Earlier this month, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring helmets for skiers under 18 years old. The landmark legislation had been kicking around in the Legislature for 15 years, but when State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25), the law’s most recent sponsor, dropped a substitute version of the bill in May, a simple line was added.
“Nothing in this act shall be construed to extend liability to the ski area operator.” The line effectively exempted resort operators from liability, a key sticking point for the industry in the past.
The new bill was passed by both houses of the Legislature with strong bi-partisan support.
Eight days before Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill into law, six investors in Mountain Creek, New Jersey’s largest ski resort, donated $150,000 to the state Republican coffers, state ELEC records show. Another $25,000 was donated by JRB Enterprises. A search of state records shows Julie Mulvihill is the president of JRB Enterprises and the company lists a Hamburg address. Julie Mulvihill is also the CEO of Crystal Springs resort, the new corporate owner of Mountain Creek.
It’s unknown if the donations had anything to do with the change in language and none of the players are talking. A spokesman for the state GOP had no comment on the contributions from the Mountain Creek investors. Individual donors either could not be reached or did not return phone calls.
Gene Mulvihill, the owner of Crystal Springs who was not among the donors, said in a statement that the money was meant to help the GOP gain control of the Legislature later this year.
“The reason the investors made this donation was in the hopes that it would enable the Republican Party to win in the next election and gain control over the Senate and Assembly,” Mulvihill said. “Our investors are strong supporters of Governor Chris Christie and applaud his agenda. They feel that his agenda will stand a much better chance of success with a Republican controlled Statehouse. New Jersey has been over regulated and over taxed for far too long creating a very difficult business environment. We believe the governor needs our support and we are proud of our efforts to assist him in moving his agenda forward.”
Only three of the donors have contributed to political campaigns in the past, according to a search of ELEC records, and most have been small donations. At least two of the donors made a past $25,000 donation to the Democratic State Committee.
Three of the donors list a New York address and a fourth lists a Florida address.
Bucco’s initial bill placed liability for enforcement of the helmet law on the resort, requiring areas like Mountain Creek to have protective head gear on hand and face a fine for every skier under 14 caught without one.
Ski areas would have been required to issue a tag to every skier under 14 identifying the need for a helmet. In 2007, Bucco’s bill added a provision that would require parents to enforce the law, but that bill still required the resorts to have helmets on hand to use or face a $100 fine for every child caught without one.
But the legislation that passed in both houses of the legislature was far different than the initial bill introduced by Bucco. The substituted bill changed the requirement to skiers under 18 and left parents entirely in charge of policing their children. Law enforcement agencies were given the job of issuing fines to the parents of children who do not comply.
The big change amounted to one sentence, which removed the mountain’s operators from the mix entirely.
Reached Monday, Bucco said he was surprised to learn that Mountain Creek executives had been so generous to the state committee and said he had had no discussions with anyone from the ski industry prior to substituting the bill.
“They had objected to it over the years,” Bucco said, “and I did agree there was a concern. I was told ‘you are not going to get it through’ and I agreed because I wanted to get the bill out.”
Bucco said he’s not sure who told him the bill needed to be amended but thought it was someone in the Senate leadership or possibly the committee chairman.
State Government Committee chairman Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), Atlantic City, said he remembers little about the bill other than that it was substituted by Bucco. There was little or no discussion on the substitution, he said, and the new language did not come from him.
The ski industry has long opposed any helmet law that would present liability for the resort operator. According to a report on helmet laws by the National Ski Areas Association, the group will not support any helmet law that places liability on the resort.
The report has this to say about New Jersey’s law: “From NSAA’s perspective, the association is only willing to support helmet legislation if the responsibility for helmet usage rests with parents, and the responsibility to enforce a requirement rests with local law enforcement. If responsibility to enforce the helmet mandate were left to ski areas, the potential exposure to liability lawsuits would be significant – not to mention the operational challenges it would present. Fortunately, ski resorts and their representatives in both California and New Jersey were successful in securing provisions of the respective helmet bills that place enforcement responsibility on local law enforcement.”
That New Jersey’s law exempted ski areas from liability is far from surprising, said Colorado attorney James Chalat who has tried several skiing injury cases.
“They are a very powerful industry. They have exempted themselves from ordinary liability throughout the U.S. and this is sort of par for the course,” he said.
Chalat said a combination of influence and money has kept helmet laws like the one originally introduced off the books.
“There is no law that ever gets passed that gives ski areas liability,” he said. “They have a strong lobby and they are very influential. It is somewhat amusing watching them try to shield themselves from the kind of liability everyone else is subject to.”
The new law is scheduled to take effect on Nov. 1.