Fatalities from auto accidents are part of modern life, but the law does not regard driving as “inherently dangerous.” This is because, under negligence law principles, that could mean drivers “assumed the risk” and could not recover in negligence claims from car accidents. But what about snowmobiles? Maybe injuries sustained while operating a snowmobile are more like injuries sustained while playing sports where the doctrine of assumption of risk sometimes bars recovery? Are snowmobiles “inherently dangerous”?
Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court reaffirmed two 1974 cases and held that when you drive a snowmobile you do not assume the risk of being injured by another person who negligently drives a snowmobile.
Christopher Daly sued Zachary McFarland after they were involved in a snowmobile accident near Fulda, MN in January 2007. Daly, McFarland and two of their friends went snowmobiling together; after crossing a field, Daly slowed down and let McFarland pass him as the group approached a ditch. While passing Daly, McFarland hit a snowdrift that launched his snowmobile into the air. Attempting to avoid injury himself, McFarland pushed the snowmobile away from his body but it collided with Daly’s snowmobile causing Daly to fall off and sustain serious injuries.
After trial, the jury found that both Daly and McFarland were negligent and awarded Daly $442,633.50 in damages. This amount was then reduced to $309,843.45 (70% of the award) despite the fact that the jury also found that Daly was not a direct cause of the accident (more on that below). The trial court then denied McFarland’s motion for judgment as a matter of law where he argued, in part, that he was not liable for any damages based on the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision and McFarland appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
On appeal, McFarland argued that the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk precluded liability for the injuries Daly sustained. Primary assumption of the risk applies where the parties voluntarily enter into a relationship where the plaintiff assumes well-known, incidental risks. In that case, the defendant has no duty to protect the plaintiff. The most common application of primary assumption of the risk is for participants and spectators of sports – so you wouldn’t be able to sue for negligence if you get hit by a golf ball at a golf tournament.
One big problem for McFarland was that Minnesota has never applied primary assumption of the risk to snowmobiling and explicitly denied it in Carpenter v. Mattison and Olson v. Hansen. In those cases, the Court likened the risks snowmobilers take to the risks drivers assume when they drive a car. Therefore, just as drivers don’t assume the risk of being injured by others on the road, neither do snowmobilers.
In support of his argument to overturn Carpenter and Olson, McFarland asserted that snowmobiles are more dangerous than they were in 1974 while cars are safer. According to McFarland, snowmobiles these days have more horsepower and greater acceleration than in the past while they lack standard car features like “airbags, seatbelts, safety glass, and force-absorbing bumpers.” Regardless, Justice Helen Meyer, writing for the Court, rejected this argument citing the doctrine of stare decisis, and the Court’s strong rejection of McFarland’s theory in Carpenter and Olson, as well as McFarland’s failure to address the statutory duty of care imposed on snowmobilers by the legislature, and the fact that other states did not apply primary assumption of the risk to snowmobiling.
Despite this clear rejection, the Court remanded the case to the district court with directions to enter a remittitur for $309,843.45 because of the error in reconciling the jury’s answers on the special verdict form that said that Daly’s actions were not a direct cause of his injuries while apportioning 30% of the fault to him.