Your Jurisdiction and Venue clause must be relevant to the possible location of the accident. Screw this up and you can void your release as occurred in this ski racing case.

This is not the first decision I’ve read where the United States Ski Association (USSA) had its release laughed out of court. The court found ZERO legal arguments for the jurisdiction and venue clause in the release used.

Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

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

Plaintiff: Brian J Tierney

Defendant: Okemo Limited Liability Company, d/b/a Okemo Mountain Resort, and The United States Ski and Snowboard Association,

Plaintiff Claims: alleging negligent installation of safety netting during a downhill alpine ski race

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2016

The United States Ski Association (USSA) has members sign a release online before they can participate in any USSA as a ski race. Ski areas rely on this release when holding USSA sanctioned races. The USSA release, however, is a poorly written document and time after time the ski areas, and the USSA lose a lawsuit by a plaintiff because they relied on the USSA release.

The number-one  reason why the USSA as a release is thrown out by the courts is the jurisdiction and venue clause. Jurisdiction is the law that will be applied case and venue is the actual location of where the trial will be held. The USSA release says the jurisdiction for any case is Colorado. The problem is unless the accident occurred in Colorado; no other relationship exists between Colorado and the parties to the lawsuit.

The USSA is based, located, in Utah. In this case, the defendant ski area was located in Vermont. There were zero relationships between the USSA in Utah the ski area in Vermont and the injured plaintiff who was from New York, and the state of Colorado.

Consequently, the court throughout the jurisdiction and venue clause and found as 99% of most courts would that the location of the lawsuit should be Vermont, the place where the accident happened.

Vermont, however, does not recognize releases. (See States that do not Support the Use of a Release.).

The plaintiff argued the release was invalid because a copy with his signature could not be produced. The plaintiff signed and agreed to the documentation, including the release when he became a member of the USSA. The plaintiff argued in court that he did not remember signing or agreeing to the release. However, the USSA could  show through their IT expert the only way that the plaintiff could have become a member of the USSA was by signing the release. You either had to click on and accept the release, or you could go no further in signing up to be a member of the USSA.

The plaintiff was injured while competing in amateur downhill ski race at the defendant ski area at Okemo Mountain resort. The USSA sanctioned the race. To be eligible to participate in the race a person had to be a USSA member, had to have conducted a visual inspection of course, and had to have taken at least two official training runs prior to the race.

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the release. This ruling denied the motion for summary judgment.

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

The court first commented on the jurisdiction and venue issue.

The release also contained a choice-of-law provision, which stated that it would be “construed in accordance with, and governed by the substantive laws of the State of Colorado, without reference to principles governing choice or conflict of laws.”

The court then went through the various arguments of the plaintiff and defendant concerning the motion to dismiss, first off, with the plaintiff’s argument that he never remembered signing the release could not have signed release. The court termed the online release as a clip wrap release. This means that the release could not have been rejected by the plaintiff because the website only allows you to go forward after clicking yes to the release.

Because the click-wrap technology does not permit the customer to continue to use the website, unless he or she clicks on the required box on the screen, courts have accepted proof of use at the site as evidence of the customer’s agreement.

The court stated that generally clip wrap releases are upheld. The court went through several different decisions where clip-wrap releases had been decided. The court concluded that the plaintiff had to have signed the release because the plaintiff admitted that he had been charged for his USSA membership on his credit card and received an email about his membership from the USSA. “Plaintiff admits that he received a confirmation email from USSA and that his credit card statement reflects a payment for his USSA membership.

The court then went into the choice of law clause. That means the jurisdiction and venue clause. A choice of law clause is not a clause that is controlled strictly by the contract.

Whenever there is a decision based on what law shall apply the law where the accident happened or where the court is sitting is the law that is applied to determine what law will apply. In many cases, such as this one, the choice of law decision leans toward granting the choice of law to the place where the test is being determined.

“The validity of a contractual choice-of-law clause is a threshold question that must be decided not under the law specified in the clause, but under the relevant forum’s choice-of-law rules governing the effectiveness of such clauses.” As this is a diversity action, the court looks to Vermont’s choice-of-law rules to determine which law applies.

A jurisdiction and venue clause is also not solely determined based on the four corners of the document. Meaning, just because you have a jurisdiction and venue clause in the document does not mean that is what is going to be upheld by the court. Here the court applied the choice of laws test as set forth in Vermont to determine what law should apply in governing where the suit in the law to be applied is suit to take place.

Simply put the court found there was no relationship between the choice of law clause in the release and the parties or where the accident occurred. The test for what choice of law applies a substantial relationship test. That means that the law that should be applied should be the one that has the greatest relationship to the parties and or the location of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit. In this case the court found, there was no relationship to the parties of the transaction. Plaintiff was a resident of New York the USSA was a Utah corporation, and the defendant ski area was a defendant was a Vermont location.

The arguments made by the USSA as an aid to justify Colorado’s choice of law clause were just plain weak. They argued that the majority of their races occurred in Colorado and that there was a good chance that the plaintiff would race in Colorado. The court found neither of those arguments to be persuasive.

The chosen state of Colorado has no “substantial relationship” to the parties or the transaction. Plaintiff is a resident of New York. USSA is a Utah corporation and Okemo is a Vermont entity. The incident in question did not occur in Colorado. The only facts Defendants have offered in sup-port of applying Colorado law to this case are: (1) Colorado is home to more USSA member clubs than any other state and hosts the majority of USSA’s major events, and (2) there was a possibility that Plaintiff could have competed in Colorado at some point during the relevant ski season. The court finds that such a tenuous and hypothetical connection does not vest in the state of Colorado a substantial relationship to the parties or specific transaction at issue in this case.

The court did find that Vermont had a substantial and significant interest in the transaction. The defendant was based in Vermont. The accident occurred in Vermont. The plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by the defendant ski area that required all disputes to be litigated in Vermont. The plaintiff participated in the inspection and training runs as well as the race in Vermont.

In contrast, Vermont’s relationship to the parties and transaction is significant. Okemo is a Vermont corporation, the competition was held in Vermont, Plaintiff was issued a lift ticket by Okemo requiring all disputes to be litigated in Vermont, Plaintiff participated in inspection and training runs in Vermont, and Plaintiff’s injury occurred in Vermont.

(Of note is the fact the court looked at the writing on the lift ticket as a quasi-contract. Rarely are lift tickets anything more than simple “signs” providing warnings rather than contracts or quasi contracts. See Lift tickets are not contracts and rarely work as a release in most states.)

The court then took apart the choice of law provision in the USSA release. It found no substantial relationship of the parties to the transaction in Colorado. The minimal facts offered by the USSA to support Colorado did not establish a reasonable basis for choosing Colorado.

The court also reasoned that finding Colorado as the applicable choice of law would violate a fundamental policy of Vermont law, which is releases for skiing or void under Vermont law.

First, applying Colorado law would undoubtedly produce a result contrary to a fundamental policy of Vermont. Whereas exculpatory clauses in ski contracts have been held to be enforceable under Colorado law, courts applying Vermont law consistently hold such re-leases to be void as contrary to important public policies of the state.

The court also found the Vermont had a materially greater interest in case then Colorado. Colorado’s interest in the case is minimal. Vermont had a great interest in applying Vermont law to issues, transactions and accidents that occur in Vermont. Skiing is a significant and important recreational activity in Vermont, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that they have a significant interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety in Vermont.

Second, Vermont has a “materially greater interest” than Colorado in the determination of this issue.4 Colorado’s interest in this case is minimal. The fact that Plaintiff may have competed there in the course of the relevant ski season and that USSA hosts many events in that state does not create a significant interest in a case concerning a Vermont ski race. Conversely, Vermont’s interest is plain. Vermont has a general interest in having its laws apply to contracts governing transactions taking place within the state. Vermont also has a significant interest in the conduct at issue here. Skiing is an important recreational activity for Vermonters and those visiting the state, and the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly noted its interest in holding ski resorts responsible for skier safety.

The court then held the choice of law provision in the USSA release did not control, and the Vermont law would apply to this case.

Under Vermont law releases for skiing activities are unenforceable. (See Federal court voids release in Vermont based on Vermont’s unique view of release law). The Vermont Supreme Court had determined that it was a violation of public policy under Vermont law to allow ski area to use a release to avoid liability for its own negligence. The court used a totality of the circumstances test to make the determination that the ski areas had the greater responsibility and the greater ability to keep its patrons out of harm’s way.

The Court concluded that “ultimately the determination of what constitutes the public interest must be made considering the totality of the circumstances of any given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.” It then went on to make its public policy determination largely on the basis of two factors derived from the seminal case of Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963): (1) ski areas are open to the general public without regard to special training or ability, and (2) the longstanding rule that premises owners are in the best position to assure for the safety of their visitors.

(Using Tunkl to void a release seems to be an extremely odd reading of Tunkl. The Tunkl decision is a California case setting forth requirements for Assumption of the Risk.)

The court also looked at the difference between skiing in Vermont participating in a ski race. Here too though, the Vermont Supreme Court already ruled. The Vermont Supreme Court found that there was really no difference between ski racing and skiing in Vermont, and the releases would be void in both cases.

There had been Vermont decisions upholding release law based on restricted access to the race or because total control for the majority the control for the welfare of the racers was in the racer’s hands. These decisions concerned motorcycle racing.

The defendant argued that ski racing was much like motorcycle racing in Vermont. However, the court found that although membership in the motorcycle racing was restricted, it was not restricted in the ski racing case. Any person could become a member of the USSA, and any person could race, as long as they inspected the course and made two runs and. That effectively was not a bar to anyone participating in the race.

The Court saw “no salient distinctions between [its case] and making clear that, under Vermont law, ski areas and sport event organizers will not be absolved from liability by virtue of an exculpatory clause even in the context of amateur racing.

The court in evaluating the release law and ski areas in Vermont determined that the cases were based on a premise’s liability argument. Premise’s liability says that the owner of the land has a duty to inform guests of the risks on the land. This responsibility included eliminating any known risks or risk the by the landowner should discover. It did not find in the motorcycle cases that a premise’s liability relationship existed because the risk was largely in control of the racer on the motorcycle.

Consequently, the court ruled that the release was invalid under Vermont law, and dismissed the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

I suspect that USSA wanted to take advantage of the Colorado Statute that allows a parent to sign away a minor’s right to sue: Colorado Revised Statutes 13-22-107. Colorado’s release law is clearer and there is no issue with a release stopping suits by ski areas. Utah has mixed issues with releases and ski areas. However, to use Colorado as the site of the lawsuit, there must be a nexus to the state of Colorado, not just one created on paper.

Not only must the language stating the jurisdiction and venue be correct; the clause must also contain the reasoning why the jurisdiction and venue should be in a location other than location where the accident happened. In this case that would mean that there was an agreement between the parties that outlined all the reasons why the lawsuit should be brought back to Utah would be the only state, based on the contractual law of Utah.

I doubt there is any way that you could really write a release based on the law of a state that had no relationship, no nexus, to the accident or the parties in the case.

Vermont was the obvious answer, and that is what the court found. They might’ve been able also argued New York law, which would’ve been better than Vermont law. However, that would require them to litigate a case wherever the people who are racing in their events are located.

To be effective the jurisdiction and venue claw must have a nexus to either the parties in the case of the place of the accident occurred. USSA could move to Colorado, and that would provide a much better argument that Colorado law could apply. The USSA could argue that since they’re facing litigation from across the United States that they need to have one law apply to their releases and lawsuits, and that law should be the law where the located.

Whenever you’re stretching the jurisdiction and venue clause, you need to make sure that you incorporate in the clause all the legal reasons for picking the venue where the clause says the accident or location will occur. You just can’t state venue, and jurisdiction will be here.

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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Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

Kearney, v. Okemo Limited Liability Company, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106011

Read the rest of this entry »


States that do not Support the Use of a Release

The most changes in this form have occurred in the last year over the last ten years.

Assumption of the risk is your best defense in these states

These states do not allow a recreational business or program to use a release to stop litigation.

State

Citation

Issues/Article

Releases are Void

Louisiana

C.C. Art. 2004 (2005)

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party. Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

Montana

MCA § 27-1-701

Liability for negligence as well as willful acts. Except as otherwise provided by law, everyone is responsible not only for the results of his willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person except so far as the latter has willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury upon himself.

Virginia

Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890)

Except for Equine Activities Chapter 62.  Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202.  Liability limited; liability actions prohibited

Oregon

Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994

Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.

Use of a Release is Restricted

Arizona

Phelps v. Firebird Raceway, Inc., 2005 Ariz. LEXIS 53

 

New Mexico

Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332;2002 NMCA 60;48

P.3d 70;2002 N.M. App. 39;41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25

State created Equine Liability Statute so no need for release

West Virginia

Kyriazis v. University of West Virginia; 192 W. Va. 60; 450 S.E.2d 649;

1994 W. Va. LEXIS 161

 

Use of Releases is Probably Void

Connecticut

Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, Et Al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006

Conn. LEXIS 330

 

Mississippi

Turnbough v. Ladner, 754 So. 2d 467; 1999 Miss. LEXIS 375

Mississippi Supreme Court makes it almost impossible to write a release that is enforceable because the court does not give direction as to what it wants.

Wisconsin

Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2

Wisconsin decision has left the status of release law in Wisconsin in jeopardy

Wisconsin

Roberts v. T.H.E. Insurance Company, et al., 2016 WI 20; 2016 Wisc. LEXIS 121

Wisconsin Supreme Court voids another release because it violates public policy. Public Policy as defined in Wisconsin requires the ability to bargain before signing the release.

Vermont

Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd, 164 Vt 329; 670 A.2d 795; 1995 Vt. Lexis 127

 

Specific uses of Releases are Void

Alaska

Sec. 05.45.120(a).  Use of liability releases

A ski area operator may not require a skier to sign an agreement releasing the ski area operator from liability in exchange for the right to ride a ski area tramway and ski in the ski area. A release that violates this subsection is void and may not be enforced.

Hawaii

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511 (D. Haw. 2004)

Found that Hawaii statute § 663-1.54. Recreational activity liability prevented the use of a release

New York

General Obligation Law § 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

 

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States that do not Support the Use of a Release

Assumption of the risk is your best defense in these states

These states do not allow a recreational business or program to use a release to stop litigation.

State

Citation

Issues/Article

Releases are Void

Louisiana

C.C. Art. 2004 (2005)

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party. Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

Montana

MCA § 27-1-701

Liability for negligence as well as willful acts. Except as otherwise provided by law, everyone is responsible not only for the results of his willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person except so far as the latter has willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury upon himself.

Virginia

Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890)

Except for Equine Activities Chapter 62.  Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202.  Liability limited; liability actions prohibited

Oregon

Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994

Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.

Use of a Release is Restricted

Arizona

Phelps v. Firebird Raceway, Inc., 2005 Ariz. LEXIS 53

 

New Mexico

Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332;2002 NMCA 60;48

P.3d 70;2002 N.M. App. 39;41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25

State created Equine Liability Statute so no need for release

West Virginia

Kyriazis v. University of West Virginia; 192 W. Va. 60; 450 S.E.2d 649;

1994 W. Va. LEXIS 161

 

Use of Releases is Probably Void

Connecticut

Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, Et Al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006

Conn. LEXIS 330

 

Wisconsin

Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2

Wisconsin decision has left the status of release law in Wisconsin in jeopardy

Wisconsin

Roberts v. T.H.E. Insurance Company, et al., 2016 WI 20; 2016 Wisc. LEXIS 121

Wisconsin Supreme Court voids another release because it violates public policy. Public Policy as defined in Wisconsin requires the ability to bargain before signing the release.

Vermont

Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd, 164 Vt 329; 670 A.2d 795; 1995 Vt. Lexis 127

 

Specific uses of Releases are Void

Alaska

Sec. 05.45.120(a).  Use of liability releases

A ski area operator may not require a skier to sign an agreement releasing the ski area operator from liability in exchange for the right to ride a ski area tramway and ski in the ski area. A release that violates this subsection is void and may not be enforced.

