Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072
United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire
March 31, 2018, Decided; March 31, 2018, Filed
Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL
For The Sunapee Difference, LLC, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort, other Mount Sunapee Resort, Defendant: Thomas B.S. Quarles, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Brendan P Mitchell, Devine Millimet & Branch PA, Manchester, NH.
[*584] MEMORANDUM ORDER
The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.
Invoking the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), plaintiff Thomas Jackson Miller, a New York resident, sued The Sunapee Difference, LLC, operator of the Mount Sunapee Resort (“Mount Sunapee”), a New Hampshire ski area, for injuries he sustained when he struck the unmarked and unpadded post that was concealed by fresh snow. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), Mount Sunapee moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the liability release printed on Miller’s [**2] lift ticket bars his claim. Miller argues that the release is unenforceable under New Hampshire law and inapplicable on its face. As both sides submitted [*585] documents outside the pleadings in litigating this motion, the court has, with the parties’ consent,1 converted the motion into one for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).2 Having considered the parties’ filings and hearing oral argument, the court finds that the release is both applicable and enforceable, and therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Mount Sunapee.3
I. Applicable legal standard
Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “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). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3] internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).
Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.
In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket [**4] was the following:
[a red octagon image similar to a traffic-control “stop sign”]
YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY
By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.
The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:
Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area [**5] or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.
MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.
RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET
NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.
NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255
(Emphasis in original).
After timely filing this lawsuit,5 Miller filed an Amended Complaint6 asserting a single count of negligence. He alleges that Mount Sunapee failed to mark or warn skiers of the pipe, or otherwise mitigate its danger to skiers, by, for example, padding it or making it visible to skiers. In addition, Miller alleges that Mount Sunapee breached its duties to create a safe environment for guests, and to perform in-season trail maintenance [**6] work. Finally, Miller claims that Mount Sunapee is liable because it failed to comply with N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:23 (II)(b), which provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he ski area operator shall warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.”7
[*587] III. Analysis
As noted at the outset, Sunapee argues that the release printed on Miller’s lift ticket — in combination with the acceptance of its terms on the backing sheet — bars his claim. “Although New Hampshire law generally prohibits a plaintiff from releasing a defendant from liability for negligent conduct, in limited circumstances a plaintiff can expressly consent by contract to assume the risk of injury caused by a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 413, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002). Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract. McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009) (citing Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)); Lizzol v. Brothers Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 DNH 199, *7.
Plaintiff argues that the [**7] release satisfies none of these criteria, because: 1) it violates public policy; 2) a reasonable person would have understood the release to exclude only “inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in New Hampshire’s “ski statute,” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24; 3) the release does not encompass reckless, wanton, or willful conduct; and 4) the release is unsigned.
A. Public policy
“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that an exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543 (quoting Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has also found an agreement to be against public policy “if, among other things, it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Id. (citing Harper v. Healthsource New Hampshire, 140 N.H. 770, 775, 674 A.2d 962 (1996)). Miller does not argue that he had a special relationship with Mount Sunapee or that there was a disparity in bargaining power between the two.8 Instead, he confines his public policy argument to two points: 1) that the release violates New Hampshire statutory law; and 2) that it is injurious to the interest of the public. Neither argument [**8] withstands scrutiny.
1. New Hampshire statutory law
Miller argues that the combination of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 225-A:23, II, and 225-A:24 requires ski area operators to plainly mark or make visible snow-making equipment. Therefore, he concludes, applying the release to the allegedly hidden snow gun holder would allow Mount Sunapee to impermissibly evade this statutory responsibility. As a general proposition, Miller is correct that a release can not excuse a ski area‘s statutory violation. Harper, 140 N.H. at 775; cf. Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, 140 N.H. 675, 683, 671 A.2d 548 (1996) (noting, in ski accident case, that ski areas’ immunity does not apply to claim based on statutory violation). However, Miller’s argument here is built on a faulty premise — that [*588] § 225-A:24, denoted “Responsibilities of Skiers and Passengers” — imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to mark or make visible snow-making equipment. The court rejects this argument for several reasons.
First, Miller attempts, without legal support, to create an affirmative duty out of the text of § 225-A:24 where none exists. Section 225-A:24 “is an immunity provision for ski area operators.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). It has been “interpreted to mean that ski area operators owe no duty to skiers to protect them from the inherent risks of skiing.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area/Gunstock Area Comm’n, 146 N.H. 495, 497, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001). One of the inherent “risks, hazards, or dangers which [**9] the skier . . . assumes as a matter of law” is “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment.” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Miller argues that because unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment is not “an inherent risk” enumerated by the statute, ski areas therefore have a statutory duty to mark them or make them visible.
This argument is both contrary to the language of the statute and unsupported by any legal authority. While the language of the statutory immunity provision — enumerating a “Skier’s Responsibilities” — arguably does not bar Miller’s claim9 that he struck an unmarked and not visible piece of equipment, it likewise creates no affirmative duties for ski areas. Stated differently, while New Hampshire law may allow
ski area liability for injuries resulting from collisions with unmarked equipment, it does not logically follow that New Hampshire law requires the marking of such equipment. The statute sets forth no such obligation or legal duty.
To avoid the plain language of §225-A:24, Miller argues that Rayeski, supra, imposes an affirmative duty on Mount Sunapee when read in conjunction with § 225-A:23. In that case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, invoking §225-A:24, upheld the dismissal of a skier’s claim for injuries sustained [**10] in a collision with an unmarked light pole. 146 N.H. at 500. The plaintiff in Rayeski argued that the light pole collision was similar to a collision with unmarked snow-making equipment, which the statute “implies . . . is not an inherent risk of skiing” by not barring such a claim. Id. at 498. In the course of finding that the pole collision was an inherent risk of skiing (despite not being specifically enumerated as such in the statute), the Court distinguished between poles and snow making equipment:
We conclude that the legislature’s explicit reference to “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment” was intended to balance the immunity granted to ski area operators under RSA 225-A:24 with their duty under RSA 225-A:23, II(b) (2000) to warn skiers of snow making or grooming activities by denying immunity to ski area operators who breach a statutorily imposed safety responsibility.
Id. (emphasis added).
Based on the emphasized language, Miller argues that § 225-A:23 required Mount Sunapee to mark or make visible the snow gun holder he struck. This argument ignores the plain language both of Rayeski and the statute. The Rayeski
opinion referred only to “snow making or grooming activities,” and made no reference to marking equipment. And [**11] the statute, captioned “Base Area; Information to Skiers and [*589] Passengers,” requires that a ski area operator “warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.” (Emphasis added). Thus, contrary to Miller’s argument, this section imposes no requirement to “mark or make visible” the snow gun holder at issue in this case. Instead, the statute requires the ski area to post “at the base area” a warning concerning grooming and snowmaking operations, if applicable.10See Nardone v. Mt. Cranmore, Civ. No. 91-114-SD, slip op. at 6-7 (holding that § 225-A:23, II(b)‘s warning requirement does not apply where snowmaking was not in progress and where plaintiff collided with fixed, unmarked piece of snowmaking equipment) (emphasis added).11 Miller does not dispute Mount Sunapee’s contention that there was no grooming or snow making “in progress” at the time of or in the vicinity of Miller’s accident.12 An inoperative snow gun holder is neither an “activity” nor an “operation.”
Further undermining Miller’s argument that § 225-A:24 creates obligations for ski area
operators is the fact that [**12] its five sub-sections are explicitly and unambiguously addressed to skiers and passengers (as opposed to ski area
operators), as follows: I) “Each person who participates in the sport of skiing . . . accepts . . . the dangers inherent in the sport . . . .”; II) “Each skier and passenger shall have the sole responsibility . . . “; III) “Each skier or passenger shall conduct himself or herself . . .”; IV) “Each passenger shall be the sole judge of his ability . . .”; V) “No skier or passenger or other person shall . . .” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I-V (emphasis added).
In addition, under New Hampshire statutory construction law, “[t]he title of a statute is ‘significant when considered in connection with . . . ambiguities inherent in its language.'” Appeal of Weaver, 150 N.H. 254, 256, 837 A.2d 294 (2003) (quoting State v. Rosario, 148 N.H. 488, 491, 809 A.2d 1283 (2002); see also, Berniger v. Meadow Green-Wildcat Corp., 945 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1991) (interpreting N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24 and observing that “[i]t is well established that a statute’s title may aid in construing any ambiguities in a statute.”). As noted, the title of § 225-A:24 is explicitly directed at “skiers and passengers,” not ski area operators. While this court discerns no such ambiguity that would justify a foray into ascertaining “legislative intent,” our Court of Appeals has stated that “the title indicates the legislative intent to limit the application [**13] of [§ 225-A:24] to skiers and passengers and similar classes of individuals, which does not include a ski operator or its employees.” Berniger, 945 F.2d at 9 (1st Cir. 1991). This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the preceding provision, § 225-A:23, is captioned “Responsibilities of Ski Area Operators,” further [*590] suggesting § 225-A:24‘s inapplicability here. This statutory structure — clearly distinguishing ski area operator responsibilities from visitor responsibilities — is especially important in light of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s requirement that statutes be construed “as a whole.” Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721, 82 A.3d 917 (2013); see also, Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2529, 186 L. Ed. 2d 503 (2013) (“Just as Congress’ choice of words is presumed to be deliberate, so too are its structural choices.”); DeVere v. Attorney General, 146 N.H. 762, 766, 781 A.2d 24 (2001) (noting that structure of a statute can be an interpretive tool). Accordingly, the court finds that the Mount Sunapee release does not impermissibly seek to avoid statutory liability.13
In addition to his misplaced reliance on Rayeski, Miller also argues that the McGrath Court’s allowance of liability releases is “limited to situations where the public statute at issue contains a statutorily imposed enforcement mechanism,” which allows state officials to protect the public interest by imposing [**14] penalties on violators.14
The holding in McGrath, which involved a snowmobiling accident, is not as broad as plaintiff posits. It is true that the Court in McGrath, in rejecting a claim that a liability waiver violated public policy because it allowed defendants to avoid certain snowmobile safety statutes, noted that the waiver did not affect the State’s ability to enforce snowmobiling rules and penalize infractions, and thus did not entirely relieve the defendant property owners of any statutory responsibility. 158 N.H. at 543 (citing N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 215-C:32 and 34). But several factors undercut Miller’s reliance on McGrath. First, plaintiff’s argument is premised on his assertion that Mount Sunapee is trying to avoid liability for a statutory violation. The court has already rejected plaintiff’s premise as an untenable reading of §§ 225-A:23 and 24. Next, the State enforcement criterion was not dispositive in McGrath, as the Court found that the liability waiver did not contravene public policy because, “[i]rrespective of the statute, the plaintiff has voluntarily agreed not to hold the ski area, or its employees, liable for injuries resulting from negligence so that she may obtain a season ski pass.” Id. at 543 (emphasis added). In addition, even [**15] if the court read McGrath to require a state law enforcement vehicle to protect the public interest, the New Hampshire ski statutes do in fact provide one. Under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:26, “any person . . . violating this chapter . . . shall be guilty of a violation if a natural person, or guilty of a misdemeanor if any other person.”
