An exculpatory clause is valid where three conditions are met. First, the clause must not contravene public policy. Secondly, the contract must be between persons relating entirely to their own private affairs and thirdly, each party must be a free bargaining agent to the agreement so that the contract is not one of adhesion. Once an exculpatory clause is determined to be valid, it will, nevertheless, still be unenforceable unless the language of the parties is clear that a person is being relieved of liability for his own acts of negligence. In interpreting such clauses the guiding standards are that: 1) the contract language must be construed strictly, since exculpatory language is not favored by the law; 2) the contract must state the intention of the parties with the greatest particularity, beyond doubt by express stipulation, and no inference from words of general import can establish the intent of the parties; 3) the language of the contract must be construed, in cases of ambiguity, against the party seeking immunity from liability; and 4) the burden of establishing the immunity is upon the party invoking protection under the clause.
Appellees, a skier and her spouse, sued appellant ski resort for negligence, seeking to recover damages for injuries the skier suffered from falling off the ski lift and for the spouse's loss of consortium. The resort argued that the suit was barred by a release the skier signed, which exempted the resort from liability for its employees' negligence, and by her voluntary assumption of the risk under the Pennsylvania Skier's Responsibility Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 7102(c). The trial court granted the resort summary judgment on the basis of the release. Appellees sought review and the Superior Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The resort appealed and the high court reversed the order of the intermediate appellate court and reinstated the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the resort.
Was appellee barred by statute and/or a release signed by the skier from maintaining a negligence action?
Noting that the release did not define or give examples of "negligence," the intermediate appellate court held that it was arguably an adhesion contract. It also held that a contested issue of fact--what the lift operator said to the skier--made summary judgment inappropriate. The high court held that appellees' suit arose out of the general risk of falling from a ski lift--an inherent risk of skiing from which the resort owed no duty of protection--and thus was barred by the Act. As the absence of a definition or illustration of negligence did not render the release an invalid contract of adhesion, and the release did not contravene public policy, it was enforceable and also barred the suit.