Release used to defend third party participants in horseback case applying Missouri’s law, not the main party to the contract.

Illinois resident sues Illinois’s resident for getting kicked by a horse in a riding area in Missouri. Area’s release included coverage for participants and protected horse owner from suit.

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

State: Illinois, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District Applying Missouri law

Plaintiff: Deanna L. Perkinson

Defendant: Sarah Courson

Plaintiff Claims: Violation of the Animal Control Act and Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release (neither party brought up the Missouri Equine Liability Act)

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The term “other participants,” was used in a release signed to access land to ride horses to defend the owner of a horse that kicked another horse owner. The term was sufficient to include the rider in the protection the release afforded. Neither party argued the Equine Liability Act of Missouri where the incident took place.

Facts

Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a warning about the risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

At some point during the trail ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

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

This is a complicated case because it was started in Illinois after the accident happened in Missouri. Consequently, the issues that support the outdoor recreation industry are woven around the other issues such as where the lawsuit should be and what law should be applied to the case.

The court was an Illinois court and the defendant, and the plaintiffs were Illinois’s residents. However, because the accident occurred in Missouri, the court applied Missouri’s law to the case.

The court first looked at Missouri’s law and the requirements to prove negligence.

To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'”

Then the assumption of the risk doctrine was reviewed as applied in Missouri.

Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.”

A document showing the plaintiff assumed the risks or explicitly accepted the risks is called an express assumption of the risk document in Missouri (and most other states).

An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.”

The Missouri law concerning releases was analyzed.

Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.’

In this case, the release was not signed because of a legal relationship between the parties, but was signed as part of accessing the land where the accident occurred. Meaning both parties signed the release to ride on the land. Consequently, the argument centered around whether that release was written to protect parties such as the defendant in this case. Whether the release signed by the plaintiff to ride on the land of the landowner provided protection to the owner of the horse that kicked her.

Additionally, [o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'”

As in most other states, to understand a contract you must determine the effect intended by the parties to be given to the contract. Each clause should be read in the context of the entire contract, not as individual issues. The information within the “four corners” of the contract is the only information that can be reviewed by a court in determining the meaning of a contract, unless the contract is ambiguous, then outside information can be brought into to define the ambiguous section.

A contract is ambiguous when “duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.”

The language of the release referred to “other participants.” The defendant argued that she was the intended beneficiary of this language. If the defendant was found to be the intended beneficiary, then the release would stop the claims of the plaintiff. The term other participants usually follows the name of the party wanting the release to be signed. In this case, the landowner would have their name as the party to be protected and the clause and other participants followed. Did the term have legal meaning and apply to the defendant or was the term just dicta, additional language in the agreement that had no meaning.

 

 

 

The plaintiff argued that she did not know what she was signing and therefore, could not have intended the release to benefit the defendant. The plaintiff also argued the phrase “other participants” was ambiguous.

However, the court disagreed and found it covered the defendant and was not a catch-all phrase. The court found the defendant was a participant within the meaning of the words and the language of the release.

The final failure of the plaintiff’s argument fell when the court brought up that in her own deposition, she characterized the defendant as another participant in the trail ride.

The next argument, is another argument that is surfacing in plaintiff’s arguments across the US. The plaintiff argued the release should not apply because it purports to relieve liability for more than simple negligence. Meaning the release was written to cover intentional torts, gross negligence and other activities of the public interest.

However, the court did not agree with that argument because the release did not refer to any additional legal theories other than negligence. The release only used the term negligence and did not sue any language that extended that term to a greater definition.

The court also quoted a Missouri Supreme Court decision that held that the plaintiff could not get a release thrown out by arguing it covered gross negligence. Missouri does not recognize gross negligence. Since it does not exist under Missouri’s law, it could not be used to void a release.

In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri’s courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

Nor does Missouri recognize a cause of action for recklessness.

The next argument was the release was not clear because it was mixed in with another form. The top part of the form was labeled a registration form, and the bottom part was a release.

The court recognized this but found the release part of the form was labeled Release of Liability – Read Before Signing and separated by a dotted line from the top of the form. The significant language in the release was also capitalized for emphasis.

The court held with the trial court and found the release signed by the parties to ride on the property protected the defendant in this case.

 

 

 

So Now What?

This is the first case I have found where a release was used to protect a third party from a lawsuit. I have long argued that this should be the case. Even though the release was signed for a land owner, any litigation is going to cost many parties money. The decision does not say, however, in cases like this many times, the landowner and other participants in the ride are deposed, and as such they lose work and possibly incur legal fees for the depositions.

Having the release be part of a registration form was an issue. Eliminate the argument by the plaintiff and make it a separate form. If you need more information than what is normally required on a release collect it a different way or at the end.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Perkinson v. Courson, 2018 IL App (4th) 170364, 97 N.E.3d 574, 2018 Ill. App. LEXIS 120, 420 Ill. Dec. 692

Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District

March 12, 2018, Filed

NO. 4-17-0364

DEANNA L. PERKINSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SARAH COURSON, Defendant-Appellee.

Prior History:  [***1] Appeal from Circuit Court of Jersey County. No. 15L31. Honorable Eric S. Pistorius, Judge Presiding.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: Timothy J. Chartrand, of Williamson, Webster, Falb & Glisson, of Alton, for appellant.

Amy L. Jackson and Samantha Dudzinski, of Rammelkamp Bradney, P.C., of Jacksonville, for appellee.

Judges: PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Opinion by: HARRIS

Opinion

 [****698]  [**580]  PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Justices Steigmann and Turner concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

 [*P1]  In August 2014, plaintiff, Deanna L. Perkinson, was kicked by a horse and injured. In December 2015, she filed a two-count complaint against the horse’s owner, defendant Sarah Courson, alleging a violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act (510 ILCS 5/1 to 35 (West 2014)) (count I) and negligence (count II). Although plaintiff and defendant are Illinois residents, the incident at issue occurred in Missouri and the trial court determined Missouri law controlled the conflict. Following that determination, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of plaintiff’s complaint and her motion for summary judgment as to count II. Plaintiff appeals, arguing the court erred in (1) ruling on defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of the complaint because the motion was brought pursuant to the [***2]  wrong statutory section, (2) finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ controversy, and (3) finding defendant was entitled to summary judgment on count II of the complaint. We affirm.

[*P2]  I. BACKGROUND

 [*P3]  In her December 2015 complaint, plaintiff alleged that both she and defendant were Illinois residents. On August 29, 2014, they were horseback riding alongside one another on a public trail when plaintiff was kicked by the horse defendant was riding, which defendant owned. Plaintiff maintained she sustained permanent and disfiguring injuries to her right leg as a result of being kicked. In connection with count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, plaintiff also asserted that at the time and place of her injury, she did not provoke defendant’s horse, had been conducting herself peaceably, and was in a location where she had a legal right to be. Relative to count II, alleging negligence, plaintiff asserted defendant owed her a duty of care but breached that duty by (1) failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick others, (2) failing to properly train the  [**581]   [****699]  horse, (3) riding too close to plaintiff and plaintiff’s horse when knowing that [***3]  her horse had a violent propensity to kick others, and (4) riding her horse contrary to industry and practice norms. Plaintiff further alleged that as a direct and proximate result of defendant’s negligence, she was kicked by defendant’s horse without provocation and injured.

 [*P4]  In January 2016, defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint. She first sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)). Specifically, defendant argued that the incident at issue occurred while the parties were on a horseback riding trip in Eminence, Missouri, and, as a result, Missouri law governed “the pending litigation.” She further maintained that because count I of plaintiff’s complaint was based entirely on Illinois statutory law, that count necessarily failed to state a claim upon which any relief could be granted and had to be dismissed. Defendant further sought dismissal of both count I and count II under section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). She argued plaintiff signed a “‘Release of Liability'” (Release) prior to horseback riding, which, under Missouri law, barred her claims.

 [*P5]  In February 2016, plaintiff responded to defendant’s motion, arguing Illinois [***4]  law applied to both counts of her complaint. Further, she argued the Release referenced by defendant should be disregarded because defendant failed to attach a sworn or certified copy of the Release to her motion to dismiss. Plaintiff alternatively argued the Release was against Illinois public policy, vague, ambiguous, overbroad, and could not be relied upon by defendant who was “a non-party outside of the Release.”

 [*P6]  In March 2016, the trial court conducted a hearing on defendant’s motion to dismiss. At the hearing, defendant withdrew the portion of her motion that sought dismissal pursuant to section 2-619 and proceeded only with the portion of her motion that sought dismissal of count I under section 2-615. Ultimately, the court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss count I, holding as follows:

“[I]n conflict of law cases the courts must determine which forum has the most significant contacts with the litigation. Further, there is a legal presumption that the law of the state where the injury occurred applies in determining the rights and liabilities of the parties unless Illinois has a more significant relation to the conflict. This court finds that *** plaintiff has failed to establish that Illinois has [***5]  a more significant relationship to the conflict. As such, Count I, which is based on the [Illinois] Animal Control Act, is hereby dismissed.”

 [*P7]  In April 2016, plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider the trial court’s ruling as to count I of her complaint. She argued the court erred in its application of existing law as the case authority cited by both parties heavily favored application of Illinois law rather than Missouri law. Additionally, plaintiff maintained the court erred by placing the burden on her to establish that Illinois had a more significant relationship to the matter, rather than on defendant, the moving party.

 [*P8]  In June 2016, a hearing was conducted on plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In its written order, the trial court stated it had considered both plaintiff’s motion and defendant’s response and “noted, for the first time,” that the question of which state’s law to apply involved factual determinations regarding the nature of the parties’ relationship, the planning of their trip to Missouri, and the training of defendant’s horse while in Illinois. The court  [**582]   [****700]  pointed out that no affidavits or deposition testimony had been presented by the parties and elected to “keep plaintiff’s [***6]  Motion to Reconsider under advisement until the[ ] facts or issues [could] be fleshed out during the discovery process.”

 [*P9]  In September 2016, plaintiff filed a supplemental brief to her motion to reconsider, and defendant filed a supplemental response. Plaintiff attached the depositions of both parties to her filing.

 [*P10]  During her deposition, plaintiff testified she resided in Dow, Illinois, both at the time of the incident at issue and at the time of her deposition. She had known defendant since 2003. They met through mutual friends and were brought together through the activity of horseback riding. Plaintiff and her husband had also purchased defendant’s house.

 [*P11]  Plaintiff testified she engaged in horseback riding on and off since the age of five. She and her husband owned nine horses and were part of a group of friends that rode horses together. Plaintiff estimated that 20 to 25 people were in their group, including defendant. She further estimated that she and defendant went horseback riding together approximately five or six times a year. Within plaintiff’s group of horseback riding friends, there were people that plaintiff was closer to and whom she would talk with about going on horseback [***7]  riding trips. Plaintiff testified she was not close friends with defendant. She denied that they spent time socially at one another’s homes or that they participated in any activities together other than horseback riding.

 [*P12]  On examination by her own counsel, plaintiff testified that prior to August 2014, she considered defendant her friend. They had ridden horses together in Illinois and “hung out” at the home of a mutual friend. Also, they had each other’s telephone numbers and were Facebook friends.

 [*P13]  In August 2014, individuals from plaintiff’s horseback riding group went on a trip to Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC (Cross Country), in Eminence, Missouri. According to plaintiff, each year, Cross Country organized a trail ride event during Labor Day weekend. She had previously attended the event approximately six times. Plaintiff testified Cross Country provided its paying guests with a campsite, stalls for horses, entertainment, and food.

[*P14]  On August 28, 2014, plaintiff arrived at Cross Country with her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter. The family took four of their own horses and met up with other individuals from plaintiff’s group of friends. Plaintiff stated she had not known whether [***8]  defendant would be on the trip but saw defendant at Cross Country on the evening of her arrival.

[*P15]  Plaintiff acknowledged signing certain documents upon her arrival at Cross Country on August 28, 2014. She identified her signature on forms that were submitted as exhibits during her deposition and recalled signing similar forms during her previous visits to Cross Country. Plaintiff acknowledged that part of the form she signed was titled “Release of Liability” and instructed her to read before signing; however, plaintiff testified she did not read the form because she had driven a long distance to get to Cross Country and believed it “was just to register.” Plaintiff admitted signing similar forms on behalf of her daughter and stepdaughter.

[*P16]  Plaintiff testified that prior to signing the Cross Country forms, she understood that there was a risk of injury when participating in horseback riding events, including falling off a horse or being kicked. Despite that risk of injury, she participated anyway. Further, plaintiff testified she would have proceeded with the trail ride at Cross Country if she had read the form she signed, which included a  [**583]   [****701]  warning about the risk of injury when participating [***9]  in horseback riding events and statements indicating she fully assumed the risks of participation. Plaintiff acknowledged that the form she signed used the phrase “other participants.” She agreed that defendant would have been “another participant” in the activities at Cross Country.

[*P17]  On August 29, 2014, plaintiff, her family, and members of her group intended to take a six-hour trail ride on one of the “identified trails” at Cross Country. Plaintiff was riding a horse named Chester, and defendant was riding a horse named Little Bit. Plaintiff did not recall ever previously being around Little Bit. Further, she acknowledged consuming beer during the trail ride. Plaintiff stated she also observed that defendant was consuming alcohol and believed defendant was intoxicated. During a break on the trail ride, defendant told plaintiff that Little Bit “had kicked [defendant’s] husband while her husband was in the pasture.” She did not remember defendant telling her when the kick occurred or that the horse was in heat at the time. Plaintiff stated she did not notice anything concerning about Little Bit’s behavior while horseback riding on the day of the incident.

[*P18]  At some point during the trail [***10]  ride, plaintiff and defendant began riding next to one another and were talking. Plaintiff did not recall who approached whom or how long they rode next to each other. As they were riding together down a hill, defendant’s horse kicked out with both of its rear legs and struck plaintiff on her right shin. Plaintiff did not know what caused the horse to kick. Following the kick, plaintiff had to be helped off her horse, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Plaintiff stated she had a broken bone in her shin and, ultimately, underwent two surgeries.

[*P19]  Plaintiff testified that during the trail ride defendant should have put a red ribbon on her horse’s tail to warn others that her horse was known to kick. She asserted, however, that the presence of a red ribbon would not have altered her own behavior. Additionally, plaintiff stated she returned to Cross Country for horseback riding after the August 2014 incident with defendant’s horse. Although she did not plan on attending Cross Country’s Labor Day event in 2016, she did plan to go to another location in Missouri for a Labor Day trail ride.

 [*P20]  As stated, the record also contains defendant’s deposition. Defendant testified she resided in [***11]  Farina, Illinois, with her husband. She met plaintiff in 2003 through her former sister-in-law who was friends with plaintiff. Also, in 2013, plaintiff purchased defendant’s house in Dow, Illinois. Defendant testified she advertised the sale of her house on Facebook and plaintiff “friended [her] on Facebook” and contacted her by telephone about the house. Defendant noted her phone number was in her advertisement. She was not aware of plaintiff having her phone number prior to the time she advertised the sale of her house. Defendant considered plaintiff to be an acquaintance rather than a friend, noting they only socialized through mutual friends and always went horseback riding in a group setting. She estimated that she went horseback riding with plaintiff twice a year since 2006 but did not recall whether all of those occasions were in Illinois.

 [*P21]  Defendant testified she grew up around horses and regularly went horseback riding. Since 2003, she owned 11 different horses. Defendant stated someone else would train her horses to ride and then she “worked the tweaks out.” Specifically, defendant stated she trained her horses, including Little Bit, to “neck rein,”  [**584]   [****702]  not to ride too close to [***12]  other horses, and in “ground manners.”

 [*P22]  In 2012, defendant purchased Little Bit from one of the members of her horseback riding group of friends. She kept Little Bit at her farm in Farina, Illinois. In 2013, Little Bit was trained for 30 days in Kampsville, Illinois, by an individual named Samuel Kaufman. Thereafter, defendant took over. Defendant testified her training with Little Bit included going on several trail rides with other horses. She estimated Little Bit went on six trail rides before the Cross Country trail ride in August 2014. Defendant stated that, prior to August 2014, Little Bit kicked at another horse in a pasture while she was in heat. During that incident, Little Bit made contact with defendant’s husband who “was in the way.” Defendant denied that any other kicking incidents occurred prior to August 2014.

 [*P23]  Defendant testified she had been to Cross Country eight times prior to August 2014. She always went to Cross Country with a group. Defendant recalled seeing plaintiff at Cross Country prior to 2014 but did not recall if they rode horses together. In August 2014, defendant was at Cross Country with her husband, mother, and father. During the August 29, 2014, trail [***13]  ride, defendant rode Little Bit, who had not previously been on a trail ride at Cross Country.

 [*P24]  Defendant acknowledged drinking alcohol on the trail ride but stated she did not know if she was intoxicated. She estimated she had less than six beers, the amount she typically packed in her cooler. Defendant denied noticing anything peculiar about Little Bit during the trail ride. However, she asserted she told all of the other horseback riders that she would stay toward the back of the group because Little Bit was young, she did not know whether the horse would kick, and defendant did not totally trust the horse. Defendant testified she trusted Little Bit enough to ride her with other people but “didn’t trust that she maybe wouldn’t kick.”

 [*P25]  Defendant described the incident involving plaintiff, stating they were coming down a hill side by side when Little Bit “trotted up ahead.” She then heard plaintiff yell out and observed plaintiff reaching for her leg. Defendant estimated that she and plaintiff had been a little more than arm’s distance apart and were having a conversation before the incident. She stated she did not know why Little Bit kicked. In the fall of 2014, defendant sold Little [***14]  Bit. She testified she was not comfortable with the horse, noting an occasion when Little Bit bucked her off after being “spooked” by cattle.

