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.
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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
Under California law, you assume the risk of getting hit by a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile while snowboarding.Posted: January 15, 2018
Both sides of this case created problems for themselves, and both sides stretched their credibility. In the end, it was easy for the plaintiff to lose because of that credibility gap created by the facts and when those facts were reported.
Plaintiff: Dominique Forrester
Defendant: Sierra at Tahoe
Plaintiff Claims: General Negligence are Claims for Breach of Statutory Duty; Negligence Per Se; Gross Negligence and/or Reckless Conduct; and/or Common Carrier Liability
Defendant Defenses: assumption of the risk
Holding: for the defendant
Snowboarder loses suit claiming a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile hit him on a beginner slope. By reporting the incident after he left the resort, he created a credibility issue.
In the end, getting hit by a toboggan being towed by a snowmobile is a risk you assume when skiing in California.
The facts in a case like this are always screwy to begin with and in my opinion, screwy from both sides of the litigation. The plaintiff and a friend were snowboarding. The plaintiff was filming his friend doing jumps. After the last jump, the plaintiff snowboarded toward the bottom which was on a beginner run waiting for his friend. While waiting, he heard someone yell, and he was hit by a toboggan. He hit his head suffering injuries. The plaintiff thought he saw a ski patroller driving away with the toboggan attached to the snowmobile. The fall broke some of his equipment also.
His friend saw the incident and stated that the driver was wearing a different uniform from what the plaintiff reported. Neither of them saw lights nor a flag on the snowmobile.
The plaintiff and his friend did not report the injury but drove home. On the way home they decided the plaintiff should call Sierra. He did and got a recording machine. He then started vomiting.
The next day the plaintiff hurt all over. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a concussion, a whiplash and disc degeneration.
The plaintiff called the ski area the next day and was told there was no one for him to talk to. He was to call back Wednesday. Wednesday, he called back and filed a report.
Forrester called Sierra again on Monday morning. He was told there was no one with whom he could discuss the incident and to call back on Wednesday. He called Wednesday and spoke with Evan MacClellan, the risk manager. MacClellan completed an incident report based on the phone call. The report described the injury as occurring at the bottom of Broadway near the terrain park. The report described that Forrester was hit by a “snowmobile” (patroller), got up after the incident, and did not report it. On the way home he started to vomit and went to the hospital the next day. The report listed Medina as a witness and included his telephone number.
The same day the plaintiff contacted an attorney.
The ski area investigated the claim. No ski patrollers or terrain park employees knew of any collision with a toboggan and a snowboarder.
MacClellan spoke with the ski patrol and terrain park employees about Forrester’s claim. None of the ski patrollers on duty that day or others with whom they spoke recalled any accident or collision. Both MacClellan and the general manager, John Rice, were suspicious of the claim; in 37 years in the ski industry, Rice had never seen a report made days after the incident. MacClellan did not call Medina, although Forrester had identified him as a witness. MacClellan could not determine that the accident actually took place. He first learned that Forrester claimed the collision was with a towed toboggan rather than the snowmobile itself after Forrester’s deposition.
Obviously, the ski area felt that no collision or accident had occurred. The case went to trial, and the plaintiff lost because the jury found he had assumed the risk of injuries.
Normally, juries like judges are asked to assemble, to a limited extent, the facts upon which they base their decision. In this case that was not done.
As we noted earlier, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because the collision itself was in dispute. Because the jury was not asked to make any preliminary factual findings, we cannot even assume that it found a collision occurred. We know only that the jury found Sierra did not unreasonably increase the inherent risk of snowboarding by its conduct on the day in question–whatever its conduct was found to be.
The plaintiff appealed the decision.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court first looked into the issues surrounding the snowmobile. The defendant kept a checklist that was to be completed each day before the snowmobile was ridden. The checklist was not kept after it was completed.
Sierra requires its snowmobile drivers to follow a safety checklist and check lights, brakes, and other functions before a snowmobile is taken out. The checklist is a written form detailing the items to be checked and the name of the person taking out the snowmobile. The checklist is discarded daily unless an entry triggers a need for snowmobile maintenance. Due to this practice of discarding the checklist daily, no attempt was made to find the checklists for March 7, and the driver of the snowmobile allegedly involved in the accident was never found.
The day in question was one of the busiest of the year. The ski area employees testified that it was so buy, it would have been impossible to drive a snowmobile through the crowd on the slope in question.
The court then reviewed the evidence of the competing expert witnesses, both of whom offered testimony that at best seems stretched and will be ignored here and was ignored a lot by the court.
The court then reviewed the defenses offered by the ski area, starting with Primary Assumption of the Risk.
“Primary assumption of risk is a complete bar to recovery. It applies when, as a matter of law, the defendant owes no duty to guard against a particular risk of harm.” “Primary assumption of risk occurs where a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sporting event or activity involving certain inherent risks. For example, an errantly thrown ball in baseball or a carelessly extended elbow in basketball are considered inherent risks of those respective sports.”
Ski areas and other operators, sponsors and instructors of recreational activities have no duty to eliminate the risk. They do have a duty not to increase the risk beyond those inherent in the sport. The court based on this analysis looked at whether a toboggan is an inherent risk of skiing and boarding and found it was.
We first address the threshold question of whether unwanted contact with a snowmobile is, in general, an inherent risk of snowboarding. We conclude that it is.
On at least two occasions, this court has found a collision with resort equipment at a ski resort to be an inherent risk of the sport.
In both examples, the court compared the collisions to collisions with stationary objects, a lift tower and a tree.
The court looked at the facts in this case and concluded the incident was a collision with a toboggan, rather than a toboggan hitting a snowboarder. I suspect the facts in the two cases the court reviewed would have different conclusions if the lift tower or the tree had hit the skiers?
To reach this conclusion, the court went back to the statements of the experts of both the plaintiff and the defendant who testified that snowmobiles were a standard practice in the sport of skiing.
There are many inherent risks of injury and emergency in skiing and snowboarding, and snowmobiles are used to respond quickly to injuries as well as to other emergencies such as lift malfunctions requiring evacuation, fire, gas leaks, and altercations. It appears to us that the use of snowmobiles on the ski slopes at ski resorts is at least as necessary to the sport as the snowmaking equipment in Souza or the directional signs acknowledged as “necessary” in Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd.
The court then also looked at Secondary Assumption of Risk.
The term “assumption of risk” has been “used in connection with two classes of cases: those in which the issue to be resolved was whether the defendant actually owed the plaintiff a duty of care (primary assumption of risk), and those in which the defendant had breached a duty of care but where the issue was whether the plaintiff had chosen to face the risk of harm presented by the defendant’s breach of duty (secondary assumption of risk). In the latter class of cases, we concluded; the issue could be resolved by applying the doctrine of comparative fault, and the plain-tiff’s decision to face the risk would not operate as a complete bar to recovery. In such a case, the plaintiffs knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence.
The court held that discussing secondary assumption of risk was not necessary in this case because the jury found the defendant was not liable because of primary assumption of the risk.
The plaintiff also argued that an evidentiary ruling should have been made in the plaintiff’s favor because the defendant failed to keep the snowmobile checklist. The rules and laws of what evidence should be kept or can be destroyed to have changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and this area of law is a hot bed of litigation and arguments.
However, the court moved around this issue because the checklist was destroyed every day. The defendant gave the plaintiff a list of the possible drivers of snowmobiles at the resort. Because the checklist was only used by the first driver, and the snowmobile could have been ridden by someone other than the driver who completed the checklist, the court found it was not critical to the case. The plaintiff request of the information had occurred after the checklist had been destroyed as was the habit for the defendant.
So Now What?
First being hit by an object being towed by a snowmobile inbounds in California is an assumed risk. This is the first case f this type I have found. Every other case where the defendant has been held not liable because of assumption of the risk at a ski area was based on the skier or boarder hitting a fixed object.
Second, credibility maybe all you have in some cases. Consequently, you never want to stretch or destroy your credibility, and you do not want your experts to do the same.
Last, if you are hurt at a resort, get help at the resort. Some of the plaintiff’s injuries might have been mitigated if treated immediately.
However, all the above issues could be crap, if the jury ruled not because they believed the plaintiff assumed the risk, but because they did not believe the plaintiff at all.
Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Dominique Forrester, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Sierra at Tahoe, Defendant and Respondent.
COURT OF APPEAL OF CALIFORNIA, THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT
2017 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5204
July 27, 2017, Opinion Filed
NOTICE: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Review denied by Forrester v. Sierra at Tahoe, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 7927 (Cal., Oct. 11, 2017)
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1] Superior Court of El Dorado County, No. PC20120138.
CORE TERMS: snowmobile, collision, ski, inherent risk, snowboarding, sport, checklist, toboggan, driver, ski resort, skiing, unreasonably, assumption of risk, slope, secondary, emergency, resort, ski area, skier, hit, snowboarder, patroller, patrol, risks inherent, instructional error, lift, discarded, siren, suppression, tower
JUDGES: Duarte, J.; Butz, Acting P. J., Mauro, J. concurred.
OPINION BY: Duarte, J.
Plaintiff Dominique Forrester was injured while snowboarding at defendant ski resort Sierra-at-Tahoe (Sierra) on March 7, 2010. He claimed he was hit by a toboggan, that in turn was being towed by a snowmobile, while on a beginner slope. The trial court found assumption of the risk applied to the claim, and the case went to the jury to answer the question of whether Sierra unreasonably increased the risk to Forrester above that already inherent in the sport of snowboarding. By a vote of 10 to 2, the jury answered “no.”
On appeal, plaintiff contends the trial court erred in ruling that primary assumption of the risk applied to this case, and instructing the jury accordingly. Plaintiff argues a collision with a snowmobile is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. He further contends the court incorrectly instructed the jury on secondary assumption of the risk, and erred in refusing to instruct on the willful suppression of evidence.
As we will explain, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because the very existence of the alleged accident–the collision itself–was [*2] and remains in dispute. We first conclude that unwanted contact with a snowmobile (here encompassing a towed toboggan), on a ski slope at a ski resort, is indeed an inherent risk of snowboarding. Although Forrester argues the particular alleged circumstances of the operation of the snowmobile on the day of the incident took the collision outside the boundaries of inherent risk, that issue was tendered to the jury and the jury found Sierra did not unreasonably increase the risks already inherent in snowboarding
We assume instructional error on secondary assumption of the risk but find no prejudice, and conclude that the evidence did not support an instruction on willful suppression of the evidence.
Accordingly, we affirm the judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The Alleged Accident
On Sunday, March 7, 2010, Forrester met his high school friend, Franklin Medina, for a day of snowboarding at Sierra. That day was the busiest of the year, with about 6,370 people at the resort. Forrester described himself as an intermediate snowboarder who does not perform jumps. He did not wear ear buds or ear phones while snowboarding and did not recall ever seeing a snowmobile in a ski area before that [*3] day.
At about 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., Forrester was filming Medina doing jumps. After the last jump, Medina snowboarded down the run to wait for Forrester. The bottom area of the ski run is known as Broadway; it is a beginner run near the teaching area and close to the lodge.
According to Forrester, as he began to snowboard down Broadway, he heard someone yell “hey.” He tried to turn around and was hit in the back of the legs. He went airborne and landed on his bottom and then hit his head. His goggles cut his face. He was hurt and dizzy. The snowmobile was 30 yards away when Forrester first saw it, and the driver “took off.” Forrester thought the driver’s jacket was orange or red, but he was not sure. He assumed only ski patrollers, who wear orange-red jackets, operated snowmobiles. He thought the snowmobile driver was wearing a beanie. Forrester did not hear the snowmobile. After the collision, Forrester slid down the mountain, and some other snowboarders asked if he was okay. He did not realize his equipment was broken until he later responded to special interrogatories.
Medina claimed he saw the incident, and that the snowmobile was in front of Forrester’s path and pulling a toboggan. [*4] He saw the toboggan clip Forrester’s feet and “take him out.” The snowmobile was going two or three times faster than Forrester. Forrester took his equipment off and walked down the mountain. Medina claimed the driver of the snowmobile was wearing a black and purple vest like the ones worn by terrain park employees (rather than the orange and red jacket described by Forrester). Medina did not see any lights on the snowmobile and did not notice a flag, nor did he hear a siren.
Forrester did not report the accident, but tried to “walk off” the injury. On the way home Forrester and Medina discussed that Forrester had been hit and decided they should call Sierra. Forrester called just after 5:00 p.m. and got an answering machine. Forrester began vomiting and they stopped in Placerville where Medina took pictures of his face. Medina drove Forrester home.
The next day, Monday, Forrester hurt all over his body, including a bad headache. He went to his doctor who ordered a CT scan, the results of which were normal. Over the next few days, Forrester’s back began to hurt. He was diagnosed with a concussion and a whiplash back injury. Forrester was later diagnosed with disc degeneration with a [*5] prognosis of ongoing pain.
Reporting the Accident
Forrester called Sierra again on Monday morning. He was told there was no one with whom he could discuss the incident and to call back on Wednesday. He called Wednesday and spoke with Evan MacClellan, the risk manager. MacClellan completed an incident report based on the phone call. The report described the injury as occurring at the bottom of Broadway near the terrain park. The report described that Forrester was hit by a “snowmobile (patroller),” got up after the incident, and did not report it. On the way home he started to vomit and went to the hospital the next day. The report listed Medina as a witness and included his telephone number.
Forrester contacted an attorney the same day he spoke with MacClellan. Forrester sent MacClellan a written report, in which he stated he “was involved in a collision with a Sierra Ski Patrol Officer (Ski Patroller) whom [sic] was driving a snow mobile, towing a stretcher. . . . The Ski Patroller was apparently attempting to cross from my left, which was behind me (I have a ‘regular’ board stance), across my face, to the right of me when he collided into me from my blind side. As a result I flew over [*6] him and crashed very hard into the mountain. I suffered a head injury, as well as whiplash, and subsequently blacked out for a short period of time.” The statement continued that Forrester did not see the “patroller” and heard no sirens; he heard only a brief “hey” right before the impact. His friend Medina had witnessed the collision and could not believe it; other snowboarders asked if Forrester was okay, but the ski patrol did not.
MacClellan spoke with the ski patrol and terrain park employees about Forrester’s claim. None of the ski patrollers on duty that day or others with whom they had spoken recalled any accident or collision. Both MacClellan and the general manager, John Rice, were suspicious of the claim; in 37 years in the ski industry, Rice had never seen a report made days after the incident. MacClellan did not call Medina, although Forrester had identified him as a witness. MacClellan could not determine that the accident actually took place. He first learned that Forrester claimed the collision was with a towed toboggan rather than the snowmobile itself after Forrester’s deposition.
The Lawsuit and Trial
Forrester brought suit against Sierra for general negligence and [*7] premises liability. The complaint stated: “Included in the Cause of Action for General Negligence are Claims for Breach of Statutory Duty; Negligence Per Se; Gross Negligence and/or Reckless Conduct; and/or Common Carrier Liability.” Forrester took some theories of liability “off the table” and the trial court granted defendant’s motion for nonsuit as to others. As we explain in more detail, post, the matter was submitted to the jury as an assumption of the risk case, with the jury asked to determine whether Sierra unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snowboarding
Sierra requires its snowmobile drivers to follow a safety checklist and check lights, brakes, and other functions before a snowmobile is taken out. The checklist is a written form detailing the items to be checked and the name of the person taking out the snowmobile. The checklist is discarded on a daily basis unless an entry triggers a need for snowmobile maintenance. Due to this practice of discarding the checklist daily, no attempt was made to find the checklists for March 7, and the driver of the snowmobile allegedly involved in the accident was never found. At trial, Sierra stipulated that anyone [*8] driving a snowmobile at the resort that day would have been employed by Sierra. The checklist would not necessarily reveal the identity of the driver of the snowmobile in any event, because once the snowmobile is checked out others may use it without completing a new checklist. Sierra maintains no record showing who is using a snowmobile at a particular time on a specific date.
A snowmobile is a loud machine; its sound is comparable to a motorcycle or lawnmower. The flashing lights are always on if the snowmobile is running, but the siren can be turned on and off. It is against Sierra’s policy to operate a snowmobile without a siren when guests are present. The snowmobile has an attached fiberglass pole with a flag atop, to aid in visibility. March 7, 2010, was a peak day and there was a blackout on the use of snowmobiles in the ski areas except for emergencies. Rice defined emergencies as ski patrol rescue, lift evacuation, a fire or gas leak on the hill, and to carry law enforcement to an altercation. There were no documented emergencies the day of the incident. MacClellan testified that with 6,000 people on the ski slopes, it would be “virtually impossible” to drive a snowmobile [*9] through the Broadway area.
The ski patrol uses orange toboggans for rescue, which are stored in different locations on the mountain and used to transport injured guests. Patrollers take them uphill by chair lift or by snowmobile. Snowmobiles are rarely used to take a toboggan down the mountain; usually a patroller skis them down. Snowmobiles do not tow injured guests in a toboggan.
In addition to medical experts, plaintiff called a ski safety consultant and an accident reconstructionist. Richard Penniman testified as an expert on ski area mountain operations. He testified it was below industry standard to have a snowmobile on the ski slopes when a large number of people are present. On a run like Broadway that is designed for beginners, it was very dangerous to have anything present other than skiers and snowboarders. It was below the industry standard to use the Broadway area as a snowmobile route. Penniman added snowmobiles are only a convenience and a ski resort can operate without them. He conceded, however, that it was standard practice for ski areas to use snowmobiles and agreed they were extremely useful in an emergency where the risk they create might be worth [*10] it. He agreed with the policy of Sierra-at-Tahoe not to use snowmobiles on busy days except in the case of an emergency. In Penniman’s opinion, Sierra’s conduct in operating a snowmobile the day of the incident increased the risk of injury to skiers and snowboarders.
Jesse Wobrock, an accident reconstructionist and bioengineer, prepared an animation of the accident. He testified the accident had “an injury mechanism for both the lumbar spine and the traumatic brain injury.” The damage to Forrester’s left binding was consistent with the height of the toboggan, as was the orange color transfer on the binding. Wobrock testified the physical evidence corroborated the eyewitness testimony. In his opinion, the snowboard went between the tread of the snowmobile and the toboggan; the toboggan ran over the snowboard.
John Gardiner, a forensic engineer and biomechanic, testified for the defense. He opined there was neither consistent testimony nor sufficient physical evidence to conclude what occurred that day. Gardiner testified that if Forrester’s left binding made contact with a toboggan, the contact occurred at the rear portion of the toboggan. If the contact had been near the [*11] front of the toboggan, the snowboard would have hit the treads of the snowmobile and caused damage; there was no evidence of damage to the front of the snowboard. In Gardiner’s opinion, the force involved in Forrester’s fall would not have caused a lumbar disc injury and a concussion. Gardiner also testified that Medina’s view of the accident would have been obstructed by the snowmobile and its driver and that Wobrock’s animation of the incident was inconsistent with the laws of physics and Forrester’s testimony.
