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Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Cantu, et al, vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, 2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

Michael A. Cantu, et al, Plaintiffs vs. Flytz Gymnastics, Inc., et al, Defendants.

CASE NO. CV-2014-01-0317

State of Ohio, Court OF Common Pleas, Summit County, Civil Division

2016 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 12186

June 2, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: summary judgment, reckless, wanton, willful, gymnastics, waiver form, moving party, nonmoving party, pit, releasee, liability claim, recreational activities, issue of material fact, genuine, foam, claims of negligence, repose, sports, genuine issue, initial burden, punitive damages, recklessness, inducement, indemnity, matter of law, fact remains, loss of consortium, inherent risks, assumption of risk, proprietor’

JUDGES: [*1] TAMMY O’BRIEN, JUDGE

OPINION BY: TAMMY O’BRIEN

OPINION

ORDER

The matters before the Court are, Defendant, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc.’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016, and, Defendant, John King’s Motion for Summary Judgment filed on January 29, 2016., Plaintiffs filed Separate Briefs in Opposition to these motions on March 4, 2016. Both, Defendants, Flytz Gymnastics, Inc. (“Flytz”) and John King (“King”), filed Reply briefs on March 21, 2016. For the reasons which follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment.

ANALYSIS

A. Facts:

The instant action arises out of an incident which occurred on August 22, 2011. On that day, Plaintiff Michael Cantu, sustained catastrophic personal injury when he attempted to use a spring board to go over a vault at Flytz Gymnastics and landed head first into a foam block pit. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint., Plaintiff sustained a spinal cord injury which left him a quadriplegic. See, Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.

Plaintiffs, Michael Cantu and his parents, have sued Flytz and its owner, King, alleging that they are liable for his injury., Plaintiffs have alleged that Flytz was negligent with respect to the “open [*2] gym night” attended by Michael Cantu and his friends and that this negligence resulted in Michael’s injury., Plaintiffs have further alleged that the conduct of Flytz and its employees, including King, was willful, wanton and reckless. In addition, Plaintiffs have brought a product liability claim against Flytz under R.C. 2307.71 et seq., Plaintiff’s parents, Aaron and Kristine Cantu, have also asserted a loss of consortium claim.

On the day in question, Michael was with a group of friends when one of them suggested that the group go to Flytz. Michael Cantu depo. at 57. This friend had been to Flytz before to practice his skiing flips. Id. at p. 43. Michael Cantu testified that the group intended to use the trampoline to practice ski tricks. Id. at 43, 63 and 93. Michael’s mother, Kristine Cantu, drove the group to Flytz.

Cantu and his friends were given Nonmember Release and Waiver Forms to read and sign. Because Michael was a minor, his mother signed the form on his behalf. Flytz Motion for Summary Judgment Exhibit B at pp. 32 and 33. Both Michael and his mother have acknowledged that neither of them read the entire form before Kristine signed it. Exhibit A at 69 and 103; Exhibit B at 34 and 35.

Subsequent [*3] to his injury, Kristine Cantu claimed that, had she read the release, she would never have allowed her son to participate in the activities. However, there is undisputed testimony from both Kristine and Michael Cantu that, throughout his life, Michael Cantu participated in many sports activities and many recreational activities, and that his mother signed release forms on his behalf in the past. Flytz Motion, Exhibit A at 18, 103; Flytz Motion, Exhibit Bat 15-16.

Plaintiff Michael Cantu, was involved in many sports and recreational activities and both he and his mother testified that they were aware that, inherent in those activities, there was always the risk of injury. Michael had previously participated in football, karate, volleyball and golf, and was interested in skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. In fact, Plaintiff acknowledged he had sustained prior sports injuries. Flytz Motion, Exhibit B at 13-18.

Defendant Flytz moves for summary judgment on several bases which include the, Plaintiffs’ execution of a Release and Waiver form, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, lack of evidence of willful and wanton conduct by the, Defendants, and the statute of repose., Defendant [*4] King also moves for summary judgment.

B. Law and Analysis:

1. Standard.

In reviewing, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment, the Court must consider the following: (1) whether there is no genuine issue of material fact to be litigated; (2) whether in viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party it appears that reasonable minds could come to but one conclusion; and (3) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dresher v. Burt, 75 Ohio St.3d 280, 662 N.E.2d 264 (1996); Wing v. Anchor Media, L.T.D., 59 Ohio St.3d 108, 570 N.E.2d 1095 (1991). If the Court finds that the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L.E.2d 265 (1986).

Civ.R. 56(C) states the following, in part, in regards to summary judgment motions:

Summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, written admissions, affidavits, transcripts

of the evidence in the pending case, and written stipulations of fact, if any timely filed in the action, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Where a party seeks summary judgment on the ground that the nonmoving party cannot [*5] prove its case, the moving party bears the initial burden of informing the trial court of the basis for the motion, and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact on the essential element(s) of the nonmoving party’s claims. Dresner, 75 Ohio St.3d at 293. The Dresner court continued, the moving party cannot discharge its initial burden under Civ.R. 56 simply by making a conclusory assertion that the nonmoving party has no evidence to prove its case. Rather, the moving party must be able to specifically point to some evidence of the type listed in Civ.R. 56(C) which affirmatively demonstrates that the nonmoving party has no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s claims. If the moving party fails to satisfy its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment must be denied. However, if the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the nonmoving party then has a reciprocal burden outlined in Civ.R. 56(E) to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial and, if the nonmovant does not so respond, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered against the nonmoving party.

Banks v. Ross Incineration, 9th App. No. 98CA007132 (Dec. 15, 1999).

