Ski resorts across the country received some reprieve last week when Supreme Court judges in Colorado ruled 5-2 that winter resorts are not liable for in-bounds avalanche deaths. Changing snow conditions, weather, steepness of a particular slope make for a mix that’s simply too difficult for resorts to control, the court ruled, and that areas are protected under the Ski Safety Act created in 1979 as a way to protect resort operators from liability when snowboarders and skiers die in terrain that is inherently difficult to keep safe.
The ruling came in the case involving the family of 28-year-old Christopher Norris who was killed in an in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park in 2012. His family was suing for $250,000 in damages. The second case currently in court is from the family of 13-year-old Taft Conlin, who died in an avalanche at Vail, ironically the same day as Norris.
In short, mountains are wild places and we’re extremely lucky to be able to access them via chairlifts, trams, pomas and rope tows. And these deaths are extremely sad so I understand litigation can also act as a means of closure to some. But I still find myself empathizing with resort owner/operators. In most cases, I’m never a fan of litigation. It just makes things inherently messy for the rest of us. I really appreciate resort models like they have in Le Grave, France: a chairlift on a mountain for access. It’s the rider’s responsibility after that. It’s a very simple concept. You ride the gnar, you deal with the consequences.
Despite what many of us may think, operating a resort is a tough endeavor. The prices of operation are extremely high from ski patrol to management to paying and managing instructors and maintenance crews, and everything in between. And those costs double and triple when resorts are thrown into lawsuit after lawsuit involving families of the deceased or injured.