 [*P26]  In October 2016, the trial court entered a written order finding no reason to reconsider its previous ruling and denying plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. In so holding, the court noted it reviewed its prior decision and the parties’ additional arguments. It stated the additional facts presented to it only further supported its decision to grant defendant’s motion to dismiss.

 [*P27]  In February 2017, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment as to count II of plaintiff’s complaint, alleging negligence, as well as a memorandum of law in support of her motion. She alleged that based on the deposition testimony of plaintiff and defendant, no question of material fact existed and she was entitled to judgment in her favor as a matter of law. Defendant maintained plaintiff was unable to establish that defendant owed her a duty, arguing that plaintiff both implicitly and explicitly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding. Also, she argued that plaintiff’s “testimony undermine[d] any and all proffered allegations of breach of duty.”

 [*P28]  [**585]  [****703]  Defendant [***15]  attached the parties’ depositions to her filing, as well as copies of the Cross Country documents plaintiff acknowledged signing. The documents included forms titled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic],” which provided as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my presence [***16]  or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.

5. Releasor expressly agrees that this release, waiver, and indemnity agreement is intended to be as broad and inclusive as permitted by the laws of the State of Missouri and that if any portion thereof is held invalid, it is agreed that the valid portion shall, not withstanding, continue in full legal force and effect.”

 [*P29]  In March 2017, plaintiff filed a response to defendant’s motion, and in April 2017 defendant filed a reply. Both parties relied on Missouri [***17]  substantive law when addressing defendant’s motion for summary judgment. In April 2017, the trial court also conducted a hearing in the matter and entered a written order granting defendant’s motion. Although the court’s written order did not specify the basis for its ruling, the court’s oral comments at the hearing reflect that it relied upon the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. Specifically, it stated as follows:

“Based upon the Release and without going to what is otherwise, I think a factual question, I think the Release in and of itself is sufficient to provide a basis for [defendant’s] Motion for Summary Judgment. It identifies itself as a release. It specifically tells the person who’s signing it to sign it and [plaintiff] sign[ed] not only for herself, but for her underage children. It says ‘please read this before you sign it[.’] It specifically addresses other participants. That’s as strong of language as you can get. So based *** on that, and that alone, the  [**586]   [****704]  court’s [going to] grant the Motion for Summary Judgment.”

 [*P30]  This appeal followed.

[*P31]  II. ANALYSIS

[*P32]  A. Statutory Designation for Motion to Dismiss

 [*P33]  On appeal, plaintiff first argues the trial court erred in granting [***18]  defendant’s motion to dismiss count I of her complaint, alleging a violation of the Animal Control Act, because it was brought under the wrong section of the Code. She notes defendant sought dismissal of count I pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)) but argues that, because defendant’s motion “raised an affirmative, factual defense,” it should have been brought pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)).

 [*P34] 
“A section 2-615 motion to dismiss challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint based on defects apparent on its face.” Bueker v. Madison County, 2016 IL 120024, ¶ 7, 410 Ill. Dec. 883, 72 N.E.3d 269. “The only matters to be considered in ruling on such a motion are the allegations of the pleadings themselves.” Illinois Graphics Co. v. Nickum, 159 Ill. 2d 469, 485, 639 N.E.2d 1282, 1289, 203 Ill. Dec. 463 (1994). Conversely, “[a] motion to dismiss under section 2-619 [citation] admits the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff’s claim, but asserts certain defects or defenses outside the pleading that defeat the claim.” In re Scarlett Z.-D., 2015 IL 117904, ¶ 20, 390 Ill. Dec. 123, 28 N.E.3d 776. Where grounds for dismissal do not appear on the face of the complaint, the section 2-619 motion must be supported by affidavit. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a) (West 2014).

 [*P35]  As noted, defendant sought dismissal of count I of plaintiff’s complaint, arguing Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict and, as a result, plaintiff’s claim asserting liability based solely on an Illinois statute—the Animal Control Act—could [***19]  not stand. Defendant brought her motion under section 2-615 of the Code, and as stated, plaintiff argues defendant should have designated section 2-619.

 [*P36]  Here, it appears defendant labeled her motion to dismiss count I with the wrong statutory section. Section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code provides for dismissal where “the claim asserted against defendant is barred by other affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim.” 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2014)). “[A]ffirmative matter” has been held to include “the basic issue as to which state’s law is to apply to the action.” Ingersoll v. Klein, 106 Ill. App. 2d 330, 336, 245 N.E.2d 288, 291 (1969), aff’d, 46 Ill. 2d 42, 262 N.E.2d 593 (1970); see also Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 487 (citing Ingersoll, 46 Ill. 2d at 42, for the proposition that a choice-of-law defense had “been considered ‘affirmative matter’ so as to negate completely the asserted claim”).

 [*P37]  Additionally, our supreme court has acknowledged that  the conflict-of-law methodology “may raise factual issues.” Townsend v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 227 Ill. 2d 147, 154, 879 N.E.2d 893, 898, 316 Ill. Dec. 505 (2007). Such factual issues are properly considered and addressed in the context of a section 2-619 motion to dismiss, where a trial court may consider pleadings, depositions, and affidavits when making its ruling (Zedella v. Gibson, 165 Ill. 2d 181, 185, 650 N.E.2d 1000, 1002, 209 Ill. Dec. 27 (1995)), rather than in the context of section 2-615 motion, where only the pleadings may be considered (Illinois Graphics, 159 Ill. 2d at 485).

 [*P38]  Nevertheless, even if defendant improperly labeled her motion to dismiss count I, no reversible error [***20]  occurred. We note plaintiff failed to object to the  [**587]   [****705]  statutory designation in defendant’s motion to dismiss. Thus, she has forfeited her challenge to that designation on appeal. American National Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 192 Ill. 2d 274, 280, 735 N.E.2d 551, 554, 248 Ill. Dec. 900 (2000). Moreover, setting plaintiff’s forfeiture aside, we note that  a defendant’s error in labeling a motion to dismiss is not fatal where the nonmoving party has suffered no prejudice. Wallace v. Smyth, 203 Ill. 2d 441, 447, 786 N.E.2d 980, 984, 272 Ill. Dec. 146 (2002). In this instance, plaintiff acknowledges that the trial court allowed the choice-of-law issue to be “fleshed out” through the discovery process. Further, the record shows the issue was given full and thorough consideration by the trial court. Thus, plaintiff had a sufficient opportunity to be heard, and we find no reversible error.

[*P39]  B. Choice-of-Law Determination

 [*P40]  Plaintiff next argues the trial court erred in finding Missouri law applied to the parties’ conflict. She contends that a choice-of-law analysis and the facts applicable to that analysis support the conclusion that Illinois has a more significant relationship to her cause of action.

 [*P41]  Initially, we note that a de novo standard of review applies to this issue. Such a standard is applicable on review of a dismissal under either section 2-615 or 2-619 of the Code. Patrick Eng’g, Inc. v. City of Naperville, 2012 IL 113148, ¶ 31, 976 N.E.2d 318, 364 Ill. Dec. 40. Additionally, we apply a de [***21]  novo standard when reviewing a trial court’s choice-of-law determination. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 154.

 [*P42] 
“A choice-of-law determination is required only when a difference in law will make a difference in the outcome.” Id. at 155. Thus, “a choice-of-law analysis begins by isolating the issue and defining the conflict.” Id. Here, the parties agree that conflicts exist between Missouri and Illinois law. Notably, they identify Missouri’s lack of a statute that is equivalent to the Illinois Animal Control Act. If Illinois law applies, claimant can maintain the cause of action alleged in count I of her complaint, which is based on that Illinois statute; however, if Missouri law applies, count I of her complaint must be dismissed as it would state no cause of action upon which relief could be granted under Missouri law. Thus, we agree that a conflict exists that will result in a difference in outcome.

 [*P43]  Next, when making a choice-of-law determination, “the forum court applies the choice-of-law rules of its own state.” Id.  Illinois has adopted the choice-of-law analysis contained in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws (1971) (Second Restatement).Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d . at 163-64. Under the Second Restatement, a presumption exists in favor of applying the [***22]  law of the state where the injury occurred. Id. at 163. The presumption “may be overcome only by showing a more or greater significant relationship to another state.” (Emphases in original.) Id. Specifically, section 146 of the Restatement provides as follows:

“In an action for a personal injury, the local law of the state where the injury occurred determines the rights and liabilities of the parties, unless, with respect to the particular issue, some other state has a more significant relationship under the principles stated in [the Second Restatement] to the occurrence and the parties, in which event the local law of the other state will be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 146 (1971).

 [*P44] 
Once a court chooses the presumptively applicable law, it “tests” its  [**588]   [****706]  choice against various “principles” and “contacts” as set forth in sections 6 and 145 of the Second Restatement. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 164. Section 6(2) sets forth the following relevant factors for consideration:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

(d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field [***23]  of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

 [*P45]  Additionally, section 145(2) sets forth the following “[c]ontacts to be taken into account in applying the principles of [section] 6“:

“(a) the place where the injury occurred,

(b) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred,

(c) the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties, and

(d) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971).

The contacts set forth in section 145(2) “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Id.

 [*P46]  Practically, it makes no difference whether a court first considers the section 145(2) contacts or the section 6(2) general principles. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 168. “In either case[,] the Second Restatement’s goal is the same—to ensure that a court is not merely ‘counting contacts,’ and that each contact is meaningful in light of the policies sought to be vindicated by the conflicting laws.” Id.

 [*P47]  Here, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse while on a trail ride in Missouri. Thus, Missouri is “the state where the injury occurred,” and a presumption exists in favor [***24]  of applying Missouri law unless, as plaintiff argues, Illinois has a more significant relationship to the occurrence and the parties. In testing this presumption, we first consider relevant “contacts” as set forth in section 145(2) of the Restatement.

[*P48]  1. Section 145 Contacts

 [*P49]  The first contact for consideration is the place where the injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(a) (1971). As discussed, plaintiff was kicked by defendant’s horse in Missouri, and thus, that is where her injury occurred. Plaintiff maintains this factor is of minimal importance because the location of her injury was merely fortuitous in that the incident could just as easily have occurred in Illinois. To support her argument, plaintiff cites cases with fact scenarios that involve interstate travelers and motor vehicle accidents, which courts have determined could just as easily have occurred in another state. Murphy v. Mancari’s Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 408 Ill. App. 3d 722, 727-28, 948 N.E.2d 233, 238, 350 Ill. Dec. 164 (2011); Miller v. Hayes, 233 Ill. App. 3d 847, 852, 600 N.E.2d 34, 38, 175 Ill. Dec. 411 (1992); Schulze v. Illinois Highway Transportation Co., 97 Ill. App. 3d 508, 510-11, 423 N.E.2d 278, 280, 53 Ill. Dec. 86 (1981).

 [*P50]  [****707]  [**589]  Specifically, in Murphy, 408 Ill. App. 3d at 723, the plaintiffs were Illinois residents who brought suit against an Illinois automobile dealer that sold them a vehicle after one of the plaintiffs was injured in a motor vehicle accident in Michigan. The trial court determined Michigan law applied to the liability and damages issues in the case, and the plaintiffs appealed. Id. at 724.

 [*P51]  On review, the First District [***25]  noted that, in the context of a choice-of-law analysis, “situations may exist where the place of injury is merely fortuitous and, therefore, not an important contact.” Id. at 727. In the case before it, the court found that the injured plaintiff’s presence in Michigan was not fortuitous because “[h]e was purposefully and voluntarily in Michigan, driving to his weekend home with the intention of staying there for several days.” Id. at 727. However, it also determined that a purposeful presence in Michigan did not mean that the accident “could not have happened in Michigan fortuitously.” Id. It pointed out that the cause of the accident had not been determined and “[t]he same type of accident and the same type of injuries could have just as easily happened in Illinois.” Id. at 727-28. Thus, the court concluded the place of injury was not an important consideration in the context of the case before it. Id. at 728.

 [*P52]  Defendant argues Murphy is distinguishable from the present case, and we agree. Notably, this case does not involve a motor vehicle accident that happened by chance in one state versus another. Instead, plaintiff’s injury occurred at the planned destination of both parties. The specific location, Cross Country, focused [***26]  on horseback riding activities in which both parties planned to engage. Additionally, both plaintiff and defendant had previously visited Cross Country on multiple occasions.

 [*P53]  We note comment e of section 145 provides as follows:

“In the case of personal injuries or of injuries to tangible things, the place where the injury occurred is a contact that, as to most issues, plays an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law [citation]. *** This is so for the reason among others that persons who cause injury in a state should not ordinarily escape liabilities imposed by the local law of that state on account of the injury. ***

Situations do arise, however, where the place of injury will not play an important role in the selection of the state of the applicable law. This will be so, for example, when the place of injury can be said to be fortuitous or when for other reasons it bears little relation to the occurrence and the parties with respect to the particular issue ***.” (Emphasis added.) Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. e (1971).

Under the facts of this case, we cannot say that the place of injury bears little relation to the occurrence or the parties. This is particularly true in light of the underlying issues presented [***27]  in plaintiff’s complaint, which almost exclusively involve the parties’ behavior and conduct while horseback riding at Cross Country in Missouri. Therefore, we find this contact weighs in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P54]  The next contact for consideration is the place where the conduct causing the plaintiff’s injury occurred. Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(b) (1971). An analysis of injury-causing conduct “includes all conduct from any source contributing to the injury,” including a defendant’s affirmative defenses  [**590]   [****708]  or allegations of contributory negligence. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169.

 [*P55]  Here, plaintiff acknowledges that, relative to count I, this factor favors application of Missouri law because “the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred would be the place where the animal caused injury without provocation.” She asserts, however, that she alleged injury-causing conduct that occurred in both Illinois and Missouri in connection with count II and thus, this factor must be “deemed a wash.” We disagree.

 [*P56]  In count II, plaintiff asserted defendant was negligent for failing to warn plaintiff of the horse’s violent propensity to kick, failing to properly train her horse, riding the horse too close to plaintiff, and failing to adhere to industry [***28]  and practice norms while riding her horse. All but one of these alleged actions or inactions by defendant occurred exclusively in Missouri. Additionally, defendant has argued that plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with horseback riding at Cross Country and points to the Release plaintiff signed in Missouri. Given that the vast majority of relevant conduct occurred in Missouri, we find this factor weighs in favor of applying Missouri law to the parties’ conflict.

 [*P57]  The third contact for consideration is “the domicil, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(c) (1971). Here, both parties are Illinois residents and neither disputes that this factor weighs in favor of applying Illinois law.

 [*P58]  The final contact for consideration is “the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2)(d) (1971). In this instance, the parties’ relationship primarily arose from having a group of mutual friends in Illinois and engaging in horseback riding activities within that group. Plaintiff and defendant were riding horses together in Missouri at the time of the incident at issue but had previously ridden horses together in Illinois. [***29]  Ultimately, we find this contact favors applying Illinois law, as most of the parties’ interactions occurred within this state.

 [*P59]  Here, the section 145(2) contacts are evenly split, with two favoring application of Missouri law and two favoring Illinois law. However, as noted, the 145(2) contacts “are to be evaluated according to their relative importance with respect to the particular issue.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145(2) (1971). In this case, the fact that the parties interacted with one another more frequently in Illinois has little to do with the issues presented by either count I or count II of plaintiff’s complaint. Thus, we find the fourth factor set forth in section 145(2) is only minimally important to the underlying proceedings. As a result, the section 145(2) contacts, when considered alone, support rather than rebut the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law. This does not end our analysis, however, and we must also consider the principles set forth in section 6 of the Second Restatement.

[*P60] 2. Section 6 Principles

 [*P61]  As noted, section 6(2) of the Second Restatement sets forth the following principles for consideration when conducting a choice-of-law analysis:

“(a) the needs of the interstate and international systems,

(b) the relevant policies of the forum,

(c) the relevant [***30]  policies of other interested states and the relative interests of those states in the determination of the particular issue,

 [****709]  [**591]  (d) the protection of justified expectations,

(e) the basic policies underlying the particular field of law,

(f) certainty, predictability and uniformity of result, and

(g) ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.”

Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2) (1971).

In this case, a detailed analysis of all seven section 6 principles is unnecessary because the principles set forth in sections 6(2)(a), 6(2)(d), and 6(2)(f) are only minimally implicated in a personal injury action. Townsend, 227 Ill. 2d at 169-70 (citing Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 cmt. b, at 415-16 (1971)). Therefore, we confine our analysis to the remaining section 6 principles. Id. at 170.

 [*P62]  As stated, the parties agree that Illinois law conflicts with Missouri law based upon the existence of the Animal Control Act in Illinois and the lack of an equivalent Missouri statute. Initially, we consider this conflict in light of the relevant policies of Illinois (section 6(2)(b)), the relevant policies of Missouri and the relative interest of Missouri in the determination of the issue (section 6(2)(c)), and the basic policies underlying the particular field of law (section 6(2)(e)).

 [*P63]  Under the Animal Control Act, “[i]f a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, [***31]  or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby.” 510 ILCS 5/16 (West 2014). Our supreme court has described the history behind the Animal Control Act and interpreted its provisions as follows:

“The original version of this statute was passed in 1949 and applied only to dogs. [Citation.] The apparent purpose of the legislation was modest: to reduce the burden on dog-bite plaintiffs by eliminating the ‘one-bite rule’—the common law requirement that a plaintiff must plead and prove that a dog owner either knew or was negligent not to know that his dog had a propensity to injure people. [Citation.]