In this case, [*6] as demonstrated below, this Court finds that summary judgment is appropriate as to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, but finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to, Plaintiffs’ claims of reckless and wanton conduct and punitive damages.

2. Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement (“Release and Waiver”).

The Release and Waiver Form signed by, Plaintiff Kristine Cantu, is entitled, “Nonmember/Special Event/Birthday Party Activity, Release and Waiver Form.” Flytz Motion, Exhibit C. After the name of the person and contact information, the verbiage of the release and waiver form warns that “this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death.” Id.

Kristine Cantu testified that, consistent with her practice related to any other sports release or waiver, she “never read them” because they were “usually lengthy.” Kristine Cantu depo. at 15-16. Although she indicated that the Flytz Release and Waiver Form was also lengthy, the Court notes that the form is one page long, as is shown in part below:

Release and Waiver of Liability, Assumption of Risk, and Indemnity Agreement

In consideration [*7] of participating in the activities and programs at FLYTZ GYMNASTICS, INC., I represent that I understand the nature of this activity and that I am qualified, in good health, and in proper physical condition to participate in such activity. I acknowledge that if I believe event conditions are unsafe, I will immediately discontinue participation in this activity. I fully understand that this activity involves risks of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death, which may be caused by my own actions, or inactions, those of others participating in the event, the condition in which the event takes place, or the negligence of the “releasees” named below, and that there may be other risks either not known to me or not readily foreseeable at this time and I fully accept and assume all risks and all responsibility for losses, cost and damages I incur as a result of my participation in the activity.

I hereby release, discharge, and covenant not to sue FLYTZ GYNMASTICS, INC., its respective administrators, directors, agents, officers, volunteers, and employees, other participants, any sponsors, advertisers and if applicable, owners and lessors of premises on which [*8] the activity takes place (each considered one of the “RELEASEES” herein) from all liability, claims, damages, losses or damages, on my account caused, or alleged to be caused, in whole, or in part, by the negligence of the “releasees” or otherwise, including negligent rescue operations and further agree that if, despite this release, waiver of liability and assumption of risk, I, or anyone on my behalf makes a claim against any of the Releasees, I will indemnify, save and hold harmless each of the Releasees from any loss, liability, damage or cost which may incur as a result of such claim.

I have read the RELEASE AND WAIVER OF LIABIITY, ASSUMPTION OF RISK AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT, understand that I have given up substantial rights by signing it and have signed it freely and without any inducement or assurance of any nature and intend it to be a complete and unconditional release of all liability to the greatest extent allowed by law and agree that if any portion of this agreement is held to be invalid the balance, notwithstanding, shall continue in full force and effect.

The form specifically acknowledges that the activities and programs at Flytz involved “risks of serious bodily injury, [*9] including permanent disability, paralysis and death which may be caused” by the releasee’s actions or by the actions of others. It further identifies that “there may be risks either not known” or “not readily foreseeable” and that the releasee “accepts and assumes all risks for losses and damages.” Id. The form further releases claims of negligence by Flytz and includes a covenant not to sue, as well as indemnity and hold harmless provisions. The release was signed by Kristine Cantu on behalf of her son and indicated that she understood all the risks involved.

It is well established in Ohio that participants in recreational activities and the proprietor of a venue for such an activity are free to enter into contracts designed to relieve the proprietor from responsibility to the participant for the proprietor’s acts of negligence. See, Bowen v. Kil-Kare, Inc. (1992), 63 Ohio St.3d 84, 585 N.E.2d 384; Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc. 82 Ohio St.3d 367, 696 N.E.2d 201, 1998-Ohio-389. As noted by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, in order to be upheld, the contract must be clear, unequivocal and unambiguous and it must be specific enough to cover only those claims of which the participant would be aware. Levine v. Gross, 123 Ohio App.3d 326, 330, 704 N.E.2d 262 (9th Dist. 1997). In the instant action, the Release and Waiver Form signed by Kristine Cantu clearly meets these requirements.

Plaintiffs argue [*10] that the intake clerk, Stacey King, did not specifically advise Kristine that, by signing the forms, she would be absolving Flytz of liability for injuries sustained by her son, by his negligence or the negligence of others., Plaintiffs attempt to circumvent the Release and Waiver by alleging it is unenforceable because of fraud in the inducement. They argue that Kristine Cantu was induced to sign the form upon misrepresentations made by Stacey King.

The Court notes that, Plaintiffs have not pled fraud in their Amended Complaint. Even if, Plaintiffs can be found to have properly pled a claim of fraud in the inducement, a release obtained by fraudulent inducement is merely voidable upon proof of fraud. Holler v. horror Corp., (1990), 50 Ohio St.3d 10, 14 at ¶ 1 of the syllabus. “A person of ordinary mind cannot say that he was misled into signing a paper which was different from what he intended to sign when he could have known the truth by merely looking when he signed…. If a person can read and is not prevented from reading what he signs, he alone is responsible for his omission to read what he signs.” Haller, supra at 14. In the instant action, there is no evidence of fraud. The Court finds that, Plaintiffs were advised of [*11] serious inherent risks by virtue of the Release and Waiver Form. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS summary judgment on any claims of negligence.

3. Primary Assumption of Risk.

Even without the Release and Waiver, this Court would also find that the, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk.

