in Nissley, this Court sees no reason not to follow it.

As for enforceability of the agreement, in the realm of recreational [*16]  activities, Pennsylvania has upheld expansive language in exculpatory agreements. See, e.g., Nissley, 913 A.2d at 890-91 (upholding motor cycle club’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that plaintiff “hereby give[s] up all my rights to sue or make claim”); Zimmer v. Mitchell & Ness, 385 A.2d 437, 440 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1978), aff’d per curiam, 416 A.2d 1010 (1980) (upholding ski rental shop’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action when the release stated that skier released defendant from “any liability”); Valeo, 500 A.2d at 492-93 (upholding race track’s exculpatory agreement in a negligence action where race car driver signed an agreement releasing “defendants ‘from all liability …for all loss or damage'”).

Here, Plaintiff signed an agreement that he knew to be a waiver. (Doc. 20-2 at 51-53; Doc. 20-7). Paragraph two of the agreement stated that Plaintiff released Happy Trails “from any and all claims, demands, or cause of action that I…may hereafter have for injuries and/or damages arising out of my participation in Happy Trails activities, including but not limited to, loses caused by negligence.” Further, paragraph six states that Plaintiff “hereby expressly recognize[s] that this Agreement and Release of Liability is a contract pursuant to which I have released any and all claims against the [*17]  Released Parties resulting from my participation in Happy Trails activities including any claims caused by negligence.” Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant was negligent in providing him defective equipment during his trail ride. The plain language of the agreement signed by Plaintiff releases Defendant from “all claims” including those “caused by negligence.” Thus, Plaintiffs claim, in as much as it is alleging that Defendant acted negligently, is encompassed by the exculpatory language of the agreement and therefore barred.2

2 This Court notes that there is some language in Chepkevich that seems to support Plaintiffs argument. As an aside, the Chepkevich Court states that “the risk [in this case] was not so unexpected, or brought about in so strange a manner, as to justify placing this injury beyond the reach of the plain language of the Release.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. Plaintiff has pointed out that a broken stirrup is a very uncommon, and therefore unexpected, occurrence. (Doc. 22 at 12-13). Nevertheless, because Chepkevich does not give any standards for what type of risks fall beyond the realm of the plain language of an exculpatory agreement, this Court must turn to other cases. This Court finds  [*18]  Zimmer v. Mitchell and Ness  instructive.

In Zimmer, a skier, Joseph Zimmer, sued a ski rental company after the bindings on the skis he rented failed to release as they were supposed to during a fall, causing him substantial injury. Zimmer, 385 A.2d at 438. Zimmer argued that the rental company was negligent in renting him skis without testing and fitting the bindings. Id. at 440. The court granted the ski rental company’s motion for summary judgment based on an exculpatory agreement that Zimmer signed when he rented the skis that released the rental company “from any liability for damage and injury to myself or to any person or property resulting from the use of this equipment.” Id.

Thus, while the specific issue of a broken stirrup may be very uncommon, Pennsylvania courts have enforced exculpatory agreements in the case of a released party negligently providing the releasing party with defective or broken equipment.

Plaintiff advances a more narrow reading of the agreement and argues that because the agreement does not enumerate defective equipment as a risk, he did not expressly assume it. The Chepkevich Court, however, was clear that no illustrations or examples are required to give common terms effect in an exculpatory [*19]  agreement. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1193. “All claims” and “negligence” are commonly used terms and Pennsylvania law does not require drafters of exculpatory clauses to enumerate every possible contingency that is included in broader language they choose to use. Plaintiff agreed to release Defendant from “all claims” including those that arose from Defendant’s negligence. Plaintiff cannot now protest that he did not know what “all claims” included.3

3 At oral argument, Plaintiff advanced a slightly different argument. Plaintiff argued, in effect, that because paragraph one of the agreement enumerates risks associated with horseback riding, the rest of the agreement is limited to those enumerated lists. This argument was also advanced in Chepkevich. See Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1194. There, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that “by enumerating risks inherent to downhill skiing and then requiring the skier to accept those risks, the Release only bars suits that arise out of the listed risks.” Id. The court found that the release, which stated that skiing “is a dangerous sport with inherent and other risks,” was not limited to the enumerated the risks, but clearly included “other risks.” Here, as in Chepkevich, Plaintiff’s argument [*20]  fails on textual grounds. It is true that the agreement, in paragraph one, lists some risks inherent to horseback riding. However, in paragraph two and six, the agreement states that Plaintiff relinquishes “any and all claims.” There is no limiting language in paragraph two or six that would indicate that Plaintiff was only relinquishing claims arising out of the enumerated risks in paragraph one.

