The state's venerable Colorado Ski Safety Act, which outlines responsibilities for skiers and resort operators, could be tested in two wrongful-death cases in which judges recently denied resort-operator requests to dismiss. In December, Broomfield County District Court Judge Patrick Murphy denied Vail Resorts' motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the family of 13-year-old Taft Conlin, who died in an inbounds avalanche at Vail Mountain in January 2012.
Ruling from the bench, Murphy ruled against Vail's argument that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing, saying that avalanches are not listed in the Ski Safety Act's list of inherent dangers and risks of skiing. If the legislature had intended avalanches to be an inherent risk, it would be in the 1979 law, Murphy said.
Last month, Routt County District Court Judge Shelley Hill refused to dismiss a case brought by the family of 19-year-old Cooper Larsh, who died skiing the Howelsen Hill ski area in Steamboat Springs in March 2011. Hill sided with the family's argument that the trail where Larsh died was not properly closed, ruling that the resort operator's failure to rope off the permanently closed terrain was "an unreasonable risk" and "negligent omission."
Both rulings dismissed resort-operator arguments that they were immune from liability according to the Ski Safety Act and, in the Steamboat Springs-owned Howel-sen Hill case, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.
"Resorts don't have complete immunity," said James Heckbert, the attorney representing the family of Conlin in the lawsuit against Vail Resorts. "If people or companies are not responsible for their own conduct, then they just keep on being careless. Immunity breeds irresponsibility, and I think the ski areas have been lax with their safety programs. They try to put everything on the skier and have no responsibility of their own. When they are held responsible, hopefully they will tighten up their conduct."
The Vail and Howelsen cases address notification of closures, which is outlined in the Ski Safety Act as a responsibility of resort operators.
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