Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co.

Decision Date24 June 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00SC885.,00SC885.
Citation48 P.3d 1229
PartiesDavid COOPER and Michael Cooper, Petitioners, v. The ASPEN SKIING COMPANY; The Aspen Valley Ski Club; John McBride, Jr.; and the United States Ski Association, Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Freeman & Freeman, Martin H. Freeman, Klein-Zimet, P.C., Herbert S. Klein, Michele Nelson Bass, Aspen, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioners.

Higgins, Hopkins, McLain & Roswell, LLC, Stephen Hopkins, David McLain, Geoffrey N. Blue, Lakewood, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondents The Aspen Skiing Company; The Aspen Valley Ski Club; and John McBride, Jr.

Rietz and Smith, LLC, Peter W. Rietz, Jere K. Smith, Dillon, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent United States Ski Association.

Chalat Law Offices, P.C., James H. Chalat, Denver, Colorado, Attorney for Amicus Curiae Colorado Trial Lawyers Association.

Justice RICE delivered the Opinion of the Court.

In 1995, petitioner David Cooper, then seventeen, suffered injuries, including blindness, when he lost control and crashed into a tree while training on a ski race course. David and his parents filed suit against the Aspen Valley Ski Club Inc. and David's coach, John McBride, Jr., (Defendants) alleging, among other claims, negligence. The trial court determined as a matter of law pursuant to C.R.C.P. 56(h) that a release signed by both David and his mother, Diane Cooper, before the injury occurred "should be enforced and act as a bar to claims of negligence against these defendants." (R. at v. VIII, p.1984.) In addition, the trial court determined as a matter of law that "defendants' motion for determination of law should be denied in part in so far as the motion seeks to enforce the indemnity provisions of the agreement against plaintiff, Diane Cooper." (Id.) David appealed1 the trial court's order, and in Cooper v. Aspen Ski Ass'n, 32 P.3d 502 (Colo. App.2000), the court of appeals affirmed, holding that the release signed by David's mother was enforceable against David, even though he was a minor both when the release was signed and when the accident occurred.2

We granted certiorari to determine whether Colorado's public policy allows a parent to validate exculpatory provisions on behalf of his minor child.3 Specifically, we must resolve whether a parent may release the claims of a minor child for future injuries and whether a parent may enter into an indemnification agreement that shifts the source of compensation for a minor's claim from a tortfeasor to the parent. We hold that the public policy of Colorado affords minors significant protections that preclude a parent or guardian from releasing a minor's own prospective claim for negligence.4 We also hold that an indemnity provision that shifts the source of compensation for negligence from the tortfeasor to the minor's parent or guardian creates an unacceptable conflict of interest between a parent/guardian and a minor and violates Colorado's public policy to protect minors. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals' judgment and remand the case to that court with instructions to return the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 1995, seventeen-year-old petitioner David Cooper had been a member of the Aspen Valley Ski Club, Inc. (the Ski Club), for about nine years and was actively involved in competitive ski racing. At the beginning of the 1995-1996 ski season, David and his mother signed a form titled "Aspen Valley Ski Club, Inc. Acknowledgment and Assumption of Risk and Release" (the Release).

The Release relieved the Ski Club from:

any liability, whether known or unknown, even though that liability may arise out of negligence or carelessness on the part of persons or entities mentioned above. The undersigned Participant and Parent or Guardian agree to accept all responsibility for the risks, conditions and hazards which may occur whether or not they are now known.

The Release further stated:

... the undersigned Participant and Parent or Guardian HEREBY AGREE TO WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE, INDEMNIFY AND HOLD HARMLESS any and all claims for damages for death, personal injury or property damage which they may have or which may hereafter accrue as a result of any participation in an Aspen Valley Ski Club, Inc. program and related activities and events.... The undersigned Participant and Parent or Guardian further agree to forever HOLD HARMLESS and IDEMNIFY all persons and entities identified above, generally and specifically, from any and all liability for death, personal injury or property damage resulting in any way from participating in the activities and events described above. By signing this Acknowledgement and Assumption of Risk and Release as the Parent or Guardian, I am consenting to the participant's participation in the Aspen Valley Ski Club, Inc. programs and related activities and acknowledge that I understand that all risk, whether known or unknown, is expressly assumed by me and all claims, whether known or unknown, are expressly waived in advance.