Hawaii

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511 (D. Haw. 2004)

Found that Hawaii statute § 663-1.54. Recreational activity liability prevented the use of a release

New York

General Obligation Law § 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

 

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Twitter: RecreationLaw

Facebook: Rec.Law.Now

Facebook Page: Outdoor Recreation & Adventure Travel Law

 

 

 


Skier is unable to hold ski area liable in Vermont for injuries received in an unknown way from an unknown person.

Second Circuit bends over backwards to assist pro se plaintiff who fails to prove his case.

Gemmink v. Jay Peak Inc., 807 F.3d 46; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20768

State: Vermont, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Plaintiff: Paul A. Gemmink,

Defendant: Jay Peak Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: negligently permitted dangerous jumps on its ski trails and that, in consequence of such a constructed jump at the Kokomo-Northwest Passage intersection, Gemmink suffered a collision with another skier resulting in harm to his left side

Defendant Defenses: No Duty and No Negligence

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2015

This case is a rarity; it is a decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is one step below the US Supreme Court and one of the highest courts in the land. Consequently, to have any of the federal appellate courts issue an opinion about a skiing case is very rare. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The second issue making this case rare but sort of explains the reason why the Second Circuit heard the case, is the case is Pro Se. That means the Plaintiff was representing himself without an attorney. Pro Se cases are rarely successful and are very difficult for all the parties involved because of the procedural issues a litigant must follow to stay in court. Lawyers take a yearlong class on civil procedure in law school and work overtime not to miss procedural deadlines.

At the same time, judges bend over backwards and here the Second Circuit did too, to make sure the Pro Se litigant has the best opportunity to have his or her day in court.

Consequently, when the plaintiff, Gemmink, who was pro se lost at the trial level and successfully filed an appeal to the Second Circuit, the court based on the decision bent over backwards to respond to the plaintiff’s claims.

The plaintiff and his daughter were skiing at the defendant ski area Jay Peak. The plaintiff was following his daughter down the hill. The daughter reached the bottom of the hill and realized her father was not with her.

The plaintiff was found unconscious or regaining consciousness and combative up on the hill by the ski patrol. The plaintiff had no memory of what happened.

The plaintiff was found near trees. The daughter had seen a ski jump close to the location of where her father was found “leading her and her father to surmise that another patron “fl[ew] of[f] the jump” and collided with Gemmink.” The plaintiff’s injuries were such that he attributed them to someone coming from the right and were consistent with the theory that someone going over the jump hit him.

Gemmink suffered fractures to his left ribs and left transverse processes in the incident, injuries that, according to Gemmink, are usually attributable to a significant impact coming from right to left, and are therefore, at least consistent with the theory that a skier jumped from the right of the intersection into Gemmink.

The trial court dismissed the claims of the plaintiff for failing to establish that the defendant’s alleged negligence was the cause of his injuries. The plaintiff successfully filed this appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

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

The court, as usual started its decision with the requirements for a party to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

Where, as here, the party opposing summary judgment bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment should be granted if the moving party can “point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” The court draws all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, but the opposing party “must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.”

The court adopted the theory relied upon by the trial court, that the structure and maintenance of the alleged ski jump was sufficient to cause the injuries the plaintiff claimed based on the facts the plaintiff alleged. Again, this is rarely done when all parties are represented by attorneys. The attorney relying on this assumption would have to prove it using evidence.

The court then summarized its requirements in this case to determine whether the plaintiff presented enough evidence for a jury to rule in his favor.

The issue before us, then, is a not-infrequent one in tort cases: whether the plaintiff proffered sufficient evidence for a jury to find, more probably than not, that the ground for liability (here, the assumed negligence) was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

Thus the issue was explained to require a showing of evidence sufficient to prove that the defendant was the reason why the plaintiff was injured, and that injury was based on a breach of duty to the plaintiff by the defendant ski area.

Thus, in considering whether a plaintiff has proven causation, a trier of fact asks whether it is likely that the harm that occurred resulted from the negligence (or from another basis of liability) attributed to the defendant. In other words, is the reason that the defendant’s behavior is deemed risky, and the defendant deemed potentially liable, the harm that, in fact, occurred?

Here the court obviously looked at the issue as to whether the plaintiff assumed the risk, not based on what the defendant had done or failed to do, but based on whether the sport or the actions of the plaintiff were the cause for his injuries.

In essence, the greater the risk that the defendant’s conduct will result in the harm the plaintiff suffered, the more likely that a jury will be allowed to find that such conduct was the cause of that harm.

Here the evidence was solely circumstantial. There was no video, no witnesses, and no pictures, nothing to assist the plaintiff in proving his case other than the plaintiff and his daughter’s opinion and the injuries which could be been occurred as the plaintiff surmised. When only circumstantial evidence is available at trial, then the burden to prove the facts falls on the party using the evidence, but that burden is greater because of the nature of the evidence.

First, where one party has knowledge or access to information that renders that party better able than his adversary to explain what actually transpired, courts have tended to put the onus on that party to do so. This principle–that the party with superior knowledge bears the burden of coming forward with evidence–has always served as a basis of finding negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

In this case, the only party with any knowledge or access to the information was the plaintiff, thus the plaintiff had the sole burden to prove his circumstantial evidence.

Thus, the requirement that the plaintiff be able circumstantially to show a link between the expected risk of defendant’s conduct and what actually occurred tends to be greater when the plaintiff is better able to explain what happened, and is considerably less when, instead, it is the defendant who can better or more easily proffer evidence of what, in fact, occurred.

The court then brought in another issue, whether the circumstantial evidence offered by the plaintiff under the law of the state that is being applied, Vermont, allows for an error in determining the value or likelihood of the evidence. Meaning if there is a gray area in valuing the evidence does state law fall one way or the other, in making the final determination on its value.

If an erroneous finding of causation is, in the law of the jurisdiction, more harmful than an erroneous finding of no causation, the requirements of circumstantial evidence and knowledge grow stronger. Conversely, where the law of the jurisdiction makes clear that an erroneous finding of no causation is more harmful, the requirements are diminished.

The court then applied the three factors to this case. The first was whether there was a legal link between the maintenance of the ski jump and the injuries of the plaintiff. Maintenance in this case does not mean creation or grooming of the jump as in a terrain park, but whether the jump was allowed to exist by the defendant. The court found that any link was too tenuous to allow.

The first factor favors the defendant. The causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred by the plaintiff is far too attenuated to sustain Gemmink’s claim. Our common experience does not tell us that this kind of lack of maintenance results in accidents of this sort with any frequency.

This, the first argument, went in favor of the defendant. The court added in reaching this decision, that the plaintiff offered no additional evidence or expert witness to show a stronger link.

Generally, expert . . . testimony is required to support a finding of causation where the link is obscure and abstruse such that a layperson can have no well-founded knowledge and can do no more than indulge in mere speculation.

The second issue, who had evidence on what happened, the court found neither side won or actually it was a neutral result based on an analysis. “The second is, at most, neutral. Neither Gemmink nor Jay Peak has greater knowledge or access to information concerning what actually happened on the Kokomo trail.”

The third factor was interesting. Applying the test of how the state wanted the court to decide when faced with an issue that was “close call” or in a very small gray area. Here the court found that under Vermont law, the liability of a ski area is almost strict liability. That means liability with no room for error or limited if any defenses. Own a ski area and you own the safety of the people you invite to ski on the mountain.

We turn, then, to the third factor: Is this an area where, in Vermont, liability of ski operators to skiers is close to strict, so that whether negligence was the cause of the alleged injury is a matter that, in uncertainty, should be decided in favor of the skier? Or is this an area where the risk of injury, even in the presence of negligence on the part of the ski operator, is assumed primarily by the skier, so that the requirement of causation is fairly placed on the skier (unless either (a) the evidentiary link between the evidence of negligence and causation of the kind of harm that occurred is particularly strong, or (b) the defendant is in a distinctly better position to tell us what happened)? Or, finally, is Vermont relatively indifferent to error in one direction or the other, offering no reason to favor either the plaintiff or defendant?

The court determined that Vermont follows the approach of symmetrical indifference. Vermont still allowed the defense of assumption of the risk for injuries caused by engaging in a sport. The court then found that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation. Meaning any cause of the injury must be proven not just alleged. If there was a gray area after analysis by the court, meaning if there was no clear decision, then Vermont law held there was not caused, thus no negligence.

By statute, although assumption of risk has generally been subsumed in comparative negligence, 12 V.S.A. § 1036, it has been expressly retained as to sporting events, 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This would suggest that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation with respect to sport injuries like the one that here occurred.

The Vermont law concerning ski areas was proof of that issue. (See Vermont Skier Safety Act.)  Vermont law was interpreted by Vermont courts to offer a symmetrical approach how Vermont wants a court to consider the facts.

The court then applying the factors controlling how Vermont law was to be applied and found it could not find a link between the defendant ski area Jay Peak and the plaintiff’s injuries. There was no causation or link between the two that could be upheld legally.

Consequently, we are left to infer causation, then, from only the placement of the ski jumps and the nature of Gemmink’s injuries. We cannot infer a causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred on the facts presented, and the plaintiff does not provide sufficient evidence to support a link between his injuries and alleged theory of causation. Under these circumstances, the district court was clearly correct in its holding that the evidence adduced by Gemmink was not sufficient to raise a question for the jury.

For negligence to exist, there must be a duty, a breach of that duty and injury and proximate causation. Here the court did not look at whether or not there was a duty, but just focused on whether there is a legal relationship, causation, between the injuries and anything the defendant had done.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision and affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s case.

So Now What?

As you can tell the court jumped through narrow hoops to provide a way to say to the plaintiff you did not prove your case and based on what you have provided cannot prove your case. I seriously doubt the court has ever created such a difficult to write and understand, yet reasoned decision before.

When confronted with a pro se plaintiff, I constantly begged them to find an attorney. I wanted someone other than the opposing attorney to explain what was going on and why. I copied and sent the law, sent notices of deadlines and requirements all in an attempt to allow the court to rule in my favor. Not because of what I did, but because the opposing side had no case and the court did not need to extend the case any longer than necessary before ruling to make sure the opposing party received a fair and just hearing.

This decision also would have been much different in most other states that allow skiing. Vermont, the largest ski state in the East has always held that ski resorts are liable for the injuries of its patrons. (See The very first lawsuit against a ski area reviewing Wright et al. v. Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., et al. 96 F. Supp. 786; 1951 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2524) Because of Vermont’s unique view of the responsibility of a ski area, to dismiss a case against a ski resort creates a difficult decision when explaining a case clearly without any evidence of fault against the defendant ski area.

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Gemmink v. Jay Peak Inc., 807 F.3d 46; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20768

Gemmink v. Jay Peak Inc., 807 F.3d 46; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20768

Paul A. Gemmink, Plaintiff-Appellant, — v. — Jay Peak Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

Docket No. 14-2725-cv

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

807 F.3d 46; 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 20768

August 19, 2015, Argued

November 30, 2015, Decided

PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] Pro se plaintiff Paul Gemmink was injured while skiing at defendant Jay Peak’s ski resort. Although Gemmink could not recall the circumstances of his injury, he came to believe that he had been injured in a collision with another skier as a result of Jay Peak’s negligent maintenance of ski jumps on its property. As a result, Gemmink brought an action to recover against Jay Peak for his injuries. The District Court granted summary judgment to Jay Peak, finding that Gemmink had failed to establish that any negligence on the part of Jay Peak was the cause of Gemmink’s injuries. We affirm the judgment of the District Court.

Gemmink v. Jay Peak, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87912 (D. Vt., June 23, 2014)

CASE SUMMARY:

OVERVIEW: HOLDINGS: [1]-The district court properly granted a ski resort summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s negligence suit because the causal link between the resort’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injuries incurred by plaintiff was far too attenuated to sustain his claim, as there was no evidence as to how he sustained those injuries.

OUTCOME: The judgment was affirmed.

CORE TERMS: causation, ski, summary judgment, trail, skier, jump, sporting events, happened, intersection, ski jump, circumstantial evidence, coming, stairs, evidence to support, access to information, inter alia, expert testimony, assumption of risk, indifferent, nonmoving, proffered, opposing, stronger, proffer, harmful, causal, skiing, dark, infer

LexisNexis(R) Headnotes

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Appellate Review > Standards of Review

[HN1] An appellate court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo.

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Movants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Absence of Essential Element of Claim

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

[HN2] Where the party opposing summary judgment bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment should be granted if the moving party can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Burdens of Production & Proof > Nonmovants

Civil Procedure > Summary Judgment > Evidence

[HN3] In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court draws all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, but the opposing party must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.

Evidence > Relevance > Circumstantial & Direct Evidence

Torts > Negligence > Causation > Cause in Fact

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Burden Shifting

[HN4] A showing of cause-in-fact almost always involves circumstantial evidence. Thus, in considering whether a plaintiff has proven causation, a trier of fact asks whether it is likely that the harm that occurred resulted from the negligence (or from another basis of liability) attributed to the defendant. Is the reason that the defendant’s behavior is deemed risky, and the defendant deemed potentially liable, the harm that in fact occurred? In such circumstances, a jury can assume that the injury occurred as the expected or ordinary result of the defendant’s conduct. If for some reason it was not the ordinary result of the defendant’s conduct, that the “extraordinary” had occurred must be shown by the party wishing to counter causation. For example, if a defendant proprietor has failed to install lights on its stairways after dark, and a person coming down the stairs in the dark of night falls and injures himself, one can fairly assume that the failure to illuminate the stairs caused the injury. And it will be up to the defendant to show that something extraordinary happened, say, that an animal scampered up the stairs and tripped the injured person instead. In essence, the greater the risk that the defendant’s conduct will result in the harm the plaintiff suffered, the more likely that a jury will be allowed to find that such conduct was the cause of that harm.

Torts > Negligence > Causation > Cause in Fact

Evidence > Procedural Considerations > Burdens of Proof > Allocation

Evidence > Relevance > Circumstantial & Direct Evidence

[HN5] In addition to considering the strength of the circumstantial evidence linking injury and harm, the cases dealing with questions of causation take into account two other factors. First, where one party has knowledge or access to information that renders that party better able than his adversary to explain what actually transpired, courts have tended to put the onus on that party to do so. This principle–that the party with superior knowledge bears the burden of coming forward with evidence–has always served as a basis of finding negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. But it also serves as a basis for finding causation. Thus, the requirement that the plaintiff be able circumstantially to show a link between the expected risk of defendant’s conduct and what actually occurred tends to be greater when the plaintiff is better able to explain what happened, and is considerably less when, instead, it is the defendant who can better or more easily proffer evidence of what, in fact, occurred.

Torts > Negligence > Causation > Cause in Fact

Evidence > Relevance > Circumstantial & Direct Evidence

[HN6] In deciding whether sufficient proof of causation has been proffered to get to a jury, courts consider whether the law of the jurisdiction is indifferent as to error in one direction or the other. If an erroneous finding of causation is, in the law of the jurisdiction, more harmful than an erroneous finding of no causation, the requirements of circumstantial evidence and knowledge grow stronger. Conversely, where the law of the jurisdiction makes clear that an erroneous finding of no causation is more harmful, the requirements are diminished.

Torts > Negligence > Causation > Cause in Fact

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Athletic & Recreational Activities

Torts > Negligence > Defenses > Assumption of Risk > Procedure

[HN7] By statute, although assumption of risk has generally been subsumed in comparative negligence, Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 1036, it has been expressly retained as to sporting events, Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 1037. This would suggest that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation with respect to sport injuries. At the same time, however, the decision of whether the risk borne by the plaintiff in the sporting event was sufficiently “obvious and necessary” as to be assumed generally forms a jury question under Vermont law. Vermont wants courts to treat errors in this area pretty much symmetrically.

COUNSEL: PAUL A. GEMMINK, Pro se.

THOMAS P. AICHER, Cleary Shahi & Aicher, P.C., Rutland, VT, for Defendant-Appellee.

JUDGES: Before: CALABRESI, STRAUB, POOLER, Circuit Judges. Judge POOLER joins only Parts I and II(B) of the opinion.

