New Hampshire season pass release protects ski area from claim for injury due to snowmobile accident

McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

Language of the release was broad enough to cover those claims that were not clearly contemplated by the parties to the release.

The facts in this case are simple. The plaintiff was a season pass holder of Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, New Hampshire. Crotched Mountain Ski Area is owned by SNH Development, Inc., which is a subsidiary of Peak Resorts, Inc. While skiing at the resort one day an employee of the ski area drove a snowmobile into the plaintiff’s path causing a collision.

The plaintiff sued, and the defendants raised the defense of the release.

Summary of the case

The court reviewed the legal issues fairly extensively under New Hampshire law. Releases are upheld under New Hampshire law, as long as they:

(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.”

Under New Hampshire law, to violate public policy the release must be between parties with a special relationship or there was a disparity in bargaining power. A special relationship exists if the defendant “is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service...” The court found the ski area did not meet the definition to create a special relationship to the plaintiff.

There was no disparity of bargaining power because to have that situation, the services offered by the defendant must be a “matter of practical necessity.” A necessity is something needed to survive in this day and age, food, power, phone or utilities generally.  Skiing is not necessary to survive; it is recreation.

The plaintiff also argued the release violated public policy because New Hampshire has a statute governing snowmobiles. Because the snow mobile was operating on private land, the court also rejected this argument.

The next claim was the release should not be upheld because it the plaintiff did not contemplate that the release would be used to bar a claim for an accident with a snowmobile. Under New Hampshire law the release does not have to name with any specificity, the possible claims that it will protect against. The release only has to adopt language that covers a broad range of accidents.

Thus, in order to release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of the release clearly and specifically indicate the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

From the quote from another New Hampshire case, Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777 (1994), it is obvious that in New Hampshire, you do not have to use the word negligence in a release. However, doing so creates more opportunities to test the release and the law.

The plaintiff argued that the release does not use the word snowmobile so a collision with a snowmobile falls outside of the release. However, a review of the release by the court found the language was broad enough to cover the facts in the case, a collision with a snowmobile.

This argument also created an argument that the release only covered the inherent risks of skiing. Inherent risks are those risks those are part and parcel of the risk. Inherent risks, unless changed by statute, do not cover any increases in the risk caused by man’s involvement. So a snowmobile is not an inherent risk of skiing.

However, the court found the release did not use the term inherent in it so the risks contemplated by the release were not limited to the inherent risks of the sport of skiing.

So Now What?

Like all cases involving a release, the release must be written carefully so not to be thrown out. This means someone who knows the law, knows the sport or activity you engage in and knows you must write the release.

Here, if the release had incorporated the word inherent, as many releases do, the release would have failed.

 

Plaintiff: Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger

 

Defendant: SNH Development, Inc.

 

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

 

Defendant Defenses: Release

 

Holding: Release bars the claims of the plaintiff

 

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McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

McGrath v. SNH Development, Inc. 2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

Marcella McGrath f/k/a Marcella Widger v. SNH Development, Inc. and John Doe, an unnamed individual

No. 07-C-0111

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY

2008 N.H. Super. LEXIS 45

May 19, 2008, Decided

NOTICE:

THE ORDERS ON THIS SITE ARE TRIAL COURT ORDERS THAT ARE NOT BINDING ON OTHER TRIAL COURT JUSTICES OR MASTERS AND ARE SUBJECT TO APPELLATE REVIEW BY THE NEW HAMPSHIRE SUPREME COURT.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Affirmed by McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 969 A.2d 392, 2009 N.H. LEXIS 43 (2009)

CORE TERMS: skiing, ski area, personal injury, snowmobile, negligence claim, summary judgment, public policy, reasonable person, exculpatory, property damage, inherent hazard, public service, bargaining power, contemplate, import, common occurrence, relationship existed, citations omitted, hazardous, disparity, sport, exculpatory provision, exculpatory clause, public interest, privately owned, horseback riding, contemplation, collision, racing, voluntarily assume

JUDGES: [*1] GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

OPINION BY: GILLIAN L. ABRAMSON

OPINION

ORDER

The plaintiff commenced the instant action alleging negligence against the defendants, SNH Development, Inc. (“SNH Development”) and John Doe, an unnamed individual. The defendants now move for summary judgment, and the plaintiff objects.

