Your release cannot use the term “inherent risk” as the description of the risks, it creates no release at all.

California appellate court reviews numerous issues brought by plaintiff in this skier v. skier fatality. Most important issue is the relationship between Assumption of the Risk in California and a Release.

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

Plaintiff: Grant Tuttle et al.

Defendant: Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2020

Summary

Skier died after being hit by snowboarder coming out of terrain park. Descendant’s heirs could not sue because the release stated the descendant assumed the risk of her injuries. Case is still ongoing.

Discussion by the court provides great analysis of the different types of risk assumed and the differences between inherent risks and other risks.

Facts

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.”

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

It is unknown what happened to the lawsuit against the snowboarder.

The actual facts on how the trial proceeded are convoluted and not in the normal course of trials. The appellate court recognized this and found although the proceedings were different, the outcome was correct.

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

The court first reviewed release law in California. The main issue the court found was the relationship between a release in California and the inherent risks of a sport. The court made this statement, which should be known by everyone in the outdoor industry.

But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all.

When you play sports, explore the woods or ski, just three examples, you assume the risk of the inherent risks of the sport. If your release only identifies inherent risks as the risks, the release protects against, you release is protecting you from things you are already protected against. A plaintiff cannot sue you for the inherent risks of the activity.

Your release is written, or should be written, to protect you from all the other risks of an activity. Risks such as those created by equipment, guides or decision’s guides or participants make. Those are risks that are probably not inherent to the sport and a such; you are liable for those risks.

The court did an extensive analysis of these issues. The foundation case is Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696, a California Supreme Court decision that has been quoted in hundreds of cases in most states and laid down the definitions of the different types of risk and how a person assumes those different risks.

Knight and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

The issue in the law then becomes has the defendant done something to change the inherent risks or said another way increased the risk to the participants. The participant assumes the inherent risks and others, but not to the extent the risk has been increased. You cannot assume gross negligence, for example.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk.

The balance between the risks in the sport that create the excitement and define the sport versus actions of the defendant in controlling or presenting the sport in such a way the risks cannot be assumed by the participants.

The court then compared the issues of increasing the risk and comparative fault. Comparative fault is how the jury or trier of fact determines who is actually liable and in what percentages for the injuries of the plaintiff.

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.”

The court then reviewed the relationship between comparative fault and how that is affected when a release is used.

A different analysis applies when a skier signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

The court then clarified its statement defining how a court looks at how the defenses are applied to the facts.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself.

Court added further clarification to its statement.

A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies, but simply the scope of the Release.'”

In assumption of the risk, the plaintiff must know the risks they are assuming. A release removes that actual knowledge from the analysis.

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'”

The court then looked at the limits of protection a release provides. That limit is defined as gross negligence.

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence.

If the defendant engages in gross negligence, that is outside of the protection afforded by the release.

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment.

The court then recapped its comparison of the legal issues in a case involving inherent and other risks and a release.

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

There is a lot more discussion in the case about the procedural issues and how the trial was handled. There is no need to discuss these here.

So Now What?

This is a difficult case to read and understand, however, if you can parse the procedural arguments from the assumption of the risk and release arguments, it is extremely educational in explaining the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant in a case like this.

Simply put there is a hierarchy of defenses available to a business or program in the outdoor recreation industry. There is no fine line between them, in fact, it is a massive gray area, that changes when you move from state to state.

  • Inherent Risks of the Activity
  • Assumption of the Risk
  • Release

Nor are the defenses entirely separate from each other. And if used properly they can be effectively used to support and define each other.

Your website can help explain the risks, inherent and otherwise. Your release can identify specific risks, which may not be apparent to some or for which some may argue they did not know and understand. Your safety talk can define the inherent risks of the activity to make sure those are known by participants.

When writing a release or assumption of the risk agreement, those written documents need to take in all aspects of the risks and make sure nothing in your program or marketing derails your defense wall.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814, 2020 WL 563604

Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P.

Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three

February 5, 2020, Opinion Filed

G056427

Reporter

2020 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 814 *; 2020 WL 563604

GRANT TUTTLE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. HEAVENLY VALLEY, L.P., Defendant and Respondent.

Notice: NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS. CALIFORNIA RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.1115(a), PROHIBITS COURTS AND PARTIES FROM CITING OR RELYING ON OPINIONS NOT CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED, EXCEPT AS SPECIFIED BY RULE 8.1115(b). THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION OR ORDERED PUBLISHED FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 8.1115.

Subsequent History: Request denied by Tuttle v. Heavenly Valley, L.P., 2020 Cal. LEXIS 2940 (Cal., Apr. 29, 2020)

Prior History:  [*1] Appeal from a judgment and post judgment orders of the Superior Court of Orange County, Ct. No. 30-2015-00813230, Nathan R. Scott, Judge.

Disposition: Affirmed.

Counsel: The Simon Law Group, Thomas J. Conroy; Williams Iagmin and Jon R. Williams for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, Steven R. Parminter, Patrick M. Kelly and John J. Immordino for Defendant and Respondent.

Judges: DUNNING, J.*, BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J., MOORE, J. concurred.

Opinion by: DUNNING, J.

Opinion

INTRODUCTION

Skier and Heavenly Valley season passholder Dana Tuttle died after she and a snowboarder collided at Heavenly Valley’s resort in South Lake Tahoe. Tuttle’s spouse and sons sued Heavenly Valley and the snowboarder.1 Defendant asserted as defenses the doctrines of primary assumption of the risk, on the ground Tuttle’s accident was the result of the inherent risks of skiing, and express assumption of the risk, based on Tuttle’s signed release of all claims and liability for defendant’s negligence.

The trial court determined as a matter of law the release was unambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Despite these conclusions, the jury was still asked to decide whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks . . . over and above [*2] those inherent in the sport of skiing.” The jury found defendant did, but unanimously agreed defendant did not act with gross negligence. Finding Tuttle and defendant each 50 percent at fault, the jury awarded plaintiffs substantial damages.

A judgment in plaintiffs’ favor typically would have followed as a matter of course unless defendant formally moved for, and was granted, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). However, the trial court determined the jury’s factual finding that defendant was not grossly negligent, coupled with its legal conclusion that the release provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, compelled entry of a judgment in defendant’s favor, even without a posttrial JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs appeal, but do not challenge the jury instructions, the special verdict form, or the finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. Plaintiffs urge this court to (1) review the release do novo and conclude it does not cover Tuttle’s accident, (2) hold the release violates public policy, (3) find that defendant invited errors in the special verdict form and jury instructions and forfeited the opportunity for entry of judgment in its favor without first [*3]  formally moving for JNOV, and (4) order a new trial. We find no error, however, and affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

I.

The Release

On September 2, 2013, Tuttle purchased a season ski pass from defendant and executed a release.2 The release begins with an all-capital advisement: “WARNING, ASSUMPTION OF RISK, RELEASE OF LIABILITY INDEMNIFICATION AGREEMENT PLEASE READ CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING. THIS IS A RELEASE OF LIABILITY WAIVER OF CERTAIN LEGAL RIGHTS.” Salient provisions of the release are found in paragraphs 1, 2, 5, 6, and 13.

In paragraph 1, Tuttle acknowledged snow skiing “can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVES THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH.” In paragraph 2, she “ASSUME[D] ALL RISKS . . . known or unknown, inherent or otherwise [associated with skiing at the resort, including] falling; slick or uneven surfaces; surface and subsurface snow conditions; . . . variations in terrain; design and condition of man-made facilities and/or terrain features; . . . [and] collisions.” Paragraph 5 advised: “The description of the risks listed above is not complete and participating in the Activities may be dangerous and may also include risks which are inherent and/or which cannot be reasonably [*4] avoided without changing the nature of the Activities.”