Plaintiff argues that this statutory enforcement provision is limited to tramway operations, and thus does not satisfy McGrath. He supports this argument with a letter from a supervisor at the New Hampshire Division of Fire Safety,15 which [*591] correctly observes, pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:3-a, that the authority of the Passenger Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”16 The letter also states that the penalty provision of § 225-A:26 “specifically relates to operating a tramway without it first being registered.”17 The letter also specifically mentions §§ 225-A:23 and 24, as being outside the tramway board’s authority.18
There are several reasons why the letter does not advance plaintiff’s statutory argument. First, the letter is not properly part of the summary judgment record. According to its terms, it was sent in response [**16] to plaintiff’s counsel’s request for documents concerning the enforcement of § 225-A:26. However, “[i]n opposing a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must proffer admissible evidence that could be accepted by a rational trier of fact as sufficient to establish the necessary proposition.” Gomez-Gonzalez v. Rural Opportunities, Inc., 626 F.3d 654, 662 n.3 (1st Cir. 2010) (emphasis added). The letter itself is inadmissible hearsay, as it is being offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted with respect to enforcement of § 225-A:23 and 24. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2); see also Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 2011) (“It is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment for the truth of the matter asserted.”). Moreover, although apparently issued by a government office (the plaintiff made no effort to lay such a foundation), the letter is not admissible under the Public Records hearsay exception. See
Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) (requiring, for admissibility, the evidence in question to, inter alia, set out the public office’s activities and involve a matter observed while under a legal duty to report). It is true that some forms of evidence, such as affidavits and declarations, may be considered on summary judgment, even if they would not be admissible at trial, so long as they “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence” [**17] if the affiant or declarant testified to them at trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4). The letter in question, however, is neither an affidavit nor a declaration. In addition to being an unsworn letter, it fails to show how the letter writer is expressing “personal knowledge,” and fails to show that she is “competent to testify on the matters stated,” as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); see also
Fed. R. Evid. 602 (personal knowledge requirement).
Next, even if the letter was properly before the court, it lacks any legal force, either as a pronouncement of New Hampshire law, or an interpretation thereof. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:8 empowers the Tramway Safety Board to make rules regarding tramways. “Rules and Regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, pursuant to a valid delegation of authority, have the full force and effect of laws.” State v. Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. 794, 803, 887 A.2d 1133 (2005). Under New Hampshire administrative law, however, as set forth under its Administrative Procedure Act, the letter in question is not a rule, and thus lacks such force. It is simply a letter answering a question posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer. See
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 541-A:1, XV (explicitly excluding, under definition of “Rule,” “informational pamphlets, letters or other explanatory materials which refer to a statute or rule without affecting its substance or [**18] interpretation”). Notably, the plaintiff cites no provision of New Hampshire’s administrative [*592] law involving the Passenger Tramway Safety Board or Rules which support his theory. See N.H. Code. Admin. R. Ann. (PAS 301.01 et. seq. (2016)).
Finally, even if the letter was a properly admissible part of the summary judgment record in support of the proposition that the enforcement of § 225-A:26 is limited to tramway operations, and even if it were a duly-promulgated article of New Hampshire administrative law, it still fails to advance the plaintiff’s argument (to the extent it even addresses the issue before the court), because it incorrectly contradicts the governing statute, § 225-A:26.
As noted, the letter states that the authority of the Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”19 This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, as it tracks the language of § 225-A:3-a. That observation misses the point, however, as § 225-A:26 does not limit enforcement of § 225-A to the Tramway Board. To the contrary, the statute holds “any person” “guilty” of a violation or misdemeanor for violations of “this chapter,” i.e., the entirety of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A, a chapter which [**19] addresses a wider variety of ski-related activities than ski lifts and tramways. Thus, the letter contradicts the plain language of the statute by inaccurately portraying the applicability of § 225-A:26 as limited to “operating a tramway without it first being registered.”20 Under New Hampshire law, “[r]ules adopted by administrative agencies may not add to, detract from, or in any way modify statutory law,” Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. at 803, and the letter’s pronouncement, even it were a duly adopted Rule, would be invalid. See Appeal of Gallant, 125 N.H. 832, 834, 485 A.2d 1034 (1984) (noting that agency regulations that contradict the terms of a governing statute exceed the agency’s authority and are void). The statute penalizes not only failing to register, but also “violating this chapter or rules of the [Tramway Safety] board.” (emphasis added). In effect, the plaintiff is asking the court to ignore the plain language of the statute in favor of a letter which is neither properly before the court nor is a valid administrative rule and which fails to address the issue before the court — the scope of § 225-A:26. The court is not free to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, New Hampshire’s Administrative Procedure Act,21 or the plain language of New Hampshire’s ski-related statutes.
2. Injurious to the public interest
Plaintiff next argues that the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy as injurious to the public interest because Mount Sunapee is located on state-owned land that was, at least in part, developed with federal funding. Plaintiff cites no authority for this argument, but instead relies on various provisions in the lease between Mount Sunapee and the State of New Hampshire. None of these provisions establish or support the proposition that public policy prohibits the enforcement of the release.
For example, the lease requires the property to be used for “public outdoor recreational uses,” “for the mutual benefit of the public and the Operator,” and “as a public ski area . . . for the general public.”22 In addition, the ski area operator is [*593] required to “allow public access,” “maintain the Leased Premises in first class condition,” and “undertake trail maintenance.”23 Even assuming, arguendo, that the lease theoretically establishes public policy, the plaintiff makes no coherent argument how the release in question runs afoul of any [**21] of its provisions. Instead, plaintiff argues, strenuously but without authority, that condoning Mount Sunapee’s requirement that a skier agree to the release as a condition of skiing there “effectively sanctions the conversion of public land by Mount Sunapee.”24 He also argues, again without authority, that:
“[p]rivate operators of public lands, to which the public must be allowed access, cannot be allowed to limit access to such lands to those individuals who are willing to forego their statutory rights by exculpating the private operators from the consequences of their own negligence. To hold otherwise, would mark the first step toward eliminating public access to public lands at the expense of the general public.”
(Emphasis added). Initially, the court reiterates its finding, supra, Part III.A.1, that the language at issue in this case does not implicate plaintiff’s statutory rights. Moreover, whatever persuasive force his policy-based arguments hold, plaintiff cites no authority — in the form of cases, statutes or regulations — upon which the court can rely to accept them.25
As a final public-interest related matter, the parties dispute the import of liability releases used at Cannon [**22] Mountain, a state-owned and operated ski area. In its motion, Mount Sunapee cited those releases to demonstrate that New Hampshire’s public policy does not generally disfavor liability releases.26 Plaintiff, however, points out that because the Cannon release does not use the word “negligence,” it may, in fact, not release Cannon from its own negligence. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (noting that “the [exculpatory] contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”). Therefore, plaintiff suggests, Sunapee’s release may have exceeded what public policy (as articulated in the Cannon release) permits. Regardless of the Cannon release’s enforceability — a matter on which the court offers no opinion — the court finds that Mount Sunapee has the better of this argument. New Hampshire’s public policy is likely best expressed by its legislative enactments, particularly N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I, under which “ski area operators owe no duty to protect patrons from the inherent risks of skiing and thus are immunized from liability for any negligence related to these risks.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 295, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). Such legislatively-enacted immunity from negligence undercuts Miller’s argument that the Cannon release demarcates [**23] the outer boundary of New Hampshire public policy. Ultimately, the court is skeptical that, as both parties implicitly argue, the state’s risk management decisions and devices, as embodied in certain ski area releases, constitute articulations of public policy.
Having failed to demonstrate any statutory transgressions or injury to the public interest, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy.
[*594] B. Import of the agreement
The next factor the court must consider in assessing the enforceability of the Mount Sunapee release is whether the plaintiff or a reasonable person in his position would have understood its import. Dean, 147 N.H. at 266-67. Miller argues that a factual dispute exists as to this criterion because there was no “meeting of the minds” sufficient to form an enforceable binding agreement.27 He bases this proposition, in turn, on two assertions: 1) that the release is unsigned; and 2) that he did not read it. The court finds that New Hampshire law does not require a signature to effectuate the terms of a release and that the plaintiff had — but chose not to take advantage of — an opportunity to read the release.
As an initial matter, the court notes that a “meeting of the minds” is not an explicit requirement of enforceability under New Hampshire law. The Court in Dean required only that “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement.” 147 N.H. at 266-67. While a signature might be evidence of such understanding, it has never been held to be a prerequisite. Indeed, in Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 552 A.2d 99 (1988), the Court enforced an unsigned and unread release of an insurance claim.
Plaintiff asserts that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has never explicitly upheld the enforcement of an unsigned liability release. See, e.g., McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (“[t]he ski pass application signed by the plaintiff”); Dean, 147 N.H. at 266 (“Mr. Dean signed the Release before entering the infield pit area”); Audley, 138 N.H. at 417 (“two releases signed by the plaintiff”); Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106 (“release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed”). Even if one were to accept this proposition despite the holding in Gannett, which is arguably distinguishable from the line of New Hampshire cases just cited, it is not dispositive, because the Court has also never explicitly required a signature on a liability release as a condition [**25] of enforceability.
