Release of claims upheld for ski operator
Eight-year old Joseph Platzer was injured when he fell from the J-6 chairlift during a ski lesson at June Mountain ski area at Mammoth Mountain.
Joseph’s Mom had signed a document on Joseph’s behalf entitled “Release of Liability and Medical Authorization.”
The standard-looking form released Mammoth Mountain of any claims that could be brought by Joseph arising from his skiing or snowboarding, including his use of ski lifts. The release form briefly described the inherent risks of skiing and boarding and had ample bold type that the form was a RELEASE OF LIABILITY binding on Joseph and his family.
Joseph’s Mom sued Mammoth Mountain ski area claiming it was negligent and responsible for Joseph’s injuries. She also claimed it would be against public policy to allow Mammoth Mountain to contract away its liability with a signed release.
The legal issue was whether the release signed by Joseph’s Mom absolved Mammoth of liability, i.e. ordinary negligence – falling below the standard of care.
Civil Code 1668 provides that contracts which attempt to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud or willful injury to another are against public policy. Civil Code 2175 states that common carriers, like chairlift operators, cannot by contract be exonerated from liability for their gross negligence, fraud, or willful wrongs. Worse conduct than plain ordinary negligence.
The Court found that while Civil Code 2175 does not allow a common carrier like a bus company or ski lift operator to be released of liability with a signed contract if they are guilty of gross negligence, fraud or willfulness – almost intentional conduct, it does not apply to ordinary negligence. When young Joseph fell off the chairlift, at best Mammoth Mountain would be guilty of negligence, not the more egregious gross negligence, fraud or willful act.
The release was binding and Joseph was unable to bring his claim.
The Court noted that releases of claims are inappropriate where there is a transaction that involves a high degree of public interest. For example, in one case a hospital was not allowed to require its would-be patients to release the hospital of all claims in advance of treatment. Courts generally find releases of hospitals, escrow and banking transactions and traditional common carriers, like airlines, to be against public policy.
California courts have consistently validated proper releases in recreational sports contexts.
Of course, any release must be properly drafted. It must be clear that it is a release and not, for example, merely a sign-up form for the event.
And the release will generally only be found valid against risks that would be normal to the sport – like falling off the chairlift or sliding on gravel during a bicycle race. The signing party should initial key paragraphs.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter-Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno.