Danger On The Slopes: Do Ski Areas Get a Pass?

A three-part series from the Denver Post exposes negligence in Colorado resorts

In a blockbuster three-part series last week, The Denver Post examined skiing accidents in Colorado’s resorts, describing a broad legal umbrella that protects resorts from liability even in cases of  apparent negligence. The resorts, reporter Karen E. Crummy found, are their own accident investigators, sometimes stonewalling law enforcement. And they are protected from many lawsuits by the 1979 Colorado Ski Safety Act and “season-pass waivers.”

The truth behind many serious accidents gets buried, the Post found, due to conflicts of interest and law enforcement’s reliance on privately run, undertrained ski patrols.

"When I get the report, I have to ask myself, 'Am I getting what really happened or what [the ski resort] re-created?'," said lawyer Scott Larson, who has represented skiers and snowboarders in suits against resorts. "By and large, the average ski patroller tries to do the right thing, [but] in my experience, that oftentimes is not reflected in the final investigation after [the ski areas'] risk management and lawyers get to it."

Crummy examined several cases, some of them fatal, in which the victim or victim’s family were shut down by the courts.  Those incidents included avalanches that occurred within bounds; an instructor skiing into a 9-year-old; a resort-operated snowmobile running into a skier; a woman slashed by exposed metal on a bridge.

In the last case, the resort countersued the plaintiff for $102,000 in attorney fees and costs because they were authorized to do so by her waiver. They dropped the suit when she agreed not to appeal.

The resorts argue that these broad protections keep skiing affordable by insulating them from the soaring insurance costs associated with a dangerous sport. Without the law and waivers, some argue, resorts couldn’t afford to stay open.

“The ski act reduces the ambiguity of what's expected for the public and resorts,” said Wolf Creek chief executive David Pitcher to the Post. “It would be a real problem if we did not have some level of legislation. Who knows what the cost of skiing would be without it?”

Competing editorials in the Post took up both sides of this issue:

One editorial by columnist Steve Lipsher argued for updating the law “to spell out that resort operators have responsibilities to protect their guests reasonably and disclose injury statistics rather than simply hiding behind the ‘inherent risk’ clause.”

The counterpoint, by Colorado Ski Country USA president Melanie Mills, argued that resorts already do enough to ensure skier safety.

Read the whole series and decide for yourself.

Part 1: Colorado system for investigating ski accidents raises concerns

Part 2: Colorado ski industry enjoys protection from law, waivers

Part 3: Colorado skiers die on groomed, blue runs after hitting trees