State court could impact who can ski at Colorado resorts

I would never describe skiing, even at a resort, as a 100% safe sport. I have friends who have seriously injured themselves. Blown knees, broken bones, cracked skulls are honestly not something that happen every day, but we all have experienced something like that or certainly know people who have. I’ve hit trees, fallen hard enough to crack ribs, punctured a lung and ended up in the hospital. One of my kids overshot a big jump when he was competing as a U-10 freeskier and landed on the flats injuring his feet. He couldn’t walk well for months. Thank goodness he was still young enough to be made of rubber. Our family loves skiing.

Skiing is a sport that teaches so much about life and frees so much of the human spirit. It is not for everyone, but those that embrace the sport can have it for life. I am not what anyone would call a good skier. My kids are. I wish I had the opportunity to ski growing up, but such opportunities are limited in Ohio. A case being considered by the state Supreme Court this month could make it harder for kids to get their first experience on the slopes and, while I understand the motivation behind the court action that was filed, the potential ramifications as I understand them, are too severe for the court to uphold the claim. 

My first job after arriving in Crested Butte in the mid 1980s was working as a children’s ski instructor at the resort. I started out corralling kids on the “Magic Carpet” and got to the point I could take a group of a dozen five-to-nine-year-olds around the resort. 

The first lift experience for the kids was always the old Peachtree lift that was a two-seater with a pole in the middle. The stress level was high every time taking a group of squirrely kids on a slow chairlift high above the hardpack of Peachtree. Normally I could send one kid with a willing adult but sometimes there were no adults so two kids would ride together. I would choose the squirmiest kid to ride with me at the end of the line and constantly be yelling to Daisy or Travis to settle down and focus. I am somewhat amazed no kid ever fell off that chair. 

Eventually a lot of those kids went on to become good skiers. For many, it became a regular part of their life. 

As I interpret it, the case in front of the Colorado Supreme Court is asking that resorts be held to a higher standard of responsibility when something bad happens to a skier on the hill, especially if a lift is involved. Currently, anyone who buys a season pass or lift ticket basically agrees to sign a waiver that makes clear skiing can be a dangerous activity and if something bad happens, the skier can’t sue the resort unless extreme circumstances were involved. The state legislation known as the Ski Safety Act allows parents to sign releases that waive their child’s right to sue the provider of outdoor recreation.

The fear among ski resorts and groups that expose kids to risky sports like skiing, rafting or biking is that if decided in the plaintiff’s favor, it could make exposure to such sports very difficult for a lot of kids.

The origin of this lawsuit started in Crested Butte when a 16-year-old high school girl from Oklahoma, Annie Miller, here with a church group in 2022, was loading the Paradise Lift with her dad. She did not completely get on the chair and apparently the lift op did not see the mistake or hear the cries of the people on the lift or in the lift line to quickly stop the lift. She fell about 30 feet and broke her back becoming paralyzed from the waist down. It was a sad situation for everyone.

While the family’s court claim for gross negligence, which is more serious than ordinary negligence because it involves reckless and intentional conduct, has remained intact through the district court process, the lesser claims were dismissed based on the fact the waiver was signed by her dad. The family appealed to the Supreme Court and wants to be able to sue CBMR and its owner, Vail Resorts, for simple negligence since those claims have a lower threshold of proof. The gross negligence claim, while still standing, comes with a higher bar for the plaintiffs to meet. They basically have asked the state Supreme Court to overrule the waiver that the parents signed on behalf of Annie. That’s all fair in our legal system but if judges uphold that claim, it will come with major broad ramifications.

According to the Aspen Daily News, “Nonprofit organizations like Challenge Aspen and trade groups like Colorado Ski Country USA fear that a decision from the high court allowing the woman’s father to pursue two negligence claims will shake up the outdoor recreation industry and squeeze out younger participants of modest means. That’s because the weakened enforceability of waivers would usher in escalating liability insurance premiums to ski-area operators, and that increased cost would be passed onto the consumers. The outcome would be a sport becoming more exclusive, they have argued.” 

In a brief filed in the case, Challenge Aspen contended that “A loss of insurance can result in the need to stop providing services altogether. Simply, many Colorado providers will likely scale back or eliminate youth programs without the aid of enforceable releases. This is of particular importance to adaptive sports programs and low-cost youth activities. These programs tend to be the most vulnerable to the risks of litigation and the costs of insurance.”

Should CBMR and Vail Resorts bear some responsibility for the accident that paralyzed a girl who fell from the chairlift? It sounds like it, given the allegations as stated in the court case. The family alleges the lift op wasn’t where they should have been and didn’t take the appropriate action to prevent the serious accident. 

If true, it seems this instance probably could be considered a matter of gross negligence. But that would be argued in court and would be harder to convey and prove to a jury. 

My heart goes out to the Miller family. To have such a life-changing injury at 16 years old is a calamity. For it to happen while on vacation makes it even worse. I hope they receive the justice they deserve. However, the idea of the judges ruling that a single family that experienced a tragically unfortunate accident could change the general access to a sport that while not 100% safe, is one that provides immeasurable life benefits, doesn’t sit well. Statistics indicate 13 million people skied at Colorado resorts last year. In the last 50 years there have been 32 chairlift related deaths, most occurring before 1993.

If CBMR employees were grossly negligent, the company should be responsible to Annie and her family. The balance isn’t an easy one. The Millers have every right to sue the corporation, but the idea of the court opening up risky recreational activities like skiing or rafting to easier lawsuits seems like the real danger and it would not be the right path except for the trial attorney industry. Making good opportunities harder for people, especially kids, to experience such a valuable sport that can make them better humans is too high a cost. 

—Mark Reaman

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