Paragraph 6 included Tuttle’s express agreement “NOT TO SUE AND TO RELEASE [DEFENDANT] FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . for . . . injury or loss to [her], including death.” This paragraph specifically advised that Tuttle was releasing all “CLAIMS BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE . . . .” In paragraph 13, Tuttle agreed the release was “binding to the fullest extent permitted by law . . . on [her] heirs, next of kin, executors and personal representatives.”

II.

The Accident and the Lawsuit

The accident occurred on December 21, 2013. Snowboarder Anthony Slater was proceeding out of defendant’s terrain park and collided with skier Tuttle after their respective trails merged. The impact of the collision propelled Tuttle into a tree. Tuttle died the following morning. Factors that potentially contributed to the accident included defendant’s signage, fencing, crowd control the day of the accident, Tuttle’s ski path, and Slater’s speed.

Plaintiffs sued defendant and Slater.3 Defendant raised the defenses of implied and express assumption of the risk: (1) “any injury, loss or damage purportedly sustained . . . by Plaintiffs was directly [*5]  and proximately caused and contributed to by risks which are inherent to the activity in which Plaintiffs participated”; (2) “Plaintiffs either impliedly or expressly relieved Defendant of its duty, if any, to Plaintiffs by knowingly assuming the risk of injury”; and (3) defendant “is entitled to defense and indemnity of each and every cause of action alleged in the Complaint pursuant to the release agreement signed by Plaintiffs and/or Plaintiffs’ representative or agent.”

III.

The Jury Trial

The jury trial spanned five weeks.4 The week before jury selection, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form that posed two liability questions: (1) whether defendant “unreasonably increased the risks to Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing” and (2) whether defendant was grossly negligent. The special verdict form further instructed the jury that if it answered “yes” to either question, it was to make findings regarding the amount of damages and allocation of fault. Before the final witness concluded his testimony, the trial court confirmed that counsel was not making any changes to the special verdict form.

The following day, at the close of evidence and outside the [*6] jurors‘ presence, the trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict and defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit.5 The trial court rejected plaintiffs’ argument the release was fatally ambiguous with regard to the risks involved in the accident. Given the absence of competent extrinsic evidence regarding the release, the trial court determined its interpretation presented a legal question for the court: “So I will construe the release, relying on its plain language. I find that it is not ambiguous. It covers the risks here, most notably in paragraph 2 where it covers risks regarding design and collision, and later where it notes that the risks include injury, including death.”

In the trial court’s own words, the finding as a matter of law that the release unambiguously discharged defendant from liability for its own ordinary negligence meant “we still have questions for the jury about whether the contract was entered into and whether the defendant[] committed gross negligence that cannot be released. For these reasons, the plaintiffs’ motion for directed verdict is denied.”

The rulings prompted defendant’s counsel to suggest additional jury instructions and a revision to the [*7] special verdict form might be necessary to address the fact issues surrounding Tuttle’s execution of the release. The following colloquy then ensued: “[Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Your Honor I’ll shortcut the whole thing. With the court’s ruling, I’ll stipulate to the formation of the contract and proceed with the verdict form as is, so no need for additional instructions. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: I’m sorry. To be clear, we have a stipulation that the contract existed and that the contract included the release and waiver language? [¶] [Plaintiffs’ counsel]: Right. The release and—release of liability and waiver was executed—existed and was executed. That’s the stipulation. [¶] [Defendant’s counsel]: Accepted, your Honor. [¶] The Court: So stipulated.” (Italics added.)

At this point, the jurors returned to the courtroom. The trial court read the jury instructions, and plaintiffs’ counsel began his closing argument. He had this to say about the release: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent [*8] risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

At the beginning of the afternoon session, before defendant’s closing argument, the trial court and counsel met again outside the jurors’ presence to discuss the stipulation concerning the release. Plaintiffs’ counsel maintained the jury should not hear about the stipulation. When the trial court repeated its concern the jury could “end up finding that the release was not valid” and invited counsel to revisit the special verdict form, plaintiffs’ counsel replied there was no need as “the release in evidence releases
negligence. And the questions on the verdict form
go [] to gross negligence, and—this doesn’t have to do with the release, but the increase of unreasonable risk.” Defendant’s counsel remarked the “dialogue this morning, your Honor, was prompted in part by the plaintiffs’ desire not to have to modify further the special verdict form.” Plaintiffs’ counsel concurred: “Right.” Counsel then agreed the stipulation would not be read to the jury.

Closing arguments continued. Defendant’s counsel did not mention the release in his closing argument. [*9]  Neither did plaintiffs’ counsel in his rebuttal argument. There, he referred to the special verdict form and told the jurors, “[a]t the end of the day, it’s a simple exercise. That jury form . . . . [¶] . . . If you perceive wrong on the part of [defendant], you tick those two boxes. And there’s two of them—you tick them both. Procedurally, you tick the one about increased unreasonable risk, and then you tick the one about gross negligence. If you perceive wrong, that’s what you do.”

The jury was never told the release provided a complete defense to defendant’s ordinary negligence.

IV.

The Special Verdict

As to defendant, the special verdict form included three liability questions, three damages questions, and three comparative fault/apportionment of liability questions. The liability questions read as follows:

“3. Did Heavenly Valley do something or fail to do something that unreasonably increased the risks to Dana Tuttle over and above those inherent in the sport of skiing?

“Yes X No __

“4. Was Heavenly Valley grossly negligent in doing something or failing to do something that caused harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes __ No X

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to either question 3 or 4, then answer question [*10]  5. [¶] If you answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, and also answered ‘No’ to either question 1 or 2, then sign and return this verdict form. You do not need to answer any more questions.

“If you answered ‘Yes’ to both questions 1 and 2, and answered ‘No’ to both questions 3 and 4, insert the number ‘0’ next to Heavenly Valley’s name in question 11, skip question 5, and answer questions 6-11.

“5. Was Heavenly Valley’s conduct a substantial factor in causing harm to Dana Tuttle?

“Yes X No __”

Because the jury answered “yes” to question 5, it was instructed to answer the remaining questions. The jury determined plaintiffs’ damages were $2,131,831, with Tuttle and defendant sharing equal responsibility.

Immediately after polling the jurors, the trial court asked plaintiffs’ counsel to prepare the judgment and submit it the next morning. The trial court then thanked and discharged the jury without objection from trial counsel. No one noted on the record that express assumption of the risk was a complete defense to the jury’s verdict.

V.

Entry of a Defense Judgment

At the trial court’s direction, plaintiffs’ counsel prepared a proposed judgment awarding plaintiffs $1,065,915.50, plus costs and [*11] interest. Defendant objected on the basis the jury found defendant was not grossly negligent and the release provided “a complete and total defense to this entire lawsuit and Plaintiffs should take nothing.”6

After briefing and a hearing, the trial court sustained defendant’s objection to plaintiffs’ proposed judgment. In its March 9, 2018 order, the trial court reiterated its finding as a matter of law that Tuttle’s release “clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly released defendant from future liability for any negligence against Dana Tuttle.” The trial court explained its earlier finding concerning the scope of the release still left open fact questions as to whether Tuttle knowingly accepted the release agreement and, if she did, whether defendant acted with gross negligence. With the parties’ stipulation that Tuttle knowingly executed the release and the jury’s factual finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence, the trial court further explained there was only one legal conclusion: “[D]efendant has prevailed on the express assumption issue and ‘negate[d] the defendant’s duty of care, an element of the plaintiff’s case.'”