The defense pointed out the many inconsistencies between Medina’s deposition and his trial testimony, such as where he dropped off Forrester, whether Forrester wore a helmet, Forrester’s level of skill on a snowboard, the time they finished snowboarding, and whether Medina saw the snowmobile before the collision. Medina had changed his story only after talking to Forrester. The defense argued the differences between the testimony of Medina and Forrester as to the color of the snowmobile, the clothing of the driver, the location of the accident, and the timing showed that Forrester failed to carry his burden of proof as to what happened. The defense questioned how Forrester [*12] could fail to see or hear the snowmobile and offered three possibilities: (1) the collision had not happened; (2) Forrester was not paying attention; or (3) Forrester saw the snowmobile, but not the toboggan and tried to cut behind. The defense argued number three was the most reasonable and Forrester did not report the accident because he felt it was his fault.
As relevant here, the court instructed the jury as follows:
“[CACI No.] 410. Dominique Forrester claims he was harmed while participating in snowboarding at the snow — at the Sierra at Tahoe Ski resort. To establish this claim Dominique Forrester must prove all of the following:
“1. That Sierra at Tahoe was the owner of the ski resort and that its employee was operating the snowmobile in issue in this case. Sierra at Tahoe admits that it is the owner of the ski resort and only its employee would have had access to and would have been operating a snowmobile on the ski resort.
“2. Dominique Forrester must also prove that Sierra at Tahoe unreasonably increased the risk to Dominique Forrester over and above those inherent in snowboarding;
“3. And Dominique Forrester must prove that Dominique Forrester was harmed; and lastly [*13]
“4. That Sierra at Tahoe’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Dominique Forrester’s harm.
“[Modified CACI No.] 405. Sierra at Tahoe claims that Dominique contributed to his harm. To succeed on this claim, Sierra at Tahoe must prove the following:
“1. That Dominique Forrester assumed the risks that led to his injury; and
“2. That Dominique Forrester’s assumption of those risks was a substantial factor in causing his harm.
“If Sierra at Tahoe proves the above, Dominique Forrester’s damages are reduced by your determinations of the percentage of Dominique Forrester’s responsibility. I will calculate the actual reduction.”
Verdict and Motion for New Trial
During deliberations, the jury asked for a definition of “unreasonable” and to have Rice’s testimony about reports of emergencies that day reread. With the parties’ approval, the court responded to the first request as follows: “‘Unreasonable’ – is conduct that is contrary to conduct that a prudent person would exercise in the same or similar circumstances e.g. conduct that is careless, irrational, foolish, unwise, senseless, immoderate, exorbitant or arbitrary under the circumstances.”
By a vote of 10 to 2, the jury found Sierra did [*14] not unreasonably increase the risks to Forrester over and above those inherent in snowboarding in a ski area. Because the jury’s answer to this first question was “no,” it did not answer any additional questions contained in the verdict forms.
Forrester moved for a new trial, contending assumption of the risk did not apply to the case, there were evidentiary errors, and the court erred in not instructing on suppression of evidence. The court denied the motion.1
1 The record does not contain an order denying the motion. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 660, if there was no order, the effect is a denial of the motion.
Assumption of the Risk
A. The Law
“Primary assumption of risk is a complete bar to recovery. It applies when, as a matter of law, the defendant owes no duty to guard against a particular risk of harm.” (Gregory v. Cott (2014) 59 Cal.4th 996, 1001, 176 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1, 331 P.3d 179.) “Primary assumption of risk occurs where a plaintiff voluntarily participates in a sporting event or activity involving certain inherent risks. For example, an errantly thrown ball in baseball or a carelessly extended elbow in basketball are considered inherent risks of those respective sports.” (Wattenbarger v. Cincinnati Reds, Inc. (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 746, 751, 33 Cal. Rptr. 2d 732.)
“The primary assumption of risk doctrine rests on a straightforward policy foundation: the need to avoid chilling vigorous participation in or sponsorship of recreational activities by imposing a tort duty to eliminate or [*15] reduce the risks of harm inherent in those activities. It operates on the premise that imposing such a legal duty ‘would work a basic alteration–or cause abandonment’ of the activity.” (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1156, 150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158.) “[U]nder the primary assumption of risk doctrine, operators, sponsors and instructors in recreational activities posing inherent risks of injury have no duty to eliminate those risks, but do owe participants the duty not to unreasonably increase the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)
“Snowboarding is a classic example of a sport that requires participants to assume considerable risks.” (Vine v. Bear Valley Ski Co. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 577, 603, 13 Cal. Rptr. 3d 370 (Vine).) Courts have recognized many risks inherent in skiing and snowboarding. “Those risks include injuries from variations in terrain, surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions, moguls, bare spots, rocks, trees, and other forms of natural growth or debris. They also include collisions with other skiers, ski lift towers, and other properly marked or plainly visible objects and equipment.” (Lackner v. North (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1188, 1202, 37 Cal. Rptr. 3d 863.)
Whether the assumption of risk doctrine applies in a particular case is a question of law.”2 (Amezcua v. Los Angeles Harley-Davidson, Inc. (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 217, 227, 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 567.)
2 Although Forrester recognizes the question of whether assumption of the risk applies is a question of law reviewed de novo, he devotes a considerable portion of his briefing to arguing the trial court’s two analyses, first before trial and then on the motion for a new trial, were incorrect. “In reviewing a trial court’s decision, we review the result, not the reasoning.” (Florio v. Lau (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 637, 653, 80 Cal. Rptr. 2d 409.)
B. Application to this Case
As we noted earlier, this case is unusual among liability cases in general because [*16] the collision itself was in dispute. Because the jury was not asked to make any preliminary factual findings, we cannot even assume that it found a collision occurred. We know only that the jury found Sierra did not unreasonably increase the inherent risk of snowboarding by its conduct on the day in question–whatever its conduct was found to be. With this in mind, we turn to Forrester’s first claim of error.
Forrester contends a collision with a snowmobile is not an inherent risk of snowboarding. He argues that although some collisions–such as with trees or other skiers or snowboarders–are inherent risks, the line should be drawn at a collision between an individual and a motorized vehicle. He asserts assumption of the risk has no role in the circumstances he claims were present here: an unmarked snowmobile with no lights, siren or flag, operated by a non-safety employee on a busy beginner slope, contrary to the safety policies of the ski resort.
Sierra counters that the circumstances Forrester claims were present here, outlined immediately above, would have unreasonably increased the risks undertaken by Forrester had the jury found the circumstances were as Forrester alleged. Sierra [*17] argues that it is apparent from the jury’s “no” vote that it found circumstances more closely aligned to those alleged by the defense, such as the absence of any collision (and even the absence of any snowmobile) whatsoever and other facts favorable to Sierra.
We first address the threshold question of whether unwanted contact with a snowmobile is, in general, an inherent risk of snowboarding. We conclude that it is.
On at least two occasions, this court has found a collision with resort equipment at a ski resort to be an inherent risk of the sport.
In Connelly v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 45 Cal. Rptr. 2d 855 (Connelly), the plaintiff collided with an unpadded ski lift tower while skiing. In affirming summary judgment for the defendant, we found this risk was inherent in the sport, and the obvious danger of the tower served as its own warning. (Id. at p. 12.) In concluding that contact with the tower was an inherent risk of the sport, the Connelly court relied on Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Associates, Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 266 Cal. Rptr. 749, where a skier collided with a tree. Danieley, in turn, relied on a Michigan statute that set forth certain inherent risks of skiing, including both trees and “‘collisions with ski lift towers and their components'” along with properly marked or plainly visible “‘snow-making or snow-grooming [*18] equipment.'” (Id. at p. 123.) “[B]ecause the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act purports to reflect the pre-existing common law, we regard its statutory pronouncements as persuasive authority for what the common law in this subject-matter area should be in California.” (Ibid.)
In Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 41 Cal. Rptr. 3d 389 (Souza), a child skier collided with a plainly visible aluminum snowmaking hydrant located on a ski run. Following Connelly, we affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, finding the snowmaking hydrant was visible and a collision with it was an inherent risk of skiing. (Id. at p. 268.)
A snowmobile is not one of the risks specifically identified in the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act, and we have not found a published case specifically deciding whether a collision on a ski slope with a snowmobile is an inherent risk of skiing or snowboarding. Nevertheless, collision with certain vehicles has been included. While Souza involved only stationary equipment, the Michigan Ski Area Safety Act–which Danieley and Connelly accepted as reflecting the common law–included a collision with snow-grooming equipment as an inherent risk. Thus, collisions with some vehicles are recognized as inherent risks of the sports of skiing and snowboarding.
We recognize that assumption [*19] of the risk applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. (Souza, supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 268.) In Souza, snowmaking equipment was necessary to the sport of skiing because nature had failed to provide adequate snow. (Ibid.) As in Souza, we find the following quote from Verro v. New York Racing Ass’n, Inc. (1989) 142 A.D.2d 396, 400, 536 N.Y.S.2d 262 apt: “As is at least implicit in plaintiff’s argument, if only the risks of ordinary and necessary dangers inherent in a sport are deemed assumed, the doctrine of [primary] assumption of risk . . . would not apply to obvious, known conditions so long as a defendant could feasibly have provided safer conditions. Then, obviously, such risks would not be ‘necessary’ or ‘inherent’. This would effectively emasculate the doctrine, however, changing the critical inquiry . . . to whether the defendant had a feasible means to remedy [the dangers].”
Forrester’s expert Penniman claimed snowmobiles were merely a convenience and a ski resort could operate without them. He also testified, however, that the use of snowmobiles was a standard practice at ski resorts. Although critical of their overuse, Penniman recognized their usefulness in an emergency. He agreed with Sierra’s policy, which permitted snowmobiles to be used on the ski slopes in cases of emergency, [*20] even on the busiest days. Thus Penniman agreed generally that the use of snowmobiles was necessary to ski resorts, although he disputed the specific circumstances under which that use might be warranted.
There are many inherent risks of injury and emergency in skiing and snowboarding, and snowmobiles are used to respond quickly to injuries as well as to other emergencies such as lift malfunctions requiring evacuation, fire, gas leaks, and altercations. It appears to us that the use of snowmobiles on the ski slopes at ski resorts is at least as necessary to the sport as the snowmaking equipment in Souza or the directional signs acknowledged as “necessary” in Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 775.
At least one unpublished federal case has found a collision with a snowmobile to be an inherent risk of skiing or snowboarding. In Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C. (D. Colo., Apr. 23, 2009, No. 08-CV-00052-MSK-MJW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, affd sub nom. Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C. (10th Cir. 2010) 363 Fed.Appx. 547, the court found “the specific risk of colliding with a snowmobile being operated by a ski resort employee is necessarily within the ‘risks of skiing/riding.'” (Id. at p. *7.) The court reasoned that since “the legislature has seen fit to specifically enact safety measures to prevent skier-snowmobile collisions, one can [*21] hardly argue that such a collision somehow falls outside of [plaintiff’s] express assumption of ‘all risks of skiing.'”3 (Ibid.)
3 Although California has no similar regulation of snowmobiles at ski slopes, the requirements of the Colorado law are similar to Sierra-at-Tahoe’s policy for snowmobile operation. “All snowmobiles operated on the ski slopes or trails of a ski area shall be equipped with at least the following: One lighted headlamp, one lighted red tail lamp, a brake system maintained in operable condition, and a fluorescent flag at least forty square inches mounted at least six feet above the bottom of the tracks.” (Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33-44-108, subd. (3).)
Based on the foregoing, we conclude the trial court did not err in ruling that primary assumption of the risk applies in this case and instructing the jury accordingly. To the extent that the evidence showed a snowmobile was operating at the resort and involved in an collision with Forrester that day, its presence and that of related equipment (here apparently a towed toboggan) on the slope was an inherent risk of snowboarding at the resort. However, that risk may well have been unreasonably increased by Sierra if the specific circumstances alleged by Forrester regarding the snowmobile’s use at the time of the alleged collision were believed by the jury. But the jury was presented with a variety of competing scenarios as to what happened at the resort that day. Although we do not know which evidence it credited and which it did not, we know that it did not consider the specific circumstances of the snowmobile’s operation that day to have unreasonably increased the risk already present from the necessary use of snowmobiles at resorts.4
4 The better practice in cases such as this one, where key facts–here even the preliminary fact as to whether there was a collision at all, let alone a collision between a snowboarder and a snowmobile towing a toboggan–are in dispute, is to craft the special verdict form to require the jury to make preliminary factual findings, here such as whether the alleged accident occurred at all and the particulars, if so. (See CACI No. 410, Directions for Use [“There may also be disputed facts that must be resolved by a jury before it can be determined if the doctrine applies”], citing Shin v. Ahn (2007) 42 Cal.4th 482, 486, 64 Cal. Rptr. 3d 803, 165 P.3d 581.)
In arguing that a collision [*22] with a motorized vehicle is not an inherent risk, Forrester relies on out-of-state cases, some unpublished. We find those cases distinguishable or not persuasive. In Verberkmoes v. Lutsen Mountains Corp. (D. Minn. 1994) 844 F.Supp. 1356, a skier collided with an unmarked all terrain vehicle (ATV) parked on or near a groomed trail. The court denied summary judgment for the defendant, finding the hazard of the parked ATV was within the control of the ski resort, not an obvious risk like a lift tower, and not a hidden risk like a snow-covered stump. (Id. at pp. 1358-1359.) Defendant’s “parking of the ATV on the trail during routine maintenance of the ski slope cannot be deemed, as a matter of law, an inherent risk of skiing.” (Id. at p. 1360.) Rather, it was “a danger that reasonable prudence on the part [of defendant] would have foreseen and corrected or at least placed a warning for skiers.” (Id. at p. 1359.) We find Verberkmoes distinguishable, largely because the decision was based on where the ATV was parked; the ski resort could have easily parked it elsewhere or warned against the hazard. Here, the question was whether the resort’s use of snowmobiles on the ski slopes and consequential possibility of contact with snowboarders was an inherent risk of snowboarding.
In Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. (D. Colo. 2015) 132 F.Supp.3d 1310, the defendant had argued that [*23] a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent danger and risk of skiing. The court had rejected this argument twice before, each time concluding “whether a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not necessarily a question of law because what is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not limited to the circumstances specifically enumerated in the [Ski Safety Act].” (Id. at p. 1316.) The court declined to address the argument again. (Ibid.)
We find this conclusory analysis unhelpful. For the reasons stated ante, we find a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent risk of snowboarding. As to whether this particular collision was the result of the inherent risk, the jury was properly tasked with determining whether Sierra’s operation of the snowmobile unreasonably increased the risk already inherent in snowboarding. This determination governed whether this particular collision was barred by the assumption of the risk doctrine.
Forrester also relies on an unpublished case from the state of Ohio, Coblentz v. Peters 2005 Ohio 1102, 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 1073, that found use of a motorized golf cart was not “an actual part of the sport of golf,” so the risk of being struck and injured by a golf cart “is not an ordinary risk of the game.” [*24] (Id. at ¶ 21.) To the limited extent this case is analogous, we decline to apply its narrow analysis to the sport of snowboarding and the associated risk of encountering the resort’s necessary equipment when on the ski slopes. (See Souza, supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at p. 269 [finding snowmaking equipment necessary to the sport of skiing].)
As we have noted, unlike many assumption of the risk cases, including those cited ante, here there is a genuine factual dispute as to what happened to Forrester and caused his injuries. The jury needed to resolve this factual dispute in order to determine whether Sierra unreasonably increased the inherent risk. Accordingly, the issue of whether recovery is barred by assumption of the risk could not be determined as a matter of law, such as by a motion for summary judgment, as is often the case. Here, we need not decide if Forrester’s specific collision was an inherent risk, but only the broader question of whether a collision with a snowmobile operated on the ski slopes of a resort is an inherent risk of snowboarding. If so, recovery is still possible if Sierra unreasonably increased the risk by the specific circumstances surrounding its operation of the snowmobile.
“Although defendants generally [*25] have no legal duty to eliminate (or protect a plaintiff against) risks inherent in the sport itself, it is well established that defendants generally do have a duty to use due care not to increase the risks to a participant over and above those inherent in the sport. Thus, although a ski resort has no duty to remove moguls from a ski run, it clearly does have a duty to use due care to maintain its towropes in a safe, working condition so as not to expose skiers to an increased risk of harm.” (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 315-316, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696.) Numerous cases have pondered the factual question of whether various ski resorts have increased the inherent risks of skiing or snowboarding. (See Vine, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 591 [redesign of snowboarding jump]; Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 366, 114 Cal. Rptr. 2d 265 [construction of the unmarked race start area on the ski run]; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd., supra, 67 Cal.App.4th 1317 [placement of signs in ski run].)
Forrester contends that even if the ski patrol’s use of a snowmobile is necessary to support the sport of snowboarding, the evidence here showed the snowmobile was not used for that purpose. Indeed, he claims that because the members of the ski patrol on duty that day denied being involved in a collision, the evidence established that the snowmobile was driven by a non-safety employee. He argues the trial court was required [*26] to resolve factual questions as to whether a member of the ski patrol was using the snowmobile before it determined whether assumption of risk applied.
We disagree with Forrester that the trial court was required to resolve these factual questions before submitting the case to the jury. Resolution of the factual issues as to how and by whom the snowmobile was operated “requires application of the governing standard of care (the duty not to increase the risks inherent in the sport) to the facts of this particular case–the traditional role of the trier of fact.” (Luna v. Vela (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 102, 112, 86 Cal. Rptr. 3d 588.) “Our conclusion it is for the trier of fact to determine whether Vela breached his limited duty not to increase the risks inherent in the sport of volleyball finds solid support in the Supreme Court’s most recent sports injury, primary assumption of the risk decision, Shin v. Ahn, supra, 42 Cal.4th 482 . . . . In Shin the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of a motion for summary judgment brought by a golfer who had struck one of his own playing partners with a tee shot. The court held the primary assumption of the risk doctrine regulates the duty a golfer owes both to playing partners and to other golfers on the course, found being hit by a stray [*27] golf shot was an inherent risk of the sport and concluded ‘golfers have a limited duty of care to other players, breached only if they intentionally injure them or engage in conduct that is “so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport.”‘ [Citation.] However, the Court also held whether the defendant had breached that limited duty of care by engaging in reckless conduct was a question for the trier of fact: ‘In determining whether defendant acted recklessly, the trier of fact will have to consider both the nature of the game and the totality of circumstances surrounding the shot. . . . [¶] Many factors will bear on whether a golfer’s conduct was reasonable, negligent, or reckless. . . . [¶] . . . This record is simply too sparse to support a finding, as a matter of law, that defendant did, or did not, act recklessly. This will be a question the jury will ultimately resolve based on a more complete examination of the facts.’ [Citation.]” (Luna, at pp. 112-113.) “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shin, we conclude as the Luna court did, that resolving the question of whether [defendant] increased the risk of falling is properly decided by the trier [*28] of fact.” (Fazio v. Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 1053, 1062, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 566.)
Forrester’s argument about the circumstances of the snowmobile’s use that day is premised upon the jury’s accepting his version of events–that a snowmobile hit him from behind, while driven by a non-safety employee who was not responding to an emergency and who was operating without lights, siren, or flag and contrary to numerous safety policies of Sierra. In short, Forrester assumes that the snowmobile had no legitimate reason to be on Broadway at the time of the incident. But the state of the evidence was such that the jury could decide otherwise. Due to Forrester’s failure to report the accident when it happened, the conflicting testimony of Forrester and Medina, the conflict in expert testimony as to how a collision would have occurred and what caused Forrester’s injuries, and the absence of any independent witness who saw or even heard about the accident, the jury could have rationally concluded the accident did not happen at all. Alternatively, the jury could have concluded that Forrester hit the toboggan out of carelessness or recklessness, Forrester’s injuries were not from the collision, or simply that Forrester failed to prove his version of the accident.
