It may be summer, but the consequences of wintertime fun are likely manifesting themselves now as legal claims. Michigan registers one of the highest numbers of snowmobilers in the country, second only to Wisconsin. Nearly 6,500 miles of State-groomed snowmobile trails cover the middle and northern parts of Michigan. In fact, in some parts of the state, snowmobiles are the primary method of transportation for local residents. Northern Michigan “mom and pop” bars are often filled with groups covered in gear, stopping for a quick bite to eat and a beer before continuing on the trails.
Snowmobilers know the dangers that the sport presents. Riders are exposed to the elements, traveling over snow-covered ice, rocks, hills, and rugged terrain. Snowmobile trails contain tight turns, signs, fences, and paths that run through public roads and railways. And the weather may impair snowmobilers’ vision as they travel 40-plus miles per hour, protected only by a helmet. But when do these dangers become liability risks?
The Michigan Legislature has made it clear that snowmobilers accept the dangers that are “obvious and inherent” in the sport. See MCL 324.82126. But the Legislature amended the assumption-of-risk statute to permit negligence claims against other snowmobilers. MCL 324.82126(8) now states that snowmobilers do not assume the risks of injury “that can result from the use of a snowmobile by another person in a careless or negligent manner . . . .” Notably, the statute limits the exception to risks that can result from the actions of fellow snowmobilers, not property owners or bystanders.
The statutory amendment creates a gray area that parties and attorneys must assess based on the facts of each case. The statute lists dangers that the Legislature considers inherent to the sport, including injuries resulting from snow-covered ice, rocks, hills, tight turns, and collisions with fences, signs, and other snowmobiles or snow-grooming equipment. But it doesn’t provide examples of what would constitute careless or negligent use of a snowmobile. What about a snowmobile’s speed? Or how a snowmobiler maneuvers a turn? And what about that lunchtime beer? These are questions that must be addressed when evaluating claims arising from the use of a snowmobile.
If you have questions about snowmobilers’ liability, please feel free to contact the author, Chelsea E. Pasquali. More information about Collins Einhorn’s General and Automobile Liability Practice Group is available here.