Understanding who’s liable when someone is injured on the slopes
When most people think about California, they picture sandy beaches, surfboards, and messenger-bag-carrying techies riding fixed-gear bicycles.
You might be surprised to learn that California actually has 29 ski resorts (5th most in the country), including 2 of the largest (Heavenly and Squaw Valley) in the United States.
So, what happens when someone is injured on the California slopes?
In this article, we’ll take a look at ski accidents, including what causes them, who’s liable, and what damages can be recovered.
Ski accident statistics
According to the National Ski Areas Association, 37 people died while skiing or snowboarding in the US during the 2017-2018 season.
In addition, there were 37 catastrophic injuries during the 2017-18 season. This represents a 15% increase from the 2016-2017 season, but is still significantly below the 10-year average of 47 catastrophic injuries per season.
According to data NBC Bay Area obtained, medical staff treat an average of 6,884 California residents every year for ski or snowboard related injuries, including:
- Head and neck fractures (18 per year)
- Back fractures (101 per year)
- Traumatic brain injuries (798 per year)
Notably, there is no independent system for tracking ski accidents, and the ski industry has long been accused of underreporting accidents.
Types of skiing accidents
A lot can go wrong when you’re zipping down a snowy mountain on just 1 or 2 narrow pieces of plastic. Common causes of ski and snowboard accidents include:
- Collisions with other skiers
- Collisions with obstructions on the slopes (such as trees, boundary markers, and equipment)
- Improperly marked boundaries
- Chairlift accidents
- Defective ski equipment
- Improperly marked trails
Finding fault in a skiing accident
If you suffered an injury on the slopes, you’re likely facing significant medical bills. You might wonder whether someone else can be held liable for your injury.
In order to recover damages following a ski accident, you need to prove that someone else was at fault for the accident. In California, this is harder than it might sound—thanks in no small part to a legal principle called “assumption of the risk.”
Let’s take a closer look at this principle.
Assumption of the risk
California courts have long held that skiing involves certain inherent risks and each person who participates in the sport implicitly or expressly (by signing a release form when purchasing a lift pass) accepts those risks.
Inherent risks generally include:
- Injuries that 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
- Collisions with other skiers
- Collisions with properly marked or plainly visible snow-making or snow-grooming equipment
Assumption of the risk doesn’t absolutely absolve ski resorts and other skiers from liability. Both can still be held liable if they create an atypical risk or if they increase the normal risk to the point that it’s no longer considered a normal risk.
In most cases, it’s necessary to show that the ski resort or skier acted negligently.
Let’s look at a few examples.
The risk of losing control when crossing a patch of ice is considered a normal risk associated with skiing. As a result, Geroge’s lawsuit would likely be dismissed on the basis that he assumed the risk.
The risk of colliding with another skier is a normal risk associated with skiing. As a result, a court would likely dismiss Marissa’s lawsuit on the basis that she assumed the risk.
If, however, the other skier did something that greatly increased the risk of collision (such as skiing while intoxicated), Marissa would likely win her lawsuit. This is because Marissa can’t be expected to have assumed the risk of another person skiing while drunk.
Sustaining an injury as a result of defective equipment isn’t considered an inherent risk. Consequently, Jeremy would likely prevail in his lawsuit against the manufacturer of the binding.
While skiers can expect to encounter naturally-occuring conditions on a ski mountain, grooming errors are generally not considered inherent risks. Accordingly, Samantha would likely prevail in her lawsuit against the ski resort.
Other California ski laws
Other California ski laws that may be relevant to your case include:
- Common carrier doctrine. Chairlift operators in California are not considered common carriers, and therefore they owe passengers a “reasonable duty of care,” rather than the “highest degree of care.”
- California Labor Code Sections 7340-7357. Provides permitting requirements for chairlifts, which include biannual inspections by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
- California Penal Code Section 602(r). Provides that every person who knowingly skis in an area or on a ski trail that’s closed to the public, and that has signs posted indicating the closure, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
- California Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102. Provides that a good Samaritan who, at the scene of an emergency, renders emergency care in good faith can’t be held liable for any damages caused by the rendering of that aid.
- California Penal Code Section 653i. Provides that any person involved in a skiing accident must not leave the scene knowing or having reason to believe that any other person is in need of assistance, except to notify the authorities or obtain assistance.
Ski injury damages in California
In California, there are 3 types of damages available to a plaintiff in a ski accident lawsuit:
- Economic damages are intended to compensate you for the monetary losses associated with your injury (for example, medical expenses and lost income)
- Non-economic damages are intended to compensate you for the non-monetary consequences of your injury (for example, pain and suffering and loss of consortium)
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for intentional or outrageous conduct
Punitive damages aren’t usually awarded in personal injury cases. In California, punitive damages are only available in cases involving malice, oppression, or fraud.
If you’re injured in a ski accident, recovery may be an uphill battle. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. Get started by visiting our free online directory to locate an attorney to help you with your case.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.