This [*29] case turned in large part on the jury’s assessment of credibility. There was evidence from which the jury could conclude that the incident occurred as described by Forrester and Medina, and that Sierra unreasonably increased its visitors’ inherent risk of a collision with a snowmobile accordingly–because a non-safety employee, not responding to an emergency, drove a snowmobile at significant speed across a beginner run on the busiest day of the year without using lights, siren or a flag, and in contravention of numerous safety policies. These circumstances, or any combination thereof, could certainly constitute an unreasonable increase of the inherent risk by Sierra. Forrester’s theory was tendered to the jury and the jury decided adversely to his argument. Forrester does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict.
The trial court did not err in determining assumption of the risk applied and submitting the case to the jury on the question of whether Sierra unreasonably increased the risk inherent in the sport of snowboarding.
Instruction on Secondary Assumption of the Risk
As we set forth ante, the jury was also instructed pursuant to CACI No. 405–the comparative [*30] fault instruction modified by the trial court–as to secondary assumption of the risk. The jury was told that in order for Sierra to succeed on its claim that Forrester contributed to his own harm, Sierra would need to prove both that Forrester assumed the risks that led to his injury and that Forrester’s assumption of those risks was a substantial factor in causing his harm.
The term “assumption of risk” has been “used in connection with two classes of cases: those in which the issue to be resolved was whether the defendant actually owed the plaintiff a duty of care (primary assumption of risk), and those in which the defendant had breached a duty of care but where the issue was whether the plaintiff had chosen to face the risk of harm presented by the defendant’s breach of duty (secondary assumption of risk). [Citation.] In the latter class of cases, we concluded, the issue could be resolved by applying the doctrine of comparative fault, and the plaintiff’s decision to face the risk would not operate as a complete bar to recovery. In such a case, the plaintiff’s knowing and voluntary acceptance of the risk functions as a form of contributory negligence. [Citation.]” (Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1003, 4 Cal. Rptr. 3d 103, 75 P.3d 30.)
“Secondary assumption [*31] of risk [arises] where a defendant breaches a duty of care owed to the plaintiff but the plaintiff nevertheless knowingly encounters the risk created by the breach. Secondary assumption of risk is not a bar to recovery, but requires the application of comparative fault principles.” (Connelly, supra, 39 Cal.App.4th at p. 11.)
Forrester contends the special instruction on secondary assumption of the risk was incorrect because it omitted the requirement that a plaintiff “knowingly” or “voluntarily” accept the increased risk, and because the court failed to set it apart from the instruction related to primary assumption of the risk. Forrester contends the error prejudiced him because it confused the jury on the law.
As Sierra does not defend the instruction, we will assume arguendo that it is incorrect for omitting “knowingly” or “voluntarily.” We reject, however, the argument that it was error to instruct on secondary assumption of the risk immediately after instructing in the language of CACI No. 410 on primary assumption of the risk. Each instruction begins by noting the party whose claim the instruction addresses and what each party must prove to succeed on its claim. The two claims are necessarily related. “Nevertheless, in [*32] certain circumstances primary and secondary assumption of risk are intertwined and instruction is required so the jury can properly determine whether the defendant did, in fact, increase the risks inherent in a hazardous sport so that secondary assumption of risk should be considered.” (Vine, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 592.)
“Cases like this one, where the plaintiff contends the defendant breached the duty not to increase the risks inherent in a hazardous sporting activity, present both aspects of the assumption of risk doctrine. If the plaintiff fails to show any increase in the inherent risks, or if the trial court determines that the only risks encountered were inherent in the sport, the defendant prevails based on primary assumption of risk. If the jury, properly instructed on the scope of the defendant’s duty, determines the defendant did increase the inherent risk, it then considers the plaintiff’s claim based on secondary assumption of risk as an aspect of the plaintiff’s comparative fault.” (Vine, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 593.)
“[T]here is no rule of automatic reversal or ‘inherent’ prejudice applicable to any category of civil instructional error, whether of commission or omission. A judgment may not be reversed for instructional error in a civil case [*33] ‘unless, after an examination of the entire cause, including the evidence, the court shall be of the opinion that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.’ (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 13.)” (Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 580, 34 Cal. Rptr. 2d 607, 882 P.2d 298 (Soule).)
“Instructional error in a civil case is prejudicial ‘where it seems probable’ that the error ‘prejudicially affected the verdict.’ [Citations.]” (Soule, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 580.) Actual prejudice must be assessed in the context of the entire record using a multifactor test. (Ibid.) “Thus, when deciding whether an error of instructional omission was prejudicial, the court must also evaluate (1) the state of the evidence, (2) the effect of other instructions, (3) the effect of counsel’s arguments, and (4) any indications by the jury itself that it was misled.” (Id. at pp. 580-581.)
Forrester contends the record demonstrates prejudice because there was strong evidence that Sierra increased the risk by its operation of a snowmobile that day, the jury deliberated for two full days, and the request for a definition of “unreasonable” suggests the jury was confused as to the law.
We disagree that the record shows it was “probable” that the instructional error “prejudicially affected the verdict.” (Soule, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 580.) As we have discussed, the evidence raised questions [*34] of witness credibility, and the jury was also called upon to consider conflicting expert testimony. The jury heard five days of evidence and deliberated for two days. In that circumstance, the jury’s two days of deliberation may suggest its “conscientious performance of its civic duty, rather than its difficulty in reaching a decision.” (People v. Walker (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 432, 439, 37 Cal. Rptr. 2d 167 [six and one-half hours of deliberation after two and one-half hours of presentation of evidence].) The jury’s request for a definition of “unreasonable” and its request for a reread of evidence as to whether there was an emergency that day indicate the jury was most likely focused on Sierra’s conduct, not Forrester’s.
The most useful guide for the jury in sorting through the issues of primary and secondary assumption of the risk was the verdict form that separated the issues. The verdict form asked six questions; only if the jury answered yes to a question was it to proceed to the next question. The questions were: (1) Did Sierra or its employee unreasonably increase the risks inherent in snowboarding? (2) Was this unreasonable increase in the risks a substantial factor in causing harm to Forrester? (3) What are Forrester’s total damages? (4) Did [*35] Forrester assume the risks that led to his injury? (5) Was that assumption of risk a substantial factor in causing his injury? (6) What percentage of responsibility for Forrester’s harm do you assign to Sierra, to Forrester? The jury answered the first question “no” and therefore did not answer any other questions. Accordingly, the jury never reached the issue of secondary assumption of risk and thus never had to apply the challenged jury instruction. Forrester has failed to show prejudicial instructional error. (See Caldwell v. Paramount Unified School Dist. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 189, 206, 48 Cal. Rptr. 2d 448 [error to grant new trial due to instructional error when jury never reached issue covered by instruction]; Vahey v. Sacia (1981) 126 Cal.App.3d 171, 179-180, 178 Cal. Rptr. 559 [purported instructional error on damages was not prejudicial where jury found the defendant was not negligent and never reached the issue of damages].)
Refusal to Instruct on Willful Suppression of Evidence
At trial, Forrester made much of the fact that the snowmobile’s driver was never identified, which he blamed on Sierra’s failure to retain the daily checklist completed by the driver who had taken out the snowmobile that day. Before trial, Forrester sought to admit Sierra’s special ski permit and winter operation plan from the United States Forest [*36] Service. He argued Sierra was required to maintain the checklist under the document retention policy set forth in that plan. The trial court excluded the document, ruling that whether Sierra had a contractual duty to retain the report was irrelevant, particularly because–given the evidence that the snowmobile could be used by multiple people in the same day–the checklist would not necessarily indicate who was driving a snowmobile at the time of the alleged accident. The court noted that Sierra had provided Forrester with a list of 19 authorized drivers.
Forrester requested that the trial court give CACI No. 204, which provides: “You may consider whether one party intentionally concealed or destroyed evidence. If you decide that a party did so, you may decide that the evidence would have been unfavorable to that party.” The request was based on evidence that MacClellan failed to interview all 19 people authorized to use a snowmobile that day and the destruction of the checklist. The court denied Forrester’s request.
Forrester raised the failure to give CACI No. 204 in his motion for a new trial.
Forrester contends it was error to refuse the requested instruction. For the first time on appeal, he asserts [*37] the snowmobile driver’s leaving the scene of the accident without identifying himself was sufficient evidence to support the instruction. As to the destruction of the checklist, the basis for instruction advanced at trial, Forrester argues there was no evidence the checklist was actually discarded, only that the practice was to discard the checklists daily. He contends he was prejudiced by lack of the instruction because he could not argue the presumption that the destroyed evidence was unfavorable to Sierra to offset the inability to identify the driver.
“A party is entitled to have the jury instructed on his theory of the case, if it is reasonable and finds support in the pleadings and evidence or any inference which may properly be drawn from the evidence.” (Western Decor & Furnishings Industries, Inc. v. Bank of America (1979) 91 Cal.App.3d 293, 309, 154 Cal. Rptr. 287.) An instruction on willful suppression of evidence is appropriate if there is evidence “that a party destroyed evidence with the intention of preventing its use in litigation.” (New Albertsons, Inc. v. Superior Court (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1403, 1434, 86 Cal. Rptr. 3d 457.)
First, Forrester did not rely at trial on the theory that evidence was destroyed when the snowmobile driver left without identifying himself. “‘A civil litigant must propose complete instructions in accordance with his or her theory of the litigation [*38] and a trial court is not “obligated to seek out theories [a party] might have advanced, or to articulate for him that which he has left unspoken.” [Citations.]’ [Citation.]” (Stevens v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1645, 1653, 57 Cal. Rptr. 2d 525.) Thus we need not consider this new theory first advanced on appeal.
Further, the evidence established the checklist had been discarded shortly after the accident, before Forrester made his complaint. While there was no testimony from the person who discarded the checklist for that day and MacClellan testified he did not know if the specific checklist had been discarded, Rice testified the checklists were thrown out on a daily basis and MacClellan testified he knew they were thrown out shortly after they were filled out.
Forrester relies on Ventura v. ABM Industries Inc. (2012) 212 Cal.App.4th 258, 150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 861, claiming it is “right on point.” In Ventura, a negligent hiring and supervision case, the trial court gave the instruction at issue here based on testimony of the human resources director about redactions in personnel records and the defendant’s failure to interview certain witnesses during the investigation of plaintiff’s complaints. (Id. at p. 273.) The appellate court found no error, noting “Defendants were free to present the jury with evidence that (as counsel represented to the [*39] court), the redactions were only of telephone numbers, and that the failure to interview certain witnesses was proper, and to argue that evidence to the jury.” (Ibid.)
Ventura is distinguishable. There, the actions that supported the instruction occurred during the investigation of plaintiff’s claim, thus permitting an inference there was destruction of evidence to prevent its use in litigation. Here, the evidence was that the snowmobile checklists were routinely discarded each day long before the incident at issue here, unless information on the checklist triggered a need for maintenance. Because Forrester did not report his accident until multiple days had passed, Sierra did not become aware of Forrester’s claim until after the checklist at issue had been discarded. There was no evidence, either direct or from which the inference could be drawn, that the practice of discarding the checklists daily was intended to forestall their use in litigation.
The trial court did not err in declining to give CACI No. 204 on willful suppression of evidence.5
5 Further, Forrester’s claim of prejudice is unconvincing. The instruction permits the jury to draw the inference that the suppressed evidence would have been unfavorable to the party suppressing it. The checklist would have shown, at most, the name of the snowmobile driver. Sierra stipulated that the driver was one of its employees and provided Forrester with a list of authorized drivers.
The judgment is affirmed. Sierra shall recover costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a).)
/s/ Duarte, J.
/s/ Butz, Acting P. J.
/s/ Mauro, J.
Myles A. Bagley, individually, Petitioner on Review, and Al Bagley, individually; and Lauren Bagley, individually, Plaintiffs, v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, Respondent on Review, and John DOES 1-10, Defendants.
SUPREME COURT OF OREGON
2014 Ore. LEXIS 994
May 7, 2014, Argued and Submitted
December 18, 2014, Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: CC 08CV0118SF; CA A148231. On review from the Court of Appeals. [*1] *
* Appeal from Deschutes County Circuit Court, Stephen P. Forte, Judge. 258Or App 390, 310 P3d 692 (2013).
COUNSEL: Kathryn H. Clarke, Portland, argued the cause and filed the briefs for petitioner on review. With her on the briefs was Arthur C. Johnson.
Andrew C. Balyeat, Balyeat & Eager, LLP, Bend, argued the cause and filed the brief for respondent on review.
Michael J. Estok, Lindsay Hart, LLP, Portland, filed a brief on behalf of amicus curiae Oregon Association of Defense Counsel.
Kristian Roggendorf, Roggendorf Law LLC, Lake Oswego, filed a brief on behalf of amicus curiae Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.
JUDGES: BREWER, J.
OPINION BY: BREWER
The issue on review in this case is whether an anticipatory release1 of a ski area operator’s liability for its own negligence in a ski pass agreement is enforceable in the face of an assertion that the release violates public policy and is unconscionable. Plaintiff suffered serious injuries while snowboarding over a jump in defendant ski area operator’s “terrain [*2] park,” and brought this action alleging that defendant was negligent in the design, construction, maintenance, and inspection of the jump. Defendant moved for summary judgment based on an affirmative defense of release; plaintiff filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment on the ground that the release was unenforceable as a matter of law. The trial court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion and denied plaintiff’s cross-motion. Plaintiff appealed, asserting, among other arguments, that the trial court erred in concluding that the release did not violate public policy and that it was neither substantively nor procedurally unconscionable. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., 258 Or App 390, 310 P3d 692 (2013). Because we conclude that enforcement of the release would be unconscionable, we reverse and remand.
1 By “anticipatory release,” we refer to an exculpatory agreement that purports to immunize–before an injury occurs–the released party from liability for its own tortious conduct.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
We review the trial court’s rulings on summary judgment to determine whether “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact” and whether “the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” [*3] ORCP 47 C. We view the historical facts set out in the summary judgment record, along with all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party–plaintiff on defendant’s motion for summary judgment, and defendant on plaintiff’s cross-motion. Id.; Vaughn v. First Transit, Inc., 346 Or 128, 132, 206 P3d 181 (2009). The historical facts in the record largely relate to the enforceability of the release at issue. Defendant’s summary judgment motion did not address the issues of negligence, causation, or damages. Therefore, insofar as those issues are relevant to the enforceability of the release, we accept as true the allegations in plaintiff’s complaint. ORCP 47 C (adverse party on summary judgment has burden of producing evidence only “on any issue raised in the motion as to which adverse party would have burden of persuasion at trial”).
On September 29, 2005, plaintiff purchased a season pass from defendant for use at defendant’s ski area. Plaintiff was a skilled and experienced snowboarder, having purchased season passes from defendant for each of the preceding three years and having classified his skill level as of early 2006, before being injured, as an “advanced expert.” Upon purchasing the season pass, plaintiff [*4] executed a written “release and indemnity agreement” that defendant required of all its patrons. That document provided, in pertinent part:
“In consideration of the use of a Mt. Bachelor pass and/or Mt. Bachelor’s premises, I/we agree to release and indemnify Mt. Bachelor, Inc., its officers and directors, owners, agents, landowners, affiliated companies, and employees (hereinafter ‘Mt. Bachelor, Inc.’) from any and all claims for property damage, injury, or death which I/we may suffer or for which I/we may be liable to others, in any way connected with skiing, snowboarding, or snowriding. This release and indemnity agreement shall apply to any claim even if caused by negligence. The only claims not released are those based upon intentional misconduct.
“* * * * *
“The undersigned(s) have carefully read and understand this agreement and all of its terms on both sides of this document. This includes, but is not limited to, the duties of skiers, snowboarders, or snowriders. The undersigned(s) understand that this document is an agreement of release and indemnity which will prevent the undersigned(s) or the undersigneds’ estate from recovering damages from Mt. Bachelor, Inc. in the event [*5] of death or injury to person or property. The undersigned(s), nevertheless, enter into this agreement freely and voluntarily and agree it is binding on the undersigned(s) and the undersigneds’ heirs and legal representatives.
“By my/our signature(s) below, I/we agree that this release and indemnity agreement will remain in full force and effect and I will be bound by its terms throughout this season and all subsequent seasons for which I/we renew this season pass.
“See reverse side of this sheet * * * for duties of skiers, snowboarders, or snow riders which you must observe.”
(Capitalization omitted.)2 The reverse side of the document detailed the “Duties of Skiers” under ORS 30.985 and ORS 30.990 and also included a printed notification that “Skiers/Snowboarders/Snowriders Assume Certain Risks” under ORS 30.975–the “inherent risks of skiing.”3
2 Although defendant relies on several documents that, it asserts, separately and collectively released it from liability for plaintiff’s injuries, for convenience we refer to those documents in the singular throughout this opinion as “the release.” In addition to the releases discussed in the text, plaintiff’s father also executed a “minor release and indemnity agreement” on plaintiff’s [*6] behalf, containing essentially the same terms as the other releases, because plaintiff was not yet eighteen years old when he bought the season pass. Plaintiff asserted before the trial court and the Court of Appeals that he was entitled to–and effectively did–disavow the release after he reached majority. For reasons explained in its opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s rejection of that argument. Plaintiff did not seek review of that holding in this court and we do not address it here.
3 As elaborated below, Oregon has enacted statutes specifically pertaining to skiing and ski areas. See ORS 30.970 – 30.990. Those statutes, among other provisions, set out the “duties” of skiers, require that ski area operators inform skiers of those duties, establish notice requirements and a statute of limitations pertaining specifically to injury or death while skiing, and provide that those who engage in the sport of skiing accept and assume the risks inherent in that activity.
On November 18, 2005, plaintiff began using the pass, which stated, in part:
“Read this release agreement
“In consideration for each lift ride, the ticket user releases and agrees to hold harmless and indemnify Mt. Bachelor, [*7] Inc., and its employees and agents from all claims for property damage, injury or death even if caused by negligence. The only claims not released are those based upon intentional misconduct.”
(Capitalization omitted.) Further, the following sign was posted at each of defendant’s ski lift terminals:
“YOUR TICKET IS A RELEASE
“The back of your ticket contains a release of all claims against Mt. Bachelor, Inc. and its employees or agents. Read the back of your ticket before you ride any lifts or use any of the facilities of Mt. Bachelor, Inc. If you purchase a ticket from someone else, you must provide this ticket release information to that person or persons.
“Skiers and lift passengers who use tickets at this resort release and agree to hold harmless and indemnify Mt. Bachelor, Inc., its employees and agents from all claims for property damage, injury or death which he/she may suffer or for which he/she may be liable to others, arising out of the use of Mt. Bachelor’s premises, whether such claims are for negligence or any other theory of recovery, except for intentional misconduct.
“If you do not agree to be bound by the terms and conditions of the sale of your ticket, please do not purchase [*8] the ticket or use the facilities at Mt. Bachelor.