In a diversity case such as this one, if the state’s highest court has not spoken directly on the question at issue, this court must try to predict “how that court likely would decide the issue,” looking to the relevant statutory language, analogous state Supreme Court and lower state court decisions, and other reliable sources of authority. Gonzalez Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 318-19 (1st Cir. 2009). A review of an analogous decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and several New Hampshire trial court decisions reviewing ski area liability releases leads the court to conclude that Miller’s unsigned release is enforceable.
The court finds some guidance in Gannett, supra, where the Court enforced a release of an insurance claim even though the releasing party neither read nor signed the release, but returned it before cashing the insurer’s check. 131 N.H. at 270. Especially salient here, the Court found it “irrelevant whether [plaintiff] actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when she had the opportunity to read it.” Id. at 269-270 (emphasis added). The Gannett Court cited the passage in Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108, enforcing an un-read liability [*595] release where the defendant felt rushed through the admittance line. The Barnes court enforced [**26] the release where “[t]here was no evidence . . . that [the plaintiff] was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.” Id.
Two New Hampshire Superior Court cases involving ski lift ticket releases also inform this analysis. See Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967) (noting that decrees of lower state courts should be “attributed some weight”, but are not controlling, where the highest State court has not spoken on an issue). In Camire v. Gunstock Area Comm’n, No. 11-C-337, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 (N.H. Super. Ct., Mar. 22, 2013) (O’Neil, J.), the court granted the defendant ski area summary judgment based on an unsigned release. 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *8. (“[T]he fact that Ms. Camire did not sign the agreement does not render it unenforceable, as a participant’s signature is not required under the factors set forth in [Dean]“), aff’d on other grounds, 166 N.H. 374, 97 A.3d 250 (2014). While the trial judge also noted that the ski area had a large sign near the ticket kiosk calling attention to the existence of the lift ticket release, and that plaintiff testified in her deposition that she would have understood the ticket’s release language had she read it, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *5, the trial court’s observation that the lack of a signature was not dispositive is entitled, as the United States Supreme Court has [**27] noted, to “some weight.” Bosch’s Estate, 387 U.S. at 465.
The court also draws some guidance from a New Hampshire trial court that denied a ski area operator’s motion for summary judgment in another case involving a lift ticket release. In Reynolds v. Cranmore Mountain Resort, No. 00-C-0035, (N.H. Super. Ct., March 20, 2001) (O’Neil, J.), the plaintiff’s lift ticket contained a peel off backing similar to the one at issue here, including the red “STOP” sign symbol. Id. at 2. The plaintiff claimed that she did not sign the release and that the release language was not conspicuous enough to give notice to a reasonable person. Id. at 5. While the court did not rule on the signature issue, it ruled that a jury issue remained as to whether the “STOP” sign on the ticket was sufficiently conspicuous, because the peel-off backing contained an advertisement for a free workout, also written in red, in a larger font than much of the warning on the backing. Id. at 1-2, 7. In so ruling, the court relied on Passero v. Killington, Ltd., 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, 1993 WL 406726 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 1993), a Pennsylvania case in which the lift ticket at issue contained an advertisement in a larger typeface than the release language. 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, [WL] at * 7 (“[Plaintiff] argues that the exculpatory clause’s minuscule size, its setting against a dark background, and the existence [**28] of a much larger advertisement for a 15% discount on a “COMPLETE OVERNIGHT SKI TUNE-UP” on the lift ticket’s adhesive backing, all serve to distract the skier’s attention away from the substantive rights he or she is supposedly relinquishing by purchasing the lift ticket.”). The Superior Court found that it was “best left to the trier of fact to determine whether the language of the lift ticket reasonably communicated the existence of a contractual agreement to the purchaser . . . .” Id. Here, the Mount Sunapee lift ticket contains no such distracting advertisement or font sizes greater than that of the release language on the ticket. As the distracting features were the basis for the New Hampshire Superior Court’s denial of summary judgment in Reynolds, the lack of any such features here is significant. Accordingly, the court finds that the lack of a signature on the lift ticket release is not, under the circumstances of this case, a barrier to its enforceability where the plaintiff had an opportunity to read it and the terms were unambiguous and not contrary to public policy.
[*596] 2. Opportunity to read the release
A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of [**29] the release.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced. Dean, 147 N.H. at 270; cf. Jenks v. N.H. Motor Speedway, Inc., 2010 DNH 38 (material factual dispute existed as to whether plaintiff had opportunity to read release where plaintiff put his name on a sign-up sheet and release may have been obscured).
Plaintiff, a personal injury attorney, originally submitted two sparse affidavits in opposition to Mount Sunapee’s dispositive motion.28 The affidavits’ only reference to the release is that he did not read the language on the lift ticket or the peel off backing, nor was he instructed to. He did not claim that he lacked the time or opportunity to read it, or was discouraged from doing so. Nor do the affidavits state that he did not peel off the lift ticket from the backing paper.
To be sure, the plaintiff carries no burden of proof at summary judgment, but the sparse and somewhat cryptic nature of the plaintiff’s affidavits — one of which conspicuously tracked the facts emphasized in the Reynolds Superior Court decision, supra, but added nothing more — led this court to ask several pointed questions at oral argument. When pressed by the court regarding the omitted, but [**30] critical, subject matter, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Miller purchased the ticket, affixed it to his own jacket, had the opportunity to read the backing and the release, and would have recognized it as a release (although not as interpreted by Mount Sunapee).29
In an abundance of caution, and reluctant to grant summary judgment terminating plaintiff’s claims without a more fully developed record, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental discovery concerning, inter alia, the issue of plaintiff’s purchase and use of the lift ticket on the day of his injury.30 Although the plaintiff resisted defense counsel’s attempts to elicit direct answers to straightforward questions about his handling and viewing of the lift ticket, plaintiff’s deposition confirmed certain relevant facts that his counsel conceded at oral argument. First, plaintiff testified that he was handed the lift ticket with the release language facing up, and did not see the language on the peel-off backing.31 Nevertheless, plaintiff confirmed that he had the opportunity to read the release language on the lift ticket and the peel off backing before he removed the ticket from the backing and affixed it to his clothing.32 Even [**31] though plaintiff testified [*597] that he attached the ticket to his pants immediately after receiving it, and thus did not read it, he agreed that he was not pressured to do so,33 and had the opportunity to read it if he so chose.34
Based on the summary judgment record, the plaintiff’s concessions at oral argument and his supplemental deposition testimony sua sponte ordered by the court in an abundance of caution, the court finds that the undisputed facts demonstrate that plaintiff purchased the lift ticket, peeled it from its backing before attaching it to his clothing, had the opportunity to read both sides of it,35 and that “a reasonable person in plaintiff’s position” would have “known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. The court therefore finds that plaintiff’s decision to not [*598] read the lift ticket release language does not render it unenforceable.36
C. Contemplation [**34] of the parties
The final factor the court considers is whether the plaintiff’s claims “were within the contemplation of the parties.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. This factor concerns whether plaintiff’s claims were within the scope of the release. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. To determine the scope and application of a liability release agreement, the court must examine its language. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545.
While plaintiff’s counsel conceded at oral argument that a reasonable person would have recognized the lift ticket language as a release, he argues that it would only be understood as applying to “the inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in § 225-A:24,37 and not to the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident.38 As [**35] explained below, this argument is based on an incomplete reading of the release and a flawed reading of persuasive New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent. It is therefore rejected.
Plaintiff argues that the first words of the release — “Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous”39 — limit the scope [**36] of the release to [*599] the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, which, he posits, do not include collisions with unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment. The remainder of the release, however, is far broader, explicitly encompassing “all risks . . . of personal injury . . . resulting from . . . inherent or any other risks or dangers.” (Emphasis added). Additional language in the release is similarly broad:
I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCEwhich may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause.40
(Bold emphasis in original; underlining added). While plaintiff acknowledges that his “participation in skiing” might trigger the release, he argues that the expansive “any and all” language is qualified by the first sentence’s reference to skiing as “inherently dangerous,” which, he asserts, warrants limiting [**37] the release to the risks itemized in § 225-A:24.
In support of his “inherent risks” argument, plaintiff relies on Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995), a case in which a horseback rider was kicked by her guide’s horse, allegedly due to the guide’s negligence. Id. at 168. The Court in Wright held that a release which first noted the “inherent hazards” of horseback riding “obscured” the later following exculpatory clause, part of which resembled the one employed here by Mount Sunapee. Id. at 170. But there is a significant textual difference between the release in
Wright and the one at issue here, and that difference was the lynchpin of the Wright Court’s analysis: the operative language of the Wright release affirmatively referred back to the “inherent hazards” language. In Wright, the exculpatory clause purporting to release the defendant from “any and all” liability began with the phrase “I therefore release . . .” Id. (emphasis added). The Court found the word “therefore” not only significant but dispositive, noting that it means, inter alia, “for that reason” and thus “cannot be understood without reading the antecedent [inherent hazards] language.” Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “[b]ecause the exculpatory [**38] 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 reason.”41Id. The Court ultimately held that the negligence of a guide is not such an “inherent risk.” Id.
Unlike the release in Wright, however, the Mount Sunapee release contains no such “therefore” or other referential language which might call into question the breadth of the language that follows. As such, the court finds that the release [*600] “clearly state[s] that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence,” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, and explicitly called particular attention “to the notion of releasing the defendant for liability for its own negligence.” Cf. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 419, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (rejecting exculpatory clause because it failed to call particular attention to releasing defendant from liability). The court therefore finds that the Mount Sunapee release is not limited to the “inherent risks” of skiing enumerated in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Accordingly, even assuming that Miller’s accident did not result from an “inherent risk” of skiing, his claim is nevertheless encompassed by the terms of the release and within the contemplation [**39] of the parties.
D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct
After Mount Sunapee’s initial motion for judgment on the pleadings raised the lift ticket release as a defense, Plaintiff added four paragraphs to his suit in an Amended Complaint, all in support of his one negligence count. The new additions quote from a handwritten note on a “grooming report” prepared by Mount Sunapee Mountain Operations Manager Alan Ritchie two weeks prior to plaintiff’s accident. Ritchie’s note states the following: “keep the skier’s left guardrail 3′ from the tower guns at BTM (Hidden Hydrants below the snow[)]. Remove 2′ of snow from just above the Blue Shield around the Teckno fan gun.”42 Based solely upon this entry, Miller asserts that Mount Sunapee knew of buried snowmaking equipment and that failing to mark it or otherwise make it visible both violated its statutory duty and constituted “reckless, wanton, and positive acts of misconduct” from which it can not legally be released.43
In response, Mount Sunapee argues: 1) that the allegations do not support a claim for a statutory violation; 2) that New Hampshire law does not recognize extra-culpable, non-releasable categories of negligence; and 3) that [**40] the Amended Complaint and attached documents fail, in any event, to set forth facts amounting to anything other than ordinary negligence. The court has already found no statutory violation44 and further finds that the complaint, even as amended, alleges nothing more than ordinary negligence.
