Inherent Risks Associated with Sports Activities are not Increased by Equipment that is Necessary to the Sport

In Willhide-Michiulis et al. v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC, Plaintiff Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis (“Plaintiff”) was involved in a snowboarding accident at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which resulted in multiple serious injuries, including amputation of her left leg and several skull fractures. The incident occurred when Plaintiff collided with and got caught in the tiller that was being pulled by a snowcat. She brought an action against Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (“Mammoth”) alleging gross negligence.

Mammoth brought a Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting that it did not owe Plaintiff a duty based on the primary assumption of risk doctrine and the express assumption of risk agreement Plaintiff signed as part of her season-pass contract. The trial court granted Mammoth’s Motion. Plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision. It held that snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding, that Mammoth did not unreasonably increase these inherent risks, and that its conduct fell within the scope of the subject release.

Citing to Kahn v. East Side Union High School Dist. (2003) 31 Cal.4th 990, 1005, the court stated, “a purveyor of recreational activities owes a duty to a patron not to increase the risks inherent in the activity in which the patron has paid to engage.” Furthermore, in citing to Souza v. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 262, 268-269, the court stated that assumption of the risk, either express or implied, applies only to risks that are necessary to the sport. The court determined that snow-grooming equipment, including the snowcat and tiller at issue, are necessary to the sport of snowboarding because the snowcats groom the snow needed for snowboarding into a skiable surface. Thus, snow-grooming equipment are an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding the operation of which on an open snow run does not unreasonably increase the inherent risks of snowboarding and skiing.

The court also held that Mammoth’s conduct did not constitute gross negligence and thus remained within the scope of the release. The court stated that Mammoth provided ample warning of the presence of snowcats by posting signs warning of the presence of snowcats at the top and bottom of every chair lift, in its trail maps, and in Plaintiff’s season pass agreement. Mammoth’s driver’s failure to timely signal his turn or Mammoth’s failure to warn of specific dangers of tillers did not rise to the level of gross negligence when considering all the other steps taken by Mammoth to warn patrons.

Ultimately, the appellate court determined that snow-grooming equipment is an inherent risk of skiing and snowboarding, the use of which during business hours does not increase the inherent risks associated with the sports.

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August 15, 2018