OPINION BY: CALABRESI

OPINION

[*47] CALABRESI, Circuit Judge:

I. BACKGROUND

On February 21, 2011, Paul Gemmink and his daughter, Christine, visited the [*48] Jay Peak ski resort in Jay, Vermont. The two skied down the Northwest Passage trail, with Christine preceding her father as she turned onto the Kokomo trail, which intersected the Northwest Passage trail. When Christine reached the base [**2] of the ski lift at the end of the trail, she noticed that her father had failed to follow her descent. Instead, a Jay Peak ski patroller would find Gemmink “combative and in obvious pain,” lying on his back by a tree on the left side of the Kokomo trail, near the Kokomo-Northwest Passage intersection. App’x at 31. Gemmink had been rendered unconscious and, though argumentative, could not recall or provide an account of the incident. Christine, however, had observed a ski jump situated near the trees on the right side of the intersection, leading her and her father to surmise that another patron “fl[ew] of[f] the jump” and collided with Gemmink. Id. at 30, 32. Gemmink suffered fractures to his left ribs and left transverse processes in the incident, injuries that, according to Gemmink, are usually attributable to a significant impact coming from right to left, and are therefore at least consistent with the theory that a skier jumped from the right of the intersection into Gemmink.

Proceeding pro se, Gemmink brought this action against Jay Peak to recover for injuries that he claims were sustained as a result of Jay Peak’s negligence. Specifically, Gemmink asserts that Jay Peak negligently permitted dangerous jumps on [**3] its ski trails and that, in consequence of such a constructed jump at the Kokomo-Northwest Passage intersection, Gemmink suffered a collision with another skier resulting in harm to his left side. The District Court (Murtha, J.) granted Jay Peak’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Gemmink had failed to establish that Jay Peak’s alleged negligence was the cause of his injuries. Gemmink now appeals.

II. DISCUSSION

A.

[HN1] This Court reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo. Amerex Group, Inc. v. Lexington Ins. Co., 678 F.3d 193, 199 (2d Cir. 2012). [HN2] Where, as here, the party opposing summary judgment bears the burden of proof at trial, summary judgment should be granted if the moving party can “point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party’s claim.” Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995). [HN3] The court draws all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, but the opposing party “must come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact.” Robinson v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 781 F.3d 42, 44 (2d Cir. 2015).

Before the district court, it was assumed that the negligence of Jay Peak in the structure and maintenance of the jumps was sufficiently made out to survive summary judgment. Accordingly, for purposes of this opinion, we will assume arguendo that Gemmink has established such [**4] a potential basis for liability on the part of Jay Peak. The issue before us, then, is a not-infrequent one in torts cases: whether the plaintiff proffered sufficient evidence for a jury to find, more probably than not, that the ground for liability (here, the assumed negligence) was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury.

As Professor Abraham has demonstrated in his recent article, [HN4] a showing of cause-in-fact almost always involves circumstantial evidence. See Kenneth S. Abraham, Self-Proving Causation, 99 Va. L. Rev. 1811, 1815-16 (2013). Thus, in considering whether a plaintiff has proven causation, a trier of fact asks whether it is [*49] likely that the harm that occurred resulted from the negligence (or from another basis of liability) attributed to the defendant. In other words, is the reason that the defendant’s behavior is deemed risky, and the defendant deemed potentially liable, the harm that in fact occurred?

In such circumstances, as then-Chief Judge Cardozo set out in Martin v. Herzog, 228 N.Y. 164, 126 N.E. 814 (N.Y. 1920), a jury can assume that the injury occurred as the expected or ordinary result of the defendant’s conduct. Id. at 816. If for some reason it was not the ordinary result of the defendant’s conduct, that the “extraordinary” had occurred must be shown by the party [**5] wishing to counter causation. For example, if a defendant proprietor has failed to install lights on its stairways after dark, and a person coming down the stairs in the dark of night falls and injures himself, one can fairly assume that the failure to illuminate the stairs caused the injury. And it will be up to the defendant to show that something extraordinary happened, say, that an animal scampered up the stairs and tripped the injured person instead. In essence, the greater the risk that the defendant’s conduct will result in the harm the plaintiff suffered, the more likely that a jury will be allowed to find that such conduct was the cause of that harm.

[HN5] In addition to considering the strength of the circumstantial evidence linking injury and harm, however, the cases dealing with questions of causation take into account two other factors. First, where one party has knowledge or access to information that renders that party better able than his adversary to explain what actually transpired, courts have tended to put the onus on that party to do so. This principle–that the party with superior knowledge bears the burden of coming forward with evidence–has always served as a basis [**6] of finding negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. See, e.g., Griffen v. Manice, 166 N.Y. 188, 194-96, 59 N.E. 925 (1901). But it also serves as a basis for finding causation. See Williams v. Utica Coll. Of Syracuse Univ., 453 F.3d 112, 120-21 (2d Cir. 2006); Williams v. KFC Nat. Mgmt. Co., 391 F.3d 411, 431-32 (2d Cir. 2004) (Calabresi, J., concurring). Thus, the requirement that the plaintiff be able circumstantially to show a link between the expected risk of defendant’s conduct and what actually occurred tends to be greater when the plaintiff is better able to explain what happened, and is considerably less when, instead, it is the defendant who can better or more easily proffer evidence of what, in fact, occurred.

But cases of this sort also involve a third factor. Thus, [HN6] in deciding whether sufficient proof of causation has been proffered to get to a jury, courts consider whether the law of the jurisdiction is indifferent as to error in one direction or the other. If an erroneous finding of causation is, in the law of the jurisdiction, more harmful than an erroneous finding of no causation, the requirements of circumstantial evidence and knowledge grow stronger. Conversely, where the law of the jurisdiction makes clear that an erroneous finding of no causation is more harmful, the requirements are diminished. Compare Williams v. Utica Coll. Of Syracuse Univ., 453 F.3d at 121 (finding summary judgment against plaintiff appropriate [**7] because, inter alia, New York courts placed only a minimal duty on the defendant to avert the type of harm incurred, which is “close to saying that if an error is to be made in this context, it is better made in favor of the defendant“) (emphasis added), with Williams v. KFC Nat. Mgmt. Co., 391 F.3d at 432 (finding summary judgment against plaintiff inappropriate because, inter alia, of “the absence of any reason to [*50] prefer erring in favor of [the defendant] rather than the plaintiff”).

B.

With these three factors in mind, we turn to the case before us. The first factor favors the defendant. The causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred by the plaintiff is far too attenuated to sustain Gemmink’s claim. Our common experience does not tell us that this kind of lack of maintenance results in accidents of this sort with any frequency. And plaintiff has failed to proffer expert testimony suggesting a stronger link. See Human Rights Comm’n v. LaBrie, Inc., 164 Vt. 237, 668 A.2d 659, 667 (Vt. 1995) (“Generally, expert . . . testimony is required to support a finding of causation where the link is obscure and abstruse such that a layperson can have no well founded knowledge and can do no more than indulge in mere speculation.”) (internal quotation marks [**8] omitted).

The second is, at most, neutral. Neither Gemmink nor Jay Peak has greater knowledge or access to information concerning what actually happened on the Kokomo trail.

We turn, then, to the third factor: Is this an area where, in Vermont, liability of ski operators to skiers is close to strict, so that whether negligence was the cause of the alleged injury is a matter that, in uncertainty, should be decided in favor of the skier? Or is this an area where the risk of injury, even in the presence of negligence on the part of the ski operator, is assumed primarily by the skier, so that the requirement of causation is fairly placed on the skier (unless either (a) the evidentiary link between the evidence of negligence and causation of the kind of harm that occurred is particularly strong, or (b) the defendant is in a distinctly better position to tell us what happened)? Or, finally, is Vermont relatively indifferent to error in one direction or the other, offering no reason to favor either the plaintiff or defendant?

A review of Vermont law suggests that it follows the approach of symmetrical indifference. [HN7] By statute, although assumption of risk has generally been subsumed in comparative [**9] negligence, 12 V.S.A. § 1036, it has been expressly retained as to sporting events, 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This would suggest that Vermont prefers to err on the side of finding no causation with respect to sport injuries like the one that here occurred. At the same time, however, the decision of whether the risk borne by the plaintiff in the sporting event was sufficiently “obvious and necessary” as to be assumed generally forms a jury question under Vermont law. See Estate of Frant v. Haystack Grp., Inc., 162 Vt. 11, 641 A.2d 765, 770-71 (Vt. 1994) (rejecting the conclusion that “by enacting § 1037, the legislature intended to provide more protection from liability for ski areas” and stating that “§ 1037 is broad enough . . . [that s]kiers should be deemed to assume only those skiing risks that the skiing industry is not reasonably required to prevent,” as determined by “a jury [applying] a contemporary sense of what constitutes an obvious or necessary risk”). Vermont’s approach stands in notable contrast both to Connecticut, where participants in sporting events rarely assume the risk of that participation, see, e.g., Jagger v. Mohawk Mt. Ski Area, Inc., 269 Conn. 672, 849 A.2d 813, 827 (2004), and to New York, where assumption of risk is powerfully applied by courts to bar recovery by participants in sporting events, see, e.g., Martin v. New York, 64 A.D.3d 62, 878 N.Y.S.2d 823, 825-26 (App. Div. 3rd Dept. 2009); N.Y. Gen. Obl. Law § 18-106. This contrast reinforces [*51] our conclusion that Vermont [**10] wants us to treat errors in this area pretty much symmetrically.

Consequently, we are left to infer causation, then, from only the placement of the ski jumps and the nature of Gemmink’s injuries. We cannot infer a causal link between Jay Peak’s assumed negligence in its maintenance of ski jumps and the injury incurred on the facts presented, and the plaintiff does not provide sufficient evidence to support a link between his injuries and alleged theory of causation. Under these circumstances, the district court was clearly correct in its holding that the evidence adduced by Gemmink was not sufficient to raise a question for the jury.

III. CONCLUSION

The judgment of the District Court is, therefore, AFFIRMED.


Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, et. al., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96443

Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, et. al., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 96443

Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff, v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, and Corporate Challenge, Inc., d/b/a Adventure Más, Defendants.

Case No. 5:14-cv-200

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF VERMONT

July 20, 2015, Decided

July 21, 2015, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Amended by Littlejohn v. Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94592 (D. Vt., July 21, 2015)

CORE TERMS: arbitration, customer, ticket, adventure, arbitration clause, motorcycle, mutuality, summary judgment, exculpatory, zip-line, participating, wire, zip, guy, ski area–, arbitration provision, public policy, general public, ski, website, unconscionability, enforceability, unconscionable, recreational, arbitrate, sport, void, cable, enforceable, adhesion

COUNSEL: [*1] For Joseph P. Littlejohn, Plaintiff: Daniel L. Burchard, Esq., Thomas E. McCormick, McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard, P.C., Burlington, VT.

For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Defendant: Andrew A. Beerworth, Esq., Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.

For Corporate Challenge, Inc., doing business as Adventure Mas, Defendant: Heather Z. Cooper, Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.

For ENE Evaluator, ENE Evaluator: Michael J. Marks, Esq., MarksPowers LLP, Middlebury, VT.

For Timberquest Park at Magic, LLC, Cross Claimant: Robert G. Cain, Paul Frank Collins PC, Burlington, VT.

For Corporate Challenge, Inc., Cross Defendant: Rodney Edward McPhee, Kenlan, Schwiebert, Facey & Goss, P.C., Rutland, VT.

JUDGES: Geoffrey W. Crawford, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: Geoffrey W. Crawford

OPINION

OPINION AND ORDER RE: DEFENDANT’S AND PLAINTIFF’S MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docs. 44, 46 & 52)

Plaintiff Joseph Littlejohn was severely injured while participating in an adventure zip-line course at Magic Mountain Ski Area in Londondeffy, Vermont on October 5, 2013. He claims that defendants negligently designed, constructed, and operated the course, leading to the [*2] accident which caused his injuries. Both Littlejohn and defendant TimberQuest Park at Magic, LLC (TimberQuest) have filed motions for summary judgment, seeking a determination regarding the enforceability of a liability waiver and arbitration provision signed by Littlejohn prior to participating in the course.

I. Facts

The following facts are undisputed for the purposes of summary judgment, except where otherwise noted. On October 5, 2013, Littlejohn was injured while traversing a self-guided aerial adventure course at Magic Mountain. At the time of his injury, Littlejohn was seventy-six years old. He had never participated in an adventure course before. Defendant TimberQuest operated the adventure course at the time of the incident. Defendant Corporate Challenge, Inc. d/b/a Adventure Mas designed and constructed the course.

The adventure course consists of a series of rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets and zip lines placed between elevated platforms constructed around trees and poles. Participants gradually gain elevation by climbing and traversing a series of uphill course elements and then return to the bottom of the course by sliding down a series of zip lines. Participants wear a [*3] climbing harness equipped with a “smart belay” system that is meant to keep them attached at all times to both a safety cable and a zip line cable. The “smart belay” system is intended to ensure that the participant is always attached to at least one of the cables.

The trees and poles which support the course platforms are stabilized by guy wires. These guy wires are anchored at one end to the tree or pole where a course platform is located and at the other end to another nearby tree or the ground.

On the day he visited, Littlejohn was equipped with a climbing harness and was instructed how to use the smart belay system’s dual carabiners. According to Littlejohn, he was not warned that there were guy wires on the course in addition to safety cables and zip line cables or that he should avoid clipping onto the guy wires.

Littlejohn climbed through the uphill course elements and began to descend on the zip lines. As he was preparing to descend one of the sections of the course, he mistook a guy wire for the zip line cable. He attached his smart belay to the guy wire and slid down the guy wire. At the bottom he ran into the tree which anchored the other end of the guy wire. He suffered severe [*4] injuries.

Littlejohn’s friend Miki Conn had purchased their tickets for the adventure course through TimberQuest’s website on September 12, 2013.

According to Littlejohn, TimberQuest’s website does not alert customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver prior to participating in the adventure course. Littlejohn alleges that neither Conn nor he was aware that they would have to sign a liability waiver until they arrived at TimberQuest three weeks later. At oral argument, counsel for both sides cleared up some confusion on this point: there is a notice on the website concerning the liability waiver, but it appears only at the point of purchase by the customer. A company other than TimberQuest provides the ticketing, reservation and credit card services. That company’s website includes a warning to customers that they will be required to sign a liability waiver before they enter the course. Since Littlejohn’s counsel did not actually buy a ticket, he did not encounter this information in preparing his motion for summary judgment.

When they arrived at TimberQuest on October 5, Littlejohn and Conn were each presented with a document entitled “Release of Liability, Waiver [*5] of Claims, Indemnification, and Arbitration Agreement.” The agreement was presented to them in digital format on an electronic device and they were instructed to read and sign it electronically.

The agreement stated that the participant agreed to “waive all claims” and “assume all risks” arising from participating in programs at the adventure course, including claims arising from negligent acts or conduct of TimberQuest, and further agreed to release and indemnify TimberQuest from liability for any injury suffered by the participant while using the course. (Doc. 44-3 at 2.) Under the heading “Arbitration,” the agreement stated that:

The Participant … hereby agrees to submit any dispute arising from participation in the Programs, for which Participant intends to seek damages in excess of $75,000.00, to binding arbitration. . . . In the event that Participant . . . files a lawsuit in any court relating to, and/or arising from, Participant’s participation in the Programs, Participant . . . by signing this document, stipulate[s] to a cap on Participant’s damages of $75,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. As a threshold matter, the Panel, or the Court (if a lawsuit is filed), shall confirm whether [*6] the Waiver and Release contained in this Agreement are enforceable under applicable law. (Id.)

The agreement contains a severability clause stating that if any provision is invalidated, the remainder of the agreement will continue to be binding. Littlejohn signed the agreement prior to participating in the course.