The trial court acknowledged “the structure” of [*12] the special verdict form erroneously directed the jury to continue to answer questions on damages after finding defendant had not been grossly negligent. The trial court found, however, the jury’s specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence was not inconsistent with, but instead overrode, the award of damages.

The trial court did not invite defendant to file a motion for JNOV or call for the filing of such a motion on its own initiative. Instead, it entered judgment in favor of defendant.

VI.

Plaintiffs’ Post judgment Motions

The defense judgment reiterated the jury’s special verdict findings and stated in relevant part: “It appearing that by reason of those special verdicts, and the Court’s interpretation of the terms of the legal contract in Decedent Dana Tuttle’s season ski pass agreement, and [the] legal conclusions as set forth in that certain Order entered on March 9, 2018, Defendants Heavenly Valley L.P., and Anthony Slater are entitled to judgment on Plaintiffs’ complaint.” (Some capitalization omitted.)

Plaintiffs filed a motion to set aside the judgment under Code of Civil Procedure section 663 on the ground the judgment was not consistent with the special verdict and adversely affected plaintiffs’ [*13] substantial rights. Plaintiffs also filed a motion for JNOV or, in the alternative, a new trial, on the grounds there was insufficient evidence defendant had not acted with gross negligence,7 the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” because the jury’s gross negligence finding imposed no liability, but its apportionment of fault between Tuttle and defendant did, and defendant invited errors.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ post judgment motions. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Release Covered Tuttle’s Accident.

The trial court found as a matter of law that defendant’s release was not ambiguous and covered Tuttle’s accident. Our review of the release is de novo. (Paralift, Inc. v. Superior Court (1993) 23 Cal.App.4th 748, 754, 29 Cal. Rptr. 2d 177.) No extrinsic evidence concerning the meaning of the release was presented in the trial court, so “the scope of a release is determined by [its] express language.” (Benedek v. PLC Santa Monica (2002) 104 Cal.App.4th 1351, 1357, 129 Cal. Rptr. 2d 197 (Benedek).)

Rather than a straightforward argument the trial court erred as a matter of law in interpreting the release, plaintiffs contend the release was narrow in scope and applied only to risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing. But a release that applies only to the inherent risks of a sport is the legal equivalent of no release at all. [*14]  (Cohen v. Five Brooks Stable (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1476, 1490, 72 Cal. Rptr. 3d 471 (Cohen); Zipusch v. LA Workout, Inc. (2007) 155 Cal.App.4th 1281, 1291, 66 Cal. Rptr. 3d 704 (Zipusch).) To understand the distinction, we detour briefly to discuss the doctrines of implied and express assumption of the risk.

A.

Overview: Assumption of the Risk

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696 (Knight)8 and its progeny have established that a ski resort operator is not liable for injuries caused by risks inherent in the sport of snow skiing.9 Instead, pursuant to the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, participants in active sports assume responsibility for injuries sustained as a result of the sport’s inherent risks. (Id. at p. 321.) Stated another way, the defendant owes no duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the inherent risks of an active sport. (Allan v. Snow Summit, Inc. (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1358, 1367, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 813 (Allan).) Because no duty of care is owed and the plaintiff has assumed the risk of injury, no release is necessary to absolve a defendant of liability when a plaintiff is injured as the result of an inherent risk in an active sport such as skiing.

A ski resort operator “still owe[s] a duty, however, not to increase the risks of injury beyond those that are inherent in the sport. This distinction is closely tied to the policy underlying the finding of no duty, i.e., there should be no liability imposed [*15]  which would chill normal participation or fundamentally alter the nature of the sport, but liability may be appropriate where the risk is not ‘inherent’ in the sport.” (Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367, italics omitted.) This is the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk, and it is an exception to the complete defense of primary assumption of risk. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 308.)

Comparative fault principles apply in secondary assumption of the risk cases. The trier of fact considers the “plaintiff’s voluntary action in choosing to engage in an unusually risky sport, whether or not the plaintiff’s decision to encounter the risk should be characterized as unreasonable” and weighs it against the defendant’s breach of the duty not to increase the risks beyond those inherent in the active sport. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 314.) Where a plaintiff’s “injury has been caused by both a defendant’s breach of a legal duty to the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s voluntary decision to engage in an unusually risky sport, application of comparative fault principles will not operate to relieve either individual of responsibility for his or her actions, but rather will ensure that neither party will escape such responsibility.” (Ibid.; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1367.)

A different analysis applies when a skier [*16] signs a written release that expressly holds the ski operator harmless for its own negligence. This triggers the doctrine of express assumption of the risk. Unlike secondary assumption of the risk, but like primary assumption of the risk, the doctrine of express assumption of the risk provides a complete defense in a negligence action.

However, unlike both implied primary and secondary assumption of the risk, which focus on risks inherent in an active sport like skiing, express assumption of the risk focuses on the agreement itself. A valid release “operates to relieve the defendant of a legal duty to the plaintiff with respect to the risks encompassed by the agreement and, where applicable, to bar completely the plaintiff’s cause of action.” (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4, italics added.) The legal issue in an express assumption of the risk case “‘is not whether the particular risk of injury appellant suffered is inherent in the recreational activity to which the Release applies [citations], but simply the scope of the Release.'” (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Additionally, a plaintiff does not need to have “‘specific knowledge of the particular risk that ultimately caused the injury. [Citation.] If a release of all liability is given, the [*17] release applies to any negligence of the defendant [so long as the negligent act that results in injury is] “‘reasonably related to the object or purpose for which the release is given.'” [Citation.]’ [Citation.] As we have said, ‘[t]he issue is not whether the particular risk of injury is inherent in the recreational activity to which the release applies, but rather the scope of the release.'” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1485; see Allan, supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1374 [courts will enforce a skier’s agreement “to ‘shoulder the risk’ that otherwise might have been placed” on the ski resort operator].)

There is an outer limit to the scope of a release from liability for one’s own negligence in the recreational sports context: As a matter of public policy, if a skier proves the operator unreasonably increased the inherent risks to the level of gross negligence, express assumption of the risk is no longer a viable defense; and the operator will be liable for damages notwithstanding the existence of a valid release of liability for ordinary negligence. (See City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 777, 62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095 (Santa Barbara).)

To recap, snow skiing has inherent risks, and a ski operator does not owe skiers any duty to protect against them. If a skier is injured as a result of a risk inherent in the sport, [*18] the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk provides a complete defense to a lawsuit against the ski operator. But a ski resort operator owes a duty not to unreasonably increase the risks beyond those inherent in the sport. If a ski operator breaches this duty, the doctrine of secondary assumption of the risk makes the ski resort liable to an injured skier on a comparative fault basis. If the skier executes a release that absolves the ski resort operator of liability for the operator’s negligence, the release is a complete defense, provided the ski operator did not act with gross negligence. That is to say, the ski operator is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the skier has signed a valid release and the ski operator’s conduct, although negligent, was not grossly negligent.

B.

