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Fourth Department Grants Summary Judgment in Chair Lift Claim

March 13, 2014 • Posted By Joseph A. French • Complex Litigation

Plaintiffs sought damages for injuries plaintiff sustained while suing a triple chairlift at defendants’ facility.  Defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, contending that plaintiff assumed the risk of injury when she “willingly engaged in the recreational activity of downhill skiing.”  The Fourth Dept. ruled that the Supreme Court erred in granting the motion with respect to the claim for negligent operation of the chirlift.

“As a general rule, a voluntary participant in an athletic activity is deemed to have consented to the risk of injuries that are known, apparent or reasonably foreseeable consequences of the participation in such events . . . [P]articipants will not be deemed to have assumed the risks of reckless or intentional conduct . . . or concealed or unreasonably increased risks . . . It is beyond debate that there is inherent risk of injury to participants in downhill skiing . . . Moreover, there is undoubtedy some risk of injury inherent in entering, riding and exiting from a chairlift at a ski resort.  However, . . . the latter is not of such magnitude as to eliminate all duty of care and thereby insulate the owner from claims of negligent supervision and training of the lift operator or negligent maintenance and operation of the lift itself since such negligence may unduly enhance the level of the risk assumed.” (citations omitted).

The Court found defendants met their burden that the triple chairlift was designed and maintained properly, that it met all industry standards, and that they were not negligent in their supervision and training of the chairlift operators.

The Court found, however, that the defendants inadvertently undermined their own efforts.  “Defendants’ own submissions raised triable issues of fact whether they were negligent in their operation of the chairlift, thereby unduly enhancing the risk to plaintiff.  Plaintiff, an experienced skier, was riding the triple chairlift and her eight-year-old son and another passenger.  Upon reaching the sign directing passengers to prepare to unload, plaintiff noticed that her skis were entangled with her son’s skis.  Defendants did not slow or stop the chairlift, and plaintiff was unable to unload from the chairlift before it passed the unloading area.  Plaintiff was injured when she either jumped or was thrown from the chairlift before it reached the safety gate that would have stopped the chairlift”.

The court found no evidence plaintiff “signaled her distress” to a chairlift operator upon approaching the unloading area.  Yet, “defendants submitted evidence that top chairlift operators are required to monitor every approach to the unloading area to ensure that skiers are unloading safely.  According to defendants’ submissions, the top chairlift operators are able to see three to four approaching chairs at any given time, and are able to see to the tower where plaintiff first noticed that her skis were entangled.  Once the emergency stop is activated, the chairlift is able to stop within 10 to 12 feet.  Based on that evidence,” we conclude that there is a triable issue of fact whether defendants were negligent in operating the chairlift”

 Because “plaintiff began experiencing her problem some distance away from the unloading area, we conclude that there are issues of fact whether the top chairlift operator had sufficient time to observe plaintiff’s problem, to anticipate the danger to plaintiff in attempting to unload from the chairlift with entangled skis and to slow or stop the chairlift in sufficient time to enable plaintiff to unload safely.”

Given the vigilance that the operators should have given the lift and its passengers, the decision is sound.