II. Analysis

On March 27, 2015, TimberQuest filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking a declaration that the $75,000 damages cap contained in the arbitration clause is enforceable against Littlejohn. (Doc. 44.) Littlejohn opposed the motion on the grounds that the damages cap violates public policy and is procedurally and substantively unconscionable. (Doc. 45.) Littlejohn filed a cross-motion for summary judgment seeking to have the waiver, assumption of risk, release and indemnity provisions of the agreement declared void and unenforceable as well. (Doc. 46.) In response, TimberQuest filed a cross-motion for summary judgment arguing that the agreement is enforceable and all of Littlejohn’s claims should be dismissed because he released TimberQuest from liability for negligence by signing the agreement. (Doc. 52.)

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate [*7] where “the movant shows 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). In considering a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986).

B. Enforceability of Provisions Regarding Waiver of Claims, Release, Assumption of Risks from Negligence, and Indemnity

The enforceability of a contract provision providing for the waiver of a customer’s claims for negligence arising out of recreational activities is a matter of Vermont law. It is governed by four Vermont Supreme Court cases which seek to define the circumstances under which a business may contract out of liability for its own negligent conduct.

The leading case remains Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd., 164 Vt. 329, 670 A.2d 795 (Vt. 1995), in which the Vermont Supreme Court rejected the exculpatory language in ski tickets issued by the Killington ski resort to its customers. The court reviewed the criteria announced by the California Supreme Court in Tunkl v. Regents of University of California, 60 Cal. 2d 92, 32 Cal. Rptr. 33, 383 P.2d 441 (Cal. 1963),1 and identified the longstanding rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises as the basis on which to strike the exculpatory provisions in the ticket. Dalury, 670 A.2d at 799. The decision [*8] recognized that the ski area–and not the skiers–had the expertise and opportunity to foresee and control hazards and to reduce negligent conduct by its employees.

1 The Tunkl decision identified the following list of characteristics which may violate the public interest:

It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established standards. As a result of the essential nature of the service, in the economic setting of the transaction, the party invoking exculpation possesses a decisive advantage of bargaining strength against any member of the public who seeks his services. In exercising a superior bargaining power the party confronts the public with a standardized adhesion contract of exculpation, and makes no provision whereby a purchaser may pay additional reasonable fees and obtain protection against negligence. Finally, [*9] as a result of the transaction, the person or property of the purchaser is placed under the control of the seller, subject to the risk of carelessness by the seller or his agents.

Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46.

The Dalury decision did not depend upon a determination that skiing was an essential industry or service. “Whether or not [the ski resort] provide[s] an essential public service does not resolve the public policy question in the recreational sports context.” Id. Skiing is not like taking a cab or visiting the hospital–services for which there may be no substitute and which are necessary to everyday life. Rather, the decision rests upon two related principles: the business is open to the general public without regard to special training or ability and the premises owner is in the best position to assure the safety of visitors. These principles have remained unchanged in the cases which have followed Dalury.

The first was Spencer v. Killington, Ltd., 167 Vt. 137, 702 A.2d 35, 37 (Vt. 1997), in which the exculpatory language used as a condition for entering an amateur ski race was not enforced for the same reasons the court had expressed two years before in Dalury. The dissent identified the fault line in the doctrine:

There is a significant difference between the expectations of the general [*10] public, which has a right to assume reasonable care on the part of the ski area operator, and a ski racer who consciously undertakes risks that he or she knows may strain or exceed the tolerance of any safety system.

Id. at 38 (Allen, C.J., dissenting). Over time this distinction between members of the general public and people engaging in high-risk sports would become more marked.

In Thompson v. Hi Tech Motor Sports, Inc., 183 Vt. 218, 945 A.2d 368, 372 (Vt. 2008), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of a liability waiver on public policy grounds.2 The case concerned a customer at a motorcycle dealership who was injured on her test ride. The court distinguished the policy concerns at issue in Dalury, explaining that “whereas public policy places the burden of maintaining safe premises on a landowner, public policy concerning motorcycle safety places the burden of safe driving on the operator of the motorcycle.” Id. The court also determined that motorcycle dealerships do not provide a necessary service. Id. at 373. In this respect, the case followed Dalury. In contrast to skiers, however, the customer operated the motorcycle on the public road. There were no business premises relevant to the case. The decision also compared motorcyclists to customers of skydive [*11] companies, underwater diving schools, and mountain guiding services–high-risk sports for people with special skills. Id. Further, unlike the ski area in Dalury, the motorcycle dealership only allowed licensed motorcycle drivers with sufficient experience and training to take its motorcycles out for a ride. Id.

2 Although the waiver provision was held not to be void on public policy grounds, the court concluded that the provision failed release the defendant from liability for negligence because the language was ambiguous. Id. at 375.

Finally, in Provoncha v. Vermont Motorcross Association, 185 Vt. 473, 974 A.2d 1261, 1267 (Vt. 2009), the exculpatory language for an off-road motorcycle racing club was enforced because the activities were “neither of great importance to the public nor open to the public at large.” The majority distinguished the case from Dalury because the premises where the accident occurred was a private racetrack open only to members of a small club of 300 members. Id. The general public was not permitted to ride. The decision also drew a parallel to the enforcement of similar provisions in cases involving parachute jumping, stock car racing, scuba diving, and mountaineering–all sports which were said not to be matters of legitimate public interest. Id.

All four [*12] cases call for a flexible case-specific analysis of the factors originally identified in the Dalury decision. Of these, the least significant is whether a recreational activity is necessary to society. Few of them are. Not surprisingly, skiing and motorcycle riding–the two activities which generated the four decisions–were both found to be inessential to daily life. The factors which were most consistently applied were whether the defendant was in control of the location where the injury occurred and whether these premises were open to the general public. When these factors are present–as in Dalury and Spencer–the exculpatory clauses are not enforced. When these factors are absent–as in Thompson and Provoncha–the exculpatory clauses are likely to be enforced.

The court is not persuaded by TimberQuest’s argument that the Dalury case is on its last legs and will not survive much longer. Although the result was different in Thompson and Provoncha, neither case suggested that any member of the Vermont Supreme Court sought to discard the rule announced in Dalury. Instead, the debate from both sides concerned the differences between activities open to the general public and the more risky [*13] pursuits of riding motorcycles, skydiving, scuba diving and mountaineering, all of which generally take place in settings that are not under the control of the business operators.

The remaining factors set out in Tunkl had no particular application in Dalury and the subsequent cases and have little in this case either. These include whether the activity is suitable for public regulation, whether the business enjoys unequal bargaining strength as a result of its essential nature, and whether the contract is one of adhesion. Tunkl, 383 P.2d at 445-46. Although ski lifts are regulated, see 31 V.S.A. §§ 701-12, the downhill experience is not. Neither are rope courses or motorcycle races. Although a person who sought to negotiate the terms of his ski ticket or his adventure course ticket might not be admitted, in the absence of any necessity the customer can always walk away, which gives him or her some degree of economic strength. And all of the contracts involved in these cases–whether enforced or not–were preprinted contracts of adhesion which appeared on tickets and entrance forms.

Before leaving the Dalury factors, the court must consider one final factor which is heavily relied upon by the defendants. This factor arises from [*14] the language in Dalury that thousands of skiers visit Killington every day, 670 A.2d at 799, while only a few come to TimberQuest’s zip-line course. In the course of discovery, TimberQuest’s owner estimated that he has 1000 visitors a season–the number he put down on his worker’s compensation insurance application. (Doc. 52-6 at 3.) He does not actually have a real count. Assuming a 100-day season, this amounts to ten visitors each day or one or two visitors per hour. (The estimate may not be very reliable, but it is the only number in the record.) The defense argues that a small business which is open to the public should receive treatment which is different from a large business. Although the court has reviewed the language in the Dalury decision about the thousands of daily visitors, the court is not convinced that the size of the business alone plays a significant role in whether the exculpatory clause in the ticket should be enforced.

As this discussion indicates, the court is satisfied that attending a zip-line program is more like visiting a ski area than like taking part in a specialized high-risk sport which requires skill and experience. Like the ski area, the zip-line sells tickets to all [*15] comers (subject to age and weight restrictions not relevant here.) It requires no prior training. As an excerpt from the website furnished by defendant indicates, this is a recreational activity open to all without restriction:

TimberQuest is an exhilarating treetop adventure course for the entire family. We have over 20 zip lines and 75 challenges of varying difficulty. Challenges include rope bridges, ladders, cargo nets, and even a course for younger children. Customers are always clipped into a safety guide wire and friendly trained staff provide[] assistance from the ground. (Doc. 52-4 at 5.)

The course is designed and controlled by defendants. There is no indication in the record that anyone needs to learn to use the course beyond an initial training class offered at the park. (Doc. 52-4 at 14.) It is even more open to the public than skiing, which typically involves beginner’s lessons and some degree of acquired skill. The zip-line course requires no such training or skill.

This court’s decision to invalidate the exculpatory clause on public policy grounds falls within the principles laid down by the Vermont Supreme Court in Dalury and the later cases. It recognizes the longstanding [*16] rule that business owners are responsible for the safety of their premises. It also recognizes the expectation that a recreational activity which is open to the general public will be reasonably safe for use by all users. In other words, the business cannot contract out of liability for negligence in the design, maintenance and operation of its business premises.

For these reasons, the court will not enforce the exculpatory language on the public policy grounds first identified in Dalury.

C. Assumption of Risk and Indemnity

Littlejohn seeks to invalidate the assumption-of-risk provision in the agreement. The court has already concluded that the first sentence of this provision, which states that by signing the agreement the participant agrees to assume all risks of participating in the adventure course including those caused by TimberQuest’s negligence, is invalid.

However, Littlejohn’s argument does not specifically address the second sentence of this provision, which states that “[t]he Participant … understand[s] that there are inherent risks of participating in the Programs and using the Equipment, which may be both foreseen and unforeseen and include serious physical injury and death.” (Doc. 44-3 [*17] at 2.) Under Vermont law, “a person who takes part in any sport accepts as a matter of law the dangers that inhere therein insofar as they are obvious and necessary.” 12 V.S.A. § 1037. This defense remains viable even if the defendant’s exculpatory agreement is found to be void as contrary to public policy. Spencer, 702 A.2d at 38. This provision of the agreement remains valid and TimberQuest is free to assert assumption of risk as a defense.

There is no third-party claim against TimberQuest for indemnity. The court does not address this issue.

D. Enforceability of Arbitration Clause

After disposing of the exculpatory clause, the court considers the enforceability of the arbitration clause.

As drafted, the clause works in the following way: a claimant seeking damages in excess of $75,000 is required to proceed to binding arbitration. Claims of $75,000 or less are not subject to arbitration. The arbitration panel is composed of three members. Each side chooses one member. The two members then select the third, who must be “an officer or director of any entity that operates an aerial adventure park with zip lines in the United States.” (Doc. 52-4 at 31.) If the first two panel members cannot agree on a third, a judge within the District of Vermont shall appoint [*18] the third member “utilizing the selection criteria for the neutral as set forth above.” (Id.)

Littlejohn challenges this provision on the following grounds. First, he argues that the provision is procedurally unconscionable because it is contained in small print in a contract of adhesion that was presented to him well after he paid for his tickets. Second, he maintains that the arbitration clause is substantively unconscionable because the third arbitrator is required to be an officer or director of another company that operates a zip-line course, thus tilting the arbitration panel in favor of TimberQuest. Finally, he argues that the arbitration clause lacks mutuality because it has no application to a claim by TimberQuest against a customer.

The first issue is what law governs this dispute. Both the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, and the Vermont Arbitration Act, 12 V.S.A. §§ 5651-5681, apply to this arbitration agreement which was formed in Vermont and which the defendant seeks to enforce in Vermont. When the two statutes differ, the federal provision preempts state law. See David L. Threlkeld & Co., Inc. v. Metallgesellschaft Ltd. (London), 923 F.2d 245, 249-50 (2d Cir. 1991) (holding that FAA preempts VAA); Little v. Allstate Ins. Co., 167 Vt. 171, 705 A.2d 538, 540 (Vt. 1997) (same). The claims of unconscionability raised by Littlejohn, however, are matters arising under state [*19] substantive law and are enforced in the same way under either the federal or state arbitration acts. See 9 U.S.C. § 2 (stating agreements to arbitrate “shall be valid, in-evocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract”); AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1746, 179 L. Ed. 2d 742 (2011) (explaining that final phrase of § 2 provides that agreements to arbitrate may be invalidated by generally applicable state-law contract defenses such as fraud, duress, or unconscionability). In considering issues of both procedural unconscionability relating to the form of the contract to arbitrate and substantive unconscionability relating to its content, the court is guided by Vermont decisional law where it is available.

Littlejohn’s claim of procedural unconscionability is unconvincing. Unlike the provisions at issue in Glassford v. BrickKicker, 191 Vt. 1, 35 A.3d 1044, 1053 (Vt. 2011), the arbitration provision is on the middle of the page, directly under the waiver provisions and is prefaced with a conspicuous header stating “Arbitration.” The print is normal-sized. The customer’s signature line is on the second page, giving him an opportunity to read the text before signing. Although the agreement was presented to Littlejohn as a preprinted contract with no real opportunity [*20] to negotiate the terms, he could have declined to participate in the course and requested his money back if he objected to the arbitration provision. This was not a contract for a necessary service such as home inspection where the weaker party was “at the mercy” of the drafter. See id. at 1052. As the Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly pointed out, “unequal bargaining power alone will not nullify a contract.” Maglin v. Tschannerl, 174 Vt. 39, 800 A.2d 486, 490 (Vt. 2002).

Littlejohn also argues that the arbitration agreement was procedurally unconscionable because he was presented with it upon arrival at TimberQuest, more than three weeks after his companion paid for the tickets, and was not warned in advance that he would have to sign it. This argument was based on his attorney’s mistaken belief that the TimberQuest website did not warn customers prior to payment that they would be required to sign the agreement. However, at oral argument the parties agreed that on the payment page, under Terms and Conditions/Liability Waiver, the website displayed the following message: “All participants MUST sign a release and waiver of claims/indemnification agreement at check-in.” Customers were required to check a box stating “I agree” in order to purchase their [*21] tickets. This provided sufficient constructive warning to Littlejohn through his friend who actually bought the tickets that he would have to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. Further, this was not the first time that Littlejohn had encountered a recreational liability agreement. As he testified at his deposition, “[w]e did sign a release, but that’s standard to me” since he was often required to sign similar forms at ski areas. (Doc. 44-4 at 4.)

Turning to Littlejohn’s argument of substantive unconscionability, it is obvious that the requirement that the “neutral arbitrator” be drawn from the ranks of the zip-line industry is unfair. It is no more than a requirement that the arbitration be conducted among friends–or at least people who share the same concerns about defending against claims by injured customers. Courts have long refused to enforce arbitration clauses which call for the appointment of panel members who are likely to harbor a bias in favor of one side or another. See Halligan v. Piper Jaffray, Inc., 148 F.3d 197, 202 (2d. Cir. 1998) (discussing possibility of institutional bias due to industry influence over selection of arbitration panel); Rosenberg v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 995 F. Supp. 190, 209 (D. Mass. 1998) (listing cases). TimberQuest’s suggestion that a member of the same industry [*22] will be biased against TimberQuest because he or she will be a competitor willing to do harm to a rival company demonstrates only that the arbitration clause requires the choice of someone likely to hold some form of bias or self-interest–maybe for TimberQuest and maybe against.

The contract between the parties includes a severability clause: “To the extent that any portion of this Agreement is deemed to be invalid under the law of the applicable jurisdiction, the remaining portions of the Agreement shall remain binding and available for use by the Host and its counsel in any proceeding.” (Doc. 52-4 at 32.) Setting aside for a moment the one-sided nature of this clause–“available for use by the Host and its counsel”–the severability clause authorizes the court to reform the arbitration provision by striking the requirement that the neutral be drawn from the zip-line industry and providing for the more conventional selection of a genuinely neutral arbitrator by the other two panel members with provision for selection of a third by the court in the event of a deadlock.

The court will enforce the severability clause to strike the provision requiring the choice of a “neutral” arbitrator [*23] who is likely to hold a bias in favor of the zip-line industry. The remaining question is the issue of mutuality.