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that individuals engaged in recreational or sports activities “assume the ordinary risks of the activity and cannot recover for any injuries unless it can be shown that the other participant’s actions were either ‘reckless’ or ‘intentional’ as defined in Sections 500 and 8A of the Restatement of Torts 2d.” Marchetti v. Kalish (1990), 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 559 N.E.2d 699, syllabus. “The doctrine of primary assumption of risk prevents a, Plaintiff from setting forth a prima facie case of negligence.” Aber v. Zurz, 9th Dist No. 23876, 2008-Ohio-778, ¶9. “Primary assumption of the risk relieves a recreation provider from any duty to eliminate the risks that are inherent in the activity…because such risk cannot be eliminated.” (Citations omitted.) Bastian v. McGannon, 9th Dist. Lorain No. 07CA009213, 2008-Ohio – l149, ¶11.

As noted by the Ohio Supreme Court, the determining fact in such cases is the conduct of the defendant, “not the [*12] participant’s or spectator’s ability or inability to appreciate the inherent dangers of the activity.” Gentry v. Craycraft, 101 Ohio St.3d 141, 802 N.E.2d 1116, 2004-Ohio-

379, ¶9. To survive a primary assumption of risk claim, the, Plaintiff must prove the defendant’s conduct was reckless or intentional. Furthermore, “the reckless/intentional standard of liability applies regardless of whether the activity was engaged in by children or adults, or was unorganized, supervised, or unsupervised.” Gentry, supra at ¶8.

In the instant action, there can be no dispute that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu was engaged in a recreational activity at the time of his injury. Likewise, there can be no dispute that a fall, like that sustained by Michael, is an inherent risk in gymnastics, particularly when one is using a springboard to go over a piece of equipment. As such, there can be no recovery by, Plaintiffs unless it can be shown that Flytz’s actions were either “reckless” or “intentional.” Gentry, supra at ¶6 quoting Marchetti, supra at syllabus; see also, Mainv. Gym X-Treme, 10th Dist. No. 11A0-643, 2102-Ohio-1315 (Under the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, a, Plaintiff who voluntarily engages in a recreational activity or sporting event assumes the inherent risks of that activity and cannot recover for injuries sustained in engaging in the activity [*13] unless the defendant acted recklessly or intentionally in causing the injuries. Id. at9.)

Accordingly, Defendants entitled to summary judgment related to the, Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence under the doctrine of primary assumption the risk. However, because the, Plaintiffs also claim that, Defendants acted in a reckless, willful and wanton manner, this does not end the analysis.

3. Reckless or Intentional Conduct and Punitive Damages.

The Supreme Court of Ohio has held that there can be no liability for injuries arising out of sporting or recreational activities unless the defendant was reckless or intentionally injured the, Plaintiff. Marchetti v. Kalish, 53 Ohio St.3d 95, 96-98, 559 N.E.2d 699 (1990). In this case, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether or not, Defendants engaged in recklessness or willful or wanton conduct which resulted in injury to Michael Cantu.

All parties cite to testimony which appears to create genuine issues of material fact related to the instructions given by the, Defendants, Michael Cantu’s responding behavior, Defendant level of supervision and safety procedures, and whether, Defendants actions or inactions rose to the level of recklessness.

Plaintiffs have also cited the testimony [*14] of their expert, Gerald S. George, PhD. Dr. George reviewed industry rules and regulations and examined the facts and evidence in this case. Dr. George admitted that under “appropriate conditions, gymnastics is a reasonably safe and healthy activity for young people.” He, however, cautioned that “in the absence of appropriate safeguards, however, gymnastics becomes an unreasonably dangerous activity. Report at p. 2. Dr. George opines that, Defendants violated a number of safety regulations including “failing to ensure that Michael Cantu possessed an adequate level of performer readiness to safely participate in the intended activity,” “failing to provide adequate supervision of the open gym participants,” “failing to instruct Michael Cantu on how to land safely in a loose foam landing pit,” and “failing to provide a reasonably safe physical environment for the intended gymnastics activity,” specifically directing attention to the violative nature of the foam pit. Report at 3-6. Dr. George opines, among other things, that, given these violations and conduct, Defendants actions were “grossly inadequate” reckless and that, Defendants exhibited “willful and wanton” disregard for caution. [*15]

Upon this examination, the Court determines that genuine issues of material fact related to, Defendants’ alleged recklessness and/or willful and wanton conduct exist. Therefore, summary judgment is inappropriate on this issue. Because a question of fact remains on the issue of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages is also denied.

4. Ohio’s Product Liability Statute, R.C. 2307.71et seq.

Defendants have also moved for summary judgment on the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim related to the foam pit into which Michael Cantu fell., Defendants argue that this claim is barred by the statute of repose. This Court agrees.

The statute of repose applicable to claims of product liability, R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1) provides:

Except as provided in division (C)(2), (3), (4), (5), (6), and (7) of this section or in Section 2305.19 of the Revised Code, no cause of action based on a product liability claim shall accrue against the manufacturer or supplier of a product later than ten years from the date that the product was delivered to its first purchaser or first lessee who was not engaged in a business in which the product was used the component in the production, construction, creation, assembly, or rebuilding of another [*16] product.

The evidence demonstrated that the foam pit was constructed in 2000, and that there were no modifications to the pit at any time thereafter. John King depo. at 61, 67 and 85., Plaintiff’s accident occurred on August 22, 2011, 11 years after the installation of the foam pit. Pursuant to the specific language of R.C. 2305.10 (C) (1), Plaintiffs’ product liability claim is barred by the statute of repose.

From review of, Plaintiff’s brief, Plaintiffs appear to have abandoned this argument. Also, as discussed above, claims for negligence have been released by the, Plaintiffs. However, even barring that analysis, the statute of repose also applies to the, Plaintiffs’ product liability claim, and this claim is, therefore, barred.