Analysis

The parties stipulated Tuttle executed the release with full knowledge of its content; consequently, the validity of the release is not before us. The jury unanimously agreed defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence, and plaintiffs do not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support that finding; thus, no public policy considerations preclude its enforcement. Our only [*19] concern is “‘whether the release in this case negated the duty element of plaintiffs’ causes of action.'” (Eriksson v. Nunnink (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 708, 719, 183 Cal. Rptr. 3d 234.) If so, it applied to any ordinary negligence by defendant. (Benedek, supra, 104 Cal.App.4th at p. 1357.)

Defendant’s release did precisely that. Tuttle assumed “ALL RISKS associated with [skiing], known or unknown, inherent or otherwise.” She also agreed not to sue defendant and to release it “FROM ALL LIABILITY . . . BASED ON [DEFENDANT’S] ALLEGED OR ACTUAL NEGLIGENCE.” No more was required.

Defendant’s use of the phrase, “inherent or otherwise” did not create any ambiguity or confusion. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has recognized, “[t]he term ‘otherwise,’ when ‘paired with an adjective or adverb to indicate its contrary’ . . . is best understood to mean ‘NOT.’ Webster’s Third New Int’l. Dictionary 1598 (2002). The plain language and meaning of the phrases therefore reflect a clear intent to cover risks that are not inherent to skiing.” (Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc. (10th Cir. 2018) 883 F.3d 1243, 1256-1257.)

Plaintiffs’ contention that defendant’s release “bears many similarities to the release” in Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th 1476 misses the mark. The plaintiff in Cohen fell from a rented horse on a guided trail ride. She sued the stable, alleging its employee, the trail guide, negligently [*20]  and “unexpectedly provoke[d] a horse to bolt and run without warning” (id. at p. 1492), causing her to lose control of her horse (id. at p. 1482). The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on the plaintiff’s written agreement “‘to assume responsibility for the risks identified herein and those risks not specifically identified.'” (Id. at p. 1486, italics omitted.)

The Court of Appeal reversed. The Cohen majority noted “the trial court apparently granted summary judgment on the theory that the risks ‘not specifically identified’ in the Release include the risk that misconduct of respondent or its employee might increase a risk inherent in horseback riding.” (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1486-1487, italics omitted.) This interpretation was erroneous because the stable’s agreement did not explicitly advise that the plaintiff was releasing the defendant from liability for the defendant’s negligence. Although a release is not required to use “the word ‘negligence‘ or any particular verbiage . . . [it] must inform the releasor that it applies to misconduct on the part of the releasee.” (Id. at pp. 1488-1489.) The release in Cohen used the word “negligence” only once, in reference to the plaintiff’s negligence, not that of the defendant. The stable’s release [*21] also did not “indicate that it covers any and all injuries arising out of or connected with the use of respondent’s facilities.” (Id. at p. 1489.)

Having found the release ineffective to trigger the doctrine of express assumption of the risk, the Cohen majority turned to the doctrines of implied assumption of the risk, i.e., it focused on the inherent risks of horseback riding. Summary judgment could not be granted on that basis, either, because a triable issue of fact existed as to whether the trail guide acted recklessly and increased the inherent risks of a guided horseback ride. (Cohen, supra, 159 Cal.App.4th at p. 1494-1495.)

Here, in contrast, Tuttle assumed all risks associated with her use of defendant’s facilities and expressly released defendant from all liability for its negligence. That language applied to ordinary negligence by defendant and provided a complete defense to plaintiffs’ lawsuit, so long as defendant’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 308-309, fn. 4.)

The release in Zipusch, supra, 155 Cal.App.4th 1281 mirrors the one in Cohen, but not the one in this case. As in Cohen, the plaintiff in Zipusch did not agree to assume the risk of negligence by the defendant gym. Accordingly, the agreement was ineffective as an express release; and the issue for the Court [*22]  of Appeal was whether the plaintiff’s injury was the result of an inherent risk of exercising in a gym, in which case the primary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply, or whether it was the result of the gym increasing the inherent risks of exercise, in which case the secondary assumption of the risk doctrine would apply. (Id. at pp. 1291-1292.)

Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th 11 is instructive. Plaintiffs cite Hass in their opening brief, but do not attempt to distinguish it, even though the release in Hass is similar to the one Tuttle signed. The analysis in Hass applies in this case.

In Hass, the plaintiffs’ decedent suffered a fatal cardiac arrest after finishing a half marathon organized and sponsored by the defendant. His heirs sued for wrongful death. The Court of Appeal held that cardiac arrest is an inherent risk of running a race, but a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the defendant acted with gross negligence in failing to provide timely and adequate emergency medical services. (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 18.)

Addressing the release, Hass held: “By signing the Release in the instant case, we conclude that [the decedent] intended both to assume all risks associated with his participation in the race, up to and including the risk [*23]  of death, and to release [the defendant] (on behalf of himself and his heirs) from any and all liability with respect to any injuries he might suffer as a result of his participation. This was sufficient to block the [plaintiffs’] wrongful death claim for ordinary negligence.”10 (Hass, supra, 26 Cal.App.5th at p. 27.)

Our independent examination of defendant’s release convinces us Tuttle assumed all risks that might arise from skiing at defendant’s resort, including risks created by defendant’s ordinary negligence. With a valid release and no gross negligence by defendant, the issue of inherent risk was no longer relevant. (Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 344, 353, 235 Cal. Rptr. 3d 716 [where the doctrine of express assumption of risk applies, implied assumption of the risk is no longer considered].)

II.

Enforcement of the Release Does not Violate California’s Public Policy.

Plaintiffs next argue the release‘s exculpatory language violates California’s public policy. The linchpin of their argument is that defendant’s act of unreasonably increasing the inherent risk of an active sport was neither ordinary negligence nor gross negligence, but a separate category of “aggravated” negligence.

Plaintiffs argue Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th 747 “left open the question of whether public policy precludes the contractual release [*24]  of other forms of ‘aggravated’ misconduct, in addition to gross negligence.” (Some capitalization omitted.) The argument is raised for the first time on appeal; it has no merit.

In Santa Barbara, a parent signed an agreement releasing the defendants from liability for “‘any negligent act'” related to her child’s participation in summer camp. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 750.) The child drowned. (Ibid.) The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the release, and the appellate court denied defendants’ petition for writ of mandate challenging that ruling. (Id. at p. 753.) The sole issue before the Supreme Court was “whether a release of liability relating to recreational activities generally is effective as to gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 750.)

The defendants argued California law, specifically Civil Code section 1668,11 impliedly allowed recreational activity releases to be enforced against a claim of gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762-763.) At the time, no published California decision “voided[] an agreement purporting to release liability for future gross negligence.” (Id. at p. 758.) The Santa Barbara majority turned to out-of-state authorities and rejected the defendants’ position based on public policy principles. (Id. at pp. 760-762.)

References in Santa Barbara to “aggravated [*25]  wrongs” (a term used by Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts (5th ed. 1984) § 68, p. 484) (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at pp. 762, 765, 776) and “aggravated misconduct” (id. at pp. 760, 762, 777, fn. 54) do not suggest a new species of negligence that might affect a liability release for recreational activities. Rather, those phrases encompassed misconduct that included gross negligence and willful acts. (Id. at p. 754, fn. 4.) As the majority held, “the distinction between ‘ordinary and gross negligence‘ reflects ‘a rule of policy’ that harsher legal consequences should flow when negligence is aggravated instead of merely ordinary.” (Id. at p. 776.) With a valid release, “a theory of gross negligence, if supported by evidence showing the existence of a triable issue, is the only negligence-based theory that is potentially open to [the] plaintiffs.” (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.)

Here, no public policy considerations preclude the enforcement of defendant’s recreational activity release that exculpated it from liability for its own ordinary negligence. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 309, fn. 4.)