Some courts have found arbitration clauses in contracts of adhesion that required one party to go to arbitration but imposed no similar obligation on the other party to be unconscionable. See, e.g., Iberia Credit Bureau, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 379 F.3d 159, 170-71 (5th Cir. 2004) (holding arbitration clause in cellular telephone customer service agreement was unconscionable under Louisiana law because it required customer but not provider to arbitrate all claims); Abramson v. Juniper Networks, Inc., 115 Cal. App. 4th 638, 9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422, 437 (Cal. Ct. App. 2004) (“When only the weaker party’s claims are subject to arbitration, and there is no reasonable justification for that lack of symmetry, the agreement lacks the requisite degree of mutuality.”).

However, this appears to be a minority position. The Second Circuit has rejected the argument that an arbitration clause is void for lack of mutuality where it only requires one party to submit all claims to arbitration. In Doctor’s Associates, Inc. v. Distajo, 66 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 1995), the court held that an arbitration clause in a franchise agreement was not void for lack of mutuality under Connecticut law, even though the clause required the franchisees to submit all controversies to arbitration while reserving to the franchisor the right to seek summary eviction [*24] against the franchisees. The court explained that mutuality was “not an issue.” Id. at 451. Under modern contract law, the doctrine of “mutuality of obligation,” which requires that a contract be based on reciprocal promises, is no longer required so long as the agreement as a whole is supported by consideration. Id. (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 79 (1979)). The court rejected the idea that the arbitration clause must be considered as a separate contract within a contract, supported by its own consideration. Id. at 452. Likewise, the court held that the doctrine of “mutuality of remedy,” which provides that a “plaintiff shall not get specific enforcement unless the defendant could also have obtained it,” is also defunct and did not support the franchisees’ argument. Id. at 453 (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 363 cmt. c. (1979)). Because the agreement to arbitrate was part of a larger contract which was supported by consideration, it did not fail for lack of mutuality.

Other circuits have reached similar conclusions. See Soto v. State Indus. Prods., Inc., 642 F.3d 67, 77 (1st Cir. 2011) (applying Puerto Rico law); Harris v. Green Tree Fin. Corp., 183 F.3d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 1999) (applying Pennsylvania law); Barker v. Golf U.S.A., Inc., 154 F.3d 788, 791 (8th Cir. 1998) (applying Oklahoma law); see also Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Najd, 294 F.3d 1104, 1108 (9th Cir. 2002) (applying California law and holding that employer’s promise to be bound by arbitration process was sufficient consideration for employee’s agreement [*25] to arbitrate); Michalski v. Circuit City Stores, Inc., 177 F.3d 634, 636 (7th Cir. 1999) (applying Wisconsin law and reaching same conclusion as Najd).

Vermont courts have not specifically addressed whether an arbitration clause may be void for lack of mutuality. Vermont contract law does not otherwise require parties to an agreement to have equivalent obligations for the agreement to be valid. See H.P. Hood & Sons v. Heins, 124 Vt. 331, 205 A.2d 561, 566 (Vt. 1964) (“[T]here is no requirement that the option of one promisor must be coextensive with the privilege of termination extended to the counter-promisor.”). “Even if one party has options not provided to the other party … the contract is not per se unsupported by consideration. Rather, a contract is incomplete only if one party’s obligations are so attenuated as to render consideration merely illusory.” Petition of Dep’t of Pub. Serv., 157 Vt. 120, 596 A.2d 1303, 1309 (Vt. 1991) (Morse, J., dissenting); Restatement (Second) of Contracts§ 79 (1981) (“If the requirement of consideration is met, there is no additional requirement of … ‘mutuality of obligation.'”). The FAA would preempt Vermont from imposing such a requirement only in the case of arbitration provisions. See AT&T Mobility LLC, 131 S. Ct. at 1741. Given that Vermont law strongly favors arbitration, Union Sch. Dist. No. 45 v. Wright & Morrissey, Inc., 183 Vt. 555, 945 A.2d 348, 354 (Vt. 2007), the court concludes that mutuality is not required in order for the arbitration provision to be enforceable.

Littlejohn argues that the agreement was unsupported [*26] by consideration because he was forced to sign it weeks after he had paid for the tickets. This argument is without merit. “[A]ny performance which is bargained for is consideration.” Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 72 (1981). TimberQuest’s performance in this case was allowing Littlejohn to use its adventure zip-line course. In exchange, Littlejohn’s friend paid for their tickets. Upon arrival at the park, he promised that he would submit his claims to arbitration or agree to limit his recovery in court to $75,000. As noted above, the payment page required Littlejohn to agree to sign the agreement prior to participating in the course. “In other words, defendant’s offer of services did not extend to anyone who did not sign the Agreement.” Mero v. City Segway Tours of Washington DC, LLC, 962 F. Supp. 2d 92, 103 (D.D.C. 2013) (holding that liability waiver signed by plaintiff who paid for Segway tour in advance was supported by consideration in form of defendant’s provision of Segway and guided tour where confirmation email warned that he would have to sign liability waiver prior to tour). Thus, Littlejohn’s promise was supported by consideration.

As reformed by the court, the arbitration provision is valid. Under the agreement, there is no cap on damages if the participant chooses to go to arbitration. If [*27] the participant chooses to go to court, he or she agrees to seek $75,000 or less in damages. This court only has jurisdiction over a diversity case if the amount in controversy “exceeds the sum or value of $75,000.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). This provision is strictly construed, and does not extend jurisdiction to a claim for an even $75,000. Salis v. Am. Export Lines, 331 Fed. Appx. 811, 814 (2d Cir. 2009); Matherson v. Long Island State Park Comm’n, 442 F.2d 566, 568 (2d Cir. 1971). Thus, Littlejohn may not bring suit in this court. The court accordingly dismisses plaintiff’s negligence claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.

III. Conclusion

For the reasons stated above, defendant TimberQuest’s motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 44) is GRANTED. TimberQuest’s cross-motion for summary judgment dismissing all claims (Doc. 52) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 46) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The case is dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction without prejudice to plaintiff’s right to demand arbitration.

Dated at Rutland, in the District of Vermont, this 20th day of July, 2015.

/s/ Geoffrey W. Crawford

Geoffrey W. Crawford, Judge

United States District Court


States that do not Support the Use of a Release

Assumption of the risk is your best defense in these states

These states do not allow a recreational business or program to use a release to stop litigation.

State

Citation

Issues

Releases are Void

Louisiana

C.C. Art. 2004 (2005)

Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for intentional or gross fault that causes damage to the other party. Any clause is null that, in advance, excludes or limits the liability of one party for causing physical injury to the other party.

Montana

MCA § 27-1-701

Liability for negligence as well as willful acts. Except as otherwise provided by law, everyone is responsible not only for the results of his willful acts but also for an injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person except so far as the latter has willfully or by want of ordinary care brought the injury upon himself.

Virginia

Johnson’s Adm’x v. Richmond and Danville R.R. Co., 86 Va. 975, 11 S.E. 829 (1890)

Except for Equine Activities Chapter 62.  Equine Activity Liability § 3.2-6202.  Liability limited; liability actions prohibited

Use of a Release is Restricted

Arizona

Phelps v. Firebird Raceway, Inc., 2005 Ariz. LEXIS 53

 

New Mexico

Berlangieri v. Running Elk Corporation, 132 N.M. 332;2002 NMCA 60;48

P.3d 70;2002 N.M. App. 39;41 N.M. St. B. Bull. 25

 

West Virginia

Kyriazis v. University of West Virginia; 192 W. Va. 60; 450 S.E.2d 649;

1994 W. Va. LEXIS 161

 

Use of Releases is Probably Void

Connecticut

Hanks v. Powder Ridge Restaurant Corp., 276 Conn. 314, 885 A.2d 734 (2005) and Reardon v. Windswept Farm, LLC, Et Al., 280 Conn. 153; 905 A.2d 1156; 2006

Conn. LEXIS 330

 

Oregon

Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor, Inc., dba Mt. Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort, 2014 Ore. LEXIS 994

Oregon Supreme Court finds release signed at ski area is void as a violation of public policy.

Wisconsin

Atkins v. Swimwest Family Fitness Center, 2005 WI 4; 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 2

Wisconsin decision has left the status of release law in Wisconsin in jeopardy

Vermont

Dalury v. S-K-I, Ltd, 164 Vt 329; 670 A.2d 795; 1995 Vt. Lexis 127

 

Specific uses of Releases are Void

Alaska

Sec. 05.45.120(a).  Use of liability releases

A ski area operator may not require a skier to sign an agreement releasing the ski area operator from liability in exchange for the right to ride a ski area tramway and ski in the ski area. A release that violates this subsection is void and may not be enforced.

Hawaii

King v. CJM Country Stables, 315 F. Supp. 2d 1061, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7511 (D. Haw. 2004)

Found that Hawaii statute § 663-1.54. Recreational activity liability prevented the use of a release

New York

General Obligation Law § 5-326. Agreements exempting pools, gymnasiums, places of public amusement or recreation and similar establishments from liability for negligence void and unenforceable

Every covenant, agreement or understanding in or in connection with, or collateral to, any contract, membership application, ticket of admission or similar writing, entered into between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities, which exempts the said owner or operator from liability for damages caused by or resulting from the negligence of the owner, operator or person in charge of such establishment, or their agents, servants or employees, shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.

 

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To sue a Vermont ski area, there must be more than a web presence to sue in New York.

Plaintiff injured at Killington ski area tried to sue Killington in New York court because Killington had a website that the New York plaintiff could access online. New York’s long arm statute requires more than a website to bring a foreign defendant to a New York court.

Haffner, et al., v Killington, Ltd., 119 A.D.3d 912; 990 N.Y.S.2d 561; 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5452; 2014 NY Slip Op 05522

State: New York, Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Second Department

Plaintiff: Claudia Mejia-Haffner and her husband, Steven R. Haffner

Defendant: Killington, Ltd.

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: The court had no personal jurisdiction over it.

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2014

The plaintiff was a resident of New York. The defendant is a ski area in Vermont. The plaintiff signed up for a ski race camp at the defendant’s ski area online through a third party American Ski Racing Association. The ski race camp was taught at Killington by Killington employees.

During the camp the plaintiff was instructed to try turning with her boots unbuckled. She did, falling and injuring herself. She and her husband sued Killington in a New York court. The trial court dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction over the defendant Killington.

The plaintiff’s appealed.

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

The court first reviewed the requirements of the New York Long Arm Statute and what is required to bring a foreign, non-New York, defendant into a New York courtroom.

A foreign corporation is amenable to suit in New York courts under CPLR 301 if it has engaged in such a continuous and systematic course of doing business’ here that a finding of its presence’ in this jurisdiction is warranted” Mere solicitation of business within New York will not subject a defendant to New York’s jurisdiction Instead, a plaintiff asserting jurisdiction under CPLR 301 must satisfy the standard of “solicitation plus,” which requires a showing of ” activities of substance in addition to solicitation'” (

A long-arm statute is the law that outlines under that state’s law the amount of presence a foreign defendant must have and how a foreign defendant can be brought into the state and sued.

Advertising alone is not enough to establish jurisdiction in New York. The foreign defendant must engage in substantial activity within the state.

…the section of New York’s long-arm statute at issue in this case, grants New York courts jurisdiction over nondomiciliaries when the action arises out of the nondomiciliaries’ “transact[ion of] any business within the state or contract [] . . . to supply goods or services in the state”

For substantial activity to occur, the acts within the state must be purposeful.

Purposeful activities are those with which a defendant, through volitional acts, avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws

Obviously purposeful will have a different definition and result for a manufacturer than for an outfitter. That means a manufacturer knows its products will be in the state, versus an outfitter who will be guiding its guests someplace out of state. Knowing your product will be sold inside the state increases the amount of activity according to the courts.

Based on the allegations in the complaint and the statements in the injured plaintiff’s affidavit, there is no substantial relationship between Killington’s maintenance of a website through which a person in New York could purchase services and the alleged tort that occurred. Such allegations are “too remote from [Killington’s] alleged sales and promotional activities to support long-arm jurisdiction under CPLR 302(a)(1)”

The court affirmed the trial court decision and dismissed Killington from the case.

So Now What?

Jurisdiction, whether a court has the ability to bring a defendant in front of it so that its orders are binding on the defendant varies by state. Therefore, you need to understand what states you may be brought into court in and how. In New York, this decision indicates it is not as easy as in other states.

If the plaintiff’s wants to sue Killington, they will have to go and sue in Vermont. That places a substantial burden on the plaintiff to find an attorney in Vermont and to finance litigation in Vermont. Jurisdiction can be a very effective defense against a lawsuit.

Here Killington did not do enough to be brought into a New York court.

What was not brought into the case was whether the plaintiff’s had signed a release? However, Vermont has been anti release with the ski industry so a release may have limited value.  Maybe only of value for use in an out of the state court.

Other Articles on Jurisdiction

A Recent Colorado Supreme Court Decision lowers the requirements to be brought into the state to defend a lawsuit.                                                                                                     http://rec-law.us/zfpK8Z

Buy something online and you may not have any recourse if it breaks or you are hurt    http://rec-law.us/1rOEUQP

Four releases signed and all of them thrown out because they lacked one simple sentence!     http://rec-law.us/vZoa7x

Jurisdiction and Venue (Forum Selection clauses) are extremely important in your releases.    http://rec-law.us/1ggLMWR

Jurisdiction in Massachusetts allows a plaintiff to bring in Salomon France to the local court.   http://rec-law.us/zdE1uk

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Haffner, et al., v Killington, Ltd., 119 A.D.3d 912; 990 N.Y.S.2d 561; 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5452; 2014 NY Slip Op 05522

Haffner, et al., v Killington, Ltd., 119 A.D.3d 912; 990 N.Y.S.2d 561; 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5452; 2014 NY Slip Op 05522

Claudia Mejia-Haffner, et al., appellants, v Killington, Ltd., respondent, et al., defendants. (Index No. 30370/10)

2012-02569

SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, APPELLATE DIVISION, SECOND DEPARTMENT

119 A.D.3d 912; 990 N.Y.S.2d 561; 2014 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5452; 2014 NY Slip Op 05522

July 30, 2014, Decided

COUNSEL: [***1] Gordon & Haffner, LLP, Bayside, N.Y. (Steven R. Haffner, Pro se, of counsel), for appellants.

Ryan Smith & Carbine, P.C., Glens Falls, N.Y. (Mark F. Werle of counsel), for respondent.

JUDGES: MARK C. DILLON, J.P., THOMAS A. DICKERSON, LEONARD B. AUSTIN, SANDRA L. SGROI, JJ. DILLON, J.P., DICKERSON, AUSTIN and SGROI, JJ., concur.

OPINION

[**562] [*912] DECISION & ORDER

In an action, inter alia, to recover damages for personal injuries, etc., the plaintiffs appeal from an order of the Supreme Court, Queens County (Grays, J.), dated December 19, 2011, which granted the motion of the defendant Killington, Ltd., for summary judgment dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against it.

ORDERED that the order is affirmed, with costs.

The plaintiff Claudia Mejia-Haffner and her husband, the plaintiff Steven R. Haffner, enrolled in a ski racing instructional camp operated by Killington/Pico Ski Resort Partners, LLC, sued herein as Killington, Ltd. (hereinafter Killington), at Killington’s ski resort in Vermont. The plaintiffs made their reservations through the American Ski Racing Association. While participating in the camp, Mejia-Haffner (hereinafter the injured plaintiff) was injured, and the plaintiffs commenced this action [***2] against, among others, Killington.

Killington moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against it on the ground, inter alia, that it was not subject to personal jurisdiction in New York. The Supreme Court granted Killington’s motion for summary judgment finding, among other things, that New York did not have jurisdiction over Killington.