Enacting the Animal Control Act in 1973, the legislature amended this ‘dog-bite statute’ to cover ‘other animals.’ ***

*** [W]e believe that the legislature intended only to provide coverage under the statute for plaintiffs who, by virtue of their relationship to the owner of the dog or other animal or the lack of any such relationship, may not have any way of knowing or avoiding the risk that the animal [***32]  poses to them. This interpretation is consistent with the emphasis the statute places on lack of provocation and plaintiff’s peaceable conduct in a place in which he is legally entitled to be.” Harris v. Walker, 119 Ill. 2d 542, 546-47, 519 N.E.2d 917, 918-19, 116 Ill. Dec. 702 (1988).

In Harris, the supreme court held the Animal Control Act was inapplicable to circumstances “where a person rents a horse and understands and expressly accepts the risks of using the horse.” Id. at 547-48; Johnson v. Johnson, 386 Ill. App. 3d 522, 535, 898 N.E.2d 145, 159, 325 Ill. Dec. 412 (2008) (“[T]he common law defense of assumption of the risk has been recognized as a valid affirmative defense to an action brought pursuant to the Animal Control Act.”).

 [*P64]  As indicated by the parties, Missouri does not have a comparable statute. See Mo. Ann. Stat. § 273.036 (West  [**592]   [****710]  2014) (providing for strict liability in the event of dog bites but not applying to other animals). However, it has enacted the Equine Liability Act, for the purpose of codifying “the common law assumption of risk principle in the context of a specific recreational activity.” Frank v. Mathews, 136 S.W.3d 196, 202 (Mo. Ct. App. 2004). That Act limits liability for injuries resulting from the inherent risks associated with equine activities, providing as follows:

“[A]n equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person or corporation shall not be liable for an injury to or [***33]  the death of a participant resulting from the inherent risks of equine *** activities and, *** no participant or a participant’s representative shall make any claim against, maintain an action against, or recover from an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, *** any employee thereof, or any other person from injury, loss, damage or death of the participant resulting from any of the inherent risks of equine or livestock activities.” (Emphases added.) Mo. Ann. Stat. § 537.325(2) (West 2014).

Under the Equine Liability Act, an “equine activity” includes “[r]ides *** sponsored by an equine activity sponsor.” Id. § 537.325(3)(e). Further, an “equine activity sponsor” includes a group or corporation that “sponsors, organizes[,] or provides the facilities for, an equine activity.” Id. § 537.325(4). The Equine Liability Act does not relieve covered individuals “from any duty that common law negligence principles impose upon them.” Frank, 136 S.W.3d at 203.

 [*P65]  Finally, we note that, although not significantly addressed by either party, Illinois has also adopted an Equine Activity Liability Act (Illinois Equine Act) (745 ILCS 47/1 et seq. (West 2014)). The legislature has set forth the purpose of the Illinois Equine Act as follows:

“The General Assembly recognizes that persons who participate [***34]  in equine activities may incur injuries as a result of the risks involved in those activities. The General Assembly also finds that the State and its citizens derive numerous economic and personal benefits from equine activities. Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to encourage equine activities by delineating the responsibilities of those involved in equine activities.” 745 ILCS 47/5 (West 2014).

The Fifth District of this court has noted that equine activity liability acts “have been enacted in more than 40 states since the mid-1980s” and are intended “to promote equine activities and the horse industry in general by limiting liability for some horse-related activities.” Smith v. Lane, 358 Ill. App. 3d 1126, 1128-29, 832 N.E.2d 947, 950, 295 Ill. Dec. 497 (2005).

 [*P66]  Here, plaintiff argues the policy behind the Animal Control Act “is more significant within the context of injuries by animals than the purpose of the Missouri Equine Liability Act.” We cannot agree. Clearly, Illinois has a policy, by way of the Animal Control Act, of protecting individuals who come into contact with an animal and are unable to appreciate or avoid the risks posed by the animal. However, both Missouri and Illinois have acknowledged that special circumstances exist with respect to horses and equine-related [***35]  activities. Like Missouri law, Illinois law also contemplates that certain inherent risks are associated with equine activities like the sort of activity engaged in by the parties in this case. Both states have a policy of promoting equine activities and limiting liability associated with those activities. Both states also take into account assumption of risk principles with respect to horse-related injuries, even in the context of the Animal Control Act. Given these circumstances, we fail to see how  [**593]   [****711]  Illinois policies are any “more significant” than those behind relevant Missouri law. Rather, both states appear to have similar policies and interests relative to injuries caused by horse-related activities.

 [*P67]  In addressing the relevant policies and interests of both Illinois and Missouri, plaintiff also argues that Illinois has a significant interest in providing tort remedies to its injured citizens. She cites Esser v. McIntyre, 169 Ill. 2d 292, 300, 661 N.E.2d 1138, 1142, 214 Ill. Dec. 693 (1996), wherein the supreme court held that “[h]aving provided a legal means for a plaintiff to recover for injuries caused by a defendant’s culpable conduct, Illinois has a strong interest in providing that remedy in disputes between Illinois residents.” In so holding, the court noted [***36]  that under the law of the place of injury in that case—Mexico—Illinois’s interest would be circumvented because the plaintiff had no remedy against the defendant. Id. In fact, the parties had agreed that the plaintiff had no cause of action against the defendant under Mexican law. Id. at 297. The same cannot be said in this case, as plaintiff has a potential remedy under Missouri law in the form of a negligence cause of action. Further, we note that Missouri has a competing interest in having its laws apply to equine-related activities that occur within its borders.

 [*P68]  Ultimately, we disagree with plaintiff that the policies and interests relevant to this matter weigh in favor of applying Illinois law. Therefore, plaintiff does not overcome the presumption in favor of applying Missouri law.

 [*P69]  On review, plaintiff also addresses the principle relating to the “ease in the determination and application of the law to be applied.” Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6(2)(g) (1971). She maintains that because Illinois law is more advantageous to her claim, this principle weighs in favor of applying Illinois law. However, we agree with defendant that the purpose of section 6(2)(g) is to consider whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” rather [***37]  than which law is most beneficial to plaintiff. See Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 6 cmt. j (1971).

 [*P70]  Relative to this principle, we note that the Illinois Equine Act may be applied to preempt the Animal Control Act in certain situations. See Carl v. Resnick, 306 Ill. App. 3d 453, 458-59, 714 N.E.2d 1, 5, 239 Ill. Dec. 443 (1999) (stating the Illinois Equine Act would bar actions in which the plaintiff was engaged in an “‘equine activity'” that would have previously been permitted under the Animal Control Act); Smith, 358 Ill. App. 3d at 1134 (stating that “had the [Illinois] Equine Act applied to the facts of the case, preemption would have barred an action for the same alleged injuries under the Animal Control Act”). However, the Illinois Equine Act has also been found to be “unclear as to whether it was meant to limit the liability of persons other than equine activity sponsors and equine professionals,” i.e., persons like defendant in this case. Kush v. Wentworth, 339 Ill. App. 3d 157, 165, 790 N.E.2d 912, 918, 274 Ill. Dec. 139 (2003). In Kush, the Second District of this court criticized the Illinois Equine Act for containing inconsistencies and “obvious drafting error,” as well as provisions that could lead to absurd results. Id. at 162-63. Given the lack of clarity of this state’s equine activity liability act, we must find that consideration of whether the competing laws are “simple and easy to apply” also weighs in favor of applying [***38]  Missouri law.

 [*P71]  As discussed, a presumption exists in this case in favor of applying the Missouri law to the parties’ conflict. We find  [**594]   [****712]  nothing in either the parties’ arguments or our review of the Second Restatement’s relevant contacts and principles for consideration that overrides that presumption. Thus, we find no error in the trial court’s finding that Missouri law applies to the underlying controversy.

 [*P72]  In so holding, we note that plaintiff suggests it is unclear from the underlying proceedings whether the trial court’s choice-of-law ruling was as to both counts of her complaint. We disagree. The court’s order referred generally to “the litigation” or “the conflict” when holding Missouri law was applicable, and nothing in its orders indicates that its ruling was limited to only count I. Further, as plaintiff acknowledges, both parties proceeded as if Missouri law applied to count II by citing substantive law from that state in connection with filings related to defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Therefore, we find plaintiff’s assertion that the record is somehow unclear is without merit.

[*P73]  C. Motion for Summary Judgment

 [*P74]  On appeal, plaintiff next argues the trial court erred [***39]  in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to count II of her complaint. “Summary judgment is properly granted when the pleadings, depositions, admissions, and affidavits on file, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Village of Bartonville v. Lopez, 2017 IL 120643, ¶ 34, 413 Ill. Dec. 34, 77 N.E.3d 639. “If the plaintiff fails to establish any element of the cause of action, summary judgment for the defendant is proper.” Williams v. Manchester, 228 Ill. 2d 404, 417, 888 N.E.2d 1, 9, 320 Ill. Dec. 784 (2008). The trial court’s summary judgment ruling is subject to de novo review. Schweihs v. Chase Home Finance, LLC, 2016 IL 120041, ¶ 48, 412 Ill. Dec. 882, 77 N.E.3d 50.

 [*P75] 
To obtain relief in a negligence cause of action, “‘the plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant failed to perform that duty; and (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.'” Peters v. Wady Industries, Inc., 489 S.W.3d 784, 793 (Mo. 2016) (quoting Martin v. City of Washington, 848 S.W.2d 487, 493 (Mo. 1993)). In this case, both before the trial court and on appeal, defendant has argued that plaintiff cannot establish that defendant owed her a duty based on the Release plaintiff signed at Cross Country. The trial court’s oral ruling reflects that it agreed with this argument and granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor. For the reasons that follow, we [***40]  also agree that plaintiff signed a valid and enforceable release of liability and expressly assumed the risks associated with the underlying horseback riding activities.

 [*P76] 
Under the “assumption of the risk doctrine” a person who “voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk[ ] *** may not sue another for failing to protect him from it.” Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., 437 S.W.3d 184, 191 (Mo. 2014). An express assumption of risk is the simplest application of the doctrine and “recognizes that, when a plaintiff makes an express statement that he is voluntarily accepting a specified risk, the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for an injury resulting from that risk.” Id. An express assumption of risk “most often involves a written waiver or release by the would-be plaintiff.” Id. Further, “in an ‘express assumption of the risk’ case, the plaintiff’s consent relieves the defendant of any duty to protect the plaintiff from injury.” Id. at 193.

 [*P77] 
“Although exculpatory clauses in contracts releasing an individual  [**595]   [****713]  from his or her own future negligence are disfavored, they are not prohibited as against public policy.” Alack v. Vic Tanny International of Missouri, Inc., 923 S.W.2d 330, 334 (Mo. 1996). “[C]ontracts exonerating a party from acts of future negligence are to be ‘strictly construed against the party [***41]  claiming the benefit of the contract, and clear and explicit language in the contract is required to absolve a person from such liability.'” Id. (quoting Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721 (Mo. Ct. App. 1995)). Missouri law requires “clear, unambiguous, unmistakable, and conspicuous language in order to release a party from his or her own future negligence,” and “[g]eneral language will not suffice.” Id. at 337. “‘The words “negligence” or “fault” or their equivalents must be used conspicuously so that a clear and unmistakable waiver and shifting of risk occurs. There must be no doubt that a reasonable person agreeing to an exculpatory clause actually understands what future claims he or she is waiving.'” Holmes v. Multimedia KSDK, Inc., 395 S.W.3d 557, 560-61 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013) (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337-38).

 [*P78]  Additionally, “[o]nly parties to a contract and any third-party beneficiaries of a contract have standing to enforce that contract.” Verni v. Cleveland Chiropractic College, 212 S.W.3d 150, 153 (Mo. 2007). To be deemed a third-party beneficiary, the terms of the contract must clearly express intent to benefit the third party or an identifiable class of which the third party is a member. Id. When an express declaration of intent is lacking, a strong presumption exists “‘that the third party is not a beneficiary and that the parties contracted to benefit only themselves.'” Id. (quoting Nitro Distributing, Inc. v. Dunn, 194 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Mo. 2006)).

 [*P79] 
In Missouri, the [***42]  primary rule of contract interpretation is to determine and give effect to the intent of the parties. State ex rel. Pinkerton v. Fahnestock, 531 S.W.3d 36, 44 (Mo. 2017). Intent is determined by considering the plain and ordinary meaning of the contract language. Id. Each clause in a contract should be read in the context of the contract as a whole, and any interpretation that would render a provision meaningless should be avoided. Id. Additionally, the parties’ intentions should be “gleaned from the four corners of the contract” unless the contract is ambiguous, in which case a court may resort to considering extrinsic evidence. Kansas City N.O. Nelson Co. v. Mid-Western. Construction Co. of Missouri, Inc., 782 S.W.2d 672, 677 (Mo. App. 1989).

 [*P80]  Additionally, whether a contract is ambiguous presents a question of law. Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 334. “‘An ambiguity arises when there is duplicity, indistinctness, or uncertainty in the meaning of the words used in the contract.'” Id. at 337 (quoting Rodriguez v. General Accident Insurance Co. of America, 808 S.W.2d 379, 382 (Mo. 1991)).

 [*P81]  Here, plaintiff acknowledged signing the Release at issue upon her arrival at Cross Country. In fact, she signed three such Releases—one for herself and one for each of the two minors who accompanied her. The operative language of the Release is as follows:

“4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY [***43]  TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO  [**596]   [****714]  ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphasis added.)

Defendant maintains she was an intended third-party beneficiary of the Release in that she falls within the category of “other participants” and, as a result, plaintiff agreed to release her from liability for injuries plaintiff sustained while horseback riding at Cross Country, including those that occurred due to defendant’s negligence.

 [*P82]  Initially, plaintiff argues the Release fails to clearly express the intent to benefit defendant as a third party. To support this contention, she points to her own testimony that she “did not even know what she [was] signing” and the lack of testimony from anyone associated with Cross Country regarding their intent in entering the contract. Additionally, plaintiff maintains [***44]  the phrase “other participants” is ambiguous and could be reasonably interpreted as a “catch-all term” that means “’employees, agents, servants, and/or independent contractors of [Cross Country] who perform services which further [its] business'” and not, as defendant suggests, other paying customers who are similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant. We disagree and find the Release is unambiguous and clearly expresses an intent to benefit an identifiable class, i.e., “other participants,” of which defendant is a member.

 [*P83]  Looking as we must at the four corners of the parties’ agreement, it is clear that “other participants” were included within the list of individuals or entities to whom the parties to the agreement intended the release of liability to apply. In other words, there was an express intent to benefit “other participants” in the Release. Additionally, when looking at the agreement as a whole, it is clear that the phrase “other participants” refers to those individuals at Cross Country who were similarly situated to plaintiff and defendant, i.e., paying customers or guests who were engaging in the activities provided or offered by Cross Country. Although the term “participants” [***45]  is not defined in the Release, as defendant notes, the terms “participate,” “participation,” and “participants” are used throughout the document. Their use clearly reflects that these words were intended to refer to individuals visiting Cross Country for the purpose of engaging in its recreational activities, including horseback riding. The Release provides as follows:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way, including but not limited to trail riding, competing, officiating, working for, recreating in any fashion while visiting Cross Country Trail Ride, LLC, and its trail ride program, its related events and activities, I *** the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that;

1. The risk of injury from the activities involved in this program is significant, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death, and while particular skills, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce the risk, the risk of serious injury does exist; and,

2. I KNOWINGLY AND FREELY ASSUME ALL SUCH RISKS, both known and unknown, EVEN IF ARISING FROM NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES or others, and assume full responsibility for my participation; and,

3. I willingly agree to comply [***46]  with the stated and customary terms of participation. If, however, I observe any unusual significant hazard during my  [**597]   [****715]  presence or participation, I will remove myself from participation and bring such to the attention of the Company immediately; and,

4. I, for myself and on behalf of my heirs, assigns, personal representatives, and next of kin, HEREBY RELEASE, INDEMNIFY, AND HOLD HARMLESS CROSS COUNTRY TRAIL RIDE, LLC, officers, officials, agents and/or employees, other participants, sponsoring agencies, sponsors, advertisers, and, if applicable, owners and lessors of premises used for the activity (‘Releasees’), WITH RESPECT TO ANY AND ALL INJURY, DISABILITY, DEATH, or loss or damage to person or property associated with my presence or participation, WHETHER ARISING FROM THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE, to the fullest extent permitted by law.” (Emphases added.)

Additionally, signature lines on the Release required the “PARTICIPANT[‘]S SIGNATURE” or the signature of a parent or guardian for “PARTICIPANTS OF MINORITY AGE.”

 [*P84]  During her own deposition, plaintiff acknowledged that the Release used the phrase “other participants” and that she would characterize defendant as “another [***47]  participant” in the activities at Cross Country. We agree and find the language used in the Release is clear and that it unambiguously refers to an identifiable class of individuals that includes defendant.

 [*P85]  Plaintiff next argues the Release is deficient because it purported to relieve liability for nonreleasable claims, including “intentional torts, gross negligence, and/or activities involving the public interest.” She notes language in the Release stated it applied to “THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE RELEASEES OR OTHERWISE.” Plaintiff maintains the word “otherwise” encompasses those nonreleasable claims and, thus, renders the Release duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain, and ambiguous.

 [*P86]  To support her argument, plaintiff relies on Lewis v. Snow Creek, Inc., 6 S.W.3d 388, 394 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999), involving an exculpatory clause that purported “to shield [a party] from ‘any claim based on negligence and *** any claim based upon *** other legal theory.'” There, the reviewing court noted “‘there is no question that one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.'” Id. (quoting Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337). It found that the exculpatory clause before it used general language by referencing [***48]  claims based on “‘any *** other legal theory,'” stating such language included “intentional torts, gross negligence or any other cause of action not expressly listed.” Id. Thus, because the contract at issue purported to relieve the respondent in the case of all liability but did not actually do so, it was duplicitous, indistinct, uncertain and, ultimately, ambiguous. Id.