5. Consortium.

The claims for loss of consortium by Michael Cantu’s parents, and punitive damages claim are directed at both, Defendants. A cause of action that is based upon loss of consortium is a derivative claim. Messmore v. Monarch Mach Tool Co., 11 Ohio App.3d 67 (9th Dist., 1983). As this Court has determined that, Plaintiff Michael Cantu is not entitled to recovery on negligence claims, the same applies to his parents. However, as genuine issues of material fact remain on the issues of reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct, as well [*17] as on punitive

damages, this Court denies summary judgment to both defendants on the loss of consortium and punitive damages claims.

CONCLUSION

Upon due consideration, after review of the briefs of the parties, the applicable law, exhibits, testimony and other evidence, the Court GRANTS, Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment as a matter of law on, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims. However, the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether, Defendants were reckless or acted in a willful or wanton manner. Accordingly the Court DENIES summary judgment as it pertains to, Plaintiffs’ claims of recklessness, and their claims for punitive damages.

The Final Pretrial previously schedule on July 22, 2016 at 8:30 AM, as well as the trial date of August 1, 2016, are confirmed.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

/s/ [Signature]

JUDGE TAMMY/O’BRIEN

Attorneys Terrance P. Gravens/Kimberly A. Brennan

Attorney Michael W. Czack

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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


Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ritari, JR v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., 2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

Ronald Ritari, JR. and Tama Ritari, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v Peter E. O’dovero, Inc., doing business as Marquette Mountain, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 335870

COURT OF APPEALS OF MICHIGAN

2017 Mich. App. LEXIS 1711

October 24, 2017, Decided

NOTICE: THIS IS AN UNPUBLISHED OPINION. IN ACCORDANCE WITH MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS RULES, UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS ARE NOT PRECEDENTIALLY BINDING UNDER THE RULES OF STARE DECISIS.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Motion granted by Ritari v. Peter E. O’Dovero, 2018 Mich. LEXIS 90 (Mich., Jan. 12, 2018)

PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Marquette Circuit Court. LC No. 16-054384-NO.

CORE TERMS: skiing, nastar, rope, training, ski, chair lift, racing, placement, sport, registration form, hazard, recreational, ski area, participating, skier, lift, competitive, competitor, hazardous, alpine, matter of law, clearance, snowboarding, season, risks associated, reverse side, unambiguous, susceptible, entangled, ambiguous

JUDGES: Before: K. F. KELLY, P.J., and BECKERING and RIORDAN, JJ.

OPINION

Per Curiam.

In this interlocutory appeal,1 defendant, Peter E. O’Dovero, Inc, d/b/a Marquette Mountain, challenges the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (release, immunity granted by law) and (C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact, movant entitled to judgment as a matter of law). The case arises out of an incident at Marquette Mountain ski resort that occurred when plaintiff, Ronald Ritari, Jr., was riding up the ski hill on a chair lift and became entangled in a rope that had been installed underneath the lift, which pulled him off the lift and caused him to sustain serious injuries in the ensuing fall.2 Because material questions of fact remain, we agree with the trial court that summary disposition is inappropriate at this time.

1 Ronald Ritari Jr v Peter E O’Dovero, Inc, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered April 20, 2017 (Docket No. 335870).

2 Plaintiff Tama Ritari’s claim is derivative of her husband’s; therefore, “plaintiff” refers to Ronald Ritari, Jr.

I. PERTINENT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On the evening of January 29, 2015, plaintiff went to Marquette Mountain to ski. He was a season pass holder there and enjoyed NASTAR3 racing. According to plaintiff’s complaint and affidavit, at around 6:45 p.m. he and his son boarded [*2] a chair lift to reach the top of the hill for their first run of the evening. They planned to take a couple of pleasure runs down the hill before their Thursday night ski league began. When his chair was approximately 20 yards from the loading zone, a gust of wind pulled the chair down and the tips of plaintiff’s skis became entangled in a nylon rope attached to the ground by two poles directly below the chair lift. Plaintiff was able to free the tip of his left ski from the rope, but he was unable to free the tip of his right ski, and he felt his leg being pulled backward as his chair continued to move up the hill. Plaintiff grabbed the middle pole of the chair to keep from falling and screamed as loudly as he could for the chair lift operator to stop the lift. But the chair lift did not stop, and plaintiff was pulled out of his chair by the rope. He fell approximately 12 feet to the ground and sustained a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs.

3 According to its website, NASTAR is the “largest public grassroots ski racing program in the world” and “gives recreational racers an opportunity to compete and compare their scores to friends and family regardless of when and where they race using the NASTAR handicap system.” NASTAR competitions typically occur on grand slalom and slalom courses laid out by the host ski resorts in accordance with NASTAR’s instructions. http://www.nastar.com (accessed 9/15/17).

Plaintiff filed suit against defendant, alleging that the ski area was negligent by having ropes in the area of the chair lift, failing to post warnings of the danger, failing to take measures to prevent plaintiff from catching his skis on the [*3] rope, failing to employ the emergency stop when plaintiff yelled for help, and failing to adequately supervise and control the chair lift. Before any discovery began by way of interrogatories, depositions, or otherwise, defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (C)(10), contending that plaintiff had signed releases broad enough to bar any claim for injuries arising out of the incident. Defendant relied on three forms signed by plaintiff.

Specifically, On December 13, 2014, in conjunction with purchasing an annual ski pass at Marquette Mountain for the 2014-2015 season, plaintiff signed a release wherein he agreed to assume “the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing/snowboarding . . . .” On December 16, 2014, he filled out a document in order to participate in NASTAR races. The document, a single sheet of paper, contains two forms, one on the front and one on the back. Hand-printed vertically in capital letters along the right side of both forms are the instructions, “FILL OUT BOTH SIDES.”

