Inherent Risk is the part of any sport and is assumed by participants when undertaking the activity.

A ski trunk just beneath the surface of fresh snow is an inherent risk of skiing in Wyoming.

Standish v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation

State: Wyoming, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Plaintiff: Thomas A. Standish, IV; Meghan Keiter

Defendant: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corporation

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Loss of Consortium

Defendant Defenses: Inherent Risk as identified under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act

Holding: For the Defendant Ski Area

Year: 2021

Summary

While skiing in an ungroomed area at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Thomas Standish was injured when his right ski struck a six-and-a-half-foot stump covered with freshly fallen snow. Standish and his wife brought a negligence lawsuit against Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (“Jackson Hole”) to recover for his injuries.

Jackson Hole moved for summary judgment, contending the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act (WRSA) limited Jackson Hole’s liability because Standish’s injury was a result of an “inherent risk” of alpine skiing. The district court granted summary judgment, finding that a tree stump covered by fresh snow was an inherent risk of skiing for which the WRSA precludes liability. We agree with that conclusion. Thus, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

Facts

In January 2017, California residents Thomas Standish and his then-fiancée, Megan Keiter, traveled to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort as part of a “bucket list” ski trip. From January 8 through 10-the three days prior to Standish’s arrival-Jackson Hole had received about 27 inches of new snow, and on the morning of January 11, Jackson Hole received an additional 18 inches of snow. Over these four days, the mid-mountain depth of the snow increased from 56 to 80 inches.

On January 11, the couple purchased ski passes for Jackson Hole. The backs of these “J Cards” bear language indicating that the pass-holder “acknowledges that participation in any and all winter recreation activities at [Jackson Hole], including . . . skiing . . . involves SUBSTANTIAL AND INHERENT RISKS, HAZARDS, AND DANGERS THAT MAY RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY, DEATH or damages to property.” Aplt. App. 41. The couple first skied a few groomed runs. They then ventured down an off-piste run near the Thunder Chairlift line, with Standish-the more experienced skier-leading the way. “Off-piste” is a term for a ski run or area that is ungroomed and left in its natural state. See Roberts v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corp., 884 F.3d 967, 970 (10th Cir. 2018). About halfway down the mountain, Standish’s right ski hit the top of a six-and-a-half-foot-tall tree stump that was covered with about two inches of fresh snow. His ski came off on impact, and he broke multiple bones in his right leg.

Standish underwent surgery, receiving fourteen screws, two metal plates, and a bone graft. After returning to California a few days later, Standish suffered a pulmonary embolism, a common complication resulting from serious fractures. This required anti-coagulation injections in his abdomen for several months. Because of Standish’s long recovery, he and Keiter pushed their wedding back from June to September 2017. They also sold their business because Standish was unable to work during his recovery.

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

This is a simple case that explains the issues between the two major types of risk as identified under the law, inherent and non-inherent risks. The Wyoming Recreation Safety Act defines for Wyoming what is an inherent risk.

“Inherent risk” with regard to any sport or recreational opportunity means those dangers or conditions which are characteristic of, intrinsic to, or an integral part of any sport or recreational opportunity;

An inherent risk is a risk that if removed from the activity, would change the activity such that it would not be the same. Or looking at inherent risks another way, remove the inherent risks and the sport would not really exist.

Hitting things under the snow, no matter how they look when the snow is gone, is an inherent risk of skiing.

When a statute defines the inherent risks of an activity, the judge is able to determine in advance if the defendant owes a duty to the injured plaintiff. If the inherent risks are not defined by statute, then a jury decides whether the risk incurred by the plaintiff was inherent, unless the risk is obviously inherent.

Most states that have specific statutes covering outdoor recreation activities do so by listing the risks of the activity and by law makes those inherent so an injured party cannot sue for their injuries. As an example, the Colorado Skier Safety Act has a long list of what is an inherent risk of skiing in Colorado.

(3.5) “Inherent dangers and risks of skiing” means those dangers or conditions that are part of the sport of skiing, including changing weather conditions; snow conditions as they exist or may change, such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; surface or subsurface conditions such as bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, cliffs, extreme terrain, and trees, or other natural objects, and collisions with such natural objects; impact with lift towers, signs, posts, fences or enclosures, hydrants, water pipes, or other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or as a result of slope design, snowmaking or grooming operations, including but not limited to roads, freestyle terrain, jumps, and catwalks or other terrain modifications; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities. The term “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” does not include the negligence of a ski area operator as set forth in section 33-44-104 (2). Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the liability of the ski area operator for injury caused by the use or operation of ski lifts.

Obviously, since jumps, machine made snow, extreme terrain, lift towers, signs, posts, fences, hydrants, etc. are natural and only on the slope because of the acts of man, those risks are not naturally, inherent. However, since the act defines them as inherent, they now are and cannot be used by an injured plaintiff to make a claim.

The Wyoming Recreation Safety Act covers a multitude of sports, not just skiing and does not list the risks that are inherent. Consequently, the act does not do anything to provide any greater protection than existed in the common law. Therefore, each judge or jury makes the determination if the risk complained of by the plaintiff was inherent in the sport.

Under Wyoming law and the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act removes any duty, the first element to prove negligence, of the defendant to the plaintiff if the risk is inherent.

In other words, because the WRSA provides that a participant has assumed certain risks that are inherent to the activity, the recreational provider typically owes no duty for inherent risks of an activity. In sum, a recreational “provider has no duty to eliminate, alter, or control the inherent risks of an activity, and any person who chooses to take part in a sport or recreational opportunity assumes all inherent risks [that] are associated with that opportunity.”

Under the WRSA, a reasonableness standard is applied to determine if the risk complained of is inherent.

I]f reasonable minds cannot differ as to whether or not a given set of factual circumstances involve an ‘inherent risk’ of skiing (in this particular instance, we are concerned with skiing, or fill in the blank as the case might be), then the protections of the [W]RSA apply, and the litigation of that controversy must come to an end.

Applying that reasonableness standard, the courts looked at the uncontested facts.

Here, the operative facts are undisputed. The mountain had received 45 inches of fresh snow in the four days prior to the accident. The accident took place in an off-piste-and therefore ungroomed-area. Standish’s injury was caused by a collision with the top of the stump, which was lightly covered with the fresh snow and thus not visible to Standish. The stump had been cut to a height of six-and-a-half feet at some point in the past to mitigate some problem.

The court found that the stump was an inherent risk of skiing “…we conclude that encountering a snow-covered stump in an ungroomed area is an inherent risk of alpine skiing.”

A key component of this analysis was the run was off-piste and ungroomed. If the stump was located on a groomed run, the review and conclusion would have been different. The conclusion would have also been different if an employee of the defendant had told the plaintiff’s that the run was safe or free from hazards.

The court concluded:

Standish’s accident was the result of an unfortunate confluence of a stump, an ungroomed run, and the spectacular snow levels of the previous days. The combination of these factors is an inherent risk of skiing, a sport as thrilling as it can be risky. And the WRSA reflects this by limiting the duty owed by an entity offering access to such a sport. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Jackson Hole on the basis of the WRSA.

So Now What?

The great thing about this article is the courts clear expression of what constitutes an inherent risk. If the risk is inherent, you cannot sue the defendant because you automatically assume those risks when you engage in the sport.

The second is the risk might not have been inherent if the run was not off-piste. The risk would definitely not have been inherent if the plaintiff had been told by an employee of the defendant that there were no risks.

This second issue is, the cause of many lawsuits when the statements of the employee changes or removes any risk management issues the defendant has in place. Marketing makes promises Risk Management has to pay for.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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