Lawsuit says Vail Resorts misinformed investigators
October 15, 2013
VAIL — The attorney for Taft Conlin’s family claims Vail Resorts violated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act by not closing the run where the Vail teen was killed in an avalanche, then falsified documents about avalanche control measures.
That’s not true, the ski company says.
Jim Heckbert said the company should be punished and asked for punitive damages in a motion filed in Broomfield.
“You can’t put a corporation in jail. If you want to hurt a corporation, you hit them in their bankbook,” said Heckbert, attorney for Conlin’s parents, Steve Conlin and Louise Ingalls.
Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts’ vice president for corporate communications, said Heckbert’s assertions are untrue.
“The suggestion that any member of Vail Ski Patrol lied or deliberately misled the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) or anyone else is baseless and absolutely false,” Ladyga said.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority for Vail Ski Patrol, whose own family and friends ski Vail every day, and their actions are about protecting every guest,” Ladyga said. “This was a terrible tragedy that everyone at Vail is saddened by, but disparaging the men and women of ski patrol is both wrong and unfortunate.”
Heckbert, an attorney with the Denver firm Burg Simpson, said Colorado law caps wrongful death awards at $250,000 for children. Punitive damages would allow a jury to award more than that.
“Punitive damages are a way of asking a jury to punish corporations when they’ve acted recklessly,” Heckbert said.
Louise Ingalls and Stephen Conlin are local veterinarians.
At about 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2012, Conlin and his friends accessed Prima Cornice trail through the lower gate, which was open. The run’s upper gate was closed following the first big storm of that snow-starved season.
Heckbert cited the Colorado Skier Safety Act as saying that if a ski area operator wants to close a trail, a sign must be placed at each identified entrance, or a rope strung up to identify the closed area.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Conlin and a friend sidestepped about 120 feet to a cliff above the lower gate. The avalanche swept them away and Conlin was killed. The Vail Ski Patrol found his body wrapped around a tree. Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said he was killed by a blunt force chest injury.
The avalanche was 18 inches deep, 200 feet wide and ran approximately 400 feet, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“If you want to close a portion of a trail, you have to clearly mark it as closed,” Heckbert said. “It’s called drawing a line in the snow. If they don’t want people hiking up, they needed to put up a sign saying no hiking up.”
Vail Resorts says they performed avalanche mitigation efforts that morning, prior to the slide that killed Conlin, including two ski patrollers who say they kicked snow off the top of the run. However, Heckbert says the evidence disputes that.
The latest motion alleges that Vail ski patrollers did nothing to mitigate avalanche danger on Prima Cornice and altered documents. It says that video from the GoPro camera Conlin was wearing indicate ski patrollers did not perform avalanche-control measures.
“Their story doesn’t match with other independent evidence,” Heckbert said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.