This time of year skiing, snowboarding and tubing are very popular activities. Each season, thousands of people head for the mountains and the slopes in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, accidents and injuries often occur. Even more unfortunate, the victims of these accidents rarely have any legal recourse available against the ski resort, even if the owners or their employees were negligent in the design, maintenance or operation of the slopes. There are two levels of protection for ski resorts which prevent a lawsuit: (1) The Pennsylvania Skier’s Responsibility Act and (2) The Release of Liability Forms.
In 1980, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed the Skier’s Responsibility Act, which was specifically designed to prevent injured skiers from suing ski resorts. The Act recognizes that the sport of downhill skiing is inherently dangerous and that it attracts a large number of visitors to Pennsylvania who contribute to the economy. The Act states that the doctrine assumption of the risk applies to skiing activities. The doctrine of assumption of the risk stands for the proposition that someone who voluntarily engages in an activity known to be hazardous assumes the risk of being injured and cannot seek monetary compensation in Court if that harm actually occurred.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has determined that the Skier’s Responsibility Act will relieve a ski area owner of responsibility for injuries resulting from any activities involved in the sport of downhill skiing such as skiing down a hill, boarding the ski lift, riding the ski lift up the mountain and exiting the ski lift. Legal responsibility is precluded even if it is alleged that some carelessness on the part of the ski area owner caused the injury, such as improper opening of dangerously icy slopes or improper operation of a ski lift.
In addition to the Skier’s Responsibility Act, ski resorts will require patrons to sign Release of Liability Forms. These forms usually include very broad and general terms which indicate that the patron is releasing the area from any potential claims arising out of injuries. The Pennsylvania Courts have consistently held that if these forms are clearly written and the Release language is prominent, the terms will likely be upheld. Essentially, the Courts have found that if you signed a form, your signature is a clear affirmation that you read it, understood it and agreed to its terms, including releasing the ski resort from liability.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued the opinion of Chepkevick v. Hidden Valley Resort, LLP, 2 A.3d 1174 (Pa. 2010). This case basically makes it impossible for skiers to pursue an action against ski resorts. In Chepkevick, the Supreme Court held that (1) the skier’s fall was an inherent risk, such that action was barred by the doctrine of assumption of the risk and (2) the exculpatory clause in release was valid and enforceable. Essentially, the opinion is relatively broad and really makes it difficult to pursue cases against Ski Resorts. Specifically, the Supreme Court states:
The assumption of the risk defense, as applied to sports and places of amusement, has also been described as a "no-duty" rule, i.e. as the principle that an owner or operator of a place of amusement has no duty to protect the user from any hazards inherent in the activity. . . . .Our decision in Hughes made clear that this "no-duty" rule applies to the operators of ski resorts , so that ski resorts have no duty to protect skiers from risks that are "common, frequent and expected" and thus "inherent" to the sport of downhill skiing. Where there is no duty, there can be no negligence, and thus when inherent risks are involved, negligence principles are irrelevant- the Comparative Negligence Act is inapplicable- and there can be no recovery based on allegations of negligence.
The bottom line is that, although these activities are dangerous and negligence on the part of the facility owners or employees can make the activities more hazardous, lawsuits against ski resorts are usually barred by the Skier’s Responsibility Act or by signed Release of Liability Forms.