III.

The Trial Court did not Err by Entering Judgment in Favor of Defendant.

Plaintiffs argue the trial court should have entered judgment in their favor regardless of the jury’s finding concerning gross negligence because the jury made findings on damages and apportioned fault [*26] between Tuttle and defendant. They contend the responsibility to seek a JNOV or some other post judgment remedy should have fallen to defendant, not plaintiffs. But once the trial court determined the special verdict was not inconsistent and Tuttle’s express release provided a complete defense as a matter of law, entry of a defense judgment was proper. Even if the trial court erred in entering a defense judgment without a formal motion for JNOV, any error was harmless.

A.

Legal Principles Governing Special Verdicts

A special verdict must include “conclusions of fact as established by the evidence . . . [so] that nothing shall remain to the Court but to draw from them conclusions of law.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 624.) A special verdict is not a judgment. (Goodman v. Lozano (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1327, 1331-1332, 104 Cal. Rptr. 3d 219, 223 P.3d 77.) If a special verdict includes findings on inconsistent theories, the findings on the legal theory that does not control the outcome of the litigation “may be disregarded as surplusage.” (Baird v. Ocequeda (1937) 8 Cal.2d 700, 703, 67 P.2d 1055.) Additionally, “where no objection is made before the jury is discharged, it falls to ‘the trial judge to interpret the verdict from its language considered in connection with the pleadings, evidence and instructions.'” (Woodcock v. Fontana Scaffolding & Equip. Co. (1968) 69 Cal.2d 452, 456-457, 72 Cal. Rptr. 217, 445 P.2d 881; see Zagami, Inc. v. James A. Crone, Inc. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 1083, 1091-1092, 74 Cal. Rptr. 3d 235.)

B.

The Trial Court’s Ruling

As noted, the jury [*27] was discharged before the parties raised an issue concerning the special verdict form and the jury’s findings. The trial court recognized and fulfilled its duty to interpret the special verdict: “After [this] court rejected several unilateral proposals, the parties stipulated to a special verdict form. . . . But they did so before the court construed the release in response to defendant’s nonsuit motion and before the parties stipulated Ms. Tuttle entered into the release. [¶] Thus, the form presented only two questions addressing the assumption of the risk. Question #3 asked whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of skiing. Question #4 asked whether defendant acted with gross negligence. [¶] The answer ‘NO’ to either Question #3 or #4 exonerates defendant. Answering ‘No’ to Question #3 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the primary assumption defense. Answering “NO’ to Question #4 would foreclose the only relevant exception to the express assumption defense. [¶] But the form allowed the jurors to answer ‘YES’ to one question and ‘NO’ to [the] other one and continue to answer questions, including determining and allocating damages.” (Italics and bold [*28] omitted.)

The trial court further explained: “Here, the specific finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence controls over the general award of damages. The jury was properly instructed with the definition of gross negligence. The jury received percipient and expert testimony that, if credited, showed defendant did not act with gross negligence. The parties argued whether defendant [did] or did not act with gross negligence. The answer ‘NO’ to Question #4 unambiguously shows the jury found defendant did not act with gross negligence. That resolved the only factual question on the express assumption issue in favor of defendant. [¶] . . . [¶] The award of damages is not a hopeless inconsistency so much as it is mere surplusage once the court honors the jury’s unambiguous finding that defendant acted without gross negligence and draws the legal conclusion—a conclusion that [the] jury was not asked to draw—that the release covers these claims and effects an express assumption of the risk.”

The trial court also correctly concluded the “jury’s findings on Question[] #3 and Question #4 [were not] irreconcilable. The concept of unreasonably increasing inherent risks is distinct [*29] from the concept of gross negligence. In a particular case, the same facts that show an unreasonable increase in the inherent risks may also show gross negligence. [Citation.] Overlap is possible, [but not] necessary. In this case, the jury found no such overlap. There is no inconsistency in defendant losing on the primary assumption issue but prevailing on the express assumption issue. And that, after five weeks of trial, is what happened here.”

C.

Analysis

A validly executed express release of liability for a defendant’s ordinary negligence means the only viable theory for a judgment in a plaintiff’s favor is if the defendant acted with gross negligence. (Santa Barbara, supra, 41 Cal.4th at p. 781.) There is no inconsistency between findings that a defendant is ordinarily negligent by unreasonably increasing the inherent risks of snow skiing, but not grossly negligent. A finding of gross negligence would necessarily mean a defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risks of snow skiing, so that comparative fault principles apply. But an express release, coupled with an undisputed factual finding that a defendant did not act with gross negligence, necessarily results in a defense judgment. Accordingly, Question No. 3 concerning [*30] whether defendant unreasonably increased the inherent risk should have been removed from the special verdict form.

Also, the special verdict form should have instructed the jury that if it found defendant was not grossly negligent, it should not answer the remaining questions. The jury’s compliance with the trial court’s instructions and consequent damages-related findings were surplusage, but did not create an inconsistency with its finding that defendant did not act with gross negligence. The trial court correctly entered judgment in favor of defendant based on the dispositive finding of no gross negligence. The trial court’s explanation of its ruling demonstrates the trial court’s application of the correct legal principles in doing so.

In their appellate opening brief, plaintiffs argue defendant forfeited any objection to the special verdict form because it (1) failed to object to the special verdict before the jury was discharged; (2) invited the erroneous instructions in the special verdict form because it had participated in drafting it; and (3) failed to bring “a statutorily authorized post-trial motion” challenging the special verdict form. Although the special verdict form [*31] should have been amended before deliberations, there is no issue of forfeiture or invited error on defendant’s part.

The parties jointly agreed on the wording of the special verdict form. Any fault in the drafting cannot be assigned to one side over the other, and all parties bear responsibility for the erroneous directions in the stipulated special verdict form. Nothing in the record suggests the special verdict form or the objection to entry of a plaintiffs’ judgment was the product of gamesmanship. (See Lambert v. General Motors (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1179, 1183, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 657.)

Additionally, plaintiffs’ trial strategy to stipulate to Tuttle’s knowing execution of the release was wise: Evidence Tuttle understood the release was overwhelming. As part of the discussion pertaining to the parties’ stipulation, however, both the trial court and defendant’s trial counsel questioned the adequacy of the special verdict form. But plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained the special verdict form was fine “as is” and persuasively argued against making any changes or advising the jury of the stipulation. This meant the doctrine of implied secondary assumption of the risk was not relevant unless the jury found defendant acted with gross negligence.

We agree the procedural [*32] aspects surrounding the entry of the defense judgment on what appeared to be a plaintiffs’ verdict were unconventional; but the bottom line is once the jury found no gross negligence, defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Under these circumstances, it would have been a waste of resources to require defendant, or the trial court on its own initiative, to formally notice a motion for JNOV (Code Civ. Proc., § 629, subd. (a)).

Even if we found the procedure to have been erroneous, the error would have been procedural, not substantive; and, plaintiffs have not demonstrated the likelihood of a different outcome. (See Webb v. Special Electric, Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, 179, 202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 460, 370 P.3d 1022 [because the defendant “did not have a complete defense as a matter of law, the entry of JNOV was unjustified [on the merits]. In light of this conclusion, we need not reach plaintiffs’ claims of procedural error”].) Defendant had a complete defense; there is no reasonable probability the trial court would have denied a formal JNOV motion.

