“High Avalanche Danger, Use Caution.” “Play it safe, stay in control.” We’ve seen these warnings, but on a powder-fresh day, they are so easily ignored. That is, until reading about the tragic deaths that occur because someone didn’t play it safe in the backcountry or was reckless while skiing inbounds.
As district attorney of four counties hosting some of Colorado’s best ski resorts — Vail, Copper Mountain, Loveland and Ski Cooper — I am routinely reviewing cases for prosecution when somebody suffers a serious injury or the loss of life occurs.
Recently, there have been four avalanche-related deaths in Colorado: a snowmobiler killed in a slide outside of Crested Butte, a Highlands Ranch resident who accidentally triggered a backcountry slide near Keystone and two Wisconsin visitors caught and killed in a Lake County avalanche.
Recipe For Avalanches
It appears likely that we will remain for awhile in a cycle of high snowfall, big wind and warm temperatures. This is a perfect recipe for avalanches and is one reason why monitoring advisories and signs that are easy to ignore in pursuit of adventure is so important.
Mother Nature is unpredictable. To enjoy “inherently dangerous” snow sports, as defined by Colorado’s most often cited ski law, the Ski Safety Act of 1979, it is important to follow rules and safety regulations.
On Feb. 13, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in a Winter Park-area avalanche death case that ski resorts are immune from avalanche responsibility. This means that when at a resort, there is an “inherent risk” involved in skiing or boarding in conditions which are crusty, powdery or wet. The resort is immune from responsibility for these naturally occurring conditions and cannot be successfully sued for injuries or deaths that occur, regardless of whether or not a run is open or closed.
Personal responsibility is the key, as all skiers and boarders are well advised to pay close attention to terrain risks. Legal liability rests firmly on individuals, and negligently or carelessly causing a slide or collisions is a legally accountable misstep. One that could see somebody go from the slopes to a courtroom in a civil suit, or to a criminal court, where a jail sentence is possible.
The District Attorney’s Office has recently filed criminal charges in two cases with Ski Safety Act violations. Both individuals, one a juvenile and one an adult visiting from out of state, have been charged due to causing collisions with other skiers because of reckless and unsafe behavior. Luckily, no one was seriously injured in these instances, but both could have easily been avoided by thinking ahead, paying attention to signs and taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions.
We’ve been graced with an awesome season so far, one that promises to continue to be amazing. I for one will be out there as often as possible, enjoying my friends, family and the beautiful Colorado mountains.
Just remember that those signs we so often pass by without a thought are there for a reason. It’s true, sometimes accidents happen, and there is nothing that could have been done differently. But for all those other times, be smart, ski safe and let’s all enjoy the slopes!
Bruce Brown is the district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, incorporating Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. He can be reached at BBrown@DA5.us, or visit the district attorney’s website at www.DA5.us.
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