Vail avalanche death case on hold as judge denies motion to disqualify himself
What the lawsuit is about
• Claim — In their lawsuit, Taft Conlin’s parents, local veterinarians Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Steve Conlin, claim that if Vail Resorts wanted to close any part of the run where their son was killed, Prima Cornice, all of the entrances should have been closed. They claim their son died because the company’s negligence created an “avalanche trap” that killed him.
• Response — Vail Resorts claims the run was closed and counters that Conlin was “negligent,” caused his own death and “such negligence was either the sole, or a contributing, cause.”
What the jury will decide
• Did Vail Resorts adhere to its duty under Colorado’s Skier Safety Act?
• If not, did that lead to Taft Conlin’s death?
• If it did, how much money should Conlin’s parents receive?
EAGLE — Colorado’s Supreme Court will decide if the judge in a teenager’s skier-death case will be replaced.
Thirteen-year-old Taft Conlin died Jan. 22, 2012, in an avalanche on Prima Cornice on the front side of Vail Mountain.
A civil suit brought by Conlin’s parents against Vail Resorts claiming negligence and the wrongful death of their son was scheduled to begin on Aug. 7 in District Court but will be postponed as the Colorado Supreme Court sorts out a request to disqualify the judge hearing the case.
Jim Heckbert, attorney for Conlin’s parents, local veterinarians Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, are asking that District Court Judge Fred Gannett be disqualified. Heckbert claims some of Gannett’s statements during a hearing indicate the judge has prejudged the case.
Vail Resorts attorneys Hugh Gottschalk and Craig May disagreed with the request to disqualify Gannett.
“Plaintiffs may disagree with these comments and the court’s view of the proper scope of evidence, but the court’s comments are insufficient to warrant recusal,” they wrote in their response.
Gottschalk and May wrote that the plaintiffs “simply disagree with some of the court’s pretrial rulings,” calling it the equivalent of “working the ref.”
Evidence or not?
In a July 11 hearing, Gannett and Heckbert went back and forth about evidence the jury would be allowed to hear, including the number of witnesses who would be allowed to testify about hiking up Prima Cornice.
In his motion to disqualify Gannett, Heckbert claims some of Gannett’s statements and responses indicated he has prejudged the case.
In his ruling, Gannett insisted the “discussions were clearly theoretical … for and against the relevance and admissibility of particular evidence.”
“That this purpose was apparently not clear to plaintiffs is regrettable, but not the basis for disqualification,” Gannett wrote in his ruling.
Gannett denied Heckbert’s request on Wednesday, and Heckbert appealed it to the Colorado Supreme Court on Thursday.
If the Colorado Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, everything stops while the state’s High Court sorts it out.
In the meantime, Gannett vacated the Aug. 7 trial date, pending the state Supreme Court’s decision.
Vail’s line in the snow?
On Jan. 22, 2012, around 1 p.m., Taft Conlin was on telemark skis when he and five young skiers entered the lower Prima Cornice area through an open gate looking for fresh snow, according to a Colorado Avalanche Information Center report.
A rope blocked the gate at the top of the Prima Cornice run.
Several others had skied onto Prima Cornice that Sunday, after one of that winter’s rare storms dropped new snow, the report said.
“It looked like an interstate highway going up that trail that day,” Heckbert said.
Three of those skiers sidestepped about 120 feet up the hill and to the south, the CAIC report said.
Those three were caught in a 300-foot-wide avalanche that slid 400 feet down the slope. Two dug themselves out and quickly skied to the bottom of Northwoods Express for help.
The avalanche carried Conlin through a spruce forest until he came to rest against a tree, upside down.
Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis said Conlin was killed by blunt force trauma to his chest.
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