Brief Fact Summary.
Dalury (Plaintiff) purchased a season pass at S-K-I, Ltd (Defendant), a ski resort. Plaintiff signed a liability release form but then was badly injured after colliding with a metal pole used for controlling the ski lift line and sued for negligence.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A liability release form may be found unenforceable if it violates public policy.
Plaintiff purchased a season pass at Defendant ski resort. In purchasing the pass, Plaintiff signed a form releasing Defendant from liability. He also signed a photo identification card with the same language. The release stated that Plaintiff acknowledged the inherent risk in skiing and that Defendant was not responsible for personal injury or property damage resulting from negligence, the premises conditions, resort operations, or actions or omissions of resort employees. While skiing, Plaintiff collided with a metal pole used to establish the direction of a ski lift line and was badly injured. Plaintiff sued and the trial judge dismissed the suit based upon the language of the waiver form. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the waiver violated public policy and was, therefore, unenforceable.
Can a liability release form be found unenforceable if it violates public policy?
(Johnson, J.) Yes. A liability release form may be found unenforceable if it violates public policy. In order to determine whether a waiver violates public policy, courts must apply the test from Wolf v. Ford, 644 A.2d 522 (Md. 1994). This test balances the â€œtotality of the circumstances of a given case against the backdrop of current societal expectations.â€ Here, a legitimate public interest is implicated because of the large number of people who buy lift tickets from Defendant every year. Vermont law states that business invitees have the right to assume that a business’s premises are reasonably safe when used for their intended purposes. This standard applies to ski resorts. Defendant is in the best position to mitigate risks to its invitees by ensuring the proper maintenance of its premises and training of its employees. Putting the responsibility upon skiers to prevent injury is illogical when Defendant is better able to do so. Despite the language of the waiver, Defendant should not be able to escape liability if they were negligent. Reversed and remanded.
This was a case of first impression in Vermont. The holding lays out the court’s approach for determining when public policy interests are implicated, but does not provide a formula for doing so. Other states have adopted a formulaic approach, such as the one used in Colorado which attempts to balance: 1) the existence of a duty to the public, 2) the nature of the service performed, 3) whether the contract was fairly entered into, and 4) whether the intention of the parties is expressed in clear and unambiguous terms. Jones v. Dressel, 623 P.2d 370 (Colo. 1981).