Plaintiff argues that the additional allegations in the Amended Complaint state a claim for reckless behavior, which, he argues, is not within the purview of the release. The court finds that the new amendments do not allege conduct that is more culpable than negligence, which is subject to the terms of the Mount Sunapee release.45
[*601] Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial [**41] physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.” Id.
comment a at 588.
As the Court noted in Thompson v. Forest, 136 N.H. 215, 220, 614 A.2d 1064 (1992), a litigant’s characterization of conduct as evincing a particular culpable mental state is not particularly useful. “Recklessness,” at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.” Id. (quoting WP Keaton, et al., Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts § 8 (5th ed. 1984)). Here, notwithstanding the descriptive adjectives employed by the plaintiff, the facts and allegations pled do not suggest that, to anyone affiliated with Mount Sunapee, there was “a substantial certainty” that serious foreseeable harm would occur based on its alleged conduct or that Mount Sunapee’s conduct involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm “substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that the risk was one involving an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.
Plaintiff relies on a recent New Hampshire Superior Court case involving an injured ski lift [**42] passenger in which the trial judge held that the plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness were sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.46 In Perry v. SNH Dev., No. 2015-CV-00678, 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 (N.H. Super. Ct., Sept. 13, 2017) (Temple, J.), the child plaintiff was injured after first dangling from, and then falling from, a chair lift into which she was improperly loaded. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. There, the plaintiff successfully pled facts that alleged recklessness and avoided the ski area‘s enforceable negligence release. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *23. Specifically, the plaintiffs in Perry alleged that the ski area‘s:
employee(s)[‘] total and complete failure to monitor the safe and proper loading of the Rocket chair lift in any fashion, coupled with the undisputed failure (actions or inactions) to stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress and ongoing for a considerable period of time, were failures to do acts which the employees had a duty to perform for [plaintiffs] and constitute a reckless disregard of safety.
2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *27. The court denied the ski area‘s motion for summary judgment on the recklessness issue, first noting the allegation that there “were multiple employees of Crotched Mountain in or around [**43] the area observing that Sarah was not able to properly and/or safely board the Rocket chair lift; but rather [was] dangling from the chair lift.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. The court found this allegation sufficient to support an inference that the ski area‘s employees [*602] “knew that [the child plaintiff] was not properly loaded on the chair lift, but chose not to act.” Id. The court additionally cited the allegations that the ski area‘s employees knew that their failure to “stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress” would create an “unreasonable risk of physical harm or death.” Id. These facts, the Superior Court concluded, were sufficient to establish a claim of reckless conduct. Id.
In reaching its decision, the Perry court assumed that recklessness involved a defendant’s “conscious choice.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *32 (citing State v. Hull, 149 N.H. 706, 713, 827 A.2d 1001 (2003)). Here, plaintiff argues that a reasonable inference can be made that Mount Sunapee knowingly disregarded the risk of harm posed by hidden snowmaking equipment, and that they “knew that ‘hidden’ hydrants posed a danger, but chose not to act.47
The court finds no such inference. As noted, the amended allegations do not pertain to a time or place related to Miller’s accident. [**44] There is nothing in the Ritchie affidavit that supports an allegation that Mount Sunapee made a “conscious choice” to create a “risk that was substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that . . . [involved] an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422 (internal quotation marks omitted). Significantly, the allegations in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby lift passenger already in obvious danger, a child literally dangling from the moving chair lift. Under plaintiff’s theory, any collision with buried snowmaking equipment would constitute a claim for recklessness.
One of the cases cited in Perry supports the court’s conclusion. In Migdal v. Stamp, 132 N.H. 171, 564 A.2d 826 (1989), the plaintiff, a police officer, was shot by a 15-year old who had been involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health issues. Id. at 173. The day after his release into his parents’ custody, the teen took several guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an unsecured gun cabinet in their home, fired them throughout the house, and then shot and injured the plaintiff, who responded to the scene. Id. The injured officer sued the shooter’s parents, [**45] who sought dismissal based on the “fireman’s rule.”48 After first noting that the rule bars claims of negligent, but not reckless, conduct, id. at 176, the Court concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled recklessness by alleging that the parents “failed to seek recommended medical treatment” for their son and allowed him access to “an array of firearms and ammunition,” despite their knowledge that their son “was suffering from mental and emotional instabilities,” had “exhibited dangerous propensities,” and had ransacked and vandalized the house the day before. Id. Mount Sunapee’s conduct — failure to mark or make visible the snow gun holder — is neither of the same type nor degree as the defendants’ conduct in Migdal.
A ski case from the District of Massachusetts is also instructive. In Brush v. Jiminy Peak Mountain, 626 F. Supp. 2d 139 (D. Mass. 2009), a ski racer was injured when she lost control and collided with a ski tower support located off the trail. Id.
[*603] at 143. In suing, inter alia, the ski area, the plaintiff alleged that netting and other safety devices should have been placed around the support, as required by certain ski racing standards and as had been done by the defendant in the past. Id. at 145. In order to avoid application of a release, the plaintiff asserted [**46] a claim for gross negligence, which, under Massachusetts law, is a less culpable standard than recklessness. Id. at 151 (citing Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 121 N.E. 505, 506 (Mass. 1919)). The Court concluded that plaintiff had alleged only simple negligence. Id. The Court first observed that “[t]here is no evidence in the record, and indeed no allegation, that any of the Defendants, or anyone at the competition, became aware that there was an area of the trail without netting where netting was normally placed and declined to remedy the situation.” Id. Ultimately, the Court held, “[a]t most there was a collective failure to take a step that might have lessened the injuries suffered by Plaintiff. No reasonable jury could find that this simple inadvertence, no matter how tragic its consequences, constituted gross negligence.” Id.
The court views the conduct alleged here as much more akin to that alleged in Brush — which alleged conduct that was less culpable than recklessness — than that in Perry
or Migdal. The factual allegations in this case fall far short of recklessness. First, as previously noted, the grooming report on which plaintiff relies is remote both in time and location. Next, the conduct alleged here is significantly less egregious than the [**47] allegations in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby passenger already in danger of falling from a lift chair, or the conduct in Migdal, where the defendant parents, one day after their son had exhibited mental instability, ransacked the family home, and exhibited dangerous tendencies, failed to seek treatment for him and to secure multiple firearms and ammunition. As in Brush, the most that can be said here is that Mount Sunapee failed to take a step that — while not legally required, see supra, § III.A.1 — might have prevented plaintiff’s accident. These allegations do not support a claim that their acts or omissions in not clearing snow away from a snow gun holder in an ungroomed area “were substantially more serious” than ordinary negligence. Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.49
2. Wanton and positive misconduct
In an attempt to characterize his claims in such a way to avoid the language of the release, plaintiff’s Amended Complaint describes them as “wanton and positive acts of misconduct,” that is, more culpable than negligence, but not intentional.50 The court, however, has already determined that the Complaint alleges no more than ordinary negligence, so this argument fails.
3. Potential [**48] certification
If the court had found that the facts alleged by the plaintiff could constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, it would have considered certifying an unresolved question to the New Hampshire [*604] Supreme Court: whether conduct more culpable than negligence, but less than intentional could be the subject of a release like the one at issue here. See
N.H. Sup. Ct. R. 34. In the absence of such allegations, certification is unnecessary.
The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.
As plaintiff has alleged only that Mount [**49] Sunapee’s negligence caused his injuries, and that the facts he alleges do not constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, the court finds that plaintiff’s claims fall within the ambit of the Mount Sunapee release and that the release is enforceable against the plaintiff. Therefore, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, having been converted to a motion for summary judgment51 is GRANTED.52
Court of Appeal of California, Third Appellate District
June 27, 2018, Opinion Filed
2018 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4363 *; 2018 WL 3134581KATHLEEN WILLHIDE-MICHIULIS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN SKI AREA, LLC, Defendant and Respondent.
Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.
Subsequent History: The Publication Status of this Document has been Changed by the Court from Unpublished to Published July 18, 2018 and is now reported at 2018 Cal.App.LEXIS 638.
Ordered published by, Reported at Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 638 (Cal. App. 3d Dist., June 27, 2018)
Judges: Robie, Acting P. J.; Murray, J., Duarte, J. concurred.
Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis was involved in a tragic snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. On her last run of the day, she collided with a snowcat pulling a snow-grooming tiller and got caught in the tiller. The accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg, several skull fractures and facial lacerations, among other serious injuries. She and her husband, Bruno Michiulis, appeal after the trial court granted defendant Mammoth Mountain Ski Area‘s (Mammoth) motion for summary judgment finding the operation of the snowcat and snow-grooming tiller on the snow run open to the public was an inherent risk of snowboarding and did not constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment and improperly excluded the expert declarations plaintiffs submitted to oppose the motion. They also assert the trial court improperly denied their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County.
We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the expert declarations. Further, [*2] although snowcats and snow-grooming tillers are capable of causing catastrophic injury, as evidenced by Willhide-Michiulis’s experience, we conclude this equipment is an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and the way in which the snowcat was operated in this case did not rise to the level of gross negligence. Because of this conclusion, the trial court properly granted Mammoth’s summary judgment motion based on the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement. With no pending trial, plaintiffs cannot show they were prejudiced by the court’s denial of their motion to transfer venue; thus we do not reach the merits of that claim. Accordingly, we affirm.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Mammoth owns and operates one of the largest snowcat fleets in the United States to groom snow and maintain snow runs throughout Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. A snowcat is a large snow-grooming vehicle — 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. It has five wheels on each side of the vehicle that are enclosed in a track. In front of the snowcat is a plow extending the width of the snowcat. In back is a 20-foot wide trailer containing a tiller. A tiller “spins at a [*3] high [speed] br[e]aking up the snow and slightly warming it and allowing it to refreeze in a firm skiable surface.” Mammoth strives not to have snowcats operating when the resort is open to the public; however, it may be necessary at times. Mammoth’s grooming guide instructs drivers that generally snowcats are operated at night or in areas closed to the public, except during: (1) emergency operations, (2) extremely heavy snow, or (3) transportation of personnel or materials. If a driver “must be on the mountain while the public is present,” however, the snowcat’s lights, safety beacon, and audible alarm must be on. The guide further directs drivers not to operate the tiller if anyone is within 50 feet or if on a snow run open to the public. In another section, the guide directs drivers not to operate the snowcat’s tiller when anyone is within 150 feet and “[n]ever . . . when the skiing public is present.”
