Court: Avalanches are an ‘inherent risk’ at state ski areas
May 31, 2016
DENVER — Taft Conlin and Christopher Norris are linked by tragic circumstances. They're also linked in law.
Conlin and Norris both died in ski area avalanches Jan. 22, 2012, Norris at Winter Park and Conlin at Vail. Both were skiing in-bounds at the time. Both families filed suit against the respective ski area operators — Vail Resorts and IntraWest. The Norris case was resolved Tuesday in favor of IntraWest.
In a 5-2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that an "avalanche that occurs within the bounds of a ski resort qualifies as an 'inherent danger and risk of skiing'" under the 1979 Colorado Ski Safety Act.
An opinion authored by Chief Justice Allison Eid, states that the law's language "specifically includes 'snow conditions as they exist or may change' …. this phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow."
“Because we have facts that show Vail only closed one of two entrances to Prima Cornice, the jury can find that Vail violated its statutory duty to close all entrances to any trail it has closed. If the jury finds Vail violated its statutory duty to close all entrances to a closed trail, Vail may not avoid responsibility for (Conlin’s) death by claiming he was killed by an inherent risk of skiing.”James HeckbertAttorney
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Norris died while skiing the Trestle Trees run at Winter Park. The suit against IntraWest stated that the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had issued an avalanche warning for that day. The suit claimed that resort managers knew about the warning, and neither closed the run or posted signs telling skiers of the danger.
Conlin's case is similar.
The same day as the avalanche at Winter Park, Conlin, 13, and five friends entered Vail's Prima Cornice run through an open gate on the lower portion of the run — the upper gate was closed — then followed the tracks of others who had skied through the gate that day.
Conlin's parents, local veterinarians Louise Ingalls and Steve Conlin, filed a wrongful death suit against Vail Resorts. As with the suit against IntraWest, the family's attorneys claimed that Vail Resorts should have taken steps to close the run and inform skiers. Specifically, the Conlin family's suit maintains that the resort company should have closed all access to Prima Cornice, not just the upper gate.
The Conlin case started in Broomfield County, near Denver. At Vail Resorts' request, the trial was moved to Eagle County in July of 2015 and assigned to District Judge Frederick Gannett.
James Heckbert, an attorney in the Steamboat Springs office of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh Jardine, represented Norris' family, and is also representing Conlin's family. In an email Tuesday, Heckbert wrote there are differences in the two cases.
"Because we have facts that show Vail only closed one of two entrances to Prima Cornice, the jury can find that Vail violated its statutory duty to close all entrances to any trail it has closed. If the jury finds Vail violated its statutory duty to close all entrances to a closed trail, Vail may not avoid responsibility for (Conlin's) death by claiming he was killed by an inherent risk of skiing."
With the Norris case resolved, Heckbert wrote that he expects the Conlin case to move forward. The next steps would be a status conference, followed by Gannett setting a trial date.
In a brief statement, Vail Resorts Vice President of Corporate Communications Kelly Ladyga wrote that the company agrees with Tuesday's court ruling. She added that, "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."