Avalanche Cases Interpreted Differently by Colorado Courts

Two recent cases regarding the deaths of young Colorado skiers as a result of inbounds avalanches last year at Vail and Winter Park have prompted two separate Colorado District Courts to issue completely conflicting opinions as to whether an inbound avalanche is an “inherent risk” of skiing pursuant to the Colorado Skier Safety Act.  On January 22, 2012, 13-year old Taft Conlin was killed by an inbounds avalanche while skiing on Vail Mountain. His family subsequently sued Vail Resorts in Broomfield District Court for negligence and wrongful death.  28-year old Christopher Norris was also killed by an inbounds avalanche on January 22, 2012 at Winter Park, and his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit as well.

The Skier Safety Act does not specifically state whether an inbounds avalanche is an inherent risk of skiing.  This is important because if an avalanche is considered an “inherent risk” of skiing, then ski resorts will be able to avoid liability for deaths or injuries caused by inbounds avalanches by relying on a provision in the Act that states “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” C.R.S. 33-44-112.

In the Conlin case, Broomfield District Court Judge Patrick Murphy ordered that an inbounds avalanche is not an inherent risk of skiing because if the legislature had intended to include avalanches in the list of inherent dangers of skiing, it would have done so.  Thus, Judge Murphy ruled that the Conlin case may move forward in Broomfield County.  However, within weeks of Judge Murphy’s ruling, Judge Mary Clarkson Hoak in Grand County reached the opposite conclusion in the Norris case.  Judge Hoak concluded that inbounds avalanches fall squarely within the definition of inherent dangers and risks of skiing, and thus, the Norris case was dismissed.

Next up, the Colorado Court of Appeals will weigh in on this issue.  A definitive ruling is necessary because it will impact not only the Conlin and Norris cases, but will also narrow or broaden the liability of Colorado’s ski resorts.

Bloch & Chapleau is a full service law firm specializing in ski injury cases in Colorado.

Some of the information contained in this blog was obtained from the Denver Post

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