 [*P87]  We find Lewis distinguishable from the present case. The language there was much broader than the language of the Release that plaintiff signed. Unlike in this case, the exculpatory clause in Lewis expressly referred to legal theories other than negligence. Additionally, we note other courts applying Missouri law have suggested that the same language that is at issue in this case was sufficiently clear and unambiguous. See Haines v. St. Charles Speedway, Inc., 689 F. Supp. 964, 969 (E.D. Mo. 1988) (finding a release was clear and unambiguous under Missouri law where it relieved liability for the “negligence of the Releasees or otherwise” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Hornbeck v. All American Indoor Sports, Inc., 898 S.W.2d 717, 721  [****716]  [**598]  (Mo. Ct. App. 1995) (stating language that released claims “‘whether caused by the negligence of the releasees or otherwise'” would “clearly and unambiguously encompass[ ] the negligence of the party seeking to enforce the release” (quoting [***49]  Haines, 689 F. Supp. at 969)). In this instance, the Release plaintiff signed used the term “negligence” and did not expressly include references to any “other legal theory.” We find the Release was sufficient to notify plaintiff that she was releasing “other participants” in trail riding activities at Cross Country from claims arising from the “other participant’s” own negligence. See Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337 (“The exculpatory language must effectively notify a party that he or she is releasing the other party from claims arising from the other party’s own negligence.”).

 [*P88]  Finally, plaintiff also challenges the format of the Cross Country Release. Again, she relies on Lewis, wherein the court additionally found the exculpatory clause before it was not conspicuous and, thus, insufficient to provide notice of a release of liability for negligence claims. Lewis, 6 S.W.3d at 394-95. Specifically, the reviewing court noted the form at issue was titled as a “Rental Form” rather than a release, the form’s exculpatory clause was in approximately five-point font at the bottom of the form, and the plaintiffs “had to sign the Rental Form to receive ski equipment and had to do so while in a line.” Id.

 [*P89]  Again, the present case is distinguishable. Here, the Release documents [***50]  submitted by the parties consisted of two pages. As argued by defendant, the first page was separated into two equal parts. The top portion was labeled “Registration Form” and included several blank spaces for basic guest information. The bottom portion of the form was labeled “RELEASE OF LIABILITY—READ BEFORE SIGINING [sic]” and was separated from the top portion of the form by a dotted line. The titles of both documents appear to be in the same font size with the title of the Release being entirely capitalized. The release information is not relegated to only the bottom portion of the form but, instead, consists of several paragraphs and occupies half of the first page. Significant language in the Release is also capitalized for emphasis. The second page of the Release documents was similarly divided into two equal parts. However, both parts of the second page pertained to Cross Country’s Release. Plaintiff signed the Cross Country Release three times, once for herself and once for each of the minors accompanying her. Further, we note that although plaintiff claims she did not read the release, she did acknowledge that she was required to sign similar documents during previous visits [***51]  to Cross Country.

 [*P90]  Here, we find the Release at issue was unambiguous and conspicuous such that it sufficiently informed plaintiff that she was releasing other individuals participating in Cross Country’s trail riding activities—including defendant—from claims arising out of their own negligence. Plaintiff expressly assumed the risks associated with her horseback riding activities at Cross Country and, through the Cross Country Release she signed, relieved defendant of any duty to protect her from injury. Given the circumstances presented, the trial court committed no error in granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

 [*P91]  We note plaintiff has additionally argued on appeal that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in defendant’s favor under Missouri law because defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent. She points out that, under Missouri law, “one may never exonerate oneself from future liability for intentional  [**599]   [****717]  torts or for gross negligence, or for activities involving the public interest.” Alack, 923 S.W.2d at 337. Further, plaintiff notes that in response to defendant’s motion for summary judgment, she made the following argument: “There is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether [***52]  Defendant acted grossly negligent in participating in a group trail ride with a sizeable group, including children, on a horse she did not trust, that had kicked one person prior, while intoxicated and riding too closely to Plaintiff.”

 [*P92]  In DeCormier v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, Inc., 446 S.W.3d 668, 671 (Mo. 2014), the Missouri Supreme Court stated that it would “enforce exculpatory agreements to protect a party from liability for their own negligence” and a plaintiff could not “avoid this rule by alleging [a defendant was] grossly negligent because Missouri courts do not recognize degrees of negligence at common law.” Thus, it rejected the precise argument plaintiff has raised in this case both before the trial court and on appeal.

 [*P93]  As plaintiff notes, Missouri does recognize a separate cause of action for recklessness. Id. at 671-72.

“Conduct is in reckless disregard of another if the actor:

‘[A]ct[s] or fails to do an act which it is [the actor’s] duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize that the actor’s conduct not only creates an unreasonable risk of *** harm to the other but also involves a high degree of probability that substantial harm will result to [the other.]’ [Citations.]” Id. at 672.

“[R]ecklessness [***53]  is a distinct cause of action from negligence.” Throneberry v. Missouri State Highway Patrol, 526 S.W.3d 198, 208 (Mo. Ct. App. 2017). “Recklessness looks to the tortfeasor’s state of mind” and “is an aggravated form of negligence which differs in quality, rather than in degree, from ordinary lack of care.” Hatch v. V.P. Fair Foundation, Inc., 990 S.W.2d 126, 139 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999).

 [*P94]  Under the circumstances presented here, plaintiff cannot rely on a claim of recklessness to avoid enforceability of the Release, as she did not raise the claim before the trial court. SI Securities v. Bank of Edwardsville, 362 Ill. App. 3d 925, 933, 841 N.E.2d 995, 1002, 299 Ill. Dec. 263 (2005) (“Issues not raised in a complaint and points not argued in the trial court are waived on appeal.”).

 [*P95]  Additionally, the record reflects defendant raised plaintiff’s signing of the release and its express assumption of risk argument as an affirmative defense. In Missouri, “[t]o avoid an affirmative defense alleged in an answer, a plaintiff must plead specifically matters of affirmative avoidance.” Angoff v. Mersman, 917 S.W.2d 207, 211 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996); see also Warren v. Paragon Technologies Group, Inc., 950 S.W.2d 844, 845 (Mo. 1997) (stating that “[r]elease is an affirmative defense that must be pled in an answer” and once done requires a plaintiff to file a reply if he or she intends to assert an affirmative avoidance). “The plaintiff’s reply should distinctly allege the grounds of avoidance,” and “[m]atters of avoidance are not available to a party who does not plead them specifically.” Angoff, 917 S.W.2d at 211. “An affirmative [***54]  avoidance is waived if the party raising it has neglected to plead it.” Id.

 [*P96]  Here, plaintiff did not plead a cause of action based on “recklessness” either in her complaint or in responding to defendant’s answer and motion for summary judgment. As defendant points out, she also did not seek to amend her original pleading to include a claim of recklessness. Accordingly, we find plaintiff’s arguments  [**600]   [****718]  are forfeited and do not preclude summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

[*P97]  III. CONCLUSION

 [*P98]  For the reasons stated, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.

 [*P99]  Affirmed.

End of Document


Backing of a lift ticket peeled off by Plaintiff to attach lift ticket to his jacket held by Federal District court to be a release and prevents plaintiffs’ claims for skiing into hidden snow making equipment.

Five Federal District Courts have ruled that the information on the back of a lift ticket is a release. No state Courts have ruled this way.

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

State: New Hampshire, United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

Plaintiff: Thomas Jackson Miller

Defendant: The Sunapee Difference, LLC d/b/a Mount Sunapee Resort

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Facts

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

The major difference in this case was the lift ticket identified itself as a release. The back of the lift ticket, on the part that peeled away to reveal the sticky section where the lift ticket attached to itself to create a two-sided lift ticket stated:

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket was the following:

STOP

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The Lift Ticket itself stated:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

The language on this lift ticket specifically stated that it was a release, not just a lift ticket and not just a warning.

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

The court first looked at New Hampshire law on releases.

Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract.

The plaintiff argued that the release was void because it violated public policy, and a reasonable person would only understand that the release applied to the inherent risks of skiing.

New Hampshire public policy requires a showing that no special relationship exists between the parties to the agreement and there is no disparity in the bargaining power between the parties. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found that an agreement would violate public policy if “it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.”

The plaintiff admitted that there was no special relationship between the parties nor was there a disparity of bargaining power. He centered his public policy argument on the theory that the release violated New Hampshire statutory law and that the release was injurious so the public interest. The statutory law argument was based on the New Hampshire Ski Area Act. The Act requires ski area operators to mark visible man-made objects. This object was not visible so therefor the plaintiff argued it should be marked and therefore, was negligence not to pad or mark it. However, the court would not buy into adding language to the statute where none existed. On top of that another section of the statute specially stated a ski assumes the risks of hitting snow making equipment.

The next argument advanced to argue the release violated public policy was based on several prior court decisions that held there was a duty on the state to do things. However, here again, the court found the was no duty in the New Hampshire Ski Area Act other than found in the plain language of the act. The duty the plaintiff was attempting to create was based on tying different sections of the act together that were not related.

The final public policy argument was because the ski area, Mount Sunapee was located on state-owned land and developed with federal funding, that created a greater duty to the public. However, the plaintiff could not provide any support for this theory, other than arguing sections of the lease between the ski area, and the state required it. The court found there was no language in the lease that created supported a public policy argument.

In most states, to create a contract, there are several requirements. One of those is there must be a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the minds requires the parties to know they are entering into a contract and the general terms of the agreement. This was clearly not the case in this situation (and in most lift ticket cases); however, New Hampshire does not require a meeting of the minds to enforce a contract.

The plaintiff then argued that without a signature, there could be a release. However, New Hampshire had a lot of case law where unsigned contracts were enforced.

The plaintiff argued he did not have an opportunity to read the release. However, that does not matter in New Hampshire and in most states when you sign it. However, here there was no signature.

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of the release.” As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced.

Here the court sort of worked its way around that issue because it found the plaintiff was a personal injury attorney. The plaintiff had submitted affidavits on the issue, which the court found lacking in the information needed to support the plaintiff’s arguments. The court did hammer plaintiff’s counsel at oral argument until plaintiff’s counsel admitted he had the opportunity to read it if he wanted.

Another issue is what the parties were contemplating when they made the agreement. A requirement for a contract under New Hampshire law. The court found the language of the release, which it had earlier found valid, contained the necessary information to define what the intention of the release was.

If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .”

The court then went into the Reckless, Wanton or positive misconduct claims of the plaintiff. New Hampshire has adopted the Restatement of Torts definition of Reckless.

Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.”

The court further defined reckless under New Hampshire law as:

…at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.

However, the court found that the pleadings of the plaintiff pled no more than simple negligence. Meaning the facts argued by the plaintiff did not rise to the level needed to create a recklessness claim.

The court summed up its analogy as:

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

So Now What?

It seemed obvious that this court was going to hold for the ski area. The decision explored all the arguments and possible arguments the plaintiff’s made and then ruled for the defendants.

The back of the pass had more than normal warning language as required by most statutes. This peel away release stated it was a release. There is also an issue that the purchaser of the lift ticket had already paid for the ticket before they found out there was a release giving rise to misrepresentation and fraud claim may be.

What is interesting is the change in the past five year, only in Federal District Courts holding that a lift ticket is a valid release at least mentioning the lift ticket as more than a receipt or a pass to access the lifts.

For more articles about Lift Tickets being used to stop lawsuits at ski areas see:

Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states    http://rec-law.us/1bO85eU

Colorado Federal District Court judge references a ski area lift ticket in support of decision granting the ski area’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit.    http://rec-law.us/2vHUXf1

#BoycottNH New Hampshire charges for Search & Rescue. Do not recreate in New Hampshire

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Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

Miller v. Sunapee Difference, LLC, 308 F. Supp. 3d 581; 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55536; 2018 DNH 072

United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire

March 31, 2018, Decided; March 31, 2018, Filed

Civil No. 16-cv-143-JL

Counsel:  [**1] For Thomas Jackson Miller, Plaintiff: Arend R. Tensen, Cullenberg & Tensen, Lebanon, NH.

For The Sunapee Difference, LLC, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort, other Mount Sunapee Resort, Defendant: Thomas B.S. Quarles, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Brendan P Mitchell, Devine Millimet & Branch PA, Manchester, NH.

Judges: Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge.

Opinion by: Joseph N. Laplante

Opinion

[*584]  MEMORANDUM ORDER

The plaintiff in this case, a skier at New Hampshire’s Mount Sunapee resort, was injured when he struck a support post for snow making equipment. At issue in this case is whether a release attached to his lift ticket excuses the ski area for liability in connection with its alleged negligence in failing to mark the post, warn skiers about it, or otherwise make it visible.

Invoking the court’s diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), plaintiff Thomas Jackson Miller, a New York resident, sued The Sunapee Difference, LLC, operator of the Mount Sunapee Resort (“Mount Sunapee”), a New Hampshire ski area, for injuries he sustained when he struck the unmarked and unpadded post that was concealed by fresh snow. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), Mount Sunapee moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the liability release printed on Miller’s [**2]  lift ticket bars his claim. Miller argues that the release is unenforceable under New Hampshire law and inapplicable on its face. As both sides submitted  [*585]  documents outside the pleadings in litigating this motion, the court has, with the parties’ consent,1 converted the motion into one for summary judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).2 Having considered the parties’ filings and hearing oral argument, the court finds that the release is both applicable and enforceable, and therefore grants summary judgment in favor of Mount Sunapee.3

I. Applicable legal standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court “constru[es] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolv[es] all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor.” Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Dist., 741 F.3d 295, 301 (1st Cir. 2014). In the summary judgment analysis, “a fact is ‘material’ if it has the potential of determining the outcome of the litigation.” Maymi v. P.R. Ports. Auth., 515 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2008). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in the favor of the non-moving party.” Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir.1996) (citation and [**3]  internal quotation marks omitted). Nevertheless, if the nonmoving party’s “evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative,” no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and “summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986) (citations omitted).

II. Background

Following a large 2015 snowfall, Miller visited Mount Sunapee with his brother and father for a day of skiing. Miller was skiing ahead of his companions through fresh powder on the left side of the Beck Brook trail4 when he struck an unmarked “snow gun holder” that was concealed by snow. The “holder” — essentially a steel pipe protruding from the ground — is a mounting post for snow-making guns. The post remains embedded in the ground after the guns are removed. There was no snow-making gun in the holder at the time of this accident. Miller suffered serious leg injuries in the collision.

In order to ski at Mount Sunapee, Miller first purchased a lift ticket. The ticket has a self-adhesive backing, which the skier affixes to his zipper tab or similar visible location. In order to attach it, the skier must first remove it from a peel-off backing. Printed on the back of the peel-off backing of the Mount Sunapee lift ticket [**4]  was the following:

 [*586]  STOP

[a red octagon image similar to a traffic-control “stop sign”]

YOU ARE RELEASING THIS SKI AREA FROM LIABILITY

By removing this peel-off backing and using this ticket, you agree to be legally bound by the LIABILITY RELEASE printed on the other side of this ticket. If you are not willing to be bound by this LIABILITY RELEASE, please return this ticket with the peel-off backing intact to the ticket counter for a full refund.

The lift ticket itself displayed the following language:

LIABILITY RELEASE

Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous and risky with many hazards that can cause injury or death. As purchaser or user of this ticket, I agree, as a condition of being allowed to use the facilities of the Mount Sunapee resort, to freely accept and voluntarily assume all risks of property damage, personal injury, or death resulting from their inherent or any other risks or dangers. I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE which may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area [**5]  or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause. Further I agree that any claim which I bring against Mount Sunapee Resort, its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be brought only in Federal or State courts in the State of New Hampshire. I agree my likeness may be used for promotional purposes.

MOUNT SUNAPEE CARES, SKI RESPONSIBLY AND ALWAYS IN CONTROL.

RECKLESS SKIING WILL RESULT IN LOSS OF TICKET

NON-TRANSFERABLE: Use by a non-purchaser constitutes theft of services.

NON-REFUNDABLE. LOST TICKETS WILL NOT BE REPLACED Mount Sunapee Resort, P.O. Box 2021, Newbury, NH 03255

(Emphasis in original).

After timely filing this lawsuit,5 Miller filed an Amended Complaint6 asserting a single count of negligence. He alleges that Mount Sunapee failed to mark or warn skiers of the pipe, or otherwise mitigate its danger to skiers, by, for example, padding it or making it visible to skiers. In addition, Miller alleges that Mount Sunapee breached its duties to create a safe environment for guests, and to perform in-season trail maintenance [**6]  work. Finally, Miller claims that Mount Sunapee is liable because it failed to comply with N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:23 (II)(b), which provides, in relevant part, that “[t]he ski area operator shall warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.”7

 [*587]  III. Analysis

As noted at the outset, Sunapee argues that the release printed on Miller’s lift ticket — in combination with the acceptance of its terms on the backing sheet — bars his claim. “Although New Hampshire law generally prohibits a plaintiff from releasing a defendant from liability for negligent conduct, in limited circumstances a plaintiff can expressly consent by contract to assume the risk of injury caused by a defendant’s negligence.” Allen v. Dover Co-Recreational Softball League, 148 N.H. 407, 413, 807 A.2d 1274 (2002). Such an exculpatory contract is enforceable if: 1) it does not violate public policy; 2) the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would have understood the import of the agreement; and 3) the plaintiff’s claims fall within the contemplation of the parties when they executed the contract. McGrath v. SNH Dev., Inc., 158 N.H. 540, 542, 969 A.2d 392 (2009) (citing Dean v. MacDonald, 147 N.H. 263, 266-67, 786 A.2d 834 (2008)); Lizzol v. Brothers Prop. Mgmt. Corp., 2016 DNH 199, *7.