On the front side of the NASTAR document is a registration form. The form has headings entitled “Registration Form,” “Racer Information,” [*4] “Team Information,” and “Waiver and Release of Liability.” According to the release language on this form, plaintiff, “in exchange for being permitted to participate in NASTAR events (the “Event”),” assumes all risks associated with his involvement in the event and the “risk of injury caused by the condition of any property, facilities, or equipment used during the Event, whether foreseeable or unforeseeable.”

On the reverse side of the NASTAR document is a release entitled “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant” (henceforth, the “Participant release”). According to the relevant terms of this release, “Participant, the undersigned, being at least 18 years old . . . agrees and understands that alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms (hereinafter the “Activity”) is HAZARDOUS4 and may involve the risk of physical injury or death.” The Participant also agrees that “training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing,” that he or she is “a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” According to the release, the Participant assumes all risks associated with the Activity, including but not limited to [*5] the risk of all course conditions, course construction or layout and obstacles, risks associated with riding the lifts, and risks associated with ski lift operations and acts or omissions of employees. The Participant agrees to release defendant from “all liabilities” arising from engagement in “the Activity,” including any injuries caused by the actual negligence of defendant’s employees. In its motion for summary disposition, defendant contended that, by signing this release, plaintiff assumed “all” risks, argued that “all” left no room for exceptions, and stressed that the terms of this release barred plaintiff’s claim for negligence as a matter of law.

4 A fold or wrinkle in the copy of the release that is in the record obscures this word. However, defendant quotes the relevant section of the release in its motion for summary disposition as “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more HAZARDOUS than recreational skiing.”

In support of its motion, defendant also argued that MCL 408.342(2), the assumption of risk provision in the Ski Area Safety Act of 1962 (SASA), MCL 408.321 et seq., operated to bar plaintiff’s claim because risks associated with fencing and falling from a chair lift inhere in the sport of skiing.

Plaintiff countered that neither the season-pass release nor the assumption of risk provision in SASA barred his claim because the inappropriate placement of a rope directly under the chair lift was not an inherent risk of skiing. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the [*6] rope was not necessary because its placement violated the standards governing minimum clearance between a chair lift and an obstacle below, and it was not obvious because he neither saw it nor expected it to be placed where it was. He further argued that neither side of the executed NASTAR document barred his claim because he was not engaged in a NASTAR event, nor was he training for such an event when he was injured. Finally, plaintiff contended that there remained genuine issues of material fact regarding whether defendant’s chair lift personnel were inattentive and failed to timely shut off the chair lift when the rope entangled him, and that this was not a risk assumed pursuant to the assumption of risk provision of SASA.

At the motion hearing, defendant argued that the Participant release on the back side of the NASTAR document applied not just to competitions and training for competitions, but to “skiing in all its forms.” Accordingly, the Participant release controlled resolution of the matter and insulated defendant from any alleged negligent placement of the nylon rope. At the same time, defendant insisted that it had not been negligent in placement of the rope at issue because [*7] the rope’s location complied with required clearance standards and was necessary to the safety of skiers.5 Plaintiff reiterated his argument that the forms on both sides of the NASTAR document pertained to participation in competition-related skiing, and that the rope at issue was neither necessary nor obvious with respect to any assumption of the risk plaintiff assumed when signing up for his season pass or through SASA.

5 Defendant acknowledged plaintiff’s argum
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Marketing is not a way to manage risks or stop lawsuits. Marketing Makes Promises that Risk Management Must Pay For.ent about the front side of the NASTAR document focusing on event racing and the fact that the release language there and in the season pass document coincides with the language of SASA, which is commonly referred to as the assumption of the risk clause. As such, while arguing that the rope at issue was a necessary and obvious danger, defendant focused on the back side of the NASTAR document and its “sweeping” release of defendant’s own negligence for the purpose of his motion for summary disposition at such an early stage in the litigation.

Ruling from the bench, the trial court noted that construing the viability of plaintiff’s claim under SASA turned on necessary factual findings yet to be made, rendering summary disposition inappropriate at that point in the proceedings. With regard to the releases, the trial court observed that the parties’ arguments were geared toward the form on the reverse side of the NASTAR document. The trial court easily dispensed with the front page as being race-related. As for the back side, the Participant release, the trial court concluded that there were questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of liability outside the context of racing or training.

In addition to its location on the back of the NASTAR form, the trial court pointed [*8] to three phrases in the Participant release that seem to limit the scope of that release to training for or participating in a competition. The first is the phrase in which the participant agrees with the premise “that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition.” The second is the provision, “Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse.” The third phrase is, “I further agree and understand that training or racing competitively is more [hazardous] . . . than recreational skiing.” The trial court described the language of the release as “a little ambiguous” and concluded that in light of the questions about the extent to which the release might apply to relieve defendant of all liability at any time, even when the person who signed it is simply recreationally skiing, summary disposition was premature.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendant contends that the trial court erred in denying its motion for summary disposition because the unambiguous language of the December 16, 2014 Participant release releases it from all liability regardless of whether plaintiff was injured [*9] while practicing for a competition, in competition, or simply skiing recreationally. It also claims that it is entitled to summary disposition under the assumption of the risk statute in SASA, MCL 408.343(2). We conclude that defendant is racing too quickly to the finish line in this case, to which it may or may not be entitled a victory.

