Ski areas to adjust signage based on appeal of B.C. supreme court decision

 | September 8, 2020

A 20-year-old snowboarder who became quadriplegic in 2016 after a snowboarding accident in Grouse Mountain’s terrain park has been allowed to move forward with his legal case after the B.C. Court of Appeals overturned the provincial Supreme Court’s previous decision this spring.

The Canada West Ski Area Association (CWSAA) is closely following a court case involving Grouse Mountain Resort Ltd. and its liability to better manage risk and educate skiers and snowboarders who ski and ride at resorts. The case could have lasting effects on the industry and the way it communicates inherent risks of mountain skiing and riding to the public.

As a result of the case, updated signage and liability waivers will be implemented to help educate guests at resorts across Western Canada this winter. 

The Court Decision

In March 2016, Jason Apps went to Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, B.C. where he purchased a lift ticket to go snowboarding. During an accident on an extra large jump in the terrain park, Apps suffered a neck injury and became quadrapalegic. 

The accident set off a chain of legal actions, including a provincial Supreme Court summary judgement which was appealed this spring. The summary judgement originally found Grouse Mountain was not responsible for the incident and Apps was bound by the waivers and posted warnings.

Now, Apps will have the opportunity to have his allegations tried in court, leaving the upcoming outcome of the case a matter of interest for the ski industry.

Apps first filed a civil lawsuit in June of 2017 when he sued for damages, alleging Grouse Mountain was in breach of contract and that the mountain was negligent in creating and inspecting the terrain park feature. 

Grouse Mountain denies the claims and is relying on an exclusion of liability waiver and an own negligence exclusion clause in the waiver as a complete defence against Apps. Grouse Mountain also claims Apps should have been aware of such waivers because he worked in a ski rental shop in Whistler, B.C. and had purchased a season pass there. Waivers are common to every lift ticket and season pass purchase made in Canada.

The Industry Ramifications

CWSAA is the trade association for ski area operators in Western Canada, whose members represent a major economic contribution in Canada. Their members generate $2.5 billion per year to the economy, over $400 million in tax revenue, and provide 75,000 jobs and over a billion dollars in wages.

The CWSAA also reviews scenarios like the Apps v. Grouse Mountain civil case in an effort to continually update the forever evolving risk management strategies that allow ski areas to operate safely.

In CWSAA’s June newsletter, the board of directors announced they will be updating waivers, as well as exclusion of liability and own negligence signage and wording in light of the recent case law brought forward in the Apps case.

“This (court) decision supports exclusion of liability, but speaks to ensuring ski areas pay attention to the exclusion of liability message for people who come into ski areas,” said Christopher Nicolson, the organization’s chief executive officer. “This is accomplished through updates to ski area websites and wording including the format and the words of the documents.”

Areas where customers can expect to see updated signs at Western Canadian ski resorts include warning signs in parking lots, areas where lift tickets are purchased, the website, and waivers that must be signed for season passes or to enter events hosted on the ski hill. 

“Within the [updated] documents you’re going to see sections where there are a lot of details, additional bolds, and underlines to help people make sense of it and better reference it.” 

He added industry signage was made more visible last year by making it multiple colours. 

“Signage is placed to be visible and uses clear language to state the risks and hazards that exist in ski areas and websites and waivers are used to communicate those hazards,” Nicolson said.

Waivers and warning signage are also in place to help legally protect ski area operators.

“When a person comes into a ski area, there is an obligation through the operator to provide a safe operation but there are risks that do exist… and the user of the premise accepts that there are hazards so they waive their legal action.”

The CWSAA works to provide ski areas with recommendations for maintaining a safe premise to protect both the resort rider, and the ski operator itself through generations of risk management expertise that are applied through training, education, safety audits, data analysis, incident investigation, industry training, and collaboration with a multitude of regulatory bodies including chairlift manufacturers, ski instructor trainers, and health organizations for the medical training of staff.

“Canada is a leader on the world stage in regard to (ski) industry advancement,” Nicolson said. 

The Alpine Responsibility Code is one of the most used and longstanding educational tools that provide ski area users across the country basic rules and shared responsibilities to ensure an enjoyable and safe day on the slopes.

“The single biggest thing I would like people to know about it is just like cyclists on a road have responsibilities, so do skiers and snowboarders. There’s a safety culture and rules that go along with skiing and snowboarding so riders need to learn to accept and actively demonstrate them at ski areas.”

Changes to be made at Sun Peaks

Locally, Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) is ready to make changes based on the CWSAA recommendations following the new case.

“We always follow along with the key recommendations that come from the CWSAA in regard to signage and liability waivers,” Aidan Kelly, chief marketing officer of SPR said in an email.

When asked where customers and visitors to SPR can expect to see changes to signage and warnings, Kelly said there are no specific plans yet because the resort is currently focused on planning how SPR will operate with the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Kelly said although they haven’t come up with specific operational plans for additional signage or changes for the winter, it’s something that they will be tackling in the fall leading up to the start of winter operations.

Kelly added SPR has a variety of elements they utilize to educate riders on the risks and hazards that come along with resort skiing.

“Staff training is one of the major ones, especially for those in front line and guest facing positions on the mountain,” he wrote. “When staff members are regularly interacting with guests, we have the ability to influence safe behaviours and practices on the mountain. Reducing risks (it’s impossible to eliminate it) is a high priority for us as a company. We also have additional signage and hazard management practices outside of the regular signage/waiver program. These elements are reviewed and improved upon regularly.”