BROOMFIELD, Colorado - A judge ruled that Vail Resorts can be sued in the avalanche death of a local teen.
In-bounds avalanches, like the one that killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin on Vail Mountain last January, are not listed among skiing's "inherent risks" listed in the Colorado Skier Safety Act, Broomfield District Court Judge Patrick Murphy ruled late Wednesday afternoon.
Taft's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, sued Vail Resorts last summer, alleging that the company's negligence created an "avalanche trap" that killed their son.
Ingalls was in court Wednesday with the family's attorney, Jim Heckbert of Burg, Simpson's Steamboat Springs law office.
Craig May, Vail Resort's lawyer, argued that while Vail Resorts regrets the loss of life, avalanches are an inherent risk and danger of skiing, and therefore the Colorado Ski Safety Act protects Vail Resorts from any liability for skiers hurt or killed in avalanches.
Heckbert countered that "children have a right to believe that if the gate is open, it's safe." The Skier Safety Act says nothing about an avalanche inside a ski area boundary, argued Heckbert.
"All of us would ski with beacons and shovels if avalanche is an inherent risk, especially when skiing with children," Heckbert told Murphy.
Murphy sided with Heckbert, ruling from the bench immediately following oral arguments that lasted about an hour and a half.
Murphy said that if the Legislature intended for avalanche to be an inherent risk of skiing, that word would be in the law. It is not, Murphy said in ruling against the ski company.
Taft and five friends had entered Lower Prima Cornice through an open gate. Vail Resorts had also asked Murphy to dismiss the lawsuit because a rope blocked the gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run that afternoon.
Murphy ruled that was not enough to satisfy the Skier Safety Act's requirement to notify the public of a closed run by placing a sign, rope or fence at each identified entrance of each portion of the closed run.
No trial date was set Wednesday. If the case does go to trial, a jury will hear it. There has been no talk of a settlement, Heckbert said.
Vail Resorts declined comment because the matter is pending trial.
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.
"The object is to keep other parents from having to go through this," Ingalls said when their lawsuit was filed last summer.
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.
Like Conlin, she was 13 when she died.
Heckbert also represents the family of Christopher Norris, 28, a husband and father of two who was killed in an in-bounds avalanche in Winter Park last winter. Winter Park has also claimed that Colorado's Skier Safety Act exempts it from a lawsuit in that case.
Vail's line in the snow?
A Colorado Avalanche Information Center report says that on Jan. 22, around 1 p.m., Conlin was on 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, the report said.
A rope blocked the gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run.
Three of those skiers sidestepped about 120 feet up the hill and to the south.
Vail Resorts has insisted the run was closed, but does not say where the skiers crossed from the open area to the closed area.
A 300-foot wide avalanche with an 18-inch crown slid 400 feet down the slope. Three of the boys were caught. 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 ruled that Conlin was killed by blunt force trauma- blows to his chest. He did not suffocate, she said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.