“Presentation of this ticket to gain access to the premises and facilities of this area is an acknowledgment of your agreement to the terms and conditions outlined above.”
(Capitalization in original.)
Beginning on November 18, 2005, plaintiff used his season pass to ride defendant’s lifts at least 119 times over the course of 26 days that he spent snowboarding at the ski area. On February 16, 2006, while snowboarding over a human-made jump in defendant’s “air chamber” terrain park, plaintiff sustained serious injuries resulting in his permanent paralysis. Approximately four months later, plaintiff provided defendant with notice of his injuries under ORS 30.980(1), which requires that “[a] ski area operator shall be notified of any injury to a skier * * * within 180 days after the injury[.]” Within two years after he was injured, plaintiff brought this action; his complaint alleged negligence on defendant’s part in designing, constructing, maintaining, and inspecting the jump on which plaintiff was injured. Defendant answered, in part, by invoking the affirmative defense of release, pointing to the above-quoted documents.
In its summary judgment motion, [*9] defendant asserted that plaintiff “admittedly understood that he [had] entered into a release agreement and was snowboarding under its terms on the date of [the] accident.” Defendant argued that the release conspicuously and unambiguously disclaimed its future liability for negligence, and that the release was neither unconscionable nor contrary to public policy under Oregon law, because “skiers and snowboarders voluntarily choose to ski and snowboard and ski resorts do not provide essential public services.” Thus, defendant reasoned, there was no material issue of fact as to whether the release barred plaintiff’s action, and defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
In his cross-motion for partial summary judgment, plaintiff asserted that the release was unenforceable because it was contrary to public policy and was “both substantively and procedurally unconscionable.” The trial court rejected plaintiff’s public policy and unconscionability arguments, reasoning that “[s]now riding is not such an essential service which requires someone such as [p]laintiff to be forced to sign a release in order to obtain the service.” Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment in defendant’s [*10] favor and denied plaintiff’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment.
As noted, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The court initially observed that the line between the public policy and unconscionability doctrines on which plaintiff relied was not clearly delineated:
“We assume without deciding that the ‘void as contrary to public policy’ doctrine pertaining to this type of case has not been superseded by later-evolved principles concerning substantive unconscionability. See Restatement[(Second) of Contracts], § 208 comment a [(1981)] (unconscionability analysis generally ‘overlaps’ with public-policy analysis).”
Bagley, 258 Or App at 403 n 7. The court then proceeded separately to analyze plaintiff’s arguments. It first concluded that the release did not violate public policy. In particular, the court understood plaintiff to rely on an uncodified Oregon public policy that gives primacy to the tort duties of landowners and business operators to provide safe premises for invitees. In rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the Court of Appeals relied on several factors. First, the court observed that the release “clearly and unequivocally” expressed defendant’s intent to disclaim liability for negligence. Id. at 405 (“[W]e are hard-pressed to envision [*11] a more unambiguous expression of ‘the expectations under the contract'[.]”). Second, the court noted that anticipatory releases that disclaim liability only for ordinary negligence do not necessarily offend public policy where they pertain exclusively to recreational activities and, most importantly, where the party seeking to relieve itself from liability does not provide an essential public service. Id. The court noted that a ski resort primarily offers recreational activities that, with possible exceptions that do not apply in this case, such as training for search-and-rescue personnel, do not constitute essential public services. Id. at 406. Third, the court stated that plaintiff’s claims were based on ordinary negligence and did not implicate a violation of any heightened duty of care. Id.
The court then rejected plaintiff’s unconscionability argument for essentially the same reasons. First, the court concluded, the release was not procedurally unconscionable in that it did not surprise plaintiff (that is, it was conspicuous and unambiguous) and it was not impermissibly oppressive, because, even though offered on a “take it or leave it basis,” plaintiff always could choose not to engage [*12] in the non-essential recreational activity that defendant offered. Id. at 407-08. The court also concluded that the release was not essentially unfair and, therefore, was not substantively unconscionable. Id. at 409. Although “favorable” to defendant, the release was not impermissibly so, the court stated, because a person does not need to ski or snowboard, but rather merely desires to do so. That is, the patron is free to walk away rather than accept unjust terms. Id. at 409-10. For those reasons, the court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment rulings and its dismissal of plaintiff’s action.
The parties’ dispute in this case involves a topic–the validity of exculpatory agreements–that this court has not comprehensively addressed in decades. Although the specific issue on review–the validity of an anticipatory release of a ski area operator’s liability for negligence–is finite and particular, it has broader implications insofar as it lies at the intersection of two traditional common law domains–contract and tort–where, at least in part, the legislature has established statutory rights and duties that affect the reach of otherwise governing common law principles.
It is a truism that a contract validly [*13] made between competent parties is not to be set aside lightly. Bliss v. Southern Pacific Co. et al, 212 Or 634, 646, 321 P2d 324 (1958) (“When two or more persons competent for that purpose, upon a sufficient consideration, voluntarily agree to do or not to do a particular thing which may be lawfully done or omitted, they should be held to the consequences of their bargain.”). The right to contract privately is part of the liberty of citizenship, and an important office of the courts is to enforce contractual rights and obligations. W. J. Seufert Land Co. v. Greenfield, 262 Or 83, 90-91, 496 P2d 197 (1972) (so stating). As this court has stated, however, “contract rights are [not] absolute; * * * [e]qually fundamental with the private right is that of the public to regulate it in the common interest.” Christian v. La Forge, 194 Or 450, 469, 242 P2d 797 (1952) (internal quotation marks omitted).
That “common,” or public, interest is embodied, in part, in the principles of tort law. As a leading treatise explains:
“It is sometimes said that compensation for losses is the primary function of tort law * * * [but it] is perhaps more accurate to describe the primary function as one of determining when compensation is to be required.
“* * * * *
“[Additionally, t]he ‘prophylactic’ factor of preventing future harm has been quite important in the field of torts. The courts are concerned not only with compensation [*14] of the victim, but with admonition of the wrongdoer.”
W. Page Keeton, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 4, 20-25 (5th ed 1984). See also Dan B. Dobbs, The Law of Torts, § 8, 12 (2000) (most commonly mentioned aims of tort law are compensation of injured persons and deterrence of undesirable behavior). A related function of the tort system is to distribute the risk of injury to or among responsible parties. Prosser and Keeton, § 4, 24-25.4
4 See also Rizutto v. Davidson Ladders, Inc., 280 Conn 225, 235, 905 A2d 1165 (2006) (fundamental purposes of the tort system are “compensation of innocent parties, shifting the loss to responsible parties or distributing it among appropriate entities, and deterrence of wrongful conduct.”).
One way in which courts have placed limits on the freedom of contract is by refusing to enforce agreements that are illegal. Uhlmann v. Kin Daw, 97 Or 681, 688, 193 P 435 (1920) (an illegal agreement is void and unenforceable). According to Uhlmann:
“An agreement is illegal if it is contrary to law, morality or public policy. Plain examples of illegality are found in agreements made in violation of some statute; and, stating the rule broadly, an agreement is illegal if it violates a statute or cannot be performed without violating a statute.”
Id. at 689 (internal citation omitted); see also Eldridge et al. v. Johnston, 195 Or 379, 405, 245 P2d 239 (1952) (“It is elementary that [*15] public policy requires that * * * contracts [between competent parties], when entered into freely and voluntarily, shall be held sacred and shall be enforced by the courts of justice, and it is only when some other overpowering rule of public policy * * * intervenes, rendering such agreement illegal, that it will not be enforced.”).
In determining whether an agreement is illegal because it is contrary to public policy, “[t]he test is the evil tendency of the contract and not its actual injury to the public in a particular instance.” Pyle v. Kernan, 148 Or 666, 673-74, 36 P2d 580 (1934). The fact that the effect of a contract provision may be harsh as applied to one of the contracting parties does not mean that the agreement is, for that reason alone, contrary to public policy, particularly where “the contract in question was freely entered into between parties in equal bargaining positions and did not involve a contract of adhesion, such as some retail installment contracts and insurance policies.” Seufert, 262 Or at 92.
As we discuss in more detail below, courts determine whether a contract is illegal by determining whether it violates public policy as expressed in relevant constitutional and statutory provisions and in case law, see, e.g., Delaney v. Taco Time Int’l, Inc., 297 Or 10, 681 P2d 114 (1984) (looking to those [*16] sources to determine whether discharge of at-will employee violated public policy), and by considering whether it is unconscionable. With respect to the doctrine of unconscionability, one commentator has explained:
“The concept of unconscionability was meant to counteract two generic forms of abuses: the first of which relates to procedural deficiencies in the contract formation process, such as deception or a refusal to bargain over contract terms, today often analyzed in terms of whether the imposedupon party had meaningful choice about whether and how to enter the transaction; and the second of which relates to the substantive contract terms themselves and whether those terms are unreasonably favorable to the more powerful party, such as terms that impair the integrity of the bargaining process or otherwise contravene the public interest or public policy; terms (usually of an adhesion or boilerplate nature) that attempt to alter in an impermissible manner fundamental duties otherwise imposed by the law, fine-print terms, or provisions that seek to negate the reasonable expectations of the nondrafting party, or unreasonably and unexpectedly harsh terms having nothing to do with price [*17] or other central aspects of the transaction.”
Richard A. Lord, 8 Williston on Contracts § 18.10, 91 (4th ed 2010). As that passage suggests, the doctrine of unconscionability reflects concerns related specifically to the parties and their formation of the contract, but it also has a broader dimension that converges with an analysis of whether a contract or contract term is illegal because it violates public policy.5
5 This court has not distinguished between contracts that are illegal because they violate public policy and contracts that are unenforceable because they are unconscionable. However, a difference in focus between the two concepts has been described in this way:
“[O]ur public policy analysis asks whether the contract provision at issue threatens harm to the public as a whole, including by contravening the constitution, statutes, or judicial decisions of [this state]. In contrast, an unconscionability analysis asks whether the agreement, by its formation or by its terms, is so unfair that the court cannot enforce it consistent with the interests of justice.”
Phoenix Ins. Co. v. Rosen, 242 Ill 2d 48, 61, 949 NE2d 639 (2011). As that passage suggests, the two doctrines are aimed at similar concerns: unfairness or oppression in contract formation or terms that [*18] are sufficiently serious as to justify the conclusion that the contract contravenes the interests of justice.
Recognizing that convergence, this court often has relied on public policy considerations to determine whether a contract or contract term is sufficiently unfair or oppressive to be deemed unconscionable. See, e.g., William C. Cornitius, Inc. v. Wheeler, 276 Or 747, 754-55, 556 P2d 666 (1976) (treating lessee’s unconscionability defense as grounded in public policy); Cone v. Gilmore, 79 Or 349, 352-54, 155 P 192 (1916) (analyzing unconscionability challenge to contract enforcement based on public policy considerations); Balfour v. Davis 14 Or 47, 53, 12 P 89 (1886) (referring to unconscionability interchangeably with public policy considerations). Other authorities also have described the two doctrines in functionally the same terms, see, e.g., E. Allen Farnsworth, 1 Farnsworth on Contracts, § 4.28, 577 (3d ed 2004) (comparing unconscionability to violation of public policy), or as involving substantially overlapping considerations, see Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208 comment a (1981) (policy against unconscionable contracts or contract terms “overlaps with rules which render particular bargains or terms unenforceable on grounds of public policy”).
As discussed, the Court of Appeals concluded that the release at issue here did not violate public policy and was not [*19] unconscionable for essentially the same reasons: it was conspicuous and unambiguous, and it related to a recreational activity, not an essential public service. Likewise, neither party has suggested that different legal standards apply in determining whether the release at issue in this case violates public policy or is unconscionable. Thus, for the sake of convenience–if not doctrinal convergence–we address the parties’ public policy arguments in the context of our analysis of whether, in the particular circumstances of this case, enforcement of the release would be unconscionable.6
6 We emphasize that it is not necessary to decide in this case whether the doctrines always are identical in practical effect or whether they may vary in their application depending on the particular circumstances of a given case. It suffices to say that we discern no difference in their practical application in this case and, therefore, for the sake of convenience, we consider plaintiff’s violation of public policy theory in the context of his unconscionability arguments.
Oregon courts have recognized their authority to refuse to enforce unconscionable contracts since the nineteenth century. See Balfour, 14 Or 47 (refusing [*20] to award attorney fees because amount specified in contract was unconscionable); see also Caples v. Steel, 7 Or 491 (1879) (court may refuse specific performance if bargain is unconscionable). Unconscionability is “assessed as of the time of contract formation,” and the doctrine “applies to contract terms rather than to contract performance.” Best v. U.S. National Bank, 303 Or 557, 560, 739 P2d 554 (1987) (“Unconscionability is a legal issue that must be assessed as of the time of contract formation.”); Tolbert v. First National Bank, 312 Or 485, 492 n 4, 823 P2d 965 (1991) (same).
Unconscionability may be procedural or substantive. Procedural unconscionability refers to the conditions of contract formation and focuses on two factors: oppression and surprise. See, e.g., John Edward Murray, Jr., Murray on Contracts § 96(b), 555-56 (4th ed 2001) (describing components of procedural unconscionability). Oppression exists when there is inequality in bargaining power between the parties, resulting in no real opportunity to negotiate the terms of the contract and the absence of meaningful choice. Vasquez-Lopez v. Beneficial Oregon, Inc., 210 Or App 553, 566-567, 152 P3d 940, 948 (2007); Acorn v. Household Intern. Inc., 211 F Supp 2d 1160, 1168 (ND Cal. 2002). Surprise involves whether terms were hidden or obscure from the vantage of the party seeking to avoid them. Id. Generally speaking, factors such as ambiguous contract wording and fine print are the hallmarks of surprise. In contrast, the existence of gross inequality of [*21] bargaining power, a takeit- or-leave-it bargaining stance, and the fact that a contract involves a consumer transaction, rather than a commercial bargain, can be evidence of oppression.
Substantive unconscionability, on the other hand, generally refers to the terms of the contract, rather than the circumstances of formation, and focuses on whether the substantive terms contravene the public interest or public policy.7 See Restatement § 208 comment a; Williston on Contracts § 18.10 at 91. Both procedural and substantive deficiencies–frequently in combination–can preclude enforcement of a contract or contract term on unconscionability grounds. Restatement § 208 comment a.8
7 It sometimes can be difficult to categorize the factors on which a determination of unconscionability may be based as distinctly procedural or substantive, and even factors usually considered in assessing procedural unconscionability can help establish a violation of public policy. For example, the passage quoted above from Williston on Contracts § 18.10, 356 Or at suggests that adhesive and fine-print terms may be substantively unconscionable. Indeed, the author goes on to say that “[t]he distinction between procedural and substantive abuses * * * may become quite blurred.” [*22] Williston on Contracts § 18.10 at 108-111.
8 In some jurisdictions, courts require both procedural and substantive unconscionability before they will invalidate a contract. See, e.g., Armendariz v. Found. Health Psychcare Servs., Inc., 24 Cal 4th 83, 114, 99 Cal Rptr 2d 745, 6 P3d 669, 690 (2000) (procedural and substantive unconscionability must both be present in order for a court to exercise its discretion to refuse to enforce a contract or clause under the doctrine of unconscionability); Blue Cross Blue Shield of Ala. v. Rigas, 923 So 2d 1077, 1087 (Ala 2005) (“To avoid an arbitration provision on the ground of unconscionability, the party objecting to arbitration must show both procedural and substantive unconscionability.”). This court has not addressed that issue, and because, as explained below, we conclude that both procedural and substantive considerations support the conclusion that the release here is unconscionable, we do not decide that issue in this case.
Identifying whether a contract is procedurally unconscionable requires consideration of evidence related to the specific circumstances surrounding the formation of the contract at issue. By contrast, the inquiry into substantive unconscionability can be more complicated. To discern whether, in the context of a particular transaction, substantive concerns relating to unfairness or oppression are sufficiently [*23] important to warrant interference with the parties’ freedom to contract as they see fit, courts frequently look to legislation for relevant indicia of public policy. When relevant public policy is expressed in a statute, the issue is one of legislative intent. See Uhlmann, 97 Or at 689-90 (so stating). In that situation, the court must examine the statutory text and context to determine whether the legislature intended to invalidate the contract term at issue.9 Id.
9 Many jurisdictions that limit or prohibit the use of anticipatory releases from negligence liability on public policy grounds do so as a matter of statutory enactment, rather than common law. For example, Great Britain and the States of Louisiana and Montana have statutory provisions that forbid contracts exculpating one party from liability for negligence that results in personal injury. Unfair Contract Terms Act of 1977, ch 50, § 2(1) (Eng) (“A person cannot by reference to any contract term or to a notice given to persons generally or to particular persons exclude or restrict his liability for death or personal injury resulting from negligence.”); La Civ Code Ann art 2004 (“Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury [*24] to the other party.”); Mont Code Ann § 28-2-702 (“All contracts that have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility * * * for violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.”); see also Miller v. Fallon County, 222 Mont 214, 221, 721 P2d 342 (1986) (under statute, prospective release from liability for negligence is against the policy of the law and illegal, despite being a private contract between two persons without significant public implications).
Some states use statutes to make anticipatory releases from liability for negligence void as against public policy as to businesses providing recreational activities to the public. NY Gen Oblig Law § 5-326 (every contract between recreational business owner and user of facility, pursuant to which owner receives payment for use of facilities, that exempts owner from liability for damages resulting from owner’s negligence “shall be deemed void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable”); Haw Rev Stat § 663-1.54(a) (“Any person who owns or operates a business providing recreational activities to the public * * * shall be liable for damages resulting from negligent acts or omissions of the person which cause injury.”).
Other states have enacted more narrowly crafted statutes that deal with specific [*25] recreational activities, including skiing. For example, an Alaska statute specifically prohibits ski area operators from requiring skiers to enter into agreements releasing them from liability in exchange for the use of the facilities. Alaska Stat Ann § 05.45.120. In North Carolina, a statute imposes a duty on ski area operators “[n]ot to engage willfully or negligently in any type of conduct that contributes to or causes injury to another person or his properties.” NC Gen Stat § 99C-2(c)(7); NC Gen Statute § 9C-3 (violation of duties of ski area operator that causes injury or damage shall constitute negligence); see also Strawbridge v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc., 320 F Supp 2d 425, 433 (WD NC 2004) (in light of statutory duty imposed on ski area operators not to negligently engage in conduct that causes injury, exculpatory clause on back of lift ticket was unenforceable).
Still other states have statutes that pertain specifically to skiing and, although not addressing releases, prescribe ski area operator duties and provide that operators will be liable for a violation of those duties. Colo Rev Stat § 33-44-104(1) (violation of duties of ski area operator constitutes negligence to extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property); see also Anderson v. Vail Corp., 251 P3d 1125, 1129-30 (Colo App 2010) (if ski area operator violated statutory duties, exculpatory agreement would not release operator from [*26] liability); Idaho Code § 6-1107 (“Any ski area operator shall be liable for loss or damages caused by its failure to follow the duties set forth in [other sections of the Idaho Code pertaining to duties of ski area operators], where the violation of duty is causally related to the loss or damage suffered.”); NM Stat Ann § 24-15-11 (to same effect); ND Cent Code § 53-09-07 (same); W Va Code § 20-3A-6 (same); Utah Code Ann § 78B-4-401(public policy of Utah Inherent Risks of Skiing Act is to make ski area operators better able to insure themselves against the risk of loss occasioned by their negligence); see also Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., 175 P3d 560, 564 (Utah 2007) (by extracting a pre-injury release from plaintiff for liability due to ski resort’s negligent acts, resort breached public policy underlying Utah Inherent Risks of Skiing Act).
