Aspen ski lift accident lawsuit dismissed
pitkin county correspondent
ASPEN ” A state agency narrowly cleared the Aspen Skiing Co. on Thursday concerning a Feb. 19 ski-lift accident that seriously injured a 10-year-old girl from Germany.
The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board voted 4-3 to dismiss a complaint by the girl’s father, who demanded that the board review the Skico’s training procedures for lift operators and the general management of the lifts department.
Neither the father, Roman Ofenito, nor the girl, Celine, was present at the board’s hearing in Denver, but Tramway Board program director Charlie Adams said he would be in touch with the family about the decision.
At the heart of the complaint was Ofenito’s contention that Aspen Highlands lift operators on duty Feb. 19 at the Cloud Nine chair did not do their job, which was to see that all skiers are firmly seated on the chair and then to watch as the chairs move up the hill to be sure nothing goes wrong. The girl was part of a ski class loading onto the Cloud Nine lift, and Ofenito claimed that his daughter was not seated properly at the lift station and immediately started slipping off, falling to the ground as the chair passed the third tower from the lift station.
Chief among the concerns expressed by some board members was the fact that lift operator Chris Snell saw that Celine had slipped from the chair as it passed the third tower, but did not push the emergency stop button to bring the chairlift to a halt.
According to a statement the Skico submitted to the board, Snell was worried that the sudden halt of the chairlift might make matters worse by hurling the girl from the chair as her friends tried to haul her back onto the seat. He then ran into the lift station shack to tell his supervisor that a skier was dangling from one of the chairs.
Moments later, another of the three lift operators on duty reportedly did push the stop button, but by then Celine had dropped the 59 feet from the chair to the snow and had broken her wrist and punctured one lung.
Some on the board argued that, since the Skico’s own procedures manual requires pushing the stop button whenever a lift operator sees a skier dangling from a chair, the incident constituted a violation of both the Skico’s procedures and the Tramway Board’s statutory regulations.
“Is that not, to a degree, a violation of something?” board member Fannye Bell Evans asked John Roberts of the state Attorney General’s Office, who acts as counsel to the board.
“It ought to be,” Roberts replied. But he explained that the rules governing ski lift safety “don’t require every single person, every single time, [to] follow the procedures.”
By enacting a set of procedures that meet the Tramway Board’s guidelines, he had said earlier, “Aspen met the requirements of the code. What is there about the operation [that says] you can take disciplinary action?”
He argued, and board member Brian McCartney and others in the room seconded him, that the Skico should not be held responsible for the actions of each of the hundreds of lift operators it employs.
But another board member, Scott Mitchell, argued, “I think the procedure is very clear.”
Calling the incident “a judgment call by the operator,” he continued, “I think the procedure was not implemented. … In hindsight, it was probably an incorrect judgment,” and had the lift stopped, it is possible that the girl would have been closer to the ground and her injuries not as severe.
Mitchell said that, given the evidence, he believes there had been a violation.
But Skico attorney Dave Bellack said the lift operator “made what he thought was a correct decision” that perhaps is questionable in hindsight but which cannot be proven to have been incorrect.
He also argued that “there is no evidence that the music was excessively loud” for the lift operators to have heard cries for help, as has been alleged, and that in any event there were no witnesses who remembered hearing the girls yelling.
In the end, a majority of the board members decided that the Skico should not he held liable, or disciplined for a lapse of judgment on the part of a lift operator. Board member Art Griffith suggested the Skico review its safety policies and training procedures, with an eye toward giving lift operators more precise instructions as to when to push the “e-stop button.” But the suggestion was not a formal comment or part of the record of the meeting.
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