Plaintiff argues that the [**7]  release satisfies none of these criteria, because: 1) it violates public policy; 2) a reasonable person would have understood the release to exclude only “inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in New Hampshire’s “ski statute,” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24; 3) the release does not encompass reckless, wanton, or willful conduct; and 4) the release is unsigned.

A. Public policy

“A defendant seeking to avoid liability must show that an exculpatory agreement does not contravene public policy; i.e., that no special relationship existed between the parties and that there was no other disparity in bargaining power.” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 543 (quoting Barnes v. N.H. Karting Assoc., 128 N.H. 102, 106, 509 A.2d 151 (1986)). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has also found an agreement to be against public policy “if, among other things, it is injurious to the interests of the public, violates some public statute, or tends to interfere with the public welfare or safety.” Id. (citing Harper v. Healthsource New Hampshire, 140 N.H. 770, 775, 674 A.2d 962 (1996)). Miller does not argue that he had a special relationship with Mount Sunapee or that there was a disparity in bargaining power between the two.8 Instead, he confines his public policy argument to two points: 1) that the release violates New Hampshire statutory law; and 2) that it is injurious to the interest of the public. Neither argument [**8]  withstands scrutiny.

1. New Hampshire statutory law

Miller argues that the combination of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 225-A:23, II, and 225-A:24 requires ski area operators to plainly mark or make visible snow-making equipment. Therefore, he concludes, applying the release to the allegedly hidden snow gun holder would allow Mount Sunapee to impermissibly evade this statutory responsibility. As a general proposition, Miller is correct that a release can not excuse a ski area‘s statutory violation. Harper, 140 N.H. at 775; cf. Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, 140 N.H. 675, 683, 671 A.2d 548 (1996) (noting, in ski accident case, that ski areas’ immunity does not apply to claim based on statutory violation). However, Miller’s argument here is built on a faulty premise — that  [*588]  § 225-A:24, denoted “Responsibilities of Skiers and Passengers” — imposes an affirmative duty on ski areas to mark or make visible snow-making equipment. The court rejects this argument for several reasons.

First, Miller attempts, without legal support, to create an affirmative duty out of the text of § 225-A:24 where none exists. Section 225-A:24 “is an immunity provision for ski area operators.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 291, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). It has been “interpreted to mean that ski area operators owe no duty to skiers to protect them from the inherent risks of skiing.” Rayeski v. Gunstock Area/Gunstock Area Comm’n, 146 N.H. 495, 497, 776 A.2d 1265 (2001). One of the inherent “risks, hazards, or dangers which [**9]  the skier . . . assumes as a matter of law” is “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment.” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Miller argues that because unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment is not “an inherent risk” enumerated by the statute, ski areas therefore have a statutory duty to mark them or make them visible.

This argument is both contrary to the language of the statute and unsupported by any legal authority. While the language of the statutory immunity provision — enumerating a “Skier’s Responsibilities” — arguably does not bar Miller’s claim9 that he struck an unmarked and not visible piece of equipment, it likewise creates no affirmative duties for ski areas. Stated differently, while New Hampshire law may allow
ski area liability for injuries resulting from collisions with unmarked equipment, it does not logically follow that New Hampshire law requires the marking of such equipment. The statute sets forth no such obligation or legal duty.

To avoid the plain language of §225-A:24, Miller argues that Rayeski, supra, imposes an affirmative duty on Mount Sunapee when read in conjunction with § 225-A:23. In that case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, invoking §225-A:24, upheld the dismissal of a skier’s claim for injuries sustained [**10]  in a collision with an unmarked light pole. 146 N.H. at 500. The plaintiff in Rayeski argued that the light pole collision was similar to a collision with unmarked snow-making equipment, which the statute “implies . . . is not an inherent risk of skiing” by not barring such a claim. Id. at 498. In the course of finding that the pole collision was an inherent risk of skiing (despite not being specifically enumerated as such in the statute), the Court distinguished between poles and snow making equipment:

We conclude that the legislature’s explicit reference to “plainly marked or visible snow making equipment” was intended to balance the immunity granted to ski area operators under RSA 225-A:24 with their duty under RSA 225-A:23, II(b) (2000) to warn skiers of snow making or grooming activities by denying immunity to ski area operators who breach a statutorily imposed safety responsibility.

Id. (emphasis added).

Based on the emphasized language, Miller argues that § 225-A:23 required Mount Sunapee to mark or make visible the snow gun holder he struck. This argument ignores the plain language both of Rayeski and the statute. The Rayeski
opinion referred only to “snow making or grooming activities,” and made no reference to marking equipment. And [**11]  the statute, captioned “Base Area; Information to Skiers and  [*589]  Passengers,” requires that a ski area operator “warn skiers and passengers by use of the trail board, if applicable, that snow grooming or snow making operations are routinely in progress on the slopes and trails serviced by each tramway.” (Emphasis added). Thus, contrary to Miller’s argument, this section imposes no requirement to “mark or make visible” the snow gun holder at issue in this case. Instead, the statute requires the ski area to post “at the base area” a warning concerning grooming and snowmaking operations, if applicable.
10See Nardone v. Mt. Cranmore, Civ. No. 91-114-SD, slip op. at 6-7 (holding that § 225-A:23, II(b)‘s warning requirement does not apply where snowmaking was not in progress and where plaintiff collided with fixed, unmarked piece of snowmaking equipment) (emphasis added).11 Miller does not dispute Mount Sunapee’s contention that there was no grooming or snow making “in progress” at the time of or in the vicinity of Miller’s accident.12 An inoperative snow gun holder is neither an “activity” nor an “operation.”

Further undermining Miller’s argument that § 225-A:24 creates obligations for ski area
operators is the fact that [**12]  its five sub-sections are explicitly and unambiguously addressed to skiers and passengers (as opposed to ski area
operators), as follows: I) “Each person who participates in the sport of skiing . . . accepts . . . the dangers inherent in the sport . . . .”; II) “Each skier and passenger shall have the sole responsibility . . . “; III) “Each skier or passenger shall conduct himself or herself . . .”; IV) “Each passenger shall be the sole judge of his ability . . .”; V) “No skier or passenger or other person shall . . .” N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I-V (emphasis added).

In addition, under New Hampshire statutory construction law, “[t]he title of a statute is ‘significant when considered in connection with . . . ambiguities inherent in its language.'” Appeal of Weaver, 150 N.H. 254, 256, 837 A.2d 294 (2003) (quoting State v. Rosario, 148 N.H. 488, 491, 809 A.2d 1283 (2002); see also, Berniger v. Meadow Green-Wildcat Corp., 945 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1991) (interpreting N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24 and observing that “[i]t is well established that a statute’s title may aid in construing any ambiguities in a statute.”). As noted, the title of § 225-A:24 is explicitly directed at “skiers and passengers,” not ski area operators. While this court discerns no such ambiguity that would justify a foray into ascertaining “legislative intent,” our Court of Appeals has stated that “the title indicates the legislative intent to limit the application [**13]  of [§ 225-A:24] to skiers and passengers and similar classes of individuals, which does not include a ski operator or its employees.” Berniger, 945 F.2d at 9 (1st Cir. 1991). This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that the preceding provision, § 225-A:23, is captioned “Responsibilities of Ski Area Operators,” further  [*590]  suggesting § 225-A:24‘s inapplicability here. This statutory structure — clearly distinguishing ski area operator responsibilities from visitor responsibilities — is especially important in light of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s requirement that statutes be construed “as a whole.” Petition of Carrier, 165 N.H. 719, 721, 82 A.3d 917 (2013); see also, Univ. of Texas Sw. Med. Ctr v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 133 S. Ct. 2517, 2529, 186 L. Ed. 2d 503 (2013) (“Just as Congress’ choice of words is presumed to be deliberate, so too are its structural choices.”); DeVere v. Attorney General, 146 N.H. 762, 766, 781 A.2d 24 (2001) (noting that structure of a statute can be an interpretive tool). Accordingly, the court finds that the Mount Sunapee release does not impermissibly seek to avoid statutory liability.13

In addition to his misplaced reliance on Rayeski, Miller also argues that the McGrath Court’s allowance of liability releases is “limited to situations where the public statute at issue contains a statutorily imposed enforcement mechanism,” which allows state officials to protect the public interest by imposing [**14]  penalties on violators.14

The holding in McGrath, which involved a snowmobiling accident, is not as broad as plaintiff posits. It is true that the Court in McGrath, in rejecting a claim that a liability waiver violated public policy because it allowed defendants to avoid certain snowmobile safety statutes, noted that the waiver did not affect the State’s ability to enforce snowmobiling rules and penalize infractions, and thus did not entirely relieve the defendant property owners of any statutory responsibility. 158 N.H. at 543 (citing N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 215-C:32 and 34). But several factors undercut Miller’s reliance on McGrath. First, plaintiff’s argument is premised on his assertion that Mount Sunapee is trying to avoid liability for a statutory violation. The court has already rejected plaintiff’s premise as an untenable reading of §§ 225-A:23 and 24. Next, the State enforcement criterion was not dispositive in McGrath, as the Court found that the liability waiver did not contravene public policy because, “[i]rrespective of the statute, the plaintiff has voluntarily agreed not to hold the ski area, or its employees, liable for injuries resulting from negligence so that she may obtain a season ski pass.” Id. at 543 (emphasis added). In addition, even [**15]  if the court read McGrath to require a state law enforcement vehicle to protect the public interest, the New Hampshire ski statutes do in fact provide one. Under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:26, “any person . . . violating this chapter . . . shall be guilty of a violation if a natural person, or guilty of a misdemeanor if any other person.”

Plaintiff argues that this statutory enforcement provision is limited to tramway operations, and thus does not satisfy McGrath. He supports this argument with a letter from a supervisor at the New Hampshire Division of Fire Safety,15 which  [*591]  correctly observes, pursuant to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:3-a, that the authority of the Passenger Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”16 The letter also states that the penalty provision of § 225-A:26 “specifically relates to operating a tramway without it first being registered.”17 The letter also specifically mentions §§ 225-A:23 and 24, as being outside the tramway board’s authority.18

There are several reasons why the letter does not advance plaintiff’s statutory argument. First, the letter is not properly part of the summary judgment record. According to its terms, it was sent in response [**16]  to plaintiff’s counsel’s request for documents concerning the enforcement of § 225-A:26. However, “[i]n opposing a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must proffer admissible evidence that could be accepted by a rational trier of fact as sufficient to establish the necessary proposition.” Gomez-Gonzalez v. Rural Opportunities, Inc., 626 F.3d 654, 662 n.3 (1st Cir. 2010) (emphasis added). The letter itself is inadmissible hearsay, as it is being offered to prove the truth of the matters asserted with respect to enforcement of § 225-A:23 and 24. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c)(2); see also Hannon v. Beard, 645 F.3d 45, 49 (1st Cir. 2011) (“It is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment for the truth of the matter asserted.”). Moreover, although apparently issued by a government office (the plaintiff made no effort to lay such a foundation), the letter is not admissible under the Public Records hearsay exception. See
Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) (requiring, for admissibility, the evidence in question to, inter alia, set out the public office’s activities and involve a matter observed while under a legal duty to report). It is true that some forms of evidence, such as affidavits and declarations, may be considered on summary judgment, even if they would not be admissible at trial, so long as they “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence” [**17]  if the affiant or declarant testified to them at trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4). The letter in question, however, is neither an affidavit nor a declaration. In addition to being an unsworn letter, it fails to show how the letter writer is expressing “personal knowledge,” and fails to show that she is “competent to testify on the matters stated,” as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); see also
Fed. R. Evid. 602 (personal knowledge requirement).

Next, even if the letter was properly before the court, it lacks any legal force, either as a pronouncement of New Hampshire law, or an interpretation thereof. N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:8 empowers the Tramway Safety Board to make rules regarding tramways. “Rules and Regulations promulgated by administrative agencies, pursuant to a valid delegation of authority, have the full force and effect of laws.” State v. Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. 794, 803, 887 A.2d 1133 (2005). Under New Hampshire administrative law, however, as set forth under its Administrative Procedure Act, the letter in question is not a rule, and thus lacks such force. It is simply a letter answering a question posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer. See
N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 541-A:1, XV (explicitly excluding, under definition of “Rule,” “informational pamphlets, letters or other explanatory materials which refer to a statute or rule without affecting its substance or [**18]  interpretation”). Notably, the plaintiff cites no provision of New Hampshire’s administrative  [*592]  law involving the Passenger Tramway Safety Board or Rules which support his theory. See N.H. Code. Admin. R. Ann. (PAS 301.01 et. seq. (2016)).

Finally, even if the letter was a properly admissible part of the summary judgment record in support of the proposition that the enforcement of § 225-A:26 is limited to tramway operations, and even if it were a duly-promulgated article of New Hampshire administrative law, it still fails to advance the plaintiff’s argument (to the extent it even addresses the issue before the court), because it incorrectly contradicts the governing statute, § 225-A:26.

As noted, the letter states that the authority of the Tramway Safety Board is limited to ski lift operations and “shall not extend to any other matters relative to the operation of a ski area.”19 This is undoubtedly true as far as it goes, as it tracks the language of § 225-A:3-a. That observation misses the point, however, as § 225-A:26 does not limit enforcement of § 225-A to the Tramway Board. To the contrary, the statute holds “any person” “guilty” of a violation or misdemeanor for violations of “this chapter,” i.e., the entirety of N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A, a chapter which [**19]  addresses a wider variety of ski-related activities than ski lifts and tramways. Thus, the letter contradicts the plain language of the statute by inaccurately portraying the applicability of § 225-A:26 as limited to “operating a tramway without it first being registered.”20 Under New Hampshire law, “[r]ules adopted by administrative agencies may not add to, detract from, or in any way modify statutory law,” Elementis Chem., 152 N.H. at 803, and the letter’s pronouncement, even it were a duly adopted Rule, would be invalid. See Appeal of Gallant, 125 N.H. 832, 834, 485 A.2d 1034 (1984) (noting that agency regulations that contradict the terms of a governing statute exceed the agency’s authority and are void). The statute penalizes not only failing to register, but also “violating this chapter or rules of the [Tramway Safety] board.” (emphasis added). In effect, the plaintiff is asking the court to ignore the plain language of the statute in favor of a letter which is neither properly before the court nor is a valid administrative rule and which fails to address the issue before the court — the scope of § 225-A:26. The court is not free to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, New Hampshire’s Administrative Procedure Act,21 or the plain language of New Hampshire’s ski-related statutes.

Accordingly, the court finds that New Hampshire statutory law provides no support to plaintiff’s public policy argument.

2. Injurious to the public interest

Plaintiff next argues that the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy as injurious to the public interest because Mount Sunapee is located on state-owned land that was, at least in part, developed with federal funding. Plaintiff cites no authority for this argument, but instead relies on various provisions in the lease between Mount Sunapee and the State of New Hampshire. None of these provisions establish or support the proposition that public policy prohibits the enforcement of the release.

For example, the lease requires the property to be used for “public outdoor recreational uses,” “for the mutual benefit of the public and the Operator,” and “as a public ski area . . . for the general public.”22 In addition, the ski area operator is  [*593]  required to “allow public access,” “maintain the Leased Premises in first class condition,” and “undertake trail maintenance.”23 Even assuming, arguendo, that the lease theoretically establishes public policy, the plaintiff makes no coherent argument how the release in question runs afoul of any [**21]  of its provisions. Instead, plaintiff argues, strenuously but without authority, that condoning Mount Sunapee’s requirement that a skier agree to the release as a condition of skiing there “effectively sanctions the conversion of public land by Mount Sunapee.”24 He also argues, again without authority, that:

“[p]rivate operators of public lands, to which the public must be allowed access, cannot be allowed to limit access to such lands to those individuals who are willing to forego their statutory rights by exculpating the private operators from the consequences of their own negligence. To hold otherwise, would mark the first step toward eliminating public access to public lands at the expense of the general public.”

(Emphasis added). Initially, the court reiterates its finding, supra, Part III.A.1, that the language at issue in this case does not implicate plaintiff’s statutory rights. Moreover, whatever persuasive force his policy-based arguments hold, plaintiff cites no authority — in the form of cases, statutes or regulations — upon which the court can rely to accept them.25

As a final public-interest related matter, the parties dispute the import of liability releases used at Cannon [**22]  Mountain, a state-owned and operated ski area. In its motion, Mount Sunapee cited those releases to demonstrate that New Hampshire’s public policy does not generally disfavor liability releases.26 Plaintiff, however, points out that because the Cannon release does not use the word “negligence,” it may, in fact, not release Cannon from its own negligence. See Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107 (noting that “the [exculpatory] contract must clearly state that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence.”). Therefore, plaintiff suggests, Sunapee’s release may have exceeded what public policy (as articulated in the Cannon release) permits. Regardless of the Cannon release’s enforceability — a matter on which the court offers no opinion — the court finds that Mount Sunapee has the better of this argument. New Hampshire’s public policy is likely best expressed by its legislative enactments, particularly N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I, under which “ski area operators owe no duty to protect patrons from the inherent risks of skiing and thus are immunized from liability for any negligence related to these risks.” Cecere v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 155 N.H. 289, 295, 923 A.2d 198 (2007). Such legislatively-enacted immunity from negligence undercuts Miller’s argument that the Cannon release demarcates [**23]  the outer boundary of New Hampshire public policy. Ultimately, the court is skeptical that, as both parties implicitly argue, the state’s risk management decisions and devices, as embodied in certain ski area releases, constitute articulations of public policy.

