Summary judgment denied in ski accident
DANIEL ANGLAND and DANIEL
OF THE ESTATE OF ROBERT E.
ANGLAND, and CHARLES
JOHNSON, IV, ADMINISTRATOR
OF THE ESTATE OF NANCY
ANGLAND, v. MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC.,
a New Jersey Corporation,
and WILLIAM TUCKER BROWNLEE,
MOUNTAIN CREEK RESORT, INC.,
WILLIAM TUCKER BROWNLEE,
Argued May 31, 2011 – Decided
Before Judges A.A. Rodríguez and C.L. Miniman.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Sussex County, Docket No. L-0474-08.
John Burke argued the cause for appellant (Burke & Potenza, attorneys; Mr. Burke, of counsel and on the brief).
Phillip C. Wiskow argued the cause for respondents the Administrators of the Estate of Robert E. Angland and Nancy Angland (Gelman, Gelman, Wiskow & McCarthy, attorneys; Mr. Wiskow, of counsel and on the brief).
Hueston McNulty, attorneys for respondent Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (Samuel J. McNulty and John F. Gaffney, of counsel and on the brief).
William Tucker Brownlee moved for leave to appeal from the August 31, 2010 interlocutory order denying his motion for summary judgment against plaintiffs, the Administrators of the Estate of Robert E. Angland and Nancy Angland, and Mountain Creek Resort, Inc. (Mountain Creek). We initially denied the motion. Angland v. Mountain Creek, et al., No. M-403-10 (App. Div. October 14, 2010). However, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and summarily remanded to us to consider the merits on February 15, 2011.
These are the facts presented to the summary judgment judge. On Friday, January 19, 2007, shortly before noon, plaintiff's decedent, Robert Angland, suffered injuries resulting in his death while skiing at a ski area operated by defendant Mountain Creek. The facts are sharply disputed. However, all parties agree that just before the accident, defendant William Tucker Brownlee was snowboarding at Mountain Creek on the same slope as decedent. Brownlee and Angland made contact.
Besides these two points, the parties' versions of the facts diverge. According to Brownlee, as he was snowboarding on the far right side of the trail, an unidentified skier wearing a brown puffy jacket came from his left and cut directly in front of him. In order to avoid the unidentified skier, Brownlee turned quickly to his left. In doing so, Brownlee's snowboard and the decedent's skis became entangled. The two men collided, fell, and slid downhill. Decedent ultimately impacted a concrete bridge headfirst. He died as a result. Brownlee stopped sliding. He stood up and went to Angland's assistance. The ski patrol arrived and took decedent for medical assistance.
According to plaintiffs, there were almost no skiers on the trail at the time of the collision between Brownlee and decedent. Plaintiffs allege that Brownlee's "phantom skier" scenario is impeached by other evidence. Brownlee's version is that the phantom skier went in front of him and to his left. At Brownlee's deposition, he testified the phantom skier was at "eleven o'clock" to his position, and that the phantom skier cut to his right and decreased his speed. As a result, Brownlee cut to his left. Before Brownlee's snowboard went over one of decedent's skis and under the other, Brownlee acknowledged that he was out of control.
Immediately after the accident, Greg Pack, Vice President and Managing Director of Mountain Creek, skied over to Brownlee, who was approximately fifteen feet from Angland and the bridge. According to Pack, less than one minute after the accident, Brownlee stated that he was cut-off and involved in a collision.
Within thirty minutes of the accident, Brownlee told his close high school friend, Keith Eilerstan, who accompanied him to Mountain Creek that day, that a lady fell in front of him, and as a result, he steered off to his right and collided with decedent. Brownlee also gave a written statement to Mountain Creek's ski patrol and spoke to the Vernon Police Department on the day of the accident.
In not one of Brownlee's statements to Pack, Eilerstan, Mountain Creek's ski patrol or the Vernon police on the day of the accident did he identify the phantom skier by way of age, sex or clothing.
In a written statement, and in certified answers to interrogatories provided months later, Brownlee indicated that decedent fell and slid down the hill after the collision. Yet, he testified at his deposition soon after that he did not see decedent fall or slide.
Plaintiffs also note that Mountain Creek's accident reconstruction expert has prepared a report stating that the collision between Brownlee and Angland most likely occurred approximately one hundred feet from the bridge. It is also likely that Angland's multiple facial fractures were caused by the collision between the two men, as opposed to by contact with the bridge.