Although the grooming guide directs drivers not to use the tiller on snow runs open to the public, there are exceptions to these rules. Snowcats use two large tracks, instead of wheels, to travel on the snow. If the tiller is not running, then the snowcat leaves behind berms and holes created by the [*4] tracks, also known as track marks. Mammoth’s grooming guide explains that “[t]rack marks are not acceptable anywhere on the mountain and back-ups or extra passes should be used to remove them.” Track marks are not safe for the skiing public, so whenever the snowcat is justified to be on an open run, drivers commonly operate the tiller to leave behind safe conditions.
In fact, it is common for skiers and snowboarders to chase snowcats that operate on public snow runs. For example, Taylor Lester, a Mammoth season-pass holder, has seen snowcats with tillers operate on snow runs open to the public. She, her friends, and her family, commonly ride close behind these snowcats so they can take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produce. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished by other skiers.
There is a blind spot in the snowcat created by the roll cage in the cab of the vehicle. This blind spot is mitigated by the driver using the mirrors of the snowcat and turning his or her head to look out the windows. Snowcats are also equipped with turn signals.
At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence [*5] of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also includes these warnings in trail maps. Further, in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement, she acknowledged she understood “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks posed by variations in terrain and snow conditions, . . . unmarked obstacles, . . . devices, . . . and other hazards whether they are obvious or not. I also understand that the sport involves risks posed by loss of balance . . . and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis further agreed to release Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death to me and/or my child arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.”
On March 25, 2011, Clifford Mann, the general manager of mountain operations, had to dig out various buildings using a snowcat during Mammoth’s hours of operation because between 27 and 44 inches of snow fell the night before. At approximately 3:15 p.m., Mann was digging out a building when a Mammoth employee [*6] called to ask him to fill in a hole she had created with her snowmobile on Old Boneyard Road. Less than an hour before her call, the employee had been driving her snowmobile on the unmarked service road and got it stuck in the snow. She called for assistance and she and another Mammoth employee dug out the snowmobile. Once the machine had been dug out of the snow, there was too big of a hole for her and her coworker to fill in. They decided to call Mann to have him fill in the hole with the snowcat because it was near the end of the day and the hole was a safety hazard for all other snowmobiles that would use the service road at closing. Mann agreed and drove his snowcat with the tiller running to Old Boneyard Road, which branched off of the bottom of mambo snow run. Before leaving for the Old Boneyard Road location, Mann turned on the snowcat’s warning beacon, lights, and audible alarm.
Around this same time, Willhide-Michiulis, a Mammoth season-pass holder, and her brother went for their last snowboard run of the day while Willhide-Michiulis’s husband went to the car. It was a clear day and Willhide-Michiulis and her brother split up after getting off the chair lift. Willhide-Michiulis [*7] snowboarded down mambo, while her brother took a neighboring run. While Willhide-Michiulis rode down mambo, she was in control of her snowboard and traveling on the left side of the run. She saw the snowcat about 150 feet ahead of her on the trail. It was traveling downhill and in the middle of the run. Willhide-Michiulis initiated a “carve” to her left to go further to the left of the snowcat. When she looked up, the snowcat had “cut off her path” and she could not avoid a collision. Willhide-Michiulis hit the back left corner of the snowcat and her board went into the gap between the tracks of the snowcat and the tiller. Willhide-Michiulis was then pulled into the tiller.
Mann did not use a turn signal before initiating the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. Before the collision, Mann had constantly been checking around the snowcat for people by utilizing the snowcat’s mirrors and by looking over his shoulders and through the windows. The snowcat did not have a speedometer, but Mann thought he was going less than 10 miles an hour. When he had nearly completed the turn from lower mambo onto Old Boneyard Road, Mann saw a “black flash” in his rearview mirror. He immediately stopped the snowcat, [*8] which also stopped the tiller.
Mann got out of the snowcat and lifted the protective flap to look under the tiller. He saw Willhide-Michiulis stuck in the tiller and called for help. When help arrived, it took 30 minutes to remove Willhide-Michiulis from the tiller. She suffered a near-complete amputation of her left leg above the knee, which doctors amputated in a subsequent surgery. Her right leg sustained multiple fractures and lacerations, and she dislocated her right hip. The tiller also struck Willhide-Michiulis’s face, leaving multiple facial fractures and lacerations.
Plaintiffs initially filed suit against Mammoth and Kassbohrer All Terrain Vehicles, the manufacturer of the snowcat and tiller, in Los Angeles County.1 As to Mammoth, plaintiffs alleged breach of contract, gross negligence, negligence, and loss of consortium. Venue was later transferred to Mono County, where the trial court dismissed multiple causes of action pertaining to Mammoth.2 The operative complaint alleges two causes of action against Mammoth — gross negligence and loss of consortium. At the same time plaintiffs filed the operative complaint, they also filed a motion to transfer venue back [*9] to Los Angeles County because it was more convenient for the parties and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion to transfer venue without prejudice and we denied the petition for writ of mandate plaintiffs filed challenging that ruling.
Mammoth later moved for summary judgment on the two remaining causes of action arguing that plaintiffs’ case was barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the express assumption of risk agreement Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass contract. The court agreed and granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment finding primary assumption of risk and the waiver in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass agreement barred plaintiffs relief. It found there was no dispute over the material facts of plaintiffs’ claims and that Willhide-Michiulis was injured when “she fell and slid under a [Mammoth] operated snowcat and was caught in the operating tiller. [Willhide-Michiulis] was snowboarding on an open run as the snowcat was operating on the same run. It appears that the collision occurred as the snowcat operator was negotiating a left turn from the run to the service road.” [*10] It also found that accepting plaintiffs’ factual allegations as true, i.e., Mann operated a snowcat and tiller on an open run, he failed to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of the run, he failed to warn skiers of his presence, and no signs marked the existence of Old Boneyard Road — plaintiffs could not show Mammoth was grossly negligent or lacked all care because Mann took several safety precautions while driving the snowcat, and warning signs were posted throughout Mammoth Mountain, on trail maps, and in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because plaintiffs could not show gross negligence, the waiver of liability they signed as part of their season-pass agreement barred recovery.
The court further found plaintiffs’ factual allegations did not support a finding that Mann’s conduct increased the inherent risks of snowboarding and, in fact, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport. Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389, the court explained snowcats are plainly visible and generally avoidable and serve as their own warning sign because they are an obvious danger. The snowcat is equally obvious when it is moving as when it is stationary. Thus, the [*11] primary assumption of risk doctrine also barred plaintiffs from recovery.
The court also excluded the declarations of three experts plaintiffs attached to their opposition to dispute Mammoth’s claim that it did not act with gross negligence. The first expert, Michael Beckley, worked in the ski industry for 25 years and was an “expert of ski resort safety and snow cat safety.” He held multiple positions in the industry, including ski instructor, snowcat driver, and director of mountain operations. Beckley based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and snow grooming equipment, and accounts of Mann’s conduct while driving the snowcat. He opined the operation of a snowcat on an open run with its tiller running was “extremely dangerous,” “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” He believed Mann increased the risk of injury to skiers and violated industry standards by driving down the middle of a snow run and failing to signal his turn. Mammoth’s failure to close the snow run, provide spotters, or comply with its own safety rules, Beckley declared, violated industry standards and the ordinary standard [*12] of conduct.
Plaintiffs’ second expert, Eric Deyerl, was a mechanical engineer for over 20 years, with a specialization in vehicle dynamics and accident reconstruction. In forming his opinions, Deyerl inspected the snow run and snowcat equipment and relied on photographs and various accounts of the incident. Relying on those accounts, Deyerl opined that the circumstances leading to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision were different than those related by eyewitnesses. Deyerl believed that before initiating his turn, Mann failed to activate his turn signal, monitor his surroundings, and verify that he was clear — especially in the blind spot at the back left portion of the snowcat. No signs indicated the existence of Old Boneyard Road, and skiers like Willhide-Michiulis would not know to expect a snowcat to stop and turn from the middle of the snow run. All of these circumstances in isolation and together increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. Deyerl also disputed the accounts of eyewitnesses to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision with the snowcat.
The third expert, Brad Avrit, was a civil engineer who specialized in evaluating “safety practices and safety issues.” He was [*13] also an “avid skier for over thirty years.” He based his opinions on the topography of the snow run, Mammoth’s snow grooming manual and equipment, and accounts of Mann’s driving. Avrit opined that operating a snowcat on an open snow run with an active tiller was “an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct that reasonable persons would follow in order to avoid injury to others.” He also believed Mann’s conduct of failing to drive down the left side of the snow run, failing to monitor his surroundings, and failing to signal his left turn or verify he was clear to turn, “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Avrit also thought the risk to skiers was increased by Mammoth’s failure to either close the snow run or use spotters while operating the snowcat when open to the public, or alternatively waiting the 30 minutes until the resort was closed to fix the hole on Old Boneyard Road.
Mammoth lodged both general and specific objections to these declarations. Generally, Mammoth asserted the experts’ opinions were irrelevant to the assumption of risk and gross negligence legal determinations before the court, the opinions lacked proper foundation, and the opinions were improper [*14] conclusions of law. Specifically, Mammoth objected to several paragraphs of material on predominantly the same grounds. Finding the experts’ opinions irrelevant and citing Towns v. Davidson (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 461, 54 Cal. Rptr. 3d 568 (Towns), the trial court sustained Mammoth’s general objections and numerous specific objections.
