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Skier death deserved full disclosure

Colorado has quietly very quietly, in fact had an exceptionally safe ski season so far.After back-to-back seasons of double-digit fatalities (15 last season and a record 16 the season before), there has only been one in-bounds traumatic death on Colorado’s slopes this season, despite record crowds.A lot of locals may not be aware of this, but that one fatality occurred at Vail, where an 84-year-old World War II veteran from Milwaukee named Gardner Friedlander struck a 27-year-old Illinois woman from behind on Game Creek Bowl’s Lost Boy trail Dec. 19. Friedlander later died of internal injuries; the woman was unhurt.Both Denver papers carried brief items on the incident several days after the fact, but I still haven’t seen it mentioned in the Vail Daily.Some Vail officials may have patted themselves on the back for successfully squelching a skier-death story, which in years past would have been front-page news, at least locally.In the wake of stringent new privacy laws enacted recently as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPA), Colorado hospitals have clamped down on the release of patient information. That includes the Vail Valley Medical Center.Vail Resorts deferred to the VVMC Dec. 19 by not issuing a press release. Instead, because the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department had jurisdiction and investigates any skier-on-skier collision, it was left up to that office to release the information.If you think back to Dec. 19, while frantically Christmas shopping, you may recall seeing some TV coverage of a pre-trial hearing in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case at the Eagle County Justice Center. Apparently the sheriff’s department was too busy with Kobe to pay attention to a death on the mountain.It’s hard to fault a publicly traded corporation for failing to put out a press release when it’s the subject of bad news. But it’s then equally difficult to take that corporation seriously when it touts it safety programs and begins issuing press releases about National Skier Safety Week (coming up Jan. 17-23). Although I will say that VR’s skier safety programs since 1999 have been exemplary.I understand skier-death cases are fraught with litigation, and there’s only so much the ski company can legally say about the circumstances, but there are valuable safety lessons to be learned from each death.In this case, with a finding of no fault from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, no criminal charges filed and likely no litigation, VR should have taken the lead in publicizing the situation.Friedlander, a skier here since 1963, was wearing a helmet but clearly not observing Vail’s own “Space not Speed” mantra. Nor did he yield the right of way to the downhill skier. There may have been medical circumstances that affected his skiing just prior to the collision, but due to the lack of information in this case, that’s pure speculation on my part. Before he died, according to police reports, he admitted he was in the wrong and apologized to the woman he struck.At the very least, Vail has an opportunity with each fatality to remind us all that skiing can be a very dangerous sport if basic rules aren’t followed and that skiing out of control can result in death.But that is not good marketing, nor does it sell too many lift tickets. And stockholders aren’t fond of policies that limit ticket sales, even if it saves lives and litigation.They need to see the big picture here, though, and ski company officials have assured me they will take the lead in releasing information in future skier-death cases at Eagle County ski resorts.Beyond the safety argument, the Dec. 19 snafu undermined the ski company’s obligation in its private-public partnership with the Forest Service, which leases its land to Vail Resorts for its five ski mountains.Any death that occurs on public lands and is investigated by a publicly funded law enforcement agency in this case the sheriff’s department is news and should be fully disclosed to the public. As a taxpayer, you have a right to know what happened on your land.That puts the onus on the sheriff’s department. That agency did not issue a release on the Dec. 19 incident; instead choosing to simply put the report on the police blotter.If the sheriff’s department is to be the sole source of information on skier fatalities, then that agency needs to adopt an immediate policy of issuing a press release in a timely fashion something they have had problems with in the past.This is the same office, after all, that waited until Sunday night, July 6 to put out a press release on the Friday, July 4 arrest of Bryant.David O. Williams can be reached at dwilliams@vailtrail.com.


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