In a unanimous decision on June 6, 2013 the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the Ski Act was intended to address duties and responsibilities between ski area operators and skiers and that it did not extend to the relationship between skiers. In Angland v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., (A-57-11, Decided June 6, 2013), the plaintiff estate was pursuing claims against a ski area operator, Mountain Creek Resort, and a skier, William Tucker Brownlee, for the accidental skiing death of Robert Angland. Mr. Angland died from injuries he sustained in a collision with Mr. Brownlee that occurred while both were skiing (Mr. Angland) or snowboarding (Mr. Brownlee) at Mountain Creek.
Prior to trial Mr. Brownlee filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the proper standard of care was common law recklessness and that he was entitled to dismissal because there was no evidence that his conduct had been reckless. In response, Plaintiff contended that New Jersey’s Ski Act applied a higher standard of care to Mr. Brownlee and that, in any event, there was sufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that Mr. Brownlee had been reckless. Both the Trial Court and then the Appellate Division found that the Ski Act established the standard of care for claims between skiers and that there was sufficient evidence in the record to create a question for the finder of fact as to whether Mr. Brownlee violated this statutory standard. Mr. Brownlee was subsequently granted leave to appeal.
The Supreme Court looked to the legislative history of the Ski Act to determine whether its higher standard of care was intended to govern claims between skiers. In this analysis the Court observed that the Ski Act was passed in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision in Sunday v. Stratton Corp., 390 A.2d 398 (Vt. 1978), and that the legislative history for the Ski Act specifically interpreted this decision as creating uncertainty and threatened the availability of insurance for ski area operators. The Court noted that while the Ski Act did identify duties of skiers and the risks they assumed, this was done in the context of defining the limits of ski area operators’ liability. The Court opined that the context of the Ski Act conclusively demonstrated that the law was aimed at ensuring the continued viability of the ski resort industry by allocating responsibility between skiers and ski area operators; and that there was no intention to govern claims between skiers. The Court also cited the language of the Ski Act in support of its ruling. Specifically, the Court believes that the reference to “other skiers” within the list of risks assumed by skiers, coupled with the absence of an accompanying definition as to standard of care, indicated a sole intent to insulate ski area operators from liability for claims arising from the acts of other skiers.
On this basis, the Court ruled that the proper standard of care was the common law duty to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct as expressed in Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994). Importantly, the Court did add that the list of skiers’ duties set forth in the Ski Act is relevant as to the determination of whether Mr. Brownlee’s conduct was reckless.
“…the list of the duties owed by skiers is useful as a means to understand the generally accepted conduct expected of skiers. In evaluating claims between participants in sports that are governed by a set of rules, we have held that whether a participant complied with those rules is ‘one factor in the totality of circumstances’ used to determine whether a participant’s conduct was reckless.”
Despite finding that the lower standard of care expressed in the common law was applicable, the Court affirmed the lower courts’ denials of Mr. Brownlee’s motion for summary judgment. The Court ruled that there was sufficient evidence in the record for a jury to find recklessness and otherwise remanded the matter to the trial court.
By Daniel C. Seger, Esq.