Court ruling bolsters ski area legal protections
Inbounds avalanches are part of the inherent risk of skiing at the state’s ski areas, Colorado’s Supreme Court affirmed last week.
The split 5-2 finding upheld a state appellate court’s previous 2-1 decision from 2014 regarding a wrongful death suit first brought against IntraWest-owned Winter Park Resort in 2012. After 28-year-old skier Christopher Norris died in January that year, his widow asserted that Winter Park was liable for his death because the state statute that insulates resorts from lawsuits based on the understood and innate dangers of the sport did not specifically include avalanches. A Grand County District Court had originally thrown out the lawsuit, believing the language of the law, “snow conditions as they exist or may change,” covered the winter phenomenon.
But the state high court’s May 31 ruling now lends further protections from litigation to resorts through the Ski Safety Act, first passed in 1979 and amended twice since then, in 1990 and again in 2004. Advocates for increased ski area safety measures throughout the nation are critical of the broadening of these safeguards through these types of decisions.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Dan Gregorie, founder of the SnowSport Safety Foundation. “The ski safety acts in Colorado and other states are not safety acts; they are ski resort liability protection acts. The sole intent is to protect the ski resorts, not the skiers.”
Gregorie formed the San Francisco-based nonprofit after his 24-year-old daughter died at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort near Truckee, California in 2006. Since then, he has continued his public awareness campaign and hopes to expand into other states in the coming year to improve industry transparency across the country and require resorts to report death and injury statistics, so consumers may make more informed decisions about if and where they ski.
“There are no operational standards for safety in the ski industry, whatsoever,” he continued, “and there are no safety plans of any consequence. As a result of that, they expose their patrons to unnecessary risk.”
The Taylor family of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts takes it a step farther.
“Like James Bond,” said Harry Taylor, “they essentially have a license to kill. There’s no incentive to making skiing safer or investigating why an accident happened.”
Jay Taylor, 27, of Boulder, died on Jan. 20 of this year while skiing at Keystone Resort. The Summit County Coroner listed his cause of death as a broken neck and multiple skull fractures after slamming into a tree without a helmet.
Taylor, a veteran of the sport, was the first of five blunt force trauma deaths around the county this ski season. A sixth, 38-year-old Brian Sisk of Orlando, Florida, was later confirmed to be from natural causes and not a crash after the results of an autopsy showed he expired of cardiac arrest.
Taylor’s passing, occurring in the forested area of the intermediate trail Elk Run, was the third death in the same area of the resort in five years after 18-year-old Air Force Academy cadet John “Jack” Lindsey died there in January 2015 and 24-year-old Joshua Allen of Tampa, Florida did the same in February 2012. The circumstances of their son’s death have only compounded the Taylors’ anguish, and they are still searching for answers.
“We have very little information,” said Harry. “Right from the very beginning, (the resorts are) trained almost to blame it on the skier. I’m sure they’ve had a very good lecture from their insurance companies and all that sort of stuff even though the laws are as strict as they are. No one will offer any indication of how it happened.”
“We’re still, five months later, in a place where we have to piece together the various aspects,” added his wife Lynda. “If you’ve got a car crash, you’ve got authorities investigating, measuring, reporting, documenting and telling the media. That’s the difference. (The resorts) operate within their own limits. It’s bad.”
While Jay’s death was not associated with an inbounds avalanche, the same rules now definitively apply to those who perish at a Colorado resort — in almost every instance. The Taylors have made multiple requests to speak with the first-responders who arrived to their son, in addition to receiving the digital data to better understand approximately when he died based on the scans of his season pass as he got on and off the lifts. They have received neither.
Melanie Mills, president and CEO of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA), which represents 21 of the state’s 25 resorts, was unavailable on Thursday because of the organization’s annual meeting. However, CSCUSA, which helped proposed the Ski Safety Act more than 35 years ago, provided a statement regarding the added ski area protections.
“Ski areas in Colorado engage in extensive and tireless work to reduce the danger of avalanches in Colorado’s rugged mountain environment,” it read, “but the risk of avalanches occurring on terrain within the boundaries of a resort cannot be completely eliminated. Although avalanche accidents at ski resorts are extraordinarily rare, they are an inherent risk. Colorado Ski Country agrees with the decision.”
A season after the Norris lawsuit was filed, Mills penned a column for The Denver Post in March 2013 about the degree of protections the Ski Safety Act affords. She argued that the piece of legislation should remain unchanged.
“Skiing drives our winter tourism economy and is a source of pride for all who live here,” she wrote. “Colorado’s Ski Safety Act provides a reasonable and sensible framework. Let’s not mess with success.”
Vail Resorts, Inc., which owns Keystone and Breckenridge Ski Resort in Summit County and is not represented by CSCUSA, provided its own statement.
“We agree with the Court’s ruling. Regardless of this decision, however, our resorts have and will continue to go to great lengths to ensure the safety of our guests, including avalanche mitigation and appropriate terrain closures.”
The county’s other two resorts, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Copper Mountain Resort — each called guest safety a “top priority.” A-Basin added, like Vail Resorts, that the ruling “will not impact our mountain operations,” and it “will continue its avalanche mitigation program.”
Inbounds avalanches are rare. Aside from Norris — and another that actually happened and killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin at Vail Mountain Resort the same day that still has litigation pending due to the particulars of that situation — the last to occur was in 2005 at A-Basin. Before that, it is thought to have been at least 25 years.
None of that is of consolation to those who believe the Ski Safety Act precludes any recourse for prodding Colorado’s ski resorts for more information about the deaths of their loved ones, regardless of the circumstances. The added immunity, they say, will present even less latitude.
“Ski areas don’t do anything other than post idyllic pictures of the green forests with the snow on them,” said Harry Taylor, “almost beckoning people to come into them and not telling them what an inherent risk is under the snow. There’s a lot of people who have probably never even heard that term, but, basically, it’s almost anything. There should be some more signage because no one reads the fine print.”
“There’s a tremendous lack of information available to the public,” added Lynda Taylor. “What is (the resorts’) responsibility to inform of those risks? If you die, you assume it will be properly investigated and maybe brought to court if there were merits. None of this can happen there; they just pick up the bodies.”
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