[**563] [HN1] “A foreign corporation is amenable to suit in New York courts under CPLR 301 if it has engaged in such a continuous and systematic course of doing business’ here that a finding of its presence’ in this jurisdiction is warranted” (Landoil Resources Corp. v Alexander & Alexander Servs., 77 NY2d 28, 33, 565 N.E.2d 488, 563 N.Y.S.2d 739, quoting Laufer v Ostrow, 55 NY2d 305, 309-310, 434 N.E.2d 692, 449 N.Y.S.2d 456; see [*913] Cardone v Jiminy Peak, 245 AD2d 1002, 1003, 667 N.Y.S.2d 82; Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d 709, 710, 612 N.Y.S.2d 643). [HN2] Mere solicitation of business within New York will not subject a defendant to New York’s jurisdiction (see Cardone v Jiminy Peak, 245 AD2d at 1003; Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d at 710). Instead, a plaintiff asserting jurisdiction under CPLR 301 must satisfy the standard of “solicitation plus,” which requires a showing of ” activities of substance in addition to solicitation'” (Arroyo v Mountain School, 68 AD3d 603, 604, 892 N.Y.S.2d 74, quoting Laufer v Ostrow, 55 NY2d at 310; see Cardone v Jiminy Peak, 245 AD2d at 1003; Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d at 710).

Even assuming that Killington engaged in substantial advertising in New York, as the plaintiffs claim, the plaintiffs have not demonstrated that Killington also engaged in substantial activity within this State sufficient to satisfy the solicitation-plus standard. Contrary [***3] to the plaintiffs’ contention, this Court’s decision in Grimaldi v Guinn (72 AD3d 37, 49-50, 895 N.Y.S.2d 156) does not stand for the principle that a business’s interactive website, accessible in New York, subjects it to suit in this State for all purposes. Instead, the Grimaldi decision stands only for the more limited principle that [HN3] a website may support specific jurisdiction in New York where the claim asserted has some relationship to the business transacted via the website (see id.; see also Paterno v Laser Spine Inst., 112 AD3d 34, 973 N.Y.S.2d 681). Here, even Killington’s alleged substantial solicitation in New York constitutes no more than solicitation (see Cardone v Jiminy Peak, 245 AD2d at 1004; see also Arroyo v Mountain School, 68 AD3d at 603-604; Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d at 710; Chamberlain v Jiminy Peak, 155 AD2d 768, 547 N.Y.S.2d 706).

[HN4] CPLR 302(a)(1), the section of New York’s long-arm statute at issue in this case, grants New York courts jurisdiction over nondomiciliaries when the action arises out of the nondomiciliaries’ “transact[ion of] any business within the state or contract [] . . . to supply goods or services in the state” (CPLR 302[a][1]). [HN5] Pursuant to CPLR 302(a)(1), jurisdiction is proper “even though the defendant never enters New York, so long as the defendant’s activities here were purposeful and there is a substantial relationship between the transaction and the claim asserted” (Fischbarg v Doucet, 9 NY3d 375, 380, 880 N.E.2d 22, 849 N.Y.S.2d 501 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Deutsche Bank Sec., Inc. v Montana Bd. of Invs., 7 NY3d 65, 71, 850 N.E.2d 1140, 818 N.Y.S.2d 164; Kreutter v McFadden Oil Corp., 71 NY2d 460, 467, 522 N.E.2d 40, 527 N.Y.S.2d 195; Muse Collections, Inc. v Carissima Bijoux, Inc., 86 AD3d 631, 927 N.Y.S.2d 389). “Purposeful activities are those [***4] with which a defendant, through volitional acts, avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within [*914] the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws'” (Fischbarg v Doucet, 9 NY3d at 380, [**564] quoting McKee Elec. Co. v Rauland-Borg Corp., 20 NY2d 377, 382, 229 N.E.2d 604, 283 N.Y.S.2d 34; see Grimaldi v Guinn, 72 AD3d at 44; Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d at 710).

[HN6] Although a plaintiff is not required to plead and prove personal jurisdiction in the complaint (see Fischbarg v Doucet, 9 NY3d at 381 n 5; Halas v Dick’s Sporting Goods, 105 AD3d 1411, 964 N.Y.S.2d 808; Cadle Co. v Ayala, 47 AD3d 919, 920, 850 N.Y.S.2d 563; Ying Jun Chen v Lei Shi, 19 AD3d 407, 407-408, 796 N.Y.S.2d 126), where jurisdiction is contested, the ultimate burden of proof rests upon the plaintiff (see Halas v Dick’s Sporting Goods, 105 AD3d at 1411; Arroyo v Mountain School, 68 AD3d at 604; Shore Pharm. Providers, Inc. v Oakwood Care Ctr., Inc., 65 AD3d 623, 624, 885 N.Y.S.2d 88; Stardust Dance Prods., Ltd. v Cruise Groups Intl., Inc., 63 AD3d 1262, 1264, 881 N.Y.S.2d 192; Ying Jun Chen v Lei Shi, 19 AD3d at 407; Armouth Intl. v Haband Co., 277 AD2d 189, 190, 715 N.Y.S.2d 438).

Here, the plaintiffs alleged that Killington’s negligence stemmed from the injured plaintiff being injured after having been instructed by ski instructors to unbuckle her ski boots as part of a training exercise so that when she fell, her ski bindings failed to release. They also alleged that Killington was negligent due to the instructors’ failure to warn her of the dangers of such activity. Further, the injured plaintiff submitted an affidavit, in opposition to Killington’s motion, stating that her injury occurred when another skier ran over the tails of her skis, causing her to fall and her bindings to fail to release, since she had been skiing with her boots unbuckled as instructed and that she was unaware that skiing with her boots unbuckled would disable the ski bindings [***5] until she was informed of this information by the ski patrol. Based on the allegations in the complaint and the statements in the injured plaintiff’s affidavit, there is no substantial relationship between Killington’s maintenance of a website through which a person in New York could purchase services and the alleged tort that occurred. Such allegations are “too remote from [Killington’s] alleged sales and promotional activities to support long-arm jurisdiction under CPLR 302(a)(1)” (Sedig v Okemo Mtn., 204 AD2d at 710-711; see Meunier v Stebo, Inc., 38 AD2d 590, 591, 328 N.Y.S.2d 608). Thus, Killington is not subject to long-arm jurisdiction under CPLR 302(a)(1).

The plaintiffs’ contention that the complaint contains a breach of contract cause of action relating to their purchase of reservations in New York is improperly raised for the first time on appeal, and therefore is not properly before this Court.

[*915] Furthermore, contrary to their contention, the plaintiffs have not made ” a sufficient start'” to warrant holding the motion in abeyance while discovery is conducted on the issue of jurisdiction (Shore Pharm. Providers, Inc. v Oakwood Care Ctr., Inc., 65 AD3d at 624, quoting Peterson v Spartan Indus., 33 NY2d 463, 467, 310 N.E.2d 513, 354 N.Y.S.2d 905; see Amigo Foods Corp. v Marine Midland Bank-N.Y., 39 NY2d 391, 395, 348 N.E.2d 581, 384 N.Y.S.2d 124; Stardust Dance Prods., Ltd. v Cruise Groups Intl., Inc., 63 AD3d at 1265; Ying Jun Chen v Lei Shi, 19 AD3d at 408). The plaintiffs have not alleged facts which would support personal jurisdiction under either CPLR 301 or under CPLR 302(a)(1), and thus have failed to indicate how further discovery might lead to evidence showing [***6] that [**565] personal jurisdiction exists here (see Lang v Wycoff Hgts. Med. Ctr., 55 AD3d 793, 794, 866 N.Y.S.2d 313).

In light of the foregoing, we need not reach the parties’ remaining contentions.

DILLON, J.P., DICKERSON, AUSTIN and SGROI, JJ., concur.


There is no duty on the part of the ski patrol to play cop on the slopes

Skiers and Boarders who do not voluntarily provide their ID to the ski area cannot be “caught” by the patrol and there is no liability on the resort for not doing so.

O’Connell v. Killington, Ltd., 164 Vt. 73; 665 A.2d 39; 1995 Vt. LEXIS 74

Plaintiff: Mary Ryan O’Connell

Defendant: Killington, Ltd.

Plaintiff Claims: (1) failed to warn of the icy conditions on the trail, (2) failed to close the trail because of its dangerous condition and (3) failed to obtain the identity of the skier who had collided with plaintiff. Defendant denied those allegations and alleged that plaintiff’s injuries were the consequence of her assumption of the inherent risks of skiing.

Defendant Defenses: No Duty

Holding: for the defendant

In this case the plaintiff was stopped on the slope of the defendant ski area. While standing she was struck by another skier. The ski patrol arrived on scene along with the plaintiff’s sister. The plaintiff asked the ski patrol to get the name of the skier that hit her. The plaintiff’s sister spoke to the skier that collided with the plaintiff and asked him to go to the patrol station and identify himself.

The skier never did.

The plaintiff sued the ski area alleging the ski area:

(1)             failed to warn of the icy conditions on the trail,

(2)            failed to close the trail because of its dangerous condition and

(3)            failed to obtain the identity of the skier who had collided with plaintiff.

The basis for the failure to obtain the identity of the skier claim was based upon the defendant’s employee manual.

In its instructions to the jury on the failure-to-identify count, the court stated that the jury could find that defendant had assumed the duty to identify skiers involved in accidents based on its employee manual. This manual instructed defendant’s employees to investigate thoroughly all accidents and to obtain the identity of everyone involved. The court instructed the jury that, to decide defendant’s negligence on this count, it need determine only whether defendant had an opportunity to identify the other skier involved in the accident.

At the end of the trial the judge submitted the failure to warn and failure to identify claims to the jury.

The jury found for the plaintiff on both claims and awarded damages of $71,108.69.

The defendant appealed based on the following issues.

(1)             whether defendant had a duty to plaintiff to obtain the identity of the other skier who collided with her;

(2)            whether plaintiff’s failure-to-identify claim is precluded by the jury’s finding that the accident and injury were a result of one or more inherent risks in the sport of skiing; and

(3)            whether certain instructions to the jury were proper.

Summary of the case

After the accident and before the appeal the Vermont Legislature passed a statute stating that a ski area was not legally responsible for obtaining the name of any person involved in an accident.

12 V.S.A. § 1038(b), effective June 21, 1994, provides, in part:

(b) Collision at a ski area.

(1) Any person who is involved in a collision with a skier at a ski area which results in bodily injury to any party to the collision has a duty to provide his or her name and local and permanent address to the other parties to the collision and shall proceed to the ski area first aid facility and provide that information to the ski area first aid personnel.

(2) No ski area, its employees or agents shall be held responsible for ensuring compliance with these duties by any person, nor shall it be liable in any way for a failure to obtain such person’s name or address.

Because the statute was passed after the incident in this case, it did not apply to this case.

The Court looked at whether there was a common law (prior to statute) duty to on the ski area to do more than ask for the information. To do that the court reviewed how a duty is created in Vermont. “The imposition of a duty is “‘an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is entitled to protection.”

These factors may include the degree of certainty that plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between defendant’s conduct and plaintiff’s injury, the moral blame attached to defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the burden to the defendant, the con-sequences to the community of finding a duty, and the availability and cost of insurance.

The court analysis separated the separated physical harm, an injury, from economic harm, failure to find someone who may owe another money.

Thus, a possessor of land open to the general public has a duty to aid and protect a member of the public coming on the land against unreasonable risk of “physical harm” only. Physical harm does not include economic loss.

The court concluded: “Our review of the decisions from other jurisdictions indicates that, absent a special relationship or undertaking, there is no duty to protect another’s litigation interest.”

The court then looked at the duties of the ski patrol, which do not include the power to detain or apprehend. “Moreover, even if the ski area had a duty to identify, it would have only a limited ability to enforce that duty against an uncooperative skier.”

The main concern of defendant’s ski patrol employees is and should be to give emergency medical assistance, remove the injured skier safely from the mountainside, and obtain necessary medical care. We are reluctant to dilute these critical, emergency duties with a responsibility to pursue and identify another skier.

The plaintiff argued that the statements in the employee manual that establish procedures on how to deal with ski accident create a duty.

These procedures include completing an accident reporting form, obtaining names and addresses of witnesses to the accident, obtaining witness statements and recording observations at the accident scene. Plaintiff argues that these provisions amount to the voluntary assumption of a duty to investigate accidents, particularly skier collisions.

However the court did not agree with this argument.

…we do not believe that the manual provisions show the assumption of this responsibility. The manual makes clear that the investigatory responsibilities placed on employees are for the protection of defendant with respect to suits against it.

So Now What?

Ski Patrollers are the most over worked and underpaid (or volunteer) people on the slope. The last thing you want is to do is to turn the patrol from care givers to cops.

Make sure that no one interprets anything you have or do as an obligation or duty. No employee should be identified, unless they have a badge, to identify people on the slopes causing harm. Your marketing material should explain the law, but make sure you do not imply you can or will do anything else. Make sure your employee manuals and training do nothing more than explain the law. You can ask for identification. You can remove lift tickets and season passes. You cannot do anything more than take back your property. If you feel the need to do more, than call for lawful assistance.

No one on the slopes has the authority to detain, apprehend or arrest another person, unless they have a badge.

Don’t turn the people on the slope who are loved by all, ski patrollers, into people on the slope skiers and boarders should be wary of.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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O’Connell v. Killington, Ltd., 164 Vt. 73; 665 A.2d 39; 1995 Vt. LEXIS 74

O’Connell v. Killington, Ltd., 164 Vt. 73; 665 A.2d 39; 1995 Vt. LEXIS 74

Mary Ryan O’Connell v. Killington, Ltd.

No. 93-394

SUPREME COURT OF VERMONT

164 Vt. 73; 665 A.2d 39; 1995 Vt. LEXIS 74

August 4, 1995, Filed

HEADNOTES

1. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

A landowner’s duty does not extend to assisting the prosecution of claims arising from torts of third parties also using the land.

2. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

The main concern of defendant’s ski patrol employees is and should be to give emergency medical assistance, remove the injured skier safely from the mountainside, and obtain necessary medical care; court was reluctant to dilute these critical, emergency duties with a responsibility to pursue and identify another skier for purposes of an injured skier’s litigation.

3. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

The Legislature has provided, as of 1994, that a skier involved in a collision has the responsibility to provide his or her name and local and permanent address to the other parties to the collision, but has also made clear that the ski area has no duty to obtain that identification. 12 V.S.A. 1038(b).

4. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

Although ski area could voluntarily assume the duty to investigate accidents on behalf of injured skiers, ski area’s employee manual provisions did not show the assumption of this responsibility because the manual made clear that the investigatory responsibilities placed on employees were for the protection of the ski area with respect to suits against it – there was nothing to indicate that they were assumed as duties to third parties.

5. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

To the extent ski area’s policy intended that its employees identify colliding skiers to aid in litigation between them, the rationale of Larocque v. State Farm Insurance Co., 163 Vt. 617, 618, 660 A.2d 286, 288 (1995), that a policy directing employees to investigate claims did not create a duty to a particular claimant, was controlling and prevented use of defendant’s manual to create a negligence duty.

6. Torts – Generally – Existence of Duty

In personal injury case against ski area, although the proper meaning of the employee manual may have been a question of fact for the jury, if a duty were present under some construction of the manual, the threshold question of whether the manual, however construed, could give rise to a duty was for the court.

COUNSEL: Thomas M. French, Brattleboro, for plaintiff-appellee.

Allan R. Keyes and John J. Zawistoski of Ryan Smith & Carbine, Ltd., Rutland, for defendant-appellant.

JUDGES: PRESENT: Allen, C.J., Gibson, Dooley, Morse and Johnson, JJ.

OPINION BY: JOHN A. DOOLEY

OPINION

[*74] [**41] DOOLEY, J. Defendant ski area, Killington, Ltd., appeals from a negligence judgment against it based on defendant’s failure to identify an unknown skier with whom plaintiff, Mary Ryan O’Connell, collided while skiing. On appeal, defendant claims that it owed no duty to plaintiff to identify the other skier, that plaintiff’s claim is barred because the jury found that the accident resulted from an inherent risk of skiing, and that the court made errors in its charge to the jury. We reverse.

