Where responsibilities lie on the mountain
VAIL – Is Vail Resorts potentially liable under state law for the death of the 13-year-old Steamboat Springs ski racer who was killed in a snowmobile collision on Vail Mountain Dec. 19.A lawsuit has not yet being filed in Ashley Stamp’s death, but if the case ends up in civil court, the Colorado Ski Safety Act may be tested, said local attorney Rohn Robbins. Under the Act, passed in 1979 and amended in 1990, each skier assumes the risk of – and all legal responsibility for – any injury resulting from any of the so-called “inherent dangers” of skiing. Ashley died from chest injuries when she collided with a race-crew snowmobile heading uphill over a blind knoll on Golden Peak, any case will likely hinge on whether a snowmobile is an “inherent risk.” The state law caps legal awards from ski resorts at $1 million.Snowmobiles aren’t included in the act’s list of inherent dangers, said Melanie Mills, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry advocacy organization. Whether snowmobiles pose a liability for the mountain depends on the situation, Mills said. For Robbins, unless somebody can prove negligence, a court may find the accident was caused by an inherent risk.”There are duties imposed on ski areas to maintain their equipment properly and there are also duties appointed to skiers,” Robbins said. “One duty is to avoid collisions with other persons or objects below them.”Chances are that unless there’s proof that the snowmobile operator was acting negligently it will be a case that she had the responsibility of avoiding the collision because she was going downhill,” Robbins added.According to the Colorado the State Patrol, which is investigating the case, the snowmobile was traveling about 10 mph with its siren wailing. But Ashley’s teammates on the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club said the snowmobile was moving much faster and no siren was sounding. Vail Resorts officials have never commented on Ashley’s death. “Given that the tragic accident that occurred on Sunday, Dec. 19 is still under investigation, Vail Resorts is not going to comment on any aspect of this incident or on snowmobile safety,” said Jen Brown, Vail Mountain spokeswoman. Inherent risksThough he said he couldn’t comment specifically on Ashley’s case, Jim Chalat, a Denver lawyer who specializes in skier-injury cases, said courts have ruled negligently driven snowmobiles aren’t an inherent risk of skiing.
“Snowmobile cases are treated differently than any other skier accident case,” Chalat said. “I’ve handled numerous cases involving skiers and snowboarders vs. ski areas, also involving racers, and I’ve been successful in all of them.”Juries in Colorado believe skiers coming down or towards a race course are entitled to go as fast as they can without having to worry about a snowmobile cresting a knoll,” he added.”It all depends on how fast people are going and what could they see and how reasonable their behavior was,” he said. “In cases involving snowmobile accidents, what the skier could reasonably see and what he could avoid are key issues for a jury.”Jeffrey Gibbs, the parent of a Steamboat Springs ski racer who saw Ashley’s collision, said the snowmobile appeared to have crested the knoll before Ashley got there.Robbins said Vail Resorts could be negligent if the snowmobile was “driving up the hill in the wrong spot.””The question of negligence is should he had been there at all?” Robbins said. Operating impactIf the Stamps sued and proved negligence, a 1990 amendment to Ski Safety Act capped a ski area liability at $1 million.”The other thing that could happen is that (Vail Resorts) settle informally to avoid the publicity and in a way to acknowledge the horrible circumstance,” Robbins said.If a suit is filed, other parties could also be involved, including the two ski clubs -Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, the organizers of the race, and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, where Ashley ski raced, Robbins said. Also Radamus, director of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail declined to comment.”The suit could also name the person driving the snowmobile or even a coach,” Robbins said.
The driver also may face criminal charges. District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said he will make that determination after the state patrol finishes its investigation. “I don’t think (Ashley’s death) will change the law, but it might change how they operate the mountain,” Robbins said. By statute, the Stamps have two years to file a negligence claim. Staff Writer Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Legal history– In Lee v. Aspen, the court ruled colliding with a snowmobile operated by a ski area employee is not an inherent risk.– In Graven v. Vail Associates, Inc., David Graven sued Vail Associates, Inc. for injuries he suffered when he fell down a steeply pitched ravine west of the Lower Prima run at Vail. The trial court decided against Graven, ruling the ravine into which he fell was an inherent danger of skiing. — Denver lawyer Jim Chalat won a $100,000 judgment from the Aspen Skiing Co. after a federal jury found the resort negligent in a 1997 collision between a snowmobile and a snowboarder at Snowmass. He reached an undisclosed settlement with Aspen Skiing when a champion Yugoslavian racer was hit by a snowmobile at the same resort in 1992 and suffered a career-ending knee injury.– In Phillips v. Monarch a skier collided with a snow cat. The court ruled that provisions of the Colorado Safety Ski Act pertaining to warning skiers of grooming operations were not annulled by the waiver printed on a lift ticket.– In Rosen v. LTV Corporation, a skier hit an unpadded metal post; in Stratton v. Vail Associates, a racer fell and slid into an unpadded light post. Under the Ski Act, hitting a manmade objects is an inherent danger of skiing – unless the object was not readily visible from 100 feet away and as long as any padding or marker is not itself a hazard.– In Clover v. Snowbird Ski Resort, the court stated: “If an injury was caused by an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated by the use of ordinary care, such a hazard is not, in the ordinary sense of the term, an inherent risk of skiing and would fall outside” the Ski Safety Act.
Sharing responsibilitiesFrom the Colorado Ski Safety Act, passed in 1979 and amended in 1990:– “Inherent dangers of skiing” means those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of the sport of skiing, including: Changing weather conditions; snow conditions such as ice, hard pack, powder, packed powder, wind pack, corn, crust, slush, cut-up snow, and machine-made snow; bare spots, forest growth, rocks, stumps, streambeds, trees or other natural objects; lift towers, signs, posts, fences, hydrants, water pipes, other man-made structures and their components; variations in steepness or terrain; collisions with other skiers; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities. But the inherent dangers of skiing does not include the negligence of the ski area.– Ski areas are required to mark hydrants, water pipes, and all other man-made structures on slopes and trails which are not readily visible to skiers.– There must be conspicuous notice whenever trails are being groomed.– All snowmobiles must be equipped with a lighted headlamp, a lighted red tail lamp, brakes and a fluorescent flag.– Each skier must control speed and course at all times, and be aware of their surroundings. The person skiing downhill has primary responsibility to avoid collision with people or objects below him. — Racers assume the risk of weather and snow conditions, course design and obstacles which a visual inspection should have revealed.– The total amount of damages which may be recovered by a skier cannot exceed $1 million dollars. Vail, Colorado