Frequently, however, the argument that a contract term is sufficiently unfair or oppressive as to be unenforceable is grounded in one or more factors that are not expressly codified; in such circumstances, the common law has a significant role to play. As the commentary to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts explains:
“Only infrequently does legislation, on grounds of public policy, provide that a term is unenforceable. When a court reaches that conclusion, it usually does so on the basis of a public policy [*27] derived either from its own perception of the need to protect some aspect of the public welfare or from legislation that is relevant to the policy although it says nothing explicitly about enforceability.”
Restatement § 178 comment b.
This court has considered whether enforcement of an anticipatory release would violate an uncodified public policy in only a few cases. Although, in those cases, this court has not expressly analyzed the issue through the lens of unconscionability, it has followed an approach that is generally consistent with the application of that doctrine. That is, the court has not declared such releases to be per se invalid, but neither has it concluded that they are always enforceable. Instead, the court has followed a multi-factor approach:
“Agreements to exonerate a party from liability or to limit the extent of the party’s liability for tortious conduct are not favorites of the courts but neither are they automatically voided. The treatment courts accord such agreements depends upon the subject and terms of the agreement and the relationship of the parties.”
K-Lines v. Roberts Motor Co., 273 Or 242, 248, 541 P2d 1378 (1975).
In K-Lines, this court upheld a limitation of liability contained in a commercial sales agreement. The court held that the [*28] fact
“[t]hat one party may possess greater financial resources than the other is not proof that such a disparity of bargaining power exists that a limitation of liability provisions should be voided.
“When the parties are business concerns dealing in a commercial setting and entering into an unambiguous agreement with terms commonly used in commercial transactions, the contract will not be deemed a contract of adhesion in the absence of evidence of unusual circumstances.”
Id. at 252-53. The court also noted that, in an earlier decision, it had stated: Cite as 356 Or 543 (2014) 559
“‘There is nothing inherently bad about a contract provision which exempts one of the parties from liability. The parties are free to contract as they please, unless to permit them to do so would contravene the public interest.'”
Id. at 248 (quoting Irish & Swartz Stores v. First Nat’l Bk., 220 Or 362, 375, 349 P2d 814 (1960), overruled on other grounds by Real Good Food v First National Bank, 276 Or 1057, 557 P2d 654 (1976)).10
10 In K-Lines, which, as noted, involved a commercial transaction, the court distinguished between releases from liability for ordinary negligence and releases involving more serious misconduct, concluding that the latter violate public policy, but that the former are not necessarily unenforceable. K-Lines, 273 Or at 249.
Soon after deciding K-Lines, this court, in Real Good Food, held that a bank-serving [*29] as a bailee for depositors-could not limit its liability for the negligence of its employees. Relying on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the court held:
“Where the defendant is a common carrier, an innkeeper, a public warehouseman, a public utility, or is otherwise charged with a duty of public service, and the agreement to assume the risk relates to the defendant’s performance of any part of that duty, it is well settled that it will not be given effect. Having undertaken the duty to the public, which includes the obligation of reasonable care, such defendants are not free to rid themselves of their public obligation by contract, or by any other agreement.”
Id. at 1061 (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B comment g (1965)).11 The court in Real Good Food concluded that “[b]anks, like common carriers and utility companies, perform an important public service,” and the release therefore violated public policy and was unenforceable. 276 Or at 1061.
11 Restatement (Second)of Torts § 496B provides:
“A plaintiff who by contract or otherwise expressly agrees to accept a risk of harm arising from the defendant’s negligent or reckless conduct cannot recover for such harm, unless the agreement is invalid as contrary to public policy.”
According [*30] to the comments to that section, an exculpatory agreement should be upheld if it is freely and fairly made, if it is between parties who are in an equal bargaining position, and if there is no societal interest with which it interferes. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B comment b. Comments e-j set out a non-exclusive list of situations in which releases may interfere with societal interests, insofar as they are contrary to public policy. Among other things, in addition to situations like those described in the passage quoted above, the Restatement refuses to give effect to express liability releases where there is a substantial disparity in bargaining power. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B comment j.
Finally, this court has held that another factor for determining whether an anticipatory release may be unenforceable is the possibility of a harsh or inequitable result for the releasing party. Commerce & Industry Ins. v. Orth, 254 Or 226, 231-32, 458 P2d 926 (1969) (so stating); Estey v. MacKenzie Engineering Inc., 324 Or 372, 376-77, 927 P2d 86 (1996) (court’s inquiry into intent of parties to immunize against negligence “focuse[s] not only on the language of the contract, but also on the possibility of a harsh or inequitable result that would fall on one party by immunizing the other party from the consequences of his or her own negligence”).
We glean from those [*31] decisions that relevant procedural factors in the determination of whether enforcement of an anticipatory release would violate public policy or be unconscionable include whether the release was conspicuous and unambiguous; whether there was a substantial disparity in the parties’ bargaining power; whether the contract was offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis; and whether the contract involved a consumer transaction. Relevant substantive considerations include whether enforcement of the release would cause a harsh or inequitable result to befall the releasing party; whether the releasee serves an important public interest or function; and whether the release purported to disclaim liability for more serious misconduct than ordinary negligence. Nothing in our previous decisions suggests that any single factor takes precedence over the others or that the listed factors are exclusive. Rather, they indicate that a determination whether enforcement of an anticipatory release would violate public policy or be unconscionable must be based on the totality of the circumstances of a particular transaction. The analysis in that regard is guided, but not limited, by the factors that this court [*32] previously has identified; it is also informed by any other considerations that may be relevant, including societal expectations.12
12 Justice Peterson eloquently described the role of societal expectations in informing the development of both the common law and legislation:
“The beauty and strength of the common-law system is its infinite adaptability to societal change. Recent decisions of this court are illustrative. In Heino v. Harper, 306 Or 347, 349-50, 759 P2d 253 (1988), the court abolished interspousal immunity, holding ‘that the common-law rule of interspousal immunity is no longer available in this state to bar negligence actions between spouses.’ In Winn v. Gilroy, 296 Or 718, 734, 681 P2d 776 (1984), the court abolished parental tort immunity for negligent injury to minor children. Nineteen years earlier, in Wights v. Staff Jennings, 241 Or 301, 310, 405 P2d 624 (1965), stating that ‘it is the function of the judiciary to modify the law of torts to fit the changing needs of society,’ the court held that a seller of a product may be held strictly liable for injuries to a plaintiff not in privity with the seller.
“The development of the common law occurs in an environment in which tensions abound. On occasion, the Legislative Assembly passes laws in response to decisions of this court. Products liability decisions of this court led to the enactment [*33] of a series of products liability statutes now found in ORS 30.900 to 30.927. A decision of this court involving an injury to a skier, Blair v. Mt. Hood Meadows Development Corp., 291 Or 293, 630 P2d 827, modified, 291 Or 703, 634 P2d 241 (1981), led to the enactment of statutes concerning skiing activities, ORS 30.970 to 30.990.
“On the other hand, this court, in deciding common-law issues presented to it, has ascertained public policy by looking to legislative enactments. The legislature is incapable of passing laws that govern every conceivable situation that might arise, however. The common-law court is the institution charged with the formulation and application of rules of governing law in situations not covered by constitution, legislation, or rules.”
Buchler v. Oregon Corrections Div., 316 Or 499, 518-19, 853 P2d 798 (1993) (Peterson, J., concurring).
With those principles in mind, we first consider the factors that usually are described as procedural, viz., those pertaining to the formation of the agreement. Plaintiff does not contend that the release was inconspicuous or ambiguous; that is, plaintiff does not contend that he was surprised by its terms. Thus, that factor weighs in favor of enforcement. Other procedural factors, however, point in a different direction. This was not an agreement between equals. Only one party to the contract-defendant-was a commercial enterprise, and that [*34] party exercised its superior bargaining strength by requiring its patrons, including plaintiff, to sign an anticipatory release on a take-it-or-leave-it basis as a condition of using its facilities. As the Restatement (Second) of Torts, section 496B, explains, a release may not be enforced
“where there is such a disparity in bargaining power between the parties that the agreement does not represent a free choice on the part of the plaintiff. The basis for such a result is the policy of the law which relieves the party who is at such a disadvantage from harsh, inequitable, and unfair contracts which he is forced to accept by the necessities of his situation. The disparity in bargaining power may arise from the defendant’s monopoly of a particular field of service, from the generality of use of contract clauses insisting upon assumption of risk by those engaged in such a field, so that the plaintiff has no alternative possibility of obtaining the service without the clause; or it may arise from the exigencies of the needs of the plaintiff himself, which leave him no reasonable alternative to the acceptance of the offered terms.”
Id. comment j (emphasis added).
Also, plaintiff had no opportunity in this [*35] case to negotiate for different terms or pay an additional fee for protection against defendant’s negligence. What makes the substantial disparity in the parties’ bargaining positions even more significant in this circumstance is the limited number of ski areas that provide downhill skiing and snow-boarding opportunities in Oregon, and the generality of the use of similar releases among that limited commercial cohort.13 Simply put, plaintiff had no meaningful alternative to defendant’s take-it-or-leave-it terms if he wanted to participate in downhill snowboarding. Although that factor is not, by itself, dispositive,
“[w]hen one party is in such a superior bargaining position that it totally dictates all terms of the contract and the only option presented to the other party is to take it or leave it, some quantum of procedural unconscionability is established. The party who drafts such a contract of adhesion bears the responsibility of assuring that the provisions of the contract are not so one-sided as to be unconscionable.”
Strand v. U.S. Bank Nat. Ass’n, 693 NW2d 918, 925 (ND 2005).
13 In an excerpt from the transcript of plaintiff’s deposition that was included in the summary judgment record, plaintiff testified that he had never been to a ski resort [*36] where a release such as the one at issue here was not required.
We next consider the substantive factors that are relevant to our inquiry. The parties have identified the following relevant factors: whether enforcement of the release would cause a harsh or inequitable result; whether defendant’s recreational business operation serves an important public interest or function; and whether the release purported to disclaim liability for more serious misconduct than ordinary negligence.
We begin with the question whether enforcement of the release would cause a harsh and inequitable result to befall the releasing party, in this case, plaintiff. As discussed, this court has recognized the importance of that consideration in other cases. See, e.g., Estey, 324 Or at 376. As pertinent here, we conclude that the result would be harsh because, accepting as true the allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, plaintiff would not have been injured if defendant had exercised reasonable care in designing, constructing, maintaining, or inspecting the jump on which he was injured. And that harsh result also would be inequitable because defendant, not its patrons, has the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards [*37] of its own creation on its premises, and to guard against the negligence of its employees. Moreover, defendant alone can effectively spread the cost of guarding and insuring against such risks among its many patrons.
Those public policy considerations are embodied in the common law of business premises liability. Business owners and operators have a heightened duty of care toward patrons–invitees14–with respect to the condition of their premises that exceeds the general duty of care to avoid unreasonable risks of harm to others. Hagler v. Coastal Farm Holdings, Inc., 354 Or 132, 140-41, 309 P3d 1073 (2013); Garrison v. Deschutes County, 334 Or 264, 272, 48 P3d 807 (2002) (business invitee rule is a “special duty”). As this court explained in Woolston v. Wells, 297 Or 548, 557-58, 687 P2d 144 (1984):
“In general, it is the duty of the possessor of land to make the premises reasonably safe for the invitee’s visit. The possessor must exercise the standard of care above stated to discover conditions of the premises that create an unreasonable risk of harm to the invitee. The possessor must exercise that standard of care either to eliminate the condition creating that risk or to warn any foreseeable invitee of the risk so as to enable the invitee to avoid the harm.”
Furthermore, a business operator’s obligation to make its premises reasonably safe for its invitees includes taking into account [*38] the use to which the premises are put. See, e.g., Ragnone v. Portland School Dist. No. 1J, 291 Or 617, 621 n 3, 633 P2d 1287 (1981) (so stating); Mickel v. Haines Enterprises, Inc., 240 Or 369, 371-72, 400 P2d 518 (1965) (owner must “take reasonable precautions to protect the invitee from dangers which are foreseeable from the arrangement or use of the premises.”).
14 An “invitee” is “[a] person who has an express or implied invitation to enter or use another’s premises, such as a business visitor or a member of the public to whom the premises are held open.” Bryan A Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary 846 (8th ed 1999).
The legislature has statutorily modified those duties to some extent in the Skier Responsibility Law, ORS 30.970 to 30.990. Under ORS 30.975, skiers assume certain risks:
“In accordance with ORS 31.600 [pertaining to contributory negligence] and notwithstanding ORS 31.620 (2) [abolishing the doctrine of implied assumption of risk], an individual who engages in the sport of skiing, alpine or nordic, accepts and assumes the inherent risks of skiing insofar as they are reasonably obvious, expected or necessary.”
ORS 30.970(1) describes “inherent risks of skiing”:
“‘Inherent risks of skiing’ includes, but is not limited to, those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of the sport, such as changing weather conditions, variations or steepness in terrain, [*39] snow or ice conditions, surface or subsurface conditions, bare spots, creeks and gullies, forest growth, rocks, stumps, lift towers and other structures and their components, collisions with other skiers and a skier’s failure to ski within the skier’s own ability.”
ORS 30.985 prescribes the duties of skiers, which generally deal with behaving safely while skiing.
By providing that a skier assumes the “inherent risks of skiing,” ORS 30.975 reduced ski area operators’ heightened common law duty to discover and guard against certain natural and inherent risks of harm. However, the Skier Responsibility Law did not abrogate the common-law principle that skiers do not assume responsibility for unreasonable conditions created by a ski area operator insofar as Cite as 356 Or 543 (2014) 565 those conditions are not inherent to the activity. See Nolan v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., 317 Or 328, 336, 856 P2d 305 (1993) (Skier Responsibility Law provides that “[t]o the extent an injury is caused by an inherent risk of skiing, a skier will not recover against a ski area operator; to the extent an injury is a result of [ski area operator] negligence, comparative negligence applies”). It follows that the public policy underlying the common-law duty of a ski area operator to exercise reasonable care to avoid creating [*40] risks of harm to its business invitees remains applicable in this case.
In short, because (1) accepting as true the allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, plaintiff would not have been injured if defendant had exercised reasonable care in designing, constructing, maintaining, or inspecting the jump on which he was injured; and (2) defendant, not its patrons, had the expertise and opportunity–indeed, the commonlaw duty–to foresee and avoid unreasonable risks of its own creation on its business premises, we conclude that the enforcement of the release would cause a harsh and inequitable result, a factor that militates against its enforcement.
To continue our analysis, we next consider whether defendant’s business operation serves an important public interest or function. The parties sharply disagree about the importance of that factor to our resolution of this case. According to defendant, that factor is paramount here, because, as a matter of law, anticipatory releases of negligence liability are unenforceable only when a defendant provides an “essential” public service.
Although this court has not previously addressed that precise issue in the context of a release involving a recreational [*41] activity, other courts have done so. As defendant observes, courts in several jurisdictions that lack statutory prohibitions of anticipatory releases of liability for negligence have upheld such releases (at least in part) on the ground that the activity at issue did not involve an “essential” public service.15 However, courts in other jurisdictions have taken the opposite approach, concluding that, regardless of whether the release involves an essential public service, anticipatory releases that immunize a party from the consequences of its own negligence can violate public policy or be unconscionable.
15 See, e.g., Malecha v. St. Croix Valley Skydiving Club, Inc., 392 NW 2d 727 (Minn App 1986) (upholding an exculpatory agreement entered into between a skydiving operation and a patron); Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, 607 Pa 1, 2 A3d 1174 (2010) (skiing); Pearce v. Utah Athletic Foundation, 179 P3d 760 (Utah 2008) (bobsledding); Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica, LLC, 104 Cal App 4th 1351, 129 Cal Rptr 2d 197 (2002) (health club); Henderson v. Quest Expeditions, Inc., 174 SW3d 730, (Tenn Ct App 2005) (whitewater rafting).
For example, in Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt 329, 670 A2d 795 (1995), the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the argument that anticipatory releases of negligence liability necessarily are enforceable in the context of recreational activities because such activities are not essential. 670 A2d at 799. In that case, the plaintiff sustained serious injuries when he collided with a metal pole that formed part of the control maze for a ski-lift line. He brought a negligence action against the [*42] defendant ski area operator, alleging that it had negligently designed, built, and placed the maze pole. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on an anticipatory release that the plaintiff had signed absolving the defendant of liability for negligence.
On appeal, the court noted that the release was conspicuous and unambiguous, but it nevertheless concluded that the release violated public policy. Id. at 797. The court began its analysis with the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 496B comment b, which states that an anticipatory release should be upheld if (1) it is freely and fairly made, (2) between parties who are in equal bargaining positions, and (3) there is no societal interest with which it interferes. Dalury, 670 A2d at 797. The parties’ dispute focused on the last issue. The defendant urged the court to conclude that, because skiing-like other recreational activities-is not a necessity of life, the sale of a lift ticket is a purely private transaction that implicates no public interest. The court concluded that “no single formula will reach the relevant public policy issues in every factual context.” Id. at 798. Rather, the court stated that it would consider “the totality of the circumstances [*43] of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” Id.
The court found a significant public policy consideration in the case in the law of premises liability; in particular, the court stated, business owners–including ski area operators–owe a duty of care to make their premises safe for patrons where their operations create a foreseeable risk of harm. Id. at 799. The court observed that
“[d]efendants, not recreational skiers, have the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards, and to guard against the negligence of their agents and employees. They alone can properly maintain and inspect their premises, and train their employees in risk management. They alone can insure against risks and effectively spread the cost of insurance among their thousands of customers. Skiers, on the other hand, are not in a position to discover and correct risks of harm, and they cannot insure against the ski area’s negligence.
“If defendants were permitted to obtain broad waivers for their liability, an important incentive for ski areas to manage risk would be removed with the public bearing the cost of the resulting injuries. * * * It is illogical, in these circumstances, to undermine the [*44] public policy underlying business invitee law and allow skiers to bear risks they have no ability or right to control.”
Turning to the defendant’s argument that the release was enforceable because ski resorts do not provide an essential public service, the court stated that, “[w]hile interference with an essential public service surely affects the public interest, those services do not represent the universe of activities that implicate public concerns.” Id. The court held that, “when a facility becomes a place of public accommodation, it ‘render[s] a service which has become of public interest in the manner of the innkeepers and common carriers of old.'” Id. at 799-800 (quoting Lombard v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 267, 279, 83 S Ct 1122, 10 L Ed 2d 338 (1963)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Finally, the court’s analysis was informed by a statute that placed the “inherent risks” of any sport on the participant, insofar as the risks were obvious and necessary.16 The court stated that “[a] ski area’s own negligence * * * is neither an inherent risk nor an obvious and necessary one in the sport of skiing,” and, therefore, “a skier’s assumption of the inherent risks of skiing does not abrogate the ski area’s duty to warn of or correct dangers which in the exercise of reasonable prudence in [*45] the circumstances could have been foreseen and corrected.” Dalury, 670 A2d at 800 (internal quotation marks omitted).17
16 Vermont Statutes Annotated title 12, section 1037, provides:
“Notwithstanding the provisions of section 1036 of this title, a person who takes part in any sport accepts as a matter of law the dangers that inhere therein insofar as they are obvious and necessary.”