Plaintiffs' liability expert, Irving S. Scher, Ph.D., a Biomechanical Engineer, has opined that Brownlee violated the standard of care set by N.J.S.A. 5:13-1 to -11 (Ski Act), the New Jersey statute that defines the duties involved in skiing. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 5:13-4 provides the duties of a skier. According to the report, the deviation from the statutory standard occurred when Brownlee failed to keep a proper lookout, made a panic stop, and turned to his left in front of decedent.
Plaintiffs sued Mountain Creek and Brownlee. After a period of discovery, Mountain Creek and Brownlee moved for summary judgment. Judge William J. McGovern, III, denied Brownlee's motion for summary judgment, and granted Mountain Creek's motion. In a written opinion, dated August 31, 2010, the judge concluded that, in viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Brownlee, as required by Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520 (1995), Mountain Creek was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of the Ski Act providing a standard of care. The judge acknowledged that the purpose of the Ski Act was announced by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). This section of the Ski Act provides that "the purpose of this law is to make explicit a policy of this State which clearly defines the responsibility of ski area operators and skiers." N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). The judge noted that the Supreme Court has recognized that the Ski Act completely replaces the common law with respect to the activities and persons it covers.
[T]he analysis of liability under the Ski Statute and the analysis under the common law of negligence have significant parallels.
That fact, coupled with the Legislature's statements of intent, lead us to conclude that where the Ski Statute properly applies, the Legislature intended completely to displace the common law with regard to the statutorily defined parties. The Ski Statute was intended to "clearly define the responsibility of ski area operators." N.J.S.A. 5:13-1(b). The legislative committee statement stated as a primary concern the uncertainty over operator liability following Vermont's Sunday[] case. That interest would have been poorly served had the Ski Statute merely supplemented the common law. By codifying, as modified, fundamental principles of negligence as they apply to skiers and ski-area operators, the Legislature provided certainty by occupying the entire field.
[Brett v. Great Am. Recreation, 144 N.J. 479, 502 (1996) (internal citations omitted).]
On appeal, Brownlee contends that the judge "committed error in holding that New Jersey's ski statute sets forth the standard of care applicable to claims between skiers." We disagree and concur with Judge McGovern that this argument is without merit. We concur with the judge's analysis and note that although the main legislative intent was to define the responsibilities of skier and ski area operations towards each other, the Legislature also intended to create a standard of conduct for skiers towards other skiers. N.J.S.A. 5:13-4 provides in pertinent part:
Duties of skiers
a. Skiers shall conduct themselves within the limits of their individual ability and shall not act in a manner that may contribute to the injury of themselves or any other person.
b. No skier shall:
(4) Knowingly engage in any act or activity by his skiing or frolicking which injures other skiers while such other skiers are either descending any trail, or standing or congregating in a reasonable manner, and due diligence shall be exercised in order to avoid hitting, colliding with or injuring any other skier or invitee.
d. A skier shall be the sole judge of his ability to negotiate any trail, slope, or uphill track and shall not attempt to ski or otherwise traverse any trail, slope or other area which is beyond the skier's ability to negotiate.
g. No person on foot or on any type of sliding device shall knowingly operate said device so as to cause injury to himself or others, whether such injury results from a collision with another person or with an object.
[Ibid. (emphasis added).]
Moreover, N.J.S.A. 5:13-5 provides:
Assumption of risk of skier
A skier is deemed to have knowledge of and to assume the inherent risks of skiing, operating toboggans, sleds or similar vehicles created by weather conditions, conditions of snow, trails, slopes, other skiers, and all other inherent conditions. Each skier is assumed to know the range of his ability, and it shall be the duty of each skier to conduct himself within the limits of such ability, to maintain control of his speed and course at all times while skiing, to heed all posted warnings and to refrain from acting in a manner which may cause or contribute to the injury of himself or others.
[Ibid.; L.1979, c. 29, § 5, eff. Feb.22, 1979.]
Brownlee also contends that "there is no evidence that Brownlee breached the heightened standard of care." There are material facts in dispute regarding Brownlee's conduct. Disputes exist as to the presence of a phantom skier, and as to how and where decedent was injured. These factual disputes must be decided by the jury and summary judgment is precluded. Brill supra, 142 N.J. at 537.
 Sunday v. Stratton Corp., 390 A.2d 398 (Vt. 1978).