Court Upholds USFS Ski Area’s Release From Its Own Negligence

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A federal court recently upheld a lower court decision finding that a US Forest Service ski area’s release of liability even for its own negligence was valid.  The ski area operated on the San Isabel National Forest pursuant to a special use permit.  The ski area’s release was set out on the back of its lift tickets and stated that the purchaser agreed to release the ski area and the Forest Service from any claims including those based on negligence or breach of any warranty.  The skier had fallen as she was unloading from a chairlift and was hit by a skier unloading from the next chair on the lift, resulting in injury to the nerve in her leg and extensive medical treatment.  She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the ski area to recover her damages.

The skier had purchased her lift ticket before arriving at the ski area.  The skier argued that the release was a modification to the original contract she made at the time she paid for her ticket but before she received the ticket, and therefore not valid given that no additional payment was made because the lift ticket was presented to the skier after she had paid for the ticket.  The court, however, found that the actions at issue were all part of the same transaction.  The skier also alleged that the exculpatory language did not meet the applicable legal standard because the skier had paid for the ticket before she saw the notice on the lift ticket, and therefore was not “free to walk away.”  The court held that, while she may have had to incur costs, the skier was still free to walk away if she believed the activity was too risky.  The skier further argued that the exculpatory language on the lift ticket was invalid because it was confusing and indecipherable legal jargon.  While agreeing that the font size was small, the court found that the notice was clearly readable, understandable and the key phrases were capitalized and bolded.  Thus, the court found the language was sufficiently clear to stand up under law.

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