17 For similar reasons, the Connecticut Supreme Court also has declined to enforce an anticipatory release of negligence liability in the face of the defendant’s contention that recreational activities do not implicate the public interest. Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn 314, 885 A2d 734 (2005). Hanks was a negligence action brought by a plaintiff who was injured when his foot was caught between his snowtube and the artificial bank of a snowtubing run at a ski resort operated by the defendant. The defendant relied on an anticipatory release that the plaintiff had signed that purported to absolve the defendant from liability for its negligence. The court acknowledged that the release was conspicuous and unambiguous, but ultimately agreed with the Vermont Supreme Court that determining what constitutes the public interest required consideration of all relevant circumstances, including that the plaintiff lacked sufficient knowledge and authority to discern [*46] whether, much less ensure that, the snowtubing runs were maintained in a reasonably safe condition. Id. at 331. Thus, the court held, “it is illogical to permit snowtubers, and the public generally, to bear the costs of risks that they have no ability or right to control.” Id. at 332.
We, too, think that the fact that defendant does not provide an essential public service does not compel the conclusion that the release in this case must be enforced. As the court stated in Dalury, “[w]hile interference with an essential public service surely affects the public interest, those services do not represent the universe of activities that implicate public concerns.” 670 A2d at 799. It is true that ski areas do not provide the kind of public service typically associated with government entities or heavily regulated private enterprises such as railroads, hospitals, or banks. See Real Good Food, 276 Or at 1061 (“Banks, like common carriers and utility companies, perform an important public service, and, for that very reason, are subject to state and federal regulation.”). However, like other places of public accommodation such as inns or public warehouses, defendant’s business premises–including its terrain park–are open to the general public virtually without [*47] restriction, and large numbers of skiers and snowboarders regularly avail themselves of its facilities. To be sure, defendants’ business facilities are privately owned, but that characteristic does not overcome a number of legitimate public interests concerning their operation.18
18 Public accommodations laws that prohibit discrimination against potential users of the facility are just one example of limitations imposed by law that affect the use of defendant’s premises. See, e.g., ORS 447.220 (explaining purpose of ORS 447.210-280 to make places of public accommodation accessible to persons with disability); ORS 447.210 (defining public accommodation to include “places of recreation”); ORS 659A.403 (prohibiting discrimination in places of public accommodation); ORS 659A.400 (defining places of public accommodation for purposes of ORS 659A.403 to include places offering “amusements”).
The major public interests at stake are those underlying the law of business premises liability. The policy rationale is to place responsibility for negligently created conditions of business premises on those who own or control them, with the ultimate goal of mitigating the risk of injury-producing accidents. Hagler, 354 Or at 140-41; Garrison, 334 Or at 272. In that setting, where a business operator extends a general invitation [*48] to enter and engage in activities on its premises that is accepted by large numbers of the public, and those invitees are subject to risks of harm from conditions of the operator’s creation, their safety is a matter of broad societal concern. See Dalury, 670 A2d 799 (“[W]hen a substantial number of such sales take place as a result of the [operator’s] general invitation to the public to utilize the facilities and services in question, a legitimate public interest arises.”). The public interest, therefore, is affected by the performance of the operator’s private duties toward them. See, e.g., Strawbridge v. Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc., 320 F Supp 2d 425, 433-34 (WD NC 2004) (holding, under North Carolina law, that “the ski industry is sufficiently regulated and tied to the public interest” to preclude enforcement of anticipatory release, based on the principle that “a party cannot protect himself by contract[ing] against liability for negligence * * * where * * * public interest is involved, or where public interest requires the performance of a private duty”). Accordingly, we reject defendant’s argument that the fact that skiing and snowboarding are “non-essential” activities compels enforcement of the release in this case. Instead, we conclude that defendant’s business operation is sufficiently tied [*49] to the public interest as to require the performance of its private duties to its patrons.
Finally, we consider the nature of the conduct to which the release would apply in this case. Defendant makes a fair point that, although the release purports to immunize it from liability for any misconduct short of intentional conduct, plaintiff’s claim is based on ordinary negligence. Defendant notes that this court has held that an anticipatory release violates public policy where it purports to immunize the releasee from liability for gross negligence, reckless, or intentional conduct, but a release that disclaims liability only for ordinary negligence more often is enforced. K-Lines, 273 Or at 249. That statement is correct as a general comment on the validity of anticipatory releases, but, of course, whether any particular release will be enforced depends on the various factors that we discuss in this opinion. In the circumstances of this transaction, the fact that plaintiff’s claim is based on negligence rather than on more egregious conduct carries less weight than the other substantive factors that we have considered or than it would, for example, in a commercial transaction between parties of relatively [*50] equal bargaining power.19
19 Defendant does not contend that the release would be enforceable against a claim based on alleged gross negligence or reckless conduct.
SUMMARY AND APPLICATION
To summarize, our analysis leads to the conclusion that permitting defendant to exculpate itself from its own negligence would be unconscionable. As discussed, important procedural factors supporting that conclusion include the substantial disparity in the parties’ bargaining power in the particular circumstances of this consumer transaction, and the fact that the release was offered to plaintiff and defendant’s other customers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
There also are indications that the release is substantively unfair and oppressive. First, a harsh and inequitable result would follow if defendant were immunized from negligence liability, in light of (1) defendant’s superior ability to guard against the risk of harm to its patrons arising from its own negligence in designing, creating, and maintaining its runs, slopes, jumps, and other facilities; and (2) defendant’s superior ability to absorb and spread the costs associated with insuring against those risks. Second, because defendant’s business premises [*51] are open to the general public virtually without restriction, large numbers of skiers and snowboarders regularly avail themselves of its facilities, and those patrons are subject to risks of harm from conditions on the premises of defendant’s creation, the safety of those patrons is a matter of broad societal concern. The public interest, therefore, is affected by the performance of defendant’s private duties toward them under business premises liability law.
In the ultimate step of our unconscionability analysis, we consider whether those procedural and substantive considerations outweigh defendant’s interest in enforcing the release at issue here. Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 178 comment b (“[A] decision as to enforceability is reached only after a careful balancing, in the light of all the circumstances, of the interest in the enforcement of the particular promise against the policy against the enforcement of such terms.”). Defendant argues that, in light of the inherent risks of skiing, it is neither unfair nor oppressive for a ski area operator to insist on a release from liability for its own negligence. As defendant explains,
“[W]hen the plaintiff undertook this activity, he exposed himself [*52] to a high risk of injury. Only he controlled his speed, course, angle, ‘pop’ and the difficulty of his aerial maneuver. Skiing and snowboarding requires [sic] the skier to exercise appropriate caution and good judgment. Sometimes, even despite the exercise of due care, accidents and injuries occur.”
Further, defendant contends, denying enforcement of such a release
“improperly elevates premises liability tort law above the freedom to contract, fails to take into account the countervailing policy interest of providing recreational opportunities to the public, fails to recognize that certain recreational activities are inherently dangerous and fails to consider the fact that the ski area operator has little, if any, control over the skier/snowboarder.”
Defendant’s arguments have some force. After all, skiing and snow boarding are activities whose allure and risks derive from a unique blend of factors that include natural features, artificial constructs, and human engagement. It may be difficult in such circumstances to untangle the causal forces that lead to an injury-producing accident. Moreover, defendant is correct that several relevant factors weigh in favor of enforcing the release. [*53] As discussed, the release was conspicuous and unambiguous, defendant’s alleged misconduct in this case was negligence, not more egregious conduct, and snowboarding is not a necessity of life.
That said, the release is very broad; it applies on its face to a multitude of conditions and risks, many of which (such as riding on a chairlift) leave defendant’s patrons vulnerable to risks of harm of defendant’s creation. Accepting as true the allegations in plaintiff’s complaint, defendant designed, created, and maintained artificial constructs, including the jump on which plaintiff was injured.20 Even in the context of expert snowboarding in defendant’s terrain park, defendant was in a better position than its invitees to guard against risks of harm created by its own conduct.
20 We reiterate that the issues of whether defendant actually was negligent in one or more of the particulars alleged by plaintiff, whether and the extent to which plaintiff was comparatively negligent, and the extent to which either party’s negligence actually caused plaintiff’s injuries, are not before us on review.
A final point deserves mention. It is axiomatic that public policy favors the deterrence of negligent conduct. [*54] 2 Farnsworth on Contracts § 5.2, 9-12 (“[i]n precedents accumulated over centuries,” courts have relied on policy “against the commission or inducement of torts and similar wrongs”). Although that policy of deterrence has implications in any case involving the enforceability of an anticipatory release of negligence liability, here, that policy bolsters the other considerations that weigh against enforcement of the release. As the parties readily agree, the activities at issue in this case involve considerable risks to life and limb. Skiers and snowboarders have important legal inducements to exercise reasonable care for their own safety by virtue of their statutory assumption of the inherent risks of skiing. By contrast, without potential exposure to liability for their own negligence, ski area operators would lack a commensurate legal incentive to avoid creating unreasonable risks of harm to their business invitees. See Alabama Great Southern Railroad Co. v. Sumter Plywood Corp., 359 So 2d 1140, 1145 (Ala 1978) (human experience shows that exculpatory agreements induce a lack of care). Where, as here, members of the public are invited to participate without restriction in risky activities on defendant’s business premises (and many do), and where the risks of harm posed by operator negligence [*55] are appreciable, such an imbalance in legal incentives is not conducive to the public interest.
Because the factors favoring enforcement of the release are outweighed by the countervailing considerations that we have identified, we conclude that enforcement of the release at issue in this case would be unconscionable.21 And, because the release is unenforceable, genuine issues of fact exist that preclude summary judgment in defendant’s favor. It follows that the trial court erred in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment and in denying plaintiff’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment, and that the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the judgment dismissing plaintiff’s action.
21 By so concluding, we do not mean to suggest that a business owner or operator never may enforce an anticipatory release or limitation of negligence liability from its invitees. As explained, multiple factors may affect the analysis, including, among others, whether a legally significant disparity in the parties’ bargaining power existed that made the release or limitation unfairly adhesive, whether the owner/operator permitted a patron to pay additional reasonable fees to obtain protection against negligence, [*56] the extent to which the business operation is tied to the public interest, including whether the business is open to and serves large numbers of the general public without restriction, and the degree to which the personal safety of the invitee is subjected to the risk of carelessness by the owner/ operator.
The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The judgment of the trial court is reversed and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings.
Rare issue this case looked at a release signed by a minor that prevented a suit for his injuries after turning age 18Posted: May 5, 2014
This decision was just overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court in Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994 on December 18, 20014
The term is disaffirm, the minor must disaffirm the release or contract after reaching age 18 or the release or contract is valid.
Date of the Decision: September 5, 2013
Plaintiff: Myles A. Bagley, individually, Plaintiff-Appellant, and Al Bagley, individually; and Lauren Bagley, individually, Plaintiffs
Defendant: Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort
Plaintiff Claims: (1) concluding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Bagley ratified, after reaching the age of majority, a release agreement entered into while he was a minor; (2) concluding that the release agreement was not contrary to public policy; and (3) concluding that the release agreement was neither substantively nor procedurally unconscionable.
Defendant Defenses: Release
Holding: for the defendant. The minor took advantage of the benefits of the contract (release) and did not disaffirm the contract upon reaching the age of majority (18).
This is a rare review of release or contract law because the odds are against it. A contract is voidable by the minor when the minor signs the contract. However, if the contract is in effect when the minor reaches the age of majority, the minor can either disaffirm the contract which puts the parties back in the position before the contract was signed or if he or she fails to do that he or she takes advantages of the benefits of the contract and continues to use it the contract is in force.
The minor signed a season pass release at the defendant ski area. His father signed a minor release and indemnity agreement. Two weeks later and before the plaintiff had started snowboarding he turned 18. Once he started snowboarding, after reaching age 18, he boarded at the defendant’s resort 26 different days and his pass was scanned 119 times.
Going through the terrain park where he seemed to spend most of his time, the plaintiff was injured on a jump which resulted in permanent paralysis.
The minor and his parents sued the resort. The trial court dismissed his complaints after the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release the minor had signed.
Summary of the case
The appellate court reviewed the facts and pointed several of the facts out repeatedly.
He was also an experienced snowboarder, had signed release agreements at other ski resorts in the past, and had purchased a season pass and signed a release agreement for each of the preceding three years that he spent snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor.
After reaching age 18 the plaintiff used the release 119 times over 26 days during a four month period. Once you affirm a contract, by using it and not disaffirming it, you cannot later disaffirm the contract. A contract is affirmed if the contract is not disaffirmed which requires an act on the part of the plaintiff. Meaning if the minor does not make an affirmative act to disaffirm the release then the release stands.
In Oregon, a former minor may disaffirm a contract within a “reasonable time” after reaching the age of majority, or, conversely, may ratify a contract after reaching the age of majority by manifesting an intent to let the contract stand, “[I]f an infant after reaching the age of majority engages in any conduct that objectively manifests an intent to regard the bargain as binding, the former minor will be held as a matter of law to have ratified the contract.”).
In this case the only disaffirmance occurred two years later when the plaintiff started his lawsuit.
The plaintiff then argued that because he had no knowledge of the power to disaffirm this release he should not be held to his failure to disaffirm. However the court shot this down with the standard statement. “However, we have previously stated that “[i]gnorance of the law is not a basis for not enforcing a contract.“”
The court then reviewed the requirements for a valid release under Oregon law. “[W]hen one party seeks to contract away liability for its own negligence in advance of any harm, the intent to do so must be ‘clearly and unequivocally expressed.”
The public policy argument was also shot down in a very common sense manner.
“[T]here are no public policy considerations that prevent a diving school from limiting liability for its own negligence. The diving school does not provide an essential public service[.]”). A ski resort, like a diving school, primarily offers “recreational activities” (with possible exceptions that do not apply here, e.g., training for search-and-rescue personnel) and does not provide an “essential public service.
The release was also found to not be unconscionable.
[T]he doctrine of unconscionability does not relieve parties from all unfavorable terms that result from the parties’ respective bargaining positions; it relieves them from terms that are unreasonably favorable to the party with greater bargaining power. Oregon courts have been reluctant to disturb agreements between parties on the basis of unconscionability, even when those parties do not come to the bargaining table with equal power. In those rare instances in which our courts have declared contractual provisions unconscionable, there existed serious procedural and substantive unfairness
The court followed up the public policy quote with “…albeit in dictum and in the context of addressing public-policy arguments, suggested that standard-form release agreements in the context of recreational activities are not impermissibly adhesive.”
A recreational activity is not subject to public policy arguments because the signer can:
“…simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable”
“[T]he release from liability is not invalid as a contract of adhesion, because [the] plaintiff voluntarily chose to ski at Mt. Bachelor and the ski resort does not provide essential public services.”
Because it was the plaintiff’s choice to board at the defendants ski area the release did not violate public policy.
When an individual enters a ski shop to buy ski equipment, s/he does not have a need for those goods and services, merely a desire. Should the seller demand exculpation as a condition for the sale of the equipment, the purchaser is free to walk away.
The one misstatement in my opinion which the court also pointed out was language that exempted the release for intentional acts. “THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT.” The capitalized print made this statement in the release even standout. The court, found this to be curious and probably was thinking the same way I did, why give the plaintiff’s a way out of the release.
The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the release as a defense to the claims of the plaintiff.
So Now What?
When a guest enters their date of birth in the information form indicating they are under the age of majority, this always creates a problems because minor’s cannot sign releases. However, if the minor can read the release, even the release is voided by the minor, it can still be used to prove assumption of the risk by the minor.
If the minor is turning the age of majority during the term of the release you can have the minor reaffirm the release or sign a new release after his birthday.
The court repeatedly pointed out how many times the plaintiff had used the release, how many releases at this resort and other resorts the plaintiff had signed before and the experience of the plaintiff. Keep track of this information because it will be valuable in any case showing that the release was an accepted contract for the plaintiff.
Never write in your release the ways the plaintiff can sue you. Here the statement in the release that it was not effective for intentional misconduct is the same as telling the plaintiff to write their complaint to couch the injury as an intentional act on the part of the defendant.
On the good side, the ski area had the minor sign the release, even though the release at the time was of no value. A release signed by a minor might have value later as in this case or might be able to prove assumption of the risk.
The Oregon Supreme Court has just accepted this case for review of this decision. So please learn from this article but do not rely upon it yet. (http://rec-law.us/1jaw8g2)
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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This decision was just overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court in Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994 on December 18, 20014
Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., 258 Ore. App. 390; 310 P.3d 692; 2013 Ore. App. LEXIS 1080
Myles A. Bagley, individually, Plaintiff-Appellant, and Al Bagley, individually; and Lauren Bagley, individually, Plaintiffs, v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, Defendant-Respondent, and JOHN DOES 1-10, Defendants.
COURT OF APPEALS OF OREGON
258 Ore. App. 390; 310 P.3d 692; 2013 Ore. App. LEXIS 1080
September 6, 2012, Argued and Submitted
September 5, 2013, Filed
COUNSEL: Kathryn H. Clarke argued the cause for appellant. On the opening brief were Bryan W. Gruetter and Joseph S. Walsh. With her on the reply brief was Lisa T. Hunt.
Andrew C. Balyeat argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Balyeat & Eager, LLP.
JUDGES: Before Ortega, Presiding Judge, and Sercombe, Judge, and Hadlock, Judge.
OPINION BY: SERCOMBE
[**694] [*392] SERCOMBE, J.
Plaintiff Bagley, after suffering serious injuries while snowboarding over a “jump” in defendant Mt. Bachelor, Inc.’s (Mt. Bachelor) “terrain park,” brought this action alleging negligence in the design, construction, maintenance, or inspection of that jump. 1 The trial court granted Mt. Bachelor’s motion for summary judgment, which was based on the affirmative defense of release, and denied Bagley’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment pertaining to that same issue. Bagley appeals, asserting that the trial court erred in (1) concluding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Bagley ratified, after reaching the age of majority, a release agreement entered into while he was a minor; (2) concluding that the release agreement was not contrary [***2] to public policy; and (3) concluding that the release agreement was neither substantively nor procedurally unconscionable. For the reasons that follow, we agree with the trial court and, accordingly, affirm.
1 For ease of reading, notwithstanding additional named parties (Bagley’s parents and “John Does 1-10”), we refer throughout this opinion to plaintiff “Bagley” and defendant “Mt. Bachelor.”