[*75] On January 12, 1990, plaintiff was skiing one of defendant’s most difficult trails. She stopped to rest at the edge of the trail and was struck by another skier who lost control on the ice at the center of the trail. One of [***2] defendant’s ski patrollers, along with plaintiff’s sister, arrived at the scene shortly after the collision. Plaintiff requested that they obtain the name of the other skier. While the ski patroller was occupied with evaluating and stabilizing plaintiff’s injury, plaintiff’s sister spoke to the other skier, and requested that he follow plaintiff to the patrol station and identify himself. The skier failed to arrive at the patrol station as requested, and has never been identified. Plaintiff’s injuries proved serious, and she and her husband filed suit against defendant in Rutland Superior Court, complaining that defendant negligently (1) failed to warn of the icy conditions on the trail, (2) failed to close the trail because of its dangerous condition and (3) failed to obtain the identity of the skier who had collided with plaintiff. Defendant denied those allegations and alleged that plaintiff’s injuries were the consequence of her assumption of the inherent risks of skiing.

The trial court denied defendant’s motion for directed verdict, both at the close of plaintiff’s case and at the close of the evidence. The court submitted the failure-to-warn and the failure-to-identify counts [***3] to the jury. In its instructions to the jury on the failure-to-identify count, the court stated that the jury could find that defendant had assumed the duty to identify skiers involved in accidents based on its employee manual. This manual instructed defendant’s employees to investigate thoroughly all accidents and to obtain the identity of everyone involved. The court instructed the jury that, to decide defendant’s negligence on this count, it need determine only whether defendant had an opportunity to identify the other skier involved in the accident.

Based on the instructions, the jury found for defendant on the failure-to-warn count and on the failure to close the trail because it found that the accident resulted from an inherent risk of the sport of skiing. It further found that defendant had negligently failed to obtain the identity of the other skier and that its negligence was the proximate cause of the loss of plaintiff’s “right to compensation” from that skier for her injuries. The jury awarded plaintiff $ 71,108.69 in damages, and the trial court denied defendant’s motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.

Defendant raises three issues on [***4] appeal: (1) whether defendant had a duty to plaintiff to obtain the identity of the other skier who collided [*76] with her; (2) whether plaintiff’s failure-to-identify claim is precluded by the jury’s finding that the accident and injury were a result of one or more inherent risks in the sport of skiing; and (3) whether certain instructions to the jury were proper. We agree with defendant’s position on the first issue and, therefore, reverse. Because the case must be dismissed, we do not reach the second and third issues.

Defendant first claims that it owed plaintiff no duty to obtain the identity of the other skier, and that, accordingly, the trial court erred by instructing the jury that could find that defendant’s employee manual created such a duty. We agree.

In deciding this question, we first note that although the Vermont Legislature has passed a statute governing liability vis-a-vis the obtaining of names of skiers involved in a collision, see 12 V.S.A. § 1038(b)(2), this accident preceded the effective date of the statute so that it does not apply to this case. In any event, we conclude that the result in this case [**42] is the same under either the common law or the statute. 1 [***5]

1 [HN1] 12 V.S.A. § 1038(b), effective June 21, 1994, provides, in part:

(b) Collision at a ski area.

(1) Any person who is involved in a collision with a skier at a ski area which results in bodily injury to any party to the collision has a duty to provide his or her name and local and permanent address to the other parties to the collision and shall proceed to the ski area first aid facility and provide that information to the ski area first aid personnel.

(2) No ski area, its employees or agents shall be held responsible for ensuring compliance with these duties by any person, nor shall it be liable in any way for a failure to obtain such person’s name or address.

[HN2] Common-law negligence requires that there be a legal duty owed by defendant to plaintiff, breach of that duty, that such breach be the proximate cause of plaintiff’s harm, and that plaintiff have suffered actual loss or damage. See Langle v. Kurkul, 146 Vt. 513, 517, 510 A.2d 1301, 1304 (1986). Clearly, the first of these elements, duty, [***6] is central to a negligence claim, and its existence is primarily a question of law. Denis Bail Bonds, Inc. v. State, 159 Vt. 481, 487, 622 A.2d 495, 499 (1993). The imposition of a duty is “‘an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is entitled to protection.'” Id. (quoting W. Prosser & W. Keeton, The Law of Torts § 53, at 358 (5th ed. 1984)).

Plaintiff’s theory is that defendant had a duty to obtain the name of the skier who collided with her so plaintiff could sue that skier for her damages caused by the collision. Under plaintiff’s theory, this duty arises, first and foremost, because plaintiff’s injury occurred on [*77] defendant’s land, held open to the public for skiing. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A(3) (1965).

In Langle, through the discussion of decisions from other states, we identified a number of factors to consider in determining whether a duty exits. See Langle, 146 Vt. at 519-20, 510 A.2d at 1304-05. [HN3] These factors may include the degree of certainty that plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between defendant’s conduct and plaintiff’s injury, the moral blame [***7] attached to defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the burden to the defendant, the consequences to the community of finding a duty, and the availability and cost of insurance. Id. We think that an additional factor is more significant herd — that is, that plaintiff seeks a duty to prevent purely economic loss. Negligence law does not generally recognize a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid intangible economic loss to another unless one’s conduct has inflicted some accompanying physical harm. See Prosser & Keeton, supra, § 92, at 657; Breslauer v. Fayston School Dist. Vt. , , 659 A.2d 1129, 1132 (1995). Thus, a possessor of land open to the general public has a duty to aid and protect a member of the public coming on the land against unreasonable risk of “physical harm” only. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A(1)(a), (3). Physical harm does not include economic loss. See Breslauer, Vt. at , 659 A.2d at 1132; Restatement (Second) of Torts § 7(3).

Our review of the decisions from other jurisdictions indicates that, [HN4] absent a special relationship or undertaking, there is no duty to protect [***8] another’s litigation interest. For example, there is no duty to preserve possible evidence for another party to assist that party in future litigation against a third party. See Edwards v. Louisville Ladder Co., 796 F. Supp. 966, 969 (W.D. La. 1992); Murphy v. Target Products, 580 N.E.2d 687, 689 (Ind. Ct. App. 1991); Koplin v. Rosel Well Perforators, Inc., 241 Kan. 206, 734 P.2d 1177, 1179 (Kan. 1987). A municipal police force has no duty to investigate motor vehicle accidents to identify possible tortfeasors. See Jackson v. Heymann, 126 N.J. Super. 281, 314 A.2d 82, 85 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1973); Caldwell v. City of Philadelphia, 358 Pa. Super. 406, 517 A.2d 1296, 1303 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1986). Similarly, a taxicab company owes no duty to an injured passenger to identify the operator of the vehicle which caused the accident and injured the passenger. See Stupka v. Peoples Cab Co., 437 Pa. 509, 264 A.2d 373, 374 (Pa. 1970). An exception to this rule may exist when there is some special relationship or duty arising from contract, statute or other special circumstance. See Bondu v. Gurvich, 473 So. 2d 1307, 1313 [**43] (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1984) [*78] (claim against defendant hospital for destruction of evidence permitted because hospital [***9] had statutory duty to maintain medical records); Koplin, 734 P.2d at 1179.

This general principle has been applied to circumstances identical to those present here. Two reported decisions have concluded that a ski area has no duty to obtain the identity of a negligent skier who collides with and injures the another skier. See Northcutt v. Sun Valley Co., 117 Idaho 351, 787 P.2d 1159, 1164 (Idaho 1990); Phillips v. Wild Mountain Sports, Inc., 439 N.W.2d 58, 59-60 (Minn. Ct. App. 1989). Based on its prediction of our negligence law, the United States District Court for the District of Vermont determined that a ski area has no duty to identify the negligent skier. See Emil v. Sherburne Corp., No. 80-22, slip op. at 2-3 (D. Vt. July 8, 1980). We agree with that court that the landowner’s duty does not extend to “assisting the prosecution of claims arising from . . . torts” of third parties also using the land. Id. at 3.

We adopt the reasoning of the above decisions and conclude that no duty exists in these circumstances. Although our primary reason is the economic nature of the interest plaintiff asserts, other factors also point to the absence of a duty here. The main concern [***10] of defendant’s ski patrol employees is and should be to give emergency medical assistance, remove the injured skier safely from the mountainside, and obtain necessary medical care. We are reluctant to dilute these critical, emergency duties with a responsibility to pursue and identify another skier. See Caldwell, 517 A.2d at 1301 (police duty at accident scene was to ensure victim’s physical well-being in expediting her trip to the hospital, not to protect the financial interests of the plaintiff).

Moreover, even if the ski area had a duty to identify, it would have only a limited ability to enforce that duty against an uncooperative skier. This suggests that any recognition of a duty should come from the Legislature, which can provide the ski area the means to discharge the duty. In fact, the Legislature has provided, as of 1994, that a skier involved in a collision has the responsibility “to provide his or her name and local and permanent address to the other parties to the collision,” but has also made clear that the ski area has no duty to obtain that identification. 12 V.S.A. § 1038(b).

Finally, we consider plaintiff’s argument that there is a special circumstance present [***11] in this case that creates a duty. Plaintiff relies primarily on defendant’s employee manual that establishes procedures [*79] in case of ski accidents. These procedures include completing an accident reporting form, obtaining names and addresses of witnesses to the accident, obtaining witness statements and recording observations at the accident scene. Plaintiff argues that these provisions amount to the voluntary assumption of a duty to investigate accidents, particularly skier collisions. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 (one who gratuitously undertakes “to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability” for “physical harm” resulting from negligent performance of undertaking).

Although we agree that defendant could voluntarily assume the duty to investigate accidents on behalf of injured skiers, we do not believe that the manual provisions show the assumption of this responsibility. The manual makes clear that the investigatory responsibilities placed on employees are for the protection of defendant with respect to suits against it. There is nothing to indicate that they were assumed [***12] as duties to third parties.

This exact claim was made and rejected in Northcutt v. Sun Valley Co., 787 P.2d at 1164. The court held that imposing such requirements on employees did not create a duty to skiers to act on the skiers’ behalf. This holding is consistent with our decisions in similar circumstances. In Smith v. Day, 148 Vt. 595, 538 A.2d 157 (1987), engineers on a railway train sued Norwich University when a university student shot at the train and injured them. We concluded that, although defendant sought to control its students via the imposition of numerous rules and regulations, it did not assume a duty to third persons to control the volitional criminal [**44] acts of the students. Id. at 598, 538 A.2d at 159. More recently, in Larocque v. State Farm Ins. Co., Vt. , , 660 A.2d 286, 288 (1995), we concluded that a liability insurer’s employee manual, while directing employees to investigate claims in an efficient and cooperative manner, did not create any duty to a particular claimant to process the claim in good faith and consistent with the manual. Citing Smith, 148 Vt. at 598, 538 A.2d at 158-59, we stated that conducting [***13] one’s “business in a way that [is] responsive to third-party claimants does not create a legally enforceable duty to do so with respect to a particular claimant.” Id. To the extent defendant’s policy intended that its employees identify colliding skiers to aid in litigation between [*80] them, we believe that the rationale of Larocque is controlling and prevents use of defendant’s manual to create a negligence duty. 2

2 Plaintiff relies upon a Colorado trial court decision that denied a ski area summary judgment in a failure-to-identify case similar to that here. Burgener v. Keystone Arapahoe Ltd. Partnership, No. 90 CV 215, slip op. at 3 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Summit County Sept. 5, 1991). In that case, the plaintiff argued successfully that the defendant assumed the responsibility to investigate in certain publications and materials that were distributed to the public, including the plaintiff. These were read and relied upon by the plaintiff’s husband, who skied with her. This case has none of the public promotional and reliance elements of Burgener and is distinguishable on that basis.

[***14] In adopting this position, we are necessarily rejecting the suggestion that the jury could decide whether the manual creates a duty to investigate and identify the other skier. The trial court’s supplemental charge to the jury appears to have adopted this approach. As we indicated earlier, the existence of a duty is primarily a question of law. See Denis Bail Bonds, Inc., 159 Vt. at 487, 622 A.2d at 499. Although the proper meaning of the employee manual may have been a question of fact for the jury, if a duty were present under some construction of the manual, the threshold question of whether the manual, however construed, could give rise to a duty was for the court. See Smith v. Day, 148 Vt. at 598 n.3, 538 A.2d at 159 n.3.

Reversed.

FOR THE COURT: John A. Dooley, Associate Justice

WordPress Tags: Connell,Killington,LEXIS,Mary,Ryan,SUPREME,COURT,VERMONT,August,HEADNOTES,Torts,Existence,landowner,prosecution,defendant,employees,assistance,mountainside,duties,purposes,litigation,Legislature,collision,area,identification,Although,accidents,employee,assumption,protection,extent,policy,rationale,Larocque,State,Farm,Insurance,claimant,negligence,injury,fact,jury,construction,threshold,COUNSEL,Thomas,French,Brattleboro,plaintiff,Allan,Keyes,John,Zawistoski,Smith,Carbine,Rutland,appellant,JUDGES,PRESENT,Allen,Gibson,Dooley,Morse,Johnson,OPINION,judgment,failure,accident,errors,January,injuries,husband,Superior,allegations,consequence,verdict,instructions,compensation,statute,event,June,person,information,personnel,agents,compliance,Common,Langle,Kurkul,Denis,Bail,Bonds,imposition,Prosser,Keeton,theory,Under,Restatement,Second,discussion,decisions,factors,degree,connection,consequences,cost,factor,Breslauer,Fayston,School,Dist,Thus,possessor,member,Physical,jurisdictions,relationship,example,Edwards,Louisville,Ladder,Supp,Murphy,Target,Products,Koplin,Rosel,Perforators,vehicle,Jackson,Heymann,Super,Caldwell,Philadelphia,taxicab,operator,Stupka,Peoples,exception,circumstance,Bondu,Gurvich,hospital,destruction,principle,Northcutt,Valley,Idaho,Phillips,Wild,Mountain,Sports,Minn,prediction,States,District,Emil,Sherburne,Corp,absence,victim,Moreover,recognition,argument,procedures,statements,collisions,performance,requirements,Norwich,student,students,insurer,manner,faith,claimants,Colorado,decision,Burgener,Arapahoe,Partnership,Colo,Summit,Sept,publications,reliance,basis,suggestion,Associate,Justice,third,skier,behalf,skiers,investigatory,whether,upon


Vermont Skier Safety Act

Vermont Skier Safety Act

1 V.S.A. § 516 (2012)

§ 516. State sports

   The state winter sports shall be skiing and snowboarding.

 

VERMONT STATUTES ANNOTATED

TITLE TWELVE.  COURT PROCEDURE 

PART 2.  PROCEEDINGS BEFORE TRIAL 

CHAPTER 27.  PLEADING AND PRACTICE 

SUBCHAPTER 2.  PLEADINGS GENERALLY

§ 513. Skiing, injuries sustained while participating in sport of

   An action to recover for injuries sustained while participating in the sport of skiing shall be commenced within one year after the cause of action accrues, and not after.

12 V.S.A. § 1037 (2012)

§ 1037. Acceptance of inherent risks

   Notwithstanding the provisions of section 1036 of this title, a person who takes part in any sport accepts as a matter of law the dangers that inhere therein insofar as they are obvious and necessary.

§ 1038. Skiing off designated ski trails; collision; duty to report; recovery for rescue expenses

   (a) Use of ski area facilities. — No ski area, its owners, employees or agents shall be held responsible for ensuring the safety of or for damages, including injury or death, resulting to persons who utilize the facilities of a ski area to access terrain outside open and designated ski trails. Ski areas shall not be liable for damages, including injury or death, to persons who venture beyond such open and designated ski trails.

(b) Collision at a ski area.

   (1) Any person who is involved in a collision with a skier at a ski area which results in bodily injury to any party to the collision has a duty to provide his or her name and local and permanent address to the other parties to the collision and shall proceed to the ski area first aid facility and provide that information to the ski area first aid personnel.

   (2) No ski area, its employees or agents shall be held responsible for ensuring compliance with these duties by any person, nor shall it be liable in any way for a failure to obtain such person’s name or address.

(c) Civil action to recover. — A person who uses the facilities of a ski area to access terrain outside the open and designated ski trails, shall be liable in a civil action brought by any person, including a ski area, rescue organization, municipality or the state, to recover expenses incurred to provide rescue, medical or other services to such person for circumstances or injuries which resulted from such use. The entity seeking to recover may also recover reasonable attorney fees and court costs. No ski area, its owners, agents or employees, individual or entity, municipal or otherwise, shall be held liable for any acts or omissions taken in the course of such rescue operations unless such act or omission constitutes gross negligence.

