PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Local gyms, Little League organizers and ski areas are all concerned their liability waivers could be useless.
The reason begins with a lawsuit a customer filed against Mt. Bachelor Ski Area that the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 2014. The Court’s ruling effectively found that liability waivers were not enforceable, according to Jordan Elliot, the president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.
Then in 2022, a lawsuit awarded $10.5 million to a plaintiff who sued Mount Hood Ski Bowl over a mountain bike crash. That ruling has opened the door and now Elliot believes the entire outdoor recreation and sports industry is on notice now that the protections are eroded.
“Lawsuits have been filed and gone through that wouldn’t happen in any other neighboring state because that line between who is responsible when you’re doing an inherently risky activity has been blurred,” Elliot said.
“Inherent risk” is the issue, a phrase that every other western state has in state law, but is missing in Oregon. It means in other states the law recognizes that skiing, going to a gym or taking part in a football or soccer league comes with an inherent risk of injury and no matter what a fitness center or outdoor recreation provider does, it will not eliminate that risk.
Mt. Hood Meadows said in an Instagram reply its insurance premiums have tripled since 2020.
Dianna Risley, who owns the Hood River gym Snap Fitness and is the executive director of the board of directors, says her insurance premiums are quadrupling, adding up to $400 a month in costs.
“Insurance companies are either pulling out of Oregon in the recreation businesses, or they’re raising rates because they know that when or if there is negligence, ordinary or gross negligence, that they’re going to be on the hook for that,” said Dianna Risley from the Oregon Health and Fitness Alliance.
The Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, the Oregon Health and Fitness Association, several other groups and dozens of organizations have come together to form the group Protect Oregon Recreation to lobby for changes to protect businesses and collect petition signatures to support the effort.
A bipartisan bill, Senate Bill 754, has been introduced to add inherent risk protection in Oregon law, which would protect these businesses by saying that customers assume that some activities like skiing or mountain biking are just inherently risky.
“In many cases, I think most Oregonians agree, if you are choosing to engage in inherently risky activities, and it turns into a bad day, then personal responsibility is recognized,” Elliot said.
Senator Aaron Woods, the lead sponsor of SB 754, released a statement on the bill, saying in part that “insurance rates are going way up. Some insurers are pulling out of Oregon altogether. This means higher costs for recreation users and businesses closing their doors. We need to shepherd Oregon’s recreational ecosystem to a much healthier place; one that is aligned with our neighboring states including Washington and California. It is time for a public debate on this issue in the Oregon Legislature so we can make a policy that supports access for all Oregonians, regardless of income level, and keeps businesses’ doors open to the public.”
The legislation provides inherent risk protections but would not put all liability on the user, as it states, “An operator may not require a person to release the operator for claims that constitute greater than ordinary negligence.”
“Providers should be responsible for the safety of the operation so that they are not operating in a grossly negligent way,” Elliot said.
With insurers dropping clients, increasing premiums and limiting what is covered in Oregon, Risley worries for the economy of a tourism and recreation-oriented town like Hood River.
“Our town in particular, where outdoor recreation is so prevalent of an industry, will be thwarted by the increased costs…which will then trickle down to the consumer who wants to come out here and recreate,” she said.
Since the Ski Bowl ruling in 2022, Risley and Elliot have tracked several lawsuits that have moved forward seeking damages they do not believe would have legal merit in other states. The implications, Risley fears, could reach trampoline parks and youth sports leagues.
“It will impact kids sports organizations, it will impact tourism, it will impact indoor and outdoor recreation.”
In its Instagram post highlighting this issue, Mt. Hood Meadows received criticism over its profits. KOIN 6 asked if the result of this legislation would result in lower costs at the resort. The resort said several factors go into pricing and could not give an answer at this time.
Testimony on Senate Bill 754 has not been opened up, but legislative staff said a hearing could be scheduled soon. Alerts can be signed up for on the bill website.