Plaintiff finally argues that Defendant’s conduct amounts to recklessness and exculpatory agreements cannot immunize reckless conduct. (Doc. 22 at 14); see Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1202-03. Defendant concedes that the agreement only releases it from suits for negligence, not recklessness, and counters that its “conduct at most amounts to ordinary negligence.” (Doc. 23 at 10). “Recklessness is distinguishable from negligence on the basis that recklessness requires conscious action or inaction which creates a substantial risk of harm to others, whereas negligence suggests unconscious inadvertence.” Tayar, 47 A.3d at 1200.

The 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 [*21]  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.

Id. at 1200-01 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500).

Defendant’s bare assertion that its actions do not rise to the level of recklessness does not satisfy its burden to show that there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact. The record shows that Happy Trails provided a saddle for Plaintiffs ride, that a stirrup on that saddle broke during the ride, and that Plaintiff fell from a horse when the stirrup broke. (Doc. 22-5 at 35-36, 39-40). It was the responsibility of Happy Trails, not the customer, to inspect the equipment, but no records of inspections or repairs were kept, nor was the Happy Trails’ owner able to say if any inspection of the specific stirrup occurred on the day of the accident. (Id. at 13, 53-55, 58, 60). Happy Trails’ owner testified that he bought used saddles on the internet and also from individuals who walk into his business. (Id. at 18). He was unable to say where he procured the saddle in question, how long he had had it, or how old it was. (Id. at 18-19, 58, 60). Additionally, Happy Trails’ owner displayed a somewhat cavalier attitude towards [*22]  safety, asserting that customers assume all risks associated with the activity, including equipment breaking, staff failing to put equipment on the horses correctly, and even staff failing to provide basic equipment like stirrups or a bridal. (Id. at 32-33). Viewing the record in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, a question of fact therefore remains as to whether Defendant’s action rose to the level of recklessness.

Defendant goes on to argue that Plaintiff failed to plead recklessness and that if “recklessness is the standard to apply in this case, plaintiffs compliant must be dismissed with prejudice.” (Doc. 23 at 10). This argument, however, runs counter to the holding in Archibald v. Kemble, 2009 PA Super 79, 971 A.2d 513 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009).

Archibald involved a lawsuit stemming from Robert Archibald’s participation in a “no-check” adult hockey league. Id. at 515. In his complaint, Archibald alleged that another player, Cody Kemble, checked him into the boards of the ice hockey rink. Id. The complaint went on to say that

Cody Kemble’s negligence consisted of the following:

a. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was aware and/or warned that the check was going to be attempted before checking him into the boards;

b. failing to assure that Robert Archibald was willing [*23]  to be checked;

c. checking Robert Archibald when not safe to do so;

d. failing to understand and learn the rules, prohibition and limitation on any checking prior to participating in the non-checking league and game.

Id. at 516. First determining that Archibald would only be able to recover if he showed that Kemble acted recklessly, the Court went on to hold that recklessness “may be averred generally.” Id. at 517, 519. Thus, “merely determining the degree of care is recklessness does not give rise to a separate tort that must have been pled within the applicable statute of limitations.” Id. at 519. Instead, “Archibalds’ cause of action was…subsumed within the negligence count pled in their Complaint.” Id.; see also M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E., 103 F. Supp. 3d 612, 629 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (construing a separately pleaded recklessness claim “simply as a mechanism to recover punitive damages under [the] negligence claim” because “[t]here is no cause of action for recklessness under Pennsylvania law” and “recklessness is a heightened standard of care required to potentially recover punitive damages”).

Consequently, under Archibald, the fact that Plaintiff did not specifically plead recklessness in his Complaint is not fatal to his claim. In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that, among other things, [*24]  Defendant “provid[ed] equipment or tack that defendant knew or should have known was faulty.” This statement encompasses the allegation that Defendant recklessly provided Plaintiff with defective or faulty equipment. The fact that Plaintiffs Complaint does not contain the word “reckless” is immaterial.

