Ski Act Does Not Govern Accidents Between Skiers

Angland v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., 213 N.J. 99 (2013).  Plaintiffs’ decedent had a skiing accident with a snowboarder, from which plaintiff’s’ decedent later died.  His estate sued the ski area and the snowboarder.  The New Jersey Ski Act, N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -12, indisputably applies to negligence claims made by skiers against ski area operators.  The question on this appeal was whether the Ski Act also governs the standard of care for other skiers, such as the snowboarder defendant here.  The Law Division and Appellate Division both denied the snowboarder’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the Ski Act applied to him. 

The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and, speaking through Justice Hoens, announced that the standard of care applicable to the snowboarder was not that of the Ski Act.  Instead, the common law standard of care that has been held to govern conduct between participants in other sports was to be applied here.  Using that test, the Court found that there were genuine issues of material fact that precluded summary judgment.  As a result, the decision below was affirmed as modified.

The key to the Court’s analysis was “the Legislature’s reasons for the statute’s enactment.”  As Justice Hoens described, the Ski Act was a response to a decision of the Supreme Court of Vermont that dealt with a ski resort’s liabliity for a skier’s injury and rejected the resort’s argument that the skier had assumed the risk.  The legislative history of the Ski Act made clear that the impetus for the statute was “uncertainty over what effect the [Vermont] case will have on the liability of ski area operators for skiing injuries.”  The Court stated that “[t]he Legislature’s sole focus, therefore, was on the continued viability of the ski industry and, in particular, the ability of resort operators to secure insurance.”

The Ski Act thus was not “designed to govern claims as between participants who engage in recreational activities at ski resorts.”  Justice Hoens found confirmation of that in the fact that the Ski Act, N.J.S.A. 5:13-5, included “other skiers” in the statute’s list of the inherent risks of skiing that all skiers are deemed to have assumed.  “[H]ad the Legislature intended to define the standard of care that would apply to claims as between skiers, it would have done so.  Instead, the statute, consistent with the legislative purpose, simply insulates the operator from liability from claims arising from acts of other skiers.”  Although it was not necessary to evaluate decisions in other jurisdictions under comparable statutes, Justice Hoens did note that those decisions supported the Court’s result here. 

Plaintiff and the courts below had relied on the fact that one section of the Ski Act, N.J.S.A. 5:13-4, delineated the duties of skiers, including skiers’ duties to other skiers.  But nothing in that section, or elsewhere, actually addressed “claims as between participants.”

Since the Ski Act standard of care did not apply, the common law standard that applies to persons involved in recreational sports governed here.  Mere negligence does not suffice.  Rather, the duty is “to avoid the infliction of injury caused by reckless or intentional conduct.”  On the facts here, plaintiffs adduced enough evidence to create a triable issue, and the snowboarder’s summary judgment motion was therefore properly denied.