For purposes of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the parties do not appear to dispute the following facts. SNH Development is a subsidiary of Peak Resorts, Inc. and owns and operates the Crotched Mountain Ski Area in Bennington, New Hampshire. On October 23, 2003, the plaintiff signed an application (the “application”) for a season pass to the Crotched Mountain Ski Area. The application provides:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the ski area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death of property damage, release Crotched Mountain its owners and its agents, employees, directors, officers and shareholders from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage [*2] which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operations of the ski area including, but not limited to, grooming snow making, ski lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or age the area, or my participation in skiing, accepting myself the full responsibility

Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. Moreover, on December 20, 2003, the plaintiff signed a Liability Release Agreement, which provides:

I understand and accept the fact that alpine skiing in its various forms is a hazardous sport, and I realize that injuries are a common occurrence. I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the area facility, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of personal injury or death or property damage, and release Peak Resorts, Inc, all of its subsidiaries, and its agents, employees, directors, officers, shareholders and the manufacturers and distributors of this equipment and the school and group organizers (collective “providers’), from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in any way from negligence, conditions on or about the premises, the operation of the area including, but not limited to grooming, [*3] snowmaking, lift operations, actions or omissions of employees or agents of the areas, or my participating in skiing, snowboarding, blading, accepting myself the full responsibility.

Id. On February 20, 2004, the plaintiff was skiing 1 a trail at the Crotched Mountain Ski Area when an employee of SNH Development drove a snowmobile into the plaintiff’s path, causing a collision.

1 Some of the pleadings state that the plaintiff was skiing, while other’s state that the plaintiff was snowboarding.

The defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff signed the application and the Liability Release Agreement, both of which are valid, enforceable exculpatory contracts. The plaintiff objects, arguing that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy and that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court “consider[s] the affidavits and other evidence, and all inferences properly drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” White v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 151 N.H. 544, 547, 864 A.2d 1101 (2004). [*4] The Court must grant a motion for summary judgment if its “review of the evidence does not reveal a genuine issue of material fact, and if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law Id. A fact is material “if it affects the outcome of the litigation under the applicable substantive law.” Palmer v. Nan King Restaurant, 147 N.H. 681, 683, 798 A.2d 583 (2002).

New Hampshire law generally prohibits exculpatory contracts, but the Court will enforce them if; “(1) do not violate public policy; (2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement; and (3) the plaintiff’s claims were within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.” Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-267, 786 A.2d 834 (2001). Thus, the Court considers each of these requirements in turn.

Regarding the first requirement, an exculpatory contract violates public policy if a special relationship existed between the parties or if there was some other disparity in bargaining power. See Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986) (“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that the exculpatory agreement does [*5] not contravene public policy i.e that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.”).

A special relationship exists “[w]here the defendant is a common carrier, innkeeper or public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service….” Id. The plaintiff contends that a special relationship existed between the parties because any person operating a snowmobile has a statutory duty to yield the right of way, RSA 215-C:49, XII (Supp. 2007), and because the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public. Assuming that RSA 215-C:49, XII applies to the operation of a snowmobile on a privately owned ski area, the plaintiff has not offered any legal support for the conclusion that this statute somehow charges the defendants with a duty of public service. Moreover, the fact that the Crotched Mountain Ski Area serves the public is not conclusive. For example, Barnes, involved a negligence claim arising from a collision at an enduro kart racing facility. In Barnes, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted that the defendant’s served the public but held that the defendant’s were not charged with a duty of public service because [*6] Endurokart racing is not “affected with a public interest.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. Similarly, skiing is a recreational activity not affected with a public interest, and the Court finds that the defendant’s are not charged with a duty of public service.