Having failed to demonstrate any statutory transgressions or injury to the public interest, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Mount Sunapee release violates public policy.

 [*594]  B. Import of the agreement

The next factor the court must consider in assessing the enforceability of the Mount Sunapee release is whether the plaintiff or a reasonable person in his position would have understood its import. Dean, 147 N.H. at 266-67. Miller argues that a factual dispute exists as to this criterion because there was no “meeting of the minds” sufficient to form an enforceable binding agreement.27 He bases this proposition, in turn, on two assertions: 1) that the release is unsigned; and 2) that he did not read it. The court finds that New Hampshire law does not require a signature to effectuate the terms of a release and that the plaintiff had — but chose not to take advantage of — an opportunity to read the release.

1. Signature

As an initial matter, the court notes that a “meeting of the minds” is not an explicit requirement of enforceability under New Hampshire law. The Court in Dean required only that “the plaintiff understood the import of the agreement or a reasonable person in his position would have understood the import of the agreement.” 147 N.H. at 266-67. While a signature might be evidence of such understanding, it has never been held to be a prerequisite. Indeed, in Gannett v. Merchants Mut. Ins. Co., 131 N.H. 266, 552 A.2d 99 (1988), the Court enforced an unsigned and unread release of an insurance claim.

Plaintiff asserts that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has never explicitly upheld the enforcement of an unsigned liability release. See, e.g., McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545 (“[t]he ski pass application signed by the plaintiff”); Dean, 147 N.H. at 266 (“Mr. Dean signed the Release before entering the infield pit area”); Audley, 138 N.H. at 417 (“two releases signed by the plaintiff”); Barnes, 128 N.H. at 106 (“release and waiver of liability and indemnity agreement he signed”). Even if one were to accept this proposition despite the holding in Gannett, which is arguably distinguishable from the line of New Hampshire cases just cited, it is not dispositive, because the Court has also never explicitly required a signature on a liability release as a condition [**25]  of enforceability.

In a diversity case such as this one, if the state’s highest court has not spoken directly on the question at issue, this court must try to predict “how that court likely would decide the issue,” looking to the relevant statutory language, analogous state Supreme Court and lower state court decisions, and other reliable sources of authority. Gonzalez Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 318-19 (1st Cir. 2009). A review of an analogous decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and several New Hampshire trial court decisions reviewing ski area liability releases leads the court to conclude that Miller’s unsigned release is enforceable.

The court finds some guidance in Gannett, supra, where the Court enforced a release of an insurance claim even though the releasing party neither read nor signed the release, but returned it before cashing the insurer’s check. 131 N.H. at 270. Especially salient here, the Court found it “irrelevant whether [plaintiff] actually read the release, when the release clearly and unambiguously stated the condition, and when she had the opportunity to read it.” Id. at 269-270 (emphasis added). The Gannett Court cited the passage in Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108, enforcing an un-read liability  [*595]  release where the defendant felt rushed through the admittance line. The Barnes court enforced [**26]  the release where “[t]here was no evidence . . . that [the plaintiff] was denied the opportunity to read the body of the release.” Id.

Two New Hampshire Superior Court cases involving ski lift ticket releases also inform this analysis. See Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465, 87 S. Ct. 1776, 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967) (noting that decrees of lower state courts should be “attributed some weight”, but are not controlling, where the highest State court has not spoken on an issue). In Camire v. Gunstock Area Comm’n, No. 11-C-337, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 (N.H. Super. Ct., Mar. 22, 2013) (O’Neil, J.), the court granted the defendant ski area summary judgment based on an unsigned release. 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *8. (“[T]he fact that Ms. Camire did not sign the agreement does not render it unenforceable, as a participant’s signature is not required under the factors set forth in [Dean]“), aff’d on other grounds, 166 N.H. 374, 97 A.3d 250 (2014). While the trial judge also noted that the ski area had a large sign near the ticket kiosk calling attention to the existence of the lift ticket release, and that plaintiff testified in her deposition that she would have understood the ticket’s release language had she read it, 2013 N.H. Super. LEXIS 30 at *5, the trial court’s observation that the lack of a signature was not dispositive is entitled, as the United States Supreme Court has [**27]  noted, to “some weight.” Bosch’s Estate, 387 U.S. at 465.

The court also draws some guidance from a New Hampshire trial court that denied a ski area operator’s motion for summary judgment in another case involving a lift ticket release. In Reynolds v. Cranmore Mountain Resort, No. 00-C-0035, (N.H. Super. Ct., March 20, 2001) (O’Neil, J.), the plaintiff’s lift ticket contained a peel off backing similar to the one at issue here, including the red “STOP” sign symbol. Id. at 2. The plaintiff claimed that she did not sign the release and that the release language was not conspicuous enough to give notice to a reasonable person. Id. at 5. While the court did not rule on the signature issue, it ruled that a jury issue remained as to whether the “STOP” sign on the ticket was sufficiently conspicuous, because the peel-off backing contained an advertisement for a free workout, also written in red, in a larger font than much of the warning on the backing. Id. at 1-2, 7. In so ruling, the court relied on Passero v. Killington, Ltd., 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, 1993 WL 406726 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 1993), a Pennsylvania case in which the lift ticket at issue contained an advertisement in a larger typeface than the release language. 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14049, [WL] at * 7 (“[Plaintiff] argues that the exculpatory clause’s minuscule size, its setting against a dark background, and the existence [**28]  of a much larger advertisement for a 15% discount on a “COMPLETE OVERNIGHT SKI TUNE-UP” on the lift ticket’s adhesive backing, all serve to distract the skier’s attention away from the substantive rights he or she is supposedly relinquishing by purchasing the lift ticket.”). The Superior Court found that it was “best left to the trier of fact to determine whether the language of the lift ticket reasonably communicated the existence of a contractual agreement to the purchaser . . . .” Id. Here, the Mount Sunapee lift ticket contains no such distracting advertisement or font sizes greater than that of the release language on the ticket. As the distracting features were the basis for the New Hampshire Superior Court’s denial of summary judgment in Reynolds, the lack of any such features here is significant. Accordingly, the court finds that the lack of a signature on the lift ticket release is not, under the circumstances of this case, a barrier to its enforceability where the plaintiff had an opportunity to read it and the terms were unambiguous and not contrary to public policy.

 [*596]  2. Opportunity to read the release

A plaintiff’s failure to read a release “does not preclude enforcement of [**29]  the release.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 108. As long as the plaintiff had an opportunity to read the release, even if he chooses not to take it, a release can be enforced. Dean, 147 N.H. at 270; cf. Jenks v. N.H. Motor Speedway, Inc., 2010 DNH 38 (material factual dispute existed as to whether plaintiff had opportunity to read release where plaintiff put his name on a sign-up sheet and release may have been obscured).

Plaintiff, a personal injury attorney, originally submitted two sparse affidavits in opposition to Mount Sunapee’s dispositive motion.28 The affidavits’ only reference to the release is that he did not read the language on the lift ticket or the peel off backing, nor was he instructed to. He did not claim that he lacked the time or opportunity to read it, or was discouraged from doing so. Nor do the affidavits state that he did not peel off the lift ticket from the backing paper.

To be sure, the plaintiff carries no burden of proof at summary judgment, but the sparse and somewhat cryptic nature of the plaintiff’s affidavits — one of which conspicuously tracked the facts emphasized in the Reynolds Superior Court decision, supra, but added nothing more — led this court to ask several pointed questions at oral argument. When pressed by the court regarding the omitted, but [**30]  critical, subject matter, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that Miller purchased the ticket, affixed it to his own jacket, had the opportunity to read the backing and the release, and would have recognized it as a release (although not as interpreted by Mount Sunapee).29

In an abundance of caution, and reluctant to grant summary judgment terminating plaintiff’s claims without a more fully developed record, the court sua sponte ordered supplemental discovery concerning, inter alia, the issue of plaintiff’s purchase and use of the lift ticket on the day of his injury.30 Although the plaintiff resisted defense counsel’s attempts to elicit direct answers to straightforward questions about his handling and viewing of the lift ticket, plaintiff’s deposition confirmed certain relevant facts that his counsel conceded at oral argument. First, plaintiff testified that he was handed the lift ticket with the release language facing up, and did not see the language on the peel-off backing.31 Nevertheless, plaintiff confirmed that he had the opportunity to read the release language on the lift ticket and the peel off backing before he removed the ticket from the backing and affixed it to his clothing.32 Even [**31]  though plaintiff testified  [*597]  that he attached the ticket to his pants immediately after receiving it, and thus did not read it, he agreed that he was not pressured to do so,33 and had the opportunity to read it if he so chose.34

Based on the summary judgment record, the plaintiff’s concessions at oral argument and his supplemental deposition testimony sua sponte ordered by the court in an abundance of caution, the court finds that the undisputed facts demonstrate that plaintiff purchased the lift ticket, peeled it from its backing before attaching it to his clothing, had the opportunity to read both sides of it,35 and that “a reasonable person in plaintiff’s position” would have “known of the exculpatory provision.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. The court therefore finds that plaintiff’s decision to not  [*598]  read the lift ticket release language does not render it unenforceable.36

C. Contemplation [**34]  of the parties

The final factor the court considers is whether the plaintiff’s claims “were within the contemplation of the parties.” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107. This factor concerns whether plaintiff’s claims were within the scope of the release. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. To determine the scope and application of a liability release agreement, the court must examine its language. Dean, 147 N.H. at 267. If “the release clearly and specifically indicates the intent to release the defendant from liability for personal injury caused by the defendant’s negligence, the agreement will be upheld.” Id. The court gives the language of the release “its common meaning and give[s] the contract itself the meaning that would be attached to it by a reasonable person.” Id. “All that is required” is for the language to “clearly and specifically indicate[] the intent to release the defendants from liability for personal injury caused by the defendants’ negligence . . . .” McGrath, 158 N.H. at 545.

While plaintiff’s counsel conceded at oral argument that a reasonable person would have recognized the lift ticket language as a release, he argues that it would only be understood as applying to “the inherent risks of skiing,” as enumerated in § 225-A:24,37 and not to the circumstances of plaintiff’s accident.38 As [**35]  explained below, this argument is based on an incomplete reading of the release and a flawed reading of persuasive New Hampshire Supreme Court precedent. It is therefore rejected.

Plaintiff argues that the first words of the release — “Skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports are inherently dangerous”39 — limit the scope [**36]  of the release to  [*599]  the inherent risks of skiing as set forth in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, which, he posits, do not include collisions with unmarked or not visible snow-making equipment. The remainder of the release, however, is far broader, explicitly encompassing “all risks . . . of personal injury . . . resulting from . . . inherent or any other risks or dangers.” (Emphasis added). Additional language in the release is similarly broad:

I RELEASE MOUNT SUNAPEE RESORT, its parent companies, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, employees and agents FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY OF ANY KIND INCLUDING NEGLIGENCEwhich may result from conditions on or about the premises, operation of the ski area or its afacilities [sic] or from my participation in skiing or other winter sports, accepting for myself the full and absolute responsibility for all damages or injury of any kind which may result from any cause.40

(Bold emphasis in original; underlining added). While plaintiff acknowledges that his “participation in skiing” might trigger the release, he argues that the expansive “any and all” language is qualified by the first sentence’s reference to skiing as “inherently dangerous,” which, he asserts, warrants limiting [**37]  the release to the risks itemized in § 225-A:24.

In support of his “inherent risks” argument, plaintiff relies on Wright v. Loon Mountain Recreation Corp., 140 N.H. 166, 663 A.2d 1340 (1995), a case in which a horseback rider was kicked by her guide’s horse, allegedly due to the guide’s negligence. Id. at 168. The Court in Wright held that a release which first noted the “inherent hazards” of horseback riding “obscured” the later following exculpatory clause, part of which resembled the one employed here by Mount Sunapee. Id. at 170. But there is a significant textual difference between the release in
Wright and the one at issue here, and that difference was the lynchpin of the Wright Court’s analysis: the operative language of the Wright release affirmatively referred back to the “inherent hazards” language. In Wright, the exculpatory clause purporting to release the defendant from “any and all” liability began with the phrase “I therefore release . . .” Id. (emphasis added). The Court found the word “therefore” not only significant but dispositive, noting that it means, inter alia, “for that reason” and thus “cannot be understood without reading the antecedent [inherent hazards] language.” Id. Accordingly, the Court concluded, “[b]ecause the exculpatory [**38]  clause is prefaced by the term ‘therefore,’ a reasonable person might understand its language to relate to the inherent dangers of horseback riding and liability for injuries that occur “for that reason.”
41Id. The Court ultimately held that the negligence of a guide is not such an “inherent risk.” Id.

Unlike the release in Wright, however, the Mount Sunapee release contains no such “therefore” or other referential language which might call into question the breadth of the language that follows. As such, the court finds that the release  [*600]  “clearly state[s] that the defendant is not responsible for the consequences of his negligence,” Barnes, 128 N.H. at 107, and explicitly called particular attention “to the notion of releasing the defendant for liability for its own negligence.” Cf. Audley v. Melton, 138 N.H. 416, 419, 640 A.2d 777 (1994) (rejecting exculpatory clause because it failed to call particular attention to releasing defendant from liability). The court therefore finds that the Mount Sunapee release is not limited to the “inherent risks” of skiing enumerated in N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 225-A:24, I. Accordingly, even assuming that Miller’s accident did not result from an “inherent risk” of skiing, his claim is nevertheless encompassed by the terms of the release and within the contemplation [**39]  of the parties.

D. Reckless, wanton or positive misconduct

After Mount Sunapee’s initial motion for judgment on the pleadings raised the lift ticket release as a defense, Plaintiff added four paragraphs to his suit in an Amended Complaint, all in support of his one negligence count. The new additions quote from a handwritten note on a “grooming report” prepared by Mount Sunapee Mountain Operations Manager Alan Ritchie two weeks prior to plaintiff’s accident. Ritchie’s note states the following: “keep the skier’s left guardrail 3′ from the tower guns at BTM (Hidden Hydrants below the snow[)]. Remove 2′ of snow from just above the Blue Shield around the Teckno fan gun.”42 Based solely upon this entry, Miller asserts that Mount Sunapee knew of buried snowmaking equipment and that failing to mark it or otherwise make it visible both violated its statutory duty and constituted “reckless, wanton, and positive acts of misconduct” from which it can not legally be released.43

In response, Mount Sunapee argues: 1) that the allegations do not support a claim for a statutory violation; 2) that New Hampshire law does not recognize extra-culpable, non-releasable categories of negligence; and 3) that [**40]  the Amended Complaint and attached documents fail, in any event, to set forth facts amounting to anything other than ordinary negligence. The court has already found no statutory violation44 and further finds that the complaint, even as amended, alleges nothing more than ordinary negligence.

1. Recklessness

Plaintiff argues that the additional allegations in the Amended Complaint state a claim for reckless behavior, which, he argues, is not within the purview of the release. The court finds that the new amendments do not allege conduct that is more culpable than negligence, which is subject to the terms of the Mount Sunapee release.45

The New Hampshire Supreme Court generally refers favorably to the Restatement of Torts and has done so with respect to its description of “reckless” conduct:

 [*601]  Under the Restatement [(Second) of Torts], § 500, at 587 (1965), conduct is “reckless” if it “would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such a risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.” Id. The conduct “must involve an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial [**41]  physical harm, and the probability that it will so result must be substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence.” Id.
comment a at 588.

Boulter v. Eli & Bessie Cohen Found., 166 N.H. 414, 421, 97 A.3d 1127 (2014).

As the Court noted in Thompson v. Forest, 136 N.H. 215, 220, 614 A.2d 1064 (1992), a litigant’s characterization of conduct as evincing a particular culpable mental state is not particularly useful. “Recklessness,” at a minimum, is conduct “where the known danger ceases to be only a foreseeable risk which a reasonable person would avoid, and becomes in the mind of the actor a substantial certainty.” Id. (quoting WP Keaton, et al., Prosser and Keaton on the Law of Torts § 8 (5th ed. 1984)). Here, notwithstanding the descriptive adjectives employed by the plaintiff, the facts and allegations pled do not suggest that, to anyone affiliated with Mount Sunapee, there was “a substantial certainty” that serious foreseeable harm would occur based on its alleged conduct or that Mount Sunapee’s conduct involved an unreasonable risk of physical harm “substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that the risk was one involving an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.

Plaintiff relies on a recent New Hampshire Superior Court case involving an injured ski lift [**42]  passenger in which the trial judge held that the plaintiff’s allegations of recklessness were sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.46 In Perry v. SNH Dev., No. 2015-CV-00678, 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 (N.H. Super. Ct., Sept. 13, 2017) (Temple, J.), the child plaintiff was injured after first dangling from, and then falling from, a chair lift into which she was improperly loaded. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. There, the plaintiff successfully pled facts that alleged recklessness and avoided the ski area‘s enforceable negligence release. 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *23. Specifically, the plaintiffs in Perry alleged that the ski area‘s:

employee(s)[‘] total and complete failure to monitor the safe and proper loading of the Rocket chair lift in any fashion, coupled with the undisputed failure (actions or inactions) to stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress and ongoing for a considerable period of time, were failures to do acts which the employees had a duty to perform for [plaintiffs] and constitute a reckless disregard of safety.