Plaintiffs argue they relied on the state of the special verdict form in making the decision to stipulate to the validity of the release agreement. Plaintiffs suggest defendant, by agreeing to the special verdict form, tacitly stipulated to a deviation from [*33] the applicable law to allow plaintiffs to recover damages based solely on a finding defendant had unreasonably increased the inherent risk, notwithstanding the existence of a valid, applicable release. Such an argument is without support in the law. It is also belied by the record. As already discussed, both defendant’s counsel and the trial court raised questions concerning the special verdict form once the parties stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel maintained there should be no changes in the jury instructions or the special verdict form.

IV.

Plaintiffs are not Entitled to a New Trial.

Plaintiffs argued in their motion for new trial that the special verdict was “hopelessly contradictory” and, consequently, against the law. Plaintiffs also asserted there were errors in the special verdict form, they “excepted to” those errors, but then were penalized because “the jury’s finding of unreasonably increased inherent risk has ex post facto been deemed insufficient to impose liability on Defendant Heavenly Valley.” Although plaintiffs did not claim instructional error in the trial court, they complained the modified version of CACI No. 431,12 to which they agreed, [*34]  misled the jurors into thinking they could find defendant liable if they found it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of skiing or if they found it acted with gross negligence.

On appeal, plaintiffs ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion for a new trial. They fail to cite applicable authorities to support their arguments. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.204(a)(1)(B).) Instead, they contend “the trial court changed the rules of the game only after the game had already been played, leaving the parties and their counsel without the opportunity to satisfy those new rules, and robbing the jury of the ability to assess all viable liability options.” Plaintiffs add they stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release “in reliance on the wording of the then existing Special Verdict form, which . . . made clear that a finding of gross negligence was only one of two disjunctive liability paths, and was not necessary to impose liability against Heavenly. As a consequence, [plaintiffs] . . . were . . . induced into a stipulation concerning that issue in light of the wording of the existing Special Verdict form, an unfair sequence which the trial court itself acknowledged worked against [plaintiffs].” This characterization [*35] misstates the record.

First, the trial court made legal rulings throughout trial when called upon to do so. The trial court did not change any of its pronouncements of law after the trial concluded. The record shows the trial court gave the parties every opportunity to revisit the jury instructions and special verdict form before they were given to the jury.

Second, although the trial court described the sequence of events, it did not suggest the events were unfair or “worked against” plaintiffs. As discussed ante, when the trial court denied defendant’s renewed motion for nonsuit, it advised counsel the jury must decide whether Tuttle actually executed the release. Because neither side proposed jury instructions or questions on the special verdict form addressing the issue of contract formation, defendant’s counsel suggested they should revisit both the jury instructions and the special verdict form. Plaintiffs’ trial counsel immediately stipulated to Tuttle’s execution of the release and advised he would “proceed with the verdict form as is.” This statement calls into question plaintiffs’ claim they were induced into entering into the stipulation.

Third—and significantly—plaintiffs’ [*36] counsel did not discuss disjunctive liability paths in his closing arguments. Instead, plaintiffs’ counsel focused on the evidence and urged the jury to find gross negligence: “What we’re talking about here, the liability of the resort does not fall under this release. And you are not going to be asked any questions on the verdict form about the release. Yeah, [Tuttle] signed one, and she understood the inherent risks of skiing, and that’s what the release
releases. It does not release gross negligence. It does not release what we’re talking about.”

The jury unanimously found defendant did not act with gross negligence. The jury’s function is to make ultimate findings of fact, and it is the trial court’s responsibility to apply the law to the relevant findings of fact. Nothing in the special verdict form misled the jury with regard to the factors it should consider in making any particular finding. We conclude the trial court correctly applied the law and entered judgment accordingly.

DISPOSITION

The judgment and post judgment orders are affirmed. Respondents shall recover costs on appeal.

DUNNING, J.*

WE CONCUR:

BEDSWORTH, ACTING P. J.

MOORE, J.

 


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.

The Federal District Court in this case used the language of the lift ticket to support the defendant ski area’s motion for summary judgment. The decision  also says the release is valid for lift accidents in Colorado closing one of the last gaps in suits against ski areas in Colorado.

Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

State: Colorado, United States District Court for the District of Colorado

Plaintiff: Sally Rumpf & Louis Rumpf

Defendant: Sunlight, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligence, negligence per se, and loss of consortium

Defendant Defenses: (1) they are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket; (2) they fail for a lack of expert testimony; and (3) that Sally Rumpf
was negligent per se under the Ski Safety Act. 

Holding: for the Defendant 

Year: 2016 

The plaintiff traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit family and ski. She rented equipment from the
defendant ski area, Ski Sunlight and purchased a lift ticket. As required to rent the ski equipment, the plaintiff signed a release. 

While attempting to board a chair lift, the plaintiff injured her shoulder. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted with this decision. 

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

In the statement of the facts, the court quoted from the language on the lift ticket.

Holder understands that he/she is responsible for using the ski area safely and for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. Holder agrees to read and understand all signage and instructions and agrees to comply with them. Holder understands that he/she must control his/her speed and course at all times and maintain a proper lookout. Holder understands that snowmobiles, snowcats, and snowmaking may be encountered at any time. In consideration of using the premises, Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property. Holder agrees that any and all disputes between Holder and the Ski Area regarding an alleged incident shall be governed by COLORADO LAW  and EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION shall be in the State or Federal Courts of the State of Colorado.

What is interesting is the Colorado Skier Safety Act, C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107(8)(b) requires specific language to be on the lift ticket.

WARNING

Under Colorado law, a skier assumes the risk of any injury to person or property resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and may not recover from any ski area operator for any injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.

It is unclear from the decision, and I do not have a copy of the Ski Sunlight lift ticket, to know if the required language is on the lift ticket. However, the language that was on the lift ticket was important and used by the court to make its decision.

The language required by the Colorado Skier Safety Act speaks to the risks assumed by a skier while skiing and does not speak to any risks of a chair lift. This creates an obvious conflict in the law for a ski area. Do you use the language required by the statute or use different language that a federal judge has said was  instructive in stopping the claims of a plaintiff. 

The court found the plaintiff had read and understood the release and knew she was bound by it. The plaintiff’s argument centered on the theory that the release did not cover lift accidents based on a prior case, Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70 (1998). That case held that a ski area owes the highest degree of care to skiers on the lift. 

Plaintiffs further argue that the exculpatory language at issue is “only applicable to ski cases when the accident or injury occurs while the plaintiff is skiing or snowboarding on the slopes,” and not when loading the ski lift. 

The Bayer decision changed the liability issues for Colorado Ski Areas. It also created the only gap in  protection for Colorado Ski Areas between the Colorado Skier Safety Act and release law. However, this was significantly modified by Brigance v. Vail Summit Resorts, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31662, reviewed in Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard?

The court then reviewed the requirements under Colorado law for releases to be valid. 

Exculpatory agreements, which attempt to insulate a party from liability for its own negligence, are generally recognized under Colorado law, but are construed narrowly and “closely scrutinized” to ensure that the agreement was fairly entered into and that the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Additionally, the  terms of exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed against the drafter. 

The court reiterated several times that it was the intent of the parties within the language of the release that was the important aspect of the release, more than the specific language of the release. This intent was  supported by the language on the lift ticket. Colorado has a 4 factor test to determine the validity of a release. 

…in determining the validity of an exculpatory agreement, the Court must consider the following factors: (1) whether the service provided involves a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service provided; (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. 

Skiing in Colorado is recreational and not a service, so there is no public duty that would void a release. Because it is a service, and the plaintiff is free to go ski else where there is no adhesion so the agreement was entered into by the parties fairly. 

