Lewis v. Canaan Valley Resorts, Inc.

Decision Date19 July 1991
Docket NumberNo. 19780,19780
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
PartiesDaniel LEWIS and Sonja Lewis, Plaintiffs Below, Presenting Party, v. CANAAN VALLEY RESORTS, INC., a Corporation, Defendant Below, Responding Party.

1. " 'In considering the constitutionality of a legislative enactment, courts must exercise due restraint, in recognition of the principle of the separation of powers in government among the judicial, legislative and executive branches. [ W.Va. Const. art. V, § 1.] Every reasonable construction must be resorted to by the courts in order to sustain constitutionality, and any reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of the constitutionality of the legislative enactment in question. Courts are not concerned with questions relating to legislative policy. The general powers of the legislature, within constitutional limits, are almost plenary. In considering the constitutionality of an act of the legislature, the negation of legislative power must appear beyond reasonable doubt.' Syl. pt. 1, State ex rel. Appalachian Power Co. v. Gainer, 149 W.Va. 740, 143 S.E.2d 351 (1965)." Syl. pt. 2, West Virginia Public Employees Retirement System v. Dodd, 183 W.Va. 544, 396 S.E.2d 725 (1990).

2. " ' "Where economic rights are concerned, we look to see whether the classification is a rational one based on social, economic, historic or geographic factors, whether it bears a reasonable relationship to a proper governmental purpose, and whether all persons within the class are treated equally. Where such classification is rational and bears the requisite reasonable relationship, the statute does not violate Section 10 of Article III of the West Virginia Constitution, which is our equal protection clause." Syllabus Point 7, [as modified,] Atchinson v. Erwin, W.Va. , 302 S.E.2d 78 (1983).' Syllabus Point 4, as modified, Hartsock-Flesher Candy Co. v. Wheeling Wholesale Grocery Co., 174 W.Va. 538, 328 S.E.2d 144 (1984)." Syl. pt. 4, Gibson v. West Virginia Department of Highways, 185 W.Va. 214, 406 S.E.2d 440 (1991).

3. The West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act, W.Va.Code, 20-3A-1 to 20-3A-8 [1984], which immunizes ski area operators from tort liability for the inherent risks in the sport of skiing which are essentially impossible for the operators to eliminate, does not violate equal protection principles of article III, section 10 of the Constitution of West Virginia or of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Act similarly does not constitute special legislation in violation of article VI, section 39 of the Constitution of West Virginia.

4. "There is [ordinarily] a presumption of constitutionality with regard to legislation. However, when a legislative enactment either substantially impairs vested rights or severely limits existing procedural remedies permitting court adjudication of cases, then the certain remedy provision of Article III, Section 17 of the West Virginia Constitution is implicated." Syl. pt. 6, Gibson v. West Virginia Department of Highways, 185 W.Va. 214, 406 S.E.2d 440 (1991).

5. When legislation either substantially impairs vested rights or severely limits existing procedural remedies permitting court adjudication, thereby implicating the certain remedy provision of article III, section 17 of the Constitution of West Virginia, the legislation will be upheld under that provision if, first, a reasonably effective alternative remedy is provided by the legislation or, second, if no such alternative remedy is provided, the purpose of the alteration or repeal of the existing cause of action or remedy is to eliminate or curtail a clear social or economic problem, and the alteration or repeal of the existing cause of 6. The West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act, W.Va.Code, 20-3A-1 to 20-3A-8 [1984], does not violate the certain remedy provision of article III, section 17 of the Constitution of West Virginia.

[185 W.Va. 687] action or remedy is a reasonable method of achieving such purpose.

Christine Machel, William E. Watson & Associates, Wellsburg, for plaintiffs.

Robert M. Steptoe, Jr., Daniel C. Cooper, Steptoe & Johnson, Clarksburg, for defendant.

