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Are resorts liable for avalanches?

State high court hears case out of Winter Park
Colorado Supreme Court justices hear arguments on the question of whether Colorado ski resorts can be liable for avalanches that happen within their boundaries in a lawsuit prompted by a skier’s death, during a court session held in Denver at East High School on Tuesday. From left are Justice Nathan B. Coats, Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice, Justice Allison H. Eid and Justice Brian D. Boatright.

DENVER – Colorado’s highest court heard arguments Tuesday on whether ski resorts are liable for avalanches within their boundaries – a question with potentially far-reaching implications for the state’s $3 billion-a-year ski industry.

The lawsuit involves Christopher Norris, who died in 2012 after he was caught in an avalanche at Winter Park. His widow is suing Winter Park’s operator, Intrawest, arguing the resort should have closed the area where the slide happened.

An attorney for Norris’ family told justices that resorts have a responsibility to protect skiers from avalanches because they know where slides historically happen.

“The ski area operators are intimately familiar where they occur,” James Garrett Heckbert said.

Lower courts have sided with the resort, noting state law says skiers willingly take a risk on the slopes. Other states with skiing, including Utah and Oregon, have similar laws aimed at protecting resorts from liability.

Wolf Creek Ski Area owner Davey Pitcher, who also serves as mountain manager, agreed that skiers should assume some risk when skiing, noting the unpredictable nature of avalanches. He pointed out that avalanche science is never guaranteed, and resorts can only do what they can to mitigate danger.

“It’s in the same way a skier is responsible for not running into a tree,” Pitcher said. “You can never say that there’s a 100 percent assurance on 100 percent of the days on 100 percent of the mountain that there’s not going to be a potential inbound avalanche while the terrain is open to the public.”

Wolf Creek – like other mountains – takes precautions by utilizing ski patrol and explosives to identify and mitigate avalanche risks. Data is analyzed, experts are employed. But Pitcher still recommends that skiers bring avalanche gear and work with guides when skiing avalanche terrain.

Colorado’s law doesn’t specifically mention avalanches as one of the inherent dangers skiers face, but an attorney for Winter Park noted that factors that contribute to avalanches – extreme terrain, changing weather conditions and snow – are all listed as risks.

“If the General Assembly had wanted to exempt avalanches resulting from new snowfall on certain steep terrain from the scope of the inherent dangers and risks, they would’ve done so explicitly,” Peter Winterson Rietz said.

A state Supreme Court ruling could take months.

The Colorado Court of Appeals said in its ruling favoring Intrawest that the avalanche was caused by new snowfall, weak and unstable snowpack and a steep slope, all circumstances covered under state law.

Colorado passed the Ski Safety Act in 1979 to “establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for the skiers using them,” lawmakers who crafted the bill said at the time. The law does not exempt resorts from liability for injuries caused by ski lifts, nor does it make resorts immune from damages resulting from negligence. The Norris lawsuit is testing that.

The Ski Safety Act caps damages from lawsuits against resorts at $250,000. Lawsuits over the years have never succeeded in convincing courts or juries to award more than that to injured skiers or families who lost a loved one.

Herald Staff Writer Peter Marcus contributed to this report.

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