We review de novo a trial court’s ruling on a motion for summary disposition, Casey v Auto Owners Ins Co, 273 Mich App 388, 393; 729 NW2d 277 (2006), as well as issues involving contractual and statutory interpretation, Rodgers v JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, 315 Mich App 301, 307; 890 NW2d 381 (2016).

A. RELEASE

Summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) is appropriate where the terms of a release bar a claim. As this Court has explained,

The scope of a release is governed by the intent of the parties as it is expressed in the release. If the text in the release is unambiguous, the parties’ intentions must be ascertained from the plain, ordinary meaning of the language of the release. A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation. The fact that the parties dispute the meaning of a release does not, in itself, establish an ambiguity. [Cole v Ladbroke Racing Michigan, Inc, 241 Mich App 1, 13-14; 614 NW2d 169 (2000).]

In addition, a contract must be read as a whole, Dobbelaere v Auto-Owners Ins Co, 275 Mich App 527, 529; 740 NW2d 503 (2007), and “construed so as to give effect to every word or phrase as far as practicable,” Klapp v United Ins Group Agency, Inc, 468 Mich 459, 467; 663 NW2d 447 (2003). See [*10] also Restatement Contracts, 2d, § 202, p 86 (“a writing is interpreted as a whole, and all writings that are part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).6 The interpretation of an unambiguous contract is a matter of law. Mich Nat’l Bank, 228 Mich App 710, 714; 580 NW2d 8 (1998).

6 See also Restatement Contracts, 1st, § 235 (“A writing is interpreted as a whole and all writings forming part of the same transaction are interpreted together.”).

After our review of the language of the Participant release, we disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that the language of the release is ambiguous, or in other words, “reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.” Xu v Gay, 257 Mich App 263, 272 668 NW2d 166 (2003) (“A contract is ambiguous only if its language is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation.”). However, we agree with plaintiff, not defendant, as to its meaning and scope. Several factors indicate that the NASTAR registration and Participant release were part of the same transaction–which is in fact undisputed–and therefore, should be read and interpreted together: the “Participant” release is on the reverse side of the NASTAR registration form, both forms bear the handwritten instruction to “fill out both sides,” and plaintiff executed both releases on the same date specifically in order to participate in NASTAR races. We conclude that, when read as a whole and interpreted in conjunction with the NASTAR registration form on its reverse side, [*11] the language of the Participant release is unambiguous and intended to relieve defendant of “all liability” for injuries suffered during training for or participating in a racing competition.

As noted above, the trial court identified three examples where the language of the release focuses specifically on competitive skiing. After identifying the “Activity” in which the Participant is participating as “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” and noting that it may involve physical injury or death, the release requires the participant to “agree and understand that training and racing competitively is more [hazardous] than recreational skiing” (emphasis added). In addition, the release requires the participant to “agree with the Premise that Participant is a competitor at all times, whether practicing for competition or in competition” (emphasis added). Note that it does not also say when simply pleasure skiing or taking the children out for lessons on the bunny hill. Further, the Participant is required to “agree that Participant is always provided an opportunity to and will conduct a reasonable visual inspection of the training or racecourse” (emphasis added). This focuses [*12] on race-related activities. Even without consideration of the NASTAR release, the fact that the Participant release requires the participant to agree expressly to statements emphasizing the dangers of training for and participating in competitive racing specifically renders the release susceptible to the interpretation that its focus is on insulating defendant from liability for injuries sustained by participants when training for or competing in races.

Defendant contends that the Participant release’s acknowledgement that competitive racing is more hazardous than recreational skiing does not restrict the release’s scope to competitive skiing. However, the release does more than merely acknowledge the dangers of competitive skiing; it requires the Participant to expressly agree that competitive skiing is more hazardous than recreational skiing. Moreover, under the defendant’s alleged interpretation, the Participant’s acknowledgement that he or she is a competitor at all times renders it impossible for the person who signs the release as a “Participant” to ever ski recreationally. According to the logic of defendant’s argument, once a person fills out the NASTAR registration form and [*13] accompanying Participant release, he or she is a “competitor” indefinitely, regardless of whether he or she is actually competing or training for a competition.7

7 Under defendant’s proposed at-all-times interpretation, there is no time frame for how long someone is considered to be a Participant if that word is not tied to actual racing or training. Are they deemed to be a Participant for the rest of the season? Indefinitely? What if they only participated in one race? In doing so, have they given up all rights they might otherwise have had as a recreational skier? And where does it say that in the release? Defendant’s proposed interpretation creates an ambiguity that it cannot resolve within the confines of the agreement.

Other portions of the Participant release also support the conclusion that the unambiguous language limits its scope to liability for injuries suffered during or while training for a ski or snowboard competition. The heading contains what one might reasonably construe as an identification of the parties to the release, “Marquette Mountain Ski Area, and Competition Participant.” The comma inserted between “Marquette Mountain Ski Area” and “Competition Participant” suggests that the release involves Marquette Mountain Ski Area on one side, and a “competition participant” on the other. Defendant urges this Court to ignore the “competition participant” designation, arguing that it is not part of the four corners of the agreement and is neither used nor defined in the release. However, interpreting the NASTAR release and the Participant release together makes clear that “competition participant” refers to the person participating in the NASTAR competition that defendant is hosting.8 Further, if “competition” refers only to the NASTAR [*14] event, but “participant” can have more than one referent,9 it seems reasonable that the release would focus on defining “participant” to ensure inclusion of all the word’s possible meanings. Additionally, that the participant is “a competitor at all times” harkens back to “competition participant” in the heading, again allowing one to reasonably interpret the release to pertain only to the release of liability arising from injuries associated with training for or racing in a competition.

