Vail chairlift death similar to 2000 case, attorney says
Investigation into death of Jason Varnish, 46, on Chair 37 in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin is ongoing
This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Coroner Kara Bettis did not say Varnish fell through the open seat.
A local attorney said he sees similarities between last week’s chairlift death of a New Jersey man, and a case he won against Vail Resorts following an incident 20 years ago.
Attorney Joe Bloch won a chairlift injury case against Vail Resorts stemming from a Feb. 1, 2000, incident on the Arrowbahn Express lift in which a chairlift seat was flipped up and a woman was injured when she fell through.
Jason Varnish, 46, of Short Hills, New Jersey, died Feb. 13 while riding Chair 37 in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, according to Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.
Bettis said the chairlift seat was flipped up, according to witnesses, and he became entangled by his clothing that appears to have been caught on a portion of the chairlift. He was unable to breathe due to his coat and tight clothing around his chest and abdominal region.
“It’s a dangerous sport. We all know that. There are risks. But falling through a lift chair and asphyxiating should not be one of them,” Bloch said in a phone interview.
Two decades ago
It was Feb. 1, 2000, when Sallyann Aarons and her husband Alan, a 28-year veteran of the National Ski Patrol, tried to get on the Arrowbahn Express lift. Aarons, who was 68 at the time, was an experienced skier of more than 40 years.
Lift operators flip lift seats up when the ski day is done so they’re dry and free of ice and snow in the morning, Bloch said.
The seat on their lift chair had flipped up and Sallyann was pushed past the ramp and was thrown onto a rock pile below, Bloch said.
“When something malfunctions it happens fast and becomes extremely dangerous,” Bloch said.
Sallyann suffered a broken clavicle that never fused and a torn rotator cuff.
The case took two years to come to trial before Eagle County District Court Judge Richard Hart.
According to a case summary, Vail Resorts admitted that the lift operator was negligent for failing to stop the lift, and tried to flip down the chairlift seat instead of stopping the lift.
In the Aarons’ case, the lift operator tried to hold the chair back, Bloch said.
“They should have hit the emergency stop. It would have been stopped before it cleared the loading zone,” Bloch said.
After the two-day trial, the jury found Vail Resorts negligent in training and operation, the case summary said. The jury awarded the Aarons $175,000.
Bloch advocates for video cameras in chairlift loading and unloading zones.
“Why don’t they have them? Who cares about their exposure? Let’s care about making people safe,” Bloch said.
Varnish’s death ruled an accident
Varnish’s death has been ruled an accident.
Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that Varnish was a managing director for Credit Suisse Group AG. He most recently served as the bank’s global head of prime services risk. He’d spent more than 20 years at Credit Suisse after he joined in collateral and valuations in London in 1998.
“On behalf of all employees of Credit Suisse, we send our deepest condolences to Jason’s family and friends,” the bank said in a statement Tuesday.
Varnish, according to his obituary, is survived by his sons Cameron and Luko, his daughter Grace, and their mother Jo. His many passions included music, reading and cars, and he was an excellent and eager cook. Above all else, Jase loved his family, the obituary reads. A memorial is scheduled for Sunday at Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Last week Bettis said that, according to witnesses, the chairlift’s folding seat was in the upright position, instead of being folded down so riders could sit on it. That left an open area through which one could fall through if they did not notice the seat was not in place.
The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board said that, for now, the investigation shows nothing mechanical failed.
“The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board is working with Vail Mountain Resort on its investigation into the Feb. 14, 2020 fatality on the Skyline Express Lift. There is no indication at this juncture that lift components or operations contributed to the tragic accident. Any further questions regarding this matter should be addressed to Vail Resorts,” Lee Rasizer with the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board said Wednesday morning in an email.
The ongoing investigation includes Vail Ski Patrol, Vail Resorts, Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, Eagle County Paramedic Services, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Eagle County Coroner’s Office, Vail Public Safety Communications.
Bettis had “no comment” regarding the investigation. Jessie Porter, a public information officer with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in an email Wednesday to the Vail Daily: “We have received several different requests for information regarding this incident. At this time this is an active investigation and our reports are not at an appropriate level that they can be released at this time.”
Vail Resorts did not respond to requests for comment on Bloch’s 2000 case and what had been done since then to mitigate chairlift seats flipping up.
Vail Resorts did release a statement after Varnish’s death last week.
“Vail Mountain confirms a serious incident that took place yesterday involving a 46-year-old man from New Jersey. The incident occurred when the guest attempted to load the Skyline Express lift (Chair 37). Vail Mountain Ski Patrol responded to the incident and performed CPR and emergency care on scene before the guest was transported to Vail Health, where he was pronounced deceased,” the company said.
The National Ski Areas Association, a resort trade group, wrote in a 2017 industry paper that chairlift deaths because of mechanical malfunction are rare. Kelly Huber, a 40-year-old Texas woman, was killed after being thrown from a ski lift at Granby Ranch resort in 2016 because of a malfunction with the lift’s mechanical drive. Lift injuries caused by other nonmechanical issues are more common, including one from 2017 where a skier’s backpack was caught by a chairlift at Arapahoe Basin. The man was dragged back down the hill hanging by his neck and unconscious before he was cut down and rescued.