Jury rules for Vail Resorts in skier death case. Upper Prima Cornice was closed where Taft Conlin died in an in-bounds avalanche | VailDaily.com

Jury rules for Vail Resorts in skier death case. Upper Prima Cornice was closed where Taft Conlin died in an in-bounds avalanche

Hugh Gottschalk, right, was one of the attorneys defending Vail Resorts in the civil suit filed by Taft Conlin's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin. Closing arguments were Wedesday morning and the jury began deliberating Wednesday afternoon.
Randy Wyrick|randy@vaildaily.com

The crux of the case

Jim Heckbert, attorney for Taft Conlin’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, asserted that Vail Resorts was negligent and broke the law — Colorado’s Skier Safety Act — by the way ski patrollers closed part of Prima Cornice, the site of an in-bounds avalanche that killed Taft on Jan. 22, 2012.

Hugh Gottschalk, attorney for Vail Resorts, asserted that the ski company did not break that law or any other and that 13-year-old Taft was at fault in his own death by climbing above Prima Cornice’s lower gate into an area they insist was closed.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that in-bounds avalanches are an inherent risk in skiing, which is why this was a negligence case and not a wrongful death case, District Court Judge Fred Gannett ruled.

EAGLE — A six-person jury ruled Wednesday, June 20, that Vail Resorts had closed the upper Prima Cornice run on Vail Mountain’s front side before an in-bounds avalanche killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin on Jan. 22, 2012.

Taft’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, had sued the ski company for negligence, saying the company did not close the run properly and violated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act.

Praise and sadness from the ski company

Doug Lovell, Vail Mountain’s chief operating officer, praised Wednesday’s verdict while expressing sadness for Taft’s family and friends.

“Vail Resorts agrees with the ruling today by jurors of the Eagle County District Court and believes this was a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, consistent with Colorado law. Nonetheless, we are also aware of how difficult the trial has been for everyone involved, and we remain deeply saddened by the tragic events of Jan. 22, 2012, and for the family and friends of Taft Conlin,” Lovell said in a statement.

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“The company continues to place the highest value on the safety of our guests and employees and is proud of the Vail Ski Patrol and their ongoing commitment and professionalism. We will continue to work hard each and every day to mitigate risk and provide a safe environment for skiers and snowboarders on the mountain.”

Appeal possible?

Ingalls said if they had won any money from the lawsuit, then they vowed to create a scholarship fund and give it away.

“We just wanted to make things safer,” Ingalls said. “That has been our goal since starting this six years ago.

“Even with today’s verdict, our efforts have already made a difference.”

Ingalls suggested that skiers need to take care of themselves, take avalanche classes and carry gear. The same day Taft died, an in-bounds avalanche killed Christopher Norris at Winter Park ski area.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that under Colorado’s Skier Safety Act, in-bounds avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing. That narrowed Conlin’s case from wrongful death to claiming Vail Resorts was negligent when ski patrollers closed Prima Cornice’s upper gate, but not the lower gate.

Ingalls and Conlin’s attorney, Jim Heckbert, was at odds with District Court Judge Fred Gannett on several points and said an appeal is not out of the question.

“The judge excluded a great deal of our evidence that we thought was relevant. As to whether we appeal, we’ll talk to our clients,” Heckbert said.

Vail Resorts broke the law, plaintiff said

“It violates every law of nature for parents to bury their child,” Heckbert said during closing arguments Wednesday morning.

Children grow up and leave, but the bond remains, Heckbert said.

“That is the natural order, that is the circle of life. That circle of life was broken because Vail broke the law. As a result, Taft Conlin died,” Heckbert said.

Colorado’s Skier Safety Act says that if a trail is closed, then every identified entrance should be closed, Heckbert said.

“A trail closure must be so clear and unambiguous that a 10-year-old child can understand that it is closed,” Heckbert said.

Heckbert took aim at Vail ski patrollers testifying they were unaware that skiers climbed from up from the lower Prima Cornice gate. Four of the plaintiff’s witnesses said they’ve done it and were with others when they did it, including a couple of coaches from Ski & Snowboard Club Vail.

“If there was anything in their backgrounds, anything bad, you would have heard about it. You didn’t,” Heckbert said. “For 26 years before this child died on Prima Cornice, people remember sidestepping up when the upper gate is closed.”

Heckbert said by closing that upper gate, Vail Resorts intended to close a portion of the trail.

But what portion? Heckbert asked.

“No one knew what was open and what was closed. Whose fault is that? Vail management,” Heckbert said.

The plaintiffs were asking that Vail Resorts pay damages. That won’t replace their son, Heckbert said. Ingalls and Conlin will have to deal with the loss of their son for the rest of their lives.

Because it’s a civil case, Heckbert had to convince the jury that it was more right that wrong — a preponderance of the evidence — that the ski company violated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act.

“If you find that Taft Conlin was 50 percent or more at fault, the parents lose,” Heckbert said.

No, Vail Resorts did not break the law, its attorney says

Vail Resorts attorney Hugh Gottschalk opened his final statement by acknowledging the tragedy and expressing sympathy to Taft’s parents and then said Vail Resorts did not cause their son’s death.

Ski patrollers left the lower Prima Cornice gate open so skiers could enjoy the 8 to 9 inches of new snow that fell that day, Gottschalk said.

Taft and one other skier climbed up, and Taft triggered an avalanche that caused his death, Gottschalk said.

Gottschalk said the Skier Safety Act says that to close a trail, it has to be closed at identifiable entrances.

“The lower gate is not an identified entrance to upper Prima Cornice,” Gottschalk said.

The upper gate was closed, so the part of Prima Cornice to which Taft climbed was closed, Gottschalk said.

“If we didn’t close an identified gate, that’s on Vail,” Gottschalk said.

But they did, he said.

The Skier Safety Act also says alpine skiing means skiing or sliding downhill, Gottschalk said.

“Nobody drew a line, nobody indicated that Taft Conlin skied there by gravity,” Gottschalk said. “You have to assume that skiers are going downhill or you would have to put a four-sided box around closed areas.”

As for the people who said they and others have sidestepped up Prima Cornice, that proves nothing, Gottschalk said.

“‘I did that’ is not an legal reason for Vail to treat the lower gate as an identified entrance,” Gottschalk said.

Gottschalk again acknowledged the tragedy but told the jury that sympathy for Taft’s parents should not play a part in their decision.

“You’re not being asked to decide whether Taft Conlin was a bad kid. Anyone who has been through this trial knows that’s not true. You’re being asked to decide if a 13-year-old made a bad decision,” Gottschalk told the jury.

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

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