McHUGH, Justice:

This certified question case is a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act, W.Va.Code, 20-3A-1 to 20-3A-8 [1984] ("the Act"). We conclude that the Act on its face is constitutional despite the claims that it denies equal protection or constitutes impermissible special legislation, 1 or violates the so-called "certain remedy" provision of this state's Constitution. 2

I TRIAL COURT PROCEEDINGS

The plaintiffs, Daniel Lewis and Sonja Lewis, husband and wife, timely brought this civil action in the Circuit Court of Tucker County ("the trial court") against the defendant, Canaan Valley Resorts, Inc. ("Canaan") for personal injuries sustained by Daniel Lewis, a novice skier, while he disembarked from a ski lift at Canaan in December, 1987, allegedly due to ice accumulation in the ski lift dismount area in question. Mrs. Lewis sued for loss of spousal consortium. The plaintiffs allege that Canaan was negligent by: (1) failing to maintain reasonably the surface and subsurface area around the ski lift; (2) failing to inform plaintiff Daniel Lewis about the use of the lift, during his instructional ski course for beginning skiers; (3) failing to warn plaintiff Daniel Lewis of the extremely icy conditions allegedly existing at the time in the ski lift dismount area in question; and (4) failing to have adequate staffing at the ski lift dismount area in question.

In its timely filed answer Canaan included the affirmative defense that the action was barred by the West Virginia Skiing Responsibility Act, W.Va.Code, 20-3A-1 to 20-3A-8 [1984] ("the Act"). Among other things, that Act imposes certain responsibilities exclusively upon ski lift ("aerial passenger tramway") passengers, including the duty not to "[e]nter the boarding area of or use any aerial passenger tramway without requesting and receiving instruction on its use from the ski area operator, unless the passenger has the ability to use it safely without instruction[.]" W.Va.Code, 20-3A-4(4) [1984]. Under W.Va.Code, 20-3A-6 [1984] a ski area operator is liable only for injuries caused by the failure to follow the ski area operator's duties set forth in W.Va.Code, 20-3A-3 [1984]. Section 3(8) expressly absolves the ski area operator of any liability for any injury caused by certain ski area conditions, such as surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions.

The plaintiffs moved to strike the defense that the action was barred by the Act. The trial court eventually granted the motion to strike, based upon its conclusion that the Act was unconstitutional in that it violated: (1) equal protection principles ( W.Va. Const. art. III, § 10; U.S. Const. amend. 14, § 1); (2) the so-called "open courts" provision ( W.Va. Const. art. III, § 17); and the proscription against special legislation ( W.Va. Const. art. VI, § 39). 3

The trial court subsequently certified questions to this Court, asking us to decide whether the Act violates the aforestated constitutional principles. 4

II EQUAL PROTECTION AND SPECIAL LEGISLATION

W.Va.Code, 20-3A-1 [1984] states the legislature's findings and purpose for the Skiing Responsibility Act:

The legislature finds that the sport of skiing is practiced by a large number of citizens of West Virginia and also attracts to West Virginia a large number of nonresidents, significantly contributing to the economy of West Virginia. Since it is recognized that there are inherent risks in the sport of skiing which should be understood by each skier and which are essentially impossible to eliminate by the ski area operator, it is the purpose of this article to define those areas of responsibility and affirmative acts for which ski area operators shall be liable for loss, damage or injury and those risks which the skier expressly assumes for which there can be no recovery.

(emphasis added) A ski area operator's liability is limited to violations of certain statutory duties, as stated in W.Va.Code, 20-3A-6 [1984]:

Any ski area operator shall be liable for injury, loss or damage cause[d] by failure to follow the duties set forth in section three of this article where the violation of duty is causally related to the injury, loss or damage suffered. A ski area operator shall not be liable for any injury, loss or damage caused by the negligence of any person who is not an agent or employee of such operator, nor shall a ski area operator be liable for any injury, loss or damage cause[d] by any object dropped, thrown or expelled by a passenger from an aerial passenger tramway. Every ski area operator shall carry public liability insurance in limits of no[t] less than one hundred thousand dollars per person, three hundred thousand dollars per occurrence and ten thousand dollars for property damage.

(emphasis added) The exclusive duties of a ski area operator are set forth in W.Va.Code, 20-3A-3 [1984]. 5

The Act also places certain duties on "passengers" and "skiers" and, in sections 7 and 8, respectively, imposes liability on each of them for injury, loss or damage resulting from violation of their respective duties. 6

The plaintiffs argue that the Act on its face violates equal protection principles of the State and Federal Constitutions. The plaintiffs in their petition and brief filed with this Court concede that, for purposes of equal protection analysis, a suspect classification Finally, the plaintiffs contend that the Act is overly broad on its face because it not only immunizes ski area operators from the inherent risks of the sport of skiing which are essentially impossible for the ski area operators to eliminate, but, as written, also allegedly immunizes ski area...

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