Wrongful Death Settlement
Who can your estate sue for the wrongful death of a loved one in a skiing accident? This question is clarified in Angland v. Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., Supreme Court of New Jersey, Docket No.: A-57 September Term 2011 069461. The Estate of Angland (“Angland”) sued Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (“Mountain Creek”), the ski slope operator and a skier for the wrongful death of Robert Angland (“Robert”) who died from injuries sustained after a collision with a snowboarder. Angland alleged that the defendants did not comply with the Ski Act’s statutory duty of care. The snowboarder moved for summary judgment, arguing that Angland had to prove that he acted recklessly as opposed to just negligently. The snowboarder argued that the recklessness standard could not be met because the facts demonstrated that he unintentionally collided with the deceased while trying to avoid an accident with a third skier.
The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the Act addresses the duties and responsibilities between ski area operators and skiers, but the Act does not apply to claims made between skiers. Furthermore, the Court held that there was enough evidence in the record for a rational jury to conclude that the snowboarder was reckless and was the proximate cause of Robert’s injuries.
The New Jersey legislature (“legislature”) sought to create certainty in response to a decision made in Sunday v. Stratton Corp. The legislature stated that its intent was to “deal with the problem by specifically listing the responsibilities of ski area operators and skiers.” The Act identifies ski area operators’ responsibilities and holds the operators liable for breaches of the listed duties. The Act also identified skiers’ duties and risks that skiers assume when engaging in this recreational sport. When skiers assume the risk, then the operator will not be held liable. By spelling out liabilities more clearly, it is easier for the operators to do business and for tortfeasors to be identified. The Court explained that the Act never intended to describe liabilities among skiers because the legislature never defined the duty of care applicable for liability among skiers – instead the duties spell out the risks assumed by skiers when partaking in the recreational sport. Therefore, when the skier wishes to make a claim against the ski resort, such as Mountain Creek, the Act will apply, and when a skier wants to make a claim against another skier, then the common law standard of recklessness will apply.
With regard to liability for one skier against another in common law, the Act’s list of duties owed by skiers is still relevant because the duties help to determine whether a skier was reckless. A skier who recklessly violates one of the duties listed in the Act will be liable to the party who suffered damages.
The court ultimately remanded the case to the Superior Court to determine whether the snowboarder was reckless when he collided with Robert. Summary judgment was inappropriate because the plaintiff contended that the phantom skier the snowboarder claimed to have been avoiding never even existed, and that the record included references to an expert report stating that the snowboarder failed to keep a proper lookout, which led to the Robert’s demise. Angland additionally argued that even if this phantom skier existed, the snowboarder was reckless in that he did not appropriately respond when he had ample time to make adjustments. Ultimately, a jury will now determine whether the snowboarder acted recklessly resulting in Robert’s death.