The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a major decision that reverses many decisions by Pennsylvania’s appellate courts. In Tayar v. Camelback Ski Resort, the Supreme Court held that before a person is injured, a person cannot release another from reckless conduct.
Appellant Camelback Ski Corporation, Inc. (“Camelback”) operates a ski resort in Tannersville, Pennsylvania that offers various winter activities, including skiing and snow tubing. Before allowing patrons to enjoy snow tubing, Camelback requires each customer to sign a pre-printed release form.
Camelback offers its customers two different methods of snow tubing. One set of snow tubing slopes provides tubers relatively uncontrolled access down the mountain and deposits them in a common receiving area. Alternatively, customers can enjoy two snow tubing slopes identified as “family” tubing slopes. These family tubing slopes are separated from the other snow tubing slopes, and the flow of snow tubers is controlled by a Camelback employee, who discharges them from the summit once the previous snow tubers have cleared the receiving area at the bottom. The receiving area for the family tubing slope is segregated from the common receiving area connected to the other slopes.
On December 20, 2003, Barbara Lichtman Tayar (“Tayar”) and her family visited Camelback’s facility in the early afternoon. Tayar and her family decided to join the snow tubing, and, pursuant to Camelback’s requirement, Tayar signed the Release. Tayar and her family elected to use the family tubing slopes, and completed four successful runs down the mountain. The flow of tubers down the family slope was controlled by Camelback employee Brian Monaghan.
Once Tayar reached the receiving area at the bottom of the slope following her fifth run, she exited her snow tube and was immediately struck by another snow tuber coming down the family tubing slope.
Camelback employees rushed to assist Tayar out of the receiving area, when yet another snow tuber narrowly missed striking her. At this point, several Camelback employees were yelling and gesturing up the mountain to Monaghan to stop sending snow tubers down the slope until they could safely remove Tayar from the receiving area. As a result of the collision, Tayar suffered multiple comminuted factures of her right leg, for which she underwent surgery and required two metal plates and 14 screws to stabilize her ankle.
Tayar filed a complaint against Camelback and Monaghan (collectively “Appellants”) in the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County on January 6, 2005. Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting Tayar’s claims against Camelback and Monaghan were barred by the Release. On March 31, 2006, the trial court granted the motion, reasoning the Release covered Camelback and thereby released it from any liability associated with Tayar’s injuries. Additionally, the court determined that it did not need to address whether the Release encompassed Monaghan in his personal capacity because, in any event, the release printed on the lift ticket relieved Monaghan of liability. Further, while the court concluded the evidence demonstrated Monaghan acted negligently by sending snow tubers down the mountain too early, it did not suggest he acted recklessly or with gross negligence. Thus, the trial court determined the Release and lift ticket relieved Appellants of liability and compelled entry of summary judgment in their favor. Tayar appealed to the Superior Court.
On appeal, a three-judge panel affirmed in a divided decision. Thereafter, Tayar requested the Superior Court rehear the matter en banc, and her request was granted.
Upon rehearing, the en banc Superior Court reversed the trial court in a 5-4 decision. Tayar v. Camelback Ski Corp., Inc., 957 A.2d 281 (Pa. Super. 2008). Construing the Release strictly against Camelback, the majority concluded the Release did not encompass Monaghan in his personal capacity because he failed to demonstrate the Release exculpated him with the “greatest particularity.”
As the Release did not mention employees, but only Camelback, the majority reasoned that reading the Release to encompass Monaghan in his personal capacity would require inserting language into the Release. The majority also determined that the Release encompassed only negligent conduct because its language was not specific enough to release acts of greater culpability: the Release “had to explicitly state that the releasor was waiving claims based upon allegations of recklessness and intentional conduct” in order for such conduct to be validly released. Thus, the majority determined the Release was valid only with respect to Camelback, and relieved Camelback from liability for only negligent conduct. As the majority further found there existed a material question concerning whether Monaghan acted recklessly or negligently, the majority concluded the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of Defendants, and remanded for further proceedings.
It is now universal for participants in sports or other recreational activities to be required to execute a release for the organizers. While this ruling does not do away with that practice, it is a clear indication from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that organizers may be liable if they cause injuries to participants through their own reckless conduct.