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Appeals Court Applies Statutory Immunity in Wheelchair-Skiing Case

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on April 29, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An interesting case was affirmed for the defendant ski-resort at the Sixth Circuit recently, offering refresher insights into the proper means and technique of statutory interpretation.

The case involved a lady in a wheelchair on a ski-lift tramway. Despite the prosaic facts, the plaintiff offered some curious legal theories in her injury claim.

Statutory Interpretation: Plain Language, Please

A wheelchair bound passenger boarded a mountain tramway on her family vacation in 2012. Although she had previously taken the tramway without incident, on the return trip she fell and injured herself when the wheel of her wheelchair caught on the tram and broke.

Since the plaintiff was a Michigan resident, she invoked diversity jurisdiction and alleged negligence causes of action against the resort which used the tram. The resort demurred by citing Tenn. Code Ann. secs. 68-114-101-107(a): "[n]o action shall lie against any [ski area] operator by any skier or passenger," so long as the operator complies with the Act itself and with other state acts pertaining to ski areas. Apparently, the main justification of this law is the assumption of risk doctrine.

The defendants argued that the plaintiff fit this exact sufficient condition and moved for summary judgment. The court granted that motion and plaintiff appealed.

Circuit Opinion: Shortest Opinion Ever

The circuit's opinion reads almost like a paper out of statutory interpretation class. It found that summary judgment was proper because the resort was a "ski area operator" (in fact, the resort made a significant portion of its income during the winter months), that the plaintiff was a passenger on the tram, and that her injuries arose out her use of the tramway "associated with Alpine or downhill skiing."

Her response was a bit of a stretch and the circuit knew it. Because, she said, her injuries occurred during the summer, the statute should not apply to immunize the resort because the tramway transported her to another location and was therefore not associated with Alpine or downhill skiing.

That's some fancy theory of interpretation, said the circuit, but nice try (there are fancier examples, though). No reasonable person would understand the statute to be read like that, the court said. The tramway does not become any less a skiing resort fixture simply because the snow melts every spring. Nor does the nature of the transport change based on the intended use of the passenger at the time. This would be tantamount to saying that a passenger airplane is no longer a passenger airplane just because it might happen once to be used to transport oranges.

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