[HN1] In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view the facts, along with all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from them, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party–here, Bagley on Mt. Bachelor’s motion and Mt. Bachelor on Bagley’s cross-motion. ORCP 47 C; Vaughn v. First Transit, Inc., 346 Ore. 128, 132, 206 P3d 181 (2009). On September 29, 2005, just under two weeks before his 18th birthday, Bagley purchased a “season pass” from Mt. Bachelor. Bagley was a skilled and experienced snowboarder, having purchased season passes from Mt. Bachelor for each of the preceding three years and having classified his skill level as of early 2006, immediately prior to the injury, as “advanced expert.” Upon purchasing the season pass, he executed [**695] a release agreement as required by Mt. Bachelor. That [***3] agreement read, in pertinent part:
“RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT
“IN CONSIDERATION OF THE USE OF A MT. BACHELOR PASS AND/OR MT. BACHELOR’S PREMISES, I/WE AGREE TO RELEASE AND INDEMNIFY MT. BACHELOR, [*393] INC., ITS OFFICERS AND DIRECTORS, OWNERS, AGENTS, LANDOWNERS, AFFILIATED COMPANIES, AND EMPLOYEES (HEREINAFTER ‘MT. BACHELOR, INC.’) FROM ANY AND ALL CLAIMS FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, INJURY, OR DEATH WHICH I/WE MAY SUFFER OR FOR WHICH I/WE MAY BE LIABLE TO OTHERS, IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH SKIING, SNOWBOARDING, OR SNOWRIDING. THIS RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT SHALL APPLY TO ANY CLAIM EVEN IF CAUSED BY NEGLIGENCE. THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT.
“* * * * *
“THE UNDERSIGNED(S) HAVE CAREFULLY READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS AGREEMENT AND ALL OF ITS TERMS ON BOTH SIDES OF THIS DOCUMENT. THIS INCLUDES, BUT IS NOT LIMITED TO, THE DUTIES OF SKIERS, SNOWBOARDERS, OR SNOWRIDERS. THE UNDERSIGNED(S) UNDERSTAND THAT THIS DOCUMENT IS AN AGREEMENT OF RELEASE AND INDEMNITY WHICH WILL PREVENT THE UNDERSIGNED(S) OR THE UNDERSIGNEDS’ ESTATE FROM RECOVERING DAMAGES FROM MT. BACHELOR, INC. IN THE EVENT OF DEATH OR INJURY TO PERSON OR PROPERTY. THE UNDERSIGNED(S), NEVERTHELESS, [***4] ENTER INTO THIS AGREEMENT FREELY AND VOLUNTARILY AND AGREE IT IS BINDING ON THE UNDERSIGNED(S) AND THE UNDERSIGNEDS’ HEIRS AND LEGAL REPRESENTATIVES.
“BY MY/OUR SIGNATURE(S) BELOW, I/WE AGREE THAT THIS RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT WILL REMAIN IN FULL FORCE AND EFFECT AND I WILL BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS THROUGHOUT THIS SEASON AND ALL SUBSEQUENT SEASONS FOR WHICH I/WE RENEW THIS SEASON PASS.
“SEE REVERSE SIDE OF THIS SHEET * * * FOR DUTIES OF SKIERS, SNOWBOARDERS, OR SNOW RIDERS WHICH YOU MUST OBSERVE.”
(Underscoring and capitalization in original; emphases added.) The reverse side of the document detailed the “Duties of Skiers” pursuant to ORS 30.990 and ORS 30.985 and also included printed notification that “Skiers/Snowboarders/Snowriders [*394] Assume Certain Risks” under ORS 30.975–namely, the “inherent risks of skiing.” 2 In addition, because Bagley was not yet 18, his father executed a “minor release and indemnity agreement” (capitalization omitted) that read as follows:
“I HEREBY AGREE TO RELEASE AND INDEMNIFY MT. BACHELOR, INC., ITS OFFICERS AND DIRECTORS, OWNERS, AGENTS, LANDOWNERS, AFFILIATED COMPANIES, AND EMPLOYEES FROM ANY AND ALL CLAIMS FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, INJURY, OR DEATH WHICH [***5] THE MINOR(S) NAMED BELOW MAY SUFFER OR FOR WHICH HE OR SHE MAY BE LIABLE TO OTHERS, IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH SKIING, SNOWBOARDING, OR SNOWRIDING. THIS RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT SHALL APPLY TO ANY CLAIM EVEN IF CAUSED BY [**696] NEGLIGENCE. THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT.
“BY MY SIGNATURE BELOW, I AGREE THAT THIS MINOR RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT WILL REMAIN IN FULL FORCE AND EFFECT AND I WILL BE BOUND BY ITS TERMS THROUGHOUT THIS SEASON AND ALL SUBSEQUENT SEASONS FOR WHICH THIS SEASON PASS IS RENEWED.
“I HAVE CAREFULLY READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS AGREEMENT AND ALL OF ITS TERMS.”
(Capitalization in original; emphasis added.)
2 Oregon has promulgated statutes specifically pertaining to skiing and ski areas. See ORS 30.970 – 30.990. Those statutes, inter alia, set forth the “duties” of skiers, require that ski area operators inform skiers of those duties, establish notice requirements and a statute of limitations pertaining specifically to injury or death while skiing, and provide that those who engage in the sport of skiing accept and assume the risks inherent in that activity.
Less than two weeks after purchasing the season pass and executing the [***6] above-quoted release agreement, Bagley reached the age of majority–turning 18 on October 12, 2005. Thereafter, on November 18, 2005, Bagley began using the pass, on which the crux of the release agreement was also printed:
[*395] “READ THIS RELEASE AGREEMENT
“IN CONSIDERATION FOR EACH LIFT RIDE, THE TICKET USER RELEASES AND AGREES TO HOLD HARMLESS AND INDEMNIFY MT. BACHELOR, INC., AND ITS EMPLOYEES AND AGENTS FROM ALL CLAIMS FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, INJURY OR DEATH EVEN IF CAUSED BY NEGLIGENCE. THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT.”
(Capitalization in original; emphasis added.) Further, the following sign was posted at each of Mt. Bachelor’s ski lift terminals:
“YOUR TICKET IS A RELEASE
“The back of your ticket contains a release of all claims against Mt. Bachelor, Inc. and its employees or agents. Read the back of your ticket before you ride any lifts or use any of the facilities of Mt. Bachelor, Inc. If you purchase a ticket from someone else, you must provide this ticket release information to that person or persons.
“Skiers and lift passengers who use tickets at this resort release and agree to hold harmless and indemnify Mt. Bachelor, Inc., its employees and [***7] agents from all claims for property damage, injury or death which he/she may suffer or for which he/she may be liable to others, arising out of the use of Mt. Bachelor’s premises, whether such claims are for negligence or any other theory of recovery, except for intentional misconduct.
“If you do not agree to be bound by the terms and conditions of the sale of your ticket, please do not purchase the ticket or use the facilities at Mt. Bachelor.
“Presentation of this ticket to gain access to the premises and facilities of this area is an acknowledgment of your agreement to the terms and conditions outlined above.”
(Capitalization in original; emphases added.)
Ultimately, beginning on November 18, 2005, after his 18th birthday, Bagley used his season pass to ride Mt. Bachelor’s lifts at least 119 times over the course of 26 days spent snowboarding at the ski area. However, on February 16, 2006, while snowboarding over a manmade jump in Mt. Bachelor’s “air chamber” terrain park, Bagley sustained serious injuries resulting in permanent paralysis.
[*396] On June 16, 2006, approximately four months later, Bagley provided Mt. Bachelor with formal notice of his injury under ORS 30.980(1), which requires [***8] that “[a] ski area operator * * * be notified of any injury to a skier * * * within 180 days after the injury * * *.” Nearly two years after the injury, on February 15, 2008, Bagley brought this action–filing a complaint alleging negligence on Mt. Bachelor’s part in designing, constructing, maintaining, or inspecting the jump on which Bagley was injured. Mt. Bachelor answered, in part, by invoking the affirmative defense of release–pointing to the above-quoted release agreements signed by Bagley and his father prior to the date of injury.
Mt. Bachelor quickly moved for summary judgment on that ground, arguing before the trial court that, by failing to disaffirm the voidable release agreement within a reasonable [**697] period of time after reaching the age of majority, and by accepting the benefits of that agreement and “objectively manifest[ing] his intent to affirm” it (i.e., by riding Mt. Bachelor’s lifts 119 times over 26 days), Bagley had ratified the release and was therefore bound by it. Mt. Bachelor further noted that Bagley “admittedly understood that he [had] entered into a release agreement and was snowboarding under its terms on the date of [the] accident.” Accordingly, Mt. Bachelor [***9] argued, because Bagley had ratified a release agreement that unambiguously disclaimed liability for negligence, there was no material issue of fact as to whether that agreement barred Bagley’s action, and Mt. Bachelor was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 3
3 Mt. Bachelor additionally argued, as pertinent to this appeal, that the release agreement was neither adhesionary nor contrary to public policy under Oregon law. Specifically, it argued that “skiers and snowboarders voluntarily choose to ski and snowboard and ski resorts do not provide essential public services.”
Bagley then filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment as to Mt. Bachelor’s affirmative defense of release, arguing that “there [was] no genuine issue of material fact [as to whether] the release [was] void and unenforceable as a matter of law.” Specifically, Bagley argued that he timely disaffirmed the release agreement by (1) notifying Mt. Bachelor of the injury pursuant to ORS 30.980(1), (2) filing his complaint for negligence within the two-year statute of limitations “for injuries to a skier” established by ORS 30.980(3), [*397] and (3) “plead[ing] infancy as a defense to [Mt. Bachelor’s] First Affirmative Defense [***10] on the release executed by [Bagley] while an infant.” Additionally, in response to Mt. Bachelor’s motion, Bagley alternatively argued that “whether [he] disaffirmed the Release within a reasonable time should be determined by the jury as a question of fact” because a material issue of fact existed as to Bagley’s knowledge of both the scope of the release (namely, whether it covered claims for negligence) and “of his right to disaffirm” it (i.e., whether it was voidable). He further argued that the release was contrary to public policy and “both substantively and procedurally unconscionable.”
The trial court agreed with Mt. Bachelor, reasoning that Bagley’s “use of the pass following his eighteenth birthday constitute[d] an affirmation of the contract and release agreement each time the pass was used, a total of 119 times over a period of 26 different days, up to February 16, 2006[,]” and noting that, “[o]nce there [was] an affirmation, [Bagley could] no longer disaffirm the contract.” The court rejected Bagley’s public policy and unconscionability arguments, reasoning that “[s]now riding is not such an essential service which requires someone such as [Bagley] to be forced to sign a [***11] release in order to obtain the service.” Accordingly, having determined that Bagley ratified the release agreement after reaching the age of majority and that “there [was] no basis by which [it could] find the release invalid[,]” the trial court granted summary judgment in Mt. Bachelor’s favor and denied Bagley’s cross-motion for partial summary judgment. Bagley now appeals, reprising his arguments below.
[HN2] On appeal, we review the trial court’s ruling on summary judgment to determine whether we agree “that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” ORCP 47 C; see O’Dee v. Tri-County Metropolitan Trans. Dist., 212 Ore. App. 456, 460, 157 P3d 1272 (2007). [HN3] No genuine issue of material fact exists if, “based upon the record before the court viewed in a manner most favorable to the adverse party, no objectively reasonable juror could return a verdict for the adverse party on the matter that is the subject of the motion for summary judgment.” ORCP 47 C.
[*398] In his first assignment of error, Bagley asserts that “[t]here is a genuine factual dispute as to whether [his] actions or omissions after reaching the age of majority [***12] were enough to disaffirm or affirm the contract he entered with [Mt. Bachelor] when he was a minor.” More specifically, Bagley argues that “[a] jury could reasonably infer from the facts that merely turning 18 years old and continuing to snowboard was not conclusive evidence of [his] intent to affirm the release [**698] and agree to waive all prospective claims for [Mt. Bachelor’s] negligence.” He argues that a jury “could just as easily find that he promptly disaffirmed the contract” by notifying Mt. Bachelor of the injury approximately four months after it occurred as required by ORS 30.980(1), by filing suit for negligence within the applicable statute of limitations, or by pleading infancy in response to Mt. Bachelor’s affirmative defense of release. 4
4 Bagley alternatively argues that, “even if there is no genuine dispute of material fact, the inferences arising from the facts in this case are susceptible to more than one reasonable conclusion precluding summary judgment.” However, Bagley does not identify any facts that purportedly give rise to inferences susceptible to more than one reasonable conclusion, and, ultimately, his generalized argument to that effect is not materially different [***13] from his argument in support of his first assignment of error. Accordingly, we reject that alternative argument without further discussion.
Mt. Bachelor likewise reprises its arguments below, asserting that Bagley admittedly knew that he was snowboarding under the terms of a release agreement, was aware of the inherent risks of snowboarding (particularly given his advanced, aerial style of snowboarding), and, “[u]nderstanding those risks,” made “an informed decision to execute the release agreement” and “an informed decision to honor the agreement after reaching the age of majority because he wanted to snowboard.” As noted, Mt. Bachelor points to Bagley’s use of the pass after reaching the age of majority–arguing that Bagley ratified the release agreement by riding the lifts “no less than 119 times on 26 days before the subject accident.”
[HN4] In Oregon, a former minor may disaffirm a contract within a “reasonable time” after reaching the age of majority, see Highland v. Tollisen, 75 Ore. 578, 587, 147 P 558 (1915), or, conversely, may ratify a contract after reaching the age of majority by manifesting an intent to let the contract stand, [*399] see Haldeman v. Weeks, 90 Ore. 201, 205, 175 P 445 (1918); [***14] see also Richard A. Lord, 5 Williston on Contracts § 9:17, 166-70 (4th ed 2009) (“[I]f an infant after reaching the age of majority engages in any conduct that objectively manifests an intent to regard the bargain as binding, the former minor will be held as a matter of law to have ratified the contract.”). Further, as particularly relevant here, although what constitutes a reasonable period of time after reaching the age of majority varies widely depending on the circumstances, it is well established that [HN5] ratification of a voidable contract abolishes a party’s power to later disaffirm it. See Brown et ux v. Hassenstab et ux, 212 Ore. 246, 256, 319 P2d 929 (1957) (“The two courses of action are inconsistent and the taking of one will preclude the other.”); Snyder v. Rhoads, 47 Ore. App 545, 553-54, 615 P2d 1058, rev den, 290 Ore. 157 (1980) (similar).
Applying those principles to these facts, we agree with Mt. Bachelor and conclude that no objectively reasonable juror could find that Bagley disaffirmed the release agreement within a reasonable time after turning 18. Rather, the record gives rise to only one reasonable conclusion: By using the season pass at least 119 times over the course [***15] of 26 days between November 18, 2005 and February 16, 2006, Bagley objectively manifested his intent to let the release stand–affirmatively electing to ride the lifts and snowboard under the terms of the agreement (i.e., to accept the benefits of the agreement). His actions after the date of injury–at which time the release had already been ratified and Bagley’s power to disaffirm it thereby defeated–are immaterial. Cf. Highland, 75 Ore. at 587 (former minor’s disaffirmance held valid under circumstances where she had neither taken any affirmative action on the contract nor received any benefit from it); see also Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 85 comment b (1981) (power of disaffirmance may be lost, inter alia, “by exercise of dominion over things received”); Lord, 5 Williston on Contracts § 9:17 at 170 ( [HN6] “[I]f the infant after attaining majority voluntarily receives performance in whole or in part from the other party to the contract, this will amount to a ratification.”). 5
5 Although existing Oregon case law on point is limited, several other states have similarly reasoned that a former minor’s acceptance of the benefits of a contract may constitute a ratification. See, e.g., Jones v. Dressel, 623 P2d 370, 372-74 (Colo 1981) [***16] (holding that a former minor, who had signed a release at age 17 in order to skydive, “ratified the contract, as a matter of law, by accepting the benefits of the contract when he used [the defendant’s] facilities” and further stating that the question whether that former minor’s subsequent actions constituted disaffirmance of the contract was “not relevant” because the former minor had already ratified the contract); Parsons ex rel Cabaniss v. American Family Insurance Co., 2007 WI App 211, 305 Wis 2d 630, 639, 740 NW2d 399, 403 (Wis Ct App 2007), rev den, 2008 WI 19, 307 Wis. 2d 294, 746 N.W.2d 811 (Wis 2008) (former minor ratified release agreement in connection with settlement by retaining funds given as consideration for that release).
[*400] [**699] In reaching that conclusion, we emphasize that Bagley was less than two weeks short of the age of majority when he signed the release agreement and did not begin snowboarding under its terms until well over a month after turning 18. He was also an experienced snowboarder, had signed release agreements at other ski resorts in the past, and had purchased a season pass and signed a release agreement for each of the preceding three years that he spent snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor. See [***17] Haldeman, 90 Ore. at 205 (considering former minor’s maturity and life experience in determining whether contract had been ratified). Moreover, the language of the release was unambiguous, as discussed further below, and that language was both heavily emphasized and omnipresent–having been reproduced on the back of the physical season pass that Bagley was required to carry at all times and in large part on signage at each of the lift terminals to which Bagley was exposed at least 119 times. Indeed, given the exculpatory language on Bagley’s pass and the signage directing his attention to it, it is not implausible that Bagley released Mt. Bachelor from liability for negligence each time that he rode one of the lifts.
Nevertheless, Bagley affirmatively chose to accept the benefits of the agreement after reaching the age of majority and, as noted, continued to do so until the date of injury notwithstanding the pass’s and signage’s continuing reminders of the existence of the agreement and provision of ample exposure to its terms. The following exchange, which occurred during Bagley’s deposition, is particularly illustrative:
“[Mt. Bachelor’s Counsel]: The reason you didn’t go to Mt. Bachelor [***18] and tell them ‘You know what, I signed this agreement when I was 17, now I’m 18, I want to void it, I don’t want to be subject to it,’ what I’m asking you to [*401] acknowledge is the reason you didn’t do that is because you wanted [to] continue [to snowboard] and did continue [to snowboard] under the terms of the season pass agreement.
Thus, as the trial court correctly reasoned, when Bagley used the season pass 119 times to gain access to Mt. Bachelor’s lifts, he objectively manifested his intent to regard the release agreement as binding in order to reap its benefits–thereby ratifying it.
However, although he concedes that he was “aware of the release” and “aware of the inherent risks of his sport[,]” Bagley further argues that he did not know that the agreement released Mt. Bachelor from claims related to its own negligence. Nor, he argues, did he know that he had the power to disaffirm the contract upon turning 18. We conclude that such knowledge was not a necessary prerequisite to ratification and, therefore, that Bagley’s arguments as to his subjective understanding of both the release agreement and the law do not affect our determination that “no objectively reasonable [***19] juror could [have] return[ed] a verdict for” Bagley on the issue of ratification. ORCP 47 C.
Oregon subscribes to the “objective theory of contracts.” Kabil Developments Corp. v. Mignot, 279 Ore. 151, 156-57, 566 P2d 505 (1977) (citation omitted); Newton/Boldt v. Newton, 192 Ore. App. 386, 392, 86 P3d 49, rev den, 337 Ore. 84, 93 P.3d 72 (2004), cert den, 543 U.S. 1173, 125 S. Ct. 1365, 161 L. Ed. 2d 153 (2005). Accordingly, although there is undisputed evidence in the record showing that, after reaching the age of majority, Bagley was exposed to language expressly disclaiming liability for negligence on the part of Mt. Bachelor, 6 his subjective understanding [*402] [**700] of that language and the terms of the release agreement is not relevant to the question of whether he ratified that agreement such that it could be enforced against him. See, e.g., NW Pac. Indem. v. Junction City Water Dist., 295 Ore. 553, 557 n 4, 668 P2d 1206 (1983), modified on other grounds, 296 Ore. 365, 677 P2d 671 (1984) ( [HN7] “[F]ailure to read an instrument is not a defense to enforcement.”).
