Conflicting Testimony in Case Involving an Infant Warrants Denial of Summary Judgment (NY)

An infant plaintiff was injured when she fell from a chairlift at Catamount Ski Area in Hillsdale, New York. Unsurprisingly, there was conflicting testimony regarding how the accident occurred.

Many of the relevant facts are not in dispute. The infant plaintiff was four-years-old at the time of her accident. Plaintiff began taking weekly lessons with the Catamount Mountain Cats program in January 2013 and was being instructed by Sean Suydam. At that point, Suydam had been working as an instructor at Catamount for approximately four years. Suydam described the infant plaintiff as an above-average skier. Before the accident, the infant plaintiff had made two or three runs down the bunny hill before proceeding to a quad chairlift (the “lift”), which she ultimately fell from.

In Laura V v. Catamount Development Corporation, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed a lower court decision by deeming conflicting testimony as to how an accident occurred sufficient to preclude granting Catamount’s motion for summary judgment and finding that defendants failed to prove that the doctrine of assumption of the risk applied in this case.

When she got on the lift, the infant plaintiff was accompanied by Suydam and two other young students. Sudyam got all the students in place and the chair lift began to rise. Based upon the testimony, the infant either spontaneously propelled herself forward or was pushed. Infant plaintiff believed that ‘someone like scooted by accident and then pushed me off, but not like pushed on purpose. They just scooted a bit and I just slid off under the bar.’ Suydam tried to grab the infant plaintiff, but was unable to get a good grip. Suydam was still holding the infant plaintiff for another thirty seconds before she fell 25 feet into the snow below. As a result of her fall, plaintiff sustained a broken leg.

Defendants argued that they were entitled to summary judgment because plaintiff’s fall was “an unfortunate accident”, defendants “satisfied [their] duty to make the conditions as safe as they appeared to be” and “[p]laintiff assumed the obvious risk of falling from the lift.” Further, defendants maintained that “[p]laintiff’s accident occurred only because she hopped forward in the seat just as Suydam had his arm raised to lower the safety bar.” Defendants also contended that there is no evidence that Suydam’s instruction was improper.

Plaintiffs successfully disputed Suydam’s claim as to when he allegedly lowered the bar, and further claimed that the lift operators delayed in stopping the lift, which also contributed to the accident. Plaintiffs also contended that whether the infant plaintiff could assume the risk of riding the lift is a question of fact at best, and argued that it is inapplicable to a four-year-old child.

Conflicting testimony in cases involving infants is a given.  Moreover the courts appear to bend over backwards to allow infant cases to proceed to a jury.

Thanks to Paul Vitale for his contribution to this post.