Winter is officially here, and thousands of people are celebrating by taking advantage of New Hampshire’s many ski areas. Skiing is enjoyed by millions worldwide and is an important part of New Hampshire’s economy. However, as every skier knows, skiing does not come without risks. Unfortunately, injuries are inevitable with a sport such as skiing, and no one doubts that some accidents are simply a risk skiers agree to accept when they hit the slopes.
As explained in a previous blog, ski areas enjoy strong legal protection in New Hampshire. This protection dates back over 50 years, to when RSA 225-A was passed by our legislature. In the 1970s, New Hampshire significantly ramped up statutory protections for ski areas following the landmark 1978 case Sunday v. Stratton Corp. In Sunday, a Vermont skier successful sued a ski mountain for over a million dollars after he was paralyzed from hitting a clump of brush on a mountain. Prior to Sunday, it was generally accepted that plaintiffs could not sue for that type of injury, which was considered an inherent risk of skiing. The decision sent shock waves through the skiing industry.
Ski areas (and their insurance companies) panicked after the Sunday case, and New Hampshire was but one of many states that enacted sweeping ski area immunity laws in the aftermath. RSA 225-A was substantially amended to explicitly state that ski areas could not be liable for “inherent risks of skiing.” The statute defines “inherent risks” broadly: collisions with other skiers, variations in terrain, snow conditions, bare spots, rocks, stumps, lift towers, and visible snow-making equipment, among other things.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court has consistently used RSA 225-A to dismiss the lawsuits of injured skiers. In Rayeski v. Gunstock, a skier struck a light pole which was unmarked and not visible. The Court held that, under the Ski Immunity Statute, hitting an unmarked, invisible light pole was an inherent risk of skiing and barred the skier’s action. In Cecere v. Loon Mountain, the plaintiff was a snowboarder who attempted to navigate the “Tombstone Jump” at Loon Mountain, fell, and died of his injuries. RSA 225-A, at the time, did not refer to snowboarding at all — it merely referenced the “sport of skiing.”
The Supreme Court determined that RSA 225-A applied to snowboarding injuries, even though the statute did not reference snowboarding, and even though snowboarding did not even exist when the statute was enacted. Having cleared that hurdle, the Court of course went on to hold that even man-made ski jumps constitute “inherent risks,” even if a ski jump was designed negligently, and even though RSA 225-A explicitly made ski areas “responsible for the design, construction, and structural maintenance of all ski jumps.” Cecere demonstrates the depth of protection enjoyed by ski areas in New Hampshire.
Ultimately, thanks to the New Hampshire legislature and courts, it is very difficult for skiers to prevail on skiing-related lawsuits in New Hampshire without an experienced ski law attorney. Thanks to these legal protections, ski areas have less and less incentive to operate safe facilities, to the detriment of the people of New Hampshire and tourists.
Unfortunately for skiers, even when an injury is not caused by an inherent risk of skiing, and instead caused by the negligence of a ski area, they may still find their claims barred by the liability releases they signed to get their season passes, or even the waivers on the back of their ski tickets. I examine the enforceability of these liability releases (or “exculpatory contracts”) in more detail in this blog.
If you were injured on a ski mountain or ski lift and would like a free consultation, please contact one of Welts, White & Fontaine’s personal injury attorneys, call (603) 883-0797 or contact us here. We are experienced in all types of personal injury law, including ski injury claims. We can help you evaluate whether you have a viable claim, and have the tools and knowledge necessary to obtain a favorable settlement or verdict. We handle most personal injury matters on a contingency fee basis.
Importantly, in order to preserve the potential for a lawsuit against a ski resort, an injured skier must usually notify the mountain of the injury by certified mail within 90 days (see RSA 225-A:25).
Author: Israel F. Piedra
This blog is intended for informational use only. The information contained herein should not be construed as offering legal advice or a legal opinion.