For those who love skiing and snowboarding, the winter of 2018/2019 in Truckee and Lake Tahoe has been nothing short of amazing. The ski resorts have received record amounts of snow and skiers and riders have flocked to the Sierra to enjoy deep powder and soft groomers.

But with all the snow comes certain challenges, especially those faced by the ski resorts tasked with moving and grooming snow, which can create certain hazards. During a big winter, it is important that ski resorts and skiers remain vigilant of not just the dangers posed by deep snow, including rocks, cliffs, cornices, natural obstacles and avalanches, but also the risks of injury from trails, berms, drops, falls, cuts and banks caused by snow grooming equipment. With months of skiing ahead, now is a good time to highlight the responsibilities of skiers and snowboarders, the potential risks of groomed conditions and the potential liability, or absence of liability, of ski resorts for unsafe, atypical grooming conditions that cause injury.

Skiers and riders should always ski within their ability level, be aware of their surroundings and travel at a safe and controlled speed. Such precautions are not only common sense, but for those of you skiing in Placer County there is a County Code (9.28.060) that imposes safe skiing duties and responsibilities on skiers and riders.

Skiers and riders should do all they can to stay safe, because if injured, the responsibility for injury generally falls on the skier or rider, as opposed to the ski resort. California courts have long held that skiing is an inherently dangerous activity, where skiers and riders impliedly and expressly (by signing a liability release when purchasing a season pass or accepting a pre-printed release on the back of a day lift ticket) assume the risks of the sport.

Courts have routinely held that “[s]now skiing is a sport that involves certain inherent risks…Each person who participates in the sport of [snow] skiing accepts the dangers that inhere in that sport insofar as the dangers are obvious and necessary. Those dangers include, but are not limited to, injuries which can result from variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions; bare spots; rocks, trees and other forms of natural growth or debris; collisions with ski lift towers and their components, with other skiers, or with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment.” (Connelly v. Mammoth Mtn. Ski Area (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 8, 12 [citing Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Assocs., Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 123].)

However, assumption of the risk by the skier or rider does not absolutely absolve the ski resort from liability; ski resorts may be held liable where they create, or increase the risk of, unsafe, atypical conditions.  In order for a skier or rider to prevail against a ski resort for causing injury, it is often necessary to prove gross negligence, recklessness or intentional conduct on the part of the ski resort. (See, e.g., Willhide-Michiulis v. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC (2018) 25 Cal. App. 5th 344, 358-359.)  

To determine whether a ski resort is liable for injuries suffered from a skiing accident, the conduct of the resort must “expose skiers to an increased risk of harm” – “a [ski] resort cannot increase the risks associated with skiing without incurring a duty of care toward its patrons…” (Solis v. Kirkwood Resort Co. (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 354, 364 [citing Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296, 315-316].)

In certain situations, grooming conditions may expose skiers and riders to an increased risk of harm. “[G]rooming or snowmaking activities that mimic normal natural effects would not give rise to a duty even if performed negligently, so as, for example, to create bare or icy patches. On the other hand, placement of an object, such as a metal sign, on a ski run so that it is not obvious from all directions would give rise to liability…as would ‘grooming’ that left a large pit on the slope or otherwise created an atypical hazard…” (Randall v. Mammoth Mt. Ski Area (1999) 63 F.Supp.2d 1251, 1254-1255, emphasis added [citing Danieley v. Goldmine Ski Assocs., Inc. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 111, 125; Van Dyke v. S.K.I. Ltd. (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1310, 1317].)

A skier or snowboarder injured by certain grooming conditions caused by the ski resort, including unmarked drops, falls, ice chunks, banks, pitches, pits, walls and berms, may have a case for liability against a ski resort for creating such conditions, if such conditions increased the risk of harm beyond those inherent and normal to the sport of skiing and snowboarding. 

It is important to have experienced and knowledgeable legal counsel on your side to overcome the assumption of risk doctrine and other legal defenses available to the ski resorts. Contact our office for a free consultation if you have been injured in a skiing or snowboarding accident caused by grooming conditions.

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This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. This article contains the personal views and opinions of the author only as to California law, and does not necessarily reflect those of the Washoe County Bar Association or the Porter Simon law firm.  The author makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of this article and expressly disclaims liability for any errors and omissions in this publication.