Adhesion was defined by the court in Colorado as:

…Colorado defines an adhesion contract as “generally not bargained for, but imposed on the public for a necessary  service on a take it or leave it basis.” However, printed form contracts offered on a take it or leave it basis, alone, do not render the agreement an adhesion contract.

For the plaintiff to win her argument, the plaintiff must show “, “that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation, or that [the] services could not be obtained elsewhere.”

The court then applied contract law to determine if the agreement was ambiguous.

“Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.” Under Colorado law, I must examine the actual language of the agreements for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions.

The court in reviewing the release found the release to clearly and unambiguously set forth the party’s intent to release the ski area from liability.

The court again backed up its decision by referring to the language on the lift ticket. 

Furthermore, the ski lift ticket specifically references safely loading, riding and unloading Sunlight’s ski lifts and provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property.” 

As such the release was valid and stopped the claims of the plaintiff and her spouse.

So Now What?

Although the basics of the decision are familiar under Colorado law, the court’s reference to the language on the lift ticket is a departure from Colorado law and the law of most other states. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states

Whether or not a lift ticket standing by itself is enough to stop a claim is still in the air and probably will be. The language on this lift ticket may have been different than the language required by law, which basically states the skier assumes the risk of skiing. The required statutory language does not cover any issues with loading, unloading or riding chair lifts. 

This creates a major conflict for ski areas. What do you put on the lift ticket. The statute requires specific language; however, there are no penalties for failing to put the language on the lift ticket. However, it is negligence to violate any part of the statute, if that negligence caused an injury. 

C.R.S. §§ 33-44-104. Negligence – civil actions.

(1) A violation of any requirement of this article shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of the person violating such requirement.

(2) A violation by a ski area operator of any requirement of this article or any rule or regulation promulgated by the passenger tramway safety board pursuant to section 25-5-704 (1) (a), C.R.S., shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of such operator.

Failing to put the language on the lift ticket by itself could not cause an injury. The language required on the lift ticket is the same language required to be posted where ever lift tickets are sold and posted at the bottom of all base area lifts. Base area lifts are the lifts used to get up the mountain. Lifts that start further up the mountain, which require a lift right to reach don’t need the warning signs. 

My advice is to include the statutory language and much of the language of this decision on lift tickets. You just don’t want to walk into a courtroom and be accused of failing to follow the law. You might be right, but you will look bad and looking bad is the first step in writing a check. The biggest limitation is going to be the size of the lift ticket and print size.

This case, although decided before Question answered; Colorado Premises Liability Act supersedes Colorado Ski Area Safety act. Standard of care owed skiers on chairlift’s reasonable man standard? and was quoted in this decision, it adds another block into what is now an almost impregnable wall against claims from skiers in Colorado.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

Rumpf v. Sunlight, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107946

Sally Rumpf & Louis Rumpf, Plaintiffs, v. Sunlight, Inc., Defendant.

Civil Action No. 14-cv-03328-WYD-KLM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLORADO

August 3, 2016, Decided

August 3, 2016, Filed

CORE TERMS: exculpatory, ski lift, rental agreement, lift tickets, ski, summary judgment, sports, recreational, snow, service provided, ski area, loading, skiing, language contained, unambiguous language, adhesion contract, unambiguously, exculpation, bargaining, equipment rental, loss of consortium, negligence claims, collectively, safely, riding, Ski Safety Act, question of law, ski resort, standard of care, moving party

COUNSEL: [*1] For Sally Rumpf, Louis Rumpf, Plaintiffs: Michael Graves Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, LLC, Denver, CO USA.

For Sunlight, Inc., Defendant: Jacqueline Ventre Roeder, Jordan Lee Lipp, Davis Graham & Stubbs, LLP-Denver, Denver, CO USA.

JUDGES: Wiley Y. Daniel, Senior United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Wiley Y. Daniel

OPINION

ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION AND RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This matter is before the Court on the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 39) and the response and reply to the motion. For the reasons stated below, Defendant’s motion is granted.

I have reviewed the record and the parties’ respective submissions, and I find the following facts to be undisputed, or if disputed, I resolve them in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs.

On December 24, 2012, Plaintiffs Sally Rumpf and her husband Louis Rumpf traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit family and go skiing. On December 27, 2012, Plaintiffs went to Sunlight, a ski resort near Glenwood Springs. Prior to skiing, Plaintiffs rented ski equipment from Sunlight. As part of the ski rental, the Plaintiffs each executed a release, which provides in pertinent part:

I understand that the sports of skiing, snowboarding, skiboarding, [*2] snowshoeing and other sports (collectively “RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS”) involve inherent and other risks of INJURY and DEATH. I voluntarily agree to expressly assume all risks of injury or death that may result from these RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS, or which relate in any way to the use of this equipment.

* * *

I AGREE TO RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS the equipment rental facility, its employees, owners, affiliates, agents, officers, directors, and the equipment manufacturers and distributors and their successors in interest (collectively “PROVIDERS”), from all liability for injury, death, property loss and damage which results from the equipment user’s participation in the RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS for which the equipment is provided, or which is related in any way to the use of this equipment, including all liability which results from the NEGLIGENCE of PROVIDERS, or any other person or cause.

I further agree to defend and indemnify PROVIDERS for any loss or damage, including any that results from claims or lawsuits for personal injury, death, and property loss and damage related in any way to the use of this equipment.

This agreement is governed by the applicable law of this state or province. [*3] If any provision of this agreement is determined to be unenforceable, all other provisions shall be given full force and effect.

I THE UNDERSIGNED, HAVE READ AND UNDERSTAND THIS EQUIPMENT RENTAL & LIABILITY RELEASE AGREEMENT.

(ECF No. 39, Ex. 2) (emphasis in original).

The Plaintiffs also purchased lift tickets from Sunlight, which included the following release language:

Holder understands that he/she is responsible for using the ski area safely and for having the physical dexterity to safely load, ride and unload the lifts. Holder agrees to read and understand all signage and instructions and agrees to comply with them. Holder understands that he/she must control his/her speed and course at all times and maintain a proper lookout. Holder understands that snowmobiles, snowcats, and snowmaking may be encountered at any time. In consideration of using the premises, Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property. Holder agrees that any and all disputes between Holder and the Ski Area regarding an alleged incident shall be governed by COLORADO LAW and EXCLUSIVE JURISDICTION [*4] shall be in the State or Federal Courts of the State of Colorado. …

(ECF No. 39, Ex. 4) (emphasis in original).

Plaintiff Sally Rumpf injured her shoulder when she attempted to board the Segundo chairlift at Sunlight. Plaintiffs Sally and Louis Rumpf bring this action against Defendant Sunlight alleging claims of negligence, negligence per se, and loss of consortium. (Compl. ¶¶ 21-35).1

1 Plaintiff Sally Rumpf asserts the two negligence claims while Plaintiff Louis Rumpf asserts the loss of consortium claim.

The Defendant moves for summary judgment on all three claims, arguing that (1) they are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket; (2) they fail for a lack of expert testimony; and (3) that Sally Rumpf was negligent per se under the Ski Safety Act.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may grant summary judgment where “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the … moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986); Equal Employment Opportunity Comm. v. Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp., 220 F.3d 1184, 1190 (10th Cir. 2000). “When applying this standard, the court must ‘view [*5] the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.'” Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1148 (10th Cir. 2000) (quotation omitted). “‘Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.'” Id. (quotation omitted). Summary judgment may be granted only where there is no doubt from the evidence, with all inferences drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, that no genuine issue of material fact remains for trial and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Bee v. Greaves, 744 F.2d 1387 (10th Cir. 1984).