 


Wright et al. v. Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., et al. 96 F. Supp. 786; 1951 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2524

Wright et al. v. Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., et al. 96 F. Supp. 786; 1951 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2524
Civ. A. No. 1101
United States District Court for the District of Vermont
96 F. Supp. 786; 1951 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2524
April 16, 1951
Counsel: [**1]
Justin G. Cavanaugh and William H. Cooney, Springfield, Mass., for plaintiffs Florine Wright and Robert B. Wright, Jr.
McNamara & Larrow, Burlington, Vt., Frank G. Sterritte, New York City, for defendants Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc. and Mt. Mansfield Hotel, Inc.
Clifton G. Parker, Morrisville, Vt., for defendant Stowe-Mansfield Ass’n, Inc.
OPINION BY:
GIBSON
OPINION:
This is an action for damages resulting from a skiing accident brought by Florine and Robert B. Wright, Jr., husband and wife, of Springfield, Mass., against the Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., Mt. Mansfield Association, Inc. The case was heard on its merits at the February term, 1951, U.S. District Court, District of Vermont. At the conclusion of the plaintiff’s case, each of the three defendants filed a motion for a directed verdict. The motion, in each instance, is hereby granted.
The plaintiff, Mrs. Florine Wright, in her complaint, alleged that on January 23, 1949, she was skiing at the Mt. Mansfield ski area in Stowe, Vermont; that she had paid the required fee to one of the defendants, Mt. Mansfield Lift, Inc., hereinafter called Lift; had been transported to the top of Mt. Mansfield by this chair lift and [**2] having reached the top, started to ski down a marked trail; that on her way down the mountain, at a certain point on a ski trail, she ran against or collided with a snow-covered stump of a tree and thereby caused a serious fracture of her left leg.
The evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff revealed the following situation. Stowe, Vermont, has become one of the largest winter sports areas of the eastern United States. The area of [*788] Mt. Mansfield is a snow bowl. In fact, the slogan of the area is ‘There is always snow in Stowe, you know’. Lift, Inc. was a Vermont corporation which owned or controlled land running up Mt. Mansfield on which it had erected a modern chair lift for skiers, the lift itself being better than a mile long.
In January, 1949, those who desired to ski down the trails of Mt. Mansfield in this area purchased a ticket at the bottom of the mountain where the lift commenced, the ticket costing 75 cents for a single ride up the mountain. After purchasing the ticket, the prospective skier stood in line and as the skier’s turn came, sat in the ski chair, generally with skis on. The skier was then hoisted better than 2,000 feet above the [**3] elevation of the bottom of the ski lift and deposited at the top of the ski lift at the top of Mt. Mansfield.
At the top of the ski lift, there was what is known as the Octogon House, made of stone, in which was served refreshments and also in which was a blackboard or chart on which were listed the particular trails which were open for skiing.
There were also located in this general area at the top of the lift signs pointing to the starting points of various trails down the mountain, each trail bearing a different name, such as Nosedive, Skimeister, Toll Road, etc. Most of these trails started on land that was owned or controlled by Lift, Inc. As these trails wended their way down Mt. Mansfield, they twisted their way, on occasion, onto lands owned or controlled by others. Defendant Mt. Mansfield Hotel, Inc., hereinafter called Hotel, Inc., at the time of the accident, owned and operated a hotel which at that time cared for approximately 20 guests. Most of these guests were ski enthusiasts. The Skimeister trail, as it came down Mt. Mansfield, came onto land of the Hotel, Inc. The Skimeister trail had been in operation for many years before this accident with the full knowledge and [**4] approval of Hotel, Inc. The trails were areas cleared down the rough mountain side of Mt. Mansfield by cutting trees, by bulldozing and by other methods. The trails are of varying width, some of trails being much more crooked than others.
The maintenance of the trails in the summertime consisted of mowing and cutting the brush and trees and of widening existing trails. Various residents, interested innkeepers in and about Stowe, men from the Forestry Department of the State of Vermont and workers provided by Lift, Inc., Hotel, Inc., and other organizations interested in skiing, did the summer maintenance work on these trails.
Generally speaking, there were three classes of trails on Mt. Mansfield which those who used the ski lift might choose. There was one class of trails known as expert trails. To maneuver these trails required a high degree of skiing ability. The second class of trails were known as the intermediate trails. These trails were less hazardous and less difficult than the expert trails, but one to negotiate them safely needed to be a fairly good skier. The third class of trails were known as the novice trails. These trails were for those who had skied but little. [**5]
During the winter of 1948-1949, the policing of the trails was done by an association known as the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol. This ski patrol consisted of five or six good skiers who were paid by the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club. This club, in turn, raised its funds by contributions from individuals, corporations, innkeepers and the like. Its total budget for the winter season of 1948-1949 was in the vicinity of $ 3,000. Of this, about $ 1,000 was contributed by the Hotel, Inc. and another substantial sum by the Lift, Inc.
The duties of this Ski Patrol were many. It was the Patrol’s duty each day to inspect each trail to determine which trails were suitable for skiing and which were not. Having done this, the patrol would see to it that the blackboard in the Octagon House which listed the trails open for skiing would properly list those that were open for skiing on this particular day. The patrol would also see to it that such trails as were adjudged by it as unsafe for skiing were closed off by chain or rope and that warning signs were put up at the start of the trail and at other places warning that this particular trail was not open.
In addition, members of the patrol skied down the [**6] trails [*789] and kept their eyes open for any unsafe conditions that appeared on open trails. If there were any, patrol members took steps to put up proper warning flags or proper safeguards or notified officials of the lift that there was a dangerous spot at a certain place on a certain trail so that steps would be taken immediately either to erect proper warning notices or to close off the trail.
The main purpose of the members of the ski patrol was to be available in case of any injury to any skier. Ski patrol members were trained in first aid and had equipment staged at various places on Mt. Mansfield for the purpose of removing injured skiers safely and expeditiously to the bottom of the mountain and if necessary to a hospital.
On January 23, 1949, Mr. and Mrs. Wright, accompanied by Mr. Abrams, went from Fayston, Vermont, where the Wrights were both working at this time, to Stowe, Vermont, for skiing purposes. Mr. Wright was an expert skier, having been certified as such, and was engaged as a ski instructor at the Mad River Valley ski project. Mrs. Wright had been skiing for 2-3 years and had taken lessons from her husband and others. She was not what is known as an expert [**7] skier, but was in what is generally termed as the intermediate ski class. Mr. Abrams was not as good a skier as Mr. and Mrs. Wright, but was generally able to negotiate intermediate trails.
On the day in question, this party arrived at the foot of Mt. Mansfield around noon. Mrs. Wright and Mr. Abrams purchased a ticket for 75 cents apiece to ride to the top of Mt. Mansfield on the ski lift. Mr. Wright being a professional was not required to buy a ticket. This was a courtesy extended by the lift to professional skiers. In due time, the party arrived at the top of Mt. Mansfield via the lift. Mr. Wright checked to see what trails were open and the group then went to the start of the Toll Road trail. The Toll Road trail down Mt. Mansfield is a gravelled road used by automobiles during the summertime. It is about four miles in length and one who goes down the Toll Road all the way, comes out at a point about two miles from the bottom of the lift and to get back to the lift, has to either walk or go by taxi. This Toll Road is classified as a novice trail. The party skied down the Toll Road until they came to a cut-off from the Toll Road, known as the 5th Avenue Cut-off. The party then [**8] turned onto this cut-off and skied down the cut-off until they arrived at the Skimeister trail. They then swung down the Skimeister trail until they came to the head of an open slope known as the T-bar slope, thence down that slope to the foot of the mountain. In coming down the mountain, Mr. Wright would lead the way, followed by Mrs. Wright and then followed in turn by Mr. Abrams. They would ski a distance of 200-300 feet, more or less, then stop and visit and then after resting a little, Mr. Wright would start off again followed in due time by Mrs. Wright and Mr. Abrams. Mr. Wright would ski as far as he thought wise on a given lap, stop and Mrs. Wright would come up behind him, stop, and Mr. Abrams the same. The first trip down these trails on Mr. Mansfield was uneventful. The party then got back onto the lift, again Mrs. Wright and Mr. Abrams purchasing tickets for 75 cents and were conveyed to the top of Mr. Mansfield once more.
The three of them started once again down the identical route they had taken on the first descent; down the Toll Raod to the 5th Avenue Cut-off, down the 5th Avenue Cut-off to the Skimeister trail, down the Skimeister trail to the top of the T-bar and [**9] the open slopes. The 5th Avenue Cut-off is just what the name implies, a cut-off from the Toll Road trail to another trail. It was an easy trail, a novice trail. The Skimeister trail, on the other hand, was an intermediate trail. The second trip down the mountain by this party was uneventful until the party came onto the Skimeister trail. There, a couple of hundred feet from where the Skimeister trail ran into the open slope and the T-bar lift, the party stopped for a rest and visit. Then Mr. Wright, as was the procedure on this particular day, skied down about 120 [*790] feet or so to within sight of the head of the T-bar lift, and also within sight of the hut called the Christienda hut, which is located near the top of the T-bar lift. He stopped and turned around and watched his wife come along. As Mrs. Wright began to approach him, she went into what is known as a snow-plow. This is a procedure used by skiers for stopping. It consists of turning the toes in to about an angle of 30 degrees each and putting more pressure on the inside runner of each ski. As she was snow-plowing to a stop, she suddenly fell and began to cry out in pain for help. Mr. Abrams, in the meantime, was [**10] standing at the spot they had last stopped. He then skied to the spot where Mrs. Wright had fallen.
Mr. Wright rushed up from a spot 15-20 feet away. Shortly a member of the ski patrol arrived with a toboggan. Mrs. Wright was in pain and was loaded onto the toboggan, tied onto the toboggan and thus taken down to the foot of the mountain and thence by automobile to the Morrisville Hospital.
The trail at the point of the accident was of good width and was more or less level land. It wasn’t hazardous or steep in any way at this spot. No stump showed above the snow. There was a smooth snow surface. Indeed the Skimeister trail had ample snow. The witness Abrams testified that at the point of the plaintiff’s fall, he got down and brushed the snow aside with his hand. He then found a stump 4-5 inches high from the ground- definitely a cut tree- no jagged edges. From the evidence one could infer that it was this obstacle that caused Mrs. Wright to fall and break her left leg.
From this recitation of the facts, as viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, it is apparent that there is no evidence of any nature that connects the defendant, Stowe-mansfield Association, Inc., with [**11] this case. Stowe-Mansfield Association, Inc. neither owned or controlled any of the land on which this accident happened. It was merely a promotional enterprise for the Stowe-Mansfield area. Indeed, the plaintiffs make no claim, that as the evidence stands, there is liability upon Stowe-Mansfield Association, Inc.
Therefore, a directed verdict on this defendant’s part is granted.
The situation is different, however, in regard to the Lift Company and the Hotel Company.
In the eyes of the law, the plaintiffs were invitees of the Lift and Hotel Companies. Whenever one makes such use of another’s premises as the owner intends he shall, or such as he is reasonably justified in understanding that the owner intended, this is an implied invitation to enter onto the land of anther. Wool v. Larner, 112 Vt. 431, 436, 26 A.2d 89.
The Lift Company invited the plaintiffs to the top of the lift. It maintained on its premises a record as to which trails were open and had signs on its property for the purpose of leading the plaintiffs to their choice of trail, in this case the Toll Road Trail. Once on the trail and heading down onto the Skimeister Trail, part of which was on land of the Hotel Company. [**12] This trail the Hotel Company had sanctioned for years. Indeed, the reason for each of the trails mentioned being open was to financially benefit both the Lift Company and the Hotel Company.
The duty owed the plaintiffs, invitees, by each of these two defendants was to advise them of any dangers which reasonable prudence would have foreseen and corrected. Slattery v. Marra Bros., 2 Cir., 186 F.2d 134, 136.
Skiing is a sport; a sport that entices thousands of people; a sport that requires an ability on the part of the skier to handle himself or herself under various circumstances of grade, boundary, mid-trail obstructions, corners and varied conditions of the snow. Secondly, it requires good judgment on the part of the skier and recognition of the existing circumstances and conditions. Only the skier knows his own ability to cope with a certain piece of trail. Snow, ranging from powder to ice, can be of infinite kinds. Breakable crust may be encountered where soft snow is expected. Roots and rocks may be hidden [*791] under a thin cover. A single thin stubble of cut brush can trip a skier in the middle of a turn. Sticky snow may follow a fast running surface without warning.
[**13] Skiing conditions may change quickly. What was, a short time before, a perfect surface with a soft cover on all bumps may fairly rapidly become filled with ruts, worn spots and other manner of skier created hazards.
The doctrine of volenti non fit injuria applies. One who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary. Thus one who goes ice skating on a rink assumes the ordinary risks of the sport which includes inequalities of surface. Oberheim v. Pennsylvania Sports and Enterprises. 358 Pa. 62, 55 A.2d 766, 769; Shields v. Van-Kelton Amusement Corp., 228 N.Y. 396, 127 N.E. 261; McCullough v. Omaha Coliseum Corp., 144 Neb. 92, 12 N.W.2d 639, 643. One who goes to a swimming beach as an invitee accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary. McGraw v. District of Columbia, 3 App.D.C. 405, 25 L.R.A. 691, 692-693. A passenger who rides on a scenic railway and falls off, through no unusual action of the railway, may not recover. The passenger has placed himself in a position of obvious danger for the purpose of receiving the sensation caused by the sudden and violent motion of the car. He assumed [**14] the risk. Lumsden v. L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company, 130 App.Div. 209, 114 N.Y.S. 421, 423.
One who had participated in bobsledding and had followed that sport for some years assumes the risk attendant upon participation of that sport. The bobsled enthusiast knew that bobsled racing was a dangerous sport and could not recover for such injuries received. Clark v. State, 195 Misc. 581, 89 N.Y.S.2d 132, 139.
In this skiing case, there is no evidence of any dangers existing which reasonable prudence on the parts of the defendants would have foreseen and corrected. It isn’t as though a tractor was parked on a ski trail around a corner or bend without warning to skiers coming down. It isn’t as though on a trail that was open work was in progress of which the skier was unwarned. It isn‘t as though a telephone wire had fallen across the ski trail of which the defendant knew or ought to have known and the plaintiff did not know.
The trail at the point of the accident was smooth and covered with snow. There were no unexpected obstructions showing. The plaintiff, in hitting the snow-covered stump as she claims to have hit, was merely accepting a danger that inheres in the sport of skiing. [**15] To hold that the terrain of a ski trail down a mighty mountain, with fluctuation in weather and snow conditions that constantly change its appearance and slipperiness, should be kept level and smooth, free from holes or depressions, equally safe for the adult or the child, would be to demand the impossible. It cannot be that there is any duty imposed on the owner and operator of a ski slope that charges it with the knowledge of these mutations of nature and requires it to warn the public against such. Chief Justice Cardozo in the case of Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., Inc., 250 N.Y. 479, 166 N.E. 173, 174, discusses the law, which I hold to be applicable to ski accident cases and I quote:
‘Volenti non fit injuria. One who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of a thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contract with the ball. * * * The antics of the clown are not the paces of the cloistered cleric. The rough and boisterous joke, the horseplay of the crowd, evokes its own guffaws, but they are not the pleasures of tranquillity. The plaintiff was [**16] not seeking a retreat for meditation.
Visitors were tumbling about the belt to the merriment of onlookers when he made his choice to join them. He took the chance of a like fate, with whatever damage to his body might ensue from such a fall. The timorous may stay at home.
‘A different case would be here if the dangers inherent in the sport were obscure or unobserved. * * * Nothing happened to the plaintiff except what common [*792] experience tells us may happen at any time as the consequence of a sudden fall. Many a skater or a horseman can rehearse a tale of equal woe.’
The verdict is therefore directed for each defendant.

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