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August 1, 2012
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Avalanche victim's family sues Vail Resorts, claims wrongful death

VAIL - Taft Conlin's family is suing Vail Resorts, saying the company's negligence created an "avalanche trap" that killed him.

The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit after months of trying to convince the ski company and U.S. Forest Service to talk about changes that could improve skier safety, they said.

A Forest Service investigation report said that Vail Resorts complied with its operating procedures and Forest Service permit requirements. A Colorado Avalanche Information Center report said Conlin and other skiers entered Lower Prima Cornice through an open gate, sidestepped up 120 feet and traversed around to the south when the avalanche engulfed them. That report also said that a skier or rider not a part of Taft's group may have triggered the avalanche since there were multiple tracks in the area, but there was no way to determine that for sure.

"We've wanted from the beginning to discuss this in terms of public safety in the future. We've tried that without litigation," said Dr. Louise Ingalls, Conlin's mother.

"I'm taking these steps for Taft, for the boys he was skiing with and for the public who skis. I felt it could be done differently," Ingalls said. "There are changes that could be made to make it safer kids and for all skiers."

Conlin was killed Jan. 22, when he was swept away by an avalanche on Prima Cornice, in-bounds on the front of Vail Mountain.

Vail Resorts declined to comment about the lawsuit filed Tuesday in District Court in Broomfield, where the ski company's corporate offices are located.

"We are reviewing the lawsuit and do not have any further comment," said Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts director of corporate communications.

Colorado law caps wrongful death awards at $250,000 for children, so they're not in it for the money, said Jim Heckbert, the family's attorney. Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin are local veterinarians.

"The object is to keep other parents from having to go through this," Ingalls said. "It's such a difficult thing. I've had so many people who've lost children reach out to me."

It's been emotional, and Ingalls said she expects the lawsuit shall be, as well.

"I've thought about the emotional side of it, standing up to a big corporation," she said.

The accusations

The family's lawsuit alleges that the ski company should have known that the Prima Cornice trail was dangerous and, based on information from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, that an avalanche was likely.

"The Vail Corporation had a duty to warn skiers of those areas within its boundary ... which it knew posed an avalanche hazard," the lawsuit alleges.

The ski company's failure to warn skiers was, "dangerous, done heedlessly, recklessly and without regard to consequences," the lawsuit says.

The ski company originally asserted that Conlin accessed Prima Cornice Trail by cutting under a rope, the lawsuit says.

"The Vail Corporation ... knew that the statement that Taft M. Conlin had entered the Prima Cornice Trail by going under a rope was false," the lawsuit says.

The ski company made that statement to "conceal the fact that The Vail Corporation recklessly failed to close the 'lower entrance gate' to the Prima Cornice Trail ... and by that act invited skiers, including Taft M. Conlin, to enter the Prima Cornice Trail, even though the company knew that the conditions constituted "an avalanche trap."

Heckbert said the family has been forced to go through the court system

"They want to create some change," he said. "Our position is that there were two gates. Vail closed the top gate, knowing that it constituted an avalanche trap."

Their lawsuit asks for a jury trial.

"I've been trying cases since 1974 and I'd rather allow eight reasonable citizens to decide. The cumulative wisdom of a jury is outstanding," Heckbert said.

Heckbert has crossed swords with Vail Resorts before. He represented Ashley Stamp's family when the Steamboat Springs girl was killed when she was struck by a snowmobile on Vail Mountain. Stamp was in Vail for a ski race.

Vail Resorts has 21 days from Tuesday to file a response. Just over a month after that, the two sides will be required to begin giving each other information about the incident.

"Vail has ski patrol photos and reports, and witness reports," Heckbert said. "There were other people on that run besides Taft and the people skiing with him. They have to give that up."

After that, they two sides start taking depositions.

On Jan. 22, around 1 p.m., Conlin was on his telemark skis when he and five young skiers passed through an open gate in the Lower Prima Cornice area looking for fresh snow. Several others had already skied into the area that day, after one of last winter's rare storms dropped new snow.

A rope blocked the gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run, a report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said.

Three of those skiers sidestepped about 120 feet up the hill and to the south. Vail Resorts has said the run was closed, but does not say where the skiers cross from the open area to the closed area.

When the avalanche released, two skiers made it to safety, skiing down to the bottom of the Northwoods Express to get help, the Avalanche Center report said.

But the avalanche caught Conlin and carried him through a spruce forest until he came to rest against a tree, upside down.

Coroner Kara Bettis ruled that Conlin was killed by blunt force trauma - blows to his chest. He did not suffocate, she said.

Prior to Conlin's death, the only other time a skier had died in an avalanche while skiing on an open trail inside a Colorado ski area was May 2005, the lawsuit says.

Another skier was killed in-bounds last season at Winter Park, however, and the wife of that skier has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Denver-owned ski area's operator, Intrawest.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Aug 2, 2012 09:58AM Published Aug 1, 2012 07:41PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.