The Court Properly Granted Mammoth’s Motion For Summary Judgment
Plaintiffs contend the trial court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment. They first contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding their experts’ declarations, and thus improperly ruled on Mammoth’s motion without considering relevant evidence. They also contend primary assumption of risk does not apply because Mann’s negligent driving and operation of a tiller on an open run increased the inherent risks associated with snowboarding. Further, plaintiffs argue these same facts establish Mammoth’s conduct was grossly negligent and fell outside of the liability waiver Willhide-Michiulis signed as part of her season-pass agreement.
We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding plaintiffs’ experts’ declarations. Additionally, plaintiffs cannot show Mammoth was grossly negligent and violated [*15] the terms of the release of liability agreement found in Willhide-Michiulis’s season-pass contract. Because the express assumption of risk in the release applies, we need not consider the implied assumption of risk argument also advanced by plaintiffs. (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 590, fn. 2, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370; Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1374-1375, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813; Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn. (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1007, 1012-1013, 54 Cal. Rptr. 2d 330.)
The Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion When Excluding The Expert Declarations Attached To Plaintiffs’ Opposition
As part of their argument that the court improperly granted Mammoth’s motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to their opposition. Specifically, plaintiffs argue expert testimony was appropriate under Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30, because “the facts here certainly warrant consideration of the expert testimony on the more esoteric subject of assessing whether a negligently-driven snowcat is an inherent risk of recreational skiing.” Mammoth counters that the evidence was properly excluded because it was irrelevant and “offered opinions of legal questions of duty for the court to decide.” We agree with Mammoth.
“Generally, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may use declarations by an expert to raise a triable issue of fact on an element of the [*16] case provided the requirements for admissibility are established as if the expert were testifying at trial. [Citations.] An expert’s opinion is admissible when it is ‘[r]elated to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact . . . .’ [Citation.] Although the expert’s testimony may embrace an ultimate factual issue [citation], it may not contain legal conclusions.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 472.)
“In the context of assumption of risk, the role of expert testimony is more limited. ‘It is for the court to decide whether an activity is an active sport, the inherent risks of that sport, and whether the defendant has increased the risks of the activity beyond the risks inherent in the sport.’ [Citation.] A court in its discretion could receive expert factual opinion to inform its decision on these issues, particularly on the nature of an unknown or esoteric activity, but in no event may it receive expert evidence on the ultimate legal issues of inherent risk and duty.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)
In Kahn, the plaintiff was a 14-year-old member of a school swim team who broke her neck after diving in shallow water. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 998.) Her coach had previously assured her she would not have to dive [*17] at meets and she never learned how to dive in shallow water. Minutes before a meet, however, the coach told the plaintiff she would have to dive and threatened to kick her off the team if she refused. With the help of some teammates, the plaintiff tried a few practice dives but broke her neck on the third try. She sued based on negligent supervision and training. (Ibid.)
The court determined the case could not be resolved on summary judgment as there was conflicting evidence whether the coach had provided any instruction or, if so, whether that instruction followed the recommended training sequence, and whether plaintiff was threatened into diving. (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1012-1013.) The court concluded the trial court was not compelled to disregard the opinions of a water safety instructor about the proper training a swimmer requires before attempting a racing dive in shallow water. (Id. at pp. 999, 1017.) In so ruling, the Kahn court stated, “[c]ourts ordinarily do not consider an expert’s testimony to the extent it constitutes a conclusion of law [citation], but we do not believe that the declaration of the expert in the present case was limited to offering an opinion on a conclusion of law. We do not rely upon expert opinion testimony to [*18] establish the legal question of duty, but ‘we perceive no reason to preclude a trial court from receiving expert testimony on the customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity for purposes of weighing whether the inherent risks of the activity were increased by the defendant’s conduct.'” (Id. at p. 1017.) Thus, while the Kahn court did not preclude the trial court from considering expert testimony about the “‘customary practices in an arena of esoteric activity,'” it did not mandate a court to consider it either.
Here, plaintiffs argue their experts’ declarations were necessary to inform the trial court of the “more esoteric subject” of whether Mann’s negligent driving of the snowcat increased the inherent risks of recreational snowboarding. The problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that the experts’ declarations did not inform the court “‘on the customary practices'” of the esoteric activity of snowcat driving. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1017.) While stating that Mann and Mammoth violated industry standards and increased the potential for collision, no expert outlined what the industry standards were for operating a snowcat and thus provided no context for the trial court to determine the legal question of duty. The [*19] expert in Kahn provided this type of context by declaring the proper procedures for training swimmers to dive, making it so the trial court could compare the defendant’s conduct to the industry standard. (Kahn, at pp. 999.) The declarations here merely repeated the facts contained in the discovery materials and concluded the risk of injury and collision was increased because of those facts.
The conclusory statements in the expert declarations make plaintiffs’ case like Towns, where the trial court did not abuse its discretion when excluding an expert’s opinion. (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.) In Towns, the plaintiff sued the defendant after he collided with her on a ski run. (Id. at p. 465.) In opposition to the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted the declaration of her expert, a member of the National Ski Patrol and a ski instructor. (Id. at pp. 466, 471-472.) In his declaration, the expert opined that the defendant’s behavior was reckless and “‘outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport of skiing.'” (Id. at p. 472.)
The trial court excluded the declaration in its entirety and granted the motion for summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed explaining, “[t]he nature and risks of downhill skiing are commonly understood, the [*20] demarcation of any duty owed is judicially defined, and, most significantly, the facts surrounding the particular incident here are not in dispute. Thus, the trial court was deciding the issue of recklessness as a matter of law.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at pp. 472-473.)
The court also noted the expert’s declaration “added nothing beyond declaring the undisputed facts in his opinion constituted recklessness. In short, he ‘was advocating, not testifying.’ [Citation.] He reached what in this case was an ultimate conclusion of law, a point on which expert testimony is not allowed. [Citation.] ‘Courts must be cautious where an expert offers legal conclusions as to ultimate facts in the guise of an expert opinion.’ [Citation.] This is particularly true in the context of assumption of risk where the facts are not in dispute.” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.)
Like the expert in Towns, plaintiffs’ experts only provided ultimate conclusions of law. Although Beckley declared to be an expert in snowcat safety, he shed no light on the subject except to say Mann’s conduct was “an extreme departure from an ordinary standard of conduct,” and “violate[d] the industry standard.” Similarly, Avrit, who was an expert in evaluating safety practices, did nothing more than declare [*21] that Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices “increase[d] the risk of collision and injury.” Deyerl, an expert in accident reconstruction, disputed the accounts of percipient witnesses and declared Mann’s driving and Mammoth’s grooming practices increased “the potential for a collision” and the risk of injury. In short, plaintiffs’ experts provided irrelevant opinions more akin to “‘advocating, not testifying.'” (Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 473.) Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion when excluding the expert declarations attached to plaintiffs’ opposition.
Summary Judgment Was Proper
We review a trial court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 388-389, 46 Cal. Rptr. 3d 668, 139 P.3d 56.) “In performing our de novo review, we must view the evidence in a light favorable to [the] plaintiff as the losing party [citation], liberally construing [the plaintiff’s] evidentiary submission while strictly scrutinizing [the] defendant[‘s] own showing, and resolving any evidentiary doubts or ambiguities in [the] plaintiff’s favor.” (Saelzler v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 Cal.4th 763, 768-769, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 617, 23 P.3d 1143.)
Summary judgment is proper when “all the papers submitted show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that [defendant] is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) A defendant moving for summary judgment meets [*22] its burden of showing there is no merit to a cause of action by showing one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or there is a complete defense to that cause of action. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (p)(2).) Once the defendant has made the required showing, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action or defense. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 849, 853, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493.)
Mammoth Met Its Burden Of Showing There Was No Merit To Plaintiffs’ Claim
As described, plaintiffs signed a season-pass agreement, which included a term releasing Mammoth from liability “for any damage, injury or death . . . arising from participation in the sport or use of the facilities at Mammoth regardless of cause, including the ALLEGED NEGLIGENCE of Mammoth.” The agreement also contained a paragraph describing the sport as dangerous and involving risks “posed by loss of balance, loss of control, falling, sliding, collisions with other skiers or snowboarders and collisions with natural and man-made objects, including trees, rocks, fences, posts, lift towers, snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” “While often referred to as a defense, a release of future liability is [*23] more appropriately characterized as an express assumption of the risk that negates the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) Express assumption of risk agreements are analogous to the implied primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 308, fn. 4, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696; Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227-228, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.) “‘”The result is that the defendant is relieved of legal duty to the plaintiff; and being under no duty, he cannot be charged with negligence.”‘” (Eriksson, at p. 719, italics omitted.)
Generally, in cases involving an express assumption of risk there is no cause to analyze the activity the complaining party is involved in or the relationship of the parties to that activity. (Allabach v. Santa Clara County Fair Assn., supra, 46 Cal.App.4th at p. 1012; see also Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1484, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 [“With respect to the question of express waiver, the legal issue is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release“]; see also Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 590, fn. 2 [“if the express assumption of risk in the release applies, the implied assumption of risk principles . . . would not come into play”].) However, where, as here, plaintiffs allege defendant’s conduct fell outside the scope of the agreement and a more detailed analysis of the scope of a defendant’s duty [*24] is necessary.
“[T]he question of ‘the existence and scope’ of the defendant’s duty is one of law to be decided by the court, not by a jury, and therefore it generally is ‘amenable to resolution by summary judgment.'” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at pp. 1003-1004.) A release cannot absolve a party from liability for gross negligence. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 750-751, 776-777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095.) In Santa Barbara, our Supreme Court reasoned that “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776, quoting Donnelly v. Southern Pacific Co. (1941) 18 Cal.2d 863, 871, 118 P.2d 465.) The issue we must determine here is whether, with all facts and inferences construed in plaintiffs’ favor, Mammoth’s conduct could be found to constitute gross negligence. Plaintiffs alleged in the operative complaint that Mammoth was grossly negligent in the “operation of the subject snow cat,” by operating the tiller on an open run without utilizing spotters and failing to warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run and the danger posed by its tiller. These allegations are insufficient to support a finding of gross negligence.