8 The mere fact that the release uses the word “Participant” conjures up images of participation in something; it would not lead the reader to conclude that one is a Participant whenever they are on the slopes, even when they are not actually participating in anything or training for anything.

9 E.g., “participant” includes a person at least 18-years old, a participating minor, and the parents or legal guardian of as well as his or her parent or legal guardian.

Moreover, the Participant warrants in the Participant release that he or she is in good health and has left no special instructions “that have not been listed on the registration form.” Although the Participant release makes no further mention of a registration form, the NASTAR document on the reverse side is both a registration form and a release, and it contains a ‘Physically Challenged” heading where competitors may identify their physical or intellectual challenges.

Finally, defendant asserts that “alpine skiing and snowboarding” is not limited to competitive racing. This is true; “alpine skiing” may refer to downhill skiing for sport or recreation. However, interpreting the Participant release with [*15] the NASTAR release renders the phrase “alpine skiing and snowboarding in its various forms” susceptible to the interpretation that it refers specifically to the three downhill disciplines from which participants may choose to compete at a NASTAR event: alpine skiing, snowboarding, and telemarker (which combines elements of Alpine and Nordic skiing).

Given the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the trial court correctly denied defendant’s motion for summary disposition associated with the Participant release, but it erred to the extent it deemed the release language ambiguous. Assuming factual development establishes that plaintiff was not engaged in training for or competing in racing activities at the time of his injury, as plaintiff contends it will, the Participant release does not apply. Moreover, for the reasons set forth below, determination of whether the release language in plaintiff’s season pass bars his claim–which entails an assumption of the risks inherent in skiing analysis–will depend on further factual development gleaned from discovery, which has not yet begun.

B. MCL 408.342(2)

A motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual sufficiency of a claim. Smith v Globe Life Ins Co, 460 Mich 446, 454; 597 NW2d 28 (1999). Summary disposition [*16] under (C)(10) is proper if the documentary evidence filed by the parties and viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion fails to show a genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich 358, 362; 547 NW2d 314 (1996).

The Legislature enacted SASA in 1962, and amended it in 1981. Kent v Alpine Valley Ski Area, Inc, 240 Mich App 731, 737; 613 NW2d 383 (2000) (quotation marks and citation omitted). One of the purposes of the Legislature’s amendment was “to make the skier, rather than the ski area operator, bear the burden of damages from injuries.” Id. Thus, among the provisions in the 1981 amendment was one for the acceptance of risk by skiers, MCL 408.342(2), which provides as follows:

(2) Each person who participates in the sport of skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snowmaking or snow-grooming equipment.

Where, as here, an injury results [*17] from a hazard not listed in the statute, Michigan’s Supreme Court has established a test to determine whether a defendant ski resort is nevertheless immune on grounds that the hazard is of the same type as those listed in the statute. Anderson v Pine Knob Ski Resort, 469 Mich 20, 24-25; 664 NW2d 756 (2003).

At issue in Anderson was whether the assumption of risk provision barred the plaintiff’s suit for injuries suffered when he collided with a timing shack during a skiing race. The Supreme Court determined that the different types of hazards listed in MCL 408.342(2) had in common “that they all inhere in the sport of skiing and, as long as they are obvious and necessary to the sport, there is immunity from suit.” Id. at 25. Thus, once a hazard is determined to be inherent to the sport of skiing, “only if [it is] unnecessary or not obvious is the ski operator liable.” Id. at 26. Applying the facts of Anderson to its legal conclusion, the Supreme Court reasoned:

There is no disputed issue of fact in this matter that in ski racing, timing, as it determines who is the winner, is necessary. Moreover, there is no dispute that for the timing equipment to function, it is necessary that it be protected from the elements. This protection was afforded by the shack that all also agree was obvious [*18] in its placement at the end of the run. We have then a hazard of the same sort as the ski towers and snow-making and grooming machines to which the statute refers us. As with the towers and equipment, this hazard inheres in the sport of skiing. The placement of the timing shack is thus a danger that skiers such as Anderson are held to have accepted as a matter of law. [Id. at 25-26.]

Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that the ski operator was immune from suit because the timing shack was a hazard inherent to skiing, and it was necessary and obvious.

We conclude that the trial court did not err in finding that, at this early stage of the proceedings, the record facts are simply insufficient to determine whether SASA applies to bar plaintiff’s claim. There is no dispute that the nylon rope that entangled plaintiff is a hazard not listed in MCL 408.342(2). Thus, the question is whether the placement of a nylon rope under a chair lift is inherent to skiing and, if so, whether placement of the rope in this case was obvious and necessary. For defendant to be entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), these material facts must be undisputed and defendant must be entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

However, [*19] the parties dispute the material facts. And the record evidence–given that discovery has not yet begun–is not sufficient to resolve their disputes. For example, although both parties agree that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard B77.1-2006 governs the construction, installation, and operation of a ski lift, they dispute whether defendant’s positioning of the rope violated the clearance requirements set forth in ANSI, and whether such violation renders defendant liable for injuries attributable to the violation. In fact, there is no record evidence as to what the rope was even for, making impossible at this point a determination of whether it was a necessary part of skiing. Plaintiff asserts that defendant’s placement of the rope “in an area directly below the chair lift” violated the ANSI standards, and that the rope was neither obvious nor necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s allegation that his fall to the ground was approximately 12 feet demonstrates that defendant complied with the requirement to have a clearance of at least 8 feet between the lowest point of the carrier and the terrain. In addition, defendant characterizes the rope as a “fence,” [*20] and asserts, “fencing and its risks are intrinsic in the sport of skiing,” and further asserts that the rope/fence was absolutely needed to prevent skiers from traveling under the chair lift and being injured.” However, because there is nothing in the record evidence indicating the rope’s purpose or its location relative to the chair lift and the terrain, it is impossible to determine where the rope was placed and whether it was necessary. Defendant contends that plaintiff’s description of his fall in his affidavit demonstrates that there was at least an 8-foot clearance between the carrier, but defendant has not eliminated the possibility that the rope was too close to the carrier when it caught plaintiff’s skis, and it begs the question of why there was a rope if the minimum clearance did not require one. In short, defendant has not met its burden to submit affirmative evidence indicating that it was entitled to summary disposition on grounds that the dangers posed by the nylon rope at issue were inherent to skiing, and that they were necessary and obvious.10
Quinto, 451 Mich at 362.

