Ski-hill Lift Tickets – Liability, Unilateral Contracts, Negligence Exclusion
In certain situations, such as obtaining a lift ticket for a ski-hill, “unilateral contracts” are used by one of the parties to the contract (i.e., the ski hill) which set out specific conditions the other party (i.e., the consumer) must accept if the consumer wants to proceed with using the ticket. Are all the terms and conditions of these unilateral contracts binding on the consumer even if the consumer did not sign or have any part in the formation of the contract?
A recent case from the British Columbia Court of Appeal (“BCCA”) Apps v. Grouse Mountain Resorts Ltd., 2020 BCCA 78 [Apps] addressed the requirements for unilateral contracts to be binding when the consumer does not sign a contract.
The unfortunate facts of Apps are as follows. The plaintiff was a snowboarder who became a quadriplegic after attempting a large jump at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, BC. The plaintiff was an Australian who was living, working and snowboarding in Whistler, he was only 20 at the time of his injury.
The plaintiff alleged that the jump was negligently designed, constructed, maintained and inspected by Grouse Mountain. Grouse Mountain, in defence, relied on an exclusion of liability waiver which it said constituted a complete defence. The British Columbia Supreme Court (“BCSC”) dismissed the plaintiff’s action. The BCCA overturned the BCSC’s decision.
The type of waiver Grouse Mountain was relying on was an “own negligence exclusion”. This type of exclusion not only excludes liability for the risks inherent in the use of Grouse Mountain’s product or service, but also liability for negligence caused by Grouse Mountain itself.
The BCCA stated that “own negligence exclusions” are among the more onerous conditions to be placed into contracts, meaning that for Grouse Mountain to rely on the exclusion it must have taken reasonable steps to bring the exclusion to the attention of the Plaintiff.
The BCCA concluded that not enough had been done by Grouse Mountain to bring the “own negligence exclusion” to the plaintiff’s attention before he entered into the contract. The exclusion was included in a posted sign above the counter where the lift tickets were sold, but the text was difficult to read, and the “own negligence exclusion” was not emphasized. This would be considered the pre-contractual notice (before the ticket was purchased). Post-contractual notice (after the ticket was purchased) of the “own negligence exclusion” appeared on the back of the lift ticket and on a sign in the terrain park. The BCCA concluded that post-contractual notice has no bearing on whether Grouse Mountain gave sufficient notice to the Plaintiff.
Grouse Mountain also attempted to rely on the plaintiff’s knowledge of the presence of these types exclusions due to his previous employment at Whistler and having signed such an exclusion for his Whistler’s Season Pass. The BCCA found that the plaintiff’s previous experience with “own negligence exclusions” from his experiences at Whistler did not mean he had actual knowledge of Grouse Mountain’s specific clause.
The BCCA therefore overturned the BCSC decision and allowed the plaintiff to continue his action.
For businesses that are concerned about what proper notice would look like, the BCCA provided some indicators of proper notice. To rely on any type of waiver which will result in the consumer losing legal rights, a service provider should, before contract formation, ensure that the “own negligence clause” is clearly brought to the attention of the consumer by using large, colorful and bold text and literally mention the “own negligence clause” to the consumer.