Ordinary negligence “consists of the failure to exercise the degree of care in a given situation that a reasonable person [*25] under similar circumstances would employ to protect others from harm.” (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 753-754.) “‘”[M]ere nonfeasance, such as the failure to discover a dangerous condition or to perform a duty,”‘ amounts to ordinary negligence. [Citation.] However, to support a theory of ‘”[g]ross negligence,”‘ a plaintiff must allege facts showing ‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘” [Citations.]’ [Citations.] ‘”‘[G]ross negligence‘ falls short of a reckless disregard of consequences, and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind. . . .”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 867, 881, 208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 792.)
“[T]he nature of a sport is highly relevant in defining the duty of care owed by the particular defendant.” (Knight v. Jewett, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 315.) “‘[I]n the sports setting . . . conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part of the sport itself.’ [Citation.] [Our Supreme Court has] explained that, as a matter of policy, it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events.” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004.) But the question of duty depends not only on the nature of the sport, but also on the [*26] role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case. (Ibid.) “‘[A] purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.'” (Id. at p. 1005.) Thus, in cases involving a waiver of liability for future negligence, courts have held that conduct that substantially or unreasonably increased the inherent risk of an activity or actively concealed a known risk could amount to gross negligence, which would not be barred by a release agreement. (See Eriksson v. Nunnink (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 826, 856, 120 Cal. Rptr. 3d 90.)
Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co., supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 591 [redesign of snowboarding jump]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 366, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265 [construction of the unmarked race start area on the ski run]; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775 [placement of signs in ski run].) It is well established that “‘”‘[e]ach person who participates in the sport of [snow] 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 [*27] growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'”‘” (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 12, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855, italics omitted; see also Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863; Towns, supra, 147 Cal.App.4th at p. 467.)
Plaintiffs argue the above language is simply dicta and no authority has ever held that colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk in snowboarding or skiing. Because there is no authority specifically addressing the inherent risk of snow-grooming equipment, plaintiffs argue, colliding with a snowcat is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. Further, even if it were, Mammoth increased the inherent risk of snowboarding by operating a snowcat and tiller on an open run. We disagree.
The main problem with plaintiffs’ argument that common law has not recognized collisions with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk of skiing, is that plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement did. When signing their season-pass agreement, both Willhide-Michiulis and her husband acknowledged that skiing involved the risk of colliding with “over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis testified she read the agreement but did not know an “over-snow vehicle” included a snowcat. Plaintiffs, however, [*28] did not argue in the trial court or now on appeal that this term is ambiguous or that the parties did not contemplate collisions with snowcats as a risk of snowboarding. “Over-snow vehicles” is listed in the contract along with “snow making equipment” and “snowmobiles,” indicating a clear intent to include any vehicle used by Mammoth for snow maintenance and snow travel.
Moreover, common law holds that collisions with snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding. In Connelly, the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. (Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 8.) In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, the court found this risk was inherent in the sport and the obvious danger of the tower served as its own warning. (Id. at p. 12.) In concluding that contact with the tower was an inherent risk of the sport, the Connelly court relied on Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 266 Cal. Rptr. 749. (Connelly, at p. 12.) In Danieley, a skier collided with a tree. (Danieley, at p. 113.) The Danieley court, in turn, relied on a Michigan statute that set forth certain inherent risks of skiing, including both trees and “‘collisions with ski lift towers and their components'” along with properly marked or plainly visible “‘snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan [*29] Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the preexisting common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Danieley, at p. 123.)
Although there may not be a published case specifically addressing the inherent risk of snowcats to skiers and snowboarders, a snowcat, otherwise known as snow-grooming equipment, is one of the risks explicitly adopted as California common law by the Danieley and Connelly courts. (Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc., supra, 218 Cal.App.3d at p. 123; Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 12.) Thus, in California, colliding with snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of the sport of snowboarding.
Nevertheless, plaintiffs argue operating the tiller of the snowcat on an open snow run increased the inherent risk snowcats pose to snowboarders. We recognize assumption of the risk, either express or implied, applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at pp. 268-269.) In Souza, a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. (Id. at p. 262.) Following Connelly, we affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, finding the snowmaking hydrant was visible and a collision with it was an inherent risk of skiing. (Souza, at pp. 268-272.) The snowmaking equipment in Souza was necessary [*30] and inherent to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Id. at p. 268.)
Here, plaintiffs claim snowcats operating on open runs are not necessary or inherent to the sport because “[p]recluding a snowcat from operating on an open run would minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport one whit.” As in Souza, we find the following quote apt: “‘”As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, . . . the doctrine of [primary] assumption of risk . . . would not apply to obvious, known conditions so long as a defendant could feasibly have provided safer conditions. Then, obviously, such risks would not be ‘necessary’ or ‘inherent’. This would effectively emasculate the doctrine, . . . changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”‘” (Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269.)
Snow-grooming equipment, including the snowcat and tiller at issue here, are necessary to the sport of snowboarding because the snowcat grooms the snow needed for snowboarding into a skiable surface. Without the tiller also grooming the snow, the snowcat leaves behind an unusable and unsafe surface riddled with berms and holes. This surface is so unsafe that Mammoth’s grooming [*31] guide prohibits snowcat drivers from leaving behind such hazards. Given the purpose of the snowcat and tiller, it cannot be said that they are not inherent and necessary to the sport of snowboarding.
The fact that the snowcat and tiller Willhide-Michiulis collided with was operating during business hours and on an open run does not affect our analysis. Willhide-Michiulis’s husband testified that, although uncommon, he had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth during business hours transporting people. Further, Taylor Lester, a witness to Willhide-Michiulis’s collision and a longtime Mammoth season-pass holder, testified that she had seen snowcats operating at Mammoth on prior occasions as well. Out of the 10 years she has been a season-pass holder, Lester had seen snowcats operating during business hours at Mammoth 20 to 40 times, half of which had been using their tillers.
In fact, Lester testified that it was common for her and her friends, and also her sister and father, to ride close behind snowcats that were tilling so that they could take advantage of the freshly tilled snow the snowcats produced. Freshly-tilled snow is considered desirable and “more fun” because it has not been tarnished [*32] by other skiers. Lester’s sister also testified she liked to “sneak behind” snowcats while they groom runs to ride on the freshly-tilled snow. Even after Willhide-Michiulis’s collision, Lester’s sister still snowboarded behind snowcats to ride the freshly groomed snow.
Given this testimony, we conclude that the use of snowcats and their tillers on ski runs during business hours is inherent to the sport of snowboarding, the use of which does not unreasonably increase the risks associated with the sport. To find Mammoth liable because it operated a snowcat and tiller during business hours would inhibit the vigorous participation in the sport Lester and her sister testified about. Instead of racing to freshly tilled snow to take advantage of its unspoiled status, snowboarders and skiers alike would be prohibited from chasing snowcats and instead have to settle for inferior skiing conditions. Further, snowcats would no longer be used as modes of transportation at ski resorts, a common practice testified to by Willhide-Michiulis’s husband. Or snowcats would operate, but without their tiller, leaving behind unsafe skiing conditions that would doubtlessly interfere with full and vigorous participation [*33] in the sport. (See Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist., supra, 31 Cal.4th at p. 1004 [“it would not be appropriate to recognize a duty of care when to do so would require that an integral part of the sport be abandoned, or would discourage vigorous participation in sporting events”].)
Regardless of the fact that snowcats and tillers are inherent in the sport of snowboarding, plaintiffs also allege the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with was not obvious and Mammoth was grossly negligent because it failed to provide spotters or warn skiers of the snowcat’s presence on the run or the dangerousness of its tiller. As described, gross negligence requires a showing of “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)
Here, Mammoth did warn plaintiffs of the presence of snowcats and other snow-grooming equipment at the ski resort. At the top and bottom of every chair lift, Mammoth posts signs warning of the presence of snowcats throughout the resort and on snow runs. Mammoth also included these warnings in its trail maps. These warnings were also apparent in plaintiffs’ season-pass agreement, which warned that “the sport involves numerous risks including, but not limited to, the risks [*34] posed by . . . collisions with natural and man-made objects, including . . . snow making equipment, snowmobiles and other over-snow vehicles.” Willhide-Michiulis acknowledged that she saw the warning contained in her season-pass agreement.
Not only were plaintiffs warned about the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment throughout the ski resort, but Willhide-Michiulis was warned of the presence of the specific snowcat she collided with. Before going down the mambo run to fix the pothole on Old Boneyard Road, Mann turned on the safety beacon, warning lights, and audible alarm to the snowcat. This provided warning to all those around the snowcat, whether they could see it or not, to the snowcat’s presence. Further, the snowcat Willhide-Michiulis collided with is large, bright red, and slow-moving, making it generally avoidable by those around it. Indeed, Willhide-Michiulis testified that she saw the snowcat about 150 feet before she collided with it. Although she claims the snowcat cut off her path, the snowcat was traveling less than ten miles an hour before standing nearly motionless while turning onto Old Boneyard Road downhill from Willhide-Michiulis. As the trial court found, [*35] “‘the very existence of a large metal plainly-visible [snowcat] serves as its own warning.'” (Citing Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp., supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 271.) Upon seeing such a warning, it was incumbent upon Willhide-Michiulis to avoid it — nothing was hidden from Willhide-Michiulis’s vision by accident or design.
Given these facts, we cannot conclude, as plaintiffs would have us do, that Mann’s failure to timely signal his turn or Mammoth’s failure to provide spotters or warn of the specific dangers of a tiller constituted gross negligence. Given all the other warnings provided by Mammoth and Mann, plaintiffs cannot show “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC., supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.) Accordingly, Mammoth was successful in meeting its burden to show the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint lacked merit.
No Triable Issue Of Fact Exists To Preclude Summary Judgment
Because Mammoth met its initial burden, plaintiffs now have the burden to show that a triable issue of fact exists. Plaintiffs argue that one does exist because the way Mann drove the snowcat at the time of the collision was grossly negligent. In addition to the allegations in the complaint — that operating a snowcat and tiller [*36] on an open run was grossly negligent — plaintiffs alleged in their opposition that Mann was grossly negligent also for failing to use a turn signal when making a sharp left turn from the center of a snow run onto an unmarked service road without warning skiers of his presence or the possibility that a snowcat would turn at the locations of Old Boneyard Road. They point to their experts’ declarations and Mann’s violations of Mammoth’s safety standards as support for this contention.