In sum, because the agreement that Plaintiff signed is only enforceable to immunize Defendant for its negligence, and not for its recklessness, and because there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether Defendant acted recklessly in this case, the Court finds that the agreement is not a sufficient basis for summary judgment.

B. Equine Activities Immunity Act

Defendant next points to the Equine Activities Immunity Act, 4 P.S. §§ 601-606, as an alternative, independent basis for summary judgment. The EAIA limits the liability of certain providers of equine activities if specific requirements are met. Defendant argues that, as a provider of a qualifying equine activity who has complied with the EAIA’s statutory requirements, it is entitled to immunity from suit. (Doc. 20 at 10-11). Plaintiff counters that Defendant’s negligent provision of defective or faulty equipment puts the suit outside of the EAIA’s [*25]  protections. (Doc. 22 at 4).

The issue of whether a covered entity is immunized from liability under the EAIA for providing defective or faulty equipment is a question of first impression. As such, this Court must engage in statutory interpretation. For this Court to interpret state law, it “must determine how the highest court of the State would decide an issue.” Baker ex rel. Thomas v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 249, 118 S. Ct. 657, 139 L. Ed. 2d 580 (1998). Pennsylvania interprets statutes according to the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1501-1991. “When interpreting statutory language, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is guided by the ‘plain meaning’ rule of construction.” Hofkin v. Provident Life & Accident Ins. Co., 81 F.3d 365, 371 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Commonwealth v. Stanley, 498 Pa. 326, 446 A.2d 583, 587 (Pa. 1982)). “The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. Every statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions.” 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1921(a). “When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.” Id. at § 1921(b).

The EAIA provides immunity for “an individual, group, club or business entity that sponsors, organizes, conducts or provides the facilities for an equine activity” including “[r]ecreational rides or drives which involve riding or other activity [*26]  involving the use of an equine.” 4 P.S. §§ 601, 602(b)(6). The EAIA, however, only provides immunity where signs of at least a certain size are “conspicuously posted on the premises…in two or more locations, which states the following: You assume the risk of equine activities pursuant to Pennsylvania law.” Id. at § 603. For covered entities in compliance with the signs requirement, “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven with respect to damages due to injuries or death to an adult participant resulting from equine activities.” Id. at § 602(a). Finally, the Act is clear that “[t]he immunity provided for by this act shall be narrowly construed.” Id. at § 606.

Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant, as a provider of recreational horseback riding activities, is not a covered entity under the statute. Additionally, Plaintiff does not argue that Defendant did not have the appropriate signs as prescribed under the EAIA. Plaintiffs sole argument is that the Act does not bar actions for the negligent provision of faulty or defective equipment. (Doc. 22 at 6). Stated otherwise, Plaintiff argues that because he did not know he might be given defective or faulty [*27]  equipment, he could not knowingly assume the risk of such. Defendant counters that “[o]nce plaintiff entered the stables property and took part in recreational horse riding, he assumed the risk of harm associated with such activities.” (Doc. 20 at 11).

The EAIA states that “liability for negligence shall only be barred where the doctrine of knowing voluntary assumption of risk is proven.” 4 P.S. § 602(a). The Act, therefore, appears to preserve the common law assumption of risk doctrine in the context of equine activities. In delineating the contours of this doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has looked to the Restatement Second of Torts. See Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 563 Pa. 501, 762 A.2d 339, 341-42 (Pa. 2000). The Restatement outlines four varieties of the doctrine, the first two of which are of interest in this case. See Restatement (second) of Torts § 496A cmt. c. The first, express assumption of risk occurs when lithe plaintiff has given his express consent to relieve the defendant of an obligation to exercise care for his protection, and agrees to take his chances as to injury from a known or possible risk.” Id. (emphasis added). This is the type of assumption of risk examined above in respect to the agreement signed by Plaintiff. The second, implied assumption of risk, occurs when lithe plaintiff has [*28]  entered voluntarily into some relation with the defendant which he knows to involve the risk, and so is regarded as tacitly or impliedly agreeing to relieve the defendant of responsibility, and to take his own chances.” Id. (emphasis added).

