An avalanche is one of the most frightening things that can happen to anyone at a Colorado ski resort. Fortunately, avalanches are uncommon. However, when they occur, they can be fatal — as we saw recently in Taos, New Mexico.
Can ski resorts be held liable for injuries and deaths that occur in an avalanche? Decisions in recent cases don’t put the odds in the plaintiffs’ favor.
Colorado law (specifically the 1979 Ski Safety Act) generally makes skiers responsible for protecting themselves from the dangers involved in skiing that resorts would have a difficult time mitigating. Avalanches, resorts have argued, are just one more potential risk that people take on when they hit the slopes — although they aren’t specifically mentioned in the law.
One wrongful death suit involving a 28-year-old man who died after he got buried under an avalanche in a ski area in Winter Park made it to the Colorado Supreme Court. The state’s high court ruled that the 1979 law protected the resort from liability for the man’s death.
In the ruling, the court stated, “The definition of ‘inherent dangers and risks of skiing’…specifically includes ‘snow conditions as they exist or may change,’…[T]his phrase encompasses an in-bounds avalanche, which is, at its core, the movement, or changing condition, of snow.”
Meanwhile, the family of a 13-year-old boy who was killed at a Vail resort on the same day in Jan. 2012 as the man in Winter Park is appealing a jury decision in favor of the resort. That decision came just last year.
One attorney who has written on the subject notes the dangers of ski resorts “opening up more extreme terrain…that makes it more likely that other people will be killed in inbounds avalanches.” Sadly, as they do that, there could be more cases that test the bounds of the law in Colorado and neighboring states with some of the most beautiful ski areas in the world.
While ski resorts often have the law on their side and include language in the agreements that skiers have to sign to protect themselves from lawsuits. Nonetheless, if you or a loved one has been injured or worse at a ski resort, it’s wise to find out what legal options you may have.