Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decides Snow Tubing Injury Case Can Continue

By Shang Jiang

Skiing and snowboarding are relatively high-risk sport activities. So, it is important for people to raise the awareness of risk in sports. Building better sports insurance system and sports accident liability identification standards would benefit both the customers and corporations.

In December 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed these issues and ruled that the Superior Court’s decision to grant summary judgment was wrong in a high-profile snow tubing injury case. As a result, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the order and remanded for further proceedings.

Ray Bourgeois and Mary Bourgeois (collectively the Bourgeoises) sued, alleging that Mr. Bourgeois, as a patron, was seriously injured at the end of the snow tube runs because of the negligence and recklessness of the employees from Snow Time, Inc., and Ski Roundtop Operating Corp. (collectively Ski Roundtop). The Bourgeoises contended that the trial court and the Superior Court failed to consider their expert reports and did not view the evidence in a light most favorable to them as the non-moving party. However, Ski Roundtop contended that the trial court considered the expert reports in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support claims of gross negligence or recklessness. And the expert reports failed to produce evidence of an industry standard governing the use of mats at the base of the snow tubing hill. Ski Roundtop then alleged that the Superior Court was right to affirm the decision by trial court. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the Superior Court and the trial court failed to regard the experts’ conclusions in the best interests of the Bourgeoises. The trial court explained its conclusion that the Bourgeoises did not provide sufficient evidence to prove gross negligence or recklessness. The trial court failed to consider the expert reports, and its conclusion also proved the lack of evidence on gross negligence and recklessness. Even though the expert reports raised serious issues of material fact on these claims, the trial court and the Superior Court ignored the opinions from two experts.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed with Ski Roundtop’s argument that the trial court opinion reflected its consideration of the experts’ reports. Although Ski Roundtop believed that it was correct for the trial court to recite the standard of summary judgment accurately, its application of the standard was wrong. In addition, Ski Roundtop’s argument that the expert reports were not more important or relevant than any other evidence was not convincing, because the experts’ reports showed that there was a real problem of substantive facts that directly contradicted the disposition facts found by the trial court.

The trial court did not consider the expert reports and the Superior court failed to overthrow the decision by trial on this basis. As a result, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that both the trial court and the Superior Court had made a legal mistake in applying the summary judgment standard that required the court to view all evidence and all reasonable inferences in the best way for non-moving parties. The Supreme Court also concluded that the expert reports defined the duty or the standard of care for Ski Roundtop. The Superior court failed to evaluate this issue either. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stressed the principle that an actor whose affirmative conduct increases the risk of harm to has a duty to “exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonable risk of harm arising from such that affirmative conduct”. In this case, Ski Roundtop assumed the obligation to prevent their patrons from participating, clearing the run-out zone before they reached the mixing zone. In so doing, the court concluded that it had the responsibility to take reasonable care to protect its sponsors from unreasonable risks.

In addition, the industry standards cited in export’s report was not intended to establish the duties of Ski Roundtop, but to explained how Ski Roundtop failed to fulfill their duties, that was, to take reasonable and prudent measures when snow tubing patrons reached the end of their runs. Even if the expert’s conclusion was set aside, Ski Roundtop did not meet the normal standards of conduct for a tubing park operator. The other expert report also contained a number of other conclusions on how Ski Roundtop violated its duty of care in a gross negligent or reckless manner, because it knew or should have known that its intentional behavior increased the risk of harm to its patrons. 

The Supreme Court concluded that “the existence of a duty is a question of law for the court to decide and the duty consists of one party’s obligation to conform to a particular standard of care for the protection of another”. The Superior Court largely disregarded the second expert’s report because it did not propose any standard of care. However, that report contained a detailed analysis of the folded deceleration pad and concluded that Ski Roundtop should have known that the folded deceleration pad would make its patrons stop suddenly and increased their risk of serious injury, which was exactly what happened when Mr. Bourgeois’s snow tube hit the folded pad. 

The decision by Pennsylvania Supreme Court marks the latest entry in court rulings about the duty of care and is important for two reasons. First, reports and investigation opinions from accident liability identification professionals should be viewed and evaluated by the court more carefully. Second, companies and corporations should strictly follow the industry standards to fulfill their duty of care and train employees with comprehensive regulations and operation manuals to protect their patrons from unwanted risk and harm. 

Shang Jiang, a doctoral student at Florida State University, studies sports marketing, ski resort management, integration of sport and tourism, and issues pertaining to sport governance.

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