It is self-evident that a person “cannot be found to have implicitly assumed a risk of which he had no knowledge.” Rutter v. Ne. Beaver Cty. Sch. Dist., 496 Pa. 590, 437 A.2d 1198, 1204 (Pa. 1981) (plurality opinion). As such, lithe defense of assumption of the risk requires that the defendant show that the plaintiff was subjectively aware of the facts which created the danger and…must have appreciated the danger itself and the nature, character and extent which made it unreasonable.”‘ Berman v. Radnor Rolls, Inc., 374 Pa. Super. 118, 542 A.2d 525, 532 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (alteration in original) (quoting Crance v. Sohanic, 344 Pa. Super. 526, 496 A.2d 1230, 1232 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985)); See also Restatement (second) of Torts § 496D.4 Thus, for a defendant to prevail on a summary judgment motion based on the assumption of risk defense, it must be “beyond question that the plaintiff voluntarily and knowingly proceeded in the face of an obvious and dangerous condition.” Barrett v. Fredavid Builders, Inc., 454 Pa. Super. 162, 685 A.2d 129, 131 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1996) (citing Struble v. Valley Forge Military Acad., 445 Pa. Super. 224, 665 A.2d 4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995)). Finally, “[t]he mere fact one engages in activity that has some inherent danger does not mean that one cannot recover from a negligent party when injury is subsequently sustained.” Bullman v. Giuntoli, 2000 PA Super 284, 761 A.2d 566, 572 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2000).

4 Of course, a plaintiff’s own assertion about whether he knew of and understood [*29]  the risk is not conclusive.

There are some risks as to which no adult will be believed if he says that he did not know or understand them. Thus an adult who knowingly comes in contact with a fire will not be believed if he says that he was unaware of the risk that he might be burned by it; and the same is true of such risks as those of drowning in water or falling from a height, in the absence of any special circumstances which may conceal or appear to minimize the danger.

Restatement (Second) of Torts §496D cmt. d.

In short, to preclude Plaintiffs negligence action under the EAIA, Defendant must show that Plaintiff knew that the equipment he was provided with might break and voluntarily continued with the horseback ride in spite of that knowledge. Only then can Plaintiff be said to knowingly assume the risk. Defendant, however, has made no such showing. Defendant has failed to point to anything in the record to show that Plaintiff decided to use the equipment with the knowledge that the stirrup or any other equipment Plaintiff was provided with might break. Nor is this a case where the risk is so obvious that the knowledge could be inferred. The owner of Happy Trails testified that, in the approximately ten years he operated [*30]  the stable, he never remembered a single stirrup breaking. (Doc. 20-3 at 20-21). Given that it is not a common occurrence, it strains credibility to argue that a recreational participant would know that being provided broken equipment was likely.

Therefore, because there has been no showing that Plaintiff knew of the risk and voluntarily disregarded it, the EAIA provides no relief for Defendant.5

5 At oral argument, counsel for the Defendant conceded that, even under the broad interpretation of the Act that Defendant argued for, the Act would not immunize a covered entity for acts of recklessness or gross negligence. As this Court has already found that there is a genuine dispute as to the material fact of whether the Defendant acted recklessly, this provides an alternative ground for the finding that the Act does not provide immunity under these facts.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, the Court will deny Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19). A separate Order follows.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

ORDER

AND NOW, THIS 26th DAY OF SEPTEMBER, 2016, upon consideration of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED [*31]  THAT:

1. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is DENIED.

2. A telephone scheduling conference will be held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 4:00 p.m. Counsel for Plaintiff is responsible for arranging the call to (570) 207-5750, and all parties should be ready to proceed before the undersigned is contacted.

/s/ Robert D. Mariani

Robert D. Mariani

United States District Judge

 


What is Skiing? In New Hampshire, the definition does not include tubbing in 2004.

Definition of the New Hampshire Skier Safety Act in 2004 was not written broadly enough to include tubing.

