Woman Plans California Supreme Court Appeal Over Injuries in Snowboarding Accident
Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis says she has struggled to recover from the trauma of the incident in 2011
By Eric Leonard, KNBC TV-4 Los Angeles, CA
August 21, 2018
A woman from Saugus plans to appeal Wednesday to the California Supreme Court after she suffered catastrophic injuries in a snowboarding accident and had her lawsuit against a ski resort dismissed because she signed a liability waiver.
Kathleen Willhide-Michiulis told NBC4 she has struggled to recover from the trauma of the incident in 2011, when she was run-over by a snow tractor while visiting Mammoth Mountain.
The resort denied it was responsible for the injuries and successfully argued in court that a collision with a snow tractor was part of the risk of snowboarding, something that was listed on a liability waiver signed with the purchase of a lift pass.
"Here I'm thinking I'm going up for a good day with my family and friends - and I don't come home for a year," Willhide-Michiulis said.
It was late one afternoon when she said a tractor suddenly turned in front of her. She said she was pulled under the tractor and the spinning blades from a towed snow tiller tore off her left leg.
"My right leg was broken in 17 places and my face was, multiple lacerations and multiple fractures," she said.
Her attorney, Jae Y. Lee, said he thought the liability waiver should not apply because he believed the resort showed gross negligence in operating the snow tractor on a ski slope that was still open to visitors.
"Not only do I feel that they violated their own safety policy, but it's unconscionable to introduce an industrial shredding machine on to a slippery playground," Lee said.
A judge in Mono County said the resort's alleged actions did not rise to the level of gross negligence, and therefore, Willhide-Michiulis could not proceed with the lawsuit.
A state appeals court recently upheld the judge's decision, affirming the reasoning that a tractor was part of the inherent risk and that warning signs had been posted. Lee said that decision appears to conflict with other gross negligence rulings in California and said he'd like a jury to hear the evidence.
"I would like the California Supreme Court to hear this case and rule that a case such as this deserves a day in court," he said. Consumer advocates said if the appeals ruling is allowed to stand, or if the state Supreme Court hears the case and decides in favor of the resort, it would be come even more difficult for someone who signed a waiver - and was then injured as a result of negligence - to try to sue.
"It raises the bar for consumers to bring suit against a company that harms them," said Carmen Balber with the group Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica. "It makes it harder to recover your medical costs, it makes it harder to hold a company accountable, in this circumstance, by taking away the jury's right to make the decision about negligence. All the decisions were made before the consumer got to make their case."
An attorney for Mammoth Mountain Resorts told NBC4 the company plans to challenge the appeal.
The lawyer said the resort, "is not cavalier about peoples' injuries," and puts an "incredible effort," into making the property safe, but said the lower courts already made the correct rulings to dismiss the lawsuit.