On December 30, 1995, David was training for a competitive, high speed alpine race. The course had been set by David's coach, defendant McBride. During a training run, David fell and collided with a tree, sustaining severe injuries, including the loss of vision in both eyes.

The trial court ruled that Diane Cooper's signature on the release bound her son, David, to the terms of the release and barred his claims against the Ski Club and McBride. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that based on a parent's fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and control of her child, David's mother had the right to release David's claims for possible future injuries. Cooper, 32 P.3d at 507. We granted certiorari and now reverse.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Appellate courts review a trial court's order granting or denying a motion for summary judgment de novo. Pierson v. Black Canyon Aggregates, No. 01SC161, 2002 Colo. LEXIS 424, at *12, ___ P.3d ___, 2002 WL 1009283 (Colo. May 20, 2002). This is because such judgments "are rulings of law in the sense that they may not rest on the resolution of disputed facts." Id. (quoting Feiger, Collison & Killmer v. Jones, 926 P.2d 1244, 1250 (Colo.1996)). Therefore, we decide today's issue de novo.

III. ANALYSIS
A. Validity of the Release

We must first determine whether Colorado's public policy allows parents to contractually release their child's future claims for injury caused by negligence.5

While it is a well-settled principle that "[a] minor during his minority, and acting timely on reaching his majority, may disaffirm any contract that he may have entered into during his minority," Nicholas v. People, 973 P.2d 1213, 1219 (Colo.1999); Doenges-Long Motors v. Gillen, 138 Colo. 31, 35-36, 328 P.2d 1077, 1080 (1958), we have never specifically addressed whether a parent or guardian may release a child's cause of action on his behalf6 or whether Colorado's public policy allows a parent or guardian to serve as indemnitor for his minor child's claims against an indemnitee. As such, the issue in this case presents a significant question regarding the junction of contract law, tort law, and public policy.7

Here, we agree with the Washington Supreme Court that "there are instances where public policy reasons for preserving an obligation of care owed by one person to another outweigh our traditional regard for freedom of contract." Scott v. Pac. W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wash.2d 484, 834 P.2d 6, 11, 12 (1992) (holding that "to the extent a parent's release of a third party's liability for negligence purports to bar a child's own cause of action, it violates public policy and is unenforceable"). Accordingly, we hold that Colorado's public policy affords minors significant protections which preclude parents or guardians from releasing a minor's own prospective claim for negligence. We base our holding on our understanding of Colorado's public policy to protect children as reflected by legislation protecting minors as well as decisions from other jurisdictions, which we find persuasive. However, we note that this question is a matter of legislative prerogative, and, of course, the General Assembly could choose to address it differently.

1. Colorado's Public Policy

The General Assembly has demonstrated an on-going commitment to afford minors significant safeguards from harm by passing numerous statutes designed to protect minor children.8 Most significant of these for purposes of this case are the protections accorded minors in Colorado in the post-injury claim context. Colorado laws do not allow a parent the unilateral right to foreclose a child's existing cause of action to recover for torts committed against him.9 Rather, the General Assembly has granted minors a number of protections to safeguard their post-injury rights of recovery. Indeed, the Colorado Probate Code provides significant procedural protections for minors in the post-injury claim context.10 This legislation creates mechanisms for the appointment of a conservator to protect a minor's settlement rights. § 15-14-403, 5 C.R.S. (2001); § 15-14-425(2)(t), 5 C.R.S. (2001). It also provides minors important protections by creating means by which the court may ratify the settlement of a minor's claims. § 15-14-412(1)(b), 5 C.R.S. (2001). Importantly, a parent may not act as a minor's conservator as a matter of right, but only when appointed by the court. § 15-14-413, 5 C.R.S. (2001).

Thus, we agree with the Utah Supreme Court and the Washington Supreme Court — both of which recently analyzed the same issue presented here — that "since a parent generally may not release a child's cause of action after injury, it makes little, if any, sense to conclude a parent has the authority to release a child's cause of action prior to an injury." Scott, 834 P.2d at 11-12; accord Hawkins v. Peart, 37 P.3d 1062, 1066 (Utah 2001)

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