The Plaintiff also contends that she was at an obvious disadvantage in bargaining power because all ski areas require skiers to sign releases. The Court disagrees.

This case … does not have any hallmarks of a disparity in bargaining power. The [skiing] service offered by the defendant is not a “matter of practical necessity.” Nor did the defendant in this ease have monopoly control over this service such that the plaintiff could not have gone elsewhere.

Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 418, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108). 2

2 The Plaintiff also argues that the application and the Liability Release Agreement violate public policy because they relieve the defendant’s from compliance with RSA chapter 215-C, which governs snowmobiles. Assuming that RSA chapter 215-C applies to the operation of a snowmobile on privately owned ski area, the application and the Liability Release Agreement would have no bearing on the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C. [*7] See RSA 215-C-32 (Supp.2007) (providing for the enforcement of RSA chapter 215-C).

“Once an exculpatory agreement is found unobjectionable as a matter of public policy, it will be upheld only if it appears that the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or that reasonable person in his position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. “The plaintiff’s understanding presents an issue of fact, and the plaintiff should have an opportunity to prove the fact at trial unless the exculpatory language was clear and a misunderstanding was unreasonable.” Wright v. Loon Mt. Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 169, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995). The Court

therefore examine[s] the language of the release to determine whether “a reasonable person in [the plaintiff’s] position would have known of the exculpatory provision.” A reasonable person would understand the provision if its language “clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence….”

Id. (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107). The Court “will assess the clarity. the contract by evaluating it as a whole, not by examining [*8] isolated words and phrases. Id. at 169-170.

The plaintiff does not appear to dispute that she understood the import of the application or the Liability Release Agreement. Rather, the plaintiff argues that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim. Thus, the Court turns to the third requirement.

“[T]he plaintiff’s claims must have been within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement. The parties need not, however, have contemplated the precise occurrence that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. They may adopt language to cover, a broad range of accidents….” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (citation omitted). To determine the scope of a release, the Court examines its language, strictly construing it against the defendant. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267.

Thus, in order to effectively release a defendant from liability for his own negligence, “the contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.” There is no requirement that the term “negligence” or any other magic words appear in the release as long “as the language of [*9] the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence.”

Audley, 138 N.H. at 418 (citations omitted) (quoting Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107).

The plaintiff contends that the parties did not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because neither the application nor the Liability Release Agreement reference snowmobiles. As rioted above, the parties need not have contemplated a negligence claim arising from a snowmobile accident. Rather, it is sufficient that the parties adopted language to cover a broad range of accidents. The application releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury or property damage which results in any way from negligence,” and the Liability Release Agreement releases the defendants “from any and all liability for personal injury, death or property damage which results in from negligence.” Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B. This language clearly states that the defendants are not responsible for the consequences of their negligence.

The Plaintiff also contends that the parties did [*10] not contemplate that the application or the Liability Release Agreement would bar the plaintiff’s negligence claim because snowmobiles are not an inherent hazard of skiing. The plaintiff relies on Wright. In Wright, the New Hampshire Supreme Court noted:

The paragraphs preceding the exculpatory clause emphasize the inherent hazards of horseback riding. Because the exculpatory clause is prefaced by the term “therefore,” a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that

Wright, 140 N.H. at 170. Here, however, the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not mention the inherent hazards of skiing. Rather, the application and the Liability Release Agreement note that skiing is a hazardous sport and that injuries are a common occurrence and then, without using the term “therefore,” release the defendants from any and all liability. Because the application and the Liability Release Agreement do not use the phrase “inherent hazards of skiing” or the term “therefore,” this case is distinguishable from Wright. A reasonable person would have contemplated that the application and the [*11] Liability Release Agreement would release the defendants from a negligence claim, whether nor not that claim arouse from an inherent hazard of skiing.

Based on the foregoing, the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

So ORDERED.