6 For instance, as noted, the season pass that he was required to carry with him at all times expressly disclaimed liability for negligence and drew his attention to that language with the following [***20] heading: “READ THIS RELEASE AGREEMENT[.]” (Capitalization in original.) Further, during his deposition testimony, Bagley confirmed that he had read signage posted prominently on the mountain that stated, as pertinent here, that
“[s]kiers and lift passengers who use tickets at this resort release and agree to hold harmless and indemnify Mt. Bachelor, Inc., its employees and agents from all claims for property damage, injury or death which he/she may suffer or for which he/she may be liable to others, arising out of the use of Mt. Bachelor’s premises, whether such claims are for negligence or any other theory of recovery, except for intentional misconduct.”
We similarly reject Bagley’s argument regarding his lack of knowledge of the power to disaffirm the release agreement upon reaching the age of majority. In raising that issue, Bagley notes that, “[i]n some states, the former infant’s knowledge, or lack thereof, of his right to disaffirm a contract may be taken into consideration” in assessing whether there has been a ratification or disaffirmance. (Emphases added.) However, we have previously stated that [HN8] “[i]gnorance of [***21] the law is not a basis for not enforcing a contract.” Shea v. Begley, 94 Ore. App. 554, 558 n 3, 766 P2d 418 (1988), rev den, 307 Ore. 514, 770 P.2d 595 (1989) (citation omitted; emphasis added); see also Walcutt v. Inform Graphics, Inc., 109 Ore. App. 148, 152, 817 P2d 1353 (1991), rev den, 312 Ore. 589, 824 P.2d 418 (1992) (the plaintiff was not entitled to avoid contract due to her and her counsel’s “failure to take reasonable measures to inform themselves about her affairs”). Moreover, as Mt. Bachelor correctly points out, Bagley’s argument is drawn from the minority view among other jurisdictions. See Lord, 5 Williston on Contracts § 9:17 at 175-77 (former minor’s ignorance of legal defense of infancy treated as irrelevant in a majority of those jurisdictions that have considered the issue). As aptly stated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,
“[t]o require that one must have knowledge of a right to disaffirm in order to make an effective ratification of a voidable contract made in infancy would be inconsistent with the well-established rule that failure to disaffirm such contract within a reasonable time after coming of age terminates the privilege of disaffirmance.”
Campbell v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 307 Pa 365, 371, 161 A 310, 312 (1932).
In [***22] short, both of Bagley’s ancillary arguments are inconsistent with the objective theory of contracts to which Oregon adheres; we look to the parties’ objective conduct, [*403] and, here, after reaching the age of majority, Bagley objectively manifested his intent to let the contract stand because he “wanted to snowboard[.]”
As noted, in his second assignment of error, Bagley asserts that the release agreement was void as contrary to public policy–focusing primarily on the respective bargaining power of the parties and an asserted “public interest [in] protecting a large number of business invitees, including [Bagley], from the negligence of ski area operators.” 7 (Some capitalization omitted.) [HN9] In evaluating whether a contract disclaiming liability for negligence is contrary to public policy, we assess the language of the agreement under the circumstances in order to determine whether it violates public policy “as applied” to the facts of the particular case. Harmon v. Mt. Hood Meadows Ltd., 146 Ore. App. 215, 217-18, 222-24, 932 P2d 92 (1997) (upholding release agreement disclaiming “any and all liability (including claims based upon negligence) for damage or injury” because the plaintiff’s action [***23] pertained only to ordinary negligence and therefore did not implicate the release’s potential coverage of recklessness or intentional misconduct [**701] (capitalization and boldface omitted)). Specifically, we stated in Harmon that
[HN10] “[t]he question of whether a contract provision is unenforceable as against some general, uncodified public policy must be determined on an ‘as applied’ basis. * * * [A] party seeking to avoid contractual responsibility must demonstrate that enforcement of the contractual provision as to him or her will offend public policy. That is so regardless of whether enforcement of the same contractual provision against other parties in other circumstances would violate public policy.”
Id. at 222 (emphases added); see generally Young v. Mobil Oil Corp., 85 Ore. App. 64, 69, 735 P2d 654 (1987) ( [HN11] “Oregon requires that a public policy be clear and ‘overpowering’ before a court will interfere with the parties’ freedom to contract on the ground of public policy.” (Citation omitted.)).
7 We assume without deciding that the “void as contrary to public policy” doctrine pertaining to this type of case has not been superseded by later-evolved principles concerning substantive unconscionability. [***24] See Restatement at § 208 comment a (unconscionability analysis generally “overlaps” with public-policy analysis).
[*404] Again, the release agreement provided, as pertinent here:
“RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT
“IN CONSIDERATION OF THE USE OF A MT. BACHELOR PASS AND/OR MT. BACHELOR’S PREMISES, I/WE AGREE TO RELEASE AND INDEMNIFY MT. BACHELOR, INC., ITS OFFICERS AND DIRECTORS, OWNERS, AGENTS, LANDOWNERS, AFFILIATED COMPANIES, AND EMPLOYEES (HEREINAFTER ‘MT. BACHELOR, INC.’) FROM ANY AND ALL CLAIMS FOR PROPERTY DAMAGE, INJURY, OR DEATH WHICH I/WE MAY SUFFER OR FOR WHICH I/WE MAY BE LIABLE TO OTHERS, IN ANY WAY CONNECTED WITH SKIING, SNOWBOARDING, OR SNOWRIDING. THIS RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT SHALL APPLY TO ANY CLAIM EVEN IF CAUSED BY NEGLIGENCE. THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT.”
(Underscoring and capitalization in original; emphasis added.) Although that exculpatory language expressly excludes intentional misconduct from its purview, the same cannot be said with respect to gross negligence or recklessness. However, applying Harmon, because Bagley alleges only ordinary negligence, the failure to expressly exclude gross negligence or recklessness does [***25] not render the agreement contrary to public policy “as applied” to the negligence claim in this case. 146 Ore. App at 222.
Further, in assessing the language of the agreement, our decision in Steele v. Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon, Ltd., 159 Ore. App. 272, 974 P2d 794, rev den, 329 Ore. 10, 994 P.2d 119 (1999), provides substantial guidance. There, the plaintiff in a wrongful death action brought against a ski resort argued that the trial court had erred in granting summary judgment for the ski resort in part because “the terms of the release [were] ambiguous.” Id. at 276. We concluded that the agreement was ambiguous and stated that, [HN12] “[w]hen one party seeks to contract away liability for its own negligence in advance of any harm, the intent to do so must be ‘clearly and unequivocally expressed.'” Id. (quoting Estey v. MacKenzie Engineering Inc., 324 Ore. 372, 376, 927 P2d 86 (1996)). We further elaborated:
[*405] “In determining whether a contract provision meets that standard, the court has considered both the language of the contract and the possibility of a harsh or inequitable result that would fall on one party if the other were immunized from the consequences of its own negligence. The latter inquiry turns on the [***26] nature of the parties’ obligations and the expectations under the contract.”
Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added).
We conclude that the release agreement’s language “clearly and unequivocally” expressed Mt. Bachelor’s intent to disclaim liability for negligence. In reaching that conclusion, considering “the nature of the parties’ obligations and the expectations under the contract[,]” id., we note that Bagley admittedly understood that he was engaged in an inherently dangerous activity and that the agreement not only disclaimed liability [**702] for negligence but specifically stated that the “only” claims not released were those for intentional misconduct. Unlike the ambiguous release agreement in Steele, the above-quoted language expressly referred to negligence and was positioned prominently at the beginning of the release agreement; it was not obscured by unrelated provisions. See id. at 274-75 (exculpatory provision obscured by, inter alia, provision addressing skier’s duty to report injuries to the ski resort’s medical clinic). Indeed, we are hard-pressed to envision a more unambiguous expression of “the expectations under the contract”–namely, that in exchange [***27] for the right to use Mt. Bachelor’s facilities to participate in an inherently dangerous activity, Bagley was to release Mt. Bachelor from all claims related to anything other than intentional misconduct (including, of course, negligence).
Moreover, we have previously emphasized that [HN13] a release agreement disclaiming liability for negligence does not necessarily offend public policy where it pertains exclusively to “recreational activities,” and, most prominently, where the business seeking to relieve itself of such liability does “not provide an essential public service[.]” Mann v. Wetter, 100 Ore. App. 184, 187, 187 n 1, 785 P2d 1064, rev den, 309 Ore. 645, 789 P.2d 1387 (1990) (“[T]here are no public policy considerations that prevent a diving school from limiting liability for its own negligence. The diving school does not provide an [*406] essential public service[.]”). A ski resort, like a diving school, primarily offers “recreational activities” (with possible exceptions that do not apply here, e.g., training for search-and-rescue personnel) and does not provide an “essential public service[.]” Id.
Thus, bearing in mind the principles set forth in Mann and the recreational context of this particular case, [***28] 8 because the release agreement “clearly and unequivocally” disclaimed liability for negligence, and because Bagley’s claims relate only to ordinary negligence, under Oregon law the agreement was not contrary to public policy “as applied” to Bagley’s action. Steele, 159 Ore. App. at 276; Harmon, 146 Ore. App. at 222.
8 Regarding that recreational context, we further note that the legislature has enacted statutes indemnifying landowners from liability in connection with “use of the land for recreational purposes[.]” ORS 105.682; see ORS 105.672 – 105.696. Accordingly, we add that, as a general matter, it would be counterintuitive to hold that a contract with the same operative effect as that statutory scheme is void as contrary to public policy.
Finally, we reject Bagley’s third assignment of error, in which, as noted, he asserts that the release agreement was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. At the outset, we emphasize the substantive rigor historically applied by Oregon courts in assessing claims of unconscionability:
[HN14] “‘[T]he doctrine of unconscionability does not relieve parties from all unfavorable terms that result from the parties’ respective bargaining positions; it [***29] relieves them from terms that are unreasonably favorable to the party with greater bargaining power. Oregon courts have been reluctant to disturb agreements between parties on the basis of unconscionability, even when those parties do not come to the bargaining table with equal power. In those rare instances in which our courts have declared contractual provisions unconscionable, there existed serious procedural and substantive unfairness.'”
Hatkoff v. Portland Adventist Medical Center, 252 Ore. App. 210, 217, 287 P3d 1113 (2012) (quoting Motsinger v. Lithia Rose-FT, Inc., 211 Ore. App. 610, 626-27, 156 P3d 156 (2007)) (emphasis in Motsinger). Further, “each case is decided on its own unique facts[,]” Vasquez-Lopez v. Beneficial Oregon, Inc., 210 Ore. App. 553, 567, 152 P3d 940 (2007), taking into account both the terms of the contract and the circumstances existing when the contract was signed.
[HN15] [*407] In assessing Bagley’s claim of procedural unconscionability, we focus on “the conditions of contract formation” and look to “two factors: oppression and surprise.” Id. at 566-67 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). More specifically, “[o]ppression arises from an inequality of bargaining power [***30] which results in no real negotiation and an absence of meaningful [**703] choice. Surprise involves the extent to which the supposedly agreed-upon terms of the bargain are hidden in a prolix printed form drafted by the party seeking to enforce the terms.” Id. at 566 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Bagley addresses only the former, advancing a generalized argument that the agreement “was a contract of adhesion and there was a disparity in bargaining power.” (Some capitalization omitted.)
As noted, we do not find the release agreement procedurally unconscionable under these circumstances. Although the parties indeed came to the bargaining table with unequal power insofar as Mt. Bachelor required that the release be signed in order to allow Bagley to purchase a season pass, we have, albeit in dictum and in the context of addressing public-policy arguments, suggested that standard-form release agreements in the context of recreational activities are not impermissibly adhesive. See Harmon, 146 Ore. App. at 219 n 4 (citing cases from other jurisdictions and noting their holdings “that exculpatory provisions in ski-related form agreements were not impermissibly adhesive”); Mann, 100 Ore. App. at 187-88 [***31] (noting that “customers have a multitude of alternatives” in dealing with providers of “non-essential service[s,]” even where such providers hold an “economic advantage”). 9 Although we limit our holding to these “unique facts,” we rely in part on those principles in addressing both “oppression” and “surprise” (as well as substantive unconscionability, as set forth below).
9 Many other states, as well as federal courts, have, as Mt. Bachelor points out, “reached the same conclusion.” See, e.g., Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L. P., 607 Pa 1, 29, 2 A3d 1174, 1191 (2010) (noting that, in the recreational context, “[t]he signer is a free agent who can simply walk away without signing the release and participating in the activity, and thus the contract signed under such circumstances is not unconscionable”); Silva v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., No CV 06-6330-AA, *2, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55942 (D Or July 21, 2008) (“[T]he release from liability is not invalid as a contract of adhesion, because [the] plaintiff voluntarily chose to ski at Mt. Bachelor and the ski resort does not provide essential public services.”); Grbac v. Reading Fair Co., Inc., 521 F Supp 1351, 1355 (WD Pa 1981), aff’d, 688 F2d 215 (3d Cir 1982) (stock-car [***32] racing company’s standard-form release provision not adhesionary).
[*408] Here, with respect to “oppression,” Bagley was free to choose not to snowboard at Mt. Bachelor, was less than two weeks short of the age of majority when he signed the agreement, was an experienced snowboarder who had previously signed release agreements required by at least two other ski resorts, had signed a release agreement in obtaining a season pass at Mt. Bachelor during each of the preceding three years, and was accompanied by his father (who, as noted, signed a nearly identical agreement disclaiming liability for negligence). Each of those facts contributes to our conclusion that, notwithstanding the parties’ unequal bargaining power, the circumstances of contract formation were not impermissibly oppressive. Bagley and his father were presented with a “meaningful choice[,]” Vasquez-Lopez, 210 Ore. App. at 566, particularly given that, as noted, snowboarding is a recreational activity and Bagley could have simply declined to sign the release without being denied access to an essential public service.
With respect to “surprise,” as evidenced by the unambiguous language of the release agreement, and particularly given [***33] its additional clarification after disclaiming liability for negligence (“THE ONLY CLAIMS NOT RELEASED ARE THOSE BASED UPON INTENTIONAL MISCONDUCT”), this was not a situation where the “terms of the bargain [were] hidden” by Mt. Bachelor. Id. To the contrary, the above quoted paragraph pertaining to the skier’s release of claims, including claims for negligence, appeared at the beginning of the release agreement and was highlighted by a centered and underlined introductory heading drawing the skier’s attention to the fact that he or she was signing a release (“RELEASE AND INDEMNITY AGREEMENT”). On those facts, we find no indication of surprise and, coupled with our conclusion above as to oppression, cannot say that the release agreement was procedurally unconscionable.
In further arguing that the release agreement was substantively unconscionable, Bagley asserts that “[t]he Release term of the contract in question is unreasonably [**704] favorable to [Mt. Bachelor], the drafter of the contract and more powerful party.” Further, Bagley argues, the terms of the release “unconscionably shift[ ] the burden to protect [skiers] from [Mt. Bachelor’s] negligent behavior to the public that it invites [***34] upon its premises, including [Bagley].” [HN16] [*409] In assessing a contract for substantive unconscionability, we focus on the terms of the contract itself in light of the circumstances of its formation; ultimately, “[t]he substantive fairness of the challenged terms” is the “essential issue.” Carey v. Lincoln Loan Co., 203 Ore. App. 399, 423, 125 P3d 814 (2005), aff’d on other grounds, 342 Ore. 530, 157 P3d 775 (2007); see Vasquez Lopez, 210 Ore. App. at 566-69.
On these facts, the provision in the release agreement disclaiming liability for negligence was not “unreasonably” favorable to Mt. Bachelor. Carey, 203 Ore. App. at 422. Indeed, the principal Oregon case touching on the issue upheld a provision–albeit on an “as applied” basis in the context of that particular plaintiff’s public-policy argument–that not only disclaimed liability for negligence in connection with skiing but for “any and all liability” (presumably including liability related to gross negligence or intentional misconduct on the part of the ski resort). Harmon, 146 Ore. App. at 217-22 (emphasis added). Moreover, as noted, in Harmon we specifically cited cases from other jurisdictions “holding that exculpatory provisions in ski-related form [***35] agreements were not impermissibly adhesive.” Id. at 219 n 4. Returning to the overarching notion that the terms at issue must be read in light of their recreational context, in one of those cases, the New Jersey Superior Court aptly reasoned as follows:
“When an individual enters a ski shop to buy ski equipment, s/he does not have a need for those goods and services, merely a desire. Should the seller demand exculpation as a condition for the sale of the equipment, the purchaser is free to walk away. This is not so with the consumer of automobile insurance, or the individual who cannot find a place to live during a housing shortage. Unlike the skier, these individuals must face an inability to use their automobile, or the prospect of becoming homeless, if they are not willing to sign on the dotted line and exculpate the provider. The skier merely faces the prospect of a ski-less weekend.”
McBride v. Minstar, Inc., 283 NJ Super 471, 491, 662 A2d 592, 602 (NJ Super Ct Law Div 1994), aff’d sub nom McBride v. Raichle Molitor, USA, 283 NJ Super 422, 662 A2d 567 (NJ Super Ct App Div), rev den, 143 N.J. 319, 670 A.2d 1061 (1995) (emphasis in original). As noted, similar release agreements [*410] in the [***36] context of recreational activities have been upheld (including against claims of unconscionability) in a number of other jurisdictions. See Or App at n 9 (slip op at 20 n 9). Finally, [HN17] ORS 105.682 establishes a public policy in favor of indemnification of landowners where the land is used for, inter alia, recreational purposes. We fail to see how a private contract to the same effect is substantively unfair as a matter of law.
Accordingly, given existing case law and the aforementioned substantive rigor that we apply in assessing claims of unconscionability, see Hatkoff, 252 Ore. App. at 217, we conclude that the terms of Mt. Bachelor’s release were not substantively unconscionable under these circumstances. That is, the inclusion of the release provision did not constitute one of “those rare instances” where the terms of the contract were so “unreasonably favorable” to Mt. Bachelor that they were unconscionable. Id. (emphasis in original); see also Restatement at § 208 comment b (a contract has traditionally been held unconscionable only where “it was such as no man in his senses and not under delusion would make” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)).
In sum, we conclude [***37] that Bagley ratified the release agreement prior to the date of injury, nullifying his power to later disaffirm it (whether by notice, filing suit, or pleading infancy), and that the agreement–coupled with the language printed on the season pass and signage at the lift terminals–was sufficiently clear as to its application to claims for negligence. We further conclude that Bagley’s lack of knowledge regarding the scope of the unambiguous agreement did not preclude [**705] summary judgment, nor did his lack of knowledge of the power to disaffirm it upon reaching the age of majority. As to whether the release agreement was valid in the first instance, we conclude that, as applied, the release agreement was not contrary to public policy. Nor was the agreement substantively or procedurally unconscionable. Accordingly, no genuine issue of material fact exists as to Mt. Bachelor’s affirmative defense of release, and the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment for Mt. Bachelor and denying partial summary judgment to Bagley on that basis.