2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *27. The court denied the ski area‘s motion for summary judgment on the recklessness issue, first noting the allegation that there “were multiple employees of Crotched Mountain in or around [**43]  the area observing that Sarah was not able to properly and/or safely board the Rocket chair lift; but rather [was] dangling from the chair lift.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *33. The court found this allegation sufficient to support an inference that the ski area‘s employees  [*602]  “knew that [the child plaintiff] was not properly loaded on the chair lift, but chose not to act.” Id. The court additionally cited the allegations that the ski area‘s employees knew that their failure to “stop the chair lift once a life threatening emergency was clearly in progress” would create an “unreasonable risk of physical harm or death.” Id. These facts, the Superior Court concluded, were sufficient to establish a claim of reckless conduct. Id.

In reaching its decision, the Perry court assumed that recklessness involved a defendant’s “conscious choice.” 2017 N.H. Super. LEXIS 32 at *32 (citing State v. Hull, 149 N.H. 706, 713, 827 A.2d 1001 (2003)). Here, plaintiff argues that a reasonable inference can be made that Mount Sunapee knowingly disregarded the risk of harm posed by hidden snowmaking equipment, and that they “knew that ‘hidden’ hydrants posed a danger, but chose not to act.47

The court finds no such inference. As noted, the amended allegations do not pertain to a time or place related to Miller’s accident. [**44]  There is nothing in the Ritchie affidavit that supports an allegation that Mount Sunapee made a “conscious choice” to create a “risk that was substantially greater than is required for ordinary negligence or that . . . [involved] an easily perceptible danger of death or substantial physical harm.” Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422 (internal quotation marks omitted). Significantly, the allegations in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby lift passenger already in obvious danger, a child literally dangling from the moving chair lift. Under plaintiff’s theory, any collision with buried snowmaking equipment would constitute a claim for recklessness.

One of the cases cited in Perry supports the court’s conclusion. In Migdal v. Stamp, 132 N.H. 171, 564 A.2d 826 (1989), the plaintiff, a police officer, was shot by a 15-year old who had been involuntarily hospitalized due to mental health issues. Id. at 173. The day after his release into his parents’ custody, the teen took several guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from an unsecured gun cabinet in their home, fired them throughout the house, and then shot and injured the plaintiff, who responded to the scene. Id. The injured officer sued the shooter’s parents, [**45]  who sought dismissal based on the “fireman’s rule.”48 After first noting that the rule bars claims of negligent, but not reckless, conduct, id. at 176, the Court concluded that the plaintiff had adequately pled recklessness by alleging that the parents “failed to seek recommended medical treatment” for their son and allowed him access to “an array of firearms and ammunition,” despite their knowledge that their son “was suffering from mental and emotional instabilities,” had “exhibited dangerous propensities,” and had ransacked and vandalized the house the day before. Id. Mount Sunapee’s conduct — failure to mark or make visible the snow gun holder — is neither of the same type nor degree as the defendants’ conduct in Migdal.

A ski case from the District of Massachusetts is also instructive. In Brush v. Jiminy Peak Mountain, 626 F. Supp. 2d 139 (D. Mass. 2009), a ski racer was injured when she lost control and collided with a ski tower support located off the trail. Id.
 [*603]  at 143. In suing, inter alia, the ski area, the plaintiff alleged that netting and other safety devices should have been placed around the support, as required by certain ski racing standards and as had been done by the defendant in the past. Id. at 145. In order to avoid application of a release, the plaintiff asserted [**46]  a claim for gross negligence, which, under Massachusetts law, is a less culpable standard than recklessness. Id. at 151 (citing Altman v. Aronson, 231 Mass. 588, 121 N.E. 505, 506 (Mass. 1919)). The Court concluded that plaintiff had alleged only simple negligence. Id. The Court first observed that “[t]here is no evidence in the record, and indeed no allegation, that any of the Defendants, or anyone at the competition, became aware that there was an area of the trail without netting where netting was normally placed and declined to remedy the situation.” Id. Ultimately, the Court held, “[a]t most there was a collective failure to take a step that might have lessened the injuries suffered by Plaintiff. No reasonable jury could find that this simple inadvertence, no matter how tragic its consequences, constituted gross negligence.” Id.

The court views the conduct alleged here as much more akin to that alleged in Brush — which alleged conduct that was less culpable than recklessness — than that in Perry
or Migdal. The factual allegations in this case fall far short of recklessness. First, as previously noted, the grooming report on which plaintiff relies is remote both in time and location. Next, the conduct alleged here is significantly less egregious than the [**47]  allegations in Perry, where ski area employees allegedly ignored a nearby passenger already in danger of falling from a lift chair, or the conduct in Migdal, where the defendant parents, one day after their son had exhibited mental instability, ransacked the family home, and exhibited dangerous tendencies, failed to seek treatment for him and to secure multiple firearms and ammunition. As in Brush, the most that can be said here is that Mount Sunapee failed to take a step that — while not legally required, see supra, § III.A.1 — might have prevented plaintiff’s accident. These allegations do not support a claim that their acts or omissions in not clearing snow away from a snow gun holder in an ungroomed area “were substantially more serious” than ordinary negligence. Boulter, 166 N.H. at 422.
49

2. Wanton and positive misconduct

In an attempt to characterize his claims in such a way to avoid the language of the release, plaintiff’s Amended Complaint describes them as “wanton and positive acts of misconduct,” that is, more culpable than negligence, but not intentional.50 The court, however, has already determined that the Complaint alleges no more than ordinary negligence, so this argument fails.

3. Potential [**48]  certification

If the court had found that the facts alleged by the plaintiff could constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, it would have considered certifying an unresolved question to the New Hampshire  [*604]  Supreme Court: whether conduct more culpable than negligence, but less than intentional could be the subject of a release like the one at issue here. See
N.H. Sup. Ct. R. 34. In the absence of such allegations, certification is unnecessary.

IV. Conclusion

The undisputed factual record shows that plaintiff purchased and affixed to his clothing a lift ticket at Mount Sunapee that unambiguously released the ski area from liability from its own negligence, that such a release does not violate public policy, and that plaintiff’s signature was not required to effectuate its terms. Furthermore, there is no material factual dispute that plaintiff had the opportunity to read both the cautionary language on the ticket’s peel-off backing and the release language itself, that he would have understood that language to constitute a release and that a reasonable person in his position would have understood that the release exculpated Mount Sunapee from its own negligence.

As plaintiff has alleged only that Mount [**49]  Sunapee’s negligence caused his injuries, and that the facts he alleges do not constitute conduct more culpable than negligence, the court finds that plaintiff’s claims fall within the ambit of the Mount Sunapee release and that the release is enforceable against the plaintiff. Therefore, defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, having been converted to a motion for summary judgment51 is GRANTED.52

SO ORDERED.

/s/ Joseph N. Laplante

Joseph N. Laplante

United States District Judge

March 31, 2018


Cyclists injured on a bike path after running into a downed tree, could not recover because the association that assisted in taking care of the bike path owed no duty to the cyclists.

If there is no duty, there is no liability. Always check to make sure there really is a duty owed to someone before you start to claim or defend negligence actions.

Citation: DeLamar v. Fort Worth Mt. Biker’s Ass’n, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466, 2019 Tex. App. LEXIS 466, 2019 WL 311517

State: Texas; Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

Plaintiff: Norman Delamar

Defendant: Fort Worth Mountain Biker’s Association

Plaintiff Claims: general negligence and gross negligence

Defendant Defenses: No Duty

Holding: For the Defendants

Year: 2019

Summary

City parks had an agreement with the local cycling group to assist in keeping the bike pats in good shape. The ultimate responsibility for the bike paths was still held by the city. An injured cyclist who ran into a downed tree could not sue the cycling group because they owed no duty to the cyclists because the association did not have the authority from the city and did not accept a duty with the agreement with the city.

Facts

On July 12, 2014, Norman was riding his mountain bike on a trail in Gateway, a park owned by the City, when he came upon a downed tree resting across the trail at head level. Although known to be a “really good rider,” Norman asserts that because he did not have time to stop or avoid the tree, the tree “clotheslined” his head and neck and knocked him off of his bicycle, causing him injuries.

Norman sued the City, asserting claims of general negligence and gross negligence. In a single pleading, the City filed an answer and identified the Association as a responsible third party because of an “Adopt-A-Park Agreement” (Contract) that made the Association “responsible for constructing and maintaining the bike trail in question.” Norman then amended his petition and added the Association as a defendant in the suit.

The city’s contract with the association outlined things the association was to do to assist the city in keeping the trail available and generally covered trail maintenance. The city did not give up its right to control and manage the park where the trails were located.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, and this appeal ensued.

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

The first issue the court reviewed was this, a negligence claim or a premises liability claim.

Although premises liability is a form of negligence, “[n]egligence and premises liability claims . . . are separate and distinct theories of recovery, requiring plaintiffs to prove different, albeit similar, elements to secure judgment in their favor.”

The differences are subtle, but:

To prevail on a premises-liability claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) actual or constructive knowledge of some condition on the premises by the owner; (2) that the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm; (3) that the owner did not exercise reasonable care to reduce or eliminate the risk; and (4) that the owner’s failure to use such care proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries, whereas under the common law doctrine of negligence, a plaintiff must prove (1) a legal duty owed by one person to another; (2) a breach of that duty; and (3) damages proximately resulting from the breach.

The difference is, one is based on the actions of the defendant, and the other is based on a condition of the land.

While, theoretically, a litigant may maintain causes of action for both general negligence and premises liability, to be viable, the general negligence theory of recovery must be based not upon an injury resulting from the condition of the property, but upon the defendant’s contemporaneous activity. (analyzing claimant’s negligence and premises liability claims together). If the injury is one caused by a premises defect, rather than a defendant’s contemporaneous activity, a plaintiff cannot circumvent the true nature of the premises defect claim by pleading it as one for general negligence.

As similar as they may appear to be, you cannot recover on the same set of facts for both a negligence action and a premise’s liability action. Even the court stated understanding the differences could be “tricky.”

The trial court and appellate court found the plaintiff’s claims sounded in premise’s liability.

However, the court went on to discuss the plaintiff’s allegations that his claim was a negligence claim. The issue was whether the association had a legal duty to the plaintiff.

The question of legal duty is a “multifaceted issue” requiring courts to balance a number of factors such as the risk and foreseeability of injury, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the consequences of imposing the burden on the actor, and any other relevant competing individual and social interests implicated by the facts of the case. “Although the formulation and emphasis varies with the facts of each case, three categories of factors have emerged: (1) the relationship between the parties; (2) the reasonable foreseeability of harm to the person injured; and (3) public policy considerations.”

Of the three, foreseeability as the dominant consideration, but not the sole consideration the court must review. Foreseeability alone is not sufficient to create a duty. “Foreseeability means that a person who possesses ordinary intelligence should have anticipated the danger that his negligent act would create for others.”

Although the association had some contractual responsibility for the trails, there was nothing the association could do about the trees. Only the city had the use of the chainsaws, and only the city could determine if a tree could be removed and then remove it.

And although it was foreseeable, a tree could fall on the trail; the issue required more analysis than that. The bike path was surrounded by thousands of trees. The plaintiff had ridden that path just two days earlier and admitted that the tree could have fallen two hours before he hit it. Although a tree falling was foreseeable, it was outside of the scope of something that you can do anything about, and on top of that the association had no authority to do anything about trees.

Finally, the agreement between the city and the association said nothing about the association agreeing to assume a legal duty to maintain the safety of the trails.

Based on our de novo review of the record, we hold that Norman failed to establish that the Association owed him a legal duty to protect him from the downed tree across the trail that the Association did not cause to fall, that may have fallen only hours-but no later than a day or two-before Norman struck it, and that the Association was not even authorized to unilaterally remove.

Because there could be no gross negligence if there was no general negligence, the plaintiffs gross and ordinary negligence claims were dismissed.

So Now What?

Foreseeability is a good thing for non-lawyers running a business or program to understand. Are your actions or inactions going to create a danger to someone.

The case does not state whether the city had any liability to the plaintiff, only the issues discussed in this decision were between the plaintiff and the defendant association.

More importantly, the court looked at trees falling as something that no one could really control. It was not liked anyone, the association or the city could come close to identifying trees that may fall in parks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2019 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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Under Pennsylvania law, a collision with other skiers or boarders is an inherent risk of skiing. Skiing off the trail because of the collision is also an inherent risk of skiing.

The terrain off of the trail was different than normally found at a ski area. A 3-4 drop off into a pile of rocks. However, the risk is skiing off the trail, not what you run into when you do.

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

State: Pennsylvania, United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff: Quan Vu and May Siew

Defendant: Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al.

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence and Loss of Consortium

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2018

Summary

The definition of an inherent risk when skiing is not what causes the injury, only the risk that led to the injury. Under Pennsylvania law, there is a broad definition of inherent risks and this case was dismissed because the plaintiff assumed those inherent risks, and the defendant did not owe a duty to protect him from those risks.

Facts

The plaintiff was an experienced skier, who had been skiing for twenty years. He was skiing behind his daughter at the defendant’s ski area. A snowboarder came close to the plaintiff or hit the plaintiff sending or causing him to ski off the trail. He went off the trail, over a 3-4 drop and landed in a pile of rocks.

…Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered was skiing with his daughter.

He sued the defendant ski area because it was:

…negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition.

The court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

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

The decision was based on the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. The court had to decide if the risks encountered by the plaintiff were inherent risks of skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing. As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.”

If there is no duty, then there can be no negligence.

Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.

Pennsylvania has a two-part test to determine if the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty.

First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of down-hill skiing.” If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law.

The first test was met; the plaintiff was skiing at the time of his accident.

The court then had to determine if the risks the plaintiff encountered were inherent to skiing. Under Pennsylvania law, inherent risks “are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing.”

The plaintiff argued that because the plaintiff was no specifically aware of the risk of the 3-4-foot drop off and the pile of rocks, he could not assume the risk.

Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply.

In many cases, assumption of the risk would not be a defense if the injured plaintiff had no specific knowledge of the risk. However, it was not the case here under the statute. It did not matter if the Plaintiff had specific knowledge of the risk or a general knowledge of the risks of skiing, he assumed those risks.

The court then looked at the facts and found there were two circumstances that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injuries, veering to avoid a collision and skiing over the drop off.

The first is an inherent risk of skiing in Pennsylvania.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with an-other skier is one of the common, frequent and expected risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.

The next issue was whether skiing over the drop off into a pile of rocks was an inherent risk of skiing. Here again, the court found skiing off the trail, no matter what you may encounter once you are off the trail, is an inherent risk of skiing. The court backed its point up quite interestingly.

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis.

The court found the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty because he assumed the risks of his injury under the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act.

So Now What?

Actually, an easy case. Easy under Pennsylvania law because of the Pennsylvania Supreme Courts interpretation of the Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act. When skiing in Pennsylvania collisions with other skiers or boarders are an inherent risk of skiing and skiing off the trail is also.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Vu v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

Quan Vu and May Siew, Plaintiffs, v. Ski Liberty Operating Corp., et. al., Defendants,

1:16-cv-2170

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49013

March 26, 2018, Decided

CORE TERMS: skiing, trail, edge, downhill, ski, skier, snowboarder, sport, inherent risk, slope, collision, rocks, summary judgment, drop-off, att, daughter, skied, snow, pile, foot, lift ticket, knee-jerk, genuine, resort, Skier’s Responsibility Act, matter of law, specific risk, experienced, elevation, veering

COUNSEL: [*1] For Quan VU, May Siew, Plaintiffs: D. Aaron Rihn, Mark D. Troyan, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Robert Peirce & Associates, P.C., Pittsburgh, PA USA.

For Ski Liberty Operating Corp. doing business as Liberty Mountain Resort, Defendant: Anthony W. Hinkle, Snow Time, Inc., Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Plaintiffs: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

For Snow Time, Inc., Ski Liberty Operating Corp., Counterclaim Defendants: Anthony W. Hinkle, Cipriani & Werner, P.C., Philadelphia, PA USA.

JUDGES: Hon. John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: John E. Jones III

OPINION

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs are Quan Vu and his wife, May Siew. (“Plaintiffs”). Defendants are Ski Liberty Operating Corp. and Snow Time, Inc., operating as Liberty Mountain Resort. (“Defendants”). This action arises out of a skiing accident at Liberty Mountain that left Mr. Vu severely injured. The complaint brings one count of negligence on behalf of Mr. Vu and one count of loss of consortium on behalf of Mrs. Siew, both alleging that the accident was caused by the Defendants’ negligence in maintaining the ski slope and failing to warn Mr. Vu of [*2] the slope’s hazardous condition. (Doc. 1). Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 36). The Motion has been fully briefed and is therefore ripe for our review. (Docs. 38, 42, 43). For the reasons that follow, the Motion shall be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 23, 2015, Mr. Vu was downhill skiing with his daughter at Liberty Mountain. (Doc. 41, ¶ 24). Mr. Vu was following his daughter from behind as they skied down the Lover Heavenly trail, a blue square intermediate hill, when he had his accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25). Due to his injuries, Mr. Vu does not recall much detail about his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified: “I believe there was a snowboarder involved and I — the snowboarder got — either cut me off or got awfully close and I had a knee-jerk reaction to veer because the last thing I want to do is ram into somebody. So I — my knee-jerk reaction is to veer.” (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). However, Mr. Vu could not recall what he saw that caused him to veer, whether he veered to the right or to the left, or whether the snowboarder was above or below him on the hill. (Id. at pp. 65-66). The last thing that Mr. Vu remembered [*3] was skiing with his daughter. (Id. at p. 66).