III. ANALYSIS

I first address Defendant’s argument that it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ three claims for relief based on the exculpatory agreements contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket. It is undisputed that Plaintiff Sally Rumpf read and understood that she was bound by the release language on both the rental agreement and the lift ticket. (Sally Rumpf Dep. at 72:17-23, 97-8-17, 99:2-25, 101:11-25, 102:1-21, 106:6-25, 107:1-25, 108:1-25, and 109:1-7).2

2 The evidence reveals that Plaintiff Louis Rumpf also understood and agreed to the release language on both the [*6] rental agreement and the lift ticket.

Defendant argues that the exculpatory language is valid and enforceable under the four-factor test set forth in Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370, 376 (Colo. 1981). The determination of the sufficiency and validity of an exculpatory agreement is a question of law for the Court. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376. Exculpatory agreements, which attempt to insulate a party from liability for its own negligence, are generally recognized under Colorado law, but are construed narrowly and “closely scrutinized” to ensure that the agreement was fairly entered into and that the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Id. Additionally, the terms of exculpatory agreements must be strictly construed against the drafter. Heil Valley Ranch, Inc. v. Simkin, 784 P.2d 781, 784 (Colo. 1990). Pursuant to Jones, in determining the validity of an exculpatory agreement, the Court must consider the following factors: (1) whether the service provided involves a duty to the public; (2) the nature of the service provided; (3) whether the agreement was fairly entered into; and (4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous language. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376; Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 784, see Robinette v. Aspen Skiing Co., L.L.C., No. 08-cv-00052-MSK-MJW, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34873, 2009 WL 1108093 at *2 (D. Colo. April 23, 2009).

Based on the Plaintiffs’ response, it does not appear that they [*7] are contesting that the exculpatory language contained in the rental agreement or the lift ticket satisfies the above-mentioned Jones criteria, arguing instead that because “this case arises from a ski lift attendant’s negligence, the exculpatory release language is inapplicable and irrelevant.” (Resp. at 1). Citing Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., 960 P.2d 70 (1998), Plaintiffs claim that Colorado law “specifically provides negligence causes of action for skiers injured getting on and getting off ski lifts.” (Resp. at 10).

In Bayer, the plaintiff was injured when he attempted to board a ski lift at Crested Butte ski resort. After the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals certified various questions to the Colorado Supreme Court, the Colorado Supreme Court held that “the standard of care applicable to ski lift operators in Colorado for the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection of a ski lift, is the highest degree of care commensurate with the practical operation of the lift. Neither the Tramway Act nor the Ski Safety Act preempt or otherwise supersede this standard of care, whatever the season of operation.” Id. at 80. I agree with Defendant, however, that Bayer is not controlling here because the question of the applicability [*8] of exculpatory language was not presented.

Plaintiffs further argue that the exculpatory language at issue is “only applicable to ski cases when the accident or injury occurs while the plaintiff is skiing or snowboarding on the slopes,” and not when loading the ski lift. (Resp. at 11).

I now analyze the exculpatory language at issue using the four Jones factors mentioned above. In Jones, the court instructed that for an exculpatory agreement to fail, the party seeking exculpation must be engaged in providing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity to some members of the public. Jones, 623 P.2d at 376-77. Here, the service provided is recreational and not an essential service that gives the party seeking exculpation an unfair bargaining advantage. Thus, there is no public duty that prevents enforcement of either the ski rental agreement or the exculpatory language included in Sunlight’s lift ticket.

To the extent that Plaintiffs contend that the exculpatory language at issue was “adhesive,” I note that Colorado defines an adhesion contract as “generally not bargained for, but imposed on the public for a necessary service on a take it or leave it basis.” Id. at 374. However, [*9] printed form contracts offered on a take it or leave it basis, alone, do not render the agreement an adhesion contract. Clinic Masters v. District Court, 192 Colo. 120, 556 P.2d 473 (1976). Rather, “[t]here must a showing that the parties were greatly disparate in bargaining power, that there was no opportunity for negotiation, or that [the] services could not be obtained elsewhere.” Id. In Jones, the court held that the agreement was not an adhesion contract and the party seeking exculpation did not possess a decisive bargaining advantage “because the service provided … was not an essential service.” Jones, 623 P.2d at 377-78. Thus, here, I find that the exculpatory agreements were fairly entered into and are not adhesion contracts.

Finally, I examine whether the exculpatory agreements express the parties’ intent in clear and unambiguous language. Plaintiffs argue that loading or riding a ski lift is outside the scope of the exculpatory language set forth in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket.

“Interpretation of a written contract and the determination of whether a provision in the contract is ambiguous are questions of law.” Dorman v. Petrol Aspen, Inc., 914 P.2d 909, 912 (Colo. 1996). Under Colorado law, I must examine the actual language of the agreements for legal jargon, length and complication, and any likelihood of [*10] confusion or failure of a party to recognize the full extent of the release provisions. See Heil Valley Ranch 784 P.2d at 785; Chadwick v. Colt Ross Outfitters, Inc., 100 P.3d 465, 467 (Colo. 2004). Specific terms such as “negligence” or “breach of warranty” are not required to shield a party from liability. What matters is whether the intent of the parties to extinguish liability was clearly and unambiguously expressed. Heil Valley Ranch, 784 P.2d at 785.

After carefully reviewing the relevant language set forth in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket, I find that both agreements clearly and unambiguously express the parties’ intent to release Sunlight from liability for certain claims. When Plaintiffs executed the ski rental agreement, they agreed to

RELEASE AND HOLD HARMLESS the equipment rental facility [Sunlight], its employees, owners, affiliates, agents, officers, directors, and the equipment manufacturers and distributors and their successors in interest (collectively “PROVIDERS”), from all liability for injury … which results from the equipment user’s participation in the RECREATIONAL SNOW SPORTS for which the equipment is provided, or which is related in any way to the use of this equipment, including all liability which results from the NEGLIGENCE of PROVIDERS, or any other person or cause.

(ECF [*11] No. 39, Ex. 2) (emphasis in original). I find that this language unambiguously encompasses the use of Sunlight’s ski lifts. Furthermore, the ski lift ticket specifically references safely loading, riding and unloading Sunlight’s ski lifts and provides that the “Holder agrees to ASSUME ALL RISKS associated with the activities and to HOLD HARMLESS the Ski Area and its representatives for all claims for injury to person or property.” (ECF No. 39, Ex. 4) (emphasis in original). I find that the language at issue is neither long nor complicated and clearly expresses the intent to bar negligence claims against Sunlight arising from the participation in recreational snow sports, which includes loading or riding ski lifts. Accordingly, Plaintiffs’ negligence claims and loss of consortium claim are barred by the exculpatory language contained in both the ski rental agreement and the lift ticket. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted.3

3 In light of my findings in this Order, I need not address Defendant’s additional, independent arguments in support of summary judgment.

IV. CONCLUSION

Accordingly, it is

ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 39) is GRANTED. This [*12] case is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE, and Judgment shall enter in favor of Defendant against the Plaintiffs. It is

FURTHER ORDERED that the Defendant is awarded its costs, to be taxed by the Clerk of the Court under Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(d)(1) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 54.1.

Dated: August 3, 2016

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Wiley Y. Daniel

Wiley Y. Daniel

Senior United States District Judge