“‘Generally it is a triable issue of fact whether there has been such a lack of care as to constitute gross negligence [citation] but not always.'” (Chavez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 632, 640, 189 Cal. Rptr. 3d 449, quoting Decker v. City of Imperial Beach (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 349, 358, 257 Cal. Rptr. 356; see also City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 767 [“we emphasize the importance of maintaining a distinction between ordinary and gross negligence, and of granting summary judgment on the basis of that distinction in appropriate circumstances”].) Where the evidence on summary judgment fails to demonstrate a triable issue of material fact, the existence of gross negligence can be resolved as a matter of law. (See Honeycutt v. Meridian Sports Club, LLC (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 251, 260, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 473 [stating a mere difference of opinion regarding how a student should be instructed does not amount to gross negligence]; Frittelli, Inc. v. 350 North Canon Drive, LP (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 35, 52-53, 135 Cal. Rptr. 3d 761 [no triable issue of material fact precluding summary [*37] judgment, even though the evidence raised conflicting inferences regarding whether measures undertaken by the defendants were effective to mitigate effects on commercial tenant of remodeling project]; Grebing v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 631, 639, 184 Cal. Rptr. 3d 155 [no triable issue of material fact where defendant took several measures to ensure that its exercise equipment, on which plaintiff was injured, was well maintained].)”
As described, Mann’s driving of the snowcat with a tiller on an open run was not grossly negligent and was, in fact, an inherent part of the sport of snowboarding and conduct contemplated by the parties in the release of liability agreement. The question now is whether the additional conduct alleged in plaintiffs’ opposition — Mann’s failure to use a turn signal, making of a sharp left turn from the middle of the snow run, failure to warn skiers on mambo of his presence, and failure to warn skiers of the existence of Old Boneyard Road — elevated Mann’s conduct to gross negligence. We conclude it does not.
We have already described why plaintiffs’ claims that Mann failed to provide adequate warning of his existence on the snow run and of his turn did not rise to the level of gross negligence. His additional alleged conduct [*38] of driving down the middle of the snow run and making a sharp left turn onto an unmarked service road also do not justify a finding of gross negligence in light of the precautions taken by both Mammoth and Mann. Mammoth warned plaintiffs of the possible presence of snow-grooming equipment in its season-pass contracts, trail maps, and throughout the ski resort. Mann also turned on the snowcat’s warning lights, beacon, and audible alarm before driving down mambo. Mann testified he constantly looked for skiers and snowboarders while driving the snowcat down mambo and that he checked through the snowcat’s mirrors and windows to make sure he was clear before making the turn onto Old Boneyard Road. He also testified he did not drive the snowcat faster than ten miles an hour while on mambo and was traveling even slower during the turn. This fact was confirmed by Lester. Given these affirmative safety precautions, Mann’s failure to use a turn signal when turning from the middle of the run onto an unmarked service road did not equate to “‘either a “‘”want of even scant care”‘” or “‘”an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct.”‘”‘” (See Anderson v. Fitness Internat., LLC, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 881.)
Plaintiffs dispute this conclusion by [*39] citing to their expert declarations and Mammoth’s grooming guide as support that Mann’s conduct was an extreme departure from industry standards and Mammoth’s own safety policies. Evidence of conduct that evinces an extreme departure from safety directions or an industry standard could demonstrate gross negligence. (See Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 546, 561, 188 Cal. Rptr. 3d 228.) Conversely, conduct demonstrating the failure to guard against, or warn of, a dangerous condition typically does not rise to the level of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 264, 272, 248 Cal. Rptr. 330.)
To illustrate this point, plaintiffs cite two cases. First, they rely on Jimenez. In Jimenez, one of the plaintiffs was injured when she fell backwards off of a moving treadmill and hit her head on an exercise machine that was approximately four feet behind the treadmill. (Jimenez v. 24 Hour Fitness USA, Inc., supra, 237 Cal.App.4th at p. 549.) The plaintiffs presented evidence “indicating a possible industry standard on treadmill safety zones,” including the manufacturer’s statement in its manual that a six-foot space behind the treadmill was necessary for user safety and an expert’s statement that placing other equipment so close to the back of the treadmill greatly increased the risk of injury. (Id. at p. 556.) The court concluded, based on this evidence, a jury could reasonably find [*40] the failure to provide the minimum safety zone was an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care, and thus a triable issue of fact existed to preclude summary judgment. (Id. at p. 557.)
In Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072, 122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22, also relied upon by plaintiffs, the plaintiff was riding a motorcycle when he fell near a platform in an area out of view of other riders at a motocross facility, and was struck by another cyclist. (Id. at pp. 1072, 1077.) The caution flagger, who was supposed to have staffed the platform to alert riders to the presence of fallen cyclists, was not on duty when plaintiff fell. The court found the release plaintiff signed unenforceable against a claim of gross negligence. (Id. at pp. 1077, 1081.) It noted the dangerous nature of the sport, and also found a specific duty on the part of the course operator to provide some form of warning system such as the presence of caution flaggers. (Id. at p. 1084.) Also, the course owner had a safety manual requiring flaggers to stay at their stations whenever riders were on the course, and expert testimony was presented that caution flaggers were required at all such times. (Id. at p. 1086.) Because the evidence could support a finding that the absence of a caution flagger was an extreme and egregious departure from the standard of [*41] care given the applicable safety manual and in light of knowledge of the particular dangers posed, the claim of gross negligence should have survived summary judgment. (Id. at p. 1089.)
Plaintiffs’ reliance on these cases is misplaced for two reasons. First, unlike Jimenez and Rosencrans, plaintiffs presented no expert evidence regarding the safety standards applicable to snowcat drivers. (See Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd., supra, 192 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1086-1087 [triable issue of fact as to gross negligence where a safety expert’s declaration described common safety precautions for motocross and stated that the defendant’s failure to take those safety precautions constituted an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct and showed a blatant disregard for the safety of the participants].) And second, plaintiffs did not produce evidence showing that Mammoth failed to take any safety precautions required by company safety policies.
As described, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the experts’ declarations from evidence. The declarations did nothing more than to provide conclusions that Mann’s and Mammoth’s conduct violated industry standards and constituted gross negligence. The experts did not articulate what the industry standards [*42] for driving a snowcat or for protecting the skiing public from a snowcat actually were, let alone how Mann and Mammoth violated them. Instead, the experts merely provided their opinions that Mammoth and Mann failed to guard from or warn of the dangerous condition the snowcat and tiller posed. This is insufficient for a showing of gross negligence. (See DeVito v. State of California, supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at p. 272.)
Plaintiffs’ reliance on Mammoth’s grooming guide is likewise misplaced. Plaintiffs characterize the grooming guide as containing “safety standard[s],” which Mann violated by operating the snowcat’s tiller while the public was present. The grooming guide, however, does not purport to be a safety guide or to set safety standards for Mammoth’s snowcat operators. Instead, it is a “manual” where snowcat operators “will find a basis for all training that is a part of the Slope Maintenance Department.” While “all training” may also include safety training, nothing submitted by plaintiffs indicate that the excerpts they rely on are industry or company-wide safety standards as opposed to Mammoth’s guide to “acceptable high quality” grooming.
For example, the grooming guide instructs drivers to “[n]ever operate the tiller when the skiing public is present.” But [*43] the guide also justifies a snowcat’s presence in areas open to the public during emergencies, periods of extremely heavy snow, or for transportation of personnel or materials. Here, there was extremely heavy snow and a hazardous condition requiring Mann to drive a snowcat on public snow runs. The guide further instructs drivers that track marks left behind by a snowcat without a tiller are “not acceptable” and must be removed. It was Mann’s understanding from these guidelines that once a snowcat’s presence was justified in an area open to the public, the tiller also had to be running to leave behind safe skiing conditions.
Further, the guide instructs snowcat drivers to travel on a groomed snow run instead of on ungroomed snow on either side of the run. This is because ungroomed snow is made of unstable soft snow that cannot support the weight of a snowcat. According to the grooming guide, driving on a finished groomed run “is better than risking your cat or your life” on the ungroomed snow on the sides of the run. Thus, Mann did not violate Mammoth’s safety policy by driving down the center of a snow run when traveling to Old Boneyard Road and operating the snowcat’s tiller on a public [*44] run. Because it is not reasonable a jury would find Mann violated safety policies contained in the grooming guide, let alone that that violation constituted more than mere negligence, plaintiffs have not shown that Mann’s or Mammoth’s conduct rose to the level of gross negligence.
Plaintiffs contend the trial court abused its discretion when denying their motion to transfer venue to Los Angeles County where they initially filed their suit. Specifically, plaintiffs argue their motion should have been granted because it was more convenient for the parties and their witnesses to have trial in Los Angeles County and because plaintiffs could not receive a fair trial in Mono County. Thus, plaintiffs argue, “upon reversal of summary judgment, the trial court should be directed to issue an order transferring this action back to Los Angeles.”
As plaintiffs acknowledge, a reversal of the court’s summary judgment order is a vital initial step to reversal of the trial court’s order regarding venue. This is because without first showing that their case is active and trial is pending, plaintiffs cannot show a miscarriage of justice resulting from the denial of their venue motion.
We are enjoined [*45] by our Constitution not to reverse any judgment “for any error as to any matter of procedure, unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 13; see also Code Civ. Proc., § 475.) Prejudice is not presumed, and “our duty to examine the entire cause arises when and only when the appellant has fulfilled his duty to tender a proper prejudice argument.” (Paterno v. State of California (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 68, 106, 87 Cal. Rptr. 2d 754.)
Plaintiffs cannot show prejudice resulting from the denial of their venue motion because we upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling and their case has been dismissed. Thus, even if the venue motion should have been granted and venue transferred to Los Angeles for trial, there is no trial to be had. Accordingly, we need not address plaintiffs’ claim of error regarding their motion to transfer venue.
The judgment is affirmed. Costs are awarded to defendants. (Cal. Rule of Court, rule 8.278, subd. (a)(1).)
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.Posted: May 14, 2018
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.
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
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.
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.
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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.Posted: April 16, 2018
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.
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
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.
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.
Copyright 2018 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Author: Outdoor Recreation Insurance, Risk Management and Law
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Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,
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
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.
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:
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).
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).
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).
For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.
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