Mr. Vu’s daughter testified: “I saw someone get really close to him and he was trying to avoid them and it was either ramming into him, the snowboarder, or person who was trying to get really close to him, or veering off path.” (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). “He — there was someone trying to kind of get really close to him. And he didn’t want to ram into him. So he — I don’t really understand — know what happened. But he tried to avoid it. And there was like a big ditch or something there. And he tried to stop and tried to avoid the person who was trying to cut him off.” (Id.). “My dad was — the snowboarder was — my dad was kind of like the ham in the middle of a sandwich. Between the end of the trail, the edge of the trail and the snowboarder.” (Id. at p. 9). “I just felt that the snowboarder was getting quite close to my dad and I didn’t want a collision to happen or the snowboarder to ram into my dad.” (Id. at p. 10).

Ultimately, whether he did so intentionally or not, Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail and suffered catastrophic injuries. There was a drop-off at the edge of the ski trail of about three to four feet. (Doc. 41, ¶ 32). Below that drop-off was a large pile [*4] of rocks. (Id. at ¶ 31). Mr. Vu skied off of the edge of the trail, off of the embankment, and landed on the pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11).

Mr. Vu was an experienced skier at the time of his accident. He had skied for over twenty years and was capable of skiing black diamond slopes. (Id. at P 6). Mr. Vu testified that he was familiar with the Skier’s Responsibility Code and understood that he was responsible for skiing in control and in such a manner that he could stop or avoid other skiers. (Id.). Mr. Vu also testified that he understood that skiing is a dangerous sport and that he could get hurt if he skied out of control or if he fell. (Id.).

On the day of his accident, Mr. Vu’s wife purchased his Liberty Mountain Resort Lift Ticket. (Id. at ¶ 18). The back of the lift ticket reads as follows:

PLEASE READ

Acceptance of this ticket constitutes a contract. The conditions of the contract are stated on this ticket & will prevent or restrict your ability to sue Liberty Mountain Resort. If you do not agree with these conditions, then do not use the facility. Snowsports in their various forms, including the use of lifts, are dangerous sports with inherent and other risks. These risks include but are [*5] not limited to: variations in snow, steepness & terrain, ice & icy conditions, moguls, rocks, trees & other forms of forest growth or debris (above or below the surface), bare spots, lift towers, utility lines & poles, fencing or lack of fencing, snowmaking & snowgrooming equipment & component parts, on-snow vehicles & other forms of natural or man-made obstacles, and terrain features on or off designated trails as well as collisions with equipment, obstacles or other snowsport participants. Trail conditions vary constantly because of weather changes and use. All the inherent and other risks involved present the risk of permanent catastrophic injury or death. In consideration of using Liberty’s facilities, the purchaser or user of this ticket agrees to accept the risks of snowsports and understands and agrees that they are hazardous and further agrees NOT TO SUE Ski Liberty Operating Corp., its owners or employees if injured while using the facilities regardless of any negligence, including gross negligence, on the part of the resort, and/or its employees or agents. The purchaser or user of this ticket voluntarily assumes the risk of injury while participating in the sport, and agrees [*6] to report all injuries before leaving the resort . . .

(Doc. 37, Ex. D) (emphasis in original). Though Mr. Vu was uncertain if he read the language on the lift ticket on the day of his accident, he testified that he had read it at some point prior to his accident. (Doc. 37, ¶ 20). At his deposition, Mr. Vu was asked to read portions of the lift ticket and he had trouble doing so because the font was too small. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 70).

Mr. Vu and his wife initiated this action with the filing of a complaint on October 27, 2016. (Doc. 1). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were negligent in the design, construction, and maintenance of the ski slope, failure to warn Mr. Vu of the dangerous condition, failure to construct a barrier to stop skiers from going over the edge into the pile of rocks, failure to inspect the scope and detect the defective condition, and failure to repair that condition. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. (Doc. 36).

I II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute [*7] is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).

Initially, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a genuine dispute for trial. See id. at 773 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). In advancing their positions, the parties must support their factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” FED. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1).

A court should not grant summary judgment when there is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the [*8] mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on two legal bases. First, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred as a matter of law because Mr. Vu’s injuries were caused by an inherent risk of skiing. Second, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by the exculpatory release language contained on the Liberty Mountain lift ticket. Because we find that Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of risks inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, we hold that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law without even considering the exculpatory release language of the lift ticket.

The material facts surrounding Mr. Vu’s accident are not in dispute. Though Mr. Vu and his daughter are unclear on the specifics, it is undisputed that Mr. Vu ended up skiing off of the trail, over a drop-off, and into a pile of rocks. (Doc. 37, ¶ 11). Mr. Vu testified that a snowboarder was getting too close to him and his “knee-jerk” reaction was to veer to avoid a collision, causing him [*9] to ski off of the trail and over the embankment. (Doc. 37, att. 1, pp. 65-66). Mr. Vu’s daughter also testified that her father’s accident occurred when he tried to avoid a collision with a snowboarder. (Doc. 42, att. 2, p. 8). While Defendants argumentatively refer to this person as the “phantom snowboarder” and question the credibility of the testimony, for purposes of this Motion we can take Plaintiffs’ facts as true and assume that Mr. Vu skied off of the trail, either intentionally or as a result of a knee-jerk reaction, to avoid colliding with a snowboarder. Even so, summary judgment must be granted in favor of the Defendants because Mr. Vu’s accident occurred as a result of inherent risks of downhill skiing.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly expressly preserved the doctrine of assumption of the risk as a defense in downhill skiing cases in the Skier’s Responsibility Act, recognizing that “there are inherent risks in the sport of downhill skiing.” 42 Pa. C.S. § 7102(c). As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained, “[t]he assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a ‘no-duty’ rule, i.e., as the principle that an owner or operator of a [*10] place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity.” Chepkevich v. Hidden Valley Resort, L.P., 2 A.3d 1174, 1186 (2010) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 496A, cmt. C, 2). “Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant–the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable–and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.” Id.

In Hughes v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania established a two-part test for courts to use to determine whether a plaintiff’s claims are barred by the no duty rule of the Skier’s Responsibility Act. 762 A.2d 339, 343 (2000). “First, this Court must determine whether [the plaintiff] was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of her injury.” Id. at 344. “If that answer is affirmative, we must then determine whether the risk” of the circumstance that caused the plaintiff’s injury “is one of the ‘inherent risks’ of downhill skiing.” Id. If so, then summary judgment must be awarded against the plaintiff as a matter of law. Id. In the case at-bar, there can be no dispute that Mr. Vu was engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of his accident. The salient question, therefore, becomes whether veering off-trail and over a drop-off into a pile [*11] of rocks to avoid a collision with a snowboarder are inherent risks of downhill skiing. If those risks are inherent to skiing, then Defendants had no duty to protect Mr. Vu. Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1186. If those risks are not inherent, traditional principles of negligence apply and we must determine what duty the Defendants owed Mr. Vu, whether the Defendants breached that duty, and whether the breach caused Mr. Vu’s injuries.

We begin with a discussion of what it means for a risk to be “inherent.” The Hughes court explained that “inherent” risks are those that are “common, frequent, and expected” in downhill skiing. Id. In interpreting risks, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has instructed that “the clear legislative intent to preserve the assumption of the risk doctrine in this particular area, as well as the broad wording of the Act itself, dictates a practical and logical interpretation of what risks are inherent to the sport.” Chepkevich, 2 A.3d at 1187-88. “Accordingly, courts have rejected attempts by plaintiffs to define the injury producing risks in very a specific and narrow manner.” Cole v. Camelback Mountain Ski Resort, 2017 WL 4621786, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 16, 2017) (Mariani, J.). For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Chepkevich rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she did not assume the “specific [*12] risk” involved, looking instead to the “general risk” that gave rise to the accident. 2 A.3d at 1188. A number of courts have addressed the scope of the Skier’s Responsibility Act and have concluded that some of the inherent risks of downhill skiing include: lack of netting, improper course plotting, or soft snow1; skiing off trail and striking a tree2; collisions with unpadded snow equipment poles3; striking a fence on the edge of the trail4; and collisions with other skiers or snowboarders.5

1 Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, L.P., 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008).

2 Id.

3 Smith v. Seven Springs Farm, Inc., 716 F.2d 1002 (3d Cir. 1983).

4 Cole, 2017 WL 4621786, at *5.

5 Hughes, 762 A.2d 339.

Before addressing the risks that Mr. Vu encountered, we must address Plaintiffs’ initial argument that the assumption of the risk doctrine is inapplicable. Plaintiffs argue that while Mr. Vu “was generally aware of the dangers of downhill skiing,” he was not aware “of the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8) (emphasis in original). Because there is no evidence that Mr. Vu had subjective awareness of these risks, Plaintiffs argue, the doctrine of assumption of the risk cannot apply. (Id. at pp. 9-13). For support of this argument, Plaintiffs cite several cases that are materially distinct from the case at-bar. First, Plaintiffs [*13] quote Barillari v. Ski Shawnee, Inc., “[i]t is not enough that the plaintiff was generally aware that the activity in which he was engaged had accompanying risks.” 986 F. Supp. 2d 555, 563 (M.D. Pa. 2013). Importantly, the court made this statement when analyzing the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk after determining that the Skier’s Responsibility Act was not applicable because the plaintiff was not engaged in the sport of downhill skiing at the time of the accident. Id. at 561. The instruction of this quote is inapplicable to our consideration of the no duty doctrine of assumption of the risk.

Next, Plaintiffs rely heavily on Bolyard v. Wallenpaupack Lake Estates, Inc., 2012 WL 629391(M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2012) (Caputo, J.). In Bolyard, the plaintiff sued the defendant for negligence after sustaining injuries while snow tubing on the defendant’s property. Id. at *1. The court recognized that while the plaintiff had “general knowledge” of the dangers of snow tubing on the hill, she did not assume the risk because “there is no evidence in the record that she had any knowledge of the specific hazards of that particular slope.” Id. at *6. Plaintiffs argue that “[s]imilar to the patron in Bolyard,” Mr. Vu was only generally aware of the risks he could suffer while skiing and thus assumption of the risk is inapplicable. (Doc. [*14] 42, p. 8). We disagree.

Notably, the slope in Bolyard was an old slope that was not currently in operation. 2012 WL 629391, at *1. The court used principles of negligence as applicable to landowners and licensees to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff and, consequently, considered the doctrine of voluntary assumption of the risk as a defense. Id. at **3-6. Analyzing the present action under the no duty rule, we do not consider the defense of voluntary assumption of the risk; instead, we must determine whether Mr. Vu’s injuries arose out of an inherent risk of the sport of skiing such that the Defendants had no duty at all. Pursuant to Hughes and the Skier’s Responsibility Act, there is no duty to protect a skier from the inherent risks of skiing and therefore, “when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant.” Id.

Finally, Plaintiffs cite Perez v. Great Wolf Lodge of the Poconos LLC,6
Staub v. Toy Factory, Inc.,
7
Jones v. Three Rivers Mgmt. Corp,
8 and Telega v. Sec. Bureau, Inc.9 in support of their position that assumption of the risk does not apply because Mr. Vu did not appreciate the specific risks that caused his accident. To start, none of these cases address the Skier’s Responsibility [*15] Act. These cases discuss appreciation of specific risk only after determining that the no duty rule was inapplicable because the risk encountered was not inherent. Again, we reiterate that “[n]egligence principles are irrelevant where the ‘no duty’ rule applies.” Lin v. Spring Mountain Adventures, Inc., 2010 WL 5257648, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 23, 2010). Whether the no duty rule applies turns on whether Mr. Vu’s particular injuries arose out of risks inherent in the sport of skiing — an issue that is not dependent on a plaintiff’s subjective awareness of those specific risks.

6 200 F. Supp. 3d 471, 478 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (Mariani, J.).

7 749 A.2d 522, (Pa. Super. 2000).

8 483 Pa. 75, 85, 394 A.2d 546, 551 (1978).

9 719 A.2d 372, 376 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998).

We now turn to the risks involved in Mr. Vu’s accident. The facts reveal two circumstances that gave rise to Mr. Vu’s injuries: (1) veering to avoid a collision with a snowboarder; and (2) skiing over the drop-off at the edge of the trail and into a pile of rocks. If these risks are inherent to the sport of downhill skiing, Plaintiffs’ claims cannot stand.

We can easily conclude that the first risk is inherent and gives rise to no duty on behalf of Defendants. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has specifically determined that the risk of collision with another person on the slope is inherent to the sport of downhill skiing: “the risk of colliding with another skier is one of the common, frequent and expected [*16] risks ‘inherent’ in downhill skiing. Indeed, other skiers are as much a part of the risk in downhill skiing, if not more so, than the snow and ice, elevation, contour, speed and weather conditions.” Hughes, 762 A.2d at 344. Likely in recognition of the clear case law, Plaintiffs do not argue in their brief in opposition to the Motion that avoiding a collision with a snowboarder is a risk that would give rise to a duty on behalf of Defendants. To the extent that Plaintiffs’ claims of negligence are premised on Mr. Vu’s avoidance of a collision with the snowboarder, those claims must fail.

Next, we consider whether skiing over the edge of the trail and encountering a three to four foot drop-off into a pile of rocks is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Plaintiffs frame this risk as the primary cause of Mr. Vu’s injuries.10 “Simply put, the risk of ejectment from a ski trail due to a 3 to 4 foot drop off and striking one’s head on rocks and/or boulders . . . is not an inherent, frequent, common, and expected risk of skiing.” (Doc. 42, p. 11). All parties recognize that the drop-off was at the edge of the trail rather than a ditch or hole in the slope itself. Though Plaintiffs stress that Mr. Vu did not “willingly [*17] decide to ski off trail,” the distinction is of no consequence. Plaintiffs describe the incident in terms of Mr. Vu being “ejected” from the trail due to the embankment, but it is illogical to argue that the existence of the drop-off itself would cause a skier to go over it. Whether Mr. Vu did so intentionally, accidentally, or as a means of avoiding a collision, the incontrovertible fact is that Mr. Vu did, ultimately, ski off of the three to four foot edge of the trail.

10 “. . . the specific hazard of being ejected from the ski trail due to a steep 3 to 4 foot drop-off on that particular slope’s trail edge.” (Doc. 42, p. 8); “Even if Defendant could establish that having a 3 to 4 foot trail edge drop presents a danger inherent to the sport of skiing . . .” (Id. at p. 9); “. . . he was ejected from the trail when attempting to avoid a collision and was confronted with a 3 to 4 foot drop in elevation from the ski trail.” (Id. at p. 11).

We hold that the risk of skiing off trail and suffering from the change of elevation between the trail and surrounding terrain is an inherent risk of downhill skiing. Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who was well aware of the risks of skiing off the designated slope; he testified repeatedly that he “would never ski off-trail.” (Doc. 41, att. 1, p. 43). He had previously skied at Liberty Mountain on multiple occasions and could not remember ever complaining about the trail or trail markings. (Id. at pp. 35-36). Additionally, Mr. Vu’s daughter testified that she did not have any difficulty discerning the edge of the slope where her father went off trail the evening of the accident. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14). It would be irrational for [*18] any court to hold that skiing off trail and encountering dangerous terrain is not an inherent risk of the sport of downhill skiing — ski slopes are marked and maintained in appreciation of this risk, and beginner and experienced skiers alike know to stay within the trail limits to avoid injury. Mr. Vu himself testified that he understood that he could run into trees, rocks, boulders, or snowmaking equipment if he skied off trail. (Doc. 37, att. 1, p. 71).

We struggled to find case law on point to support our holding because we believe it to be such a common sense and logical conclusion that does not require in-depth analysis. One case from the New York appellate court, however, was particularly analogous. In Atwell v. State, the plaintiff was skiing near the edge of the trail when he observed a “floundering” skier in his path. 645 N.Y.S.2d 658, 659 (1996). Plaintiff “instinctively reacted and turned without thinking” to avoid a collision and ended up skiing off trail and into a tree. Id. The court easily found that plaintiff’s injuries were due to inherent risks of skiing. Id. at 650. “[F]rom claimant’s own description of the accident, there can be no dispute that everything he encountered, including the skier he turned [*19] to avoid hitting, the berm at the edge of the trail referred to by claimant’s expert and the tree with which he collided, are all statutorily recognized as inherent dangers of skiing.” The court noted that “[c]laimant chose to ski near the edge of the trail and there is nothing in the record to indicate that the location of the edge of the trail was not readily observable to him.” Id. Similarly here, Mr. Vu was an experienced skier who chose to ski near the edge of the slope. He had a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a skier, and ended up veering off of the trail and suffering from the elevation change and his collision with rocks. Not only is there a lack of any evidence that the edge of the trail was difficult to discern, but Mr. Vu’s daughter testified at length about how her father was close to the edge of the trail and specifically stated that she could observe the edge of the slope without difficulty. (Doc. 41, att. 2, p. 14).

We agree with the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which simply held: “Even the most generous reading of the plaintiff’s pleadings reveals the chief cause of his injuries to be an unenumerated, yet quintessential risk of skiing: that a skier might lose control [*20] and ski off the trail. By participating in the sport of skiing, a skier assumes this inherent risk and may not recover against a ski area operator for resulting injuries.” Nutbrown v. Mount Cranmore, Inc., 140 N.H. 675, 684, 671 A.2d 548, 553 (1996).

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Motion shall be granted. A separate order shall issue in accordance with this memorandum.

ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 36). In conformity with the Memorandum issued on today’s date, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

1. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment (Doc. 36) is GRANTED.

2. The Clerk of the Court SHALL CLOSE the file on this case.

/s/ John E. Jones III

John E. Jones III

United States District Judge