Sweeney v. Ragged Mountain Ski Area, Inc., 151 N.H. 239; 855 A.2d 427; 2004 N.H. LEXIS 126

State: New Hampshire, Supreme Court of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Alaina Sweeney

Defendant: Ragged Mountain Ski Area, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: New Hampshire Skier Safety Act

Holding: Reversed and Remanded, sent back to trial for the Plaintiff

Year: 2004

Colorado’s ski area statute uses the term skier to describe anyone on the resort property. That means the term skier also includes snowboarders, telemark skiers, bike skiers, Nordic skier and tubers.

The plaintiff went tubing at the defendant’s tubbing hill. The hill was only for tubing and did not allow skiing on the tubing hill. No employees were present at the tubing hill when the plaintiff was tubing. While tubing she crossed from one lane to the other and collided with another tuber.

She sued, and the ski area argued to the trial court that the New Hampshire Ski Area Safety Act defined skier to include tubers. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint.

The plaintiff appealed.

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

The New Hampshire Ski Area Safety Act has been amended since this case to include in the definition of skier a snow tuber. At the time of this case, the definition of skier, which is what the controlled was defined “A “skier” is defined as “a person utilizing the ski area under the control of a ski area operator for the purpose of utilizing the ski slopes, trails, jumps or other areas.”

A court look or examining a statute cannot broaden the definitions in the statute unless the statute specifically grants the court that right. Although the courts are the final arbiter of a statute, the review is limited to what the legislature put into the statute.

We are the final arbiter of the intent of the legislature as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole. We first examine the language of the statute, and, where possible, we ascribe the plain and ordinary meanings to the words used. Id. When the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, we need not look beyond it for further indication of legislative intent.

When a statute such as this one changes the common law, the statute must be interpreted strictly. The presumption in a law like this is the statute took away rights, not created or added additional ones. Here the statute created immunity for ski areas, taking away the common law right to sue so the statute was to be interpreted strictly.

Accordingly, then, immunity provisions barring the common law right to recover are to be strictly construed. We have often stated that we will not interpret a statute to abrogate the common law unless the statute clearly expresses that intent.

The court then looked at how ski slopes, trails, jumps or other areas were defined in the act to see if that included tubing hills. However, that definition was also specific and narrow.

Ski slopes, trails and areas” are further defined as “only those areas designated by the alpine or nordic ski operator on trail boards or maps . . . to be used by skiers for the purpose of participating in the sport of skiing.

Again, tubing was not part of the definition of the act. “Thus, a “skier” is limited to one who “participates in the sport of skiing,” and, as such, the statutory references to “skiers” necessarily inform our interpretation of the “sport of skiing.”

The court then went back and examined other parts of the New Hampshire Ski Safety Act to see if any part of the act could be used to provide protection to the ski area. The declaration, the first part of the statute detailing why the statute was created and the value of the statute to the state did not include a reference to tubing, only to skiing.

It shall be the policy of the state of New Hampshire to define the primary areas of responsibility of skiers and other users of alpine (downhill) and nordic (cross country and ski jumps) areas, recognizing that the sport of skiing and other ski area activities involve risks and hazards which must be assumed as a matter of law by those engaging in such activities, regardless of all safety measures taken by the ski area operators.

The court found that based on the declaration, the purpose and focus of the statute was for alpine and Nordic ski area. Because the plaintiff was not utilizing an alpine or Nordic slope, the plaintiff was not a skier. As such there was no protection afforded by the New Hampshire Skier Safety Act because the act, at the time of the lawsuit, only protected ski areas from skiers.

The trial court dismissal was overthrown, and the case sent back to proceed to trial.

So Now What?

There is an old adage that says the law grinds slowly but grinds finely. Meaning the law works slowly but when it works to solve the problem. Here the New Hampshire Skier Safety Act was probably enacted prior to the interest in tubing. Many other states with skier safety statutes have broader definitions of a skier who in most cases includes tubing. In some cases, the definition of a skier is a person on the ski area for any purpose.

Here the act was written narrowly, the definitions were not broad enough to include tubing. Nor were the definitions able to be broadened because that power was not provided to the court by the legislature when it passed the act.

Of real interest is the idea that no employees were present on the tubing hill at the time of the accident. It does not say, but the tubing hill probably did not include a lift and people walked up hill pulling a tube.

Either way, if you are in doubt as to whether or not a statute may provide protection to you for the activity you are selling, you should use a release.

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