The Slope of Utah Ski Law

JurisdictionUtah,United States
CitationVol. 23 No. 1 Pg. 10
Publication year2010
Utah Bar Journal
Volume 23.

Vol. 23, No. 1, 10. The Slope of Utah Ski Law

Utah Bar Journal
Volume 23 No. 1
Jan/Feb 2010


The Slope of Utah Ski Law

by David S. Kottler

This article marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Utah Legislature's 1979 enactment of Utah's Inherent Risks of Skiing Act. See Utah Code Ann. andsect;andsect; 78B-4-401 to -404 (2009). Since then, national statistical studies tell us that there have been approximately 900 ski/snowboard related fatalities and over five million ski/snowboard related injuries. Each year, Utah's slopes can expect to see about three fatalities and over 10,000 injuries. While the vast majority of these accidents are not actionable, it is nonetheless surprising that the entire body of Utah ski law consists of only a handful of reported cases - in a state which boasts "The Greatest Snow on Earth" and around four million skier visits annually. Despite the scant volume of ski-injury litigation in Utah, the statistics above suggest that many Utah attorneys will confront the issue at some time in their career. This article attempts to provide a general framework in which to understand, evaluate, and advise clients about the slope of Utah ski law.

Downhill ski/snowboard accidents typically fall into one or more of the following five categories:

* Collisions with other skiers/snowboarders, with immovable objects (e.g., trees), or with movable objects (e.g., runaway skis or snowboards);

* Ski lift accidents due to negligent design, maintenance, or operation of the lift, or due to the negligence of other skiers or passengers on the lift;

* Accidents caused by ski area negligence such as failure to mark a known hazard, improper slope maintenance and/or grooming, or inadequate avalanche control;

* Accidents caused by ski instructor negligence, such as leading ski school students into overly challenging terrain or failing to provide safety instructions; and

* Accidents or injuries resulting from faulty equipment, most commonly alpine bindings that fail to release properly.

These categories frequently overlap, providing plaintiffs' attorneys with multiple possible defendants and theories of recovery for any individual accident.

The Utah Inherent Risks of Skiing Act

In most ski-injury cases, the first question to be asked (usually in the defendant's motion for summary judgment) is whether the ski area operator enjoys immunity under the Utah Inherent Risks of Skiing Act (the "Skiing Act"). The Skiing Act was passed in 1979 at the behest of ski-industry lobbyists, who feared a wave of litigation against ski area operators following the seminal case of Sunday v. Stratton Corp., 390 A.2d 398, 403 (Vt. 1978) (holding ski area operator liable for injuries sustained by a novice skier who tripped on an obscured piece of undergrowth: "What [the plaintiff] 'assumes' is not the risk of injury, but the use of reasonable care on the part of the [ski area operator].").

The stated purpose of the Skiing Act is

to clarify the law in relation to skiing injuries and the risks inherent in that sport, to establish as a matter of law that certain risks are inherent in that sport, and to provide that, as a matter of public policy, no person engaged in that sport shall recover from a ski operator for injuries resulting from those inherent risks.

Utah Code Ann. andsect; 78B-4-401. The Skiing Act broadly defines "inherent risks of skiing" as "those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of the sport," and provides a non-exclusive list of such dangers and conditions (e.g., "variations or steepness in terrain" and "collisions with other skiers"). Id. andsect; 78B-4-402

Despite what some argue is the "plain language" of the Skiing Act, the Utah Supreme Court held, in Clover v. Snowbird Ski resort, 808 P.2d 1037 (Utah 1991), that the Skiing Act "does not purport to grant ski area operators complete immunity from all negligence claims initiated by skiers." Id. at 1044. Rather, the Skiing Act only protects ski area operators from liability in cases where one or more of the enumerated dangers that caused the injury is an "integral aspect[] of the sport of skiing." Id. In other words, ski area operators owe...

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