Taft Conlin skier death lawsuit against Vail Resorts hits court, will continue for up to three weeks | VailDaily.com

Taft Conlin skier death lawsuit against Vail Resorts hits court, will continue for up to three weeks

EAGLE — A jury will decide where the truth lies in a wrongful death lawsuit against Vail Resorts.

Either Taft Conlin hiked up further than the length of a football field and higher than a 10-story building to access closed terrain on Vail Mountain's Prima Cornice run, causing his own death, or Vail Resorts failed to properly restrict access to the terrain and that negligence caused Conlin's death.

What is known to be true is that Taft Conlin was 13 years old on Jan. 22, 2012, when an in-bounds avalanche on the front side of Vail Mountain killed him.

Opening statements and witness testimony in the three-week civil trial began Tuesday, June 12.

Two sides to the story

The upper gate to Prima Cornice was closed that day, the first big snowfall of an otherwise woeful snow year.

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Skiers entered the lower gate, climbed up the run and skied down, something they have been doing since 1985 when Prima Cornice opened, said Jim Heckbert, attorney for Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, Taft's parents.

"It is undisputed," Heckbert said.

Local businessman Gary Pesso has been in the valley since 1979 and competed on the Pro Mogul Tour.

"When they opened Prima Cornice, it was like candy for us. We skied there quite a bit," Pesso said.

Pesso skis Prima Cornice so often that his friends call the chute PCP, Prima Cornice Pesso. He said he has made a climb similar to the one Taft Conlin made that day "numerous times."

Ski patrollers intended to close that part of Prima Cornice that day so patrollers could blast it for avalanche mitigation, either Sunday night after the lifts closed or Monday morning before they opened, Heckbert said.

But they didn't, he said, and Taft Conlin died.

"They knew it was happening, and they did nothing about it," Heckbert said. "Vail Resorts broke the law."

Vail Resorts ski patrollers will testify that they have never heard of anyone climbing Prima Cornice, and skiers will testify that they never did it when the Vail Ski Patrol was around, said Hugh Gottschalk, Vail Resorts' lead attorney.

Ski patrollers decide what's open and closed, based on the conditions on the ground, Gottschalk said.

The way Vail Ski Patrol manages terrain, if you enter a gate, then you can ski any terrain you can get to by going downhill, following gravity. If you can access an area with gravity, then it's open. If you cannot, then it's not, Gottschalk said.

"Vail has always used that guideline," Gottschalk said.

An expert witness will testify on Vail Resorts' behalf that the upper part of Prima Cornice was closed because "skiing is a downhill sport," Gottschalk said.

"They wanted to leave the lower gate open so skiers could ski the lower portion of Prima Cornice," Gottschalk said.

"Taft Conlin … climbed up the equivalent of a 10-story building," Gottschalk said.

Deadly avalanche

On the day the avalanche killed him, Taft Conlin was planning to ski Beaver Creek with his dad and uncle. That season, 2011-12, was the first year the 13-year-old Taft Conlin would be allowed to ski with his friends and without his parents or family. Taft Conlin received a message that some of his friends were skiing Vail, and he asked if he could join them. He boarded a bus from Beaver Creek to Vail and connected with two of his friends, Heckbert said.

Taft Conlin's rules were clear: Use common sense, stay in contact with his parents, don't ski out of bounds or you lose your pass, Heckbert said.

They skied that morning, and after lunch, they connected with two more friends. They made a couple of Chair 4 runs and headed back to Prima Cornice, Heckbert said.

They stopped to look up and saw a huge flurry of snow. One of the boys in the group was swept off a rock. They quickly made their way to him — it was another of their friends, not Conlin. He stood up, his face bloody from the pummeling, Heckbert said.

Then everything slid.

They tried to find Conlin, working their way down the mountain. They found him, his legs sticking out of the snow against a tree. The avalanche pounding his chest had killed him, the Eagle County coroner said.

Gottschalk told the jury that one of the boys with Conlin will testify that he opted not to sidestep up the run because it felt like coming to the front of a house that you're not supposed to be in and then going around to the back of the house and entering anyway, Gottschalk said.

The civil trial continues for up to three weeks before District Court Judge Fred Gannett.

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