10 Because we conclude that defendant’s motion for summary disposition was properly denied at this stage of the case, we need not address plaintiff’s additional argument that SASA does not bar his claim arising from the chair lift operator’s alleged failure to stop the chair lift after plaintiff became entangled in the rope.

Affirmed.

/s/ Kirsten Frank Kelly

/s/ Jane M. Beckering

/s/ Michael J. Riordan


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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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

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Legal, Risk Management & Insurance Issues facing the Outdoor Recreation Industry as, I see it.

As the industry grows and matures, it is attracting litigation. Additionally, the industry is marketing and attracting more people with no real knowledge of the risk and as such are more willing to sue.

The Outdoor Recreation Industry is facing a lot of new as well as the same-old problems they have in the past. Two components are creating the problems. Most of the industry does not have trade associations looking out after their member’s interests, and the industry keeps shooting itself in the foot.

Overall, here are the big issues I see the industry facing in 2018.

  1. There has been a substantial increase in the number of lawsuits in the industry. I used to find 20 new lawsuits a year and had another 250 stretching back into the 1930’s I could write about. I figured I could write for about ten years and cover 90% of the issues. Now I’m finding 250 a year. I’m never going to run out of lawsuits to review and write about.
    1. That increase seems to be proportionally to the activities that advertise their sports, especially those that advertise to families or groups.
      1. Zip Lines
      2. Ropes or Challenge Courses (These first two items have their industry associations working harder to promote litigation against them, still, then to stop it.)
      3. Skiing (but mostly skier v. skier collision cases) If you can’t sue the ski area, sue your friend you were skiing with or someone you never met.
    2. There are some industries where the number of lawsuits is dropping.
      1. Skiing. There are fewer lawsuits against ski areas, there are more lawsuits between participants at ski areas.
      2. Whitewater rafting, seems to have fewer lawsuits, although that is also probably to a maturing of the sport, there are less people getting injured.
  2. The Plaintiff’s are getting more sophisticated and working harder at attacking releases. Prior to 2010 occasionally, you would see plaintiff’s attempting to have the release thrown out of the litigation. Now days you see every lawsuit attacking the release and a few of them winning. Enough plaintiffs are winning that it is encouraging other plaintiffs to sue and try to void the release they signed.
  3. We still have a large contingent of people attempting to try to make it harder to sue. However, this ultimately making it easy to win a lawsuit against the industry. It’s like building a terrific trench system during WWI. The trench worked perfectly unless you were overran and then your perfect trench becomes the best defense to your arguments or attacks.
  4. There are more product liability lawsuits, and more lawsuits based on the failure to properly understand or use a harness. Most of these are occurring in the climbing wall industry, a few in the ropes’ course industry.
  5. Individual sports are having no lawsuits still. However, that will soon change. As a recreational area grows in popularity a trade association or organization believing they can get good PR or increase their membership is creating standards, classes and ways to sue that never existed before. Soon you will have a way to sue a belayer while climbing on a wall or on the rock because a standard was created. The standard is the duty, that if violated by the belayer makes the belayer liable.
  6. California Proposition 65 is going to make life miserable for manufacturers.
  7. None of the trade associations are working to help the industry learn and stay away from litigation. No one announced the changes to California Proposition 65. However, that could cost companies in the recreation industry millions if not more. Threatening letters have already started to arrive in manufacturer’s mail boxes demanding money because the manufacturer did not follow or even know the rules.

This is not a complete list, but it is a lot. I’ll expand on some of these ideas through the year.

Hopefully, I’m wrong.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    Rec-law@recreation-law.com    James H. Moss

#AdventureTourism, #AdventureTravelLaw, #AdventureTravelLawyer, #AttorneyatLaw, #Backpacking, #BicyclingLaw, #Camps, #ChallengeCourse, #ChallengeCourseLaw, #ChallengeCourseLawyer, #CyclingLaw, #FitnessLaw, #FitnessLawyer, #Hiking, #HumanPowered, #HumanPoweredRecreation, #IceClimbing, #JamesHMoss, #JimMoss, #Law, #Mountaineering, #Negligence, #OutdoorLaw, #OutdoorRecreationLaw, #OutsideLaw, #OutsideLawyer, #RecLaw, #Rec-Law, #RecLawBlog, #Rec-LawBlog, #RecLawyer, #RecreationalLawyer, #RecreationLaw, #RecreationLawBlog, #RecreationLawcom, #Recreation-Lawcom, #Recreation-Law.com, #RiskManagement, #RockClimbing, #RockClimbingLawyer, #RopesCourse, #RopesCourseLawyer, #SkiAreas, #Skiing, #SkiLaw, #Snowboarding, #SummerCamp, #Tourism, #TravelLaw, #YouthCamps, #ZipLineLawyer,