Snowmobile Wins Again – Claims of Injured Ski Racer Survive Motion Based on Waiver and Assumption of Risk Statutes (CO)

by

Schlumbrecht-Muniz v. Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. (Colorado)
(trial court disposition)

Plaintiff was a member of the Sarasota, Florida Ski Team.  She traveled to the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort in Colorado to participate in ski races.  After finishing her second race and exiting the race course, plaintiff skied down a trail and headed toward the ski lift.  She attempted to ski past the lift to a picnic area to meet up with other racers.  However, she collided with a snowmobile that was parked near the lift.  Plaintiff sued the ski resort alleging (1) common law negligence in parking the snowmobile in a dangerous, high-traffic area, and (2) negligence per se under the Colorado Ski Safety Act (“SSA”) by failing to mark and pad the snowmobile.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing (1) that the exculpatory clause contained in the race participation agreement signed by the plaintiff prior to her participation barred the plaintiff’s claims, (2) the common law negligence claim was barred by the SSA (“no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing”), and (3) the negligence per se claim failed because the SSA does not apply under the circumstances (i.e., with regard to a parked snowmobile).

The District Court for the District of Colorado denied the defendant’s motion in part and granted it in part. First, the Court determined that the defendant had not satisfied its burden to show that the exculpatory agreement barred the plaintiff’s claims.  Plaintiff argued that the waiver of liability did not extend to claims for injuries that occurred “outside of her participation in ‘the Event.'”  She asserted that the collision did not occur during the ski race and it happened outside of the race course.  The defendant countered by arguing that the waiver of liability also covered injuries that occurred outside of the ski race.  In finding that the intent of the language was unclear, the Court explained:

“What is more difficult to interpret is what the parties intended by the language ‘normally associated with participating the Event.’  This arguably defines the geographic and temporal scope of the release/waiver. This phrase, when applied to claims brought against the ‘sponsoring ski area where the Event is held,’ might be understood to bar all claims for injuries to a race participant based on any injury that occurred anywhere at the sponsoring ski area before, after, or during the time of the race. Alternatively, it could be so narrow as to be limited to injuries that occur only on the race course during the race. Because such language is subject to differing interpretations, it is ambiguous.”

The Court next turned to the defendant’s argument that the SSA barred plaintiff’s common law negligence claim.  The Court disagreed, holding that “concluding that whether a collision with a snowmobile is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not necessarily a question of law because what is an inherent danger or risk of skiing is not limited to the circumstances specifically enumerated in the SSA.”

Finally, the Court addressed the defendant’s argument that the SSA could not support the plaintiff’s negligence per se claim.  The Court agreed, stating that in order for there to be a breach of a specific duty of care identified under the statute, the plaintiff “must [as a threshold matter] establish that she collided with (1) a man-made structure that (2) was not visible from a distance of 100 feet in daylight and nonprecipitating weather and (3) was not marked or padded as required by [the statute].”  While the Court was not willing to accept that the statute was inapplicable to snowmobiles, it noted that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence demonstrating that the snowmobile was not visible from a distance of 100 feet.  Moreover, the conditions as described by the plaintiff did not reflect “nonprecipitating weather.”  Therefore, the Court entered judgment in favor of the defendant on the negligence per se claim.

The case was to proceed on plaintiff’s sole remaining claim for common law negligence.

 

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