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Rose v. Daniels Summit Lodge

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 6, 2018

MATTHEW ROSE, Plaintiff,
v.
DANIELS SUMMIT LODGE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JILL N. PARRISH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         District Judge Jill N. Parrish Before the court is a motion for summary judgment, [Docket 42], and a motion to exclude expert testimony, [Docket 50], filed by Daniels Summit Lodge (Summit Lodge). The court GRANTS the motion for summary judgment and DENIES AS MOOT the motion to exclude expert testimony.

         BACKGROUND

         On March 18, 2016, Matthew Rose rented a 2014 Polaris snowmobile from Summit Lodge. He signed a document releasing Summit Lodge from liability for any negligence claims arising from his use of the snowmobile. While Rose was approaching an opening in a wooden fence on the snowmobile, the throttle malfunctioned. It stuck on full-throttle, causing Rose to be thrown from the snowmobile into the fence. Rose was injured in the accident.

         The Polaris snowmobile rented by Rose has a thumb-operated throttle lever. The driver compresses the throttle lever to accelerate. When the driver releases the lever, it is designed to return to the idle position. The snowmobile also has a throttle safety switch, which is designed to automatically shut off the engine whenever pressure is removed from the throttle lever and the throttle cable or valves do not return to the closed position. Additionally, the snowmobile normally has two methods of manually shutting off the engine in the event of an uncontrolled acceleration. The driver can either press the kill switch button or turn the key to the off position. Summit Lodge, however, modified the snowmobile Rose rented so that no key was required to operate it. Thus, Rose did not have the option of turning the key to stop the snowmobile.

         The owner's manual for the 2014 Polaris suggests that the operator of the snowmobile conduct a number of pre-ride inspections, two of which are relevant in this case. First, the manual recommends that the operator compress the throttle lever to ensure that it returns to the idle position without binding or hesitation when released. Second, the manual suggests that the operator test the throttle safety switch to ensure that it is functioning properly. The owner's manual also recommends periodic maintenance of various components of the snowmobile. Not surprisingly, given that the manual suggests that the operator test these items before every ride, the manual also suggests checking both the throttle lever and the throttle safety switch at every service interval listed: 150 miles, 500 miles, 1, 000 miles, 2, 000 miles, and an annual preseason service.

         Summit Lodge has a policy of documenting all maintenance and repairs performed on the snowmobiles that it rents to customers. The records for the snowmobile rented by Rose, which was purchased new in 2014, indicate that Summit Lodge performed a preseason service on October 19, 2015 and that the kill switch was replaced on February 15, 2016. Summit Lodge performs a number of maintenance tasks when it services a snowmobile, including checking the throttle.

         Summit Lodge also inspects its snowmobiles on a regular basis. When a customer rents a snowmobile, an employee starts the machine, checks the throttle and the brakes, and drives it to a location where the customer can pick it up. When the customer returns the snowmobile, an employee then performs a more extensive inspection of the machine. This assessment is performed from an inspection list that is taken from the pre-ride list found in the Polaris owner's manual and includes testing the throttle lever and the throttle safety switch.[1] Summit Lodge does not create written records for these routine inspections.

         Rose sued both Polaris and Summit Lodge seeking to recover damages for injuries he sustained in his snowmobile accident. Rose and Polaris stipulated to a dismissal of the claims against Polaris. The claims that remain against Summit Lodge are for negligence and gross negligence. Rose argues that Summit Lodge is liable for his injuries because it negligently maintained the snowmobile's throttle[2] and negligently modified the snowmobile so that it would run without a key.

         Summit Lodge moves for summary judgment on Rose's negligence and gross negligence claims. First, it argues that Rose contractually released his negligence claim. Second, Summit Lodge asserts that no reasonable jury could conclude that it was grossly negligent. In addition, Summit Lodge moves to exclude Rose's expert witness, arguing that he is not qualified to testify about snowmobile maintenance.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Utah's substantive law applies to Rose's claims against Summit Lodge. But the court applies federal procedural law to determine whether summary judgment is warranted. See Stickley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 505 F.3d 1070, 1076 (10th Cir. 2007). Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant has met this burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To do this, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

         When the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, that party must go “beyond the pleadings” and “designate specific facts” to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an essential element to that party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id.

         ANALYSIS

         I. MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         A. Negligence

         Summit Lodge argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Rose's negligence claim because Rose signed a preinjury release of this cause of action. “It is well settled that preinjury releases of claims for ordinary negligence can be valid and enforceable.” Penunuri v. Sundance Partners, Ltd., 301 P.3d 984, 991 (Utah 2013) [hereinafter Penunuri I]. “But ‘preinjury releases are not unlimited in power and can be invalidated in certain circumstances.' Specifically, ‘(1) releases that offend public policy are unenforceable; (2) releases for activities that fit within the public interest exception are unenforceable; and (3) releases that are unclear or ambiguous are unenforceable.'” Id. (citations omitted). Rose argues that the court should not enforce the release that he signed because two of these exceptions apply here.

         1) Public Policy

         First, Rose asserts that the release offends public policy. “To determine whether a contract offends public policy, [courts] first determine whether an established public policy has been expressed in either constitutional or statutory provisions or the common law.” Id. In Rothstein v. Snowbird Corp., for example, the Utah Supreme Court looked to public policy expressed in a statute immunizing ski resorts from liability for the inherent risks of skiing to invalidate a release signed by a skier. 175 P.3d 560, 563-65 (Utah 2007); see Utah Code ยง 78B-4-401. But that court refused to invalidate a release signed by a participant in a guided horseback tour because ...


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