Vail Resorts claims teen’s negligence caused avalanche death
Ryan Summerlin January 9, 2013
BROOMFIELD – Vail Resorts claims a teenager’s own negligence caused his avalanche death on the front of Vail Mountain.
Taft Conlin was 13 when an avalanche on Prima Cornice killed him last January. Conlin’s parents sued the ski company, claiming their son died because the company’s negligence created an “avalanche trap” that killed him.
The ski company filed its answer Monday afternoon in Broomfield County District Court, claiming Conlin caused his own death.
“Taft Conlin was negligent and such negligence was either the sole, or a contributing cause,” Vail Resorts said in its response.
In their response, the ski company claimed there is an Upper Prima Cornice trail, and a Lower Prima Cornice Trail, and that Taft climbed from one to the other before the avalanche killed him.
Vail’s trail map makes no such distinction, said Jim Heckbert, an attorney with Burg Simpson, who is representing Taft’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin.
On Jan. 22, 2012, around 1 p.m., Conlin was on telemark skis when he and five young skiers entered the lower Prima Cornice area through an open gate looking for fresh snow, according to a Colorado Avalanche Information Center report.
A rope blocked the gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run.
Several others had skied onto Prima Cornice that Sunday, after one of last winter’s rare storms dropped new snow, the report said.
“It looked like an interstate highway going up that trail that day,” Heckbert said
Three of those skiers sidestepped about 120 feet up the hill and to the south, the CAIC report said.
Those three were caught in a 300-foot wide avalanche that slid 400 feet down the slope. Two dug themselves out and quickly skied to the bottom of Northwoods Express for help. The avalanche carried Conlin through a spruce forest until he came to rest against a tree, upside down.
Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said Conlin was killed by blunt force trauma – blows to his chest. He did not suffocate, she said.
Vail Resorts has insisted the run was closed, but has not said where the skiers crossed from the open area to the closed area.
“They seem to be asserting that there’s an unwritten rule against climbing,” Heckbert said. “I’m sure that in Vail’s 50 years, there have been many, many other instances of people climbing. In fact, the ski mountain is on the people’s land. Anyone can skin up or snowshoe up.”
The ski company has 35 days to turn over all the documents and information related to Conlin’s death.
Depositions will follow from Vail Resorts’ ski patrollers, the company’s management and others associated with the incident. Taft’s parents and the friends he was skiing with can expect to be required to tell their stories, Heckbert said.
No trial date has been set. If the case does go to trial, a jury will hear it. There has been no talk of a settlement, Heckbert said.
Conlin’s parents are both local veterinarians and the lawsuit is not about money, Heckbert said. Colorado law caps wrongful death awards at $250,000 for children, Heckbert said.
Broomfield District Court Judge Patrick Murphy ruled last month that Conlin’s parents can sue Vail Resorts. Murphy said that an inbounds avalanche like the one that killed Taft is not one of skiing’s “inherent risks” listed in the Colorado Skier Safety Act.